Hagiographie: References to ants in hagiography are relatively rare; being neither a pest to be eliminated or a potentially helpful animal, it does not appear as an actor in the demonstration of saints’ virtus. Rarely however does it appear in a negative light. The twelfth-century Vita of Bishop Ubaldus of Gubbio contains an association of the devil with ants, (AASS 7th May, De S. Ubaldo Episcopi, 6). Some saints cure a disease named after the ant, according to its unpleasant sensation as if ants were crawling under the skin (AASS 18th May, B. Felix a Catalucio, Alia Miracula, 4, S. Ubaldus, ibid., 6). The creature more normally appears as a positive rhetorical device, in reference to its hard-working nature. Some references to Prv 30,25 ›The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer‹ appear, as in the Vita of the Spanish Saint Eneco (d. 1057), where the ant is made a symbol of the industry and humility of the monastic life, (AASS 7th May, S. Eneco, Acta Prolixiora, 4, no. 40). Prv 6,6 ›Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise‹ is quoted with some regularity from the early centuries of hagiography onwards (AASS 19th February, S. Auxibius, 3, (no. 13), Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. COLGRAVE, 1940, Bede, Vita Cuthberti, ch. 20, p. 224,
S. Guthlac, Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. COLGRAVE, 1956, ch. 39, p.122, AASS 2nd May, S. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, Dominican, Vita Auctore Francisco Castilionensi, ch. 11, (no. 30), AASS 20th May, B. Columba Reatina, Vita auctore Sebastiano, ch. 17, no. 169). Bede, in his Vita Cuthberti, links the example of the ant directly into the key hagiographic theme of animal obedience to the saint. He notes that no one should find it absurd that the virtue of obedience could be learned from birds, since ›Solomon‹ in Proverbs had suggested that the lazy seek inspiration from the ant. In the Vita of the Dominican tertiary, Columba of Rieti (d. 1501), the ant is held up as an example of humility due to its small size. The same themes appear also with the probable inspiration but without direct reference to Proverbs (AASS 30th April, S. Catherine of Siena, Vita auctore Fr. Raimundo Capuano, 2, 1, no. 122, AASS 23 April, B. Aegidius Assisias, Acta, 2, 2, no. 34). The ant’s lowliness is an inspiration early on for moralism, as its inability to relish material possessions makes it an example to humanity, and even a point of comparison to Apostles, saints and martyrs, (AASS 17th January, S. Anthony, Apopthegmata, no. 40, AASS 22nd April, S. Acepsimas, Acta Martyriis, 5, no. 33; this is thought to be a genuine early Acta). These early images are sometimes referenced by later hagiographers (AASS 6 March, Vita B. Colettae, 9, AASS 20th October, Vita S. Sindulphus Confessoris, no.3). One Italian holy woman, Baptisa Verana (d. 1527) was so weakened by her asceticism that it was said an ant could break her neck (AASS 31st May, Vita ab ispsamet ad Patrem Spiritualem, 7). The difficulties faced by saints could be compared also to the predicament of the ant, with the rhetorical associations of humility supporting the metaphor. An example is the case of the Swedish Saint Birgitta (d. 1373), who, in trying to lead a young King and Queen to more Christian conduct was like an ant between two → camels (AASS 8th October, S. Birgittae, Vita altera, 1,1, no. 4). It is notable that the use of ants in hagiography appears to have been driven almost exclusively by its literary, and particularly scriptural, associations, with its occasional association with a disease being the only notable exception.
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