Although clothed in worldly dress, Gengulphus would drink unceasingly of the sacred scriptures, eager in his heart to fulfil the Church’s teachings. [Vita I]
Appearing in secular dress, Gengulphus has hastened as a new recruit to the spiritual battle, and has fought manfully against the assaults of the ancient foe. [Vita I]
St Gengulphus, for the age in which his Lives were written, has the almost unique distinction of being a ‘secular’ saint – that is to say, he was not in holy orders or a member of a monastic community. His sanctity was revealed in the routines of his daily and worldly life.
The first five centuries of Christian history give us many examples of saints of this kind. Amongst the early saints whose biographical details have been preserved we find examples of doctors, shoemakers, senators, soldiers, businessmen, notaries and at least one actor. The period of C6th to the C10th continues to be rich in saints – the Venerable Bede, St Gertrude, St Boniface, St Ledger – but these were all monks and nuns or, to a lesser extent, priests and bishops.
The exceptions are very few indeed, and are limited almost entirely to notable dynastic figures such as St Edward the martyr, king of Wessex; Blessed Pépin of Landen, ancestor of Charlemagne; and St Edmund the boy king of the East Anglians whose heroic reign and gruesome martyrdom scarcely bring his short existence within the definition of ordinary secular life.
The reason for the lack of secular saints during the latter part of the 1st millennium is quite complex. In the first place the cessation of general persecution of the church meant that martyrdom had become a sporadic and much less frequent phenomenon, and heroic examples of Christian witness came to be looked for in the sometimes extreme rigours of monastic life. Secondly, the generally turbulent and bellicose political situation which succeeded the demise of the Roman Empire in the West favoured the relative stability of monastic life, making it the more eminently ‘successful’ medium for the promotion of Christian life. And thirdly, the general decline in learning during this period left the monasteries with a virtual monopoly of the production and dissemination of written material, and such saints’ lives as were composed during this period naturally favoured the monastic interests of their authors and potential readers.
This tendency, although reflecting the necessities of the age, did not very adequately express the fundamental Christian proposition that all the baptized are ‘called to be saints’ or, as Alban Butler expresses it, ‘Opportunities for every kind of good work never fail in any circumstance; and the means of sanctification may be practised in every state of life.’ A significant document in the re-establishment of this important truth is the Life of St Gerald of Aurillac composed by St Odo (ca. 878 – 942), the second abbot of Cluny.
St Gerald (ca. 855 – 909) was a nobleman of the Auvergne who succeded his father as Count of Aurillac. Whilst his pious inclinations led him to seek to join a monastic community, he was dissuaded from this by Geusbert, Bishop of Cahors, on the grounds he could do more good by remaining in the world as a layman. Gerald therefore lived out his life in the world, devoting himself to piety and good works, and founding on his estate the church and abbey in which he was later buried.
Whilst St Odo’s Life of St Gerald was, in its age, remarkable for its re-assertion that sanctity could be achieved in secular life, it is significant that Odo was only able to accomplish his task by portraying St Gerald as a sort of civilian monk. Thus Gerald, as portrayed by Odo, consecrates his life to God; gives away his possessions; takes a personal vow of chastity; recites the divine office daily; and wears – hidden under his cap – a self-imposed tonsure.
It is interesting that the prose Life of St Gengulph (Vita I) – a more or less contemporary though much slighter work – should tend so strongly in the same direction. In many ways its underlying message is expressed in a much less guarded way, and there is little or no suggestion in it that Gengulph’s life was that of a sort of lay monk. He is frankly portrayed as an accomplished and professional soldier, and his enjoyment of hunting as a means of recreation is briskly defended. Far from taking a vow of chastity, Gengulph is unashamedly married (albeit with unfortunate consequences). He gives away his property not in order to embrace the ideal of poverty, but for the purposes of practical charity. He is depicted as a man of personal prayer, but it is not remotely hinted at that his prayer-life is sustained by the use of the monastic offices. And when he separates from his wife the author of Vita I does not remotely hint (despite the fantasies of later commentators) that Gengulphus became a hermit – but explicitly states that the habit of his life did not change, and that he continued to conduct his life ‘according to his customary goodness’.
The connection, if any, between the Life of St Gerald of Aurillac and Vita I, is not known. Neither has it been established which of the two was written first. At all events it is clear that Odo’s work cannot claim to hold the field as the only early C10th Life which advances the cause of sanctity in secular life, and that some credit in this respect must be given to the honourable achievement of the author – and the subject – of Vita I.
Clothed in Worldly Dress
On a more frivolous level, whilst it is clear that in their original context in Vita I the phrases in sæculari habitu constitutus and sæculari esset toga praetextus mean no more than the frank statement that Gengulph was a layman and not in religious or holy orders, it is possible that these two phrases unconsciously provided later ages with the hint from which developed the popular conception of Gengulphus as a rather dashing figure in flamboyant costume, as particularly well represented by the C16th polychrome figure of St Gengoul de Sacey (Aube).