Monday, 28 July 2014

Saint Samson of Dol, July 28

The largest entry by far for July 28 in Volume 7 of Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of the Irish Saints is that of Saint Samson of Dol, which is somewhat ironic since he is not an Irish saint at all. At the end of his long piece we are told, with a reference to Colgan, that 'The name of this holy bishop occurs in our Irish Calendars, because his education had been received in Ireland.' I am not sure in which of the Irish calendars his name does occur as O'Hanlon goes on to admit ' There is no mention of this saint, however, at the 28th of July, in the published Martyrology of Tallagh. He is missing, likewise, from the Martyrology of Donegal.' I am happy to include Saint Samson, however, on the grounds that his Vitae do record that the saint spent time in Ireland, and that at least one church on this island was dedicated to him, a devotion perhaps due to Welsh settlers who came here in Norman times. There is no doubt that Saint Samson is an important saint who would repay some further research, and as a starting point I reprint below one of the sources used by Canon O'Hanlon, a paper published in 1868 as part of a series called 'Chronicles of Cornish Saints'. In it the author, the Rev. John Adams, summarizes the traditional accounts of the saint's life and labours. One senses the writer's discomfort with the miraculous aspects of the Vitae as well as an anti-Roman sentiment, common to Protestant proponents of the idea of an independent 'Celtic church', in his discussion of the legend of the saint's pallium. I find these old papers still have a great deal of value though in offering the traditional view of a saint and thus a basis on which to explore more recent thinking. I was left wondering, for example, what modern scholarship would have to say about the whole question of Saint Samson's episcopal status as well as the inscribed cross.  Finally, if you would like to read a translation of the Vita of Saint Samson, one can be found at the Lampeter University website here.


III.—Chronicles of Cornish Saints.
IV.—S. Samson.
By the Reverend John Adams, M.A., Vicar of Stockcross, Berks.
Read at the Autumn Meeting, November 30, 1868.

In the life of S. Petrock the name of S. Samson incidentally occurs as that of a hermit who occupied a cell somewhere in the neighbourhood of Padstow, and who was highly esteemed for his zeal and holiness. Several memorials of this Saint's connection with Cornwall still exist in the county. There is a parish in the Hundred of Powder still called by his name. It is also designated Golant, a word compounded of two Cornish words,— Gol, holy, and Lan, an enclosure; and this probably was its earliest name; but in the 14th century we find it called S. Samson's; and in subsequent times, when the sacred spot became the site of a Parish Church, the name of the holy man, who in former times had hallowed the place, was given to the Church, and Golant thenceforward became S. Samson's. The parish of South-hill also has a Church dedicated to him, and in ancient times it was known as S. Samson's de South-hill. One of the Scilly Islands too has from time immemorial borne his name; leading us to conjecture that it also was one of his traditional abodes. Furthermore, there was at one time a chapel called S. Samson's on the site of Place House, near Padstow; and that chapel probably occupied the actual spot of the hermitage or oratory, where S. Samson dwelt at the time of Petrock's visit. These local traces of Samson entitle him to a place amongst the Cornish Saints, and give us an interest in the legendary accounts of him which have come down to us.

