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E05962: In the Whitby Life of *Gregory the Great, (bishop of Rome, ob. 604, S00838), the author recounts a miracle in Rome, involving the bleeding of cloths consecrated as contact relics of various unspecified *martyrs (S00060). Written in Latin by a monk or nun of Whitby (north-east Britain), 685/714, perhaps 704/14.

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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 21
Est et altera vetus quoque relatio viri Dei istius famę, in qua quidam dicuntur e partibus Romam venisse occidentalibus, missi a domino suo ut exinde sibi reliquias sanctorum aliquas adferrent. Quod vir Domini Gregorius gratanter excipiens diebus quibus ibi manserunt indesinenter missas agendo eis sancras diversorum Dei martirum reliquias consecravit sicut illic aliquando mos est facere. Atque eas singulis inponendo buxis pannis partim dividens sigillo suo signavit, eosque remeare ad suum fecit dominum.

Qui cum reversi in via more humano quiescere quodam coepissent loco, occurrit ei animo qui primus fuit illorum stulte egissę, eo quod non consideravit quid suo domino esset allaturus. Fractis ergo sigillorum inpressionibus, nihil ibi invenit habere, nisi ut viles admodum pannorum sectiones. Sicque ad Dei virum reversi dixerunt, si tales ad dominum suum venissent, plus se morte damnatos quam ulla gratia exceptos. Quibus primo archidiaconus dicitur respondisse quod stulte satis egissent, sancta illa signacula presumentes comminuere; seque id non ausum fuisse pontifici dicere, sed suasit eis proficisci. Quod cum se facere nullomodo audere dixerunt, - putabant enim se ossa vel maius aliquid hominum visu adlaturos, - ad extremum sancto antistiti nuntiatum est. Quod ipse pacienter ferens, iterum excoepit eosque fecit esse in eclesia cum populo pariter ad missam.

Quem ut de priori causa diximus Deum ortatus est deprecari ostendere suorum an vere essent sanctorum reliquię martyrum quas illis donavit legatis. Cum autem esset oratum ab omnibus, tulit ipse cultellum quem sibi iussit donare et unum e pannis pungendo secavit, ex quo confestum sanguis secto cucurrit. Itaque dixit ad eos, 'Nescitis quod in sanctificatione corporis et sanguinis Christi, cum supra sancta eius altaria ei in libamen ob sanctificationem illorum offerebantur reliquiarum, sanguis sanctorum quibus adsignata est semperillos intravit pannos utique tinctos?" Qui cum viderunt et audierunt. Ubi statim ut supra per orationem Deum dixit orandum ut fides esset adfirmanda.

Quo scilicet effecto reversi, domino suo nuntiabant hec universa. Que ipse audiens tam sancti viri auditis oraculis quam fide divina de au scriptum est, "Omne quod non est ex fide peccatum est," eam mundo corde adcommodavit omnibus de his que audivit, credens ei de quo dicitur, "Mundans fide corda eorum." Unde etiam maiora quam in sancti Petri eclesia inibi dicuntur sepe efulsisse miracula...

'There is also another ancient tradition about this famous man of God which tells how some men came to Rome from western parts, having been sent by their master to bring him some relics of the saints from that city. Gregory, the man of God, received them gladly and during the days they remained in Rome consecrated some holy relics of various martyrs by constantly celebrating holy masses for them as the custom once was. Then he divided up the pieces of cloth, putting them into separate boxes and sealing them with his seal; so he sent the men back to their master.

On their return journey, while they were resting by the wayside as men do, it occurred to their leader that they had done foolishly in not finding out what he was taking back to their master. So he broke the impressions of the seals and found nothing inside the boxes except just some dirty pieces of cloth. Thereupon they returned to the man of God, saying that if such rags came to their master, they were more likely to be condemned to death rather than to be received with any thanks. First of all, the archdeacon is said to have told them that they acted very foolishly in presuming to break those sacred seals; he added that he did not dare tell the Pope but urged them to go back again. They answered that they could not possibly venture to return, for they had believed that they had taken back bones or at least something more important in the sight of men than rags. So at last the Holy Father was told. He was very patient with them, received them back again, and bade them be in church at mass with the rest of the people.

Then, as happened in our former story [chapter 20], he urged the people to pray to God to show them whether what they had given the messengers were authentic relics of the holy martyrs. After they had all prayed, he told them to give him a knife which he took and with it made an incision into one of the pieces of cloth, whereupon blood at once ran from the cut. Thereupon he said to them, "Do you not know that at the consecration of the Body and Blood of the Christ, when the relics are placed on His holy altar as an offering to sanctify them, the blood of the saints to whom each relic belongs always enters into the cloth just as if it has been soaked in blood?" They were greatly perturbed and amazed at what they had seen and heard and so were all the onlookers. Whereupon, as in the previous story, he said that they must seek God in prayer so that their faith might be strengthened.

When this was done they returned home and told their master all these things. When he heard their story he was moved by what Gregory had said and also by holy faith, of which it is written that "whatsoever is not of faith is sin." He accepted with a pure heart what he has heard concerning all these relics, believing Him who is said to "purify their hearts by faith." And so even greater miracles are said to have shone forth more frequently from their new resting-place than in the Church of St Peter himself ...'

Text and translation: Colgrave, 1968, 108-111.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gregory I, 'the Great', bishop of Rome, ob. 604 : S00838 Martyrs, unnamed or name lost : S00060 Peter the Apostle : S00036

Saint Name in Source

Gregorius Martires Petrus

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

  • Eucharist associated with cult

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

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

Miraculous behaviour of relics/images

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - Popes Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy

Cult Activities - Relics

Unspecified relic Contact relic - cloth Collections of multiple relics Making contact relics Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries


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 story of the bleeding relic rags echoes a miracle recorded in a letter of Gregory to the Empress Constantina, and there attributed to Pope Leo the Great (Register, 4.30: E06351). A similar story, this time attributed to Gregory himself, is found in Georgian and Arabic versions of John Moschus' Spiritual Meadow, in existence by at least the 10th century and probably deriving from much earlier Greek traditions (Thacker, 1998). A Greek-speaking, or at least Roman, origin for the Whitby Life's version of the anecdote may explain why the sceptical messengers are described as coming 'from western parts.' The passage provides important evidence for the processes by which cloths were consecrated and packaged as contact relics in 6th and 7th century Rome, and of contemporary anxieties about their efficacy/suitability (see further Smith, 2017, 7-8). For further discussion, see the summary entry for this Life (E05872).


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. Smith, J.M.H., Relics and the Insular World, c. 600-c. 800 (Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture 15; Cambridge, 2017). 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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