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E00333: Gregory of Tours, in the Preface to his Life of *Ursus and Leobatius (abbots in Berry and the Touraine, around AD 500, S00137), compares the apostles and other saints, including those of the present, to stars in the heavens, enlightening the world. From Gregory's Life of the Fathers, written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 573/594.

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posted on 2015-03-06, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
Gregory of Tours, Life of the Fathers 18 preface

Legiferi vatis oraculum, cum de principio principium fandi sumpsisset et, Dominum extendisse caelos dextera maiestatis, fuisset effatus, ait: Et fecit Deus duo luminaria magna et stellas. Et posuit ea in firmamento caeli, ut praeessent diei ac nocti et lucerent in firmamento caeli. Sic nunc et in illo mentis humanae caelo, sicut priorum sancxit auctoritas, luminaria magna dedit, Christum scilicet et eclesiam eius, quae luceant in tenebris ignorantiae et inluminent sensus humilitatis nostrae, sicut Iohannes euangelista de ipso Domino ait, quia: Hic est lux mundi, qui inluminat omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum. Posuit etiam in eo et stellas, patriarchas videlicet, prophetas apostolosque, qui vel doctrinis nos erudiant vel mirabilibus suis inluminent, sicut in euangelio ait, quia: Vos estis lux huius mundi, et: Sic luceat lux vestra coram hominibus, ut videant opera vestra bona et glorificent Patrem vestrum, qui est in caelis. Hii enim apostoli merito pro tota accipiuntur eclesia; quae non habens rugam aut maculam, inpolluta subsistit, sicut apostolus ait, quia: Ipse sibi exhibuit eclesiam mundam, non habentem maculam aut rugam aut aliquid huiuscemodi. Ex horum ergo doctrina et usque in nostris fuerunt temporibus, qui in hoc saeculo quasi astrorum iubar, non solum meritorum radiantes luce, verum etiam dogmatum magnitudine corruscantes, orbem totum radio suae praedicationis inlustraverunt, euntes per loca singula praedicando ac monasteria ad divinum cultum locando, docendo homines a curis saecularibus abstenere, et relictis tenebris concupiscentiae, Deum verum sequi, per quem facta sunt omnia, sicut de Urso Leobatioque abbatibus fidelium fratrum relatio signat.

'When the Legislator and Prophet began to speak of the beginning of all things and to show the Lord forming with the majesty of his right hand the extent of the heavens, he added "and God made two great lights and the stars, and he set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth" [Genesis 1: 16-17]. Likewise in the firmament of human understanding He has placed, as the authority of the Holy Fathers affirms, two great lights, that is to say Christ and His Church, so that they may cast light on the darkness of ignorance and illumine our humble intelligence, as John the Evangelist says of the Lord Himself: "That was true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" [John 1:9]. He also put into it the stars, that is to say the patriarchs, prophets and the apostles, who instruct us by their teaching or enlighten us by their miracles, as He says Himself in the Gospel, "Ye are the light of the world" [Matthew 5:16], and again "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven" [Matthew 5:16]. For these apostles are accepted by their merit on behalf of the whole church, which lives unpolluted, without spot or blemish, as the Apostle says, "That he might present it to himself a pure church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing" [Ephes. 5:27] Then thanks to this doctrine there have been up until our times men who were like the radiance of the stars in this world, not only resplendent by the light of their virtues but also shining by the greatness of their teaching, who have lit the whole universe with the rays of their preaching, going to teach in every place, founding monasteries for the worship of God and instructing men to abstain from earthly cares and, having left the darkness of concupiscence, to follow the true God, the creator of all things. This is shown by the stories told by trustworthy brothers concerning the abbots Ursus and Leobatius.'

Text: Krusch 1969, 283-284. Translation: James 1991, 114, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Apostles (unspecified) : S00084 Patriarchs, Biblical (unspecified) : S00138 Prophets (unspecified) : S00139

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 - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Considerations about the hierarchy of saints


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 Ursus and Leobatius, see E00332. The passage, although providing no information on cult, reveals interesting information about the hierarchy of saints as imagined by Gregory of Tours. Gregory uses the metaphor of light and the celestial bodies to explain it and follows this through consistently. Christ and the Church are compared to the sun and moon, the Patriarchs, Prophets and Apostles to the stars. The metaphor continues when Gregory speaks of the saints from historical times, who "like the radiance of the stars in this world (qui in hoc saeculo quasi astrorum iubar) ... lit the whole universe with the rays of their preaching". The passage underlines a key message of the Life of the Fathers and other works by Gregory - that saints are still with us, even though the age of the martyrs is long past.


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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