CLASSIC BOOK REVIEW: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours19-min read (inc. footnotes)

“The Heavenly Power provides a unique and manifold gift when it gives us not only intercessors for our sins but also teachers of eternal life.”

Image: St Gregory and King Chilperic, Grandes Chronique de France de Charles V, (Wiki Commons, source)

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Introduction

While doing research for The WM Review’s ongoing series on St Gregory the Great, I came across a little-read book by the sixth century bishop, St Gregory of Tours, called The Life of the Fathers (UK: here)This fascinating and idiosyncratic little book, contains the lives of twenty saints almost entirely unknown today, and I would like to make it better known to the readers of The WM Review.

St Gregory, born Georgius Florentius, was bishop of Tours, in the Kingdom of the Franks. At the time of his birth, the Frankish conquest of the Roman province of Gaul had only recently been completed, and in many parts of the country the old Gallo-Roman aristocracy was still prosperous and influential. Nowhere was this more so than in the Church; many bishops were drawn from this class, often from the same families and for multiple generations.

It was to one of these influential families, in the city of Arvernis (modern Clermont-Ferrand), that Georgius was born, in 538 or 539 (making him an almost exact contemporary of St Gregory the Great). His father died while he was still a young child, and he was brought up in the household of his paternal uncle, St Gallus, who was bishop of Clermont from 525–551. He was educated by the archdeacon, St Avitus, who also later served as bishop. His formation for the priesthood was completed under the direction of St Nicetius, Archbishop of Lyon, who was his maternal great-uncle. 

Georgius was consecrated bishop of Tours on 22 August 573, at the age of 34. It was possibly at this time that he adopted the name Gregorius, in honour of his maternal great-grandfather, St Gregory of Langres. Gregory tells us that of the eighteen previous bishops of Tours, thirteen were related to him by blood. 

St Gregory of Tours was bishop for twenty-one years, until his death in 593/594. Tours was situated at the heart of the emerging kingdom of France, at the centre of a number of major road networks: it lay on the border between the region of Neustria, which had been ruled by the Franks since 476, and more recently acquired Aquitaine, where the old Gallo-Roman culture was much stronger. The city was the centre of the cult of St Martin of Tours, and therefore a major pilgrimage centre. These factors, combined with St Gregory’s own aristocratic background, his learning and his virtues, made him one of the most influential bishops in Gaul. He was in personal contact with the Frankish kings and knew most of the important figures of the realm.

St Gregory’s most famous literary work is the Decem Libri Historiarum (Ten Books of History)better known as the History of the Franks. This is the most important early account of the invasion and conquest of Gaul by the Franks, their conversion to the Catholic faith, and the early history of their kingdoms. St Gregory also wrote seven other books which record the lives and miracles of the saints, including the one we are considering in this review. These books used to be ignored – or treated with disdain – by secular historians. It was not until in the mid-twentieth century that their importance as sources of information about many facets of sixth century life became better appreciated.[1]

The Life of the Fathers

This short biographical introduction will have made it clear that Gregory was born into one of those aristocratic families which provided many bishops to the church in their particular region of Gaul. The local and family spirit is notable in The Life of the Fathers too. The reader who picks up a book with this title may expect to find accounts of the great fathers of the Church, such as St Augustine, St Ambrose or St Jerome. Nothing could be further from the case. This book is in fact a collection of short lives and miracles stories about local Gallic saints, almost all whom will be completely unknown to the reader. 

This is what gives the book so much of its charm. Many of these saints were men that St Gregory either knew personally, or men of whose lives he had heard at first hand. Some, like St Nicetius of Lyons and St Gregory of Langres, were his own relatives, and the shrines whose miracles he relates, were often places he had personally visited. His father was healed by St Martius, and he himself was healed at the tomb of St Ilidius. Indeed, St Gregory often suddenly appears in his own narrative, reminding us that he is an eyewitness of many of the events which he records. 

Professor Giselle di Nie – the translator of the text – notes that all twenty of the saints are from the same three regions of Gaul/France: eleven are from Gregory’s home city of Clermont, four from his mother’s province of Burgundy and five from his episcopal city of Tours. At least three are his own relatives, and at least seven were known to him personally – including four of whom he himself was a spiritual guide. 

