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E05872: The Whitby Life of *Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome, ob. 604, S00838), records the saint's life, miracles, and writings, with a special focus on his conversion of the English to Christianity. Written in Latin by a monk or nun of Whitby (north-east Britain), 685/714, perhaps 704/14. Overview entry

online resource
posted on 2018-06-24, 00:00 authored by bsavill
The Whitby Life of Gregory the Great (BHL 3637)


Chapters 1-11 (Gregory's background)
The author comments in the prologue how it is proper to write a Life of 'our master' (magister) whom the whole world calls sanctus Gregorius. (1) On Gregory's parents, and his monastic life. (2) How we know of Gregory's monastic conversion, and his return to secular cares, through his own writings. (3-4) The author states her/his aim to consider how far Gregory ought to be honoured as saint, even though 'we have heard of few miracles,' and argues that sanctity is not necessarily dependent on miracle-working, noting the example of John the Baptist, as opposed to the Apostles (see E05960). (5) The author sets out to relay what is known of Gregory's sanctity from various and ancient sources, even though 'we have heard only a very few out of many.' (6) How Gregory, as their apostle, will present the English people (gens Anglorum) to the Lord on the Day of Judgement, 'according to his own opinion' (iuxta cuius sententiam); Gregory's 'spiritual' miracles are worth more to the English than the more visible wonders of Peter and Paul. (7) How we should imitate the humility of Gregory, who sought to resist his election as pope, although God revealed to the people of Rome where he had hidden. (8-10) Among the signs of Gregory's holiness was his gift of prophecy, and he 'foresaw and made provision for our conversion to God' when he saw some English boys in Rome before he became pope; Pope Benedict (I) granted him permission to leave Rome to undertake their conversion, but the people of Rome vetoed this, complaining to Benedict that he had 'offended Peter' in doing so. (11) After Benedict's death Gregory was elected pope, and 'with as little delay as possible' sent missionaries to the English.

Chapters 12-19 (the role of Edwin and Paulinus in the Gregorian mission to Northumbria)
(12) Æthelberht of Kent was the first Christian king of the English, and after him Edwin, 'a man of this race of ours called the Humbrians.' (13-14) The author comments on the wordplay between 'angels' (angeli) and the 'English' (angli), and of Edwin's father Ælli and 'Allelulia.' (15) How Bishop *Paulinus, whom Gregory sent, warned against reading omens from birds. (16) How Paulinus, 'according to ancient tradition' (antiquitus traditur) appeared to Edwin in a vision before the Gregorian mission. (17) How some said that, when Paulinus died, they saw his soul journey to heaven in the form of a swan. (18-19) How a man (vir) appeared three times in dreams to Trimma, a priest of the 'South English' (Sudrangli), and told him to find the bones of King Edwin at Hatfield and bring them to the monastery of Whitby, which are now buried there in the church of St Peter, east of the altar dedicated to Gregory (see $E05961).

Chapters 20-32 (Gregory's miracles, writings and death)
(20) How, through his prayers, Gregory convinced a matrona in Rome that the Body of the Lord was truly present in the sacrament, causing the consecrated bread on the altar to appear as a bloodied fragment of a little finger. (21) How Gregory granted relics 'of various martyrs' to 'men from western parts,' who brought them back after only thinking of them as 'dirty pieces of cloth'; after prayer, Gregory cut the cloths and caused them to bleed, proving their authenticity (see $E05962). (22) How an excommunicated divorcee sent magicians (magi) after Gregory, who were blinded by the Holy Spirit, but who later converted to Christianity. (23) How Gregory persuaded the king of the Lombards not to attack Rome; he later gave the same king dietary advice. (24) How the 'heavenly skill' of Gregory's writings is also proof of his sanctity. (25) On Gregory's writings on the ranks of angels (of which even sanctus Augustine knew nothing); (26) on Ezekiel, during the writing of which he was attended by a white dove (although Gregory adjured the witness of this never to speak of it during his lifetime); (27) and on Job. (28) How Gregory could 'bind and loose' the souls of the dead as well as the living, such as a physician (medicus) in a monastery, who had hidden three coins, and whom Gregory later freed from hell. He also 'put out the light' of the 'certain pope' (presumably Siricius) who had banished sanctus Jerome from Rome. After his own death, he killed his successor (Sabinianus), who had denigrated his memory (see E05963). (28) How his tears caused the posthumous baptism of the emperor Trajan (see E05964). (30) The author asks the reader not to criticise this work, 'diligently twisted into shape by love rather than knowledge': for even if these miracles were actually worked by someone else, Paul reminds us that the saints "are all members of each other" (see E05960). (31) On Gregory's own writings on his humility. (32) The author states he/she does not know how Gregory died, although he did so on 12 March and is buried in St Peter's, Rome, 'before the papal vestry' (ante eius officii secretarium sepultus). Gregory is remembered as sanctus Gregorius throughout the world, and is invoked in the litany.

