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Called both the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Barcelona Cathedral, this towering Gothic edifice erected from 1298 to 1420 CE stands in memoriam to Eulalia, a young girl who became co-patron saint of Barcelona.

According to Catholic tradition, Eulalia was a martyr during the early days of Christianity, when Barcelona was still a Roman city. Her body is entombed in the cathedral’s crypt, which was constructed over the site of a former Visigoth chapel and later Romanesque cathedral, both of which were damaged in attacks. Also, in her honor, thirteen white geese are kept in the cathedral’s Gothic cloister.

So why is she here and honored with white geese?

According to Roman Catholics, Eulalia was born in 290 CE in Spain. Most of what we know about her is based in Catholic legends. She lived during the Roman occupation of Spain, which was known as Hispania at the time. It had only been part of the Roman Empire for about 70 years when Eulalia was born, so the memory of its prior dominance by Carthage–longtime enemy of Rome. Yet Romanization of the region happened quickly, becoming part of the cosmopolitan society bound by law, language, and the Roman road. Some of Hispania’s original inhabitants became part of the Roman elite, with most of the land ruled by large aristocratic estates. This commingling made Hispania an integral part of the Roman Empire, as Rome fostered Hispania’s economy through its extensive wheat fields, the introduction of irrigation projects, and as a major source of metals for the Empire. Yet the most profound change was religion. The Roman Empire imposed their pagan-based religious pantheon, but also faced the new expansion of Christianity.

In Barcelona, Eulalia’s hometown, the Romans expanded their military camp into a full colony of districts centered on mining, minting coins, and expanding the Roman road in what is now the Gothic Quarter. Yet the city stayed distinctly adherent to Roman religion, while Christianity slowly moved in. Eulalia either converted to, or was born, a Christian–though we aren’t sure which. This was against the law, and Christians were often forced to continue worshiping Roman gods–keeping their true religion a secret.

In the year 304, at age 13, Eulalia tried to remonstrate with Judge Dacian of Merida for forcing Christians to worship false gods. At first, the judge was amused and tried to flatter her in response, but Eulalia would not budget on her Christian beliefs and desire to help Christians become free to worship their god. Realizing this, the judge ordered her body to be torn apart by iron hooks. Fire was applied to her wounds to increase her sufferings, and in the process, her hair caught fire. Eulalia was subjected to a total of thirteen tortures before she died, including being rolled down the street in a barrel of knives, burning of her breasts, and crucifixion. According to legend, during her final moments, as she died of asphyxiation, a dove flew forth from her neck.

Eulalia was interred at the church of St. Mary of the Sands, now known as St. Mary of the Sea, but later her body was hidden during the Moorish invasions of Spain. In 1339, she was placed in an alabaster sarcophagus and buried in the Cathedral of Barcelona’s crypt. In between these moves, in 633, Eulalia was canonized as a saint and given the feast day of February 12. She became the patron saint of Barcelona, sailors, and against drought.

In 880, a manuscript known as The Sequence of Saint Eulalia was published by Gregory of Nazianzus. Today, it is the earliest surviving piece of French hagiography and one of the earliest extant texts in the vernacular language of Old French. In 29 verses, the manuscript recounts Eulalia’s legend of resisting pagan threats, bribery, and torture — though this time, she is named as Eulalia of Merida who is tortured by the Roman Emperor Maximian. The stories are very similar, and most people think the two girls are one and the same. In later years, the empty pages of the manuscript were filled with additional texts, such as a 14-line poem about Saint Eulalia, her story in vernacular Romance language, and the Ludwigslied written in Old German and dedicated after the death of King Louis III around 882. The text gives us much more information about Eulalia, so I’ll read the sequence in its entirety:

Eulalia was a good girl,

She had a beautiful body, a soul more beautiful still.

The enemies of God wanted to overcome her,

they wanted to make her serve the devil.

She does not listen to the evil counsellors,

(who want her) to deny God, who lives up in heaven.

