In 588, King Childebert II of Austrasia (r. 575-595) sent Bishop Gregory of Tours to the city of Chalon-sur-Saône as an envoy to Childebert’s uncle, King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593). The bishop was tasked with bringing up several topics with Guntram. For one, Childebert wanted his respected uncle’s advice and consent for a plan to arrange a marriage for his sister with King Recared of the Visigoths (r. 586-601). Guntram was also asked if he wanted to participate in a military campaign that Childebert was planning to launch against the Lombards in Italy—a request that Guntram denied—and, on the more peaceful spectrum of government, they discussed the possibility of convening a council of French bishops from the two kingdoms. Although the talks and banquets that occurred between King Guntram and Bishop Gregory at Chalon-sur-Saône were interesting in themselves, perhaps the most intriguing event that occurred during that time was the arrival of a beaten and blood-splattered woman with a remarkable story to tell who sought sanctuary in the city. She was brought to the king in the church of Saint Marcellus, and there she told the gathering of the horrible experience she had undergone.
The woman—left unnamed by our source, Gregory of Tours—lived about 35 miles away from Chalon-sur-Saône, near an estate owned by a certain Duke Amalo. Her occupation and status in the community is vague, as Bishop Gregory only described her as “a young girl of free birth” (History of the Franks, IX.27). She was reportedly a great beauty, and her comeliness attracted the eye of Duke Amalo. The duke suppressed his interest, however, as he was a married man, brooding over his attraction in silence. Yet, one day in 588, when Amalo’s wife left town on a multi-day errand, temptation began to get the better of the duke. He tried to drown his emotions in alcohol, drinking deep into the night, but his drunkenness only increased the intensity of his cravings.
Drunkenness and unchecked power combined dangerously that night at the duke’s estate. Amalo, inflamed by passion, uninhibited by drink, and given opportunity because of the absence of his wife, decided that night in his drunken state that it was time for him to seize what he wanted. Duke Amalo sent loyal servants and warriors to seize the woman. Amalo’s henchmen raided her home and arrested the woman, dragging her toward the duke’s estate. As she was forcibly ushered toward the nobleman’s abode, however, she began to suspect the ill intent of the whole clandestine operation. She began to fight back, but she was overpowered by the duke’s servants and was successfully dragged into Amalo’s home. The duke, still incredibly drunk, stumbled over to greet his unhappy guest. Yet, when the henchmen released their grip on the women, she renewed her fight and a brawl ensued, with her receiving the worst of it. Amalo, according to Gregory of Tours, joined the fight, writing, “In his turn he, too, punched her and hit her and slapped her; then he took her in his arms” (History of the Franks, IX.27). Although the odds were against her, the woman would have the last laugh. Drunken Duke Amalo had been wearing a sword as the shameful incident was occurring. Noticing the weapon, the battered woman seized it and stabbed the duke to death with his own sword. As the servants of the estate stood in shock over the body of the dead duke, the woman wasted no time to make her escape. She fled and did not stop in her flight until she reached Chalon-sur-Saône.
All of this she told King Guntram, and perhaps Bishop Gregory was also present for her speech. As the story goes, the king believed her and fully took her side in the dispute. She was pardoned and protected from any retribution or litigation that could have come from the killing of a nobleman. Gregory of Tours described the scene of the victim telling her story and of the king’s response, writing, “She went into the church of Saint Marcellus, threw herself at the King’s feet and told him all that had occurred. He was filled with compassion. Not only did he grant her her life, but he ordered a royal edict to be drawn up to the effect that she was under his protection and must not be molested by any of the dead man’s relations” (History of the Franks, IX.27). The king’s edict was followed, and, as far as Gregory of Tours knew, the unnamed woman lived happily ever after.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Judith, from a 14th-century manuscript in the National Library of the Netherlands, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.