The “medieval legend” of the appearance of St Michael at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall: a modern myth

Reading the charming website of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, there is the following statement:

From as far back as 495AD, tales tell of seafarers lured by mermaids onto the rocks, or guided to safety by an apparition of St Michael. The patron saint of fishermen, it’s said the Archangel Michael appeared on the western side of the island – below where the entrance to the castle is today – to ward fishermen from certain peril. It’s a legend which has brought pilgrims, monks and people of faith to the island ever since, to pray, to praise and to celebrate.[1]

The phrase “tales tell” is indicative of no certain knowledge.  But in fact no such legend exists in any source before modern times. A jumble of manuscript notes by a 15th century traveller, which really related to the appearance of St Michael at Mont-Saint-Michel in France in 1710, were misunderstood as applying to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.  Milton himself then repeats the legend.  The date of 495 appears only in 1806 by Daniel Lysons.  There is no legend of an appearance of St Michael in Cornwall.

Nor is this unknown to scholarship.  The facts were thoroughly analysed in 1874 by Max Müller.  In 1953 A.H. D. Bivar repeated the process, seemingly unaware of Müller’s article.  But here we are in 2021, and the process has been done once more.  Let us hope that the power of the internet will do what the scholarly journals could not.

St Michael’s Mount appears in history only with the Norman conquest, when a series of charters document its existence from the time of Edward the Confessor.  A priory of Benedictine monks came into being atop the mount, and this was given to the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy.  It was an “alien priory” in England – essentially a farm which remitted revenue to the mother house.  While Normandy was under the English crown this was not a problem; but once Normandy became part of France, with whom English kings were frequently at war, such enterprises were often seized by the crown.  In the end the priory became attached to Sion Abbey in London, and then passed into private hands with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 under Henry VIII.  There it has remained every since.

But what about these “tales”?   A Google Search certainly reveals such stories today.  Worryingly they are never referenced to any source.

Here’s what I have been able to find about the apparition of St Michael at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.  It starts with Mirk’s Festial, a collection of sermons.

John Mirk’s Festial (ca. 1400)

In John Mirk’s Festial (online here) we read De festo Sancti Michaelis , and on p.258 of the edition (slightly modernised by me):

He appeared also to another bishop at a place that is called now Michael in the mount in Corneweyle, and bade him go to a hill top that is there, and there he found a bull tent with thewes, there he bade make a church in the worship of him. But for there were two rocks, won on either side the church, that the werke might not vp for him, Saint Michaell bade a man in a night go there and put away these rocks, and dread nothing. …

This was, in fact, taken from the narrative from the Golden Legend (online here), as Mirk so often did.[2]  This gives us more details:

The apparition of this angel is manifold. The first is when he appeared in the Mount of Gargan. This mountain is in Naples, which is named Gargan and is by the city named Syponte. And in the year of our Lord three hundred and ninety, was in the same city of Syponte a man which was named Garganus, …

The second apparition was in the year of our Lord seven hundred and ten, in a place which was named Tumba, by the seaside, six miles from the city of Apricens. S. Michael appeared to the bishop of that city and commanded him to do make a church in the foresaid place, like as it was made in the mount of Gargan, and in like wise should hallow the memory of S. Michael there. And the bishop doubted in what place it should be made. And S. Michael said to him in the place where he should find a bull hid of thieves. And yet he doubted of the largeness of the place, and S. Michael appeared to him, and said that he should make it of the brede that he should find that the bull had trodden and traced with his feet. And there were two rocks which no man’s power might remove. Then S. Michael appeared to a man and commanded him that he should go to that same place and take away the two rocks. And when he came, he removed the two rocks as lightly as they had weighed nothing. And when the church was edified there, Michael set a piece of stone of marble there, upon which he stood, and a part of the pall that he had laid on the altar of that other church he brought thither to this church. And because they had great penury and need of water, they made, by the admonishment of the angel, a hole in a stone of marble, and anon there flowed out so much water that unto this day they be sustained by the benefit thereof. And this apparition is solemnly hallowed the seventeenth kalends of November in that place.  ….

The third apparition happed in the time of Gregory the pope. For when the said pope had established the litanies for the pestilence that was that time, and prayed devoutly for the people, he saw upon the castle which was said sometime: The memory of Adrian, the angel of God, which wiped and made clean a bloody sword, and put it into a sheath. And thereby he understood that his prayers were heard. …

The fourth apparition is that which is in the Gerarchy of the same angels.

So we have an apparition of St Michael in 710, rather than 495.  But this apparition is actually from the foundation legend of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy.  Mirk has merely transferred the appearance to Cornwall.  This seems to be both the first record of an apparition of St Michael in Cornwall at St Michael’s Mount, and also the first indication that it was borrowed directly from accounts of the apparition at Mont-Saint-Michel.

William of Worcestre’s Itinerary (1478-80)

The next reference is in William of Worcestre.  Between 1478 and 1480 he travelled through the west country, making notes.  His autograph is preserved as 349 slim pages in the Parker library as MS Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 210 (online here).  There have been two editions of these “Itineraria” but neither of them seem to be online.[3] The “Itineraria” are rough notes, copied from whatever sources he found wherever he was.

William’s text is quoted directly in A. D. H. Bivar, “Lyonnesse: The Evolution of a fable”, in: Modern Philology 50 (1953), pp. 162-170 (JSTOR); p.164, although without identifying the folio:

Apparicio Sancti Michaelis in monte Tumba, antea vocata le Hore Rok in the Wodd; et fuerunt tam boscus quam prata inter dictum montem et insulas Syllye, et fuerunt 140 ecclesiae parochiales inter istum montem et Sylly submersae.

Prima apparicio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gorgon in regno Apuliae fuit anno Christi 391.

Secunda apparicio fuit circa annum domini 710 in Tumba in Cornubia iuxta mare.

Tertia apparicio Romae fuit, tempore Gregorii Papae legitur accidisse, nam tempore magnae pestilentiae etc.

Quarta apparicio fuit in hierarchiis nostrorum angelorum. Spatium loci montis Sancti Michaelis est ducentorum cubitorum undique oceano cinctum, et religiosi monachi dicti loci, Abrincensis antistes Aubertus nomine, ut in honore Sancti Michaelis construeret… ; Praedictus locus opacissima primo claudebatur silva, ab oceano miliaribus distans sex, aptissima praebens latebram ferarum in quo loco olim comperimus monachos Domino servientes.

i.e.

Apparition of St Michael on Mount “Tumba”, before called the “hoar rock in the wood”: and there was both woodland and meadows between the said mount and the isles of Scilly, and there were 140 parish churches submerged between that mount and Scilly.

The first apparition of St. Michael on Mount Gargano in the kingdome of Apulia was in AD 391.

The second apparition was ca. AD 710 on “Tumba” in Cornwall next to the sea.

The third apparition was at Rome, in the time of Pope Gregory it is read that it happened, for in that time of great pestilence etc.

The fourth apparition was in the hierarchies of our angels.  The area of St Michael’s Mount is 200 cubits surrounded on all sides by the ocean, and of the most religious monk of the said place, the abbot Aubert of Avranches by name, that he constructed it in honour of St Michael…; the aforesaid place was at first enclosed by a dark wood, six miles distant from the ocean, offering most suitably a hiding-place of wild beasts, in which place formerly we have learned of monks serving God.

How very familiar this is, from the Golden Legend.  Again the apparition at St Michael’s Mount would appear to be in 710, not in 495.

Once again we have a connection with Mont-Saint-Michel.  Dr Bivar tells us that the words after the “fourth apparition” appear to be verbally identical with a passage in the Romance of Mont-Saint-Michel, the Old French medieval romance which records the appearance of St Michael to St Aubert or Albert, in 708 AD at “Mount Tumba” in Normandy, which first caused him to build the abbey there.[4]  This in turn is based on the 9th century Revelatio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Tumba, (BHL 5951) to be found in the PL96, cols. 1389-94, and the Acta Sanctorum Sept. VIII, 76-78.[5]  These texts also record a woodland around that island also, now drowned by the sea.

Again “Cornubia” definitely means “Cornwall”.  But we now have additional information: the local name for St Michael’s Mount, the “hoar rock in the wood”, does appear to reflect a name in the Cornish language.  This appears in other sources, as we shall see.

William Camden: Britannia (1586 onwards)

Starting in 1586, with five more editions to 1607, William Camden published his Britannia.  This was in Latin, but an English translation appeared in 1610.  This reads[6]:

9. As the shore fetcheth a compasse by little and little from hence Southward, it letteth in a bay or creeke of the Sea, in maner of a Crescent, which they call Mounts-bay, … And in the very angle and corner of it selfe S. Michaels Mount, which gave name unto the foresaid Bay, sometime called Donsol, as we find in the booke of Landaffe: the inhabitants name it Careg Cowse , that is, The hoary Crag or Rock, the Saxons Michel-stow , that is, Michaels place, as Master Laurence Noel, a man of good note for his singular learning, and who was the first in our age that brought into ure [use] againe and revived the language of our ancestours the Saxons, which through disuse lay forlet and buried in oblivion, hath well observed.

This Rocke is of a good height and craggy, compassed round abut with water so oft as it is floud, but at every ebbe joined to the main-land, so that they say of it, it is land and iland twice a day. For which cause John Earle of Oxford not many yeeres ago, presuming upon the strength of the place, chose it for his cheefest defense when he raised war against King Edward the Fourth, and valiantly held the same, but with no good successe. For, his souldiers being assailed by the Kings forces, straightwaies yeelded.

