The Life of St. Gerald of Aurillac and Secular Sanctity in the Carolingian Empire



Odo of Cluny

Count Gerald of Aurillac (855-909) is very peculiar for a Medieval saint: rather than living in ascetic withdrawal from the world, he actively participates in aristocratic society. This results in some extraordinary incidences in which Gerald can be observed fulfilling his secular duties, while at the same time doing them in an idealised and spiritual fashion.  For example, when completing military service he orders his men to fight with the backs of their swords and with their spears reversed to avoid the shedding of blood. While holding justice he often condemns the accused publicly, but subsequently frees them in private. Gerald’s contradictions can be explained in the sole source on him, the Life of St.Gerald of Aurrilac or the Vita Sancti Geraldi; more specifically by the influence of its writer, Odo of Cluny (879-942).  Odo did not intend the vita to be an accurate reflection of reality: there is a difference between the real Gerald and the literary Gerald crafted by Odo. The vita was instead meant to be a device offering a moral model for lay aristocrats to follow, one which also shows increased concerns over secular and spiritual identity in Carolingian society in the 10th and 9th centuries.

The text itself provides clues about its unique nature and the intentions of its author. According to Odo, the Vita Geraldi  was written  at the request of his friend Aymo, abbot of St Martial and his brother Turpio, Bishop of Limoges (who had ordained Odo a priest.) Odo himself was a prominent cleric, as the second Abbot of Cluny. However, Odo himself provides more details which suggest there was a deeper purpose behind writing the vita than as a simple act of patronage. Odo  dismisses notions that it simply provided legitimacy for the actions carried out by the aristocracy.  The preface states ‘Others, as though seeking excuses for their sins extol him indiscreetly, saying that Gerald was powerful and rich, and lived well and is certainly a saint.’  This suggests that the literary Gerald was not intended to be used to justify aristocratic lifestyles. The historian Stuart Airlie has argued that instead of this the vita was written as a lay model: it was intended to encourage the aristocracy to lead a more restrained life. This seems to match Odo’s proclamation that he never ‘diverted from the middle path of discretion’ and that ‘he never failed in the duties of his worldly affairs, nor diverted himself from the practice of religion.’


Gerald of Aurillac

Violence and Holiness

The Vita Geraldi was written in a period of increased violence throughout the Carolingian Empire. The historiographic idea of a ‘Feudal Revolution’ suggests that towards the end of the Early Medieval period there was a breakdown of royal authority and a shift towards more localised powerbases. This concept can be useful for explaining why Odo of Cluny may have been intent on using Gerald as a model for secular elites. Between 860-890 areas under Carolingian control saw increased instability with an higher number of Viking attacks and a rapid upsurge in the number of castles and ramparts in the countryside, culminating in the collapse of much of the authority previously held by the Carolingian dynasty. Odo of Cluny notes this in the vita and it is pivotal in understanding the way he presents violence.

Aristocrats would not have found the lay model offered attractive if Odo did not take into account that sometimes violence was a necessity in the secular world. The Vita Geraldi accommodates this by showing the ways in which Gerald restrains his use of violence. Gerald is presented as hesitant in using force offensively, but is shown to be willing to protect his lands and subjects. Odo writes ‘Sometimes he was compelled unwillingly to show his strength and to bow the neck of the wicked by force of arms’. When some of his retainers are attacked by an ‘evil man’ Arlaldus, Gerald proceeds to ensure the safety of his lands by attacking the castle of the aggressor. This is once again done without any bloodshed. Gerald is also seen to be filling service to William of Aquitaine, his lord. This means he is not in neglect of his expected duties, yet Odo places emphasis on how Gerald feels uncomfortable in fulfilling them. Gerald does not allow his men to plunder and take booty and stays ‘in the company his friend’ who ‘in spite of his troubles did not desert him’. Odo’s message is clear that a lay ruler should only carry out violence when necessary and should never become accustomed to fully accepting it.

Odo of Cluny faces the difficulty of persuading the aristocracy that such an approach to violence would be a beneficial way to act. He does this by placing emphasis on the favour Gerald gains with God, ‘with God on his side, Gerald always prevailed over his enemies’. Odo’s emphasis on that victory in battle can be achieved without bloodshed may seem difficult to comprehend, but by placing it in the context of divine intervention he hopes to show that gaining favour with God is likely to be more beneficial in the long-term than unrestrained violence. Odo is also keen to place importance on the respect Gerald gains because of his attitude. Although his vassals ‘frequently complained that he was soft and timid’ his ‘tenants and clerics, who loved him like a father’ often bring him gifts.

