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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world


Gregory of Tours, in his Glory of the Martyrs (8), tells how, on the feast of *Mary (Mother of Christ, S00033), he witnessed a miraculous light emanating from her oratory on a rural estate at Marsat (central Gaul). Written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 580/594..

Evidence ID

E00379

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles

Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Tours

Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs 8

Nam in oratorio Marciacensis domus Arverni territurii eius reliquiae contenentur. Adveniente vero hac festivitate, ego ad caelebrandas vigilias eum accessi. Cumque per obscuram noctem properarem oratorium, suspicio a longe per fenestras ita inmensam claritatem effulgere, ut putaretur ibi multitudo lignorum ac cereorum esse accensa. Credens igitur, quod aliqui devotorum iam nos ad celebrandas vigilias praecessissent, accedo ad ostium, pulso nec quemquam invenio, repertumque ostium clave munitum, cuncta silentio data deprehendo. Quid plura? Transmittimus ad custodem, cui tunc erat observandi cura, ut scilicet ostium, clave exhibita, reseraret. Dum autem ille venit, nos accendimus a foris cereum. Interea aperitur sponte et ostium; ingressisque nobis, credo a caligine peccatorum meorum, claritas, quam admirabamur a foris, apparente cereo nostro, discessit; nihil tamen praeter virtutem gloriosae virginis aliud penitus videre potuimus, unde claritas illa fuisset exorta.

'Relics of Mary are kept in the oratory of an estate at Marsat (
in oratorio Marciacensis domus), in the territory of Clermont. When the day of her festival was near, I travelled to the oratory to keep vigils. As I was hurrying to the oratory in the dark night, I noted at a distance such a bright light shining through its windows that I thought many torches and candles were burning inside. I supposed that some of the pious had preceded me to keep vigils. I approached the door, knocked, but found no one. After discovering that the door was locked tight with a key, I realized that everything was happening in silence. Why say more? I sent for the custodian whose task was to look after the place [and requested] that he of course bring a key and unlock the door. While he was coming, I lit a candle outside. Meanwhile the door swung open on its own, and I entered. But in the glow of my candle the bright light that I had admired from the outside disappeared I think because of the blackness of my sins. Inside I could find nothing from which that bright light had originated except the power of the glorious Virgin.'

Text: Krusch 1969, 43. Translation: Van Dam 2004, 10.

Festivals

Saint’s feast

Cult Places

Cult building - dependent (chapel, baptistery, etc.)

Non Liturgical Activity

Visiting graves and shrines
Vigils

Miracles

Miracle after death
Miraculous sound, smell, light

Relics

Unspecified relic
Privately owned relics

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops

Source

Gregory, bishop of Tours from 573 until his death (probably in 594), was the most prolific hagiographer of all Late Antiquity. He wrote four books on the miracles of Martin of Tours, one on those of Julian of Brioude, and two on the miracles of other saints (the Glory of the Martyrs and Glory of the Confessors), as well as a collection of twenty short Lives of sixth-century Gallic saints (the Life of the Fathers). He also included a mass of material on saints in his long and detailed Histories, and produced two independent short works: a Latin version of the Acts of Andrew and a Latin translation of the story of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

Internal references to datable events and to other work by Gregory, suggest that he wrote the greater part of his
Glory of the Martyrs between 585 and 588, though there is one chapter (ch. 82), long before the end of the book, that describes an event that is most readily dated to 590. It is in fact likely that Gregory was collecting and recording these stories throughout his life, and, fortunately for our purposes, precise dating is not of great importance, since his views on the role of saints and the correct ways to venerate them do not seem to have changed during his writing life. The work was probably never fully completed and polished: the version we have closes with four very disparate chapters, including one (105) about the divine punishment of an avaricious woman that bears no obvious connection to the overall theme of the book. (For discussions of the dating, see Van Dam 2004, xi-xii; Shaw 2015, 104-105, 111.)

In his preface, Gregory states that his aim in the work is 'to publicise some of the miracles of the saints that have until now been hidden' (
aliqua de sanctorum miraculis, quae actenus latuerunt, pandere), so, as in his Glory of the Confessors, his focus is not on the lives of the saints, nor on the details of their martyrdoms, but on miracles they have effected, particularly through their relics. Miracles are recorded from many places; but unsurprisingly the largest number is from Gaul.

