A hagiographer confesses: “I made it up”

We sometimes wonder just how hagiographical texts came into being.  It’s obvious that the majority are a form of folk-story, rather than accurate narrative.  But wouldn’t it be nice if we actually had some information from the author of such a text?

Today I came across an interesting passage in an otherwise tedious and annoying book by C. W. Jones on Nicholas of Myra.[1]  It concerns a certain Agnellus of Ravenna (born around 805 AD).  My source tells us that he was ordered to write the Lives of all the bishops of Ravenna for eight hundred years.  Part way through, he becomes a bit self-conscious – for his work would naturally be first read aloud to his fellow monks, remember – and writes:

If by any chance you readers should find the treatment in this part of the book vague and should be moved to ask, “Why didn’t he depict the deeds of this pontiff as he did his predecessors?” listen to my reasons: I, Agnellus, likewise called Andrew, lowly priest of my holy Church of Ravenna, have put together this book which covers nearly eight hundred years or more from the time of the death of the blessed Apollinaris, by inquiry and research among the brothers of the see. Wherever I found material that they were sure about, I have presented it to you; and anything that I have heard from the elderly gray-beards I have not withheld from you.

Where I could not uncover a story or determine what kind of a life they led, either from the most aged or from inscriptions or from any other source, to avoid a blank place in my list of holy pontiffs in their due order according to their ordination to the see one after the other, I have with the assistance of God through your prayers invented a Life for them. And I believe that no deception is involved; for they were chaste and almsgiving preachers and procurers of men’s souls for God.

If any among you should wonder how I was able to create what I have written down, you should know that a picture taught me. Images were always made in their likeness in their lifetime. To anyone who may raise a question about whether a picture is sufficient warrant for a description, St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, in his Passion of the Blessed Martyrs Gervase and Protasius, says of the description he drew of blessed Paul the Apostle, “A picture taught me his features.”

Deeply dubious, of course: but very interesting.

Jones tells us that he translated this from “MGH, Scriptores Rerum Langobardicarum, p.277” which (thankfully) is online at the Bavarian Staatsbibliothek here (and it is possible to download the whole work in PDF).  The text, “Agnelli liber pontificalis ecclesiae Ravennatis”, begins at that page number, but that doesn’t give us the passage above.  It is in fact to be found on p.297, in chapter 32:

Et si aliqua aesitatio vobis hunc Pontificalem legentibus fuerit, et volueritis inquirere dicentes: ‘Cur non istius facta pontificis narravit, sicut de ceteris praedecessoribus’? audite, ob hanc causam: Hunc praedictum Pontificalem, a tempore beati Apolenaris post eius decessum pene annos 800 et amplius, ego Agnellus qui et Andreas, exiguus sanctae meae huius Ravennatis ecclesiae presbiter, rogatus et coactus a fratribus ipsius sedis, composui. Et ubi inveni, quid illi certius fecerunt, vestris aspectibus allata sunt, et quod per seniores et longaevos audivi, vestris oculis non defraudavi; et ubi istoriam non inveni, aut qualiter eorum vita fuisset, nec per annosos et vetustos homines, neque per haedificationem, neque per quamlibet auctoritatem, ne intervallum sanctorum pontificum fieret, secundum ordinem, quomodo unus post alium hanc sedem optinuerunt, vestris orationibus me Deo adiuvante, illorum vitam composui, et credo non mentitum esse, quia et horatores fuerunt castique et elemosinarii et Deo animas hominum adquisitores. De vero illorum effigie si forte cogitatio fuerit inter vos, quomodo scire potui: sciatis, me pictura docuit, quia semper fiebant imagines suis temporibus ad illorum similitudinem. Et si altercatio ex picturis fuerit, quod adfirmare eorum effigies debuissem: Ambrosius Mediolanensis sanctus antistes in Passione beatorum martirum Gervasii et Protasii de beati Pauli apostoli effigie cecinit dicens: ‘Cuius vultum me pictura docuerat’.

