The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 10—Saints and Sanctity (May 2007)   |   Issue Editors: Celia Chazelle & Deanna Forsman

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Relics, Religious Authority, and the Sanctification of Domestic Space in the Home Gregory of Tours: An Analysis of the Glory of the Confessors 20

Dennis Quinn  
Cal Poly Pomona

2007 by Dennis Quinn. All rights reserved. This edition copyright 2007 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract: This article examines Gregory of Tours' Glory of the Confessors 20 in order to describe how the establishment of an oratory in the bishop's own house served both to provide the bishop with a locus for domestic religiosity and to solidify his position as the rightful bishop of Tours. It also suggests an historical relationship between domestic relic cult in Merovingian Gaul and pre-Christian Roman domestic cult.

§1.  When Gregory became bishop of Tours upon the death of his relative Bishop Eufronius in the summer of 573, it became clear that his transition to the see was not going to be a smooth one. The archdeacon Riculf had involved the Merovingian king Chilperic in a maneuver to oust Gregory and claim the bishopric himself, charging that he was Eufronius' rightful successor and that Gregory was an outsider from Clermont, and thus did not merit the see (Wood 1994, 10-11). Through a complex orchestrated series of events Gregory was able to promote his family lineage to a number of local saints, translate relics of the powerful Saint Julian from Clermont to Tours, and elicit the support of local citizens who testified to the foreign bishop's veracity in the presence of the royal court. In the end, King Chilperic supported Gregory's claims to the bishopric and sent his rival claimants packing, and Riculf to a monastery (Van Dam 1992, 214-16).

§2.  With the rival clerics out of the way, Gregory still needed to solidify his new and publicly contested position with local elites and other powerful members of his new congregation. Thus, much of what Gregory did early in his episcopacy was intended to convince the community at Tours that he was their right man. One event in particular where Gregory dedicated an oratory to the cult of SS. Martin, Julian, Saturninus of Toulouse, and Illidius of Clermont in his new home near the Cathedral of Tours, was clearly intended to do just that (Gregory of Tours GC 20).

Concerning my oratory—in which are collected the relics of the saintly martyr Saturninus and Bishop Martin and Illidius the Confessor—it will not be shameful to narrate for the faithful the way in which the holy power (virtus) of the blessed Martin revealed itself through revelation. It happened in such a way that a terrifying fiery globe, which was once visible to only a few as it rose bursting from Martin's head while celebrating mass, [this time] appeared to many people. Guided by the inspiration of divine piety, my heart decided that I should faithfully dedicate the very elegant small chamber (cellula)—which Saint Eufronius used as a storeroom—for the task of praying. It was diligently arranged, with the altar placed according to custom. I kept holy vigils in the basilica [of Saint Martin] one night. In the morning I went to the small chamber and blessed the altar I had erected. I returned to the basilica and then in proper solemnly, with crosses and burning candles, brought in the relics of the martyrs Saturnius and Julian and the blessed Illidius. There were in attendance no small group of priests and deacons dressed in white robes, honored citizens of the highest order, and a large group of people of the second rank. After I picked up and carried the holy items that were placed in wooden coffers and covered in shrouds, I arrived at the entrance of the oratory. As I entered, suddenly a terrible flash filled the chamber so that the bystanders closed their eyes out of fear and because of the great brightness. It ran through the whole chamber like lightning and I was filled with much reverence. Nobody understood what this was, but everyone out of fear threw themselves face down. Then I said, "Fear not. It is the power of the saints that you perceive. Recall in particular the book of the life of Saint Martin. Remember that just as he recited sacred words a fiery globe issued from his head. And [remember] how it was seen to ascend to heaven. So, do not be afraid but rather believe that the actual [Saint Martin] visited us with the holy relics." After we set aside our fear, we praised God, saying, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. The Lord is God and has given us light [Psalm 117: 26-27]" (Gregory of Tours GC 20).1

The adventus ceremony of bringing relics to his home was a public display of a community coming together under the guidance of their new bishop. As Raymond Van Dam explains the event, "[The] ceremony of dedication, in which the entire community participated, was as much an exaltation of Bishop Gregory, the 'master of ceremonies,' as of the relics themselves, particularly since it was Gregory alone who could offer a convincing explanation for the terrifying flash of light that had greeted the arrival of the relics" (Van Dam 1992, 215). This interpretation is certainly beyond doubt. However, larger questions still remain.

