Priest of the month #1 – an elderly eccentric

Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 13766, 55r. Images in the public domain, reproduced with thanks to Gallica.

As part of this project, we’ve promised to turn the spotlight on specific examples of local priests in the long tenth century, as ‘Priests of the Month’. And yes, we know it sounds like something from Father Ted. So it only seems fitting to begin with a priest who sounds like he could have had a cameo role in the cult TV series.

If you had set foot in the church of St Lawrence in the village of Fontenoy-sur-Moselle near Toul around 930, it’s likely you would have met an elderly priest, who rarely left the building. He might well have been talking to himself as you came in, or rather to the demons he frequently saw dancing in front of him, and shouting and gesticulating at the church’s patron saint Lawrence to help him: “‘Lawrence, what are you doing, why aren’t you defending me against these madnesses?”

If you’d plucked up the courage to talk to this strange figure, you would have noticed an accent. For this priest originated not from the region of Toul, but from the Beauce, 400km away in the Loire valley (it’s broadly the area around Chartres).

The priest would probably have willingly volunteered the story of how he ended up in eastern France. He had been, he would proudly tell you, captured by Vikings when they were raiding the Loire and the Seine valleys. They’d tried to kill him by throwing him into the pits which can be found in that region, but he’d somehow survived, resolutely chanting the psalms from the pit floors. So the Vikings then planned to run him through with a sword, but then they unaccountably changed their mind and left him alone. He nearly starved to death, but was saved by finding three loaves of bread on the road: a miracle, he was sure.

If you’d enquired any further, or – heaven forbid – queried some of the details of this strange tale (what kind of pits can be found in the Loire valley? Why hadn’t he just returned home after the Viking freed him? Since we’re asking, who had ordained him as priest, and did he have the right paperwork?), you might well have been reprimanded, for this elderly man was given to harshly correcting what he took to be sinful behaviour. As you left the building, he would doubtless then have returned to singing the Psalms in his idiosyncratic fashion, enunciating each syllable, one at a time: perhaps the only bit of the Scriptures he knew well.

How do we know all this? Because this priest – alas, not named – is described in a tenth-century text known as the Life of John of Gorze. The hero of this work, John, used to reminisce fondly about this strange character whom he looked after in the church John possessed at Fontenoy. John was probably (but not certainly) a priest himself, but since he had two churches, and the other one was at Vandières, some 30km away, it seems likely John delegated the divine office at Fontenoy to this somewhat eccentric figure, with his demons and his slightly suspicious back-story. (Also present at the church of Fontenoy was a veiled woman given over to the divine office, but that’s a subject perhaps for another blog.)

The eccentric priest at Fontenoy is a reminder that not all tenth-century local priests were well to-do and educated men, and indeed that they weren’t always really ‘local’. This one, I’m sure, would have made very entertaining company, at least for a short while.


TRANSLATION (Latin and German translation available here)

And [John of Gorze] also fed and looked after in every way there a certain wandering priest of great age until he died. Father John liked to tell us many things about his good behaviour – that he was fixed on the divine office night and day, and hardly ever crossed the church threshold except for bodily necessity. This priest assiduously recited the psalms distinct in words and meaning, so that you might think he was counting the syllables. He spent most of the night in simple prayer. He struggled with his own thoughts, speaking them aloud, and waving his hands as if to beat them: ‘Begone, imposters and cowards, do not take the tiniest psalm from my lips!’. And he addressed himself to the martyr Lawrence in a plaintive voice, shouting ‘Lawrence, what are you doing, why aren’t you defending me against these madnesses?’. He declared that he saw demons dancing before him with his own eyes, and that they were very hostile to him, often throwing him into physical torture so that he could not get up from his bed for days.

15. This man also used to account about himself that in the time when the Vikings were busy ravaging the areas around the Seine and the Loire, he himself was captured by them, and thrown into a very deep pit, of which many can be seen in his homeland of the Beauce, which is where he came from, but that he wasn’t at all injured. Then they hauled him out and threw him into an even deeper one. Since he was still unaffected, they took him out and decided to kill him with the sword. But one of them said that they had not yet reached the kind of land where he should die, so he was released, one might think miraculously. When the Vikings had gone for a few hours, he climbed out of the pit as best he could, and went on his way. He nearly died of starvation, for there were three days where he had no food, when suddenly in the middle of the road he saw three loaves of bread, thanks to which he made it to the church of St Lawrence. He confirmed without any hesitation that it was thanks to the power of the psalms that were always on his lips, and which he had recited even in those pits, that he had been freed from so many dangers. John often gave thanks that he had been frequently warned by this priest for many things he had lightly done, and sometimes harshly criticised, and in many ways corrected.