Sometime prior to the year 580, a servant from the region of Bigorra in southern France suddenly disappeared from his post to start a new life as a traveler. Before this new phase, he had been employed in some way or other by the church, and his time around the clergymen had an impact on him. Instead of traveling for the mere sake of travel, this man apparently set out to gather holy relics and dreamed of becoming something of an itinerant preacher.
Although he had ambition and drive, he apparently was far from qualified from actually becoming a priest. He seemed to know virtually no Latin, making it impossible for him to read the religious texts of that time, and, similarly, he would not be able to communicate with the Gallo-Roman population that had not yet fully assimilated into Frankish rule. Yet, his zeal and unyielding determination drew admirers, causing the self-made itinerant preacher to actually become a moderately wealthy man through donations to his cause.
Thankfully for us, this odd fellow eventually wandered into the vicinity of Tours, where he made quite an impression on the local bishop, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who happened to also be a historian. Gregory, in his Ten Books of Histories, also known as the History of the Franks, recorded everything we know about the peculiar roaming man. Our unnamed wandering protagonist reportedly arrived in Tours around 580, and according to Bishop Gregory, the man had by this time fully adopted the persona of a traveling holyman. Gregory of Tours described the odd figure’s entrance into town:
“He came dressed in a short-sleeve tunic, with a mantle of fine muslin on top, and he carried a cross from which hung a number of phials, containing or so people said, holy oil. He gave it out that he had come from Spain and that he had in his possession relics of the two most blessed martyrs, Felix and Vincent the deacon. He turned up at Saint Martin’s church in Tours just as night was falling and I was having my supper” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.6).
As it was so late, Gregory put off meeting with the fellow until morning. This decision angered the newly-arrived wanderer, whose character was quite headstrong. The traveler complied, however, and agreed to wait until morning to have his conversation with the bishop. Yet, the self-made itinerate holyman left that night with a literal interpretation of the agreement. At the crack of dawn, he was once more ready to meet with the bishop, and he became annoyed when he subsequently realized that Gregory was sleeping in past daybreak. The traveler’s bold next move was recorded by Gregory, who wrote, “At first light the man rose from his bed and, without waiting for me to appear, arrived with his cross and marched straight into my cell. I was quite dumbfounded and flabbergasted at his impudence” (History of the Franks, IX.6). After criticizing the bishop for making him wait, the wanderer then reportedly broke into Gregory’s private chapel, said three prayers or sermons (which the bishop did not understand due to them not being in Latin), and then promptly set out on the road for Paris.
Bishop Gregory, too, was soon be drawn to Paris on ecclesiastical business. When he arrived in the city, Gregory soon learned that the entertaining self-proclaimed holyman had once again become a nuisance to the clergy. Most significantly, the wanderer had run afoul of a certain Bishop Ragnemod, who ultimately decided to use force against the quirky traveler. Gregory of Tours wrote:
“Ragnemod realized that he was an imposter and had him locked up in a cell. His stock in trade was examined. He carried with him a bag filled with the roots of various plants; in it, too, were moles’ teeth, the bones of mice, bears’ claws and bear’s fat. The Bishop had all this thrown into the river, for he recognized it as witchcraft. The man’s cross was taken away from him and Bishop Ragnemod ordered that he should be expelled from the Paris region. The only result was that the fellow made a new cross and began to carry on with the same practices as before. He was seized by the archdeacon, who had him chained up and then committed him to prison” (History of the Franks, IX.6).
Such was the state of things when Gregory of Tours arrived in Paris. Yet, unbeknownst to him, the saga of the strange wanderer was still incomplete. As the story goes, the imprisoned oddball eventually broke out of his chains and cell, escaping back into the city. As he was having a bad day, the fugitive apparently swiped a few containers of wine before searching out a place to hide. For a sanctuary, the man chose Saint Julian’s church, where he took a seat on the cold floor and drank himself into a stupor. Unbelievably, Gregory of Tours was at that time staying in the nearby church-house of Saint Julian’s, and, driven by the urge to say a nightly prayer, he ran right into the peculiar wanderer. Gregory of Tours wrote of the incident:
“Just about this time I had occasion to come to Paris myself and I was put up in the church-house of Saint Julian the martyr. The very next night this poor wretch broke out of his prison and, with his chains wrapped around him, made his way to Saint Julian’s church, where he collapsed on the stone floor on the exact spot where I was due to stand. Exhausted and sodden with wine, he fell asleep where he lay. In the middle of the night I got up to say my prayers to God, quite unaware of what had happened. There I found him sleeping” (History of the Franks, IX.6).
As the story goes, prison and drunkenness had made the odd traveler smell terrible. The stench was so bad that Gregory did not enter the church until the unconscious man inside was relocated (with the aid of four or five helpful bystanders) to a corner, and the spot where he was laying was thoroughly washed and perfumed. Yet, once the section of flooring was cleaned, Bishop Gregory held a small service for himself and his companions—including singing—during all of which, the unconscious man remained completely unresponsive.
In the end, the bishops present around Paris at that time convened to decide what to do with the curious wanderer. Gregory of Tours handed the man back over to Bishop Ragnemod, but also voiced his opinion that the fellow should eventually be pardoned. During these discussions, another bishop from southern France suddenly became very interested in discovering the identity of the traveler. The bishop’s name was Amelius, and he oversaw the bishopric of Bigorra. Amelius eventually went to speak with the man and the interview ultimately turned into a happy reunion. As told by Gregory of Tours, “Amelius, Bishop of Bigorra, looked him up and down and recognized him as one of his own servants who had run away. He forgave him all that he had done and took him back home with him” (History of the Franks, IX.6). So ends the tale of the peculiar wanderer. Gregory of Tours heard no more news or gossip about the fellow after he was brought back into the employ of Bishop Amelius.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Medieval manuscript illustration labeled BL Royal 10 D VIII, f. 82v, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.