Tag Archive: IXth Century

The holy phial – part 2

Legend has it that, during Clovis’ baptism, a dove from Heaven brought a phial containing holy oil.

Such a surprising story has obviously met with some scepticism from Historians, and even from people of the Church…  Some Benedictins, like Dom Mabillon, some Jesuits, like Father Jacques Longueval, some Bollandist Fathers, etc., have, over the centuries, delivered severe criticism of Hincmar’s text and have quite simply declared that it is only a legend…

All of these good ecclesiastics refuse to believe in the miraculous apparition of the holy phial.  And their objections have been taken up by the Historian Leber who lived in the XIXth Century.  He very curiously begins by refuting this story, not for “cartesian” reasons, but for material ones.

He doesn’t say:  “I don’t believe it because a dove can’t come from the sky with a phial in its beak.”  He says:  “I don’t believe it because there must certainly have been enough oil to proceed with the baptism…”  Here is his text:

“It is said that at the moment of baptizing Clovis, the holy oil not being there, Heaven deigned to supply it by sending a phial filled with a divine liqueur whose perfume filled the whole church.

“This fact does not have a believable character.  It is difficult to believe that the oil which was supposed to serve for the baptism of a monarch had not been prepared or brought ahead of time into the sanctuary, or that there was not enough of it to accomplish the ceremony.  As no-one was counting on a prodigy, the necessary precautions must have been taken.  The oil must have been prepared, not only for the King, but for six thousand subjects who were baptized with him;  or, according to Gregoire, three thousand soldiers and more, not counting the women and children.  The negligence that is supposed here cannot be conceived.  The fact is not likely in itself.”


During the coronation of French Kings (here, Louis XVI), the holy phial was brought in great ceremony to Reims by members of the Order entrusted with its safekeeping.

There is another fact that troubles the Historians quite a lot:  none of the chroniclers who were contemporary to the prodigy mention it:  neither Gregoire de Tours, who recounts the baptism of Clovis however, nor Fredegaire, his continuator, nor Bishop Avitus, nor even Saint Remi in his testament…

Saint Remi only writes:

“Deus…  plurima signa ad salutem praefatae gentis Francorum operari facit!”

That is to say that some prodigies were done by God for the conversion of the Francs…  Some authors have concluded rather hastily that by “prodigy”, we must understand “holy phial”…  Which is known as “soliciting a text”…  In fact, the more rigorous Historians consider that this sentence of Saint Remi is extremely vague and that we do not have the right to see in it any allusion to the holy phial.  On top of which, if this prodigious event happened during Clovis’ baptism, a dazzled Saint Remi would not have just made a vague allusion to “prodigies”;  he would have related the fact in all its details…


In fact, the first chronicler to really speak of the holy phial is Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, who wrote in the IXth Century, that is to say four hundred years after the event…  He claims to have taken his information from ancient chronicles.  Which ones?  He doesn’t say.  Therefore, Hincmar has been accused of completely inventing the story of the dove.  However, a few researchers have discovered that the story of the holy phial was known before Hincmar spoke of it, and that it belonged, in the form of a legend, to Reims folklore.


The reconstituted holy phial was used for the last time on 29 May 1825 during the coronation of Charles X. Since then, it is part of the treasure of the Reims Cathedral.

The genesis of it has been reconstituted.  Clovis’ baptism having been the most important event in the History of the christianization of Frankish Gaul, it could be thought that fairly early – around the VIth or VIIth Century – the Reims priests must have shown to pilgrims the phial used by Saint Remi.  This phial, authentic or false, it doesn’t matter, was considered a relic.  And we know that sacred objects were frequently conserved in recipients in the form of a dove which were suspended inside the churches, above the altar…  As well as that, on the drawings, the fresques, the mosaics which represent a ceremony of baptism, there is often a dove – the Holy Ghost – which descends onto the head of the new Christian…  It was enough for the good people to see this reliquary in the form of a dove holding a phial in its beak, and a mosaic showing Clovis’ baptism, for the mixture to give birth to a legend…  A legend which the good Hincmar, in good faith, reported to us…


And for over one thousand years, he was believed.  He made a mistake, but we must however recognize that it was a great idea.  An idea which was used for the first time in 869, during the Coronation of Charles the Bald, and which consisted in using Clovis’ balm for the unction of the Kings of France…  By this find, not only did he serve the interests of the city of which he was the Pastor (the Archbishops of Reims became in this way the consecrators of their sovereigns), but he made the Kings of France the only monarchs made sacred by the use of an oil from Heaven, which placed them above all of the Kings of Christendom.

This is how a marvellous story, born of a legend, was able to give, for around one thousand years, to forty Kings, the power and the prestige which was necessary for them to make France…



The holy phial

Legend has it that, during Clovis’ baptism, a dove from Heaven brought a phial containing holy oil.

The History of France begins with a marvellous story.  On 25 December 496, the streets of Reims are packed with a joyful crowd awaiting an extraordinary procession.  The Franc Chief, Clovis, who has decided to convert to christianism, has to go, in great pomp, surrounded by the principal prelates of Gaul, from the former Palace of the Roman Governor, situated near the Basee Gate – porta Basilica – to the baptistery where Remi, Bishop of the little city, awaits him.

All of the streets are decorated.  Gregoire de Tours tells us that

“the squares were shaded by coloured hangings and the churches hung with white curtains”.

