Hrotsvitha (also spelled Hrosvitha) was a Saxon writer from Gandersheim who lived in the tenth century CE and composed poems and plays. This particular poem discusses the life of Pelagius, who was a young prince from the region of Galicia in northwest Iberia. This Pelagius is not to be confused with the much earlier Pelagius who is credited with founding the Christian Kingdom of Asturias.
Taken prisoner along with his father, Pelagius offered to take the place of his father, who was ransomed and was able to return to his homeland. The caliph of Córdoba at the time- Abd al-Rahman III- had a deviant homosexual interest in boys, and was attracted to Pelagius. The caliph tried to make unwanted sexual advances on Pelagius. In response, Pelagius defied him, punched him in the face and persisted in his denunciation of the caliph's religion. As punishment, the caliph ordered for him to be catapulted over the city walls into the river, but Pelagius survived. He was then killed by the caliph's attendants, and his body was later found by fishermen and sold to a monastery for due burial. Then follows the familiar motif of the saint's relics and healing powers. The congregation of the faithful then tests the worthiness of Pelagius' sainthood by exposing his severed head to the fire. The head passes the test and all rejoice.
Given the author's distance from the place of the events and the general prevailing attitudes at the time, it should not be surprising that there are errors in the work, in particular with the author's conception of Islam as a pagan religion. However, she does correctly appreciate that Abd al-Rahman III's title of caliph (assumed in 929 CE, whereas prior to this time the realm was the Emirate of Córdoba) is meant to convey the idea of a supreme sovereign on earth (i.e. a 'king of kings' status) since in Islamic tradition there is only supposed to be one caliph to whom allegiance should be given. She has some understanding of the dhimma pact the Islamic authorities imposed on the Christians, who were allowed to practice their faith as per the pact. She also has some idea of the generally strict enforcement of laws of capital punishment against blasphemy of Islam, something borne out in the episodes of the martyrs of Córdoba in the prior century that are seemingly referenced in passing in the poem.
It should also be noted that this poem's description of Córdoba as the decus orbis ('the ornament of the world') is the source of the title of the popular work 'The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain' by María Rosa Menocal. For a nuanced discussion of that book and its use of this title, I recommend this paper by Kenneth Baxter Wolf, who points out that Hrotsvitha's use of the term 'ornament of the world' has a very different meaning from Menocal's thesis on tolerance and convivencia.
For the original Latin text of this poem, I rely on two editions of the text contained in:
- Die Werke der Hrotsvitha
- Documenta Catholica Omnia
I use the latter primarily for the titling of sections and a summary of the poem written in Latin.
I would like to dedicate this translation and commentary to Romy (on Twitter at @RomyTweeting), a monstrous Lebanese friend studying in Italy I have recently come to know. I hope this work will make you curious to explore the Latin language.
Below is the translation. I have included some footnotes for context where necessary. Any suggestions for amendments are welcome.
The Passion of Saint Pelagius the Most Precious Martyr
Who was crowned with martyrdom in our times in Córdoba
Abderahman,[i] the tyrant of Mauritania,[ii] following the sect of the Saracens, crossed into Hispania,[iii] and afflicted all the Christians with punishments or compelled them into his sect. When he had taken Córdoba, the distinguished city of Hispania, he killed the elders of the city, or received money for these people. And as he had imposed such a great sum of money on the noble citizen, which he could not pay to the tyrant and so was to be led into prison, the son, moved by duty of piety towards the father, underwent the chains on his behalf. As a report had been relayed to the tyrant concerning his handsomeness, the young man was led out of prison and offered to the tyrant, so that he should obey his lust. And while the disgraceful tyrant pressed on with many entreaties, the young man struck the tyrant with his fist as he was seeking his kisses. Using a ballista and sling, the tyrant threw the young man who rejected his embraces across the wall into the river, which feeds Córdoba. His body struck against the rocky banks and was collected by fisherman as it was mutilated by the attendants of the tyrant. Finally it was buried most religiously by the citizens.
The preface of Hrosvitha for Pelagius
Oh outstanding Pelagius, the most brave martyr of Christ,
And good soldier of the King who reigns forever,
Look back on the poor Hrosvitha with gentile piety,
Me: the servant subject to you with devoted mind,
I who worship you in mind, and also bring forth a poem by my chest.
