And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 29. april 2015

Alexandria the martyr-queen - or, a sequel to the martyrdom of George

and whanne they had receiued holy bapteme Seint George drewe oute his suerde and slowe þe dragon and comaunded that he shuld be born oute of the citee
- The Gilte Legende

George and the dragon
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, Franciscan brevairy, c.1430
Courtesy of Enluminures

In my previous blogpost I presented the legend of St George as it is rendered in The Old English Martyrology, a version which appears to antedate the slaying of the dragon, which today is the most famous episode in his story. The Old English narrative focusses instead solely on his martyrdom and on his ability to posthumously bring about miraculous cures. However, an important part of the legend of St George is that he was a missionary saint, and the story of the dragon follows - as shown in the epigraph - a mass conversion. This motif is well-known in Christian hagiography and pits the power of God funnelled through the saint against the image of the arch-enemy Satan. A similar story is known of Pope Sylvester, for instance, who faced the pestiferous dragon beneath Rome. The dragon is thus an important aspect of the George story, since it is tied up to his feats as an apostle.

In The Old English Martyrology, as stated, nothing is said of George as a missionary, at least not in the text for his feast-day, April 23. Curiously enough, however, an allusion to this aspect of George's vita is in fact mentioned in the martyrology, but in another story, the story of Queen Alexandria. Alexandria is here said to be the wife of the (non-historical) pagan emperor Datianus, who is the main antagonist in the story of St George, as he is in the legend of his newly-converted wife. Why there is no reference to the other story in either of these texts is not clear, but may support Christine Rauer's suggestion that the compiler of the martyrology wrote the texts not chronologically but according to what sources he had available at a given time (Rauer 2013: 11ff). Hence, it is possible that although the stories of George and Alexandria are related, they have reached the martyrologist through different texts.

Alexandria is not a well-known saint in the high-medieval west, and she is not included in Legenda Aurea. Below I will give her story as rendered in The Old English Martyrology.

On the twenty-seventh day of the month is the feast of the holy queen St Alexandria; she was the queen of the pagan emperor Datianus, who was the head of all earthly Kings. But she believed in God through the teaching of the martyr St George. When the emperor realised that, that she believed in God, he said: 'Woe is me, Alexandria; you are bewitched by the tricks of George. Why are you destroying my authority. Or why are you leaving me?' When he could not change her mind with his words, he had her suspended by her hair and punished with various tortures. When he could not overcome her with those, he had her led away to be beheaded. Then she asked her executioners that they should giver her a little more time. Then she went to her palatium, that is to her hall, and lifted up her eyes to heaven and said: 'See, Lord, that I now leave my hall open with all my treasures for your holy name. But you, my Saviour, open now your paradise to me.' And then she fulfilled her martyrdom with faith in Christ.

torsdag 23. april 2015

St George in the Old English Martyrology

St George with his banner and palm of martyrdom
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, Roman missal, c.1370
Courtesy of Enluminures

Today is the feast of St George, the patron saint of England since 1350 and famous for his liberation of a city from a man-eating dragon. The historical George, if he ever existed at all, was believed to have been a Roman soldier who met his martyrdom at Lydda in Palestine. His cult was immensely popular in the Middle East, and he became a protector of the Byzantine army, presumably out of some collegial bond. This image of George as an aid in battle, a saint-type called "Schlachtenhelfer" (fight-helper) in modern, German scholarship, also entered into the mythology of the crusades, as is described in this beautiful little blogpost. Through the crusader ideology and its iconography, George acquired his chivalric shape for which he is best know today here in the West and through crusaders he re-entered England as a knight in the twelfth century. As a crusader, or rather as a knight, George became a powerful symbol for soldiers, and thus it was that in the 14th century he was adopted by King Edward III as England's patron, and gained an importance in the national iconography that surpassed even that of Edward the Confessor or Edmund Martyr as figureheads of the English kingdom. I have described this trajectory in greater detail here.

But even though it was the crusades that brought St George as a knight into the English sphere, he had already been known from the early days of British Christianity. George is mentioned in the martyrology of Bede, and he is also included in the Old English Martyrology which was most likely written sometime in the 9th century. This is a text that antedates the chivalric George, and which serves as a nice reminder of some of the other aspects of his legend, especially his martyrdom which tends to be underplayed in favour of his battle with the dragon in much of the iconography. Here follows, therefore, the life of St George as rendered in the Old English Martyrology, translated by Christine Rauer and taken from her edition from 2013.

