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E00387: Gregory of Tours, in his Glory of the Martyrs (13), narrates the story of the thumb of *John the Baptist (S00020) brought from the shrine of his tomb (in an unspecified place) to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne (south-east Gaul) by an unnamed woman; there drops of blood from the thumb were obtained by three bishops and taken to their cities; an archdeacon who attempted to take the thumb to Turin (northern Italy) died within three days. Written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 580/594.

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posted on 2015-04-14, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs 13

Nam quaedam mulier a Maurienna urbe progrediens, ipsius praecursoris reliquias expetivit et ita se constrinxit vinculo iuramenti, ut non ante a loco discederet, nisi de membris eius mereretur quicquam accipere. Sed cum inpossibile haec incolae loci narrarent, prosternebatur cotidie ante sepulchrum, orans sibi, ut diximus, de sanctis artubus aliqua condonari. In qua intentione integrum duxit annum, similiter et alium, iugi semper oratione deposcens. Tertio vero ingrediente anno, cum orationem suam pervenire non cerneret ad effectum, proiecit se ante sepulchrum et obtestatur, non se exinde surrecturam, priusquam haec petitio obteneretur a sancto. Septima vero die, cum iam inaedia defeceret, apparuit super altare pollex mirae candoris ac lucis effulgens. Cognitum autem mulier Dei donum, surrexit a pavimento, factamque capsulam auream, in ea recondidit quae Domino largiente meruerat, et sic gaudens remeavit ad propria. Impletumque est in illa, quod Dominus ait in euangelio: Amen dico vobis, quod, si perseveraverit pulsans, et si non surgit, pro eo quod amicus sit, propter inprobitatem tamen eius surgit et tribuit ei, quotquot habet necessarios.

Post haec tres episcopi advenientes de civitatibus suis ad adorandum in hoc loco, voluerunt partem de hoc pignore elicere; positumque in medio, nihil omnino auferre potuerunt. Tunc una vigilantes nocte, deprecati sunt, ut aliquid mererentur a pollice; positumque sub eo lenteum, dum partem auferre conantur, una ex eo gutta sanguinis cecidit super lenteum. Quod cernentes, duas deinceps noctes vigilant. Deinde prostrati coram sancto altare, dum supplicant, ut adhuc maius aliquid mereantur a pollice, duae iterum ex eo fluxerunt guttae.At illi gavisi, collegentes devote quae Dominus dederat, iuxta numerum servorum suorum diviserunt lenteum cum guttis suis, quae non sine grandi admiratione urbibus intulerunt.

Et quia locus ille Mauriennensis ad Taurinensim quondam urbem pertenebat, tempore illo, quo Rufus erat episcopus, ait archidiaconus eius ad eum: "Non est aequum, ut hoc pignus in loco viliori teneatur, sed surge et accipe eum et defer ad Taurinensim eclesiam, quae plus popularis habetur". Cui ille respondit, quia haec agere non audebat. Archidiaconus dixit: "Ego hoc deferam, si permittis". Et episcopus: "Fac, quod libet". Tunc archidiaconus accedens ad locum, dum vigilias caelebrat, mittit manum ad capsulam. Mox amens effectus, accensus febre, die tertio spiravit, factusque est timor magnus omnibus, nec quisquam ultra beata pignora ausus est mutare.

'A woman set out from Maurienne and sought relics (reliquias) of the Forerunner [John the Baptist]. She pledged herself by the bond of an oath that she would not leave that place until she was worthy to receive some part from his limbs. When the inhabitants of the region said this was impossible, every day she knelt before the tomb and prayed that something from his holy limbs be given her, as I have said. In this pursuit she spent an entire year, and then likewise another year, always praying, always making her request. As the third year approached and she felt that her prayer was not having any effect, she threw herself before the tomb and insisted that she would not stand up again until her petition was received by the saint. On the seventh day, when she was becoming weak from fasting: there appeared over the altar a gleaming thumb, wonderfully bright and clear. The woman recognized this gift from God and rose from the pavement. She acquired a small gold reliquary (capsulam auream) and put in it [the thumb] that the Lord had given and that she had deserved. So she happily returned to her own [city]. What the Lord said in the Gospel was fulfilled in this woman: 'Amen, I say to you that if a man will have persevered in his knocking, and if another man does not get up because he is a friend, yet he rises because of his boldness and gives him whatever he needs'.

