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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


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


Adomnán, in his On the Holy Places, reports the recent visit of the Franco-Gallic bishop Arculf to a church dedicated to *Mary (mother of Christ, S00033), at the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Written in Latin at Iona (north-west Britain), possibly 683/689.

Evidence ID

E06082

Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries

Major author/Major anonymous work

Adomnán

Adomnán, On the Holy Places - Book Two

II. DE LOCO NATIUITATIS DOMINI
1. In eiusdem uero ciuitatis orientali et extreme angulo quasi quaedam naturalis dimedia inest spelunca, cuius interior ultima pars presepe Domini nominatur, in quo natum puerum reclinauit mater. 2. Alius uero supradicto contiguus presepio introentibus propior locus propriae natiuitatis Dominicae traditur fuisse. 3. Illa ergo Bethlemitica spelunca presepis Dominic tota intrinsecus ob ipsius Saluatoris honorificantiam marmore adornata est pretioso. 4. Cui utique semiantro super lapidem caenaculum sanctae Mariae eclesia supra ipsum locum ubi Dominus natus specialius traditur grandi structura fabricata fundata est.

'(2) CONCERNING THE PLACE OF THE LORD'S NATIVITY
In the extreme eastern corner of that city is what seems to be a natural half-grotto. The very innermost portion is called the manger of the Lord in which the mother laid the child when he was born; another spot, however, close by the above-mentioned manger, but nearer the entrance, is the traditional place of the actual nativity of the Lord. Accordingly the whole of that cave of Bethlehem, with the Lord's manger, is completely covered on the interior with precious marble in honour of the Saviour; and the half-grotto, covered by the stone cenacle, is surmounted by the church of the holy Mary, a magnificent structure built exactly over the spot where the Lord is said to have been born.'

Text and translation: Meehan 1958, 74-5, lightly modified.

Cult Places

Cult building - independent (church)
Place associated with saint's life

Non Liturgical Activity

Pilgrimage

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops

Source

On the Holy Places records across three books the travels of Arculf, an otherwise unknown Gallic bishop (sanctus episcopus gente Gallus), through diverse sacred sites in Jerusalem (Book one); Palestine, Syria, and Egypt (Book two); and Constantinople and Sicily (Book three). In the preface, Abbot Adomnán of Iona (ob. 704) explains that ‘in response to my careful enquiries he dictated to me … this faithful and accurate record of all his experiences … first I wrote it down on tablets (tabulis): it will now be written succinctly on parchment (in membranis breui)’. Bede, writing in 731, would lreport that Adomnán gave a copy of the volume to King Aldfrith of Northumbria (northern Britain) on a visit to his kingdom (Ecclesiastical History, 5.15). We know from Adomnán himself and other Irish sources that at least two such visits took place, in 687 and 689, thus establishing the latter date as the probable terminus ante quem for the work. Its terminus post quem is more difficult to determine. Meehan supposed that the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81) might have occasioned Arculf’s visit to the imperial capital. This is attractive, although ultimately conjectural. Yet if it were the case, we might – helped by Adomnán’s claim that the bishop spent nine months at Jerusalem – date Arculf’s adventures to around 679-82, and thereby the composition of On the Holy Places to no earlier than about 683. The work appears to have been popular. It survives in 22 manuscripts, the earliest of which are 9th century continental productions. Bede spoke of its ‘many readers’ (legentibus multis), and produced his own abridged version of the text in around 703.