George slaying the dragon
Auch - BM - ms. 0020, Ruralium commodorum opus by Petrus de Crescentiis, c.1330-1340
Courtesy of Enluminures

On the twenty-third day of the month is the feast of the noble man St George; emperor Datianus forced him for seven years with unspeakable tortures to renounce Christ, but he could never overpower him; and then after seven years he ordered him to be beheaded. When he was being led to the execution, fire came from heaven and burnt the pagan emperor to death, and all those who had earlier tortured the holy man with him. And he, St George, prayed to the Lord and spoke Thus: 'Saviour Christ, receive my spirit. And I ask you that whichever man may celebate my memory on earth, remove then from thisman's dwellings every illness; let no enemy harm him, nor hunger, nor pestilence.And if anyone mentions my name in any danger, either at sea or on a journey, may he obtain your mercy.' And afterwards the powers of this holy man were often made widely known; anyone who reads St Arculf's book will realise that, [namely] that the man who dishonoured George's image was severly punished, and he who sought it for intercession was protected from his enemies in great danger.
- The Old English Martyrology, edited and translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer, 2013: 85

The martyrdom of St George
Besançon - BM - ms. 0054, Cistercian psalter, c.1260
Courtesy of Enluminures

There are many interesting things to look at here. First of all we see no trace of the famous dragon story, which is presumably a somewhat later addition, or at least belonging to other sources than those accessed by the martyrologist. Christine Rauer herself, in her commentary to the text, refers to De Locis Sanctis by Adomnán as one of the sources, and also draws attention to the George story as rendered in two passion stories, Passio S. Georgii (BHL 3363) and Passio S. Georgii (BHL 3379). Whether these version have provided the martyrologist with material remains unknown.

Another point of interest is the martyrdom itself, whose consummation is elided and whose prologue is summarised as unspeakable. The dramaturgical apex is the death of the Emperor, the non-historical Datianus, who is consumed by a fire intended for the martyr. This is a motif we find early in Christian martyr stories. Already in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c.200) do we find it, and it reappears with even more force in the legends of St Catherine and St Agnes. In sum, this brief rendition from ninth-century England allows us to catch a glimpse of the legend of St George in its early development, and also to trace parallels - even possible connections - to other martyrs.

Other relevant blogposts can be found here:

St George and Edward the Confessor compared

A carol for St George

St Ladislas of Hungary rendered as St George

Perseus rendered as St George

St George in Odense, Denmark

mandag 20. april 2015

Santa Agnese da Montepulciano

Agnese holding Montepulciano
Fresco by unknown painter, c.1690, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta
Courtesy of Schäfer, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon

Today is the feast of Santa Agnese da Montepulciano, who was born around 1270 and who died in 1137. A later tradition fixes her day of death – her dies natalis – more specifically to January 28, 1268 (1). She was born into a wealthy family in Gracchiano-Vecchio, but – in a move very common among zealously religious men and women of the time, and in keeping with the expectations of a saint - she renounced her family and its wealth in favour of the religious life. At Montepulciano she entered an order of mendicant tertiaries – lay religious men and women who were connected to the mendicant orders – which was known as sisters of the sack, a name deriving from their coarse clothing (2). Around the age of twenty, she was assigned together with a senior sister Margherita to a new foundation in Proceno where she embarked on what we might call an administrative career which moved her from housekeeper to bursar and superior of the foundation. While at Proceno, Agnese became known for her austere life, her visions of Christ and – according to some sources – miracles that multiplied loaves and fishes, and that brought the infirm back to health (3). On account of her signs of holiness, she was eventually called back to Montepulciano, recognised as more than a common tertiary.

