Medieval Martyrologies: Previous Approaches and New Understandings

Dr. Ekaterina Novokhatko, Technische Universität Dresden

Zusammenfassung: Martyrologien offenbaren uns zahlreiche Aspekte des religiösen Lebens im Mittelalter. Bei der Erörterung der möglichen Herangehensweisen an die Martyrologien werde ich ihre Funktionen als hagiographische Lehrbücher, als Gedächtnisspeicher mittelalterlicher Gemeinschaften und schließlich als Medien aufzeigen, die nicht nur der Übertragung neuer Kulte und Feste dienten, sondern auch von ihrer Umsetzung in verschiedenen Typen von Religionsgemeinschaften zeugen und die hinter ihrer Verbreitung stehenden politischen, spirituellen und intellektuellen Ideen und Absichten offenbaren. Unter diesem Blickwinkel habe ich in meiner Promotionsarbeit acht erhaltene Martyrologien aus der Kirchenprovinz Narbonne im Hinblick auf ihre Rolle bei der Gestaltung des religiösen Empfindens im Katalonien des zehnten bis zwölften Jahrhunderts untersucht. Diese Herangehensweise an die mittelalterlichen Martyrologien erlaubt es uns, die Verbindungen zwischen religiösen Institutionen zu rekonstruieren; zu sehen, welche Mittel zur Verbreitung von Kulten eingesetzt wurden; zu untersuchen, wie die politischen Verflechtungen zwischen religiösen und Laieninstitutionen zur Etablierung bestimmter Feste führten; und schließlich einen Einblick in das Ausmaß zu geben, in dem diese Feste die Kernideen und -gedanken mittelalterlicher Gesellschaften formten und widerspiegelten.

Resumen: Los martirologios nos revelan múltiples aspectos de la vida religiosa medieval. A través de la discusión sobre los posibles panoramas de los martirologios, demostraré sus funciones como libros hagiográficos educativos, como almacenamiento de la memoria de la comunidad medieval y, finalmente, como medios que no sólo transfieren nuevos cultos y festividades, sino que también dan testimonio de su aplicación en diversos tipos de comunidades religiosas y revelan las ideas e intenciones políticas, espirituales e intelectuales que hay detrás de su difusión. Desde este punto de vista se han trabajado, en mi tesis doctoral, ocho martirologios existentes en la provincia eclesiástica de Narbona así como su papel en la formación de las sensibilidades religiosas en la región catalana de los siglos X a XII. Este enfoque de los martirologios medievales nos permite reconstruir las conexiones entre las instituciones religiosas; ver qué medios se utilizaron para la difusión de los cultos; examinar cómo la política entrelazada de las instituciones y personas religiosas y laicas condujo a la realización de ciertas festividades; y, por último, ofrecer una visión de la medida en que estas fiestas modelaron y reflejaron las ideas y pensamientos cruciales de la sociedad medieval.

Abstract: Martyrologies reveal to us numerous aspects of medieval religious life. Discussing the possible approaches to the martyrologies, I will demonstrate their functions as educational hagiographical books, as memory storage of the medieval communtiy and finally as media, that not only served the transmission of new cults and festivities, but that also bare witness to their application in different types of religious communities and reveal the political, spiritual and intellectual ideas and intentions behind their dissemination. It is under this perspective that I explored eight extant martyrologies from the ecclesiastical province of Narbonne and their role in shaping of religious sensibilities in the Catalan region from the 10th to the 12th centuries in my PhD thesis. This approach to medieval martyrologies allows us to reconstruct the connections between religious institutions; to see what means were used for the dissemination of cults; to examine how the intertwined politics of religious and lay institutes lead to the implementation of certain feasts; and finally, to offer insight into the extent to which these feasts shaped and reflected the crucial ideas and thoughts of medieval society.

