In the Seven Sleepers’ den

GoodMorrow ChethamsLibrary
John Donne’s Poems, edition of 1633, from Chetham’s Library

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’.

Surah of the Cave
Qu’ran copied by Kadi Mahmud Efendi (1575), in the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul.  Via Wikimedia Commons.

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:

Names of 7sleepers TitDxxvii14r
London, British Library Cotton MS Titus D. xxvii, fol. 14r

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:

7sleepers Roy2Axx52r
London, British Library Royal MS 2 A. xx, fol. 52r

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:

7sleepers 167r
London, British Library Harley MS 585, fol. 167r

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:

7sleepers Roy12Exx162v
London, British Library Royal MS 12 E. xx, fol. 162v

In this thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman life of St Edward the Confessor, the king is receiving a vision of the Seven Sleepers:

EdConf 7sleepers CUL.Ee3.59.25v
Cambridge, University Library MS Ee. 3. 59, fol. 25v

May you sleep like the people of Ephesus!


Works used:

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.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you so much for writing about them. I discovered them about three weeks ago when I was reading about the Greek Orthodox Church and they were mentioned there. I thought the story was so interesting. I had not heard of them before. There is so much richness in ancient history and the ancient texts!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Amanda says:

    Glad I dont live in the seventeenth century lol wafers for a fever? Wth

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe they contain paracetamol

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Amanda says:

        True.. lol we’re name twins!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes! Funny (or maybe not) how your own name in print sort of jumps off the page at you…

        Liked by 2 people

  3. fourthqueen says:

    If this is a legend that has mingled its way into more than one relifion, does that justify its existence? Or does this remain a story?

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Very nice piece. I especially like the debt of your research. Keep up the good work

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This was fascinating…Thank you.!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. katehthomas says:

      Glad you enjoyed!

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Kaycee says:

      You’re so right. Beautiful!!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Reblogged this on Random Musings of an Apple and commented:
    At the risk of sleeping for 200years…I think I may try this.

    Wonder what the religion “du jour” will be then 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kaycee says:

    Loved this post. Nice!!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. florenceandtheai says:

    I’ve always found some of the more impossible hagiographies really fascinating. Sleepers in a hill, waiting until some time when they are needed, show up in more stories than I would have initially expected. I think my favorites are the cephalophores-hope I spelled that right. Their mission is so important that even losing their head can’t stop them from going about their business.

    Liked by 4 people

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  10. orvillewrong says:

    I found your article very interesting and informative…Thank you

    Liked by 5 people

  11. The answer to the story is not mystic. No more than the answer to a fever lay in the consuming of a wafer. It appears to me to be a parable which the people of that day took to be truth in itself. (here, an error lead to more error)

    Let those who are interested search out the original meaning of the names.

    I perceive the meaning of the story to represent a failure on the part of those who should have remained awake for the sake of their charge, the people. Instead, they went to prayer. They did not remain where they had been placed by God.

    The waking is their remembrance. And see the result of their neglect. Their charge, the church, is no more. For all their self righteous purity and pious prayers, their failure produced a death of God’s will.

    And doesn’t this continue to happen in the church today? As surely as it happens even in the businesses and families of this world. Neglect your charge and you will not be the only one to suffer loss.

    Liked by 3 people

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