Duke Rauching was a leading Frankish nobleman of the 6th century who lived and died by the courtly intrigue of the Merovingian era. He was reportedly the type of noble who would thwart an assassination attempt against a king, only to organize his own plot against that very same king at a later point—something he unsuccessfully attempted to do with King Childebert II (r. 575-595). Yet, Duke Rauching was a man of his time, and, although he was no saint, many of the other nobles and kings of his day were equally as bloodstained. Nevertheless, the duke had the misfortune of leaving an extremely bad impression on Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), whose History of the Franks is the main source for 6th-century Frankish history. Gregory of Tours painted Duke Rauching as a villain among villains, and if Gregory’s reports were not exaggerated, then the duke must have been a vindictive, sadistic killer. Yet, as with Emperor Caligula, it is difficult to distinguish the difference between truth, exaggeration, and falsehood when it comes to Duke Rauching.
Gregory of Tours introduced Duke Rauching into his historical narrative as he described events around 575—a year when King Sigebert was assassinated during a civil war against his brother, King Chilperic, and a rebel army marched on Chilperic’s capital, Soissons. The rebellion was crushed and the rebel leader mysteriously died. Duke Rauching’s first recorded act in Gregory’s History was to marry the rebel’s widow.
After bringing Duke Rauching into the scope of the history, Gregory of Tours digressed into several tales about the duke’s abnormal sadistic depravity. According to Gregory, “his savage brutality went far beyond the bonds of human cruelty and folly” (History of the Franks, Book V, section 3). The list of horrible rumors descends further and further into barbarism as Gregory of Tours progresses with his story. First, Duke Rauching was accused of the stereotypical nobleman’s fault of treating his servants as if they were less than human. The next rumor, however, was dramatically more horrific. Gregory wrote, “Whenever, as the custom is, a serf stood before him with a lighted candle as he ate his meal, Rauching would make him bare his shins and grasp the candle between them until it burned out; and when a new candle was lighted, Rauching would repeat the trick, until the serf’s legs were completely scorched” (HF, 5.3). To emphasize the point that the duke was completely insane, Gregory added the line, “Rauching would be convulsed with merriment to watch the man weep” (HF, 5.3). The next tale presented by Gregory featured two servants who ran away from Duke Rauching. Like the serfs with the candles, the runaways would not be shown any mercy by the duke.
As the story goes, a charming tale of romantic love played out on Duke Rauching’s estate—one of the duke’s servants fell in love with one of the duke’s maids. The two lovebirds enjoyed their secret affair on the duke’s estate for over two years, at which point the couple decided to bring their relationship to the next level. They ran away from Duke Rauching and fled to a local church, where they were married by an understanding priest. In addition to performing the ceremony, the priest also gave the couple a place where they could live in secrecy and peace.
Duke Rauching, however, quickly discovered that two of his servants were missing, and he followed their trail to the local church. The duke must have also known that the priest was hiding the couple, for he demanded that they be retrieved. Yet, Rauching also tried to calm the clergyman by saying that he forgave the love-stricken pair and simply wanted them to return to his estate—no punishment, no burning of shins with candles. The priest, however, was not completely convinced and wanted the duke to swear before God that the newlyweds would not be separated. According to Gregory of Tours, Duke Rauching responded with the carefully crafted words, “I will never separate them. On the contrary I will make only too sure that they remain closely united” (HF, 5.3).
The duke’s slippery speech unfortunately fooled the priest. When the clergyman subsequently visited the newlyweds and delivered to them the duke’s words, they too were won over by the promise and agreed to return to the duke’s estate. With normalcy resumed, the priest in his church, and the newlyweds on the road, all were oblivious of what the future had in store—yet Duke Rauching (according to Gregory) had been planning his revenge ever since he formulated his loophole-riddled vow to God.
When the runaway lovers arrived at the duke’s estate, Rauching had them detained or distracted while he prepared their elaborate punishment. Gregory of Tours described the preparation and execution of the duke’s horrific plan in great detail:
“He [Rauching] immediately ordered his men to cut down a tree and then had a portion of the trunk split by wedges and hollowed out. Then he had a hole dug three or four feet deep in the earth and the hollowed-out tree trunk placed in it. He put the girl inside, as if she were already a corpse, had the young man thrown on top of her, fixed a lid over them and filed the grave with earth, burying them both alive” (HF, 5.3).
After a while, news of the duke’s latest villainous deed became the talk of the town and the hoodwinked priest finally learned the fate of the newlyweds. The brave clergyman reportedly sprinted to the estate of the duke, where he “upbraided Rauching bitterly” (HF, 5.3). After an epic bout of moral and theological debate, the priest convinced the duke to exhume the hollowed-out log. Nevertheless, the priest had not been quick enough. The male servant was pulled out of the grave alive, but his bride, on whom he had been tossed, was beyond help and already succumbed to suffocation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene of French noblemen and clergy from page 80 of “The Story History of France” (1919), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.