The lives of St Samson: Rewriting the ambitions of an early medieval cult

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Abstract / Description of output

The extant Lives of the sixth-century saint Samson, founder of Dol in Brittany, have received very different historical treatments. The Breton author of the Vita prima Samsonis claimed that he was writing around a century after Samson’s death, using an earlier Life written by the saint’s cousin kept in a monastery in Cornwall. This has stimulated enormous debate, for these claims would make the Vita prima a unique source for early Brittany. The Life was expanded in the ninth century, but the Vita secunda’s numerous additions have been dismissed as commonplace fictions of no historical value. It is clear, however, that although saints’ Lives ostensibly narrate the past, they were often created to express the contemporary ambitions of religious institutions. The Vita secunda Samsonis is no exception. Created in the 860s, when Dol attempted to establish itself as an archbishopric, its author asserted that the archiepiscopal privileges Dol now desired had been actually been bestowed by the legendary kings of the sixth century. This paper suggests that understanding how the rewriter went about this task reveals a hagiographical strategy that has implications for our reading of other early hagiography, particularly the debated Vita prima. It argues that contemporary politics and ambitions similarly necessitated that Life’s creation and offers new perspectives on the dating of the text, its claims to pre-existing source material, and the earliest ambitions of the cult of St Samson.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1–31
Number of pages31
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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