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.