Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter Monday- How the Legend of the True Cross Travelled West, Part 1

There were Christian communities in the British Isles before Rome withdraw in AD 410.  How did they come to know the various legends of the True Cross and when did they hear the stories? Not much is known about the arrival of Christianity in Roman occupied Britain. The most obvious speculation is that the Christians arrived with Roman legions and ordinary Christians who settled there.  Tertullian, writing in Greek before AD 220 and translated, wrote about the spread of Christianity “into the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons-inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.”[i] Gildas wrote in the 6th century de Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae gives the names of three martyrs presumably killed during the Diocletian persecutions (303), Alban, Aaron and Julium:

sanctum albanum uerolamiensem, aaron et iulium legionum urbis ciues ceterosque utriusque sexus diuersis in locis summa magnanimitate in acie christi perstantes dico.[ii]

The Venerable Bede (d. 735) writing in his Martyrology for 22 June (ad X Kal. Jul) noted the death of Alban by beheading.[iii]  In his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, Chapter 7, he recorded a fuller account of the martyrdom of Alban, who gave his life for a Christian priest whom he had sheltered and offered hospitality.[iv]

Page from Bede, The Ecclesiastical History. British Library Harley 4978, f.98. Made in central France (Flavigny? and Reims) 3rd quarter of the 9th century. 

Though scholars may question the timing and veracity of the stories of martyrs, there is evidence for sufficient numbers of Christians living in Roman-Britain that bishops were needed to lead them. Three bishops attended the Concilio Arelatensi or Council of Arles in AD 314 convened by Emperor Constantine.  Adelfius, episcopus de civitate colonia Londinensium, was apparently the most senior because he traveled with Sacredos, presbyter, and Arminunius, deacon. The other two were Eborius, episcopus de civitate Eboracensi, provincia Britanniæ [Ivor, bishop of York] and Restitutus, episcopus de civitate Londinens [bishop of London]. Colonia Londinensium has been translated as Lincoln or Colchester or Caerleon-on-Usk .[v]

Christianity did not disappear from the British Isles when the Roman legions left. In the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine entry for AD 431 reads “Palladius, having been ordained by Pope Celestine, was the first bishop sent to the Scots [Scoti or Irish] believing in Christ.” The religious community at Iona was founded by Columba in 564 more than 30 years before the mission lead by Augustine sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the king of Kent married to a Christian princess, daughter of the Merovingian king, Charibert I.  That there were Christian Britons can be inferred when Augustine wrote to Pope Gregory I asking about his authority over the bishops of the Britons in the Libellus Responsionum.  The Pope granted Augustine authority over these bishops.[vi] These Christians had lost contact with Rome.  Almost certainly these Britons knew about the cult of relics since it was part of the Church from the second century. Apparently, these Christian Britons did not know the legends of the True Cross.[vii]

It is hard to argue from the absence of information where the survival of written material is so dependent on the vagaries and misadventures of history.  There is no surviving evidence that the Cross had any special significance to these Christian Britons. What surviving archaeological evidence suggests is that the Constantinian chi-rho symbol flanked with alpha and omega or the simpler chi-cross were used.[viii]

As has been noted earlier, Eusebius (d.340) in his Church History does not mention the finding of the True Cross, though Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 410/11), Scorates Scholasticus (d.c. 440), Sozomen (d.c. 450), and Theodoret (d.c. 466) all described the finding of the Cross.  Since all these writers were writing in Greek, which was not the common language of the west of Europe, the spread of the story was dependent, at least in part, by the spread of the Latin versions of the texts.

Two candidates for the journey of the written texts are the church history, Ecclesiastica Historia with the added Books X and XI, of Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 410/11), and Historia Ecclesiastica Tripartita or Historia Tripartita composed a century after Rufinus’ works at the monastic community of Vivarium near Squillace, in Calabria, Italy.  The translation of Greek texts and perhaps the composition of the Latin Historia Tripartita was done by the monk Epiphanius Scholasticus under the direction of the monastery’s founder, Cassiodorus (Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, b.c.485, d.c.580).  Cassiodorus may have authored the text for which he is often credited.

Rufinus became embroiled in a battle with Jerome over the text of Ecclesiastica Historia.[ix] The so-called Three Chapters controversy arose because Rufinus based his history in part on Theodoret who had been anathematized. This resulted in Jerome writing vitriolic letters against Rufinus, who declined to engage Jerome in a battle of letter writing over what Jerome considered heretical.  
As noted previously a number of manuscripts of Ecclesiastica Historia were known in medieval England. The Historia Tripartita spread widely in northern Europe and the British Isles in the Middle Ages as well.  But it is not clear how it was transmitted since there are no manuscripts extant for 200 years after the history was written.[x]

Two examples of intercourse between the British Islands and the Mediterranean word can be proposed with some certainty from two very different examples, a bible and a history book. 