§3.  In this paper I intend to examine the event in more detail in order to explain why Gregory brought relics of the saints into his home in the first place and how it might have served to legitimize his position. Is there a common precedent for a domestic relic cult in sixth century Gaul? Where were they placed and why? In what ways did domestic relics matter to the community as a whole, especially since only Bishop Gregory, and perhaps his closest associates would have taken part in the cult practices there? How did social class matter in the possession of relics? As we shall see, Gregory's domestic relics, aside from providing him with a locus for domestic religiosity, itself an important part of upper-class Gallo-Roman piety, also attested to his own worth as the community's bishop by aligning his episcopal authority with the power of the saints, especially Saint Martin.

§4.  Although scholars have usually given the topic only a few words in passing, it was quite common for upper class members of Merovingian society to have their own oratory, or a room set aside for prayer in their homes, containing personal collections of relics of the saints (Bowes 2002). Other than himself, Gregory mentions that his mother possessed relics and a domestic shrine, the mother of a fellow priest named Aredius had one, and a (presumably) wealthy Syrian immigrant to Gaul named Eufronius (not to be confused with the Bishop whom Gregory replaced and whose storeroom he converted to an oratory) had converted his whole house into a shrine dedicated to the martyr Sergius, where he kept the saint's finger atop an altar.2 All of these acted to protect the homes and families within them and were the locus of private cult activities. As Gregory describes above, he possessed relics of saints Saturnius, Martin, and Illidius. He does not indicate what sorts of relics they were, but it is probable that he had primary relics, i.e. the actual bones of the saints. Secondary relics such as those made holy by touching the bones or other primary relics do not usually require such regalia as he describes, since these were quite common for laypersons (Snoek 1995, 72). However, as we will see below, even secondary relics could be too powerful to rest in the homes of the humble.

§5.  Moreover, the choice of household relics was not simply a matter of personal piety. Although they were enclosed within houses, owners made public their sacred stash to the community around them in order to demonstrate their piety. For example, Gregory mentions that his mother had an oratory with an altar containing the relics of Saint Eusebius, the fourth century bishop of Vercelli, who was a tireless advocate for Trinitarian orthodoxy in Gaul (Gregory of Tours HF 5.44). During an age when Arian Christianity was still a perceived threat to ecclesiastical authority in Merovingian Gaul, Eusebius would have been a powerful ally to Gregory's mother, and indeed to Gregory himself. According to Gregory, the saint was a vigilant protector of his mother, once preventing her house from being totally consumed by a fire (Gregory of Tours GC 3). Thus, both public and personal considerations went into his mother's choice for holy protector.

§6.  Gregory's selection for domestic saints was indeed no less arbitrary. Saint Saturninus was bishop and martyr at Toulouse, linking him back to the important diocese there. But there is another important reason for choosing this saint's relics to rest in his own private oratory: Saint Saturninus' relics could in fact transform the very nature of the space around it into hallowed ground. In the Glory of the Martyrs, Gregory tells of monks transporting the relics of Saint Saturninus who needed a place to stay. They came to the cottage of a poor man and asked if they could spend the night. "Once the man took them in, they told him what they were delivering. Advised by human intuition and the fear of God the man took the reliquary with its relics to his storeroom and set it on top of the grain that was kept in a container" (Gregory of Tours GM 47). Placing the relics in the storeroom turned out to be a very bad idea. After the travelers left, the poor man received a warning in a dream commanding him to get out of his cottage, "because it has been sanctified by the relics of the martyr Saturninus." Since he did not heed this warning, he lost many of his possessions and his wife became ill. He then tore down his cottage and built a wooden oratory in honor of Saint Saturninus. "Every day he prayed in this oratory and requested the assistance of the blessed martyr. Finally his misfortunes ceased" (Gregory of Tours GM 47). The message of this story is clear. His relics do not belong in the normal domestic space of the lowly, let alone their common storage space. As we see above, Gregory indeed placed Saint Saturninus' relics in the area once used as a storeroom. Gregory claims that he was divinely inspired to use it as a locus of Saturninus' relics, transforming it into an oratory that was carefully arranged so as not upset the saints. Thus, his home did not need to be vacated to make use of the space as a public shrine, but rather could remain a domestic space that has been sanctified by the presence of Saint Saturninus. Furthermore, as bishop, Gregory could maintain proper respect and veneration for these relics, and they would in turn help maintain his position in the community as a religious leader whose home had become sacralized. Thus, since Gregory could claim a successful translation of the bones of this saint, he could also claim divine favor of his home and, by extension, his position as bishop of Tours.