As for the pool where the new Christian was to be, according to the rite, plunged three times, it was splendidly decorated.  The chronicler tells us, as well, that perfumes had been poured around and that odorous candles were burning, in such a way

“that all the people were impregnated with a divine odour and that God was filling the spectators with such grace that they thought that they had been transported amongst the perfumes of Paradise”.

The holy phial was used for over one thousand years for the Coronation of France’s Kings.

Along the streets, while waiting for the procession, well-informed people are saying that this baptism is the consequence of a vow that Clovis had made during a battle.  For a long time, Clotilde – daughter of the Burgond King Chilperic -, whom he had married in 493, had been begging him to abandon the cult of the gods Wotan, Ziu and Freia, to convert to the religion of the Christ;  but the Franc had been hesitating.  However, a few months earlier, while he was fighting against the Alamans, luck seemed to be against him and he had addressed the heavens like this:

“God of Clotilde, You whom my wife affirms to be the son of the living God, if you give me victory over these enemies, I will believe in You and will have myself baptized!”

Immediately after this prayer, the Alamans had fled in great disorder.  A miraculous victory for which Clovis rejoiced because it assured him the whole of northern Gaul with uncontested authority over the Gallo-Romans and the Germanic Francs…


For a long time, the holy phial was kept in this reliquary placed inside Saint Remi’s tomb.

The Remois, who are waiting and chatting near the Cathedral built by Saint Nicaise ninety-seven years earlier, are suddenly silent.  A buzzing of religious chants is announcing the arrival of the cortege which soon arrives on the square.  At its head is the Remois clergy preceded by a cross-bearer, then come Remi, who had instructed the King in christian dogmas, and different Bishops whose mitres, croziers and amethyst rings amaze the good people.  Monks and clerics follow, singing hymns of glory.  Finally, Clovis appears, alone, dressed in the white robe of catechumens.  Behind him walk two young women whose ravishing names – Alborflede and Lantechilde – have been circulating through public rumour.  They are his sisters.  They too are to receive baptism, along with the three thousand warriors at the back of the cortege, three thousand Francs with enormous moustaches hanging on their virginal tunics, who are advancing and trying to look meditative.

The ceremony is therefore going to last all day and the little people display intense jubilation about it.  Not that they are particularly fond of religious spectacles, but because they guess that there will be rejoicings attached to this one.  The arrival of this crowd of new converts into the Church’s bosom is, in fact, going to be accompanied by feasts and drunkenness, these excesses being absolved in advance by their pious pretext.


The Grand Prior of Reims Abbey wearing the holy phial reliquary around his neck.

When the cross-bearer arrives in front of the baptistery, the cortege stops.  Remi then gives a sign to Clovis who walks with a firm step towards the pool, his long hair undone.  With no hesitation, he enters the icy water, and the Bishop of Reims pronounces this sentence which would traverse the centuries:

“Bow your head gently, proud Sicambre!  Worship that which you have burnt, burn that which you have worshipped!…”

After which, the King having confessed his faith in God All-Powerful and in the Trinity, Remi plunges his head into the water three times, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Clovis leaves the pool, met by a priest who covers him in a big towel and rubs him down with respect.  Dried, the King goes into a neighbouring room to dress in a new linen tunic.  He re-appears immediately afterwards.

The public, let into the bapistery, then gets ready to watch the second part of the ceremony:  Confirmation.  The ritual is known:  the Bishop is going to anoint the newly baptized man’s forehead with holy oil;  a few psalms will be sung and all will be finished.  The drinking and feasting awaited by the little people could then begin.

This is when a prodigious event takes place, related by Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, in the IXth Century in his Vie de saint Remi, and which is still being recounted, more than one thousand three hundred years later.

Here are the facts such as he reports them:

“As Remi and Clovis were arriving at the baptistery, the cleric who was carrying the oil was stopped by the crowd, so that he was unable to get to the baptismal font.  Therefore, at this font blessed by divine will, the holy oil was lacking.  And as the crowd of people was preventing anyone from either entering or leaving the church, the holy pontiff, raising his eyes and hands to heaven, tacitly started to pray and shed tears.  And suddenly, a dove whiter than snow brought in its beak a little phial full of holy oil, the suave odour of which, much superior to that of the incense and the candles, struck all who were present.  The holy pontiff having taken this little phial, the dove disappeared.”

Immediately, Remi, completely untroubled by this marvel, proceeds to anoint Clovis with the holy oil that has been miraculously brought, before a crowd that must have been astounded…


After the destruction of the holy phial during the Revolution, what was left of the original holy oil was collected and placed in this reliquary, by order of Charles X.

After the ceremony, the holy phial – as its name will be from then on – was piously carried by Remi to a safe place.  Later, it would be placed inside a dove of gold.  Those who saw it tell us that it was in slightly opaque glass or crystal, that its size was that of an average fig, that its neck had a whiteish colour, that its stopper was made of red taffeta, and that the oil that it contained exhaled the most exquisite perfume.  Some chroniclers, like Froissart in his Description of the Coronation of Charles VI, even affirm that the oil came back all on its own after each royal unction, and that its volume consequently never diminished.  The Historian Dom Guillaume, in the XVIIth Century, assures us that a “famous doctor” whose name he unfortunately does not give us, believed that “this celestial balm had been made by the hands of angels”.

