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

lørdag 29. februar 2020

SS Protus and Hyacinth in Cornwall - a speculative blogpost

Yesterday, I saw a tweet from the Church of St Protus and Hyacinth in Blisland, North Cornwall. The image showed a lovely chancel ceiling which appeared to be late medieval, and it was a good reminder that it is about time I pay my first visit to Cornwall. What particularly struck me, however, was the dedication of the church, as the names of these two saints were familiar, but very unexpected in the context of a church dedication. Since I have not seen the church with my own eyes, and since I am no expert on the history of Cornwall, I have a lot of unanswered question about the church at Blisland. These questions kept churning in my mind, and I decided to write up some of my thoughts on why this dedication was such a surprise to me, and what the implications of the dedications might possibly be. The reader should note, however, that this is a speculative text, in which I draw on my wider knowledge of medieval history and the cult of saints, trying to understand this particular church in light of that knowledge. Everything I know about this church is drawn from this website, and this website.

St Protus and Hyacinth, Blisland
(courtesy of Wikimedia)

The reason why the dedication of this church caught me by surprise is that the two saints in question, Protus and Hyacinth, are old but not very popular or famous saints. While their antiquity ensured that they were included in the liturgical repertoires of the new church provinces of the expanding Latin Church, their legend does not appear to have been widely known prior to its inclusion in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine in the 1260s. A church dedication is therefore a mark of importance that is rarely associated with these saints.

The earliest source to their existence, as far as I'm aware, is one of the epigrammes of Pope Damasus I (r.366-84), a series of inscriptions he had engraved on monuments pertaining to the saints of Rome. In epigramme 49, Damasus refers to the two as brothers. Later on, the pair became associated with the story of Saint Eugenia, another Roman martyr, and these three saints can often be found depicted together. The most common timeframe for the martyrdom of the two brothers is the reign of Valerian (253-60), and their feast-day is September 11. Their historicity, however, is questionable. This is mainly because the epigrammes of Pope Damasus I had a propagandist purpose: It was a series of inscriptions mapping the sacred geography of Rome. These were written at a time when the Roman church was not only a legal religious entity, but also the leading religious entity in a Rome whose non-Christian elite was increasingly either converting or withdrawing to the countryside. This was a consequence of the city having lost much of its administrative importance in the course of the past hundred years. Through his epigrammes, Damasus sought to reclaim the Roman past for the Christian triumphalist narrative, and while these epigrammes are good and trustworthy indicators of actual cult sites and actual beliefs in the mid-fourth-century, they are not necessarily good sources to the historicity of the saints in question.     

Protus and Hyacinth
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.327, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1414 
(courtesy of

Since there appears to have been no saint-biography outlining the story of Protus and Hyacinth, it is likely that the core of the disseminated legend was quite short. To my knowledge, these two saints have not attracted much interest, neither from medieval saint-biographers nor from modern scholars, and little is known about the dissemination prior to the 1260s. This changed with the writing of Legenda Aurea, since their inclusion guaranteed that their story was disseminated along with the legend collection, and almost all medieval depictions of the brothers that I have found have been late-medieval. This, however, does not mean that their legend or their cult became more popular after 1260.

Saint Protus and Hyacinth, Blisland

Considering the scarcity of source material to their cult, a church dedication to Protus and Hyacinth in Cornwall was indeed unexpected, and it made me speculate as to how this dedication could have come about. This mystery deepens when we consider that the oldest surviving sections of the church at Blisland are Romanesque and thus from the Norman period, i.e. late eleventh or twelfth century. Such a late date does not explain the dedication, far from it. Since Protus and Hyacinth were saints of antiquity but not popularity, and since there is little to suggest that their cult was strong in either Normandy or England at the time, it is even more surprising that such obscure and almost obsolete saints should be granted the honour of a church dedication at a point in time, and in a historical framework, when many other saints would be more relevant.

One possible solution to this mystery is quite simply that the dedication is misidentified. The church itself is commonly called Saint Pratt's, which has been taken to be a local corruption of Protus, an identification that has been accepted by such authorities as David Farmer in his Oxford Dictionary of Saints. It is a reasonable identification, but not certain, and it might be that there is another saint who gave their name to the church at Blisland. Such a solution, however, does not explain why this dedication should have come about at such a late date.

