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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity

from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world

Venantius Fortunatus writes the Life of *Marcellus (bishop of Paris, late 4th/5th c., S01301), presenting him as a great miracle-worker and protector of Paris from a dragon. Written in Latin, probably in Paris (northern Gaul), 568/576.

Evidence ID


Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives

Major author/Major anonymous work

Venantius Fortunatus

Venantius Fortunatus, Life of Marcellus (Vita Marcelli, BHL 5248)

Short summary:

1-3. Fortunatus dedicates the
Life of Marcellus to Bishop Germanus of Paris, 'my lord and sweet father' (domino et dulci patri). In a long and highly literary preface (2-12), of which we have not attempted a summary, Fortunatus expounds on the issues of writing this life, admitting that only 'a few of his blessed deeds' (pauca ... de eius gestis felicibus) are known.

4. Marcellus is born in Paris to parents of lesser status (
mediocris parentibus), and from early childhood he engages in fasting and exhibits the qualities of humility and charity. So outstanding are his virtues that he is made a reader in the church.

5. He effects his first miracle when a blacksmith challenges him to hold a piece of iron, just removed from the furnace, and tell its weight. Marcellus proceeds to hold the iron in his hand without injury and to give its correct weight.

6. He is made a subdeacon, and on the day of Epiphany, when he draws water from the river Seine for his bishop, Prudentius, to wash his hands in, it changes into wine. Many people partake of communion from this wine, and its volume miraculously never decreases. Later many are cured by it.

7. On another occasion that Marcellus is washing Prudentius' hands, the water turns to balsam and chrism.

8. When an archdeacon orders a young cleric Nonnicius, aged about ten and with a beautiful voice, to sing against the bishop's wishes, the bishop orders the boy to be whipped and suddenly loses his voice as punishment; Marcellus, still a subdeacon, arrives and heals the bishop.

9. Marcellus is ordained bishop, a dignity he considers more a burden than an honour. One day he sees a man who wishes to take communion but cannot because his arms have tightened as if bound behind his back. After the man confesses to have sinned, Marcellus frees him by absolving him, and gives him communion.

41-49. A dragon begins to inhabit the tomb of an adulterous woman and terrorises the people of Paris; in a miracle that Venantius Fortunatus compares to one of saint *Silvester (E03229), Marcellus overcomes the beast by striking its head with his staff three times, tying his kerchief around its neck, leading it three miles from the city, and ordering it to disappear into the wasteland or the sea.

50. Marcellus dies on the Kalends of November [= 1 November].

Text: Krusch 1885.
Summary: Kent Navalesi.

Non Liturgical Activity

Composing and translating saint-related texts


Miracle during lifetime
Healing diseases and disabilities
Other miracles with demons and demonic creatures
Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather)
Power over objects
Miracle with animals and plants
Miraculous protection - of communities, towns, armies


Myrrh and other miraculous effluents of relics

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops


Venantius Fortunatus was born in northern Italy, near Treviso, and educated at Ravenna. In the early 560s he crossed the Alps into Merovingian Gaul, where he spent the rest of his life, making his living primarily through writing Latin poetry for the aristocracy of northern Gaul, both secular and ecclesiastical. His first datable commission in Gaul is a poem to celebrate the wedding in 566 of the Austrasian royal couple, Sigibert and Brunhild. His principal patrons were Radegund, the subject of this Life, and Agnes, the first abbess of Radegund's monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, as well as Gregory, the historian and bishop of Tours, Leontius, bishop of Bordeaux, and Felix, bishop of Nantes, but he also wrote poems for several kings and for many other members of the aristocracy. In addition to occasional poems for his patrons, Fortunatus wrote a four-book epic poem about Martin of Tours, and several works of prose and verse hagiography. The latter part of his life was spent in Poitiers, and in the 590s he became bishop of the city; he is presumed to have died early in the 7th century. For Fortunatus' life, see Brennan 1985; George 1992, 18-34; Reydellet 1994-2004, vol. 1, vii-xxviii; Pietri and Heijmans 2013, 801-822, 'Fortunatus'.

