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E00038: Gregory of Tours writes the Life of *Portianus (abbot in the Auvergne, ob. after 525, S00032): it tells how the saint obtained his freedom, became a monk, then abbot, and miraculously gained favour from the invading King Theuderic; all in the Auvergne (central Gaul). From Gregory's Life of the Fathers, written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 573/594. Overview of Gregory's Life of Portianus.

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posted on 2014-09-12, 00:00 authored by CSLA Admin
Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers, Book 5 (Life of Portianus)


Preface: Portianus exemplifies the way God rewards the poor and meek

§ 1: Portianus was the slave of a barbarian; he fled several times from his master to a monastery. The abbot of the monastery where Portianus sought refuge gave him back to his master until, during one of his flights, the master became blind and was cured by Portianus. Portianus eventually became a cleric and abbot of the monastery. He fasted assiduously, refreshing his mouth, but increasing his thirst, by chewing salt in summer.

§ 2: During the invasion of the Auvergne by Theuderic, Portianus entered the king's camp and was compelled by the king's chief man to drink wine; at the moment he blessed the cup, it split into two and a snake appeared. After this miracle, people sought to touch the saint's robe, and Theuderic freed his captives.

§ 3: He was then tested by the devil: one night his cell seemed to be full of flames, until Portianus banihsed them with the sign of the cross. After his death, miracles happen at his grave. Gregory acknowledges that he does not know a lot about Portianus and encourages others to write about him.

Text: Krusch 1969, 227-229. Summary: Marta Tycner.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Portianus, abbot in Gaul, ob. after 525 : S00032

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Gaul and Frankish kingdoms

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Tours Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Tours

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting/veneration of living saint

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracle after death Punishing miracle Healing - disabilities Power over objects

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Foreigners (including Barbarians) Monarchs and their family Aristocrats Soldiers

Cult Activities - Relics

Contact relic - saint’s possession and clothes


Gregory, bishop of Tours from 573 until his death (probably in 594), was the most prolific hagiographer of all Late Antiquity. He wrote four books on the miracles of Martin of Tours, one on those of Julian of Brioude, and two on the miracles of other saints (the Glory of the Martyrs and Glory of the Confessors), as well as a collection of twenty short Lives of sixth-century Gallic saints (the Life of the Fathers). He also included a mass of material on saints in his long and detailed Histories, and produced two independent short works: a Latin version of the Acts of Andrew and a Latin translation of the story of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The Life of the Fathers by Gregory of Tours is different from his other hagiographical works (Miracles of Julian, Miracles of Martin, Glory of the Confessors and Glory of the Martyrs), which all concentrate on posthumous miracles of the saints. The Life of the Fathers, by contrast, describes the exemplary behaviour in life of twenty Gallic saints (for a list of the Lives, see $E05870). Gregory himself draws this contrast in the opening words of his preface: 'I had decided to write only about what has been achieved with divine help at the tombs of the blessed martyrs and confessors; but I have recently discovered information about those who have been raised to heaven by the merit of their blessed conduct here below, and I thought that their way of life, which is known to us through reliable sources, could strengthen the Church' (trans. James 1991, 1). In this preface Gregory also explains why he chose to call the book Life of the Fathers, not Lives of the Fathers: because they all lived the same bodily life. The nineteen Lives of men, and the single Life of a woman (Life 19), all relate to holy people of Gaul, the majority living in the mid to later sixth century. Although this agenda is unspoken, there can be little doubt that Gregory wrote these Lives partly to show that holiness, and the miraculous, were not just things of the past, but very much present within the Gaul of his day (a message that he expressed explicitly in his Histories). Almost all the saints he describes were active within one or other of the two dioceses with which Gregory was most familiar (his native Clermont, and Tours, the city of his episcopate), or indeed were his relatives (all bishops - Life 6 is of an uncle, Life 7 of a great-grandfather, and Life 8 of a great-uncle). Although Gregory says in his preface that they all shared one bodily life, in reality his saints fall into one of two distinct categories: holy bishops who are effective leaders of their flocks but only moderately ascetic (Lives 2, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 17), and holy ascetics who have withdrawn from the world and sometimes engage in extreme mortification of the body (Lives 1, 3, 5, 9-16, and 18-20). Gregory's work was unquestionably didactic in purpose - teaching the correct way to lead a good Christian life, and it is notable, for instance, how, in this work written by a bishop, his ascetics accept episcopal correction when necessary (Lives 15.2 and 20.3, in both cases from Gregory himself), and might even delay their death to suit the timetable of a bishop (Life 10.4). Because the focus is on the lives of these holy people, there is much less emphasis on their cult after death than in Gregory's other hagiographical works; however, all the Lives close with an account of the burial of the saint, and in almost all cases with reference to posthumous miracles recorded there (the exceptions are Lives 10, 11 and 20, which have no reference to miracles at the tomb). Gregory probably collected material for the Life of the Fathers (and perhaps wrote individual Lives) over a long period of time. However, from the words of his preface (quoted above) and from other references within the text, it is evident that he assembled his material into the polished work we have today only towards the very end of his life, after he had already written much of his extensive hagiography recording the miracles of saints lying in their graves. Because Gregory's views on saints do not seem to have changed during his writing life, we have not here expended energy in exploring the possible dating of individual lives, merely recording them all as written some time between 573 and 594. For more on the text, and on its dating: James 1991, xiii-xix; Shaw 2015, particularly 117-120.


Gregory's Life of Portianus is the fifth book (and so the fifth Life) included in his Life of the Fathers (for which, see above) The only detail in this brief Life relates to Portianus' encounter with the invading army of King Theuderic. This invasion, and saintly intervention to mitigate it, also features in the preceding Life of Gregory's Life of the Fathers, that of *Quintianus (bishop of Rodez and Clermont, ob. 525, S00028) - see E00036 and E07868. It is possible that Gregory included the Life of Portianus, about which he knew very little, only because of this link. On the dating of Theuderic's invasion of the Auvergne, see James 1991, 23-24, n.9. The monastery where Portianus became abbot was almost certainly located at today's Saint-Pourçain in the Auvergne; see Vieillard-Troiekouroff 1976, no. 265.


Edition: Krusch, B., Gregorii Turonensis Opera. 2: Miracula et opera minora (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum I.2; 2nd ed.; Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1969). Translation: James, E., Gregory of Tours. Life of the Fathers (Translated Texts for Historians 1; 2nd ed.; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991). de Nie, G., Gregory of Tours, Lives and Miracles (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 39; Cambridge MA, 2015). Further reading: Shaw, R., "Chronology, Composition, and Authorial Conception in the Miracula", in: A.C. Murray (ed.), A Companion to Gregory of Tours (Leiden-Boston 2015), 102-140. Vieillard-Troiekouroff, M., Les monuments religieux de la Gaule d’après les œuvres de Grégoire de Tours (Paris: H. Champion, 1976).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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