Historical Questions in St Albans

Last week two of us Classics teachers accompanied my class of 12 year olds to the Roman remains of Verulamium in St Albans. It’s a fun trip to make, though on this occasion the weather was pretty grisly, which made walking around the site of the ancient town a bit less enjoyable than usual.

The pupils particularly enjoyed seeing the Roman theatre, parts of which have been pretty well preserved, and testing out its acoustics. Next to the theatre lie the remains of a building which archaeologists have labelled the site of several ‘shops’: a carpentry shop, a bronze worker shop and so on.

A view of the shops in question

I asked my pupils to think about how an archaeologist might be able to arrive at this sort of verdict concerning the nature of a Roman building. Just how much evidence of (e.g.) bronze-working did the archaeologists who dug up this building discover? Had they inferred a great deal from not a lot, or had they not had to do much inferring at all? I didn’t actually know the answer to this question myself (I presume the basis of an answer to it can be found lurking somewhere in one of the 1960s excavation reports).

But just keeping such questions in mind matters, I think, when visiting archaeological sites. Our ancient historical picture of a place like Verulamium really can depend on how we interpret individual pieces of evidence (which might conceivably be understood in a quite different way and with startling implications). For a good example of this, in relation to Verulamium itself, see here.

In the afternoon, we arrived at the Verulamium museum for some artefact handling and a look around the museum exhibits. One of the exhibits – a brief video – prompted me to think again about the challenges of interpreting evidence – this time textual evidence. The video in question pronounced confidently that St Alban had died a martyr in the Diocletianic persecution of the early fourth century. Despite having some familiarity with the history of this period, this wasn’t a claim I’d encountered before – so I did a little digging around later that day and came across a number of interesting findings, which I’ve written up below. Things, in short, are a bit more complicated than the museum exhibit was letting on.

St Albans
Watching a video at the Verulamium museum

The first surviving document to make any kind of reference to St Alban is a work of Latin hagiography written in 480 AD, which was dedicated to another figure altogether – Saint Germanus, bishop of Auxerre – and was written by Constantius of Lyons. This text makes reference to the tomb of the ‘blessed martyr Alban’. The text makes no reference to any martyrdom, however. It simply recounts that Germanus ‘prayed to God through the saint’ (i.e. with Alban’s intercession) and that he was thus afforded a safe voyage back to Gaul.

A text of the sixth century monk Gildas, written in Latin in Britain, contains the earliest surviving account of Alban’s martyrdom, which he places in the Diocletianic period. In this text, Gildas suggests that Alban hid a Christian confessor in his home and that he then disguised himself as the confessor, thereby saving the confessor from persecution but sacrificing himself in the process.

alban martyr
A 13th century manuscript at Trinity College, Dublin, showing the execution of St Alban

Gildas writes affectionately of Alban, but his account does not go into much detail. By the eighth century, when St Bede was composing his Ecclesiastical History, a more elaborate story of Alban’s encounter with his Roman persecutors could be told. Was this the product of additional, otherwise unattested source material that Bede had managed to access? Or does it rather reflect an increasingly imaginative engagement with the figure of St Alban on the part of later antique Christians, for whom it mattered to try to enter into the viscerally lived experience of one of their heroes in as much detail as possible?

A common approach among historians is to assume that some version of the latter question is the one most worth asking when considering the development of hagiographical traditions in late antiquity. But the former question can be, and often is, worth posing too. And in this case it is indeed: three manuscripts which seem to predate Bede’s account but which closely match many of its details were brought to light in 1904 by the German scholar Meyer.

In Bede’s more elaborate account, which features (among other things) a dialogue between Alban and the judge who sentences him, references to local topography, and a story about a soldier who blinds Alban, the martyrdom of Alban is placed not during the Diocletianic persecution but during the much earlier reign of Septimius Severus.

In the 12th century account of Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, Alban’s martyrdom is specifically connected with the reign of Diocletian once again.