Seven Lives attributed to Fortunatus are universally accepted in modern scholarship to be by him: those of Hilary/Hilarius, 4th c. bishop of Poitiers (E06713); Marcellus, late-4th/early-5th c. bishop of Paris (E06716); Severinus, early 5th c. bishop of Bordeaux (E07358); Albinus, 6th c. monk and bishop of Angers (E06715); Paternus, 6th c. bishop of Avranches (E06724); Germanus, 6th c. bishop of Paris (E06714); and Radegund, 6th c. former queen and monastic founder in Poitiers (E06486). A further Life attributed in the manuscripts to Fortunatus, that of Medard (6th c. bishop of Vermand buried at Soissons, E06474), used to be rejected as a later text, but more recently it has been argued that it is one of Fortunatus' authentic works. Many, but not all, of the Lives have prefaces addressing the person who commissioned the text.

These prefaces are written in a more complex style (flattering the cultural aspirations of Fortunatus' patrons) than the Lives themselves, in which the syntax is comparatively simple, suggesting that the main text was aimed at a wider audience. This is also suggested by the brevity of the Lives, by references to 'listeners' (
audientes) in the text, and by Fortunatus repeatedly expressing a wish to make the virtues of his saints widely known. Although not conclusively demonstrable, it is very likely that the Lives were written to be read out in church on the feast days of the various saints. (On all this, see Collins 1981, 107-111; Pricoco 1993, 177-9 and 190, note 18).

As the dedication and preface tell us, the Life of Marcellus was written for Bishop Germanus of Paris, who died in 576 (and whose Life Fortunatus was later to write - see E06714). One of Fortunatus' epistolary poems to Radegund in Poitiers (Poems, appendix 23) accompanied a copy of the Life of Marcellus, which shows that he wrote this after he had become established in Poitiers in 567/568. It is likely to have been composed in Paris, very possibly on an occasion, mentioned in Fortunatus' Poem 8.2, that he travelled to the city at the request of Germanus.


Marcellus was bishop of Paris, at some point during the late 4th/early 5th century, but the only record of him that we have, beyond Fortunatus' composition, is his appearance in lists of the bishops of the city (Pietri and Heijmans 2013, vol. 2, 1244-45, 'Marcellus 6'). As Fortunatus tells us in chapter 1, few of his deeds were known, a fact confirmed by the Life he wrote, which consists of little more than six accounts of somewhat bizarre and implausible miracles. In the text, Fortunatus expounds at length on the deeper meaning of these wonders, particularly for how they demonstrated the innate sanctity of Marcellus, and draws parallels with other biblical and saintly miracles (these details we have not included in our summary).

Life, as stated in its dedication, was commissioned by Germanus, who was bishop of Paris from the 550s until his death in 576. It was probably commissioned from Fortunatus during a visit to Paris at Germanus' invitation, that occurred in the period 567/576 (Pietri and Heijmans 2013, vol. 1, 890).


Krusch, B., Vita sancti Marcelli, in: Venanti Honori Clementiani Fortunati presbyteri Italici opera pedestria (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores antiquissimi 4.2; Berlin, 1885), 49-54.

Further Reading:
Brennan, B., "The Career of Venantius Fortunatus," Traditio 41 (1985), 49-78.

Collins, R., "Observations on the Form, Language, and Public of the Prose Biographies of Venantius Fortunatus in the Hagiography of Merovingian Gaul", in: H.B. Clarke and M. Brennan (eds.),
Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism (British Archaeological Reports : Oxford, 1981), 105-131.   (English translation of an article originally published in German in Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 92 (1981), 16-38.)

George, J.,
Venantius Fortunatus: A Latin Poet in Merovingian Gaul (Oxford, 1992).

Pietri, L. and Heijmans, M.,
Prosopographie chrétienne du Bas-Empire, 4 Prosopographie de la Gaule chrétienne (314-614), 2 vols. (Paris, 2013).

Pricoco, S.,"Gli scritti agiografici in prosa di Venanzio Fortunato", in
Venanzio Fortunato tra Italia e Francia. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi (Valdobbiadene, 17 maggio 1990 - Treviso, 18-19 maggio 1990), (Treviso, 1993), 175-193.

Reydellet, M., Venance Fortunat, Poèmes, 3 vols. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1994-2004).

On the Life of Marcellus specifically:
Picard, J.-Ch., "II était une fois un évêque de Paris appelé Marcel," in: M. Sot (ed.), Haut Moyen-Âge: Culture, éducation et société. Études offertes à Pierre Riché (La Garenne-Colombes, 1990), 79-91.

Record Created By

Kent Navalesi

Date Last Modified


Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00397Silvester, bishop of Rome, ob. 336SilvesterCertain
S01301Marcellus, bishop of Paris, late 4th/5th c.MarcellusCertain

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