Monday, October 15, 2012

Sourcing St. Gauthier: Electronic Sleuthing to Find a Medieval Wonder-Worker

The Spring of St. Gauthier (source).
Today we have one of those mystery saints for whom the Menology gives only a tantalizing brief entry:

In France, the Passion of Blessed Gouthier, twelfth Abbot of Quincy. He was eminent for his admirable virtues, and found worthy of the Martyr’s palm in 1244.

My initial searches quickly turned up the Fountain or Spring of St. Gauthier, which had once provided water to the Abbey of Quincy, founded in 1133 and located roughly midway between Troyes and Auxerre. Quincy was the sixth daughter house of Pontigny and met its end at the time of the Revolution. The Renaissance Abbot’s house and a part of what had once been a dormitory or hostel are all that remains other than the Spring of St. Gauthier with its statue, which may have come from the abbey church.

Unable to resist what sounded like the story of one of those vulgarly popular wonder-working saints too often ignored in contemporary Cistercian scholarship, I set about to dig up what I could.  Several guides recommend the spring as a romantic and mysterious site. Traditionally, its waters were regarded as particularly effective in curing eye diseases and expectant mothers were believed to be able to determine the sex of their child by drinking from its left side for a boy or its right side for a girl. The healing tradition continues in a modern form nearby, where part of the abbey’s former lands are now a plantation of English Yew grown for use in chemotherapy.

Bl. Gauthier himself proves more elusive. Various legends record him as an Irish monk who ruled the abbey for ten years before being assassinated by another monk, a death remarkably similar to that of Bl. Gerard of Clairvaux whom the Menology records on October 16. Other legends record him as a martyr, but having first become Bishop of Auxerre.

An 1887 article in the Bulletin of the Society of Historical and Natural Sciences of Lyon examines the legend of Gauthier in a discussion of the Abbe Lebeuf’s 1730 journey to Clairvaux. It points out that the only Abbot of Quincy to be found in the extant documents with the name Gauthier ruled from 1171-1172, which would have placed him near 100 years old if he had been martyred in 1244. The article also questions a tradition that Gauthier went on to be Bishop of Auxerre.

The date of 1244 also makes for an interesting date for a martyrdom. One might assume that Gauthier fell in activity against the alleged Cathars to the south, but the the Albigensian Crusade had been reduced to a mopping-up exercise by this this period and the last major fortress at Montsegur had fallen in March of 1244, leaving opportunities for martyrdom rather scarce compared to what they might have been a generation earlier. Death in more distant parts would seem unlikely since Gauthier’s tomb was a prominent feature of the abbey church.

A condensed version of the hagiography of the Bollandists from 1878 lists 16 Gauthiers, including an October 15 listing for S. Gauthier, Abbot of the Monastery of Our Lady of Quincy and Martyr and giving the alternate Latin “Gallerus.”

The Abbey suffered as greatly as its martyr, following the sad pattern of Huguenot attack, crippling centuries of commendum, and, finally, dissolution at the Revolution, when only three monks and their conventual prior remained. The property passed into private hands and the buildings fell into ruin. The ruined church was pulled down in 1855 and the remaining buildings served various functions. Today they are a gite that can be rented by the week.

The story does have a happy ending, at least as concerns the mortal remains of our illusive saint. Anticipating the near-certain looting and desecration of the abbey church, the priest of neighboring Commissey obtained permission from the civil authorities to translate the relics of St. Gauthier. On April 26, 1791, the inhabitants of Commissey and other nearby villages made their way to the church, opened the tomb, placed the saint’s relics on a hearse decked with greenery, and processed to Commissey led by an honor guard and singing hymns along the way. The relics remained exposed for the veneration of the faithful throughout the day before being placed in a new tomb in the village church.

But, since contemporary French drama frowns upon happy endings, there must be a dispiriting coda. St. Gauthier’s tomb held a place of honor in the church of Commissey until 1847, when it was pulverized and used as fill for the reconstruction of the church’s choir. His relics were interred without ceremony in a new altar.

Many questions remain unanswered by this entry, but these are the frustrating limits of doing hagiography on the fly. As Google Books continues to swallow more and more of the world’s libraries, perhaps a new clues will come to light. While I have my qualms about what will become of Google’s quest to gobble up all of the world’s libraries, my own reading would be much poorer without it. This piece’s major sources for St. Gauthier were Google-scanned copies of books at Princeton, the University of Toronto, and Harvard, which are a bit of a hike from rural Wisconsin where I drafted this piece a few years ago or from Fayetteville, where hagiography is not exactly the University library's greatest strength.  For those of you of more geeky inclinations who read French, the extensive online holdings of the Bibliothèque nationale de France 
remain outside of the search reach of Google Books.  There is a world of good stuff there on religion.  For those who like your religion a bit more folksy, the photo of the spring comes from, you still need the "www" for this one--which features roadside shrines, chapels, and grottoes.