Ælfric's Life of St. Agnes

The Life of St. Agnes is a good example of a passion of a virgin martyr. Stories like this may have been valued as much for their somewhat racy content as for their doctrinal value. This translation is from Walter W. Skeat, ed., Ælfric's Lives of Saints. Early English Text Society, original series, vols. 76, 82, 94, 114 (London, 1881-1900); it has been revised somewhat.

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, found in ancient books about the blessed Agnes, how she endured cruel persecution in the city of Rome and in girlhood suffered martyrdom. Ambrose wrote thus concerning the maiden:

At that time there was a noble maiden called Agnes in the city of Rome. She believed in the Savior, was gentle and wise, a child in years, but mature in mind. She contended through faith with the fiendish rulers, and in her thirteenth year forsook death and gained eternal life because she loved Christ. She was beautiful in countenance and more beautiful in faith. When she returned from school, a youth wooed her, son of Sempronius, who was set over the city as prefect: he was a heathen. His kinsmen offered the maiden costly robes and promised her still costlier ones, but the blessed Agnes despised it all and cared no more for those treasures than for a reeking dunghill. Then the youth brought the pure maiden precious gems and worldly ornaments, and promised her riches if she would have him. Then Agnes fearlessly answered the youth, "Get away from me, you kindler of sin, feeder of crime, nourisher of death: get away from me! I have another lover, more noble than you, who has offered me better adornments and has granted to me as a pledge the ring of his faith and has adorned me in unimaginable honor. He has encircled my right hand and also my neck with precious stones and with shining gems. He has set his token upon my face, so I will love no one but him. He has decked me with a robe woven of gold and has adorned me with exquisite jewels; he has also shown me his incomparable treasures, which he has promised me, if I follow him. I cannot choose another and so dishonor and forsake him who has espoused me by his love. He countenance is lovelier and his love fairer than yours; his joyful bridal-bed has long been prepared for me; his maidens sing to me with melodious voices. From his mouth I have received milk and honey; now I am already embraced in his pure arms; his fair body is united with mine, and his blood has adorned my eyebrows. His mother is a virgin, and his mighty father knew no woman; the angels obey him always. The winsome stars glorify his beauty, and the sun and moon also, which enlighten the earth. By his word even the dead are raised, and by his touch the sick are strengthened. His abundance never fails, and his wealth never decreases. I shall remain true to him always; I commit myself to him with complete devotion. When I love him, I am completely pure; when I touch him, I am undefiled; when I receive him, I am still a virgin, and there, in the bridal, no child is lacking. There is conception without pain, and perpetual fruitfulness."

After the maiden had spoken and spurned him with her words, the young man was angered and inwardly blinded. He suddenly fell ill and drew sighs from the depths of his breast, lying on his bed. Then physicians asked why he was lying there and communicated his mental disorder to his father. The father immediately sent to the maiden the same message his son had sent before, but Agnes refused, saying that she would not dishonor the noble pledge of the earlier bridegroom through any marriage.

It seemed to the prefect shameful that she should prefer another to his son. Nevertheless, he investigated strictly (making many threats) just who this bridegroom was of whom she boasted so. He was then told that she had been a Christian since early childhood, and was so filled with witchcraft that she thought Christ was her bridegroom. Then Sempronius with a great shout commanded her to be brought to his judgment seat, there in his house. First he drew her aside and flattered her with sweet words; then he tried to intimidate her. But God's virgin could not be drawn away from her beloved Lord by flattery; nor was she frightened by threats.

Then Sempronius perceived that she was resolute and informed her friends that she would be indicted for her Christianity, which the emperor abhorred.

In the morning the wicked judge commanded Agnes to be brought to him. He told her repeatedly how his son loved her, but he had little success, though he spoke at length. He sat there on his judgment-seat, vexed in mind, and promised the maiden manifold punishments if she would not renounce the true Savior. He said to the wise maiden, "take my advice: if you love virginity, submit immediately to the worship of the goddess Vesta, who hates impurity."

Agnes answered this faithless man and said, "I refused your son, who is truly a man, and I could not look upon his countenance for love of my Christ; how then can I, to his dishonor, humble myself before a dead image?"

Then the prefect said to the holy maiden, "Up to now I have put up with you because you are still a child. You are insulting our gods; take care not to anger them!"

Agnes answered him, "The Almighty has greater regard to the minds of men than to their great age. Faith does not reside in years, but in wise thoughts. Let your gods be angry, if they can do anything about it. Let them command us to worship them. If you cannot do this, then torment us however you like!"

Then Sempronius, this shameful judge, said, "Now Agnes, choose one of two things: either you must offer your sacrifice to the mighty Vesta, along with the other virgins, or you will be associated with foul prostitutes, and you will be foully dishonored, and then the Christians will not be able to save you."

Agnes answered resolutely, "If you knew my God, you would not say such things. I can despise your threats without anxiety because I know my Lord's might. I trust in him because he is to me a strong wall and an unfailing defense, so I have no need to sacrifice to your cursed gods; nor can I be defiled, like the foul prostitutes, by pollution from outside my body. I have God's holy angel with me; your gods are molded in brass, with which men make pretty containers, or they are of stone, with which men pave the streets. God's dwelling is not in the gray stones, or in lumps of brass, but he dwells in the heavens. Terrible hell, with its greedy fire, will seize you, and all who are like you. There you will be blasted, but you cannot be burned up; rather, you will always be renewed there in the eternal fire."

