The Saints’ Lives of St George – texts and sources

Today is St George’s Day, in England at least, and I found myself wondering what the literary sources were for his legend.  About all I know about him is the story of St George and the Dragon.  So I started looking for some kind of list of the hagiographical sources for his Vita or Saint’s life.  I found very little; so I thought that a post on what I could find would be useful.

As with every popular medieval saint, there is a massive collection of folk tales in written form transmitted in the Greek and Latin medieval manuscripts that have come down to us.  But what, precisely, exists?  And how can we find it?

Let’s start with texts.  St George is commemorated on the 23 April.  The massive collection of Saints’ Lives, the Acta Sanctorum, contains a number of “Lives” in the original language.  The relevant volume is April volume 3; the Paris 19th century reprint of this volume may be found at here.  “St George the Megalomartyr” starts on p.101, here.

The introduction tells us, interestingly, that a Life of St George appears in the Decretum Gelasianum, (online here), a 5th century list of books approved and otherwise – as a probable composition by heretics!

The old Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (1909) – online here; there is a later version but I don’t know that this is online – has a section on the Lives of St George, starting on p.93, here; St George, martyr, of Diospolis in Palestine.  Twenty different texts are listed, coded as BHG 670 – BHG 691.

The first of these (BHG 670) is interesting for its early date.  It is preserved in uncial in a 6th century palimpsest (so very early), and edited in facsimile by D. Detlefsen, “Über einen griechischen Palimpsest der k. k. Hofbibliothek mit Bruchstücken einer Legende vom heiligen Georg”, 1858.  Pleasantly it is online in high resolution at the Bavarian State Library here.  There are apparently Latin versions of this particular life, which fill out the lacunae.  But the story itself simply screams its fictional nature.  Among other ineptitudes, apparently St George is put to death and resurrected three times, in one case after being torn to pieces.  Indeed the life of Christ our Lord, with his solitary resurrection, begins to seem like a rather poor and threadbare rehearsal for the glory that is the life of St George![1]  It might be nice to get this life translated; but it may be that we need someone with both Latin and Greek for this.

The contents of the other lives are as yet unknown to me.  I hope to blog further about this.

The standard handbook on all this material, from which I have yet to read more than a page or two, is Hippolyte Delehaye, Les légendes grecques des saints militaires, Paris: Librairie Alphonse Picard, (1909) 45-76.  This is online here, and seems to be the source of all the other discussions of St George that I could find in a Google Books search, such as this one in English from Michael Collins, St George and the Dragons, (2018) here.  The page that I have linked to summarises nicely what Delehaye says about the subject.  There are archaeological remains and inscriptions which indicate that the veneration of St George dates back to the 5th century.

That’s all that I found so far.  It’s a similar sort of situation to the Saints’ Lives of St Nicholas.

Isn’t it interesting that in modern England both St Nicholas and St George are still remembered?

  1. [1]Readers may recognise the allusion to the Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass; repeated here from memory.

Trial and Martyrdom of St Apollonius – by Anthony Alcock

Dr Alcock has sent over a translation of two texts, one Greek, one Coptic, of the Trial and Acts of St. Apollonius.  I’m a bit pressed for time this evening so I will release it as is:

It is great to have these, though.  Thank you!


When “it was no longer possible to become a saint”; Byzantium in the 11th century

A curious claim met my eyes recently, in the Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography, vol. 1.  On p.148, as part of Symeon A. Paschalidis “The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries”, we read the following words (overparagraphed by me):

An important catalyst in the decline of hagiographic production in the eleventh century… was the contesting of the elevation of new saints.  During this period the view was widespread that it was no longer possible to become a saint.

The philosophical position of the philosopher John Italos, a pupil of Psellus, who called into question all miracles attributed to Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, also had some influence in this respect.

Our two most important sources for this dual contestation are two texts…

This sounds rather interesting.  The two texts are:

  • Nicetas Stethatos, Against those who accuse the saints (Κατὰ ἁγιοκατηγόρων). [UPDATE: Online here]
  •  John the Deacon and Maistor, against those who call into question the cult of the saints and argue that the saints cannot help the living, especially after their deaths.

These texts are hardly accessible, however.  Paschalidis himself has published the Stethatos text in S. Paschalidis, “Nicetas Stethatos’ unedited speech Against those who accuse the saints and the question of sanctity in eleventh century Byzantium” [in Greek], in: E. Kountoura-Galake (ed.), The Heroes of the Orthodox Church. The New Saints, 8th-16th c., [NHRF/IBR, International Symposia 15], Athens 2004, p. 493-518.  The relevant portion is 515-8.  [1]

The reference given for the other item is J. Gouillard, “Léthargie des âmes et culte des saints: un plaidoyer inédit de Jean Diacre et Maïstôr”, TM 8 (1981), 173-9.  “TM” turns out to be that not entirely well-known journal, “Travaux et mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance”, which I gather has a home page (if no content) here.  I am unclear whether this even contains the text; how one might obtain the article is quite unclear also.

I think by this point we are perhaps outside our period.  But it is very interesting that these questions are being raised around the time of the great collections of hagiographic material.  Perhaps some medievalist could obtain and translate these texts and place them on the web?

UPDATE: A kind correspondent notes that Paschalidis has a scan of the first text online at here.  This is not searchable, which means you can’t use Google Translate on it. I have therefore run it through Abbyy Finereader 12 and the output is here:

  1. [1]Available for purchase here for 35 euros, at a Greek bookseller.

The differences between Menologion, Menaion, and Synaxarion

There are various medieval lives of St Nicholas of Myra.  The Greek texts were collected by G. Anrich in Hagios Nikolaos, which is still useful today.  One of the sections of this book (section VIII) is devoted to “Synaxarientexte” – texts from various types of synaxarion.  I placed online a translation of this material a few days ago.