The book has come to be known as The Life of the Fathers, a phrase which Gregory uses in the prologue, but he also says that he wished to call the book “The Life of Holy Men.” When originally planning the book St Gregory had “decided to write only about events that happened through divine intervention at the tombs of the most blessed martyrs and confessors” but while preparing the book he decided to expand its focus:

“[B]ecause I recently found out certain facts about those who were raised up to heaven by the merit of their blessed way of life, and thought that their life’s journeys, known through many testimonies would edify the Church, I am compelled by this opportunity not to delay saying something about them. For the life of the saints not only reveals their aim, but also stimulates the hearts of listeners to attempt to improve their souls.”[2]

He had a very particular reason for using the singular “life” rather the plural word “lives”:

“it is clearly better to speak of the ‘life’ of the fathers rather than of their ‘lives’, for although their merits and powerful deeds are diverse, in this world all are nourished by one and the same life of the body.”[3]

In other words, while each saint is an individual person with their own life and character, their sanctity always comes from the same source, Our Lord Jesus Christ, through His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church. 

There is a remarkable unity in their diversity – the same faith, the same sacraments, the same virtues, the same life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same Church, brings forth such a remarkable variety personalities, achievements, events and miracles.

Later in the book he further explains his reasons for writing of “the life” of holy men:

“The Heavenly Power provides a unique and manifold gift for earthly churches and peoples when it continually gives us not only intercessors for our sins but also teachers of eternal life. What appears to be one gift is in fact a manifold one, since it is abundantly given by the Divine Majesty to all who have longed to seek it, according to the saying: ‘Seek and you shall receive,’ and so on.

“The human mind should therefore attentively and unceasingly investigate the life of the saints so that, stimulated by this zeal and set afire with this example, it will always reach out to what it knows to be pleasing to God, and may thereby deserve to be saved by him and to be heard by him. These things the saints sought to obtain from his Majesty, continuously asking him to be in their hearts, act in their words, and speak through their mouths, so that their minds, pure in thought, speech and deed, might more easily think holy thoughts, speak righteous things, and act justly. 

“Thus since they served God in things that pleased him, they obtained remission of their sins, their rescue from the polluting filth of lust and, for their merits, admission to the heavenly kingdom. For they always kept the model of their predecessors before their eyes and praised the Almighty Lord out of love for those who examples, as we said, they desired to follow.”[4]

The structure of the book

The “lives” are of variable lengths, but each one begins with a short prologue, which introduces a doctrinal or moral theme, which is illustrated in some way by the life of the saint. As an example, we can consider the prologue of the life of an abbot named St Abraham. The doctrinal lesson of the prologue is: 

“[T]hat holy men can obtain what they ask from the Lord because their faith is securely founded and they are not driven back and forth by waves of hesitation.”[5]

He continues:

“On account of this faith and because they wished to lead the heavenly life, they became exiles not only within the boundaries of their own countries but even sought foreign lands overseas so that they might better please the One to whom they had devoted themselves”.

This provides an occasion to remember:

“[T]hat ancient Abraham to whom God said: ‘Go out from your country and your kindred, and go into the land which I shall show you.’”

The Patriarch thus serves as a model for the Abraham he is now writing of:

“[I]n this way, after many trials in this world, the blessed abbot Abraham entered the territory of Clermont… For this man left not only his own country but also the life of the old man and put on the new man, who is fashioned according to God in justice, sanctity and truth. And therefore when he saw himself to be perfect in the service of God he did not hesitate to seek what he was confident he could obtain through a holy life; for through him, the maker of the sky, the sea, and the earth deigned to work miracles”.[6]

Here we see a good example of St Gregory’s practice of taking universal doctrinal and scriptural themes and showing their application to the life of a local saint. This must have given these “lives” enormous instructive power for his sixth century Gallic and Frankish audience. 

The connection between perfection in virtue, and the gift of working miracles is another constant theme of St Gregory’s work. In the life of another abbot, St Martius, he draws his meaning out more explicitly. In the prologue of this life, the theme is forgiveness:

“Divine goodness grants us a great benefit when it gives a refuge for the remission of our sins if we overlook others’ negligence, if we forgive those who injure us, and if we extend a blessing to those who hate us… For so the teaching of the mouth of the Lord testifies: ‘If you forgive men their sins, your heavenly father will also forgive your sins.’”[7]

An example of this virtue is given in the account that follows. I will quote the story at length because of the richness of imagery. St Martius was the founder of a monastery which possessed a beautiful garden, which was “filled with a varied abundance of vegetables; it was pleasant to look at and happily fertile. The blessed old man often used to sit in the shade of its trees while their leaves whispered in the wind.”[8]

Once, however:

“[A]n impudent person without fear of God and a slave to the desires of his palate, broke through the hedge and entered stealthily into the garden; he did what the Lord condemned in the gospel: ‘Whoever does not enter by the door is a thief and a robber’… 

“When he had gathered vegetables, onions, garlic and apples, he went back to the place where he had entered, laden with the burden of his wicked stealth. But he could not find it and so could not leave the garden. Laden by the weight of the vegetables, terrified by his conscience, and weighed down by these difficulties, he heaved deep sighs and leaned now and then against trunks of trees. And he walked again around the whole circumference of the garden, not only not finding the gate but not even the opening he had made in the hedge in the darkness of night. 

