A Well Saint

Gengulphus as a Saint of Springs, Wells and Fountains

Lo!  the Lifegiving Power hearkens to his words and  –  praise be to God! – the waters become infused with healing power. Then rumour, flying swiftly through the regions of the whole wide world, publishes the knowledge of this most pleasing miracle. [Hroswitha]

Mid C17th engraving of St Gangulfus. Note the spring produced by his sword

The primary source for the life of St Gengulph, Vita I, records only two miracles with which the Saint is directly associated (that is to say, leaving aside the post mortem punishments of the wife and the clerk), and those two miracles are both connected with water sources.  First, Gengulph buys a well in Champagnea and transports it to his home at Varennes, and secondly, hearing rumours of his wife’s infidelity he challenges her to plunge her arm into a well, as a kind of ‘trial by ordeal’, and her guilt is miraculously revealed when she withdraws the raw and disfigured flesh of her scalded arm from the water.

Hroswitha follows Vita I both in broad outline and in much of the detail, and relates the same two water-related miracles.  It is not in her editorial character, however, to let slip any opportunity of increasing the prestige of her subject and of heightening the dramatic and miraculous content of the narrative.  So when the author of Vita I, speaking of the spring at Varennes, remarks:

And so this day the fountain gushes with most wholesome water and, at the holy intercession of blessed Gengulphus, bestows very great blessings of healing upon the sick…

–  a comment which would most naturally refer to the Saint’s continuing heavenly and post mortem intercession on behalf of those who use his spring,  –  Hroswitha seizes upon this hint and re-interprets it to mean that during his lifetime the Saint explicitly (and successfully) prayed that the newly relocated fountain should be imbued with healing power.

‘And now Lord Jesus, at our supplication, graciously grant this further gift:
that this water may wash away all manner of disease;
so that all who find themselves restored to fitness and health thereby
may lift to you the sweet-sounding voice of praise.’

Thus he spoke, and lo!  the Lifegiving Power hearkens to his words
and  –  praise be to God!  –  the waters become infused with healing power.
Then rumour, flying swiftly through the regions of the whole wide world,
publishes the knowledge of this most pleasing miracle.  
  [Hroswitha 297-304]

By this imaginative reworking of her material Hroswitha effectively wrests a third explicit ‘water miracle’ from essentially the same narrative.

La source miraculeuse à Varennes sur Amance.
Auteur:  Jean-Pierre Mastalerz

Given the nature of the miracles with which Gengulph is particularly associated in his two early Lives it is unsurprising that his name should have become particularly associated with wells, springs and fountains.  This appears to be the case throughout the area in which his cultus became established.  In France alone there are at least twenty-four springs and wells with which he is associated (and the list presented on this site is far from complete), and there are further examples in Germany and in Belgium.

Many of these springs are very close to churches, chapels and oratories of which he is the patron saint, and some are marked by crosses which bear his name.  These wells have frequently been attributed with healing properties, and many of them have been resorted to for the cure of specific ailments.b  Some have been associated with pilgrimages.

The well of St Gengoux at Champvans

The legend of St Gengulphus has, unsurprisingly, given rise to facetious observances as well as pious ones. At St Gengoux le National the Confrèrie des Cornards took it upon themselves to escort newly married brides, with musical accompaniment, to the Grande Fontaine or Fontaine de Jouvence which stood close beside the church. Here the bride was expected to demonstrate her fidelity by plunging her arm into the water in imitation of the trial imposed upon the Saint’s wife. Upon the arm being safely withdrawn from the water, the husband would kiss the bride and proclaim, ‘Elle me sera fidèle!’ to which the guests would respond, ‘Oui! Oui! Elle sera fidèle, et son mari ne sera pas cornard!’c  Those who declined to expose themselves to this ceremony would be punished on the following jour de carnaval, when the Confrèrie des Cornards accompanied by other observers would present themselves at the house of the refractory newly-weds, where the president of the society would read a resumé of the life of St Gengoux.