Jerome began his translation of the Gospels under a commission from Pope Damasus I (d.384).  The following year, Jerome fled Rome for Antioch, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, Egypt, before settling in Bethlehem.  Financially supported by the wealthy widow Paula, Jerome went on to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew sources apart from the Greek Septuagint. Jerome also completed several translations of the Psalms. One of the oldest preserved versions of the Vulgate Bible is the Codex Amiatinus. This edition  copied an earlier, presumably Late Antiquity manuscript since the two illuminations are not in the usual Hiberno-Saxon illuminations but are Byzantine in style. This Vulgate includes the prefatory letter of Jerome to Pope Damasus I as well as Jerome’s prefaces to the Gospels. The Bible was copied out in Northumbria in the early 690s and early 700s after the monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow were granted land to grow the large number of cattle needed for the vellum. It is not certain if the Bible ever made it to Pope Gregory II for whom it was intended as a gift.  Abbott Coelfrith who accompanied the massive volume died in 716 on route to Rome in Langres, now in the Haut-Marne department of France. The codex is now in the Laurentian Library of Florence.
Christ in majesty flanked by angels with four Evangelists and their symbols at the beginning of the Gospels. Codex Amiatinus (fol. 796v), Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

The second example is yet another history book, this one written by Orosius entitled the Adversus pagandos historiarum libri septem (Seven Books of History against the Pagans).  Written about 417, it was one of the texts the Alfred, King of Wessex (d. 899) ordered translated. A freely translated version of the history is found in the British Library as manuscript Additional 47967, made in south England, perhaps Winchester between 892 and 925.  Notes in the margin suggest that it was written out during the reign of King Alfred.[xi]
Orosius, Historum adversum paganos. Ch1, page 1. British Library Additional 47967, Part 1, f.5v   Zoomorphic initial. Made in southern England, perhaps Winchester, between c. 892 and c. 925

I have struggled with the lack of written evidence for the westward spread of the legends of the True Cross in church history sources.  The evidence from these sources came to the west long after monuments and literature would suggest that the story(ies) were known.  The runes on the Ruthwell cross (perhaps about 700) are older than the Homily for the Invention of the Cross (May 3rd) written by Aelfric when he was Abbott of the Abbey at Cerne, Dorset before he was Abbott of Eynsham. 

A text page from Aelfric’s Homilies.  This manuscript was made at the Abbey of Cerne, Dorset, The corrections may well be in Aelfric’s own hand. Royal 7 C XII, Part 1, f.64. Made in southern England,,probably at Cerne during the period c. 990- c. 995

Aelfric wrote his homilies in Old English in the early 990s or so when he had access to monastic libraries that were considered large for the time period.  These homilies were dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric.  Sigeric made a pilgrimage to Rome using the Via Francigena in 990 to receive his pallium from the Pope. This bit of information is probably the answer to my questions as to how the legends reached the British Isles.  It seems most likely that oral versions of the finding of the True Cross travelled along with monks, clergy, missionaries, pilgrims and ordinary travelers long before codices made it to monastic libraries.

When Augustine of Canterbury was sent as a missionary to King Æthelbert of Kent in 595 (arriving in 597) by Pope Gregory I, he was accompanied by monks and members of the Frankish clergy, and presumably relics. Venerable Bede recorded a letter from Pope Gregory I to Abbott Mellitus with specific instructions about relics. Relics were to be placed in altars erected on the sites of former pagan temples and relics were the focus for the worship of God, instead of the sacrifice of animals.[xii]  In addition, Venerable Bede wrote that Augustine requested that Pope Gregory I send him relics from martyred Pope Sixtus II to replace some apparently dubious relics of a saint named Sixtus already venerated in south-east Britain.[xiii]

Perhaps one of the best known of the Anglo-Saxon travelers, even pilgrim, was Benedict Biscop (c. 627-689) the abbott of Wearmouth monastery (Wearmouth-Jarrow).  He travelled to Rome  five times according to Bede and returned “enriched, bringing countless items useful for the service of the church.” [xiv]  He and his companions returned with books, icons, cloth, relics of apostles and martyrs, music, liturgical chanting, and undoubtedly lots of stories.[xv]

Not all the Anglo-Saxon pilgrims to Rome, the source of most relics in western Europe until sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, were clerics and monks. Abbess Bugga or Edburga of Minster-in-Thanet, Kent, wrote to Boniface about a planned pilgrimage in about 725 but was advised against it because of Saracen threat to Rome.[xvi]  Since there were no direct Arab attacks against Rome for another century. perhaps the disquiet in Rome was caused by the Arab raids on Sicily.  Even so. Abbess Edburga went to Rome.

