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 enluminures.culture.fr)
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
Courtesy of Cornish Historic Churches Trust
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 enluminures.culture.fr)
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, et.al., Promoting the Saints, CEU Press, 2011: 1-17
Cornwall Historic Churches Trust