In the very top heereof within the Fortresse there was a Chapell consecrated to S. Michael the Archangel, where William Earle of Cornwall and Moriton, who by the bounteous gift of King William the First had great lands and large possessions in this tract, built a Cell for one or two monks; who avouched that S. Michael appeered in that mount: which apparition, or the like, the Italians challenge to their hill Garganus, and the Frenchmen likewise to their Michaels mount in Normandie. At the foote of this mountaine within the memorie of our Fathers, whiles men were digging up of tin they found Spear-heads, axes, and swords of brasse wrapped in linnen, such as were sometimes found within the forest Hercinia in Germanie, and not long since in our Wales.

This records the idea of the apparition at St Michael’s Mount, although no date is attached.  The reference to Mount Garganus, and Mont-Saint-Michel, indicates how free-floating this material is.  (It should be added that the Latin Life of St Cadoc also gives the local name of St Michael’s Mount as “Dinsol”.)

Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall (1602)

Richard Carew in his The Survey of Cornwall, (1602)[7] also has information.  His book is foliated rather than paginated.  On folio 3r he writes:

Moreover, vntill Athelstanes time, the Cornish-men bare equal sway in Excester with the English: for hee it was who hemmed them within their present limits. Lastly, the encroaching Sea hath rauined from it, the whole Countrie of Lionnesse, together with diuers other parcels of no little circuite: and that such a Lionnesse there was, these proofes are yet remaining. The space between the lands end, and the Iles of Scilley, being about thirtie miles, to this day retaineth that name, in Cornish Lethowsow, and carrieth continually an equall depth of fortie or sixtie fathom (a thing not vsuall in the Seas proper Dominion) saue that about the midway, there lieth a Rocke, which at low water discouereth his head. They terme it the Gulfe, suiting thereby the other name of Scilla. Fishermen also casting their hookes thereabouts, haue drawn vp peeces of doores and windowes. Moreouer, the ancient name of Saint Michaels Mount, was Caraclowse in Cowse, in English, The hoare Rocke in the Wood: which now is at euerie floud incompassed by the Sea, and yet at some low ebbes, rootes of mightie trees are discryed in the sands about it. The like ouerflowing hath happened in Plymmouth Hauen, and diuers other places. ….

Continuing on f.153v:

Stepping ouer to the South-sea, (for the distaunce is incomparison, but a step) S. Michaels mount looketh so aloft, as it brooketh no concurrent, for the highest place.  Ptolomey termeth it Ocrinum, the Cornish men, Cara Cowz in Clowze, that is, The hoare rocke in the wood.  The same is sundred from the mayne land, by a sandy playne, of a slight shoot in breadth, passable, at the ebbe, on foote; with boat, on the flood.  Your arriuall on the farther side, is entertayned by an open greene, of some largenesse, which finishing where the hill beginneth, leaues you to the conduction of a winding and craggy path; and that at the top, deliuereth you into a little plaine, occupied, for the greatest part, by a fort of the olde making. It compriseth lodgings for the Captayne and his garrison, and a Chappell for deuotion. This latter, builded by Will. Earle of Morton, to whom William the Conquerour his vncle, gaue much lands in those quarters, and greatly haunted, while folke endured their merits, by farre trauailing.  They haue a tye pit, not so much satisfying vse, as relieuing necessitie.  A little without the Castle, there is a bad seat in a craggy place, called S. Michaels Chaire, some what daungerous, for accesse, and therefore holy for the aduenture.

This does not state that St Michael appeared on the mount, thankfully, but it does give some of the other elements as other sources of his time.

John Milton, Lycidas (1637)

Our next source is none other than Milton, whose poem Lycidas references St Michael’s Mount.

Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold:
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

It may not be obvious to us that the “guarded mount” is St Michael’s Mount, but commentators seem to have had no doubts – indeed even modern editions include it.[8].  To choose one instance of many, in the Gentleman’s Magazine vol. 68 (1798), p.322 here, we find this explicitly stated in a footnote:

“The great vision of the guarded mount” Milton’s Lycidas. “The great vision is the apparition of St Michael.  The guarded mount is, simply, the fortified mount.  See Wharton’s edition of Milton’s poems.”

We will discuss Wharton in a moment.

This tradition embedded in a great English classic is undoubtedly responsible for some of our myth. Artists have depicted the scene, including Turner.

Google Books gives me nothing of interest for the remainder of the 17th and 18th centuries.  That may be because there is nothing, or more likely because Google Books does not contain much of what we want.  I suspect the next milestone is in 1778, therefore.

Publication of William of Worcestre’s Itineraria (1778)

We’ve already dealt with William of Worcester, but his work remained in manuscript, and therefore was perhaps little-known.  In 1769 even an antiquary such as William Borlase knew nothing of it, as appears from the account in his Antiquities, Historical and Monumental, of the County of Cornwall. On p.385 here this discusses St Michael’s Mount, St Keyne and St Cadoc.  But he makes no suggestion that St Michael appeared there.

However in 1778 the Itineraria of William of Worcestre was printed, and thereby became much more widely available.  The effect was not instant, as we can see, but the legend of the appearance of St Michael starts to spread rapidly.

The Modern Universal British Traveller (1779)

This traveller’s handbook, The Modern Universal British Traveller: Or, A New, Complete, and Accurate Tour Through England, Wales, Scotland, and the Neighbouring Islands … The Articles Respecting England, by Charles Burlington… from 1779 gives nothing of our legend.  This we can see from p.501 here:

Near Market Jew is St Michael’s Mount, so called from a monastery erected on it by a Lady, the daughter of a British lord, who was converted by one of St Patrick’s disciples about the middle of the sixth century. In the reign of Edward the Confessor the old monastery was pulled down, and a new one erected at the king’s own expence, and set apart for the residence of Benedictine monks, who were brought thither from Caen in Normandy. Their lands, which lay partly in England and partly in Normandy, were confirmed by a grant from the pope Adrian IV. 1155, who was himself a native of St. Alban’s in Hertfordshire. …

No mention of the legend here, in an entry of some length.

Thomas Wharton’s edition of John Milton, “Poems on Several Occasions” (1785)

But in 1785 Thomas Wharton published an edition and commentary of these poems by Milton, including Lycidas.  It is online, here, p.28, where he writes:

Tradition, or rather superstition, reports that it was antiently connected by a large tract of land full of churches with the isles of Scilly.

This sounds like William of Worcestre’s Itineraria.  Further down the page we find this:

There is a tradition that a vision of St Michael, seated on this crag, or St Michael’s chair, appeared to a hermit, and that this circumstance occasioned the foundation of the monastery dedicated to St Michael.”

These words were quoted by our commentator on Milton above.

Yet nothing in the William of Worcestre justifies Wharton’s “hermit”.  This appears to be his own embroidery of the Itineraria.

This demonstrates the tendency of writers, found in every age, to suppose that, if something is uncertain or possibly legendary then there is no need to trouble to recount it accurately, nor to refrain from embroidering it.

William Lisle Bowles (1798)

But we have already seen that commentators on Milton like Wharton in 1791 show knowledge of the legend.  The trailing years of the 18th century seem to mark a turning point.  This otherwise forgotten poet issued a poem in that year:

Marked ye the Angel-spectre that appeared?
By other hands the holy fane is reared
High on the point, where, gazing o’er the flood,
Confessed, the glittering apparition stood.
And now the sailor, on his watch of night,
Sees, like a glimmering star, the far-off light;
Or, homeward bound, hears on the twilight bay
The slowly-chanted vespers die away!

We may note the mention of the sailor, as well as the archangel.

Daniel Lysons, Magna Britannia 3: Cornwall (1806)

But undoubtedly the most influential figure in the development of the legend as we have it was Daniel Lysons.  Lysons is quoted quite a bit in the 19th century, and is clearly the source of most mentions in that period.  Online here, and in the 1814 reprint here, in a footnote on p.136, we find:

Some of the British monkish historians say that St Michael, the archangel, appeared about the year 495 on St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall; the Italians say that it was on Mount Garganus in Italy; and the French writers that it was on Mount St Michael in Normandy.

Here for the first time we see the date of 495 AD for an apparition at St Michael’s Mount.  Lysons has read Camden, and picked up his reference to the triad of Mount Garganus, Mont-Saint-Michel and St Michael’s Mount.  It looks as if he has looked up the first of these somewhere, found a date of 495 AD for the apparition at Mount Garganus, and casually assumed that all three were on the same date.

