Saint Eparchius was an influential 6th-century priest from the region of Pèrigueux, France. He eventually moved to Angoulême, where, for a time, he lived as an isolated hermit. Before long, though, other monks gravitated toward the recluse and a cloistered community or monastery formed around the saint’s once-isolated haven. In the end, Eparchius became the abbot of the community of monks, although he reportedly still refused to end his reclusive lifestyle—he ran the monastery and lived his life from the confines of his religious cell.
One of the most prominent characteristics of Saint Eparchius’ life was his stalwart activism against capital punishment. Despite being personally a recluse, Eparchius kept informants out and about to listen for word of upcoming executions. When a scheduled execution came to the saint’s attention, he would promptly send out a monk to beg for a stay of execution. If Eparchius was particularly eager to keep a prisoner off an executioner’s block, the saint would invite local authorities to come and see him at the monastery, so that he could use his own eloquence to sway the law to a less deadly or painful punishment. According to the writings of Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), Saint Eparchius “begged so charmingly that when he asked for leniency they could refuse him nothing” (History of the Franks, VI.8).
Despite Eparchius’ smooth-talking talent and influence with the local authorities, he could not always have his pacifistic way, especially when the public was particularly riled up against a prisoner. Such was the case when a rabble-rouser was arrested in Angoulême. This unidentified prisoner was accused of various horrible crimes, and although Saint Eparchius had his doubts about the man’s guilt, the people of Angoulême were convinced that the detainee was responsible for all sorts of lawless deeds in the region. With their minds set, the public cried with fervor for the government to torture and hang the accused criminal.
Despite the public outcry against the accused, Saint Eparchius sent out his usual monk messengers, asking for the local count to spare the condemned man’s life. The shouts of the masses, however, drowned out the petitions of the reclusive saint. Under pressure from the masses, Angoulême’s count told the monks that there would be too much of a backlash from the city if the prisoner was released, and in fear of this upheaval, the count refused to grant the stay of execution that saint Eparchius had requested. Thus, when the monks returned to their reclusive master, they brought sad news—the prisoner had been “tortured on the rack, beaten with sticks and cudgels, and condemned to be hanged” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VI.8).
Although Saint Eparchius was not able to spare the prisoner from torture, the reclusive monk was determined to save the man from execution. The account of how Eparchius sought to achieve this goal can be interpreted in various ways. Some could see it as a tale of opportune miracles, while others may consider it an account of a holy man’s masterful intrigues. Whatever the case, in the days before the prisoner’s execution, Saint Eparchius was a busy man, instructing his monks on various tasks that they would need to do on the day of the execution. The aforementioned count, too, may have also been roped into the saint’s ambitious plans.
On the day of the execution, a loyal monk from the monastery was in attendance for the prisoner’s last moments. The already-tortured wretch was chained and eventually suspended by the neck from a gibbet or gallows for an undefined amount of time. Yet, either due to the powerful prayers of Saint Eparchius, or some connivance from the sympathetic count, or possibly due to sheer luck, the execution turned out to be anything but ordinary. According to Gregory of Tours, whose source reportedly was the count of Angoulême featured in this tale, “the gibbet collapsed, the chains were broken, and the hanged man fell to the ground” (History of the Franks, VI.8). When the prisoner fell, the awaiting monk launched into action and somehow was able to smuggle the fugitive to Saint Eparchius’ monastery. The prisoner’s condition at this point was left vague by Gregory, and few clues were given as to if the man hit the ground dead or alive. In the miracle version of the tale, the saint either kept the prisoner alive during the execution by means of health-sustaining prayers, or perhaps Eparchius resurrected the prisoner once his body was brought back to the monastery. Through the lens of intrigue, however, it could be proposed that the gallows were rigged to fail from the very beginning and that the count and saint worked together to fake the prisoner’s death.
Whether through a miracle or by clandestine action, the condemned prisoner apparently ended up very much alive and under the protection of Saint Eparchius. After the fugitive had been hidden away in the monastery, a monk paid a visit to the count and invited the nobleman to come and speak with Saint Eparchius. In the saintly version of the tale, Eparchius acted like a magician and shocked the count by showing off the resurrected prisoner. Skeptics, however, may interpret the scene as the saint and the count celebrating their successful operation.
Nothing is known of what became of the saved prisoner after he was presented to the count in the monastery of Saint Eparchius. Perhaps, he joined Eparchius and the monks in their religious community, or maybe he was given his freedom. Whatever the case, the accused criminal faded into obscurity after his escape from the gallows. Curiously, this was only one of many times Eparchius successfully saved condemned prisoners from punishment. When the saint eventually died around the year 581, these many freed people flocked to the street in a show of respect to their fallen hero. Gregory of Tours claimed, “A great crowd of people whom he had freed from the clutches of the law, as I have told you, walked in his funeral procession” (History of the Franks, VI.8).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (clash between monks and warriors, depicted by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.