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

torsdag 28. mai 2015

Cosmas and Damian in Anglo-Saxon Literature

 In a recent blogpost I introduced the legend of SS Cosmas and Damian, and their place in the Collegiate Church in Covarrubias. In this blogpost, however, I want to revisit the two twin-brother physician saints and look at how they appeared in Anglo-Saxon literature. The summary of their legend in the earlier blogpost relied chiefly on the version in Legenda Aurea, written in the 1260s by Jacobus de Voragine. As with all legends, the story of Cosmas and Damian was constantly in development, some elements being added, others subtracted and yet others altered.

The main story remains the same, however. Cosmas and Damian lived during the persecutions of Diocletian. The two brothers – two out of five born by a devout Christian woman in the city of Egea – were doctors who took no fee for their work as it was seen as unchristian to charge for help. Once Cosmas was told that his brother had accepted a fee from a grateful man, and although this was in reality a gift which the man had pressed Damian to receive, Cosmas thought this to be a breach of their principles and declared that he did not want to be buried next to his brother in death. After a while all the five brothers were summoned, tortured and – when the torture proved unfruitful – beheaded. After the beheading, the bodies of the martyrs were taken by the Christians and prepared for burial. They then remembered that Cosmas had said he did not want to share the burial site of his brother, but as they were discussing what to do there entered a camel on the scene and, in a human voice, spoke to them and told them to bury all the brothers jointly.
Cosmas and Damian
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.273, Roman missal, c.1370
Courtesy of Enluminures

The cult of Cosmas and Damian was long-lived and seems to have been very successful, although the extent of their cult is – as far as I know – not thoroughly mapped. In the following, I will present two renditions of the story from two Anglo-Saxon texts. The oldest of these is the prose De Virginitate by Aldhelm of Malmesbury (d.709/10), abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherborne, who wrote a two-fold work on virginity with exempla from virgin saints intended as educational literature for a community of nuns at Barking Abbey. Aldhelm was an influential figure in Anglo-Saxon literature, and I have written about his prose De Virginitate elsewhere.

XXXIV. But I think it worthwhile that we do not in any way exclude from (our) historical account of virgins – as if unworthy of the company of the others – COSMAS and DAMIANUS, the most famous warriors of spiritual warfare and arch-physicians of celestial medicine. We confidently trust that these two, predestined to citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem and inscribed in the register of celestial writing, will rejoice with their aforementioned colleagues. For in the times of Diocletian and Maximian , at the two hundred-and-sixty-seventh Olympiad, when as a result of cruel edicts the followers of the catholic faith, whom they called ‘Christians and ‘cross-worshippers’, were compelled to burn incense at the petty little statues of the pagans, and those not wishing to apostatize, that is, to revert to (wallowing in) the more of apostasy, were compelled to undergo capital punishment – at this time a devout mother gave birth to twins, the aforementioned novices of Christ (Cosmas and Damianus). (These twins), gradually instructed in medicinal treatments from the beginnings of their adolescence, were able to cure by means of celestial poultices both the diseases of dropsical persons and (other) internal discomforts and spiritual disorders as well: imparting sight, that is, to the blind and emollients to the one-eyed, opening the door of silence in the dumb, renewing the harmonies of the outside world in the ears of the deaf, granting correctness of speech to stutterers and stammerers, restoring the lame and the maimed to their former healthiness, reviving through the grace of their merits those possessed by devils and the short-sighted, and even recalling to earthly life those overthrown by the accidents of fortune. Nevertheless, enriched by the munificence of powers of this kind, they conferred the wished-for health on the infirm, not for the traffic of avarice but out of a freely-given generosity, (thus) conforming to the message of the Gospel: ‘Freely have you received; freely give’ [Matth. X. 8]. Meanwhile, at the time of the aforementioned persecutors (Diocletian and Maximian), when holy martyrs were being sacrificed ‘like sheep for the slaughter’ [Psalm. XLIII. 22] by the bloody swords of butchers, and these athletes of church in no sense terrified were struggling, as if they were in a wrestling-arena, who would be able to describe the many great instruments of punishment with which the aforesaid confessors were tortured at the jurisdiction of the tribune Lysias? Since indeed, with their arms bound and the shanks of their legs tied together, they were cast into the depths of the sea; but, sustained by angelic intervention, the wild ferocity of the waves, not daring to touch them, returned them unharmed to the shore. Again the savage governor, confounded and put to silence by so brilliant a triumph by the holy soldiers, orders them to be cruelly thrust into a furnace which was stoked up by much tinder of brushwood and crackling with diverse flaming logs. But in no way did the conflagration of the raging furnace burn (the twins), who were as salamanders which, by nature, burning lumps of coal are unable to scorch or consume. Next, the patronage of angels protected them (while they were) tormented by the anguish of the rack and suspended from the fork of the gallows, and in addition buried under the dreadful blows of arrows. In the end they were sentenced to be beheaded: with their palm of virginity they earned a martyr’s triumph.
- De Virginitate, Aldhelm of Malmesbury (translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren, D. S. Brewer, 1979: 95-96

