Tuesday 16 July 2013

St Samson Colloquy Report

Dr Caroline Brett writes:

At the University of Sydney’s Eighth Australian Conference of Celtic Studies on 11-14 June 2013, Dr Lynette Olson organised a special colloquy on the First Life of St Samson of Dol.  The aim was to assess what progress has been made in recent years in understanding this key text for early medieval British and Breton ecclesiastical history, and whether it can be taken any further.  The answer to the second was a resounding yes, although not all the delegates agreed on the detail!

The First Life of St Samson of Dol is potentially a key source for early medieval British (and Irish) Christianity and the politics of early Brittany.  Ostensibly the biography of a monastic founder and bishop from south-east Wales who ended his life at Dol in Brittany some time in the second half of the sixth century, it has aroused controversy among scholars for more than a hundred years.  The problems turn on the date of the text’s composition, on the reality or otherwise of an earlier biography which the author of the existing text claims to have used, and on the relationship between this existing biography and its putative model.  Various dates between the early seventh century and ca.850 have been proposed for the existing text, and the model or Vita primigenia has been characterised as everything from an eye-witness account by a relative of the saint, to a literary figment of a ninth-century propagandist’s imagination.  The arguments seemed to have reached an impasse by the time the full range of them was presented in Joseph-Claude Poulin’s encyclopaedic Hagiographie bretonne in 2009.  However, the debate has been potentially re-animated by Richard Sowerby in an article in Francia, 2011, in which he suggested new grounds for distinguishing between the successive authors’ contributions, and put in a powerful argument for a date around 700.

Dr Lynette Olson saw this as an opportunity for a renewed attempt to make some solid progress on the understanding of Vita Prima Samsonis, and invited a group of Samson scholars, or ‘Samsonites’, to the University of Sydney to offer their responses to Sowerby’s article and their thoughts on various aspects of the text.  The original line-up of Samsonites included, in alphabetical order, Caroline Brett, Karen Jankulak, Constant Mews, Lynette Olson, Joseph-Claude Poulin, Richard Sowerby, Ian Wood and Jonathan Wooding.  Unfortunately Ian Wood and Richard Sowerby were eventually unable to attend, but it is hoped that their contributions will be included in the published conference proceedings.  Karen Jankulak too was unable to attend, but her paper was brought and read by Jonathan Wooding.

For the five remaining contributors the upshot was a highly stimulating two days in which we went ‘head to head’ with St Samson and discovered ... if not a final solution to our problems, nevertheless a feeling that, as Wooding memorably put it, ‘our history is moving in the direction of our text’ and that the potential exists to put Vita Prima Samsonis at the centre of early Insular Christianity.

On the central problems of the date and source(s) of the text, discussion has now been put on a firm footing thanks to Olson’s and Poulin’s painstaking identification of all its references to an earlier author and to oral and written sources of information.  Agreement also seems to have been reached on the meaning of the convoluted passage in the Preface on which all discussion of these issues depends.  The author is to be understood as saying that Henoc, a cousin of St Samson, took a written Life of the saint from Brittany to Cornwall (and, by implication, wrote it); and that a deacon who was a nephew of Henoc, living at a monastery in Cornwall, had this book read aloud to our author.  A consensus was apparent among conference-goers that this claim was too odd, too individual and too thoroughly woven into the text as a whole to be readily dismissed as a hagiographer’s conceit.  If one accepts the claim, it still allows a considerable range of dates for the composition both of the primigenia text and the existing vita, but does tend to eliminate a date as late as the ninth century, and to support the text’s overall historicity.

On the dating, some division was still apparent among the attendees!  Poulin holds out for a date in the late eighth century, for two reasons. The first relates to the sources of Vita Prima Samsonis: the text incorporates a phrase from a sermon by 'Pseudo-Bede' which, on account of its attribution, Poulin thinks, cannot pre-date the mid-eighth century; also present is a quotation from Julianus Pomerius,a fifth-century author but one whose works were not widely disseminated until the eighth century. The second reason is that the author's reference to recent bishops of Dol is implausible in a seventh-century context, when there is no independent evidence that a diocese of Dol existed. In Poulin's view, a likelier context is the beginning of the Carolingian conquest of Brittany, when local cults needed to be defended and the Breton Church pre-emptively organised along Carolingian lines.

