Episode 35: The Last Saints of Gaul
A few quick announcements before we get started. First, I did a 90-minute-long episode with History’s Most about what caused the French Revolution. It is a fascinating conversation wherein we talked about the many possible causes of one of the world’s most important political and social upheavals. So go check it out at History’s Most Podcast.
Second, my debut novel is now officially out! The Maiden Voyage of New York City is a near-future sci-fi epic about New York in a flooded world, through the perspective of six different characters as they navigate the floating metropolis and uncover a dangerous plot that could send the city crashing into the ocean. If that sounds interesting to you check it out on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or whichever site you use to buy your books.
Third, I will be participating in the Intelligent Speech Conference 2020, June 27th. This will be an online conference of top history podcasters, such as the hosts of The History of Ancient Greece Podcast, The History of Byzantium, Wittenberg to Westphalia and many more. Viewers who purchase a $10 virtual ticket will be able to tune in to their favorite podcasters and participate directly in conversations with us. For more information, check out their website. I hope to see you there as it will be a blast. Now, on with the show.
Today’s episode examines the last Gallic saints from the late fourth century into the early sixth century. The proliferation of saints was important as they converted the population to Catholic Christianity. Moreover, after their death these saints gave spiritual power to the churches and abbeys they founded, the relics they left behind, and the bishops who took up their positions. Just as the Romans developed an identity of themselves from the foundational myth of Romulus and Remus these saints’ stories shaped the identity of the people of Gaul and Francia as the Roman Empire collapsed. Thus, these saints served many purposes in life and in death. They provided new foundational myths which their followers used to create identity and community. Their legends provided spiritual authority to localities as pilgrims flocked to their shrines and visited their relics. They also set a precedent for future Catholic leaders.
There are quite a few problems the historian faces when researching saints from this time period. First, these records are almost always written by Christian chroniclers, who had a vested interest in making these people seem, well, saintly. Second, many of these records come from second-hand accounts, relayed through letters that are now lost, though, this isn’t always the case, and in fact most of our knowledge of Avitus of Vienne comes from his own writing.
Third, since the chroniclers were medieval-era Christians they embellished the texts with supernatural stories. Now, I’m not saying these stories aren’t necessarily true, but that we don’t know the exact context these take place in, nor do we know what is metaphorical and what is literal. An example of this would be the story of Saint Denis. As you’ll recall, Saint Denis supposedly had his head cut off, then picked up his own head and preached the gospel for days. It’s possible that the original writer did mean that this literally happened. Or, the writer could have been using a metaphor, that even after his death his words lived on. Often when we read these fantastical stories from medieval chroniclers we interpret them as fairy-tales and nonsense because, well, they aren’t exactly the sort of thing you see in everyday life. Yet, what we must understand is that the Christian chronicles were simultaneously both historians and proselytizers of the Christian faith and thus their work is a blending of both. Thus, when we read these stories we need to keep in mind that we have to read them in multiple ways, which I understand is often confusing because it’s hard to tell which parts are meant to be taken literal and which as metaphorical since they are written in the same style.
One final issue is backdating. There are a number of saints whose only written sources come from centuries later. Some examples of this include Saint Faith of Conques, one of two patron saints of Corsica, who supposedly lived in the third century, but the only surviving written sources came from hundreds of years later. Another example is Saint Taurinus of Évreux who supposedly lived in the 4th century but his story comes from a 10th century chronicle. We’re going to avoid this problem by only looking at saints who were written about by contemporaries. So while these peoples’ stories may have been embellished or altered, all of the following saints probably did exist. So, let me tell you the stories of these last saints of Gaul, before the land became Francia, and at the end we can draw some conclusions. As I hope to convey in this and the next episode, there is no clear distinction between church history and Francia’s social or political history. Power, influence, privilege, class, wealth, education, were simultaneously religious and secular. To understand the history of France we need to know about its beliefs.
Our first of six saints is Germanus of Auxerre. He was born in what is today Auxerre in 378 to one of the most powerful Gallo-Roman families. He was educated in Arelate and Lugdunum before moving to Rome to study law. After practicing for a few years he was sent by Emperor Theodosius I to Gaul to rule as one of six dukes, exercising secular and religious power. On the 7th of July, 418 he became the bishop of Auxerre. Since he was a bishop, a wealthy man and had political power, Germanus was one of the most powerful people in Gaul, yet he used his power for the common good, founding a monastery and administering welfare to the poor. It is possible that these acts weren’t entirely done out of the goodness of his heart, but as part of a long practice of Roman-style patronage, in which a wealthy noble sponsors building projects and cares for the poor in exchange for popular support.
