On the Carolingian Commons of Saints

AKMA asked on the post below why I was equating Ardo’s use of “prelates” to “confessors” in the discussion of the place of St Martin. There’s a good answer for that but it takes more space than I can get in a com-box so I’m moving it here to a new post.

The short answer is that Ardo seems to be utilizing the traditional Carolingian framework for Commons and Martin fits into the “Confessor” slot,  in the Carolingian West “Confessor” was regularly assumed to mean “clergy” and preeminently “bishop”, and St Martin (of Tours, naturally) is noted as a bishop and confessor  in the Carolingian kalendars, was one of the great heroes of the monastic West, and thus the exemplar of his category.

Now I’ll trot out the evidence that supports all of this…

First, let’s note that Ardo is utilizing a common trope but is using “prettified” language that may obscure the trope a little for those not used to his sources.

Dipping into the Latin (I’m relying here on PL 103, col. 565A [this whole bit is in Migne’s section 26]), it reads: “Petrus et Paulus capita sunt apostolorum; Stephanus protomartyr principatum tenet in choro testium; Martinus vero gemma refulget praesulum; Benedictus cunctorum est Pater monachorum.”

In a standard sacramentary, lectionary, or homiliary, the entries for the Temporale and Sanctorale would be followed by a group of generic templates for use in celebrating local or, at least, non-universal saints. They were arranged in order of their liturgical importance and came with both singular and plural versions—Common of One Apostle, of Many Apostles, of One Martyr, of Many Martyrs, of One Confessor, of Many Confessors, of One Virgin, and of Many Virgins. The commune sanctorum was never a completely formalized set, however. Nevertheless, the order above is the exact order given in the Missal of Robert of Jumieges and is the standard order of the Hadrianum supplement which recent scholarship (cf. Vogel) has identified as the very work of Benedict of Aniane rather than Alcuin as earlier believed.

So, in the little snippet quoted above Ardo gives us Apostles, Martyrs but uses the flowery term “in choro testium”, then [Martin] using the term “praesulum”, then monks. The order seems to me to mirror the usual commons even if he’s not explicitly using the usual terms.

Moving to other points of evidence, we need to look at the hymns appointed for All Saints. Again, I know the English sources best and have them to hand, so here are the hymns of the Durham Hymnal which is from the Frankish New Hymnal promulgated in Carolingian times:

Hymn 98: Ymnus in Festiviate Omnnium Sanctorum[1]

Ad Vesperam

Festiva saeclis colitur     dies sanctorum omnium,

qui regnant in cęlestibus,     Iesu tecum feliciter.

The feast day of All Saints is celebrated in all the world, the day of those who reign happily in the heavenly regions together with you, o Jesus.
Hos invocamus cernui     teque, redemptor omnium.

Illis tibique supplices     preces gementes fundimus.

It is these we invoke with bowed heads and it is also you, redeemer of all. As suppliants we address prayers to them and to you, sighing the while.
Iesu, salvator saeculi,     redemptis ope subveni

&, pia genitrix     salutem posce miseris.

Jesus, saviour of the world, assist and aid those whom you redeemed and you, loving mother of God, demand salvation for the wretched.
Caetus omnes angelici,     patriarchum cunei

& prophetarum merita     nobis pręcentur veniam.

May all the hosts of angels and the troops of patriarchs and the prophets by virtue of their merits pray for forgiveness unto us.
Baptista Christi pręvius     & claviger æthereus

cum ceteris apostolis     nos salvant nexu criminis.

May the Baptist who preceded Christ and the bearer of the keys to heaven release us from the bonds of sin in concert with the other apostles.
Chorus sacratus Martyrum     confessio sacerdotum

& virginalis castitas      nos a peccatis abluant.

May the holy choir of the martyrs and the priests by virtue of their being confessors and the maidens by virtue of their chastity purify us of our transgressions.
Monachorum suffragia     omnesque cives celici

annuant vota supplicum     & vitę poscant premium.

May the intercession of the monks and may all the citizens of heaven grant the requests of the suppliants and ask the reward of life for them.
Laus, honor, virtus, Gloria     deo patri & filio

simul cum sancto spiritu     in sempiterna sęcula.


Praise, honour, might and glory be to God, the Father and the Son together with the Holy Spirit in eternity.