The Angelic communion of Agnese da Montepulciano
1879, Proceno
Courtesy of Schäfer, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon

Agnes with the lamb and the lily, both symbols of virginity
Mosaic of unknown date, Chiesa di Sant'Agnese in Montepulciano
Courtesy of Schäfer, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon

Back in Montepulciano she founded the convent of Santa Maria Nuova, and according to tradition this convent was situated on the premises of an old brothel (4). While this might be true, it is here tempting to suggest that this particular detail is a clever way of typologically connect Agnese with her namesake Agnes, who was put in a brothel to lose her virginity by her pagan suitor, but who escaped unscathed and untouched by angelic intervention. Such a connection is inevitable, and – although I haven’t read the text in question – might be something her Dominican hagiographer Raimondo da Capua, himself considered a beatus, would be tempted to emphasise and expand upon in the vita of Agnese which he wrote in 1366.

The convent of Santa Maria Nuova was consecrated in 1306, and Agnese brought it under the control of the Dominican order, apparently in 1311 (5), and this was ostensibly done to provide a more secure management for the convent, and Agnese herself became the prioress. Under her guidance, the convent prospered and her saintly fame – her fama sanctitatis – reported of visions and cures effected through her (6). She died at forty-nine after a prolonged illness, and was canonised in 1726 by Benedict XIII.
Chiesa di Sant Agnese, Montepulciano
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The angelic communion of Agnese da Montepulciano,
High-altar relief, the Dominican church of Friesach, 19th century
Courtesy of Bistum Augsburg

Although Agnese was canonised at a very late date relative to her historical life, she was still held to be a saint by a significant number of people and celebrated throughout the Middle Ages. Agnese belonged to a group of religious women who became increasingly popular as objects of veneration from the late thirteenth century onwards, namely women who embraced a mendicant spirituality that was more active than that professed by older, established orders such as the Benedictines, the Augustinians and the Cistercians. At the time when Agnese entered the religious life, there had already been established a number of female religious who were venerated as saints and who were connected to the mendicant orders. The first generation was represented by Clare of Assisi (d.1253), the sister of Francis and the founder of the Poor Clares, and towards the end of the thirteenth century the female mendicant sainthood was dominated by contemplative visionaries and mystics (7). Agnese was, for instance, an early contemporary of Margherita da Cortona (d.1297), and would herself feature in the visions of the later Catherine da Siena (d.1380) who herself became a saint in 1461 and who became an epitome of the mystical, mendicant sanctity of the later Middle Ages (8).
The Virgin with Catherine of Siena, Rosa of Lima (with the Christ-child) and Agnes,
Giambattista Tiepolo, 1747-48, Jesuit church of Santa Maria del Rosario, Venice
Courtesy of Schäfer, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon

For similar saints, see:

Fina da San Gimignano

Margherita da Cortona

Verdiana da Castelfiorentino



2) Farmer 2004: 8


4) Farmer 2004: 8

6) Farmer 2004: 8

7) Vauchez 2005: 376ff

8: Vauchez 2005: 121


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2005

Online sources

Schäfer, Joachim, Ökumenishces Heligenlexicon:

Relief from Friesach:

torsdag 16. april 2015

Carols on the Lapidation

Today I have been teaching a class on popular - or lay - cult of saints, looking at various texts that unlike the grand Latin hagiographies were available to the common populace, not just because they were written in the vernacular, but also because they were performed in public. The emphasis of the lecture was on two types of texts. First we looked at a Corpus Christi play on Mary Magdalen, and it turned into a very enjoyable discussion on the relation of mystery plays with Ancient Greek and Roman theatre, following a question from one of my students, and this allowed me to point back to earlier lectures where I had talked about the transition from the Greek novel to early Christian hagiography. (I always feel a great pleasure when I'm able to connect the current lecture with earlier subjects.)

The second emphasis was on carols on saints, exemplified by a selection from Richard Leighton Greene's The Early English Carols (1977). Being in Middle English and interspersed with Latin quotations, the carols were difficult to grasp, and with the many uncertainties of the genre with regards to audience, authorship, purpose and rationale of form, we explored chiefly the carol as a form of hagiography conveying a condensed portrait of the saint's life and martyrdom, and how that life could be rendered very differently from one carol to the next.

To better illustrate this variation, we focussed on a selection of carols dedicated to St Stephen Protomartyr since his carols are numerous enough to allow for a relatively wide selection. In this blogpost I wish to present three of these carols, in which the martyrdom of St Stephen is narrated in rather different ways, showing the flexibility of the carol genre. The texts are taken from Greene's book, and in lieu of titles I use the numbering employed by Greene to differentiate between the carols.

