Gregorius, child of incest, married mother and became saint & pope

cold winding road

How can one hope when Soviet-quality intellectual life has risen to dominance in free, democratic societies? How can one hope when thirty years of bitter discussion of abortion has largely ignored men and pretended that pregnancies magically appear in women who make momentous choices with no regard for anyone else? How can one hope when, amid extraordinarily extensive incarceration, political and intellectual leaders promote broad, punitive regulation of ordinary sexual interactions? In such circumstances, perceiving whimsy, but not hope, is a mistake. Throughout the Middle Ages, the life of the fictional Saint Pope Gregorius was a popular story.[1] Even more than in the Middle Ages, Saint Pope Gregorius provides hope for our age.

Unlike Oedipus, Gregorius was the child of an incestuous union. The emperor had a son and a daughter. On his deathbed, the emperor instructed the son to provide the daughter with a noble and appropriate husband and to love her as himself. The son, who became emperor, instead had sex with his sister. He acted first against her will, but then their relationship “became more and more delightful” for them both.[2] The sister became pregnant. Her brother-husband went on a pilgrimage of penance to Jerusalem and died there. His sister-wife secretly gave birth to Gregorius back at home.

Like Oedipus, Gregorius then grew up and unknowingly married his mother. His mother eliminated him, the child of her incestuous union, by placing him in a boat and setting him out to sea. Through a highly improbable chain of events, the boy returned as a young knight to his natal empire. His mother was then ruler. Her empire was under siege. The young knight successfully defended the realm. He then unknowingly married his mother. With the aid of tablets that she had placed in the boat and he had kept with him, wife and husband came to recognize that they were mother and son, with the son-husband having been born from the mother’s union with her brother.[3]

Devastated with eventual recognition of what he had unknowingly done, Gregorius took up harsh penance. He left the empire as a pilgrim, walking away barefooted. He arranged with a fisherman to have himself chained on a rock far out to sea. The fisherman threw the key to Gregorius’s chains into the sea. Somehow Gregorius survived for seventeen years alone chained to the rock in the middle of the sea.

God redeemed the sinful Gregorius with a call to eminence. The wonderful dispensations of providence were revealed by a voice from heaven:

The pope died. At the moment of his death, a voice from heaven cried out, “Search after a man of God, called Gregorius, and appoint him my vicar.” [4]

The papal electors sent messengers throughout the world to find Gregorius. A messenger met the fisherman who had chained Gregorius to the isolated rock seventeen years earlier. That same day, that fisherman caught a fish containing within its belly the key to Gregorius’s chains. The fisherman unchained Gregorius from his isolated rock. Gregorious was then taken back to Rome to be installed as pope.

Pope Gregorius’s mother-wife subsequently went to Rome to confess her sins to the pope. She didn’t know that the pope was her husband and son from her union with her brother. After she had the sacrament of confession with him, he recognized her:

Dearest mother and wife and mistress, the devil dreamed of bringing us to Hell. But by the grace of God, we have evaded his efforts. [5]

Pope Gregorius founded a new monastery and made his mother-wife abbess of it. Both Pope Gregorius and his mother-wife died as holy persons. Gregorius was subsequently recognized as a saint.[6] Any woman who was both his mother and his wife surely must have also been a saint.

No one, no matter what she or he has done, is beyond redemption. No circumstances are so oppressive that a mighty river of justice cannot cleanse them. No society is too corrupt to be renewed. As the tale of Saint Pope Gregorius exemplifies, hope covers all things.[7]

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[1] The earliest known version of the story of Gregorius is a twelfth-century French poem. About 1200, Hartmann von Aue adapted the poem into German. Within the next three centuries it came to be known across Europe from Iceland to Spain to Armenia to Hungary to Sweden. The most widely disseminated version is the Latin prose version in the Gesta Romanorum, probably from the late thirteenth century. Murdoch (2012) pp. 13-4, 17, 139. The Latin prose version from the Gesta Romanorum is consistent with Murdoch’s epitome of the Gregorius narrative. Id. pp. 8-10. For the Gregorius story in the Anglo-Norman Gesta Romanorum, see story 69 in Bright (2019).

[2] Id. p. 144. The Swan-Hooper English translation of the Gregorius tale from Gesta Romanorum characteristically misleads about sexual culpability:

The Swan-Hooper translation changes the character of the passage entirely, and effectively removes all blame from the girl, providing in a sense a new version. The recasting is difficult to defend.

Id. p. 144, n. 51. For a similar recasting, see Sanger’s nineteenth-century social science on prostitution.

[3] Gesta Romanorum includes another tale with similarities to Oedipus’s fate. A knight returned home and found two persons in his wife’s bed. Immediately assuming that his wife was committing adultery, the knight slew both persons. Those persons turned out to be his parents who had made an unexpected visit to his home. Gesta Romanorum, Tale 18, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) pp. 46-8.

[4] Gesta Romanorum, Tale 81 (“Of the Wonderful Dispensations of Providence, and of the Rise of Pope Gregory”), from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) p. 152. The subsequent quote above is from id. p. 153.

[5] The Latin triplet mater, uxor et amica (mother, wife, and mistress) also occurs earlier in the narrative.

[6] Gregorius was commonly identified as both a pope and a saint. For example, a medieval French metrical version has the Latin heading Incipit uita Sancti Gregorii Papae (“Here begins the life of Saint Gregorius the Pope”). Murdoch (2012) p. 1.

[7] Even with the outlandish events of his life, Gregorius is an Everyman:

Reading Gregorius as Everyman may seem unusual, but he nonetheless has that function, and in some respects he is to be imitated; he shows the reader or listener that any sin can be overcome, and demonstrates the mechanisms by which this can come about within the structure of the Christian Church. …  The interpretation of the story offered in the moralizing section is not consistent, but it lays special stress on the value of penance for redemption. The key is that the child, Gregorius, is Everyman, cast out because of the sins of Adam and Eve into the miseries of the world.

Murdoch (2012) pp. 29, 148.

[image] Cold, winding road on island in Sweden. Thanks to Jon Ottosson and Unsplash Creative Commons Zero collections.


Bright, Philippa, ed. and trans. 2019. The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum: from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murdoch, Brian. 2012. Gregorius: an incestuous saint in medieval Europe and beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

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