Sancta Sunniva

From medieval

Sancta Sunniva (et sancti in Selio) Sunniva was, we are told, a pious and beautiful Irish princess of the mid-tenth century, who fled across the sea with a number of loyal attendants. She landed in pagan Norway where she and her followers met their martyrdom on the island of Selja. Their beneficent bones were said to have been unearthed during the reign of the first Christian king, Olaf Tryggvason, in 996. Her followers thus became known as the men from Selja, and 8 July was subsequently celebrated as their feast, the “Seljumanna messa”. Selja as a place of pilgrimage is first mentioned by Adam of Bremen (ca. 1070, Book IV, schol. 145), who vaguely links it to some of the 11,000 virgins (from the legend of Ursula). Sunniva was translated to Bergen in 1170 and from there her cult spread to a number of places in the Nordic countries during the later Middle Ages (GJERLØW 1970 & HOMMEDAL 1997). A legend (1) and an office (2) has been transmitted.

(1) Legenda


The title varies somewhat in the textual tradition, sometimes mentioning Sunniva, sometimes the sancti in Selio, or both. BORGEHAMMAR (1997a, 284) prints the eclectic title: In festo sancte Suniue uirginis et martyris sociorumque eius.


Vt posteritati sue fidelis reliquit antiquitas...


... cui est honor et gloria in secula seculorum.


5 pages.


Breviarium Scarense, Nürnberg 1498, fol. CCLVII verso. Breviarium Nidrosiense, Paris 1519, fols. OO.V recto-OO.VIII recto (CHECK) Torfæus CHECK Langebek, SRD 3, 3f. & IV, 15-20 (CHECK) STORM 1880, XXXXI-XXXXIV & 145-52. MALINIEMI 1957, 148-51. • BORGEHAMMAR 1997a. (further comments and suggestions on this edition in KRAGGERUD 1997).


(Norwegian, bokmål) SKÅNLAND, V. 1970: “Legenden om de hellige på Selja,” in Bjørgvin Bispestol. Byen og Bispedømmet, ed. P. Juvkam, Bergen, 7-10 (from STORM’s edition). (Norwegian, bokmål) TOSTERUD DANIELSEN, B. 1997: “Legenden om Sunniva,” in RINDAL 1997, Oslo, 270-92 (from BORGEHAMMAR’s edition).

Date and place

The legend ends by stating that Sunniva’s bones were found on Selja in the year 996 and that, after a long time, Bishop Pål (Paulus) of Bergen had the bones transferred to that city in the year 1170. Pål is characterized as venerabilis memorie – he died in 1194. The original text, however, could either have ended with the dating of the event of 996, or, alternatively, the words venerabilis memorie could have been supplied later (cf. STORM 1880, XXXXI-XXXXII & BORGEHAMMAR 1997a, 274). There is general agreement that the legend as we know it must have been composed in Bergen at the time of the translation, i.e. just around 1170. A dating in the 1190s would also create the difficulty that the legend was certainly used by Oddr Snorrasson (>Oddr monachus) in his biography of Olaf Tryggvason, which was composed in Iceland between ca. 1190 and 1200 (cf. below, Medieval reception). The fame of the cult of Sunniva in Bergen is furthermore evidenced by >Historia de profectione Danorum written between ca. 1195 and 1200 (ch. 11, GERTZ, 475): Hec est civitas [Bergensis] … reliquiis sanctarum uirginum adornata (ibi sancta Sunnif toto corpore in ecclesia cathedrali exaltata quiescit), (The town of Bergen is enriched with relics of holy virgins (St. Sunniva rests there, her whole body elevated in the cathedral church)). The use of cursus in the text also points to a twelfth-century date (see Composition and Style below)

