How to approach translating hagiography; St Valentine of Rome; and why I won’t translate his “Life” (BHL 8465)

I pressed “Publish”.  My post with my translation of the Passio of St Valentine of Terni shot out onto the internet.  What now?

I found myself thinking about the “other” St Valentine, Valentine of Rome, the priest.  I went back to the Acta Sanctorum, February vol. 2, for February 14th, and looked at the material there.  I obtained the electronic text, including introduction and footnotes, and created a Word file; then fixed up the Latin by getting rid of ligatures, and the Word file by setting the paragraph margins to zero, left and right.

The text was in five Lectiones.  It was printed from two manuscripts and a breviary.  There was reference to a “Ms. Ultraiectinum S. Salvatoris”.  After a bit of guesswork, this turned out to be the church of St Saviour, part of the Cathedral of Utrecht.  Another manuscript was mentioned, which I could not identify.

But clearest of all was that this “passio” was merely a selection from a long work, the Acts of Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abachum, printed in the Acta Sanctorum under January vol. 2, for January 19!  If so, why bother with it?  No wonder it was just extracts from breviaries.  It would be better, surely, to translate the full Acts.

So off I went to the January vol. 2, and did the process again with the Acts of Marius &c.  Luckily for me, the electronic text that I had found had the BHL number for the work at the top – the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina index number, which was BHL 5543.  Had it not been there, of course, the BHL volume is at, for it is a century old.

Now once I have a BHL or BHG number, I always google for it.  It’s always a good idea to see what is out there.  Has somebody written a study on it?  Can I get an idea of its contents, its age, the scholarship?

So off I went and googled “BHL5543”.

Initial results were discouraging.  All dross really.  But I have found by experience that I need to keep going through several pages, and even redo the search in Google Books.  So I did.  And…. boy did I get this right.  I hit jackpot.

In fact I found this: Michael Lapidge, The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary, Oxford University Press (2017), present on Google Books preview here.  It contained 800 pages of pure gold: translations and commentary and a sterling introduction to every single Passio relating to a Roman martyr.  This included a full translation of the Acts of Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abachum, complete with the bits that are about St Valentine of Rome.

So there is in fact no need for me to make a translation of this work at all; Dr. Lapidge has done it, and with the aid of his publisher probably better than I could.  The only fly in the ointment is the extraordinary price of the volume – $140 at Amazon, and £115 at Amazon UK (discounted from a p***-taking £140).  This places it firmly outside of the hands of the general reader.

It is a remarkable book.  The sheer labour in translating 800 pages of passiones is awe-inspiring.  But that is only part of what it achieves.  This is not just a translation but a study.

I learned – from what I could see of the introduction – that it soon becomes clear that all these Roman passiones correspond exactly to places of pilgrimage in Rome!  There is a church dedicated to each and every one of them, all of much the same period.  The conclusion, that the passiones were composed by the clergy of these churches is hard to resist.  But without working on the entire body of saints for Rome, Dr. L. might never have noticed this.

Likewise the clearly fictional nature, and even the stereotyped nature of the stories becomes clear.  Flicking through the introduction, I found page after page of solid hard information about hagiographical literature, about why it was written, when it was written, the history of printing them, and much else.  It’s almost a primer on hagiography, although at 42 pages, all too short, and one studded with up-to-date bibliography.  To read it is to feel the crying need for workers in this field.

But …. it is a book that nobody can afford to read.  I wish I had a copy.  I have a feeling that it would repay reading right through.


7 thoughts on “How to approach translating hagiography; St Valentine of Rome; and why I won’t translate his “Life” (BHL 8465)

  1. A lot of this is probably connected to Damasus, originally, because he composed epigraphic poems for pretty much every important or old church in Rome, set them up on plaques to make them permanent, and did a fair amount of putzing around looking for what was going on with relics and important cemeteries. He seems to have had some sort of source materials, oral or otherwise, as well as all those trial transcripts in the official archives in the Forum. I think Damasus leaned on a bunch of other people to help him with the project, and that a fair amount of it was done when he was still just a deacon working for the pope. But I don’t necessarily remember this stuff correctly!

    Over at, I think they have a bunch of books about the history of various Roman churches, and how we know about it.

