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E05434: Bede, in his Martyrology, records the feast on 20 January of *Sebastianus (martyr of Rome, S00400), with a brief account of his martyrdom, and his eventual burial in the 'Catacumbas' cemetery (on the via Appia). Written in Latin at Wearmouth-Jarrow (north-east Britain), 725/731.

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posted on 2018-05-15, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Bede, Martyrology

XIII Kl. Feb. Romae, Natale sancti Sebastiani, de Mediolano, qui in tantum carus erat Imperatoribus Diocletiano et Maximiano ut principatum ei cohortis traderent. Quem Diocletianus, ubi christianum agnovit, nec a fide posse revocari, iussit ligari in medio campo quasi signum ad sagittam et sagittari a militibus. Qui cum sagittis plenus quasi hericius staret, putantes eum mortuum abierunt. Nocte autem veniens quaedam mulier, nomine Herene, tollere corpus, invenit eum viventum, et adduxit ad domum suam, et curam eius egit. Qui ubi convaluit, multos in fide confortavit; nec mora, ipsis Imperatoribus apparens hos prout digni erant corripuit. Tunc iussit eum Diocletianus in hippodromum palatii duci et fatigari donec deficeret. Quem mortuum in cloacam maximam miserunt: sed ille apparauit in somnis sanctae matronae Lucinae dicens: Iuxta circum invenies corpus meum pendens in unco: hoc sordes non tetigerunt: et dum levaris perduces ad catacumbas, et sepelies me in crypta, iuxta vestigia Apostolorum. Quae ipsa nocte cum servis veniens, totum ita complevit.

'20 January. The feast of St Sebastianus from Milan, who was so dear to the emperors Diocletian and Maximianus that they gave over to him command of a cohort [of the army]; Diocletian, when he learned that [Sebastianus] was a Christian, and could not be called away from the faith, ordered him to be tied up in the middle of a field as if he were the target for an arrow and be shot with arrows by the soldiers. Reckoning [Sebastianus] to be dead, since he was standing there filled with arrows as if he were a hedgehog, they went away. A certain woman, however, named Irene, coming at night to take away the body, found him alive, and led him to her own house, and worked to cure him. When he regained his health, he strengthened many in their faith; without delay, appearing before the emperors themselves, he reproached them just as they deserved. Then Diocletian ordered him to be led into the hippodrome of the palace and to be tormented until he failed. They placed him, dead, in the largest possible sewer: but he appeared in a dream to the holy matron Lucina, saying: "Next to the circus you will find my body hanging on a hook: the filth has not touched it: and when you have raised it up, you will proceed to the Catacumbas [cemetery] and you will bury me in a crypt next to the remains of the Apostles." She, coming that very night with her servants, completed everything precisely that way.'

Text: Quentin 1908, 91. Translation: Lifshitz 2000, 180, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Sebastianus, martyr of Rome : S00400

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Liturgical texts - Calendars and martyrologies Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts



Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Wearmouth and Jarrow

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

Wearmouth and Jarrow St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work


Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Transmission, copying and reading saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Soldiers Torturers/Executioners Women


The 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.


Bede's sources for this entry are the Martyrologium Hieronymianum and the Martyrdom of Sebastianus (E02512) (Quentin 1908, 91).


Editions: 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). Translation: Bede, Martyrology, trans. F. Lifshitz, in T. Head (ed.), Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology (New York and London, 2000). Further reading: 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.

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