St Dunstan, whose feast is celebrated today, was a Renaissance man half a millennium before the Renaissance – he died in 988. He was a scholar and reformer, but also a craftsman, said to have been a skilled metalworker, painter, embroiderer, musician, and even organ-builder. He was later claimed by goldsmiths, jewellers, and locksmiths as their patron saint.
He was Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of Canterbury, but was from the outset a scribe with a keen interest in manuscripts – he was depicted as a scribe in an early version of his life. He was at home with kings, being a companion of King Edmund and King Eadred.
But it was his reputation as a metalworker while he was a hermit at Glastonbury, in a cell near the church of St Mary, that gave rise to his most abiding legend, that of the saint who put metal shoes on the devil’s hooves, and would not take them off until the devil had agreed to give the sign of the horseshoe a wide berth. An early version has him simply grabbing the devil by the nose with his pincers, and this is the illustration to his life in the Canterbury Passionale of the early 12th century. This may be the reason why he was one of the most popular English saints for two centuries until he was overshadowed by Thomas Becket and the cult of Henry VI. In a Victorian version of the story by Edward Flight, illustrated by Cruikshank, we get a description of the devil disturbing St Dunstan as he worked at the forge by singing horribly. The saint waited for him to return the next day, then seized him and hammered the shoes onto him.
“The saint no pity had on Nick But drove long nails right through the quick; Louder shrieked he, and faster Dunstan cared not; his bitter grin Without mistake, showed Father Sin He had found a ruthless master”
The upshot was that he got the devil to sign the following agreement:
“To all good folk in Christendom to whom this instrument shall come the Devil sendeth greeting: Know ye that for himself and heirs said Devil covenants and declares, that never at morn or evening prayers at chapel church or meeting, never where concords of sweet sound sacred or social flow around or harmony is woo’d, nor where the Horse-Shoe meets his sight on land or sea by day or night on lowly sill or lofty pinnacle on bowsprit helm mast boom or binnacle, said Devil will intrude.”
And the happy effect is that “The horse-shoe now saves keel, and roof/From visits of this rover’s hoof.”