Aetherius was a bishop of Lisieux, in northern France, during the reign of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584). The bishop was described as an incredibly forgiving man—the type who would overlook faults in the people he worked with and view them in the best possible light. Taking advantage of this kindness, people of ill-repute were able to work their way into the bishop’s inner circle with relative ease. Consequently, Bishop Aetherius’ freely-given forgiveness, and the blind faith he placed in individuals, would inevitably come back to bite him. In spite of Bishop Aetherius’ hospitality, a group of bad actors who were given shelter in Lisieux eventually turned on their bishop, bringing chaos and scandal to the bishopric.
Among those given a second chance by Bishop Aetherius in Lisieux was a certain priest from Le Mans. Tales about this disreputable priest were preserved by a contemporary bishop and historian named Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who wrote: “There lived in the town of Le Mans a certain priest, who was fond of fine living and who was always having affairs with women, a gluttonous man, much given to fornication and other forms of immorality” (History of the Franks, VI.36). This irreligious priest came into contact with Bishop Aetherius of Lisieux after a bizarre and scandalous episode. As the story goes, the priest of Le Mans took a concubine from a prominent family and dressed her in the garb of a monk so that they could be together. The concubine’s family was not at all pleased and they put great effort into tracking her down. After they found her with the priest, the angry family decided to detain them both.
The concubine’s family was not forgiving of their kinswoman’s behavior. According to Gregory of Tours, the family made the horrendous decision to burn the woman alive. The priest of Le Mans, too, was reportedly on the doorstep of death. Yet, before the family carried out the execution, they reportedly sent out word to the nearby bishoprics, giving the clergy a chance to ransom the life of their wayward clergyman. This offer of ransom made its way to forgiving, unjudging Bishop Aetherius who, according to Gregory of Tours, “paid over twenty pieces of gold to save the priest from immediate execution” (History of the Franks, VI.36). Once the scandalized priest from Le Mans was transported to Lisieux, Bishop Aetherius gave the man a job as a local instructor in the art of writing. Unfortunately for the community, the priest did not use his new lease of life to change his ways.
As Lisieux’s newest writing instructor, the priest from Le Mans was exposed to the local population. The youths of the region filled his classrooms and, of special interest to the priest, the youthful mothers of the students often came to check on how their children were progressing in their lessons. According to Gregory of Tours, “He [the priest] came to forget his earlier misdeeds, and, like a dog which had returned to its vomit, he made advances to the mother of one of the boys; but he had chosen a virtuous woman, and she told her husband what he was up to” (History of the Franks, VI.36). The failed advance of the priest reportedly resulted in the rallying of an armed band made up of the fathers of the priest’s students. These fathers and husbands marched en-masse against the priest from Le Mans and, once again, the wayward clergyman was said to have been on the doorstep of death. Yet, just as the mob of angry husbands was about to kill the lecherous priest, Bishop Aetherius reportedly swooped in at the last moment to save the man’s life for a second time.
Despite the bishop’s repeated mercy, the priest of Le Mans was said to have joined a faction that wished to oust and replace Bishop Aetherius. As the story goes, the plotters first considered assassination, but none of the members of the conspiracy could bring themselves to strike down the ever-trusting bishop. One of the plotters felt so guilty at the thought of attacking saintly Aetherius that he abandoned the conspiracy and confessed to the bishop. As no one was willing to murder their target, the conspirators decided to reach their goal through a different method. In the end, they chose to accuse Aetherius of a sin that was very well known by the priest of Le Mans. As the story goes, the conspirators launched a smear campaign against the bishop, alleging that women of ill repute had been seen coming and going from Aetherius’ quarters. Gregory of Tours colorfully disregarded these accusations, saying “Only the Devil could have put into their heads this idea of bringing such a charge against the Bishop, for he was nearly seventy years old!” (History of the Franks, VI.36).
After launching their smear campaign, the conspirators arrested Bishop Aetherius in an ecclesiastical coup. The conspirators placed the bishop in a cell while they tried to win over the local and monarchal authorities to their side. Aetherius, however, could not be contained in the cell for long. Through divine intervention or help from the bishop’s many sympathizers in the region, Aetherius was able to escape from captivity and escape from King Chilperic’s domain, instead seeking shelter in the realm of Chilperic’s brother, King Guntram (r. 561-593).
While Bishop Aetherius thrived in exile, making friends in Guntram’s court and being hosted by various bishops, the conspirators back in Lisieux were struggling to win the public to their side. Representatives from the coup against Bishop Aetherius reportedly went to King Chilperic to plead their case. The king, however, dismissed their accusations and ejected the conspirators from his court. Like King Chilperic, the people of Lisieux were skeptical of the accusations lodged against Bishop Aetherius. As the story goes, the people eventually rioted and attacked the members of the conspiracy. Once the congregation had wrested control of the bishopric back from the conspirators, they sent word to King Chilperic and asked him to restore Bishop Aetherius to power. Chilperic, who had no qualms with the exiled clergyman, sent word to his brother, King Guntram, asking for Aetherius to be informed that the people of Lisieux wished for him to return. Ending the story like a fairy tale, Gregory of Tours wrote that Bishop Aetherius’ “journeying brought him riches and his exile great plenty. He finally reached Lisieux and there he was received with great honour by his flock” (History of the Franks, VI.36).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image from page 80 of “Military and religious life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance” (1870) by P.L. Jacob, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.