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

lørdag 30. april 2016

Excavations in Odense - the Middle Ages brought to light

In the city of Odense, Denmark, where I currently live, there is an ongoing excavation in the city-centre, and today there was an open day at the excavation area for the general public to have a look at some of the recent work. Naturally, I decided to go into town and have a look for myself.

Odense is an old settlement, and its name is first recorded in an imperial charter from 988, a time when Svein Tveskæg (Forkbeard) was king of Denmark. In this charter, Emperor Otto III accords privileges to the Danish bishoprics, and is commonly referred to as Odense's birth certificate. The city itself is much older, and recent archaeological excavations have shown that during the reign of Harald Blåtand (Bluetooth) (c.930-c.987) the city was an important royal centre with defensive ramparts. It was during the reign of Harald Blåtand that Denmark adopted Christianity after pressure from the German empire. This led to the establishment of the Danish bishoprics, and a recent excavation in Odense unearthed a bishop's tomb on the spot where the first church was built in the city. This church was made of wood and dedicated to Saint Alban, the English protomartyr. It was in this church that King Knud IV (Canute) was killed in 1086 following an uprising from the nobility and brought on mainly by excessive taxation. Knud was later translated to a new church and canonized in 1102. This church is the city's cathedral and was a Benedictine church in the Middle Ages.

From the 12th century onwards Odense was an important Danish city and this can be seen in some of the results from the ongoing excavations.

Area of the excavations. To the right, the new, Catholic St. Alban's church (1908)

To the left, the washing tent where the soil from the dig is examined

Much of the ongoing excavation is done outside what was once the bishop's palace (not pictured), and where there had been a cemetery in pre-Reformation times. In the washing tent (above) they have found many remnants from the late-medieval market square and from what is possibly the kitchen scraps from the dinners of several bishops. I popped by the tent and had a look, and only today they had discovered several nutshells, old bones and even fish scales. I was allowed to give the washing a try myself and I felt a distinctly boyish excitement as I was washing away the sand and could find several animal bones and fish scale as well.

In the pictures below we see a house which belonged to the guild of Our Lady in the 15th century. The guild itself was established around 1435, while the house is referred to in a textual document from the mid-fifteenth-century, and it is mentioned as belonging to the guild. The dating of the house itself is still not certain, since it is unknown whether the guild had the house built or whether the guildmen moved into a house that was already in place.

Below are some pictures from the excavated cemetery. The skeletons (see further below) are not yet dated, and an archaeologist at the scene told me that they could be from anywhere between 1000 and 1500.

In the pictures below we see the remnants of a wooden structure far deep in the loam. The archaeologists have suggested that it was a bridge that once crossed a moat built to protect the episcopal palace from attacks. This hypothesis is strengthened by the accounts from when the bishop's quarters were assaulted during the Reformation, when a party of attackers came down the river which runs right next to the palace, charged up to the palace itself and set fire to the doors. This was in the course of a brief civil war in Denmark which raged from 1534 to 36.

The supporting beams of the (probable) bishop's bridge

The light-brown, pointed surface is believed to show the remnants of a supporting structure, strengthening the idea of a bridge

mandag 25. april 2016

The Martyrdom of Mark the Evangelist


Today is the feast of Mark the Evangelist, often believed to have been a disciple of Peter. The shortest and the oldest of the four gospels is attributed to him, and in the Middle Ages a vast repository of legends accrued around him. Most famously, Mark achieved a central position in the mythology of Venice as the city's patron and defender. At a later point I hope to return to the Venetian tradition, whose legitimacy might have been aided by its dissemination through Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea, but for the present post I will give you the passion of Saint Mark as it is told in the Old English Martyrology.

