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

torsdag 31. desember 2015

Narrative and Saints' Lives, part II - Saint-collectives and their figureheads

 In a previous blogpost I wrote down some reflections on the structuring of the narrative in stories about saints. This post was prompted by a reading group I've been arranging at the Centre for Medieval Literature in Odense where I work, in which we've read excerpts from Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine. The present post follows in the same vein, but while the previous post considered narrative in stories which were very brief, I here wish to consider what happens to the narrative when the story contains a great multitude of characters. The post in centred on the story of Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins of Cologne, parts of which legend we translated in the last reading group session of the semester.

I'm also happy to know that the reading group inspired my colleague Alaistair Matthews to blog about his thoughts on the Ursula legend and medieval German literature, which can be read here.

Ursula shielding the virgins in her cloak
Amiens - BM - ms. 0203, f.045, book of hours, use of Rome, 15th century
Courtesy of

The Legend of Ursula

The legend of Ursula has been long in the making, and the story has received elaborating impulses at various points over a long stretch of time. The earliest evidence for a veneration of the virgin martyrs of Cologne is found in an inscription in an old basilica which states that a certain Clematius built this chapel in honour of the martyred virgins of the city. The inscription is believed to be from the fourth, or possibly the fifth, century, and is the foundation for the rest of the legend, although it provides neither names, dates or numbers.

The next step in the development of the legend came in the ninth century, when a sermon was written in natali sanctarum Coloniensum virginum, for the birthday of the holy virgins of Cologne. This birthday refers to the day of their death, considered in the theology of sainthood to be the heavenly birthday of the saint, the day when the saint entered, or was reborn in, Heaven. In this sermon we are for the first time given names and numbers, and it is stated that there were several thousand virgins, foremost of whom was the virgin Pinnosa. The high number of virgins is repeated in the martyrology of Wandalbert of Prüm, c.850, where it is said that there were several thousand of these virgins. This source might have been the Sermo in natali, for the martyrology of Usuard, c.875, only gives the names Martha and Saula and adds that there were several others, and this suggests that the high number of the Sermo had not yet become consensus. However, only a few decades after Usuard the number is set at eleven thousand and this became consensus for the centuries to come.

It was during the course of the tenth century that prose narratives emerged in which the basic story was established: The daughter of a Christian English king, Ursula, is asked for her hand in marriage by a pagan prince. Ursula wants to avoid the marriage, so she asks for a delay of three years, and in this time she summons ten fellow virgins and each of these eleven have a retinue of thousand virgins. They set off in a ship and are borne by the winds to Cologne, and from there they undergo circuitous route which takes them via Basel and Rome back to Cologne again where they are martyred by the Huns. This story is probably derived from an old legend, a version of which is also found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the British Kings, where we find Ursula, eleven thousand noble virgins, and their retinue of sixty thousand young women. 

The ships sailing to Cologne
MS Egerton 3028, f.7, Wace, Roman de Brut, 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

By the thirteenth century, in the time when Jacobus was compiling the Legenda Aurea, the legend had become very elaborate. In the version recorded by Jacobus, Ursula demands that her bethroted is baptized, and she wants to bring the non-Christian virgins of her retinue to baptism as well, thus giving Ursula a more active and apostolic role. As in the above-mentioned legend, Ursula demands ten virgins to follow her, and a retinue of thousand virgins for each of the eleven. The virgins are then brought in from all over the world, and a special mention is made of Gerasina of Sicily who joins Ursula - though not herself a virgin - and brings her five children with her. This is a crucial point in the story, that in addition to the eleven thousand virgins there is a multitude of followers of both sexes who, as it is said, joins this new knighthood of Ursula, all bent on martyrdom.

The virgins and their followers then set out on the route described above and when they arrive in Rome they are greeted by Pope Cyriacus who is British and also fictional. Cyriacus joins up with the virgins and they all leave for Cologne, together with a number of other bishops who had held offices in cities as diverse as Ravenna, Lucca and Antioch. In addition, we learn that Ursula's husband-to-be, Ethereus, is also compelled by an angelic message to leave Britain where he has been residing and go to Cologne to meet his martyrdom.