Another possible explanation is the date of the dedication itself. If this was done on September 11, Protus and Hyacinth might have been chosen because it was their feast-day. Such an explanation, however, is unsatisfying, because the date of a dedication can be chosen by the patrons of the church, be it a cleric or a layman. Consequently, if the date of the dedication was September 11, this date had been chosen in advance and thus reflected the patron's original choice of dedicatees. We are, in other words, back to the same question: Why Protus and Hyacinth.

A third explanation is that the dedication is older than the church, and that it might point to a structure pre-dating the Norman church. The history of Christianity in Cornwall goes back to around the fifth and sixth centuries, at least, and it was part of a network of dissemination of ideas, iconography and cult that also encompassed Bretagne and Ireland. If the dedication at Blisland really does belong to Protus and Hyacinth, and if this does indeed point to an older, now unknown, structure, the dedication to an obscure pair of Roman saints might be a bit more comprehensible.

It might be that the story of Protus and Hyacinth was disseminated into France and Bretagne at a relatively early stage, i.e. during the third or fourth centuries, while the knowledge of the martyred brothers was still relatively fresh in the collective memory of the expanding Christian community of the Western Roman Empire. They might have had a greater importance than they were to have in subsequent centuries. However, we know little about which stories were disseminated at this time, so this remains speculation. Nonetheless, if the legend of Protus and Hyacinth came into Cornwall in the early stage of its Christianisation, it might be that the saints came to be associated with the Christianisation process in a way that ensured them greater popularity and importance than they enjoyed elsewhere. Such a local importance granted to otherwise relatively unimportant saints is not an uncommon phenomenon in newly Christianised geographies. Such a hypothesis thus suggests that the two saints were at one point sufficiently important to have an impact on the Christian year in Cornwall. This, however, remains speculation, but such speculation is at times important when the source material is so scant, and when what survives presents us with such a vast array of unanswerable questions. 

Protus and Hyacinth
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.269, Roman Missal, c.1370
(courtesy of


Butler, Alban, Lives of Saints, the James Duffy edition, 1866 (from bartleby)

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004 (4th edition)

Ihm, Maximilian, Damasi Epigrammata, 1895

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

Sághy, Marianne, "Pope Damasus and the Beginnings of Roman Hagiography", printed in Gecser,, Promoting the Saints, CEU Press, 2011: 1-17


Cornish Churches

Cornwall Historic Churches Trust

tirsdag 25. februar 2020

Minor pleasures - an initial from a twelfth-century manuscript

This week is an incredibly busy week, and my mind is compartmentalising my sundry tasks to such an extent that I pretty much have a tunnel vision. This leaves very little energy for other tasks, so as a way to unwind it's pleasant to idly ruminate on some of the minor treasures I have accumulated in my files throughout an as-yet continuing academic career.

One such treasure is the initial below, belonging to Epitoma historiarum Philippicarum Pompei Trogi by the second-century Roman historian Justinus. An epitome in this sense is a summary, or a shortened version of a longer work, a kind of digest that extracted the elements of key importance and adapted it according to the new author. I encountered this initial by chance and was mesmerised by it. To me, the O appeared as a miniature model of the universe, the earth placed in the middle per the geocentric cosmological view. I have since been reliably informed by a friend and colleague who is an art historian that this is not the case, but the initial remains a wonder of medieval quillwork.   

Justinus, Epitoma historiarum Philippicarum Pompei Trogi
(courtesy of

lørdag 22. februar 2020

Saint Peter's Chair - a feast of papal identity

Peter seated
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0528, f.141, homiliary, C12 
(courtesy of

Today, February 22, is the feast of Saint Peter's Chair. This feast commemorates the founding of the bishopric of Antioch. According to early tradition, and based on the historical meeting of Peter and Paul in Antioch as recorded in Galatians 2:11-14, Peter established Antioch as a centre of preaching and served as its leader for a number of years. The name bishopric is a later projection onto the incipient infrastructure, and also conveys a succession and connection to later bishops of Antioch that is historically doubtful. This feast of Saint Peter's Chair is one of two such feasts from the medieval tradition. On January 18 another feast was celebrated, this time commemorating Peter's supposed founding of the see of Rome. This feast is now no longer included in modern Catholic calendars.

