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E05964: In the Whitby Life of *Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome, ob. 604, S00838), the author reports that the saint, through his tears, brought about the posthumous baptism of the emperor Trajan (ob. 117). 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 29
Quidam quoque de nostris dicunt narratum a Romanis, sancti Gregorii lacrimis animam Traiani imperatoris refrigeratam vel baptizatam, quod est dictu mirabile et auditu. Quod autem eum dicimus babtizatam, neminem moveat: nemo enim sine babtism Deum videbit umquam: cuius tertium genus est lacrimę. Nam die quadam transiens per forum Traianum, quod ab eo opere mirifico constructum dicunt, illud considerans repperit opus tam elemosinarium eum fecisse paganum ut Christiani plus quam pagani esse videret. Fertur namque contra hostes exercitum ducens propere pugnaturus, unius ad eum voce viduę misericorditer mollitus, substetisse totius imperator orbis. Ait enim illa, 'Domne Traiane, hic sunt homines qui filium meum occiderunt, nolentes mihi rationem reddere." Cui, "Cum rediero," inquit, "dicito mihi et faciam eos tibi rationem reddere." At illa, "Domine," ait, "si inde non venies, nemmo me adiuvet." Tunc iam concite reos in eam fecit coram se in armis suis subarratam ei pecuniam conponere quam debuerunt.

Hoc igitur sanctus inveniens Gregorius, id esse agnovit quod legimus, "Iudicate pupillo et defendite viduam et venite et arguite me, dicit Dominus." Unde per eum in se habuit Christum loquentem ad refrigerium animę eius quid implendo nesciebat, ingrediens ad sanctum Petrum solita direxit lacrimarum fluenta usque dum promeruit sibi divinitus revelatum fuisse exauditum, atque ut numquam de altero illud presumpsisset pagano.

'Some of our people tell a story related by the Romans of how the soul of Emperor Trajan was refreshed and even baptised by St Gregory's tears, a story marvellous to tell and marvellous to hear. Let no one be surprised that we say he was baptised, for without baptism none will ever see God; and a third kind of baptism is by tears. One day as he was crossing the Forum, a magnificent piece of work for which Trajan is said to have been responsible, he found on examining it carefully that Trajan, though a pagan, had done a deed so charitable that it seemed more likely to have been the deed of a Christian than of a pagan. For it is related that, as he was leading his army in great haste against the enemy, he was moved to pity by the words of a widow, and the emperor of the whole world came to a halt. She said, "Lord Trajan, here are the men who killed my son and are unwilling to pay me recompense." He answered, "Tell me about it when I return and I will make them recompense you." But she replied, "Lord, if you never return, there will be no one to help me." Then, armed as he was, he made the defendants pay forthwith with the compensation they owed her, in his presence.

When Gregory discovered the story, he recognised that this was just what we read about in the Bible, "Judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord." Since Gregory did not know what to do to comfort the soul of this man who brought the words of Christ to his mind, he went to St Peter's Church and wept floods of tears, as was his custom, until he gained at last by divine revelation the assurance that his prayers were answered, seeing that he had never presumed to ask this for any other pagan.'

Text and translation: Colgrave, 1968, 126-9.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gregory I, 'the Great', bishop of Rome, ob. 604 : S00838 Peter the Apostle : S00036

Saint Name in Source

Gregorius 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 Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Whitby Rome

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

Whitby St Albans St Albans Verulamium Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracles causing conversion

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Pagans Ecclesiastics - Popes Monarchs and their family Women


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).


This is the first appearance of this famous story, which would be repeated and met with due theological scepticism in late 9th century Rome by John the Deacon, who explicitly attributed it to the 'churches of the English' (Anglorum ecclesias) (PL 75, 104-105). Thacker notes that the concept of a 'baptism of tears' employed here (in an unorthodox fashion) by the author is also discussed in the 'Judgements' (Iudicia) of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (667-90), which by at least the late eighth century circulated under the title 'Canons of Saint Gregory' (Canones sancti Gregorii) (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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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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