The Lives of St Samson: rewriting the ambitions of an early medieval cult

Saint_SamsonThe Lives of St Samson: rewriting the ambitions of an early medieval cult

Richard Sowerby

Francia: Band 38 (2011)


In the middle of the ninth century, at the monastery of Dol in Brittany, the Life of the sixth-century saint Samson was rewritten. The rewriter evidently perceived a deficiency in the existing Life of St Samson, and one that many modern historians would come to share: the fact that it had very little to say about Brittany. The first Life (referred to by historians as the Vita prima Samsonis) dedicated over fifty chapters to Samson’s birth in Gwent, his education at the monastery of St Iltut, and his journeys around Wales, Ireland and Cornwall in search of ascetic rigours before his episcopal ordination and the foundation of his own monastery in Cornwall. But about Samson’s subsequent voyage to Brittany, the foundation of Dol, and his deeds on the Continent, the author of the Vita prima knew only enough for nine short chapters. The new Life (the Vita secunda) sought to say more about this latter part of the saint’s lifetime, and it did so almost exclusively by adding miracles1.

These additions have been considered – if they have been considered at all – to be the commonplace fictions of hagiographic embellishment, offering little of historical value. This is in marked contrast to the treatment of the Vita prima. Its preface claimed that the anonymous Breton author was writing around a century after Samsson’s death, working from an earlier text written by the saint’s cousin (a deacon named Henoc) that had been kept in the possession of the monastery founded by St Samson in Cornwall. On this basis, the Vita prima has a claim to be the closest thing that sixth-century Brittany has to a contemporary, primary source.


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