Masculinity and Holiness

Odo’s biggest challenge in combining secularity and spirituality is rehabilitating Gerald’s holiness with the discourse of masculinity that dominated the aristocracy at the time. Gerald is presented as having some of the physical markers of masculinity. The vita places emphasis on Gerald’s strength in his youth: ‘endowed with bodily strength’ he was so ‘agile that he could vault over the backs of horses’ also ‘excelling in military exercises.’ Gerald also rides horses but is modest in the finery he puts on them. In this way Gerald is not restricted by the nature of ascetic life, but he is bearing traits that were associated with the masculine norms of aristocratic life.

When Gerald holds feasts he does not see them as an opportunity to be boisterous. He abides ‘chattering and buffoonery’ and ‘(attaches) such importance to sobriety, that he preserved not only himself, but also his household from drunkenness’. Instead he inverts this norm of masculine and aristocratic society and sees that they can be applied in a more spiritual fashion. Feasting is used as an opportunity to interact with the poorest of his realm: as Odo notes ‘Chairs for the poor were always placed in his presence’ and ‘nor was he limited to receiving a certain number’. But rather than being overly generous, Gerald is still shown to have an element of judgement. Odo makes it clear that Gerald decideds how much food the poor sitting at the table should receive based on their worthiness. By doing this, Odo is making it clear that he is not asking nobles to give on an arbitrary basis, but rather that they should be more charitable within their means as secular rulers. This attitude can also be identified when Odo notes that once Gerald’s lands had been tithed he ordered a ninth part to be set aside so it might be used by the poor. This is notably not a high proportion, nevertheless in the vita the aristocracies’ traditional use of feasting is moderated into what Odo thinks is a much more spiritual and restrained approach, while not being abandoned as a whole.

However, if Odo struggles at accommodating anything with the masculine norms of Carolingian society it is Gerald’s sexuality. Gerald is presented as rigorously chaste, even avoiding marriage, an institution vital to secular society. The only time Gerald takes an interest in someone, he is saved by God, who renders the woman suddenly deformed and ugly to his eyes. To make sure Gerald remains celibate, God makes him blind for more than a year, so he is not tempted again. Odo’s approach is curious as unlike on other grounds, such as violence and feasting, he is not willing to concede any ground on making his lay model more realistic for elites. This is especially salient as there would have been a legitimate platform to express Gerald’s sexuality through marriage.  For other saints such as St Gangulfus and St Rictrudis, marriage was deemed as acceptable by their respective hagiography. It is unclear why Odo takes this approach, but his inadequacy in dealing with it can be simply explained by the fact he spends so little time on accommodating Gerald’s chastity within his model for lay elites. Instead, he concentrates on the duties and other social aspects of aristocratic life.

The Vita Geraldi and the Carolingian Literary Tradition

Can the combination of secularity and sanctity be found elsewhere in the Carolingian tradition? In the instance of biographies of Holy Kings, we find that rulers tend to lose their secularity when they become sanctified. When, Helgaud of Fleury produced his Epitome on King Robert the Pious in the 10th century, he renounced all concern with secular events, saying that ought to be left to historians (‘istoriographi’). When Notker compared King Louis the German and St Ambrose, he excluded some of the traits most associated with secular life from his comparison, such as  family and warfare. Gerald’s vita is distinct from these texts in that it deliberately does not exclude the aristocratic traits from its portrayal of Gerald as a saint.

The texts that are most similar to the vita are lay manual handbooks. Practical handbooks such as Agrimensores, used for surveying land, were often devoid of a clear spiritual purpose. However, handbooks in the vein of those written by Jonas of Orleans and Dhuoda bare closer resemblance to the vita while still lacking its direction. Jonas of Orleans’ De Institutione Laicali was written on the request of Count Matfrid of Orleans, who asked how a life tied by the bonds of the marriage could still please God. A key theme throughout this text is that faith alone will not guarantee salvation and that lay people should like clerics strive to live according to the law by the best of their ability.  Therefore, while it does suggest that the secular elite should lead a spiritual life, it is unlike Odo in that a large portion of it still seems weighted in favour of the spiritual world. The power of priests as moral policemen, the stress on the importance of paying tithes and the absence of anything on warfare suggest it does not hold the same boundary-breaking characteristics as the vita.

