THROUGHOUT French memoirs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there is one figure who is never out of sight, — a black - coated, close - shaven figure, sometimes dapper, sometimes stately ; now appearing as a dandy, now as a courtier, again as a confessor, often as a statesmanikin. One day he is seen on the front seat of a royal coach, another in the secret cabinet where official assassinations are decided, on a third behind the door of a lady’s boudoir. At every turn, under any disguise, he can be recognized by a quick, bright glance, a ready smile, an insinuating manner, a prompt, discreet use of his wits. He glides into French society with the Medici, — Catherine brought him in her baggage; he disappears with the French Revolution. He is called Monsieur l’Abbé, not because he is necessarily in holy orders, though always supposed to be looking that way. The title may mean that he is abbot of an abbey, or it may be merely conventional, as a duke’s sons are “ lords by courtesy ; ” he often exchanges it for a higher one, — bishop, or cardinal; sometimes he returns to the secular dress and style. His name is legion, not all devils by any means. La Bruyère gives us a classification : Theocrine, Théodate, Théodule, Théodore, Théodime, Théonas. He appeared in France as the Abbé de Gondi, and vanished as the Abbé Galiani. But he was soon naturalized, for he is known as Marolles, Bernis, Chaulieu, Prévost, Morellet, and by many more surnames of Gallic growth, and whatever there may have been of sinister about him originally evaporated in the adopted climate.
At first acquaintance this personage strikes us as essentially modern, not much older than the seventeenth century certainly ; but he is another proof that there is nothing new under the sun in any age, for his prototype may be found in the sixth. He too came from Italy into France, — or Gaul, as it then was, — flourished in the congenial atmosphere, and took root there; for he was a sort of air-plant, a rare butterfly-orchid of the human species. His baptismal names were Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus, and he was best known by the last, of happy augury, given him in honor of an early martyr of the ancient patriarchate of Aquileia. His family name is supposed to have been Titium or Titian, and his ancestors were driven by the incursion of Attila from Aquileia to the Trevisan marches, where Fortunatus was born, in sight of the riven bine mountains which a thousand years later made backgrounds for the pictures of a Titian Vercelli. Of his parentage or his early childhood in this borderland between expiring Roman civilization and outer barbarism there is no record; but every instinct of the man betrays long-descended love of culture and luxury. He was sent when very young to Ravenna, the last seat of Roman art and letters, and already under the influence of the East, to be educated by a dignitary know as the Deacon Paul, and there he continued to live after schooldays were over. His studies were grammar, rhetoric, prosody, classical literature, and jurisprudence, with at least an inkling of the Apostolic Fathers, to judge by his own writings. He hurt his eyes by over-study, but they were cured by applying the oil from a votive lamp which burned before an altar dedicated to St. Martin of Tours in one of the Ravennese basilicas. Fortunatus set this down as a miracle, and it inspired him with a gratitude and veneration which fixed from afar the turning-point of his career. He made a vow to pay his thanks and devotions at the tomb of St. Martin, who had been dead about a century and a half, and in course of time he kept his word. He was past thirty, however, before he started on the long and dangerous journey which lay between him and the fulfillment of his pledge. Up to that time there is nothing to show that he had taken any step towards the priesthood, but his native bent and early training had given him that ecclesiastical bias which was part of the social abbé’s outfit. With this, added to his real talents and accomplishments, he set forth to cross the Alps.
