Germanus of Auxerre Defeats an Army Through Trickery and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In my last post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I mentioned that I might want to write more about the text. As of today, I’m only on page 114 of the book, but I’ve already found quite a few interesting stories in An Ecclesiastical History. Consequently, I’ve decided to make this type of post a series. As I read An Ecclesiastical History and as I find more and more events I wish to talk about, I will write more blog posts. I’ll probably do this until I finish the book. There are a lot of events that I find fascinating and I really do want to talk about them all. As an added bonus, most of the chapters are only a few paragraphs long so it’s easy to summarize and talk about each one.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not particularly concerned whether or not the stories Bede documents are true. I’m more interested in the culture that Bede is writing about. Histories like these capture the thought process of the time and culture, especially the thought process of a devoted monk. In short, I’m reading An Ecclesiastical History of the English People for fun. Because I’m reading his text for fun I will be documenting the events I find fascinating. I will share four excerpts from An Ecclesiastical History. Originally for this series, I planned to do five excerpts a post but today I want to focus exclusively on Bishop Germanus of Auxerre.

 

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Stained Glass Portrait of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre | Source: Wikipedia

 

For reference, I’m using the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.

The first excerpt comes from Book One, Chapter Seventeen. This is the same chapter that documents Bishop Germanus of Auxerre calming a storm caused by devils. Germanus and Bishop Lupus of Troyes have finally reached Britain and must confront the Pelagians. Germanus and Lupus have been preaching the word of God and “the majority of the people readily accepted their teaching” (pg. 59).  The Pelagians are not particularly happy about this and basically challenge Germanus and Lupus to a preach off. (Or “a trial of strength” (pg. 59) as Bede calls it.) Germanus and Lupus accept.

It’s important to note that Bede describes the Pelagians as wearing “rich ornaments and magnificent robes, supported by crowds of flattering followers” (pg. 59). Basically, the Pelagians are not very Christ-like. Christ was a poor man who told the rich to give their money and possessions away to the needy. Instead of following Christ’s teachings, the Pelagians wear fancy clothes, have fancy stuff, and are surrounded by people who flatter and fawn over them. Not only does Bede code the Pelagians as not Christ-like, but they are also greatly contrasted with Germanus, who earlier in the chapter stopped a storm like Christ.

The thing I found most amusing about this section of the chapter isn’t the preach off or the comparison of the two groups to Christ. What actually made me put another sticky tab in this chapter was the fact that the judges of this preach off are the Pelagians’ wives and children. (In the early days of the church priests could have wives and children and it wasn’t a big deal. How and why this changed is extremely fascinating and contains a lot of wild stories, but that is a story for another blog post.) Germanus and Lupus let the Pelagians speak first, “which they did at great length, filling the time, and the ears of their audience with empty words” (pg. 60). Germanus and Lupus go next and they win. (Of course.) The Pelagians’ “lies [are] exposed, and [they are] unable to defend any of their arguments” (pg. 60). As a result, the Pelagians admit they are wrong, the judges (the Pelagians’ families remember) almost get violent, and Germanus and Lupus are proclaimed the winners/right about God.

So not only do the Pelagians lose, but they are also humiliated in front of their wives and children.

The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Eighteen. Bishop Germanus is once again compared to Christ here. In this chapter, Germanus cures a ten-year-old girl’s blindness. “Immediately after” (pg. 60) the preach off, a tribune and his wife ask the bishops to heal his child. However, it appears that Germanus and Lupus are feeling petty and they tell the tribune to take his daughter to “their opponents” (pg. 60). The Pelagians are “smitten by guilty consciences, joined their entreaties to those of the girl’s parents and begged the bishops to heal her” (pg. 60). It’s only after the bishops see the Pelagians begging for help does Germanus actually cure the girl’s blindness with a prayer and some relics. The pettiness here is tremendous. (Though I will add that Germanus’ miracle convinces everyone that the Pelagians are wrong and Germanus and Lupus’ teachings about God are right.)

 

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Bishop Lupus of Troyes | Source: Wikipedia, User GO69

 

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Nineteen. We are still following the adventures of Bishop Germanus. (From what I can tell from Bede’s work, Germanus is the more important bishop. He’s the one who actually performs the miracles while Lupus just kind of seems like his sidekick.) At the beginning of this chapter, the Devil makes Germanus fall and break his leg. This is before X-rays or anti-biotics, so breaking your leg is a pretty big deal. Also, the fact that the Devil made Germanus break his leg makes it an even bigger deal.

