Vulfolaic, a 6th-century saint also known as Walfroy, was an ascetic monk of Lombard origin who eventually decided to live out his days at the town of Carignan, located on the convergence of the Chiers and the Meuse rivers. In that region, Vulfolaic reportedly found some well-preserved ruins of statues that honored the traditional ancient Roman gods. In particular, there was reportedly a large statue of the goddess Diana. Vulfolaic, thinking pagans might travel to the site, built his dwelling near the goddess’ statue and then stood on a stone pillar (one that possibly already existed in the ruins). He used the pillar as a place from which to gaze out for worshippers of the old gods, or otherwise simply to display his piety by standing on his column in the cold weather. Word of the holy man atop the pillar made its rounds in the region, and before long, other monks appeared in Carignan to live alongside Vulfolaic, constructing for themselves a religious cloister at the site. When Vulfolaic’s following had grown substantially, he reportedly hopped down from his pillar long enough to direct his flock to smash the statue of Diana—yet, after this task was complete, the saint clambered back on top of his column and resumed his confined life on the stone post.
Although the saint was content with life on a pillar, his followers were much less enthusiastic—in fact, the newly assembled community of monks was quite concerned about their hero’s health. Vulfolaic, in an interview he had with Bishop (and historian) Gregory of Tours around 585, admitted to the grave injuries that life on the column inflicted upon his body, saying “I remained standing with bare feet, no matter how much it hurt me. When winter came in its season, it so froze me with its icy frost that the bitter cold made my toenails fall off, not once but several times, and the rain turned to ice and hung from my beard like the wax which melts from candles” (History of the Franks, 8.15).
As the story goes, Vulfolaic’s followers were so desperate to end their leader’s pillar-standing days that they sent word to several respected bishops in the nearby regions of France. Some of these religious leaders, indeed, were said to have answered the call of the desperate congregation at Carignan, and upon inspecting the state of the worn and withered hermit on the pillar, they, too, thought it would be best to have the man come down and live on solid ground. As a first step, the bishops succeeded in convincing the saint to climb down for meals, but the hermit always went back to his pillar anytime he was given a chance to escape. This imperfect compromise was not good enough for the bishops, however, and they decided to use trickery and force to bring about a permanent solution. Vulfolaic, in the aforementioned interview with Bishop Gregory of Tours, spoke of his emotional last day on the column:
“One day a certain bishop persuaded me to go off to a manor which was some distance away. Then he [the bishop] sent workmen with wedges, hammers and axes, and they dashed to pieces the column on which I used to stand. When I came back the next morning I found it completely destroyed. I wept bitterly, but I have never dared to set up again the column which they broke, for that would be to disobey the commands of the bishops. As a result I have been content to live among the brethren, and here I have remained until this day” (History of the Franks, 8.15).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of Saint Simeon Stylites, dated c. 16th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.