Christian: St. Crispin, Shakespeare & Band of Brothers

MONDAY, OCTOBER 25: You’re most likely to celebrate St. Crispin’s Day if you live in the UK, if you’re active in an Anglican congregation—OR—if you’re seriously into leather, you’re a fan of William Shakespeare or you’re a WWII veteran from the European campaign. This feast day recalls two 3rd-century Christian martyrs, whose lives are more the stuff of legend than historical fact—but history has freighted this feast day with many other associations!

Two sparked St. Crispin’s Day

St. Crispin’s Day actually honors two saints: Saints Crispin and Crispinian. Spellings and references to the feast day have varied through the centuries, but tradition says the two men were brothers from a noble Roman family who were persecuted because of their Christian faith. They moved into what today is northern France and preached their faith by day. At night, they supported themselves as leather workers, mainly making shoes. Why shoes? Traditionally, their story says the craft was humbler than their noble origins—a deliberate decision to become a useful part of the Christian community with no aristocratic airs.

Another version of their story holds that they lived in England, although this might have been a convenient revision of their biographies in keeping with their popularity in that country. Unfortunately, they were caught up in anti-Christian persecution. They were beheaded around the years 285 or 286.

Enjoy your leather—and Shakespeare’s play

St. Crispin’s Day has a strong association with culture in the UK and Anglican churches, partly because their feast day became a convenient way to Christianize a Celtic pagan festival. The saintly brothers became patrons of leather workers, lace makers, weavers and other craftspeople. In the modern era, some creative clergy have linked St. Crispin’s Day with special invitations to leather communities.

In the modern era, however, St. Crispin’s Day is best known because of the passage in William Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” If you want to enjoy the play again, we recommend Kenneth Branagh’s critically acclaimed “Henry V” on DVD. But, the most famous “Henry V” on film was Laurence Olivier’s heroic production in 1944 that required the British actor to scour every corner of the UK for supplies, costumes and extras. When his version first was shown in late 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, it stirred the British to maintain the final push in WWII.

Some years ago, the Boston Globe reported that President Kennedy had a copy of the Olivier film and loved to watch the scene in which Olivier, as Henry V, delivered the stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech.

‘Band of Brothers’ Quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V

This famous passage from Shakespeare may seem to glorify warfare, but many argue that it actually glorifies the self-sacrificial spirit that bonds warriors risking their lives in conflict. “Band of Brothers” most famously was used by HBO as the title of the WWII Series produced by historian Stephen Ambrose. In the play, “Henry V” (Act IV, Scene iii), the king utters this lengthy speech (we’ll quote only a portion of it here) to motivate his men to face a far larger French army in The Battle of Agincourt, a major English victory.

In Shakespeare’s day (and Henry V’s day), people were more aware of the two saints as you’ll see here in the king’s famous lines:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian
shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

AND SO, with a nod to Shakespeare, ReadTheSpirit has remembered, once again, both brothers.

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