The Northern Way

The Life of St. Eligius, 588-660

Vita S. Eligius, ed. Levison, MGH SS Mer. 4, 669-742


Translation and notes by Jo Ann McNamara [jmcnamar@shiva.hunter.cuny.edu]

The Life of Eligius, bishop and confessor, was written by Dado, bishop of Rouen (his friend and contemporary). Eligius lived from 588 to 660. Feast December 1. I have not been able to check whether the gaps were present in the original manuscripts or whether they represent the editor's decision to cut out material that he considers to be redundant or uninteresting.

 

Book I.

1. Eligius sprang from the villa of Chaptelat about six miles toward the western shore from the town of Limoges in Gaul, which joins the Britannic ocean in the space of about two hundred miles. Thus the city sits in Armorican parts, in ulterior Gaul and prima Aquitaine which looks to the western shore. On the east, it is bordered by the province of Lyon and Gallia Belgica and to the west and south it has the province of Narbonne which also border Ocean. In fact, Spain may be reached from the west. So Eligius was born and raised in that region from free parents of an ancient Christian line. His father was called Eucherius and his mother Terrigia. By grace of divine prescience, he received the name Eligius, a fitting mirror of his mind. And as a foretaste of what he would do, or indeed what God would do through him, it is fitting to tell what happened before he was born. For I should not omit the sign of his sanctity that was shown or the testimony of great men that I have heard.

2. For when the blessed man was still in his mother's womb, his genetrix had a vision ordained in this manner. She saw a splendid eagle wheeling above her bed crying out to her three times promising I don't know what. And when she awoke, terrified by the reverberating voice, she began to wonder much what the vision might mean. Meanwhile the hour of the birth approached and the mother was beginning to be endangered in the greatest pain. So they called a certain religious priest, a man of good repute, that he might pray for her. When he came to her, prophetic words soon seized him and he assured her: "Do not be afraid, mother, for the Lord has deigned to bestow a blessed birth upon you. He will be a holy man and chosen from all his people he will be called a great priest in the church of Christ."

3. So Eligius was born and nurtured in the true faith and imbued by his parents with the Catholic Christian religion. When he had passed the years of boyhood, he entered adolescence with industry and took up whatever work suitable to his age came to his hand and completed it with wonderful aptitude. When his father saw that his son was so skillful, he apprenticed him to an honorable man, Abbo, a proven goldsmith who at that time performed the public office of fiscal moneyer (fiscalis monetae) in the city of Limoges. Soon he was fully trained in the uses of this office and began to be honored with praises among the dwellers and neighbors in the lord. For he acted with dovelike simplicity, lest he bring pain to anyone and he had the wisdom of the serpent lest he fall into traps set by others. He was worthy both in having his skills and in his easy and pure speech. Often he entered into the meetings of the church giving gold to whomever was there reciting the sacred scripture which he longed eagerly to bury within the memory of his heart so that even when he was absent he mi
ght ruminate with intense meditations on what he had heard.

4. Afterwards some years went by until for some reason which I believe was guided by divine providence, he left his native land and his parents and went to the soil of the Franks. Only a few days passed before he came to the notice of a certain royal treasurer named Bobo, and honest and mild man, who committed him to his patronage and put him to work under his tuition. He strenuously employed himself at all work and won the love of everyone to whom he could speak.

5. After a while, a certain cause brought him to the notice of King Clothar of the Franks. For that king wanted a seat urbanely made with gold and gems but no one could be found in his palace who could do the work as he conceived it. But when the aforesaid royal treasurer had satisfied himself of Eligius's skill of Eligius, he began to investigate whether he might complete the work as it was planned. When he was wure that [Eligius] could easily undertake it, [Bobo] went to the prince and indicated to him that he had found an industrious artisan who was at his disposal for the work without delay. Then the king most readily gave him a great weight of gold which he in turn gave to Eligius. Having taken it, he began the work immediately and with diligence speedily completed it. And from that which he had taken for a single piece of work, he was able to make two. Incredibly, he could do it all from the same weight for he had accomplished the work commissioned from him without any fraud or mixture of siliquae, or any other fraudulence. Not claiming fragments bitten off by the file or using the devouring flame of the furnace for an excuse, but filling all faithfully with gems, he happily earned his happy reward. For having brought the completed piece to the palace he gave one seat to the king and kept the other back. The king began to marvel and praise such elegant work and ordered that the craftsman be paid in a manner worthy of his labor. Then Eligius produced the other in their midst: "I have made this piece," he said, "from the gold which I might have lost through negligence." The king was thunderstruck with even greater admiration and questioned the other workmen whether any of them could do the same from the original weight and accepted the answer he got from them acknowledging the sublime favor of his skill: "From this, you will believe in the utmost." And indeed this was the origin in the royal palace of honoring and believing the testimony of Eligius. From this of course, the goldsmith rose and his work was always most wonderfully done with the most learned skill, and he began to find increased favor in the king's eyes and the presence of his optimates. By the Lord's will, his faith was strengthened and, stimulated by the king, he grew to the better every day.