Text and translation: Colgrave 1968. Summary: B. Savill.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gregory I, 'the Great', bishop of Rome, ob. 604 : S00838 Paulinus, bishop of York and Rochester (north-east and south-east Britain), ob. 644 : S02136

Saint Name in Source

Gregorius Paulinus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles


  • Latin

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


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

Whitby St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Liturgical invocation

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Places Named after Saint

  • Church

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Scepticism/rejection of specific relics

Cult Activities - Miracles

Observed scarcity/absence of miracles Finding of lost objects, animals, etc. Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Assumption/otherworldly journey Miraculous behaviour of relics/images Miracle with animals and plants Punishing miracle Miracles causing conversion Miracle after death

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Crowds Ecclesiastics - Popes Monarchs and their family Pagans Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Women Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Ecclesiastics - abbots Relatives of the saint

Cult Activities - Relics

Unspecified relic Contact relic - cloth Collections of multiple relics Myrrh and other miraculous effluents of relics Bodily relic - bones and teeth Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries Making contact relics


The Whitby Life of Gregory survives in a single, 9th century continental manuscript (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 567, fol. 75-110), first made known to modern scholars by Paul Ewald in 1886. Although the author never explicitly states her/his location, the Life makes clear through its early reference to ‘us, that is, the English people’ (nos … id est gentem Anglorum: ch. 6) that he/she wrote for an English, indeed probably Northumbrian audience (c.f. ‘this people of ours which is called the Humbrians’, gente nostra, quę dicitur Humbrensium: ch. 12). Her/his account of the translation of King Edwin’s bones to the monastery of Streoneshealh (almost certainly modern-day Whitby, north-east Britain) refers passingly to the house as ‘ours’ (chs. 18-19), thus inadvertently establishing her/his location. Early Whitby was a so-called ‘double monastery’ (that is, home to both men and women, and ruled over by an abbess), and so a woman author is possible, if ultimately unconfirmable. This description of the translation also allows us to date the Whitby Life, since it provides a terminus post quem for its composition. The author states that the translation took place while Eanflæd, queen of the Northumbrians (ob. after 685) was alive; while her daughter Æfflæd was abbess of Whitby (680-714); and ‘in the days of’ (diebus) Æthelred, king of the ‘South English’ (i.e. Mercians, c. 674-704). Edwin’s translation can therefore be dated to 680/704. Since the author also refers to Æfflæd, but not Eanflæd, as if she were still alive at the time of writing, we can date the composition reasonably securely to 685/714. Whether the use of the phrase ‘in the days of Æthelred’ implies that the king had also died by this point is less certain. Some have taken the remark as a clear indication of a narrower date of 704/14 (e.g. Mosford 1988), but the ambiguity of the author’s expression, especially when considered in light of her/his generally shaky grasp of Latin, means the wider date-range remains possible (Colgrave, 1964).


The Whitby Life constitutes possibly the earliest example of its genre to survive from Anglo-Saxon England, and with the exception of a cursory notice in the Liber pontficalis (E01419) it is the earliest known Life of Gregory the Great composed anywhere. On account of its atypical structure, together with its author’s botched Latin and frequent admissions of limited knowledge about her/his subject, scholars have often treated the Whitby Life as an amateurish and ill-informed production. Yet despite earlier, somewhat romantic notions about the Whitby Life drawing on oral sources, ‘saga tradition,’ and carrying ‘echoes of Germanic folklore’ (Colgrave, 1964), closer readings have revealed the Life to rely substantially upon learned, clerical, and indeed Mediterranean texts: predominantly Gregory’s own writings, but also the Liber pontificalis, and probably a now-lost dossier of Gregorian miracula compiled by Greek-speaking monks directed by, or associated with, John Moschus, of which elements still survive in Georgian and Arabic recensions of his Spiritual Meadow (see discussion for E05962). Thacker has argued persuasively that these first came to England via Theodore of Tarsus, the first archbishop of Canterbury (669-90), himself probably a member of the Moschan circle (Thacker, 1998; cf. Booth, 2014). While the Whitby Life does not appear in itself to have been a particularly popular work (it is virtually never cited, not even by Bede, and survives in a single Carolingian manuscript), it would prove indirectly influential, with elements of its text recycled in the widely read ninth-century Gregorian Lives of ‘the Interpolator’ and John the Deacon (Leyser, 2014).


Editions and English translation: Colgrave, B. (ed. and trans.), The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great (Lawrence KS, 1968; repr. Cambridge, 1985). Mosford, S.E., "A Critical Edition of the Vita Gregorii Magni by an Anonymous Member of the Community of Whitby," DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1988. Further Reading: Booth, P., Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 2014), 112-15. Colgrave, B., "The Earliest Life of St Gregory the Great, Written by a Whitby Monk," in: K. Jackson, et al., Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border (Cambridge, 1963), 119-37. Ewald, P., "Die älteste Biographie Gregors I," in: Historische Aufsätze, dem Andenken an Georg Waitz gewidmet (Hannover, 1886), 17-54. Goffart, W., The Narrators of Barbarian History (AD 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede and Paul the Deacon (Princeton, 1988), 258-70. Leyser, C., "The Memory of Pope Gregory the Great in the Ninth Century: A Redating of the Interpolator’s Vita Gregorii (BHL 3640)," in: C. Leonardi (ed.), Gregorio Magno e le origini dell’Europa (Florence, 2014), 449-62. Limone, O., "La vita di Gregorio Magno dell’Anonimo di Whitby," Studi medievali, 3rd series, 19 (1978), 37-48. Thacker, A., "The Social and Continental Background to Early Anglo-Saxon Hagiography," DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1976, 38-79. Thacker, A., "Memorializing Gregory the Great: The Origin and Transmission of a Papal Cult in the Seventh and Early Eighth Centuries," Early Medieval Europe, 7 (1998), 59-84.

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