But I found myself in difficulty.  Like most people, the word “synaxarion” does not mean anything to me.  I also ran across terms for similar-sounding material, all equally baffling – “menologion”, and “menaion”.  This was rather confusing.  In fact there is a short article on these three terms in the Analecta Bollandiana, by Jacques Noret, although I have no access to it (if you do, I’d be glad of a copy),[1] in which he frankly admits that the Byzantines themselves used the words interchangeably!

What I am interested in are the Lives (=Vitae) of the Saints, and specifically those of St Nicholas of Myra.

Fortunately I have access to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, which gives a definition for all three terms.  Here is the opening for one, which gives a fairly clear distinction:

Menologion (μηνολόγιον, from μήν, “month”, and λόγος, “catalog”), a collection of VITAE arranged according to the date of each saint’s celebration in the church calendar. Although the terminology is by no means consistent in the sources (J. Noret, AB 86 1968) 21-23), a menologion should be distinguished both from a synaxarion, a collection of simple notices or very short biographies of the saints, and a menaion, which contains liturgical poems and prayers for the saint’s annual celebration. In addition to the vitae, many of considerable length, the menologion often contains a few homilies as well, to be read at the same commemorative service. A. Ehrhard (infra, 1:21) claims that the mention by Theodore of Stoudios of a collection of martyria in 12 deltoi (PG 99:912B) is the first real evidence for a menologion, though it is unclear whether the texts were arranged in any chronological sequence. The earliest surviving menologia manuscripts date from the 9th C. Though various equivalent projects may have been afoot in both the 10th and 11th C. (N.P. Sevcenko, infra 3, 216. 11.16), the late 10th C. collection of nearly 150 texts in ten volumes compiled by Symeon Metaphrastes was to become the standard edition of the menologion; its regular use in monasteries (the texts were read aloud at Orthros) is attested by the 12th C. …

That’s quite clear.  But does it survive contact with the definitions for the other two?

Menaion (μηναῖον, from μήν, “month”), a set of 12 liturgical books, one for each month, containing the variable hymns and other texts (lections, synaxarion notices, kanones) proper to vespers and orthros of each feast of the fixed cycle, that is, those feasts that fall on a fixed date in the church calendar. Although the cycle of feasts itself had been established since the 10th C., …, the first systematic menaia with hymnography for each day of the year appear only in MSS of the 11th-12th C. ..

That’s OK.  Finally:

Synaxarion (συναχάριον), a church calendar of fixed feasts with the appropriate lections indicated for each one, but no further text. The synaxarion is often appended to a Praxapostolos or Evangelion. It is rarely illustrated, but one MS., Vat. gr. 1156 of the 11th C, has an image of a saint for each day from Sept. through Jan. as well as scattered ones thereafter (Lazarev, Storia, fig.205). There also exist “calendar” icons, with portraits of saints and feasts for each day of the year (Soteriou, Eikones, figs. 126-35), that must be based on this type of synaxarion.

The term synaxarion is also used in Byz. Greek for a specific collection of brief notices, mostly hagiographical: the Synaxarion of Constantinople. The Synaxarion of Constantinople was probably formed in the 10th C. (the earliest MSS already include notices on Joseph the Hymnographer and on Patr. Anthony II Kauleas (895-901), and there are Arabic, Georgian, Syriac, and Ethiopic versions. These daily commemorations, which average only about a paragraph in length, stress the martyrdom of the saints and inform us where in the city the commemoration took place. The Menologion of Basil II is, despite its name, an illustrated version of this type of text, as are those icons and frescoes that have images of the martyrdoms of the saints, rather than just their portraits (see Hagiographical Illustration). Some of the frescoes use verses from the metrical calendar of Christopher of Mytilene as captions; these verses had been incorporated into certain recensions of the Synaxarion of Constantinople from the 12th C.

These texts were incorporated into the menaion and the triodion and usually read after the sixth ode of the kanon at orthros. They are not to be confused with the much longer notices, similarly ordered, found in a menologion. …

So there we have it.

  • Synaxarion = a calendar of saints’ feast days, in calendar order, with the bible readings for the day.  The Synaxarion of Constantinople is a collection of one-paragraph saints’ lives in the same order.
  •  Menologion = a collection of long saints’ lives in the same order.
  •  Menaion = a 12-book collection, one per month, of the bible readings, hymns, synaxarion entries, etc, for the feast day of each saint, in calendar order.

Nice to have that clear!

So the St Nicholas stuff in Anrich section VIII is from the synaxarion, and its brevity makes that plain.  The long life of St Nicholas by Symeon Metaphrastes is from the Menologion compiled by Metaphrastes.

All this stuff is unfamiliar to me, but if we must work with hagiographical texts, at least we can get clear on this bit.

  1. [1]Jacques Noret, “Ménologes, synaxaires, ménées. Essai de clarification d’une terminologie”, Analecta Bollandiana 86 (1968) p.21-24.  Brepols Online has first page here.

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.

A Coptic life of Severian of Gabala (!)

Severian of Gabala was the enemy of John Chrysostom.  The latter’s importance necessarily involved Severian’s eclipse, and all the accounts of their quarrel are written from John’s point of view.  Or so I thought.  But an email from Albocicade, a correspondent of this blog, reveals a “Life of St. Severian of Gabala”, in the Arabic Synaxary of the monophysites.

It is understandable that the Copts would preserve some kind of account.  For although they also revere Chrysostom, it is also a fact that Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, was also an enemy of Chrysostom, and is also revered as a saint.  The rehabilitation of Severian is a necessary consequence of that of Theophilus.

Interestingly there is a mention of a Montanist congregation at Gabala.  It is perhaps doubtful that the life is anything but fiction, however.

