Meet Fortunatus, Poet and Saint

In the waning years of Roman Imperial authority, two young scholars, Felix and Fortunatus, were studying in Ravenna. Weary and eyesore, they experienced a healing miracle at a Martin shrine in Ravenna, when they put oil from a lamp on their tired eyes. This small act of devotion is one of literally hundreds of miracles stories attributed by Gregory of Tours to St. Martin of Tours, the bishop and former Roman soldier. It attests; indeed, to the spread of Martin's cult, was increasingly important in Southern Gaul, and to continued connections between the former centers of Roman power and the former frontiers, increasingly becoming new centers of culture, economy, and Christian identity. It is in many ways unremarkable

Yet for one of the scholars involved, this miracle might very well have been life-altering.

Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus was born in the 530s or 540s in Italy, and as a young man was educated in Ravenna, where by his own account, he was exposed to a traditional elite Roman education: “sipping a few tiny drops from the waters of grammar, taking a small draught from the stream of rhetoric, I have barely had my rusty edge sharpened by the whetstone of law.” (trans by Judith George). He had already started to promote his poems, writing two to prominent Italian bishops. Yet Fortunatus decided to strike off on his own and leave Italy--heading North for the lands of St. Martin.

We can't be sure how large a role the miracle he experienced in Ravenna played in Fortunatus' decision to journey North to Gaul, since he was of course also drawn north by his desire to launch his budding career and to establish a literary reputation. Fortunatus appears to have recognized the potential of connecting himself to the Frankish court. He arrived in Gaul in 566/567 after a lengthy journey, and quickly became enmeshed in the royal court. Trying to earn the patrons and privileges that a life of letters required, Fortunatus quickly tied himself to the Frankish court, writing most of his earliest poems for Sigibert’s court and for local bishops. Many of these were poems of praise, and they highlighted both Fortunatus' talents and the symbols of power and identity of both Frankish and Gallo-Roman elites. He praised bishops for their building projects, compared them to classical figures, and promoted their literacy. Fortunatus’ reputation as a poet who could help give your political and ecclesiastical efforts both validation and the ring of Romanitas spread quickly, and he became a popular and prolific poet.

Fortunatus also wrote hagiographical works--lives of saints and martyrs, miracle collections, and hymns. He worked alongside Gregory of Tours to gather local miracle stories, and eventually became bishop of Poitiers, at which point he slowed his literary works (unsurprising, considering bishops at that point were spiritual leaders, mayors, judges, politicians and trained diplomats rolled into one). After his death his fame and reputation lingered, and he was celebrated (though never officially recognized) as a saint.

Yet since his youth, Fortunatus was first and foremost a poet--he wrote nine books of poems of varying length and on topics as wide ranging as flowers, food, castles, episcopal duties, and wedding celebrations. He composed ABCdarian poems (where the first letter of every line or verse when read straight down is the alphabet) and carmina figurata (a popular form of poetry in the Early Middle Ages when the words could be read in several directions and were visually laid out on a grid / picture) on the true cross.  Here's an example of one of his figured poems:

carmina figurata 2

Though many of his poems are light and even comic, he did not shy away from tackling trickier issues including theology, good government, and the tabloid scandal of the day, the shocking murder of Galswinth, the Visigothic princess who married Childebert I. He wrote a poem defending Gregory of Tours from charges brought against him, praised saints and bishops for their attempts to quell heresy, and expounded on the nature of the cross.

In his poetry Fortunatus depicted the complexities, concerns, and preoccupations of the sixth century Gallo-Roman elite, who were struggling to navigate political change and conflict, the growing cultural force of Christianity, the continuing gravitational pull of classical culture, and the new economic, urban, and geographical realities of Merovingian Europe.

He also wrote about rivers. A lot. He described river trips he took, wrote a silly poem about how angry he was because his boat had been requisitioned by the royal cook, described the spring and fountain of Bordeaux, portrayed the fear of river disasters and drought, and rejoiced in the beauty of a calm summer day along the river banks. He wrote about fish, and baths, and boats and wine, and gives us a remarkable glimpse into the myriad ways that people living alongside rivers in the early Middle Ages saw them as economic arteries, pleasant sites of recreation, roads, source of food and livelihoods, and as sites resonant with religious meaning.


images from the British Library