From the sound of his vita, Hubert was pretty much your average member of the medieval nobility. Perhaps that is why, though mainly forgotten now, he was a popular saint in the Middle Ages, if not “The Popular Saint of the Middle Ages.”
Hubert was the eldest son of the Duke of Aquitaine, which is to say that he was one of the most powerful nobles in early medieval Europe. He liked to drink. He liked to hunt. He was agreeable and gracious, so much so that he seems to have easily insinuated himself into the royal households of Francia, circa 675-680. Naturally he married well. Success, medieval-style, was not just assured, but attained. Then he went and ruined everything by getting religion.
Out hunting on Good Friday, he pursued a stag—a buck for American hunters. As he did, it stopped and turned toward him, unusual behavior then and now amongst the family Cervidae. In its antlers there was a crucifix, and Hubert heard a voice say to him, “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.” Apparently a quick study, Hubert made an umimpeachable response: “Lord, what wouldst thou have me do?”
What the Lord had Hubert do was not turn to vegetarianism or non-violence, but go and find a spiritual director, Bishop Lambert of Maastricht. As wives tend to do in the lives of medieval saints, Hubert’s conveniently died, allowing him to become a priest, make a pilgrimage to Rome, and on his return become bishop in Lambert’s place. (Lambert had been murdered by some of Hubert’s old cronies.)
Hubert’s greatest efforts during his bishopric seem to have been devoted to the conversion of those pagans remaining in the forest of Ardenne and perhaps this and the deer explain a little something of Hubert’s appeal to medieval people. Medievals were not sentimental about the forest. It was not something to be preserved, but defeated, as it was always attempting to defeat them. They lost animals and children in the darkness of the woods; cf., if you would, any of Grimm’s fairy tales.
Hubert’s encounter with the miraculous stag seemed on this side of the probable for anyone who spent much time in the medieval woods. His mission to the pagans still residing within the Ardennes, then a forest considerably larger than it is today, shows Hubert was a fighting saint, someone who was willing to sally into the dark places and overcome the strange and evil things that were there.
Hubert’s popularity caused many to choose him as a patron. His fighting spirit, and his noble lineage, explains why Hubert was the namesake of several military orders in the Middle Ages. No prizes for figuring out or why he was the patron saint of hunters, huntsmen, trappers, dogs, forest workers, and hunting and why there are so many splendid recipes of game dedicated to celebrating his feast day. What exactly smelters found in him is a mystery to me, unless it is that medieval metalworking tended to be located out where the iron was found and charcoal could be made, which meant that it was done out on the edge of the wilderness.
But why Hubert became the patron saint of mathematicians stumps me completely. Not the sort of chap, I would have thought, whose homework you wanted to copy when you were struggling with geometry.