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E06424: A letter of Pope Gregory the Great (Register 11.56) of 601, to Mellitus, 'abbot among the Franks', then on his way to join Augustine in Britain, gives detailed instructions regarding the re-consecration of pagan temples in southern Britain, the installation of relics within them, and the celebration of the feast days of the martyrs, which was to still include killing and feasting on animals. Later incorporated into the Ecclesiastical History of Bede, writing at Wearmouth-Jarrow (north-east Britain), 731. Written in Latin in Rome.

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posted on 2018-09-11, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Pope Gregory the Great, Register of Letters 11.56

The extract below is the full central part of the letter:

Cum uero Deus omnipotens uos ad reuerentissimum uirum fratrem nostrum Augustinum episcopum perduxerit, dicite ei quid diu me cum de causa Anglorum cogitans tractaui, uidelicet quia fana idolorum destrui in eadem gente minime debeant, sed ipsa, quae in eis sunt, idola destruantur. Aqua benedicta fiat, in eisdem fanis aspargatur, altaria construantur, reliquiae ponantur, quia, si fana eadem bene constructa sunt, necesse est ut a cultu daemonum in obsequio ueri Dei debeant commutari, ut, dum gens ipsa eadem fana sua non uidet destrui, de corde errorem deponat et Deum uerum cognoscens ac adorans ad loca quae consueuit familiarius concurrat.
Et quia boues solent in sacrificio daemonum multos occidere, debet eis etiam hac de re aliqua sollemnitas immutari, ut die dedicationis uel natalicii sanctorum martyrum, quorum illic reliquiae ponuntur, tabernacula sibi circa easdem ecclesias, quae ex fanis commutatae sunt, de ramis arborum faciant et religiosis conuiuiis sollemnitatem celebrent. Nec diabolo iam animalia immolent. Et ad laudem dei in esu suo animalia occidant et donatori omnium de satietate sua gratias referant, ut, dum eis aliqua exterius gaudia reseruantur, ad interiora gaudia consentire facilius ualeant. Nam duris mentibus simul omnia abscidere impossibile esse non dubium est, quia is qui summum locum ascendere nititur gradibus uel passibus, non autem saltibus eleuatur.

‘But when almighty God has led you to that most reverent man, our brother Bishop Augustine [of Canterbury], tell him what I have long pondered over, while thinking about the case of the English. That is, that the temples of the idols among that people ought not to be destroyed at all, but the idols themselves, which are inside them, should be destroyed. Let water be blessed and sprinkled in the same temples, and let altars be constructed and relics placed there. For if those temples have been well constructed, it is necessary that they should be changed from the cult of demons to the worship of the true God, so that, when that people sees that its temples are not being destroyed, it may remove error from its heart, and by knowing and adoring the true God, may come together in their customary places in a more friendly spirit.

And because they are accustomed to killing many oxen while sacrificing to their demons, some solemn rites should be changed for them over this matter. On the day of dedication, or on the feasts of holy martyrs, whose relics are placed there, they should make huts for themselves around those churches that have been converted from shrines, with branches of trees, and they should celebrate the festival with religious feasting. And they should not sacrifice animals to the devil any more, but kill animals for eating in praise of God, and offer thanks to the giver of all things for their sufficiency. Thus, when some joys are reserved for them externally, they might more readily consent to internal joys. For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut away everything at the same time from hardened minds, because anyone who strives to ascend to the highest place, relies on ladders or steps. He is not lifted up in one leap.’

Gregory continues by explaining that God did the same for the Children of Israel in Egypt, turning them away from sacrificing animals to idols, while permitting them to kill animals to the true God.

Text: Norberg 1982, vol. 2, 961-2. Translation: Martyn 2004, vol. 3, 802-3.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Martyrs, unnamed or name lost : S00060

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Letters


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Rome Wearmouth and Jarrow

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

Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē Wearmouth and Jarrow St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory the Great (pope)

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Sacrifice/libation

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Activities Accompanying Cult

  • Feasting (eating, drinking, dancing, singing, bathing)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Appropriation of older cult sites

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Animals Pagans Foreigners (including Barbarians)

Cult Activities - Relics

Unspecified relic


A letter transmitted as part of Gregory the Great’s Register of Letters. This letter collection, organised into fourteen books, is large and contains letters to a variety of recipients, including prominent aristocrats, members of the clergy and royalty. The issues touched on in the letters are equally varied, ranging from theological considerations to mundane administrative matters. This collection of letters, which was possibly curated by Gregory, was originally much larger. The surviving Register comprises several groups of letters which were extracted at several later moments in history, the largest of which took place in the papacy of Hadrian I (772-795). This letter also appears in Bede's Ecclesiastical History (731), I. 30.


Mellitus (ob. 624) had been sent to southern Britain by Gregory in 601 to support the work of Augustine, bishop of Canterbury, in converting the English. He later became the first reliably attested bishop of London (604-16/8), and the third bishop of Canterbury (619-24).


Edition: Norberg, D., S. Gregorii Magni, Registrum epistularum. 2 vols. (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 140-140A; Turnhout: Brepols, 1982). English translation: Martyn, J.R.C., The Letters of Gregory the Great, 3 vols. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004). Further Reading: Neil, B., and Dal Santo, M. (eds.), A Companion to Gregory the Great (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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