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E00068: Gregory of Tours, in his Life of *Nicetius (bishop of Lyon, ob. 573, S00049), tells of piles of broken fetters at Nicetius' tomb in Lyon (central Gaul), and recounts two stories about him as a freer of prisoners. From Gregory's Life of the Fathers, written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 573/594.

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posted on 2014-10-03, 00:00 authored by CSLA Admin
Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers 8.6, 8.7 and 8.10

Three stories told in the Life of Nicetius appear to present him as particularly good at freeing prisoners.

The first text is an extract from an account of miracles at Nicetius' grave, brought to Gregory in Tours by one of his priests:
(Ch.6) (...) Iohannis autem presbiter noster, dum ab urbe Masiliensi cum commercio negotiationis suae rediret, ad huius sancti sepulchrum in oratione prosternitur; de qua consurgens, aspicit confractos conpedes disruptasque maculas catenarum, quae culpabilium vel adstrixerant colla vel suras adtriverant, et admiratus est (...).

'(...) John, our priest, returned from Marseille with the merchandise of his commerce, and fell down to pray at the tomb of the same saint [Nicetius]. Getting up, he saw broken chains and shattered fetters which had clasped the necks of calves and criminals, and he was full of admiration. (...)' John goes on to say that he in person witnessed three blind people regain their sight.

The second text is a complete story, which constitutes a whole chapter of the Life:
(Ch.7) Seditio etenim in quodam loco exorta, cum, vulgo saeviente, volantibus saxis ac facibus, furor arma non mediocriter ministraret, unus elevati ensis acumine cum adsultu gravi virum perculit.Post dies autem paucos nanctus ab interempti germano, simili exitu trucidatur. Quod cum iudex loci illius conperisset, vinctum [ac caesum] virum in carcerem retrudi praecepit, dicens: "Dignus est leto hic scelestus occumbere, qui voluntatis propriae arbitrio, nec spectato iudice, ausus est temere mortem fratris ulcisci". In qua dum teneretur custodia et, multorum sanctorum nominibus invocatis, misericordiam precaretur, quasi ad sanctum Dei propriae conversus, ait: "Audivi de te, sancte Niceti, quod sis potens in opere misericordiae ac pius in conpeditorum flentium absolutione. Deprecor nunc, ut me illa supereminenti pietate visitare digneris, quae in reliquorum absolutione vinctorum saepius claruisti". Et post paululum obdormiens, apparuit ei vir beatus, dicens: "Quis es tu, qui nomen Niceti invocas? Aut unde nosti, quis fuerit, quod eum obsecrare non desinis?" At ille causam delicti ex ordine reserans, adiecit: "Miserere, quaeso, mihi, si tu es vir Dei quem invoco". Cui sanctus ait: "Surge in nomine Christi et ambula liber; a nullo enim conprehenderis". At ille in hac expergefactus voce, se absolutum, catenis comminutis confractaque trabe, miratur. Nec moratus, nemine retenente, usque ad eius sepulchrum perrexit intrepidus. Tunc a iudice noxialis culpae damnatione concessa, laxatus abscessit ad propria.

'A riot occurred at a certain place. The enraged crowd threw stones and fire brands, and rage gave them no little strength. A man armed with a sharp sword felled another with a blow, and a few days later was met by the dead man's brother and was himself slain. When we heard of this the judge of that place had the man put in prison, saying "He is worthy of death, this wicked man who did not wait for the decision of the judge and who by his own will dared to avenge the death of his brother." While he was held in this prison, having invoked the names of many saints he sought for mercy and said as if turning to the holy man of God "I have heard tell of you, holy Nicetius, that you are powerful in works of mercy and generous in the freeing of piteous captives. I beg you now to deign to visit me with that excellent kindness by which you have so often shone in the deliverance of others who are in chains." Shortly afterwards, as he slept, the blessed man appeared to him and said "Who are you, who call the name of Nicetius? And how do you know who he was, since you do not cease to pray to him?" Then the man told him about his case and added, "Have pity on me, I beg you, if you are the man of God whom I invoke." The saint said to him "Rise up, in the name of Christ, and walk free: you will not be restrained by anyone." He woke up, and was full of astonishment at seeing his chains shattered and the beam broken, and immediately, without being stopped by anyone, he went undaunted to the tomb of the saint. Then the judge gave him pardon for the judgement he had been given, he was released and went home.'

The third text is the first half of a chapter about Nicetius' miracles
(Ch.10) Quanti per hunc sanctum carcerali ergastulo revincti absoluti sunt, quantorum conpeditorum catenae sive conpedes sint confracti, testis est hodie moles illa ferri, quae in basilica eius aspicitur, de supradictis suppliciis adgregata. Nuper autem in conspectu Gunthramni principis Siagrium Agustidunensim episcopum regi referentem audivi, una nocte in septem civitatibus carcerariis apparuisse beatum virum eosque absolvisse ab ergastulo et abire liberos permisisse; sed nec iudices contra eos quicquam agere deinceps ausi sunt.

'If one wishes to know how many prisoners were freed by the saint and how many chains and fetters he has broken, one has only to look at the mass of irons which are today in the church, gathered together from such occasions. Recently in the presence of King Guntram [r. 561-592], I have heard Syagrius, bishop of Autun [c. 567 - c. 591], tell the king how one night the holy man appeared to prisoners in seven different cities, delivered them from their prisons and allowed them to go as free men, and how the judges had not dared to do anything more against them.' Gregory continues by saying that the sick who drink a potion of water with dust from Nicetius' tomb will soon be cured.

Text: Krusch 1969, 247, 250. Translation: James 1991, 56-58, 61, lightly adapted.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Nicetius, bishop of Lyon (Gaul), ob. 573 : S00049

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

Oral transmission of saint-related stories

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Freeing prisoners, exiles, captives, slaves Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Monarchs and their family Ecclesiastics - bishops Officials

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects



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.


For an overview of the Life of Nicetius of Lyon, see E00061. Nicetius is presented by Gregory as something of a specialist in freeing prisoners, appealed to by prisoners and with broken fetters at his tomb testifying to his successes, though Gregory makes it clear that he also does all the other things expected of a saint: effect cures, punish ill deeds, confound perjurers, etc. The specialisation of saints' miraculous power is not a common occurrence in Gregory's writings. In the quoted passages it is stated fairly explicitly: for instance, in ch.7 it is only Nicetius and not the other saints who hear the supplication of the imprisoned man. This specialisation may well have formed an established part of Nicetius' role, since it is described also in the contemporary Life of this saint, composed by bishop Aetherius in Lyon (see E00216; on the text see E00060). Nicetius' specialisation is clearly connected with his general "saintly profile": Gregory presents Nicetius as a rigourous but just judge, and as a man who was ready to forgive (E00061, ch.3). Interestingly, the miraculous releases in ch.7 and 10 are in clear contradiction with established law and custom, though the miraculous intervention is then confirmed by the sentence of the local judge (this is not stated in the other extant Life of Nicetius, see E00216). Also interesting is the miraculous appearance of Nicetius in seven different cities at one time (ch.10): mentioning it Gregory probably wanted to stress the pan-Gallic range of Nicetius' power and cult, and certainly to emphasise that a saint could appear in several different places within a very short period of time. In the other extant Life of Nicetius, one of the 'specialised miracles' also takes place in a prison outside Lyon, in Vienne, and also involves an apparition of the saint (see E00216).


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.

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