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  • Writer's pictureZoe Franznick

Episode 20: The Seven Sleepers, Pt. 2

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

We're continuing our journey into early Christian hagiographies with a second telling of the Seven Sleepers legend, this time with the dramatic flare of Ælfric's Lives of Saints. This version of the tale comes with more fire and brimstone, but even less historical accuracy than Baring-Gould's translation.

Ælfric of Eynsham was one of the most prolific writers of Old English in the early medieval world, and his Lives of Saints remains one of the pillars of Old English literature. This collection was a series of sermons meant to be preached throughout the year, specifically on "saint's days," which celebrate a certain saint in particular. Ælfric's record of the Seven Sleepers is one such sermon. Though the Lives of Saints was written around 990 AD, the translation we are using is contemporary with Baring-Gould's Golden Legend translation (c. 1880 AD).

Ælfric begins by noting that the feast of the Seven Sleepers is five days before Lammas (or August 1), making the feast day July 27. The tale itself opens by slandering Decius as an emperor, calling him Decius "the Perverse." According to Ælfric, Decius travelled the Roman empire, going first from Constantinople, to Carthage, and then to Ephesus, torturing the chosen of God.

As he arrived in Ephesus, entering the city "as if he were a god," he gathered the people around him. After setting up idols in the churches, Decius ordered the citizens to offer sacrifices to the devil on threat of capital punishment. (As Mac noted in the podcast, Ælfric often says Decius was offering sacrifice to the devil, rather than the pagan Roman gods. This mindset reflects that Ælfric most likely conceptualized the pagan gods as guises for Satan.)

Ælfric inserts a likely fictional bounty on the heads of Christians who did not offer such sacrifices. If they were found, they were carried "like grasshoppers" into the temples in the city and many were coerced into sacrificing to the pagan gods. Ælfric adds elements of fire and brimstone that any fundamentalist preacher would be proud of, saying that Christians who did not sacrifice were cut limb from limb and hung headless from the city's walls.

When the Seven Sleepers (in this version named Maximianus, Malchus the Obedient, Martinianus, Dionysus, the Holy Johannes, Seraphion, and Constantine) refused to sacrifice, they heaped ashes on their heads in sorrow. Apparently his closest confidants (according to Ælfric) the emperor asked why they were so unwilling to follow his order when they'd followed so many of his others. Ælfric uses this segue to give a brief gospel message mid-sermon, but the emperor ordered their scabbards cut. He exiles them, rather than killing them, since they were so close to him.

After they had departed, the Seven completed "their holy work" by amassing treasure and giving most of it away. They decided to keep what remained and become hermits on Mt. Celion. In a departure from the Golden Legend's version, Ælfric thus does imply the Seven had a treasure hid in the mountain. Malchus routinely went into town to ask about the emperor as well as purchase food for the group.

In a starting turn of events, Ælfric asserts the emperor changed his mind about having mercy on the Seven, and stormed Ephesus with his army. When Malchus heard this, he was dismayed but brought the news to the group. They mourned together, and one by one dropped off to sleep. Decius gathered the Seven's relatives and threatened them with torture if they do not reveal the Seven's location. In another aberration from the Golden Legend, Ælfric says the family members readily give the location of the Seven Sleepers - a sound choice when faced with torture.

Luckily for the Seven, Ælfric asserts that the Lord put the thought to block the cave into Decius' mind. Decius ordered the cave blocked, but as they were fulfilling the orders, Theodore and Rufanus, two secret Christians among Decius' entourage, decided to chronicle the martyrs' deaths. They engraved a leaden tablet and sealed it with silver, placing it within the cave before blocking it up.

Three hundred years later, in the 38th year of Theodosius' reign, a heresy raged throughout the empire concerning bodily resurrection. At this time, a shepherd was attempting to build bothies to protect himself and his other shepherds from the elements when he came upon an already hewn stone. Over the next two days, the shepherd and his companions move the stones and open the cave.

When the stone had been moved, the Seven Sleepers awoke and decide to face Decius themselves. They send Malchus into the town to buy bread with two and sixty pence, but demand that he buy better quality bread than he had last time. While we're not sure why Ælfric includes the insistence about the bread, we are impressed by a relatively long diversion he includes about the devaluation of money. With economics lessons and moral indictments in the same sermon, how would one be bored in Ælfric's church?

Malchus goes into the town (conveniently bypassing the lead tablet), and just as in the first version of tale, is amazed to see crosses displayed and hear the Lord's name spoken in the streets. When he attempts to buy bread, once more the merchants are intrigued by the coinage and demand to know where he got it. Just as in the Golden Legend, the merchants tie Malchus up and bring him to the two town officials: Bishop Marinus and the local reeve.

The two question Malchus, asking about the 320 year old coins, and Malchus explains he is a local. They cannot find his family and threaten him with torture (Ælfric's sermons include more torture than most) when Malchus asks where Decius is. The Bishop replies that Decius is long dead, amd together they return to the cave and find the lead tablet. When all had been revealed, the bishop sent a letter to Theodosius explaining the heresy was resolved by this event. Theodosius, intrigued, came to meet the Seven. Upon seeing them, they shone with a bright light, and Theodosius exclaimed that it was as though he saw the Lord when he rose Lazarus. In a more lighthearted alteration to this tale, the Seven Sleepers resolved to remain under the mountain as hermits and live out the rest of their days in the service of the Lord.

Ælfric's version of this tale, while far more convoluted than the Golden Legend's rendition, contains the same major features. Each tale effectively resolves a heresy while also providing a miracle from the Lord, a saint (or seven) to emulate, and a villain to despise. Together, the two tales provide an excellent example of medieval oral and written tradition, and the variations that personal, temporal, and geographical changes can effect in a simple hagiography.

Final Rating: 7.5

Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia! Searching for our sources? Read Baring Gould's translation of The Seven Sleepers here, or look at the manuscript of Ælfric's Lives of Saints here. Check out our Library for more! Additional references for interested scholars:

  • Bethurum, Dorothy. “The Form of Ælfric's ‘Lives of Saints.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 29, no. 4, 1932, pp. 515–533. Link.

  • Corona, Gabriella. “Ælfric's (Un)Changing Style: Continuity of Patterns from the Catholic Homilies to the Lives of Saints.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 107, no. 2, 2008, pp. 169–189. Link.

  • Darling, Gregory J. “Cross Legends and Crossings: Links Among Anglo-Saxon, Medieval Irish, and Late Classical Texts.” Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies, vol. 4, 2010, pp. 98–111. Link.

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