Eleven Thousand Virgins

“Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins" Jean Bourdichon, 1503-1508.

“Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins” Jean Bourdichon, 1503-1508.

According to a legend that appeared in the tenth century, Ursula was the daughter of a Christian king in Britain and was granted a three year postponement of a marriage she did not wish, to a pagan prince. With ten ladies in waiting, each attended by a thousand maidens, she embarked on a voyage across the North sea, sailed up the Rhine to Basle, Switzerland, and then went to Rome. On their way back, they were all massacred by pagan Huns at Cologne in about 451 when Ursula refused to marry their chieftain. (From St. Ursula, Catholic Online.)

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610), is a painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571–1610) and thought to be his last picture.

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610), Caravaggio (1571–1610), thought to be the painter’s last picture.

Ursula was said to have been shot by an arrow by the leader of the Huns — yes, that tall, dark and handsome fellow with a bow in the Caravaggio’s painting.

A remarkable emergence of such an incredible number of virgins — 11,000 — isn’t it? Interesting that in early martyrology there is no mention of the most holy Ursula. Only in the tenth century, that is some 650 or 450 years after the supposed date of martyrdom, appears the first two maiden martyrs of Cologne, named Marta and Saula. Martiresses? No, feminine of martyr, is martyre.)  In the litany of the XI century, five virgins are named: Martha, Saula, Paula, Brittola and Ursula. In the litanies that followed, the number of virgins increased to eight, later to eleven and later still, to twelve. Suddenly, the number of virgins increased to a whooping 11,000. Why so many and so suddenly? Whence have they come from?

The most interesting and the likeliest explanation is this: The name of one of the unfortunate maidens was Undetsimilla. This name has been read and understood as undecim milla — eleven thousand  in Latin. Consequently, from then onward, the text was translated and interpreted with the entire eleven thousand virgins. And that’s, mind you, a whole lot of virgins.



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