Later three bishops arrived from their own cities to worship in this place and wished to take a piece from this relic (de hoc pignore). It was placed in the open, but in no way could they remove anything. Then, while keeping vigils one night they prayed that they might be worthy of something from the thumb. They placed a linen cloth beneath the thumb, and while they tried to remove a piece, a single drop of blood fell from the thumb unto the linen cloth. Once they saw this, they kept vigils two more nights. Then, while they knelt before the holy altar and asked that they be worthy of something greater from the thumb, two more drops fell from it. In their happiness they piously collected what the Lord had given and divided the linen cloth with its drops according to the number of the Lord's servants. With great respect the three bishops brought these relics to their own cities.

Because the site of Maurienne belonged to the [episcopal see of] the city of Turin, at the time when Rufus was bishop his archdeacon said to him: 'It is not proper that this relic (pignus) be kept in that insignificant place. Rise, take it, and bring it to the cathedral at Turin which is considered more reputable. The bishop replied to him that he did not dare to do this. The archdeacon said: 'I will fetch this relic, if you agree.' The bishop said: 'Do whatever pleases you.' Then the archdeacon went to the site, and while keeping vigils he put his hand on the reliquary (capsulam). Soon he went mad, burned with a fever, and on the third day expired. A great fear arose in everyone, and no one dared to tamper again with the sacred relics.'

Text: Krusch 1969, 47-48. Translation: Van Dam 2004, 15-16, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

John the Baptist : S00020

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • 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


Cult Activities - Miracles

Miraculous behaviour of relics/images Saint aiding or preventing the translation of relics Punishing miracle

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Ecclesiastics - bishops Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - arm/hand/finger Bodily relic - unspecified Reliquary – privately owned Bodily relic - blood Contact relic - cloth Discovering, finding, invention and gathering of relics Division of relics Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects

Precious material 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. Internal references to datable events and to other work by Gregory, suggest that he wrote the greater part of his Glory of the Martyrs between 585 and 588, though there is one chapter (ch. 82), long before the end of the book, that describes an event that is most readily dated to 590. It is in fact likely that Gregory was collecting and recording these stories throughout his life, and, fortunately for our purposes, precise dating is not of great importance, since his views on the role of saints and the correct ways to venerate them do not seem to have changed during his writing life. The work was probably never fully completed and polished: the version we have closes with four very disparate chapters, including one (105) about the divine punishment of an avaricious woman that bears no obvious connection to the overall theme of the book. (For discussions of the dating, see Van Dam 2004, xi-xii; Shaw 2015, 104-105, 111.) In his preface, Gregory states that his aim in the work is 'to publicise some of the miracles of the saints that have until now been hidden' (aliqua de sanctorum miraculis, quae actenus latuerunt, pandere), so, as in his Glory of the Confessors, his focus is not on the lives of the saints, nor on the details of their martyrdoms, but on miracles they have effected, particularly through their relics. Miracles are recorded from many places; but unsurprisingly the largest number is from Gaul. The book opens, rather curiously, with a sizeable number of miracles and relics of Jesus and his mother Mary, neither of them conventional 'martyrs'. The explanation for this must be that Gregory's interest was really much more in relics and miracles in general than in martyrs specifically. Many of the Gallic saints he included are somewhat obscure, but outside Gaul he concentrates for the most part on major saints; towards the end of the book, however, he slips in a couple of lesser Syrian saints, probably because they had interesting specialisms: Phokas and Domitios, with, respectively, particular skills at curing snake bites and sciatica. In the case of the non-Gallic saints, it is not always clear whether they were attracting active cult in Gaul – Phokas and Domitios, for instance, almost certainly didn't. It is only when Gregory tells us of a church dedication or relic that we can be certain that the saint concerned had serious cult in Gaul: in the case of the martyrs of Rome, for instance, this is true of Clement and Laurence, but not of Chrysanthus and Daria, Pancratius, and John I. Although each section contains extraneous material, the work can be broken down very roughly into the following sections:    *Chapters 1-7: Miracles and relics of Jesus (with some of Mary), including three chapters (5-7) on relics of the Passion. (For the most part, these chapters are not covered in our database.)    *Chapters 8-19: Miracles and relics of Mary and John the Baptist.    *Chapters 20-25: Miraculous images of Jesus, and a spring associated with Easter.    *Chapters 23-34: Miracles and relics of the Apostles and Stephen (i.e. New Testament saints).    *Chapters 35-41: Miracles and relics of the post-apostolic martyrs of Rome.    *Chapters 42-46: And of northern Italy.    *Chapters 47-77: And of Gaul (in no obvious order, except that the first three chapters are occupied by early martyrs). This is the longest section of the book.    *Chapters 78-87: Very miscellaneous, with only marginal references to saints: three anti-Arian stories (79-81); two stories regarding relics of Gregory's (82-83); four stories of the punishment of impure people (84-87).    *Chapters 88-102: Miracles and relics of martyrs of Spain, Africa (just one, Cyprian of Carthage), and the East, in that order.    *Chapters 103-106: Miscellaneous. But tight structuring was never a great concern of Gregory's, so within this broad framework, he often wanders off his main theme. For instance, a clutch of miracle stories relating to John the Baptist (chs. 11-13) lead Gregory into a general discussion of the River Jordan (ch. 16), which then leads him to discuss some springs near Jericho (ch. 17), linked to the preceding chapter by the common theme of 'miraculous waters in the Holy Land', but with no connection to any martyr. Similarly, a miracle story involving relics of St Andrew and the punishment of an Arian count (ch. 78) leads Gregory into three stories against Arians with no relation to saints. These digressions did not bother Gregory and are part of the charm of his work. Gregory very seldom tells us about his sources, which for the most part were certainly oral; he had a wide circle of acquaintances within the Gallic church, and also met and collected stories from travellers from abroad, including (if the source is to be believed) a man who had travelled to India (ch. 31). But Gregory also used a range of written texts, including Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (chs. 20 and 48), the poems of Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, and Venantius Fortunatus, and a substantial number of Martyrdoms (Van Dam 2004, xiv-xvi). Because many of his stories are set abroad, Glory of the Martyrs is less informative about cult practices than Glory of the Confessors, with its very local and very Gallic focus, but it is still a gold-mine of information. To take just two examples: the story of Benignus of Dijon is a remarkably rich and detailed account of the discovery and enhancement of a previously unknown martyr (ch. 50), while that of Patroclus of Troyes shows the importance of a written Martyrdom, and the degree of scepticism that might greet a new one (ch. 63). There is a good general discussion of Glory of the Martyrs in Van Dam 2004, ix-xxiii, and of Gregory's hagiography more widely in Shaw 2015. (Bryan Ward-Perkins)