Davies Gilbert and the Life of St Keyne (1838)

By 1838 the legend was developing fast.  I find in Davies Gilbert, The Parochial History of Cornwall, vol. 2, on p.206 here, the claim that the archangel appeared to St Keyne (St Kenna) at the Mount:

The earliest definite tradition of a Christian establishment dates with the pilgrimage of St. Kenna, in consequence of the appearance of the Arch-angel at that place. No particular circumstances are ever related of this extraordinary vision, neither as to the occasion nor as to the persons so eminently favoured as to behold the celestial glory, nor as to the time, nor of the exact spot, since it could not have taken place on the top of the tower, that building having been constructed in honour of the vision itself. …

Saint Kenna is believed to have imparted the same identical virtue to the chair which overhangs the tower, as she bestowed on the celebrated well near Liskeard, and since no one obtains a seat in this chair without much resolution and steadiness of head, one may be inclined to anticipate the supposed effect with greater certainty from the achievement of sitting in St. Michael’s chair, than from drinking water from St. Kenna’s well. The time of St. Kenna’s visitation is not accurately known. She is supposed to be the same St. Keyna, daughter of a prince of Brecknockshire, who lived a recluse life for many years near a town situated midway between Bristol and Bath, since called Cainsbarn, after her name, where she founded a monastery in the beginning of the sixth century, and cleaned the neighbourhood from snakes and vipers by converting them all into Cornua Ammonis, which have abounded there ever since, in testimony of her sanctity and of the fervour of her prayers.

In fact a look at the Life here shows that it was an unspecified angel caused her to leave the island, and no mention of any “chair”:

Now after many years had passed, when the fame of the holy virgin had been everywhere spread abroad, and she had visited, and also built, many oratories, Saint Cadocus, visiting Saint Michael’s Mount on a pilgrimage, found his aunt Saint Keyna there, and filled with great joy desired to bring her back to her own land, but the people of the land would not permit it. At last, warned by an angel, the holy virgin returned to her native land …

Once again we find legend reinforced by misstatement.

Later References

The embroidery of the tale continues with John Thomas in Ancient and Modern History of Mount’s Bay, (1831) p.12 here, who vaguely suggests that other angels also visited, and describes how the “credulous monks” did this or that, although I have found no other source than Mr Thomas for this.

The pilgrims in those days had a tradition that these hills were occasionally visited by the inhabitants of the celestial regions; among the rest Michael the arch-angel was presumed to be very fond of perching among these rocks and rendering himself visible to the credulous monks who were ever ready to substitute imagination for fact . The monks who first inhabited the Cornish Mount laid claim to this angelic vision and even pretended to shew the spot on which the angel sat on an awful pile of rocks that seemed most difficult of access and which thenceforth obtained the honorable name of St Michael’s Chair. It was from the circumstance of this supposed angelic visit that the ancient Cornish name of this Mount which designated its situation was abandoned and that of St Michael became substituted in its stead.

Davies Gilbert, The Parochial History of Cornwall, vol. 2 (1838), p. 172 here, simply states the appearance in 495, and others copied him.  Popular handbooks had no doubt of a legend that St Michael appeared on the mount in 495.  My own search found Henry Besley, The route book of Cornwall, (1853), p.127; Richard Peacock, Physical and historical evidences of vast sinkings of Land on the North and West Coasts of France, and South Western Coasts of England (1868), p.137; The Western Antiquary (1884), p.68; The Art Journal 60 (1898), p.61; and no doubt there are many others.

Rather more wary was William Pengelly in “On the Insulation of St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall” in: Notices of the Proceedings at the Meetings of the Members of the Royal Institution, vol 5 (1869), p.131 here:

History, however, affords some evidence on the question. St. Keyna is said to have made a pilgrimage to the Mount, and there to have met St Cadoc, another pilgrim, about the year 490. An apparition of St. Michael was seen on the Mount in 495, or, as some assert, in 710. It is of no avail to object that, at least, the latter event is improbable. The well-established fact that its occurrence was taught and believed, warrants the opinion that the monkish chroniclers carefully recorded every great event connected with a spot so sacred, and that they would have certainly mentioned so important an occurrence as its severance from the mainland. Nor was the belief in this sanctity of brief duration. In 1044, Edward the Confessor granted a charter to a body of monks already established there, …

This drew a response from no less than Max Müller, Chips from a German Workshop: Essays on literature, biography, and antiquities (1874), p.316 f. here, and on the apparition p.325 here. Müller goes through the whole body of evidence for the legend of the appearance of St Michael at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.  He states:

Under these circumstances we can well understand how in the minds of the monks, who spent their lives partly in the mother-house, partly in its dependencies, there was no very clear perception of any difference between the founders, benefactors, and patrons of these twin establishments. A monk brought up at Mont St. Michel would repeat as an old man the legends he had heard about St. Michel and Bishop Autbert, even though he was ending his days in the priory of the Cornish Mount. Relics and books would likewise travel from one place to the other, and a charter originally belonging to the one might afterwards form part of the archives of another house.

After these preliminary remarks, let us look again at the memoranda which William of Worcester made at St. Michael’s Mount, and it will appear that what we anticipated has actually happened, and that a book originally belonging to Mont St. Michel in Normandy, and containing the early history of that monastery, was transferred (either in the original or in a copy) to Cornwall, and there used by William of Worcester in the belief that it contained the early history of the Cornish Mount and the Cornish priory. …

The only way to explain this jumble is to suppose that William of Worcester made these entries in his diary while walking up and down in the Church of St. Michael’s Mount, and listening to one of the monks, reading to him from a MS. which had been brought from Normandy, and referred in reality to the early history of the Norman, but not of the Cornish Mount. The first line, “Apparicio Sancti Michaelis in monte Tumba,” was probably the title or the heading of the MS. Then William himself added, “antea vocata le Hore-rok in the wodd,” a name which he evidently heard on the spot, and which no doubt conveyed to him the impression that the rock had formerly stood in the midst of a wood. …

This seems to be correct, and indeed is quoted in other publications soon after.  But sadly it has made little impact on the popular tradition.

In 1878, W.S. Lach-Szyrma in his widely-quoted A Short History of Penzance, S. Michael’s Mount, S. Ives, and the Land’s End, p.91 here happily repeats Lysons: “The date of the apparition of S. Michael is given as A.D. 496.”

There are many 20th century sources which repeat the same story.

    *    *    *    *

So we find ourselves at the end.  There is no medieval legend of an apparition of St Michael at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.  There never was.

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  1. [1]St Michael’s Mount – History and Legends.
  2. [2]So also Graham Jones, “The Cult of Michael the Archangel in Britain”, in: Culto e santuari di san Michele nell’Europa medievale, (2007) p.161.
  3. [3]The Itineraria Sym. Simeonis et Willelmi de Worcestre, ed. J. Nasmith (Cambridge, 1778) is in the commercial “Eighteenth Century Collections Online”, but this is inaccessible to me.  The other is J.H. Harvey, William Worcestre: Itineraries, Oxford (1969).
  4. [4]There is a useful blog post at the British Library on this text here: https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/12/the-romance-of-mont-saint-michel.html
  5. [5]A more modern edition exists: Thomas Le Roy. Les curieuses recherches du Mont-Saint-Michel, 2 vols., ed. Eugène de Robillard de Beaurepaire (Caen, 1878, I: 407-19)
  6. [6]Online here.
  7. [7]On Archive.org here in PDF and here as typed out by Gutenberg.
  8. [8]See for instance A Rudrum &c. (edd.), The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose (2001), p.197 here: “the great vision of the guarded mount  St. Michael, the guardian angel who was said to have appeared to fishermen on St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall in 495 C.E.; Namancos and Bayona’s hold a region in north-west Spain and a Spanish fortress respectively.”

The “Vita Sanctae Keynae”, an extract from the “Vita S. Cadoci”, and a modern myth about the year 490 at St Michael’s Mount

One of the Cornish saints was a woman.  Her name was Saint Keyne, or Keyna – there are various spellings – and she is known from a number of hagiographical texts.  She flourished in the late 5th century, and is connected to St Michael’s Mount.  Indeed there are various places on the web that make claims such as:

Legends tell of a visit by St. Keyne and a spring that miraculously gushed forth when she set foot upon the rock in 490 AD.[1]

The precise date of 490 AD is curious.  Other sites mention a meeting between St Keyne and her nephew, St Cadoc.  Let’s look at the actual origin of these stories, which is two medieval saints’ lives.

The Latin text of the medieval saint’s Life of St. Keyne (=BHL 4653) was written in manuscript by John of Tynmouth in 1366.  He produced an edited and abbreviated version.  It is this version that was printed by John Capgrave, an Austin Friar, in his Nova Legenda Angliae in 1516.  In the 1901 reprint by C. Horstman (online here) it can be found in volume 2, on pp.102-104.  A footnote in Horstman states that the text was reprinted in the Acta Sanctorum for October, vol. IV, for the 8th October, on p.276-7, and also that the same text can be found in MS. Bodleian 240, a manuscript from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds dated 1377.

Let me give the Latin text first, and then an English translation.  Note the medieval spellings, notably “terre” for “terrae”, etc.  I have normalised a few “v” and “u” where it will make the text easier to read, but left most of the medievalisms.

¶ De sancta Keyna virgine.

