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E04457: Gregory the Great, in his Dialogues, recounts a number of miraculous stories, and considers the nature of miracles. Written in Latin in Rome, c. 593.

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posted on 2017-12-12, 00:00 authored by frances
Gregory the Great, Dialogues

Summary and Description:

Throughout the Dialogues, Gregory considers the immorality of souls and the nature of miracles. This is most apparent in the fourth and final book, which explicitly sets out to explore the immortality of the soul, but it is also present throughout all four books.

According to Gregory, God created three different sorts of spirits. One of these is not clothed in flesh (i.e. angels); one is clothed in flesh but does not die when the body does (i.e. humans); and the third is clothed in flesh and dies in the flesh (i.e. animals). Souls are invisible to corporal eyes (4.5) but sometimes they can be viewed leaving the body through spiritual sight, brought on by prayer and contemplation (4.9-11). In many cases, the souls of the righteous receive prior warning of their future joy in heaven (4.15, 4.36, 4.49) or punishment in hell (4.37) through heavenly or infernal sounds or smells. Once a soul enters heaven and hell, it is there permanently: Gregory clarifies that those who are condemned to hell are condemned to burn there forever (4.46). Indeed, later actions – for example burial in a church – cannot help a confirmed sinner (4.52-56; see also $E04595). Yet souls stained by a smaller sin can be redeemed through the prayers and tears of those on earth (4.43; 1.12).

Gregory also considers the nature of miracles throughout the Dialogues. The miraculous stories form the bulk of the text, and concern miracles effected primarily during the lifetime of the saint but also on occasion after their death. Miracles are, according to Gregory, an external sign that a soul is filled with the spirit of God (1.1; 4.21). They are not the only sign of holiness, but they are an important sign of sanctity (1.12). A holy person can bring about miracles because they are filled with the power of God (1.9; 2.8). Importantly, miracles can only ever be conducted in line with what is predestined (1.8), just as evil spirits can only wield power over mankind with God’s permission (3.21).

Overall, Gregory describes two ways in which these miracles could be effected. Some miracles are the result of a holy person’s own power. Others can only be achieved through prayer. Gregory juxtaposes two anecdotes from the life of *Benedict (of Nursia, monk, ob. 547, S01727) to illustrate this. Of his own volition and drawing on his own power, Benedict freed a persecuted man and struck fear into the heart of his persecutor (2.31). Through prayer, he was able to bring a farmer’s son back to life (2.32).

The nature of miracles brought on by the prayer of a holy man or woman are discussed in more detail elsewhere in the Dialogues. Gregory discusses how God grants requests made in prayer by holy individuals, even if they seem childish (1.9). Elsewhere, he considers the roots of miraculous power. At the request of a woman, *Libertinus (6th c. abbot of Fondi, S01708) was able to bring her son back to life with support from the sandal of *Honoratus (6th c. abbot and founder of Fondi, S01662) (see E04428). Peter asks what caused this miracle. Gregory replies that it is brought about through the mother’s prayers and the sanctity of both Honoratus and Libertinus. The most central factor is Libertinus’ trust not in his own powers, but those of his master, Honoratus. On other occasions, only the prayers of a group can bring about a miracle (3.33). In each case, the holy individual must place trust in God or a deceased saint before a miracle can be effected.

Additionally, Gregory justifies the miraculous power of the saints by referring to earlier precedents. He likens Nonnosus’ miraculous activity (described in Dialogues 1.7, E04433) to the actions of *Gregory the Miracle-Worker (Thaumatourgos, bishop and missionary in Pontus, ob. c. 270, S00687) and *Donatus (martyr of Arezzo, S01527). Similarly, Gregory likens the actions of *Benedict (of Nursia, S01727) to those of a number of biblical miracle workers including: *Peter (the Apostle, S00036); *Moses (Old Testament Prophet, S00241); *Elisha (Old Testament Prophet, S00239); Elias (Old Testament Prophet, S00217); *David (Old Testament King, S00269); *Paul (the Apostle, S00008); and *Habakkuk (Old Testament Prophet, S01268).

Gregory also provides some information on the hierarchy of miracles. In 3.17, Peter states that he thinks the most powerful miracle is raising people from the dead. Gregory challenges this assumption by telling two stories. The first concerns the raising of Lazarus – who had always been a good and faithful man – from the dead (John 11:43). The other is the conversion of Paul (Acts 9). As he relates these stories, Gregory suggests the most powerful miracles are those which bring about a conversion.

