Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), perhaps the greatest historian of the 6th century, came from a very religious family that was filled with generations of saints and bishops. Gregory, himself, continued the family tradition by becoming Bishop of Tours in 573 and by living a life that would eventually grant him the coveted label of saint. Much of what we know about Gregory comes from his own written word, as he often stuck bits of personal information here and there when his, or one of his family member’s, experiences were applicable to any given subject. By combining information from his various books, the reader can get a decent picture of Gregory’s life. One aspect of Gregory’s personal life, however, usually attracts more interest than the rest—the man liked bizarre pseudo-medical remedies.
As mentioned earlier, Gregory of Tours grew up in a very zealous family and he learned to venerate the remains of saints at an early age. Gregory claimed that his father, Senator Florentius, carried some holy ashes of a saint in a golden locket around his neck for good luck. The golden locket became a treasured heirloom that passed upon Florentius’ death to his wife, Armentaria, and then finally to their son, Gregory. In addition to the ash-filled locket, Gregory also received from his family an interest in medical remedies produced from ingredients found in the tombs of saints. Gregory’s exposure to odd healing potions evidently began when he was a young boy. According to the Eight Books of Miracles, Gregory was still a child when his older brother, Peter, fell deathly ill. The feverish Peter was brought by his family to the tomb of St. Julian, where everyone prayed for his quick recovery. Meer prayers, however, were apparently not powerful enough for the worried family—Gregory wrote that he was instructed by his parents and brother to gather dust from the tomb and mixed it with water. After Gregory’s sick brother drank the potion, he supposedly made a drastic recovery and felt much better within the day. The event must have had a great impact on Gregory, because he would personally use a similar potion later in his life.
In 573, around the time he became bishop of Tours, Gregory fell severely ill with dysentery. He wrote about the experience in his Eight Books of Miracles, elaborating that a high fever and a horrible stomachache were the main symptoms of his illness. Gregory initially let a physician treat him, but when the medicine seemed to not be working, Gregory decided to create his own cure. The ill bishop gave the physician and a deacon the recipe of his family’s potio de pulvere sepulchri (potion of tomb dust). Following their bishop’s orders, the physician and the deacon retrieved some dust from the tomb of Saint Martin, located in the city of Tours, and mixed it with water. According to Gregory, the dusty water eased his pain and led to his quick recovery.
Although the dust potion was Gregory’s favorite remedy, the bishop apparently had some success ingesting the tomb’s dust in other odd ways. In another incident, while suffering greatly from a swollen tongue and lip, Gregory claimed that he successfully healed himself by awkwardly dragging his swelled tongue across a wooden lattice in the tomb of St. Martin. To each their own, I suppose.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (European depiction of the Persian doctor Al-Razi, in Gerardus Cremonensis “Recueil des traités de médecine” c. 1250-1260, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.