King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593), even during his own lifetime, was rumored to be able to perform miracles. Guntram’s acquaintances in the church, including the bishop and historian Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), believed these rumors and recorded the gossip in their writings. Bishop Gregory, for his part, claimed that objects associated with Guntram (such as threads from his cloak) could be used to heal the sick. In his Ten Books of Histories, also commonly known as the History of the Franks, Bishop Gregory endorsed this tale of miracle healing and further alleged that the invocation of Guntram’s name had a powerful effect on evil spirits: “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). Such were the rumors that were circulating Europe in King Guntram’s own day. These tale would greatly influence the king’s legacy, for due to his warm relationship with the church and his several accounts of miracles, Guntram was able to be posthumously declared a saint. Naturally, after Guntram’s death, tales of the saint-king’s otherworldly exploits and abilities became more flamboyant. One of the strangest of these later legends was recorded in Lombard Italy two centuries after the death King Guntram. It is a really, really, really, bizarre story, involving a midday nap, an incredibly awkward reptile, and the discovery of a treasure.
For this next legend about King Guntram, we must go to the writings of the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 722-799). He prefaced the story by stating, “Of him we may briefly insert in this history of ours one very remarkable occurrence, especially since we know that it is not at all contained in the history of the Franks” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombard, 3.34). This curious comment informs us that this legend was cultivated outside of the range of Bishop Gregory of Tours and his colleagues, for if they had known of this tale, they would have recorded it just as they had done with the stories of miracle healings and exorcisms. Food for thought, but we will continue.
Paul the Deacon’s tale is set in an unknown place and an unknown time during the reign of King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593). The only identifying features in the tale are a forest, a small brook, and a mountain. As the story goes, King Guntram and his entourage entered this mysterious region during a hunting expedition. Although the group was quite numerous, they evidently split up in the forest to go about their hunting, leaving the king with only one loyal and trusted guard. According to the legend, Guntram and his guard reached the aforementioned brook when the king was suddenly hit by a powerful wave of fatigue. Faced with this spontaneous onset of sleepiness, the king decided to take a nap. Having no cushion for his head, King Guntram awkwardly had his guard sit down to provide an emergency lap pillow. From this peculiar beginning, even stranger events would unfold. Paul the Deacon recorded the tale:
“When he went once upon a time into the woods to hunt, and, as often happens, his companions scattered hither and thither, and he remained with only one, a very faithful friend of his, he was oppressed with heavy slumber and laying his head upon the knees of this same faithful companion, he fell asleep. From his mouth a little animal in the shape of a reptile came forth and began to bustle about seeking to cross a slender brook which flowed near by. Then he in whose lap (the king) was resting laid his sword, which he had drawn from its scabbard, over this brook and upon it that reptile of which we have spoken passed over to the other side. And when it had entered into a certain hole in the mountain not far off, and having returned after a little time, had crossed the aforesaid brook upon the same sword, it again went into the mouth of Gunthram from which it had come forth. When Gunthram was afterwards awakened from his sleep he said he had seen a wonderful vision. For he had passed over a certain river by an iron bridge and had gone in under a certain mountain where he had gazed upon a great mass of gold” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombard, 3.34).
After King Guntram relayed his account of his dream vision, the loyal guard then told the king about the bizarre sight he had seen while Guntram was sleeping. To King Guntram, having a reptile slither in and out of his mouth apparently was not an issue, so they skipped over that topic and immediately moved on to reconciling the king’s vision to the path of the mouth-dwelling dream reptile. The iron bridge Guntram traversed in his vision was determined to have been the sword that the guard had laid down to let to the reptile cross the brook. And the mountain in the vision turned out to be…well…the nearby mountain beyond the brook. With these simple landmarks and trajectories to follow, Guntram and his companion were reportedly able to retrace the steps of the mysterious mouth-dwelling dream critter, eventually reaching a cave on the mountainside. In that cave, they reportedly found a massive hoard of treasure—all that was missing was a dragon to guard it.
King Guntram reportedly claimed this treasure for himself, but also set aside a great portion of the precious metals and gems to be donated to the church. According to the tale, he had an ornate gold-and-gem-covered canopy crafted for the tomb of St. Marcellus in Châlon-Sur-Saone. Paul the Deacon claimed that this canopy, supposedly built from the treasure that the old king’s mouth-dwelling dream reptile helped discover, was still in existence during his own lifetime in the 8th century. Whatever the truth might be behind this odd legend, it is an entertaining tale, indeed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of the Dream of the Magi from the Psalter manuscript BL Arundel 157, f. 4v, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.