Concerning most of those Saints but little can be said, for the simple reason that but little is known; but in regard to S. Samson there is abundance of information, such as it is, and the difficulty lies, not in the poverty of materials, but in disentangling facts from a mass of fictions in which they have been enveloped. There is hardly one of the hagiologists who has not given a sketch of Samson's life. Capgrave, Ussher, Boscius, Alford, Baillet, Vincentius, the Compiler of Liber Landavensis, and many others, have narrated the current legends concerning him. Moreover there are several independent manuscript Lives of him still in existence, all of which are, however, more or less overloaded with incredibilia. The most ancient Life, and that which was no doubt the main source of all subsequent accounts, may be found in Mabillon,—Acta Benedictorum, Saeculum i, 165; and also, in a corrected form, in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, July 28. It was written at the request of a certain Bishop Tigerinomalus; and the author, who seems to have been a Gallican monk of the generation immediately succeeding that of the Saint, adduces strong reasons for the authenticity of his narrative. " I wish it to be understood," he says, in the preface, " that these words are not put together thoughtlessly and rashly, or from confused and unauthorized rumours; but that they consist of information which I derived from a certain religious and venerable man, who resided for about 80 years in a monastery which S. Samson himself had founded beyond the sea, (i.e. in Britain), living a catholic and religious life, in times most approximate to those of the Saint, and being himself a cousin of S. Samson, and a deacon; and that no doubts may be thrown upon the veracity of my words, I call Christ, the Saviour of us all, to witness that I have not undertaken to hand down this very brief narrative to posterity from any fallible or uncertain conjecture of its truth, but from the statements of most holy and thoroughly competent men, and also from most accurate and elaborate documents, which I found in the same monastery, written in a true and catholic spirit, by the above-mentioned deacon." Here then we have a biography of Samson which lays strong claims to authenticity, a biography written at the beginning of the seventh century, and within a few years of his death, embodying too an older document, drawn up by a kinsman and fellow-labourer of the Saint. Unfortunately, however, there is much in the work which cannot be reconciled with those claims. There are, for example, many strange stories of miracles wrought by Samson which are manifestly as fabulous as the adventures of Jack the Giant Killer, But those fictions do not invalidate the genuine basis of the narrative. They are probably additions of a later age; for, if one may judge from the smooth and flowing style in which they are written, they could not have proceeded from the same hand which penned the rugged Latin of the Preface and some historical parts of the biography. As the Galilean monk adopted and expanded the document which he found in his monastery, so, in a subsequent generation, we may suppose some hagiologist clothed the rude work of the old monk with such traditional or fictitious matter as would give it a place amongst the current literature of the middle ages. In the Life before us then we may regard the supernatural stories as a mere excrescence, or as resembling the fanciful pictures which illustrate many a modern book without detracting from the veracity of its narrative; and, where no authority is specified for any statement in the subjoined sketch, it may be assumed that we are following the historical outline contained in this ancient Life.

Samson was born in the province of Demetia or Dyveck which comprised the western division of South Wales, near the close of the fifth century. His parents, Ammon and Anna by name, remained childless for many years after their marriage, and believed that he was given to them by God, in answer to their prayers for the blessing of a son. At an early age he was sent to S. Iltutus, to be educated by him in the famous monastery of Llanilltut, in Glamorganshire. There he remained till he had grown to manhood, studying with great diligence, and constantly rising higher and higher in spiritual attainments and in the love of the brethren. At the request of Iltutus, he received both deacon's and priest's orders from the hands of Dubricius, Archbishop of Caerleon, "a dove on each occasion," says the old writer, “descending from heaven, and resting on his right shoulder." There were in the monastery two nephews of Iltutus, one a presbyter, and the other the butler of the community, who were envious of Samson's popularity, and, fearing that he would be chosen Abbot after the death of their uncle, they made an attempt to poison him; but, through Divine interposition, their evil design was frustrated; for though he drank the deadly cup which they had prepared for him, he received no hurt. One of them subsequently confessed the crime to the Saint, and with grief and tears besought pardon. Soon afterwards, when the monastery had become famous throughout the land, Samson withdrew from it, with the consent of the Abbot, to a smaller and stricter fraternity, which had been recently established on a neighbouring island by an aged presbyter named Piro, He was welcomed by the old man as though he were an angel sent from God, and spent his time there in religious exercises and manual toil by day, and in profound study of the Scriptures by night. An incident, however, is recorded, which is very inconsistent with the ascetic character of this monastery. In the life before us it is tenderly characterized as a " res inopinata"; but all subsequent biographers of the Saint seem to have taken a graver view of the matter, for they pass it by in silence, none of them making any allusion whatever to it. “ One gloomy night," so runs the narrative, "the Venerable Abbot Piro took a solitary stroll into the grounds of the monastery; but, what is still more serious," adds our author, “he was in a very tipsy condition, and tumbled headlong into a deep pit. The brethren were alarmed by his loud cries for help, and, hurrying to the spot, they dragged him out of the hole in a hopeless state, and before morning he was dead." Thereupon Samson is unanimously elected Abbot of the monastery and holds the government of it a year and a half. He then goes to Ireland with some eminent and learned men of that country, who had visited him on their homeward journey from Rome; and, after spending a short time there, preaching the way of eternal life to all who came near him, he returns to his own monastery on the island. Finding there his father and his uncle excelling in devotion all the other brethren, he sends the latter to take the management of a monastic institution in Ireland, and departs with the former and two other companions to a wide desert on the shores of the river Severn. Leaving his fellow travelers there in a castle which they had discovered, he goes further into the wilderness, and dwells in a secret cave which had an opening towards the east; and there he lives a life of great abstinence, holding intercourse with angels, and every Lord's day visiting the three brothers whom he had left in the castle. "At the time that I was in Britain," says the old writer, "the place was held in great reverence, and an oratory was built on the spot where holy Samson was wont to say mass and hold communion with Christ every Sabbath day." We are next told, that at the request of a synod, Samson became Abbot of a monastery founded by S. Germanus, and that whilst he held that office he was consecrated Bishop by S. Dubricius. In harmony with a practice of the Celtic Church, he seems to have been raised to the episcopate more on account of his distinguished merits than with a view to his exercising episcopal functions in any particular place.