6. For some reason unknown to me, unless it were to obtain greater proof of his fidelity, one day at Rueil in the fields, in my presence, while I was living among the king's boys, the king ordered some relics of saints brought to Eligius and ordered that he place his hands upon the sacred tokens and take an oath. But moved by divine intuition, he humbly refused all attempted inducements. And when he was more urgently pressed, he soon burst into anxious tears fearing to offend the king but trembling sevenfold to impose his hands on the sacred tokens. Then the king, feeling his fear, and simultaneously marveling at the man's great devotion, desisted from forcing him but sent him away with a kinder and gentler manner. His face beaming, he declared him more worthy to be believed than if he had given his oath many times over.

7. When he reached the age of virility, desiring to show himself a vessel sanctified to God and fearing that some sin might stain his breast, he confessed his adolescent deeds to the priest. Imposing severe penances with mortifications on himself, he began to resist the flesh with the fires of the spirit in labors following the apostle, vigils, fasts, chastity, in much patience and unfeigned love. For he protected himself against the present ardors of the flesh with fires of future suffering and the memory of the ardors of Gehenna shut out lust. Day and night he begged God for heavenly gifts always considering this from he book of Job: "I pray the lord and place my speech to God who makes great and inscrutable miracles without number, who places the humble on high and raises the deserving." He would forego a sufficiency of bread so that he might gain heavenly bread. His fasts made him pale and his body withered with thirst but always his mind thirsted more sharply with love of the eternal fatherland and as that became heavier, he bore his sufferings more lightly. For always feeling the end of his present life, he trembled in fear of God's judgment, knowing the scripture: "Blessed is the man who is always afraid." And the apostle: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." And also that saying of Job: "For always I fear the flood of God swelling over me." He lay at night with his feet to the Lord, beating his breast with his hands, dripping tears, with sighs his eyes turned to heaven, always he looked about him fearing that he might have offended in some way and his tearful voice trembled: "To you alone I have sinned; have mercy on me from your great mercy." And that blessed Job: "Remember, for my life is as a wind" and "Spare me for my days are nothing." And when he went out he kept in his mind, "Eyes cannot see nor ears hear not the heart of man know what God prepares for those that love him." And the more he pursued these meditations the more he progressed. The more he humiliated himself, the humbler he became and so much more did he profit. As much as he sorrowed, so much he was forgiven and as much as he humbly afflicted himself, so much did he deserve to be raised on high by God. Oh profound benignity of God! He makes the pardon swifter than the offense. Oh happy penitence, that so swiftly attracts the mercy of Christ to itself. He barely ceased extinguishing the flames of crime with assiduous tears and excluding the virus of sins with frequent fasting than he received from the Lord the mercy that he asked. Indeed through the prophet Malachi the lord spoke of this: "I give and I fear, and he feared me and trembled before the face of my name." Here, therefore, is it written: "Fear of the lord drives out sin." and again, "Who fears the Lord, will tremble at nothing and will not shrink because his hope is in him."