This text was published by René Basset with a French translation in the Patrologia Orientalis 1 (1907).  It is short, so I shall give an English version from the French here.  The life of Severian follows that of “Saint Dioscorus”.

    *    *    *    *

7th day of Tut (= 4th September)

On this day rested in the Lord the Holy and Virtuous Father Severian, bishop of Gabala.  The name of his father was Valerian.  He studied profane philosophy at Athens, and went to Caesarea where he studied the sciences.  Then he returned to Rome, where he studied the ecclesiastical sciences, and learned by heart all the ancient and modern books, in a few years.  After this his parents died, leaving him a considerable and immeasurable fortune.  He wished to give this to Christ, in order to receive a hundred-fold reward in its place.  He built a hospice for strangers, the unfortunate, and the poor; he placed attendants there, to receive the money for the poor, such that even today these places are called by his name.  His uncle was the governor of the town; he complained about him to the emperor Honorius, because he had dissipated his fortune saying, “I give it to our Lord Christ in order to receive the equivalent [in heaven], as he said in his gospel.”  The emperor admired this, and ordered him not to separate himself from him in his palace, to go with him to church and to pass the entire night in prayer.  For the emperor also was a righteous man: he led the life of a monk and wore a hair-shirt under his royal robe.  The patriarch (pope) of Rome was then St. Innocent; he learned from God that Severian was doing good to huge numbers, and began to honour and venerate him.  The saint [Severian] was loved by the masses; his reputation reached Theodosius, who was reigning at Constantinople.  When the saint saw the respect in which he was held, he feared that his trouble was in vain, and decided to leave secretly.  An angel of the Lord appeared to him, and ordered him to go to the town of Gabala, where he would lead many souls.  He left by night, accompanied by his disciple Theodosius, to whom he had given the monastic habit.  The Lord sent him a light in the form of a wheel which preceded him until he arrived at Gabala.  There was there a convent at the head of which was a holy man.  He learned in a dream about St. Severian.  He went out to meet him, and made known to him his vision, and the saint was extremely surprised.  His history followed him to this place, and an innumerable crowd gathered around him.  The emperor Theodosius sent abbots to grow the convents which he founded, after an angel of the Lord had determined the place where they should be.  These became a refuge for many souls, and the Lord worked by him many miracles.

Among these, the daughter of the governor of Gabala had a demon in her, who said to her father, “If you make Severian leave this place, I will go out of her.”  When the father went to find Severian and told him about the matter, asking him to heal her, the saint wrote a note in which he said, “In the name of Jesus, the Christ, you shall go out of her.”

A troop of Samaritans and other people attached themselves to the soldiers, and wanted to get into the convent.  The saint made darkness come upon them and they remained for three days without sight, until they implored him with many tears, and he sent them away.

Likewise all the monks who were under his authority prayed over anyone who was ill and they were healed.  He encouraged and instructed each of them so well that they became like angels.

The bishop of this town was named Philadelphus.  He learned in a dream sent by God that the saint would occupy his place.  He sent to almost all the communities and recommended them to support him in order (to fulfil) the intention of God and, following the opinion of the righteous rulers and leaders, he was made bishop and began with a great struggle to protect his flock.

In that town there was a Jew named Saktar, very learned and proud that he was possessed of the law of Moses.  He went to find the saint and disputed with him, but no word was able to come out of his mouth.  Then the Lord informed him [Severian] in a dream that this man [Saktar] would be part of the blessed flock.  When Saktar returned to his house, he saw in a dream places of torment, and a voice saying, “Here are the faithless Jews and those who don’t believe in our Lord the Messiah.”  The next day he went to find St. Severian, fell at his feet and asked to become a Christian.  He baptised him, him and all the people of his house.  When the other Jews learned that their leader had become a Christian, they believed, were baptised, and became Christians as if they had been born into the religion of Christ.

Likewise there is another sect of magicians who are called Montanists.  When the saint asked them to enter the faith, they did not do so, because they had confidence in their art.  In fact, when a man came towards them, they would throw dust in his face and he would see nothing.  Then the saint asked our Lord the Messiah, with many tears, to bring them into the holy flock.  The Lord sent upon them, but not on the Christians, various illnesses like those with which the Egyptians were affected before.  They recognised that this was the consequence of their disobedience towards the saint.  They went to find him and became Christians.  The town formed but a single flock.  The demon screamed in pain and cried out, in the form of an old man with torn clothing, “I am tormented on all sides: Egypt is filled with holy monks; at Rome, there is Innocent; at Constantinople, John Chrysostom; This place remains to me, and Severian has taken it from me.”

The Persians sent a message to the kings Theodosius and Arcadius, wishing to make war.  They sent the letter to the saint.  When he learned of it, he wrote to them to comfort them: “We belong to Christ; our realm comes from Christ; we have therefore no need of arms, lances or men”; and he reminded them one by one of all the things that God had done to kings, before the forty-day fast; and the Persians went away.

As for the business of John Chrysostom with the empress, the saint came with all the bishops.  He addressed all kinds of remonstrances to the empress, saying that John Chrysostom had done nothing which deserved exile.  When she did not listen, he returned to his town.

He composed discourses, exhortations and sermons which are copied in the church down to the present.  He grew old and attained the age of 100.  Ten days before he died, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and invited him to leave.  He made his recommendations to his flock, and fell asleep in the Lord.  His death happened two years before that of St. John Chrysostom, who died the same year as Epiphanius of Cyprus.  The body of the blessed Severian was buried fittingly; funeral orations and panegyrics were made, and he was laid to rest in the tomb.  May his prayer be with us.  Amen.


Theodoret on Simeon Stylites

Earlier we looked at the Life of Abraham as presented in Theodoret’s Lives of the Monks, written in 444 AD, and one of our best historical sources for an area generally represented by hagiographical texts.

