Wednesday, September 20, 2017

St. Germanus: A Reluctant Bishop

by Kim Rendfeld

Germanus would have a great influence on Christianity in 5th century Britain, but in his early life, he did not believe God called him to the priesthood.

Born around 380 in Auxerre to a noble family, Germanus was well educated in the liberal arts. He went to Rome to study law and was a brilliant lawyer. He married a high-ranking woman named Eustachia. The emperor was impressed with Germanus and eventually appoint him dux (duke to oversimplify) commanding the soldiers in the province with his hometown.

Back in Auxerre, Germanus was a faithful husband and a capable administrator who acted with integrity. But he had not learned humility and prayer, and he still liked worldly things. Too much.

One particular vice irritated Saint Amator, then bishop of Auxerre. Like many men of his era, Germanus loved to hunt. The problem for the bishop was how Germanus showed off his prowess. The duke hung the heads of his kills on a tree in the middle of the city, an action that strongly resembled an offering to a pagan god. I suspect Germanus had seen this ritual since he was child and might have not seen the religious contradiction. This was not the first time a pagan ritual lingered long after the population had accepted baptism.

But Christianity had been mainstream for only a few decades, after the Roman emperor had accepted baptism shortly before his death in 337. Amator might have feared a Germanus’s actions encouraged a false religion and endangered the souls he was trying to save. The bishop tried to persuade Germanus to stop.

Germanus refused. Alban Butler’s 1799 book attributes it to vanity, and Germanus likely was proud. He was high born and privileged, after all. But his first priority as duke was keeping order. He might have seen respecting a pagan ritual as a way to keep the peace.

One day while Germanus was away, Amator had the tree chopped down—a practice emulated by missionaries centuries later.

This engraving by Bernhard Rode depicts
St. Boniface, but you get the idea
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

We don’t know how the populace responded, but Germanus was furious. Amator fled to Autun. There, Amator had a revelation: God wanted Germanus to be the bishop’s successor. Incredibly, Amator greeted the news with joy. His faith in God’s judgment must have been quite strong.

Amator secretly asked the prefect, Julius, if he could tonsure Germanus and thus release the duke from his office. Julius consented.

Amator returned to Auxerre. When Germanus entered the church, Amator had the doors barred gave him the clerical haircut, whether Germanus wanted it or not. Amator named Germanus a deacon and the successor to the bishopric.

A dramatic story, but is it true? Maybe part of it. A hagiography written by Constantius about 30 years after Germanus’s death provides a different account. Constantius makes no mention of the hunting or the tree full of trophies or the threat against Amator. Instead, the people—aristocrats, clergy, and commoners—demanded Germanus serve as their bishop. They must have been impressed with his abilities as an administrator and his moral character. Constantius describes Germanus’s entry into the priesthood as “under compulsion, as a conscript.”

Regardless of how Germanus became a priest, he was pushed, or rather shoved, into the clergy. Remarkably, he dared not protest. He believed his forced ordination was God’s will and feared opposing it.

His life changed, including his relationship with his wife, Eustachia. A married man could be ordained into the priesthood. In fact, the wife’s good conduct might play a role, and she was often given a title to reflect her status. However, husband and wife were supposed to live as brother and sister. Germanus and Eustachia complied (and were one of the few couples that did). My guess is that she became a bishopress.

Neither Butler nor Constantius say how Eustachia or her noble family reacted to Germanus’s ordination. Butler describes her as “a lady of great quality”; Constantius says her “birth, wealth, and character were all of the highest.” And that’s it.

We might find a clue in an omission: neither author mentions children by the couple. If Germanus and Eustachia were childless, might they have taken that as a sign of God’s intentions for them? It is possible Eustachia supported her husband’s ordination for reasons besides faith. As a bishopress, she did not need a son for her high-ranking position to be secure.

Photo by GFreihalter (CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For his part, Germanus gave his possessions to the poor and embraced an austere lifestyle. If we are to believe Constantius, he had one meal in the evening and he first took a mouthful of ash, then ate barley bread with flour he ground himself—the humblest of foods. He rejected oil, salt, vinegar, pulses, wheaten bread, and wine (except a diluted drink on Christmas Day and Easter). He wore a hair-shirt underneath his tunic and cloak. He had a leather strap around his neck with a box of relics (relics could be as tiny as a pebble from a saint’s tomb). He slept on planks with ashes in between them and did not use a pillow.

The combination of piety, nobility, and knowledge made Germanus the best spiritual warrior the Church could send to Britain in 429 to squelch the Pelagian heresy, which rejected original sin and argued for redemption through strength of will rather than divine grace. (If we are to believe Nennius’s 9th century account, Germanus also played a key role in Vortigern’s downfall, but Nennius seems to be the type to not let facts get in the way of his story.)

To the Church, the Pelagian heresy was more dangerous than paganism. It was a threat from within, and if left unchecked, might splinter the institution into factions. Church officials could not tolerate heresy, and they knew they were in for a tough fight. We’ll have more on that battle next month.


“The Life of Saint Germanus of Auxerre,” by Constantius of Lyon, translated by F.R. Hoare,
Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, by Thomas F.X. Noble, Thomas Head

The Lives of the Primitive Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints: Compiled from Original Monuments and Other Authentic Records, Volume 7, Alban Butler

The Text of 'Nennius': Historia Brittonum, chapters 31-49, 66, Vortigern Studies

"St. Germain,"by Andrew MacErlean, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6



Kim Rendfeld’s work in progress—“Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” a short story about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur—is set in early medieval Britain. If you’d like to get an email when it’s published, email Kim at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

If you want read what Kim has already written, check out her two novels set in 8th century Europe.

Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at AmazonKoboiTunesBarnes & NobleSmashwordsCreateSpace, and other vendors.You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at AmazonKoboBarnes & Noble, and iTunes.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.


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