The book opens, rather curiously, with a sizeable number of miracles and relics of Jesus and his mother Mary, neither of them conventional 'martyrs'. The explanation for this must be that Gregory's interest was really much more in relics and miracles in general than in martyrs specifically. Many of the Gallic saints he included are somewhat obscure, but outside Gaul he concentrates for the most part on major saints; towards the end of the book, however, he slips in a couple of lesser Syrian saints, probably because they had interesting specialisms: Phokas and Domitios, with, respectively, particular skills at curing snake bites and sciatica. In the case of the non-Gallic saints, it is not always clear whether they were attracting active cult in Gaul – Phokas and Domitios, for instance, almost certainly didn't. It is only when Gregory tells us of a church dedication or relic that we can be certain that the saint concerned had serious cult in Gaul: in the case of the martyrs of Rome, for instance, this is true of Clement and Laurence, but not of Chrysanthus and Daria, Pancratius, and John I.


Although each section contains extraneous material, the work can be broken down
very roughly into the following sections:
   *Chapters 1-7: Miracles and relics of Jesus (with some of Mary), including three chapters (5-7) on relics of the Passion. (For the most part, these chapters are not covered in our database.)
   *Chapters 8-19: Miracles and relics of Mary and John the Baptist.
   *Chapters 20-25: Miraculous images of Jesus, and a spring associated with Easter.
   *Chapters 23-34: Miracles and relics of the Apostles and Stephen (i.e. New Testament saints).
   *Chapters 35-41: Miracles and relics of the post-apostolic martyrs of Rome.
   *Chapters 42-46: And of northern Italy.
   *Chapters 47-77: And of Gaul (in no obvious order, except that the first three chapters are occupied by early martyrs). This is the longest section of the book.
   *Chapters 78-87: Very miscellaneous, with only marginal references to saints: three anti-Arian stories (79-81); two stories regarding relics of Gregory's (82-83); four stories of the punishment of impure people (84-87).
   *Chapters 88-102: Miracles and relics of martyrs of Spain, Africa (just one, Cyprian of Carthage), and the East, in that order.
   *Chapters 103-106: Miscellaneous.

But tight structuring was never a great concern of Gregory's, so within this broad framework, he often wanders off his main theme. For instance, a clutch of miracle stories relating to John the Baptist (chs. 11-13) lead Gregory into a general discussion of the River Jordan (ch. 16), which then leads him to discuss some springs near Jericho (ch. 17), linked to the preceding chapter by the common theme of 'miraculous waters in the Holy Land', but with no connection to any martyr. Similarly, a miracle story involving relics of St Andrew and the punishment of an Arian count (ch. 78) leads Gregory into three stories against Arians with no relation to saints. These digressions did not bother Gregory and are part of the charm of his work.

Gregory very seldom tells us about his sources, which for the most part were certainly oral; he had a wide circle of acquaintances within the Gallic church, and also met and collected stories from travellers from abroad, including (if the source is to be believed) a man who had travelled to India (ch. 31). But Gregory also used a range of written texts, including Eusebius'
Ecclesiastical History (chs. 20 and 48), the poems of Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, and Venantius Fortunatus, and a substantial number of Martyrdoms (Van Dam 2004, xiv-xvi).

Because many of his stories are set abroad,
Glory of the Martyrs is less informative about cult practices than Glory of the Confessors, with its very local and very Gallic focus, but it is still a gold-mine of information. To take just two examples: the story of Benignus of Dijon is a remarkably rich and detailed account of the discovery and enhancement of a previously unknown martyr (ch. 50), while that of Patroclus of Troyes shows the importance of a written Martyrdom, and the degree of scepticism that might greet a new one (ch. 63).

There is a good general discussion of
Glory of the Martyrs in Van Dam 2004, ix-xxiii, and of Gregory's hagiography more widely in Shaw 2015.

(Bryan Ward-Perkins)


Discussion

For an overview of the Glory of the Martyrs see E00367.

This passage is one of many in his works, in which Gregory refers to his own experience and memories. For a discussion of the date of the visit (before or after Gregory's ordination as bishop in 573), and for a precise identification of the place mentioned, see Van Dam 2004, 10. Of particular interest here is the presence of a relic housed on a rural estate, and perhaps in private ownership (though, as Van Dam argues, the estate may already have been in the possession of the church of Tours).

The feast mentioned is the one Gregory sets in 'the middle of the eleventh month', according to the sentence preceding the quoted passage (see E00378).


Bibliography

Edition:
Krusch, B., Liber in gloria martyrum, in: Gregorii Turonensis Opera. 2: Miracula et opera minora (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.2; 2nd ed.; Hannover, 1969).

Translation:
Van Dam, R., Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs (Translated Texts for Historians 4; 2nd ed., Liverpool, 2004).

Further reading:
Shaw, R., "Chronology, Composition, and Authorial Conception in the Miracula", in: A.C. Murray (ed.), A Companion to Gregory of Tours (Leiden-Boston 2015), 102-140.


Record Created By

Marta Tycner

Date Last Modified

03/07/2020

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristCertain


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