It was an undertaking full of risks. With the disintegration of the Roman Empire Europe was fast relapsing into chaos. Fortunatus had hardly got safely out of Ravenna before it was seized by Alboin and the Lombards, who spread over Upper Italy, quenching such lingering sparks of enlightenment as had survived the successive floods of invasion, though they were to kindle new altar fires of religion, patriotism, and art which would glow for a few centuries, and be stamped out in their turn by the race of Charlemagne. The France of our days, from the Alps to the Pyrenees, from the Rhone to the Loire, from the Meuse to the Mediterranean, was the prey of the wolfish breed of Clovis, the Frankish kings. These Merovingians were parricides, fratricides, regicides, savage and lustful as wild beasts. One day they would enforce conformity to their new-found Christianity by the bloodiest tyranny ; the next they would rend the nets which the Church had drawn over them, woven chiefly out of their own superstition, and send their bishops to join the noble army of martyrs. There was no respite from war in its most horrible forms, — the warfare of barbarians, whose laws were perfidy, carnage, rapine, and pillage. Along the great river-valleys, the natural highways of the country, the arts, agriculture, and legislation of those grand, civilizing conquerors, the Romans, were being torn up and flung to the winds. Here and there one man, better than his race and beyond his age, a wolf-hound rather than a wolf, held a court in which the primitive virtues and some glimmer of meaning from his new faith made an island in this ocean of blood. Such was that of Sigebert, king of Austrasia, whose chief seat was at Metz. Fortunatus, coming by way of the Rhine, reached that stage of his pilgrimage while the town was rejoicing over the marriage of Sigebert with Brunehilde, or Brunehaut, daughter of the Visigothic king of Spain. She was a princess of great beauty and strong character, who brought with her from beyond the Pyrenees learning, dignity of manners, and a purer morality than belonged to the Franks, and who protected and prolonged for half a century the traditions of Roman rule. Fortunatus composed an epithalamium for the occasion, beginning, —
Of rays serene.”
Sigebert desired to elevate his life and his dynasty by marriage with a royal bride, instead of falling into the base concubinage and polygamy usual among the Merovingians. He gave many proofs of a generous nature, above the common pitch, and raised higher by Brunehilde, whose influence in the early years of their long union was only for good. His brother Chilperic, king of Neustria, of very different clay, had disposed of one or two wives, and was in the toils of the infamous Fredegonde; but not to be outdone by Sigebert, he broke with her for a time, and sued for the hand of Galeswinthe, Brunehilde’s sister. The Visigothic king demurred, knowing Chilperic’s habits and character, and the princess held him in horror. The father’s objections were overcome at last by the promise of a magnificent wedding-present, — nothing less than the principal Pyrenean towns which had fallen to Chilperic’s share of the paternal inheritance. The match was arranged, and a large escort of Frankish chiefs, with horsemen and charioteers, came to bring Galeswinthe to Neustria. The poor bride put off her departure from day to day, and when she could delay no longer set out with a heavy heart. Her parents shared her grief. The king went with her the first stage of the journey, bidding her farewell where the road crossed the Tagus. The queen, with her attendants, went on from day to day, constantly deferring the moment of parting, until they reached the mountains, when she was forced to turn back. There was a last embrace between the mother and child, and the queen stood watching from a height until the last Frank disappeared beyond the further ridge.
The marriage was celebrated at Rouen with a splendor and solemnity which were meant to outshine the nuptials of Sigebert. The religious ceremony was Christian, but the secular rites were pagan and national ; the new queen was saluted by the Franks according to their custom of swearing fealty to their king, surrounding her in a circle and brandishing their drawn swords. The story is short. After a few months of satisfaction in his bride and the treasures of her dower, Chilperic grew tired of her gentle companionship, and Fredegonde, who was biding her time, saw and seized the chance. The old ties were renewed, at first secretly, then so publicly that the low-born woman treated the young queen with open insolence and contempt. Galeswinthe was a mild, yielding creature, unfit for her era or her destiny ; she took this turn of fortune as no more than she had foreseen from the first, and made no stand, only asking leave to go back to her parents. This request was not easily granted : the dower might have to be returned, or the weddinggift might be claimed, and the Pyrenean towns become part of the HispanoGothic kingdom. There were simpler ways of settling the difficulty, and before the first year of her marriage was over, Galeswinthe was found dead in her bed, strangled. Soon afterwards Chilperic openly espoused the triumphant Fredegonde, the mistress of his fate, who ruled him and Gaul through many bloody years, and brought him at length to a violent death, ending her own execrable life peacefully in old age.
Venantius Fortunatus, while on his travels, fell in with Galeswinthe and her train on the ill-starred journey to Rouen, and heard the details of her leaving Toledo from her attendants. The story and her early doom affected him deeply, and he recorded them in a poem, the most touching and true to nature he ever wrote, and which has been accepted by modern French historians as a trustworthy chronicle. The lament of the Gothic queen when she loses sight of her daughter among the mountains has the pathos of Andromache’s lamentations in the Iliad and Æneid.