So, Clovis’ baptism is marked with a divine sign.  And this sign would be used by the Kings of France for more than a thousand years for political ends.  In fact, the celestial origin of the holy phial would raise France to the rank of eldest daughter of the Church, suggest the idea of a ceremony for the taking of power being integrated into the religious liturgy:  Coronation;  make this Coronation a true initiation capable of transforming the sovereign into a King-Priest and a Healer King – who could cure the King’s Evil, for example – in other words, give a sacred character to the royal function…

A marvellous adventure which would make all the sovereigns of the world jealous and lead the English Kings to “invent” a holy phial – Saint Thomas a Becket’s – so as to found their monarchy on bases just as solid as that of the French…

This holy phial, now a “divine sign”, was used during the Coronation of almost all of France’s Kings up until the Revolution.  But on 16 Vendemiaire year II (7 October 1793), the Conventionnel Ruhl broke it with a hammer on the steps of Louis XV’s statue, in the middle of the Place Royale in Reims.


However, the holy phial did not disappear completely.  A few pieces of debris containing a bit of balm were collected by Abbot Seraine, Curate of Saint-Remi.  This balm, mixed with other blessed oils, was locked up in a new reliquary and was used for the Coronation of Charles X.  All that is left of the oil used at Clovis’ baptism is still part of the Reims Cathedral’s treasure today…


To be continued.

In 1557, the inhabitants of Bale saw in the sky an object having the form of an "immense piece of reddened metal". This mysterious "thing" performed numerous evolutions before disappearing. One century earlier, in 1461, the inhabitants of Arras had witnessed the same phenomenon.

This story was found in a treatise written by Agobard, the Bishop of Lyon, himself.  Agobard relates the facts but denies their veracity for he considers them as being contrary to the dogmas.


No other people have mentioned this prodigious adventure but there are many others of the same order.  For it must be said that these sorts of stories are fairly common at this epoch.  To the point that the Capitulaires of Charlemagne and of Louis le Debonnaire mention the punishments imposed on the creatures sailing on airships who are accused of destroying vines and harvests…

For there to be laws and rules reprimanding the misdemeanors committed by these mysterious beings, their appearances in the sky must have been numerous…


Montfoucon de Villars writes:

“One saw in the air these creatures of human form, sometimes drawn up for battle marching in good order, or standing armed, or camped beneath superb pavillions – at other times on airships of admirable structure whose flying fleet sailed where the zephirs took them…”

Guy Breton, whose work I have translated, surmises that these beings were wearing dorsal helicopters which allowed them to leave the spaceship and descend easily onto Earth…


The angels represented on the mosaics of the Cathedral in Montreale (Sicily), like those of Cefalu, have six wings. Could they be the blades of an individual helicopter?

One day in 842, at the time of the siege of Angers by Charles the Bald, the Angevins saw, in the sky, creatures having “the form of grasshoppers each wearing six wings and armed with teeth made of metal”.  These beings were lined up in battle order and flew in good order, led by scouts and airborne diving machines of slimmer form.  “After having circled above the troops of Charles the Bald, these strange metallic grasshoppers disappeared in the direction of the sea…”  To Guy Breton, these metallic grasshoppers, these giant grasshoppers, very much seem to resemble helicopters.


Guy Breton one day had the feeling that he was looking at the most ancient representation of a dorsal helicopter in the Cefalu Cathedral, in Sicily, where there are admirable mosaics from the XIIth Century representing angels…  Angels with six wings, of which two give the impression of turning behind them, or above their heads…

Guy Breton says that he doesn’t want to shock anybody, but he asks the question:  What if angels were extra-terrestrials who had descended to Earth with a dorsal helicopter, and were transformed into celestial people by the men of Biblical Antiquity?…


IXth Century trip in a UFO

Many Mediaeval chroniclers tell of mysterious balls in the sky. However, the one that landed in Lyon in 852 was inhabited...

On this Summer day in 852, the eighteenth year of the reign of France’s Louis le Debonnaire, it is hot in Lyon and numerous people are strolling along the banks of the Rhone seeking some cooler air.  Suddenly, someone points to the sky:

“Oh!  Look!…”

The good people look up and freeze in fear.  At the same instant, other cries resound throughout the city:

“Come and see!  Come and see!  There is great marvel in the sky!…”

Then, coming out of houses, convents, churches, men and women invade the streets and remain stunned when they see what everyone else is seeing.  There, above a prairie, at a height of three houses, a thing which doesn’t resemble anything that is known is floating in the air, motionless and silent.

Is it a chariot?  A vessel?  A beast?  A dragon?  No-one can say.

Suddenly, the thing begins to descend slowly towards the prairie and the good people of Lyon, terrified, fall to their knees.

The thing continues to descend.  It is now a few feet from the ground.  Finally, it lands with extraordinary gentleness.  The people of Lyon, prostrate in the grass, don’t dare to move.  Completely petrified with fear, they silently wait for whatever is now going to happen.

A long time ticks by.

Suddenly, a cry erupts from the crowd.  On one side of the thing, a door has just opened.  A staircase unfolds, and human beings appear at the top of the steps.  There are four of them:  three men and a woman wearing costumes similar to those of the Lyonnais.  Now, they are coming down the stairs, mutually supporting each other.

The crowd, astounded, watches them.

They continue to descend, reach the ground, advance in a stagger.  They seem stunned.

When they have gone about fifty paces, the staircase down which they have come folds up on its own, then the door through which they had passed closes, and the thing, still silent, leaves the ground and rises slowly above the crowd.  When it reaches about one hundred feet, it suddenly makes a prodigious bound into the sky and disappears behind the clouds.

Then, the four mysterious people let themselves fall to the ground.  They seem to be at the limit of their strength.  The woman in particular seems to be in a very bad way:  she is crying and her arms and legs are shaking.