The MGH editor helpfully adds that the reference to Ambrose is a Passion of Saints Gervase and Protasius, the text of which may be found in the Acta Sanctorum 19. Jun., III, 821 (I apologise for the lunatic organisation of the Acta Sanctorum series by saint’s day, volume – many volumes for each day – and then page number), but which “is falsely set forth under the name of St Ambrose”.

It is useful to know of at least one example of a dark ages writer who honestly admits to inventing the stuff.

  1. [1]Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, p.48.

8 thoughts on “A hagiographer confesses: “I made it up”

  1. Of course, the Irish poets would say it’s perfectly reasonable to pray for information and get granted a dream or something along those lines… and the ancient secular historians were perfectly comfortable with composing speeches to put in the mouths of historical personages.

    So it’s difficult to criticize the man, albeit I’m sure he made up a lot more than Livy did.

    That said, one would wish that he would have indicated which bits he made up, for the benefit of those of us who are not his original audience and familiar with his original sources.

  2. I’d like to see a collection of these sorts of remarks. So we know that Livy composed speeches because Pompeius Trogus (via Justinus’ epitome) tells us so. But there must be more from hagiographers out there.

  3. Agnellus speaks very nonchalantly, as if this is something to expect. It seems perhaps there was a way to discern what was fiction and what was intended to be factual, which is later taken for granted, and given the assumption that all is fact.

  4. Thank you! This is very interesting! “I’d like to see a collection of these sorts of remarks.” Yes! I wonder if anyone has done one to some degree or another – anything and everything would be welcome – but how to search for some such?

    Mina Soliman,

    Very interesting observations! I’ve run into scholarly attempts here and there to analyze details of use of language as showing some such distinctions, but for the most part (alas!) cannot recall who, where, in what context (variously, about Tacitus, perhaps?) – but I did run into one such exercise (which I am not competent to evaluate!) the other day with respect to the Venerable Bede in Alexander Tille’s Yule and Christmas: Their Place in the Germanic Year (London: Nutt, 1899), ch. XI:

    https://archive.org/stream/yuleandchristma00tillgoog#page/n154/mode/2up

    I am sorry to hear it is “an otherwise tedious and annoying book”! – I keep hoping to catch up with it some day, and generally enjoyed his 1954 paper, “Knickerbocker Santa Claus” as reproduced online:

    http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/knickerbocker/#i_102

  5. Strange, I actually had similiar thought of that before — I had wondered if sometimes pseudapigrapha and other miraculous tales were actually the result of someone praying to God and thinking that he gave them some sort of divine insight/revelation on what really happened, and they authentically believed they were writing an authentic narrative/revelation from that person…

    Though, I also wonder how many books, etc. were actually known universally to be fictious history. I mean, if suddenly most of the world was wiped out and people dug through some books from this era, would they always understand what was intended fiction?

  6. To be fair, the Irish story of the recovery of the Tain Bo Cuailnge by saintly poets getting lost in magic mist after asking God to send back the dead to sing it to them — probably total fiction, cool as it is to contemplate Fergus mac Roich’s ghost. But talking about having various poets sing and compare their versions (which we know was done in later ages for the various great Irish epics, and which “The Rediscovery of the Tain Bo Cuailnge” said was done) would sound too much like the Septuagint story, if their versions had all agreed or all gone together well.

    It would be interesting to know if the famous Ollamh, Seanchan Torpeist, and his son Muirgen, really did get together a single version of the Tain Bo Cuailnge, or whether that was just attaching a deed to a famous legendary guy. The fifth century would be pretty early, but it’s a really early text; and the Irish did always seem eager to keep up their literature as fully the equal of Greece and Rome.

    The other amusing bit is that the Book of Leinster version includes the faithfully copied end-of-text blessing: “A blessing be upon all such as shall faithfully keep the Táin in memory as it stands here and shall not add any other form to it.”

    Then the monk copyist sulkily adds: “I, however, who have copied this history, or more truly, legend, give no credence to various incidents narrated in it. For, some things herein are the feats of jugglery of demons; sundry others, poetic figments; a few are probable, others improbable; and even more invented for the delectation of fools.”

Leave a Reply