On the Holy Places is more, however, than a straightforward itinerary. Adomnán embellishes and adapts Arculf’s account throughout with his own authorities on the Holy Land: chiefly the works of Jerome, but also texts such as Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle, Hegesippus’ Histories, Iuvencus’ History of the Gospels, Eucherius of Lyon’s On the Layout of Jerusalem, as well as the Bible. Recent scholarship has also identified the degree to which the narrative of On the Holy Places is highly controlled and exegetical; this has asserted the text’s sophisticated theological qualities and, significantly, the authorial primacy of Adomnán, raising him above his status in older studies as merely Arculf’s amanuensis or ‘stenographer’ (O’Loughlin 2007). This has led in turn to the radical proposition that Arculf may perhaps have never existed, and been only a literary device of Adomnán. It appears strange, O’Loughlin has suggested, that Arculf’s journey appears to have accorded so well with Adomnán’s literary and theological interests; besides, the bishop is unheard of elsewhere, and the probability of him coming to Ireland or north-west Britain via a shipwreck (as Bede claimed), after a journey around the eastern Mediterranean, seems doubtful.

This may go too far. Further work has now reasserted the degree to which – in
addition to, and in dialogue with, its literary models – Adomnán’s text does contain important evidence for the later 7th century Near East, which must have almost certainly come from a recent, eyewitness account (Hoyland and Waidler, 2014). The arguments against Arculf’s existence are in any case not compelling. Franco-Gallic episcopal lists survive patchily enough from the 7th century to account for his disappearance from his homeland’s records, while the suggestion he came directly to Britain through a shipwreck, after being swept away by storms, is made only by Bede, writing some years later: Adomnán and Arculf’s encounter could well have involved less drama than the Northumbrian monk imagined. Other sources show that connections between Gaul and the 7th century Irish church were relatively strong. It should not seem too surprising that the abbot of Iona might have found the opportunity to interview a figure such as Arculf at some point, shipwreck or not.

Adomnán’s account focuses almost entirely on biblical sites – many of his titular
Holy Places are those directly associated with the life of Christ, and therefore not included in our database. Beyond these, the cult activity he reports almost exclusively revolves around Old and New Testament figures, most prominently Mary: of the post-biblical saints, only Jerome (E06084) and George (E06094) receive mention. Although Adomnán reports that Arculf visited a cult site of the latter in Palestine, he saves this story for his third book, set predominantly in Constantinople. This is noticeably distinct in tone from those that precede it, and the only part of the work to feature miracles, two of which explicitly involve the veneration of images and the gross ill-doing of those who offend them (E06094, E06117). If Brubaker and Haldon (2011) are correct in arguing that neither the Byzantine cult of images, nor the controversy over them, predated the period c. 680, then these closing passages of On the Holy Places would seem to confirm that Bishop Arculf’s journey was indeed a real one, and cannot have long preceded Adomnán’s adaptation and propagation of his account.


Discussion

Meehan: 'This famous church remains one of the best preserved and most celebrated monuments of antiquity. It is the subject of an exhaustive monograph by Vincent and Abel (Bethléem, Le Sanctuaire de la Nativité, Paris, 1914), the conclusions of which were considerably modified by subsequent excavation. Its Constantinian origin seems established (it is mentioned in 333 by the Bordeaux pilgrim - ibi basilica facta est iussu Constantini); but it was very considerably remodelled, if not totally rebuilt, by Justinian' (Meehan 1958, 25).


Bibliography

Editions:
Meehan, D.M., Adamnan’s De locis sanctis (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3; Dublin, 1958), with English translation.

Bieler, L.,
Adamnanus, De locis sanctis libri tres, in: Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 175; Turnhout, 1965), 175-243 (see also 249-80 for Bede’s version).

Further reading:
Brubaker, L., and Haldon, J., Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History (Cambridge, 2011), 50-68, 781-2.

Hoyland, R.G., and Waidler, S., "Adomnán’s
De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East," English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 787-807.

Ní Dhonnchadha, Máirín, "Adomnán [St Adomnán], (627/8?-704),"
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/110

O’Loughlin, T.,
Adomnán and the Holy Places: The Perceptions of an Insular Monk on the Locations of the Biblical Drama (New York, 2007).


Record Created By

Benjamin Savill

Date Last Modified

10/07/2019

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristMariaCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
Benjamin Savill, Cult of Saints, E06082 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E06082