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E06351: A letter of Pope Gregory the Great (Register 4.30) of 594, to the Empress Constantina, rejects her request for the head of *Paul (the Apostle, S00008) for a church of Paul she was building in the imperial palace in Constantinople, and condemns the 'Greek' practise of disturbing the corporeal relics of the saints; Gregory writes that those who inadvertently opened the grave of *Laurence (deacon and martyr of Rome, S00037) all died soon after, and explains the papal practice of creating cloth contact relics of the saints (brandea); he sends the empress filings taken from the chains that had once bound Paul. Written in Latin in Rome.

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posted on 11.09.2018, 00:00 by Bryan
Pope Gregory the Great, Register of Letters 4.30

Extract from the letter:

Serenitas uestrae pietatis religionis studio et sanctitatis amore conspicua, propter eam quae in honore sancti Pauli apostoli in palatio aedificatur ecclesiam, caput eiusdem sancti Pauli, aut aliud quid de corpore ipsius, suis ad se iussionibus a me praecepit debere transmitti. Et dum illa mihi desiderarem imperari de quibus facillimam oboedientiam exhibens, uestram erga me amplius potuissem gratiam prouocare, maior me maestitia tenuit, quod illa praecipitis quae facere nec possum nec audeo. Nam corpora sanctorum Petri et Pauli apostolorum tantis in ecclesiis suis coruscant miraculis atque terroribus, ut neque ad orandum sine magno illic timore possit accedi.

Denique dum beatae recordationis decessor meus, quia argentum quod supra sacratissimum corpus sancti Petri apostoli erat, longe tamen ab eodem corpore fere quindecim pedibus mutare uoluit, signum ei non parui terroris apparuit. Sed et ego aliquid similiter ad sacratissimum corpus sancti Pauli apostoli meliorare uolui, et quia necesse erat ut iuxta sepulchrum eiusmodi effodiri altius debuisset, praepositus loci ipsius ossa aliqua non quidem eidem sepulchro coniuncta repperit. Quae quoniam leuare praesumpsit atque in alio loco transponere, apparentibus quibusdam tristibus signis, subita morte defunctus est.
 
Praeter haec autem sanctae memoriae decessor meus idem ad corpus sancti Laurentii martyris quaedam meliorare desiderans, dum nescitur ubi corpus esset uenerabile collocatum, effoditur exquirendo. Subito sepulchrum ipsius ignoranter apertum est, et hi qui praesentes erant atque laborabant monachi et mansionarii, quia corpus eiusdem martyris uiderunt, quod quidem minime tangere praesumpserunt, omnes intra decem dies defuncti sunt, ita ut nullus uitae superesse potuisset, qui semiustum corpus illius uiderat.

Cognoscat autem tranquillissima domina quia Romanis consuetudo non est, quando sanctorum reliquias dant, ut quicquam tangere praesumant de corpore. Sed tantummodo in buxide brandeum mittitur atque ad sacratissima corpora sanctorum ponitur. Quod leuatum in ecclesia quae est dedicanda debita cum ueneratione reconditur, et tantae per hoc ibidem uirtutes fiunt, acsi illic specialiter eorum corpora deferantur. Vnde contigit ut beatae recordationis Leonis papae tempore, sicut a maioribus traditur, dum quidam Graeci de talibus reliquiis dubitarent, praedictus pontifex hoc ipsum brandeum allatis forficibus incidit, et ex ipsa incisione sanguis effluxit. In Romanis namque uel totius occidentis partibus omnino intolerabile est atque sacrilegum, si sanctorum corpora tangere quisquam fortasse uoluerit. Quod si praesumpserit, certum est quia haec temeritas impunita nullomodo remanebit.

Pro qua re de Graecorum consuetudine, qui ossa leuare sanctorum se asserunt, uehementer miramur et uix credimus. Nam quidam Graeci monachi hic ante biennium uenientes, nocturno silentio iuxta ecclesiam sancti Pauli corpora mortuorum in campo iacentia effodiebant, atque eorum ossa recondebant, seruantes sibi dum recederent. Qui cum tenti et cur hoc facerent diligenter fuissent discussi, confessi sunt quod illa ossa ad Graecias essent tamquam sanctorum reliquias portaturi. Ex quorum exemplo, sicut praedictum est, maior nobis dubietas nata est, utrum uerum sit quod leuari ueraciter ossa sanctorum dicuntur.

De corporibus uero beatorum apostolorum quid ego dicturus sum, dum constet quia eo tempore quo passi sunt ex oriente fideles uenerunt, qui eorum corpora sicut ciuium suorum repeterent? Quae ducta usque ad secundum urbis milliarium, in loco qui dicitur Catacumbas collocata sunt. Sed dum ea exinde leuare omnis eorum multitudo conueniens niteretur, ita eos uis tonituri atque fulguris nimio metu terruit ac dispersit, ut talia denuo nullatenus temptare praesumerent. Tunc autem exeuntes Romani eorum corpora, qui hoc ex domini pietate meruerunt, leuauerunt, et in locis quibus nunc sunt condita posuerunt.
 