In 429 word reached Germanus that the British church was a haven for Pelagianism. This theological teaching from British monk Pelagius, taught that the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, didn’t taint all humankind, and thus people were still able to be sinless. This went against the official Catholic Church’s teaching that all had sin and had to be redeemed through Christ, and Pelagius and his followers were condemned heretics. Upon the Pope’s bidding, Germanus left for Britain to confront these heretics. Catholic doctrine holds that along the way he stopped at Nanterre and told a young girl to live her life as Christ would, and this girl eventually grew up to become Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, who we will cover later. So, just like with the Marvel movies, Catholic canon has some crossover episodes.
Germanus arrived in Britain and debated a Pelagian scholar and defeated him in a debate. According to Catholic canon he won the debate because God was on his side, though I don’t think it is particularly blasphemous for me to point out that he had a world-class education in Rome which probably helped. St. Germanus’ interactions with the Pelagians provide a window into the early history of Catholicism. Often the official Catholic Church couldn’t address the concerns of every Christian community, particularly those on the fringes of the empire. This naturally led to breakaway sects. Yet, since Catholic leaders were urban-based, wealthy and educated the Catholic Church did have a few advantages. It could afford to send highly-educated, brilliant speakers like Germanus to areas to counter heretical denominations. Moreover, as long as the Roman Empire’s authority held, it could use the legal system to persecute heretics. The fall of Roman authority in Gaul suspended this, though the eventual conversion of the Franks to Catholicism brought with it a new era of persecutions against Arians and other religious minorities.
The records claim that after defeating the Pelagians in spiritual combat, Germanus led local Britons to victory over raiding Saxons. During the tumultuous collapse of the Western Roman Empire priests were the secular leaders of cities and were responsible for their defense. Well into the medieval period priests commanded armies against raiders, sometimes personally leading troops into combat.
Germanus went to Ravenna in the late 430s or 440s to appeal to the emperor for leniency for the Armoricans, when he died. Germanus lived a remarkable life, which highlights many of the intricacies of the changing Western Roman world. As a member of a wealthy Roman family he was well-educated and able to travel across the empire. As a bureaucrat he maintained Roman secular power and Catholic religious dominance, which were intertwined during this period. As a Gallo-Roman he maintained intricate ties to the British Isles. This needs to be emphasized because the Celtic legacy, and the familial and cultural ties between the Gauls, Britons and Irish remained, even if it was fading due to Germanic invasions. Germanus of Auxerre was more connected to the British Isles than virtually any other Gallic saint as he was supposedly Saint Patrick’s mentor and Saint Palladius’ colleague. Before becoming the world-famous Saint Patrick, Patricus of Ireland studied at the Abbey Lérins, off the southern coast, and was ordained by Germanus. Saint Palladius, who eventually became the first bishop of Ireland, asked the Pope to send Germanus to Britannia to contest the Pelagians. Both of these stories have been questioned by historians who think it’s probably a stretch that Germanus influenced Saints Patrick, Genevieve and Palladius. It’s certainly possible that early Catholic chroniclers conflated multiple characters into one in order to emphasize their importance and simplify their stories. Regardless of which specific people he was in contact with, Germanus’ life shows the intense interconnection across the Celtic world, as these saints crisscrossed the Channel spreading the Gospel.
Saint Germanus’ remains rest at the Abbaye Saint-Germain in Auxerre. His cult spread across northern France, and today there is a church dedicated to him near the Louvre in Paris, Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois. This is not to be confused with St. Germain de Pres, which is named after another saint who we will get to later on in this episode.
Our next saint is Saint Eucherius, Bishop of Lugdunum. Eucherius is a fascinating figure because his life exemplifies how church leaders created a mobile intelligentsia at a time when travel and learning were declining for most people. Eucherius was born to a rich and powerful Gallo-Roman family, probably based around Lugdunum. He received a proper Roman education while learning orthodox Christian theology. Around 390 his wife passed away and in grief he retreated to Abbey Lérins. It is unknown if Saint Patrick was there at the time, though it is likely the two bumped into each other. One famous person he did meet was the Eastern ascetic John Cassian. Cassian was born in 360 around modern-day Romania, then within the Roman Empire. In his early twenties he travelled to the Holy Land and developed a mystical desert theology that promoted self-denial. From there he spread his teachings across the Roman world, eventually dying in Massillia. His relics remain there, at the Abbaye Saint-Victor in modern-day Marseille. Eucherius met Cassian in Massillia and the two discussed asceticism.