Cosmas, Damian and an unknown beast
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, f.624, Franciscan breviary, c.1430
Courtesy of Enluminures

Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f. 343v, Breviary, Use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of Enluminures

We don’t know which text was the basis for Aldhelm’s account, but there are some significant differences when compared with the story as rendered in Legenda Aurea. Since the latter is a very conservative body of work, it is not sufficient to ascribe these differences solely to the near half-century that separates these two books. Although we have no clear-mapped account of the legend’s development and therefore must be alert to changes in texts separated by so many centuries, it is also important to note that the authors had different purposes with their respective texts. Aldhelm wrote to educate a specific nunnery, and it is interesting to note that the story of Damian’s gift and the consequent confusion concerning their burial, the intermediation of the camel, and their posthumous miracles are not included. It might of course be that these elements were unknown to Aldhelm, but the explanation might rather be sought in Aldhelm’s focus on their healings – emphasised with great detail and with overt references to the Gospels through the nature of the cures (cf. Matthew 8) – and his emphasis on their fervour for Christ. Aldhelm portrays these saints as champions of Christ, athletes of Christ, confessors and martyrs, typical sobriquets that are here applied with great frequency. Interestingly, Aldhelm calls them virgin saints, although this is not specified anywhere in the legends as far as I know. It might be, therefore, that Aldhelm emphasises their holy works to persuade his audience that the holiness of their works – and the miracles surrounding their martyrdom – is evidence for their virginity.
MS Royal 19 B XVII, Legenda Aurea translated by Jean de Vignay, Central France, 1382
Courtesy of British Library

The next rendition of the story is found in The Old English Martyrology, written c.900 and containing the stories of the saints according to the calendar. As in the case of Aldhelm, we don’t know exactly which texts provided the compiler with material.

On the twenty-seventh day of the month [i.e. September] is the feast of the holy brothers St Cosmas and St Damian; they were expert doctors and they cured any human illness, and they received nothing from anybody, neither from the wealthy nor from the poor. When they cured a woman of a great illness, she secretly brought St Damian a small gift; the texts say that it was three eggs. And she begged him for God’s sake to accept them. He then took them. Then [his] brother Cosmas was very sad because of that, and therefore he asked that their bodies should not be buried together at the end of their lives. Then during the same night our Lord appeared to Cosmas and said: ‘Why would you talk like that about the gift which Damian received? He did not receive it as payment, but because he was asked in my name.’ These brothers suffered a great martyrdom in the days of the emperor Diocletian at the hands of the governor Lysias. They were stoned, and the stones turned back and hurt the ones who were stoning the saints. They were shot at with arrows, but the arrows turned around and killed the pagans. But through beheading they gave up the ghost to God. Then the men who collected their bodies were wondering whether they should be buried together, because Cosmas had earlier prohibited that. Then a camel came running there, and said in a human voice: ‘ Do not separate the saints’ bodies, but bury them together.’ Then they did as the dumb animal had told them, and yet heavenly miracles happened after that through the saints’ power.
- The Old English Martyrology, translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer, 2013: 193

Cosmas and Damian carrying their palms of martyrdom
Orléans - Musée hist. et arch. - inv. 6988, liturgical fragment, c.1440
Courtesy of Enluminures

As we see, the dramaturgical focus is different here than in Aldhelm’s De Virginitate. We might speculate on the reason for this, but although we know the addressees of Aldhelm’s book, the audience of the Martyrology is a slightly more difficult matter. Aldhelm wrote an educational book, while the Martyrology probably had as its main purpose to provide material for the homilists when writing the texts of the days, so that they could address topical problems, such as suspicion against brothers, or perhaps the miraculous intervention of dumb animals speaking like humans. We can’t say for sure, especially since so much uncertainty still surrounds the genesis of the Martyrology, but the shift in focus is interesting as should not merely be ascribed to the possibility of Aldhelm and the martyrologist working from different sources, or that the legend had changed that radically in just two hundred years (a short period in the evolution of saints’ cults before c.1050). The martyrologist refers moreover to a plurality of texts, suggesting that these elements are found in at least two sources available at the period. Although we can’t say much about these differences, we see at least that the legend of Cosmas and Damian were known in the Anglo-Saxon literature, and that there were several sources available.

søndag 24. mai 2015

Pocomania - a little madness for Pentecost

This weekend is Pentecost, and since I'm having some busy days this blogpost will be rather short and feature one of my favourite poems from my favourite poet, Derek Walcott (b.1930). The poem is one of the earliest of Walcott's printed poems (printed in the 1960s), and this can be seen in his mingling of Caribbean culture and European literary tradition which is particularly visible at this stage of his verse. The struggle to carve out an identity that embraces Walcott's Afro-Caribbean as well as European roots has always pervaded his poetry, and I've gone into greater detail about this elsewhere.

