His Life: Vita 1

THE PROSE LIFE OF ST GENGULPHUS – A Résumé of VITA I The Primary Source!
Our story speaks of a man whose entire life became a mirror of good works for the whole world.
[Vita I]

The only primary source for his biography is an anonymous prose life (Vita I) which was composed in the late C9th or early C10th. The later 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.

This above note is IMPORTANT. There are no other sources which go further back than this one.

The Psalterium Foundation hopes to submit an English translation during 2022. A French translation is online (see below).

This is it! Please note! Approach any other resumés of St. Gengoux’s Vita you might encounter online with caution. If they stray from this prose life, they are subjective and not based on any historical evidence.

The C10th Verse Life by Hroswitha of Gandersheim is not an additional source, it is merely a verse reworking of the same narrative as the Prose Life (with the notable exception that she converts St G from a country gentleman into a Duke).

Ergo: 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 – as Vita II – is based upon Vita I and has no value as an independent source of biographical information. Some versions of Vita I have an additional portion of narrative De Lucerna Divinitu Accensa inserted in varying ways into the text.

Vita 1 has been translated into French by Jean-Phillippe Royer in Annales de Bourgogne (July 2003). Available online since February 2020. Click here.

For German readers: There is a very comprehensive publication of both Vita I and Vita II in Latin with parallel German translation published in 2010 – info here. An excellent effort! The editor of this website (July 2022) believes it is now out of print and has no information of a any reprint pending.

Here below is a substantial summary of Vita 1 in English with informational notes. A whole translation by Paul Trenchard will follow during 2022 – and on a devoted page on this website. Watch this space for a link!

Vita 1: Prologue
The author explains that St Gengulphus is a saint of ‘recent’ times, a secular and military figure who, in a life of outstanding goodness has followed the examples of saints of former times, and who now as a soldier of Christ enjoys his heavenly reward.

The text ‘With the trumpet of brass and the instrument of horn, make a joyful noise before the Lord’b is used as the basis image of the saint’s spiritual life. The trumpet of brass representing the mortification of the flesh, and the instrument of horn a holy life.

The author justifies his present work by explaining that little or no written material concerning St Gengulphus is extant, and attributes this to the loss and destruction of books during the period of the pagan [Viking] irruption. He has therefore been obliged to rely on oral tradition in compiling this brief summary of the saint’s life.

The Saint’s Birth and Character
Gengulphus was born into a noble Burgundian family, and was instructed from childhood in the teachings of the Christian faith, which he embraced wholeheartedly. Early in his life he inherited the extensive family estate, which enabled him to become a liberal benefactor of the poor. As a young man he chose for himself a wife of noble rank, but of bad character – who was to be the means by which his patience and sanctity would be tested. He was a skilled hunter and an energetic and accomplished soldier.

His Recreations
As his favourite estate was thickly forested and abounded with game, Gengulphus spent much of his time hunting. The author notes that this might be a ground of criticism, but puts up a vigorous defence of this recreation, which Gengulphus undertook for the sake of exercise and to avoid inactivity.

His Service to Pepin
The author explains that the Franks were, at that time, governed by Pepin (the Short), and implies that the Saint’s youth coincided with the period when Pepin was Mayor of the Palace. Gengulphus, as an energetic and accomplished soldier, served Pepin in a military capacity, and his armour is still displayed in the church which is dedicated to him.

His Purchase of a Spring
Returning from a succcessful expedition in the king’s service, Gengulphus and his men passed through Champagne.j Here Gengulphus came upon a pleasing spring, in a spot where he and his men stopped to take food and to graze their horses. When the peasant who owned this land approached, Gengulphus invited him to share their meal, and asked the man if he would be prepared to sell the spring for a suitable sum of money.

The peasant was unaware of Gengulph’s spiritual powers and took him for a fool. Expecting to retain both the spring and the purchase money, he was duly given one hundred pieces of silver.

He Returns to his Wife
Gengulphus arrived at his home at Varennes sur Amance, unaware that his wife had commited herself to an adulterous relationship. He gave her an account of his activities, including the purchase of the spring. She upbraided him for his stupidity and for his wasteful expenditure.

After taking a walk in the grounds, Gengulphus plunged his staff into the ground and entered the house.

The Miracle of the Spring
The next morning Gengulphus found that there is no water with which to wash himself. He commanded a servant to go and pull his staff out of the ground, and to bring in the water which would appear. The servant did this, and a very great stream of water immediately flowed from the spot where the staff had been thrust.

Whereas springs in the neighbourhood of Varennes have a characteristic chalky cloudiness, this spring retained the perfect clarity that it had in its original location, from which it had been brought by divine power, and where no trace of a spring remained.