But although Fortunatus was tenderhearted, he liked to pipe to those who danced better than to mourn with those who wept. He had the art of pleasing, and excelled in that of getting himself petted. His halt at Metz was a long one. Sigebert gave him a house, horses, servants, and the post of laureate, and he lived there in clover for a year or two. He had not forgotten his vow, however, and most likely had gained a taste for seeing the world, so he set off again. Wherever he went he always stayed at the best house, at the palace if there were one, if not, at the next best. The rude Frankish chiefs were delighted to see him, and treated him with honor. He explains it with needless modesty by saying that they welcomed him because he had seen their Germany, but Hincmar, the Archbishop of Rheims, writing of Fortunatus a couple of hundred years later, when information about him was still plentiful, tells us that his fame preceded him everywhere. To the GalloRoman nobles and prelates, in whose homes literature and the arts of life found their last refuge, he must have been indeed the favored guest. He was in no haste to reach the tomb of St. Martin, but he kept that goal always in view. In his versified life of the saint he describes the devious ways by which he reached it; noting the natural beauties of the provinces through which he passed, the various methods of agriculture, the strongholds, churches, villas, and monuments of ancient art, and setting down his impressions and enjoyment of all that he saw. Bishops, princes, chieftains, and patricians received him with cordiality, and he never failed to make a friend of his host. After bidding good-by and going on his way, he would courteously write back to ask for those he had left and to give news of himself. They replied, and he kept up the correspondence by sending verses, in which he praised the home and hospitality he had found with them, complimenting each on his foible, — the Frankish lord on his fluent use of Latin, the Gallo - Roman on his refinement and knowledge of law and politics, the churchman on his munificence and public spirit. He was a flatterer, but he was charming and thoroughly amiable. In this wise he traversed France in her length and breadth, remembering that whichever road he took he might go back the same way.
Fortunatus never retraced his steps. He sometimes bewailed his lengthened absence from his native country, and sang his homesickness, as miles and years widened the separation. At last news came that the Lombards had left his part of Italy, and that he could go back in safety. Did he return, or not ? It is uncertain, but if he did so it was by the most direct way, and his stay was short. When he had reached Tours and acquitted himself of his vow, his pilgrimage was beginning, not ending, but this time the saint was a woman.
Tours, so venerable to this day as the former abode of many holy men, had already, A. D. 567, been hallowed as the hiding-place of a remarkable lady, a runaway princess, a future saint, whose history is the most romantic and least painful that has come down to us from that period, — Radegonde, who has stood in the Roman Catholic calendar for thirteen hundred years as St. Radegonde. She was the daughter of one of the last kings of Thuringia, a twig of the manybranched Frankish royal tree, and her family and country had been overthrown by her distant kinsman, Lothair, the father of Sigebert and Chilperic. Most of her nearest relations had perished, but she and a brother, both under ten years of age, were kept as captives and hostages by the conqueror. The little girl’s beauty and intelligence made such an impression on Lothair that he set her apart as his future wife. She was taken to one of his seats in the Vermandois, where she was brought up not only to ride and spin like a child of the Teutonic tribes, but to read and enjoy the Bible, the fathers of the church, the classic poets, and even the Roman historians and legists. She was an apt scholar in whatever she was taught, but her preference was for the Scriptures and lives of the saints and martyrs, whose day was not very long past. She had a natural bent towards religion, and a dreamy, enthusiastic German temperament. The terrible scenes and sorrows of her childhood had done much to kill the joy of youth in her, and the intended marriage to Lothair, who had several wives, hung darkly over her horizon. During her girlhood the horrible condition of the outer world offered no relief from her sad preoccupations, and she turned more and more upon herself and the love of God. Her most ardent wish was to be a martyr, and failing that to withdraw into a religious seclusion. The thought of marrying the man who had destroyed her country, murdered her family, and torn her from her home became a fixed idea of hatred and repugnance, and as she grew towards womanhood the horror increased. Lothair had not lost sight of her meanwhile, and at length named a time for the marriage. At this news Radegonde fled, but was soon caught and taken to Soissons, which Lothair made his capital, and there she became one of his queens.