§7.  Gregory's choice to include the relics of Bishop Martin of Tours into his oratory was an obvious one since he had recently become bishop of this town in a cloud of controversy. Indeed, it is Martin's miracle within Gregory's home which links Gregory not only to his new diocese in miraculous ways, but also connects Gregory's Glory of the Confessors to Sulpicius Severus' miracle stories of Saint Martin, the community's patron saint. Interestingly, however, Saint Martin, like Saturninus, did not commonly allow his relics to be kept within a home, especially in a home of an unworthy and disrespectful layman. For example, in his Life of Saint Martin 1.35, Gregory tells of one of his own slaves (servi) who was "motivated by his faith and brought back [a piece of] venerable wood from the railing around the bed that is in the monastery of the holy lord [Martin] and kept it in his [own] cottage for protection." This decision proved disastrous for the slave and his family because, as Gregory writes, "this wood was not honored or respected as was appropriate to itself" (Gregory of Tours VM 1.35). This story, like the one about Saturninus, demonstrates Gregory's class consciousness with regards to legitimacy for possessing the holy in Merovingian homes. Both individuals who had disastrous effects of possessing domestic relics were from the lowest social rung, indicating that only the upper classes were worthy of possessing such holy items in their homes. There is also a close association of class with religious merit or virtue. As bishop, Gregory did not possess such class and religious deficiencies. Furthermore, since Gregory's relics of Saint Martin were not only successfully located in his house, but even brought forth a miracle, is a further demonstration of Gregory's unusually high caliber of virtue, piety, and respect for the saints.

§8.  The miracle at the end of the translation of the relics into his house was also intended to be a sign of Gregory's virtue. Gregory's work is filled with examples of miracles only appearing to certain select witnesses. Since Gregory was allowed to see such a miracle, God deemed him worthy. But it also is an exaltation of those upper and "second rank" members of the Tours community who were in attendance of the adventus since they too saw the miracle. Addressing the frightening flash later in the chapter, Gregory maintains that "the fire is a mystical one, because it enlightens but does not burn. But it can neither emerge nor ever appear to anyone without the grace of divine majesty" (Gregory of Tours GC 20). He then describes what the mystical fire emanating from relics means: "I think that this fire contains a mystical sacrament, but the darkness of the senses cannot understand how it becomes visible; it produces such a light but does not burn anyone. I know only this one fact, that these fires appear to just men and above just men" (Gregory of Tours CG 38). Thus, Gregory pays the ultimate complement to his community of supporters: all in attendance possessed grace of divine majesty. A wise move indeed, especially for someone accused as an outside usurper of the see of Tours by many in its congregation.

§9.  The inclusion of saint Illidius seems to be an important personal choice for Gregory. These relics of this bishop of Clermont had once cured Gregory when he was a boy. In the Life of the Fathers, Gregory mentioned that his "stomach was filled with a great quantity of phlegm" and he was "seized by a very strong fever" (Gregory of Tours VP 2.2). Gregory almost died. After he was taken to the tomb of this saint he was soon cured. He vowed to become a cleric at that point. So, it seems that having the relics of such an important saint in his life made perfect sense to Gregory. Illidius both saved his life and was important in his career path. Of course, it might effectively be argued that Gregory was born to be bishop, with such a strong episcopal lineage. Nevertheless, this miraculous event in his life had important symbolic importance to Gregory, at least, no doubt, as Gregory wants us to think.

