The Torments Of Bishop Priscus Of Lyon


A clergyman named Priscus succeeded Saint Nicetius as the bishop of Lyon in 573. That same year also saw the election and consecration of Bishop Gregory of Tours. Gregory held a grudge against Bishop Priscus for various reasons, some of them plain, others more vague. For one, Priscus reportedly tried to defame Saint Nicetius (a relative of Gregory), and also was said to have persecuted the late Nicetius’ friends in Lyon. Besides the attacks on Nicetius’ legacy, Gregory also took offense at Bishop Priscus being a married man with children. Unfortunately for Priscus, Gregory of Tours was a prolific writer whose History of the Franks would become the main source for information on 6th-century France. When, in the narrative of his History, it came time to introduce Bishop Priscus into the historical narrative, Gregory of Tours decided to avenge his kinsman by doing some defaming of his own.

Interestingly, the behavior of Bishop Priscus and his wife, Susanna, inspired (at least according to Gregory) the wrath of supernatural forces, including the spirit of the late Saint Nicetius. At first, the hauntings seemed concentrated on the church-house (or rectory). One deadly incident occurred when Bishop Priscus decided to add another floor to the building. As construction was ongoing, an unnamed deacon who had been an enemy of Nicetius (and therefore an ally of Priscus) reportedly climbed up to the construction area. As the deacon, standing atop a beam, was surveying the builders’ progress, he reportedly muttered some rude words about the late saint-bishop. According to Gregory of Tours, it was only mere seconds after this disparaging comment that the wood on which the deacon stood collapsed, and he fell to his death. Unfortunately, the deacon would not be the last victim of the supposedly haunted holy house.

A major catalyst for the supposed hauntings of Priscus and his family was the entry of the bishop’s wife, Susanna, into the rectory despite a “rule long observed by earlier bishops that no woman should go into the church-house” (Gregory of Tours, HF, Book 4, section 36). Susanna’s presence in the church-house was one thing, but the conduct of husband and wife in their alone time was another thing, entirely. The ghost of Saint Nicetius apparently was aghast that Priscus and Susanna had other things in mind at night besides singing hymns and taking Communion—the saint’s spirit would even reportedly invade the dreams of more pious members of the clergy to go interrupt the naughty Bishop Priscus. As told by Gregory of Tours, “While the Bishop and his wife were misconducting themselves in this perverse way, Saint Nicetius appeared in a dream to a certain man. ‘Go,’ said he, ‘and tell Priscus to stop behaving so badly and to mend his ways’” (HF, 4. 36).

As was curiously not uncommon in the tales of several medieval saintly spirits, the ghost of Nicetius could become quite vengeful (and violent) if he was disobeyed or ignored. In the case of one deacon who had received orders from the spirit but did not carry them out, Gregory claimed that once the man fell asleep, “Nicetius began to hit him in the throat with his clenched fists. When the day dawned, the deacon’s throat was painfully swollen” (HF, 4. 36).

When sending messengers via dream invasions did not work to halt Bishop Priscus’ behavior, the ghostly Saint Nicetius reportedly took a more direct route for punishment. In a Biblical-style supernatural affliction, the saintly spirit was said to have administered on Priscus’ entire family a hefty dose of holy madness. Gregory of Tours vividly described the peculiar scene:

“In the end God in His majesty took vengeance on the family of Bishop Priscus for these sins. His wife Susanna was possessed of a devil. In her madness she ran through the whole city, with her hair loose about her shoulders, confessing that this holy man of God [Nicetius], whom she had denied while she still had her wits, was in fact Christ’s friend, and calling upon him to spare her. The Bishop was seized with a quartan ague [malarial fever] and began to shake. When he recovered from his ague, he continued to tremble and was dull-witted. His son and his whole household became white in the face and lost their wits, too, and it was clear to all that Saint Nicetius had struck them with his miraculous power” (HF, 4. 36).

The dull-wittedness and trembling must have disappeared or subsided to a manageable level, for Bishop Priscus continued to rule his bishopric for over a decade. He was known to have been present at a council at Mâcon, which took place in the first half of the 580s. There, Priscus’ servants were said to have caused some drama by quarreling with the staff of Duke Leudegisel. At that time, Bishop Priscus still had enough wits about him to be able to smooth things over by giving the duke a gift of money. Bishop Priscus eventually died in 586, followed not long after by Gregory of Tours in 594.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (San Pedro de Alcántara by Luis Tristán (1586–1624) (Museo de El Greco, Toledo), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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