Summary: Frances Trzeciak.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Benedict (of Nursia, monk, ob. 547) : S01727 Habakkuk, the Old Testament prophet : S01268 Elijah, Old Testament prophet : S00217 Elisha, Old Testament prophet : S00239 Moses, Old Testament prophet and lawgiver : S00241 Paul, the Apostle : S00008

Saint Name in Source

Benedictus Habacuc Elias Elisae Moyses Paulus Petrus David Honoratus Libertinus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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 - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Rejection of the cult of relics


Gregory the Great (Pope, 590-604) wrote his Dialogues on the Lives and Miracles of the Italian Fathers (Dialogi de vita et miraculis patrum italicorum) in Rome around 593. Organised into four books, the first three are a collection of lives and miracles of various Italian saints. The longest is the Life of Benedict of Nursia, which comprises the entirety of book 2. The final book consists of an essay on the immortality of souls after death. As a whole, the work documents and explains the presence of the miraculous in the contemporary world and the ability of saints to effect miracles both before and after death. The attribution of the Dialogues to Gregory has been disputed, most recently by Francis Clark who argued that the work was created in the 680s in Rome. Others - such as Adalbert de Vogüé, Paul Meyvaert and Matthew dal Santo - have, however, strongly argued for Gregory's authorship and it is broadly accepted that Gregory was responsible for the Dialogues. For a discussion of Gregory's devotion in writing the Dialogues, see E04383, and for the role of the Dialogues as a tract justifying the nature of miracles and theorising on the immortality of souls, see E04506. Gregory's principal aim in collecting the miracle stories of the holy men and a very few women of sixth-century Italy was to show the presence of God's power on earth as manifested through them, rather than to encourage the cult of these individuals. Indeed, though posthumous miracles at the graves of a few individuals are recorded (and also a few miracles aided by contact relics of dead saints), there is very little emphasis in the Dialogues on posthumous cult; some of the miraculous events that Gregory records (e.g. E04429) are not even attributed to named individuals. Although very few of the holy persons in the Dialogues are 'proper' saints, with long-term cult, we have included them all in our database, for the sake of completeness and as an illustration of the impossibility of dividing 'proper' saints from more 'ordinary' holy individuals.


Although Gregory's primary emphasis is on miracles effected during the lifetime of the saint, he does not ignore posthumous miracles and his discussion of these constitute an important apology for the cult of saints and ought to be understood as part of a widespread debate in Late Antiquity about the miraculous actions of saints and the status of souls after death. Above all, Gregory's attitude can be compared to Eustratius of Constantinople's tract on a similar subject completed in Greek in Constantinople in the 580s (see E04192). In this text, Eustratius responded to those who challenged the actuality of the posthumous miracles and visions of saints: the souls of saints did not remain inactive until the Last Judgement, but instead were able to interact with the world. Indeed, the souls of sinners could equally be interacted with - like Gregory, Eustratius argued that individuals on earth could offer prayers to redeem the souls of the dead. It is very likely that Gregory was responding to a similar debate. He lived as a papal apocrisarius in Constantinople between 579 and 584/7: the very same period in which Eustratius was writing. Indeed, Gregory seems to respond to similar doubts about the miracles of saints – in the Dialogues expressed by Peter – as Eustratius. He too argued that souls were active after death; that miracles were effected by the souls of saints, and not only by God or angels; and that souls did not enter a sleep-like state until the Last Judgement, but instead continued to interact with the world. There are some differences between Gregory's and Eustratius' writings. Gregory did not draw explicitly on Scripture, the Church Fathers or hagiographic tradition in the same way as Eustratius. Instead he related stories of local holy men and women. He was also less concerned with the real presence of souls in visions, unlike Eustratius. He seems more concerned to argue that there was a life after death - something Eustratius' critics did not doubt. And he discussed the nature of miracles performed by living saints at far greater length. Yet it seems clear that both men responded to a similar intellectual climate and sought to defend the cult of saints against challenges.


Edition: Vogüé, A. de, Grégoire le Grand, Dialogues, Sources chrétiennes 258, 260, 265 (Paris: Cerf, 1978, 1979, 1980). Translation: Zimmerman, O.J., Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, Fathers of the Church 39 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1959). Further Reading: Clark, F.,The 'Gregorian' Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism (Leiden: Brill, 2003). Dal Santo, M., "The Shadow of A Doubt? A Note on the Dialogues and Registrum Epistolarum of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604)," Journal of Ecclesiatical History, 61.1, (2010), 3-17. Meyvaert, P., "The Enigma of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues: A Reply to Francis Clark," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 39 (1988), 335–81. Vogüé, A. de, "Grégoire le Grand et ses Dialogues d’après deux ouvrages récents," Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 83 (1988), 281–348.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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