In 985, Al-Mansur’s devastating raid on Barcelona destroyed the city and numerous local religious institutions including the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès (Vallès Occidental). Torched by the raiders, the monastery’s archive was lost and Abbot Joan and several other monks were killed. Having originally petitioned King Lothair (956–986) sometime before his death for the ratification of the losses of the monastery, it took until 1002 for the new abbot Odo (986–1010) to receive a bull from Pope Sylvester confirming the free election of abbots, the monastery’s previous possessions and its direct dependency on the papacy. The spiritual and material restoration of the monastery was a significant undertaking that included re-establishing the ecclesiastical community as well as importing and compiling new liturgical books for the mass and the office. One such book was a martyrology, which survives today in a manuscript known as Sant Cugat Ms. 22, held in the Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó.1

The eleventh-century manuscript contains the passions of martyrs organised in a typical calendar order that begins with the vigil for the Nativity of Christ, while the rest is comprised of St. Benedict’s rule, charters, lectionary and patristic texts.2 Almost all of these passions contain several important elements that provide us with key details about patterns that were crucial for the medieval mind in terms of remembering and venerating saints. For example, the feast day on February 19 (fol. 24r, XI Kl. Marcii) in this martyrology contains the following: “Romae, sancti Gabini presbyteri, patris beatissime Susanne qui a Diocleciano diu in custodia vinculis afflictus, preciosa morte celi gaudia comparavit”:

Sant Cugat Ms. 22, Folio 24r, in: Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, URL: [http://pares.mcu.es/ParesBusquedas20/catalogo/showimg/12831029].

These details often include the name of a martyr and his status (here presbyter St. Gabinus), spatial data (the geographical place of his/her martyrdom, here Rome), and sometimes temporal data (e.g. the name of a Roman emperor under whose rule a martyr was killed, here Diocletian). Over time, some of these martyrological entries were elaborated upon in order to add more historical information to the scarce text (here, for example, that St. Gabinus was St. Susanna’s father). This marked the birth of the historical martyrologies,3 which have long been seen as sources that inform us about their authors and contemporary thought, but similar questions can also be asked regarding their later copyists who diffused the martyrologies through different communities. Some of these questions have occupied me over the course of my doctoral studies, such as, what can we discern about why medieval authors and copyists chose particular saints and their stories to be part of their martyrological volumes? Exploring these questions sheds light on the conscious compilation of the historical martyrologies that blossomed from the ninth century onwards.

Promoted by the Carolingian councils that regulated regular and secular institutions, the martyrology became an essential liturgical book for every religious community. As such the reading of the martyrology ad capitulum became integrated into the Office of Prime, later called the Office of Chapter, which in turn led to the compilation of a special liturgical book – the Book of Chapter (or liber capituli).4 Incorporated into everyday liturgy, martyrologies were set together with the obituaries containing the names of the community’s members that had passed away. From the tenth to twelfth century, this burgeoning tradition saw more and more obituaries added to the main text of the martyrology. By correlating the veneration of the martyrs’ death (or their spiritual birth) with the deaths of members of the community, the martyrology became a tool for commemorating the dead through the diffusion of their memory, while simultaneously reconstructing and reinforcing the community of monks or canons.

Folio 29v from the Sant Cugat martyrology demonstrates what we can learn from these additions. On the feast day of March 20 (XIII Kl. Aprilis) “obiit Stephania femina et Arnallus laicus” is added and, further down on March 21 (XII Kl. Aprilis), one can read “obiit Arbertus monachus sancti Cucuphatis”:

Sant Cugat Ms. 22, Folio 29v, in: Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, URL: [http://pares.mcu.es/ParesBusquedas20/catalogo/showimg/12831323].

From this we learn not only the names of the monks, but also the names of lay people who apparently left bequests to the monastery.5 We can also observe that both male (Arnallus laicus) and female (Stephania femina) names are included in the obituary notes, revealing insights into the gendered aspects of religion and commemoration in eleventh-century medieval society. Notes such as this one also provide us with a strong indication of the nature of the community. It might be a monastery – in this case the monastery of Sant Cugat – or a congregation of monasteries as shown in another addition later in the same manuscript on folio 47r: “obierunt Remundus nostre congregationis monachus et Cesarius monachus”. This might be an indication of the congregation built in the 1090s around the monastery of Sant Cugat under Abbot Berenguer Folc (1091–1104), which included the monasteries of Sant Llorenç del Munt, Santa Cecília de Montserrat, Sant Salvador de Breda, Sant Pau de Camp and Santa Maria del Coll de Font-Rúbia. These small, easily missed additions communicate an extraordinary amount about the status and involvement of these members of religious institutions as well as the vast networks between the religious communities themselves.