Eucherius dreamed of travelling east to become a desert hermit, but he remained in Gaul either because he wanted to stay in touch with his sons, or because he became an important literary figure. Eucherius kept in regular contact with some of the most important priests and chroniclers of his time, including Hilary of Arles, Honoratus, Claudianus Mamertus, Agroecius and Sidonius Apollinaris just to name a few. His works became famous and he was elevated to Bishop of Lugdunum in the mid-430s. When he died his eldest son replaced him, and his younger son became Bishop of Geneva. This wasn’t uncommon as powerful families often passed religious offices to their children in order to maintain their wealth and power, much like noble titles. It was only much later that the Catholic Church cracked down on this practice in their fight against corruption.
I already mentioned our next saint before, but it’s time to talk about Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. Unlike our last two saints, Genevieve wasn’t from a wealthy or powerful family. She was born around 420 in Nemetodorum, modern-day Nanterre, to a Gallo-Roman father and a Greek mother. Since Greek missionaries originally brought Christianity to Gaul it is likely that her mother was part of a proselytizing group. According to legend, Saint Germanus passed through her hometown, and the devout young girl asked him how to live, to which he responded ‘by following Jesus’ example.’ At fifteen she became a nun, though when her parents died she travelled to nearby Lutetia to live with her godmother. There she became a regular fixture of religious life due to her fasting and prayer marathons.
Genevieve developed a popular following and an unintentional rivalry with the established bishopric. The church hierarchy claimed a monopoly on spiritual authority because they feared that uneducated cranks would develop heretical sects and lead people astray. In contrast, many common folk followed hermits, holy men and women and other unofficial spiritual leaders because they believed that the established church was corrupt, distant and cared more about earthly power than spiritual enlightenment. Genevieve never set out to become an enemy of the Catholic Church, but the Bishop of Lutetia feared the competition from her ability to inspire the masses.
Relations deteriorated between Genevieve and the Bishop when she told people about her visions. Her frequent communication with God led to a plot to drown her. But Genevieve was spared when Saint Germanus advised the Bishop to put her in charge of the local consecrated women. Saint Germanus understood that the best way to deal with spiritual outsiders is to bring them into the church hierarchy where they could be guided and watched.
Genevieve’s first miracle occurred in 451 during Attila’s invasion of Gaul. As the Huns marched west, Genevieve led the city in prayer for deliverance. God answered their prayers and the Huns proceeded to Orléans, which I assume wasn’t praying as hard. In 464 Childeric I attacked Lutetia and Genevieve again saved the city, first by smuggling grain inside, then by meeting with Childeric I and convincing him to be merciful.
Genevieve died in the early 6th century, though her story doesn’t end there. When Clovis I conquered Gaul he wanted to ingratiate the people towards Frankish rule. His wife Clotilde was an admirer of Genevieve, and encouraged her husband to sponsor an abbey for her in Lutetia to house her relics. Clotilde was the first of many Frankish noble women who sponsored ecclesiastical projects as a means of exerting influence at a time when, under Salic law, women had virtually no political power. Saint Genevieve was able to contest secular power by developing a popular religious following, and many future devout Frankish women did the same either through their own actions or their proximity to saints.
Finally, it’s worth noting how the importance of cities and regions impact a saint’s following. As Lutetia, soon Paris, grew in importance so did her cult. News of miracles spread across Francia and people flocked to her shrine to be healed or receive divine wisdom.
If I can go on a slight tangent, I know this happened much later, but I think you’d be interested to know Saint Genevieve’s impact on Paris before we move on. By the 18th century Genevieve’s abbey was in poor shape and King Louis XV decided to enhance his own prestige by building a spectacular new church in her honor. But before it could be dedicated, the Church of Saint Genevieve was seized by the French Revolutionary government in 1791, renamed the Panthéon, and converted into a mausoleum for famous French men and women. Throughout the 19th century the building went back and forth between a secular and a religious institution as conservatives and liberals used it as a symbol until the secularists finally won. From her earliest days walking the streets of Lutetia and preaching to the poor, to 1,300 years later, politicians and religious figures used or opposed Genevieve to further their standing among the people of Paris.
Our next saint is Avitus of Vienne. Born in 450 to a noble Gallo-Roman family, Avitus inherited the position of Bishop of Vienne from his father, while his younger brother Apollinaris, became Bishop of Valence. By the end of the 5th century Vienne was controlled by the Burgundians. Avitus and King Gundobad decided they could benefit each other, as Avitus recognized the Burgundians as the legitimate authority while the Burgundians allowed him to convert them to Catholicism.
