St. Maurice is an African saint widely venerated in German lands of the Holy Roman Empire in the late medieval and early modern periods. He was the patron saint of numerous professions and organizations including the Vatican’s Swiss Guard and the Carolingian Dynasty.
While historians have cast doubt on the veracity of the records, the legend of St. Maurice holds that he was born in Thebes, Egypt around 250 CE. Joining the Roman army as a young adult, he became a soldier of the Theban Legion (composed primarily of Christians from Upper Egypt) and quickly advanced through its ranks.
Emperor Maximian, who ruled alongside Diocletian, is said to have sent Maurice’s legion to quell a peasant revolt in Gaul(modern-day France). Their path would lead them through the Great St. Bernard Pass, located in the Swiss Alps, where Maurice refused an order to launch an attack against fellow Christians. After hearing of the legion’s insubordination, an enraged Maximian ordered repeated decimations of the troops, and ultimately the execution of their leader, later elevated for his martyrdom as St. Maurice. The site where the execution is said to have occurred, in modern-day Switzerland, is now the site of a famous abbey and monastery.
Modern-day historians have contested the accuracy of St. Maurice’s biography, and consider the figure to be mostly legend. One source of doubt stems from St. Maurice’s birthplace in Egypt, which used to be a multi-ethnic crossroads and home to people of many different skin tones, making it difficult to discern St. Maurice’s exact skin color. In addition, very few Egyptians were allowed to serve in Roman legions, raising questions as to how St. Maurice would have been able to join the Roman army. Most historians also note that important relics have not been found at the site of St. Maurice’s martyrdom, and that the facts of the event were first recorded in the 5th century. Despite this skepticism, the legend of St. Maurice still holds a significant place in Catholicism, depicting an African saint who was martyred in German-speaking lands and symbolizing the importance of Africans in the early development of Christianity.
– Mukund Viswanadha (University of Missouri)