His Wife’s Adultery
Gengulph’s wife meanwhile was committing adultery with a clerkk who was one of his own servants. This became the subject of common gossip, and eventually reached to the ears of Gengulphus himself. Torn between desire to punish her, and the wish to live his own life without reproach or guilt, he determined to entrust the matter to the judgment of God.

His Wife’s Adultery is Exposed
One day Gengulphus, in the company of his wife, approached a certain spring.l He mentioned the injurious rumours which are circulating about her – which she denied vehemently. Gengulphus proposed that she should plunge her hands into the water and draw out a pebble which lay at the bottom. He explained that if she was telling the truth, nothing would happen. If she was lying, then God will give some sign to expose her falsehood.

His wife gave no weight to his words, and unreflectingly plunged her hand into the water. She immediately pulled her hand out revealing the judgement of God – for the whole surface of her hand and arm had been scalded.

Gengulphus Parts from his Wife
Gengulphus expressed his regret at this confirmation of her unfaithfulness He indicated that rather than executing justice upon her himself he would leave her to the judgement of God, and advised her to repent. He allowed her to retain the property which she had received as dowry for her maintenance. He then parted from her to live in a distant estate in the region of Avalo,m where he continued to devote himself to good works.

His wife now took advantage of her freedom to continue her adulterous affair with the clerk. The pair however feared that Gengulphus might take revenge on them, and began to make plans to kill him.

His Murder
The clerk secretly watched Gengulph’s household until one night, when an opportunity presented itself, he crept into Gengulph’s bedchamber, and attempted to decapitate him with his own sword which lay beside the bed. Gengulphus was able to deflect the blow, but received instead a serious wound in his hip. He attacker, meanwhile, fled.
Gengulphus survived several days, but realizing that his death was imminent he received the Sacrament and made the heavenward journey for which he had longed.

His Burial
Two aunts of Gengulphus who lived a religious life at Varennes came, accompanied by a large crowd of priest, monks and laypeople, to remove his body for burial. Astonishing miracles were performed as they made their way back to Varennes, where he was buried in his own church, dedicated to St Peter.

The Punishment of the Clerk
The clerk, after his attack on Gengulphus, had immediately fled back to his mistress. After they had performed a dance in misplaced celebration of his deed, he felt the need to empty his bowels. In the garderobe his bowels poured out (like Judas and Arius) and he plunged, unrepentant, to hell.

The Punishment of the Wife
The tomb of Gengulphus attracted great crowds of people as a result of the many miracles which were performed at it. A young woman who was a servant of Gengulph’s wife rushed to tell her mistress this news. Overcome with fury her mistress said ‘If Gengulphus can work miracles, then so can my arse’. Immediately, from that very part of her body which she had indicated, there came a disgraceful sound.

This exchange took place on a Friday,n and every Friday for the rest of her life every time that she wished to speak shameful noises would instead be emitted by that part of her body which she had irrevently compared with the miraculous powers of the man of God.

This became widely known, and King Pepin commanded some of his men to investigate the truth of the matter. They discovered that it was entirely true, and reported to this effect.

The writer reminds his readers that miracles are not important in themselves, and that obedience to God is more important. He admits that little is known about miracles that Gengulphus performed during his lifetime, but points out that now that he is dead his miraculous powers are outstanding and well-known.

a. St Gengulphus is not mentioned in any contemporary state document or charter. The assertion
that he was a signatory of a charter of 762 executed by Pepin le Bref at Prum is an old canard and
without foundation.
b. Ps 97/98.6. The author’s material is derived, with very little adaptation, from St Augustine’s
Exposition on Psalm 98.
j. 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 abundantly clear that
the open terrain of historic Champagne is meant.
k. That is to say, a person who has received the tonsure, with or without proceeding to minor orders. A certain, perhaps minimal, degree of literacy is implied by this status. It is occasionally stated that
the co-respondent was a priest, which is not in accordance with the text. Hroswitha expressly refers to the clerk’s servile status, which makes it impossible that she considered him to have been in major orders.
l. The author does not explicitly identify this spring with the one miraculously transported from
Champagne. But the ambiguous words quendam… fontem probably indicate that he is using a
different source for this section of the narrative. Hroswitha explicitly identifies the two springs.
m. Avalo has been variously identified; plausibly, with Vaux la Douce (Haute Marne); less plausibly
with Avallon (Yonne).
n. The narrative  strongly implies, but does not explicitly state, that the Friday was the day of the
Saint’s burial.
© Paul Trenchard and Psalterium Foundation
all rights reserved
Text last revised 29.07.22