Saint Anthony

Tantony pigs

Myths swirl around St Anthony's association with pigs.   One theory is that he was a swineherd at some point, which in view of what we do know about him seems unlikely. Then there is a story of how he miraculously saved a pig's life (more Charlotte's Web than fourth century Egypt) and how a companion pig kept him company, and watched the time to ensure Anthony kept to his devotional routine. 
  Perhaps a more convincing idea is that pig fat - lard - was pretty well the only treatment for skin diseases, and Anthony's status as patron saint and intercessor for sufferers of 'St Anthony's Fire' came before, and lead to, the pig association. 
    Piero di Cosimo's Visitation with St Nicholas and St Anthony has the pig rooting incongruously around in the background. I'm less sure about Bellini's allegory; I've always thought that the figure I've highlighted in the detail is Anthony with his pig, but I could be wrong.  Thoughts welcome.

Piero di Cosimo: Visitation
National Gallery, Washington


Giovanni Bellini: Sacred Allegory
Uffizi, Florence


    Out of all this came the 'Tantony pig'. General usage explains that this is an alternative name for the smallest pig of the litter, the runt. Why?

    The story goes that a group of Antonine monks founded a hospital in London for the treatment of skin diseases, and, because of the pig association, the smallest pig of the litter was donated to them - the Tantony pig. According to this story, these pigs then roamed the streets looking for food, and, to identify them the monks put bells round their necks - Tantony Bells. 

  More myth?  Well, no, the Victoria County History does confirm most of this. It describes the setting up of such a hospital before 1264 in the parish of St Benet Fink, near the present day Threadneedle Street. It goes on to say that the brothers 'must have depended entirely on alms. Of the income derived in this way one source was sufficiently curious. Any pig that was considered by the supervisor of the London market unfit to be killed for food had a bell attached to it by a proctor of St. Anthony's, and was then free of the street to pick up what it could. As it was a merit to feed these animals, they often throve, and were then taken by the house.  The privilege seems to have been abused, for in 1311 Roger de Wynchester, the renter of the house, promised the City authorities that he would not claim pigs found wandering about the City, nor put bells on any swine but those given in charity to the house.'

      From: 'Alien Houses: Hospital of St Anthony', A History of the County of London: Volume 1: London within the Bars, Westminster and Southwark (1909), pp. 581-584. 


   One modern tradition that descends from this is the practice, in Spain, of celebrating the feast of St Anthony (17th January) by pigging out on spare ribs and sausages, a really good idea and one we have decided to adopt in this house. 

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