And make the dark cave of my paltry chest
Be wettened rather generously with the dew from above,
So that I may very worthily be able to outline by the reed
The wonders of your praises and your famous triumph,
And how nobly you overcame the bloody world with your death,
As you obtained the shining palm by your blood.
There follows the story
In the western parts shone the bright ornament of the world,
The new Augustan city, proud by the fierceness of Mars,[iv]
Which was sufficiently cultivated and held by the Spanish colonists,
Called by the famous name of Córdoba, opulent as it was,
Renowned in delights, also splendid in all matters,
Very much filled with the seven mouths of flowing Wisdom
Indeed also distinguished by perpetual triumphs.
It had once been well subject to the just Christ,
And poured the Lord's baptismal water on the newborns clothed in white.
But suddenly bellicose power changed the well-established laws of the sacred faith,
Spraying the error of the wicked dogma, and harmed the faithful people.
For the perfidious people of the untamed Saracens
Attacked in war the hard settlers of this city,
Snatched away from them by force the lot of the distinguished kingdom,
And extinguished the good king, washed as he was by baptism,
Who previously managed the royal scepters by merit
And for so long tamed the citizens by the just reins.
Indeed as he was already overcome by the enemy's sword
And the remaining rabble from such great slaughter was conquered,
The leader of the barbaric people, also the rouser of the fight,
A rather perverse man, profane by life and right,
Finally claimed the lot of such great empire for himself,
And brought together the wicked allies after the plundering of the countryside,
Filling the grieving city with not a few enemies,
And he polluted the old mother of the pure faith by the barbaric rite.
This is indeed pitiful to say.
He mixed the pagans with the just colonists,
So that they might persuade them to dissolve the ancestral customs,
And become dirty with them through their profaned sacred space.
But a tenuous group, ruled with Christ as pastor,
Soon rejected the sad order of the perverse tyrant,
Saying it preferred to die, and also to protect the law in death,
Than to live stupidly, obeying the new sacred rites.
When the king learned of this, he felt that he would not be far from his own loss,
If he brought the bitter end of death equally to all the citizens of the very rich city,
Which he captured in the frequent struggle of the strong fight.
On account of this decision, changing an earlier statute,
He soon sanctioned such a law after the dogma was spread,
That whoever should prefer to serve the eternal King
And keep the once faithful customs of the ancestors,
Could do this freely, with no avenging punishment later,
But only if the following condition was kept:
That no citizen of the aforementioned city should presume to blaspheme further,
The gods which had been fabricated in gold,
Which the leader- whoever held the scepter- worshipped.
If anyone should do so, he was to subject his head rather quickly
To the enforcement of the sword and bear the supreme pronouncement of death.
With these things thus explained, and with a feigned peace, the city came to rest.
Faithful as it was, it had been destroyed so often by a thousand evils.
But if the fire of the love of Christ and martyrdom inflamed any people.
And persuaded them sufficiently to deface by their words the marble idols,
Which the leader, crowned as he was with the diadem, venerated in supplication,
After prostrating his body and with the Sabean incense,
So in short he would damn these people with the punishment of death;
But the souls, washed as they were with blood, sought the heavens above.
In these mishaps Córdoba went through rather many years,
Subdued for a long time to the pagan kings,
Until in our times a certain person from the seed of the king
By chance took up the kingdom of his ancestors.
Inferior to his forefathers, stained by the luxury of flesh,
Called Abdrahemen, proud in the splendor of the kingdom,
For he in the manner of his father imposed on the Christians
The brandishing decision of faith that was mentioned earlier,
And in his piety he did not undo the sufficiently unjust decree,
Which the author of the crime and the perfidious plunderer of the city sanctioned,
When he overcame the faithful king in war.
But turning it about in mind, and also keeping it in a deep heart,
He rather often made wet the countryside areas with innocent blood,
Consuming the holy bodies of the just men,
Who were eager to sing the sweet praises to Christ
And to rebuke his stupid gods by their words,
Indeed in the courtyard he behaved with such great arrogance,
In short adding deserved punishments to himself by his sacrilegious acts,
That he believed that he himself would be the king of kings,
And that all peoples should give their necks to his power,
And that there was no people filled up with such great ferocity,
Who would dare to tempt his battalions in war.
