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Adémar of Chabannes (988/989-1034): The Discovery of the Head of John the Baptist  from the Chronicle of Adémar of Chabannes, early 11th century

In 1016, the monks of Saint-Jean-d'Angély in the Aquitaine claimed to have discovered the relics of the head of their patron, John the Baptist. On the face of it, the claim was absurd, as the head of John the Baptist had long been venerated in Antioch, one of the great cities of the Christian east. But the discovery was greeted, as we shall see, with enthusiasm by William, the duke of Aquitaine, and by people in the Christian west more generally. The incident was part of a general growth of enthusiasm for relic cults in the early decades of the eleventh century in the kingdom of France. That revival was in part connected to apocalyptic expectations and to the movement known as the Peace of God.

In those days the Lord was pleased to glorify the term of the most serene Duke William [V, the Great, duke of Aquitaine]. For it was in his times that the most illustrious abbot Alduin discovered the head of a St. John within the basilica of Angèly, where it was enclosed in a stone reliquary formed in the shape of a pyramid. It was said that the holy head was actually that of John the Baptist. When Duke William heard this on his return from Rome after Easter, he was filled with joy and decreed that the holy head should be shown to the people. The head was then placed in a silver vessel, on which there ran the legend, "Here lies the head of the herald of the Lord." It had not, however, been firmly established by whom, or at what time, or from what location the relic had been translated to Angèly, or even if it belonged to the herald of the Lord.

In the history of King Pippin, where one is able to read about even the most minor details, there is no mention of such an event, which would have been of the greatest importance. (1) The liturgical reading which has been composed to commemorate the translation will not be judged by learned people as other than futile. For in those frivolous pages it is claimed that, at the time of Pippin, king of the Aquitaine, the head of St. John the Baptist was translated by a certain Felix from Alexandria by sea to the Aquitaine. At that time, according to this work, the archbishop of Alexandria was that very Theophilus of whom Luke writes at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, "In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach." [Acts 1:1] That work also claims that "a battle was waged in the Aunis between King Pippin and the Vandals after which the king placed the relic of the head on those of his vassals who had been killed, and they were suddenly revived." But Pippin did not live in the days of archbishop Theophilus nor in the time of the Vandals, nor was the head of the herald of the Lord enshrined in Alexandria. We read rather in Aquitainian liturgical books that the head of the saintly herald was first discovered by two monks through a revelation of the direction in which it lay. Later the emperor Theodosius had it translated to the royal city of Constantinople where it was venerated.

When the newly-discovered head of St. John was exhibited, all of Aquitaine and Gaul, of Italy and Spain, was drawn by the noteriety and hurried to come to that place. King Robert and his queen, King Sancho of Navarre, indeed all the nobility of these lands, gathered there.(2) All of them offered precious gifts of varied sorts. The king of the Franks, for example, gave a bowl weighing thirty pounds of pure gold and precious draperies made of silk and gold for the decoration of the church. He was reverently received by Duke William and then returned to Francia through the Poitou. No one had ever seen such rejoicing and glory as in that concourse of monks and canons who hurried from every quarter-singing psalms and bearing the relics of saints-for the memory of the saintly herald. Among the relics were those of that great prince who was father of the Aquitainians and the original orator of the Gauls, namely the blessed apostle Martial, carried along with relics of St. Stephen from the cathedral of Limoges. When the relics of St. Martial were thus brought forth from their own basilica in a reliquary of gold and gems, suddenly the entire Aquitaine, which had long labored under huge downpours, praised the serenity which returned with the advent of its father.

Taking these relics, Abbot Josfred [of Saint-Martial] and Bishop Gerald [of Limoges] made their way to the church of the Holy Savior in Charroux, accompanied by numerous princes and an uncountable array of common people. The monks of Charroux together with all the inhabitants met them a mile outside the town. With pomp to honor the occasion, they all then made a procession to the altar of the Savior, singing hymns in a loud voice. While mass was being celebrated, the assembled crowd accompanied the monks in a similar fashion. When they entered the church of the herald [John the Baptist], Bishop Gerald there celebrated in front of the head of the saint the mass proper to the feast of the his birth, since it was the month of October.(3) The canons of Saint-Etienne and the monks of Saint-Martial chanted tropes and praises antiphonally in the manner of a feastday. After mass the bishop blessed the people with the head of St. John. On the fifth day before the feast of All Saints [i. e. October 27], all returned home, made most happy by the miracles which St. Martial performed along the way.

