St Petroc: the hagiographical sources

Tuesday 4th June was the day on which the Catholic church commemorates the Celtic saint, St Petroc; or “Saint Petroc’s Day,” as we say in English.  He belongs to the 6th century, and churches dedicated to St Petroc appear in Cornwall, Devon, and into Somerset, the area of the sub-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia.

In  honour of the day, I thought that it might be useful to give a list of the literary sources for his “Life”.  They tell us nothing about 6th century conditions, but rather about the cult of Petroc in the medieval period.

The Vita S. Petroci exists in two basic versions, known as the “first life” and the “second life.”   While these originated in England, the destruction of the monasteries under Henry VIII resulted in a vast loss of manuscripts relating to Cornish history, including all copies of the Life of St Petroc.  The surviving manuscripts all come from Brittany, although St Petroc was really not much venerated there.

The first life is listed in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina, which lists two versions of it.

  • Vita S. Petroci (1) = BHL 6639.  This was probably composed at Bodmin in the 11th century.  The Latin text is found complete in MS Paris lat. 9889 (online catalogue here, but not itself online), on folios 142r-150r.  This is a 16th century manuscript from the abbey of Saint-Méen in Brittany, and in incomplete form in 3 other manuscripts from the same area.  The Latin text was printed for the first time in 1959 by Paul Grosjean, who gave a critical edition of it in Analecta Bollandiana.[1]  A loose English translation was made twenty years earlier by Gilbert Doble in a pamphlet in his Cornish Saints series, and this in turn was translated into French.
  • BHL 6640.  This is an abbreviation of BHL 6639, made by John of Tynmouth from a now lost manuscript in England, and printed in Capgrave’s Nova Legenda Angliae, (ed. Horstmann, vol. 2, 317-20).  This was reprinted by the Bollandists in the Acta Sanctorum for June, vol. 1, p.400-401 (393-3 in rev. ed.)

The “second life” only became known in the 20th century.  It seems to be a longer version of the first life, probably composed in the 12th century.  It is preserved in a single manuscript about which I have written before, Gotha Memb. I 81, together with three other texts.  Grosjean printed a critical edition of them all[2], and Doble gave a translation of some important passages from the second life where it differs from the first life.  The Gotha manuscript was briefly online, but does not seem to be there now.  Here are the items contained in it:

  • Vita S. Petroci (2), on fols. 136v-143; Grosjean edition pp.145-165.
  • Vita Metrica S. Petroci, on fol. 143-4; Grosjean pp.166-171.
  • Miracula S. Petroci, on fols. 144-5; Grosjean p.171-174.
  • De reliquarum furto (on the theft of the relics), on fols. 144v-148; Grosjean p.174-188.  This is the interesting story of how a disaffected monk stole the relics from Bodmin and took them to the abbey of Saint-Méen in Brittany.  The monks of Bodmin appealed to King Henry II, who ensured their return to Cornwall.
  • Genealogiae, the genealogy of the saint, on fol. 148; Grosjean p.188.
Gotha Ms, folio 136v, the beginning of the Vita Petroci (2)

Interestingly on p.317 of Capgrave there is a note “abbreviated from the Life quoted by Leland Itinerary viii 52,” suggesting that Leland had seen a manuscript of the second Life.  I must look at this sometime.

  1. [1]P. Grosjean, “Vies et miracles de S. Petroc II: le dossier de Saint-Méen,” in: Analecta Bollandiana 74 (1956), p.470-96.
  2. [2]P. Grosjean, “Vies et miracles de S. Petroc I: le dossier de manuscript de Gotha,” in: Analecta Bollandiana 74 (1956), p.131-88.

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