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. 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.
- Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, p.48.↩