While he swelled up in his boastfulness with this permitted arrogance,
He heard that from there a people was enduring in the remote places,
Situated in the region of Gallicia[v] and proud in war,
Worshippers of Christ and rebelling against the statues,
Who were immediately trying to reject his laws,
Refusing to wish to be subjected ever to wicked lords.
When the king discovered this, he raged with the anger of the demon,
In short bearing the old bile of the serpent in his heart,
And he turned out the disgrace for a long time with the heat inflamed,
Considering in his mind what he was to do to such great enemies.
At last, indeed with his evil intent already uncovered by chance to all,
He addressed the master chiefs of the very rich city,
Barking such words with a pest-bearing mouth:
'It is not hidden, that the kings are succumbing to our power,
And that indeed by the moderation of our laws live
All peoples, whom the deep ocean has surrounded.
But, some boldness holds back the captured Gallicians,
Such that they reject the treaties of our grace
And at last they are ungrateful for the old piety.
It remains, that we should indeed attack the Gallicians with our armed squadrons,
In the hope of agitating the enemy rebels,
Until they are laid low through time by our weapons,
And submit their necks unwillingly to our chains!'
After he boasted of these things and mentioned the cause of the evil intent,
He ordered the crowd to rush after bringing together the battalions,
Drawn up as they were in short with the various marks of weapons,
So that they should go with him to destroy the faithful people,
And he showed his face with the jewelled helmet,
Imposing iron coverings on his lascivious limbs.
And as he sought the aforementioned place with such pomp,
Immediately he thus obtained such a great triumph,
That he trapped twelve counts who were captured along with the leader,
And he bound them with tight chains.
With these punishments of the chiefs prepared with great ferocity,
The most faithful people overcome yielded to their enemies,
And were subject to the unjust yoke of the perverse king.
Then, with also the first treaty restored again,
The twelve counts bound with chains proceeded
Overcome with their fellow captive the guide of the people.
They were quickly let go with the chains undone,
As they were ransomed with the high price of their own treasure,
But the price of their leader was doubled by the order of the king,
Beyond that which he could pay with his own treasuries,
And although for his own sake he was bringing to the greedy king,
Whatever precious things he was accustomed to have at home for himself,
By chance a small amount of the promised gold was lacking.
The king realized this, but also devised a trick in his mind:
He said that he did not want to let go the sweet leader to his people,
Unless he were to pay in full the previously agreed tribute to him,
Not so much thirsty for the price as the gold was lacking,
As he was intending to give the guide of the people to death.
He had one son of distinguished seed,
Formed with a wholly outstanding form in body,
Called Pelagius, distinguished in the splendor of form,
Prudent in counsel, glowing with all goodness.
He having barely finished his years of boyhood,
Touched on the first flours of youthful age.
And since he knew that the king was rather harsh with his father,
He consoled his grieving parent with such a voice:
'Oh my dear father, take up my words gladly
And understand well with ready sense those things that I advise,
For I sense that your life is waning with old age,
And your nerves within emptied of their own strength,
And that you indeed cannot bear anything of light labor,
But indeed I will take control with my strong arms,
Able as I am for the time being to succumb to the harsh masters.
Therefore I beseech, and with soothing entreaties I will ask,
That you lay me aside- your dear son- for the king,
So that you may suffice to pay the whole price,
Lest your old age should kill you amid these tight chains.'
And the older man said on the contrary with harsh voice:
'Cease to speak such things, cease my most sweet son,
Do not lead my gray hairs with grief into the underworld.
Surely my life merely depends on your safety?
And without you I cannot live for any space piously.
You are all my ornament, you are the great glory of your parents
And also the sole hope of our subjected people for us.
Therefore it is preferable that I should abandon the dear homeland
And bound as I am should penetrate proud Hispania,
Than hand you- the hope of aged life- to the bond.'
Therefore Pelagius did not bear his father following these things,
But consoled the mind of his dear father with words
And compelled him with soft addresses to want that which he persuaded.