This hymn is a perfect example of the Carolingian configuration of the Saints. Its point of departure is clearly the Te Deum; stanza 4 hits the main categories, then we expand from there (Note John the Baptist in 5). Stanza 6 has the brief “confessio sacerdotum” which Millful in her translation expands as “the priests by virtue of their being confessors”. That is reading a bit into it, but given the later evidence, I’ll present I don’t think it’s a stretch.

Hymn 99: Ymnus ad Nocturnam
Christe, redemptor omnium,     conserva tuo famulos

beatae semper virginis     placates sanctis precibus.

Christ, redeemer of all men, preserve your servants, placated by the holy prayers of the perpetual virgin, blessed Mary.
Beata quoque agmina     caelestium spirituum,

preterita, pręsentia,     futura mala pellite.

You also, blessed troops of celestial spirits, dispel evils past, present and to come.
Vates aeterni iudicis     apostolique domini,

suppliciter exposcimus     salvari vestries precibus.

You prophets of the eternal judge and you apostles of the Lord, humbly we beg to be saved by means of your prayers.
Martyres dei incliti     confessors lucidi,

vestries orationibus     nos ferte in cęlestibus.

You renowned martyrs of God and resplendent confessors, convey us into the heavenly regions by your appeals.
Chorus sanctarum virginum   monachorumque omnium,

simul cum sanctis omnibus     consortes Christi facite.

You choir of holy virgins and all monks, let us be partakers in Christ together with all the saints.
Gentem auferte perfidum     credentium de finibus,

ut Christi laudes debitas     persolvamus alacriter.

Move the heathen infidels away from the borders of the faithful so that we may gladly offer up the praise we owe to Christ.
Gloria patri ingenito     eiusque unigenito

una cum sancto spiritu     in sempiterna secula.

Glory be to the Father who was not begotten, and to his only-begotten Son together with the Holy Ghost in eternity.

Here the confessors aren’t more explicitly identified, but we are once again given the standard framework which moves from apostles, to martyrs, to confessors to virgins/monks.

Moving to the two sermons I mentioned before, the Ps-Bede “Legimus in ecclesiasticis historiis” identifies the confessors quite explicitly as clergy: “Christi vero sacerdotibus atque doctoribus sive confessoribus huius festivitatem diei non ignotam esse credimus.” I don’t have the full text in front of me at the moment but Aelfric’s sermon uses “Legimus” as a starting place. Following his section on martyrs he moves to his section on confessors:

After the cessation of the cruel persecutions of kings and governors, holy priests of God prospered under peaceful conditions for God’s church. They, by true learning and holy example, pointed men of the nations to God’s joys. Their minds were pure and filled with chastity,  and they worshiped God almighty with clean hands at his altar glorifying the holy sacrament of Christ’s body and his blood. They also offered themselves as living sacrifices to God without wicked or sexually perverse works. They established God’s teaching among their underlings as a permanent deposit and inclined their minds with compulsion and prayers and great diligence to life’s way and not for any worldly thing scorned the proper fear of God. Though they did not experience the persecution of the sword yet through the merit of their lives they were not deprived of martyrdom because martyrdom is accomplished not in blood alone but also in abstinence from sins and in the application of God’s commands.

After these follow hermits and solitaries. . . . (CH I.36, ll. 89-104)

When these four items are put in parallel, they look like this:

Hymn 98 Hymn 99 “Legimus” CH I.36
Christ Christ Christ
Blessed Virgin Mary Blessed Virgin Mary
Angels Angels Angels Angels
Patriarchs Patriarchs Patriarchs
Prophets Prophets Prophets Prophets
John the Baptist John the Baptist John the Baptist
Key-bearing Peter and other Apostles Apostles Apostles (with mention of the power of the keys) Apostles (with mention of the power of the keys)
Martyrs Martyrs Martyrs Martyrs
Confessor priests Confessors Priests/Teachers/Confessors Priests
Blessed Virgin Mary Blessed Virgin Mary
Virgins Virgins Virgins/Monks[2] Virgins
Monks Monks

So—that’s why I feel entirely justified in conflating “prelates” with “confessors”.

[1] Both the text and the translation are taken from Millful, 358-360.

[2] Legimus conflates virgins and monks by stating that “an innumerable multitude of both sexes followed in her footsteps (innumerabilis utriusque sexus multitudo eius sequebatur uestigia)” (ll. 171-2).