Beata enim Keyna virgo de regali prosapia in occidentali parte Maioris Britannie oriunda extitit. Cuius pater rex Breghenocensium nomine Braghanus erat. Fuerunt autem regi illi filii duodecim et filie totidem, omnes deo placentes et vite sancte. Primogenitus eius erat sanctus Canochus; primogenita filia Gladus, mater sancti Cadoci; secunda Molari, mater patris sancti David meneuensis archiepiscopi. Ceteris vero propter prolixitatem omissis, ad beatam Keynam stilum convertimus. Antequam enim nasceretur, mater eius in visione vidit sinum suum mirra et balsamo plenum, et mamillas suas celesti lumine radiantes. Vidit et niveam se pro prole peperisse columbam. Cum vero enixam filiam mater diligenter educaret, mira quedam spiritualis gratie venustas in facie virginis apparebat, ita ut quandoque sicut nix, quandoque sicut solaris claritas refulgeret. Cumque ad annos nubiles pervenisset, et multi nobiles eam in conjugium affectarent; virgo sancta, virilem copulam omnino recusans, virginitatem suam voto perpetuo domino consecravit. Ob hoc enim, que prius Keyna vocabatur, postea britannice ‘Keynwiri,’ id est ‘Keyn virgo’ dicta est. Proposuit tandem patriam deserere et locum desertum, ubi contemplationi vacaret, querere: et arrepto itinere, ultra Sabrinam veniens, repertis quibusdam locis silvestribus, a rege illius provincie solitudinem illam in qua deo servire posset expetiit: cui, quod petiit hilariter se concessurum respondit, nisi quia locus ille tanta serpentium multitudine repleretur, quod tam hominibus quam iumentis et feris inhabitabilis extitisset. Virgo vero constanter respondit, se confidere in adiutorio altissimi, et in eius nomine se velle et posse omnem illam virulentam multitudinem effugare. Concesso igitur virgini loco, ad solitas preces se prostravit et omnia illa mox genimina viperarum mortificata in lapidum duritiem commutavit. Lapides enim usque hodie imaginem serpentinam exprimunt per campos et vicos, quasi arte lathomi sculperentur. Elapsis autem multis annis, cum fama sancte virginis ubique divulgata esset, et visitatis multis, oratoria multa construxisset, sanctus Cadocus Montem sancti Michaelis peregrinationis gratia visitans, sanctam Keynam, materteram suam, ibidem repperit, et magno repletus gaudio, cum illam ad terram propriam reducere vellet, a populo terre permissus non est. Admonitione demum angelica virgo sancta ad patriam suam rediens, in quodam monticulo ad radices cuiusdam montis magni habitationem sibi faciens, fusa ad deum prece fontem de terra produxit, qui multis infirmitatibus meritis virginis sancte salutem prebuit. Cum autem, spiritu sancto revelante, dies consummationis eius appropinquaret, vidit in visione noctis columpnam quasi igneam usque ad lectuli eius pavimentum descendere—in nudo enim pavimento ramusculis arborum superiectis dormire solebat. Et angeli duo sibi apparebant; quorum alter reverenter ad illam accedens, cilicium quo induebatur leniter exuit, et casula bissina una cum tunica coccinea, cum clamide quoque auro contexta decenter illam ornans, dixit: ‘Parata esto et veni nobiscum, ut introducamus te in regnum patris tui.’ Que, cum pre gaudio flens angelos sequi vellet, evigilans sensit corpus suum febribus aggravari et finem suum imminere : accitoque sancto Cadoco ait: ‘Locus iste est quem pre ceteris diligo : hic erit memoria mea: locum hunc sepius in spiritu, si licuerit, visitabo: licebit autem, quia dominus hunc mihi locum jure hereditario possidendum concessit. Futurum est autem quod locus iste inhabitabitur a gente peccatrice, quam ego violenter ab hiis sedibus extirpabo; iacebitque tumulus meus multis diebus incognitus, donec veniant alii quos ego precibus meis huc adducam, protegam et defendam, et in hoc loco benedicetur nomen domini in eternum? Et cum anima a corpore egredi festinaret, vidit ante se angelicum exercitum, intra celi palatium sine metu et periculo animam illius cum gaudio suscipere paratum. Quod cum astantibus indicasset, sancta illa anima [a] corpore soluta est, octavo idus octobris. Que cum egrederetur a corpore, subrisit sancta facies ipsius, roseum induens colorem, tantaque suavitatis fragrantia ex corpore virgineo procedebat, quod omnes qui aderant, se cum ipsa putarent in paradisi gloria collocatos. Sepelivit autem eam sanctus Cadocus in oratorio suo, ubi in sancta conversatione multis annis vitam artissimam et deo placentem duxit.

Now the English, translated by Gilbert H. Doble.   This was printed as a single paragraph, but I have split it up.

De Sancta Keyna Virgine.

For the Blessed Keyna, Virgin, sprang of royal stock in the western part of Greater Britain. Her father, king of the Breghenocenses was named Braghanus. Now that king had twelve sons and the like number of daughters, all pleasing to God and of holy life. His first-born was Saint Canochus; his first-born daughter Gladus, mother of Saint Cadocus, the second (daughter) Melari, mother of the father of Saint David, Archbishop of Menevia. But omitting the rest, on account of the great length (of the list), we begin at once to write the Life of Blessed Keyna. For before she was born, her mother saw in a vision her bosom full of myrrh and balsam, and her breasts shining with heavenly light. She saw also that she had given birth to a snow-white dove. And afterwards when she (Keyne) was born and her mother was training her with great care, a certain wonderful beauty of spiritual grace appeared in the virgin’s face, which shone— sometimes like snow, and sometimes like the brightness of the sun.

And when she had reached the age when she might be wedded, and many noblemen sought her hand in marriage ; the holy virgin, refusing altogether to be joined to a husband, consecrated her virginity to the Lord by a perpetual vow. For this reason, she who before was called Keyna, was afterwards called in the British language Keynwiri, i.e., Keyne the Virgin.

She finally resolved to leave her native country and to seek a desert place where she might devote herself to contemplation; and setting out on her journey she came beyond the Severn, and finding certain wooded places, she asked the king of that province to give her that solitary place so that she might serve God there; He answered that he would gladly give it, but that the place was filled with such a multitude of serpents that neither man nor beast might live there. The virgin however replied with steadfast courage that she trusted in the help of the Most High and in His Name was willing and able to drive out all that poisonous multitude. The place was therefore given to the virgin, and, after prostrating herself in prayer, as she was wont, she quickly changed all that offspring of vipers into hard stones. For the stones in the fields and villages there even to this very day bear the form of serpents, as if they had been carved by the sculptor’s art.

Now after many years had passed, when the fame of the holy virgin had been everywhere spread abroad, and she had visited, and also built, many oratories, Saint Cadocus, visiting Saint Michael’s Mount on a pilgrimage, found his aunt Saint Keyna there, and filled with great joy desired to bring her back to her own land, but the people of the land would not permit it.

At last, warned by an angel, the holy virgin returned to her native land and made for herself an habitation in a certain hillock at the roots of a certain great mountain, and after pouring forth prayer to God, she caused a well to spring out of the earth, which has given health to many infirm persons (lit. infirmities) by the merits of the holy virgin.

And when the day of her consummation approached, which had been revealed to her by the Holy Spirit, she saw in a vision of the night as it were a fiery column descending to the floor on which her bed lay—for she was accustomed to sleep on branches of trees laid upon the bare floor. And two angels appeared to her; one of which, coming up to her with great respect, gently took off the hair shirt which she wore and clothed her with a linen chasuble, together with a scarlet tunic, and arraying her as became her dignity with a cloak woven with gold, he said, “Prepare thyself and come with us, that we may bring thee into the kingdom of thy Father.”

And she, weeping for joy, and wishing to follow the angels, awoke and felt that her body was oppressed with fevers and that her end was near: and calling for Saint Cadocus she said: “This is the place which above all others I love; here shall be my memorial; I will often, if it be permitted, visit this place in the spirit; and it shall be permitted, because the Lord has granted me this place to possess by hereditary right. But it will come to pass that this place will be inhabited by a sinful race, whom I will violently root up from these seats ; and my tomb shall lie unknown for many days, till other men shall come whom I by my prayers shall lead here, and whom I shall protect and defend, and in this place the Name of the Lord shall be blessed for ever.”

And when now her soul was hastening to leave her body, she saw before her the angelic host ready to receive her soul without fear or danger within the palace of Heaven, And she signified this to those who stood by, and straightway that holy soul was loosed from the body, on the eighth of the Ides of October. And when it left the body, her holy face smiled and assumed a rosy hue, and so great fragrance of sweetness proceeded from her virginal body that all who were present deemed they had been transported with her into the glory of Paradise.

Now Saint Cadocus buried her in her oratory, where she (had) lived a life most strict and pleasing to God in holy conversation many years.

Now for some very necessary bibliography, the gathering of which consumed some hours today.

The translation that I have just given was made by Canon Gilbert Doble; a High-Church Anglican clergyman of the first half of the 20th century, who collected an enormous amount of lore concerning Cornish saints.  His publications were slight and made in obscure places, and sometimes more than once. Accessing them is not a trivial enterprise, and even the bibliography can be confusing.  He produced around 40 pamplets on various saints in his “Cornish Saints” series.

One of these was  G.H. Doble, “S Nectan, S Keyne and the Children of Brychan in Cornwall”, Cornish Saints series 25, Exeter: Sidney Lee, 1930, which contained this translation.  After his death this was included in a 6 volume compilation “The Saints of Cornwall”; but sadly abbreviated.  Thus St. Nectan appears in volume 6, but I find that St Keyne has got lost along the way.  A reprint of the complete article, which was 60 pages long, was produced in 1990 by Oakmagic Publications.

Fortunately I was able to access a two-part article by Doble, also titled “S Nectan, S Keyne and the Children of Brychan in Cornwall”, in the Downside Review, volume 48 (1930) and volume 49 (1931).  The latter article contains the translation above.