All of the surviving written accounts of Alban’s life and death were written at something of a remove from the earliest Christian centuries. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in particular, was writing at a considerable distance from the early fourth century. For all their colour, the extent to which these (increasingly elaborate) accounts of Alban’s martyrdom represent the truth about the historical figure who seems to have inspired them is obviously a vexed question. There is also a very large question mark as to whether the persecutions under Diocletian ever took place in the western Roman empire (it is clear there were at least some persecutions in the east, but good reasons to doubt that they also happened in the west). These are the sorts of vexed questions that bedevil the study of very many early Christian figures and the written accounts that purport to record their experiences.

What can be said with conviction, I think, is that the museum exhibit I chanced upon at Verulamium was just a bit too confident in its definitive placing of St Alban’s death in the reign of Diocletian (and thus too confident too in the trustworthiness of Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth).*

*For the history of the development of the written accounts of St Alban’s life and martyrdom, I relied here on the introductory chapter of J. Van der Westhuizen (1974), The Lives of St Alban and St Amphibal by John Lydgate, which can be accessed digitally here. Relevant portions of the Latin texts of Constantius, Gildas and Bede are all included.

**For my pupils, I hope this post can serve as an object lesson in why you should try to read and listen in a questioning frame of mind, even in contexts you might usually consider reliable. I hope it helps also to show that summaries in places like Wikipedia – which has an extended, and in some ways quite helpful, section on St Alban – might be in important ways misleading.

An Ancient Christian Ritual in WH Auden

One of the more tantalising references I came across over the course of my doctoral research was to a poorly attested ritual of early Christianity: the love (Gk agape) feast. A number of early Christian writers do make reference to such feasts, but none really spells out in detail what they took their significance to be or what they understood them to entail. Some scholars have assumed the love feast was essentially a parallel and/or coterminous practice with what would in the fullness of time become known as the Eucharist. Another point of view is that love feasts were a separate practice altogether which simply died out.

Some ancient observers felt that love feasts were occasions for controversial goings-on. The second century Christian author Tertullian, writing in Carthage, suggests that some non-Christians suspected Christian love feasts of being occasions for debauchery. Both Tertullian and another second century African Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria, suggest that some participants in love feasts were prone to going over the top – indulging themselves a bit too much in the act of feasting while forgetting their modesty (whatever exactly this might mean). Scattered comments of this kind are not generally taken as a reliable source of information, but they perhaps reveal something of the sorts of rumours and comments that observers might make about those who took part in the love feast ritual.

My less than perfect memory of the meagre documentary record on ancient Christian love feasts was brought to the forefront of my mind yesterday by an unexpected source: a poem by WH Auden.


Auden is a poet I like. Apart from the crisp elegance that characterises much of his best work, there’s also his willingness to bring together contrasting moods and effects in his writing. Humour can be intermingled with seriousness, for example, and he manages to create scenes of everyday events which paradoxically convey – or try to convey – a sense of the transcendent. Likewise, what seems ephemeral can be related to what feels more permanent in his poems, and human foibles and human depths belong together, not apart, in what he has to say. In fact, he can at times seem to suggest that it is through our foibles that our depths may somehow become most visible to us.

The overall effect of such juxtapositions, I think, is to produce a poetry that is at once fully engaged with the quotidian ordinariness of so much human activity, while at the same time capable of finding mysteriousness, beauty and profundity in that very same ordinariness. The Love Feast, a poem which directly references the world of early Christian ritual, is for me a clear example of this:

In an upper room at midnight
See us gathered on behalf
Of love according to the gospel
Of the radio-phonograph.

Lou is telling Anne what Molly
Said to Mark behind her back;
Jack likes Jill who worships George
Who has the hots for Jack.

Catechumens make their entrance;
Steep enthusiastic eyes
Flicker after tits and baskets;
Someone vomits; someone cries.

Willy cannot bear his father,
Lilian is afraid of kids;
The Love that rules the sun and stars
Permits what He forbids.