The Lyonnais rise to their feet.  Someone calls out:

“Careful!  Don’t go near them, they’re sorcerers!”

But one of the men from the sky speaks in a tired voice and his language is that of the Lyonnais:

“We are not sorcerers.  We are from a neighbouring village.  We have been taken by genies…  Do not be afraid of us!…  But rather, help this woman who is ill…”

All four of them look so pitiful that some good people approach them and ask whence they have come.  The man gives the name of his village.

“We will explain everything, but look after this woman, she has been so frightened…”

Then, despite those who are calling for death and yelling about witchcraft, they are taken inside a house where they are put to bed after having drunk some cool wine in which revigorating herbs are floating…

The crowd is gathered in front of the door.  It will wait for hours before the men from the sky have enough strength to speak.  Towards evening at last, one of them gives this extraordinary account:

“Voila.  All four of us were in a field when this thing that you saw came down from the sky and landed near us.  Beings similar to men came out and called to us.  We were so frightened that it was impossible for us to move.  Then they came and invited us to mount inside their airship.  They told us that they were not evildoers.  We followed them and the thing flew away.  We were behind some round windows through which we could see the earth beneath us.  We saw countrysides, rivers and cities;  then we entered into a fog and, suddenly, we thought that we were in Paradise…  One of the genies told us that we were above the clouds.

“After that, we slept.  When we awoke, we noticed that the thing had come down in an unknown land.  The genie who was taking care of us came to get us and took us inside a palace where there were some very beautiful women.  He told us that these were their women and that we must be able to see that they weren’t demons.

“Then he took us on a visit of the city and we mounted again inside the thing.  But before coming back here, we were taken on a trip to different places on Earth.  We came down in countries of ice and in countries of sand where the heat was torrid.  Before letting us leave, a while ago, the genie said to us:

” ‘Tell other men what you have seen, and tell them that we don’t want to hurt them, that we do not come to throw venom on their fruits, poison their fountains, excite storms or make hail fall on their harvests…  Tell them so that your kings know it!’

“There, you know everything! “

The Lyonnais, who had listened to this fabulous story, are perplexed.  Suddenly, a man cries out:

“I don’t believe any of this!  These people are sorcerers.  They come to make it hail!…”

Another says:

“It’s the Duke of Benevent who sends them!”

Soon, the crowd is yelling:

“Yes, Yes!  It’s Grimoald, the Duke of Benevent, who sends them to massacre our harvests!  They are sorcerers!…”

“Death!  They have to be burnt!…”

And they are led away.

According to Agobard, Bishop of Lyon in the IXth Century, the inhabitants of his city had what is known today as "a close encounter of the third type".

While waiting for the stake and fire to be prepared, the screaming crowd makes them walk around the city.  They are insulted.  Stones are thrown at them.  They are promised to Hell.

“Death to the sorcerers!  Death!”

But a man runs up, alerted by all this noise.  It is Agobard, Bishop of Lyon.  He wants to know what is happening.

It is explained to him that these sorcerers come from the sky to spoil the harvests and that they are going to be burnt.

Agobard is a good man.  He turns to the four prisoners and asks them to explain.  They recount their extraordinary adventure once more.  The crowd cries out:

“You see, they are sorcerers, they have to be burnt!”

But Agobard shakes his head.

“No!  I strictly forbid you to burn them.  These three men and this woman are not sorcerers.  For the simple reason that they are lying, that they never went to travel in the air, for such things are impossible!”

“But we all saw them descend from the sky!”

“Then you were all seeing things!”

And for three quarters of an hour, he explains all his reasons for them not to believe in such a prodigy.  He adds:

“And another thing, those who affirm that they were witnesses to it could well risk being taken for sorcerers themselves…”

As can be guessed, the Lyonnais then declare to their Bishop that the whole thing was only a dream.

And the four prisoners are released and return to their village while, in Lyon, hundreds of men and women – without confiding in anybody – would keep in their memories the obsessive image of a mysterious thing which had descended from the sky one fine Summer’s day…


To be continued.

Doctor Jean-Rene Lambert, who lived in different parts of the Congo from 1930 to 1939 wrote about something in his Souvenirs which has several points in common with the story of Charlemagne and the magic ring.

Doctor Lambert has just treated a young man called Mumba for enteritis.  The young man has fainted, and the doctor has handed him over to his young wife, Mayi, whom the boy made fall in love with him via a magic stone which he carries on him at all times.  The doctor continues his story.

“Mumba had hardly left before I found on the ground the stone that had been given to him by the sorcerer.  It must have slipped from his belt.  I was going to run after him to return it, when I had the idea of attempting an experiment, and I put the stone in my pocket.  We would see if this object had any power.  The answer came without delay.

“The next morning, I discovered, with the astonishment that can be imagined, Mayi crouched in front of my door, looking at me tenderly.  Greatly embarrassed by this little black girl in love, who didn’t want to leave me, I hurried off to give back the stone to Mumba, and all returned to normal…  But I was able to see for myself the extraordinary effects of this object prepared by a sorcerer whose knowledge – the thing being proven to me once more – was far greater than my superficial white doctor’s knowledge.”

Docteur Lambert says “once more” because, elsewhere in his book, he recounts that he had been able to see the magical powers of certain sorcerers over rain, wind and storms.


Most explorers will tell you that in certain traditional civilizations – which certain ethnologists still scornfully call primitive civilizations – there are initiates capable of using forces which are unknown to us.  In New Caledonia, for example, numerous cases of Canaques of both sexes being “emboucanes” through sorcerers, and made amorous, are still cited today…


So, it is possible that Charlemagne was also “emboucane” by a Carolingian sorcerer endowed with the same powers as the Congolese nyanga or the Canaque magicians…  Who knows?