Summary of contents

The text is divided into nine lectiones. Sunniva is said to be an Irish king’s daughter, living at the time of Emperor Otto I [i.e. between 936 and 973]; she possessed remarkable piety (1) but her fame and beauty attracted a local chieftain who wanted her at any cost (2). Faced with his carnal desires she saw no other way out than setting out to sea with a band of followers, placing all hope in God’s hands (3). After a first landing in Norway (4) they finally managed to reach the islands of Selja and Kin where they were hunted down by the heathen King Håkon [Jarl, the Wicked, ca. 975-995] (5-6), but anticipated their fate by praying to God to cover them with rocks inside their caves (6). After the death of Håkon, the reign of the first Christian king, Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000), begins. Simultaneously a group of merchants sail past Selja, observe a shaft of light beaming towards the sky, and, finding that it comes from a fragrant human skull (7), bring it to the king (8). He looks into the matter. The miracle is confirmed and more holy bones are found on the island. Olaf decides to build a church at which wonders are worked to this very day. A final paragraph tells of the translation of Sunniva’s body to Bergen in 1170 (see above, Date and Place) (9).

In our transmission there is no record of miracles, but is likely to have existed at Selja before the translation of the body to Bergen (and perhaps extended there). First there is the hint in lectio 9 that signs and wonders happened at the shrine (signa et uirtutes operatur Deus per merita sanctorum suorum us que in presentem diem), secondly the Office (see below) contains a hymn recounting six of Sunniva’s posthumous miracles (cf. BORGEHAMMAR 1997b, 138). This is likely to have been based on an ordinary prose register. Composition and style The Legend is written in disciplined, though at times rather elaborate, twelfth-century Latin idiom. BORGEHAMMAR (1997a, 274-75) has investigated prose rhythm patterns and found a significant preponderance of cursus velox (e.g. lectio secunda: … nephário devastábat), but with a certain use of planus (e.g. lectio prima, regénda suscépit) and tardus (e.g. lectio tertia: … íter arrípuit). This means that our author followed the twelfth-century French and English trend of favouring the velox and was not quite familiar with the late twelfth-century papal fashion of dropping the tardus completely. An example of the writer’s rhetorical art could be taken from lectio secunda, where the heroine ponders her choice between marriage and exile: Illa uero diuino amore succensa, non illecta blanditiis nec minis perterrita, considerans etiam periculum diuitiarum labentium – quod, qui transeuntia amplectitur, eo ipse ad decursum ducitur, quo decurrentibus implicatur– magis elegit exilium quam uiro sacrilego copulari. (But she was kindled by divine love and was not seduced by flattering or frightened by threats. She also contemplated the danger of sliding riches – the fact that those who embrace the fleeting are drawn as much down the slope as they are entangled in things rushing downwards – and chose exile rather than uniting with an impious man.) The contrast between divine and earthly love is stylistically elaborated by parallelism and chiasmus (divino amore succensa, non illecta blanditiis nec minis perterrita), the proverbial insertion achieves a high degree of alliteration, and the period is effectively ended by a cursus velox. In general, biblical and theological expressions are not quoted, but incorporated into the style with ease and moderation (e.g. the opening of lectio secunda). Sources There are no direct references to other texts in the Legend, and apart from obvious biblical allusions no other verbal loans have so far been pointed out. It is reasonable to assume that a precursor of the existing Bergen Legend had existed in Selja at the monastery before 1170; the Legend we possess, then, might be a stylistic rewriting and an updating of the old one (where the monastery would probably have been mentioned) (cf. BORGEHAMMAR 1997b, 140). The motifs and the plot of the Sunniva story bear some striking similarities with both the Ursula- and the Modwenna-legend, both known in tenth- and eleventh-century texts from England, France or Germany (cf. YOUNG 1930-1933, JOHNSEN 1968, REKDAL 1997, BORGEHAMMAR 1997b; for the Modwenna tradition see now THACKER & SHARPE 2002, 402). The motif of a chaste princess entrusting herself to the ocean in pursuit of the pious life was no doubt widespread; the Ursula and Modwenna legends may have inspired the myth of Sunniva, but a clear textual link has not been established. Purpose and audience In the form we know the Legend it is firmly connected to the translation of Sunniva’s body to Bergen in 1170. It must have been written for liturgical purposes there (together with an entire officium, see below), and to confirm the belief of the local audience in her sacred pedigree. A possible earlier written version of the legend, perhaps with a miracle register attached and with more emphasis on the men of Selja and the holy place itself, could have been in place at the monastery in Selja for similar purposes. Medieval reception and transmission Olaf Tryggvason’s key role in the legend soon found its way into historical writing since it was already put to use in Iceland by >Oddr Snorrason in his Latin biography of Olaf Tryggvason (written ca. 1190-1200); it is now known only in an Old Norse translation, but the passage is significantly close to the Latin legend as we know it. The episode was repeated and developed in later Old Norse sagas of Olaf (the relevant texts are conveniently collected and translated into Norwegian in RINDAL 1997, 293-328). It is interesting to note that it did not find its way into the contemporary historiography represented by >Historia Norwegie (ca. 1160-1175), >Theodoricus Monachus (ca. 1180) or Ágrip (ca. 1190), perhaps an indication that the connection with Olaf Tryggvason might have been forged late, perhaps in Bergen around 1170. The spread of the cult of Sunniva in the Nordic countries generated various versions of her office and legend (often abbreviated to suit a lesser degree of celebration), i.e. the two early printed texts from 1498 and 1519 (see above, Editions). In addition, the most complete text, now printed by BORGEHAMMAR 1997a, draws on two manuscripts: Stockholm, Royal Library, A 56 (Sweden, copied by Nicolaus Jacobi Byrkop, ca 1500), fols. 17v-19v. Copenhagen, The Arnamagnæan Collection, AM 670 k in 4° (copied by Arni Magnusson ca. 1700 from a large medieval parchment manuscript, a legendarium without offices of Icelandic provenance, perhaps from the fourteenth century, cf. BORGEHAMMAR 1997a, 271).