Adrian’s pleasure-loving dachshund
In a sinner’s lap lies curled;
Drunken absent-minded fingers
Pat a sinless world.

Who is Jenny lying to
In her call, Collect, to Rome?
The Love that made her out of nothing
Tells me to go home.

But that Miss Number in the corner
Playing hard to get. . . .
I am sorry I’m not sorry . . .
Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.

What interests me particularly about this poem is how it adopts the language of the early church within its description of a twentieth century drinks party. Each stanza describes some feature of the atmosphere at the party: the concerns and activities of different individuals are highlighted. But in each stanza too, there are allusions to the life of the early church.

In the first, there is a reference to ‘love according to the gospel’, a phrase which is used not with a specifically religious connotation but to denote the music at the party (‘of the radio-phonograph’). The second stanza contains a reference to worship, and the third to catechumens (i.e. individuals under instruction awaiting entry into the church’s sacramental life). By this stage of the poem, a religious analogue to the revelry of the party is starting to become clear.

The second half of stanza four (‘the love that rules the sun and stars’) is redolent of the famous phrase of Dante’s Paradiso (‘L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle’), while ‘Permits what He forbids’ is a phrase with obvious theological connotations (both the capitalised H of He and the underlying idea that divine prohibitions do not limit human free will).

Stanza five’s references are to a ‘sinner’s lap’ and a ‘sinless world’. I find the latter phrase slightly puzzling. Is it a (to me, rather unintelligible) reference to the dachsund’s back of the same stanza? Does it denote the mindset of the archetypal sinner (i.e. someone who sees no sin in the world)? Or does it mean something else altogether?

Jenny’s collect call to Rome in Stanza six could also have a religious significance. Beyond the literal meaning of the text, could an allegorical meaning here be possible? Jenny might here be a Catholic – perhaps even a Catholic convert – who is viewed as having farmed out her spiritual life to the Church of Rome, in a way that the more self-reliant, self-determining Anglican never would. This may be to read far too much into the phrase, but it’s an interpretation that attracts me nevertheless.

What seems to me altogether less contentious, though, is to take it as a given that the phrase ‘The Love that made her out of Nothing’ in the same stanza denotes the classical theistic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. This is a weighty phrase for Auden to use and it is interesting that he uses it to identify what moves him, the poet within the poem, to act as he does (i.e. in deciding to go home – though perhaps love is what moves him more generally).

The playful final stanza of the poem alludes to a phrase of St Augustine’s Confessions (‘Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet’), a phrase which leaves the reader in doubt about which version of St Augustine (the blooming youth or the more sexually restrained older man) he is going to emulate.

St Augustine, by Botticelli

The theological references in each of these stanzas are of course underscored by the title of the poem itself, a title whose ancient Christian resonances I’m sure Auden would have wished to invoke. The cumulative effect of the language of the poem is that Auden’s love feast is an environment in which ancient ideas find fresh expression. Auden moulds Christian ideas into a living tradition. Contrary to how Christian theology is often conceived and practised within institutional religious settings, here it is presented in an experimental and unfamiliar way within the most relaxed and informal of contexts.

Scholarly debate surrounds the topic of Auden’s Christianity. Certainly he was for much of his life a practising Anglo-Catholic, but just how sincere was his devotion? A common view seems to be that Auden was in his later years only really captivated by Anglo-Catholic ritual, ceremony and aesthetics. Church teaching was a different matter.

A more complicated story than this, however, can be told (see here). And, at the time Auden wrote The Love Feast in 1947, aged 40, a renewed embrace of his childhood Christianity had come to seem possible.

In 1966, now an older man, he delivered a sermon in Westminster Abbey which contained the following words: “Those of us who have the nerve to call ourselves Christians will do well to be extremely reticent on this subject. Indeed, it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals.” Auden’s Love Feast may perhaps be read as a glowing and gently suggestive example of precisely this reticence.