Other delegates seemed to be converging on an earlier date.  Constant Mews observed that the survival of Pomerius and Pseudo-Bede (in fact a passage that is a minor modification of Gregory's homilies on the Gospels) in MSS from the eighth century does not preclude the circulation of these texts at an earlier date. Most of the literary models of Vita Samsonis are fifth-century Gaulish texts with a strong strain of ascetic moralism, apparently ignoring the thought of St Augustine on grace and pre-dating the seventh-century reception of Gregory’s Dialogues, which re-cast the mould of western sanctity.  Mews, supported by Brett, also argued from comparative Celtic examples (such as that of St Carthage of Lismore) that there might well have been bishops at Dol before there was a diocese of Dol.  Jonathan Wooding cited the recently published opinion of Thomas Charles-Edwards that the political geography of both Wales and north-west France depicted in Vita Samsonis would have been outdated and unrecognisable by 700 or shortly after.  

He also pointed to the work of David Dumville and Richard Sharpe in reconstructing sixth-century British disputes on monastic practice among Gildas, Winniau and St David: Vita Samsonis reads almost as a deliberate illustration of these disputes.  Earlier models of ‘Celtic Christianity’ envisaged Romano-British Christianity dying out in the fifth century, and Christian influences from the south of Gaul subsequently reaching Ireland and only then being diffused to western Britain, in a ‘re-conversion’ movement; more recent scholarship has uncovered evidence for the continuance of British Christianity and the dependence of Irish Christianity on it, rather than the other way around and this early activity possibly centred in the south of Wales. The career of St Samson prefigured that of the Irish St Columbanus a generation later, and Columbanus’s debt to British authorities on practice and doctrine was expressed in his writings; we also need to note the fact that he had first travelled to Brittany in his continental career. The Columbanian peregrinatio is secondary to that of Samson.  This point converged interestingly with Caroline Brett’s argument, in her paper, that the existing Vita Samsonis might best be seen as a response to the challenge of the popularity of Columbanian monasticism in western Gaul in the second half of the seventh century.  All this creates a context of greater plausibility for Vita Samsonis as an early and essentially historical text.    

Regarding the relationship of Vita Samsonis to the primigenia, its model, Poulin has now modified his earlier proposal that the two could be distinguished by means of the list of chapter-headings found in the two earliest manuscripts, with material not covered by the headings attributable to the later author.  He now argues that, in strict logic, only material in which the Vita Prima author clearly refers to Henoc, the primigenia-author, as another person, or makes additions to a pre-existing narrative as ego, can be attributed to the second author and not the first, although a detailed linguistic study might make further progress on distinguishing the two.  Delegates mostly disagreed with Richard Sowerby’s proposal that the two authors’ contributions be distinguished on the basis of their interests, with British and Cornish material reflecting the priorities of the primigenia-author – perhaps working on behalf of Samson’s Cornish monastic foundation – while the Breton episodes towards the end of Book I were added by the later author at Dol.  

People thought that this took insufficient account of the stylistic unity of the whole text, and the close family links among all Samson’s foundations emphasised (apparently) by both authors.  Olson thought that the insistence on Samson’s episcopal status, which Sowerby took as a reflection of the interests of the Cornish monastery, could be better explained as reflecting the needs of Dol in a Breton colonial context.  Yet she like Brett continued to think the idea of a ‘Cornish Life’ an attractive one, persuaded by Sowerby’s arguments that the Breton section defied the narrative logic of the rest of the text, while stylistic unity could have been imposed by the later author.   

The central questions of dating and authorship having been advanced as far as they could be, individual papers shed light on other aspects of the Vita and the world of St Samson.  Karen Jankulak’s paper on the cult of St Samson in Wales pointed up the strange fact that the cult is invisible before the twelfth century. The occurrences of the name Samson in Welsh place-names mostly apply to topographical features and are much more likely to refer to Samson the biblical strong-man or giant.  In discussion, various reasons for Samson’s absence were suggested, such as the fact that he abandoned Wales, and the competition of other cults, especially that of St David. It was also noted that his later medieval cult shows signs of having been reintroduced from Ireland.