Bodleian Library. MS. Douce 302
By John Audelay, 15th century

In reuerens of our Lord in heven,
Worchip this marter, swete Sent Steuen.

Saynt Steuen, the first matere,
He ched his blod in herth here;
For the loue of his Lord so dere
He sofird payn and passion.

He was stonyd with stons ful cruelle,
And sofird his payn ful pasiently:
'Lord of myn enmes thou Haue merce,
That wot not what thai done.'

He beheld into heuen on he
And se Jhesu stonde in his majeste
And sayd, 'My soule, Lord, take to the,
And foreyif myn enmys euerechon.'

Then, when that word he had sayd,
God thereof was wel apays;
His hede mekele to sleep he layd;
His sowle was takyn to heuen anon.

Swete Saynt Steuen, for vs thou pray
To that Lord that best may,
Whan our soule schal wynd away,
He grawnt us al remyssion.

Martyrdom - or lapidation - of Stephen
Yates Thompson 49, La légende dorée, Jacobus de Voragine, France, c.1470
Courtesy of British Library

Trinity College, Cambridge. MS. O. 3. 58
Fifteenth century

Eyam martir Stephane,
Prey for vs, we prey to the.

Of this marter make we mende,
Qui triumphauit hodie
And to heuene blysse gan wende
Dono celestis gracie.

Stonyd he was wyth stonys grete
Feruore gentis impie;
Than he say Cryst sitte in sete,
Innixum Patris dextere.

Thov preydyst Cryst for thinenmyse,
O martir inuictissime;
Thou prey for vs that hye Justyse
Vt nos purget a crimine.


Stephen with his instruments of passion
Sloane 2321, English Book of Hours, use of Sarum, c.1440
Courtesy of British Library

Balliol College, Oxford. MS. 354
Sixteenth century

Nowe syng we both all and sum,
'Lapidauerunt Stephanum.'

Whan Seynt Stevyn was at Jeruzalem,
Godes lawes he loved to lerne,
That made the Jewes to cry so clere and clen,
'Lapidaverunt Stephanum.'

The Jewes, that were both false and fell,
Agaynst Seynt Stephyn they were cruell;
Hym to sle they made gret yell
Et lapidaverunt Stephanum.

They pullid hym without the town
And than he mekely kneled Down
Withle hte Jewes crakkyd his Crown,
Quia lapidavverunt Stephanum.

Gret stones and bones at hym they caste,
Veynes and bones of hym they braste,
And they kylled hym at the laste,
Quia lapidaverunt Stephanum.

Pray we all that now be here
Vnto Seynt Stephyn, that marter clere,
To save vs all from the fendes fere.
Lapidaverunt Stephanum.

These carols are interesting texts to research when looking at how the stories about saints are treated in different literary categories, and how the stories are rendered at different times in history. The three carols selected here are particularly fascinating in the difference between the first two, and the third. In the first two carols the narrative is focussed on Stephen and his martyrial triumph, and also his role as an intermediary, a point particularly clear in the first carol where Stephen prays for his enemies and is then exhorted by the singers of the carol. The third and latest carol, however, focusses rather gratuitously and viscerally on the martyrdom itself, the manner of Stephen's death and - with urgent insistence - on the guilt of the Jews in this enterprise. This is an interesting difference, but one from which it is difficult to extract much meaning as these carols are just snippets from a vast textual and cultural history, of which we know little of their immediate context of composition and who share only a subject matter and are not themselves textually related, at least not to our knowledge.

As the carols are presented in Greene's wonderful tome, it is also easy to fall prey to certain temptations in the attempted extraction of significance. Since these carols are numerically close together, thematically linked and follow a chronological trajectory where the last, most brutal of these selected here appear as an end-point, it's tempting to see that as an explanation of the increasingly vivid role of the Jews, who are more clearly represented in the second than in the first carol. This is of course tempting suggestion that caters to our taste for clear progression or regression in events, be they cultural, biological or psychological, but to follow such a thread would be to treat Greene's organisation of the carols as the original document rather than the result of an avid historian of carol and his attempt to handle an unwieldy mass of texts. I mention this as an apropos of how easy it is to give in to the urge towards orderly and simple transmissions of textual material, which is a methodological cul-de-sac for any historian of texts.