Avitus is mostly known for the letters he wrote, many of which were poems covering Biblical topics. His letters are important historical artifacts that convey courtly and spiritual life in the early 6th century. Moreover, Avitus is an important saint because he was one of many spiritual leaders who established a continuity from Rome to the barbarian kingdoms through the use of Christianity. The barbarians often brought religious leaders into their governments because of their high level of education and their popular support. Thus, the church was a means by which the Gallo-Roman nobility could maintain a level of wealth and power in a political world dominated by Germans. Finally, most lasting written works were by priests like Avitus. These works recount his life experiences and reshaped the world around him as future readers absorbed his religiously-inspired perspective.
Our fifth saint is the Apostle to the Franks, Saint Remigius. Remigius was born into a noble Gallo-Roman family in northern Gaul sometime in the mid-5th century. His father was a count, and his mother was the daughter of the Bishop of Soissons. He was educated in the classical Roman fashion and at the age of 21 became the bishop of Reims. For the next few decades Remigius provided an island of stability in a sea of chaos, as Western Rome collapsed and the Franks conquered the nearby environs. As Roman central authority disappeared, Remigius exercised political and religious functions, as both Bishop and leader of his city. When Clovis I came to power he saw that Remigius could be his ally and the Frankish king allowed the bishop to exercise a degree of autonomy and even sponsored some of his church-building projects.
These two had a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship, which was probably encouraged by Clovis I’s wife Clotilde. In 496, Clovis I decided to convert himself and his people to Catholicism to appeal to the Gallo-Romans. Remigius agreed to baptize Clovis I and 3,000 of his men at an abbey in Reims. It is possible that Clovis I became a genuine believer, though the ceremony was clearly a means for Clovis I to acquire spiritual power and recognition from the Catholic Church and the powerful Byzantine Empire. Remigius’ willingness to go along with Clovis I’s plan meant he acquired more power and patronage amongst the Franks while converting them from paganism and Arianism to Catholicism.
In hindsight, Remigius epitomizes the dichotomy between Germanic political authority and Gallo-Roman spiritual authority. Remigius witnessed the collapse of the Seven Provinces of Gaul and the Domain of Soissons as the Frankish Kingdom swallowed them both. Yet, Remigius and nearly all the bishops across Francia were from Gallo-Roman aristocratic families. Thus, even as Roman politics, law and culture diminished, this last vestige of Rome grew and maintained a distinct culture of learning, spiritual development and community organization. Remigius was one of the last great Gallo-Roman saints since the Frankish nobility intermarried with the Gauls and produced new generations of Frankish saints. But for the tumultuous 4th and 5th centuries Gallo-Roman spiritual authority blossomed even as their political power collapsed.
Our sixth saint and final is Saint Germain de Paris. Germain was born in 496 in Autun to, you guessed it, an aristocratic Gallo-Roman family, where he received a classical Roman education. He became a priest, then an abbot and was known for his concern for the poor and his opposition to conflict. Very little recorded information remains, but it is possible that he was scarred as a child due to the violent Frankish conquest of Burgundia. Having grown up amidst the devastation of war, he devoted his life to peace and charity. His noble reputation spread and in 555 Childebert I, the third son of Clovis I, made him the Bishop of Paris. While there he supported almshouses and encouraged the priesthood to live modestly.
As we shall see in future episodes, Merovingian kings had a habit of dividing Francia between their sons. From 561-567 Paris was ruled by Charibert I who infuriated Germain because he practiced polygamy. Charibert I had four wives, two of which were his sisters. When Charibert I died in 568 Germain excommunicated him, in what was possibly the very first excommunication of a Frankish king. Even though Germain waited until after Charibert I’s death, this act showed the boldness and power of the Catholic Church. Charibert I’s remains were buried without ceremony near a hillside fort, displaying to all the symbolic power that bishops held.
Germain spent the next 8 years of his life negotiating peace between the warring Merovingian siblings, using his position and reputation as an intermediary. Germain set a powerful precedent for medieval Catholic priests as he excommunicated a king, served as a peacemaker, led a major city and administered welfare to the poor. And, in case you are wondering, the abbey Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the district in Paris by the same name, are named in his honor, as opposed to the Saint Germain by the Louvre, which is dedicated to Germanus of Auxerre.
These six saints were part of a country-wide process as the Catholic Church inherited and maintained the legacy of the Roman Empire, while adding a new Christian element to it. The church became a vessel of Gallo-Roman culture and bureaucracy even as Germanic peoples conquered the West. Moreover, the church was remarkably flexible, and it managed to draw on old Celtic linkages across the Channel and create new ones between Germanic tribes. The Gallo-Roman church was primarily concerned with maintaining power and integrating into the Frankish system. Yet, Saint Germain’s excommunication of Charibert I showed that the church was growing bolder and could even challenge weak kings. In the next few centuries of chaotic Merovingian rule, the church will create a measure of stability and order.
History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours
New Advent, (The Catholic Encyclopedia)