In Pocomania, Derek Walcott describes a Caribbean ritual of folk-religiosity whose name, possibly coming from "little madness", was applied to Jamaican religious ritual in the 1860s during what was known as the Great Revival. The popular atmosphere is invoked through Walcott's use of vernacularisms like "De sisters" and "De bredren", while echoes of the traditional English poetry is found in the verse form, the use of Capital letters and references to Yeats ("death in life", see Sailing to Byzantium) and Blake ("eye" and "eternity" as rhymes, see The Tyger). Such allusions to great anglophone poets is also particularly typical of his early verse, as seen in his Ruins of a Great House.


De shepherd shrieves in Egyptian light,
The Abyssinian sweat has poured
From armpits and the graves of sight,
The black sheep of their blacker Lord.

De sisters shout and lift the floods
Of skirts where bark n' balm take root,
De bredren rattle withered gourds
Whose seeds are the forbidden fruit.

Remorse of poverty, love of God
Leap as one fire; prepare the feast,
Limp now is each divining rod,
Forgotten love, the double beast.

Above the banner and the crowd
The Lamb bleeds on the Coptic cross,
De Judah Lion roars to shroud
The sexual fires of Pentecost.

In jubilation of The Host,
the goatskin greets the bamboo fife
Have mercy on those furious lost
Whose life is praising death in life.

Now the blind beast butts on the wall,
Bodily delirium is death,
Now the worm curls upright to crawl
Between the crevices of breath.

Lower the wick, and fold the eye!
Anoint the shriveled limb with oil!
The waters of the moon are dry,
Derision of the body, toil.

Till Armageddon stains the fields,
And Babylon is yonder greeen,
Till the dirt-holy roller feels
The obscene breeding the unseen.

Till those black forms be angels white,
And Zion fills each eye.
High overhead the crow of night
Patrols eternity.

Saint Lucia scenery, Petit Piton and Gros Piton
Courtesy of Telegraph

onsdag 20. mai 2015

Cantos de Covarrubias, I - Cosme y Damián

 In the beginning of May I spent a long weekend in Spain together with some friends, and together we explored some of the many amazing medieval sites to be found in the Northern Spanish province of Burgos. It was a great trip in good company and beautiful surroundings, and as we were driving from Madrid we saw the landscape change as we advanced further north. Our first destination was the village of Covarrubias, a small place whose cityscape has retained most of its medieval layout and design, and which provides a beautiful setting for a few days of scholarly exploration.

One of the highlights of Covarrubias is the collegiate church. The site of the church was formerly the site of a Visigothic church in the seventh century, which in the twelfth century was replaced by a church in the Romanesque fashion. These churches were in turn supplanted by the current church, which found its present shape in the fifteenth century, with a cloister added in the sixteenth. Further additions to the interior, like the organ and the Baroque altarpieces, came in succeeding centuries. (1)

The church is dedicated to saints Cosmas and Damian, two healer-saints from the early church whose historicity is dubious, but who gained widespread devotion for their reputation as efficient doctors. Their cult is attested to in very early sources, and churches dedicated to them can be found as early as fifth-century Constantinople and sixth-century Rome (allegedly built by Pope Felix (2)). According to the later legend, Cosmas and Damian were twins and doctors who, out of Christian charity, refused to accept money for their cures, and who were able to heal both humans and animals alike.
Cosmas and Damian with a urine sample
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0507, f.174v, Book of Hours, Use of Tours, c.1490
Courtesy of Enluminures

Another urine sample
Vesoul - BM - ms. 0027, f.119, Book of Hours, Use of Besançon, c.1398
Courtesy of Enluminures

The story of the two brothers as recounted in Legenda Aurea tells how these two brothers were brought before a judge and commanded to sacrifice to idols together with their three brothers. The brothers refused and were thrown into the sea to drown, but were rescued by an angel and brought back before the judge, who attributed their miraculous rescue to their skill in sorcery. The judge then desired to learn this sorcery that could counter the elements, but when he had begged the brothers to teach him these magic arts he was assailed by demons. The brothers prayed for the disappearance of the demons, and when they had gone the judge imprisoned three of the brothers and ordered that Cosmas and Damian should be crucified and stoned. When the two saints were lapidated by the crowd, the stones bounced back onto the crowd “and wounded a great number”. Then the judge ordered archers to shoot them, but the arrows “turned and struck many”. The two saints were then beheaded, and became famous for a number of fantastic miracles. One of the most iconic was the leg-transplant they performed on a man with a cancerous leg. They appeared to the man while he was sleeping and replaced his leg with that of an Ethiopian who had died the same day. (3) This story was later represented as a black man having his leg replaced for a white one. (4)
Cosmas, Damian and brothers
 Blois - BM - ms. 0044, f.062v, martyrology and necrology of Pontlevoy, c.1140-41, central France
Courtesy of Enluminures