§10.  We have seen that Gregory's selection of relics to sanctify his domestic altar had both public and private meaning to Gregory and his audience. We shall now examine the importance of where he placed these relics. The passage quoted above is the only description Gregory ever provides of his private oratory. It was placed in a small room that he calls a cellula, once used by Illidius as a storeroom. It contains an altar which would soon have relics placed (presumably) atop it. The small oratory was carefully arranged with the altar placed according to custom, though exactly what Gregory means by this is not entirely clear. This leads to the even more fundamental question of why it would be important for Gregory to set up a domestic altar and oratory in the first place. He was, in fact, very close to the relics of Saint Martin, residing proximate to the church of Saint Martin containing the relics of the saint. So why would he need them in his own house? We have already seen one possible reason in that the saints actually allowing their relics to be placed in the in Gregory's home was a further expression of the homeowner's virtue, saintly favor, and, in Gregory's case, his legitimacy as bishop.

§11.  As Annemarie Kaufmann-Heinimann has demonstrated, Roman household religion was an established part of the domestic lives of Gallo-Romans well into the Late Empire (Kaufmann-Heinimann 1998, 323).3 Many of the divinities of traditional Roman domestic cult, particularly the Lares, Di Penates, and Genii, were honored by Roman families who settled in Gaul, as well as those well-to-do Romanized Germans who assimilated into the culture of their conquerors. Kaufmann-Heinimann argues that domestic cult does not seem to have been a part of Germanic custom in Gaul but was rather a Roman import with Romanization. As I have recently argued, traditional domestic religious practices of Roman families transformed their honor to the domestic gods to the saints with the Christianization of the Roman Empire (Quinn 2005, 206-15).4 Also, Beat Brenk has shown that the domus of SS. Giovanni e Paolo revealed evidence that a domestic Christian martyr cult rose in Rome, quite similar to that of pagan domestic religion. The Christianized version contained an altar decorated with saints (instead of household gods) and relics of the martyrs (instead of images of the Lares).5 Like the domestic shrines and secella (rooms designed for the purpose of household cult activity) of pre-Christian Rome, domestic cult provided not only a context for private piety, but also became a focus of patronage where members of the familia and clients would honor the paterfamilias by giving reverence at his lararia (Quinn 2005, 37-48). Thus, Gregory's decision to make space for religion in his home echoes traditional pre-Christian practices. It is interesting that Gregory decided to set up his altar in his storeroom. In Roman pagan domestic cult, the storeroom was often considered the domain of the Di Penates, those domestic gods that served to protect a family's food supply. There is evidence from Roman Ostia of a lararia, or shrine to the household gods, in the storeroom of a villa.6

§12.  Gregory cleared out the storeroom of its previous bishop, Saint Eufronius (as Gregory calls him), and made it into a private oratory. We have already seen how important it was to ensure a place acceptable to the saints. He describes it as a cellulam valde elegantum, which seems to mean that it was small but well suited for the locus of his domestic shrine. The symbolic importance of putting an altar in a storeroom certainly demonstrates his desire to show himself as someone exceptionally pious—in need only of the sanctity brought by the saints. He did not fill his storeroom with the usual mundane supplies, but rather filled it with holiness. The smallness of this space may also be an attempt to imitate tomb shrines which were quite small, giving an impression of a more intimate relationship between saint and suppliant (Crook 2000, 37). The arrangement of the room and the placement of the altar are not entirely clear. It is possible that Gregory is referring to how oratories are usually arranged in a domestic setting: information which is now lost to us. However, as I suggested above, it could indicate a way that was pleasing to the saints as Gregory perceived it. This could mean that the oratory was arranged much like a church with the bones of the saints placed in or on the altar.

§13.  Now that Gregory's oratory was prepared, he proceded to mark the beginning of the translation of the relics into his home with prayer in the Church of Saint Martin. This vigil was in preparation of the sanctification of his domestic altar; but it was also to ensure that he had the saint's favor. Saint Martin's blessings were conferred with a miracle. This narrative is well orchestrated to demonstrate Gregory's religious power and his close relationship to the patron of Tours. It also brings his domestic oratory on par with that of the church, making Gregory's domestic space, in effect, sacred space.