For about five years she bore this detested yoke, trying by every means in her power to disgust her husband. She gave up her time to prayer, to active charity, and to personal austerities ; she took no pleasure in the pastimes of the court, but if a religious or learned man came by chance among the noisy barbarians she treated him as her particular guest, and found an unwonted enjoyment in talking to him. It is probably to this part of her life that the touching legend belongs which makes her in sacred art the patroness of captives. Walking one day in the court-yard or inclosure of the palace, she heard the sighs and sobs of the captives on the other side of the wall. She, also “a captive in the land of Egypt,” was moved by an immense compassion, and prayed so fervently for their deliverance that their bonds were suddenly loosened, and they found themselves free. The beauty of this story is that it may be an allegory, and that her intercession may have gained liberty for the prisoners and slaves about the court.
There are some striking coincidences between the history of this Thuringian princess and that of the well-known saint of Thuringia, Elizabeth of Hungary. Brought from her native country in early childhood to be the bride of a foreign prince, and educated in his land for that purpose ; pensive, devout, ecstatic ; longing to dedicate herself to the service of God ; spending herself in prayer, fasts,and vigils; paying the most menial and repulsive offices to the poor; leaving her husband’s banquet table and couch to mortify her flesh in penance; at last forsaking her state for poverty and obscurity, — so far the lives of the two young women run nearly parallel, with the great difference that Elizabeth was a cherished and adopted child, and loved her betrothed husband, both before and after their marriage, with her whole heart. But Radegonde was not a mystic, and had a different force from that of the sweet victim of Marburg; she had a practical side, which developed strongly as she grew older, and she already had a notion of bringing about what she wished should happen. When she got up at night to lie on the stone floor, she would creep back a chilly, uncomfortable bedfellow, and she made a practice of being unpunctual at meals, not coming until she had been called several times, habits which must have tried the temper of an uncivilized husband. But Lothair either was indifferent to trifles, or his beautiful wife’s perversity kept alive his fancy for her ; he gave proof, not of fidelity, to be sure, but of a constancy unusual to his disposition and to the manners of his family and nation. Her penances gave him a sort of rude amusement, and he sometimes said, “ That wife of mine is more of a nun than a queen.”
The fetters galled her more and more, until the intolerable life came to an end suddenly. Her young brother and fellow captive, to whom she had clung with not a mere sisterly affection, but with the passionate love for her own people which never died in her, was put to death for some whim or rage of Lothair’s. Radegonde, struck to the heart by this blow, took an instant and final resolution, which she had the self-command to carry out with prudence. She begged for permission to go with her attendants to seek consolation of St. Médard, Bishop of Noyon, who, although he had not yet attained his posthumous miraculous celebrity, was already widely venerated. The journey was not a long or hard one, and Lothair, who had the masculine inconsistency of caring nothing for a woman’s sorrow, but being unable to endure her tears, allowed her to go without opposition, “ hoping,” says one historian, “ that she would come back in better spirits.” The queen found the saint in church officiating at the altar, and, boldly coming forward, she announced her intention of taking up a religious life, and claimed consecration and protection at his hands. The bishop was startled, and saw the full danger to them both in granting her wish. An agitated discussion arose, and Radegonde’s followers, who had remained without, hearing of the crisis, crowded into the church, threatening to drag her and St. Médard forth if they should proceed a step further in the matter. The queen defied them, and as they were about to use force, she and her women rushed into the sacristy and the bishop took refuge at the altar. The tumult was still raging when she reappeared, having hastily drawn a nun’s dress over her royal robes, and again coming to the altar adjured St. Médard to admit her to the religious life. Overborne by her appeals and by the fervor of martyrdom which still coursed in Christian veins, he proclaimed the marriage of Lothair and Radegonde null, and consecrated her deaconness of the church. The Frankish attendants, awed by the solemnity of the moment and by the intensity of emotions of which they blindly felt the sway, assisted in silence at the ceremony, and retired peaceably, carrying back the news to Soissons.
Radegonde’s first act was to lay her regal ornaments as a gift upon the altar ; she then made all speed to reach the Loire and embark for Tours, where she trusted to find safeguard in one of the sanctuaries of St. Martin.