While reading the volume, in the same excellent translation by R.M. Price, I found myself reading the Life of the famous pillar-saint, Simeon Stylites.  I will give it here, and then we can discuss it.

    *    *    *    *    *    *

1. THE FAMOUS SYMEON, the great wonder of the world, is known of by all the subjects of the Roman empire and has also been heard of by the Persians, the Medes, the Ethiopians; and the rapid spread of his fame as far as the nomadic Scythians has taught his love of labor and his philosophy. I myself, though having all men, so to speak, as witnesses of his contests that beggar description, am afraid that the narrative may seem to posterity to be a myth totally devoid of truth. For the facts surpass human nature, and men are wont to use nature to measure what is said; if anything is said that lies beyond the limits of nature, the account is judged to be false by those uninitiated into divine things. But since earth and sea are full of pious souls educated in divine things and instructed in the grace of the all-holy Spirit, who will not disbelieve what is said but have complete faith in it, I shall make my narration with eagerness and confidence. I shall begin from the point at which he received his call from on high.

2. There is a village lying on the border between our region and Cilicia; they call it Sisa. Originating from this village, he was taught by his parents first to shepherd animals, so that in this respect too he might be comparable to those great men the patriarch Jacob, the chaste Joseph, the lawgiver Moses, the king and prophet David, the prophet Micah and the inspired men of their kind. Once when there was much snow and the sheep were compelled to stay indoors, he took advantage of the respite to go with his parents to the house of God. I heard his sacred tongue recount the following: he told how he heard the Gospel utterance which declares blessed those who weep and mourn, calls wretched those who laugh, terms enviable those who possess a pure soul, and all the other blessings conjoined with them. He then asked one of those present what one should do to obtain each of these. He suggested the solitary life and pointed to that consummate philosophy.

3. Therefore, having received the seeds of the divine word and stored them well in the deep furrows of his soul, he hastened —he said —to a nearby shrine of the holy martyrs. In it he bent his knees and forehead to the ground, and besought the One who wishes to save all men to lead him to the perfect path of piety. After he had spent a long time in this way, a sweet sleep came upon him, and he had the following dream: ‘I seemed,’ he said, ‘to be digging foundations, and then hear someone standing by say that I had to make the trench deeper. After adding to its depth as he told me, I again tried to take a rest; but once more he ordered me to dig and not relax my efforts. After charging me a third and a fourth time to do this, he finally said the depth was sufficient, and told me to build effortlessly from now on, since the effort had abated and the building would be effortless.’ This prediction is confirmed by the event, for the facts surpass nature.

4. Getting up from there, he repaired to the dwelling of some neighboring ascetics. After spending two years with them and falling in love with more perfect virtue, he repaired to that village of Teleda which we mentioned above, where the great and godly men Ammianus and Eusebius had pitched their ascetic wrestling-school. The inspired Symeon, however, did not enter this one, but another which had sprung from it; Eusebonas and Abibion, having enjoyed sufficiently the teaching of the great Eusebius, had built this retreat of philosophy. Having shared throughout life the same convictions and the same habits, and displayed, as it were, one soul in two bodies, they made many love this life as they did. When they departed from life with glory, the wonderful Heliodorus succeeded to the office of superior over the community. He lived for sixty-five years, and spent sixty-two years immured within; for it was after three years of rearing by his parents that he entered this flock, without ever beholding the occurrences of life. He claimed not even to know the shape of pigs or cocks or the other animals of this kind. I too had often the benefit of seeing him; I admired his simplicity of character and was especially amazed at his purity of soul.

5. After coming to him, this all-round contestant in piety spent ten years contending. He had eighty fellow contestants, and outshot all of them; while the others took food every other day, he would last the whole week without nourishment. His superiors bore this ill and constantly quarreled with it, calling the thing lack of discipline; but they did not persuade him by their words, nor could they curb his zeal. I heard the very man who is now superior of this flock recount how on one occasion Symeon took a cord made from palms —it was extremely rough even to touch with the hands — , and girded it round his waist, not wearing it on the outside but making it touch the skin itself. He tied it so tightly as to lacerate in a circle the whole part it went round. When he had continued in this manner for more than ten days and the now severe wound was letting fall drops of blood, someone who saw him asked what was the cause of the blood. When he replied that he had nothing wrong with him, his fellow contestant forcibly inserted his hand, discovered the cause and disclosed it to the superior. Immediately reproaching and exhorting, and inveighing against the cruelty of the thing, he undid the belt, with difficulty, but not even so could he persuade him to give the wound any treatment. Seeing him do other things of the kind as well, they ordered him to depart from this wrestling-school, lest he should be a cause of harm to those with a weaker bodily constitution who might try to emulate what was beyond their powers.

6. He therefore departed, and made his way to the more deserted parts of the mountain. Finding a cistern that was waterless and not too deep, he lowered himself into it, and offered hymnody to God. When five days had passed, the superiors of the wrestling-school had a change of heart, and sent out two men, charging them to look for him and bring him back. So after walking round the mountain, they asked some men tending animals there if they had seen someone of such a complexion and dress. When the shepherds pointed out the cistern, they at once called out several times, and bringing a rope, drew him out with great labor—for ascent is not as easy as descent.

7. After staying with them for a short time, he came to the village of Telanissus, which lies under the hill-top where he now stands; finding a tiny cottage in it, he spent three years as a recluse. In his eagerness to be always increasing his wealth of virtue, he longed to fast forty days without food, like the men of God Moses and Elijah. He urged the wonderful Bassus, who at the time used to make visitations of many villages, as supervisor of the village priests, to leave nothing inside and seal the door with mud. When the other pointed out the difficulty of the thing and urged him not to think suicide a virtue, since it is the first and greatest of crimes, he replied: ‘But you then, father, leave me ten rolls and a jar of water; and if I see my body needs nourishment, I shall partake of them.’ It was done as he bade. The provisions were left, and the door was sealed with mud. At the end of the forty days, Bassus, this wonderful person and man of God, came and removed the mud; on going in through the door he found the complete number of rolls, he found the jar full of water, but Symeon stretched out without breath, unable either to speak or to move. Asking for a sponge to wet and rinse his mouth, he brought him the symbols of the divine mysteries; and so strengthened by these, he raised himself and took a little food—lettuce, chicory and suchlike plants, which he chewed in small pieces and so passed into the stomach.

