University of Oxford

File(s) not publicly available

E07832: Gregory the Great, in his Dialogues (3.32), describes how *African confessors, whose tongues were cut out by the Vandals (S01481) in North Africa, were miraculously still able to speak. Written in Latin in Rome, c. 593.

online resource
posted on 2019-11-22, 00:00 authored by dlambert
Gregory the Great, Dialogues 3.32

Gregory states that in the time of the emperor Justinian there was a terrible persecution of catholics in Africa by the king of the Arian Vandals. The king ordered the African bishops to be silent on matters of faith, but they refused, since this would be interpreted as approval for heresy:

Nam cum eis in ipsa defensione ueritatis silentium indiceret, nec tamen ipsi contra perfidiam tacerent, ne tacendo forsitan consensisse uiderentur, raptus in furore, eorum linguas abscidi radicitus fecit. Res mira et multis nota senioribus, quia ita post pro defensione ueritatis etiam sine lingua loquebantur, sicut prius loqui per linguam consueuerant.

'For while he [the king] declared that they were to be silent in the defence of truth, they were not, however, silent against heresy, in case by silence they might perhaps seem to consent. Seized with rage, he had their tongues cut out at the root. It is a marvellous thing and well-known to many of our elders that afterwards, in the defence of truth, they spoke even without a tongue, just as before they had been accustomed to speak with their tongues.'

Quoting the opening of the Gospel of John, Gregory explains that since it was the Word of God which made all things, no one should be surprised if the Word could make speech without a tongue. He then describes meeting someone who had seen the confessors.

Hii itaque eo tempore profugi ad Constantinopolitanam urbem uenerunt. Eo quoque tempore, quo pro explendis responsis ecclesiae ad principem ipse transmissus sum, seniorem quendam episcopum repperi, qui se adhuc eorum ora sine linguis loquentia uidisse testabatur, ita ut apertis oribus clamarent: "Ecce, uidete quia linguas non habemus et loquimur."

'They therefore came at that time to Constantinople as exiles. At the time when I myself was sent there to give the responses of the church to the emperor, I met an elderly bishop, who bore witness that he had seen their mouths speaking without tongues, so that they shouted with open mouths, "Look, you see that we do not have tongues, and we speak."'

Gregory mentions that those who examined their mouths saw that their tongues had indeed been completely cut out, yet they could still form speech perfectly. However, one of them lost the capacity to speak after he 'lapsed into luxury' (in luxuriam lapsus), since those who are not continent in the flesh cannot speak without a tongue of flesh.

Text: De Vogüé 1978, 390, 392. Translation and summary: David Lambert.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

African confessors whose tongues were cut out by the Vandals : S01481

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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

Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory the Great (pope)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Oral transmission of saint-related stories

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracles experienced by the saint Healing diseases and disabilities

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Heretics Foreigners (including Barbarians) Other lay individuals/ people


Gregory the Great (Pope, 590-604) wrote his Dialogues on the Lives and Miracles of the Italian Fathers (Dialogi de vita et miraculis patrum italicorum) in Rome around 593. Organised into four books, the first three are a collection of lives and miracles of various Italian saints. The longest is the Life of Benedict of Nursia, which comprises the entirety of book 2. The final book consists of an essay on the immortality of souls after death. As a whole, the work documents and explains the presence of the miraculous in the contemporary world and the ability of saints to effect miracles both before and after death. The attribution of the Dialogues to Gregory has been disputed, most recently by Francis Clark who argued that the work was created in the 680s in Rome. Others - such as Adalbert de Vogüé, Paul Meyvaert and Matthew dal Santo - have, however, strongly argued for Gregory's authorship and it is broadly accepted that Gregory was responsible for the Dialogues. For a discussion of Gregory's devotion in writing the Dialogues, see E04383, and for the role of the Dialogues as a tract justifying the nature of miracles and theorising on the immortality of souls, see E04506. Gregory's principal aim in collecting the miracle stories of the holy men and a very few women of sixth-century Italy was to show the presence of God's power on earth as manifested through them, rather than to encourage the cult of these individuals. Indeed, though posthumous miracles at the graves of a few individuals are recorded (and also a few miracles aided by contact relics of dead saints), there is very little emphasis in the Dialogues on posthumous cult; some of the miraculous events that Gregory records (e.g. E04429) are not even attributed to named individuals. Although very few of the holy persons in the Dialogues are 'proper' saints, with long-term cult, we have included them all in our database, for the sake of completeness and as an illustration of the impossibility of dividing 'proper' saints from more 'ordinary' holy individuals.


The story of the tongueless African confessors, first related by Victor of Vita in the 480s (E###), continues to develop in the hands of Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century. Gregory is the first known writer to make the confessors bishops, rather than laypeople and junior clerics. His turning of the story of the confessors' mutilation into a parable about speaking out and keeping silent, and the way in which he relates it to the concept of the Word/logos from John's Gospel are also unprecedented, and presumably Gregory's own contributions. As with other instances of the story, Gregory has the confessors moving to Constantinople, where their miraculous ability to speak is witnessed by many people. Again, as with most other instances, he establishes a personal link to the story, in his case indirectly, through the unnamed 'elderly bishop' (seniorem quendam episcopum) who told Gregory how he had witnessed the confessors speaking. Gregory's claim that one of the confessors lost the ability to speak after he 'lapsed into luxury' (in luxuriam lapsus), parallels a similar story in Procopius (E###). Since there is no reason to believe that Gregory was familiar with Procopius, this suggests that both men were passing on an anecdote or tradition about the confessors circulating in Constantinople. Gregory's erroneous placing of the event in the reign of Justinian, rather than during Huneric's persecution in 484, was perhaps prompted by the use of Vandal persecution as a justification for Justinian's reconquest.


Edition: Vogüé, A. de, Grégoire le Grand, Dialogues, Sources chrétiennes 260 (Paris: Cerf, 1979). Translation: Zimmerman, O.J., Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, Fathers of the Church 39 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1959). Further Reading: Clark, F.,The 'Gregorian' Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism (Leiden: Brill, 2003). Dal Santo, M., "The Shadow of A Doubt? A Note on the Dialogues and Registrum Epistolarum of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604)," Journal of Ecclesiatical History, 61.1, (2010), 3-17. Meyvaert, P., "The Enigma of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues: A Reply to Francis Clark," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 39 (1988), 335–81. Vogüé, A. de, "Grégoire le Grand et ses Dialogues d’après deux ouvrages récents," Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 83 (1988), 281–348.

Usage metrics

    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



    Ref. manager