[logo: Kansas Heritage Group]Gerald of Aurillac (ca. 855-909)

Dictionary and Thesaurus

Sources for the Life of St.Gerald of Aurillac

Gerald's life is known solely through the saints' life written byOdo of Cluny (879-942). Although a contemporary of Gerald, Odo did not know him, an the book appears to have been written as an investigation of Gerald's claim to sainthood. In his preface, Odo states that he visited Aurillac, and interviewed four men who knew Gerald -- two laymen, and two clergymen, one monk and one priest. He then gathered further information, checked it out and came to the conclusion that Gerald had indeed been a saint. The arrangement of the book represents the presentation of the evidence upon which Odo based this conclusion.

Book I: Gerald's birth, youth and education, secular and political actions.
Book II: His religious avocation, and miracles attributed to him while alive.
Book III: His death and interment.
Book IV: Miracles at his tomb.

The care shown in assembling the case shows that there was much room for doubt of Gerald's sanctity. Odo betrays the reasons for this doubt:

A: Gerald, as a layman, ignored many of the normal paraphernalia of saint hood, such as fasting, retirement, mortification of the flesh. The question of the value of the ascetic ideal -- at least in its letter -- was being called into question. It was Odo's contention that Gerald fulfilled as many of the ascetic ideals as possible.

B: As Odo says, Gerald was one of "the Great". It says something about the general tenor of the times that there was some dispute as to whether a noble could be good.

C: For Odo, at least, a great difficulty lay in the basic quality of the age. Odo's favorite source of quotations in the Life was the book of Job. For Odo, the times were so hard, that he was convinced that the age of the AntiChrist had come, and in' this age, the saints will cease to work their wonders. Thus, if Gerald were a saint, he represented a sign from God that the end of time was not yet near, and society would regenerate itself.

II: The Times

It is important in this regard to consider the times which were the source of such despair.

A: The Carolingian system of empire had steadily decayed after the reign of Louis the Pious. The old empire faced three external dangers: Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens. The Germanies had mainly to face only the Magyars, and the Dukes of the various buffer states were quite able to do so. Northern France had to face primarily the menace of the Vikings, and there was no well-developed system of Duchies to do so. Instead, the major officials were the counts, whose powers and duties had been primarily judicial.

The South of France was in the worst position of all: it was exposed to the the Vikings along the Loire and Garonne, the Magyars through Burgundy (Apparently one group made it all the way into Spain), and the Saracens along the coast (one group established themselves at St. Tropez and extended up into the Alps, effectively cutting off overland communication with Italy.

B: Central Authority declined constantly

1) The treaty of Verdun (845) divided the empire among the three sons of Louis the Pious: Louis (Germany), Charles (Aquitaine and the West), and Lothair (the Center).

(2) Lothair died in 855 (about the time of Gerald's birth), and his realms were split among his three sons

(3) A period of jockeying for power ensued. In 884 Charles the Fat of Germany reunited the realms, but a revolt of the nobility toppled him in 887. Eudes (or Odo), Count of Paris and hero of the Viking siege of 885, seized the title of King, although the South continued to recognize Charles the Simple. A war ensued which continued until 893. Eudes died in 898, and Charles became king to rule until 923.

(4) During this period of disintegration, two ephemeral kingdoms were established: Boso of Provence established himself along the lower Rhone, and Rudolph, king of Burgundy, in the upper Rhone.

[The Mediterranean world in the year 880]

The Mediterranean world in the year 880

(5) Some of the great nobles attempted to establish themselves as centers of some regional organization.

(a) In the Duchy of Aquitaine, the old Visigothic territory, the great William began to extend his authority, bringing the counties of Gascony, the Limosin, and other lands to the east under his sway.

(b) The Counts of Toulouse established a rather strong state along the Mediterranean region, attempting to conserve the old traditions of Gallia Narbonnensis.

(6) Everywhere lesser seigneurs were attempting to maintain peace in their own lands.

C: The net result of this isolation and anarchy was the single period best called the Dark Ages, at least for Southern France. The period from about 850 to 930 is almost entirely devoid of historical sources, the sole exceptions being the book of Dhuoda and the Life of St.Gerald of Aurillac.

What we do know is that when the curtain of darkness lifts, the country has been feudalized. All land is in the hands of a fighting lord, each of whom is linked to others by the process of homage. Justice is regarded as a private possession. We know that this occurred during the lifetime of Gerald of Aurillac, and many historians have used the life to show how the process occurred. Unfortunately, they have been too interested in proving or illustrating their personal theories, and Gerald has gotten lost in the process.

III Youth (c. 855-c. 880)

A: Gerald was born the son of a family of Gallo-Roman nobility, which counted among its ancestors the famous St. Caesarius bishop of Arles (470-543) a member of one of the families that sold Sidonius down the river.

Their lands were extensive, about 100 miles north and south and something like thirty miles east and west forming a rough triangle with Aurillac at the northeastern corner. Thus their lands were neighboring to those which had been Sidonius' home in Auvergne. The lands consisted of a series of estates (called capella in the Life), villages populated by coloni, serfs bound to the land. Although the family served the King, the lands were not given by the Crown, but were hereditary, allodial, possessions. This meant that the family could administer justice and keep the peace within their own estates. In peaceful times it meant that they could enjoy their possessions without obligation and alienate them at will. In troubled times, it meant that the land could be taken away from them. The landowner now had to maintain order on his land and fight to keep it.

