Saint Leonard of Noblac was a 6th century French hermit, known for miraculously releasing captives from prison.
He was a noble from the tribe of the Franks. Saint Leonard was born a pagan, but received the Christian faith through the efforts of the missionary Saint Remigius. He was inspired to live a life of a hermit.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is Prof Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we celebrate St Leonard of Noblac
St Leonard lived in 6th century France, and was a Christian convert from paganism. Saint Remigius (Remi), who brought Christianity to the Franks, was a big influence on the life of Saint Leonard. Saint Leonard lived a life of a hermit, and worked miracles. He is particularly known for miraculously setting prisoners free.
Let us read about his life from a text Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin. This is a collection of the lives of the saints.
Saint Leonard was born towards the end of the fifth century of illustrious parents, residing in the part of the province of Gaul which was then beginning to be called France. Several historians believe that with his brother Saint Lifard, his origins can be traced to the castle of Vendome in the region of Orleans. He belonged to the nation of the Franks, and at the court of Clovis his relatives were dignitaries, baptized at the same time as the king by Saint Remi. That monarch himself stood as sponsor in Baptism for this child of predilection.
As Leonard grew he was so moved by the holy examples of the bishop of Rheims that he renounced the world in order to lead a more perfect life. When Saint Remi had trained Leonard in virtue and conferred on him the tonsure, he began to exercise his charity on behalf of prisoners. Clovis, in response to a prayer of Saint Remi, had already issued an edict that prisoners in Rheims might be freed whenever his royal highness would pass through that city. Leonard asked the kind monarch to grant him personally the right to liberate prisoners whom he would find worthy of it, any time at all.
The reputation of Saint Leonard's goodness and sanctity soon spread, and the sick came to him for healing and alms. He did not fail to teach them also the value of Christian patience and to console them by the divine doctrine. The king desired to attach him permanently to his court, but Saint Leonard, in a discourse brilliant by its humility, replied that he preferred to live in the obscurity Christ had chosen for Himself for so many years, and he retired to a monastery. Saint Maximin, its abbot, saw to it that he was ordained a deacon, which office he accepted out of obedience, but he did not aspire to any additional ecclesiastical dignities. He recognized that his role was not to remain always in the monastery, and departed to preach to the pagans of the province of Limoges. He found on a nearby mountain a forested solitude where he decided to remain, and there he built a cell of branches and considered himself rich in the possession of God, joyous in his freedom to devote himself to meditation, prayer and mortification.
He continued to obtain miracles when solicited by the suffering members of Jesus Christ. The spouse of a king living nearby had a successful delivery of a child by his prayers, when her very life was despaired of; and the king in gratitude gave him a part of the forest to dispose of as he wished. He then built an oratory to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Two disciples joined him in this sanctuary, continuing to pray without interruption when their master went on pilgrimage to the tombs of the Saints.
Soon the sick came to Saint Leonard here also, and prisoners who invoked him from their cells saw their chains break before their eyes. Many came to him afterwards, bringing their heavy chains and irons to offer them in homage. A considerable number wished to remain with him, and he often gave them part of his vast forest to clear and make ready for the labors of the fields, that they might have the means to live an honest life. He continued to be their guardian and father and preached the religion of our Saviour to them; and those who had once been malefactors were transformed by prayer and labor.
Seven families of persons who were his relatives in the north heard of his reputation and decided to come to him and remain with him. He was surprised but encouraged their good resolutions, saying: A fare of dry bread, eaten in the joy of a pure conscience, is of more worth than a house abundantly furnished, where quarrels and divisions prevail. After increasing in holiness until his last days, he died on the 6th of November in the oratory he had dedicated to Our Lady, after having himself transported there, sometime during the second half of the sixth century. Miracles on behalf of prisoners and the sick followed, as they had preceded, his death. The cult of Saint Leonard has remained extremely popular in France ever since; and throughout all of Europe churches and monasteries have been placed under his invocation.
The golden legend, another collection of the lives of the saints, records several of the miracles of Saint Leonard.