§14.  The next event could rightfully be called an adventus. As the scholar Yitzhak Hen writes:

The arrival of relics was an important event in the cultural and religious life of the community, and thus was the second major festival related to the saints and their cult [the first were the saints' days]. This celebration, whose roots ought to be sought in the imperial adventus and the triumphal entry of Christ to Jerusalem, was called adventus as well, and was full of joy and exultation. Clerics and laymen of all ages and classes of society participated in celebrating the adventus, which was arranged and directed by the local bishop. This is not surprising, since the bishop's role was a link between the people and the saints, the church's claim for control over all relics and holy objects has already been stressed by historians (Hen 1995, 109).

§15.  The "accompaniment of crosses and burning candles" parallels other translations of relics. This event sounds strikingly similar to typical Merovingian festivals for the translation of relics (Hen 1995, 110). The fact that Gregory included the most important members of the city as well as the next ranking of citizens further demonstrates the importance he wanted this event to have in the minds of the members of his congregation. This was indeed a public event for a very private homecoming. He did not forget to ensure that the relics were properly wrapped and encased in reliquaries, again to ensure the favor of the saints. In doing all this, Gregory constructed a new festival in which the final destination was not Saint Martin's cathedral, but rather his own house. What better way to bring the community together in honor of a new bishop than this? From then on, their bishop would reside in a home sanctified by their ritual in grand pageantry. As Peter Brown describes it, adventus "was conceived as a moment of ideal consensus on a deeper level. It made plain God's acceptance of the community as a whole: his mercy embraced all its disparate members, and could reintegrate all who stood outside the previous year" (Brown 1981, 100). Gregory's adventus ceremony served to promote himself, his community as participants in the spectacle and miracle, and to ensure the space in his home would become sanctified in order to sanctify domestic rituals which would be carried out there. Like a burial rite where the altar becomes a grave, these ceremonies were in fact also funeral processions of the very special dead (Crook 2000, 13), thus further solidifying the dual nature of Gregory's home as both residence and relic shrine.

§16.  Not only did it bring the community together, but it made Gregory, once characterized as the outsider from Clermont, a very special insider who had the holy on his side. This privileged position that Gregory had made for himself was further demonstrated with a domestic miracle. It is clear that the miracle in the oratory was supposed to evoke the story of Saint Martin in one of the community's prized city hagiographies. Gregory made reference to the vita of Sulpicius Severus when Martin dedicated an altar. A fiery globe flew out of his head and was only seen by a small number of worshippers, presumably because the others were not worthy of such a vision (Dialogues 2.2). Throughout the vision, the bystanders are mortified, but Gregory keeps his cool. At the moment of going to the doorway, the divine judgment showed itself. He describes it as a "terrible flash" which frightened the bystanders who averted their eyes.

§17.  In Gregory's hagiographical works, the power of the saints is commonly shown through bursts of light. For example, Gregory describes in his Glory of the Martyrs 8 that light shone from the relics of the Virgin Mary in a church oratory near Claremont. Also in the same work, Gregory reports that in the crypt at Lyon containing the bones of saints Irenaeus, Epipodius, and Alexander, "there is a great brightness, which I think indicates the merit of the martyrs" (Gregory of Tours GM 49). The relic also indicated the validity of its being in that location. This is the only such miracle that occurs in a home, however. That it occurs in Gregory's home is therefore an example of how Gregory's home oratory is much like a church, which is sanctified by the relics of the saints. After this scene, Gregory never mentions it again. It is as though once the crowd saw the miracles it was enough to solidify his own standing and that of his home in the sacred landscape of the community. Gregory had come "in the name of the Lord" to this community of Tours where once he was an outsider. After this miraculous event in his home there was to be no doubt that he was their rightful bishop, and they his worthy congregation. Moreover, his home was now both a sacred place and his own private residence.