Behind the wreck of the noble abbey of Marmoutier, where the arches of the ruined nave form an open screen for the spacious, quiet flower-garden which the ladies of the Sacred Heart have planted on this reconsecrated spot, the hillside rises abruptly, looking over the lofty skeletons of the twin towers and the great trees of a former convent to the wide-spreading river, split by shoals and islets, and the sun as it goes down glows on the shrub-grown cliff and lights up the mouth of a grotto. This is cherished by tradition as one of the hidingplaces of Radegonde. Another is pointed out further along the ridge, where the steep little street leading from Marmoutier to St. Symphorien, a suburb of Tours, gives access to the beautiful, tiny Romanesque church of St. Radegonde, which conceals a ladder-like staircase cut in the rocks and another small cave. Earlier fugitives had been there before her, — St. Gatien, an apostle of the Gauls, and the Seven Sleepers,1 — and the sacredness of the places gave her a greater sense of security. Lothair, infuriated at her escape, sent to order her home, threatening to pursue her if she did not obey. The Church took up her cause with zeal and discretion, raising obstacles and delays, while she sought shelter in these dens. As one stands on the very sites, and reckons the lapse of ages backwards by the ruins of successive sanctuaries, each many centuries older than the last, remembering that Radegonde came and went before the first stone was laid, it carries her into a very distant past. But the broken fragments are links in a chain that holds her and us together, and her hopes, fears, and daring thrill us yet; she was so courageous and steadfast, so truly a heroine. She did not feel safe enough even in the asylum of St. Martin, and made her way to Poitiers.
The Loire must have been the same broad, slow, perilous river as to-day, sallow with shoals and quicksands, making great bends through green stretches of solitude broken by sparse trees, under a low, gray sky ; the Vienne the same lively stream, winding briskly through cheerful valleys and between widely spaced bluffs, on which the sun seems pleased to shine. The same abrupt humps or long, low chines of rock rose from the level, but then they were saddled by broken Druidical circles or by the remains of Roman camps, while the arched miles of the aqueducts crossed the verdant desolation on their endless journey. Poitiers stood on the same craggy knob, with the Clain and the Boivre twisting round its base, fortified centuries before, and a better stronghold than the grottoes of Touraine. Radegonde had not left them too soon, for Lothair made good his threat, and burst into Tours, determined to take her back with him. St. Germanus, the Bishop of Paris, St. Germain l’Auxerrois, St. Germain des Près, St. Germain-en-Laye, the most prominent churchman in Gaul, interfered in her behalf. He had great influence with the Merovingians, and by his moral ascendency he pacified the king, and induced him to relinquish his claims to his wife and permit her to found a convent at Poitiers, in which she should pass the rest of her days. Radegonde asked nothing better; it was the fulfillment of her life-long dream, and it came when her fate seemed desperate. Lothair had the generosity to leave her in possession of her wedding-gift, which she dedicated to the erection of her convent, and he troubled her no more.
The queen’s plans for her future abode and mode of life were by no means simple; it is wonderful how such a magnificent and elaborate conception found place in her mind, torn and tormented as she had been. It took several years to complete the buildings, which had every appointment of a Roman villa, gardens, fish-ponds, porticoes, baths, surrounded by an outer wall like a fortress. Meanwhile she had collected a congregation of young girls and trained them to a religious routine, and with them she solemnly and publicly entered this chosen retreat, named the Convent of the Holy Cross, from a fragment of the true cross which had been sent to her, it is said, by the Emperor Justinian. Her sisterhood belonged to the Augustinian order, and the rule she adopted for it was that of St. Cæsaria of Arles. But the existence she organized was of her own devising, and shows extraordinary intelligence and scope, a refinement and appreciation of letters and luxury worthy of a daughter of the fifteenth century, and a humane, genial, gracious disposition, besides the most genuine piety. If she had been a Roman, or even a Gaul, by birth, this would have been remarkable enough, though less astonishing; but for the child of a half-civilized tribe, brought up among people of the same race, with only education to elevate her to a higher grade, the way in which she had absorbed and appropriated all that antiquity and Christianity could do for her is a proof of genius. The religious exercises, to which the chief part of the day was given, were varied by study, by transcribing valuable books, by reading aloud, and by needlework. Among the recreations were bathing, gardening, and several games, including dice. Great stress was laid on cleanliness, Radegonde being intolerant of bad smells, in which she was so much beyond her age that the superiors of most religious houses have not yet caught up with her. The clergy and laity of distinction were welcome visitors, and were regaled with sumptuous feasts, for although the rule of the order forbade meat, every other sort of good cheer abounded ; meat and wine, too, which the sisters did not taste themselves, were served by them to their guests. Among the diversions offered to these friends were private theatricals, acted in costume by young ladies of the town, assisted by the novices. Whether the performances were from the ancient drama, or were mystery plays, the chronicler does not tell, but it sounds amazingly Like the boarders at modern French convents acting Corneille and Racine before the bishop and curé and other worshipful company.