    *    *    *    *

The other half of the story about St Michael’s Mount given in the Life of St Keyne is to be found in the Life of St Cadoc, which exists in two versions.

One version of this is was printed with English translation[2]  This text is BHL 1491, incipit “Quondam in quibusdam finibus Britannicae regionis”.

The Life is long, but we are only concerned with chapter 27.  According to the editor (p.22), the text was printed from MS Britsh Library Cotton Vesp. A. xiv, p.17, and collated with Titus D. xxii, p.51.

27. Quomodo Sanctus Cadocus in Cornubia fontem salubrem precibus de terra produxit.

Necdum Dei bonitatem mirabilibus mirabiliora adicere piget; verum ejus clarum vernulam signis clariorem miraculisque celeberrimum humane debilitati remedium atque solatium prebendo libet efficere. Nam dudum cum idem vir illustrissimus de monte Sancti Michaelis venisset, qui in regione Cornubiensium esse dinoscitur, atque illius provincie idiomate, Dinsol appellatur, et ibi idem arcbangelus ab omnibus illo adventantibus veneratur estuans ex itinere fatigatus, valde sitivit. Locus autem quo hoc accidit vehementer aridus extitit; beatus ergo Cadocus humum baculo pepugit, ac continuo illic fons largifluus de solo scaturiit; indeque tam ipsi qui sibi comitantes affati quoque potaverunt, in similitudine Israelitici populi sitientes in deserto, cum Moises virga petram percussit, et fluxerunt aque in habundantiam. Ut autem omnes limpha satiati sunt, dixit ad socios suos, “Oremus, fratres, divinam obnixius benignitatem, quatinus cuncti, qui ad hunc sacrum fontem languidi venerint, ex eo diversorum morborum medelam, Dei gratia annuente, recipiant; et sic nostram flagrantem sitim, ita corporum venenosas pestes extinguat. Si quis namque egrotus, ab ipso fonte firmiter in Domino confidens bibit, ventris ac viscerum sanitatem reciperet, cunctosque virosos vermes ex se perficiet.” Postquam autem Cornubienses crebra sanitatum remedia utriusque sexus apud eundem fontem indeficienter fieri divina pietate conspexerunt, in honorem Sancti Cadoci ecclesiolam juxta fontem edificaverunt.

The English:

27. How Saint Cadoc by his prayers produced from the earth, in Cornwall, a health-bearing fountain.

Nor it is unpleasant to mention the goodness of God in his more wonderful miracles, but it is agreeable to make his eminent servant more celebrated in miracles, by his affording a most excellent remedy, and comfort for human infirmity. For lately, when the said most illustrious man came from the mount of St. Michael, which is known to be in Cornwall, and in the idiom of the district, is called Dinsol, and there the same archangel, who was venerated by all who came there, being hot, and fatigued from his journey was very thirsty. And the place where this happened was very dry; therefore the blessed Cadoc struck the ground with his stick, and immediately a full flowing fountain sprang from the ground, and therefore they who accompanied him, also drank like the Israelites athirst in the wilderness, when Moses struck the rock with his stick, and the water flowed in abundance. As all were satisfied with water, they said to their companions. “ Let us earnestly beseech the divine goodness that all such persons, as shall come to this sacred fountain, may therefrom, with the favour of God, receive the cure of divers diseases; and as it extinguished our raging thirst, so let it heal the painful disorders of bodies.” For if any sick person, having firm confidence in God, shall drink of that fountain, he will receive the cure of his belly and bowels, and he will drive all venomous worms from his body. And after the men of Cornwall saw that frequent cures of the disorders of both sexes were constantly effected at that fountain by divine piety, they built a small church in honour of Saint Cadoc, near the fountain.

The other version of the Life of St. Cadoc is a much shorter Life printed by Capgrave (vol. 1, online here, p.167 f.) and reprinted in the Acta Sanctorum January vol. 2, 603-6.  This has the code BHL 1493, with incipit “Gundlei filius cum in utero matris…”.  The portion relating to St Michael’s Mount begins on p.171:

Dum autem de monte sancti Michaelis in Cornubia venisset et sitim maximam passus esset, in loco arido baculum fixit: et statim fons largifluus de terra scaturire cepit. Oravitque ut cuncti languidi illuc accedentes suorum morborum medelam reciperent, venenosas pestes illa aqua extingueret, vermesque cunctos de ventre potantium proiiceret. Juxta enim fontem illum in Cornubia in honore sancti Cadoci fundata est ecclesia magna.

A quick translation by me.

But when he had come away from St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, and suffered very great thirst, he set up a stick in the dry place: and at once a free-flowing spring began to gush forth from the earth.  And he prayed that all who were faint coming there should receive a cure of their malady, that  the water might extinguish toxic illnesses, and drinking it would expel all worms from the stomach.  For near that spring in Cornwall in honour of St Cadoc a great church was established.

As far as I know, these are the only sources for St Cadoc and St Keyne at St Michael’s Mount, and what they did there. These are medieval legends, quite literally, and their historical value is low.  They are also very much later than the events that they purport to record by many hundreds of years.  They post-date the establishment of a Benedictine priory on the Mount, recorded in charters of the Norman period.

The date of “490” for these events, which we see online, seems to be a guess.  I have read suggestions that these saints were active in the late 5th century.  No doubt somebody with a web page to write turned that into “490”.

Update 28 May 2021: A query on the “Gender Desk” blog produced a long and very interesting post in reply – Monastic Matrix.  This includes the interesting information that a 1516 abbreviated translation exists of the Life of St Keyne.  This is Edmund Pynson, Kalendre of the New Legende of England, 1516, which is in EEBO: Early English Books Online (Only At Wealthy Universities).  This is drawn from Capgrave.  Luckily it is transcribed at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eebo;idno=A17943.0001.001, and the St Keyne portion is here.  Let me modernise the spelling a bit (where I can understand it) for ease of reading:

¶De sancta Keyna virgine.

Saint Keyne virgin was daughter to the king of Breghenoke in the West part of Great Britain and nigh of kin to Saint David, and aunt to Saint Cadoc when her mother was with child with her, she saw in vision her bosom full of myrrh and balm, and her teats shining of a heavenly light, and she thought that instead of a child she was delivered of a fair wight, and when she was first born her face was sometimes white like snow, sometimes bright shining like the sun at her years of marriage she forsook all marriages advowing to keep virginity, & lived in a desert beyond Severn, where by her prayers serpents that before that time had made the country inhabitable turned into stones. Saint Keyne made many oratories & after she went to Saint Michael’s mount and there she met with Saint Cadoc, & by monition of an angel she went into her country again and dwelled at the foot of a hill, where by her prayers sprang a fair well whereby many have been healed. She saw in her sleep a beam of fire descend there where as she lay on a bare pavement with green boughs under her & two angels appeared unto her & one of them reverently did off a heer that she had used to wear & apparelled her with goodly apparel,  & bade her be ready to go with them into the kingdom of her father, & when she gladly would have followed them she awoke feeling her self sick of the Axes, and then she called Saint Cadoc to her and told him she would be buried in that same place, which she said she would in spirit often visit.  Before her death she saw a great company of angels ready to take her soul with great joy without fear or pareil, and when she had told them that stood about her thereof she departed the viii. Idus of October.  And anon her face was of a colour like red roses and a sweet savour was about her that all that were there thought it like a joy of paradise.  And Saint Cadoc buried her in her oratory where she had lived a hard and a blessed life many years.

I found the actual Monastic Matrix site (https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/monasticmatrix) very hard to use, but a search is the right way to do so.

The blog author drew my attention to Polwhele’s History of Cornwall (1816), where in book 2, p.126 (here), I find a mass of stuff about St Keyne, including this:

The first time I find this hill upon record as a place of devotion is in the legend of St. Keyne, a holy virgin of the British blood- royal, daughter of Braganus prince of Brecknockshire ; she is said to have gone a pilgrimage to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, she lived about the year 490, and her festival is celebrated on the 30th of September. Now it must be concluded that St. Michael’s Mount was before of great repute , either for the residence of some saint or working-miracle hermit, or celebrated for some supposed angelic vision, as was the humour of those times, otherwise one of St: Keyne’s dignity and eminence would not have undertaken a pilgrimage thither ; St. Keyne made no short visit, she stayed long enough by the sanctity of her life and the miracles she was thought to have performed , to ingratiate herself with the inhabitants. For some years after this , St. Cadoc making a pilgrimage to this same place found here, to his great surprize, St. Keyne his aunt by his mother’s side, at which rejoicing he endeavoured to persuade her to go back with him to her native country Brecknockshire (the intercourse between Cornwall and Wales being then frequent and familiar ) but the people of the country interposing would not endure her removal ; at last having had an express command from above the saint obedient to the heavenly monition retired to her own country. Let it be observed here, that although there may be somewhat of the fabulous in these, as there is in most legends, yet that here are two pilgrimages of the same age, which mutually confirming each other, add tolerable support to the story in general.

This footnote is, I suspect, the origin of the date of 490 AD for the visit of Cadoc to Keyne at St Michael’s Mount.

Update (2nd June 2021):  Further discussion at GenderDesk here reveals a claim by Rice Rees, An essay on the Welsh saints, 1836, p.154 here, that in the Life of St Cadoc,

The Mount of St. Michael is the name of a hill near Abergavenny, which still maintains its sacred character.

