Text: Vita Sancti Samsonis

One of the more important Breton saints is Samson of Dol. He was born in the late 5th century in southern Wales and studied with Illtud, working in Cornwall and the Channel Islands before settling in Brittany. He died in Dol, northern Brittany. His Latin life was written by a Breton author in the mid-eighth century or later. The account of the origins of the information used for the life (in §2) are a bit confusing: they indicate that the deacon who relayed this information to the author had an uncle named Henoc (which means “old-one” in Breton) who was the cousin and companion of Samson, and had also written a manuscript about the saint.

The following text was adapted by Michael Newton from edition by Thomas Taylor, The Life of St. Samson of Dol, London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1925.

§ 1. Urged by the deeds of men of religion and that from my inmost heart, and, forasmuch as very many of the fathers in their understanding and perceptions, both in their active and especially in their contemplative life shine like the stars of heaven to help us, I made a study of their entire character, both of body and mind, with a somewhat penetrating and keen eye as far as mere man could. And when I had considered my own poverty and insufficiency, truly ignorant of these latter days, one with little understanding and still less accurate knowledge of the very extensive records of the Holy Scriptures, on this account I trembled as being unworthy of that task of mine which you, O most blessed Tigernomalus, bishop of an apostolic see, enlightened from above in your spiritual judgement, have asked me to undertake. […]

§ 2. First of all I wish it to be believed that these words are not put together from wild speculations of my own, or from confused and unauthorized rumours; but from what I derived from a certain religious and venerable old man whose religious house beyond the sea [in Cornwall] Samson himself had founded. He led a catholic and religious life there for nearly eighty years, close to the lifetime of St. Samson. He was a deacon, and truthfully assured me that St. Samson’s mother had passed on this information to his uncle, a very holy deacon (and the cousin of St. Samson), and the old man kindly related to me many details about the saint’s wonderful career. And not only so, but this venerable old man, who lived with me in this monastery, had very many and delightful accounts read piously and attentively before me about the amazing deeds which Samson performed on this side of the sea – in Brittany and in Roman territory – and those which this holy deacon, named Henoc, had brought [in manuscript] from beyond the sea. And so I have not thought it fitting that I should allow the incomparable work of fortitude achieved through the holy, illustrious, most holy man Samson to be forgotten. […]

§ 1.1. Saint Samson was from the province of Dyfed, and as regards worldly rank was born of distinguished and noble parents. […] Amon was the name of St Samson’s father and his people were from Dyfed. His mother was named Anna and her people were from Gwent, a province neighbouring Dyfed. In the providence of Almighty God they were honourably married by mutual agreement and with the common consent of their fathers, who were of the same social status.
Moreover, we certainly know that the parents of this married couple were court officials of the kings of their respective provinces, as indeed we undoubtedly find it so recorded in other records about St Samson. Also, I have heard on many occasions at the singing of Mass the individual names of both parents read aloud at the altar of St. Samson, among the names of those by whom the offering was made.

§ 1.4. […] The son (Samson) was nobly reared, following the noble custom of his ancestors, and given his name in baptism according to that which had been foretold, which his supremely happy mother encouraged. She occupied herself entirely, day and night, with maintaining his childhood with purity and with his play. […] His father, however, changed his mind and turned himself against the will of God and the promise made [that Samson should become a priest], particularly because of being misled by wicked counsellors and by his friends, who were not aware of the secret miracle of his birth. They advised against Samson entering the church, as they regarded the office of a cleric as unworthy of his family, since they had always been in the service of secular rulers and the supporters of kings. […]

§ 1.7. […] At that very time, with common purpose, Samson’s parents arose together and, with a common provision for the journey, set about conducting their son to the school of the famous master of the Britons named IIltud. This Illtud was a disciple of St. Germanus, and St. Germanus himself had ordained him priest when he was youth. And Illtud was truly the most accomplished of all of the Britons in all of the Scriptures – Old and New Testaments –, and in all kinds of science, and geometry, rhetoric, grammar, arithmetic, and all kinds of philosophy. He was born a most wise wizard, having knowledge of the future. […]

§ 1.9. On this occasion, when St Illtud beheld with his eyes Samson the chosen child of God, as he received him from his mother’s hand with the gifts which his parents had brought with him according to custom, he kissed him affectionately, and looking up to heaven and blessing him he began to speak as follows: “We give thanks to God, who has been so generous as to give light on earth through this lamp born of our people, unworthy though we be. Behold the noble chief of us all, behold him who is to be a high priest, to the benefit of many on this side and beyond the sea; behold the illustrious priest of all the Britons; behold the most famous of all, as a founder of churches, since the Apostles.”

When they heard these things his parents wished to hear more about his future, but St Illtud responded: “It is not my duty to tell you this, nor yours to question me; for there is a time to keep silence and there is a time to speak; now hand over to me that boy to be taught.”

§ 1.10. As his parents were leaving, Samson kept by the side of his new master, not driven by any desire to weep after mother or father; but, as if he had been nourished there from his very cradle, he stayed with steadfast and delightful grace. It was wonderful the way he learned in one and the same day the twenty letters (of the alphabet) and all the symbols (of writing), and there was no need to show him any further. What is more wonderful than all these things is that within seven days he was able, through God’s revelation, to understand the meanings of these letters in the formation of words; his mind was so adept at reading that, insofar as human reason is capable of it, he completely mastered all the psalms.

Moreover, when he was about fifteen he exercised himself in the very frequent fasts and the longer vigils which were kept by all the brothers who lived there, so much so that when he often had to maintain the appointed posture, sometimes even for two days, that most sensible master forbade him and said unto him, “It is not appropriate, little son, that the tender body of a youth, not yet matured, should be broken by too many and ill-regulated fasts.”

§ 1.37. Now it came to pass that certain distinguished Irishmen, on their way from Rome, arrived at his dwelling, and, after he had carefully and thoroughly questioned them, and had found them to be learned men, he decided (with the bishop’s approval) to accompany them to their own country [Ireland]. He stayed there a short while and with God’s help practised many virtues and was revered by the religious people of that country as an angel of God. And, by him, God gave sight to many who were blind, and cleansed many who were leprous, and cast out devils, and saved very many from the error of their way. […]

§ 1.52. Then, after he had received his cousin and appointed him to the office of deacon; and after giving instructions to his father for the governing of the monastery that they built together; and after finishing those works that God moved him to do in Britain; with God as his guide, he directed his course towards this side of the sea [Brittany], in the fulfillment of his promise. He had as companions very many monks and, above all, that deacon of whom we have already spoken. After a favorable journey, they reached their desired port on the continent of Europe. […]

§ 2.14. But now, if you please, let these very brief sketches, gathered from a large number, concerning the countless works which God brought about through this St. Samson, suffice. Let us in spirit come back to ourselves, to the imitation of our saint; let us love the deeds in which we have learned that he pleased God; let our deeds correspond with the best services in which, as we have undoubtedly learned, he excelled others. For so, in the Old Testament, we read, when it was said figuratively at the Lord’s command to Moses concerning the eating of the lamb; so speaking, he says, “You shall eat it having your loins girded and with shoes on your feet,” and so forth. When they celebrate the annual festival of the Saints, let us remark that, before all things, it is necessary that we should learn to have the loins girded, that is, we must bring before Almighty God chastity of body and purity of mind for sacrifice. Moreover, let us take care to have shoes on our feet, because, by closely treading in the footprints of the holy fathers who have died and gone before, we furnish our souls with spiritual shoes. And hence it follows that, not by proclaiming the deeds of the same men with the voice, but by imitating and loving their work, we ourselves set our course in the right way which leads to heaven. […]

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