In my doctoral research I also compared extant martyrologies in order to chart the arrival of new saints’ cults over the course of the Central Middle Ages, particularly as Catalan martyrologies have a lot of potential to shed light on the exchange of material and spiritual cultural heritage that has yet to be tapped. Sant Cugat Ms. 22 also contains several additions of universal feasts (or auctaria) which entered the main text of the martyrology either during its compilation or in the following decades. For example, the text for May 8 (VIII Id. Maii) starts with the celebration of the feast of Archangel Michael on Monte Gargano: “Apud montem Garganum inventio spelunce sancti Michaelis archangeli”:

Sant Cugat Ms. 22, Folio 43r, in: Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, URL: [http://pares.mcu.es/ParesBusquedas20/catalogo/showimg/12831323].

This feast, which is completely absent from ninth-century historical martyrologies, gained popularity in the tenth century and entered liturgical and hagiographical manuscripts in Italy, southern France and Catalonia throughout the eleventh century. The fact that the Sant Cugat martyrology included it in the main text and not in the margin bears witness to either an earlier copy that already contained this feast, or to the existing veneration of the Gargano cult in the region when the martyrology was compiled – or even to both. We know that the feast came from Apulia, possibly via Monte Cassino, to the monasteries of Sant Miquel de Cuixà and Santa Maria de Ripoll and the cathedral chapter of Vic. Its subsequent arrival in the monasteries of Sant Cugat del Vallès and Sant Llorenç del Munt can be explained by the general circulation of books and copyists in the Catalan region, but the contemporary atmosphere also encouraged its popularity. The veneration of St. Michael’s Gargano cult was a direct response to contemporary fears of foes like Al-Mansur. The function of the Archangel that developed in the Gargano legend emphasised his role as a healer and protector, defending the Christians from the “Other”, appealing directly to contemporaries because it promised them, at least spiritually, exactly what they needed. Thus, the auctaria reflect religious ideals, beliefs and their social reception in the Catalan region.

The martyrology can reveal many details about the life of religious communities and their place in medieval society in general. As they travelled across cultural borders, the feasts and cults expressed within them shaped the identities of religious communities they entered and transferred crucial political and spiritual ideas from one religious milieu to another. The agency of liturgical manuscripts in targeting various religious communities with essential messages thus points to these manuscripts as media which unified these communities throughout Christendom by shaping contemporaries’ knowledge of the world around them through history, geography and their place within the Christian world. The impressive variety of questions we can pose to the martyrology stresses its function as an essential medieval source for exploring the intellectual, social, spiritual and political backgrounds of religious communities and reaffirms the relevance of liturgical sources for understanding the ideals and beliefs of medieval people.


Further reading

Dubois, J., Les martyrologes du Moyen Âge latin, Turnhout, 1978 (Typologies des sources du Moyen Âge occidental, 26).

Étaix, R., ‘Quelques homéliaires de la región catalane’, Recherches Augustiniennes 16 (1981), 333-98.

Fàbrega Grau, À., ‘Gràcies de participacio in temporalibus et spiritualibus atorgades, als segles XIII i XIV, per abats de Sant Llorenç del Munt i de Sant Cugat de Vallès’, Analecta Montserratensia. Miscellanea A. M. Albareda 9 (1962), pp. 261-64.

Fàbrega Grau, À., ‘El necrologio de San Lorenzo de Munt’, Analecta Sacra Tarraconensia 20 (1947), 215-22.

Feliu Montfort, G., ‘Al-Mansur, Barcelona i Sant Cugat’, Acta Histórica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia 3 (1982), 45-54.

