27th April: St Sitha

“I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning
A volume of Poems advertised—’tis said
They’re produced by the pen of a poor servant-maid.”
“A servant write verses!” says Madam Du Bloom:
“Pray what is the subjectd—a Mop, or a Broom?”
“He, he, he,” says Miss Flounce: “I suppose we shall see
An ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?”

 'A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement Appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid'
by Elizabeth Hands (1746-1815)

I was in Germany last week and took my twelve-year-old niece to the church of Alte Peter in the centre of Munich. She was astonished by its baroque splendour – all that gold! But we were both fascinated by the finely bedecked skeleton of St Munditia who lies there in a glass case for all to see.  She was put there in the late seventeenth century, about the same time as today’s saint also had her uncorrupted body put on public display. Here's St Sitha in all her dead glory.

St Sitha is the saint you invoke when you’ve lost your keys and as I lose my keys with increasing regularity, maybe I should restart her cult. She is the patron saint of housekeepers and domestic servants and she’s the one you think of when you cross a bridge.

She’s quite late as saints go; she was born in Mansagrati near Lucca in Italy about 1218 and at the age of twelve was sent to be a maidservant in the household of a weaver called Fatinelli.  Her employers were rich and Sitha gave generous gifts of left over food to the poor. Her fellow servants slacked in their work at every opportunity but Sitha saw housework as an opportunity to perform her religious duty;  as a result she was beaten by her employer and reviled by her lazier fellows.

One morning, Sitha left her daily chore of baking the family bread to see a beggar outside the house. The other servants told the family of her absence, but when they went to investigate, there were angels in the Fatinelli kitchen, baking Sitha’s bread for her.  Eventually her good example and her punctilious attitude made her a heroine in the city. Her employers came to see her as a treasure and she became their much loved and confidential friend. Her good deeds made her famous and many propitious events were attributed to her divine influence.

She stayed with the Fatinelli family until her death forty-eight years later, by which time she was thought of as one of the family. A star appeared over the attic room when she died and she was deemed to be responsible for over one hundred and fifty miracles.  We know about her life from a manuscript belonging to the Fatinelli family, which was published at Ferrara in 1688.  Sitha was canonized in 1658 and her body is currently on display for public veneration in the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca.

Sitha became the subject of a European wide cult and it’s not uncommon to see representations of her in churches in the south of England. The church of St Benet Sherehog in the City of London, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, had a chapel dedicated to her. That was the fire that started in a bakery in Pudding Lane – so obviously the angels weren’t on baking duty that day. 

The mediaeval wall painting you can see above is in painted on a pillar in St Ethelreda's Church in Horley. St Sitha is surrounded by household articles - what seems to be a series of plates and dishes at the left and at the top left, beside her head, something that might be a chatelaine with keys. At the right is a wooden spoon, with below it a pair of bellows in red, and below that a three-legged cooking pot with a handle. I wonder why she was painted there? Who painted her? Who paid the artist? Was it to have a model servant portrayed in the church so the lower orders could be reminded of their duty? Who knows?

Bringing it right up to date, there’s a Ruth Rendell novel in the Inspector Wexford series called the ‘St Zita Society’ which focuses on the relationship between the rich and their servants…so her influence lingers on.

It’s customary to bake bread on St Sitha’s day.  Lucca is the source of the very best Italian olive oil. So I made olive oil bread – simples.

 St Sitha's Olive Bread

2 tsp easy blend yeast
1.5tsp salt
500g strong white flour
75ml (+) olive oil
75ml vermouth
175ml (+) water
200g black olives (pitted)
1 tsp dried thyme
fresh sage, thyme or marjoram leaves (I used the latter)
Sea salt and extra oil to decorate

Mix the dry ingredients (not the olives or fresh herbs) together and then add the vermouth, oil and water. Knead with a dough hook or your hands until you have a soft, sticky, elastic dough. Add more water if you think it necessary. Leave to prove in a warm place for a couple of hours. Knock the dough back and put onto an oiled work surface. Oil your hands. Put the olives on top of the dough and fold over, then knead until the olives are well distributed. Form into a round about 8-10 inches across and leave to prove again. When well puffed up, sprinkle with coarse sea salt, the fresh herbs and a little more oil. Bake in a hot oven (200c) for about thirty five minutes until golden. Lift the base and check that the bread is cooked by tapping the bottom. You should get a hollow sound.

Delicious with soup, cheese, ham, on its own, dipped into oil...whatever.

This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wine at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grape's joy.

From: 'This Bread I Break' by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

1 comment:

Mary Beth said...

Excellent! A new saint to me- and just looking up more info, found that she is also known as St. Zita.

A breadbaking saint- right up my ally. I love your recipe- maybe I will just bake that for dinner tonight. Do you recommend sweet or dry vermouth? xxoo MB