§18.  Gregory's domestic relics ensured not only that his world would continue to be permeated with sacrality even in his own home, but also connected the bishop to his ancient Roman aristocratic ancestry and the system of patronage that had characterized Roman society. In Roman domestic religion, the household gods of the paterfamilias were the center of familial religious piety in which relatives, clients, and slaves directed cultic activity as an expression of patronage. The adventus ceremony recorded in the Glory of the Confessors too served to reinforce the social and religious authority of the bishop as the paterfamilias of the congregation of Tours. Thus, sixth century Merovingian Gaul inherited and transformed Roman mores to fit its new religious landscape in which specific manifestations of divine protection had both social and religious implications. The impulse to sanctify one's home consequently became an important component of the cult of Merovingian relics and became the basis for later medieval and modern expressions of European Christian household religiosity.


1.   De oratorio autem nostro, in quo reliquiae sancti Saturnini martyris ac Martini antestitis cum Illidio confessore vel reliquorum sanctorum collocatae sunt, pro instructione credentium narrare aliqua non pigebit, qualiter se virtus beati Martini revelatione revelavit, ita ut appareret multis ignitus globus ille terribilis, qui quondam solemnia celebranti emerserat paucis visibilis, a capite arce prorumpens. Concipit enim, inspirante divinae pietatis instinctu, animus, ut cellulam valde elegantem, quam sanctus Eufronius ad usum prumptuarii habuerat, ad opus orationis fideliter dedicarem. Quam diligenter conpositam, altare ex more locato, ad basilicam sanctam vigiliis noctem unam ducentes, mane vero venientes ad cellulam, altare quod erexeramus sanctificavimus. Regressique ad basilicam, sanctas eius reliquias cum Saturnini Iulianique martyrum vel etiam beati Illidii exinde solemniter, radiantibus cereis crucibusque, admovimus. Erat autem sacerdotum ac levitarum in albis vestibus non minimus chorus et civium honoratorum ordo praeclarus, sed et populi sequentis ordinis magnus conventus. Cumque sacrosancta pignora palleis ac nafis exornata in excelso defereremus, pervenimus ad ostium oratorii. Ingredientibus autem nobis, subito replevit cellulam illam fulgor terribilis, ita ut prae timore et splendore nimio adstantium oculi clauderentur. Discurrebat autem per totam cellulam tamquam fulgor, non parvum nobis ingerens metum. Nec quisquam scire poterat, quid hoc esset, nisi omnes pavore prostrati solo iacebant. Tunc ego: "Nolite", inquid, "timere. Virtus est enim sanctorum, quae cernitis, et praesertim rememoramini librum vitae beati Martini et recolite, qualiter verba sacrata promenti de capite globus ignis egressus, usque ad caelos visus est conscendisse. Et ideo ne terreamini, sed ipsum nos cum sanctis reliquiis credite visitasse". Tunc timore postposito, magnificavimus Deum, dicentes: Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini, Deus dominus et inluxit nobis (Translation mine. Krusch 1969, 309-310).  [Back]

2.   For account of Gregory's mother, see GC 3; for Aredius' mother, CG 9; and for Sergius, HF 7.31. [Back]

3.   For the complete catalogue with photos, see Kaufmann-Heinimann 1998, 235-65, including examples of Roman domestic deities from places like Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon, Reims, and Rouen. [Back]

4.   See also Quinn 2006, 18-19[Back]

5.   These images from Brenk also show a small room, like Gregory's description (Brenk 2003, fig. 170, p. 327). For instance, at one location there is a wall niche in such a cellula portraying martyrdoms of Cyprian, Justina, and Theoctistus. See Brenk 2003, 101-02.  [Back]

6.   See Bakker's plates for Magazzino dei Doli (III,XIV,3) for lararium within a storeroom.  [Back]

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———. 1991. Life of the fathers. Trans. Edward James. Liverpool: Liverpool Universiry Press.  [Back]

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Kaufmann-Heinimann, Annemarie. 1998. Götter und Lararien aus Augusta Raurica. Herstellung, Fundzusammenhänge und sakrale Funktion figürlicher Bronzen in einer römischen Stadt. Augst: Römermuseum.  [Back]

Krusch, Bruno, ed. 1885; repr. 1969. Gregorii episcopi Turonensis miracula et opera minora. Monumenta Germaniae historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.2. Hanover: Hahnsche Buchandlung.  [Back]

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———. 2006. The Sacred Behind Closed Doors. Sacred History Magazine. September/October, 18-19.  [Back]

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