The Life Of Twice-Dead Saint Salvius


Salivius was a holy man who operated around Albi, in southern France, during the 6th century, a time when France was controlled by several infighting Frankish kings of the Merovingian Dynasty. He was an interesting figure who claimed to have seen heavenly visions (as well as actual heaven itself), and he also was said by his peers to have possessed a gift for foresight or prophecy, as well as some powers for healing. Our knowledge of this holy man comes from the writings of Salvius’ friend and fellow clergyman, Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), whose History of the Franks serves as one of the most valuable contemporaneous sources for the history of 6th-century France.

Salvius, it was said, spent his early life studying law and dabbling in local government. All the while, however, his spiritualism was growing and his religious interests quickly began to outweigh his secular pursuits. Eventually, while he was still a young and unmarried man, Salvius suddenly decided to join a local monastery and live as a monk.

After he joined the monastery and learned its rules, Salvius quickly became a model resident of the cloister. He was reportedly an intelligent man, and given time and resources to pursue his religious studies, Salvius mastered the theology of Roman church tradition. He showed such grasp and insight for religious teachings that Salvius soon became one of the monastery’s most respected monks. When the abbot under which Salvius served eventually died, it was Salvius who was elevated as the next abbot of the monastery.

Salvius responded to his promotion in an interesting way—he used the opportunity to become a hermit. The new abbot reportedly ran the monastery from his religious cell, directing the works and charities of the institution without leaving his room. Salvius, however, was not completely isolated, for his fellow monks had to frequently go to his cell to drop off supplies and receive orders. On one such visit, one of the monks found a shocking sight in the abbot’s cell; Salvius was found seemingly lifeless on his bed. The monks, observing the body, were completely convinced that their new abbot was dead.

Upon concluding that their abbot had died, the monks prepared for a funeral. A message was sent to Salvius’ mother, who lived nearby, informing her that her son was dead and that a service would be held in the near future. Salvius’ body was soon removed from his cell and, after being dressed in the best vestments available, Salvius was placed on a bier in preparation for the funeral service, which would commence the next day.

The funeral, suffice it to say, was a dramatic event that none present would forget. According to Gregory of Tours, “the corpse began to move on the bier. Salvius’ cheeks flushed red again, he stirred himself as if he awakened from a deep sleep, opened his eyes, raised his hands and spoke” (History of the Franks, VII. 1). Seeing the dead come back to life, those in attendance at the funeral cheered that they were witnessing a miracle. Not everyone, however, was happy with the situation. Salvius—the very one who supposedly came back from the dead—was apparently quite distraught over his resurrection. According to Gregory of Tours, Salvius’ first words upon returning to the land of the living were “Merciful Lord…why have You done this to me?” (History of the Franks, VII. 1). The presumably starving Salvius then made the odd decision to immediately stop eating food and drink after his resuscitation. He reportedly kept this up for three days until, realizing God was refusing him death (as hunger and thirst was not affecting him), Salvius finally ended his fast and resumed his life as abbot of the monastery.

Once Salvius recovered from the trauma of being pulled back to the world of the living from the afterlife, he began to talk about his otherworldly experiences to his fellow clergymen. He first told his story to the monks in his monastery, and he later narrated the same tale to Gregory of Tours, who put an account of the conversation in his History of the Franks.

As the story goes, when Salvius was experiencing his first death, it felt as if the walls of his room were shaking, and an inexplicable bright light filled his eyes. He then claimed to have been visited by two angels who carried his spirit to heaven, located far away from the earth, sun, and moon. Gregory of Tours, speaking as Salvius, described the man’s vision of heaven:

“Then I was lead through a gate which shone more brightly than our sunshine and so entered a building where all the floor gleamed with gold and silver. The light was such as I cannot describe to you, and the sense of space was quite beyond our experience. The place was filled with a throng of people who were neither men nor women, a multitude stretching so far, this way and that, that it was not possible to see where it ended” (History of the Franks, VII. 1)

Salvius claimed to have heard the voice of God come from a bright and radiant cloud which floated above the heavenly city. Directly under this cloud was reportedly a large gathering of saints and martyrs. Salvius was just beginning to feel at home among these souls when a voice rang out from the cloud above, demanding that the angels bring the abbot back to earth, for the churches needed Salvius’ guidance. Gregory of Tours, once more speaking in the character of the abbot, described Salvius’ distressed reaction: “I threw myself flat on the ground and wept. ‘Alas! Alas! Lord,’ I said. ‘Why have You shown me these things only to take them away from me again?” (History of the Franks, VII. 1). Despite his pleas, Salvius awakened to find himself still alive, and, as was mentioned earlier, it took him three days of fasting to recover from his subsequent depression.

Although God wanted Salvius to return to the living, God’s wishes apparently did not include the abbot revealing secrets of heaven. After he told the monks his story, Salvius’ mouth allegedly swelled and became covered in sores. This divine punishment apparently did not recur when he retold the story to Gregory of Tours years later.

Upon returning from the dead, Salvius quickly resumed his hermit ways, once again administering the monastery from his room. Despite his like of privacy, the abbot’s monks soon began to feel something was different about their leader. It was rumored that Salvius gained the gift of foresight after his near-death (or full death) experience. Furthermore, Gregory of Tours claimed that Salvius projected some sort of healing aura, and “Time and time again those who arrived with grave afflictions went away cured” (History of the Franks, VII. 1).

Salvius, with his respect and renown growing, inevitably became a bishop. He was elected Bishop of Albi around 574, a role which forced Salvius to end his hermit ways so that he could attend councils and advise kings. Such travels allowed Salvius to meet and befriend Gregory of Tours, who was apparently left awed by some of his interactions with the holy man. In one incident in 580, Gregory claimed to have personally witnessed Salvius prophesize that doom would soon fall on the house of King Chilperic (r. 561-584). At that time, Gregory, Salvius and King Chilperic had all been at the villa of Berny-Rivière. As the story goes, the two bishops were having a friendly stroll by the villa when Salvius began to stare oddly at the king’s residence. According to Gregory of Tours, “He sighed deeply and said: ‘I see the naked sword of the wrath of God hanging over that house.’ He was not wrong in his prophecy. Twenty days later died the two sons of King Chilperic” (History of the Franks, V. 50).

There was another instance when Salvius had a prophecy of someone’s death—unfortunately, it was his own death that he could foretell. In 584, a plague hit Albi, and Salvius refused to leave the city. During the epidemic, the bishop eventually realized that he would not survive the plague, and he preemptively began organizing his second funeral. According to Gregory of Tours, “When the time came for God to reveal to Salvius that his own death was near, he prepared his own coffin, and, so I believe, washed himself carefully and put on his shroud. He died in contemplation with his thoughts turned towards heaven” (History of the Franks, VII. 1).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Monk Reading by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot  (1796–1875), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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