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SAINT AUBIN - BISHOP OF ANGERS (470 to 550 A.D.)

by Rosemary Hampton
(this page copyright (C) 2000, Rosemary Hampton)


Introduction

For many years no one has known much about Saint Aubin, except that he was Bishop of Angers in France in the sixth century. But five hundred years after his life he was one of the most popular saints of Europe. Churches were dedicated to him right across the continent as far as Poland, and he was sometimes seen as the patron saint for protection from pirate attack.

This may have been based on his good work in buying back parishioners who had been taken captive by pirates sailing up the Loire. Later it was reinforced by a striking miracle in the tenth century, when the walled town of Guerande, near the mouth of the Loire, prayed to Saint Aubin for help and found their attackers miraculously defeated. So his fame increased and many coastal villages chose Aubin as their patron saint. Presumably this is the reason why our own village is named after him, preserving the name of an ancient chapel that has long since disappeared. Perhaps one day we shall discover where it was sited.


The Dark Ages - meeting point for three cultures

A study of Aubin's life includes three overlapping cultures. During his long life, from about 470 to 550, he saw his area change from a province of the Roman empire to become part of the Frankish kingdom. But as he lived. and worked just at the edge of Celtic Brittany, he also had an element of this Celtic influence throughout his life.


His biographer - Venantius Fortunatus

Often -the lives of these early saints are delightful stories but sadly unreliable for historical facts, having been imaginatively reconstructed hundreds of years later. Researchers meet this problem in studying some of our other Channel Island saints such as Helier and Brelade. But in Aubin's case we are fortunate to have a scholarly biography written by a nearly contemporary Bishop, the poet Venantius Fortunatus (c.530 to 609). Some of his beautiful hymns are still sung today. "Welcome, morning of joy" (Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, 612) is a processional hymn for Whitsun with a haunting plainsong melody which captures the feel of worship in Aubin's period.


Aubin's childhood, in South Brittany

He was born about 470 near the village of Languedoc, not far from Vannes. His parents were wealthy Gallo-Romans. Perhaps their villa was similar to the fourth century one excavated at Les Bosseno, twenty miles to the south, near the ancient standing stones of Carnac.

As a young man he decided to become a monk, although his parents disapproved. We do not know how he became a Christian. This part of Gaul was only just accepting the new Christian religion. Many of the country folk still believed in the old Romano-Celtic gods and -worshipped at small sanctuaries (like the one excavated beside the Pinnacle rock in St. Ouen). A few miles north of Languidic, at the site of a spring, we can still see the modified statue of one of these pagan goddesses, now called "The Venus of Quinipily" and hundreds of little white fertility goddesses have been dug up throughout south Brittany.

The large Roman city of Vannes had only recently acquired its first bishop. Perhaps Aubinís village already had a little Christian church. The prefix "Lan-" often indicates these very early chapels. It was certainly still a missionary area, much influenced by the wandering saints who were coming into Brittany throughout this period with the migrations from west Britain. (For example, during the middle of Aubinís life, the Celtic Bishop Samson from south Wales had settled in Dol and probably visited the Channel Islands. )


Aubin's years as a monk and abbot

Aubin left his comfortable home in Brittany to join the monastery of Tintillac. We have not yet discovered its site, as no village has this exact name today, and many names have changed during this long period of 1,500 years*.Tintillac is likely to have been somewhere between his Brittany village and his eventual destination in Angers, 130 miles to the east The study of place names suggests a site around the lower river, Vilaine, where we find a concentration of names ending in "-iliac". Thehillac village once had an ancient monastery and is within sight of the main Roman road linking Languidic to Angers

The monastery would have been a fairly single collection of small buildings, with a chapel and individual cells, perhaps like the famous cells of St. Martin's monks at Marmoutier near Tours. Aubin has his hair cut into a monk's tonsure and took his new Latin name Albinus (which over the centuries has been changed to the French name Aubin ) "Albinus" can mean "fair-haired", or sometimes "British". Some writers have suggested that his family originally came from Britain with the early migrations, but no one is sure.

At the monastery he led an austere life of self-denial, with long hours of prayer and frequent fasting, and was much loved and respected by the other monks.

In 505, when he was 35, they chose him to be their abbot, and he spent the next 25 years in this post, working hard to improve the community spirit and spiritual discipline of his monks. While he was in his monastery, armies of the conquering Franks swept across France. Aubin would have joined the widespread prayers for the conversion of the pagan King Clovis - who was eventually baptised in 496.


Aubin, Bishop of Angers

In 529 the townspeople of Angers sent a delegation to beg Aubin to become their bishop. He consented, very reluctantly, and at the age of 60 left his peaceful monastery for the busy life of Angers city. Bishop Laud of Coutances was a friend of Aubin and came south to Angers for his consecration. Maybe Aubin paid a return visit to Coutances, and looked at Jersey in the distance.

In Angers he lived in the bishop's house with several other clergy, next to the high city wall. He had a large basilica to administer, several smaller churches and a baptistery plus the responsibility for clergy in villages throughout his diocese.

 

Nothing from this period remains in Angers except a few ruins but in other parts of Europe similar church buildings have survived intact. Some very beautiful basilicas are preserved in Ravenna in Italy, with the typical rounded apse at the altar end, and brilliantly-coloured mosaics on the walls.

One of these mosaics shows Bishop Maximian, a contemporary of Aubin, so we can see how he would have dressed. (Note that mitres had not yet been invented!).

The furnishings of these churches were very beautiful: the communion vessels were of gold and silver set with jewels; curtains were of precious fabrics from Eastern lands; ivory tablets were carved with detailed Biblical scenes; and for lighting there were many little oil lamps and candles. The services were in the common language, Latin, and at Easter new members were baptised in the pool of the baptistery next to the church. (A baptistery similar to Aubiní s can be seen at Portbail, opposite Jersey.)

Bishop Aubin was much loved by his townspeople. He was an excellent teacher of the great Christian truths, and he taught his people daily, saying:

"Just as the body needs daily food, so we must feed our soul."

He helped all in distress, using diocesan funds to free hostages from pirates. His prayers healed all kinds of sick people, such as the blind and the paralysed. Once, he prayed far into the night for some men imprisoned in the Tower of Angers, and suddenly a great stone collapsed from the wall, allowing their escape.

He clashed with the Prankish King Childebert, who had imprisoned a woman called Etherie from Douille village near Angers. Unable to secure her release he visited her in prison, and the soldier who tried to resist him fell dead at his feet. This so impressed the King that he allowed Aubin to bail her out. Later he visited Childebert in Paris and asked permission for a major Council of Bishops to be held in Orleans.

Sadly, many bishops at this time were corrupt, unspiritual men against whom Aubin waged many battles. Their laxity so depressed him that he sought advice and reassurance from one of the great: Christians of his time. Archbishop Cesarius of Aries. Although an old man by now, Aubin laboriously travelled 400 miles to the south of France, accompanied by his friend Leobinus (who, at about this time, was appointed Bishop of Chartres).


 

Area of Aubin's ministry.