It took some time to establish this rational and delightful mode of life systematically and solidly. When Radegonde felt sure of it, she resigned the direction to a beautiful young woman named Agnes, of noble Gallic family, whom she had educated for the purpose, and caused her to be elected abbess. There existed an almost maternal relation between herself and this youthful coadjutor, and to confirm the latter’s authority Radegonde laid aside all outward token of rank, and took her turn with the rest in the kitchen and household. But as long as she lived she was the soul and brain of the community.
During the vicissitudes of Radegonde’s early career Fortunatus was leading an unknown and uneventful life at Ravenna. Long before he started on his travels she was settled in her convent at Poitiers. By the time he reached Tours Lothair was dead ; his sons reigned in his stead, Chilperic being master of Touraine and Poitou. The ex-queen’s flight and hiding were an old story ; her reputation for piety and wisdom had gone abroad; the literary studies and innocent amusements of St. Cross drew visitors to it from all parts of Christendom. Fortunatus was bound to see everything and everybody of note, if possible ; he was eager to make the acquaintance of two ladies who joined so much sanctity and learning to beauty, rank, and a hearty enjoyment of this world’s delights. It is likely that some of his epithalamiums and elegies had been read at Poitiers ; the poem on Galeswinthe, whose fate was fresh in everybody’s memory, must have gone deep into Radegonde’s heart. She was delighted to meet the most accomplished stranger in Gaul, the last representative of the literature and cultivation in which she had been brought up. Ladies in your middle lustre, think of your first meeting with a celebrated Englishman of letters, when such a bird was rarer in this land than now, and you can imagine her feelings. Fortunatus’s early associations with the church, the pious errand which he had kept in sight throughout his pleasant vagrancy, were additional recommendations. He was received with great warmth, and his polished manners, the charms of his conversation, did the rest. Radegonde and Agnes feasted him, flattered him ; they had a thousand things to say to him, they could not see or hear enough of him ; they pressed him to stay, to come again. He came continually; he could not come too often. The attraction was mutual; the triple conquest was complete ; how was he ever to part from them? What should they do without him ? Every household, still more every community of women absolutely requires one male retainer, be he only man-of-allwork. These devout ladies were greatly in want of such an ally ; they needed a man of business, a legal adviser, and a director. They had found their factotum, Fortunatus had found his niche; he accepted his evident and delightful vocation, gave up his country, said “ no ” to St. Germanus, who wanted him at Paris, took orders, became parish priest of the metropolitan church at Poitiers, chaplain and almoner of St. Cross, and solicitor, agent, and ambassador for the convent to the many powers and violences ready to take advantage of feminine inexperience.
From this time forward, somewhere about the year 567, Fortunatus was stationed at Poitiers. His life was neither idle nor sedentary, as it obliged him to make frequent journeys and to keep up a large correspondence, besides his regular religious duties and his literary work, which he never neglected. He was born for the position, to exercise the diplomatic qualities by which Italians were already distinguished, and the delicate discretion needful to settle questions among women. Wielding a gentle supremacy over the entire convent, and especially over the two strong spirits at its head, whom he managed as a man of the world can always control women even of more force than himself ; passing from chapter to chapter and from court to court, honored and caressed at all, the undisputed prince of living poets ; strengthening his ecclesiastical position by intercourse with churchmen on church matters, he was in his element, and no gold-fish in a fountain was ever more contented. Radegonde and the abbess Agnes pampered him absurdly ; every day, at the time of the convent meals, they sent him his, with many dishes not on their own bill of fare, and they plied him with dainties at odd hours. He acknowledged these attentions by little poems, still extant; thanking sometimes Radegonde, sometimes Agnes, for milk, chestnuts, fresh eggs, butter, plums, greengages, and other delicacies (alias delicias). He sent them in return flowers in osier baskets which he himself made, either for themselves or to adorn the altar, and verses generally went with the offering. There were frequent repasts shared by the three friends at the convent, when the room was hung with garlands of leaves and flowers, and the marble table was strewn with rose petals ; the poultry and vegetables were served in silver dishes, the honey and fruit in crystal ones, and the wine was in precious goblets wreathed with ivy. Fortunatus had taken no vow of abstinence, it is clear, but the women observed theirs, as he wrote verses urging Radegonde to drink wine, making use, no doubt, of St. Paul’s arguments to Timothy.