Mosaic from Saint-Jean-de-Latran, in Rome, dating from the end of the VIIIth Century. We see that the Carolingian Emperor, Charlemagne (Charles I of the Francs), did not wear a beard, in spite of the legend that says that he did. He wore only a moustache.

The Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne

Charlemagne had fallen in love with Archbishop Turpin.

And, from that moment on, he followed him everywhere, declared that he could not live without him, looked at him with passionate eyes, caressed his hands and called him “my gentle doe”…

Frightened, the prelate ran to barricade himself inside his chamber, took off the German lady’s ring which he had imprudently slipped onto his finger, and tried to think what to do.  He knew that if the magic object were to fall into the hands of unscrupulous people, the Emperor, blinded by a new passion, would risk being led to perform the most senseless acts…

And, in the end, Turpin went out and threw the ring into the lake.

Then, Charlemagne fell in love with the lake.

And his passion was so great that he could be seen walking by it for whole days at a time, talking to his beloved.  He said to those close to him:

“Nothing is sweeter to me than to be near it.  Look how amiable it is!”

And, so as not to be separated from it, he had the town of Aix-la-Chapelle built on its banks.  This town became his residence, and he asked to be buried there when he died…


This story was believed for five hundred years.  When Petrarque, who had heard it in Aix, reported it in his Lettres familieres, it seems that a slight doubt crossed his mind.  But only a slight one…  He believed it, like everybody else.


It was believed because it was about Charlemagne.  The people always has a tendency to magnify those whom it admires and to make them heroes of legends, endowed with supernatural powers.  It seemed normal to them that Charlemagne, whose exploits marvelled crowds, had played a role in a fairy story.  There are other examples.  In 1821, thousands of people refused to believe that Napoleon was dead:  Napoleon could not die…  They accused the English of spreading false rumours:  legends circulated and it was said that he had escaped from Sainte-Helene, that he was in America, that he was going to return…  The people believed him to be supernatural.

Another more recent example:  it was said of General de Gaulle that he was especially lucky, that bullets could not harm him, that he couldn’t have an accident.  Such a person already has a special aura.  Therefore, it was quite normal that Charlemagne’s contemporaries, for whom he was an exceptional being, were able to believe the story of the magic ring.


Another hypothesis is that the story is true.  Ethnologists and explorers report things about objects endowed with magical powers that are used by certain sorcerers in Amazonia, Australia or black Africa.  In particular, there is the witness statement of Doctor Jean-Rene Lambert, who lived in different parts of the Congo from 1930 to 1939.  Let us look at the extraordinary story that he relates in his Souvenirs.  We can see that it has a few points in common with that of Charlemagne…

“One day, a young man from the village came to find me in the hut where I was giving my consultations.  I knew him from having treated his panaris a few months beforehand.  His name was Mumba and he could have been about twenty-five years old.

“I asked him what he was suffering from.  He lowered his head like a guilty person and remained mute.  I am not a patient person:

“”Well, answer me,” I said to him.  “If you come to see me, it is because you are ill.  Where are you suffering?”

“As he continued in his silence, I shook him:

“”Listen, I have no time to waste.  Tell me what’s wrong with you, or go away!”

“Then I heard this astounding sentence:

“”Give me something to make her love me!…”

“Understanding that I had to change my tone of voice, I gently and affectionately interrogated him, and he confided to me that he loved a young girl in the village, whose name was Mayi, that she didn’t want him and that he was very unhappy.

“Not knowing what to say, I advised him to be patient.  He shook his head:

“”No, if I wait, she will love another.  Help me, Doctor, give me one of your little bottles.”

“I explained to him that none of my little bottles could make a woman fall in love, and that, also, I knew of nothing in this world that had that power.  He looked at me, very astonished.

“”Then, I’ll ask the nyanga,” he said to me with a sigh.

“The nyanga was a sort of sorcerer.  A few days later, Mumba came back to see me.  He was smiling.

“”Now she is going to love me,” he told me.  “The nyanga gave me this stone which I must carry on me day and night.”

“He showed me a little stone engraved with mysterious signs.

“”It will attract Mayi to me!…”

“The fine boy’s confidence was both so absolute and so touching that I didn’t want to cast any shadow on it by my white man’s scepticism.

“A few more days passed and Mumba visited me again.  This time, he was radiant:

“”It’s done,” he told me.  “Yesterday, she came to join me while I was near the river…  Since then, she hasn’t left me…  Look!”

“Outside, Mayi was waiting, with a submissive air.  When Mumba left me, she ran towards him with an ecstatic smile and tenderly caressed his shoulders.

“From then on, they were always seen together and they married.

“However, one day, Mumba came to consult me.  He was suffering from atrocious intestinal pain.  I had him undress, examined him, diagnosed enteritis and gave him a few remedies.

“”Drink that and go home to bed,” I told him.

“He dressed, stumbling with pain, and fell to the floor in a fainting fit.  I picked him up and handed him over to Mayi who was waiting outside.”

To be continued.

The Carolingian Emperor Charlemagne on a mosaic at Saint-Jean-de-Latran, in Rome, dating from the end of the VIIIth Century.

We know that Charlemagne was a great ladies’ man.  As he aged, his taste for women and girls became even more pronounced and he fell completely in love with a German princess, whose name, unfortunately, History has not retained.