The martyrdom of Saint Mark
BL MS Royal 20 D VI, Lives of the saints, Wauchier de Denain, 2nd quarter of the 13th century
(Courtesy of British Library)

On the same day [as Rogation Day] is the passion of St Mark the Evangelist. He was St Peter's godson in baptism, and he learned from him. And what St Peter said to peopel about Christ during the day, that St Mark then wrote down at night. And he first concealed that from St Peter, wherefore his gospel is thus called furtum laudabile, praiseworthy theft. He was the first Christian bishop in the great city of Alexandria; and he first converted to God's faith the province of Egypt and the province of Libya, and Marmarica, and Pentapolis. In these countries there used to be people so unclean that they worshipped devils and ate carrion. This St Mark healed sick people and lepers, and resuscitated dead people from death. But then some impious men became envous of that [and] went to a church on the first day of Easter when he was celebrating mass, and tied a rope around his neck and dragged him out across the stones on the ground, in such a way that his flesh stuck to the ground and the stones were stained crimson with his blood. And then in the evening they put him into prison; there God's angel appeared to him at night and said to him that the next morning he would depart to eternal rest. And finally Christ himself appeared to him and said to him: 'Peace e with you, our Evangelist Mark.' Then in the morning the pagans dragged him with the rope, until he gave up the ghost to God. Then they wanted to incinerate his body. Then came thunder and rain [and] killed many of the pagans, and the others ran away. And devout men buried his body in a great and wonderful church which is in the city of Alexandria.
- The Old English Martyrology, edited and translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer, 2013: 87-89

onsdag 20. april 2016

The Extinguished Fire - a miracle from the legend of Santa Agnese di Montepulciano

Today is the feast of Santa Agnese di Montepulciano (1268-1317). She renounced a worldly life and left a wealthy family to give herself to the service of Christ, and became a Dominican nun. (This is symbolized by the two dogs carrying torches in the portrait below, an image taken from a dream ascribed to the mother of Dominic de Guzman when pregnant with him.) She became very popular in Montepulciano and further off, and Catherine of Siena became one of her followers. For the general details of Agnese's life, I refer you to this older blogpost.

In this blogpost I wish to present you with a miracle from her vita, the hagiographical account of her life which was written by Raymond of Capua (c.1330-1399). Raymond served as rector of the monastery of Dominican nuns in Montepulciano from 1363 to 1367, and he also became the confessor of Catherine of Siena. He undertook to write a biography of Agnese, possibly inspired by his contact with nuns at Montepulciano who had themselves had contact with her around fifty years ago. Raymond might also have been impressed by the devotion to Agnese evident in the city where she was referred to as Santa Agnese. From his biography of her, we also see that he probably did think that she was indeed a vessel for God's miraculous power. At this time she had not been recognized by the papal authorities as a genuine saint, and Raymond's hagiography seeks to support her case for canonization. This was part of a recent trend within the Dominican order, that they promoted the cults of religious women from their ranks. This trend partly grew out of a genuine belief in the sanctity of these women, but it was also a way for the Dominican order to increase their own prestige.

I hope to return to Raymond of Capua's book on Agnese in later blogposts, but for now I will be content with present a miracle from the third part of Raymond's book. This part is concerned with the miracles wrought after Agnese's death, and the miracle in question comprises the sixth chapter


Agnes of Montepulciano with Dominican dogs, portrait on ceramic
Anonymous artist connected with the circle of Hernando de Valladares,
Second third of the 17th century, Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Another miracle I found often repeated in the book [possibly a compilation of miracles held at Montepulciano] , whose excellent and widespread fame I am driven and constrained to relate unto the glorification of Agnes. In the territory of Perugia there is a hamlet called by its rustic inhabitants Cigliano, in which a few months after Agnes' death, a huge fire, caused by vicious carelessness, was raging out of control. Fear seized the inhabitants because their dwellings were not made of stone but rather of strong wooden beams covered with dried rushes which could only serve as fuel for the flames. Therefore, when they saw that no natural means would save them, since a strong wind was blowing in the direction of the village, the villagers, who had learned by hearsay of the wonderful works of Agnes, ran to divine aid. They made a vow to the holy virgin that, if she delivered their cottages from being burned in the fire, they would personally visit her precious relics. What a wondrous deed, unseen in our days! As the ones making the vow afterward recounted in Montepulciano before the governors of the territory, many notaries and witnesses, under pain of oath, immediately upon utterance of the vow, the fire, robbed of its power, grew cold. It did not touch any cottage, except one which was consumed before the vow. Even more, the ones it had begun to touch it miraculously withdrew from, so that not a trace of the fire could be seen afterward. Whence the narrators of this miracle put forward this testimony with an oath, that, when the fire was raging in one cottage, it was so completely extinguished by the power of Agnes that it was as if a river of water had been poured on it. For this reason, the inhabitants, giving immense thanks to the almighty Lord and to his holy virgin, with one accord fulfilled their vow and boldly and openly proclaimed the stupendous prodigy of Agnes to everyone.
- Raymond of Capua, The Life of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano, translated by Sister Mary Martin Jacobs OP, DNS publications, 2012: 110-12