(2) Officium

The office for St. Sunniva and the Selja saints is a so-called rhymed office only transmitted as text, without music, in Breviarium Nidrosiense. The contents correspond roughly with the legend, but in addition six antiphons at lauds contain descriptions of miracles by the saints at Selja or in other places, after an invocation of Sunniva. Title The title for the feast is normally the short [Festum] Sanctorum in Selio as in Breviarium Nidrosiense, or the longer version in Ordo Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae: Natalicium sanctorum in Selio quiescentium (but the Nidaros ordo does not include a proper office/historia). The specific title of an office can be given from the incipit of the first antiphon (here Gaude felix Hybernia), or the responsory after the first reading at matins (here Manum virgo). Incipit Gaude felix Hybernia... Explicit ... cessat erroris cecitas. Size Apart from the nocturnal lectiones (see (1) Legenda), this office consists of thirty-five separate chants, divided between antiphons, responsories and hymns. The first vesper has six antiphons along with a responsory and a hymn, matins has ten antiphons and nine responsories, of which one is the responsory from the first vesper. Lauds has seven antiphons and a hymn. Editions STORM 1880, XXXXI-XXXXIV, 147-52 & 283-89. AH vol. 13, no. 90, p. 233 ff. (ed. Dreves et al. 1886-1922). AH vol. 12, nos. 436-37 for the hymns. Translations The nocturnal lessons are translated (see (1) Legenda), but the office chants are not. Date and place The earliest testimony for the office of the Sancti in Selio is the Breviarium Nidrosiense from 1519, but it is believed to be considerably older. No proper office for the Sancti in Selio is mentioned in the Ordo Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae from the first decades of the thirteenth century (ed. GJERLØW 1968), but as the office was probably primarily written for use in Bergen, this may not be conclusive evidence of a later origin. GJERLØW (1970, 119) suggests that the rhymed office may have been written for the translation from Selja to Bergen, 7 September 1170. It is probably not older than 1170, since the account of the translation ends the nocturnal lessons. Sunniva is also called bergensium patrona, which calls for a date at the time of, or after, the translation. There are however some arguments against the translation being the occation for the composition of the office, and pointing towards a date later than 1170. First, the lyrics do not refer to a translation, which would be natural if they were written for this occasion. On the contrary, the first vesper invites us to celebrate the saints’ celestial wedding, i.e. their natalicium (8 July). Second, there is the matter of style. There are three surviving Norwegian offices: the Office for St. Olaf (>Sanctus Olavus, (2) Officium), written some time before 1188, the Office of the Holy Blood (>Officium in susceptione sanguinis domini), presumably from 1165, and finally the Office for St. Sunniva and the saints of Selja. The two offices from the late twelfth century are not rhymed, although a few of the chants appear in verse. This is consistent with the notion that the rhymed offices flourished mainly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the Nordic countries (KLNM 14, “Rimofficium”). It is reasonable to assume that the Sunniva office is a thirteenth-century product. Summary of contents The office recaptures the legend in metrical form, and in addition describes six miracles. The first antiphon at the first vesper invites Ireland to rejoice in the glory of their queen, who gave up her wordly kingdom and put her faith in God’s will as patron saint of Norway (patrona Norvegie). Then Sunniva is called upon to come to our aid and praised as princeps and bergensium patrona. The fifth antiphon states the cause of the celebration: the saints’ spiritual wedding which on this day is celebrated in heaven. The antiphons at matins are relatively general in content, but touch upon certain aspects of the passion, like the “viper’s brood” (viperarum genimina) who hated God’s saints, how the saints were buried under the mountain, and how the head was revealed underneath a stream of light. The responsories are far more specific and tell the story more or less coherently and chronologically, although independently of the lessons. The first responsory tells of Sunniva, who dismissed kingdom, wealth and marriage, and preferred exile to her home town. In the second she and her followers reach Selja, and are tried by cold, heat, thirst and hunger. The third responsory is repeated from the first vespers and is in praise of Sunniva’s firmness and courage. The second