Petrarque, who reports the facts, tells us that he was so in love that he neglected not only the affairs of the kingdom, but also the care of his own person.  He could be seen roaming around his palace heaving great sighs, his arms dangling and his eyes fixed on the German lady.  His clothes were rumpled, his fingernails black, his hair dirty and, he, who had never worn a beard, forgot to shave…  In other words, love was making him pitiful.

His entourage watched him in great astonishment.  Violent, red-blooded, sensual, Charlemagne was not in the habit of wilting away over a young lady.  In general, he was a lot more expeditive.  Everyone remembered what he had done to the gentle Amalberge.  One day, while this amiable young girl was walking in the palace corridors, Charlemagne, who had conceived a great passion for her, saw her.  Taken with the sudden desire to violate her on the spot, he threw himself on her and furiously crushed her against him.  Panicked, the young virgin managed to escape and ran to take refuge in a chapel where she knelt before the altar.  Charlemagne had followed her.  He entered the holy place, bounded on his prey and seized her with such violence that he broke one of her arms.  Rather ashamed, he bowed his head and apologised.

He was about to call for help.  But Heaven did not give him time.  The Holy Virgin, whose statue was close by, performed a miracle and knitted the two parts of the damaged humerus together.  Charlemagne, very impressed by this intervention, no longer dared display his ardour;  he bowed to the young girl, left the chapel in as dignified a way as possible and went for a little walk to cool off.

This adventure had marked people’s minds.  To the point that, when Amalberge died from a bad furuncle, the Church, who always gives credit where credit is due, considered that, to resist Charlemagne’s advances, she must have needed supernatural courage, and declared that the young girl must have been a saint.  She was canonised…

The Emperor was the first to kneel before her statue and pray to her…

Remembering these times when Charlemagne was so enterprising with the ladies, rapid in his conquests and precise in his gestures, the members of his Court shook their heads:  the great Charles was not the same.  He looked unhappy, he stumbled around, a dazed look on his face.  He seemed exhausted.

For weeks, thinking of his young German girl, the Emperor was literally consumed, refusing delicious foods, pushing away pitchers of fine wines, showing no interest in the curvy charms of the palace ladies…

One day, at last, the young girl who was the object of so much passion, accepted his attentions, and Charlemagne was once again bright-eyed, with a fresh complexion, a sprightly step, shining hair, and a well-trimmed moustache…  But he still didn’t interest himself in the affairs of State, for, from morning to night, he was with his ravishing mistress.  They were seen swimming together, prancing around on little Hungary horses, playing chess, and kissing each other on window-seats.  In other words, he could not stand to be separated from her for even a second.  He seemed bewitched…

After a few months, the young woman suddenly became ill, took to her bed, and died…  The whole Court then hoped that Charlemagne would consecrate himself energetically to the affairs of the Empire, to help him forget his pain.  Not at all.   He still refused to be separated from his dead beloved, just as he had while she was alive.  He refused to have her buried.  Worse, he wanted her to be installed on a parade bed, dressed in her most beautiful gown, wearing sparkling jewels.  All day, he remained beside her, talking to her, telling her anecdotes, discussing palace events.  At night, he came to lie down beside her.  In the morning, he embraced her passionately and made extravagant speeches to her.  One morning, the officers and the guards heard him address the cadaver, whose state of corruption was starting to be frightful, saying to it in a joyful tone:

“My gentle one, my beautiful wild rose, Spring is beautiful this morning.  And you are ravishing…”

They were dismayed.

Finally, Archbishop Turpin, prelate of Cologne, became worried.  Thinking that the Emperor’s disorder and his mad passion for a cadaver were due to some spell, he decided to investigate.  And, one evening when Charlemagne had gone out, he penetrated the chamber where the dead woman lay, searched her clothes, minutiously visited her body, and ended up finding, under the deceased’s tongue, a stone set in a ring.  Persuaded that this was the cause of the spell, he took the jewel away with him.

A short time later, Charlemagne returned, looking different, which surprised his entourage.  Petrarque tells us that he seemed to have woken from a deep sleep, and looked at everything with astonishment.  Then he went into the chamber, and was heard to yell:

“Why is there a cadaver in my bed?  It must be buried straight away.  Its odour is disgusting!”

And, without bothering any more with this dead woman whom he had so loved, he left the palace and went, as if pushed by a supernatural force, to the home of Archbishop Turpin.  The prelate welcomed him enthusiastically, and asked to what he owed the honour of such a visit.  Charlemagne declared that he loved him.

To be continued.

The fame of the miraculous cures procured by the virtus, that is to say the “beneficial power” of Saint Martin, owes its publicity at the time to two authors:  the poet Paulin de Perigueux in the Vth Century, then the chronicler Gregoire de Tours in the VIth Century.  At this time, the popularity of the pilgrimage is at its height.

However, all the great people from the Carolingian period still go on it.  Charlemagne, accompanied by Alcuin and by all of his family, makes the trip in the year 800.  The Martin epic song [geste] gives a very early account of the miracles occurring at Tours:  the curing of illness and infirmities of all kinds happening on the saint’s tomb.  Gradually, the pilgrimage is codified and an unchangeable ritual is born.

Because they see the virtus of Martin as something palpable, material, the faithful try to capture the mysterious fluid which still emanates from objects or places which have been in contact with the saint.  Near the tomb, the beneficial power infuses the earth of the atrium beside the basilica, the wall of the basilica, the curtains, the oil lamps and the candles which light it, the cloth which covers the tomb.