Miracles of St. Leonard
The Prisoner Chained to the Pillar
The viscount of Limoges had do make a great chain for to fear withal the malefactors, and commanded that it should be fastened unto a trunk in his tower. And whosomever was bounden with this chain to that trunk thereas it was set, he might see no light. And it was a place right dark, and whoso died there, died not of one death only, but more than of a thousand torments.
And it happed that one of the servants of St. Leonard was bounden with this chain without deserving, so that almost he gave over his spirit. And then as he might, in his courage he avowed to St. Leonard, and prayed him that sith he delivered other that he would have pity on his servant. And anon St. Leonard appeared to him in a white vesture and said: Fear thee nothing, for thou shalt not die. Arise up, and bear thou this chain with thee to my church; follow me, for I go tofore.
Then he arose and took the chain and followed St. Leonard, which went tofore him till he came to the church. And anon, as he was tofore the gates, St. Leonard left him there, and he then entered into the church and recounted to all the people what St. Leonard had done. And he hung that great chain tofore his tomb.
The Prisoner in the Pit
There was a certain man which dwelled in the place of St. Leonard, and was much faithful and devout to St. Leonard. And it happed that this good man was taken of a tyrant, which began to think in himself that "St. Leonard unbindeth and looseth all them that be bounden in irons, and the might of iron hath no more might against him than wax hath against the fire. If I set this man in irons Leonard shall anon deliver him, and if I may keep him I shall make him pay for his ransom a thousand shillings. I wot well what I shall do. I shall go make a right great and deep pit under the earth in my tower, and I shall cast him therein bounden with many bonds. And after I shall do make a chest of tree upon the mouth of the pit, and shall make my knights to lie therein all armed. And how be it that if Leonard break the irons, yet shall he not enter into it under the earth."
And when he had made all this that he thought, this man which was enclosed therein cried oft to St. Leonard, so that on a night St. Leonard came and turned the chest wherein the knights lay armed, and closed them therein like as dead men be in a tomb. And after entered into the fosse or pit with great light, and took the hand of his true servant, and said to him: Sleepest thou or wakest, lo here is Leonard whom thou so much desirest.
And he, sore marvelling, said, "Lord help me!" And anon his chains were broken, and took him in his arms and bare him out of the tower, and then spake to him as a friend doth to a friend, and set him at home in his house.
The Pilgrim Held for Ransom
There was a pilgrim which returned from the visiting of St. Leonard, and was taken in Almaine and put in a pit or fosse, and fast closed therein. And this pilgrim prayed strongly St. Leonard and also them that took him, that they would for the love of St. Leonard let him go, for he had never trespassed to them. And they answered, but if he would pay much money he should not depart.
And he said: Be it between you and St. Leonard, to whom I remit the matter.
And the night following St. Leonard appeared to the lord of the castle and commanded him that he should deliver his pilgrim, and on the morn he supposed he had dreamed, and would not deliver him. The next night he appeared to him again, and commanded him to let him go, but yet he would not obey. The third night St. Leonard took this pilgrim and brought him out of the castle, and anon the tower and half the castle fell, and oppressed many of them that were therein, and the prince only was left, to his confusion, alive, and had his thighs broken. et cetera.
The Knight of Brittany
There was a knight in prison in Brittany which oft called on St. Leonard, which anon appeared to him in the sight of all men, and knowing him, and they being sore abashed, entered into the prison and brake his bonds and put them in the man's hand, and brought him forth before them all, being sore afeard.
St Leonard’s influence lasted long after his death, and beyond the borders of France. He gained a particular following in South Germany, with a shrine devoted to him in Inchenhofen there. This shrine was a very popular pilgrimage site in medieval Europe. St Leonard’s shrine bore particular testimony to his miraculous intercessions, especially with regard to freeing those who were imprisoned. Let us read a passage of Pilgrimage and Embodiment: Captives and the
Cult of Saints in Late Medieval Bavaria byMegan Cassidy-Welch, published in Parergon, 20:2 (2003), 47-70 . In this text, Eberhard is a Cistercian monk administering the shrine to St Leonard in Inchenhofen.
