In my last post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I mentioned that I might want to write more about the text. As of today, I’m only on page 114 of the book, but I’ve already found quite a few interesting stories in An Ecclesiastical History. Consequently, I’ve decided to make this type of post a series. As I read An Ecclesiastical History and as I find more and more events I wish to talk about, I will write more blog posts. I’ll probably do this until I finish the book. There are a lot of events that I find fascinating and I really do want to talk about them all. As an added bonus, most of the chapters are only a few paragraphs long so it’s easy to summarize and talk about each one.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not particularly concerned whether or not the stories Bede documents are true. I’m more interested in the culture that Bede is writing about. Histories like these capture the thought process of the time and culture, especially the thought process of a devoted monk. In short, I’m reading An Ecclesiastical History of the English People for fun. Because I’m reading his text for fun I will be documenting the events I find fascinating. I will share four excerpts from An Ecclesiastical History. Originally for this series, I planned to do five excerpts a post but today I want to focus exclusively on Bishop Germanus of Auxerre.
For reference, I’m using the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.
The first excerpt comes from Book One, Chapter Seventeen. This is the same chapter that documents Bishop Germanus of Auxerre calming a storm caused by devils. Germanus and Bishop Lupus of Troyes have finally reached Britain and must confront the Pelagians. Germanus and Lupus have been preaching the word of God and “the majority of the people readily accepted their teaching” (pg. 59). The Pelagians are not particularly happy about this and basically challenge Germanus and Lupus to a preach off. (Or “a trial of strength” (pg. 59) as Bede calls it.) Germanus and Lupus accept.
It’s important to note that Bede describes the Pelagians as wearing “rich ornaments and magnificent robes, supported by crowds of flattering followers” (pg. 59). Basically, the Pelagians are not very Christ-like. Christ was a poor man who told the rich to give their money and possessions away to the needy. Instead of following Christ’s teachings, the Pelagians wear fancy clothes, have fancy stuff, and are surrounded by people who flatter and fawn over them. Not only does Bede code the Pelagians as not Christ-like, but they are also greatly contrasted with Germanus, who earlier in the chapter stopped a storm like Christ.
The thing I found most amusing about this section of the chapter isn’t the preach off or the comparison of the two groups to Christ. What actually made me put another sticky tab in this chapter was the fact that the judges of this preach off are the Pelagians’ wives and children. (In the early days of the church priests could have wives and children and it wasn’t a big deal. How and why this changed is extremely fascinating and contains a lot of wild stories, but that is a story for another blog post.) Germanus and Lupus let the Pelagians speak first, “which they did at great length, filling the time, and the ears of their audience with empty words” (pg. 60). Germanus and Lupus go next and they win. (Of course.) The Pelagians’ “lies [are] exposed, and [they are] unable to defend any of their arguments” (pg. 60). As a result, the Pelagians admit they are wrong, the judges (the Pelagians’ families remember) almost get violent, and Germanus and Lupus are proclaimed the winners/right about God.
So not only do the Pelagians lose, but they are also humiliated in front of their wives and children.
The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Eighteen. Bishop Germanus is once again compared to Christ here. In this chapter, Germanus cures a ten-year-old girl’s blindness. “Immediately after” (pg. 60) the preach off, a tribune and his wife ask the bishops to heal his child. However, it appears that Germanus and Lupus are feeling petty and they tell the tribune to take his daughter to “their opponents” (pg. 60). The Pelagians are “smitten by guilty consciences, joined their entreaties to those of the girl’s parents and begged the bishops to heal her” (pg. 60). It’s only after the bishops see the Pelagians begging for help does Germanus actually cure the girl’s blindness with a prayer and some relics. The pettiness here is tremendous. (Though I will add that Germanus’ miracle convinces everyone that the Pelagians are wrong and Germanus and Lupus’ teachings about God are right.)
The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Nineteen. We are still following the adventures of Bishop Germanus. (From what I can tell from Bede’s work, Germanus is the more important bishop. He’s the one who actually performs the miracles while Lupus just kind of seems like his sidekick.) At the beginning of this chapter, the Devil makes Germanus fall and break his leg. This is before X-rays or anti-biotics, so breaking your leg is a pretty big deal. Also, the fact that the Devil made Germanus break his leg makes it an even bigger deal.
While Germanus is recovering, he is staying in a cottage. In a neighboring cottage, a fire breaks out. After the fire destroyed “the adjoining dwellings which…were thatched with reeds from the marshes, [the fire] was carried by the wind to the cottage where he lay”(pg. 61). Because these cottages are made with reeds (and probably wood) they are practically pre-made bonfires. Houses back then were super flammable. Because Germanus’ house is on fire, people try to get him out. Germanus is “full of trust in God” (pg. 61) so he tells them to leave him in there. He also refuses to leave.
It’s important to look at Bede’s wording here. In my translation, it is described as follows:
The people ran to pick up the bishop and carry him to a place of safety; but, full of trust in God, he reproved them and would not allow them to do so (pg. 61).
Other translations might word this differently, but based on my copy, the phrase “would not allow them to do so” (pg. 61) makes me think that they tried to pick him up and Germanus slapped their hands away or used some sort of physical violence. There is no concrete textual evidence for this, but that is certainly the image that came into my head as I read the chapter. One reason I think this might be the case is that who is going to willingly leave a holy man in a cottage to burn alive? And even if there was no physical force involved, there must have been some shouting.
Despite the people’s efforts, the end result is still the same: “In despair, the people ran off to fight the fire” (pg. 61-62). So they leave Germanus in the cottage and try to save other things. What those things are isn’t specified, but “whatever the crowd endeavoured to save was destroyed” (pg. 62). Bede makes sure that his reader knows that this destruction is all God’s will and is “clearer evidence of God’s power” (pg. 62).
By the way, the fire doesn’t reach Germanus and he’s fine.
The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty. The Saxons and the Picts have “made war on the Britons” (pg. 62) and the Britons have asked Germanus and Lupus for help. The two bishops agree to assist them. However, instead of offering tactical advice or even suggestions on how to bring about peace, Germanus “promised to direct the battle in person” (pg. 63). I’m not sure if bishops leading armies were common in 429 A.D. (the date this story occurred), but Germanus ends up being a great leader.
That being said, Germanus doesn’t necessarily use direct violence against the enemy forces. Instead, Germanus tricks them into thinking there is a rock slide occurring in the valley they are passing through. How does he do this? Germanus shouts ‘Alleluia’ three times and the Briton army does the same. Their shouting (and the echoes of their shouting) is so loud that the enemy army panics, “thinking that the very rocks and sky were falling on them, and were so terrified that they could not run fast enough” (pg. 63). They throw down their weapons to run faster. Most of the enemy ends up drowning in a river they tried to cross. In the end, the Britons win the battle and peace is restored (well, for now). Germanus and Lupus go home.
It’s important for me to note that Germanus and Lupus do have to return to Britain because the Pelagian heresy is revived, but I have decided not to write about that chapter. Instead, my next blog post about An Ecclesiastical History will focus on Saint Augustine.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.