The hill of Skirrid Fawr near Abergavenny is indeed said to have some form of association with St Michael on  various websites, although I have not investigated this very far.  The “Last Welsh Martyr” blog here offers various statements, calling it “St Michael’s Mount”, all post-Reformation and all unreferenced, unfortunately.  But the Life of St Cadoc  explicitly names Cornwall as the country in which the events took place.  In the Life of St Keyne, the Mount is said to be outside “her own country”, whatever that is; probably Wales, as this is a text written in the medieval period.  So I think it is safest to disregard the claim of Mr Rees.

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  1. [1]https://sacredsites.com/europe/england/st_michaels_mount.html
  2. [2]W. J. Rees, Lives of the Cambro British saints: of the fifth and immediate succeeding centuries, from ancient Welsh & Latin mss. in the British Museum and elsewhere, Llandovery (1853) (online here).  The Latin is on p.22-70; the English on 309-395.

We need more books on “Urban Legends of Church History”

A kind correspondent drew my attention to the following volume: Michael Svigel and John Adair, Urban Legends of Church History: 40 Common Misconceptions, B&H (2020).  The book appeared at the end of last year, and is some 340 pages long.  It is issued by a publisher in Nashville, who does not seem very clued-up about how to promote the book.  There is no Google Books preview, for instance.  It has started to trickle into Christian publishers, I see.  As such it probably doesn’t have that long a shelf-life, as Christian paperbacks often do not, which is a pity.  I have access to some of it, and I’ve had a quick look at those sections that I know something about.

But before I do, I think we need to say that all such books are very welcome.  The internet is drowning in false information about Christianity.  Ordinary people have no way to know that they are being misled, or crudely lied to.  When someone says, as some people do, that “Easter is borrowed from an ancient pagan festival long predating Christianity”, then educated people rub their eyes and wonder how anybody can know so little history.  But most people do not know any history.  Such a claim is not instantly recognisable as a crude falsehood.  There are various people on Twitter who make an effort to combat this sort of thing, but the major news channels do not.  Indeed they often amplify it.  Lazy journalists scoop this rubbish up and repeat it.

There has always been a trickle of such stuff.  Some of it comes from fringe protestant groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  A lot of it comes from atheists, or neo-atheists.  I noticed in 2018 that there was a sudden upsurge: suddenly there was a mass of posts, jeering that every single Christian holiday was “pagan”.  It is possible that this is related to the rather horrible US politics of our day, and the organised online campaign against President Trump.  Whatever the reason, it is there, and getting worse.

Academics do not tend to write such books.  There is a very good reason for this, which we see as soon as we look at the list of topics covered by Svigel and Adair.  It covers the whole range of church history from 50 AD right down to our own day.  Few specialists would feel comfortable, or qualified, to write over all those fields.

But it does mean that those with the authority to demolish such claims are leaving the field open.  Svigel and Adair are writing for the Christian constituency in the US, and apparently with fringe protestants mainly in mind.  The style of the book is intended to be read by that audience.  The references are to books which, if not commonplace, may be accessible to them.  So they refer to the Theodosian Code, the legal compilation of late imperial rescripts from 450 AD.  But in doing so the footnotes refer to “Oliver J. Fletcher, in The Library of Original Sources, vol. 4, Early Mediaeval Age (Milwaukee: University Research Extension, 1907), 70″ – never heard of it – rather than the standard translation of the whole Code: Clyde Pharr: The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. A Translation with Commentary, Glossary, and Bibliography. (The Corpus of Roman Law, Vol. I.) Pp. xxvi+643; map. Princeton: University Press (London: Oxford University Press), 1952.  Then again, who has access to Pharr?  I certainly did not for a very great period.  So this is not a vice, but rather a way to serve their chosen constituency.  All the same, the book loses utility when handed to someone outside that constituency.  This is why a range of books is necessary.

But let’s return to Svigel and Blair.  They try to find the original of each legend.  Reading the book, you realise what an influence the Da Vinci Code has been in spreading misinformation.  Again and again I find that online false claims go back to that novel.

Looking at the first chapter, on the idea that the first Christians worshipped on Saturday rather than Sunday – clearly a fringe protestant claim – they rightly quote the apostolic fathers – the Didache, Barnabas, and Ignatius of Antioch.  More would have been better, but might not have suited their audience.  I’m not quite sure that the Didache is usually dated as early as 50-70 AD, as they suggest, although that date seems reasonable enough to me.  The chapter ends with some “resources” for further reading.  The pages that I have place the footnotes as endnotes – an evil practice – although as they seem to be printed from a Kindle version, possibly this is not so in the book itself.

Chapter 8 on the Trinity addresses the claim that the Trinity is a late addition.  It ought to make clear Tertullian’s role; and also his claim that what he says is what the church believed from the first.  But again the book is probably addressing Mormons or the like.  Their concern is to show from the bible that the teaching is what the bible says.  I think they do this quite well.

Something that comes across from the book is that, in order to refute the false ideas, they have to explain to the reader some very basic facts about the history of the church.  At points this will seem babyish to most readers of this blog; but they are right, and it is clearly absolutely necessary.  The critics who are so sure that this myth or that is history – “research it!” the myth-repeaters often smugly say – in fact don’t know the most elementary things.  It makes such a book very hard to read, for me.  But it probably is the only way.

I do not envy the authors.  They have grappled with a difficult task, and done it well.  Some of the legends were unknown to me, and I learned something from their chapter on it.

All the same, there is a need for more books like this.  There needs to be such a book, written by an atheist for atheists; by Hindus for Hindus, and so on.  None of this is, or should be, a question of religion.  These are matters on which there should be no disagreement, because they are simple matters of fact that can be looked up.

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The Second Council of Nicaea (787) and the Canon of the New Testament

Why on earth would anybody suppose that the Second Council of Nicea / Nicaea in 787 was responsible for deciding which books went into the bible?  It’s absurd on the face of it, considering the vast mass of patristic testimony and physical bibles that survive.

However I keep seeing ignorant people online who either state this, or seem genuinely uncertain whether they mean the First or Second councils of Nicaea.  There is a much more common myth that the canon was decided at the First council in 325, but that’s another story.

Quite by accident today I found what seems to be the source.  It is none other than Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Oxford University Press, 2003.  It’s a popular book, not a scholarly work, so it probably circulates among atheists.  The reference I was given was to pages 41-43, in which Ehrman talks about the apocryphal Acts of John, as an example of works in which celibacy is praised.  In chapter two, pages 41-42 we find this interesting statement:

A comparable message appears in another of the Apocryphal Acts, the last we will consider in this chapter. The Acts of John narrates the legendary adventures of John, the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest disciples in the New Testament Gospels. He continues to be an important figure after Jesus’ death, according to the early chapters of the canonical Acts of the Apostles, but he quickly drops out of sight in that narrative as the book turns its entire attention to the missionary activities of Paul. Later Christians, not content with the silence shrouding John’s later life, filled the gap with numerous stories, some of which have made it into this second-century Apocryphal Acts of John.23  Once again we are handicapped by not having the complete text. It was, of course, a noncanonical book, and parts of it were theologically dubious to the proto-orthodox. It was eventually condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century, so that most manuscripts of it were either destroyed or lost.24

(Highlighting is mine) Buried at the back, on p.262, where few will read them, are the notes:

23. It is widely recognized that the surviving Acts of John derives from several sources; most scholars recognize that a large portion of the text (chaps. 87–105, or just 94–102) as we now have it was interpolated at a later time into the narrative. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–4. For a translation of some of the more intriguing accounts of the Acts of John, see the excerpts from Elliott in Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 93–108; that is the translation I am following here.

24. See the discussion in Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament, 303–7.

This, I suspect, is indeed the source for the modern legend.  Because of course if the Second council was condemning the Acts of John, it’s “obvious” to a certain type of mind that they were discussing what should be in the New Testament.

Looking at Elliot’s excellent single volume on the NT Apocrypha, we find that the Acts of John are first attested with Eusebius in the 4th century.  On the date of the work, Elliot states (p.306):

This is normally given as late second-century, but some scholars (e.g. Zahn) who argued that the work was known to Clement of Alexandria [6] gave an earlier date. Modern scholars tend to agree that there is no firm evidence that the Acts of John was known before Eusebius.

Schneemelcher concurs (vol. 2, p.152):

It is not possible to demonstrate any use of the Acts of John in the Christian literature of the 2nd and early 3rd centuries.

On page 305, Elliot states:

(e) The proceedings of the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) are contained in several Greek and Latin manuscripts, and also in the Latin version by Anastasius.5 Citations in them from the Acts of John 27-8, 93-5, and 97-8 are valuable for establishing the Greek text at these points (see Junod and Kaestli CCA, pp. 344-68).

The condemnation of the Acts of John by the Second Council of Nicaea meant that the ancient Acts could only survive in clandestine copies after 787. Parts survived in the rewritings of the story of John found in Pseudo-Prochorus, and (in Latin) in Pseudo-Abdias and Pseudo-Melito.

The footnote:

5. J. C. Thilo, Colliguntur et commentariis illustrantur fragmenta actuum S. Johannis a Leucio Charino Conscriptum, i. in Universitatis Literariae Fridericianae Halis consociatae programma paschale (Halle, 1847), 14f.