There are several things to comment on in this brief section, but I will limit myself to two items. First of all, it is interesting to note Raymond's claim that the extinguishing of fire is a miracle "unseen in our days!". The belief that saints could plead for God to aid against wildfire is an old one, and it is attributed to several saints throughout the Middle Ages. The claim that this miracle is "unseen in our days" need not imply novelty, but it does seem to suggest a certain uniqueness, at least within a historical period, which then gives an impression of Agnes having special favour in God's eyes. Miraculous rescue from fire is an old topos, and the claim that a miracle is unique in a certain contemporaneity is likewise a topos of hagiography.

The remaining element I want to comment on pertains to the translation. Unfortunately I do not have Raymond's original Latin text at hand, but there is one word which is of significant importance. This word is Sister Mary's translation "power" when talking about Agnes. The Latin original almost certainly uses "virtus" which can be translated as "power" and is often not translated as such into English, even in cases where the context suggests that to be the right translation. Here, however, I'm tempted to speculate whether "virtus" should rather be rendered as "virtue". This is because to say that the fire was extingusihed "by the power of Agnes" suggests that the agent of the miracle was Agnes herself, while in the theology of miracles the saints are not agents but vessels for the miraculous power of God. I hesitate to criticize the translation without having seen the original, but I do want to emphasize to readers that either "by" or "power" could also be understood differently.


Raymond of Capua, The Life of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano, translated by Sister Mary Martin Jacobs OP, DNS publications, 2012

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the later Middle Ages, translated by Jean Birrell, Cambridge University Press, 2005

torsdag 14. april 2016

Narrative and Saints' Lives, part IV - Saints without their own biographies

In the series of blogposts called Narrative and Saints' Lives I've been exploring how certain features of saint legends affect the narrative. I've talked about how the narrative is affected by a legend's brevity, I've talked about how a narrative deals with a vast number of characters, and I've talked about the use of dialogue, all very briefly and tentatively. In this blogpost I want to address a case where lack of biographical material makes the saints into secondary characters in other legends.

It is not unusual in the history of the cult of saints that the legends of some saints become confused or combined with legends of other saints. In the case of Dionysus the Areopagite he becomes, through a conflation of three historical or semi-historical figures, the French patron saint Denis. In some cases tradition tied legends of different saints together, as happened in Milan after Ambrosius had on two separate occasions unearthed relics of old, near-forgotten saints (which is dealt with here and here).

A similar fate befell the three saints in question, namely Tiburtius, Valerianus and Maximus. In the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, David Farmer summarizes our knowledge of them in the following way: "Roman martyrs who were buried at the cemetery of Praetextatus on the Appian Way. Nothing more is known of them". He then adds that they were given parts to play in the Acts of Cecilia, a hagiographical account of the late fifth century whose historicity is highly dubious, both because it is so removed from the historical Cecilia - whatever can be said of her - and because it merges the legend of the three aforementioned martyrs with her legend. This confusion need not have been deliberate, but it might be seen as a testament to the lack of any independent tradition around Tiburtius, Valerianus and Maximus. As a result of this independent tradition they became subsumed into the legend of Cecilia, but this might also in turn have resulted in their dissemination beyond a merely local cult at Rome.

