Celebrating a new saint: Symeon of Trier (d. 1035)

Lenneke van Raaij
Symeon’s cell in the Porta Nigra city gate in 2018, photo: Lenneke van Raaij

The morning after the hermit Symeon died in his cell in the ancient city gate in Trier in 1035 AD, the entire city came together to celebrate this extraordinary man. The deceased came from Syracuse and served God in various ways during his lifetime: he had been a monk and hermit near Mount Sinaï, accompanied Archbishop Poppo of Trier (d. 1047) on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and spent his last five years as a recluse in Trier. 

On the instigation of this same Archbishop, the cult of Symeon swiftly took shape. A local abbot wrote a hagiographical text; chants for the Office on Symeon’s feast day were composed; a church was built in the Porta Nigra; and a succesful campaign was set up to get Symeon canonised by the pope. 

The narrative communicated in the hagiographical text proved to be a popular one across Lotharingia. Symeon’s journey to and from the Holy Land must have especially appealed to many in the Latin West. More than fifty manuscripts with the Vita Symeonis survive, of which ten copies survive from the eleventh century alone. The immediate distribution of the narrative of Symeon suggests that an attempt was made to attract pilgrims. The liturgy for Symeon, which in the first half of the eleventh century only survives in a manuscript from Trier itself, confirms this hypothesis: it is composed to accomodate pilgrims who came to pray at the grave of the new saint. Both the text as well as the musical composition suggests that the audiences needed to get acquainted with Symeon as a holy character.

In the early years of Symeon’s veneration, the liturgy specially composed to celebrate him mainly consisted of chants that were sung during the night office (Matins) and that of the early morning (Lauds). On Symeon’s feast day –June 1st – these chants may have been performed in alternation with passages read from the Vita Symeonis. The chants themselves also had a narrative character (hence the name Historia Symeonis), in which the story of Symeon was briefly recollected. In three sets of antiphons and responsories (called nocturns) during Matins and five antiphons during Lauds, the audience would familiarise themselves with Symeon’s life in the East, his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his arrival in Trier and the miracles that were performed at Symeon’s cell shortly after his death. 

The musical composition of these chants can tell us a lot about the elements of Symeon’s narrative that were deemed important. In the performance of the responsories, the text of the second part of the chant was repeated. As a result, the message concealed in the repeated part, the repetendum, would be emphasised. 

To illustrate this, lets have a look at two of these responsories. 

“The death of the blessed Symeon was not death, but life, because while he passed, he revealed what through life he granted: He expelled sickness, restored health. What through life

Fragment of the Historia Symeonis, responsory ‘Mors beati’- in Trier, Stadtbibliothek 118, f.311v
Stadtbibliothek un Stadtarchiv Trier

In the manuscript eleventh-century Trier manuscript, the chant ends with the two words ‘quod vita’ (‘what through life’). These words indicate the start of the section that is to be repeated. The part of the chant in which Symeon is said to cure sickness is sung twice, thus emphasising his miraculous capacities.  

In a second example, we can distinguish two messages. The first one is a narrative in which Symeon’s encounter with pirates on the Nile river that almost cost him his life is described.  The second part of the chant tells us that his strong faith, here illustrated with a recitation of Psalm 76.20, would safe him. 

“Then, while pressing on once to seek promissed alms from many for the brothers in Francia, he [Symeon] was taken, crushed and submerged by the Nile while fleeing. Miraculous thing: while walking under the water, he began to strengthen in his mind. V. ‘Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in many waters’ (Ps 76.20) He began

Instead of repeating the rather spectacular episode of Symeon’s adventures, the composer of the chant chose to put extra emphasis on the psalm verse instead. Here, Symeon’s saintly virtue is the focus of the chant. In this process, the connection with Scripture placed Symeon in the teleological narrative of salvation. This worked both ways: the audience may now be reminded of Symeon very time they would recite or hear this particular psalm. 

Fragment of the Historia Symeonis, responsory ‘Deinde tendens’- in Trier, Stadtbibliothek 118, f.311v
[Stadtbibliothek un Stadtarchiv Trier]

So, the chants sung at the Office of Symeon’s feast accomodated a new community, arriving from Trier and beyond. They may not necessarily be reminded of the narrative they had learned from the Vita. Instead, once near the sepulchre of Symeon, they were reminded of those elements that would make this man worth venerating: his miraculous capacities as well as his religious virtues.

Lenneke van Raaij is a teacher in Medieval History at Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands). She received her doctoral degree in Medieval Studies at the University of Exeter (UK) in 2020. Her doctoral thesis was called: ‘Celebrating local saints in the civitas. The role of archbishosps in the production of local liturgy in Trier (882 – c. 1050). Follow on Twitter @LvanRaaij

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