The Church of Gaul first appeared in history in connexion with the persecution at Lyons under Marcus Aurelius (177). The pagan inhabitants rose up against the Christians, and forty-eight martyrs suffered death under various tortures. Among them there were children like the slave Blandina and Ponticus, a youth of fifteen. Every rank of life had members among the first martyrs of the Church of Gaul: the aristocracy were represented by Vettius Epagathus; the professional class by Attalus of Pergamus, a physician; a neophyte Maturus, died beside Pothinus, Bishop of Lyons, and Sanctus, deacon of Vienne. The Christians of Lyons and Vienne in a letter to their brethren of Smyrna give an account of this persecution, and the letter preserved by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., V, i-iv), is one the gems of Christian literature. In this document the Church of Lyons seems to be the only church organized at the time in Gaul. That of Vienne appears to have been dependent on it and, to judge from similar cases, was probably administered by a deacon. How or where Christianity first gained a foothold in Gaul is purely a matter of conjecture. Most likely the first missionaries came by sea, touched at Marseilles, and progressed up the Rhone till they established the religion at Lyons, the metropolis and centre of communication for the whole country. The firm establishment of Christianity in Gaul was undoubtedly due to missionaries from Asia. Pothinus was a disciple of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, as was also his successor, Irenaeus. In the time of Irenaeus, Lyons was still the centre of the Church in Gaul. Eusebius speaks of letters written by the Churches of Gaul of which Irenaeus is bishop (Hist. Eccl., V, xxiii). These letters were written on the occasion of the second event which brought the Church of Gaul into prominence. Easter was not celebrated on the same day in all Christian communities; towards the end of the second century Pope Victor wished to universalize the Roman usage and excommunicated the Churches of Asia. Irenaeus intervened to restore peace. About the same time, in a mystical inscription found at Autun, a certain Pectorius celebrated in Greek verse the Ichthus or fish, symbol of the Eucharist. A third event in which the bishops of Gaul appear is the Novatian controversy. Faustinus, Bishop of Lyons, and other colleagues in Gaul are mentioned in 254 by St. Cyprian (Ep. lxviii) as opposed to Novatian, whereas Marcianus of Axles was favourable to him.
No other positive information concerning the Church of Gaul is available until the fourth century. Two groups of narratives, however, aim to fill in the gaps. On the one hand a series of local legends trace back the foundation of the principal sees to the Apostles. Early in the sixth century we find St. Caesarius Bishop of Arles, crediting these stories; regardless of the anachronism, he makes the first Bishop of Vaison, Daphnus, whose signature appears at the Council of Arles (314), a disciple of the Apostles (Lejay, Le rôle théologique de Césaire d'Arles, p. 5). One hundred years earlier one of his predecessors, Patrocles, based various claims of his Church on the fact that St. Trophimus, founder of the Church of Arles, was a disciple of the Apostles. Such claims were no doubt flattering to local vanity; during the Middle Ages and in more recent times many legends grew up in support of them. The evangelization of Gaul has often been attributed to missionaries sent from Rome by St. Clement--a theory, which has inspired a whole series of fallacious narratives and forgeries, with which history is encumbered. More faith can be placed in a statement of Gregory of Tours in his "Historia Francorum" (I, xxviii), on which was based the second group of narratives concerning the evangelisation of Gaul. According to him, in the year 250 Rome sent seven bishops, who founded as many churches in Gaul: Gatianus the Church of Tours, Trophimus that of Arles, Paul that of Narbonne, Saturninus that of Toulouse, Denis that of Paris, Stremonius (Austremonius) that of Auvergne (Clermont), and Martialis that of Limoges. Gregory's statement has been accepted with more or less reservation by serious historians. Nevertheless even though Gregory, a late successor of Gatianus, may have had access to information on the beginnings of his church, it must not be forgotten that an interval of three hundred years separates him from the events he chronicles; moreover, this statement of his involves some serious chronological difficulties, of which he was himself aware, e.g. in the case of the bishops of Paris. The most we can say for him is that he echoes a contemporary tradition, which represents the general point of view of the sixth century rather than the actual facts. It is impossible to say how much legend is mingled with the reality.