“And he was tormented by a double anxiety: that he might be detained by the monks or put in prison by the judge. While he was occupied with these burning thoughts, the night was coming to an end and the morning star he did not want to see appeared.”[9]

While the thief was panicking in the garden,

“the abbot… had spent the night singing psalms and, as I believe, knew what had been happening through divine revelation”

Calling the prior, St Martius instructed him go and find the man, to “give him what he needs and let him go”. Therefore, in compliance with the saint’s instruction, the prior went to garden and finding the man frantically trying to force a way out took hold of him and said: 

 “Don’t be afraid, my son, for our lord has sent me to lead you out of this place.”

Then:

“[G]athering what the man had thrown on the ground, apples as well as vegetables, he put it on his shoulders, opened the gate, and sent him off, saying: ‘Go in peace and do not hereafter repeat what you did in your weakness.’”

One of the reasons that St Gregory tells this story at length is because he considered that the miraculous powers of healing that St Martius possessed, and which he goes on to relate, were given to him because of his perfection in charity, and as a manifestation of the degree of supernatural charity which he had attained. His healing power was a “benefit” accorded to St Martius because he forgave sinners.[10] It was because the “priest himself” was “shining like a star of true light in the world” that he “constantly expelled the illnesses of the sick with his unfailing deeds of power.”[11]

The life of St Martius also bears witness to the local and familial nature of these lives. The example of healing recounted here is known by St Gregory because the man who was healed was a friend of his father. In fact, Gregory’s father had himself met St Martius, and been healed by him, when he was a boy:

“He said that he himself had also seen the saint, in these words: when he was still a boy, about ten years old, he was taken possession of by the onsets of tertian fever. Then friends took the boy and led him to the man of God. He was already an old man, close to the day of his release from his body, and his eyes had grown dim. When he placed his hand on the boy, he said: ‘Who is this boy, and whose son is he?’ They replied: ‘Your servant is the boy Florentius, son of the former senator Georgius.” 

“And he said: “May the Lord God bless you, my son, and deign to heal your illness.” And kissing his hand, the boy left healthy, giving thanks.”[12]

St Gregory’s personal knowledge of the saints 

That St Gregory is relating the lives of men who he often knew is brought home in a striking manner in the life of St Senoch. The prologue to this life warns against vanity:

“For it happens that the saints of God, who are not consumed by the heat of desires, nor agitated by any sting of concupiscence, nor tempted by any filthy lusts even, so to speak, in their thoughts, can feel raised up through the Tempter’s swelling tide to see themselves as very righteous; and puffed up by the arrogance of presumptuous vainglory on account of this, often fall to the ground. Thus it happens that men whom the sword of greater crimes cannot kill are easily brought low by the thin smoke of vanity.

“Likewise the one of whom we are about to speak, while blossoming with many virtues, became overwhelmed by vanity and would have fallen into that abyss of arrogance if the careful exhortation of faithful brothers had not brought him back.”[13]

Senoch was a cleric who had founded a monastery in the region of Tours, the consecration of which was marked by the miraculous alteration of a reliquary, indicating divine favour on the house. Here Senoch lived a life of rigorous ascetism, and a community grew up around him. Alms poured in, which he used to support the poor and to redeem more than two hundred people from slavery and debt.

Shortly after St Gregory was made bishop of Tours, he was visited by the abbot, and began to grow concerned by his conduct:

“When we had arrived in Tours he came out of his cell to inquire after us, and after we had greeted and kissed one another he went back in again. He was, as we said, extremely abstemious, and healed the sick. But as his sanctity derived from his abstinence, it was from this very sanctity that vanity began to creep up on him. For he went away from his cell with a presumptuous arrogance to look for and visit his relatives in the region of Poitiers from which, as we have said, he originated. 

“After his return, he was puffed up with pride and sought only to please himself.”[14]

This was the decisive moment in the spiritual life of St Senoch. St Gregory, fulfilling his responsibility as a bishop, “reprimanded him” and warned him that “the proud will be excluded from the kingdom of God.” 

On receipt of this fraternal correction, the Saint:

“[P]urged himself of his arrogance; and he made himself so humble that absolutely no pride remained rooted in him, so much that he admitted it saying: ‘Now I know that it is true what the saying of the Apostle’s holy mouth asserted “Let him who glories, glory in the Lord.”’”[15]

St Gregory advised him to relax his penances and observe his strictest abstinence only in Lent and between the feast of St Martin (11 November) and Christmas:

“He heeded our advice, willingly accepted what we said, and carried it out in all sincerity.”[16]

The genuineness of St Senoch’s holiness was confirmed by the extraordinary miracles of healing which were obtained through his intercession, both before and after his death (at which St Gregory of Tours was present). The miracles which St Gregory records come to us therefore with very high authority: a saintly Ordinary testifying to events in his own diocese, of which he himself had personal knowledge.

