The Punishment of the Wife

… a shameful and resounding melody which it would disgrace our tongue to describe   

… her petticoats swung like a curtain let down on the tail of a tragedy . 
[The New Cecilia]

A well-fed Gengulph and his wife (source unknown)

The punishment of St Gengulph’s wife as told in Vita I:

After the servant of God had gone the way of all flesh, at the very place to which they had conveyed his sacred body, the broad and unspeakable mercy of God, through the merits of his Saint, bestowed great benefits upon the people.  Manifestations of his wonders flowed forth on every side, and great crowds of people would gather for this great outpouring of gifts. 

One of the young women who served the aforesaid woman in the capacity of a servant, ran swiftly to her mistress, saying, ‘The body of Lord Gengulph, now laid to rest in his tomb, is bestowing the most wonderful miracles of healing upon everyone.’

To which her mistress – beside herself with ungovernable fury – replied, ‘If Gengulph can work wonders so can my arse’. And no sooner had these shocking words left her mouth, than from that very part of her body which she had vulgarly thrust forth, there came a disgraceful sound.

Now, the day on which these things happened was, according to the Christian reckoning, the sixth day of the week.  Henceforth, and for the whole of the rest of her life, she was subjected to this disgrace, namely that every Friday, as often as she tried to speak, shameful noises would instead come forth from her arse – that part of her body which she had irreverently compared with the miraculous powers of the man of God.

The news of this matter, moreover, became common knowledge throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, such that the aforesaid King Pepin, journeying through that vicinity, commanded some men to look into the matter, in order to discover whether is was true or not. They, finding it to be the very truth, diligently brought back for the King and his nobles a trustworthy report of all that they had both seen and heard.   [Vita I]

In Hroswitha, the news of Gengulph’s miraculous powers is carried to the wife not by a maidservant, but by a devout man returning from a visit to Gengulph’s tomb ‘now celebrated for its many miracles’. The pilgrim seizes the opportunity of this encounter to deliver a robust rebuke:

The man halted and looked upon her with astonishment.
And he addressed her with harsh words, which she deserved,
speaking thus:

O most evil harlot, worthy to be consigned to the flames of hell,
are you not appalled by your deceit, are you not ashamed of the evil
that you have so wickedly wrought against a saint of God,
with the secret connivance of your licentious companion?

Let me tell you the best remedy for the healing of your wickedness  –
a medicine which I advise you to take without delay.
I urge you to hasten with repentance to the sacred tomb
and there to wash away your stains with copious tears.
For the relics of the departed martyr, piously laid to rest,
blaze forth with miracles of the most remarkable kind;
and I hope that it may be possible even for you, unworthy wretch,
to find forgiveness there  –  if only you repent of your wicked deed.’

These words, however, far from eliciting a sympathetic response, provoke the intemperate words for which the obdurate woman is instantly punished:

But her heart is given over entirely to its deadly vices
and she refuses to travel that true path which leads to Life.
She clings instead the slippery path of licentious pleasure
and cares not for the joys of the Eternal Kingdom.

So the malign creature, this perpetrator of wicked deeds,
disdained to heed these words of reconciliation,
for she had so given herself over to the transitory pleasures of this life
that she had no hope at all of an eternal reward.

So, having listened to the man’s sincere advice,
the deceitful woman rolled her murderous eyes          
and tossed her wayward head at him impatiently,
and bawled these words from her pestiferous maw:

‘Why do you waste your breath, zealously pretending
that such miracles are performed through Gengulph’s merits?
These so-called wonders are nothing but a pack of lies.    
And if he can pour forth miracles from his tomb
then I can work great wonders with my arse.’ 

Thus she spoke.  And a remarkable wonder followed
upon this speech – admirably suited to the part concerned –
whereby it produced a shameful and resounding melody
which it would disgrace our tongue to describe.
And ever after, as often as she tried to speak
she would instead emit this uncouth sound.
So she who disdained to observe the laws of chastity
became a common laughing stock;
and bore throughout the rest of her life
this fitting mark of her disgrace.    

A panel of stained glass representing this remarkable incident appears as the final episode of the ‘cycle of St Gengoult‘ preserved in the windows of the collegiate church of St Gengoult at Toul. The punishment of Gengulph’s wife also captured the imagination of the C19th poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who made it the subject of his poem The New Cecilia.

Vita I
tells us nothing about the subsequent life of Gengulph’s wife, and the final couplet of Hroswitha contains no hint that Ganea’s enduring affliction aroused any sense of compunction.  Later legend on the other hand occasionally portrays her as a penitent who edifyingly embraces a life of penitence and mortification, as in this retelling by Abel Moreau:

Honteuse à la fin, elle disparût et se cacha dans sa chambre. Quelques jeunes gens l’y vinrent retrouver, mais dès qu’elle répondait à leurs paroles, son infirmité la reprenait et eux finirent par l’abandonner et disparaître.

Des jours et des jours elle demeura dans le solitude de son château. Quand elle était seule, elle essayait timidement de parler, mais aussitôt le bruit horrible couvrait sa voix.  Elle comprit enfin que Dieu la condamnait au perpétuel silence, et – probablement les prières de son mari aidant – elle vit l’enormité de ses fautes et résolut de les expier.

Elle s’en fut se cacher au fond d’un cloître où le silence était de règle, vendit ses biens, les distribua aux malheureux, et prit l’habit des pauvres dames.  Elle vécut encore de nombreuses années, fit une sincère conversion, édifia ses compagnes par ses mortifications et obtint ainsi d’aller rejoindre dans les cieux celui qu’elle avait trahi et ridiculisé sur la terre.a

a. Abel Moreau  St Gengoult
Ashamed at the end, she disappeared and hid in her room. Some young people came to find her there, but as soon as she answered their words, her infirmity took over and they ended up abandoning her and disappearing. For days and days she remained in the solitude of her castle.
When she was alone, she tentatively tried to speak, but immediately the horrible noise covered her voice. Finally she understood that God condemned her to perpetual silence, and – probably her husband’s prayers helping – she saw the enormity of her faults and resolved to atone for
She went to hide in the confines of a cloister where silence was the rule, sold her goods,
distributed them to the poor, and took the habit of the poor ladies. She still lived for many years, made a sincere conversion, edified her companions with her mortifications and thus succeeded in going to join in heaven the one she had betrayed and ridiculed on earth.
© Paul Trenchard
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Page last revised 17.19.08