By the middle of the third century, as St. Cyprian bears witness, there were several churches organized in Gaul. They suffered little from the great persecution. Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine, was not hostile to Christianity, and soon after the cessation of persecution the bishops of the Latin world assembled at Arles (314). Their signatures, which are still extant, prove that the following sees were then in existence : Vienne, Marseilles, Arles, Orange, Vaison, Apt, Nice, Lyons, Autun, Cologne, Trier, Reims, Rouen, Bordeaux, Gabali, and Eauze. We must also admit the existence of the Sees of Toulouse, Narbonne, Clermont, Bourges, and Paris. This date marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the Church of Gaul. The towns had been early won over to the new Faith ; the work of evangelization was now extended and continued during the fourth and fifth centuries. The cultured classes, however, long remained faithful to the old traditions. Ausonius was a Christian, but gives so little evidence of it that the fact has been questioned. Teacher and humanist, he lived in the memories of the past. His pupil Paulinus entered the religious life, at which, however, the world of letters was deeply scandalized ; so much so, indeed, that Paulinus had to write to Ausonius to justify himself. At the same period there were pagan rhetoricians who celebrated in the schools, as at Autun, the virtues and deeds of the Christian emperors. By the close of the fifth century, however, the majority of scholars in Gaul were Christians. Generation by generation the change came about. Salvianus, the fiery apologist (died c. 492), was the son of pagan parents. Hilary of Poitiers , Sulpicius Severus (the Christian Sallust), Paulinus of Nola, and Sidonius Apollinaris strove to reconcile the Church and the world of letters. Sidonius himself is not altogether free from suggestions of paganism handed down by tradition. In Gaul as elsewhere the question arose as to whether the Gospel could really adapt itself to literary culture. With the inroads of the barbarians the discussion came to an end.
It is none the less true that throughout the Empire the progress of Christianity had been made chiefly in the cities. The country-places were yet strongholds of idolatry, which in Gaul was upheld by a twofold tradition. The old Gallic religion, and Graeco-Roman paganism, still had ardent supporters. More than that, among the Gallo-Roman population the use of spells and charms for the cure of sickness, or on the occasion of a death, was much in vogue; the people worshiped springs and trees, believed in fairies, on certain days clothed themselves in skins of animals, and resorted to magic and the practice of divination. Some of these customs were survivals of very ancient traditions; they had come down through the Celtic and the Roman period, and had no doubt at times received the imprint of the Gallic and Graeco-Roman beliefs. Their real origin must of course, be sought further back in the same obscurity in which the beginnings of folk-lore are shrouded. This mass of popular beliefs, fancies, and superstitions still lives. It was the principal obstacle encountered by the missionaries in the rural places. St. Martin, a native of Pannonia, Bishop of Tours, and founder of monasteries, undertook especially in Central Gaul a crusade against this rural idolatry. On one occasion, when he was felling a sacred tree in the neighbourhood of Autun, a peasant attacked him, and he had an almost miraculous escape. Besides St. Martin other popular preachers traversed the rural districts, e.g. Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, another converted soldier, also Martin's disciples, especially St. Martin of Brives. But their scattered and intermittent efforts made no lasting effect on the minds of the peasants. About 395 a Gallic rhetorician depicts a scene in which peasants discuss the mortality among their flocks. One of them boasts the virtue of the sign of the cross, "the sign of that God Who alone is worshiped in the large cities" (Riese, Anthologia Latina, no. 893, v. 105). This expression, however, is too strong, for at that very period a single church sufficed for the Christian population of Trier. Nevertheless the rural parts continued the more refractory. At the beginning of the fifth century, there took place in the neighbourhood of Autun the procession of Cybele's chariot to bless the harvest. In the sixth century, in the city of Arles, one of the regions where Christianity had gained its earliest and strongest foothold, Bishop Caesarius was still struggling against popular superstitions, and some of his sermons are yet among our important sources of information on folk-lore.
