King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593) was a man who generally acted in a good-natured and benevolent manner. Of course, as a medieval monarch, he did have his fair share of war and bloodshed, yet those who stayed on the king’s good side found the monarch’s wit, charisma, and piety to be quite endearing. King Guntram especially cultivated a warm relationship with the network of Christian bishops operating within and around his lands. One such bishop, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), wrote of a banquet that the king hosted for these smitten clergymen:
“Guntram asked us to eat with him. The abundance of dishes on the table was only rivalled by the full contentment which we felt in our hearts. The king talked of God, of building new churches, of succouring the poor. From time to time he laughed out loud, as he coined some witty phrase, thereby ensuring that we shared his happiness…He was extremely friendly toward us and loaded us with gifts” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX. 20).
Inspired by such favorable interactions with the king, Bishop Gregory and others came to believe that Guntram was a saintly individual. Yet, pleasant dinner conversation and public support for the church was not all that was required to be considered a saint in the Middle Ages. Another criteria needed to be met, and this last hurdle was the performance of miracles. Thankfully for Guntram, his supportive churchmen were eager to help his case, so they scoured local gossip and folklore for tales of miraculous events inspired by King Guntram. The aforementioned Gregory of Tours aided in this endeavor by recording a tale in which he suggested a boy was miraculously healed because of the king. As the story goes, the mother of a feverish son somehow obtained some threads from King Guntram’s cloak—this was a tough task as the king was a paranoid man who always kept himself well-guarded. With the precious threads in hand, the desperate mother returned home to her ailing son and prepared a simple tea or potion, using only water and the king’s threads. She then forced her sick son to drink the concoction and—as could be expected from a miracle story—the sick child quickly recovered from his ailment. The boy’s survival, according to the tale, was only brought about by the residual holiness on King Guntram’s coat threads. For those wanting to read Gregory of Tours’ own wording about this story, he wrote:
“The faithful had a story which they used to tell about Guntram. There was a woman whose son was seriously ill of a quartan ague. As the boy lay tossing on his bed, his mother pushed her way through the vast crowds and came up behind the King. Without his noticing she cut a few threats from his cloak. She steeped these threads in water and then gave the infusion to her son to drink. The fever left him immediately and he became well again. I accept this as true, for I have often heard men possessed of a devil call upon Guntram’s name when the evil spirit was in them, and through his miraculous powers confess their crimes” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX. 21).
Stories such as these, and King Guntram’s general reputation as a benevolent ruler, bolstered the monarch’s association with saintliness. As clergymen were the predominant writers of the early Middle Ages, it was their interpretation of King Guntram that became the official narrative of history for his reign. Propelled by favorable written accounts by writers such as Gregory of Tours, and bolstered by a seemingly genuine affection from the populace, King Guntram was indeed recognized as a saint after his death in 593.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene of Louis IX curing illness, from a 13th-century manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques (labeled BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 424v in the British Library), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.