At last the father to be revered agreed to his entreaties,
And handed over his poor soon, thus redeeming himself.
Then the king ordered to lead Pelagius with him,
And joyfully he returned to his country and reentered as victor.
Let no one believe that on account of the merits of the king this arose,
Which he vanquished in short with such beautiful pomp,
But rather it arose by the fair judgement of the secret judge,
So that the people, rightly seized by such a great scourge,
Might weep at the committed acts of their own wholesale guilt
And because Pelagius, who was to be killed for the law of Christ,
Was seeking by chance the place, where he could give himself to death
And indeed pour a river of blood for Christ,
Entrusting his soul to the Lord, well purified in death.
After the savage king reached the wealthy city,
Bearing a distinguished triumph over a just people,
There he ordered the outstanding friend of Christ to be bound
And to submerge him into the black darkness of prison,
And to feed him, nurtured as he was with delights, with a little food.
So Córdoba kept the place pitch-black under the vault,
Having forgotten the light and consigned to darkness,
Which was said to be the greatest cause of grief for the wretched.
There Pelagius, the flourishing student of peace,
Was confined, by the compulsion of the wicked power of the king.
Thither therefore came the first men assiduously,
Consoling the mind of the young man for the sake of piety.
When they had seen the beautiful face of the captive,
And also had tasted the words of his very sweet mouth,
Embellished as they were with the honey of eloquent rhetoric,
They chose to free such an appearance of his bonds,
And they persuaded the kind who then held the scepters of these things.
Certainly they knew that the greatest head of the happy city
Corrupted as he was with the Sodomite[vi] vices,
Ardently loved young men beautiful in appearance,
And wanted to join these people to his own intimate friendship.
So mindful of this matter, with pitying mind
They persuaded the king of such matters for the sake of Pelagius:
'But is does not suit your scepter, oh most brave leader,
That you should order for the harsh punishment of a handsome boy,
And bind the gentle sinews of the innocent hostage.
If you should wish to see his outstanding form
And at least taste his so honey-sweet words,
How then you should wish to join such a young man to yourself,
And indeed take him up in the rank of the first soldiery!
So that thus he might serve you with his shining white body in the court.'
The king was softened by these words, and driven by this voice,
So he ordered for Pelagius to be torn away from the hard bonds
And for his whole body to be cleaned with a pure bath
And for his washed limbs to be covered with purple covering,
And indeed for his neck to be adorned with metals studded with jewels,
So that he could be the soldier in the well-constructed court.
Then as the arrogant command of the Caesar urged these things,
Immediately the martyr was led forth from the black caves,
And dressed in the regal toga he was set in the court.
And when he had been placed in the middle of the Palatium,
His face overwhelmed the companions in togas[vii] through the splendor.
Towards him all turned their eyes and beheld with wonder,
Then the face of the young man, then the sweet little words of the boy.
Also the king in his first glance, suspended in wonder at him,
Burned eagerly for the form of the royal offspring to be loved.
At last, he ordered Pelagius, the one very much to be loved,
To be placed already on the throne of the kingdom with him,
So that he should become his fire, joined to his seat unremittingly.
With impudence he had offered kisses to the dear humble boy,
On account of affection, indeed embracing his neck.
But the soldier of Christ did not tolerate the love of a pagan king,
Stained as that man was by the luxury of flesh,
But in mockery he brought his ear to the king's mouth,
Turning away the denied mouth with great ridicule,
And he spoke these words with his own egregious mouth:
'It is not right therefore that the man of Christ, a purified baptism,
Should subject his sober neck to the barbaric embrace,
Nor should the Christian, tinged with the consecrated Eucharist,
accept the kiss of the bastard servant of the demon.
Therefore embrace the foolish men with your licit heart,
Who appease with you your fatuous gods by the altar,
And let them be companions to you, as they are servants of the statue.'
But the king in contrast, not in fact moved with anger,
Spoke gently to the body to be loved and caressed him:
'Oh lascivious boy, you boast that you can impudently spurn
The such gentle piety of our law,
And boldly mock our gods so many times.