While Germanus is recovering, he is staying in a cottage. In a neighboring cottage, a fire breaks out. After the fire destroyed “the adjoining dwellings which…were thatched with reeds from the marshes, [the fire] was carried by the wind to the cottage where he lay”(pg. 61). Because these cottages are made with reeds (and probably wood) they are practically pre-made bonfires. Houses back then were super flammable. Because Germanus’ house is on fire, people try to get him out. Germanus is “full of trust in God” (pg. 61) so he tells them to leave him in there. He also refuses to leave.

It’s important to look at Bede’s wording here. In my translation, it is described as follows:

The people ran to pick up the bishop and carry him to a place of safety; but, full of trust in God, he reproved them and would not allow them to do so (pg. 61).

Other translations might word this differently, but based on my copy, the phrase “would not allow them to do so” (pg. 61) makes me think that they tried to pick him up and Germanus slapped their hands away or used some sort of physical violence. There is no concrete textual evidence for this, but that is certainly the image that came into my head as I read the chapter. One reason I think this might be the case is that who is going to willingly leave a holy man in a cottage to burn alive? And even if there was no physical force involved, there must have been some shouting.

Despite the people’s efforts, the end result is still the same: “In despair, the people ran off to fight the fire” (pg. 61-62). So they leave Germanus in the cottage and try to save other things. What those things are isn’t specified, but “whatever the crowd endeavoured to save was destroyed” (pg. 62). Bede makes sure that his reader knows that this destruction is all God’s will and is “clearer evidence of God’s power” (pg. 62).

By the way, the fire doesn’t reach Germanus and he’s fine.

The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty. The Saxons and the Picts have “made war on the Britons” (pg. 62) and the Britons have asked Germanus and Lupus for help. The two bishops agree to assist them. However, instead of offering tactical advice or even suggestions on how to bring about peace, Germanus “promised to direct the battle in person” (pg. 63). I’m not sure if bishops leading armies were common in 429 A.D. (the date this story occurred), but Germanus ends up being a great leader.

That being said, Germanus doesn’t necessarily use direct violence against the enemy forces. Instead, Germanus tricks them into thinking there is a rock slide occurring in the valley they are passing through. How does he do this? Germanus shouts ‘Alleluia’ three times and the Briton army does the same. Their shouting (and the echoes of their shouting) is so loud that the enemy army panics, “thinking that the very rocks and sky were falling on them, and were so terrified that they could not run fast enough” (pg. 63). They throw down their weapons to run faster. Most of the enemy ends up drowning in a river they tried to cross. In the end, the Britons win the battle and peace is restored (well, for now). Germanus and Lupus go home.

 

It’s important for me to note that Germanus and Lupus do have to return to Britain because the Pelagian heresy is revived, but I have decided not to write about that chapter. Instead, my next blog post about An Ecclesiastical History will focus on Saint Augustine.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

 

The Time Bishop Germanus Stopped a Demon Storm and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In August I purchased a copy of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (or A History of the English Church and People as my copy is titled). It was only recently that I’ve finally gotten the chance to start reading it. Like a lot of medieval texts, especially ones documenting historical events, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History includes many wild stories. These wild stories include events that today’s science-based culture may write off as exaggerations or flat out false.

However, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter how “true” the stories are if you are reading a text for fun. They were written during a different time and in a different culture than our own. Thus, these stories offer a lot of insight into how people thought. (I’m also of the opinion that it’s fun to try to figure out the science behind miracle stories, but that isn’t what I’m doing today.)

Today, I want to talk about some of the chapters/events that I find particularly interesting or amusing. I have yet to finish An Ecclesiastical History (I’m only on page 70!), so I’m more than positive that I’ll be writing another blog post about the text. For reference, I’m reading the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.

The first excerpt I’ve selected isn’t a complete story, but part of one. It comes from Book One, Chapter One of An Ecclesiastical History. Early Britain was filled with many different groups of people. In the beginning, only Britons lived in Britain (hence the name). Eventually, the Scots (who were actually from Ireland) and the Picts migrated into Britain. Apparently, after the Picts settled in the north, they had to ask the Scots for wives because they didn’t bring any women with them. The Scots agreed under the condition that if any dispute occurred, the Picts would choose a king from the female royal line, instead of the male royal line. The Picts agreed to this and the practice was still going on when Bede wrote An Ecclesiastical History.

The second excerpt I’ve chosen comes from Book One, Chapter Seven. This particular chapter tells the story of how Saint Alban was martyred. Saint Alban is the first person to be martyred in Britain (at least he’s the first recorded one). While the account is super interesting and full of miracles, I’ll save the full story for another post. What I want to focus on is Saint Alban’s first executioner.

