Around the year 571, a plague ravaged the French regions of Clermont-Ferrand, Lyons, Chalon-sur-Saône, and Dijon. Gregory of Tours (539-594), author of The History of the Franks, lost friends and acquaintances in the plague, and reported that the dead were “so numerous that it was not even possible to count them” (Book IV, section 31). After describing the plague and subsequently listing who succeeded to the duties of prominent plague victims, Gregory then moved on to a curious tale about a monk in Bordeaux, France. Perhaps the transition fit the chronology of his history, or maybe he placed the story of the monk where he did as a change of pace after the account of the plague.
In the narration of his history, Gregory of Tours abruptly broke away from his account of the plague with the undetailed statement, “I will now tell you something which happened in another monastery at about the same time” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 34). Although Gregory’s section heading disclosed that the events of the story took place in Bordeaux, he unfortunately left all the other identifying pieces of information (names of people and specific places) strictly anonymous. Gregory provided a reasoning for his lack of specification—he wrote, “I do not propose to give the name of the monk concerned, for he is still alive, and if he should read what I have written he might be filled with vainglory and so lose virtue” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 34).
As the story goes, a certain youth of Bordeaux arrived one day at a local monastery and asked to be admitted to the religious order. The abbot in charge of the place was skeptical, and, intending to drive the youth away, he described with embellishment the disciplined lifestyle of those allowed to live inside the monastery. The youth, however, was not deterred by the abbot’s words. In the end, the abbot decided to humor the youth and allowed him to loiter in the monastery. Yet, the monks soon recognized true humility and piety in the youth, and he was eventually admitted as a novice monk.
The youth presumably joined the monastery around 571, for Gregory’s story, set around the time of the plague, reportedly occurred only a few days after the youth became a novice monk. As the newest addition to the monastery, the youthful novice was given menial tasks, such as watching over grain as it dried in the sun. Yet, that boring task would bring the youth great renown in the 6th century.
One day, the monks of Bordeaux hauled about three bushels of grain out to a sunny patch not far from the monastery and left it out to dry. When the grain reached its destination, the novice was tasked with watching over the crop while his senior monks returned to the monastery. The abbot and the older monks returned to their usual cloistered routine, feeling reassured because not only was it a pleasant day, but they also had their most energetic and youthful novice keeping watch over the grain. Yet, the monks did not have a meteorologist among their ranks, and, therefore, the residents of the monastery were caught completely by surprise when a freak rainstorm began to form above their heads.
With all of the progress on the drying grain about to be undone by the sudden storm, the monks began sprinting toward the spot where they left the novice. To their horror, the rain began to pour before they reached the crop. The drenched monks, however, were struck with amazement when they finally reached the grain. There, they found the young novice splayed out on the ground in prayer, fervently begging God to spare the crop. In the sky above the prostrate novice, “The clouds divided, the rain poured down all around the corn, but not a single grain was wetted, if what I have heard is true” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 34). To the newly arrived abbot and monks, it looked as if God had parted the rainclouds and protected the grain in response to the youth’s prayers.
With the monks mumbling to themselves about divine miracles, the abbot responded bizarrely to the holy scene. Gregory of Tours wrote down the abbot’s peculiar reaction:
“When the abbot perceived what had occurred, he lay down in prayer beside the monk. The rain passed over and the abbot finished his prayer. He then told the youth to get up and ordered him to be seized and beaten…He had him shut in his cell for a whole week and made him fast in expiation of his sin, to prevent him from becoming too pleased with himself and so that he might learn to mend his ways” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 34).
Gregory of Tours, at least in his writing, did not challenge the abbot’s assertion that the novice’s punishment was meant as a good-willed act to curtail a sinful ego. Yet, the cynic and skeptic may believe that the abbot prayed beside the novice in an unsuccessful attempt to steal credit of the miracle for himself, and the subsequent punishment resulted from the abbot’s jealousy of the novice.
Nevertheless, Gregory of Tours did apparently agree with the abbot that the youth was vulnerable to hubris after performing a flashy miracle, and Gregory therefore did not record the novice’s name. Yet, at least during the late 6th century, the novice reportedly had an impeccable reputation. Unfortunately, the identity of the novice remains a mystery, and there is no knowing if this occurred because of a fall from grace or if his name was simply lost to time.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Titus as a Monk, painted by Rembrandt (1606–1669), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.