The present punishment of the youthful age does not move,
And- even as perhaps you will make your grieving parents childless-
urges to subject soon to death the blasphemers of our cult who are to be tortured,
And for the necks to be struck with the sword,
If they do not yield and reject the blasphemous account,
Therefore I urge indeed with fatherly exhortation,
That you spare such words of savage account
And you bear the stable love of mind with me,
And do not try to offend our command after these things,
But you keep my dictates to be followed with great enthusiasm,
Because indeed I honour you in heart and indeed choose to venerate you
With such great splendour before all the ministers of the court,
So that you may be second in rule, while I stand first with pride.'
He said these things, and pressed together the martyr's mouth with his right hand,
And tightly embraced the consecrated neck with his left hand,
So that thus he should at least give one kiss.
But the witness confounded the clever tricks of the king,
And suddenly hurled his fist at the king's mouth and hit it,
And he brought such a great blow to his leaning gazes,
That blood immediately dripped from the wound that was made
And defiled the beard and indeed wettened his clothes.
Then the king, turned with sadness into considerable anger,
Ordered for Pelagius, the one nurtured by the heavenly King,
To be thrown across the walls through being tossed by a mechanised sling,
Which struck the enemies waging war in close groups with stones,
So that the noble witness, having struck the sands of the river,
Which flowed rather near with vast wave around the city,
Should crack his lambs and should die after being suddenly broken.
As it happened, the ministers obeyed him as he boasted of such things,
And in short they soon erected the unheard punishment,
Casting Pelagius who was to be martyred with the sling
Far across the very large walls of the famous city.
But, although the huge opposing rocks from all sides
Compressed the very sweet body of the falling witness,
Nonetheless the friend of Christ remained unharmed.
Certainly the news rather quickly reached the royal ears,
That the body of the struck martyr could not be cut,
Which he ordered to be fixed on the sharp rocks of the bank.
This man was rather offended, for he had been overcome within,
Thus he soon ordered for the head to be cut off with the blow of the sword,
And thus to exercise the supreme sentence.
So the guards, trembling at the king's orders,
Soon beheaded the faithful servant of Christ with the sword,
And they believed that the extinguished corpse should be retained in the waters.
But the soldier of the King, with death laid low,
Flew as eternal victor through the stars of the starry sky
Led down in heaven with sweetness with the angelic hymns,
And from the right hand of the true Judge, placed over the stars of heaven,
He duly took the shining palm of victory
For the killing of martyrdom, accomplished with an end to be praised.
But he was not cheated of the prize of the fervent love,
By which he in short devoted himself to the chains for the life of his father,
Leaving behind the homeland and the subdued people.
At last no little tongue is able to bring forth the little triumph
With the pious words, bright as it is with the heavenly light,
By which he glows well for the preserved virginity,
Joined to the groups, Received in the seat of heaven,
Singing in due time the hymn to the lamb forever, Amen.
After the guards, following the decrees of the king,
Believed that the remains of the extinguished corpse
Were sufficient for the lap of the waters, and fixed them into the rocks,
So that the sacred ashes should be without a worthy sepulchral mound.
Christ, who does not allow his own saints to lose
Even at least a modest hair of the outstanding head,
Did not allow his faithful witness to remain in the water,
But rightly foresaw a worthy little place for him,
Which might preserve the dedicated limbs of the saint in a sepulchral mound.
For the fishers, while cutting the waters with their oars
And capturing the flowing flocks with various traps,
Saw on the very edge of the shore the body of the martyr
Being stirred up among the great-sounding waves.
Indeed as they saw this at a distance with pupils on guard,
They gave the sails there rather quickly and lifted up the body.
And not yet did they know the form of the person to be venerated,
Because the limbs had been stained with the purple blood
And the egregious head lay far off torn away by the river.
But nonetheless they knew this, and also believed with ready heart,
That this man, whoever he was, fell for the law of Christ,
Because there were these people alone damned by capital punishment:
these people who, tinged with the sacred water of baptism,
Did not fear to rebuke frequently the sacred rites of the king.
And when they obtained the head and placed it on the neck,
And recognized the red face of Pelagius,
They broke into such voices with pitying heart:
'Alas! Here lies the lifeless one hope of his own people,
And the beauty of the homeland lies dirty without the honour of the mound!