nocturn begins with an appeal to Sunniva (this time huius sacri palacii patrona) to come to our aid. The next chants deal with the attacks from the farmers; they thought the saints were “wolves in sheeps’ clothing”. In the seventh responsory King Håkon comes to disturb the flock of virgins (turbare turbam virginum), driven by his desires (libidines), but he is fooled. The saints flee to the mountain, and the virgin and her followers are buried underneath it. Thus Sunniva wins the laurel of victory. The antiphons for lauds present material not transmitted in other sources, namely descriptions of miracles at Selja, six in total. The first is about a boy falling from his mother’s arms over a wall, appearing to be dead. He is given back to his mother by the saints at Selja, alive. In the second antiphon a blind girl recovers her sight after spending the night in Sunniva’s church. A man falling from a tower is saved by the saints, who use a whirlwind to lift him up again. A paralysed woman visits the saints and returns home cured. Sunniva is then called upon in a shipwreck, and in the final description a woman falls from a bridge and asks the saints for help. The final antiphon is in gratitude to God who sent the saints from Ireland, so that our faith could grow and our blindness disappear. Composition and style The office is based on five different metres, of which the iambic metres are predominant. There is only one chant with a purely dactylic metre, namely the invitatorium of the matins (6pp + 6pp). Three antiphons and three responsories have a combination of trochaic and dactylic feet, (4p + 6pp). The rest of the chants are iambic, like the iambic metre of the antiphons of the first vesper (8pp + 8pp + 7p) The two hymns, four antiphons and two responsories use the iambic dimeter (8pp). The patterns of rhyme are also differentiated. For instance the five first antiphons all use the same metre, but have three different patterns of rhyme (aabaab, abcabc, aabccb). The texts of the antiphons seem to relate to each other in a kind of circular pattern. The opening antiphon (first vesper) points to Ireland, as does the last antiphon of the office (at lauds). The cycle of antiphons in matins shows the same circular motion; the opening invitatory finds its response in the last antiphon, with an invitation to rejoice. The next chant connects thematically to the second last chant, regarding plants bearing fruit. The antiphon about the “viper’s brood” is contrasted with the life of the orthodox saints, and that about the saints leaving this earth is contrasted with the discovery of the scull. The central antiphon contains the foundation of the celebration, namely the saints crushed under the mountain but still rejoicing in heaven above it. Sources and literary models The texts for the office are mainly based on the Legend (1), and a lost record of the miracles of Sunniva and the Selja saints. The hymn Eterna Christi munera borrows its incipit (and perhaps melody?) from the hymn in the commune sanctorum for the natalicium plurimorum martyrum (prescribed in the Nidaros ordinal for the feast of the Selja saints). Whether or not there are direct or indirect influences from other rhymed offices is a question that remains uninvestigated. Purpose and audience The contents suggest that the Sunniva office was written for the celebration of the natalicium of Sunniva and the Selja saints, 8 July. The office was probably written primarily for use in Bergen, and later inserted in the official Nidaros rite. (The mention of a breviary for the whole year “after the Bergen rite” (secundum modum bergis) among Aslak Bolt’s books in an inventory of 1429 may indicate a certain degree of independence, for instance, regarding the Sunniva-celebrations, DN 5, 586.) When the office started to be used outside Bergen is not known, since no sources older than the printed Breviarium Nidrosiense are preserved, and the Nidaros ordinal from the early thirteenth century does not mention a proper office for Sunniva and the Selja saints. Medieval reception and transmission The feast, and possibly the office, for Sunniva and the Selja saints probably spread from Bergen throughout the Nidaros see, including Iceland, from the thirteenth century onwards. The saints of Selja were also honoured in Skara with three lessons on 11 July (GJERLØW 1970, 120) and in Åbo with nine lessons (MALINIEMI 1957, 148-51). The cathedral of Uppsala had a relic from the saints of Selja, de sanctis in celio [sic] (DS 3839), but their feast is not included in the liturgy. No manuscript fragments have so far been unearthed, and the office is only transmitted in the printed Breviarium Nidrosiense, Paris 1519, fols. OO.V recto-OO.VIII recto.


