An incredibly odd occurrence allegedly struck the western half of France around the year 587. From Chartres, in north-central France, to the region of Bordeaux in the south, a peculiar wave of crime was said to have hit countless cities and towns. The crimes committed in this spree of criminal activity included trespassing, breaking and entering, and vandalism. In each instance, the vandals evidently went after the same type of target—vessels or containers. Wherever these prolific defacers went, they left a calling card behind. It was a symbol or message, written with characters that were unknown to the Gallo-Roman and Frankish people whose property was targeted by the mysterious mischief-makers. These unreadable messages were apparently cut deep into the vandalized objects, so that the image could not be washed off or buffed out with ease. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), a bishop and historian who lived contemporaneously to the supposed crime spree, recorded the story, writing, “In the homes of a number of people vessels were discovered inscribed with unknown characters which could not be erased or scraped off however hard they tried. This phenomenon began in the neighborhood of Chartres, spread to Orleans and then reached the Bordeaux area, leaving out no township on the way” (History of the Franks, IX.5).
Unfortunately, Gregory of Tours provided no conclusion to the tale and wrote no more of the odd inscriptions. Instead, he wrote the gossip off as a portent or an omen of the future. The truth behind the odd tale, then, must remain a mystery.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the life of Louis IX from the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, c. 14th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.