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Gregory the Great, Dialogues (1911) Introduction. pp.xix-xxvi.

The Dialogues of Saint Gregory, surnamed the Great: Pope of Rome & the first of that name.  Divided into Four Books, wherein he entreateth of the Lives and Miracles of the Saints in Italy and of the Eternity of Men's Souls.  Translated into our English Tongue by P.W. and printed at Paris in mdcviii. Re-edited with an Introduction and Notes by Edmund G. Gardner, M.A.  With Illustrations after the Old Masters annotated by G.F.Hill.

London: Philip Lee Warner
vii Grafton St., Bond St. W. mdccccxi.


The four books of Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, "concerning the life and miracles of the Italian Fathers and the eternity of souls," were written in 593, three years after his elevation to the papacy, at the request of certain monks of his household.

"My brethren who dwell familiarly with me," writes Gregory to Maximianus, Bishop of Syracuse, "would have me by all means write something in brief fashion concerning the miracles of the Fathers, which we have heard wrought in Italy. For this purpose I earnestly need the help of your charity, that you should briefly inform me of all those which come back to your memory, or which you have happened yourself to know. For I remember that you related certain things, which I have forgotten, concerning the lord abbot Nonnosus, who lived near the lord Anastasius de Pentumis. I beseech you, therefore, to put down this, and whatever others there are, in your letters, and forward them to me with speed, unless you yourself are coming to me shortly."1

There is no other book that gives us so vivid a picture of religious life in Italy during the sixth century: the century that witnessed the brief epoch of Gothic |xx domination, the restoration of the imperial Byzantine power, and finally the invasion of the Lombards, that "barbarous and cruel nation," writes Gregory, which, "drawn as a sword out of a sheath," wrought such unutterable havoc and devastation in the peninsula that many, with Bishop Redemptus, held verily that "the end of all flesh was come." 2 It is the century that closed the period of classical civilisation, and ushered in that dreariest epoch in the history of mankind known as the Dark Ages.

Inevitably, men turned from the spectacle of a world "fraught with so many miseries and divers afflictions,"3 to prepare in the solitude of the cloister for the end which they deemed fast approaching, if it were not already come. They naturally sought eagerly to grasp such phenomena as seemed to them miraculous, as visible signs that God had not utterly abandoned His creation, and to find proofs that the soul, at least, was immortal, and might look forward to a better life hereafter by forgiveness of injuries, and by offering herself up before death as a sacrifice to Him that had made her.4 It is this that gives pathos even to the apparent triviality of some of the miracles that Gregory records, and deeper significance to the note on which the work ends.

Three great figures illumine the general darkness of the sixth century in Italy : Boethius, the last philosopher of the classical world; Benedict, the organiser or western monasticism; and Gregory himself the chief agent in the building up of the mediaeval ideal of the papacy.

The Roman senator, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, whom Gibbon calls "the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman," was tortured to death by the orders of |xxi King Theodoric the Goth, in 524 or 525. Dante was to meet him among the glowing spirits of great teachers in the fourth sphere of Paradise : "In the vision of all good there rejoiceth the holy soul, who unmasks the world's deceit to whoso giveth good heed to it. The body whence it was hunted lieth below in Cieldauro, and it from martyrdom and from exile came unto this peace."5 Though a martyr for the liberty of Rome rather than for the faith of Christ, Boethius was (as we now know for certain) an advocate of Christianity, albeit from the philosophical rather than the religious standpoint; but his famous work, De Consolatione Philosophiae, composed in his prison at Pavia under the shadow of death, attempts to "assert eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men" from the standpoint of human reason alone. It is somewhat curious that his name, which rings through the literature of the Middle Ages from Alfred to Dante, occurs nowhere in the Dialogues, although his fellow-victims under the tyranny of the last years of Theodoric's rule, John the Pope and Symmachus the Senator, are mentioned more than once, and the monkish legend of their persecutor's terrible end is related in full.6