Shortly afterwards it is revealed to him that God has predestined him to depart from his own country, and to become a mighty pillar of the Church in a land beyond the sea. The Gallican martyrology, however, informs us that the immediate cause of his migration was to escape from a savage Saxon tyrant who had invaded his neighbourhood, whilst other authorities state that he was driven away by a pestilence. Bidding farewell to his weeping relatives and disciples, he crossed the Severn sea with his cousin S. Maglorius and many other companions. His destination was Brittany, but on his route he appears to have sojourned awhile in Cornwall. Tradition accuses him of carrying off with him into Brittany all the manuscripts which he could collect. "Scarce am I reconciled to this Samson," says the Church historian. Fuller, "for carrying away with him the monuments of British antiquity. Had he put them out to the Bank by procuring several copies to be transcribed, learning thereby had been a gainer, and a saver had he only secured the originals: whereas now her loss is irrecoverable, principal and interest, Authenticks and Transcripts are all embezzled; nor is the matter much whether they had miscarried at home by Foes' violence, or abroad by such friends negligence." That there is some ground for this complaint, may be inferred from a statement in the life before us, to the effect that, on Samson's arrival at the coast, apparently the coast of Cornwall, he dismissed the ship, and procured a waggon to carry across the country the holy vessels and volumes which belonged to him. He also employed two horses to draw his own car, which he had brought with him on his return from Ireland. On his journey he passed by a certain village called Tricurium, where he saw men worshipping, with profane rites, an idol standing on the summit of a lofty hill. Taking two companions with him, he hastens to the spot, and gently admonishes the idolaters and Gedian their chief, that instead of adoring an image, they ought to worship the one God, Who created all things. "In that mountain," says the narrator, "I have myself been, and have adored and felt with my own hand the sign of the cross, which holy Samson himself engraved with iron on a stone which stands there." After this Samson retires to a cave near a certain river, and there lives a celestial life, constantly applying himself to prayer and fasting. Two puerile miracles are connected with those incidents; one the restoration to life of a boy who had fallen from his horse in the idolatrous village, and had broken his neck, and the other the destruction of a huge and venomous serpent, in the cave which the Saint afterwards occupied. But for the credit of the narrative, the remark which was made at the beginning of this sketch must be borne in mind, that the miracles are written in a different style from that of the historical incidents, and may therefore be supposed to have formed no part of the original Life.

It was, we may conjecture, at this period that Samson and Petrock met, as recorded in the life of the latter; and assuming that Samson was consecrated by Dubricius, about the year 550, a few years before the death of the venerable Archbishop, and that he arrived in Cornwall a year or two afterwards, the time of his abode there would just coincide with that of Petrock and Constantino; so that we may suppose those three holy men to have often held sweet counsel together on Cornish soil. Memorials of their Oratories still remain, contiguous to each other, on the northern coast, bearing silent witness of their Christian fellowship and their devotion to God. How long Samson dwelt in Cornwall, or whether he visited it on more than one occasion, we are not informed; but we are told in Liber Landavensis that he directed his people to build a monastery near his cave, and that when he departed from the country he left his father Ammon and his cousin in the monastery.

