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Saint Germanus of Auxerre
Bishop
Born ca. 378
Died 31 July, 448
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church: Orthodox Church
Feast July 31

Germanus of Auxerre (c. 378–31 July 448) was a bishop of Auxerre in Gaul. He is a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, commemorated on July 31. He visited Britain in 429 in response to the growth of Pelagianism there and the records of his visit provide valuable information on the state of post-Roman British society.

The principal source for the events of his life is the hagiography written by Constantius of Lyon around 480. Constantius was a friend of Bishop Lupus of Troyes, who accompanied Germanus to Britain, which provided him with a link to Germanus.

Contents

Early life

Germanus was ordained bishop of Auxerre by his predecessor in this post, Amator. Prior to this he had also practised law and held a post of provincial governor.

Near 429, a British bishop's son named Agricola started leading the native Christians toward Pelagianism. A Gaulish assembly of bishops chose Germanus and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, to visit the island to combat the threat and satisfy the Pope that the British church would not break away from the Augustinian teachings of divine grace.

Visit to Britain

Germanus and Lupus confronted the Pelagians at a public meeting before a huge crowd in Britain. The Pelagians were described as being 'conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress and surrounded by a fawning multitude', possibly indicating that the post-Roman ruling classes had not been entirely wiped out and still had wealth and influence. Alternatively, this may be embellishment by Constantius who wished to magnify the achievements of his subject. The bishops debated and despite having no popular support, Germanus was able to defeat the Pelagians using his superior rhetoric.

Following the meeting, Germanus and Lupus visited the shrine of Saint Alban, suggesting that the site of the debate was at Verulamium, or perhaps London (Londinium). Constantius also recounts the miraculous healing of the son of 'a man with tribunician power'. This use of the word tribune may imply the existence of some form of post-Roman government system. However, in Constantius' lifetime tribune had acquired a looser definition, and often was used to indicate any military officer, whether part of the Imperial army or part of a town militia.

Germanus led the native Britons to a victory against a Pictish and Saxon army, at a mountainous site near a river, of which Mold in North Wales is the traditional location. After baptising his troops (notably, they were not Christians) he ordered them all to cry 'Alleluia!' The sound apparently so terrified the invaders that they fled before battle could be brought. That Germanus took command may mean that the ruling Pelagian classes had been discredited after losing the debate at Verulamium or even that they themselves had enlisted the Saxons and Picts. The possibly contemporary British ruler described as a "proud tyrant" by Gildas, and identified with the 'Vortigern' of Welsh tradition, certainly made use of Saxon mercenaries and the political aspects of Pelagianism have been much discussed. It has been suggested by Peter Salway that the battle was fought to ensure that Britain remained sympathetic to Aëtius and support his bid for control of the Western Roman Empire. However many scholars would see this as highly speculative to say the least and the 'battle' may have been no more than a skirmish inflated by tradition and / or the saint's hagiographer. It is not possible to know what impact Germanus's visit really had on Pelagianism in Britain.

Although Germanus is traditionally credited with the establishment of the Diocese of Sodor and Man on the Isle of Man, this was probably a different man of a similar name. See the Cult of St Germanus in Britain, below. The link with Saint Patrick, traditionally portrayed as his pupil, is also contested in recent scholarship.

Later life

Germanus made a second visit to Britain in the 440s, joined by Severus, Bishop of Trier, and meeting Elafius, described by Bede as 'a chief of that region'. Germanus cured Elafius' enfeebled son and this miracle served to persuade the population again that Gaulish Catholicism rather than Pelagianism was the true faith. The second visit is however contested by some scholars who suggest it may be a 'doublet' of the first visit - that is a variant version of the story ( of the first and only visit ) that has been mistaken as describing a different (second) visit and erroneously included in the Life of Constantius, as such. In oral tradition it is easy for different versions of the same story to evolve and these can subsequently find their way into written records, appearing to refer to different events.

He died in Ravenna while petitioning the Roman government for leniency for the citizens of Armorica, against whom Aëtius had dispatched the Alans on a punitive expedition. Germanus had famously confronted Goar, the king of the Alans, so Constantius's Life relates. Scholars have argued, based on the scanty evidence, that his death should be dated to 445, 446, 447 or 448.

Cult

Saint Germanus's tomb continues to be venerated in the church of the Abbey of Saint-Germain d'Auxerre, which although now part of municipal museum remains open for worship at stated times. There is a tradition of a panegyric on the Sunday nearest to or preceding his festival in July.

The cult of Saint Germanus of Auxerre spread in northern France, hence the church bearing his name facing the Louvre in Paris. His cult is clearly distinguished from that of the homonymous Saint Germanus of Paris. He is associated with the church at Charonne in the east of Paris and the cult of Saint Genevieve (Genoveva) in Nanterre to the west of the city, both situated on the late Roman road network. His journey to Britain is commemorated in his dedications at Siouville and at Saint-Germain-les-Vaux in the Cotentin (Manche).

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In Great Britain

Scholars have contested the traditional identification with the Welsh Saint Garmon, reflected in the north Wales placename "Llanarmon". In fact had the name Germanus been recorded by the Britons of his times it would have appeared as "Gerfen" in later tradition - according to the regular sound changes in the Brittonic languages - and not as 'Garmon'. This latter name is evidently appropriate to an originally different figure, although there was widespread conflation of the two in mediaeval tradition.

More recently however a church by Bodley dedicated to this saint was erected in Adamsdown, Cardiff. The former priory church at St Germans in Cornwall bears his name and was in late Saxon times the seat of a bishop. A few other churches in Cornwall are also dedicated to the saint as is the church at Germansweek in west Devon.

Fictional portrayals of Germanus

  • Germanus figures in the 2004 movie King Arthur, although his second and final mission to Britain took place twenty years before the year the movie is set in. He is portrayed by Italian actor Ivano Marescotti.
  • His visit to Britain is the subject of a Welsh radio play by Saunders Lewis entitled Buchedd Garmon.
  • Germanus appears many times in the Jack Whyte series "A Dream of Eagles'" and "The Golden Eagle" .

In addition, Hilaire Belloc referred to Germanus in his humorous poem, The Pelagian Drinking Song:

And with his stout Episcopal staff
So thoroughly whacked and banged
The heretics all, both short and tall --
They rather had been hanged.

References

  • Hoare, F. R. (1965) The Western Fathers. New York: Harper Torchbooks (A translation of the "Life of St Germanus" appears on pp. 283-320)
  • Catholic Encyclopedia article
  • Bowen, E. G. (1954) The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Further reading

  • Thompson, E. A. (1984) Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain. Woodbridge: Boydell
  • Wood, I. N. (1984) "The End of Roman Britain: Continental evidence and parallels", in M. Lapidge & D. Dumville (eds.) Gildas: New Approaches. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell; pp. 1 – 25.

External links


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