Quis ergo, serenissima domina, tam temerarius possit exsistere, ut haec sciens eorum corpora non dico tangere, sed uel aliquatenus praesumat inspicere? Dum igitur talia mihi a uobis praecepta sunt, de quibus parere nullatenus potuissem, quantum inuenio, non uestrum est. Sed quidam homines contra me pietatem uestram excitare uoluerunt, ut mihi, quod absit, uoluntatis uestrae gratiam subtraherent, et propterea quaesiuerunt capitulum, de quo uobis quasi inoboediens inuenirer. Sed in omnipotente domino confido quia nullomodo benignissimae uoluntati subripitur, et sanctorum apostolorum uirtutem, quos toto corde et mente diligitis, non ex corporali praesentia sed ex protectione semper habebitis.

Sudarium uero, quod similiter transmitti iussistis, cum corpore eius est. Quod ita tangi non potest, sicut nec ad corpus illius accedi. Sed quia serenissimae dominae tam religiosum desiderium esse uacuum non debet, de catenis, quas ipse sanctus Paulus apostolus in collo et in manibus gestauit, ex quibus multa miracula in populo demonstrantur, partem uobis aliquam transmittere festinabo, si tamen hanc tollere limando praeualuero. Quia dum frequenter ex catenis eisdem multi ueniunt et benedictionem petunt, ut parum quid ex limatura accipiant, assistit sacerdos cum lima, et aliquibus petentibus ita concite aliquid de catenis ipsis excutitur, ut mora nulla sit. Quibusdam uero petentibus diu per catenas ipsas lima ducitur, et tamen ut aliquid exinde exeat non obtinetur.


'The Serenity of your Piety, conspicuous for religious zeal and love of holiness, has charged me with your commands to send to you the head of Saint Paul, or some other part of his body, for the church which is being built in honour of the same Saint Paul in the palace. And, being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favour towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin. For the bodies of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul glitter with so great miracles and terrors in their churches that one cannot even go to pray there without great fear.

In short, when my predecessor, of blessed memory, was desirous of changing the silver which was over the most sacred body of the blessed apostle Peter, though at a distance of almost fifteen feet from the same body, a sign of no small dreadfulness appeared to him. Nay, I too wished in like manner to amend something not far from the most sacred body of Saint Paul the apostle; and, it being necessary to dig to some depth near his sepulchre, the superintendent of that place found some bones, which were not indeed connected with the same sepulchre; but, inasmuch as he presumed to lift them and transfer them to another place, certain awful signs appeared, and he died suddenly.

Besides all this, when my predecessor, of holy memory, was desiring in like manner to make some improvements not far from the body of Saint Laurence the martyr, it not being known where the venerable body was laid, diggings were made in the course of a search, and suddenly his sepulchre was unawares disclosed; and those who were present and working, monks and mansionarii , who saw the body of the same martyr, which they did not indeed presume to touch, all died within ten days, so that none might survive who had seen the holy body of that righteous man.

Moreover, let my most tranquil lady know that it is not the custom of the Romans, when they give relics of saints, to presume to touch any part of the body; but only a cloth (brandeum) is put into a box and placed near the most sacred bodies of the saints: and when it is taken up it is deposited with due reverence in the church that is to be dedicated, and such powerful effects are thereby produced there as might have been if their bodies had been brought to that special place. Whence it came to pass in the times of Pope Leo, of blessed memory, as has been handed down from our forefathers, that, certain Greeks being in doubt about such relics, the aforesaid pontiff took scissors and cut this same cloth (brandeum), and from the very incision blood flowed. For in the Roman and all the Western parts it is unendurable and sacrilegious for any one by any chance to desire to touch the bodies of saints: and, if one should presume to do this, it is certain that this temerity will by no means remain unpunished.

For this reason we greatly wonder at the custom of the Greeks, who say that they take up the bones of saints; and we scarcely believe it. For certain Greek monks who came here more than two years ago dug up in the silence of night near the church of Saint Paul, bodies of dead men lying in the open field, and laid up their bones to be kept in their own possession till their departure. And, when they were taken and diligently examined as to why they did this, they confessed that they were going to carry those bones to Greece to pass for relics of saints. From this instance, as has been already said, the greater doubt has been engendered in us whether it be true that they really take up the bones of saints, as they are said to do.

But what shall I say of the bodies of the blessed apostles, when it is well known that, at the time when they suffered, believers came from the East to recover their bodies as being those of their own countrymen? And, having been taken as far as the second milestone from the city, they were deposited in the place which is called Catacumbas. But, when the whole multitude came together and endeavoured to remove them thence, such violence of thunder and lightning terrified and dispersed them that they on no account presumed to attempt such a thing again. And then the Romans, who of the Lord's loving-kindness were counted worthy to do this, went out and took up their bodies, and laid them in the places where they are now deposited.

Who then, most serene lady

History

Evidence ID

E06351

Saint Name

Paul, the Apostle : S00008 Peter, the Apostle : S00036

Saint Name in Source

Paulus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Letters

Language

Latin

Evidence not before

594

Evidence not after

594

Activity not before

594

Activity not after

594

Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Rome

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory the Great (pope)

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Renovation and embellishment of cult buildings

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Condemnation/rejection of a specific cultic activity

Cult Activities - Miracles

Punishing miracle Saint aiding or preventing the translation of relics Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather)

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Ecclesiastics - bishops Monarchs and their family

Cult Activities - Relics

Contact relic - instrument of saint’s martyrdom Bodily relic - head Bodily relic - entire body Contact relic - cloth Touching and kissing relics Making contact relics Division of relics Theft/appropriation of relics Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries Discovering, finding, invention and gathering of relics

Source

A letter transmitted as part of Gregory the Great’s Register of Letters. This letter collection, organised into fourteen books, is large and contains letters to a variety of recipients, including prominent aristocrats, members of the clergy and royalty. The issues touched on in the letters are equally varied, ranging from theological considerations to mundane administrative matters. This collection of letters, which was possibly curated by Gregory, was originally much larger. The surviving Register comprises several groups of letters which were extracted at several later moments in history, the largest of which took place in the papacy of Hadrian I (772-795).

Discussion

This is the classic text of a papal position that argued, not only against the division of saintly bodies, but even against any intrusion on their graves. Whether the position was always quite so strongly held as it is here, is uncertain, because Gregory was protecting one of his most sacred relics, the head of Paul, from a request of his empress, against which he needed to marshal the full force of argument. It is, however, true that Rome was exceptional for the extent to which its saints were left undisturbed in their original graves – the first recorded translation of Roman saints, from the catacombs to a church within the city, occurred only in the mid 7th century (see E01629). The request of Constantina (the daughter of Tiberius II and the wife of Maurice) for Paul's head, which there is no reason to question, does not necessarily prove that the bodies of important saints were regularly being broken up in the Greek East, since it may have been thought acceptable to disperse body-parts that had already been severed at martyrdom. Paul had been decapitated, like John the Baptist – and the Baptist's head, according to rival traditions, rested apart from his body in Emesa and Constantinople. Instead of corporeal relics, Gregory offers Constantina filings from the chains that had once bound Paul – Gregory regularly sent such filings from the chains of Peter to distinguished correspondents. The same issue had arisen earlier in the 6th century, when in 519 Justinian (the future emperor) sought relics of Peter, Paul and Laurence from Pope Hormisdas in Rome (E00615, E00616, E00617). He was offered instead sanctuaria (presumably pieces of cloth) that had been placed in close contact with the bodies of the Apostles. Justinian also requested fragments from the chains of the Apostle and the grid of Laurence (but in this case, there is no evidence of their despatch).

Bibliography

Edition: Norberg, D., S. Gregorii Magni, Registrum epistularum. 2 vols. (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 140-140A; Turnhout: Brepols, 1982). English translation: Martyn, J.R.C., The Letters of Gregory the Great, 3 vols. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004). Further Reading: Dal Santo, M., Debating the Saints' Cult in the Age of Gregory the Great (Oxford: OUP, 2012). McCulloch, J., "The Cult of Relics in the Letters and Dialogues of Gregory the Great," Traditio 32 (1976), 145-184. Neil, B., and Dal Santo, M. (eds.), A Companion to Gregory the Great (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

Continued Description

, can there be so venturesome as, knowing these things, to presume, I do not say to touch their bodies, but even at all to look at them? Such orders therefore having been given me by you, which I could by no means have obeyed, it has not, so far as I find, been of your own motion; but certain men have wished to stir up your Piety against me, so as to withdraw from me (which God forbid) the favour of your good will, and have therefore sought out a point in which I might be found as if disobedient to you. But I trust in Almighty God that your most kind good will is in no way being stolen away from me, and that you will always have with you the power of the holy apostles, whom with all your heart and mind you love, not from their bodily presence, but from their protection.Moreover, the napkin, which you have likewise ordered to be sent you, is with his body, and so cannot be touched, as his body cannot be approached. But since so religious a desire of my most serene lady ought not to be wholly unsatisfied, I will make haste to transmit to you some portion of the chains which Saint Paul the apostle himself bore on his neck and his hands, from which many miracles are displayed among the people; if at least I should succeed in removing it by filing. For, while many come frequently to seek a blessing from these same chains, in the hope of receiving a little part of the filings, a priest attends with a file, and in the case of some seekers a portion comes off so quickly from these chains that there is no delay: but in the case of other seekers the file is drawn for long over the chains, and yet nothing can be got from them.Text: Norberg 1982, vol. 1, 248-50. Translation: Martyn 2004, vol. 1, 310-12.

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