At this stage in the story we are introduced to the first antagonists of the story, two scheming pagan commanders of the Roman army called Maximus and Africanus. They are concerned that this massive array of Christians "would make the Christian religion flourish overmuch", and so they plot to bring about the death of Ursula and her companions. They therefore communicate with their kinsman Julius, who despite his name and familial relations is the chief of the Huns, and he agrees to march on Cologne and slaughter the Christians. When all the groups of people finally converge on Cologne, it is Justus who plays the role as the traditional tempter as we find it in the classical accounts of virgin martyrs. For as the Huns are slaughtering the Christians, Justus becomes so dazzled by Ursula's beauty that he asks her to marry him. She refuses, and Justus shoots and arrow through her.

The last section of the legend as recounted by Jacobus tells of one virgin, Cordula, who had hidden in the ships during the massacre, but gave up herself and was martyred on the next day, leaving her outside the celebration of the martyrs.

Ursula's martyrdom by a Hun's arrow
Mans (Le) - BM - ms. 0688, f.028, book of hours, c.1435-1440
Courtesy of

Narrative and characters

The account in Legenda Aurea reads more like a chivalric romance rather than a saint's life, and this has been the case since the earliest prose narratives about the virgins of Cologne. The level of elaboration, however, the numerous characters, the profusion of sub-plots and the gathering of people from a wide-ranging geographical spectre, all these are typical of the chivalric romance as this genre came about in the twelfth century, the century which also saw a new surge in the cult of the eleven thousand virgins.

It is interesting to note the strategies employed to make the narrative more accessible to the reader or the listener. The various sub-plots of Gerasina of Sicily, Pope Cyriacus, the Bishop of Greece and his widowed sister, and others, all contribute to make the narrative more episodic. This in turns creates a different curve of suspense than what we find in most other narratives of Legenda Aurea, where the trajectory is more straightforward, more formulaic. Ursula and her companions, however, do not follow the typical trajectory, but rather a trajectory which might be said to bear greater resemblance to that of errant knights in the romances - except that the journey of the virgins are guided by divine power and angelic messages.

Another aspect which emphasises the similarity between chivalric romance and the Ursula story is the wide geographic scope. Ursula's followers come from all over Christendom, from locations which are both exotic and more familiar, at least to the continental audience. Ravenna, Lucca, Sicily, Antioch, Britain, Greece, all these are place-names thrown in seemingly to provide that blend of familiar and exotic which is so typical of the chivalric romance. For example, in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, written in the early 13th century, we find figures like Morholt of Ireland, Lot the king of Norway, Count Lanzidant of Greenland, Kingrisin king of Ascalon and Ipomidon of Babylon, to mention only a few of the most exotic members of the cast. This wide-reaching geographic blend is a staple of the chivalric romance, and in the abovementioned History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, we read how King Arthur subdued a wide range of kingdoms, as illustrated in the chronicle of Peter Langtoft, seen below.

Arthur standing on the crowns he has conquered
MS Royal 20 A II, f.4, English miscellany, c.1307-c.1327
Courtesy of British Library

It is of course natural that a narrative containing such a multitude of characters is in dire need of figureheads and focal points. This explains for instance the various sub-plots of the story, which I suspect should be seen as a sign of inspiration taken from the numerous chivalric romances written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Through these sub-plots, Ursula maintains her role as the architecture of the grand scheme, but it also allows for some pauses from the main action and the introduction to new characters which adds faces and thus personality to a massive blob of around seventy thousand persons marching on Cologne. However, it is worth noting that Ursula is the only protagonist character who is featured throughout the story. Eutherius, her husband, appears twice but is largely inactive, while Gerasina, Cyriacus and the unfortunate Cordula are given their time in the limelight and then never mentioned again - with the possible exception of Cyriacus who is mentioned leaving Rome, but as he has also been featured in the preceding paragraph it might still be said to be a continuous sub-plot. In this way, we are given a long list of names which allow us to create some mental images of the characters involved, but they are treated very briefly. However, since Ursula is the only properly recurring character, she is the one most easily imprinted on the mind of the audience. In a way, it seems like the secondary character are there to lift up Ursula as the main protagonist, like a choir is meant to bring out the soloist more strongly in a musical performance. In this way, the multitude is given several heads but only one figurehead.

