Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Continental Cult of St. Alban (St. Alban and the End of Roman Britain Part III)

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Continental Cult of St. Alban (St. Alban and the End of Roman Britain Part III)

Article excerpt

This paper, which is part of a series dealing with the cult of St. Alban, examines similar cults associated with St. Alban on the European Continent and examines the evidence for their pagan antecedents.

Key Words: St. Alban, St. Albei, Celts, Germans, Greeks, Indo-European paganism, Arians, St. Ambrose, St. Ursus, St. Geryon, St. Germanus. St. Senis, Bishop Theonestus, Dionysus.

I briefly alluded, in Part I of this series of articles dealing with myths surrounding that Saint, to the fact that St. Alban seems to have had quite an extensive cult on the continent. This can be explained, up to a point, as due to the influence of churchmen like St. Germanus, who in all probability introduced the cult to Auxerre.1

Its notable presence in Germany might be attributed to the influence of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, but if so it is slightly curious why the cult did not make a better showing in their homeland. Likewise it is difficult to attribute the spread of the cult to the influence (alone) of Celtic 'peregrini' since the cult barely appears at all in the Celtic homelands, or only in 'disguised form', along the lines we have suggested above. What might be more likely is that the spread of the cult in Europe was to some extent associated with the British 'dispersion' of the fifth and sixth centuries: Fleuriot (1980: 134-58) has shown that the British emigrations extended well beyond Brittany. We have a very good record, for instance, of the British leader Riothamus and his troops in Southern France in the late fifth century (Sidonius Ep. II. 9; Jordanes' Getica 45). Also this was the period when we know that the cult was very important in Britain and so it may well have been the cult most likely to be disseminated by the Britons of this period in particular. We cannot be sure that the dissemination of the cult goes back to this early period but it seems likely at Auxerre, while elsewhere in Southern France the cult was established as early as the eighth or ninth century (Lowe: 61, 64-5) and at Mainz (where, arguably, the cult represents ultimately that of the British martyr, see further below) it was present from 756, at least (Levison 1941: 338).

However, it is difficult to resist the suspicion that the very extensive continental cult, compared to the rather limited one in Britain, has something to do with what we have noted above in terms of the earlier widespread existence of deities (or semi-deities) with names in 'Alb-', on the continent and throughout the Indo-European world. If our Christian 'martyr', 'Alban', evolved out of a pagan cult figure, 'Albion', or with a name in 'Albio-', we might expect a parallel process to have occurred elsewhere.

With this idea in mind, anyway, we can take a look, for instance, at the distribution of places named after Saint Alban in France. As shown by W.R. Lowe the highest concentration of these is in the Alpine region of Savoy, with a significant concentration, also, in the Rhone valley, and the odd one in the Gironde and Maritime Alps.2 Lowe suggested this was a reflection of the routes used by travellers from Britain (or Ireland in the case of the Gironde names) to Italy and the Mediterranean. If that is the case it is notable that there are no examples in the Western parts of such routes, such as along the lower Loire or in the Bordeaux region. The concentration in the mountain region of Savoy is particularly striking. In fact two of the places, shown by Lowe here, are not actually named 'St. Alban', but 'Albens' and 'Albanne', the latter of which ('Albinenses' in 116) has been derived from "pre-celtique "alba", collone, forteresse, ville", with the suffix "-ennum" (Dauzat 1963). The local dedication, in both of these places is to St. Alban (apparently the British martyr3), but it seems likely that this was a secondary development, inspired by a name in 'Alb-', whether or not the influence of travellers from Britain was also involved. It is not hard to imagine how a name in `Alb-' might sometimes have become a name, 'St. …

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