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

fredag 16. oktober 2015

Narrative and Saints' Lives, part I - Abdon and Sennen, and the semblance of historicity

At the Centre for Medieval Literature in Odense where I work, we have recently started up a Latin reading group in which we translate selected stories from Legenda Aurea together. Since we are a centre of literary scholars – in various ways – we always talk about the stories as stories and narrative in addition to what grammatical discussions might arise. This has proved to be a very nice forum for talking about various forms of narrative, partly because we have a wide range of expertise among us and partly because the stories themselves – abbreviated renditions of existing tradition – lend themselves very well to narrative analysis. In this series of blogposts, therefore, I aim to present parts of our discussions and talk about points to be made from the stories. I will attempt to talk about elements and points that I raised in the course of our talk, but when I rely on the ideas of others I will do my best to attribute them as precisely as possible.

Abdon and Sennen holding their palms of martyrdom
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.257v, Roman missal, c.1370
Courtesy of

First up is the story of SS Abdon and Sennen, and since their legend is so very short I will here quote it in full length as translated by William Granger Ryan in the 2012 edition of The Golden Legend (Princeton University Press).

Abdon and Sennen suffered martyrdom under the emperor Decius. When Decius had conquered Babylonia and other provinces, he found some Christians in these regions, brought them back to the town of Cordoba, and put them to death with various tortures. Two officials of that area, whose names were Abdon and Sennen, took the martyrs’ bodies and buried them. When the two were denounced and brought before Decius, he had them bound with chains and brought to Rome with him. There in the presence of the emperor and the Senate, they were ordered either to sacrifice and receive their freedom and goods, or to be devoured by wild beasts. They scoffed at the idea of sacrificing and spat upon the idols, so they were dragged to the circus, and two lions and four bears were loosed upon them. The beasts, however, would not touch the saints but rather stood guard around them, so they were put to death by the sword. Then their feet were tied together and their bodies dragged into a temple and thrown in front of an idol representing the sun god. When the bodies had lain there for three days, a subdeacon named Quirinus took them away and buried them in his house. They suffered about A.D. 253.

Later, in the reign of Constantine, the martyrs themselves revealed the whereabouts of their bodies, and Christians transferred them to the cemetery of Pontianus, where the Lord granted many benefits to the people through them.
- Jacobus de Voragine,
Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger Ryan, 2012: 412

Abdon and Sennen bury the remains of Christians martyrs
Guillaume Courtois, 1656-57
Courtesy of Wikimedia

As can be seen, this is a very compact story and it contains a lot of information and also a wide number of hagiographical topoi. To what extent this story has some truth to its foundation is difficult to assess. This difficulty arises not only from the fact that we lack sources contemporary to the two martyrs, but also because the narrative contains several details which are grounded in historical facts. For instance, Decius was known for his persecutions of Christians, and he did live around the date given, and although he died in 251 and could not have done anything against any Christians in 253, the text saves itself from historical inaccuracy by adding the “about”. Furthermore, that people were taken from Babylonia (which was not the name of the region at the time) all the way to Spain might be based on the Roman practice of transferring auxiliary troops from one end of the empire to the next for the purpose of detaching them from their native power base. These details lend a certain sheen of trustworthiness to the story, and we might speculate whether those are conscious additions made for that particular purpose, or whether we see here a jumbling of vague and confuse memories of a past – but not too distant – century. The reason for thinking so is that although we do not know much about the historicity of Abdon and Sennen, we know that they are included in the Depositio Martyrum which was composed in 354 and accordingly some memory seems to have remained of them (see Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints for details of their cult).

Abdon and Sennen
Retabula painted by Jaume Huguet, 1459-60
Courtesy of Wikimedia

However, notwithstanding the semblances of historical truth, we also find that several of the details in the narrative can be labelled as hagiographical topoi. The Decian persecutions is a typical historical framework for saints of dubious historicity, and this period is one of three in which such saint stories are usually set, the other two being the persecutions under Nero and the persecutions under Diocletian. These are not the only periods of Roman history to be used as historical backgrounds for early saints’ lives, but they are the most common. Accordingly, what appears to be a reasonable date for these two martyrs might merely be a commonplace, a suggestion strengthened by the strange approximation of their death, because although it is not meant to be accurate it takes its starting point two years after Decius’ death.

This leads us to another important point which was presented by my colleagues Lars Boje Mortensen and Alastair Matthews, namely that the occasional presentation of minute details might be a way for the writer to give the impression of an account which comes from eyewitnesses, that the details provide a certain verisimilitude akin to that provided by the echoes of historical facts mentioned above. (It is important to note that “the writer” in this question is not Jacobus de Voragine as he was compiling from older sources.) Accordingly, the precise number of animals (with their mnemonically powerful symmetry), the name and rank of the man who buried them, and the approximate precision of their dating (as pointed out by Boje Mortensen) are all there to provide the narrative with more intensity and to bridge the gap between the times of the reader and the times described.

Abdon and Sennen
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.256v, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of

In addition to this verisimilitude we also see a number of topoi aside from that of its temporal setting. Many details can be found which reminds one of other stories, and either this is done deliberately to invoke that kind of association – a typical feature of hagiography which was intended to lend credence and gravity to the story – or it could be a result of the writer having this array of topoi readily available in his memory.

The most obvious topos is that of the saint being forced to sacrifice to pagan idols and then refuse with holy derision. This is found in a wide range of saint stories, among them St. Catherine and St. Eustace. Another topos is the intended death by wild beasts – also found in St. Eustace – and the ultimate death by sword following the failures of the initial tortures (St. Catherine). Furthermore, that the saints are dragged through the streets can be found for instance in the story of Saint Fermín, while the detail that their remnants are honorably buried by other Christians can be seen for instance in St. Polycarp. That the saints posthumously alerted the faithful of their resting place is a topos perhaps most famously found in the story of Ambrose’s find of the relics of SS Gervasius and Protasius in Milano.

One final point should be mentioned here regarding the narrative progression of the story. The narrative begins in Babylonia and provides the historical setting and an initial geographical setting. Then the story moves to Cordoba and the first batch of martyrs – an unnumbered array of Babylonian Christians – are killed off. This is the preface of the story and in three lines we move from a grand scene with a big cast of characters which traverses a wide space to the deeds of two officials in Cordoba. At this point the narrative makes one more geographical move before it gains complete focus and it is amplified by a number of minute details. It is interesting, and perhaps also significant, that the narrative moves to Rome in order to reach its climax. From the inclusion of Abdon and Sennen in the Depositio Martyrum this might attest to a Roman memory of their martyrdom, and this is further suggested in the quiet epilogue which effectively begins with the abrupt introduction of Quirinius to the stage and the summary of their re-interment.

Abdon and Sennen
Nuremberg chronicles, f.128r, 1493
Courtesy of Wikimedia

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