Surely we know well enough that we have always been selling for many centuries
The bodies of the holy men that have suffered,
Of those men whom the capital execution had shown to be faithful?
And who , is to doubt that this is the body of the praiseworthy witness,
Which lies with the head cut off, far removed from honour?'
When they said these words, they placed the pious limbs on the ship,
And rather quickly sailed back with sails turned
Towards the gate of the city renowned to all peoples.
Here also they proceeded with the boat led away,
And secretly they sought the venerable monastery dedicated to Christ
Inside the large walls of the city,
In short carrying the venerable extinguished body of the witness
To be sold at a great price to the grounds.
The faithful land rejoicing undertook the body with sweet hymns,
Celebrating by custom the consecrated funeral rites
And paid graciously the augmented price to the sailors,
Eagerly desirous as it was to purchase the body of the saint to be loved.
For after it was purchased at not a small remuneration of price,
The land was chosen, appropriate for retaining the limbs,
In which, with the tomb restored with supreme pomp,
Sacred fragments are buried under the mound of earth.
Soon the greatest Ruler of the starry palace
Ordered these things to glow in the mound with shining signs,
So that, with the blessed soul reigning sufficiently in the skies,
The dead limbs might reign with equal glory.
In short the crowd that came together from the city saw,
That those who were beset by various illnesses,
Were being saved, with no payment of treatment, by the grace of the limbs there,
Which once dirty had become purified of their putridity.
So they were perplexed that a common saint should be of such great merit,
That such great miracles should occur because of him.
At last the chief of the monastery and the guide of the people.
Dealing with the best medicines of sane counsel,
Sensed that the High-Throned was to be prayed to with devoted mind,
So that he might patiently and worthily with the usual piety
Reveal the secrets of the cause and remove doubt.
Soon persons of both sexes chose this,
And joined together rather frugally for three days,
They engaged in hymns and also sacred prayers.
Certainly with these vows carried out with devoted mind,
They sensed the King of the skies was propriated by their prayers,
Poured out as they were with eager murmuring.
And they sensed that he was inclined to judgement of the dubious cause.
And quickly they compelled the menacing furnace to grow hot,
With fires placed on it, erected with all effort.
And when the hearth of the furnace was raging in the wide lap,
Soon they took up the cut-off head of the servant of Christ,
Caressing such words with blandiloquent tongues:
'Oh pious King, noble Lord of the starry palace,
You who know how to discern all things with just judgement,
Make the merit of this saint be approved with fire,
And, if he has been supported with the honour of such great goodness,
That these gifts of health should arise from his merits.
Make the flame not touch the little hair of the front,
And also render all the hairs of the head unharmed;
But if truly perhaps he stands to be of lesser merit,
Order him at least to be harmed symbolically on the top exterior,
Next to the nature of the fragile flesh that is to perish.'
Saying such things, they believed that the clear head should be tested by fire
With the flame-spewing waves rising at least
And at last after the space of one whole hour
They finally removed this very body from the rapid flames,
Beholding with their eyes, lest it should bear the loss of heat,
That it had by now radiated more splendidly than pure gold,
Devoid indeed of the burning and such great heat within.
From here the faithful crowd with their faces turned praised
The lofty Christ- the High-Throned- with singing of songs,
For He so often made the fragments of the steadfast witness,
Even as they were dead unto themselves, glow with such great signs.
And burying these things worthily in the mausoleum to be venerated,
The crowd indeed venerated with humility and worthy honour,
Constantly believing well- generally speaking- in the merit of the patron
Made known and granted by divine intervention, and always rejoicing in the matter.
[i] Abd al-Rahman III, caliph of the Caliphate of Córdoba in the period 929-961 CE. He was prior to this the amir of the Emirate of Córdoba (912-929 CE).
[ii] Referring to the Maghreb region of North Africa.
[iv] Referring to the Roman god of war. The name of Mars is used metaphorically to speak of warfare and fighting.
[vi] i.e. Homosexual.
[vii] The imagery in these lines is seemingly that of the martyrdom of a Christian during Roman times.