In the 6th century, an intriguing figure was born in the vicinity of Bourges, in central Gaul (now France). His name, unfortunately, has been lost to history, likely due to the fact that he was greatly disliked and distrusted by church and state figures who would have written contemporary accounts of the time. Despite the man’s name being deliberately erased from history, some of his deeds and his ultimate downfall were recorded, albeit with great bias. It is an odd tale, for, although the man seems to have done little-to-nothing wrong, he eventually faced vitriolic hostility from the church. He was in a tug-of-war of opinion between commoners who adored him and the clergy who viewed him with malice. To many in the masses, the mysterious man was a spiritual leader, a prophet, and a performer of miracles. The stance of the formal clergy at that time, however, can be summed up by the words of Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who said the nameless man was “worthy to be called an Antichrist” (History of the Franks, X.25).
The mysterious spiritual guru apparently came from humble origins. He was an average man for much of his life in Bourges, with no more religious training or knowledge than any other churchgoing layman in Merovingian Gaul. Everything changed, however, when the nameless one underwent a psychological and spiritual ordeal that would drastically alter the course of his life. Whatever the tribulation might have been (in one account he was engulphed by flies), the end result was that “he became insane and remained so for two whole years” (History of the Franks, X.25). After the fellow recovered from his madness, or learned to live with it, he decided to devote himself to religion.
Once the nameless man had committed himself to a life of spiritual pursuit, he decided to leave Bourges and move to Arles. On the road or upon his arrival in the new region, he drastically changed his appearance. He shed the garb of a 6th-century townsman and instead wore homemade garments fashioned from animal hides and furs. As soon as the pelt-clad traveler arrived in Arles, he devoted all of his time to prayer. Yet, at this early stage in his spiritual career, the mystery man soon discovered that he had a special talent—prophecy. Bishop Gregory of Tours, no fan of the man, commented on the nameless one’s prophetic ability: “He foretold the future, prophesying that some would fall ill and that others would suffer affliction, while to a few he promised good fortune. All this he did by devilish arts and by tricks which I cannot explain. A great number of people were deceived by him, not only the uneducated, but even priests in orders” (History of the Franks, X.25). As Bishop Gregory conceded in his account, the nameless one proved to be a convincing prophet, and as people put more faith in his ability, so also did the mysterious man gain more confidence in himself.
Our nameless protagonist soon moved away from Arles and set up shop in Javols. There, his fame and alleged powers continued to escalate. It was while he stayed at Javols that the mysterious fellow first allegedly began performing spectacular miracles. According to Gregory of Tours, “Great crowds of people flocked to see him and brought out their sick. He laid hands upon them, to restore them to health. Those who gathered round him gave him clothes, and gifts of gold and silver. All this he handed over to the poor, which helped him in his deception” (History of the Franks, X.25). Despite Bishop Gregory’s assertions that the man’s motives were evil and that his methods were demonic, many other people living in 6th-century Gaul did not agree. To the horror of bishops like Gregory, the mysterious man began attracting to himself a large band of loyal and devoted followers. Managing this large following of disciples, however, was chaotic work and the nameless man needed help. Answering his call, a partner appeared in Javols to aid the man. Her name was Mary, and she and the mysterious man worked together to manage the fledgling spiritual movement. The masses quickly pointed out the similarity of Mary’s name to her namesakes from the Bible. Similar comparisons were allegedly made by the masses in regards to the nameless man—he was judged by many as being an equal to the saints, or to the apostles, and, most infuriating to the clergy, rumors were circulating that the nameless man was Jesus Christ returned. Bishops such as Gregory of Tours believed that the man from Bourges was actively encouraging these rumors.
At the height of his influence, the nameless figure and his new partner Mary set out from Javols and began traveling the road to Le Puy. Following in the nameless one’s wake were a reported 3,000 followers. This zealous entourage might have become rowdy on the road, engaging in robbery. This was insinuated by Gregory of Tours, who claimed “he began to rob and despoil those whom he met on the road, giving to the poor and needy all that he took” (History of the Franks, X.25). In the middle of the journey, the nameless figure was polite enough to send messengers in advance to Le Puy, giving the city warning that he and his following would be arriving shortly. This overture, however, did not soften the hostility that the mysterious figure would face at Le Puy.
A certain Bishop Aurelius held power at Le Puy in those days, and this bishop decided that it was time to quash the upstart spiritual leader and his followers. As told by Bishop Aurelius’ colleague, Gregory of Tours, “[Aurelius] chose some of the toughest of his servants and told them to go and find out what it all meant. One of them, the man in charge, bowed low as if to kiss the man’s knees and then held him tight. He ordered him to be seized and stripped; then he himself drew his sword and cut him down where he stood. So fell and died this Christ, more worthy to be called an Antichrist” (History of the Franks, X.25). That the killing of the nameless one was likely a planned assassination was given further evidence by the actions of Bishop Aurelius and the military in Le Puy after the mysterious man’s death. Troops were quickly sent out against the slain man’s disciples, and surviving leadership figures of the group, including the aforementioned Mary, were arrested by the Le Puy authorities. Gregory of Tours continued the story, writing, “All his followers were dispersed. Mary was submitted to torture and she revealed all the man’s hallucinations and tricks. Those whose mind he had so far deranged by his devilish devices that they believed in him never recovered their full sanity. They continued to profess that he was Christ and that Mary had a share in his divinity” (History of the Franks, X.25). So ends the tale of the nameless spiritual leader, who, when the accusations of demonic powers and evil intent are placed aside, was assassinated after having done very little that was criminally wrong.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, artwork done in the 18th century and attributed to Marco Marcola (c.1740-1793), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.