A testament to this dissemination is found in the Old English Martyrology from the ninth century. Here their story is presented as an independent legend, but their dependence on Cecilia is nonetheless revealed in the inclusion of the antagonist Almachius, who comes from the Cecilia tradition. In the Martyrology the story goes as follows:

On the fourteenth day of the month is the feast of the holy brothers St Valerianus and St Tiburtius; Almachius, the reeve of the city of Rome, forced them under tortures to renounce Christ. When they refused, he commanded them to beheaded. Then the man who was supposed to see that they got beheaded, weeping and swearing an oath - he said that he saw their souls leave the body beautifully adorned, and that he saw God's angels as radiant as the sun, and carried them to heaven with the flying of their wings. And the man then believed in God, and he was beaten to death for Christ, and his name was Maximus.- The Old English Martyrology, translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer, 2013: 81-83.

We see here that this is a very formulaic summary of their martyrdoms, containing several of the typical elements: A pagan figure of power, an unsuccessful torture session with subsequent beheading, and a convert who then submits to death in turn. The name of Almachius is the only specific element, and that belongs to the legend of a different saint.

Tiburtius, Valerianus and Maximus
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.235v, Roman missal, c.1370
Courtesy of

Further testament to the three martyrs' dependence on the Cecilia legend can be found in the Legenda Aurea. Unlike the Old English Martyrology, the Legenda does not give Tiburtius, Valerianus and Maximus their own chapter. Instead, they feature as secondary characters in two other chapters, those of Saint Urban and Saint Cecilia, because the pope and the virgin are also connected according to tradition. In the story of Urban, Tiburtius and Valerianus are mentioned only briefly together with Cecilia. This mention comes from the prefect Almachius, and the three are only mentioned as examples of people Urban has led into Christianity.

A more extensive inclusion of Tiburtius and Valerianus is found in the chapter on Cecilia in Legenda Aurea. In this chapter, Valerianus is the betrothed of Cecilia but is turned from paganism to Christianity by Urban, and the young man is given a substantial part in the narrative. He undergoes the change from jealous lover-to-be to a Christian convert who in turn persuades his own brother Tiburtius to receive the faith of Christ. Valerianus himself is converted in the following way:

Valerian, guided by God's will, said: "If you want me to beleive you, show me this angel of yours, and if I see for myself that he is really an angel, I will do as you are exhorting me to do; but if I see that you love another man, I will finish off both of you with my sword." (...) Valerian set out and, following the directions given to him, found his way to Saint Urban the bishop, who was hiding among the tombs of the martyrs. (...) And now there apepared to them an aged man clothed in garments as white as snow, holding a book written in gold letters. When Valerian saw this, he was so afraid that he fell as if dead, but was raised to his feet by the old man and read in the book: "One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is above all and through all and in all of us." When Valerian had read those words, the old man asked him: "Do you believe that this is so, or do you still doubt?" Valerian exclaimed: "There is nothing else under heaven that could be more truly believed!"
- Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012: 705

The passage in the book is from Paul's letter to the Ephesians 4:5. In this account we see Valerianus as a passionate young man easily swayed by emotion, and he does appear as an individual character with an interior life of his own. However, this lively depiction is made possible because the Valerianus of history is forgotten and only his name remains to be applied at will. The story is a fiction, and the legend of Cecilia becomes in a way a replacement biography for Valerianus and his brother Tiburtius, and also the later convert Maximus.

The hagiographical adoption of Tiburtius, Valerianus and Maximus is not a unique occurrence in the legends of the saints. Because all saints were seen as members of a holy collegium, it was only to be expected that there were crossovers between the legends, either by way of two saints being contemporaneous, or by way of some senior saint posthumously extending his or her care to another saint. This shows the malleability of the legends of the saints, and also how narratives about saints can change significantly over time. 


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

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

Rauer, Christine (ed. and transl.), The Old English Martyrology, D. S. Brewer, 2013