In the 6th century, there lived a curious priest named Winnoch. He was a man of Breton heritage and, in his early life, he showed all the makings of a saint. Winnoch displayed his religious piety through ascetic practices, especially through depriving himself of luxury in his choice of clothing and food. He reportedly made do with sheepskin or other animal hides for his wardrobe, and as for his meals, they allegedly only consisted of herbs and vegetables that he could scavenge from the countryside. Winnoch eventually decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and his travels brought him to the city of Tours. There, he met the local bishop, Gregory (c. 539-594), who took a liking to the monkish Breton. It was Bishop Gregory of Tours who officially ordained Winnoch as a priest and encouraged him to stay in the Tours community. Winnoch agreed to the proposal, and his career as a priest had a strong start. As the story goes, he soon performed a miracle in the tomb of St. Martin, where a half-empty pitcher that he was holding miraculously filled itself to the brim, and all of this was seen and popularized by a certain nun named Ingitrude. Such a holy occurrence no doubt left Bishop Gregory and the other clergymen of Tours eager to see how their new protégé would develop.
As Gregory of Tours was a historian as well as a bishop, he took notes on Winnoch’s career in his Ten Books of Histories, also commonly known as the History of the Franks. Unfortunately for Winnoch, although the man had a saintly beginning, his life would ultimately have a far from holy ending. Poor Winnoch turned out to be a prime example of Murphy’s Law for priests—anything that could go wrong did go wrong in his unfortunate life. The man who began his days as a pelt-wearing and herb-eating ascetic monk dramatically self-destructed by the end of his days into a demon-possessed drunkard lunatic who had to be hidden away from the public by his fellow priests. Gregory of Tours colorfully described the incredible downward trajectory of Winnoch:
“The result of this [drinking] was that, as time passed, his intemperance became worse and worse. He was possessed by a devil, and he became so unbalanced that he would pick up a knife or whatever weapon he could lay his hands on, sometimes a stone, sometimes a stick, and chase after people in insane fury. There was nothing for it but to chain him up and lock him in his cell. Condemned to this fate, he continued to rave for a couple of years, and then he gave up the ghost” (History of the Franks, VIII.34).
So ends the bizarre tale of Winnoch the Priest. His was an outlandish adventure from saintly piety to demonic lunacy, all fortunately documented by the prolific writer, Gregory of Tours. As for the dates of Winnoch’s time in Tours, the chronology is vague. Based on the context of events that were happening in Gregory’s narrative when Winnoch entered the scene, the time period for his arrival in Tours was likely between 573-577. In regards to the priest’s death, Gregory worked the tale of Winnoch’s downfall into a section of his history that commented on events that occurred around the year 586.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Torment of Saint Anthony, by Michelangelo (1475–1564), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.