Martyrdom: Red, White, and Blue

Recently Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh made the following statement:

“My prayer for us who have gathered here is that…we will be such a threat to the present order that we will be found worth killing, if only Columba’s white martyrdom, but, if it be so, let it be the red martyrdom,” Duncan said, contrasting the “martyrdom” of asceticism with that of death. Episcopal Life, 28 Sept 2007

So what he is referring to is a Irish homily that provides for three types of martyrdom, not that any necessarily fit the current situation.

From the Cambrai homily, 7-8th century (contemporary with Bede):

“There is not…the holy Apostle has said from his great love; everyone’s sickness was his own, everyone’s offense was his own, everyone’s weakness was his own. In these wise words of the wise man we see that fellow-suffering is a kind of Cross. Now there are three kinds of martyrdom that are counted as a cross to us, namely, white, blue and red martyrdom.

[It is white martyrdom for a man when he separates from everything that he loves for God, although he does not endure fasting and labor thereby. (1)]

The blue martyrdom is when through fasting and hard work they control their desires or struggle in penance and repentance.

The red martyrdom is when they endure a cross or destruction for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles when they were persecuted the wicked and taught the law of God.

These three kinds of martyrdom take place in those people who repent well [blue], who control their desires [white], and who shed their blood [red] in fasting and labor for Christ’s sake.” (Celtic Spirituality, ed. by O. Davis, T. O’Loughlin, Paulist Press, 1999, p. 370)

A few comments on these forms of martyrdom. First they are not a major theme in Irish literature. They occur in only two sermons and are not mentioned in hagiography. In other words, no hagiographer (ie. religious biographer) claimed that his favorite saint was a white or blue martyr. Specifically, Adomnan never calls Columba a white martyr or any other type of martyr.

Stress on the three types of martyrdom and identification of Columba as one is a completely modern phenomenon, as far as I know. If there is an early example of white martyrdom in the early literature, the best I can think of is Bede’s description of Egbert of Iona, who takes on a rigorous ascetic regime and voluntary exile from home in thanksgiving for surviving the plague of 664. Note that this was undertaken as a personal thanksgiving, he was not excommunicated or forced from his homeland and Bede doesn’t call him a white martyr. We really have no idea why Columba left Ireland. Adomnan briefly mentions a temporary excommunication that I have previously discussed (here and here), but Adomnan does not link this to Columba’s relocation to Scotland. Adomnan does claim that Columba did return to Ireland several times after his establishment of Iona and he was in communion with other Irish churches.

I should also point out that the Celts, both Welsh and Irish, had a fondness for groupings in threes. Their triads as memory aids are well known. (We can even see some triads embedded in Bede’s History.) So, it doesn’t seem unusual at all that they would develop the concept of three types of martyrdom, another type of triad.

After reading these descriptions I will leave it to you to decide if you think the bishops meeting in Pittsburgh last week meet these criteria.


Translation notes:

(1) Section in brackets is an amended translation by Proinseas Ni Chathain (Celtica 1990, 21:417) that makes sense. If white martyrdom’s included fasting and labor, then it wouldn’t be sufficiently different than a blue martyrdom.

You may have heard of green martyrdoms… the Irish word glas is best translate as blue, as both Davis (1999) and NiChathain (1990) translate it. I suspect the urge to call this type of martyrdom ‘green’ is related to the reputed eco-friendliness of the Celtic saints. Yet, when I visited Lindisfarne a few years ago, it was the blue of the sea and sky that nearly overwhelmed me.


9 thoughts on “Martyrdom: Red, White, and Blue

  1. Thanks for the point to the source! I took a footnote out of the diss when discussing martyrdom because I couldn’t find a period source for this, just a passing modern reference to “green” which I viewed with suspicion for the reason you mention.

    Aelfric only makes two distinctions (white & red though he doesn’t refer to the colors) when he lines out the saints in LS 16.

    Helpful insight on Lindisfarne for the hopelessly untraveled like myself…

  2. Hmmm. Well, maybe Aelfric talks of the blue. As your note mentions the distinction between the two is really unclear and I’m used to thinking in Roman liturgical colors anyway… (Red for martyrs, white for confessors—although these are of relatively recent derivation)

  3. I get red for martyrs who shed blood, white for purity, but I’m not sure about where blue comes from. The only thing I can think of is the Blues, and a penitent should be sorrowful. I suspect that links between the color blue and sorrow or depression is too recent to apply to the 7-8th century.

    Does Aelfric ever talk about actual colors?

  4. Aelfric doesn’t talk about colors and I’ve never found references to liturgical colors in England before the beginning of the 13th century.

    It’s a matter for debate if specific colors weren’t used or if they were assumed. I doubt the latter—most liturgy nuts (myself included) are careful about listing *everything* they think ought to be happening…

    The more common medieval use from what we see in the later sources is that the festivals were the times for the “best” vestments whatever their color.

  5. I suspect you are right about the vestments. Only major monasteries and bishops could afford to have multiple sets of vestments for different feasts. Bede does refer to scarlet colored dye made from whelks that produces a red that never fades in sunlight or rain, “indeed the older it is the more beautiful it becomes” (HE I:1). Sounds like he was very familiar with red dyes. We also know they made purple (Wilfrid’s gospel book pages were stained purple and Oswald had a purple and gold banner). I wonder if a color-fast blue is the rarer color.

  6. Several years on from earlier comments, but I was looking for different forms of martyrdom! I am a minister living in the west of Scotland, who has also lived in Wales. In both Gaelic and Welsh ‘glas’ means green. Glasgow comes from the Gaelic ‘Glaschu’ meaning ‘dear, green place’

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