10 thoughts on “On the Carolingian Commons of Saints

  1. AKMA

    Thanks very much, Derek, and I suspect that (a) your perspective is based on a fuller understanding of the topic and (b) my relative ignorance of the medieval details contributes to my continuing hesitation to leap aboard the bandwagon.

    Looking from my perspective in NT/early church at the evidence that you display, I see a perfectly intelligible association of martyrs, confessors, and monks/virgins that doesn’t require redefining “confessors” or expanding the category. Martyrs died; confessors suffered (short of death); monks/virgins renounced the world (as a mode of living death).And the intrusion of “presiders” into the category looks to me more like “We’ve got to put non-persecuted clergy into a category somewhere; well, they’re not equal to martyrs, but they’re a notch above monks, so we’ll put them in the same rank as confessors” without specifically subsuming them under the same category.

    But that’s the rationale for my pre-Nicene perspective, which I describe not as a rebuttal to your explanation, but as the grounds for my unease at the phenomenon you identify.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    I see your point, AKMA, but historically it seems to me that by Carolingian times the categories had moved away from the original ones you describe.

    I also totally understand your unease. From this Carolingian perspective you couldn’t really become a saint without occupying a recognizable place in the hierarchy. The only group who serve as exceptions to this rule are royalty. So, again, sanctity was functionally out of reach for anyone who wasn’t in orders or in the highest strata of society.

    While I love this period, this is one of the fundamental inequities I hope the church is moving beyond…

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Oh–one other item I didn’t go into but which would follow the same concept: looking at the gospel canticle antiphons and the sermons appointed for the Common of Confessors. The standard Gospel text was the parable of the talents and the usual interpretation is that the good confessor is the one who put the church in order wisely. The Antiphons tend to echo this reading.

  4. AKMA

    Well, this just shows the usefulness of knowing everything rather than being limited to one or two slices of church history. I like my period’s definitions more than those of yours, but I follow the historical development you demonstrate.

  5. AKMA

    OK, I know I should stop picking at this, but I stand to learn from what you explain to me, so I’ll go on (with your indulgence).

    A couple further points: on what basis do we rightly contrue Martin as an exemplar of priesthood in this context? He was Bishop of Tours, and the Latin here is praesulum, which in this context I would take as referring to some form of eminence (picked up in the English gloss that originally caught my curiosity, “prelates”) — which corresponds to the relative frequent use of “praesul” for a bishop in antiquity. If priests were in question, would we not expect to see a non-episcopal figure for them, and the word sacerdotum?

    Parenthetically, the problem of what to do about saintly sacerdotes reminds me of the awkwardness of their ecclesiastic roles in the earlier period. Evidently presbyters and sacerdotes were just plain hard to categorize.

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  7. Derek the Ænglican

    And, see, this is yet another day I’m kicking myself that I lost track of my scans of Wormald’s great collection of English Benedictine kalendars before the 10th century—and lack Frere’s book on the development of the kalendar.

    I’ll come back to this later today as I’m able. It seems like we’ve got two good questions in here. The first revolves around the Confessor issue—priest, bishop or continuum? The second revolves around St Martin—what makes him so special?

    Again, a longer answer is deserved by each question but for now I’ll just say this:

    1. Off the top of my head, I’m unable to think of a single confessor in an Carolingian/early medieval liturgical source who’s not a bishop. While there may be some, I sure can’t remember them… There are some priests like Jerome who appear but they also fall under the category of monk which seems to be a category of its own even though not all rites had a separate Common for them. Even Alcuin the Deacon is both a Doctor and an Abbot—which is functionally equal to a bishop. (Remember where he was abbot…?) The other priests in the kalendar I can recall earn their place by being martyrs.

    2. Martin occupies a very special place in the annals of Western sanctity, chiefly because he had a spectacular PR department.

    More later…

  8. John-Julian,OJN

    “In 796, after fourteen years of selfless labor, [Alcuin] was finally able to persuade Charlemagne to allow him to withdraw to the peace of the cloister, and he was given the abbacy of Saint Martin at Tours where he spent most of the rest of his life, returning to court only occasionally to defend orthodoxy against heretical opinions.”

    from “Stars in a Dark World” by Fr. John-Julian,OJN

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