8. Overwhelmed with admiration, the great Bassus repaired to his own flock, to recount this great miracle; for he had more than two hundred disciples, whom he ordered to possess neither mounts nor mules, nor to accept offerings of money, nor to go outside the gate whether to buy something necessary or see some friend, but to live indoors and receive the food sent by divine grace. This rule his disciples have preserved to this day. They have not, as they become more numerous, transgressed the injunctions that were given them.

9. But I shall return to the great Symeon. From that time till today —twenty-eight years have passed —he spends the forty days without food. Time and practice have allayed most of the effort. For it was his custom during the first days to chant hymns to God standing, then, when because of the fasting his body no longer had the strength to bear the standing, thereafter to perform the divine liturgy seated, and during the final days actually to lie down —for as his strength was gradually exhausted and extinguished he was compellled to lie half-dead. But when he took his stand on the pillar, he was not willing to come down, but contrived his standing posture differently: it was by attaching a beam to the pillar and then tying himself to the beam with cords that he lasted the forty days. Subsequently, enjoying henceforward still more grace from above, he has not needed even this support, but stands throughout the forty days, not taking food but strengthened by zeal and divine grace.

10. After spending three years, as I said, in this cottage, he repaired to that celebrated hill-top, where he ordered a circular enclosure to be made. After procuring an iron chain of twenty cubits, nailing one end to a great rock and fixing the other to his right foot, so that not even if he wished could he go outside these limits, he lived all the time inside, thinking of heaven and compelling himself to contemplate what lies above the heavens—for the iron chain did not hinder the flight of his thought. But when the wonderful Meletius, who had at that time been appointed to supervise the territory of the city of Antioch and was a wise man of brilliant intelligence and gifted with shrewdness, told him that the iron was superfluous, since the will was sufficient to impose on the body the bonds of reasoning, he yielded and accepted the advice with compliance: And bidding a smith be called, he told him to sever the chain. When a piece of leather, which had been tied to his leg to prevent the iron injuring his body, had to be torn apart (for it had been sown together), people saw, they said, more than twenty large bugs lurking in it; and the wonderful Meletius said he had seen this. I myself have mentioned it in order to show from this example as well the endurance of the man: for though he could easily have squeezed the leather with his hand and killed them all, he steadfastly put up with their painful bites, welcoming in small things training for greater contests.

11. As his fame circulated everywhere, everyone hastened to him, not only the people of the neighborhood but also people many days’ journey distant, some bringing the paralysed in body, others requesting health for the sick, others asking to become fathers; and they begged to receive from him what they could not receive from nature. On receiving it and obtaining their requests, they returned with joy; and by proclaiming the benefits they had gained, they sent out many times more, asking for the same things. So with everyone arriving from every side and every road resembling a river, one can behold a sea of men standing together in that place, receiving rivers from every side. Not only do the inhabitants of our part of the world flock together, but also Ishmaelites, Persians, Armenians subject to them, Iberians, Homerites, and men even more distant than these; and there came many inhabitants of the extreme west, Spaniards, Britons, and the Gauls who live between them. Of Italy it is superfluous to speak. It is said that the man became so celebrated in the great city of Rome that at the entrance of all the workshops men have set up small representations of him, to provide thereby some protection and safety for themselves.

12. Since the visitors were beyond counting and they all tried to touch him and reap some blessing from his garments of skins, while he at first thought the excess of honor absurd and later could not abide the wearisomeness of it, he devised the standing on a pillar, ordering the cutting of a pillar first of six cubits, then of twelve, afterwards of twenty-two and now of thirty-six —for he yearns to fly up to heaven and to be separated from this life on earth. I myself do not think that this standing has occurred without the dispensation of God, and because of this I ask fault-finders to curb their tongue and not to let it be carried away at random, but to consider how often the Master has contrived such things for the benefit of the more easygoing. He ordered Isaiah to walk naked and barefoot, Jeremiah to put a loincloth on his waist and by this means address prophecy to the unbelieving, and on another occasion to put a wooden collar on his neck and later an iron one, Hosea to take a harlot to wife and again to love a woman immoral and adulterous, Ezekiel to lie on his right side for forty days and on his left for one hundred and fifty, and again to dig through a wall and slip out in flight, making himself a representation of captivity, and on another occasion to sharpen a sword to a point, shave his head with it, divide the hair into four and assign some for this purpose and some for that — not to list everything. The Ruler of the universe ordered each of these things to be done in order to attract, by the singularity of the spectacle, those who would not heed words and could not bear hearing prophecy, and make them listen to the oracles. For who would not have been astounded at seeing a man of God walking naked? Who would not have wanted to learn the cause of the occurrence? Who would not have asked how the prophet could bear to live with a harlot? Therefore, just as the God of the universe ordered each of these actions out of consideration for the benefit of those inured to ease, so too he has ordained this new and singular sight in order by its strangeness to draw all men to look, and to make the proffered exhortation persuasive to those who come—for the novelty of the sight is a trustworthy pledge of the teaching, and the man who comes to look departs instructed in divine things. Just as those who have obtained kingship over men alter periodically the images on their coins, at one time striking representations of lions, at another of stars and angels, and at another try to make the gold piece more valuable by the strangeness of the type, so the universal Sovereign of all things, by attaching to piety like coin-types these new and various modes of life, stirs to eulogy the tongues not only of those nurtured in the faith but also of those afflicted by lack of faith.

