Saint Denis Converts Paris to Christianity Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In Christian tradition, Saint Denis was named bishop of Paris c. 250 c.e. and martyred at some point thereafter; Paris, then the rest of Gaul, were converted to Christianity.

Summary of Event

The earliest reference to Saint Dionysius, who is known in France as Saint Denis or Saint Denys, is found in the “Vita Genovefae” (sixth century c.e.; life of Saint Geneviève) written by an anonymous author. It mentions a place several miles north of Paris called Catulacum, “where Saint Dionysius was martyred and buried.” However, the story of Saint Denis and the conversion of Gaul to Christianity is described most fulsomely by bishop Gregory of Tours (539-594 c.e.), who composed Historia Francorum (late sixth century c.e.; History of the Franks, 1916), ten books dealing with Roman, Christian, and barbarian Gaul. Denis, Saint Fabian, Saint

Gregory reports that “in the consulship of Decius and Gratus” (250 c.e.), seven bishops were sent to various cities in Gaul: Trophimus to Arles, Paul to Narbonne, Saturninus to Toulouse, Dionysius (Denis) to Paris, Stremonius to Clermont, and Martial to Limoges. Gregory, therefore, believed that Denis’s mission to Paris (which in the third century was a city of but middling importance) was part of a more broadly conceived plan to convert Gaul to Christianity. Even though Gregory does not specifically say so, it has been assumed that the seven were sent by the bishop of Rome, in this case Pope Fabian. Subsequently, Gregory briefly notes, “The blessed Dionysius, bishop of Paris, having suffered diverse punishments for the sake of the name of Christ, ended his present life by means of the threatening sword.” Later elaborations of the story included the co-martyrdom of two of Denis’s colleagues, the priest Rusticus and the deacon Eleutherius, and the report that the body of Saint Denis got up, took its head in its hands, and accompanied by a choir of angels singing “Alleluia,” carried it a couple of miles from Montmartre to Catulacum. The date of Denis’s martyrdom is unknown, but some scholars argue that it must have occurred long enough after 250 (perhaps c. 275) to allow him to accomplish his work of evangelization. Denis’s tomb at Catulacum became the site of a small shrine.

According to legend, the martyred Saint Denis picked up his severed head and, accompanied by singing angels, carried it in his hands from Montmartre to Catulacum.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Many aspects of the cult of Saint Denis derived from Paris’s pagan past. For example, the name of the site of Denis’s martyrdom, Montmartre, was thought in the Middle Ages to be derived from the Latin mons martyris (hill of the martyr), but probably actually came from Mons Martis (the hill of Mars). Also, the traditional date of Denis’s martyrdom, October 8, is coincidentally the same as the date of the vintage festival of the Roman wine god Dionysus (Bacchus), which was celebrated on October 8-9.

Denis was not the only early Gallic Christian to suffer martyrdom. In 177 c.e., Bishop Irenaeus and forty-eight Christians of Lyon were either decapitated or thrown to the beasts in the arena. In the next century, Denis’s companion Saturninus of Toulouse also was executed. According to Gregory, “He was tied to the feet of a mad bull, and being sent headlong from the capitol he ended his life.”

However, in other regards, the Christianization of Gaul proceeded peacefully. Gregory notes that Denis’s five other companions “lived in the greatest sanctity, winning people to the church and spreading the faith of Christ among all, and died in peace, confessing the faith.” Their disciples established churches in other Gallic cities. In these early years of Gallic Christianity, there were no large churches; Christians met in private homes or in small shrines, like that of Saint Denis, outside the city walls located on the sites of cemeteries and earlier martyrdoms. Gaul was largely spared during the great persecution of Diocletian (c. 245-316 c.e.). In 314, when sixteen Gallic bishops attended the first imperial-sponsored church council, which was held at Arles under Constantine the Great (r. 306-337), Gaul was well on its way to becoming Christianized. Fourth century bishops such as Hilary of Poitiers and Martin of Tours played leading roles in establishing the authority of the Church both inside and outside Gaul.

Significance

It was not until the sixth century c.e., when Paris became one of the capitals of the Merovingian kingdom of the Franks, that Denis’s cult began to expand. By the end of the sixth century, the church of Saint Denis in Paris had become a burial place for French kings, and as of the tenth century, he was the patron saint of France. The relics of Saint Denis and his companions survived the French Revolution and are still preserved in his church. In general, the evangelization of Paris by Saint Denis is but one of the many manifestations of the spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duchesne, Louis. Early History of the Christian Church. 4th ed. New York, 1920. A thorough discussion of the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, with full attention given to the conversion of Roman Gaul.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. A masterful discussion of the development of the Christian Mediterranean world, from its origins to the ninth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire, a.d. 100-400. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. A survey of the means by which the Roman Empire became Christianized.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharp, Mary. A Traveler’s Guide to Saints in Europe. London: Hugh Evelyn, 1964. A collection of saints’ lives that includes Dionysius (Denis).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Dam, Raymond. Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. The role of saints in the religious and secular life of early medieval France.
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