Historical value of the text 

These lives of men known to St Gregory personally are of great value, not only for their spiritual content but also for the historical data they provide about a period for which there are few reliable sources. For example, the life of St Gallus – Gregory’s uncle, to whose care he was entrusted after the death of his father – offers us fascinating insights into life in sixth century Gaul. Of this holy bishop his nephew movingly writes:

“There are those who, through a greater intelligence, have released themselves from these bonds [of worldly honours], like birds who fly out of their snares up to the sky: leaving their detested earthly possessions behind, they apply themselves with all their strength to heavenly things. 

“Such a one was Gallus, an inhabitant of the city of Clermont, who could not be diverted from the service of God by the splendour of his lineage, the distinction of his senatorial rank, or the opulence of his resources. He could not be separated from God either by his father’s love, his mother’s tenderness, his nurse’s care, or the compliance of his servants. Holding all these for nothing and detesting them as though they were dung, he pledged himself to God’s love and God’s service and subjected himself to monastic discipline.”[17]

St Gallus spent much time at the court of the court of the Visigothic king Theodoric (not to be confused Theodoric the Ostrogoth), and the following is just one valuable passage shedding light on the conditions of the time: 

“At that time King Theodoric took many clerics from the citizens of Clermont and commanded them to serve the Lord in the church of Trier. And he never let himself be separated from the blessed Gallus [who was famed for his singing voice]. 

“Thus it happened that when the king went to Cologne, Gallus went with him. In Trier there was a pagan shrine adorned with various ornaments where the barbarians offered liquid sacrifices and gorged themselves with food and wine until they vomited. They worshipped idols there as God, and when some part of their body had been in pain, they sculpted it out of wood.

“When the holy Gallus heard about this, he at once rushed to the place with only one cleric, and after lighting a torch while none of the foolish pagans were present, he put it to the shrine and set it on fire. Seeing the smoke of their shrine rising to the sky, however, they looked for the author of the blaze, and when they had found him pursued him with drawn swords. He fled and hid in royal palace. 

“When the belligerent pagans told me the king what had happened, he mollified them with blandishments and in this way appeased their wicked fury. The blessed man, however, would often talk about this with tears saying: ‘Woe is me for not persisting, so that I might have ended my life for this cause!’”[18]

Shortly after this, St Gallus was made Bishop of Clermont, and during his episcopate he worked many miracles, which continued after his death. His nephew Gregory is once again recording events of which he either experience directly or which were told to him by eyewitnesses.

These are just a few passages from this extraordinary book; in fact most of the richest content I have left completely untouched. The lives of St Nicetius of Lyon, and of his namesake St Nicetius of Trier, are so rich in detail and value, that we dedicate separate articles to them, but I hope these few examples will encourage readers to look further into the book and its author.

I am unable to end this piece however without quoting a passage from the life of St Nicetius of Lyon, which captures something of the spirit of The WM Review – serving the interests of Church through reasoned arguments:

“I ask you, most beloved brother, that useless words which are idly uttered not strike my ears, for it is not right for reasonable men to have to tolerate the brash words of unreasonable men.

“You ought to work for one end alone: that those who wish to scheme against the interests of the Church be confounded by your arguments.

“As for unreasonable arguments, not only do I not want to be confronted by them, I do not even wish to hear about them.”[19]

May the intercession of St Nicetius of Lyon, and of all the saints honoured by St Gregory of Tours in this humble but inspiring work, intercede for the interests of the Church, at this, her greatest hour of need!

The edition of “The Life of the Fathers” that I read was translated and edited by Professor Giselle de Nie, and is published with two other works by Gregory – The Miracles of the Martyr Justin and The Miracles of Bishop Martin – as Lives and Miracles (UK:here). This edition includes both the Latin and English texts.


[1] St Gregory of Tours, “The Life of the Fathers”, published in Lives and Miraclesed. and trans. by Giselle de Nie, (London, 2015), p viii-ix. (UK Amazon link:here)

[2] Ibid, p3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p223-25.

[5] Ibid, p39

[6] Ibid, p41.

[7] Ibid, p197-98.

[8] Ibid, p203.

[9] Ibid, p202-03.

[10] Ibid, p199.

[11] Ibid, p207.

[12] Ibid, p209.

[13] Ibid, p211.

[14] Ibid, p215.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, p69.

[18] Ibid, p73-75.

[19] Ibid, p115.

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