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E00098: Gregory of Tours, in his Life of *Nicetius (bishop of Lyon, ob. 573, S00049), recounts how a poor man used a letter subscribed by Nicetius to help him beg; a thief required to swear on that subscription was miraculously forced to confess the truth; in Lyon (central Gaul), 581/589. From Gregory's Life of the Fathers, written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 573/594.

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posted on 2014-10-27, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers 8.9

Quidam vero pauper, vivente sancto, litteras ab eo elicuit manu eius subscriptas, qualiter sibi per devotorum domos elymosinam flagitaret; post cuius obitum adhuc cum ipsam circumiens epistolam, non pauca ab elymosinariis pro sancti memoria capiebat. Desiderium enim erat omnibus, ut, quisque vidisset subscriptionem sancti, aliquid praeberet aegenti. Quod videns quidam Burgundio, non honorans neque venerans sanctum, observare pauperem coepit a longe; vidensque eum silvas ingressum, inruit tulitque ei sex aureos cum epistola, conlisumque calcibus reliquit exanimem. At ille inter calces et reliqua verbera hanc vocem emisit: "Adiuro te per Deum vivum et virtutem sancti Niceti, ut vel epistolam eius mihi reddi facias, quia ultra mihi non erit vita, si eam perdidero". Ille vero, proiecta in terram, abiit, quam pauper collegens, venit ad civitatem. Erat enim ibi eo tempore Phronimius episcopus, cui supra meminimus. Ad quem accedens pauper ille, ait: "Ecce hominem, qui me graviter caesum expoliavit, abstulitque sex aureos, quos pro intuitu epistolae sancti Niceti acceperam". Episcopus autem narravit haec comiti; iudex vero, vocatum Burgundionem, percunctari coepit ab eo, quid exinde diceret. Negavitque coram omnibus, dicens, quia: "Numquam vidi hominem istum neque res eius abstuli". Episcopus autem aspiciens epistolam, vidit subscriptionem sancti, et conversus ad Burgundionem, ait: "Ecce in hac epistola subscriptio sancti Niceti tenetur! Si es innocens, accede propius et iura, tangens manu scripturam, quam ipse depinxit. Credimus enim de virtute illius, quia aut te hodie reddit ab hoc scelere conprobatum, aut certe abire permittit innoxium". At ille nihil moratus, accedit ad manus episcopi, qui hanc epistolam extentam tenebat; elevansque manus suas, ut sacramentum daret, cecidit retrorsum supinus, et clausis oculis, spumas ab ore proiciens, quasi mortuus putabatur. Transeunte autem quasi duarum horarum spatio, aperuit oculos suos, dicens: "Vae mihi, quia peccavi auferendo res pauperis huius!" Et statim retulit ordinem, qualiter iniuriam intulerat homini illi. Tunc episcopus, cum iudice obtenta culpa, ea tantum quae abstulerat inopi reddidit et pro caede duos insuper solidos addidit; et sic uterque a iudicis conspectu discessit.

'While the holy man [Nicetius] was still alive, a poor man had obtained from him letters subscribed in his own hand, with which he went to beg for alms in the houses of pious people. After the saint's death he continued to use this letter, persuading charitable people to give him quite large sums of money in memory of the saint. Indeed, everyone who saw the saint's subscription (subscriptio sancti) wanted to give something to the poor man. A certain Burgundian, who had no respect for the saint, saw this and began to follow the poor man at a distance. He saw him enter a forest, and attacked him, and took the letter together with six gold coins; having kicked him with his feet he left him half-dead. But he, in the midst of the kicks and other blows, cried, "I beg you, by the living God and by the virtue of St Nicetius, give me back the letter at least, for if I lose it I shall have no other means of existence." So the man threw the letter to the ground, and left. The poor man picked it up and came to the town. Bishop Phronimius, whom we have just mentioned, was staying there at that time. The poor man went to find him, and said "See, a man has beaten me up, robbed me and then taken from me six gold coins (aurei), which I have received by showing this letter." The bishop reported this to the count, and he, as judge, called the Burgundian to him, and inquired what he had to say about this. He denied the deed in front of everyone, saying, "I have never seen this man, and have taken nothing from him." The bishop looked at the letter, saw the saint's subscription and turned to the Burgundian, saying "Look, on this letter there is the subscription of St Nicetius! If you are innocent, come close and swear while touching your hand to the words written by the saint himself. We are confident in his power: we will allow you to leave here acquitted." The man advanced without hesitation towards the hands of the bishop, who held the letter open, and as he lifted his own hands to swear the oath, he fell back, his eyes closed, foaming at the mouth, so that one would have thought him dead. After two hours he opened his eyes and said "Woe is me, for I have sinned in taking the property of this poor man." And he went on to tell in detail how he had attacked the man. Then the bishop obtained a pardon for him from the judge, on condition that he returned to the poor man what he had taken, and that he should add two solidi for the blows which he had given him. And so both parties withdrew from the presence of the judge.'

Text: Krusch 1969, 249-250. Translation: James 1991, 60-61, lightly modified.


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 - Activities Accompanying Cult

  • Begging

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Punishing miracle

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Foreigners (including Barbarians) Officials The socially marginal (beggars, prostitutes, thieves)

Cult Activities - Relics

Contact relic - other object closely associated with saint


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. The story, as recorded by Gregory, takes place in Lyon in 581/589, the years when Phronimius, the former bishop of Agde was in exile in Lyon (Pietri, Heijmans 2013, 831). The letter signed by the saint is one of many objects associated with Nicetius, which perform miracles after the death of the saint (the others are: his bed, his cape and a napkin which covered his head on the day of his death, see E00062). The letter functions like a relic and should probably be treated as one. However, it is not only the physical contact with the flesh of the saint which makes the letter appear as his representation, but the saint's name written on it by his own hand. It is a special example of the perception of writing as a "transmitter" of miraculous power which can also manifest itself in objects like a book on the saint's life (as it is the case also for Nicetius, see E00059). The letter is probably not considered as a miraculous object in the first part of the story, in which the poor man begs showing it to his benefactors. It functions there simply as a document produced by a bishop, although Gregory emphasises already here the importance not of the contents of the letter, but of the signature of Nicetius. In the second part of the story the letter works a miracle and behaves like a relic. An oath on relics (or rather on a saint's grave) is mentioned in Gregory's texts on other occasions. The whole episode fits very well with Nicetius' "profile" as a "saintly judge" (see E0061).


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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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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