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E05960: In the Whitby Life of *Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome, ob. 604, S00838), the author notes the lack of miracles attributed to the saint, and theorises on the importance of miracles as proof of sanctity. Written in Latin by a monk or nun of Whitby (north-east Britain), 685/714, perhaps 704/14.

online resource
posted on 2018-07-15, 00:00 authored by bsavill
The Whitby Life of Gregory the Great (BHL 3637)

For an overview of this work, see $E05872.

Chapter 3
... De quo librum scribere cupientes cum pauca eius de gestis audivimus signorum, nec fastidium sit legentibus precamur, si aliquid de laude tanti viri loquamur uberius. Multi igitur a miraculis vitam quidem sanctorum solent considerare, atque a signis sancta illorum merita metiri, et hoc nec inmerito. Nam sepe eos Deus qui est mirablis in sanctis suis quos pre ceteris amat, iam miraculis facit coruscare pre ceteris.

'... We wish to write a book about him, though, in the record of his deeds, we have heard of few miracles (signa): but we pray our readers not to feel distaste if we praise the great man somewhat exuberantly. For many are accustomed to judge the lives of saints by their miracles and to measure their merits and holiness by the signs they perform; nor is this unreasonable, for often God, who is glorious in his saints that he loves beyond other men, makes them shine above other men by the miracles they perform.'

Chapter 4
Unde nostrorum nonnulli mirabilem virum sanctum Gregorium papam Romam, et ut ita dicam, apostolicum, signis divinis apte suspicantur, que et mira dicuntur merito fulsisse. Quibus etiam est pure agnoscendum, quia ut ille sanctus vir, "Sunt," inquit, "plerique eui, etsi signa non faciunt, signa tamen facientibus dispares non sunt." Hinc namque de signis proprię virtutis suę quas fecit Veritas, a se minoribus maiora id est apostolis concessa divinis ostendit, maiora horum facietis. Eos quoque non esse omnibus per merita maiores, alibi testantur, ubi de Johanne Baptista inter natos maior non surrexisse dicebat. Quem nequaquam talia ut apostolus signa fecisse didicimus, eum tamen potuisse talia non dubitamus ...

'Therefore some of our people rightly suppose that this wonderful man St Gregory, the Pope of Rome and, if I may say so, the apostolic Pope, deservedly gained renown by holy signs which can even be called miracles. Such men clearly recognise that there are many, like this holy man, who, as Gregory himself said, do not perform miracles but are not unequal to those who do. For He, the Truth, showed that in the matter of signs which He performed by His own power, it was granted to lesser men than Himself, namely the holy Apostles, to do greater – "Greater works than these shall ye do." Further He showed elsewhere that the Apostles were not greater than all other men by their merits; when speaking of John the Baptist, he said, "Among them that are born of women there have not risen a greater." Yet we have never heard that John did such miracles as any of the Apostles did, though we do not doubt that he could have done such ...'

Chapter 6
... Unde ipse de istis in eius loquitur evangelii omeliis dicens, "Quę nimirum miracula tanto maiora sunt quanto spiritalia": et iterum, "que tanto securiora sunt quanto spiritalia." Et hoc contra eos qui gloriantur in signis, et illic audituri sunt, "Discedite a me omnes qui operamini iniquitatem." Plus igitur Christus per sanctum loquendo proficit Gregorium, quam quod Petrum apostolum per undas fectir ambulare, vel quod per Paulum eius co-apostolum cecitate malignum percussit magum.

'... This is how he [Gregory] deals with the subject in his Homilies on the Gospels: "Miracles," he says, "are the greater, the more spiritual they are"; and again, "If they are spiritual they are so much the surer." These, too, are his words against those who boast of their wonderful works here and who there are going to hear from Him, "Depart from me all ye workers of iniquity." Therefore Christ avails us more as He speaks through St Gregory than when He made the Apostle Peter walk on the waves; or when through Peter's fellow-Apostle Paul He struck the evil magician with blindness.'

Chapter 30
... Sed neque et illud moveat quemquam si quid horum de alio quolibet sanctorum fuisset effectum, cum sanctus apostolus per mysterium unius corporis membrorum, sanctorum scilicet vitam conparando concordat ut simus ad invicem alter alterius membra...

'... Let no one be disturbed even if these miracles were performed by any other of the saints, since the holy Apostle, through the mystery of the limbs of a single body, which he compares to the living experience of the saints, concludes that we are all "members one of another" ...'

Text and translation: Colgrave, 1968, 76-81.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gregory I, 'the Great', bishop of Rome, ob. 604 : S00838 John the Baptist : S00020 Apostles, unnamed or name lost : S00084 Peter the Apostle : S00036 Paul, the Apostle : S00008

Saint Name in Source

Gregorius Iohannes Baptista Apostoli Petrus Paulus

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 - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Observed scarcity/absence of miracles


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 author's view on miracles, as important but not the only marks of sanctity, seems to echo Gregory's own, as put forward (inter alia) in his Dialogues (1.12) and his Homilies on the Gospels (2.29). The idea expressed in ch. 30 on the saints as "members of one another" is based on Gregory's Regula Pastoralis (3.10), with reference to the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 12:12-22 and Rom. 12:4-5. (Colgrave, 1964, 142, 165).


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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