The Tale of A Medieval Arsonist Who Was Mysteriously Burned To Death

Around the year 585, Bishop Gregory Of Tours (c. 539-594) traveled through a community called Carignan, located on the convergence of the Chiers and the Meuse rivers. A cloister of monks lived there, led by a curious saint known as Vulfolaic, who’s named 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 filed the tales away in memory and preserved them by splicing the stories into his historical text, known as The History of the Franks.

One of the tales told by Vulfolaic to Gregory was about a suspected arsonist. The accused individual was said to have set fire to the house of his neighbor, and, according to Gregory of Tours and his source, “There was no doubt at all that he actually had burnt the house down” (History of the Franks, VIII.16). In order to counteract the negative public opinion, the suspect decided to proclaim his innocence at the local church at Carignan. By swearing on the name of God and the saints that he did not commit the crime, the accused arsonist hoped he could change the minds of the people of Carignan, or at least inspire some doubt as to his guilt.

When the accused reached the church, he was met outside by Saint Vulfolaic, who blocked his path and said a word of warning:

“’Now, God is everywhere, and His power is just as great outside the church as it is inside. If you have some misguided conviction that God and His Saints will not punish you for perjury, look at His holy sanctuary which stands before you. You can swear your oath if you insist; but you will not be allowed to step over the threshold of this church’” (History of the Franks, VIII.16).

Despite this warning from the saint, the accused arsonist went forward with his plan. With God and the saints as his witnesses, the alleged criminal proclaimed himself to be innocent of the fire that he was suspected to have started. This proclamation, however, reportedly angered God, his entourage of saints in heaven, or Vulfolaic on earth, and one of the parties mentioned decided to mete out retribution on the suspected criminal. As told by Gregory of Tours, “As soon as he [the arsonist] had sworn his oath, he turned to go, but he appeared to be on fire himself! He fell to the ground and began to shout that he was being burnt up by the saintly Bishop…As he said this, he died. This was a warning to many folk not to dare to perjure themselves in this place” (History of the Franks, VIII.16). Such was the odd tale reportedly told to Gregory of Tours by Vulfolaic. The cause of the suspected arsonist’s death—be it divine retribution, spontaneous combustion, or Vulfolaic’s underhanded vigilante justice—depends on the reader’s personal beliefs and philosophical inclinations.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Saint Francis Trial By Fire painted by Giotto di Bondone  (–1337), [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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