A fleet of merchant ships sailed into the port of Marseilles around 574 to unload a cargo of fine liquor and oil, all neatly packaged in jars that were stowed securely on the ships. The early 570s were a stressful time for the Franks—they suffered a plague in 571 and faced raids from the newly-arrived Lombards out of Italy, while simultaneously being bogged down by courtly intrigue and civil war between the Frankish co-kings. The merchant ships entering Marseilles, however, were lucky enough to sail into port during a period of peace. The ships dropped anchor, and, after a span of time had elapsed, a well-connected local trader arrived at the docks to inspect his merchandise. Upon the merchant’s arrival, however, the workers told him horrible news—a thief had struck before or during the time when cargo was being unloaded and stored. It was not a paltry theft, either; to the merchant’s horror, he was told that no less than seventy jars of liquor and oil were missing.
The trader was outraged, and, as a man of wealth and influence, he devoted great resources to finding the culprits responsible for the liquor heist. Informants and witnesses soon began providing the merchant with names of people who had been acting suspiciously around the docks and warehouses. Curiously, the suspects were all associates of a local churchman—a high ranking one, no less. When the merchant completed his investigation, he accused one man of being the mastermind of the liquor theft. His suspect was Archdeacon Vigilius, yet, although the merchant firmly believed that Vigilius was the crime boss, his witnesses could only link the archdeacon’s servants and accomplices to the crime.
Archdeacon Vigilius, when he became aware of the charge, apparently gave a public statement in which he claimed, “No one who is a member of my household would ever dare to do such a deed” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 4.43). Nevertheless, the stolen merchandise (or whatever was left of it) was discovered on the archdeacon’s property. Even after the stolen liquor and oil was recovered, Vigilius refused to confess in any way that he or his servants were responsible for the heist. Seeking justice, the frustrated trader decided to use his connections and went to speak with the governor of the region, a man named Albinus. The merchant’s argument must have been persuasive, for the governor ultimately agreed to arrest Archdeacon Vigilius.
Amazingly, Governor Albinus’ arrest of Archdeacon Vigilius would become as big of a scandal as the original liquor heist. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), our source for this peculiar tale, claimed that Albinus shocked the people of Marseilles by arresting Archdeacon Vigilius on Christmas day, placing the churchman in custody while the man was taking part in a Christmas service. Gregory of Tours described the scene:
“On Christmas Day the Archdeacon put on his alb and, when the Bishop entered the church, invited him, as the custom is, to proceed to the altar and at the proper moment to celebrate Mass according to the ritual of this holy occasion. Albinus thereupon rose from his seat, seized the Archdeacon and dragged him out of the church, punching him and kicking him, and then locked him up in prison” (History of the Franks, Book 4, Section 43).
Public arrest and rough handling was not the only way that the archdeacon was punished. He also faced a reported fine of 4,000 gold pieces. Yet, other high profile figures were also forced to pay fines in the aftermath of the arrest. Governor Albinus’ bizarre timing and handling of the arrest was a Christmas present for his political rivals. A certain Jovinus, the governor’s predecessor and bitter enemy, reported the incident to King Sigebert of the Franks (r. 561-575), insisting that such embarrassing and improper conduct should be punished. The king reportedly agreed with Jovinus and fined Albinus 16,000 gold pieces for the Christmas day arrest.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Monks in a cellar by Joseph Haier 1816-1891, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.