Not for gold, nor silver, nor jewels,

not for the king’s threats or entreaties,

nothing could ever persuade the girl

not to love continually the service of God.

And for this reason she was brought before Maximian,

who was king in those days over the pagans.

He exhorts her — but she does not care —

to abandon the name of Christian;

She gathers up her strength.

And subsequently worship his god.

She would rather undergo persecution

Than lose her spiritual purity.

For these reasons she died in great honor.

They threw her into the fire so that she would burn quickly.

She had no sins, for this reason she did not burn.

The pagan king did not want to give in to this;

He ordered her head to be cut off with a sword.

The girl did not oppose that idea:

She wants to abandon earthly life, and she calls upon Christ.

In the form of a dove she flew to heaven.

Let us all pray that she will deign to pray for us

That Christ may have mercy on us

And may allow us to come to Him after death

Through His grace.

So why is Eulalia important? As we stated in the exhibition Girl Saints, representations of girls being tortured and killed are not a celebration. However, the destruction of girlhood – and particularly girls who defy norms or authorities – is a strong theme throughout history. This seems pretty harsh to us in the Western world, yet girls around the world today are persecuted in similar ways for their beliefs. As a martyr, Eulalia’s bravery (rather than virginity) is what leads to her torture and execution. As Dr. Ilana Nash states, “For most of the girl saints, the defense of their faith is inextricably bound up in the asserted control of their sexuality; consequently the debasement of their bodies is part of their torture. Sexual mutilation does not feature in any of the accounts of male saints.”

Interestingly, Eulalia’s canonization depends on a unique assumptions. Girls are traditionally absent from historical narratives – so their prevalence as saints is interesting in itself. Many girl saints are canonized specifically for acting outside the bounds of gender roles – for being socially active, speaking up, or confronting corruption and injustice.

St. Eulalia, J.W. Waterhouse, 1885, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London. WikiCommons .

In looking at Eulalia in Girl Saints, we focus on a portrait of her death by J. W. Waterhouse, painted in 1885 and now on view at the Tate Gallery in London. A Pre-Raphaelite painter, Waterhouse was famous for depicting women and girls in history and mythology. His depiction of Eulalia rests in her mythos: the white doves and snow are innocence, she is prostrate and partially naked (though her breasts are intact), and all the background figures are distant, using a contrast to focus your view explicitly on Eulalia. She appears, ironically, almost untouched and seductive—making us wonder why we can relate tales of violence against girls, but are so adverse to depicting it.

So what are we to make of St. Eulalia?

She is commemorated because of religion – but that religion commemorates her for stepping outside its own social norms of women as subservient, obedient, and quiet. It presents a contrasting view of girlhood – and begs us to question, can girls be more active then their adult counterparts? Is a girl/women being an active agent in her community and of her faith what makes her abnormal behavior acceptable? And if so, who defines whether that behavior fits acceptable standards?

Her commemoration in the church is coincidental – history says she is buried there, though the several moves of her remains and brief periods of her whereabouts being unknown speak to a mystery. Medieval Catholics were known for their many relics and reliquaries, most of which are found to have been fakes in order to drum tourism and patronage. Is the Eulalia buried in Barcelona Cathedral the real one? Or is her body as lost to time as her full story?

Finally, I personally find it fascinating that she is one of the earliest written-about saints in French hagiography. Though from Spain, the manuscript shows that Eulalia’s influence was widespread—her legend becoming known in other countries as they became Christianized. Her early canonization is also fascinating, and makes me wonder what kind of role model she might have provided to Medieval girls. Did she encourage further acts in defense of the faith? Was her ability to step outside societal bounds inspiring to other girls?

These are questions that are hard to answer without direct evidence, of which we have little. Yet St. Eulalia is worth remembering, especially as our first site of violence, because it speaks to the complicated issues of studying girlhood. We often find girls who defy the norms, because history has tended to glorify them above the everyday lives of girls. As we continue to research and study girlhood, we hope to find more evidence of girls’ daily lives. And maybe, someday, we’ll find Eulalia’s own truth rather than just her legend.

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