Today is the commemoration of Saint Alban, one of the early British Saints whose name appears in the calendar of the 2019 Prayer Book. His death date is listed as “c. 250” – the c. is for circa, Latin for “approximately”. In this particular case, this approximation is more of an average… dates given for his death in early sources have discrepancies ranging from 209 to 304. Also, if you’re curious about the word “protomartyr,” it means “first martyr”, or more technically, first recorded martyr.
You can read his abridged hagiography on Wikipedia if you like; two of our major sources on his story are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and The Ecclesiastical History by St. Bede – both are major source of information for Christianity in Britain in the first millennium A.D. In short, Alban was a Briton who harbored a Christian priest hiding from state persecution. Alban came to respect the priest’s faith and holiness and converted to Christ also. When soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on the priest’s garments and offered himself in the priest’s place. His self-sacrificial subterfuge was soon found out, but he was tortured and eventually executed instead of the priest anyway. On the way to his execution a river was miraculously dried up so the execution party could avoid a crowded bridge and a spring appeared to quench his thirst, both incidents heavily reflecting stories of Moses and Jesus.
The tricky thing about hagiographies, of course, is that this is a very stylized way of writing which only gets more elaborate over the course of history. And even if the religious content was not an issue, there is also the simple reality that we don’t have a lot of original information from this many centuries past. It may be that these miracle tales are historically accurate, but it’s also very likely that these stories have been told and retold in particular ways and with particular embellishments to teach the hearers something apart from the actual history of these Saints. I would suspect, for example, that the crossing of the river on dry ground and the appearance of the water-spring are additions to the “real” history of Saint Alban, added not make Alban look super-special nor to trick posterity into believing a lie, but to illustrate the virtue of Alban’s faith by adding biblical allusions to the crucifixion of Christ and the Exodus led by Moses.
You who read this probably already know: I love history. I even wrote a short article entitled Why History Matters a few years ago. You might be puzzled, then, why I’m so positive about sharing a hagiography that even I admit is probably not strictly historically accurate? The answer is this: we learn from hagiographies in much the same way we learn from history. These old writings bring us into worlds that are different from our own, where people think differently and conceive of similar ideas in dissimilar ways. How we understand and relate to history is very different from how they understood and related to history before them.
So as we go through Saint Alban’s Day, I encourage you to give thought to the witness of those who would die for the faith, for the name of Christ. Regardless of what historically happened on his way to his execution, his example of truly committed faith is instructive and inspiring. And, I daresay for most of us comfy Americans, a healthy humbling shock.
As we remember martyrs according to our Prayer Book (from page 637),
Almighty God, you gave your servant Alban boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.