13. Words do not testify that these things have this character, but the facts themselves proclaim it; for the Ishmaelites, who were enslaved in their many tens of thousands to the darkness of impiety, have been illuminated by his standing on the pillar. For this dazzling lamp, as if placed on a lampstand, has sent out rays in all directions, like the sun. It is possible, as I have said, to see Iberians and Armenians and Persians arriving to receive the benefit of divine baptism. The Ishmaelites, arriving in companies, two or three hundred at the same time, sometimes even a thousand, disown with shouts their ancestral imposture; and smashing in front of this great luminary the idols they had venerated and renouncing the orgies of Aphrodite—it was this demon whose worship they had adopted originally —, they receive the benefit of the divine mysteries, accepting laws from this sacred tongue and bidding farewell to their ancestral customs, as they disown the eating of wild asses and camels.

14. I myself was an eyewitness of this, and I have heard them disowning their ancestral impiety and assenting to the teaching of the Gospel. And I once underwent great danger: he told them to come up and receive from me the priestly blessing, saying they would reap the greatest profit therefrom. But they rushed up in a somewhat barbarous manner, and some pulled at me from in front, some from behind, others from the sides, while those further back trod on the others and stretched out their hands, and some pulled at my beard and others grabbed at my clothing. I would have been suffocated by their too ardent approach, if he had not used a shout to disperse them. Such is the benefit that the pillar mocked by lovers of mockery has poured forth; such is the ray of divine knowledge which it has made descend into the minds of barbarians.

15. I know another case of such behavior by these men. One tribe begged the man of God to utter a prayer and blessing for their chieftain; but another tribe that was present objected to this, saying that the blessing ought to be uttered not for him but for their own leader, since the former was extremely unjust while the latter was a stranger to injustice. A long dispute and barbarian quarrel ensued, and finally they went for each other. I myself exhorted them with many words to stay calm, since the man of God had power sufficient to give a blessing to both the one and the other; but these said that that man should not get it, while those tried to deprive the other of it. By threatening them from above and calling them dogs, he with difficulty extinguished the dispute. I have told this out of a wish to display the faith in their understanding; for they would not have raged against each other, if they did not believe the blessing of the inspired man to possess the greatest power.

16. On another occasion I witnessed the occurrence of a celebrated miracle. Someone came in —he too was a tribal chieftain of Saracens — and begged the godly person to assist a man who on the road had become paralysed in the limbs of his body; he said he had undergone the attack at Callinicum — it is a very great fort. When he had been brought right to the center, Symeon bade him disown the impiety of his ancestors. When he gladly consented and performed the order, he asked him if he believed in the Father and the only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit. When the other professed his faith, he said: ‘Since you believe in these names, stand up!’ When he stood up, he ordered him to carry the tribal chieftain on his shoulders right to his tent, and he was of great bodily size. He at once picked him up and went on his way, while those present stirred their tongues to sing hymns to God.

17. He gave this order in imitation of the Master, who told the paralytic to carry his bed. But let no one call the imitation usurpation, for His is the utterance, ‘He who believes in me will himself do the works that I do, and greater than these will he do’. Of this promise we have seen the fulfilment; for while the Lord’s shadow nowhere performed a miracle, the shadow of the great Peter canceled death, drove out diseases, and put demons to flight. But it is the Master who through His servants performed these miracles too; and now likewise it is by the use of His name that the godly Symeon performs his innumerable miracles.

[18.It happened that another miracle occurred in no way inferior to the preceding. A not undistinguished Ishmaelite, who was one of those who had found faith in the saving name of Christ the Master, made prayer to God with Symeon as the witness, and a promise as well: the promise was to abstain thereafter till death from all animal food. At some time he broke this promise, I know not how, by daring to kill a bird and eat it. But since God chose to bring him to amendment by means of a reproof and to honor His servant who had been the witness of the broken promise, the flesh of the bird was changed in nature to stone, with the result that not even if he wanted to was he now able to eat —for how was it possible, since the body which he had got hold of for eating had been petrified? Astounded by this extraordinary sight, the barbarian repaired to the holy man with great speed, bringing to light his secret sin, proclaiming his transgression to all, asking from God forgiveness for his offence and calling the saint to his aid, that through his all-powerful prayers he might free him from the bonds of sin. Many have been eyewitnesses of this miracle by touching the part of the bird by the breast, which is composed of bone and stone. ]

19. I have been, not only an eyewitness of his miracles, but also a hearer of his predictions of the future. The drought that occurred, the great crop-failure of that year and the simultaneous famine and plague that followed, he foretold two years beforehand, saying that he had seen a rod threatening mankind and indicating the scourging it would cause. On another occasion he revealed beforehand an attack of what is called the grasshopper, and that it would not cause serious harm, for the mercy of God would follow hard on the punishment. When thirty days had passed a countless swarm so swooped down as to intercept the rays of the sun and create shade; and this we all saw distinctly. But it harmed only the fodder of the irrational animals, while causing no injury to the food of human beings. Also to me, when under attack from someone, he disclosed the death of my enemy fifteen days in advance, and from experience I learnt the truth of his prediction. [He also saw on one occasion two rods descend from the sky and fall on the land both east and west. The godly man explained it as a rising of the Persian and Scythian nations against the Roman empire; he declared the vision to those present, and with many tears and unceasing prayers stopped the blows with which the world was threatened. Certainly the Persian nation, when already armed and prepared for attack on the Romans, was through the opposition of divine power driven back from the proposed assault and fully engaged in domestic troubles within.]

