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

mandag 24. august 2015

Saint Bartholomew and the devil - the legend of Bartholomew in the Old English Martyrology

Today is the feast of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, who is famous for his grisly method of execution, namely being flayed alive. For this reason his attribute is a flaying knife, and his saintly patronage extends to tanners and other craftsmen in skin and hide. For the feast of Bartholomew I will here give the legend as it was rendered in the Old English Martyrology, translated and edited by Christine Rauer. Here the date is given as August 25, but that is either a mistake made by the scribe or evidence of a different practice in tenth-century England.

Bartholomew with his knife
MS Harley 2449, prayers for saints' vigils with calendar, Netherlands, c.1276-c.1296
Courtesy of British Library

On the twenty-fifth day of the month is the feast of the apostle St Bartholomew; he was Christ's missionary in the country of India, which is the outermost of all regions, on whose one side lies the dark land, on whose other side lies the world ocean [or 'Oceanus'], that is Garsecg. In this country he cast out idols which they had previously worshipped there. And an angel of God came to them there and revealed to the people what their god was, whom they had worshipped previously. He showed them an enormous Egyptian whose face was blacker than soot, and his beard and hair reached down to his feet, and his eyes were like hot irons, and spakrs came from his mouth, and a foul stench came out of his nostrils, and he had wings like a Thorny broom, and his hands were tied together with fiery chains, and he cried out with a terrible and loathsome voice and fled away and never appeared again anywhere. that was the devil, whom the people had earlier worshipped for themselves as a god, and they alled him Astaroth. Then the king of that people received baptism and his queen too, and all the people who belonged to his kingdom. Then the pagan bishops went and complained about that to the king's Brother; he was in another kingdom, and he was older than he was. He therefore ordered Bartholomew, the servant of Christ, to be flayed alive. Then the believing king came with many people and took his body and transported it away with great splendour, and put it in a fantastically large church. And the king became insane, who wanted him killed, and all the pagan bishops became insane and died, who had reported him.
- From
The Old English Martyrology, edited and translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer 2013

The flaying of Bartholomew
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.104, Martyrology, Notre-Dame des Prés de Douai, 13th century
Courtesy of

The story of Bartholomew is an exciting and intersting story for many reasons, but perhaps especially its solid portion of exoticism and gore. From an academic point of view, this tale provides another set of details that are worth commenting. To me, for instance, it is interesting to note the geographical setting which places India as the outermost realm, and as a neighbour to the dark land, which is possibly meant to be Ethiopia which was confused with India all they way up to the sixteenth century. Bartholomew is placed in India already by Eusebius and in the Roman martyrology, although the latter gives Armenia as his place of of martyrdom.

Another significant thing here is the appearance and description of the devil. That the devil is said to be worshipped by the Indians as Astoreth harkens back to an old Christian tradition which claims that the old pagan gods were in reality fallen angels who had taken up residence on earth as gods, a treatment which is beautifully summarised in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Although it is an angel of God rather than Bartholomew in person who casts out the devil, he is associated with conquering the devil. This is something we find in the tradition around Saint Guthlac of Croyland, who came to his wild fens and established his hermitage on the feast of Bartholomew and henceforth dedicated himself to Bartholomew's patronage. Guthlac's vita was written by Felix already in the eight century, but the story was expanded by a local tradition at Croyland in the twelfth century which had Guthlac chastise demons with a scourge given to him by Saint Bartholomew.

A final point I want to comment on here is the appearance of the devil, described as a black Egyptian. The portrayal of the devil as a black man as an old tradition in Christian hagiography, and can be found already as early - and perhaps earlier - as Athanasius' Life of Antony, written in the fourth century. Here Antony struggles with his fight against a demon, and after a heavy bout of prayer, the demon finally gives in and materialises for Saint Antony:

he appeared, as was fitting, in a form that revealed his true nature: an ugly black boy prostrated himself at Antony's feet, weeping loudly and saying in a human voice, 'Many have I led astray, many have I deceived, but now I have been defeated by your efforts as I was by other holy people.' When Antony asked him who it was who was saying this, he replied, 'I am the friend of fornication. I have used many different kinds of shameful weapon to attrack young people and that is why I am called the spirit of fornication (...)'.
Life of Antony, translated by Carolinne White, Penguin Classics, 1998

The flayed Bartholomew
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.104, Martyrology, Notre-Dame des Prés de Douai, 13th century
Courtesy of

For similar blogposts, see these:

Antony and Guthlac compared

Guthlac using liturgy as a weapon against demons

The bearded women of the far East


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

Rauer, Christine, The Old English Martyrology, D. S. Brewer, 2013

White, Carolinne, Early Christian Lives, Penguin Classics, 1998

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