The Christianization of the lower classes of the people was greatly aided by the newly established monasteries. In Gaul as elsewhere the first Christian ascetics lived in the world and kept their personal freedom. The practice of religious life in common was introduced by St. Martin (died c. 397) and Cassian (died c. 435). Martin established near Tours the "grand monastère", i.e. Marmoutier, where in the beginning the monks lived in separate grottoes or wooden huts. A little later Cassian founded two monasteries at Marseilles (415). He had previously visited the monks of the East, and especially Egypt, and had brought back their methods, which he adapted to the circumstances of Gallo-Roman life. Through two of his works "De institutis coenobiorum" and the "Collationes XXIV", he became the doctor of Gallic asceticism. About the same time Honoratus founded a famous monastery on the little isle of Lérins (Lerinum) near Marseilles destined to become a centre of Christian life and ecclesiastical influence. Episcopal sees of Gaul were often objects of competition and greed, and were rapidly becoming the property of certain aristocratic families, all of whose representatives in the episcopate were not as wise and upright as Germanus of Auxerre or Sidonius Apollinaris. Lérins took up the work of reforming the episcopate, and placed many of its own sons at the head of dioceses : Honoratus, Hilary, and Caesarius at Arles; Eucherius at Lyons, and his sons Salonius and Veranius at Geneva and Vence respectively; Lupus at Troyes ; Maximus and Faustus at Riez. Lérins too became a school of mysticism and theology and spread its religious ideas far and wide by useful works on dogma, polemics, and hagiography. Other monasteries were founded in Gaul, e.g. Grigny near Vienne, Ile Barbe at Lyons, Réomé (later known as Moutier-Saint-Jean), Morvan, Saint-Claude in the Jura, Chinon, Loches etc. It is possible, however, that some of these foundations belong to the succeeding period. The monks had not yet begun to live according to any fixed and codified rule. For such written constitutions we must await the time of Caesarius of Arles. Monasticism was not established without opposition. Rutilius Namatianus, a pagan, denounced the monks of Lérins as a brood of night-owls; even the effort to make chastity the central virtue of Christianity met with much resistance, and the adversaries of Priscillian in particular were imbued with this hostility to a certain degree. It was also one of the objections raised by Vigilantius of Calagurris, the Spanish priest whom St. Jeromedenounced so vigorously. Vigilantius had spent much time in Gaul and seems to have died there. The law of ecclesiastical celibacy was less stringent, less generally enforced than in Italy, especially Rome. The series of Gallic councils before the Merovingian epoch bear witness at once to the undecided state of discipline at the time, and also to the continual striving after some fixed disciplinary code.
The Church of Gaul passed through three dogmatic crises. Its bishops seem to have been greatly preoccupied with Arianism ; as a rule they clung to the teaching of Nicaea, in spite of a few temporary or partial defections. Athanasius, who had been exiled to Trier (336-38), exerted a powerful influence on the episcopate of Gaul; one of the great champions of orthodoxy in the West was Hilary of Poitiers, who also suffered exile for his constancy. Priscillianism had a greater hold on the masses of the faithful. It was above all a method, an ideal of Christian life, which appealed to all, even to women. It was condemned (380) at the Synod of Saragossa where the Bishops of Bordeaux and Agen were present; none the less it spread rapidly in Central Gaul, Eauze in particular being a stronghold. When in 385 the usurper Maximus put Priscillian and his friends to death, St. Martin was in doubt how to act, but repudiated with horror communion with the bishops who had condemned the unfortunates. Priscillianism, indeed, was more or less bound up with the cause of asceticism in general. Finally the bishops and monks of Gaul were long divided over Pelagianism. Proculus, Bishop of Marseilles, had obliged Leporius, a disciple of Pelagius, to leave Gaul, but it was not long until Marseilles and Lérins, led by Cassian, Vincent and Faustus, became hotbeds of a teaching opposed to St. Augustine's and known as Semipelagianism. Prosper of Aquitaine wrote against it, and was obliged to take refuge at Rome. It was not until the beginning of the sixth century that the teaching of Augustine triumphed, when a monk of Lérins, Caesarius of Arles, an almost servile disciple of Augustine, caused it to be adopted by the Council of Orange (529).