To expose oneself to the radiations emanating from the sanctuary, to rub one’s eyes with the pieces of cloth, remove fragments of stone, wood, material or drops of the oils which are used for the torches, so as to later make potions or unctions out of them, is particularly effective.  The Martin pharmacopia prefers these powders of finely ground substances mixed with water:  the dust obtained from scraping the tomb stones represents the panacea par excellence.  The bishop, himself, goes nowhere, without taking with him, as prevention, a capsula of this miraculous powder.  Once again, talismans and amulets are perfectly at home in divine proximity.

Medicine, in the sense which we give to this term today, was born only once.  And it could only happen after science had given it a model.  The XVIth Century, the pivotal period, is still marked by these paradoxes.

The great Paracelse (1493-1541) announces the principle of experimentation:  “Practice should not be based on speculative theory.”.  It will take two centuries for him to be heard.  However, this master of Western esotericism, alchemist and occultist, who says that he has made the homunculus and the elixir of longevity, is also the one who gives life to the “theory of signatures” which perfectly resumes the logic of the men of the Middle Ages.

According to this theory, each plant carries signals indicating the organs or the illnesses which it is able to heal:  the sap of chelidoine is the colour of bile, therefore it cures liver diseases;  the bulb of the autumn crocus (meadow saffron) looks like a toe deformed by gout, therefore it cures gout…

Water from Lourdes and parallel medicines are still used today.

In the mind of the man of the Middle Ages, “everything is in all things and acts on everything”.  To the macrocosm – the universe, the planets of the Zodiac, the seasons, plants – responds the microcosm of the human body.  A web of infinite correspondences is woven between Man and the Cosmos.  Each gesture, each act in life can either provoke consequences, or be the result of an external intervention.

This belief is anchored in everyone’s mind, whether they be simple people or scholars.  It explains why the three orders of Nature – vegetal, animal and mineral – are included in the elaboration of remedies, but not just in any old way.  To affirm these correspondences between the body and the universe, these mirrored effects, principles which come straight from the Roman Empire and from Celtic therapeutics, are applied.  They consist of sympathetic or imitative magic which reposes on the laws of resemblance.

Sexual medicine is the most profoundly marked one.  Vulvas, phalli, testicules of various animals are used against sexual impotence or sterility.  The theriac of Galien – viper flesh mixed with various plants, nettles, garlic, or urine – is said to date from Nero’s time.  Every apothecary supposedly possesses the best recipe for it, but its base is always of viper flesh, said to act against venoms.

There is also a mediaeval vogue for health jewels.  Apparently, Galien wore on “the mouth of the stomach” a stone of jasper to help his digestion, because matter, mineral substance, has the capacity to transmit by imitative magic, its intrinsic qualities.  Stones and rare metals, unalterable, shining and pure, enter into the composition of medications, whose price can be imagined, but also have a talismanic power.  They assure a definitive defence to the body.

In the inventories of King Rene in the XVth Century, we find “stones against epidemics” and the nobles pass around “languiers” of precious stones plunged into goblets, after supper.  They are for sucking to protect against venom.  Crushed or powdered, these minerals enter into the composition of health potions.  Treatises describe the different stones, their origins, their signs, their correspondences with “colours and sounds” and their protective values.  The most ancient of these treatises, and the most appreciated by the public, is the Lapidaire of Marbode, translated in the Middle Ages into French, Provencal, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Irish and Hebrew.

More modest equivalents for jewels, are teeth, horns, bones, of dogs, wolves or dolphins, which have an amulet value.  It is recommended to attach them around the neck of little children to protect them from disease.

Drugs of vegetal origin are even more numerous.  From the Orient, spices and aromatic herbs are imported at great expense.  Aloes, cinnamon, cassia, senna, tamarind, camphor, croton oil wear a halo of legend – it appears that they are found in the heavenly Nile – and are used to favourise digestion.  Plants native to Europe, angelica, achene, dill, aurona, betony, catnip, wart grass, milfoil, origan, plantain, vervain continue to serve in extracts, teas, balms, suppositories.  Garlic remains for the use of the humble.  It is “the strong spice of the little people”, the “theriac of the peasants”.

Some astonishing things are taken from animals:  antlers, the heel-bone, the heart “bone”, deer’s blood appears very often in the pharmacopea.  Up until the end of the XVIIIth Century, apothecaries use fecal matters or urine in the elaboration of their “copropharmacy”.  Mixtures are prepared with bear fat, pearls, seashells, bezoars (mineral concretions gathered from the stomachs or the intestines of herbivores), the natural secretions taken from humans or animals, musk, earwax, women’s milk against deafness, or nail clippings.

Esoterism also holds a major place in mediaeval medicine.  Devinatory arts, astrology, alchemy and magical procedures are part of prevention or cure.  Their use blurs even more the limits between natural and surnatural therapies.  The university stars practise these amalgams on a daily basis.  Particularly as they are not supposed to be ignorant of any scientific branch of Nature and are versed in astrology.  The Faculty of Medicine in Paris invokes the sideral conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, which occurred on 24 March 1345, to explain the Great Epidemic of the Black Plague which broke out in Marseille in 1347.

Numerology, attested in the IXth Century in the West, is used to predict death – highly recommended for preparing Extreme Unction – which is calculated with the complex method of the “circle of Pythagorus”.  Lucky and unlucky days command blood-letting and administration of medicines.  This last belief, directly taken from Egyptian rites, is almost openly pagan.  It is attributed to Hippocrates, even though it had travelled intact from Roman calendars to the ecclesiastical computes.  The unlucky days are still called “Egyptian days” and the solar mythology of the Pharaohs, including the anniversary of the death of Osiris, can be recognized in them.

