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E00223: Gregory of Tours, in his Life of Aemilianus and Brachio (hermit, and monastic founder of the Auvergne and Touraine, ob. 535/550 and 576, S00087), tells how Brachio learned to read and write by copying the inscriptions around the images of apostles and other saints, in an oratory in Clermont (central Gaul), shortly before 534. From Gregory's Life of the Fathers, written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 573/594.

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posted on 2014-12-02, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers 12.2

Brachio, while still a hunter in the service of a nobleman from Clermont in Gaul, was persuaded by the hermit Aemilianus to leave his worldly occupation and join the clergy. For fear of his master, he first tried to live the life of a priest in secret.

(Ch.2) Tamen, cum esset adhuc laicus, in nocte bis aut tertio de stratu suo consurgens, terrae prostratus, orationem fundebat ad Dominum. Nesciebat enim, quid caneret, quia litteras ignorabat. Videns autem saepius in oratorium litteras super iconicas apostolorum reliquorumque sanctorum esse conscriptas, exemplavit eas in codice.
Cumque ad occursum domini sui clerici vel abbates assiduae convenirent, hic e iunioribus quem primum potuisset arcessire secretius interrogabat nomina litterarum, et ob hoc eas intellegere coepit. Antea autem, inspirante Domino, et legit et scripsit, quam litterarum seriem cognovisset.

'And although he was still a layman he used to rise from his bed two or three times in the night and fall down in prayer to God. But he did not know what to sing because he had not been instructed in letters. Then, having often seen in the oratory letters written above the representations (super iconicas) of the apostles and other saints, he copied these into a book; and as clerics and abbots would frequently come and visit his master he used to seek out the youngest of them and ask them the names of the letters, and then he began to understand them. And, inspired by the Lord, he knew how to read and write before even knowing all his letters.'

His master died shortly afterwards, and Brachio joined Aemilianus in the wilderness (see E00222).

Text: Krusch 1969, 262-263. Translation: James 1991, 82-84, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Saints, unnamed or name lost : S00518 Apostles (unspecified) : S00084 Aemilianus and Brachio, hermit and monastic founder of the Auvergne and Touraine, ob. c. 560 and 576 : S00087

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

Cult building - oratory

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Transmission, copying and reading saint-related texts

Cult activities - Use of Images

  • Descriptions of images of saints

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Other lay individuals/ people Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy


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 Aemilianus and Brachio, see E00222. This passage is a key event in the story of Brachio's conversion. It reveals many interesting details about the life of clergy in late antique Gaul, and also about the cult of saints. It is one of the few mentions from Gaul of depictions of saints in cult buildings. Gregory refers to them in passing, and we can assume that the presence of the representations of saints in such places was taken by him for granted. It is not explicitly stated, but we can also assume that the oratory where Brachio copied these inscriptions was in Clermont, since he was in the service of Sigivald who was based there. The word iconica, in classical Latin meaning primarily "statue", is used by Gregory again in his Histories 6.2 clearly in a rather vague meaning ("representation"). It is impossible to say whether the images referred to in our passage were icons, mosaics, frescos or yet another type of representation. It is equally unknown where in the oratory the images were placed and what they were used for. We learn only that they bore inscriptions, and it is difficult to imagine here anything other than the names of saints written next to their likenesses. Interestingly, these inscriptions seem to represent for Gregory the only written word accessible to the broad public. The episode suggests unsurprisingly, that the inscriptions were understood only by the clergy and not by the faithful. A question can be raised, whether the captions were in fact a means to make the images of the saints more "people-friendly" or rather the opposite: more elaborated and distant. Another interesting aspect is added by the fact that the inscriptions, copied into a book, were supposed to substitute for a cleric's book for prayer. Gregory doesn't comment on this substitution, but from the context we can say that he treats it with approval. Evidently, the idea that a priest's prayer might be composed of a list of saints' names doesn't seem odd or unthinkable to him, although it is difficult to link the quoted passage directly with any existing prayer practice of Late Antiquity. We should, however, note discussion on two overlapping issues: the origins of the Litany of the Saints, which some scholars date to the 4th century, and the development of the Canon of the Roman Mass, completed probably at the end of the 6th century by Gregory the Great, which includes two lists of invocations to the saints (Knopp 1970; De Clerck 1977; Join-Lambert 2004; Farrell 2012).


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: De Clerck, P., “La ‘prière universelle’ dans les liturgies latines anciennes. Témoignages patristiques et textes liturgiques,” Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen 62 (1977), 275-280. Farrell, J., “The Canonization of Perpetua,” in: J.N. Bremmer and M. Formisano (eds.), Perpetua's Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 300-320. Join-Lambert, A., “The Personalization of the Litany of the Saints at ordinations: An Ecclesiological and Pastoral Issue,” Studia Liturgica 34 (204), 216-230. Knopp, G., “Sanctorum nomina seriatim. Die Anfänge der Allerheiligenlitanei und ihre Vebindung mit den ‘Laudes Regiae’,” Römische Quartalschrift für christliche Altertumskunde und für Kirchengeschichte 65 (1970), 185-231. 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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