The Quirky Tale Of The Carpenter Modestus’ Miraculous Prison Escape

 

Around the year 580, Bishop Gregory of Tours was accused of verbally slandering Queen Fredegund, the wife of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584). The accusers, Count Leudast of Tours and a subdeacon named Riculf, were personal enemies of the bishop, and Gregory was given the benefit of the doubt when the accusation was first leveled. Leudast and Riculf were detained and questioned by the cautious King Chilperic. Count Leudast was eventually freed, but subdeacon Riculf was held for more questions. While the interrogation of Riculf was underway, Leudast returned to Tours and arrested two of Bishop Gregory’s confidants, hoping to turn them against their friend. Although King Chilperic had imprisoned Gregory’s detractors, that did not mean that the bishop was in the clear. The royal family had little love for the bishop, as they had clashed in the past over moral, political, and theological issues.  In the end, the king did eventually call a trial to investigate the accusations of slander, and Gregory of Tours’ fate would be decided by a panel of his fellow bishops assembled by the king at Berny-Rivière.

As the bishops were receiving their invitations to appear at Berny-Rivière for the trial, commoners began their own debates about Bishop Gregory’s culpability. A certain carpenter named Modestus was reportedly one of Gregory’s most outspoken defenders among the masses. The carpenter was so outspoken in his praises of Gregory and his criticisms of Riculf that news of Modestus’ speeches reached as far as the ears of Queen Fredegund, herself. Upon hearing of the carpenter’s actions, the queen was extremely displeased, as, by this time, she had come to believe the statements of the accusers and wanted Gregory to be put on trial. The carpenter’s protests, in Fredegund’s opinion, stood in the way of justice—therefore, she reportedly sent agents to have the man arrested.

The story of Modestus’ peculiar imprisonment was recorded by none other than Bishop Gregory of Tours, and, as such, it is unsurprising that the poor carpenter was presented in the kindliest and most gracious of words. Modestus, according to Gregory, was “arrested, put to the torture, beaten, loaded with chains and locked up in prison” (History of the Franks, V.49). While in custody, the chained carpenter was fasted to ‘the block’ and constantly watched by two guards. Yet, as midnight approached, bizarre occurrences would lead to a miraculous prison break.

As told by Bishop Gregory, the tale of Modestus’ great escape began with prayer. He prayed for deliverance from his unjust imprisonment, and specifically called on the spiritual support of Saint Martin of Tours and Saint Medard. While the carpenter prayed through the night, the two guards reportedly fell fast asleep, and, in their slumber, they remained oblivious to the miracles which supposedly resulted from the prisoner’s prayers. In response to the heavenly entreaties, Gregory of Tours claimed, “the chains broke asunder, the block split open, the prison-door was unlocked and Modestus marched out and into the church of Saint Medard, where I myself was that night keeping vigils” (History of the Franks, V.49).

The curious tale of Modestus, as far as Bishop Gregory was concerned, ended with the fugitive carpenter’s arrival at the church. No more information was recorded about Modestus’ further actions or fate. As for Gregory of Tours, he was indeed put on trial, but with the help of influential friends among the bishops, he was able to clear his name without too much trouble. With Gregory vindicated, the wrath of the clergy and kings rebounded against the accusers, Count Leudast and subdeacon Riculf, whose fates would be much less fortunate than that of Gregory.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Prisoner by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
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