  • AH, ed. C. Blume, G. Dreves, H.M. Bannister, 55 vols., Leipzig 1886-1922 (vols. 12 and 13).
  • BING, J. 1924: “Sunnivalegenden,” Historisk Tidsskrift, 5. rekke, 5. CHECK
  • BORGEHAMMAR, S. 1997a: “Den latinska Sunnivalegenden. En edition,” in RINDAL 1997, 270-92.
  • BORGEHAMMAR, S. 1997b: “Sunnivalegenden och den benediktinska reformen i England,” in RINDAL 1997, 123-59.
  • DAAE, L. 1879: Norges Helgener, Christiania. CHECK
  • DAMSGAARD OLSEN, T. 1969: “Sunniva,” Bibliotheca Sanctorum 12, 69-74.
  • DN
  • DS
  • GJERLØW, L., 1968: Ordo Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae, Oslo, 364-65.
  • GJERLØW, L., 1970: “Seljumannamessa,” KLNM 15, 118-21.
  • HOMMEDAL, A.T. 1997: “Dei heilage frå Selja. Vurdering av kulten rundt St. Sunniva og Seljumennene og Selja si rolle som pilegrimsmål i mellomalderen,” in RINDAL 1997, 183-99.
  • JOHNSEN, A. O. 1968: “Når slo Sunniva-kulten igjennom?,” in Bjørgvin Bispestol. Frå Selja til Bjørgvin, ed. P. Juvkam, Bergen, 40-62.
  • KRAGGERUD, E. 1997: “Sunniva rediviva” [review of RINDAL 1997], Klassisk Forum 1997, 2, 116-27.
  • MALINIEMI, A. (ed.) 1957: Zur Kenntnis des Breviarium Aboense. Cod. Holm. A 56, Helsinki.
  • REKDAL, J. E. 1997: “Legenden om Sunniva og Seljemenneskene,” in RINDAL 1997, 102-22.
  • REKDAL, J. E., 1998: “Parallels between the Norwegian Legend of St Sunniva and Irish Voyage Tales,” Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age, ed. H.B. Clarke, M.N. Mhaonaigh, R. Ó. Floinn.
  • RINDAL, M. (ed.) 1997: Selja – heilag stad i 1000 år, Oslo.
  • MUNDAL, E. 1997: “Legender, helgenkult og misjonsstrategi i kristningstida,” in RINDAL 1997, 77-101.
  • SCHMID, T. 1932: “Norska helgon i svenska cistercienserkloster, Smärre liturgiska bidrag III:” NTBB 19.
  • STORM, G. 1880: MHN, Kristiania.
  • THACKER, A. & SHARPE, R. 2002: Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West, Oxford.
  • YOUNG, J. 1930-1933: “Legenden om den hellige Sunniva,” Historisk Tidsskrift, 5. rekke, 8

Lars Boje Mortensen (Legenda) & Åslaug Ommundsen (Officium)