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

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

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