Saint NameAgatha, virgin and martyr of Catania : S00794
Saint Name in SourceAgatha
Type of EvidenceLiturgical texts - Calendars and martyrologies
Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts
Evidence not before725
Evidence not after731
Activity not before251
Activity not after731
Place of Evidence - RegionBritain and Ireland
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcWearmouth and Jarrow
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Wearmouth and Jarrow
Major author/Major anonymous workBede
Cult activities - Festivals
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsTransmission, copying and reading saint-related texts
SourceThe Northumbrian monk Bede (673/4-735) included among his many works listed in the final, autobiographical chapter (5.24) of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) 'a martyrology of the festivals (martyrologium de nataliciis) of the holy martyrs, in which I have diligently tried to note down all that I could find about them, not only on what day, but also by what sort of combat and under what judge they overcame the world'. The widely-circulated Martyrology attributed to Bede, known only from continental manuscripts from the ninth century onwards, almost certainly represents that same text, albeit with a number of later additions (not included here).
Although the work postdates the year 700, our database includes Bede’s Martyrology since it draws directly upon materials in use at his home monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow – and apparently more widely in Britain – since at least the late seventh century. Moreover, the sheer range of works which Bede evidently consulted, and even directly incorporated into his calendar, gives the Martyrology a special value for our database, since it provides a terminus ante quem of c. 700 for many cultic texts which are otherwise difficult to date. Its main underlying source, however, is a Northumbrian recension of the Martyrologium Hieronymianum. Possibly this had arrived in Britain as early as the mission of Augustine, first bishop of Canterbury (597-?609), but a separate remark by Bede earlier in his Ecclesiastical History (4.18) seems to implicate John, precentor (archicantor) of St Peter’s, Rome. Sent to Britain by Pope Agatho in 679, John not only taught chant at Wearmouth but ‘committed to writing all things necessary for the celebration of festal days throughout the whole year; these writings have been preserved to this day in the monastery and copies have now been made by many others elsewhere’ . Bede may have therefore already found himself immersed in the liturgical world of the Martyrologium Hieronymianum since his oblation to Wearmouth in c. 680: yet he can have only finished his own Martyrology in or after 725, since it incorporates elements of his On the Reckoning of Time, completed that year.
Henri Quentin reconstructed the contents of Bede’s Martyrology as it existed before its diverse Carolingian recensions, in his Martyrologes historiques du moyen âge (1908): this posited a calendar of 115 notices across 99 days, running according to the Julian calendar from 1 January (Alamachius of Rome: E05405) to 31 December (Columba of Sens: E05691). One notable feature of the Martyrology is therefore its apparent incompleteness, something that had already attracted attention as early as the ninth century, when the Frankish scholars Ado and Usuard commented on the number of blank entries in Bede’s collection. Conversely, the Martyrology is atypical among other late antique or earlier medieval exempla of its genre in that many of its entries are considerably detailed, embellishing the conventional format of simply date and place of martyrdom with brief 'historic' narratives of the saints concerned derived from Bede's sources. Here we see Bede’s work moving beyond that of simply a copyist or editor, and utilising wider authorities such as the Liber pontificalis; the writings of such authors as Augustine, Jerome, and Eusebius; and, most substantially, diverse Martyrdom accounts from across the Roman world. Thus, while his Martyrology fell well short of covering the full liturgical year, Bede provided on a saint-by-saint basis a text considerably more substantial than those circulating in the Latin West before him.
Bede’s selection of entries may appear peculiar to us, particularly in light of his own location. Only three entries relate to saints from Britain (Alban, E05561; Æthelthryth of Ely, E05562; and the two Hewalds, E05631), and none from Ireland or the wider Celtic world. Instead, we find (following Thacker, 2011) 62 notices for Italy, of which 47 are for Rome; 26 for the eastern Roman Empire; 11 for Gaul/Francia; 6 for North Africa; 3 for Persia and Babylon; and 1 for Spain. Possibly we might frame this in light of Bede’s conviction, expressed elsewhere, in the importance of the Roman church and 'orthodox' Roman tradition, especially as opposed to some of the practices of the Irish or Romano-British (c.f. Lifshitz, 2000; Gunn, 2009). Yet even from this perspective Bede’s choices seem peculiar, omitting such pivotal Roman figures as Peter and Paul (or indeed any apostles), Benedict of Nursia, or Gregory the Great. Thacker has proposed an interesting solution to this: the aim of Bede’s text was not to provide a comprehensive liturgical calendar, but rather a set of corrections concerning some of the more obscure feast days, whose dates and details were disputed or unknown among the author’s contemporary milieu. We should add to this, however, the possibility that Bede’s choices were also more straightforwardly dictated by the material he had available. We find certain Martyrdom accounts, such as the Polychronius cycle, repeatedly and disproportionately cited throughout his calendar, with full notices often granted to saints of very little importance: it seems fair to deduce in such cases that Bede simply attempted to draw as much as he could from certain available texts, perhaps compensating for lacunae elsewhere in the Wearmouth-Jarrow library.
While the Martyrology may not, therefore, give us anywhere near a full picture of the cult of saints as it was understood in Bede’s Britain, it may hint at some of the debates and uncertainties surrounding the late antique martyrological tradition as it became absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon church at the turn of the eighth century – and, significantly, provides us with a key witness as to which texts lent themselves to this process.
DiscussionBede's sources for this entry are the Martyrologium Hieronymianum and the Martyrdom of Agatha (E01916) (Quentin 1908, 57).
Quentin, H., Les martyrologes historiques du moyen age: étude sur la formation du martyrologe romain (Paris, 1908), chapter 2.
Dubois, J., and G. Renaud, Edition pratique des martyrologes de Bède, de l'anonyme lyonnais et de Florus (Paris, 1976).
Bede, Martyrology, trans. F. Lifshitz, in T. Head (ed.), Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology (New York and London, 2000).
Gunn, V., Bede’s Historiae: Genre, Rhetoric, and the Construction of Anglo-Saxon Church History (Woodbridge, 2009).
Lapidge, M., "Acca of Hexham and the Origin of the Old English Martyrology," Analecta Bollandiana 123 (2005), 29-78.
Ó Riain, P., "A Northumbrian Phase in the Formation of the Hieronymian Martyrology: the Evidence of the Martyrology of Tallaght," Analecta Bollandiana 120 (2002), 311-63.
Thacker, A., "Bede and his Martyrology," in: E. Mullins and D. Scully (eds.), Listen, O Isles, Unto Me: Studies in Medieval Word and Image in Honour of Jennifer O’Reilly (Cork, 2010), 126-41.