The body of evidence brought together in the miracle books was thus sealed
by the material finality of the written text. For Eberhard, the human tongue was
simply insufficient to narrate the miracles of St Leonard which, for their sheer
number alone, made them worthy of permanent record.46 The book object(s)
which contained the miracles glorified God and the saint in enshrining story
and verisimilitude in physical form. The same solidity was also found in the
objects that pilgrims brought with them to Inchenhofen. Eberhard tells us that
shackles, chains, irons, and other instruments of entrapment were piled up in
the chapel as evidence of the saint’s miracles,47 while the miracle stories
themselves state what sort of offerings were brought to the chapel. In 1389 an
honest man who had been imprisoned for 14 days and freed by St Leonard
brought the chains and irons which bound him to the shrine, and three years
later, a young man who had been starved for eight weeks in prison brought the
two manacles which had bound his hands and feet.48 Even those who had been
prisoners abroad brought their fetters to Inchenhofen; one man chained up by
his hands and feet by the Venetians managed to secure the chains which had
bound his arms and bring them to the shrine.49
Waxen representations of chains and shackles, together with wax images of
body parts, candles, and unformed lumps of wax were also heaped on the altar.
Steven Sargent has conveniently summarised these votive offerings, finding that
out of the 199 wax votive recorded in the miracle book, 131 were unformed,
24 were images of figures, 18 were candles, 13 were instruments of captivity,
and the remaining were either specific waxen images of body parts such as eyes
or miscellaneous objects like a horse, a tower, or a ship.50 In comparison, there
were 192 iron votive offerings, the majority of which were instruments of
captivity, 20 of which were figures, nine of which were unformed, and only a
few were towers, rings, belts, and so on.51 The tradition of offering iron votives
was already well established at St Leonard’s ‘home church’ of Noblat, near
Limoges, while wax votive offerings were commonly donated to saints’ shrines
throughout Europe during the medieval period.52 The specific association of iron
with St Leonard derived from his function as liberator of captives who, as the
miracle stories state, were frequently confined by means of iron restraints.
Furthermore, at various churches dedicated to St Leonard in southern Germany
(although not, it appears, at Inchenhofen itself), iron chains were wound around
the exterior of the buildings. One example may still be seen at the tiny chapel
of St Leonard at Hüfingen in Baden-Württemberg.
Votive offerings served a number of purposes at Inchenhofen. Initially, these
objects constituted the quid pro quo in the contractual relationship between saint
and prisoner which I have mentioned above. For an adolescens of Tolltz who
had been imprisoned in the castle of Schlosperg for spying, his promise to the
saint was not only to visit the shrine at Inchenhofen but also to bring with him
the chains that had bound him during his time in captivity.53 Another man who
came to the shrine in 1443, Berkhardt Schneider, promised to come to the shrine
with his chains if he was able to carry them,54 while the father of another prisoner
promised to bring the combined weight of his son, his clothing, and his armour
in iron if Leonard released his son from captivity.55 Additionally, chains and
other instruments of captivity bolstered the pilgrim’s claims that their stories
were true, as Steven Sargent has emphasised, in that they provided (weighty)
material evidence that someone had experienced captivity and escaped from it.
Votive offerings were also semiotically meaningful in the same way that the
corporeal, audible presence of pilgrims at the shrine was important. That is, in
the absence of actual relics of the saint at the Inchenhofen shrine, other sorts
of objects served to materialise Leonard, making the supernatural tangible and
real in the clearest sensory way. Such offerings, I suggest, reworked traditional
Christian cultural practices of acquiring the saint’s body in the form of a relic,
by imagining St Leonard and his work through specific representations of the
body in tribulation and release.
Saint Leonard is celebrated in all Christian traditions that venerate saints, with feast day on Nov 6. I encourage you to say a prayer to Saint Leonard, especially if you or someone close to you is suffering imprisonment,
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O Almighty God, who hast called us to faith in thee, and bast compassed us about with so great a cloud of witnesses; Grant that we, encouraged by the good examples of thy Saints, and especially of thy servant Leonard, may persevere in running the race that
is set before us, until at length, through thy mercy, we with them attain to thine eternal joy; through him who is the author and finisher of our faith, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen