• Ben

Bonus Episode One: Saint Geneviève, Protector of Paris

Debucourt, Philibert Louis. Saint Genevieve, 1775–1832. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Saint Geneviève

Before we get started, I want to take a very quick moment to dedicate this episode, the tenth and final episode of the 2019 season, to the three most important women in my life, and who continue to make me try harder every day to be the best I can be. Jayme, Katie and Mary, this one’s for you…

Genevieve prayed loudly, attempting to overcome the voices of the panicked men wailing outside the doors of the baptistry.

She had been in this lower part of the church for almost three days now, engaged in a steady routine of praying and fasting, all without sleep. She couldn’t sleep. It was her duty as a beacon of God to lead her people, the people of Paris, to safety. They had been getting steadily more nervous and anxious ever since the reports of invasion had started to trickle into the city. When the inhabitants learned that Attila the Hun, the man known as the Scourge of God, had laid waste to the cities of Amiens and Beauvais and was moving south, their anxiety escalated from nervousness to full-on panic.

Fortunately, Genevieve had had a vision of exactly this moment; she alone knew that there was nothing to fear, that Attila and his horde would never lay a finger on the city of Paris. Genevieve had been shown this vision by the angels of God himself, and she knew with perfect clarity that the city was safe. Getting everyone else to understand this truth was the tricky part. She had initially attempted to go out into the city and announce to everyone the good news of her vision, but most people didn’t want to hear what she had to say. A few who did stop to listen accused her of being demented and of slowing down the retreat from the city. They said she was going to get people killed if she didn’t shut her mouth, and if she didn’t stop they may just take it upon themselves to do it for her. After just a few hours of this treatment Genevieve decided a different plan was going to be needed. This was when divine inspiration struck her.

Genevieve realized that she only needed to delay things in the city for a few days to see the people past the threat of Attila. Once he was past Paris, things would calm. So, rather than fighting with the men who threatened her with violence, she sent out the call to the women of the city to come to her and hear what she had to say. A sizeable cohort arrived, and Genevieve let them know of her vision. She implored these women to listen to her, to help her find a way to stop the retreat. If they truly believed in the Christian God and they believed in her, they would help. Almost all of them did believe in her, but they knew that talking to their husbands would do nothing at this point. Panicked men were no better than panicked horses. Again Genevieve thought, and again she formed a plan.

“Follow me,” she said. She led her women into the church and barricaded them in the baptistry. She knew that most of the men who treated these women like so much property would never be able to overcome the shame of leaving them behind to deal with the Huns while they ran away to save themselves. She also knew that they would be too scared to risk the wrath of God by breaking down the door to the Church baptistry and defacing Church property. Eventually the women would have to emerge, but again, Genevieve needed just hours and days.

And so it was that she found herself here now, praying and fasting. The men outside wailed and moaned, accusing her of leading them all to doom and perdition because of this stunt. They cursed their wives on the inside for allowing themselves to be tricked, and told them that when their children were sold into slavery they’d have only themselves to blame. They used every argument and every threat to cajole them out of the Baptistry, and it took all of Genevieve’s efforts to keep her women in line and prevent them from breaking ranks to open the door. Now, as the third consecutive day of the vigil began, she knew there wasn’t much more time left. It was becoming impossible to keep her eyes open, and the women in the room wanted out as much because of the cramped quarters on the inside as of the entreaties of their men from the outside.

It was then as Genieveve feared she could take no more, that a cry went up from outside the door. At first the women began to grow nervous, certain that the loud noise was simply the first indication of the beginning of the sacking of the city. Had they been wrong to trust this nun and her visions from God? A moment later, more voices were heard from the outside. They were loud and gathering in number and they were…excited? A man came to the door and started banging, telling them to open up: Attila and his army had bypassed the city and were in Orleans! The first refugees from that further city had started to straggle in and tell them the news; the city of Paris had been spared!

