During the 6th century, a wealthy and influential individual named Pelagius lived in the vicinity of Tours. Although he was not as powerful as a duke or a count, Pelagius had enough clout to buy off law officials and to intimidate those in the Tours region whom he disliked. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who often clashed with Pelagius, wrote of him unflatteringly, saying, “he was responsible for endless robberies, attacks, assaults, woundings and crimes of all sorts, on land and down the river” (History of the Franks, VIII.40). Between Gregory and Pelagius, the dislike was mutual. Although the wealthy strongman could not harm and intimidate the bishop as he did to others in the Tours region, Pelagius did all he could to make trouble for Gregory and his employees.
One particular clash between Pelagius and the bishop caused Gregory to finally flex his ecclesiastical muscles. As the story goes, a group of Bishop Gregory’s servants were returning on the road one day with pots full of sea urchins—of all things—when they were ambushed and robbed by Pelagius. The villain and his goons beat up the church laborers and made off with their pots of urchins. When the servants returned to Gregory and told him what had happened, the bishop decided to take action in his own way. He banned Pelagius from attending church and forbade him from taking part in religious ceremonies.
Pelagius, however, did not take this punishment without a fight. He pulled political and legal strings to apply pressure on Gregory, and he finally gathered twelve men and confronted the bishop. The showdown was not a physical one—instead, Pelagius made a public oath, using his supporting friends as witnesses, claiming that he had nothing to do with the sea-urchin theft. Bishop Gregory believed the statements of his own employees over the oath of troublesome Pelagius, but the leverage against him was mounting and the bishop eventually relented. Unable to seek charges or recompense over the assaults and theft, Gregory ultimately readmitted Pelagius to the church and left judgement to a higher power.
As the story goes, Pelagius would not bother Gregory of Tours for much longer. A few months after the man made his questionable oath of innocence, Pelagius fell ill with a fever and died. When news of his death spread, the people of Tours took the chance to get revenge on their tormentor. An ornate tomb that Pelagius had constructed for himself was vandalized and smashed before it could be put to use. As for the sea-urchins, the stolen creatures were reportedly found stowed away in one of Pelagius’ storehouses.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribute: (Cropped horseman from Death of Chilperic painted by Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.