The idea of Peter as a founding bishop was, and remains, the linchpin of the institutional identity of the papal see. The pope is seen as the apostolic successor of Saint Peter, and the supporters of this view points to Matthew 16:18, where Christ says to Peter that he is the rock (petra - rock in Greek) upon which Christ's church was to be built. This verse is inscribed on the inside of the base of the main cupola in Saint Peter's basilica in Rome, for instance.

The notion that Rome is the centre of institutional Christianity came about in the Early Middle Ages. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) was one of the most vocal promoters of the primacy of Rome, but for the first seven centuries of Christian history Rome was just one bishopric among many, and a bishopric that was entangled in various local conflicts on the Italian peninsula. Granted, Rome had a symbolic importance, as it was accepted that both Peter and Paul were executed and buried there, but in terms of power, it was not until the alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the papal see that things began to slowly turn in a different direction. Even so, it would take centuries before the Roman pontiff became a powerful figure on the political scene beyond Italy.

Saint Peter as pope
Besançon - BM - ms. 0007, f.240v, Bible, C13 
(courtesy of

Papal power in the Middle Ages rested in large part on the symbolism of the city and of its connection to Peter. Consequently, Peter became an important figure in the establishment of a papal institutional identity. There are numerous pieces of evidence to showcase how reliant papal identity was, and remains, on the figure of Saint Peter. Churches, liturgical feasts, iconography, history-writing, all contribute to establish, formulate and perpetuate the idea that Peter was the first pope. Among other things, this can be seen in the plethora of medieval illuminations in which Peter is presented in papal regalia, holding one or two keys - the keys to Heaven and Earth which comprise the papal coat of arms - and often sitting on a cathedra, the bishop's seat. In this blogpost, I have collected a few examples from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that point to the papal iconography with which these images of Saint Peter are imbued. Three of these four pictures are made in France, and this points to the universality of the idea of Peter as pope in medieval Latin Christendom. 

Saint Peter holding one of his two keys
Dijon - BM - ms. 0021, f.031, Glossed bible, c.1270-80, Paris
(courtesy of

The most recent example I have chosen to include is not made in France, but it ended up in France by historical necessity, as it were. The example in question is a missal containing the Use of Rome, i.e. the list of feasts and their classification that was based on the liturgical performance in the bishopric of Rome. This missal is a sumptuous book produced in Bologna around 1370, a point in time when the leader of the see of Rome was not in Rome but in Avignon in Southern France. While we do not know exactly when the missal was made, it is believed that it was made for Pope Urban V, who returned to Rome in 1367 (but stayed only for a brief period). As Urban died in 1370, the missal passed on to his successors, and it remained in the papal residence at Avignon, even with the return of the pope to Rome in 1376. Consequently, when a series of popes elected by the French cardinals but not acknowledged by the Italian cardinals, these popes - antipopes or Avignon popes - returned to Avignon. The first of these Avignon popes was Robert of Geneva, who took the name Clement (VII), who reigned from 1378 to 1394. Thus, he became the new owner of the missal.

The Bolognese makers of the missal, however, could in no way anticipate how things would turn out. They made the missal for a pope who might at that time have returned to Rome, or might still be in Avignon. But regardless of the pope's geographical location, the pope remained the bishop of Rome, and consequently the missal had to follow the Roman liturgy, and contemporary Roman iconography. This is seen in the various episcopal figures among the saints illuminated in the initials, and among these we find Peter, rendered in the sumptuous garbs of the fourteenth-century Roman pontiff, holding the two keys and wearing the tiara of the papal authority. Despite the ongoing controversy over the fact that the bishop of Rome had resided outside of Rome for decades, the papal identity remained rooted in the idea that Peter was the first of the popes and that the popes were his apostolic successors. The feast of Saint Peter's Chair is one of the feasts that commemorate this papal identity, even though this particular feast was originally celebrated in commemoration of his establishment of the See of Antioch.

Peter as pope 
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.232, Roman missal, Bologna, c.1370
(courtesy of

lørdag 15. februar 2020

For the feast of Saint Sigfrid

Today is the feast of Saint Sigfrid of Växjö in Sweden, the patron saint of the city and of the region of Småland. His legend survives in thirteenth-century sources, and according to this legend he was the archbishop of York in the early eleventh century, who went to Sweden on the invitation of the pagan Swedish king who wanted to learn about Christianity. This king was Olof Skötkonung (d.c.1022), who is the first recorded individual to have claimed rulership over both the Geats and the Swedes, which were the two main political entities of medieval Sweden.Olof Skötkonung (interpreted as tax-king) is a historical figure, but Sigfrid's historicity is highly dubious. We do know that there has never been an archbishop of York by that name, and the English king Mildrith who also appears in the legend is likewise not authentic. 