Then the judge, mad with rage, commanded men to take off her clothes, and lead her, naked, to the brothel; and he commanded them to cry it through the streets, and make it known. But then God's great power was manifested: the maiden's hair fell about her as soon as the executioners tore off her clothes, and that hair covered her on every side. Then they dragged the maiden to the house of prostitution, but there she found an angel of God, shining so bright that no man could look at her on account of that great light, or touch her. All the house shone like the sun in the daytime, and the more intently they tried to look at her, the more their eyes were dazzled.

Agnes prostrated herself, praying to the Almighty, and God sent her a shining garment. Then she thanked Christ, and put on the garment, which was exactly her size and shining so brightly that men could see that God had sent that garment to her. Then the prefect's son came to that shining place with his vile companions; he wished to defile that servant of God, and immediately sent some of them in to her before him. But they marveled greatly at that magnificent light and returned, astonished, to their impious lord. He scolded them severely for having marveled so much at the shining light, and for not defiling her. Then he himself entered with shameful intent, but he fell prostrated before the maiden, struck down by the devil whom he foolishly obeyed. He lay on the floor as if dead for a long time. His companions thought he must be busy about his shameful deeds.

Then one of them came to see and found him dead, and immediately cried out in grief, "Oh pious Romans! Help us now! This cruel whore has killed our lord with her witchcraft."

The astonished townspeople ran there, and the father also came, crying aloud, "bloodthirsty woman, have you destroyed my son with your devilish witchcraft?"

Agnes said to him, "Why are the others living, who came in here, if not because they worshipped Almighty God, who compassionately clothed me, and sent me his angel, who preserved my body, consecrated to Christ from the cradle? Your shameless son came in to me with shameless intent, but the angel struck him down and delivered him to the devil, who immediately destroyed him."

Then the prefect said to the holy maiden, "Your words will be proven if you will pray to that same angel that he will now raise up my only begotten son and restore him to health."

The blessed Agnes answered him thus: "You are not worthy to see that wonder, but nevertheless it is time for the Lord's might to be manifested. Now all of you go out and let me pray alone."

They all went out, and she prayed alone, beseeching her Lord that he would raise the dead. Then Christ's angel appeared there, and raised the young man, and as soon as he was alive again he ran out and cried out everywhere, "There is one God in heaven and also on earth—the one who is the God of the Christians—and your gods are nothing! They cannot help themselves, and they cannot help anyone else."

The heathens were sorely troubled, and they cried out against the maiden with a great noise: "Away, away quickly with the cruel witch, who perverts men's minds with her witchcraft."

The prefect did not dare to do anything to harm the maiden, but left his deputy to still the tumult. He himself went away, sorrowing because he could not save the maiden from the heathens, after the resurrection of his son.

The deputy could not oppose the bloodthirsty people, but for her great crime, commanded men to kindle a great fire and shove her into the middle of it. It was done just as that cruel man had commanded, but the fire instantly divided itself into two parts and burned up those who had made the outcry, and the blessed Agnes stood unharmed in the midst of the fire, praying with outstretched arms: "Oh Almighty God, who alone ought to be adored; terrible Creator, who ought truly to be worshipped; Father of my Lord, I bless you because I have escaped, through your blessed Son, the threatenings of the wicked and the filth of the devil. Look! I am besprinkled with divine dew; the flame is divided and the faithless are consumed. Father, proclaimed as God, I bless you, for I can without fear pass through the fire to you. That which I have believed, now I can see; that which I have hoped for, now I have. I acknowledge you with mouth, and with my heart, and with everything inside I desire you, the one true God reigning with your Son and with the Holy Spirit—one Almighty God forever."

Then the fire was quenched; not a coal remained glowing. The people thought it was witchcraft, and fiercely and loudly roared out against her life.

Aspasius could not withstand the great tumult, but commanded her to be killed with the deadly sword, and Christ then received her, martyred for his name. Her father and her mother, with great joy, took her body and bore it to their home, and buried her there without sorrow, and often kept watch there, venerating the place.

One night they saw a great company of virgins coming towards them, with Agnes in their midst; they were all clothed in golden garments, and they advanced gloriously, with great light. Agnes spoke thus to her parents: Take care that you do not weep for me as if I were dead, but rejoice with me, for I am a companion of these virgins, and with them I have received a glorious dwelling-place, and in heaven I am joined to the one whom I loved here on earth." After that she departed with the virgins, and this vision was widely reported.

A little while later, in the days of the emperor Constantine, it happened that some men told the vision to his daughter Constantia, who then was still a heathen, but nevertheless very wise. She was very ill at that time, and had terrible wounds in all her limbs. It occurred to her to watch one night at Agnes's tomb and pray for health. She came to that place, even though she was a heathen, and with faithful spirit cried out to the virgin who possessed that tomb, asking her to grant her health. Then she fell asleep, and in a vision saw the blessed Agnes saying these words to her: "Begin resolutely, noble Constantia, and believe that the Savior has power to heal you, and through him you will receive the healing of your wounds." Then Constantia woke up and was healed so thoroughly that no trace of her terrible wounds could be seen on her body. She went home to her father, entirely whole, and gladdened him. And her brothers and all the household rejoiced for her healing, and heathendom diminished and faith in God grew.

She was then baptized, as was her father, and received holy orders with fair observances, and many other maidens through her worthy example abandoned worldly pleasures and were consecrated to Christ. Then Constantia asked her father Constantine to rear a church for the holy Agnes, and had a coffin set in there for her. Word of this spread all through the nation, and many infirm people came to the holy tomb and were healed through the holy Agnes. Likewise many of the Roman maidens continued in pure virginity for the love of Christ after the example of Agnes, who is buried there.