Examination of the graffiti in the tombs and catacombs of Rome has revealed that names of apparently ordinary men and a woman or two scratched into the walls. At least 26 Saxon names written in uncial and runes were etched between the 7th and 9th centuries.[xvii] The author (saracharles) writes:

In the catacombs of Commodilla, twelve Anglo-Saxon inscriptions have been found grouped together on the fresco of St Luke, suggesting a band of English pilgrims travelling en masse. In the tombs of SS Marcellinus and Peter, the female name Fagihild was found written in runic letters among ten Anglo-Saxon names.

Though the spread of the legends of the True Cross seem to have been transferred through invisible air by speech, the dispersion of fragments of the True Cross was not.  That is where I will pick up with Part 2.

[i]Tertullianus - Adversus Iudæos or Answer to the Jews, Ch. VII.
[ii] The Text of Gildas: de Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. (Parts 1 and 2, chapters 1-37). Needless to say, the dates of the martyrdom of Alban have been questioned by historians, as well as the historicity of the person and martyrdom of Alban.  Bishop Germanus of Auxerre visited the tomb of St. Alban while in Britain about 429/439. Thus, there was well establish belief in St.Alban before the Gregorian mission in 597. The fact that Pelagius, branded a heretic for his denial of original sin, was a native of Britain is not doubted. Jerome wrote of him “habet progeniem Scoticae gentis de Britannorum vicinia,” Pref. lib. 3 in Hieron. The Life of St. Germanus, written by Constantius of Lyon, is supported by other independent sources.
[iii] Head, Thomas. Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. Routledge, 2001, Ch. 8- Bede, Martyrology, pp.169-198. There is scholarly discussion as to the reliability of the modern published texts with the original, now lost, text.
[iv]Judith McClure and Roger Collins. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle. Oxford University Press, 2009.
[v] Miller, SN. The British Bishops at the Council of Aries (314), Engl Hist Rev (1927) XLII (CLXV): 79-80. <>. See also Eusebius, Church History Book X, Ch.5, Sec.23.
[vi] J. Johnson. A collection of all the ecclesiastical laws, canons, answers, or rescripts, with other memorials concerning the government, discipline and worship of the Church of England, that have been publish'd in Latin, with explanatory notes. Venerable Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the unfortunate and unsuccessful meeting with the seven bishops because Augustine did not rise to greet the men as fellow bishops but remained seated so the bishops would have to do homage to him.  Book II, Chapter 2.
[vii] The cult of relics can be dated to AD 150-160 with the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Sec, 18.2-3, “we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter…”
[viii]David Petts, “Christianity in Roman Britain,” in Millett, Martin, Louise Revell, and Alison J. Moore. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain. 2016, pp.660-80.
[ix] Jerome (347-420) was a prolific writer of letters, hagiography, theology as well as the translator of the New and Old Testaments into “vulgar” or everyday Latin, hence the Vulgate.
[x] For an interesting discussion of the dispersal of the Historia Tripartita see: Désirée Scholten. The History of a Historia-Manuscript transmission of the Historia Ecclesiastica Tripartita by Epiphanius-Cassiodorus. 
[xi] Another version also in the British Library is Cotton MS Tiberius B I, ff 3r–111v from the early 11th century. Digitized version online. A manuscript commonly referred to as the Bobbio Orosius is an illuminated copy of Orosius (Book I and the beginning of Book II), usually thought to have been produced in the 7th century at the Irish foundation of Bobbio, Italy. Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS D 23 sup.,_Biblioteca_Ambrosiana,_MS_D_23_sup.  
[xii]Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, Chapter XXX.
[xiii]Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, eds., Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), I.29–30, pp. 104 –7. and for the reference to the relics of
St. Sixtus which Gregory also sent. Richard Sharpe, “Martyr and Local Saints in Late Antique Britain,” in Alan Thacker (Editor), Richard Sharpe (Editor). Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West. Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 75-154, at 123-7.
[xiv]Historia Abbatum,” in Christopher Grocock & Ian N. Wood. The Abbotts of Wearmouth and Jarrow (Oxford Medieval Texts). 2013, Oxford University Press, pp.29-49.
[xv] Two icons are described including one with Isaac carrying the wood for his sacrifice and Jesus carrying the cross.  The second icon juxtaposed the crucifixion of Jesus with Moses elevation of the bronze serpent.  This typological design remained popular in manuscripts, printed books, and stained glass for many centuries.
[xvi] The Medieval Sourcebook. The Correspondence of St. Boniface, #15.
[xvii]Symbolic Scratchings or Belligerent Literacy: Graffiti and its Interpretations. See also: More Anglo-Saxon Runic Graffiti in Roman Catacombs in Old English Newsletter  Also, Luisa Izzi. “Anglo-Saxons Underground: Early Medieval graffiti in the Catacombs of Rome” in England and Rome in the Early Middle Ages: Pilgrimage, Art, and Politics. Brepols Publishers, 2014, pp.144-77. 

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