For an overview of the Glory of the Martyrs see E00367. The tomb of John the Baptist was located in Sebaste in Palestine. Gregory's mention proves that he had some, yet imprecise, knowledge about the eastern sanctuaries and their relics (see e.g. E00373) and treated them with great esteem. The story can be read as a metaphor of an ecclesiastical controversy around the newly created diocese of Maurienne (today Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne): it was founded by king Guntram in 574, who carved it out from the diocese of Turin. In 599 this still caused protests from the bishop of Turin (Krusch 1969, 47). Gregory clearly strengthens with his account the position of the church of Maurienne: he emphasises that it possessed corporeal relics of a great biblical saint. Secondary relics produced from this relic were housed in three other episcopal sees, which might be an allusion to the recognition of the new diocese by the Gallic bishops. Finally, the story of the failed translation of the relic from Maurienne to Turin seems to be a straightforward parable of some failed attempts to keep Maurienne within the borders of the diocese of Turin. It is striking that Gregory most probably described a political and ecclesiastical rivalry between two episcopal sees in terms of a competition for relics. It is even possible that the presence of a corporeal relic of John the Baptist in Maurienne could have played a role in the foundation of the bishopric itself, and Gregory only emphasised this particular aspect of the events. In later tradition the story of an anonymous woman evolved into an account about *Thekla (follower of the Apostle Paul, S00092) bringing to Maurienne three fingers of John the Baptist (e.g. Petrus Comestor, Church History 20.73, written in the 12th century). Relics of John the Baptist are still housed in the church of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. The quoted account reveals several interesting details concerning the cult of relics. We learn that a corporeal relic of a great New Testament saint was worth much more than a contact relic. It is precisely the wish to obtain a relic 'from his limbs' (de membris eius) which keeps the pilgrim from Maurienne for many years at the tomb of John the Baptist. The relic is given to her in a miraculous way; the miraculous story of the origin of the relic seems to be for Gregory a proof of its authenticity (see e.g. E00385). A close link between the relics and altars is stressed several times in the account: the woman prays at the tomb of John the Baptist, but his thumb appears 'over the altar'; even though the story seems to suggest that the woman obtained the relic for herself, we then learn that it was placed in (or on) the altar in the church in Maurienne. The golden reliquary (capsulam auream) used to house the relic clearly reflects the great value of the relic itself. It is possible that the hand/fingers of John the Baptist were a relic of a special meaning: it was the part of the saint's body which touched Christ and could be thus seen as a secondary relic of Christ.


Edition: Krusch, B., Liber in gloria martyrum, in: Gregorii Turonensis Opera. 2: Miracula et opera minora (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.2; 2nd ed.; Hannover, 1969). Translation: Van Dam, R., Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs (Translated Texts for Historians 4; 2nd ed., Liverpool, 2004). 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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