22 November 2012

Geography of Saint Florian

Enns. A less than 254 km long tributary of the left side of the Danube. Starting from the Radstäter Tauern and initially heading to east, after a sharp break it turns north, cutting through the narrow alpine limestone ranges in the Gesäuse Gorge. Forming a boundary between Lower and Upper Austria, it flows into the Danube at the city of Enns, at the 2112 river kilometer. Its average water charge is 195 m3/s, but in time of flood they also measured 1020 at it. Its color is greenish blue, due to the sediments transported from the Alps. In 304 they drowned in this river Florian, the veteran Roman army officer, at the bridge of Lauriacum.
The bridges of Enns city over the Enns river

Hungarian legends and fairy tales also know this river well. This is the source of the mythical geographic term “Óperenciás Sea”, indicating a great ocean somewhere at the edge of the world. The Hungarian term is the transformation of an original “ob der Enns”, beyond the Enns river. It is unfortunately impossible to find out whether the region beyond the Enns was called like this in Hungary or in Vienna. I am inclined to think that the latter, as the former name of the region of Upper Austria was “Österreich ob der Enns”. So presumably this term was transferred from German to Hungarian. With some exaggeration we can say that St. Florian was drowned in the Óperenciás Sea.

St. Florian, like St. John of Nepomuk, is a typical Central European saint, but through his life and death he is linked in much more ways to the Danube. His name is primarily known all over the world because of the fire departments, but he is also the patron saints of charcoal burners, bakers, blacksmiths, fishermen and soldiers. It was customary to ask for his intercession in cases of fire and flood.

The first source on his life survived from 511, from the pen of Eugippius. The Vita Sancti Severini is an important source of 5th and 6th-century Europe, Noricum and Rhaetia. However, as many articles we read on St. Florian, so many different and often contradictory informations we find, be it from Wikipedia, the Lives of Saints, or various lexicons. In particular, the respective geographical names are problematic. We often find nonexisting city names, which, uncritically taken over from one source to another, often aggravate the confusion.

The scene of our history is Noricum province, to the west of Pannonia, largely covering the central territory of today’s Austria. It was bordered on the north by the Danube, over which there lived belligerent Alemannic and Marcomann tribes. In 18 B.C. it was occupied by Roman troops from the Celtic Tauriscus (Norici) tribe. Not until the reign of Marcus Antonius any legions stationed in the province: it remained an independent principality under the name of Regnum Noricum, directed by a procurator. The Marcomann wars made it necessary to fortify the region. In 180 the Legio II Italica was commanded here, which stationed in the camp of Lauriacum until the dissolution of the Roman power. Its symbol was the Roman she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus.

Stamped brick of the Legio II Italica

It is very likely that Florian also served in this legion, since all his life was bound to Noricum. His place of birth is uncertain, two cities are in competition for the honorific title, AELIVM CETIVM, i.e. St. Pölten, and CANNABIACA, Zeiselmauer, close to the Pannonian border at Vienna. According to the Pallas Lexicon he was already born in a Christian family around 240, while others claim that he was baptized as an adult together with his soldiers. In any case, it seems certain that he was born in a soldier’s family, and his father was also a military officer.

A sketch about the fortified Danube bank at Noricum. Source:

According to his legend, St. Florian already as a child was able to put out the fire of a building through his prayer, a fact that seems to contradict his baptism as an adult. Following the example of his father, he entered the Roman army, and quickly moved up the ranks. He is said to have been appointed the commander of Fortress Caecia, but such fortress, watchtower or legionary camp did not exist. The name is presumably a distortion of AELIVM CETIVM, so it is possible that St. Florian became the commander-in-chief of his own native town. It is no coincidence that he became the patron of firefighters. Namely, a fire broke out in the military camp, and in the hopeless situation, when everyone else tried to escape, he alone braked it. Therefore his prestige grew not only among his own soldiers, but his fame also reached the higher circles. He completed the 25 years of legionary service, and then settled in Mantem next to Krems. This name is unfortunately another distortion, probably referring to Mautern (an der Donau), where in the Roman period there was a huge fortress called FLAVIANAE.

