Saint Geneviève was born and lived in a time of frightful disaster, unparalleled in the history of Europe. From the commencement of the fifth century a veritable deluge of diverse nations, driven on one by another, inundated the crumbling empire, and gave the signal for its complete ruin.
The Franks, under the long-haired Clodion, traversing the forest of the Ardennes, and rolling to the banks of the Somme, had seized on Amiens, Cambrai, Tournai, after having burnt Trèves, and sacked Cologne. The citizens, of Trèves, which had been the residence of emperors since Maximian, had been slaughtered in the circus to which they had fled. The amphitheatre, which under Constantine has streamed with the blood of the Barbarians, was now heaped with the bodies of Romans. Cologne had been revelling in drunken orgy, when a slave ran to announce that the Franks were on the walls. The citizens had not the manhood to rise from table so as to die standing. Their blood mingled with the wine of their overturned cups. God chastised Roman vices with disgrace as with iron. In this fifth century three societies stood face to face – the Old Roman polity, the Barbarian, and the Church. Rome went to pieces under the blows of the Barbarians, but the Barbarian in turn was subjugated by Christianity.
Saint Geneviève was born at Nanterre, about seven miles from Paris, in 422 or 423. The old name of the place, Nemetdoor, is purely Celtic, as is her name, which is the same as Gwenever or Gwenhwyvar in Welsh. Her father was named Severus, and her mother Gerontia, the female form of Geraint. There can be no doubt whatever that she was of Gallic origin, but Latinised, and a Christian.
One word, before proceeding, about the authority for her life. This is a biography, written eighteen years after her death, by the priest Genes, her spiritual director. He learned from the saint the general outline of the incidents in her childhood, and these he dressed up in what he believed to be literary style.
Late in the Middle Ages it was said that Saint Geneviève had kept sheep for her father, and she is now generally represented as a shepherdess; but there is no early authority for this, although the fact is very probable. In the year 429 Saint Germain, Bishop of Auxerre, and Saint Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, at the entreaty of the British Church, commissioned for the work by a Council of Gallican bishops, left their dioceses to visit our island, there to withstand the Pelagian heresy, which was making way.
Saint Germain was well qualified to go to Britain, as he was of Celtic origin, and his sister was the wife of Aldor, brother of Constantine I, King of Devon and Cornwall.
On his way to the coast he passed through Nanterre. The people, hearing of his approach, lined the road, and with them were the children in goodly numbers.
As Germain and Lupus advanced, the eye of the former rested on a fair little girl of seven, whose devout look, and sweet, innocent face, arrested him. He stood still, and called her to him, then stooped and kissed her on the brow, and asked her name. He was told that she was called Geneviève. The pleased parents now stepped up, and the venerable bishop asked, “Is this your child?”
They answered in the affirmative.
“Then,” said Germain, “happy are ye in having a child so blessed. She will be great before God; and, moved by her example, many will decline from evil and incline to that which is good, and will obtain remission of their sins, and the reward of life from Christ.” And then, after a pause, he said to the young girl, “My daughter, Geneviève.” She answered, “Thy little maiden listens.”
Then he said, “Do not fear to tell me whether it be not your desire to devote yourself body and soul to Christ.”
She answered, “Blessed be thou, father, for thou hast spoken my desire. I pray God earnestly that He will grant it me.”
“Have confidence, my daughter,” said Germain; “be of good courage, and what you believe in your heart and confess with your lips, that take care to perform. God will add to your comeliness both virtue and strength.”
Then they went into the church and sang nones and vespers, and throughout the office Bishop Germain rested his right hand on the fair little head of the child.
That evening, after supper had been eaten and they had sung a hymn, Germain bade Severus retire with his daughter, but bring her to him again early next morning. So when day broke, Severus returned with the child, and the old bishop smiled, and said, “Welcome, little daughter Geneviève. Do you recollect what was said yesterday?”
She answered, “My father, I remember what I promised, and with God’s help what I promised that I will perform.”
Then Saint Germain picked up a brass coin from the ground, which had the sign of the cross on it, and which he had noticed lying there whilst he was speaking; and he gave it to her, saying, “Bore a hole in this, and wear it round thy neck in remembrance of me, and let no other ornament, or gold or silver or pearls, adorn thy neck and thy fingers.” Then he bade her farewell, commending her to the care of her father, and pursued his journey.