Cheers went up from all of the women in the room, overjoyed that they had made the right choice in trusting their spiritual leader to guide them to safety. The day was theirs, the threat was passed and they owed it all to Genevieve’s remarkable visions. Never again would they doubt this woman, their protector. But now, as they went to embrace her and thank her for getting them through, they couldn’t find her. After a short search, they located the victorious holy woman. She was sound asleep on a blanket in the back of the Baptistry, a contented smile resting on her face while her chest rose and lowered steadily.

She had won the day, just as she always knew that she would. Her God would always protect her, and she in turn would always protect her city, her Paris.

This is Thugs and Miracles. Bonus Episode Number One: Saint Genevieve, Protector of Paris.

Alright, welcome back to T+M; as always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week I’m bringing you our first ever bonus episode as a way of saying Happy Holidays and thank you for joining the Team in 2019. All told, this marks the tenth episode of T+M and I wanted to do a little something special to mark the occasion. I have spoken several times in past episodes about Saint Genevieve and how I wanted to spend time talking about her, and what better time to do that than now? Not only is January 3 celebrated as her feast day, but Saint Genevieve bookends the entire arc of the Thugs and Miracles universe as one of the first major religious figures to speak with Childéric and Clovis; the latter has a church built in which to place her body, a church that would eventually take on the name of the Saint. On the back end of the bookend, Genevieve’s Church will eventually be replaced by the Parthenon and her bones will be burnt as a part of the French Revolution following the execution of Louis XVI. But I’m getting –pun fully intended - ahead of myself.

To begin the story, Genevieve was born in 422 in the village of Nanterre, about 7 km north of Paris. Her early life was irrevocably changed when, at the age of seven, Saint Germanus of Auxerre rode through her town en route to battling heretics further north in Britain. According to Bert Ghezzi in his book Voices of the Saints:

“In the crowd that gathered to hear him speak, Germanus spotted Genevieve, a beautiful 7-year-old girl, and he foresaw her future holiness. When he asked little St. Genevieve if she wanted to dedicate her life to God, she enthusiastically said yes. So he laid hands on her with a blessing, thus launching the spiritual career of one of France’s most admired saints.”

Once again we are confronted with a case of people in the 5th and 6th century getting an extremely young start down their path in life. But hey, if Clovis can become King of the Franks at 15 and his grandson Theudebert can track down Vikings at the age of 13, well, why not have this young woman start her saintly career at the age of 7. At any rate, the sources indicate that Genevieve never had any thoughts in her mind except to be a servant of God. At the age of 15, following the death of her parents, she moved to Paris and joined a convent after briefly living with her grandmother. In these early days, she set herself apart through her works of charity and by her incredibly grueling dieting and fasting, wherein she abstained from all meat and only ate twice per week. She followed this pattern for 30 years, only breaking from it at the behest of Church elders concerned for her health.

At the age of 29, in the year 451, Atilla came to Gaul. He stayed true to his nickname, the Scourge of God, by destroying and pillaging the towns and villages he and his army came across. He must have appeared to the people in Gaul like a truly demonic character, and most would have had little faith – and rightfully so – in the ability of the Roman Emperor to stop him. I spoke about this in detail in Episodes Two and Six, so I won’t re-hash the entirety of Attila’s rampage again here, but suffice it to say that the common person in Paris, people such as Rusticus, would have rightly been spooked and looking for any answer or sign from God to tell them what to do. And that leads us to today’s opening, wherein Genevieve finally provided the people with what they were looking for. Of course, those who want to look upon the event as a honest-to-goodness miracle will claim that it was the power of prayer that kept the hordes out of Paris. Then there’s the more skeptical way of looking at things, which is that Attila probably passed the town by because it wouldn’t have been worth the time and manpower needed to take it. Either way, Paris came out of the situation smelling like a rose, and the origin story of Genevieve as the protector of the city began.

Genevieve added to this reputation in later years by confounding sieges brought against the city by Childéric, running up and down the River Seine to ferry supplies and food into the city. It’s from these actions that Genevieve is often depicted in art as holding or offering a loaf of bread. From one of these stories, as recounted by Allen Banks Hinds:

“Genevieve took a boat down the Seine to fetch provisions, and she reached a spot where there was a dangerous tree in the river. But she prayed and the tree fell, while two demons fled out of it, so that no more wrecks occurred there. On her return to Paris she distributed bread to the poor.”

She would later earn the respect of Childéric, as well as that of Clovis. It’s likely that her influence played a role in convincing the latter to move into the city and make Paris his seat of power.

Beyond miracles and relationships with the Kings, Genevieve helped to make Paris a siren city for believers and led it in becoming a popular pilgrimage site. The first way in which she did this was by establishing a chapel at the burial site of one of her personal heroes, Saint Denis, or, in the more popular French pronunciation, Saint Denis. Saint Denis was a Christian martyr who had been decapitated by the Romans around the year 250 and according to the story, he picked up his freshly severed head immediately after his execution and proceeded to walk through the town, preaching a sermon while doing so, until he reached his final resting place. Images and statues of St. Denis holding his head now abound, and the site of his execution on the highest hill in Paris may very well have led to the name of the site: The Martyr’s Mountain, or in rough French, Montmarte. This is of course now better known as a trendy spot in the heart of Paris, and for movie buffs, the location of the movie Amelie. At any rate, the town of Saint Denis, where the martyr ultimately fell and was buried, is just north of the metropolis and is the home to his eponymous Basillica and the Stade de France (Stadium of France), which has received extensive international coverage for its use in, among many other events, the 1998 FIFA World Cup and the opening match of the 2016 Euro Cup.

Coming back to Genevieve however, and again according to Hinds:

“She cherished a particular fervour for Saint Denis, and wished to erect a church in his honour. For this she exhorted the neighbouring priests to use their utmost endeavours, and when they replied that they had no lime, she sent them to the bridge of Paris, where they leamed the whereabouts of large quantities of this material from the conversation of two swineherds. After this the building proceeded successfully.”

The second way in which Genevieve helped to turn Paris into a pilgrimage destination actually occurred posthumously, but was also attached to the building of a church. Genevieve died around the beginning of the 6th century, at roughly the same time that Clotilde and Clovis has commissioned the construction of the Church of the Holy Apostles to be built. Sources differ as to the exact date of her death – some pegged the date as 500 or 502, while others claim she died as late as 512 and actually outlived Clovis. Either way, it appears logical that Clovis was building the church in imitation of Constantine, who had also built a Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, and did not intend to use the building as a monument to Genevieve. However, after her death, Clotilde had her remains moved into the cathedral to lie near Clovis, and over the course of time so many pilgrims came to visit her relics that the church simply took on her name. This is all the more impressive when you consider that the men she was competing with, so to speak, for the honor of the church’s name included the apostles Peter and Paul - two of the most influential people from Jesus’s circle and arguably the Bible as a whole – and the first major King of the Merovingian Dynasty. Despite the proximity of these heavy hitters, it’s Genevieve’s name that is prevalent in Paris to this day.

Over the course of the next millennia plus, the bones and relics of Genevieve were invoked on myriad occasions for reasons that included, but were not limited to, inclement weather, attacks, wars, royal health, diseases and disasters. Paris suffered a particularly devastating bout of plague in 1129 – with reportedly over 14,000 people dying – but the illness was halted very suddenly following a procession in her honor. Pope Innocent II, who happened to be in Paris at that time, “examined personally into the miracle and was so convinced of its authenticity that he ordered a feast to be kept annually in honour of the event on 26 November.” Beyond this, Saint Geneviève’s relics were involved in 120 public invocations between 1500 and 1793.

