The Anglo-Saxon church often adhered to the early Christian definition of martyrdom. In Christian terminology a martyr is one who witnesses to Jesus Christ by willingly suffering death for him and his teaching or for any article of it. The nature of a martyr’s death - that is to say, the sacrifice of his/her life for religion - was thought to indicate his/her sanctity, so many early martyrs were ultimately recognized as saints. Among the Anglo-Saxon martyrs canonized as saints for sacrificing their lives in Christ’s name were King Edmund, martyred by the heathen Danes; King Oswald of Northambria, killed by the heathen Penda of Mercia; and the missionary Bonifice of Crediton, martyred by the heathen tribes of Germany. However, King Edward, murdered by his evil stepmother who was involved in a political plot to take the throne; and Bishop Alphege, kidnapped and eventually killed by furious drunken Danes who were denied their ransom, were also considered martyrs and canonized as saints, even though they did not end their lives suffering for Christ. So during the Anglo-Saxon period, a martyr did not always die for religion; at times, the honour due to a martyr was given to one who had died an unjust death.
The circumstances surrounding a martyr’s death were a central but not the sole criterion that made him/her eligible for canonization; that is to say, those who died for God or died an unfair death were not automatically recognized as saints. Those considered martyrs during the Anglo-Saxon period were usually canonized as saints on the basis of the efficacy of their relics in curing illness. Often, a martyr’s saintly status was reinforced by a hagiographer’s persuasiveness. Many saints’ lives were written in association with the promotion of a cult, so part of a hagiographer’s aim was to increase the reverence felt for a particular saint by offering convincing arguments that attested to a martyr’s sanctity.
Even though many Anglo-Saxon martyrs were revered, the martyred saints commonly worshipped by Anglo-Saxons were early Christians, particularly many early Roman martyrs. The best known Roman martyrs included Sebastian, Felicity, Apollinaris, Quinitus, Cornelius, Marcellus, Vitus, Nicasius, Tiburtius, Ciriacus, and Heresius.
Anglo-Saxon Christians revered martyred saints in ways that differed from the reverential practices of their antecedents. For early Christians, reverence was usually manifested at the place where a martyr had suffered and been buried. However, during the Anglo-Saxon period, relics of a martyr’s body - a bone, fingernail, lock of hair - or relics that indicated the particulars of a martyr’s death - a stone that killed St. Stephen, a coal that roasted St. Laurence - were enshrined in Anglo-Saxon churches. In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede recognizes that Bishop Acca of Hexham acquired relics of apostles and martyrs from diverse sources, built altars to house them, and later assembled a collection of hagiographic books to explain their lives and their passions (V.20).
Anglo-Saxon Christians did not only visit a martyr’s shrine as a sign of reverence. For many Anglo-Saxons, enshrined martyred saints were thought adept at miraculous healing. This belief was generally accepted because a martyr’s relics were considered capable of interceding with God on behalf of the petitioning sufferer. However, it was not enough for Anglo-Saxon Christians to merely petition a martyred saint for help; they had to know when his/her feast days fell and how he/she achieved martyrdom, for only with such knowledge could a martyr be effectively asked for help.
One of the best sources of information for Anglo-Saxon Christians was the martyrology. Early martyrologies, such as the ‘Jeromian’ Martyrology which was compiled in Italy in the fifth century, were reference books set out according to the calendar year. They provided pithy entries for each martyr: for each day it gave the date, the place of martyrdom, and the name of the saint, normally in the genitive. The martyrology was a text subject to constant revision designed to bring it into accordance with the observances of any particular monastic house; so no two martyrologies have identical contents, but they often follow similar structural principles. This concordance changed when Bede amplified many of the entries in the ‘Jeromian’ Martyrology by consulting various historical sources, and thereby creating the first ‘historical’ or ‘narrative’ martyrology. Bede’s model of the martyrology attracted many additions and interpolations. Among the most informed is the so-called Old English Martyrology, compiled in the later ninth century, perhaps in Mercia, by an anonymous author who was able to draw on the resources of a very substantial library. The Old English Martyrology consists of 238 entries; some of them fairly extensive.
By virtue of their extent, many of the Old English martyrologist’s entries verge on a genre of hagiography, namely the saint’s life. There are two broad categories of saint’s life: the passio (‘passion’) and the vita (‘life’).The passio was appropriate for a saint who had been martyred for his/her faith. The passions of the martyrs are a form of Christian panegyric based on public records, and usually offer an account in which the saint adopts Christianity at a time when the state government is pagan; the saint is brought before a local magistrate and asked to recant his/her Christianity by sacrificing to the gods; the saint refuses to do so, even on the pain of innumerable tortures (often recounted in graphic detail), and is eventually killed. Most passios adhere to this plot outline, so the Anglo-Saxon reader (and listener - many martyrologies and passions had a liturgical function) could not distinguish between the life of one martyred saint and another. This repetition not only ensured that a local saint was seen to possess attributes of, and to belong undoubtedly to, the universal community of saints, but also allowed the listener the pleasure of recognition. Even though the later ‘narrative’ martyrologies and passions were considered historical accounts, they were not perceived as factual documents. Martyrologies and passions were generalized portraits designed for ethical instruction and exaltation, having as historical base only the name or a series of names and places.
For further reading
Attwater, Donald. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints New York: Penguin, 1983.
Farmer, D. H. The Oxford Book of Saints Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.
Jones, C.W. Saints’ Lives and Chronicles in Early England Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1947.
Lapidge, Michael. "The Saintly Life in Anglo-Saxon England" The Cambridge Companion to
Old English Literature Ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1991
Rollandson, D. Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.
Ridyard, Susan J. The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. Wood, Diana. ed. Martyrs and Martyrology Oxford: Studies in Church History, 1993.
Simon Keynes' Bibliography: Church, Learning, and Culture
ORB (Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies): hagiography bibliographies