Puis il rappelait aux jeunes femmes leurs principaux devoirs et en particulier celui de de la fidélité conjugale, les ménaçant du châtiment dont fut punie la femme de St Gengoux.  En revenant sur ce dernier point, il s’écriait: ‘Craignez surtout, Madame, d’être affligée de la même infirmité que cette femme coupable:  infirmité bien grave, bien incommode et fort peu agréable.  Mais pour ne pas blesser la délicatesse de vos oreilles, je la définirai en latin comme l’historien Flavius: “Saepe, saepius, foetidos sonos repetebat” “Vive Saint Gengoux!”‘d

The regrettable destruction of the fountain in 1857 led to the discontinuance of these interesting observances.e

La fontaine de St Gangulphe, Guessling
Auteur:  Fr Folschweiller

In a number of places the legends which were originally attached to the miraculous spring at Varennes sur Amance have become localized at some other spring bearing the Saint’s name. Instances of this are found at Vaux sur Lunainf and at Annéot;g and Salverte refers mischievously to an example at Wierre au Bois:

La fontaine de Wieres est encore célèbre en Picardie. L’épouse infidèle de saint Gengoulf osa y plonger son bras, en faisant serment que sa conduite était sans reproche;  son bras fut sur le champ consumé… La fontaine est aujourd’hui moins malfaisante; toutes les femmes y lavent leurs mains sans danger.h

There does not, on the other hand, appear to be any consistent tradition giving the location in Champagne from which the original spring was removed. The following note, from A. Paulin Paris’ Les Manuscrits François de la Bibliothèque du Roi,j appears to identify the place with Fontaines les Grès in the département of Aube. The shifting sense of the word glaçon gives an unintentionally comic effect to the account,k which I give here merely for its curiosity:

Au fo[lio] 155, est l’histoire assez peu édifiante de S. Jangon, de Thou en Lorraine, le même que plusiers appellent S. Jean Gouls, et d’autres S. Gengoult, que je cite moins pour son charactère burlesque que pout quelques indications topographiques:  “Ci nous dist comment S. Jangon de Varennes en Bassin, de l’eveschié de Langres, en Bourgoigne, acheta une fontaine à un preudomme… et la fist porter par son varlet à un baston, aussi comme on porteroit un glaçon, et l’emporta bien xxx lieues loing de ce lieu;  et a nom la ville où il l’acheta, Fontaines, entre Troyes et Mery sur Saine, et la mist en son jardin et encore y est.  Et pour ce qu’il mescréoit sa femme, pour li purgier ou encoupier, li fist bouter le bras en la fontaine, et en l’eure le feu s’i prist, et par là fu trouvée coupable.  Quant li saint chevalier fu alé à N[otre] S[eigneur], si oy dire sa femme qu’il estoit saint, et par depit elle respondit:  il est aussi bien saint comme mon cul poit;  et onques puis son cul ne fina de poirre (crepitare) jusques à la mort, et gresilloit adès comme une raine.  Et appelle-on ce saint saint Jangon de Thou en Lorraine.

An association with a miraculous source of water is not, of course, unique to St Gengulphus. References to water as a means of healing and as a vehicle of divine grace are to be found throughout the Christian scriptures and the miraculous provision of water has roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition which go back as far as the miracles which Moses performedl in the wilderness for the Children of Israel – a parallel which is specifically noted by Hroswitha.

These miracles come through your power, O Christ  –
who at one time for the Jewish People
commanded the rock to pour forth fresh streams
and the harsh bitterness of the pool to become quite sweet.
[Hroswitha 287-290]

A multitude of Christian saints are associated with the miraculous production of springsn several of them – like Gengulphus – with the aid of their staffs.o

The source miraculeuse at Tallenay


a.  Not Bassigny.  The author states Champagne and gives an unmistakable description of the terrain. This error is found in Baring Gould and, less surprisingly, in Wikipedia.
b. E.g: at Vaux sur Lunain – la fontaine Saint-Gengoult est fréquenté pour les engorgements lymphatiques… (Brocard p.68); at Vougrey – panaris; at Gruson – maux de jambes.
c. Paul Pierret.
d. Culte et Folklore de St Gengoult, Rebouillat et Terre.
e. Rebouillat
f. Toponymie en Seine-et-Marne, Paul Bailly, 1989. p 122.
h. Des sciences occultes, Eusèbe Salverte, 2nd edition, Paris 1843. pp 361-2.
j. Paris, 1841.  pp 88-89
k. It should be noted that the cryogenic transference hinted at here has no place in the ancient sources. Vita I sensibly leaves the mechanics of the removal unexplained, whilst Hroswitha attributes it to the agency of a cloud: Nubis per mirum caelitus officium.
l. Ex 15.23-25; Ex 17.1-7; Num 20.1-13.
m. Et fel triste laci dulce satis fiere.  Mme Goullet unexpectedly renders this line as Et transformé en lait suave une étendue amère  –  which is curiously at variance both with the Latin and with the reference provided to Ex 15.23-25.
n. E.g:  St Willibrord; St Winefred; St Alban.
o. E.g:  St Florus of Lodève; St Lupus of Chalon; St Gummar; St Savin, St Corentin, and numerous others including, in the East, St Euthymius the Great.