He Chose to Die for Christ: Saint Eulogius

Often buried within the international section of American national newspapers may be found accounts of Muslim vandalism against Christian churches, so say nothing of Muslim attacks on the Christians of the Middle East. Just last week a Muslim mob badly damaged a Coptic Christian church outside Cairo; local police merely watched. No prosecution of this crime may be expected. Such outrages belie the multicultural myth of a tolerant Islam. That myth is also often used to characterize medieval Spain, most of which Muslims ruled after 711 AD. Scholars often use the word conviviencia to refer to the common life of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain. The reality, however, was often harsher than conviviencia might suggest. An underlying tension between the three groups was ever-present, and both Jews and Christians suffered under the Umayyad caliphs of Córdoba. The reports of Christian suffering in today’s news are echoes of medieval Spain.

The priest St. Eulogius, whose feast day is March 11, descended from an ancient Spanish aristocratic family; indeed, his ancestors owned large estates in the days of the Roman emperors. He was probably born shortly before 819 near Córdoba. As a boy, Eulogius showed intellectual promise. The monks of the monastery of St. Zoilus educated him in the Christian and Greco-Roman classics. Bishop Recared of Córdoba ordained Eulogius a priest. He quickly emerged as a leader among Mozarabic Christians.

Eulogius at CordobaAround 850, the Muslim Umayyad caliph, for reasons that remain obscure, initiated a persecution of Christians within his realm. Muslim law (sharia) relegated Christians to subservient status. While Muslims enjoyed the freedom to worship and to make converts, Christians who evangelized Muslims or made disparaging remarks about Muhammad could be executed, as is also the case for Christians who reside in Muslim-majority countries today. The earliest convert from Islam to be murdered for the Christian faith was the Syrian Cyrus of Harran (died in 770). Cyrus was raised Christian, converted to Islam, and then reconverted to Christianity, for which he was put to death. Muslims martyred the Christians of medieval Spain for these same reasons. Scholars debate whether Spanish Christians ever publicly denounced either Islam or Muhammad so as to seek out persecution from the authorities.

Whether in western Europe or the Middle East, issues that preoccupied Muslims often also influenced Christians who lived under Islamic rule. Spanish Christian writers worried that Christians’ immersion in Islamic culture would mean the obliteration of Catholicism in Spain. Eulogius’s biographer, Paulus Alvarus, once lamented: “My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Muslim theologians and philosophers not in order to refute them, but to acquire correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the prophets, and Apostles? Alas, the young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic…. The pity of it! Christians have forgotten their own tongue, and scarce one in a thousand can be found to be able to compose in fair Latin to a friend.”

 

Christian ideas about martyrdom differed from Muslim notions. Since the days of the Romans, Christians had been counseled to stay in hiding when the authorities began persecutions. In a very early account, St. Polycarp would probably have avoided martyrdom had not a renegade Christian betrayed him, so well-hidden was the octagenarian bishop. On the other hand, the Muslim tradition of the martyr (shawhid) could mean a seeking out of death for the faith, like the warriors in holy war (jihad) or the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center in New York City or the suicide bombers of Israeli buses. Spanish Christians seem to have adopted something of this tradition. In fact, Bishop Recared collaborated with the persecutors. Remarks in Eulogius’s Exhortation to Martyrdom indicate that some Christians publicly challenged Islam. These Christians earned Recared’s anger; he probably preferred that they quietly submit to their subservience under sharia. Eulogius encouraged his fellow prisoners to remain faithful to Christianity. He addressed his Exhortation to Martyrdom to two young women he knew in prison. They were threatened with sexual slavery unless they renounced the faith: “Cowardly Christians will tell you in order to shake your constancy that the churches are silent, deserted and deprived of the sacrifice on account of your obstinacy: that if you will but yield temporarily you will regain the free exercise of your religion. But be persuaded that, for you, the sacrifice most pleasing to God is contrition of heart, and that you can no longer draw back or renounce the truth you have confessed.” The girls, named Flora and Mary, were in fact spared violation, and instead were beheaded by the sword. Six days later, the Umayyad authorities released Eulogius and his fellow prisoners from captivity.

In 852, another persecution of Christians began and the council of Córdoba prohibited Christians to provoke arrest. A controversy ensued, wherein Christians debated whether or not those slain by the Muslims were true martyrs, since they had attracted the attention of the Islamic authorities. Eulogius argued that they were indeed true martyrs; Eulogius himself had denounced Muhammad publicly.

In 859, the clergy and people of Toledo elected Eulogius bishop; he was never installed in that see. His past made him objectionable to the caliph, who monitored episcopal elections. The caliph’s officials knew not only that Eulogius had earlier advised imprisoned Christians, but that he had also hidden a young girl named Leocritia, who had converted to Christianity from Islam. Like many Muslim girls who are abused today for having non-Muslim friends, Leocritia’s parents beat her cruelly to compel her to return to the Muslim religion. She sought the protection of Eulogius, who gave her sanctuary among his friends and family. She was found out, however, and all those who had helped her were brought before the qadi, or judge. When he appeared in court Eulogius denounced Muhammad as a false prophet. He was told that he could recant, save his life, and then resume his position as a leader among the Christians. Eulogius refused; he chose to die for Christ and was soon after beheaded.

Between 850 and 859 officials of the Umayyad caliphs of Spain put to death forty-eight Christians. Their deaths inspired the warriors of the Reconquista, the long Christian military campaign to expel Muslim rule from the Spanish peninsula, which was at last brought to completion in 1492 with the fall of the small Muslim emirate of Granada.

Robert Shaffern

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Robert W. Shaffern is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Scranton and the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.

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