Saint Germanus (or Germain) of Auxerre lived in one of the most chaotic times in Roman history, under the reigns of some of the most incompetent Roman Emperors that ever existed. His life, as a Roman government official and then as a bishop, was notable and influential enough to ensure him a place in the history books, yet Germanus’ biographers and commentators also recorded the numerous miracles that were attributed to the saint. In this account, the miracles will be left in the narrative, so that readers can decide for themselves how much or how little credence to give the miraculous events reported to have occurred during St. Germanus’ life.
Germanus was born around 378 in Roman Gaul (France) into a prominent and affluent family. He grew up to study law, and is thought to have become a lawyer before being recruited into government by the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Flavius Honorius (r. 393-423).
The emperor appointed Germanus to the position of provincial governor in Armorica, Gaul. When he was not governing, Germanus was said to have avidly enjoyed hunting. One of the earlier stories about his life concerned him hanging hunting trophies in a tree that was associated with paganism. As the story goes, Bishop Amator (the bishop of Auxerre, at that time) was shocked by Germanus’ use of the tree, thinking it would inspire a recurrence of paganism. When Germanus was away, Amator had the tree cut down and burned, along with the hunting trophies.
During his days as a governor, hunting must have been a welcome escape for Germanus, for the Western Roman Empire was being clawed apart by multiple threats. In the first decade of the 5th century, the Western Empire was brought to its knees in a series of massive invasions. Armies of Goths, Vandals, Suebi and Alans were pushed into Roman territory by the approaching forces of the Huns. To cap off the terrible decade, King Alaric of the Visigoths gutted the symbolic heart of the empire in 410, by sacking the city of Rome.
Germanus’s life took a major turn in 418, when he was chosen (supposedly against his will) to become the successor of Bishop Amator of Auxerre. Suddenly finding himself a bishop, Germanus apparently underwent a drastic change of character. The governor, who had enjoyed collecting hunting trophies, now transformed into the embodiment of an ascetic saint.
As the new bishop, Germanus went about seeing to his religious flock and setting up monastic communities, but he was soon given a mission by the highest Catholic authority—the Pope. Germanus was tasked by Pope Celestine I to rid Britain of the Pelagian heresy, a Christian sect that professed the good nature of mankind and renounced the idea of original sin. In 429, Germanus and Bishop Lupus of Troyes crossed into Britain, where they successfully debated against prominent Pelagians and returned the heretics to the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. After a resurgence of the heresy, the saint had to return, once more, to Britain around 447, this time with Severus of Trèves as his partner on the mission.
Germanus’ time in Britain is one of the more interesting periods in the saint’s life. According to the accounts of Germanus’ travels given by Constantius of Lyon (c. 5th century) and Venerable Bede (c. 673-735), the saint apparently performed numerous miracles in between his debates with the Pelagians.
Right from the start, while Germanus crossed the English Channel in 429, he was already performing miracles. In a Jesus-like story, Germanus was sleeping on his ship while the crew sailed for England. The devil, according to the tale, did not want Germanus to reach Britain, so he conjured a storm to kill or hinder the saint. The crew members on the ship were terrified by the horrible storm and feared for their lives, so they unanimously decided to wake Germanus from his slumber, thinking only he could lead them to safety. Upon being awakened, Germanus calmly went to the deck of the ship and began praying. Hearing the saint’s prayers, God caused holy water to fall on the diabolical storm, causing the tempest to disperse.
The miracles continued when Germanus disembarked on British soil. According to another story recorded in the early Middle Ages, a man with the political position of tribune in Britain came to Germanus and asked for the saint to heal his blind ten-year-old daughter. Germanus followed the tribune back to his home, bringing only a small container to aid him in the healing. When he reached the girl, the saint took an unnamed relic from his container, and, passing it in front of her blinded eyes, restored the girl’s sight.
In another tale, Germanus broke his leg shortly after visiting the tomb of St. Alban. He found shelter in a house by some cottages, where he rested, hoping his leg would make a speedy recovery. Yet, all did not go as planned. The nearby cottages burst into flames and the fire began to spread toward the house where the saint was bedridden. Germanus’ companions rushed into the home to save the bishop, but the saint refused, saying he would be protected from the flames. To everyone’s amazement, the growing inferno never spread to the saint’s lodging, even though all the buildings around it had caught fire. This interesting tale of miracles apparently ended when a “being in shining robes” appeared to heal Germanus’ wounds (Bede, Ecclesiastical Histories, chapter 19).
Germanus also may have led a force of Christian Britons against an invading coalition of Saxons and Picts. According to the story, the saint achieved a bloodless victory by leading his men out to meet the enemy. When his troops were positioned, Germanus prepared his men for a battle cry. Three times, the Christians bellowed “Alleluia” as loud as they could. Germanus’ forces must have been loud, for the Saxons and Picts supposedly fled, thinking that the earth was breaking apart. Though the battle, itself was bloodless, Bede claimed that many of the fleeing invaders later died while trying to cross a river.
During his second trip to Britain, in 447, Germanus was said to have performed another miracle healing. This time, a chieftain named Elaphius brought his whole community to see the saint. Yet, the chief’s main goal was to have the bishop heal his diseased son. Elphius’ youthful son had a peculiar disease that severely constricted the muscles of his leg—a condition both painful and debilitating. St. Germanus did, indeed, see the boy. As the story goes, by simply waving his hand over the youth’s disturbed leg, the saint was able to cause the muscles to relax and strengthen. This healing, like the other miracles attributed to Germanus, was said to have convinced onlookers to follow Catholicism and abandon their heresies.
While Germanus was bringing miracles to Britain, the rest of the Western Roman Empire was feeling anything but miraculous. The successor to Emperor Flavius Honorius, a man named Valentinian III (r. 425-455), proved to be just as incompetent as his predecessor. The people whom the Romans had considered to be barbarians were now creating new kingdoms on the lands of the poorly defended empire. Even worse, the Huns had finally pushed into imperial territory. Armies of Huns invaded Gaul around 451 and advanced against Italy in 452.
Saint Germanus’ own bishopric of Auxerre and the people of Armoica were also threatened by the Huns. In 448, Germanus traveled to Ravenna to request aid from Emperor Valentinian III. St. Germanus is believed to have died in Ravenna, Italy, while still arguing on the behalf of his people.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Portion of a stained glass window in Truro Cathedral depicting Saint Germanus of Auxerre, donated by a benefactor in 1907. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.