Another explanation for the various characters might be to add some verisimilitude to the story by mentioned geographical localities which exist in the real world and which therefore act as guarantors of the account's veracity. To such a strategy it is of no significance that in the temporal setting of this narrative - which Jacobus argues must be set in the mid-fifth century, there was no queen of Sicily, and there was no pope called Cyriacus.

Regardless the explanation for the multitude of secondary characters, the need for a primary protagonist is evident. We can ask ourselves why Ursula ended up as this figurehead rather than Pinnosa mentioned in Sermo in natali sanctarum Coloniensum virginum, but ultimately it is only to be expected that an unwieldy mass of virgins needed at least one named figurehead so that the faithful can direct their prayers more easily, or so that the story is lifted out of mere myth, which is what happens easily when no names are attached to such a massive body of saints.

Ursula and Gerasina
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.376, breviary, use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of

Ursula and the virgins
MS Royal 13 A IX, f.4, Francesco Roseti of Verona, before 1547
Courtesy of British Library

Concluding thoughts

In the medieval calendars and collections of saints' lives we find several feasts which commemorate groups of saints, men and women grouped together because they had shared eminence in their holy works. In the Legenda Aurea alone we find for instance chapters titled "The Seven Brothers", "The Seven Sleepers", "Saint Adrian and His Companions", "Saint Cyriacus and His Companions" (not to be confused with the character in the Ursula legend", "Saint Hippolytus and His Companions", "The Four Crowned Martyrs", and a few more. In most of these stories there are some saints who are more prominent than the others, and the often low number of companions makes it easier to accept these groups, yet even they have their figureheads.

The need for such figureheads can be exemplified not only by the fact that Ursula has become the leader of the group even though hers is not the oldest name featured in the legend. Another instance can be found in a Norwegian legend most likely based on the story of Ursula. This legend is that of Sanctorum in Selio, the holy of Selje. This legend tells of an Irish princess who escaped marriage to a pagan prince by fleeing to Norway. They were brought to the coast of Selje, which is a small portion of the the Western Norwegian coast. When the pagans came after them, Sunniva prayed for deliverance and the holy were buried in an avalanche of rocks. We don't know exactly how old this story is, but we know that the story was known in the mid-eleventh century from references in Adam of Bremen's History of the Diocese of Hamburg. The name of this princess, however, was not given until the twelfth century, when the relics of these men and women were translated to Bergen. She was then called Sunniva, and she is now one of Norway's four saints. That Sunniva emerges as the leader for the group as a late development in the legend is similar to what we see in Ursula, and points to the need for a figurehead in a group of saints as a phenomenon not limited to the legend of the virgins of Cologne.

This need for figureheads is probably not limited only to the medieval cult of saints, especially since there are plenty of postmedieval collectives of saints that are officially recognized. We have for instance the forty martyrs of England and Wales, or the martyrs of Nagasaki in 1622, but I'm not sufficiently familiar with these cases to know whether any figureheads emerged. It will, however, be interesting to see the development of the collective of saints canonized by the Armenian church earlier this year. In commemoration of the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, the Armenian church canonized all 1.5 million victims of the persecution, and the question is whether anyone, and if so who, will emerge as leaders and figureheads of the possibly biggest saint-collective in Christian history.

Ursula and the virgins in the most traditional depiction
Mâcon - BM - ms. 0003, f.003, Jacobus de Voragine, Légende dorée, c.1470
Courtesy of


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2005

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, translated by A. T. Hatto, Penguin Classics, 1980

Ingen kommentarer:

Legg inn en kommentar