Now, we may ask, How much of this is true? Almost everything. Geneviève was certain never to forget how the old bishop had stopped her, when a little mite of seven, how he had asked her name, had made her promise to love and fear God; how in church his hand had rested all through the service on her head, and how he had given her the coin to wear. But as to the prophecy relative to her future, and to his exacting of her a promise to be a nun, all that may be the make-up of Genes, writing after she had been a blessing to the people of Paris, and had embraced the monastic life.
At the age of fifteen she and two other girls somewhat older than herself presented themselves before the bishop to be veiled as dedicated virgins. It was remarked that, although Geneviève was the youngest, yet the bishop consecrated her first.
After their dedication they returned to their homes; for, at that time, it was not a matter of course that consecrated virgins should live in community.
About this time her mother suffered from inflamed eyes, and for twenty-one months, or nearly two years, could not see to do her household work. Accordingly, Geneviève was of immense assistance to her. She was wont repeatedly to bathe her mother’s eyes with water from the well, and this in time reduced the inflammation, so that eventually Gerontia recovered her sight.
At last Geneviève lost both her parents, and now, having no home duties to restrain her, she went to Paris into a religious community.
In 447 Saint Germain again visited Britain about the same trouble which had occasioned his first journey; and when, on his way, he came to Paris, he inquired for the little girl whom he had blessed at Nanterre eighteen years before.
Genes tells us that some spiteful people sought to disparage her; but Germain would not hearken to them, and sent for and communed with her.
What caused them to make light of her was probably this. She had adopted a life of great asceticism, eating nothing but barley bread and beans, and that only twice in the week; and remaining within her cell, conversing with none from Epiphany till Easter.
There were a number of people in Paris who did not like these extravagances; and it was these, in all probability, who spoke against her to Saint Germain. But, as we shall see presently, by this means she did acquire an enormous power over the people of Paris, which she used for good.
Saint Germain had probably but just returned from Britain before a new and terrible scourge broke upon Gaul.
In 451, the Huns, headed by their king, Attila, burst in. In two columns this vast horde had ascended the Danube. One of these drew several German peoples along with it, eager for plunder, whilst the other fell on and crushed the isolated Roman stations. This agglomeration of invaders met at the sources of the Danube, crossed the Rhine at Basle, where the proximity to the Black Forest favoured the construction of rafts for passing over.
The Franks, who occupied the right bank of the Rhine, extended their hands to the Huns. The Burgundians, however, offered a vain resistance, and were cut to pieces. The Huns, entering Gaul, completed the destruction of what had been left standing by Vandals, Suevi, and Alans. Attila, following the Rhine as he had the Danube, devastated Alsace. Strasburg, Spires, Worms, ruined by preceding invasions, had not risen from the dust. Mayence was sacked, Toul sank in flames, Metz had its walls and towers overthrown after a few months’ resistance. The savage conquerors massacred all, even to the children at the breast. They fired the town, and long after its site could only be recognised by the Chapel of Saint Stephen, which had escaped the conflagration.
Several cities opened their gates to Attila: they hoped to find safety in submission; they did but expedite their destruction. Despair gave courage to others, but no heroism availed against these devouring hordes. Rheims and Arras were delivered over to the sack. The host broke up into fractions, which ravaged the country, carrying everywhere fire and sword.
Attila advanced to the Loire.
Then it was that a panic fell on the inhabitants of Paris. In madness of fear, they prepared to desert it: the rich in their chariots and waggons, the poor on foot.
It was now that Saint Geneviève stood forward and rebuked their cowardice. Whither could they fly? The enemy penetrated everywhere. The Hun gained audacity by the universal panic. Better man their walls, brace their hearts, and resist heroically.
The Parisian mob, headlong and cruel, as such a mob has ever been, howled at her, and prepared to pelt her with stones and cast her into the Seine, when, opportunely, appeared the Archdeacon of Auxerre, sent expressly to Geneviève from the bishop, just returned from Britain, and now dying, bearing Blessed Bread to her, that he had sent in token of affectionate communion. This loaf, the eulogia, was that from which the bread for the Communion had been taken, and which remained over. It had been blessed, but not consecrated; and it was sent by bishops to those whom they held in esteem.