In the final struggle Rome interfered. We do not know much concerning the earlier relations between the bishops of Gaul and the pope. The position of Irenaeus in the Easter Controversy shows a considerable degree of independence; yet Irenaeus proclaimed the primacy of the See of Rome. About the middle of the third century the pope was appealed to for the purpose of settling difficulties in the Church of Gaul and to remove an erring bishop (Cyprian, Epist. lxviii). At the Council of Arles (314) the bishops of Gaul were present with those of Brittany, Spain, Africa, even Italy ; Pope Sylvester sent delegates to represent him. It was in a way a Council of the West. During all that century, however, the episcopate of Gaul had no head, and the bishops grouped themselves according to the ties of friendship or locality. Metropolitans did not exist as yet, and when advice was needed Milan was consulted. "The traditional authority", says Duchesne, "in all matters of discipline remained always the ancient Church of Rome ; in practice, however, the Council of Milan decided in case of conflict." The popes then took the situation in hand, and in 417 Pope Zosimus made Patrocles, Bishop of Arles, his vicar or delegate in Gaul, and provided that all disputes should be referred to him. Moreover, no Gallic ecclesiastic could have access to the pope without testimonial letters from the Bishop of Arles. This primacy of Arles waxed and waned under the succeeding popes. It enjoyed a final period of brilliancy, under Caesarius, but after his time it conferred on the occupant merely an honorary title. In consequence, however, of the extensive authority of Arles in the fifth and sixth centuries, canonical discipline was more rapidly developed there, and the "Libri canonum" that were soon in vogue in Southern Gaul were modelled on those of the Church of Arles. Towards the end of this period Caesarius assisted at a series of councils, thus obtaining a certain recognition as legislator for the Merovingian Church.
The barbarians, however, were on the march. The great invasion of 407 made the Goths masters of all the country to the south of the Loire, with the exception of Bourges and Clermont, which did not fall into their hands until 475; Arles succumbed in 480. Then the Visigoth kingdom was organized, Arian in religion, and at first hostile to Catholicism. Gradually the necessities of life imposed a policy of moderation. The Council of Agde, really a national council of Visigothic Gaul (506), and in which Caesarius was dominant, is an evidence of the new temper on both sides. The Acts of this council follow very closely the principles laid down in the "Breviarium Alarici" -- a summary of the Theodocian Code drawn up by Alaric II, the Visigothic king, for his Gallo-Roman subjects -- and met with the approval of the Catholic bishops of his kingdom. Between 410 and 413 the Burgundians had settled near Mains; in 475 they had come farther south along the Rhone, and about this time became Arians. The Franks, soon to be masters of all Gaul, left the neighbourhood of Tournai, defeated Syagrius in 486, and established their power as far as the Loire. In 507 they destroyed the Visigoth Kingdom, and in 534 that of the Burgundians ; in 536 by the conquest of Arles they succeeded to the remnants of the great state created by the genius of King Theodoric ; with them began a new era ( see F RANKS ).
The transition from one regime to another was made possible by the bishops of Gaul. The bishops had frequently played a beneficent rôle as intermediaries with the Roman authorities. Before the barbarian invasions they were the true champions of the people. Indeed it was long believed that they had been invested with special powers and the official title of defensores civitatum (defenders of the States). While this title was never officially borne by them, the popular error was only formal and superficial. Bishops like Sidonius Apollinaris, Avitus, Germanus of Auxerre, Caesarius of Arles, were truly the defenders of their fatherland. While the old civic institutions were tottering to their fall, they upheld the social fabric. Through their efforts the barbarians became amalgamated with the native population, introducing into it the germs of a new and vigorous life. Lastly the bishops were the guardians of the classical traditions of Latin literature and Roman culture, and long before the appearance of monasticism had been the mainstay of learning. Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries manuscripts of the Bible and the Fathers were copied to meet the needs of public worship, ecclesiastical teaching, and Catholic life. The only contemporary buildings that exhibit traces of classical or Byzantine styles are religious edifices . For all this, and for much more, the bishops of Gaul deserve the title of "Makers of France ".
St Benedict Holy Card
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online