8. Then calling on the Lord with a breast full of faith he asked that if his penitence were acceptable to God he might deign to give him a sign. Now, in the cubicle where he was accustomed to rest regularly he had tokens of many saints hanging from above and beneath that sacred covering he rested his head on a haircloth and spent the night in prayer. When as usual he lay prostrate in that place one night, praying on his haircloth, he was weighed down by descending sleep and dropped off for a moment and suddenly he saw someone standing before him who said: "Behold Eligius! Your prayers have been heard and the sign you asked for in the past will now be given to you." As soon as he heard this, he sensed a sweet odor, and the softest drops from the chrism of the reliquaries flowed smoothly upon his head. Exceedingly astonished by this, he swiftly arose and careful investigation disclosed chrism like balsam distilled on the blanket that covered him. And such a sweet fragrance spread from there that it filled the room so that he could scarcely remain there. And then, mindful of his petition, and exceedingly amazed by the generosity of God's bounty, loudly weeping, he blessed Christ the faithful rewarder, who never fails those who hope in him, from the bottom of his heart. For indeed his power began with almighty God to whom all things are possible. The holy man secretly confided in his comrade named Ouen, cognomen Dado, whom he loved as his own soul, exacting a promise that as long as he remained in this body he would tell no one. Hearing this, he immediately felt compunction in his heart and with the secret of these arcane [things] began to burn inside with love. Because of this he spurned secular blandishments and desired to emulate Eligius studiously to the good. And then they took Dado's brother Ado into their common counsel. These were men high among the optimates at court, the sons of Audechar. With common counsel they both began to imitate what they had learned from Eligius and he was their familiar consort and they had one heart and one soul in the Lord.

9. Therefore Eligius found grace in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of the king of the Franks. And he was held in such good repute by all that the king turned over to him a huge heap of gold and silver and gems without even weighing them. Day by day, he grew in honor with great favor and wholly tested in every respect he flourished, devout in the court. Meanwhile, Clothar died and Dagobert his son succeeded alone to the monarchy of the kingdom by whom Eligius was granted such familiarity that his happiness earned the hatred of many.

10. He grew more in vigils, in fasts, and in charity. For the king's use, he made many utensils from gold and gems. He sat fabricating in a mine opposite Thille, his vernaculus from the Saxon tribe who followed in his master's footsteps and led a venerable life. Sitting at the work, he propped open a book before his eyes so that even while laboring he might receive divine mandates. Thus he performed double offices, his hands to the uses of man and his mind bound to divine use. His fame spread abroad so that Roman, Italian, or Gothic legates or those sent from any other province to make an alliance or on another mission to the palace of the king of the Franks, would not go first to the King but would repair first to Eligius asking him either for food or seeking healthful counsel. Religious men and monks also flocked to him and whatever he could collect, he gave to them in alms or gave for the ransom of captives, for he had this work much at heart. Wherever he understood that slaves were to be sold he hastened with mercy and soon ransomed the captive. The sum of his captives redeemed rose from twenty and thirty to fifty and finally a hundred souls in one flock when they were brought in a ship, of both sexes and from different nations. He freed all alike, Romans, Gauls, Britons and Moors but particularly Saxons who were as numerous as sheep at that time, expelled from their own land and scattered everywhere. If it should happen that the number of people for sale outweighed his means, he gave more by stripping what he had on his own body from his belt and cloak to the food he needed and even his shoes so long as he could help the captives. And often it was pilgrims of Christ that he rescued. Oh, daily did he wish to be a debtor that his own debts might be forgiven? Daily did he not rip golden bracelets, jewelled purses and other gold and gems from himself so that he might succor the miserable? Let me briefly comprehend how many multitudes of captives over successive periods of time he freed from the harsh yoke of dominion and how much alms he distributed to people of both sexes, diverse churches and monasteries, though no orator, however studious or eloquent, could tell the tale. Standing directly in the presence of the king, redeemed captives threw the denarius before him and he gave them charters of liberty. To all of them he gave three choices: since they were now free, they could return to their own country and he would offer them what subsidy they required; if they wished to remain he would accommodate them willingly and include them not among his servants but as his brothers; and, if he could persuade them to embrace the venerable life of monks and take the cloister of a community, honoring those marked for the lord, he would supply clothing and whatever else was needed for their care. He had several vernaculos in his contubernio helping him with these needs. One was Bauderic, his countryman, who took care of his things with all honesty. Tituin of the Suevi tribe was a faithful lay cubicularius who achieved the highest reward when he was later killed. Buchin, converted from the gentiles, later lived at the community of FerriŠres. Andreas and Martin and John at his procurance deserved to come to the clergy. These and more others than I can count were in his chamber day and night striving to complete the solemn canonical course with all effort.

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