The ex-queen was about the poet’s age, possibly a little older than he, — they were not far from forty when their intimacy began ; the abbess was under thirty, and very handsome. The three were soon knit together by the tenderest affection : between the two women it was like that of elder and younger sister, or of mother and daughter ; what was it with him ? Fortunatus habitually called Radegonde mother, and Agnes sister ; but when they were cosily breakfasting together he ventured on more affectionate epithets with Italian diminutives, such as “my life,” “my light,” “ joy of my soul,” harmless familiarities for which Madame Necker would have rebuked the Abbé Galiani with a tap of her fan. Their conversation turned chiefly upon intellectual topics, and when the three were together it was apt to be gay. No doubt the poet’s sprightly turn was acceptable to Radegonde, who had no animal spirits herself, though so strong a vein of sociability ; but when they two were alone their intercourse was grave. She could not recover from the effect of her misfortunes ; they had stamped melancholy into her core. In the midst of her active administrative cares, her important plans, her devotions, and her pleasures, she was secretly sad. In religion a Christian, by training a Roman of the latest and most civilized type, by instinct an æsthetic, her heart remained inalienably German ; the rustle of the Thuringian forest haunted her ears, and the love of country, home, and family to the end of her life would sometimes burst out in passionate regret. She could not help dwelling on the frightful scenes she had passed through, and on the destruction and dispersion of her race ; she turned with deep yearning towards distant kinsfolk whom she had never seen ; she lived in perpetual exile. She found solace in talking about it to Fortunatus, who embodied her recollections in a poem supposed to be her story told by herself, and entitled De Excidio Thuringiæ; he also wrote an address in her name to a distant cousin of hers who had taken refuge in Constantinople. There are passages of great pathos in both.
Fortunatus likewise had lost his country and kindred, and called himself an exile, —
but he bore it cheerfully, like many a poet since, not going back when he had the chance, but consoling himself by sentimental verse. He had enough serious writing to do in the multifarious correspondence which the interests of the convent required, and with the homilies and commentaries called for by his sacred office. On important public occasions he was to the fore. The council of Braine was convened in 580 by Chilperic to investigate charges of treason against the saintly Gregory of Tours. It was a mixed assembly of wild, longhaired warriors, with battle-axes and spiked maces, and Christian missionaries, calling themselves bishops, priests, and deacons of somewhat imaginary dioceses and benefices. They met in a vast hall of rough-hewn timber, hung with the skins of wild beasts, and were presided over by Chilperic, an assassin, polygamist, and savage. They were about to begin their deliberations, when in walked the debonair abbé with a low bow and a long poem in his hand, in which politic praises of Chilperic and Fredegonde alternate with Utopian descriptions of the condition of Neustria. It is a figure of speech to say that Fortunatus was there, but he had sent his poem, which the king, with a true savage’s vanity, caused to be read aloud before proceeding to business, and it probably put him into a good humor, and helped in the acquittal of Gregory. The situation is laughable, almost incredible, and what Gregory, whose character and life were at stake, thought of his friend’s airy way of taking things we can but guess, as he makes no allusion to it in his admiring notices of his brother clerk.
Such was the course of Fortunatus’s life at Poitiers. There was no relaxation in the graceful offices of the ladies of St. Cross to him, nor in his services to them ; the wine and milk and honey of their bounty flowed without stint, and his verse ran in a parallel stream. The flowers and fruits of St. Cross must have been perennial, to judge by his pretty little rhymes. Elegies and epitaphs continued to spring from his pen, with epigrams and curious anagrams like the concetti of a thousand years later, or the twisted posies of Quarles and Herbert, and the vers d’occasion and vers de société of modern literature. And there were more tender addresses at leave-takings, absences, and separations, as when, for instance, Radegonde was not at home to her visitor during the whole of Lent.
