On this day: St. Lidwina of Holland

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day we commemorate St. Lidwina, who fell while ice skating on a canal and never recovered.

Lidwina was born in Schiedam in 1380. She was about fifteen when she fell on the ice. The broken rib did not heal, and until her death on April 14, 1433, she suffered. She embraced her suffering, offering it for the sins of others. She took no nourishment but the Communion host.

Caroline Walker Bynum writes at length about St. Lidwina in Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, University of California Press, 1988.

"One of the few stories that survive from her childhood shows her mother annoyed with her childish dawdling. Lidwina, who was required to carry food to her brothers at school, slipped into church on the way home to say a prayer to the VIrgin. The incident shows how girlish piety could provide a respite from household tasks -- in this case, as in so many cases, the task of feeding men. . . . she may have been cultivating illness -- perhaps even rejecting food -- before the skating accident some weeks later that produced severe internal injuries."

There may have been pressure on Lidwina to marry at a young age. Becoming an invalid put an end to any possibility of that.

Bynum gives details about Lidwina's fasting and about the attention it brought. There were various investigations. The "authenticating document from the town officials of Schiedam testifies that she shed skin, bones, and even portions of intestines, which her parents kept in a vase; and these gave off a sweet odor until Lidwina . . . insisted her mother bury them".

A woodcut of Lidwina's fall on the ice from Jan Brugman's Life of St. Lidwina, reproduced in Bynum's book, is "probably the first surviving picture of skates". See the page listed as "insert".

This prayer card shows the same scene and adds color.

There are those today who believe that St. Lidwina suffered from multiple sclerosis, but T. Jock Murray, M.D., author of Multiple Sclerosis: The History of a Disease, Demos Health, 2005, does not agree.

"Although it is often said that the plight of Lidwina is the first known case of MS, I am convinced that the evidence suggests elements of marked religiosity, mysticism, histrionic behavior, and even self-mutilation. Although there may have been an underlying neurological disease, the diagnosis must be left open." Page 26.

Dr. Murray includes additional Brugman woodcuts in his section on Lidwina. In one she is in a hospital bed with leeches on her abdomen. There is also a portrait reconstructed from the appearance of her skull after her bones were examined in 1957.

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