February 24 — The First and Second Findings of the Head of John the Baptist; Adela of Normandy

John the Baptist is our commemoree today. Or to be precise, his head. Or to be more precise, the first and second findings thereof. Fans of the gospels will know that John the Baptist, aka John the Forerunner, was Jesus’ cousin, baptized people (including Jesus) in the Jordan River, and heralded Jesus as the coming Messiah (using the word “behold” which is just so Biblical I could pinch its cheek). Sadly, he was also beheaded at the request of Salome following a rash promise Herod (her stepdad) made at a party to do anything she asked. At the prompting of her mother, she asked for John’s head on a platter. There’s a family to strike off your Christmas card mailing list. I wouldn’t borrow their dishes, either.

After the party, a servant’s wife took the head and buried it. Years later a church was built on the site, and the head was uncovered by a monk named Innocent. This is the First Finding. He could tell it was very holy so he immediately buried it again, lest vandals should disfigure it, although at the time the Vandals were still beyond the Rhine and not bothering anybody, save maybe the Visigoths. The church fell into ruin, but years later still, John appeared to some monks, telling them to go get his head, which they did. This is a supernumerary finding (neither the First nor the Second). They put it in a camel-hair bag (not sure why that’s important, but it is), handing it to a potter to carry. John appeared to the potter and told him to dissociate himself from the lazy monks, so he took the head home and gave it to his sister in a water jug. There it was kept in great honor for many years, and many miracles were associated with it.

Years later again still, an Arian priest named Eustathius gained the head through subterfuge and fled with it to Ephesus, burying it in a cave. Years later more again still, some monks built a church on the site (déjà vu), and in a vision John told one of them (Archimandrite Marcellus) where to find his head. This was the Second Finding. The head eventually ended up in Constantinople, and that’s where we’ll leave it for today[1].

Adela of Normandy (d. 1137) was the daughter of William the Conqueror, and a “high-spirited and educated” woman, meaning she could read and write. She married Count Stephen of Blois (a city in France), and between them they managed to have eleven children, working around and between Stephen’s deployments in the Crusades. While he was away he wrote her long, romantic letters detailing the Saracens he had killed, until one killed him, at which point he stopped writing letters.

Back at home, Adela held down the fort, acting as regent and raising the kids with the help of some famous tutors such as Peter Abelard. Among their children were two bishops, a count, a viscount’s wife, an earl’s wife, a bishop’s mother, two counts’ wives, and King Stephen of England. The latter’s somewhat unusual accession to the throne ushered in an unhappy time known as “The Anarchy,” but that’s not his mom’s fault. She was back in France fighting with her eldest, who was prone to “violent bouts of temper.” She eventually disinherited him and awarded the primogeniture to his younger brother Theobald, who was both Theobald IV and Theobald II, depending on where he was sleeping on any given night—Blois, Chartres, Champagne, or Brie. In the latter two he was only Theobald II, although the provender was admittedly better.

Through this all, Adela was a staunch supporter of the Benedictines, and endowed many churches and monasteries, which is why she was declared a saint. And, one supposes, for successfully raising such a family without going crazy or killing any of them.

[1] The Third Finding is celebrated on May 25. But that’s an exercise for the reader, as they say.