On his arrival in Brittany, he found the inhabitants in great misery. Jonas, their native prince, had just been murdered by a tyrannical governor, Commotus by name, who had usurped the province ; and his son Judual had been sent away as a captive to King Hildebert. Moved with pity, Samson hastened to the king, hoping to redeem Judual from prison. After sundry perils and supernatural deeds he gains his object and returns to Brittany with the young Breton prince. They enlist an army on their homeward route, and enter the country prepared to do battle with the usurper. At one blow the foe is vanquished, Samson praying and fasting, and Judual fighting at the head of his warriors. After this, Samson receives great honour and large gifts from King Hildebert, and spends the rest of his days in a monastery which he founded at Dole. So ends his history as given in the oldest Life, and in Liber Landavensis. But we gain one more glimspe of him in his old age. He was present at the 3rd Council of Paris, held A.D. 557; and so great was his humility, we are told, that he declined to occupy the luxurious apartments which the king had prepared for him in the palace, preferring to lodge in the neighbouring monastery of S. Vincent; and his name is thus subscribed last but one in the list of fifteen bishops who signed the decrees of the council, "Samson, a sinner."

Modern writers speak of him as having been at the beginning of his Episcopate Archbishop of Menevia, afterwards Archbishop of York, and subsequently Archbishop of Dole. But none of his early biographers give him those designations, nor is there a tittle of evidence that he was ever more than a missionary bishop. His name appears in no authentic catalogues of the prelates of Menevia; whilst the Samson who was Archbishop of York in the sixth century, was a brother of Gildas, and quite a different person; and with respect to Dole, this fact settles the question of his connection with that see—that until the time of Nomenoius, in the ninth century, there was no bishopric of Dole in existence. The truth probably is, as one of his biographers intimates, that he went to Brittany to preach the gospel to his own countrymen, who had settled there in great numbers as refugees, and that he exercised episcopal functions amongst them whilst he lived in his monastery at Dole. The story too of his carrying with him the pall from Menevia, and so depriving subsequent prelates of that see of their Archiepiscopal dignity, is utterly groundless; though it has been repeated by one writer after another for hundreds of years past, and is in modern books almost the only thing commonly stated in connection with Samson's name. In no ancient Life of the Saint is there any allusion to the story; nor can it be shown that any British bishop before the time of Augustine ever received a pall from Rome, or that the symbol was even known in the British Church. Moreover, if Samson had been invested with it, and had abstracted it from Menevia, it would not have lessened the dignity of his successor, because every Archbishop had a new pall sent to him by the Pope on his consecration, and the old pall did not pass from bishop to bishop in succession. The fiction may be traced to the twelfth century, and seems to have been invented to account for the disappearance of the metropolitan title from S. David's, and to make it appear that the early British Church was subject to that of Rome.

Welsh authorities tell us that Samson returned from Brittany to Wales at the close of his life, and was buried at Lantwit; and there is still in existence a remarkable monument which lends plausibility to this tradition. It consists of the stone shaft of a cross, nine feet in height, which was disinterred in the church yard of Lantwit, in the year 1789, and has on it this inscription in Latin:—" In the name of God Most High, here begins the cross of the Saviour, which Samson the Abbot prepared for his own soul and the soul of King Juthael and of Artmal the Dean." "The first of those names, I am satisfied," says a late Welsh archaeologist of high repute, "is that of S. Samson, who was Bishop of Dole in Brittany, in the sixth century; and also Abbot of Lantwit. The next corresponds with that of Juthael, King of Brittany, the contemporary and patron of Samson, sometimes written Judual. The last name, Artmal, I am not able to identify, but think it possible that he also may have been of Dole." If this interpretation of the names is correct, the tradition may be true, that Samson returned to "Wales and ended his days there. But, on the other hand, it must be remembered, that another learned Cambrian takes a different view of the names on the monument, and argues that they were, probably, all names of Welshmen; so that, according to this theory, the cross might have been erected by Samson whilst he was a monk at Lantwit. At all events, none of the extant Lives of him make any allusion to his return to Wales from Armorica, but speak of his dying at Dole in a good old age; and his earliest biographer, to whom we are indebted for most of the particulars in this brief memoir, thus beautifully describes his departure.—"Being perfect in life and in age, and having, after the Apostle's example, finished a good course, with all good qualities fully and completely adorned, he left his attenuated body to be embalmed and buried in the monastery at Dole, in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, whilst his happy soul went fall of bliss to Christ; and the brethren, at the time of his departure, heard the hymns and music of angelic choirs."

Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Volume III, (1868-1870), 89-98.

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