Martyrdom of Cosmas and Damian
MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

That Cosmas and Damian appeared to the cancerous man in his sleep is a crucial element, as the cult of the two healers replaced the incubation cults of pagan Antiquity in Asia Minor, Egypt and the Middle East. These popular healing sites were dedicated to pagan deities like Sarpedonius, and one of the legends of Cosmas and Damian refers to a Greek who confusedly referred to them as Castor and Pollux. (5)

How the cult spread to Spain I do not know, and the trajectory of these early cults can never be traced with any great degree of certainty. However, their appearance in a small, remote Northern Spanish village is unsurprising given their universal status as healers of Christians and their animals.


Main nave towards the altar

Main altar

Left side-nave

Chapel adjacent to the right side-nave, with effigy of the dead Christ

Altar of the side nave

Back to the main nave

The tower seen from the river

The church's summer resident, maybe benefitting from the curative powers of Cosmas and Damian



2): Legenda Aurea 2012: 584

3) Legenda Aurea 2012: 582-84

4) Farmer 2004: 122

5) Csepregi 2011: 19


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

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Csepregi, Ildikó, “Theological Self-Definition in Byzantine Miraculous Healing”, printed in Gecser, Otto, Promoting the Saints, CEU Press, 2011


fredag 15. mai 2015

Saint Hallvard of Norway

Today, May 15, is the feast of St Hallvard of Norway, the patron saint of Oslo, and in this blogpost I want to give a brief presentation of one of the few Norwegian saints who were recognised as such by the official medieval church calendars.
The legend of St Hallvard as depicted in the coat of arms of Oslo Municipality
Image taken from Wikimedia

The story of St Hallvard has predominantly been transmitted to us from liturgical sources: the Breviarium Nidrosiense  (modern-day Trondheim) which was printed in 1519 (and later printed by Gustav Storm in Monumenta historica Norvegiæ, and a manuscript from Utrecht which was printed in Acta Sanctorum from 1680. In the latter work the feast is set to May 14, a mistake - or perhaps a local custom - that has been repeated in David Farmer's Oxford Dictionary of Saints. The Utrecht legend is a more expansive version, but both sources transmit a short, liturgically precise legend. Hallvard was venerated in the archbishopric of Nidaros, which included mainland Norway (including parts of modern-day Sweden) and the North-Atlantic islands and taxlands such as Iceland and Greenland. Hallvard was also venerated in Skara in modern-day Sweden and, as stated, in Utrecht. The cult of Hallvard seems to have been most fervent in Oslo, whose cathedral was and remains dedicated to him.
Nic Schiøll, St. Halvard, 1938-1945. Bronse. Oslo City Hall
Photo, Brigitte Stolpmann (from UiO-Wiki)

We have mostly just liturgical textual sources for the legend of St Hallvard. He is not mentioned in any of the Norwegian historiographies from the twelfth century, such as Theodoricus Monachus' Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium from c.1180, or the anonymous Historia Norwegie from roughly the same period. He is briefly mentioned in Adam of Bremen's History of the Church of Hamburg, but Adam's account gives no details about his legend beyond his status as a martyr, and the fact that he was killed by friends while protecting someone who was not a friend.

The story can be summarised very briefly. Hallvard (d.1043) was a young son of a nobleman from Husaby near Oslo. As he was crossing Drammenfjorden by boat, a woman called out to him and begged him to save her from a group of men who wanted to kill her. She was wrongfully accused of stealing, and Hallvard wanted to help her. Then the pursuers appeared on the scene and demanded that Hallvard hand her over to their justice. When the young man refused, the attackers shot him with arrows and tied a millstone around his neck to sink him in the fjord. His body later resurfaced and he became the centre of a local cult. Ten years later his body was exhumed and translated to the church of St Mary in Oslo.
Halvard and the maiden
Fresco by Alf Rolfsen, Oslo City Hall
Courtesy of


Adam of Bremen, Beretningen om Hamburg stift, erkebiskopenes bedrifter og øyrikene i Norden, translated into Norwegian by Bjørg Tosterud Danielsen and Anne Katrine Frihagen, Oslo, 1993
Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford, 2004

Gjerløw, Lilli (ed.), Antiphonarium Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae, Oslo, 1979

Gjerløw, Lilli (ed.), Ordo Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae, Oslo, 1968

Storm, Gustav, Monumenta historica Norvegiæ, 1880