20. Although I know very many other occurrences of this kind, I shall omit them, to avoid length in the account —and the preceding are sufficient to show the spiritual perception of his mind. His reputation is also great with the king of the Persians. As the envoys who came to see Symeon related, he wished to inquire carefully about the man’s way of life and the nature of his miracles; and his spouse is said to have asked for oil honored by his blessing and to have received it as a very great gift. All the king’s courtiers, struck by his reputation, and despite hearing from the Magians many calumnies against him, wished to inquire precisely, and on being informed called him a man of God. The rest of the crowd, going up to the muleteers, servants and soldiers, offered them money, begging to receive a share in the blessing attached to the oil.

21. The queen of the Ishmaelites, being sterile and longing for children, first sent some of her highest officials to beg that she become a mother, and then when she obtained her request and gave birth as she had wished, took the prince she had borne and hastened to the godly old man. Since women are not allowed access, she sent the baby to him together with a request to receive blessing from him. ‘Yours,’ she said, ‘is this sheaf; for I brought, with tears, the seed of prayer, but it was you who made the seed a sheaf, drawing down through prayer the rain of divine grace.’ But how long shall I strive to measure the depth of the Atlantic Ocean? For just as the latter cannot be measured by men, so the daily deeds of this man transcend narration.

22. More than all this I myself admire his endurance. Night and day he is standing within view of all; for having removed the doors and demolished a sizeable part of the enclosing wall, he is exposed to all as a new and extraordinary spectacle —now standing for a long time, and now bending down repeatedly and offering worship to God. Many of those standing by count the number of these acts of worship. Once one of those with me counted one thousand two hundred and forty-four of them, before slackening and giving up count. In bending down he always makes his forehead touch his toes —for his stomach’s receiving food once a week, and little of it, enables his back to bend easily.

23. As a result of his standing, it is said that a malignant ulcer has developed in his left foot, and that a great deal of puss oozes from it continually. Nevertheless, none of these afflictions has overcome his philosophy, but he bears them all nobly, both the voluntary and the involuntary, overcoming both the former and the latter by his zeal. He was once obliged to show this wound to someone; I shall recount the cause. Someone arrived from Rabaena, a worthy man, honored with being a deacon of Christ. On reaching the hill-top, he said, Tell me, by the truth that has converted the human race to itself, are you a man or a bodiless being?’ When those present showed annoyance at the question, Symeon told them all to keep silence, and said to him, ‘Why on earth have you posed this question?’ He replied, ‘I hear everyone repeating that you neither eat nor lie down, both of which are proper to men—for no one with a human nature could live without food and sleep.’ At this Symeon ordered a ladder to be placed against the pillar, and told him to ascend and first examine his hands, and then to place his hand inside his cloak of skins and look at not only his feet but also his severe ulcer. After seeing and marveling at the excess of the wound and learning from him that he does take food, he came down from there, and coming to me recounted everything.

24. During the public festivals he displays another form of endurance: after the setting of the sun until it comes again to the eastern horizon, stretching out his hands to heaven he stands all night, neither beguiled by sleep nor overcome by exertion.

25. Despite such labors and the mass of his achievements and the quantity of his miracles, he is as modest in spirit as if he were the last of all men in worth. In addition to his modest spirit, he is extremely approachable, sweet and charming, and makes answer to everyone who addresses him, whether he be artisan, beggar, or peasant. And he has received from the munificent Master the gift also of teaching. Making exhortation two times each day, he floods the ears of his hearers, as he speaks most gracefully and offers the lessons of the divine Spirit, bidding them look up to heaven and take flight, depart from the earth, imagine the expected kingdom, fear the threat of hell, despise earthly things, and await what is to come.

26. He can be seen judging and delivering verdicts that are right and just. These and similar activities he performs after the ninth hour—for the whole night and the day till the ninth hour he spends praying. But after the ninth hour he first offers divine instruction to those present, and then, after receiving each man’s request and working some cures, he resolves the strife of those in dispute. At sunset he begins his converse from then on with God.

27. Although engaged in these activities and performing them all, he does not neglect care of the holy churches — now fighting pagan impiety, now defeating the insolence of the Jews, at other times scattering the bands of the heretics, sometimes sending instructions on these matters to the emperor, sometimes rousing the governors to divine zeal, at others time charging the very shepherds of the churches to take still greater care of their flocks.

28. I have proceeded through all this trying from a drop to indicate the rain, and using my forefinger to give readers of the account a taste of the sweetness of the honey. The facts celebrated by all are many times more numerous than these, but I did not promise to record everything, but to show by a few instances the character of the life of each one. Others, doubtless, will record far more than these; and if he lives on, he will perhaps add greater miracles. I myself desire and beg God that, helped by his own prayers, he may persevere in these good labors, since he is a universal decoration and ornament of piety, and that my own life may be brought into harmony and rightly directed in accordance with the Gospel way of life.

[After a further span of life with many miracles and labors — having alone of men of any time remained unconquered by the flames of the sun, the frosts of winter, the fierce blasts of the winds and the weakness of human nature — since he had henceforth to be with Christ and receive the crowns of his immeasurable contests, he proved by his death, to those who disbelieved it, that he is a man. And he remained even after death unshakable, for while his soul repaired to heaven, his body even so could not bear to fall, but remained upright in the place of his contests, like an unbeaten athlete who strives with no part of his limbs to touch the ground. Thus, even after death does victory remain united to the contestants according to Christ. Certainly cures of diseases of every kind, miracles, and acts of divine power are accomplished even now, just as when he was alive, not only at the tomb of the holy relics but also by the memorial of his heroism and long contending—I mean the great and celebrated pillar of this righteous and much-lauded Symeon —, by whose holy intercession we pray both that we ourselves may be preserved and made firm in the true faith, and that every city and country upon which the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is invoked may enjoy protection, untried by every kind of damage and injury from both the sky and their enemies. To Him be glory for ever and ever.]