 

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The martyrdom of St Alban | MS E. I. 40, folio 38r | Source: Wikipedia

 

After the first executioner saw Saint Alban perform some miracles, he refused to kill him. As a result, he was executed alongside the saint. Bede notes that even though the first executioner wasn’t baptized, it was decided that he could still go to Heaven. Now, if you aren’t familiar with early Catholicism, this is a Big Deal. One belief was that if you weren’t baptized, you couldn’t go to Heaven. This included babies. That’s why emergency baptisms were a thing. Even if you weren’t a priest you could baptize infants. Heck, even if you were pagan or Jewish you could perform an emergency baptism! (I’ll add that in modern-day Catholicism the belief has changed. Now babies can get into Heaven even if they aren’t baptized.) The fact that people thought the first executioner was qualified to get into Heaven for converting and refusing to kill Saint Alban is definitely something that jumped out at me.

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fourteen. This is another small event that I found notable. During most of the early chapters, the Britons are repeatedly getting slaughtered by invaders. However, in this story, the Britons finally are able to defend themselves. After the Britons “drive the Barbarians out of their land” (Bede’s words, not mine on page 54), they are finally able to cut a break. They’re able to grow a lot of corn. With this surplus, the Britons are able to live lives of luxury. But with luxury comes corruption. According to Bede, the “increase in luxury, [was] followed by every kind of crime, especially cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehood” (pg. 55). Things don’t really change much, do they?

(I will also add that Bede tells us that because the Britons fell into debauchery, God sends a plague to kill a lot of people. This plague results in more invasions from the north.)

The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. As previously stated, things go bad for the Britons again. It’s the year 449 A.D. and the Picts and Scots are attacking again. The Briton king Vortigern decides to ask for help from “the Angles or Saxons”(pg. 55). They were two pagan tribes who lived in what is now modern-day Germany. They come to Britain and they do help. However, Britain is a really nice place and the Britons are “cowardly” (pg. 56) and it would be insanely easy to defeat them and settle down. Needless to say, there is another migration and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes make themselves at home. To add insult to injury, the Angles make an alliance with the Picts – the very people they were hired to conquer!

 

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Vortigern and Rowena by William Harvey | Source: Wikipedia

 

This alliance results in the Britons being slaughtered once again. Buildings are destroyed,  priests are murdered on their altars, people no matter their rank in society are also killed, “and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death” (pg. 57). Like other medieval writers, Bede exaggerates a little. There are still some Briton survivors. These survivors have either escaped overseas or run into the hills. The Britons who escape to the hills suffer many different fates. Some are captured and killed, others are also captured after surrendering due to hunger and are sold into slavery, and the remainder of those who escaped live “a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests, and crags, ever on the alert for danger” (pg. 57).

Bede makes this very clear that this horror is God punishing the Britons for getting too sinful during the events recorded in Book One, Chapter Fourteen. Personally, I think genocide is a harsh punishment for a few years of rampant corruption but apparently, Bede doesn’t share my view.

The fifth (and the final excerpt for today’s post) is from Book One, Chapter Seventeen.  Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tends to jump around a lot, so this event takes place twenty years before the fourth excerpt. The Pelagians are spreading around heretical views and Bishop Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes are asked to stop them. They are both from Gaul (part of modern-day France) so they must cross the sea to get to Britain. At first, the wind is “favourable” (pg. 58), but halfway through their journey a storm picks up. According to Bede, this storm is caused by devils trying to stop Germanus and Lupus from “recall[ing] the Britons to the way of salvation” (pg. 58).

While the storm is happening (and the ship is essentially being destroyed) Germanus is sleeping. It’s only when almost all hope is lost do Lupus and their companions wake Germanus up “to oppose the fury of the elements” (pg. 59). Germanus is good in a crisis and he knows exactly what to do. Instead of panicking, Germanus “called upon Christ and cast a few drops of holy water on the waves in the Name of the Sacred Trinity” (pg. 59). As he did this, Germanus had his companions pray with him. Luckily for Germanus and Co., God heard them and made the devils go away.

Now, whether or not Germanus actually stopped a storm, isn’t really important to me. What is important is that Christ does the same thing in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Of course, Christ is able to calm the storm using only his words instead of holy water and prayers, but both figures are able to save their boats from capsizing. I also find it interesting that both Christ and Germanus are asleep before they stop the storm. Another early medieval account of Germanus’ life, Constantius of Lyon’s Vita Germani includes the story as well (however, here Germanus uses oil instead of holy water). Germanus’ similarities to Christ means that he was a respected figure to early medieval people. (This is further emphasized by his sainthood.)

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.