Continued tomorrow.

In the Middle Ages, many babies die at birth, or in the days or weeks that follow, as a result of a traumatising delivery.  Many young children die from childhood diseases.  Roughly one child in two grows to be an adult.

Having escaped childhood, he is prematurely worn out by his work, or a victim of malnutrition, if not of famine.  Or he dies from the insalubrity of the marsh lands or the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, where he catches “the fevers”, malaria, which provoked hecatombs for centuries.  Unless his demise is caused by the lack of hygiene, or contagion.

The illnesses of the time are atrocious and invincible.  We still suffer from some of them.  Rabies kills (see previous post).  So do the plague, leprosy, tetanos, appendicitis, peritonitis, tuberculosis, cancers, smallpox, among hundreds of other maladies.  The art of healing in the Middle Ages includes bizarreries, apparent illogicisms, mixed with natural and surnatural therapies.

It is difficult for us to enter the mentality of the Middle Age man.  What we call “science”, or the “age of reason”, only dates from the XVIIIth Century.  The man of the Middle Ages lives in resonance with a totally religious universe, in which his every gesture is of sacred importance.  Whether he is an ecclesiastic or a layman, his time is divided by the sound of bells, or the big passages of existence.  Birth, marriage, death demand consecration and divine consent.

Based on this, the task of understanding what illness represented in the minds of the scholars or the profane, involves a rather vast field of exploration.  Mediaeval medicine is firstly impregnated with God.  But, at the same time, it is the heir to multiple customs and traditions, boiling with exotic or “barbarous” importations, often no longer understood by the people of the time.  Antique knowledge, indefinitely transmitted without question, and repeated attempts to theorise irrational beliefs, add to the mix.

In the Middle Ages, there is no distinction between “official” medicine, stemming from scientific reasoning, and parallel medicine, which evolves in a magical and superstitious sphere.  From the XIIth and XIIIth Centuries, there are recognized professional doctors, with university diplomas, who try to claim supremacy over those whom they call “charlatans”.  However, the frontiers between their domains of intervention remain permeable.

Illness is seen as a divine warning or a punishment.  This is a credo of the Church, unanimously shared by its submissive herd of sinners.  The Old Testament already has this oriental vision:  “Whosoever sins in the presence of the Creator, let him fall into the hands of the doctor.”  Therefore, whomever receives this sort of punishment is receiving a salutary warning from his Creator to do penance and prepare for a good death.  Another idea is that he is a victim because the strength of his faith in God is not enough to protect him.  So, he has to strengthen it and follow the example of Job, who recognized the hand of God behind all of his suffering.  If the punishment is collective, an epidemic for example, God is punishing the sins of the whole community.

The Church’s traditional teaching is that, although one must first think of saving one’s soul, it is indispensable to immediately afterward engage all possible and licite means to beat the illness.  Theoretically, this means that surnatural means are excluded.  However, this theory fluctuates somewhat.

The Church weighs mightily on medicine.  Firstly, because it has the monopoly on it until the XIIth Century in the Christian West.  In the name of Charity, it has always made an obligation of coming to the aid of the poor and the suffering.  “Medical” assistance is therefore the business of monks and convents throughout the whole of the early Middle Ages.

From the VIth Century, the institution weaves a web of hospices destined to shelter those then known as “travellers”, on the pilgrim paths and near sanctuaries.  These places more resembled hotels than hospitals.  They offered a secure place to spend the night, or to go to bed in the case of illness.  The help brought to the patient was more spiritual and humane, with confessions and comforting words, than therapeutic.

However, it is in the hortulus of the convents – the garden of simples – that the medicinal plants necessary for a minimal infirmary are grown.  The monks found the symptoms and their treatments in the manuals of Antiquity.    Their brothers in the scriptoria – workshops where manuscripts were made – recopied Pliny, Columella, Celsa or Theophraste from one generation to another.

In the VIth Century, the Benedictine Cassiodore recommends to the other monks:  “Learn the properties of the simples and of the composed remedies, but place all of your hopes in the Lord who gives eternal life”.  In 820, the Abbey of Saint-Gall, in Switzerland, disposes of six beds, a pharmacy and a botanical garden.  The sixteen “sacred simples”,  which are supposed to dispense certain virtues, are planted in it.  They are sage, rue, iris, pennyroyal, rocket, cumin, levistica, fennel, white lily, rose, haricot, sarriette, mint, rosemary, cock-mint balsam and fenugreek.

Other remedies are popular.  They are health liqueurs and other specialities whose recipes are concocted in the heart of the convents and of which the monks are very proud:  the medicinal wine of Saint-Riquier;  the liquorice of the Benedictines of Wurtzbourg;  the rhubarb of the Franciscans;  the angelica root of the Chartreux of Fribourg-en-Brisgau.

The unique and considerable merit of convent medicine is to have transmitted, thanks to its manuscripts and horticultural practices, the heritage of Antiquity.  These pharmaceutical talents will be gathered later by the apothecary associations and by village healers.  The manuscripts will serve as the basis of laic medicine which ecloses in the universities of Salerno, Montpellier, Paris and Bologna during the XIIth and XIIIth Centuries.

However, doctors will always keep their teaching within the bounds of the Church.  God is the first cause of illness.  No-one will deny either his existence or his power.

Continued tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: