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E05963: In the Whitby Life of *Gregory the Great, (bishop of Rome, ob. 604, S00838), the author reports that the saint extinguished the light (at the tomb?) of the pope (presumably *Siricius, bishop of Rome, ob. 399, S00527) who had banished *Jerome (Church Father, ob. S00267); and that he later caused the death of his successor (Pope Sabinianus, ob. 606) for denigrating his own memory. 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 28
... Tale quid etiam celestis eius sensit in eo papa animus quod horret dicere, qui candelabri, non solum Romanorum sed etiam totius mundi, lucerna Romę quę urbium caput est orbisque domina, sancti Hieronimi lugubri ex ea emigrando infidelitate lectionis, quę Dei lampadem singulari ab eo lumine accensum, quantum in se fuit extinguens, suam idcirco merito a sancto Gregorio meruit obscurari lampadem. Nec inmerito; quia in eo lectionis quoque divine lampas hoc lucissime agendum dilucidavit.

Necnon et aliud simile huic testatur horribile de illo, qui fuit ipsius successor. Qui cum presul post eum Romę constituitur, famę illius quia laudem habere nequivit ei invidisse ita pronuntiatus. Cum enim sanctus vir Gregorius Christi sic caritate constringitur ut plures e populo post suam conversos susceperat doctrinamque suorum, eorum non facile iste ab eo secundus portavit multitudinem, dicens, "Licet Gregorius omnem potuisset excipere populum, non tamen nos omnes possumus cybare sustinereque," quod certum tertio ob prefatum maxime invidiam, dixisse narratur. Totidem quoque vicibus quibus hec illis dicebat, qui eum frequentius pulsabant pro necessitatibus predictorum a sancto Gregorio adsumptorum ei apparuisse, non leniter adlocutus dicitur cur ista de se sic iudicasset in eo quod tantum pro Domino faciebat. Cumque eius non adquievit sermonibus, tertia vice eum adloquens, pede suo percussit in caput. Cuius dolore percussionis in paucis diebus defunctus est.

'... Something of the same sort his heavenly spirit perceived in the matter of a certain Pope, a story which is dreadful to tell. Jerome was a light upon the lampstand in Rome, not only for the Romans but for the whole world; for Rome is the chief of cities and mistress of the world. So when St Jerome left Rome through the wretched faithlessness of the Pope's judgement, that same Pope, so far as he was able, extinguished the lamp which God had lit with a lamp of surpassing brilliance. Therefore the Pope rightly merited that his own light should be put out by St Gregory and not undeservedly, because the light of divine judgement which burned in Gregory made it crystal clear that it was his duty to do this.

Another terrifying story similar to this is told of the Pope who was Gregory's successor, for when he was consecrated to the papacy after Gregory at Rome, he is said to have been jealous of Gregory's fame because he could not win the praise that his predecessor had won. For the latter was so constrained by the love of Christ that he made provision for many of the populace who had been converted by his teaching and by that of his people; but his successor was not ready to provide for such a multitude and said, "Even though Gregory could take care of all these people, yet we cannot feed and keep them all," and is said to have made this statement on at least three occasions, mostly out of envy. Each time he said it to those who very frequently urged upon him their need of such provisions as they had received from St Gregory, the saint appeared to him and is said to have asked him in far from gentle tones why he had judged his motives so wrongly when he had done it for the Lord's sake alone. Since Gregory was unable to silence him by his words, on the third occasion he kicked the man on the head. His successor died in a few days from the pain of the blow.'

Text and translation: Colgrave, 1968, 124-7.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gregory I, 'the Great', bishop of Rome, ob. 604 : S00838 Siricius, bishop of Rome, ob. 399 : S00527 Jerome, Church Father, ob. c. 420 : S00267

Saint Name in Source

Gregorius papa Hieronimus

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 - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Destruction/desecration of saint's shrine

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Punishing miracle

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - Popes


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 obscure story about Jerome is echoed and rendered more intelligible by two passages in a text known as Alfred's Dicta, surviving in a 12th century English manuscript, and probably deriving from a 9th century original. These relate how Pope Siricius (384-99) had expelled Jerome and his entourage from Rome for insulting him; how it was customary for lamps to burn before papal tombs in Rome; and how Gregory had broken that of Siricius to avenge Jerome. Possibly, these Dicta were based upon the same prototype text as that used by the author of the Whitby Life (Colgrave, 1964, 159-62; Thacker, 1976; idem, 1998). Otherwise, there is no other known evidence for this story. The story of Gregory's revenge upon Pope Sabinianus (604-6) does not appear independently of this text, although it would be reused in the 9th century by 'the Interpolator' and John the Deacon (Colgrave 1964, 161). Nevertheless, it seems probable that this story – presumably of fairly limited interest to a Northumbrian audience – reflects in some way the controversies surrounding Gregory's legacy in Rome in the decades following his death, with the Roman church apparently split between 'Gregorian' (pro-monastic) and 'anti-Gregorian' tendencies until well into the second half of the 7th century (Thacker, 1998). 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. 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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