Växjö Cathedral

The legend of Sigfrid continues with a description of his arrival in Denmark, where he was greeted by King Svend (presumably Svend Forkbeard who died in 1014). The Danish king was himself a Christian, and had Sigfrid escorted safely to the Swedish border. By this point in time, Denmark extended into the region of Skåne, or Scania, which today belongs to Sweden. Consequently, at Sigfrid's time, it was Småland that constituted the border zone between the politically fragmented Sweden and the more centralised Denmark.

In Småland, Sigfrid set up camp by Lake Växjö, a name that I have seen interpreted as veg-sjö, or road-lake, i.e. a lake by the crossroads. If correct, this name points to the existing trade routes through forests and by water that were in place at the time of Sigfrid's alleged arrival. This also makes sense, considering that Christian missionaries - historical or mythical - were not pioneers in unknown lands, but settled where there already existed networks of human contact and infrastructures by which the new faith could be disseminated. Close to Lake Växjö, he established his first church, said to be on the spot where the cathedral stands today. While Sigfrid's church is mythical, it is likely that a wooden church was erected in the early stages of the Christianisation of the area. It is also likely that this wooden church was placed where the cathedral stands today, because when Växjö became a bishopric in 1170, the building of a new stone church was started. This stone church were a replacement for the previous wooden structure, and likely raised on the same foundations - this is a very common pattern in the history of Nordic churches.

In the first stages of Sigfrid's missionary campaign, he was aided by his three nephews that he had brought with him from England. They were named Unaman, Sunaman and Vinaman, and they were in charge of the nascent church while Sigfrid went to visit King Olof to tell him about his progress. While Sigfrid was away, a group of twelve local aristocrats - i.e. rich farmers and chieftains - conspired against the three nephews. These twelve had been selected as honorary members of the church organisation, presumably in imitation of Christ's apostles, and possibly also with a nod to the twelve monks that were chosen by Benedict of Nursia in his establishment of the Benedictine Order. The twelve Swedes, eventually, stole into the sleeping quarters of the nephews and decapitated them. The bodies were buried and the heads thrown into Lake Växjö.

When Sigfrid learned about this, he returned to Växjö and as he was walking by the lake a celestial light shone down on the water, revealing the three heads placed in a small wooden tub. The heads spoke to him, and vowed revenge on later generations. The culpits were later punished by Olof Skötkonung, and Sigfrid continued his work as the first bishop of Sweden. He later died peacefully, and is therefore listed as a confessor in the calendars. 

Since today is the feast of Sigfrid, there was a concert in the cathedral featuring excerpts from the liturgical office, which survives in thirteenth-century sources. The arrangement was organised by Karin S. Lagergren, a friend and colleague at Linnaeus University whose research is the foundation for the musical arrangement, and the recording of a CD of Sigfrid's liturgy. It was a wonderful experience with beautiful music permeating the sacred space of the cathedral and bringing to life the mythical and inauthentic figures, whose story nonetheless is likely based on some collective memory from the time of conversion. This office was likely composed in the bishopric of Växjö - thus pointing to the existence of a scriptorium at the cathedral - and from there it was disseminated throughout the Swedish metropolitan see (which had been established in 1164). The performance, in this way, brought me closer to how the story of Sigfrid, and how the identity of the cathedral, was communicated to the medieval community of clerics from the thirteenth century onwards.

Following the concert, I had a stroll by Lake Växjö, following the shore where Sigfrid mourned his nephews and miraculously found their heads. There was no celestial light today, but it was nonetheless a very atmospheric afternoon, and with my head filled with the watery imagery of the Sigfrid legend, it became somewhat easier to imagine the scenes of the story. It was, in other words, easy to see how the legend and the landscape in combination served to solidify an identity centred on the figure of Sigfrid. We now know that he never existed, but to the Swedes in the twelfth century onwards he was, and he became the representative of their identity both in relation to the local geography and in relation to the Swedish history as a whole.