Hagiography and the Experience of the Holy in the Work of Gregory of Tours

Hagiography and the Experience of the Holy in the Work of Gregory of Tours

Hagiography and the Experience of the Holy in the Work of Gregory of Tours

John H. Corbett

Florilegium: Volume 7 (1985): 40-54


The rich literature associated with the Desert Fathers provides convincing evidence of the important role played by charismatic figures in the transformation of Late Antiquity.’*’ In the West the Life of St Martin by Sulpicius Severus and, even more explicitly, his Dialogues (Concerning St Martin) demonstrate how quickly and completely this charismatic style infected the Latin-speaking western Empire, hardly a century after it had come to attract widespread attention in the East. Several studies by Peter Brown have done much to clarify the social processes attested to in this literature, the rise of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, and his function as a “village patron.” These great “friends of God” served as the centres around which the new Christian social order accreted, to a revival of the urban life of pagan antiquity but in the West to a new social order — essentially the social order of mediaeval Christendom — organized around the cult of the saints, now carefully regulated by an episcopal elite largely drawn from the old Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

For our knowledge of these processes in later Roman Gaul, we owe a special debt to the literature associated with St Martin, to the writing of Sulpicius Severus which gives us insight into the crucial formative period of this cult (ca. A.D. 400), and to the work of Gregory of Tours which presents to us a broad canvas depicting most aspects of life in the sixth-century Regnum Francorum — not least the cult of St Martin. It should be emphasized here that this picture of Martin, in my opinion, accurately represents the social reality of his cult — however much Martin owes to his two inspired propagandists. In fact, attention to the detail which Gregory reports in his four books about St Martin suggests that Brown’s central thesis concerning the social function of the saint as patron can be substantiated much more completely. Both the language of the participants in the cult of Martin (technical vocabulary of Roman patrocinium) and, even more significantly, their behaviour, as described by Gregory, belong to a ritual of appeal to the saint, modelled on appeals to secular patrons, in which the circumstances and manner of the appeal, as well as its outcome, are prescribed by custom. More important than the miraculous element in the stories of healing, exorcism, and helping which Gregory reports are what we might call the social, or even political, elements: striking features of Gregory’s account are the weakness of the appellants, their need for a strong patron, and the role of the saint in satisfying that need, often through the bishop who was his formal representative in this world.

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