    Anyway… the deal was that you did want to have some kind of literary account of your local saint, because it got to be common to read such accounts on the saints’ days, as part of the Office/Hours. Same thing with writing hymns or sequences. I mean, you could always go with the generic Common of a saint, virgin, confessor, whatever, but for your hometown hero? No!

    I think the other factor here is that Italian neighborhoods are just a tad bit competitive. So if St. Bob Down the Hill had a literary account or a hymn, it would make you feel bad, as a parishioner of St. Katy Up the Hill, if St. Katy didn’t have at least as much stuff about her. (Plus one or two more literary things, just to show the parishioners of St. Bob that you love your saint more.)

    And of course, some of these accounts are pretty open about not being history, per se. I mean, if St. Ambrose and St. Augustine were totally okay with inspired dreams and visions as a source of biographical info about specific saints, if you really needed to know and there was no human source available… well, it’s not surprising that some accounts are more in the mode of prophetic or mystic info.

    So if you have a parishioner of St. Katy’s who is really devout and mystical, and she really prays really hard for what everybody agrees they need to know…. Shrug. Prophetic or visionary knowledge is a charism. Pious fanfic is also something that happens.

    But it also might turn out that some of the pious parishioners have been holding back a lot of historical info or personal accounts of the period, and didn’t realize anybody would be interested in those boring old papers about Katy Up the Hill who came to a bad end, serve her right for defying the gods and the Emperor.

  2. I really appreciate your perspective as a catholic on this – thank you.

    The Ambrose and Augustine references are new to me: do you have the references?

  3. Argh. I knew you’d ask. St. Ambrose went and got the bones of the martyrs Ss. Gervasius and Protasius after he saw them in a dream. They were buried at the church of St. Nabor and Felix, and were very tall and strong guys. We have Ambrose’s own personal account in a letter to his sister St. Marcellina, and it comes up in several St. Augustine works: Confessions, book 9, chapter 7; in City of God 22, c. 8; and Sermon 286, c. 5/4 (on the feast of Ss. Gervasius and Protasius), where he says, “I was there — I was in Milan.” Also Paulinus talks about it in his Life of Ambrose, c. 5.

    Ambrose just tells his sister that people asked him to find a martyr for the basilica, and he said he’d try, felt a burning in his heart, and went looking for martyrs at the cemetery church. Paulinus also gives a restrained account, pointing out that Ss. Felix and Nabor had their graves known, but that people had been walking over G and P for years, because they didn’t know anything about them! But Augustine says in City of God that Ambrose only found them because a dream told him where to look.

    St. Augustine touches on this happening a lot with normal deceased people in “On the Care of the Dead,” c. 12-16, where he opines that it’s probably angels sending a message in a dream and just looking like dead people who need burial, rather than it being the dead guy himself. (There’s a fun bit where one of Aug’s students, Eulogius, had dreamed that Aug taught him how to understand a hard passage that he’d gone to sleep worrying about, and a lot of other stories about dreamers.) It’s kind of an interesting piece, because he’s of opinion that the saints in heaven know about stuff through the angels passing it along, rather than more directly through Christ, although he also acknowledges apparitions like St. Felix over in Nola, and does seem to be describing the communion of saints in a normal way. (Celestial Roman bureaucracy, heh! The imagery is that you gotta go through channels to be “realistic,” I suppose, whereas we think more about direct communication.)

    There were apparently a fair number of inventio findings of relic things going on in Augustine’s time, but his other big one was Lucian in Jerusalem, on the strength of a series of recurring dreams, finding the bodies of Ss. Stephen, Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Abibas — right in the middle of all the stuff happening with Pelagius getting condemned. Avitus of Braga encouraged Lucian to write an account in Greek, and then Avitus translated it into Latin and spread it all over Hispania and surrounding areas. Augustine and Hippo got really into Stephen at this point, because Orosius brought back some of his relics from Jerusalem, for a visit, before taking them back to Hispania.

    However, it should be noted that these things were accompanied by Big Miracles of things like restoring sight to the blind and reviving the dead, so it wasn’t just a matter of believing dreams and visions, per se. Also it was a scary time, so one would expect Big Miracles and lots of charismatic happenings.

  4. Oh, hey, I just found Ambrose’s letter translated. It looks like they took the same attitude as St. Helena — send in the sick people, and then dig up the area where you see miracles start to happen. Hee!

    Letter 22.

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