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.
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.