Brief Overview

High Altar retable, Vuillafans.

This blessed Gengulphus daily performs among us so many remarkable miracles that, were he alive today, even the swift pen of the poet Thespis could not have described them individually. [Gonzo of Florennes]

Saint Gengulphus was a Burgundian knight of Varennes sur Amancea in the present département of Haute Marne, France.  He was a man of outstanding piety and charitableness who served as a soldier under Pepin the Short,b and whose martyrdom took the unusual form of being murdered (ca 760) by his wife’s lover. His name is entered as a saint and martyr in the Roman Martyrology on 11th May,c which is generally accepted to have been the date of his death.

The only primary source for his biography is an anonymous prose life (Vita I) which was composed in the late C9th or early C10th. A subsequent prose life (Vita II), contains an account of certain miracles which took place at Toul in connection with the Saint’s relics, but its biographical content is entirely derived from Vita I. In the latter part of the C10th the Benedictine canoness Hroswitha of Gandersheim composed a verse life of the Saint, the Passio Sancti Gongolfi Martiris, but this too is based upon Vita I and has no value as an independent source of biographical information.

Gengulphus is not mentioned in any contemporary secular document or charter.

His canonization appears to have occurred shortly after his death, and a charter of ca 801 provides evidence of the early establishment and rapid propagation of his cultus. This cultus would eventually extend over a large area of north-western Europe, from Switzerland, through northern and eastern France and south-west Germany, to Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland. Several towns and villages are named after him,d and many churches and chapels dedicated to him are to be found throughout this area.  Whilst the majority of these are Roman Catholic, dedications to him are also preserved in churches of the Lutherane and Reformed traditions,f and his name is honoured by some eastern Orthodox churches which have jurisdictions in western Europe. 

Relics of St Gengulphus are widely distributed throughout the area in which his cultus became established, and part of the early history of their dissemination can be traced from documentary sources. Vita I notes that secondary relics, in the form of his armour, were also preserved, and the survival of at least one fragment of these has been recorded in the modern period.

The circumstance of a saint being murdered by his wife’s lover is certainly uncommon and perhaps unique to St Gengulphus. But this death, however unusual, has been consistently interpreted as a martyrdom, in that he died persevering in the Christian virtues which had informed the whole of his life, and more particularly as an upholder of the sacrament of matrimony.

Whilst being particularly regarded as the patron saint of deceived husbands and unhappy marriages, St Gengulphus also has traditional assocations with shoe-makers, tanners, glove-makers, horsemen, knights and huntsmen.  In art he is represented as a young nobleman, usually armed as a knight, and often bearded. Whilst the sword which was the instrument of his martyrdom is his most common symbol, a variety of other military and hunting attributes are also associated with him.

Amongst the many works of art representing the Saint, the ‘cycle’ of C13th stained glass preserved in the collegiate church of St Gengoult at Toul is of particular importance. This consists of a series of fifteen episodes from the Saint’s life, and constitutes one of the very earliest surviving representations of the Saint in art.

St Joseph and Infant, with St John Nepomuk and St Gangolf (with sword and standard), Drosendorf

Two well-known stories relating to St Gengulphus, both of which are contained in Vita I, associate him with a miraculous spring of water.  The first relates how he purchased a spring in Champagneg and miraculously transported it to his home at Varennes, and in the second the infidelity of Gengulph’s wife is miraculously revealed when she is required – as a kind of trial by ordeal – to plunge her arm into a spring of water.  The popularity of these two stories have led to Gengulph’s name being frequently associated with wells and springs, many of which are credited with healing properties.

A further popular story – not an original part of Vita I, but subsequently inserted into some versions of the manuscript – describes how the sanctity of Gengulphus was divinely revealed to king Pepin le Bref through the repeated and miraculous rekindling of a lamp in the presence of the sleeping Saint.

St Gengulphus has suffered from the peculiar disadvantage that there are elements in the earliest versions of his biography which subsequent ages have found coarse or indelicate. These concern not the blameless life of the Saint himself but the unusual nature of the miraculous punishments inflicted upon his adulterous wife and upon her paramour, and have been the subject of censorship and criticism – a most lamentable response.

St Gengulph’s feast day, on the 11th May, is the subject of albeit a very few traditional sayings connected with weather and agriculture. His date, however, clashes with the Ice Saints who tend to take precedence as regards meteorological considerations . A period in the second week in May (usually days 10-15 in the month) is often believed to bring a brief spell of colder weather in many years, including the last nightly frosts of the spring. The Ice Saints is the name given in Belgian, Dutch, German, Austrian, and Swiss folklore to a period noted to bring a brief spell of colder weather in the Northern Hemisphere under the Julian Calendar in May, because the Roman Catholic feast days of St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Servatus fall on the days of May 11, May 12, and May 13 respectively

His name has a confusingly large number of variants. Whilst in Vita I he is called Gengulphus or Gangulphus, he is more commonly known as Gengoux, Gengoult, Gengoulphh in present day France, and as Gangolf in Germany.  His name is known in England largely through the humourous Lay of St Gengulphus which appears in R. H. Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends.

The datej and placek of his birth are not known.  According to Vita I he was born into a Burgundian family of noble descent.  Nothing certain is known of his ancestry, though two other historical figures of the same name who are recorded as having some prominence in C7th and C8th have been plausibly suggested as members of the same family.  There is no historical basis whatever for the assertion that these, or St Gengulphus himself, were dukes.

Gengulphus was, unusually for the age in which he lived, a ‘secular’ saint, in the sense that his sanctity was revealed in his everyday life, and not (like the great majority of contemporary saints) as a priest or a member of a religious order. This extremely unusual and significant detail is stressed by the author of our only primary source, Vita I. It is sometimes stated that Gengulphus, after separating from his irreformable wife, became a hermit. This unfounded statement contradicts the express intention and explicit narrative details of the only primary source, and negates one of the Saint’s most interesting and distinctive characteristics.

a. Also known as Terre Natale.
b. Pepin the Short (715 – 768).  He governed Burgundy, Neustria and Provence as Mayor of the Palace from 741 – 751. In 751 he was anointed King of the Franks, and continued as such until his death in 768.  The text of Vita I makes specific reference to Pepin’s rôle as Mayor of the Palace and seems to imply (but without explicitly stating) that that Gengulph’s youth coincided with this period. Later, following Gengulph’s death, Pepin is specifically referred to as ‘king’.
c. 11th May 760 was a Sunday. This has some bearing on the timing of his funeral arrangements, and the question of the identification of Avalo, the place where he died.
d. E.g.  St Gengoux le National, 71, France;  Gangloff, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany.
e. E.g.  At Hiddenhausen, Windsfeld, and Schladen, Germany.
f. E.g.  At Ee and Eelde in the Netherlands.
g. It is occasionally stated that the purchase of the spring took place in the pays of Bassigny.  This is a localization of  relatively recent origin.  The narrative of Vita I makes it unmistakably clear that the open terrain of historic Champagne is meant.
h. These are forms commonly and currently used in the dedications of churches.
j. The date 702, sometimes proposed as the date of his birth, is an unsubstantiated guess. As such it does not command great credibility, being neither consistent with the energy and vigour with which Vita I characterizes Gengulph’s military service in the time of Pepin the Short, nor with his being the victim of a ‘crime of passion’ in 760. Hroswitha was clearly of the view that Gengulphus was younger than Pepin (b. 714).
k. The text states that Gengulph preferred Varennes sur Amance as his residence because of its suitability for hunting, not because it was his natal home – though this possibility is not excluded.

© Paul Trenchard
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Page last revised 14.12.09