There must have been many people who have come across this line from John Donne’s seventeenth-century poem and wondered who the Seven Sleepers might have been – or why the poet might have snorted there. The second question has a quick answer: it simply means ‘snored’. But who were the Seven Sleepers?
In June last year, I wrote a post about what was known about Syria in the Anglo-Saxon church. As I wrote in that post, my interest in this subject arose early in my PhD, when I wrote a brief piece for my supervisor that ultimately never made it into my thesis. This included a bit of work on the Seven Sleepers, which I originally planned to include in the Syria post; however, that one ended up getting somewhat longer than I planned. So maybe it’s time the Sleepers got a post of their own.
The story goes that, when Christians were persecuted under the Emperor Decius, seven men went into a cave to pray, and afterwards fell asleep; on awaking, they sent one of the group down into Ephesus, who found that churches abounded. For two hundred years had now passed, and Christianity was now the official religion of the Roman Empire. It’s sort of like a late antique time-travel narrative. The story spread across the Christian world. Though the legend is believed to have first been written in Greek, the earliest surviving copies of the legend are Syriac, from the fifth or sixth century. In the late sixth century, Frankish historian Gregory of Tours wrote two Latin versions: at the end of one of them, in his Gloria martyrum, he mentions that he translated the text with the aid of a Syrian. Sebastian Brock speculates that this person may have been one of the Syrian merchants known to have been in the Rhone valley at the time.
Meanwhile, the story also became part of Islam: a version of it is told in Surah 18 of the Qur’an, ‘The Surah of the Cave’.
Apparently in modern-day Syrian Arabic, you can wish that someone may ‘sleep like the people of Ephesus‘.
Partly due to the influence of Gregory of Tours, the legend was known in Anglo-Saxon England, in two versions, one anonymous and one by the prolific homilist Ælfric of Eynsham; and it seems to have taken root in the lived religion of the time. In earlier blogposts, I have written about the eleventh-century handbook known as Ælfwine’s Prayerbook. Fol. 14r of this manuscript (specifically London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii: it’s now divided into two) appears to have originally been left blank, probably so that the table of Easter dates could begin on a double-page spread. So the scribe wrote this onto it:
These are the names of the seven sleepers, who slept for 373 years: Maximianus, Malchus, Martinianus, Dionisius, Iohannes, Serapion, Constantinus.
So why would anyone want to remember the names of the Sleepers?
This twelfth-century addition to an eighth-century prayerbook uses them in prayers to cure someone’s sleeplessness:
In the city of Ephesus, on Mount Celion, the Seven Holy Sleepers rested: these are their names …
Through the intercession of the Holy Seven Sleepers, whose bodies rested on Mount Celion, make this your servant [Name] sleep …
In this eleventh-century compendium of medical remedies, their names are used in a remedy for fever:
For fever: one must take seven little sacramental wafers such as one makes offertory with, and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Iohannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion. Then afterwards one must sing the incantation that is related hereafter, first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then above the crown of the person’s head; and then let a virgin go to him and hang it on his neck, and let it be done for three days; he will soon be better.
Trans. Edward Pettit, Lacnunga, ll. 644-9.
A similar use of offertory wafers for fever is found in this twelfth-century cure:
In this thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman life of St Edward the Confessor, the king is receiving a vision of the Seven Sleepers:
May you sleep like the people of Ephesus!
Sebastian P. Brock, ‘The Syriac background’, in Michael Lapidge, ed. Archbishop Theodore: Commemorative Studies on his Life and Influence, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 11 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Raymond van Dam, trans., Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988).
Beate Günzel, ed. Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London: Boydell Press, 1993).
Hugh Magennis, ed., The Anonymous Old English Legend of the Seven Sleepers, Durham Medieval Texts 7 (Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994).
Edward Pettit, ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585, The Lacnunga (Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001).
G. Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1948); for the Seven Sleepers, see pp. 276-9.