This suggests that Elliot is also repeating from elsewhere, just as Ehrman was.  Is it possible that nobody ever actually looks at the statements of Nicaea II?

Schneemelcher is rather clearer:

The most important evidence of all is provided by the Nicene Council of 787, already mentioned. Its fifth session dealt, among other matters, with the Acts of John, to which the Iconoclastic Council of 754 had appealed. Here AJ 27 and the first half of AJ 28 were read out from the pseudepigraphical ‘Travels of the Holy Apostles’ as a document hostile to images, together with a large part of AJ 93-98 as a general indication of the book’s heretical character.42

Footnote:

42.  Con. Nic. II, actio V (Mansi XIII, cols. 168D-172C); critical edition of the quotations from the Acts of John in Junod/Kaestli 361-365 (Greek text) and 366-368 (Latin translation of Anastasius Bibliothecarius).  [‘Junod/Kaestli’ is the standard edition, Acta Johannis, in the Corpus Christianorum, series apocryphorum, vols 1-2, Turnhout 1983]

This gives us the reason why the book was discussed – that it had been used in the Iconoclast disputes – and a source for the council text.  There is actually an English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), under that title in two volumes, from Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 68 (2018), translated by Richard Price, and available for only $175.  Unfortunately this is inaccessible to me, or we might hear what the council said.

The older pre-critical text of Mansi is thankfully available online here, in a very poor scan from microfilm.  Col. 167 has a section starting Ex falsis superscriptionibus itinerariorum sanctorum apostolorum, (On the false attributions of the “itineraries of the holy apostles”).  But the good stuff appears in column 171C, and continues to 175.  The delegates read out some short quotes which contradict the Gospel of John, and so must be heretical. Especially good:

Gregory of Neocaesarea said, “This codex is worthy of every condemnation and dishonour.  And they produced out of it testimonies against images!! which were copied by Lycomedes!”

John the most reverend monk and vicar of the oriental patriarchs, said, “Lycomedes brings in the crowned images of the apostles as if they were pagan idols!”

Basil bishop of Ancyra said, “God forbid that St John seem to speak contrary to his own well-established gospel!”

I don’t know who Lycomedes was – evidently an iconoclast leader – but I don’t think they liked him.

The section ends with:

John, most reverend monk and vicar of the orient pontiffs said, “If it please this holy and universal synod, let this be the sentence, that nobody henceforth shall make copies of this sordid book.”

The holy synod said, “Let nobody make a copy: not only this, but we judge that it is right that it must be thrown in the fire.

Let’s finish, for the benefit of Ehrman readers, with another quotation from him about the formation canon of the NT.  This time it’s from Truth and Fiction In The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.74:

Teabing’s conspiratorial view of the formation of the canon is intriguing, but for the historian familiar with the actual process of how some books came to be included in the New Testament while others came to be excluded, it is filled with more fiction than fact. The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on our historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process. … (75) … It was a process that took many years—centuries, actually. It was not (contrary to Teabing’s view) the decision of one person, or even just one group of persons (for example, a church council); …

Indeed so.

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Hoaxed! “Dionysus, the son of the virgin, … His blood, the blood of the grape…”

I got scammed today.  Doesn’t happen that often.  It was on twitter, and a very respectable person tweeted:

From his blood, Dionysus created the first grapes and so the drinking of wine was the drinking of the God’s blood. It’s not the only parallel between Dionysus and later religious figures.

Of course I was all over this, and replied:

Does any ancient source make this link… drinking the god’s blood? (I can just see the headbangers incoming….!)

To which my friend replied:

How about Euripides?

“Next came Dionysus, the son of the virgin, bringing the counterpart to bread: wine & the blessings of life’s flowing juices. His blood, the blood of the grape, lightens the burden of our mortal misery.  Though himself a God, it is his blood we pour out to offer thanks to the Gods”  (Bacchae)

Well, there’s no arguing with that; and I expressed my thanks.  Until a kindly stranger butted in and asked:

Why does your translation replace the name “Semele” with “virgin”?

Silly me, not to check.  I googled, and quickly found the translation above given by “quote” sites; and also, ominously, by Christian-hating crank Tom Harpur in his 2007 book Water into Wine, p.125 (or so I find from Google Books).

At this point, as any of us might, and I should have done first, I reached for Perseus.  I quickly found the quote in the English, part of the speech by Tiresias in Bacchae line 266 here:

This new god, whom you ridicule, I am unable to express how great he will be throughout Hellas. For two things, young man, [275] are first among men: the goddess Demeter—she is the earth, but call her whatever name you wish; she nourishes mortals with dry food; but he who came afterwards, the offspring of Semele, discovered a match to it, the liquid drink of the grape, and introduced it [280] to mortals. It releases wretched mortals from grief, whenever they are filled with the stream of the vine, and gives them sleep, a means of forgetting their daily troubles, nor is there another cure for hardships. He who is a god is poured out in offerings to the gods, [285] so that by his means men may have good things.

Hardly “the son of the virgin”, eh?  And where is the “blood of the god” stuff in this?  As I tweeted, it was now easy enough to find the Greek, line 278, thanks to Perseus:

οὗτος δ᾽ δαίμων νέος, ὃν σὺ διαγελᾷς,
οὐκ ἂν δυναίμην μέγεθος ἐξειπεῖν ὅσος
καθ᾽ Ἑλλάδ᾽ ἔσται. δύο γάρ, νεανία,
275) τὰ πρῶτ᾽ ἐν ἀνθρώποισι: Δημήτηρ θεά–
γῆ δ᾽ ἐστίν, ὄνομα δ᾽ ὁπότερον βούλῃ κάλει:
αὕτη μὲν ἐν ξηροῖσιν ἐκτρέφει βροτούς:
ὃς δ᾽ ἦλθ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽, ἀντίπαλον Σεμέλης γόνος
βότρυος ὑγρὸν πῶμ᾽ ηὗρε κεἰσηνέγκατο
280) θνητοῖς, παύει τοὺς ταλαιπώρους βροτοὺς
λύπης, ὅταν πλησθῶσιν ἀμπέλου ῥοῆς,
ὕπνον τε λήθην τῶν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν κακῶν
δίδωσιν, οὐδ᾽ ἔστ᾽ ἄλλο φάρμακον πόνων.
οὗτος θεοῖσι σπένδεται θεὸς γεγώς,
285) ὥστε διὰ τοῦτον τἀγάθ᾽ ἀνθρώπους ἔχειν.

Which clearly indicates that Semele, not “virgin”, is given; that there is no reference to wine as the blood of Dionysus; rather that the wine itself is the god, not his blood.

So where did the original quotation come from?  I found an attribution here: to Michael Cacoyannis, a film maker.  It looks as if Mr Cacoyannis took liberties in order to sell his film!  His translation was published in 1987.  I’ve not been able to access it to verify the quote, but I do believe it.  Sadly the link is for an Indiana University class; which suggests that the university has fallen for this one too.

You have to be so careful, don’t you?

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The very words in which Constantine ordered the bible to be assembled? The strange, odd Oahspe hoax.

On Twitter today I came across some really rather unusual claims about Christian history.  These were advanced with the usual utter certainty that every crank seems to possess.  The author of these pronounced:

This is what emperor Constantine said during the council of nicaea…

“28/48.31.  Search these books, and whatever is good in them, retain: but whatever is evil, cast away.  What is good in one book, unite with that which is good in another book.  And whatever is thus brought together shall be called, THE BOOK OF BOOKS.1181  And it shall be the doctrine of my people, which I will recommend to all nations, so that there shall be no more war for religion’s sake.”

The tweeter employed the dubious practice of “quoting” but not referencing, so of course we don’t know from where he got this.  An enquiry was met with impudence.  As is so often the case with really wild claims, the tweeter appeared to have some personal integrity issues.

Of course Constantine said nothing of the kind, as I hope we all know.  This is purely fiction.  But … where from?

I quickly discovered a possible source: In His Name vol. 4, Trafford Publishing, 2014, by E. Christopher Reyes, whose interminable litany of factual errors, combined with no little spite, included this on p.273.  The reference given was “God’s book of Eskra” (?) op. cit., chapter 48, paragraph 31.

But according to this website all this material was to be found in an article by the renegade church minister Tony Bushby in Nexus magazine in 2007.  This indicated that “God’s book of Eskra” was “God’s Book of Eskra, Prof. S. L. MacGuire’s translation, Salisbury, 1922”.  Bushby went on to produce a book, The Bible Fraud, and you can’t argue with the title. He seems to have faded from view since.

A little investigation revealed that this “Book of Eskra” is a 19th century modern apocryphon called Oahspe: a new bible.  In fact I have written about Bushby and this very work here, with a link to chapter 48 of this fake text here.

Clearly the tweeter was quoting some version or other of the Oahspe fake, although indirectly.

It’s permissible to wonder what kind of person fills his head with nonsense of this kind in these days, when the raw data is ever so accessible.  Poor souls.

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A false quotation of Augustine against the Jews

A correspondent wrote to me some time back, asking:

I’m currently translating John Gray’s booklet ‘Seven types of atheism’ into Dutch. On p. 17 Gray cites this line from Augustine’s ‘Pamflet against the Jews’: ‘The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Lord for silver. The Jews can never understand scripture, and forever bear the guilt of the death of Christ.’ I cannot find this line in your translation. What could be the matter here?