From my diary

Some may recall that I commissioned a translation of the Passion of St Saturninus, written in the 5th century but the core of it 3rd century.  Saturninus was bishop of what is now Toulouse.  The oracles in the pagan temples started to fail, and go silent, and the priests enquired why.  Someone mentioned Saturninus, who passed through the forum (where the temples were) every day.  Saturninus was promptly arrested — today he would be accused of ‘hate crime’ no doubt — and “questioned”.

The priests demanded that he sacrifice to the pagan gods.  This demand was made, in the knowledge that it amounted to abandoning his Christian faith.  Endorsing homosexuality seems to be the modern equivalent.  Saturninus refused, and was lynched by being tied to a wild bull which rampaged around until his head was banged on something hard and he died.  He was buried secretly in a wooden chapel outside the town.

The translation of this has now arrived, and I will make it available online very soon.

I’ve also picked up a copy of H. Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford, 1972.  Curiously I have never seen a PDF of this.  It is supposed to contain text and translation for all the material of this kind which is historical rather than hagiographical, i.e. before the outbreak of fiction in the 4th century A.D.  It will be interesting to see.


Notes upon the Acts / Passion of St. Saturninus

An online forum asked about an ancient text named the Acts of St. Saturninus.  I had not heard of these, and my investigation is perhaps worth writing up.

The Passio S. Saturnini is a text which describes the death of Saturninus and other martyrs of Toulouse in Gaul during the Decian persecution.  It belongs to that category of martyrdoms which Ruinart labelled “sincera”, i.e. authentic rather than merely a later invention.[1].  The text is numbered BHL 7495-6.  (Note that a later, 7-8th century text is much longer and numbered BHL 7491, and  was edited in 2002 and published by Herder).

In its current state, the Passio S. Saturnini is a late text, edited in the second decade of the 5th century (certainly before 450 AD), two centuries after the death of the bishop, at the moment when his cult began, thanks to the translation of his relics from the modest tomb where he had been buried into a new basilica. The author of it is very definitely a clergyman of Toulouse living at the time of bishop Exuperius, or soon afterwards.[2]

Cabau wrote notes on the bishops of Toulouse in this period, which may be found here.


  • Patrice Cabau, “Opusculum de passione ac translatione sancti Saturnini, episcopi Tolosanae ciuitatis et martyris. Édition et traduction provisoires”, in: Mémoires de la Société archéologique du Midi de la France 61, 2001, p. 59-77.  This includes a full bibliography.  Online here.

French translation:

  • Pierre Maraval, Actes et Passions des martyrs chrétiens des premiers siècles. Introduction, traduction et notes, in: Sagesses Chrétiennes, Cerf, 2010, pp. 181-192.  Online here.

I have found no sign of a translation into English, unfortunately.

  1. [1]Thierry Ruinart, Acta Martyrum sincera et selecta, 1689, p.109-113; 2nd ed.  here has text on p.128 f, and a list of manuscripts used on p.lxxix.
  2. [2]From the introduction to Marival’s translation.

The Ashgate companion to hagiography

I had a weak moment at the Patristics conference last week.  It cost me rather a lot of money.  But I succumbed to the lure of “50% off” and bought a copy of the Ashgate Research Companion to Hagiography, volume 1.

From the website:

Hagiography is the most abundantly represented genre of Byzantine literature and it offers crucial insight to the development of religious thought and practice, social and literary life, and the history of the empire. It emerged in the fourth century with the pioneering Life of St Antony and continued to evolve until the end of the empire in the fifteenth century, and beyond. The appeal and dynamics of this genre radiated beyond the confines of Byzantium, and it was practised also in many Oriental and Slavic languages within the orbit of the broader Byzantine world.

This Companion is the work of an international team of specialists and represents the first comprehensive survey ever produced in this field. It will consist of two volumes and is addressed to both a broader public and the scholarly community of Byzantinists, Medievalists, historians of religion and theorists of the narrative. The present volume covers, first, the authors and texts of the four distinctive periods during which Greek Byzantine hagiography developed, and then the hagiography produced in Oriental and Slavic languages and in geographical milieux around the periphery of the empire, from Italy to Armenia. A second volume will deal with questions of genres and the social and other contexts of Byzantine hagiography

Contents: Introduction, Stephanos Efthymiadis; Part I The Periods of Byzantine Hagiography: The Life of St Antony between biography and hagiography, Tomas Hägg; Greek hagiography in late antiquity (4th–7th centuries), Stephanos Efthymiadis with Vincent Déroche (with contributions by André Binggeli and Zissis Aïnalis); Hagiography from the ‘dark age’ to the age of Symeon Metaphrastes (8th–10th centuries), Stephanos Efthymiadis; The hagiography of the 11th and 12th centuries, Symeon A. Paschalidis; Hagiography in late Byzantium (1204–1453), Alice-Mary Talbot.

Part II The Hagiography of the Byzantine Periphery and the Christian Orient: Palestinian hagiography (4th–8th centuries), Bernard Flusin; Italo-Greek hagiography, Mario Re; Syriac hagiography, Sebastian P. Brock; Georgian hagiography, Bernadette Martin-Hisard; Armenian hagiography, S. Peter Cowe; Hagiography in Coptic, Arietta Papaconstantinou; Arabic hagiography, Mark N. Swanson; Slavic hagiography, Ingunn Lunde; Latin hagiographical literature translated into Greek, Xavier Lequeux; Indexes.

I’ve started in on this.  It begins with a very sensible introduction, in which the editor acknowledges the disgust that a normal historically-minded reader will tend to feel when confronted with hagiographical texts.  He also adds that often there are as many versions of a hagiographical text as there are manuscripts.

I have read as far as part way into the section on the Life of Anthony.  It’s not bad at all.

Here’s hoping that the rest is as good!