B: Gerald began the normal education of a noble youth of the period. When he was of a sufficient age, he began to learn how to use a bow, ride, and hunt. It is assumed that he also attended his father in the administration of seigneurial justice, and learned some of his future duties through observation. His family was religious, however, and put him to work learning how to read the Latin psalter.

It was at this point that Gerald's life was permanently shaped. While engaged at this study, he showed some aptitude and enjoyed his work. He came down with pimples. The exact nature of the disease is impossible to determine, but it might have been some type of adolescent acne. At any rate, it was severe enough to make his parents fear that he would not be physically strong or impressive of appearance. In that day and age, such a development would have meant that he would have been unable to hold his station or possessions. He was put into seclusion, and put to a more intensive study of grammar, to prepare him for the possibility that he might have to turn to a religious career. After relatively extensive training for a career of "peace", Gerald's pimples cleared up, and, as an only son, he was put back on the regular education for a landowner. He was late, however, and had developed a taste for a more studious life. Nevertheless, he developed some aptitude and when, at an undetermined date, his parents died, he was able to assume his position as successor.

C: It was sometime at this point in his career that a great psychological crisis occurred. Somehow or another, Gerald was still a virgin. He saw a serf girl and was attracted (by her complexion), and told her father to prepare for his visit that night. When the moment of truth came, Gerald -- having gone through a rotten youth and having been filled with stories of the value of chastity -- broke down and fled (or at least so Odo says). The girl was freed, given land, and married off.

IV: Times of Crisis (c. 880-c. 891)

A: Perhaps it was psychological, perhaps a physical disorder, but Gerald thought it punishment for his lust. At any rate, he began to lose his sight. For the next eleven years, his sight grew increasingly poor, The blindness was finally completely remitted, but these years, which saw the continuing breakdown of central authority, the civil war of 887-891, and the growing conflict between the Duchy of Aquitaine and the County of Toulouse was a period in which Gerald faced incredible difficulties under the burden of an almost intolerable physical handicap. If his neighbors had known of this blindness, he would have been deposed immediately. Under the circumstances, he had to avoid confrontations at any costs. He gained the reputation of being Gerald the Good by abstaining from hostilities whenever possible. The fact that his enemies could not provoke him to fight and the fact that they kept knocking themselves off led the people of the region to believe that he was under divine protection.

B: Duke William of Aquitaine put special pressure on Gerald as the leading noble of the region of Auvergne to accept his leadership and commend himself. Gerald managed to avoid this by commending his nephew, Rainald, and a number of Auvergnese fighting men to the Duke's service, and joining the Duke on expeditions himself when it was necessary. Here it was seen that Gerald always tried to avoid battle, and never killed himself.

At the same time, Gerald played off the County of Toulouse by commending Benedict, another nephew to the count of the region. The count, Raymond, at one time or another tried to claim Gerald's allegiance by imprisoning his nephew. The details are rather unclear, but apparently Gerald engineered an exchange in which Rainald took Benedict's place, converting the affair from a pressure play on Auvergne to a confrontation between Toulouse and Aquitaine. In any event, Gerald seems to have emerged unscathed, probably working an agreement in which the two major powers agreed to leave him independent as a neutral.

C: This left Gerald the problem of maintaining his position among the lesser nobility of his own region. Here it was not possible simply to avoid conflict, since a process of consolidation seems to have been underway in which a series of lords were attempting to assume paramount power in the region and assume the title of Count. The primary contenders, besides Gerald, were Ademar of Scalis, and later his brother Adalelm, "Counts" of Tulle to the Northwest, and Godfrey of Turenne to the North.

Gerald seems to have operated on the principle that the key to success in this competition lay in survival and prestige. He attempted to avoid fighting, thus increasing his chances of survival and decreasing the possibilities of a humiliating failure. His enemies fell as follows:

1: Ademar de Scalis took his castle of Aurillac by a coup de main, and set up an ambush for Gerald's small force which moved to besiege it. Ademar's' spies, mistaking white rocks for Gerald's tents, reported a large force, and Ademar fled. When Gerald took the castle his men wanted to kill Ademar's garrison. Gerald insisted on letting them go. Odo considers it an act of mercy. It seems effective propaganda. We hear no more of Ademar; men would have been unwilling to follow a coward.

2: Ademar's brother,Adalelm, was also dangerous. He led a sudden raid on Aurillac, which Gerald refused to defend, allowing Adalelm to escape with seven horses as booty -- not much, but a seeming defeat for Gerald. Odo reports as a miracle, that Adalelm's horses began to die, impoverishing him (almost 60 died). One suspects germ warfare. Adalelm died shortly after.

3: Godfrey of Turenne invaded Gerald's lands, but Gerald continued to avoid battle. Eventually, Godfrey had an accident and stabbed himself with his own sword and was forced to retire in some discomfiture.