Freedman, P., The Diocese of Vic. Tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick, 1983)

Freedman, P., ‘L’influence wisigothique sur l’Église catalane’, in L’Europe héritière de l’Espagne wisigothique, eds. J. Fontaine, C. Pellistrandi (Madrid, 1992), pp. 69-79.

Gaiffier, B., de, ‘De l’usage et de la lecture du martyrologe : Témoignages antérieurs au XIe siècle’, Analecta Bollandiana79 (1961), 40-59.

Hamilton, S., ‘Liturgy as History: The Origins of the Exeter Martyrology’, Traditio 74 (2019), 179-222.

Iglesias i Fonseca, J., ‘El ‘Martirologio’ de Adón en Cataluña. Consideraciones codicológicas y paleográficas sobre dos nuevos testimonios’, in Actas [del] III Congreso Hispánico de Latín Medieval (León, 26-29 de septiembre de 2002), ed. M. Pérez González, León, 2002, vol. 1, pp. 149-59.

Lemaitre, J.-L., ‘Un chanoine inculte ? Le copiste du martyrologe du chapitre cathédral de Béziers’, in Mediterraneo, Mezzogiorno, Europa : Studi Cosimo Damiano Fonseca, eds. G. Andenna, H. Houben, Bari, 2004, 677-89.

Id., ‘Liber capituli. Le livre du chapitre, des origines au XVIe siècle. L’exemple français’, in Memoria. Der geschichtliche Zeugniswert des liturgischen Gedenkens im Mittelalter, eds. K. Schmid, J. Wollasch, München, 1984, pp. 625-48. 

Id., ‘Nécrologes et obituaires. Une source privilégiée pour l’histoire des institutions ecclésiastiques et de la société au Moyen Age’, in Autour des livres, du nécrologe au martyrologe. Precamur fraternitatem vestram, Genève, 2019, pp. 101-18 [1st ed. 2004]

Le martyrologe d’Adon, ses deux familles, ses trois recensions, eds. J. Dubois, G. Renaud, Paris, 1984.

McCulloh, J., ‘Historical martyrologies in the Benedictine cultural tradition’, in Benedictine culture 7501050, eds. W. Lourdaux, D. Verhelst, Leuven, 1983, pp. 114-31.

Ordeig i Mata, R., ‘El culte de l’Arcàngel Sant Miquel a la Seu Episcopal de Vic (segles X–XI)’, Misceŀlània litúrgica catalana 27 (2019), 159-91.

Puigferrat i Oliva, C., ‘L’évolució interna del cenobi als segles XI–XII’, in Catalunya romànica 18. Vallès Occidental, Vallès Oriental (Barcelona, 1991), pp. 162-66.

Quentin, H., Les martyrologes historiques, Paris, 1908.

Serdá, L., ‘Los martirológicos de la Marca Hispanica en la evolución litúrgica de la misma’, Ausa 1 (1952-53), 387-89.

Vezin, J., ‘Problèmes de datation et de localisation des livres de l’office de Prime’, in Memoria. Der geschichtliche Zeugniswert des liturgischen Gedenkens im Mittelalter, eds. K. Schmid, J. Wollasch, München, 1984, pp. 613-24.


Photo: Sant Cugat Ms. 22, Folio 3v, in: Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, URL: [http://pares.mcu.es/ParesBusquedas20/catalogo/showimg/12830995].

  1. cf. Sant Cugat Ms. 22, in: Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, URL: [http://pares.mcu.es/ParesBusquedas20/catalogo/description/2334957]. []
  2. The manuscript of Sant Cugat consists of 178 folia, of which circa 130 folia contain the martyrology. It was later passed to the monastery of Sant Llorenç del Munt in the same province. []
  3. The most famous among them being the martyrologies of Ado and Usuard compiled under the Carolingians in the ninth century. []
  4. This included the martyrology, the obituary, the rule, the lectionary and several more treatises and tracts. []
  5. Though in some cases they might have also been “Levitae”, or lay canons, which was a frequent phenomenon in eleventh-century Catalan cathedral chapters. []