Some four or five years after the death of Boethius, Benedict of Nursia founded the great monastery of Monte Cassino, about 529. Here in 543, fourteen years later, he died. Even in the west, Benedict was naturally not without precursors; such as Martin of Tours, Cassianus of Marseilles, Cesarius of Arles, Equitius, who, "by reason of his great holiness of life, was the father and governor of many abbeys in the province of Valeria," 7 and some others; but it was more especially the work of the great Italian monk, |xxii whose face Dante so ardently desired to behold unveiled in Paradise, to elevate this western monastic life into a system, with fixed laws and an ideal, like the object of hope according to the scholastic definition, "arduous but not impossible of attainment." The famous rule, the Regula Sancti Benedicti, which he wrote and promulgated from Monte Cassino (based, in part, upon the eastern rule of St. Basil), for all its apparent simplicity, is one of the few great constructive works of the sixth century. Although, from the standpoint of the Divina Commedia, Dante makes the Saint declare that his regola remained on earth solely to waste the parchment on which it was written, per danno delle carte, it became the norm according to which generations of men and women throughout the western world devoted themselves to the highest spiritual life, and became "kindled by that heat which gives birth to flowers and holy fruits."8

The second book of the Dialogues, De vita et miraculis venerabilis Benedicti, is the earliest and most authoritative account of St. Benedict that we possess. Indeed, it, together with his Rule, is our only source for the story of his life and the understanding of his character. As has been well said, it is "the biography of the greatest Monk, vritten by the greatest Pope (himself also a Monk.)"9

Gregory was born probably a year or two before the death of St. Benedict. The son of the Roman senator, Gordianus, and a scion of the noble house of the Anicii, he inherited vast possessions in the Roman Campagna and in the territory of Tivoli, stretching almost to the gates of Praeneste (Palestrina), and a palace on the Caelian Hill. His childhood was passed amidst the disastrous events of the struggle between Justinian's generals and the Goths, when Rome was taken and retaken again and again by the Goths and the |xxiii barbarian armies of the Empire. In his early manhood, after the death of Justinian and the recall of Narses to Constantinople, came the even more disastrous invasion and partial conquest of Italy by the Lombards. "Late and long," he writes, " I put off the grace of conversion, and, after I had been inspired with celestial desire, I thought it better to be clothed in the secular habit." 10 In 573, when still a young man, he was prefect of Rome. A few years later, he became a monk, turned his palace into a monastery, made over his lands to the monks, and disposed of his property to religious and public uses. After serving as apocrisiarius, or papal legate, to the imperial court of Byzantium, for Pope Pelagius II., he was, on the latter's death during the terrible pestilence that devastated Rome at the beginning of 590, elected Pope, and, in spite of his resistance, was compelled to accept the choice of the Romans, which (in accordance with the usage of the times) was confirmed by the Emperor Mauritius.

This is not the place to tell again the story of Gregory's pontificate. Physically a complete invalid, suffering from almost incessant pain, he held the see for fourteen years (dying on March 12, 604), with an indefatigable vigour and an incessant activity, in times of wellnigh unqualified difficulty and gloom. Convinced in his own mind that the end of the world was at hand (he had announced it to the people in his first public homily as Pope in St. Peter's, and the conviction abode with him until his death),11 he nevertheless did not neglect even the care of temporal things, when these were forced upon him by the duties of his state and the pressure of the times. His conception of the temporal power of the papacy, and the relations of Church and State, was poles asunder from that of the Popes of |xxiv Dante's century, and essentially the same as that of the poet himself. Of the vast territorial possessions of the Church, the administration of which he thoroughly reformed, he regarded the Pope, "not as possessor, but as dispenser of the fruits for the poor of Christ, on behalf of the Church." 12 Compelled to act as a secular ruler in defence of Rome against the Lombards, he regarded himself, in the temporal field, as the subject of the State. Like Dante, he conceives of the Church and State as mutually co-operating, but ruling over different spheres, and the Emperor is God's vicar and representative on earth in all things temporal: "What he does, if canonical, we follow; if it is not canonical, we bear it, as far as we can without sin."13 In the ecclesiastical sphere, on the other hand, he is uncompromising in asserting the supremacy of Rome over all other Christian churches. His work of converting the English, and preparing the conversion of the Lombards, need not be told here. Gregory was the creator of the spiritual ideal of the mediaeval papacy, even as Benedict had created that of western monasticism.

