Bishop Gallus (otherwise known as St. Gall) oversaw the church of Clermont-Ferrand from 525-551. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), writer of The History of the Franks, knew Gallus extremely well. Not only was Gregory of Tours the nephew of Bishop Gallus, but he also spent several years living under his uncle’s care. Around 547, when Gregory was about eight years old, he was sent to live with Bishop Gallus. The bishop, however, died four years later, in 551. Although his guardian was no longer alive, the now teenage Gregory decided to stay in Clermont. As such, young Gregory witnessed first-hand the odd succession crisis that erupted after the death of Bishop Gallus.
According to Gregory of Tours, there was a megalomaniac priest named Cato who belonged to the local clergy of Clermont-Ferrand. He was bluntly described as “a man filled with self-esteem and silly self-admiration” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 6). Cato had great charisma and was well-liked by the local population and clergy of the region. Before the funeral of Bishop Gallus had even occurred, Cato had reportedly built a large faction in Clermont-Ferrand that pledged to support him in becoming the next bishop of the city. When bishops from nearby cities arrived in Clermont-Ferrand to attended the funeral of Gallus, they encountered Cato and were soon unsure about the priest. According to Gregory, the bishops could tell that the hypnotic priest was a popular figure in Clermont, but they also found his pride to be worrisome. Nevertheless, after the funeral was over and the bishops had left, the people and local clergy of Clermont-Ferrand proclaimed Cato to be their new bishop.
Unfortunately for Cato, his grasp on power was weak. Although he had the local priests and populace on his side, his elevation to the episcopate of Clermont-Ferrand would not be deemed legitimate without the support of other bishops. As those very bishops had been “cursing the pride of this man Cato” after their encounter with him at Gallus’ funeral, the succession to the bishopric of Clermont-Ferrand was still very much in doubt (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 6).
Eventually, a rival priest in Clermont-Ferrand made a move. The man’s name was Cautinus, and he held the rank of archdeacon. He and Cato were prone to arguments, and, although Cautinus was apparently loyal at first, he began to question his loyalties after several heated verbal altercations with the new pseudo-bishop. Following a period of coexistence, Archdeacon Cautinus decided to leave the city on a clandestine mission to undermine Cato. Cautinus knew Cato’s weakness and sought out the elites of the church and state to overrule the decision of the Clermont-Ferrand locals.
Cautinus traveled to the court of King Theudebald (a Frankish king since 547 or 548) and announced that Bishop Gallus of Clermont-Ferrand was dead and that no legitimate successor had yet been ordained. In response to the news, King Theudebald promptly called together a council of Frankish bishops and had them meet in the city of Metz. After some deliberation, the council (and king) agreed upon who should become the next bishop of Clermont-Ferrand. Unfortunately for Cato, he was not their choice. Instead, the council of Metz ordained Cautinus as the new bishop of Clermont-Ferrand.
To Cato’s dismay, Cautinus returned to Clermont with a posse of bishops and evidence of the king’s support. The bishops in Cautinus’ entourage won over many of the clergy in Clermont-Ferrand, while the power of the king simultaneously made the public pull away from Cato. Yet, although the populace and the majority of the clergy had abandoned him, Cato refused to recognize Cautinus’ authority. The bishop’s response to this was to strip Cato and his last followers of their church benefits. According to Gregory of Tours, “Bishop Cautinus saw clearly that nothing could bend Cato’s will or induce him to submit. He therefore removed all church benefits from Cato, his friends and all who supported him, and left them empty and destitute. Any who changed sides and came over to him had what they had lost returned” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 7).
Despite being dethroned and stripped of all his power, Cato remained hopeful of making an eventual comeback. While he waited, he was said to have thought up entertaining ploys to undermine Cautinus and boost his own popularity. Recording one such stunt, Gregory of Tours wrote, “Once he bribed a woman to behave in church as if she were possessed and to shout out that he, Cato, was a great saint and very dear to God, whereas Bishop Cautinus had committed every crime in the calendar and was unworthy to have been ordained a priest” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 11). Interestingly, Cato was said to have been offered the bishopric of Tours following the death of Bishop Gunthar around 555, but Cato was so focused on Clermont-Ferrand that he refused the promotion. Gregory, himself a bishop of Tours, found that rejection of his city and title to be quite offensive.
Yet, despite the negative picture that Gregory of Tours painted of Cato, the narrative quickly shifted to portray Bishop Cautinus in an even worse light. Gregory wrote, “Once he had taken possession of his bishopric, Cautinus began to behave so badly that he was soon loathed by everybody” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 11). The aforementioned woman who claimed that “Cautinus had committed every crime in the calendar” was apparently not far off in her assumption. Gregory of Tours, who lived in Clermont-Ferrand around that time, claimed that Cautinus was a greedy drunkard, who would use lawsuits, imprisonment and torture to seize land. In the worst example presented by Gregory, Bishop Cautinus reportedly tried (unsuccessfully) to bury alive a priest named Anastasius. The priest was said to have escaped and fled to the court of King Chlotar (r. 511-561), a senior king of the Franks. The king gave Anastasius protection, but Cautinus apparently faced no repercussions.
Despite these reported vices, Cautinus served as bishop of Clermont-Ferrand for around two decades. He outlived King Theudebald and King Chlotar, and lived well into the joint reigns of Chlotar’s sons. Curiously, Bishop Cautinus and his rival, Cato, met a poetic death in the same year. The two were both victims of a plague in 571 that ravaged Clermont, Lyons, Bourges, Chalon-sur-Saône and Dijon. Gregory of Tours claimed that Bishop Cautinus tried to flee from his plague-ridden bishopric, but died from the epidemic despite his efforts to escape. In contrast, Gregory of Tours wrote a glowing eulogy for Cato, who apparently had, by then, turned a new leaf. Gregory wrote, “It was then that the priest Cato died. Many fled from the plague, but Cato never moved from the city of Clermont, burying the dead and with great courage continuing to say Mass. This priest was a person of great humanity and devoted to the poor. He was a proud man, it is true, but what he did at this moment excused everything” (History of the Franks, Book IV, section 31).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Jan Hus at the council of Constance, painted by Václav Brožík (1851–1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.