According to the writings of Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), a dramatic family feud broke out between two noble Parisian families in the final years of the reign of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584). As with a great many conflicts, the feud began because of love, or, in this case, a lack thereof. The two families (which Gregory never named) had been linked together through ties of marriage, with a son of one powerful family marrying a daughter from the other noble line. The politically-arranged marriage, however, was a complete failure, and it did little to unite the two rival families, much less the impassionate bride and groom. Ultimately, the unhappy wife ran away, bringing the two families to the brink of war.
The husband’s family, out for revenge, accused the runaway bride of adultery and obtained several witnesses to back their claim. They confronted the wife’s father, who was harboring her or knew where she was hiding, and demanded that he hand his daughter over for execution. The wife’s father, to his credit, refused to surrender his daughter and decried the charges as malicious lies. He rallied his kinsmen to his side, forming a united front against the husband’s family.
Although the father of the runaway bride had protected his daughter from the clutches of her husband’s family, the concerned dad still needed to clear her name of the scandalous accusations. As a God-fearing, miracle-believing, 6th-century Christian, the father decided the most definitive way to vindicate his daughter was to swear to her innocence at an altar in the tomb of Saint Denis, with the implication being that God would smite him in some way if the oath was false. The husband’s family, also God-fearing Franks, agreed to the let the bride’s father testify to his daughter’s innocence before the altar of the saint. With the agreement made, the two sides appeared at the tomb in force, both well-armed and determined to win the dispute.
Both factions crowded into the tomb of Saint Denis as the father prepared to say his oath. In a dramatic display, the protective parent strode up to the altar, struck an impressive pose by raising his arms up toward the heavens, and boldly proclaimed before the attending masses that his daughter was innocent of the charges brought against her. To the father’s relief, he was not struck by lightning, nor stricken by blindness or made mute in the aftermath of his proclamation. Instead, nothing at all happened, giving the impression that God had fact-checked the statement and found it to be correct. Nevertheless, the husband’s stubborn family was determined to have their way.
When the oath at the tomb was completed, the husband’s supporters quickly accused the father of the bride with the crime of perjuring himself before Saint Denis and God. The bride’s family was infuriated by these new allegations and tempers flared on both sides. Before long, the armed factions began shouting and shoving and, finally, they drew their weapons to fight, then and there, in the tomb. Gregory of Tours vividly described the bizarre and chaotic skirmish:
“An argument ensued, in which they all drew their swords, rushed at each other and started killing each other in front of the altar. These men were of noble birth and among the leaders of Chilperic’s court. Many received sword-wounds, the holy church was spattered with human blood, the portals were pierced with swords and javelins, and weapons were drawn in senseless anger at the very tomb of Saint Denis” (History of the Franks, V.30).
No casualty count was recorded for the tomb-side brawl, but it must not have been too bad, for nobody involved faced serious punishment. King Chilperic imposed fines and threatened excommunication on the fighters, but as soon as the fines were paid, the excommunications were lifted. Unfortunately, the king decided to hold an official inquiry into the accusations of adultery that had been brought forward by the husband’s family. Faced with a trial, the runaway wife reportedly hanged herself.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.