The Dialogues were translated into Greek by one of St. Gregory's successors, Pope Zaccharias I. (741-752): "that so the Grecians might be instructed in the rules of good living," as Platina's seventeenth-century translator puts it. With a similar desire for the edification of the English, an Anglo-Saxon version was made, about 890, by Bishop Werferth of Worcester, at the instigation of Alfred the Great.14 The Dialogues were among the most popular reading of the Middle Ages, and early translations exist in almost every European language. In the fourth book, we find the first |xxv rudiments of the mediaeval conception of the three states of souls in the other world. The story of the vision seen by a certain soldier 15 is practically the first in the west of those more or less fictitious visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, which (inspired so many imitations throughout the Middle Ages, from Venerable Bede's legends of Fursaeus and Drythelm to the visions of Tundal, Alberic of Monte Cassino, and the monk Edmund of Eynsham----the long series which (speaking superficially) may be said to culminate in the Divina Commedia. Dante himself knew the Dialogues well. His account of St. Benedict in the sphere of Saturn, and his own vision of the nothingness of the world in his ascent to the Stellar Heaven, were directly suggested by St. Gregory's words.16 From Gregory, too, came his doctrine of the "Mansions of Beatitude," albeit its significance had for him acquired a deeper and intenser note by the passage through the mystical mind of Bonaventura. Echoes of the Dialogues may likewise be discerned in the De Monarchia and in the Letter to Can Grande. The influence of Gregory's earlier work, the Moralia, or Exposition of the Book of Job, is also very marked in many passages of the Divina Commedia.

The translation of the Dialogues, here offered to the reader, was published at Paris in 1608----seventeen years, that is, before the first English version of Boccaccio's Decameron. It was dedicated "to the high and excellent princess Anne: by God's singular providence, Queen of great Britain, France, and Ireland"; that is, to Anne of Denmark, the consort of King James I. The translator claims to be the first thus to present a book to her : "For whereas divers, of divers professions, have directed their works to our most dread Sovereign, |xxvi and one also to our young Prince (your dear son, and the orient object of our country's joy), so none at all, for aught that I can learn, much less that professeth the religion of St. Gregory, hath hitherto presented any book to your Princely person." His "epistle dedicatory" is dated "the first of January, 1608," and signed " Your Majesty's most devoted servant, and daily orator, P.W." This "P. W." has not been identified; the Jesuit father, Henry James Coleridge, who edited his translation, in a somewhat modernised form, in 1874, suggested that he was "an English Catholic, desirous to interest the Queen in favour of the ancient religion." The Dialogues are further introduced by a lengthy preface "to the courteous and virtuous Christian reader," and followed (with an independent title-page) by " A short Relation of divers Miracles wrought at the memories or shrines of certain martyrs, especially St. Stephen, the Protomartyr of Christ's Church," the contents of which are mainly taken from the City of God of St. Augustine and the Life of St. Bernard. The present re-issue of the translation, save for the spelling, follows verbally the edition of 1608. The Latin text cited is that given by Migne (P.L. lxxvii.).

The Dialogues of St. Gregory have exercised a certain influence upon Christian iconography. Spinello Aretino at San Miniato, Luca Signorelli and Giovanni Antonio Bazzi at Mont' Oliveto Maggiore, Fra Filippo Lippi, Neroccio of Siena, Benedetto Bonfigli, and many other Italian masters found subjects ready to their hand in its pages; while the pilgrim to Subiaco and the other sanctuaries of the Roman Campagna, hallowed by the footsteps of these "fathers of the olden time," will still find the words of the great pontiff of the sixth century the most vivid of guides.


August 15, 1911

[Footnotes moved to the end and renumbered]

1. 1 Gregorii I. Registrant, Epist. in. 5 (ed. Ewald and Hartmann, I. p. 206). Cf. Dialog, i. 7, 8, iii. 36. The title "lord" (domnus) is given to an abbot in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict (cap. 63): "Abbas autem, quia vices Christi agere creditur, Domnus et Abbas vocatur."

2. 1 Dialog, iii. 38.           

3. 2 Ibid. iii. 38.           

4. 3 Ibid, iv, 60.

5. 1 Par. x. 124-129. Cieldauro is the church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro (the Golden Roof) at Pavia, where Boethius was buried. 

6. 2 Dialog, iii. 2, iv. 30.

7. 3 Ibid. i. 4.

8. 1 Par. xxii. 46-48, 73-75.

9. 2 Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, vol. iv., p. 411.

10. 1  Moralia, Epistola missoria (to Leander of Seville), cap. i.

11. 2  Homilia I. in Evangelia (Migne, P.L., lxxvi. coll. 1077-1081).

12. 1   De Monarchta, iii. 10.

13. 2  Epist. xi. 29 (Ewald and Hartmann, II. pp. 299-300).

14. 3   Bischofs Waerferth von Worcester Ubenetzung der Dialoge Gregors des Grossen. Ed. Hans Hecht. Leipzig, 1900.

15. 1  Dialog, iv. 36. See Notes.

16. 2  Cf. Par. xxii. 37-45, Dialog, ii. 8; Par. xxii. 133-153, Dialog.ii. 35.

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