In those same days, St. Leonard of Noblat [a confessor in the Limousin] and St. Antoninus [a martyr in the Quercy] performed miracles, which people from all over rushed to see. The glorious duke recognized the honor of God and, at the urging of Odilo the most holy abbot of Cluny, renewed the strict practice of the rule of St. Benedict at the monastery of Saint-Jean-d'Angély. Odilo made Rainald the abbot there after the death of Abbot Alduin. Some years later, when Rainald gave up the spirit, Lord Odilo nominated father Aimericus in his place.

During that same period, the relics of St. Eparchius were brought in procession to John the Baptist. The staff of office of that same confessor was also brought along; this pastoral staff was curved at its head. As long as these relics were there with the head of John the Baptist, a fiery baculus, curved at its top in a manner similar to that of Eparchius, shone forth in the night sky until dawn over the relics. Other miracles in curing the sick were performed by Eparchius, before his relics were brought home in hapiness. The canons of Saint-Pierre of Angoulême also brought their relics on procession [to Angèly]. When those who were carrying the relics had to roll up their sacred tunics and wade through a deep river, they did not feel the water, but walked as through a dessert, moreover no sign of water appeared on them, on their clothing, or on their sandals. Meanwhile, after the head of St. John had been adequately exhibited to the populace, it was returned on orders of duke William to the pyramid in which it had originally been housed, in the interior of which it was suspended in its new reliquary by silver chains. The stone pyramid was covered with wooden panels which were lined with silver, taken from the large gift of silver which King Sanchio of Navarre had brought to the blessed herald. The relics continued to be arranged thus long after these events occurred.

The men of Saint-Jean and those of duke William came to blows in the vicinity of Angèly. The prefect of the duke was mortally wounded and his court there was destroyed. Then during Lent it was suggested by evil bishops and principally by count Fulk [Nerra of Anjou], who was then in the service of the duke of Poitou, that he destroy the place of St. John, eject the monks [from Anèly] and replace them with canons. Although the most serene prince was at first carried away with a great rage over this injury, he conquered his anger and this impious advice, settling the case in a regal manner with prudent reason. For William was always a defender of the servants of God and God was his helper in all things. In those times, as well, comets longer and broader than a sword appeared in the north for many nights during the summer. Throughout Gaul and Italy many cities, castles, and monasteries were burned by fire. Among them, the abbey of Charroux along with the church of the Savior were consumed by flames. Flames also devoured the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Orléans and the monastery of Saint-Benoit at Fleury and many others. The city of Poitiers was burned; the duke rebuilt the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre, many churches, and his palace with much embellishment.


  • (1) The Pippin in question is the son of Louis the Pious known as Pippin I who reigned as king of the Aquitaine from 797-838.
  • (2) King Robert is Robert II, or the Pious, king of the western Franks (996-1031). King Sancho is Sancho William, duke of Gascony (1009-1032), who was not infrequently provided this royal title. In an earlier version, Ademar used both the ducal and the royal titles. In that version, he also added Odo II, count of Blois and Champagne (1004-1037), to the list of notables.
  • (3) The usual date for the feast of the nativity of John the Baptist was June 24.

  • Source: Ademar of Chabannes, Chronicon, book 3, chap. 56, ed. Jules Chavanon (Paris, 1897), pp. 179-82. We have followed Ademar's final version, which is listed as the C text by Chavanon. For a full analysis of this incident, see Richard Landes, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034 (Cambridge, 1995), particularly pp. 46-9. Note that a new edition of the text of Ademar by Landes will soon appear from Corpus Christianorum. Some explanatory notes follow the text.

    This translation by Thomas Head has been made available to fellow students and researchers for private or classroom use. All other rights are reserved. Duplication for any other purpose, including publication, is prohibited. This translation was last updated on June 10, 1997.

    From Thomas F. Head, An Anthology of Translated Texts Illustrative of the History of the Cult of the Saints (c 2000). [Link is to Internet Archive]. Thomas Head prepared these texts as part of the now defunct ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies [Link is to an archived and non-maintained version]. Dr. Head died on Nov 12, 2014 after an extended illness. I believe that he would have wanted his translated texts, marked for free personal use, and bibliographies to continue to be available and not just through the sometimes slow operation of the Internet Archive. They were marked "They may be reproduced for private use, but may not be reproduced for publication."

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