The writer of the Liber Manualis (841), Dhuoda, was a lay aristocrat writing a moral tract for her son, William. In comparison to the Vita Geraldi the Liber Manualis does offer moral advice on how the laity should behave, such as through recommending alms-giving. Dhuoda also places importance on respecting aristocratic lineage. However, she does not place moral advice in the context of the functions of aristocratic life, there is little on warfare and marriage and so it can only be compared to the vita in a limited sense. While some lay manual handbooks bear similarity to the Vita Geraldi they do not embrace the same level of emphasis Odo of Cluny places on Gerald carrying out secular duties while remaining saintly.

While the vita does seem to show more doubts than other texts about the barriers between the lay and ecclesiastical, it would be unwise to suggest that they do not at least hint to similar concerns. The work of Rosamond Mckitterick has shown that literacy at this point under the Carolingians was by no means restricted to the clerical world. Evidence such as the libraries of Eberhard of Friuli and Eccard of Macon, extensive lay patronage networks, book lists and catalogues all point to the existence of  a literate and educated elite. Many texts also seemed to have originated as requests or at least have been received by secular elites. The fact that many of these texts, such as in the instances of Jonas of Orleans, were moral handbooks points to increasing concerns over how lay and ecclesiastical people should act.

Odo also wrote in a period which saw increased practical overlap between the Church and secular worlds. Many lay landlords were also lords of churches- called Eigenkirchen, from these they typically expected the same services they would receive from other vassals, despite their ecclesiastical nature. The cleric Agobard of Lyon (779-840) criticised this practice by complaining that almost everyone who has a priest under their control demands both due and undue obedience in not only divine offices, but human ones too.  Additionally, he points out that you can find priests who carry out services such as ‘serving at the table’ or looking after ‘plots of land’. It was also not unusual in this period to find powerful bishops having to fulfil military service to the Emperor or King. Such overlap in practical terms would have surely resulted in increased concerns over clerical and secular identity.


Odo of Cluny’s Vita Geraldi can tell us a lot about the increasingly unclear boundaries between the secular and spiritual worlds in the 9th century. Written with an intention of offering a moral model for lay elites, it subverts many of the norms traditionally associated with not only the laity, but also the clergy. It takes precedence in a range of literature that showsing growing anxiety over such boundaries. However, perhaps the greatest lesson that can be learned from the Vita Geraldi is that historians maybe perhaps  should not be too quick to categorise Medieval society into the ‘lay’ and ‘ecclesiastical’. Texts such as the vita show that there is ground in-between and that often in reality the situation was more complex than the terms suggest. Nevertheless, the Vita Geraldi offers an exciting insight into how Carolingian society defined itself.

Written by Liam Greenacre


Primary Source

Odo of Cluny, The Life of St. Gerald of Aurillac (930-931) translated by Francis G. Sitwell in St Odo of Cluny: Being the Life of St Odo of Cluny by John of Salerno and the Life of St Gerald of Aurillac by St.Odo. London: Sheen and Ward, 1958.

Secondary Sources

Airlie, Stuart. “The Anxiety of Sanctity: St Gerald of Aurillac and his Maker.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 43, no. 3 (2009): 372-95.

Baker, Derek. “Vir Dei: Secular Sanctity in the Early Tenth Century.” Studies in Church History 8 (1972): 41-53.

Barthxelemy, Dominique and Stephen D. White. “The “Feudal Revolution”.” Past & Present, no. 152 (1996): 196-223.

McKitterick, Rosamond. The Carolingians and the Written Word. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Nelson, Janet L. “Making Ends Meet: Wealth and Poverty in the Carolingian Church.” Studies in Church History 24 (1987): 25-35.

Romig, Andrew. “The Common Bond of Aristocratic Masculinity: Monks, Secular Men and St. Gerald of Aurillac.” In Negotiating Clerical Identities: Priests, Monks and Masculinity in the Middle Ages, edited by Jennifer D. Thibodeaux, 39-56. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2010.