Caroline Brett investigated the literary dependence of Vita Samsonis on the late sixth-century Life of St Paternus of Avranches by Venantius Fortunatus.  The apparent use in all three successive Lives of St Samson (primigenia, prima and the ninth-century Vita Secunda) of this little-known text from Dol’s neighbouring diocese is of great importance to the history of both churches, and their continuing relationship illuminates the place of Dol within the Merovingian Church as a whole. 

Constant Mews focused on the emphasis in Vita Samsonis on the saint’s episcopal rank, signifying apostolic authority, and on the general importance that this text attaches to liturgy as a way of affirming Samson as legitimate successor to the apostles. (Poulin, in discussion, also pointed out the extraordinary emphasis on the word ‘apostolic’ throughout the text.)  The implication of the episode in which Samson brings books and liturgical vessels from Ireland through Cornwall to Brittany may be that Samson followed a liturgical rite such as also followed by the early Irish church; he almost certainly kept to the pre-Victorian calculation of Easter, and there would have been little pressure to change this before the early seventh century.  Mews compared the emphasis on apostolic authority to a little studied mid-eighth-century text titled (ungrammatically) Ratio De Cursus, that seeks to defend the authority of the Gallican and Irish liturgies against the Roman liturgy then being imposed by the Carolingian Pippin III. Arguing that the patristic influences in the Vita Samsonis reflect the intellectual concerns of the seventh rather than the mid eighth century (as evident in the Ratio), Mews suggested that Vita Samsonis might be read as offering a defence of Samson's authority in the face of Gallo-Roman suspicion about his standing. By the mid eighth century, it was necessary for an Irish monk to defend the authority of both Irish and Gallican liturgies against the centralising impetus of Pippin and then Charlemagne.

Jonathan Wooding, finally, sought to place St Samson within the context of early Welsh monasticism, in the light of the improved understanding now available from archaeological evidence (although there is still much to do here) and inscriptions.  He pointed out, strikingly, that following a popular late Roman tradition of peregrinatio or pilgrimage for God, St Samson is the earliest Insular peregrinus, and that historical geographers’ mapping of the ‘Western Seaways’ from O. G. S. Crawford onwards has largely been inspired by his Vita!  A debate between an uncompromising asceticism and a religious vocation in which charity is foremost runs through the late antique monastic movement and duly finds expression in early medieval Wales with the controversy glimpsed between St David (of the far west) and SS. Gildas and Samson (of the richer and more Romanised Vale of Glamorgan). The value of any individual point of monastic detail, however, needs to be assessed in the light of detail shared with the Life of Paternus.

Possibilities for further study on Vita Samsonis are legion.  Wooding noted the desirability of utilising an electronic text to facilitate a full collation of the Vita with the writings of John Cassian, the Penitential of Finnian and other comparable texts.  The papers by Mews and Brett gave a taste of the possibilities that open up when Vita Samsonis is seen through the lens of a thorough knowledge of the literature of late antique monasticism and liturgy, and of sixth- and seventh-century Merovingian hagiography.  The scepticism of the text’s first editor, Robert Fawtier, as to its historical value now looks old-fashioned; it is exciting that the text’s historicity seems to be in the process of being rehabilitated, not by credulity but by critical scholarship.  The landscape of early Christian Celtic Britain is gradually emerging from the shadows and it is a landscape in which the career of St Samson increasingly makes sense.


  1. Friends: I am a doctoral candidate at U Wales Trinity Saint David, formerly studying with Jonathan Wooding when he was there, and working on a theological approach to the First Life. This summary of the colloquy is fascinating; would any of the papers be available for consultation as I do my work? Many thanks!

  2. A collection of studies arising from the Samson colloquy plus a couple more will be published as St Samson of Dol and the Earliest History of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, ed. Lynette Olson, in the Boydell Press series Studies in Celtic History. Readers will be encouraged in the Preface to post their comments on this blog.

  3. Caroline Brett6 June 2017 at 02:38

    St Samson of Dol and the Earliest History of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, ed. Lynette Olson, is out on 16 June 2017. It is a goldmine for early medieval British history with papers by Ian Wood on Columbanus and the Britons, Richard Sowerby on St Samson's family, and Jonathan Wooding on peregrinatio, as well as the original 2013 line-up! Order your copies now!

  4. Preparing for a presentation ' On the trail of St Sampson' at St Sampson's Church, South Hill, Cornwall in April 2022. Very pleased to have come across this interesting blog.