The good times couldn’t last forever, however. In 1793, in the throes of the French Revolution and the Cult of Reason, St. Genevieve became a target for those who wanted to make a show of what they felt to be monarchical France’s ridiculous and enduring ties to the supernatural. According to Hannah Williams, an art historian of 18th-century France and faculty member at the Queen Mary University of London:

“Saint Geneviève’s relics thus endured a kind of posthumous trial, found guilty of…inculcating superstition and for abetting the corrupt regime that appropriated them. From the wording it is unclear whether the guilty party was the saint or the relics, the person or the objects (or if they were distinguished), but the result was the same: the body of Saint Geneviève was sentenced to burn on Place de Grève. The location, like the punishment, was significant. Instead of joining the executions of the Terror on Place de la Révolution where the guillotine stood, Saint Geneviève would burn on Paris’s traditional site for executing heretics. In yet another parody of religious rituals, Saint Geneviève’s auto-da-fé would be a symbolic declaration of her heretical threat to the new religion of Reason. On 3 December 1793, Saint Geneviève’s relics processed one last time through the streets of Paris, to burn supposedly ‘[on a pyre covered with chapels and various church ornaments]’, while crowds danced around the pyre ‘[drunk with blood]’. When it was over, the ashes were thrown into the Seine to extinguish any final trace.”

When everything was said and done, all that was left of St. Genevieve were the bones of a forearm and a single finger. Despite the attempt to erase her from history and the destruction of most of her body however, the legend of Genevieve outlived the Cult of Reason’s attack. The church bearing her name had been torn down and re-built beginning in the reign of Louis XV, with the new church intended to be grand enough to bear the name of the revered Saint. It was instead taken over during the Revolution and renamed as the Panthéon; to this day, the building meant for Saint Genevieve and standing on the site of her original church is the resting place for the greatest heroes of France. This is, in a very broad sense, an encapsulation of the entire history of France, with the architecture and focus of one of Paris’s great secular buildings founded firmly in the myth, mystery and history of the past.

Genevieve’s final earthly remains have been put to rest in a new home in a chapel of the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, and her yearly feast continues to be recognized by pilgrims and the Gendarmerie Nationale (the French security forces) alike. According to Hannah Williams, uniformed officers of the Republican Guard gather to honor their saint every year on a feast day in November. Beyond this, these relics don’t lie easy and untested in this new age of reason as mere objects of devotion. Hundreds come to the chapel to insert requests into her casket asking for an intervention from the Saint for any number of issues and maladies. In 1914 an especially urgent appeal was sent to Genevieve; Williams recounts:

“A large plaque from 6 September 1914 presents an ex-voto from a more recent collective invocation. During the First World War, with the German army [at the gates of the city], it recalls Paris’s desperate appeal to the relics. Crowds prayed for three days, and eventually their patron intervened as Paris escaped invasion. Just as she once thwarted Attila the Hun, so Saint Geneviève was credited with the Victory of the Marne.”

Well thank you for taking the time to explore the life and legacy of Paris’s protector and patron saint, Saint Genevieve. I felt it was important to give her the time and respect she deserves because, while not a queen or even a member of the government, her life and her actions marked the world that we’re talking about. Her story also serves as a reminder that while the Merovingian world was extremely patriarchal, there were women about who were willing and able to do their part to affect the narrative. Some, like Honoria, used treachery and deceit to their advantage, while others like Clotilde used their positions of power as the wives and mothers of kings to influence events. And then there were those like Genevieve who, despite not having such direct access to the levers of power, possessed that certain je ne sais quoi that marked them as leaders in their communities. Remembering all of these women, and the fact that history was never so easy or linear as simply passing power down the line from one king to the next, makes the story much more interesting.

OUTRO: Alright, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode and a list of sources is available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please leave a comment and be sure to sign up for the e-mail list so we can keep you up-to-date on new episodes and all things T+M. Speaking of writing, you can write to me at thugsandmiracles@gmail.com, you can hit me on Facebook and Instagram at ThugsAndMiracles, or reach out on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (no “s” at the end there).

Finally, if you enjoyed the show, I ask you to go forth in the New Year and spread the word of it! Word-of-mouth is golden to us, so if you ever hear anyone asking for a really good podcast recommendation, please keep us in mind. If you want to go a step further, leaving a review on whichever platform you get your podcasts is amazing; five stars really is wonderful affirmation, and written reviews absolutely stoke the fire to keep this going. Speaking of keeping it going, we’re going to stay on schedule here at T+M. This was a bonus episode, which means that we’ll have a new and full episode up on time next week to start the new decade out right!

Once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you next week with the first episode in 2020 of Thugs and Miracles.