The net result of this policy was that Gerald emerged as the paramount noble of his region, and at some time or another assumed the title of count himself.

D: Gerald found it necessary also to defend his own lands against lesser nobility who aspired to undermine Gerald's authority and take some of his lands for their own. An example of such was Arlald of the small castle of St. Cere, a few miles from Aurillac. Interpreting Gerald's inaction as cowardice, he began constant raiding. Gerald waited his opportunity and then -- in what manner Odo neglects to mention -- trapped Arlald outside his castle. He bawled him out publicly and then released him without exacting hostages or a fine. Odo considers this mercy; it must have meant extreme humiliation for Arlald to be treated with such contempt. At any rate, his power was broken.

E: There appears to have been two legal systems in operation in southern France, one a survival of the regional courts of landowners maintained by the Carolingians and the other the seigneurial system maintained on the estates. Both seem to be challenged by the people of the times.

F: There were apparently still Carolingian officials, called officiales in the life, operating to enforce decisions of the regional courts. These courts acted to adjust disputes between landowners, and between landowners and the Church. In one case, the court took away an estate -- Talizat -- belonging to Gerald, but lying far from his lands, on the grounds that he could not defend it, and commended it to a certain Bernard, who apparently was to hold it vassalage from Gerald. This was not to Gerald's liking, but he accepted it. Although, he did not give land in vassalage himself, he fought in the courts for the principle that land once given in vassalage, should not be taken back for light causes. In this sense, he worked for stability of feudal contract. On the other hand, he subverted the court when possible. The officiales brought in a man who had injured a priest and whom Gerald did not wish to see punished. Gerald delayed the trial, arranged for the man's escape, and thus took justice into his own hands.

2: A similar thing was happening in Gerald's own courts. Gerald had gotten the reputation for mercy, and when his men captured a group of bandits, they suspected that Gerald would set them free, and took the precaution of blinding them before they came to trial. Gerald, accepting the general decay of justice, took no steps against the vigilantes.

F: In his secular affairs, Gerald's policy of inaction and conciliation -- dictated perhaps by his infirmity -- was responsible for his emergence as the paramount leader over his area. It was in the nature of things, however, that he could not hope to hold it, even though his blindness cleared up. He had refused to marry and thus had no son to take over from him. He knew that as old age drew upon him, the buzzards would begin to gather and that his policy of playing one side against the other, although successful, meant that he had developed no friends who would protect him or his people. It was at this point that he turned to the Church.

[The Mediterranean world in the year 880]

The Mediterranean world in the year 910

V: Alliance with the Church (c.891-c.909)

A: Sometime or another, Gerald saw a way out of his difficulty. He conferred with his friend Gausbert, bishop of Rodez (c. 900-909), and suggested that he would grant all of his land to the Pope, take the tonsure and rule the estates as an abbot. Gausbert-- to whom donated lands should have gone -- agreed to the Roman connection, but warned against the move to enter the clergy, perhaps feeling that Gerald would be more effective as a secular leader, As a priest or monk, he would have to divest himself of his goods, and would be unable to defend the lands.

On the other hand, Gerald had a definite desire to enter the Church, and the submission of a layman to papal authority was a somewhat tricky legal matter for which there were no clear precedents. Gerald adopted a compromise, shaving his beard with the complaint that it irritated him, and tonsuring in such a manner that long hair and a cap would hide the shaven spot. He then went to Rome in the company of Gausbert. Rome was at that time in a state of decay, with the papacy in the hands of local Roman nobles who could do little to interfere with the administration of lands as far distant as were Gerald's. The transfer of property was effected. Gerald made this pilgrimage every two years from this time on, each time, offering a small payment in the fashion that a serf paid his lord.

Meanwhile, He began to build and organize the monastery which was intended to administer the lands for the Papacy. It was common enough for nobles to establish monasteries to serve their family, but Gerald apparently had something else in mind -- a monastery which would be independent of his control as well as that of anyone else except the relatively powerless papacy. With this foundation as heir to his lands, they would be secure from any legal acquisition, and he would be secure from personal danger.

This marks a significant innovation in church foundation. Although the monastery of Aurillac was established and achieved its aims, it never be came as prominent as it might have. It is quite possible that it served as an example, however. The year after Gerald's death, his neighbor, William of Aquitaine, faced with the problem of maintaining some lands he had acquired in far-off Burgundy, adopted exactly the same plan and established the monastery of Cluny, which was to reform the Church entirely and to reestablish its position in society.

B: In this sense, if in no other, Gerald merits his claim to sainthood. Per haps it was all an accident, but Gerald accomplished a number of important aims.

1: He developed the idea of an independent corporative monastery, freed insofar as possible from local interference and made possible the establishment ofCluny and, ultimately the Gregorian reforms.

2: By capturing the popular imagination as he did by his goodness, he eliminated the cleavage between the ascetic ideal of the Church and the secular necessities of the ruling class.

3: He continued a long tradition of Auvergnese patriotism which kept the area from suffering the full brunt of the dangers which surrounded it, and led it out of the darkness towards a future in which it would be the most pleasant and cultured region of Europe.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

Hosted at WWW-Virtual Library @ www.vlib.us