Such a token of regard paid to Geneviève by one so highly esteemed awed the rabble, and they swung from one temper to another. They were now amenable to her advice. They closed the gates, accumulated the munitions of war, and made preparations to stand a siege; but Attila did not approach. He foresaw that it would take him too long to reduce so strong a place. On the 14th of June, 451, the Huns encountered their first repulse. They were driven from the siege of Orleans. On the field of Châlons-sur-Marne, the memorable battle was fought between Aetius, the Roman general, and Attila. “It was a battle,” says the historian Jornandes, “which for atrocity, multitude, horror, and stubbornness has not had its like.” The field was heaped with the dead, but it resulted in the expulsion of the Huns from Gaul.
Feeling a great reverence for Saint Denis, Geneviève desired greatly to build a church on the scene of his martyrdom; and she urged some priests to undertake the work. But they hesitated, saying that they had no means of burning lime – it was a lost art. Then, so runs the tale, one of them suddenly recollected having heard two swineherds in conversation on the bridge over the Seine. One had said to the other: “Whilst I was following one of my pigs the other day, I lit in the forest on an ancient abandoned lime-kiln.”
“That is no marvel,” answered the other, “for I found a sapling in the forest uprooted by the wind, and under its roots was an old kiln.”
The priests inquired where these kilns were and used them, and Geneviève set the priest Genes, who was afterwards her biographer, to superintend the work of building the church.
It shows to what a condition of degradation the art of building had fallen, when the Parisians were unable to burn lime without old Roman kilns for the purpose.
A little incident, very simple and natural, was afterwards worked up into a marvel. She was going one night from her lodging to the church for prayers, carrying a lantern, when the wind, which was violent, extinguished it. She opened the lantern, when a puff of wind on the thick red glowing wick rekindled the flame. This was thought quite miraculous. It is a thing that has happened over and over again with tallow candles when the snuff is long.
In the year 486, Childeric, King of the Franks, laid siege to Paris, which had remained under Roman governors. The siege lasted ten years, to 496. It cannot have been prosecuted with much persistence.
The Frank army reduced the city to great straits, and famine set in. The poor suffered the extremity of want, and were dying like flies. No one seemed to know what to do. All energy and resourcefulness had deserted those in authority. Geneviève alone showed what steps should be taken: she got into a ship, and was rowed up the Seine, and then up the Aube to Arçis, where she knew that she could obtain corn. In the Seine was a fallen tree with a snag that had been the cause of the loss of several vessels, but no one had thought of removing the obstruction. Geneviève made her boatmen saw up the tree and break it, so that it floated down stream and could effect no further mischief. Another instance of the condition of helplessness into which the debased provincials of Gaul had fallen: they neither could build lime-kilns nor keep their rivers open for traffic. She got together what provisions she could at Arçis, then went on upon the same quest to Troyes, and finally laded eleven barges with corn, and returned with them to the famished city. As they neared Paris a strong gale was blowing, and the barges being laden very heavily ran some risk, especially as here also there were snags in the water. But with patience and trouble they were manœuvred through these impediments, and the convoy arrived in Paris, with the priests singing, and all who were in the boats joining, “The Lord is our help and our salvation. The Lord hath delivered us in the time of trouble.”
The joy and gratitude of the Parisians knew no bounds. Afterwards, when the city did fall, Childeric resolved on executing a great host of captives; but Geneviève, in a paroxysm of compassion, rushed to him, fell on her knees, and would not desist from intercession on their behalf till he had consented to spare them.
At length, worn out by age, she died in 512, and was buried in Paris, where now stands the Panthéon. The church was desecrated at the Revolution, and turned into a burial-place for Mirabeau, the regicide Lepelletier de Saint-Fargeau, the brutal Marat, Dampierre, Fabre, Bayle, and other revolutionaries. The bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau were also transferred to it.
In 1806 it was again restored as a church, but was once more turned into a temple after the July revolution of 1830. Once again consecrated in 1851, it was finally secularised in 1885 for the obsequies of Victor Hugo.