The Tale Of A Medieval Thief Who Confessed To His Crimes Because Of A Muscle Spasm

Around 585, Bishop Gregory Of Tours (c. 539-594) traveled through a community called Carignan, located where the Chiers and the Meuse Rivers meet. A cloister of monks lived there, led by a curious saint known as Vulfolaic, who’s name eventually evolved to Walfroy in France. Gregory of Tours, a historian as well as a bishop, interviewed Vulfolaic on a variety of topics, some biographical and others concerned more with daily events in Carignan. During these talks, Vulfolaic told Gregory several tales, ranging from his early days as an ascetic monk, to stories about local criminals, and also accounts of miracles that had reportedly occurred in the region. Gregory of Tours, a great fan of gossip, folklore and moral tales, eagerly committed the tales to memory and preserved them by splicing the stories into his historical text, known as The History of the Franks.

One of the stories told by Vulfolaic to Gregory featured a prolific thief from Carignan who developed a clever way to escape from his crimes.  As it was a monastery town with a highly devout population, the thief found that if he swore (falsely) on the name of God and the saints that he was innocent, the people of Carignan would take the oaths at face value and would not prosecute him for any crimes.  With this exploitive observation on his side, the thief continued committing his heists and hold-ups.

Criminal success from this cultural loophole inevitably led to laziness and sloppiness in the way that the thief carried out his craft. Consequently, one of his robberies was botched to such a degree, with so many witnesses seeing the crime, that the population of Carignan did not buy his pleadings of innocence. This time, the thief would need to swear his false oath in a more dramatic setting to convince his peers—he chose the local church as the setting for his nefarious speech. This, however, proved to be the thief’s undoing, for as soon as he entered the church (with a weapon in hand, for some reason), he had a severe muscle spasm in his chest. Although more irreligious than the rest of the population, the thief was still a spiritual man, and at that moment he thought the pain in his chest meant he was about to be struck down by God. Gregory of Tours described the scene, “As he came in through the door, his axe slipped from his hand and he himself fell to the floor, with a severe spasm in his heart. Thereupon the miserable wretch confessed his crime in the very speech in which he planned to swear that he was innocent” (History of the Franks, VIII.16).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Confession Of The Giaour, By Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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

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