There were gossips and evil tongues in those days, and the excessive intimacy of the poet-priest and the two women gave rise to tattle ; slander did not spare Radegonde’s age or Agnes’s official dignity. Fortunatus felt it more for their sakes than for his own, and he indignantly and solemnly repelled the accusations in lines of some vigor and elevation: —
With truth and faith and heart and soul I
Affections blameless, fit for heaven above,
Born of the spirit, pure of fleshly blemish,
Be Christ my witness and the spotless Dove.”
Not a single contemporary writer has left the smallest blot on the conduct of Fortunatus. The holiest and most ascetic men held him and his two friends in the highest esteem. The standard of Christian practice was perforce exalted and rigid, as it had to bear the strain of contrast with the heathenish habits of new converts, and of consistency with an occasional fierceness of orthodoxy which would not pull together with loose living. No subsequent historian has dared to raise a doubt as to the innocence of the tie. Even the puritanical M. Guizot acquits their memory of unworthy charges. He is too hard on their self-indulgence and trifling, and cites Fortunatus’s verses to prove that from the earliest ages to the present day convent life has fostered only gluttony and futility, and to confirm the testimony of old fabliaux and modern satires against it on this score. M. Guizot’s Calvinistic prejudices make him too severe in this case, at any rate. Renard the Fox and Vert-Vert personify the vices and follies of the orders, but not their serious side, which, as has been shown, was not absent from the existence of St. Cross. To worldly-minded people the irreproachable nature of the friendship of Fortunatus, Radegonde, and Agnes is best proved by its never having been broken ; no jealousy or mistrust ever disturbed it. The women were plainly superior to the man in many ways, and more earnest than he was. The light, mundane temper which he brought from Italy, his friendly and obliging disposition, his love of pleasure and desire to please, were precisely the unmonastic qualities which make him the antitype of the drawing-room priest, the abbé galant, and preserve him to us not in the aspect of a robed and corded friar, nor of a bishop in his canonicals, but as an elegant, versatile, agreeable ecclesiastic, at home in every society.
There is little known of his life after the council of Braine, except by his writings. One of his biographers in the seventeenth century thinks that he spent some time in England, which could only have been on an important religious mission. It was even said that one of his fair friends followed him there, when people might have been excused for talking; but this episode is obscure and doubtful. Radegonde died on August 13, 587 ; she was soon canonized, and the day belongs to her; Poitou still keeps it in her memory. The Abbess Agnes vanishes with her like her shadow. Now Fortunatus might say with truth, “ Tristius erro.” His friend Gregory of Tours soon followed. Of all the patrons of his outset in Gaul not one was left but the royal Brunehilde, a furious old woman, maddened by the perfidy and cruelty that had robbed her of her husband and children, and grown barbarous by living with barbarians; it is to be hoped he did not live to know her fate. Like most old people for whom life has been happy, he lived chiefly in the past, and found interest and a labor of love in writing the life of St. Radegonde. Some ten years after her death he was made Bishop of Poitiers. He lingered into the next century, when he gently fades from view on a December day. The 14th is kept in memory of St. Fortunatus, but the year is not known.
Fortunatus, in one of his later works, speaks slightingly of his attainments, but this was mock modesty; they were not thought little of either by himself or by others. The days of profound scholarship and classic perfection of style were over, and his writings are not models either of prose or verse, but they display talent, descriptive power, truth to human nature, grace, and sprightliness. He ranked very high among his contemporaries for learning and culture, and has been classed by posterity with the great Gallo-Roman literary men of the declining Empire. To appreciate his completely civilized and modern character we must not forget the condition of Europe during his life. If he had died young, or even in middle age, he might be dismissed with his peccadilloes of vanity and epicurism, his curiosity and his little verses, —
but he deserves a better place. He lived to be a man of weight and value ; he is the author of a noble hymn, Vexilla Regis, the common property of the Roman and Anglican churches ; and as he is last seen, in his dignified old age, fulfilling his episcopal duties, and devoting his lonely leisure to writing the life of his sainted friend, he is worthy of reverence.
- Not they of Ephesus, but seven emulous inhabitants of Touraine.↩