The gentleman is not the only one to wonder.  Anti-Christian quotations of the fathers are nearly always misquotations or frauds, as I discovered long ago when I reviewed a book of them.

Arie W. Zweip, Christ, the Spirit and the Community of God: Essays on the Acts of the Apostles,  Mohr Siebeck, 2010, wanders off his theme and into a discussion of anti-semitism.  But on page 90, he is obliged to add a note:

5. An Intermezzo: Fake Quotes

At this point I must make a brief but significant detour. Not infrequently Jerome’s and Augustine’s names are mentioned on the internet as outspoken propagators of Christian anti-Semitism. On a number of websites Jerome is quoted as having said that the Jews are “Judaic serpents of whom Judas was the model”, and also: “They (the Jews) are serpents, haters of all men. Their image is Judas. Their psalms and prayers are but the braying of donkeys”.

However, when I checked the quotations against the original, I could not trace their provenance. Virtually all authors quote these words without mentioning the exact source. There is a passage in Jerome’s commentary on Amos that comes close to it (“iudaeorum quoque oratio et psalmi, quos in synagogis canunt, et haereticorum composita laudatio tumultus est domino, et ut ita dicam, grunnitus suis et clamor asinorum, quorum magis cantibus israelis opera comparantur”),54 but the very references to serpents and to Judas are conspicuously absent. In his Verus Israel, Marcel Simon does quote the words of Jerome with a source reference, but he refers to Migne’s Patrologia Latina 26:1224, which is clearly wrong. It seems that we have here a clear example of a “fake quotation” that is running a life of its own.

I suspect the same is true of two anti-Semitic quotations not seldom attributed to Augustine that I was unable to trace: “The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Lord for silver. The Jew can never understand the scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus’, and “Judaism, since Christ, is a corruption; indeed Judas is the image of the Jewish people: their understanding of Scripture is carnal; they bear the guilt for the death of the Savior, for through their fathers they have killed Christ. The Jews held Him; the Jews insulted Him; the Jews bound Him; they crowned Him with thorns; they scourged Him; they hanged Him upon a tree”. All this is not to say that Jerome and Augustine did not articulate anti-Semitic sentiments (they clearly did) nor to deny that they may have said things to that effect, but such allegations need to be corroborated by meticulous research and sound evidence, especially so in cases with such wide-ranging implications.

54. Jerome, Commentariorum in Amos; CCSL 76:2, LLT 589.

My own search revealed no source.  No doubt there is one, at some remote remove.  It may perhaps turn out to be someone’s summary of what they felt Augustine intended.

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Did Alfred the Great invent the story of Caesar invading Britain?

Apparently so, according to this Danish site (Aug 16, 2017, written by Ben Hamilton):

Caesar conquering Britain a 9th century invention by Alfred the Great: Saxon king fabricated 54 BC invasion to replace Viking-friendly heir and protect England from the Danes

He came … He saw … but He tampered

As you do.

This story is by a certain “Rebecca Huston, a former National Geographic Channel producer and American screenwriter who after ten years of original research and analysis” concludes that “by doctoring a Latin version of one of the ancient world’s most famous writings, and altering several Old English manuscripts, he was able to convince his council of nobles that his son Edward was the rightful heir to his throne, not his nephew Æthelwold, a Saxon susceptible to alliances with the Danes. And the astonishing upshot of this discovery is that Julius Caesar neither invaded nor conquered Britain in 54 BC.”

It continues:

Along with the collected letters of Cicero, the memoirs written by Caesar while he was conquering France and other areas of central Europe in the fifth decade of the first century BC is believed by many to be one of the few manuscripts to have survived the period.  But there is a very good chance that Caesar’s ‘Commentaries’ did not survive, and that ‘Bellum Gallicum’ (BG), the title it is known as today, was the work of other writers. Historians are wrong to treat it as gospel and to suppose this was the true voice of Caesar. But many do, and therefore they duly accept that he invaded Britain.

The basis for this?  That the earliest manuscript of the BG is 9th century, “coinciding with Alfred’s life”; that Caesar “lapses” into first person in the BG; “120 examples of Alfred’s idiosyncratic writing style”; 40 references to Alfred himself (which a forger would naturally introduce into his work); and so on.

But curiously I can’t find any other source for this story.  Nor can I find any sign of a Rebecca Huston, associated with National Geographic.  Which is more than odd, all by itself.

A glance at Texts and Transmissions reveals that the Bellum Gallicum is transmitted by two families of manuscripts, both with a 9th century exemplar.  The first was written at Fleury in the second half of the century, the other at Corbie in the 3rd quarter of the century.  The first family contains mainly the BG; the other contains all the commentaries.  Neither manuscript is British or associated with Britain, as far as I can see.

As for the other evidence, I must defer to specialists.  But I have long since grown wary of such claims.  Sifting fernseed seems to be bad for the eyes, in altogether too many cases.

Fascinating to see a claim like this, where there seems no discernible motive.  Or is it simply a silly-season invention by a journalist?

UPDATE (28/8/17): After writing this, I dropped an email to Ben Hamilton at the Copenhagen Post, who replied very promptly and helpfully, and made clear that the story is genuine.  He gave this link at IMDB for Rebecca Huston.  I have since also received some emails from Rebecca Huston.  It will be interesting to look further into this one.

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“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit” – an ancient Greek proverb?

This week I came across a saying online:

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.

This, we are told, is a Greek proverb.

The sentiment is unexceptionable, but readers of this site do not believe attributions without evidence.  Is this truly ancient?  If so, how do we know?

A search on Google Books produces many references to this saying, varying somewhat in wording:

But if we use the custom date range, we quickly discover that the results vanish before the mid-1980s.  In the 1990s we get various results, mainly from the Congressional Record of the US Congress:

The “old Greek proverb” is hardly heard of before 1993, although I saw a quote in The Nation in 1991.

Eventually I happened to find a quote which atrributed it, not to ancient Greece, but to a certain Dennis Waitley: a 1989 article in the Scholastic Coach, vol. 59, p.289:

We use Dennis Waitley’s definition of a winner: “A winner is a person who plants a shade tree knowing he or she will never sit under it.”

This has the right sort of sound about it.  Waitley turns out to be a 1980s motivational speaker.  I was unable to locate in which of his books he said this.  But in fact I have just found another source, from 1972, in the Lutheran Standard, vol. 12, p.16:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of life when he plants shade trees under which he knows he will never sit.

This is only visible in snippet view.  But this version of the saying takes us further back yet.  It is associated with a David Elton Trueblood (or D. Elton Trueblood), a Quaker, in 1955.

Yet even so I can find a reference from 1954, in a mysterious Annual Report of a Ministry of Agriculture, page 13:

A man only begins to grasp the true meaning of life when he plants a tree under whose shade he knows he will never sit.

A 1968 magazine gives the following interesting quote:

At her departure, we are reminded of the passage from Elton Trueblood’s The Life We Prize, which she so often quotes: “One has to come to the full meaning of life when he is willing to plant shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit….

The Trueblood book was printed in 1951, earlier than any reference I can find.  And on p.58 we read our quote:

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

That, I suspect, is the real origin of the proverb – a volume of moral writing by a quaker in 1951.  The aphorism then trickles through popular magazines, changing as it goes.  Ronald Reagan uses it in 1983.  But it seems to become a “Greek proverb” only in the hands of US congressmen in 1993.

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“Burned without pity” – the fake quotation taken back to 1930!

A few weeks ago, I discussed a fake quotation attributed to Pope Innocent III:

Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with church dogma must be burned without pity.

These kinds of “quotes” are often derived from opinions by modern writers, which someone has then turned into a quote by the object of the opinion.  And so it proved; it was a quote from Peter Tompkins, The Magic of Obelisks.

But a correspondent then pointed out that the phrase appeared earlier, in the English translation of a book by Frenchman Maurice Magre, in 1931.  The US title was “Magicians, Seers and Mystics”; the UK title “Return of the Magi”, London, 1930.

This I have now obtained, and as it is public domain, I have uploaded it to Archive.org here.  And indeed this is correct – on p.60, our “quote” appears.

Three terrible figures dominate the great Albigensian massacre. For the massacre to be possible, it was necessary that an extraordinary genius for violence, for organisation, and for hypocrisy, should take shape in three men, who were all equally devoid of pity and, possibly, equally sincere in their hatred of heresy and love of the Church.

It was Pope Innocent III who, with obstinate determination, desired and decided on the crusade. The murder of the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau was only a pretext. Historians are unanimous in gloryifing this pope. To them the great men of history are men who do something, who have a powerful will and exert it to attain an aim. It makes no difference whether the aim is sublime or abominable; it is success in attaining the aim which gives the measure of genius.

As soon as he was elected pope, in all his public utterances Innocent III began to talk of ” exterminating the impious.” It was the dominating idea of his life, and he realised it wholeheartedly. He had a deep-rooted conviction that any man who attempted to build up a personal view of God which conflicted with the dogma of the Church must be burned without pity at the stake.

Italics mine.

No reference or source is given for the claim.

The author appears to be an occultist.  A chapter is devoted to the supposed origins of Rosicrucianism, recited uncritically; another to a biography of Apollonius of Tyana, equally uncritically given.  The prose style of the author is that of a historian; the content is nonsense.

With luck, this is the final origin of this striking phrase.

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