The fortress of Lauriacum/Lorch still defines the street network
The news about the great persecution of Christians reached Florian on his estate of Noricum. When he learned that the prefect of the province, Aquilinus arrested 40 of his former soldiers, he set out and went to help them. The seat of the province was since 180 the legionary camp of LAVRIACVM at the confluence of the Enns and the Danube, with a population of 30 thousand, including the 6000-strong legion. The last days of his life are covered by the Lives of Saints:

According to his legend, when starting to Lorch, he met soldiers searching for Christians. He told them: “Do not bother about the further searching of Christians, since I myself am a Christian. Turn back and report it to your commander.”
Aquilinus first spoke kindly to Florian, brought in front of him: “Come with me and sacrifice to the gods together with your comrades, so you will enjoy the grace of the Emperor again!” Florian refused to do so, and when Aquilinus threatened him with torture, he prayed like this: “Oh Lord, my God, I have always hoped in You, so I can never deny You. I am ready to suffer for You and sacrifice my life for You, just give me strength to suffer, and take me in the line of your elected ones, who had confessed Your holy name before me.”
On hearing this, Aquilinus shouted on him: “What nonsense you are talking, that you want to defy the emperor’s command!” Then Florian: “Until I wore the weapons of this world, I secretly served to my God, and Satan could never make me alien to Him. Now my body is in your power, but you cannot do any harm to my soul, which only belongs to God. I obey your commands, because as a soldier I am bound to do so, but nobody can force me to worship idols!” While he was beaten, he told: “Know that I am not afraid of any torture. Burn me on the stake, and I will gladly step on it in the name of Jesus Christ. Look, now I sacrifice to my Lord and God, who reinforced me and who found me worthy of this honor.”
He was taken to the execution by his former comrades. He was bound, a stone was linked in his neck, and put on the railing of the bridge, but none of them dared to push him into the water. After a long time a young soldier came, who had not known him. He jumped there and pushed him into the river. However, when curiously leaned after him to see him sinking, he went blind.

In other sources, he replied to the prefect before being tortured: “I have received a lot of wounds for the emperor, so what these few scratches for my own faith?”

He died on 4 May 304.

Thus Florian, with the millstone in his neck, was absorbed by the waves of the Enns. But where did this bridge stand in Roman times? On the other side of the river, next to the village of Albing there was another Roman camp for a short time, which the Roman soldiers had to give up because of the frequent floods and high ground water. It was probably the bridge of the limes road leading between Lorch and St. Pölten, which, taking into account the ground plan of the camp and the terrain, laid to the north of the railway bridge in the first picture, next to the mouth of the Danube.

According to the legend, the corpse of Florian was thrown by the river to the banks, where an eagle with spread wings guarded it. Since it is possible that the fast-flowing Enns carried the millstone as far as the Danube, so Valerie, whom Florian appeared in a dream, asking her to bury his body, found it already along the Danube. She put it on an ox-cart, and covered it with hay and twigs, as to the place appointed by Florian they had to cross again the bridge of Lauriacum. What is more, they also had to cross the town itself, and in addition via the busy limes road leading to OVILABIS (Wels), constantly patrolled by the army. By reading the legend, we can also imagine that Valerie choose a roundabout way to this only 10-mile trip, for her ox went so thirsty that another miracle had to happen: a source sprang along the road. The ox, having quentched its thirst, renewed its forces, and they arrived to the modern village of St. Florian, where Florian was buried. In the 8th century there was already a church on this place, and later a large Augustian monastery was built around the tomb of the saint. Here we can see the millstone, which was allegedly responsible for the death of the saint. The date of his canonization is not known, as he was already canonized before the elaboration of the official procedure.

Florian spent all his life along the Danube. As a child, he played on the banks of the river, as a military officer, he guarded the river line against the barbarian incursions, in the old age he run his farm along the river, and his corpse was also returned by the Danube. So it is no coincidence that his cult spread mainly in the countries along the Danube. In Bavaria, Austria and Hungary we can encounter his statues in several settlements. And through the firefighters, his deeds and his self-sacrifice for the community became widely known all over the world.

Translation by: Tamás Sajó

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