History of the Saint and the Town
The town of Saint-Léonard de Noblat
History of Saint Leonard
La vita sancti Leonardi
The oldest text on the life of Saint Leonard “La vita sancti leonardi” was established in the 11th century at the request of Jourdain de Laron, the then Bishop of Limoges.
It is from that time that a modest local pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Saint Leonard at Limoges, France, developed and from which the cult of Saint Leonard radiated
The Life of Saint Leonard
Here are the essential elements of the life of Saint Leonard as expressed in this 11th century document.
Leonard was born in France near the end of the 5th century in the time of Anastase the Emperor of the East (481 – 518). His family were of Frankish origin and were well placed in the court of King Clovis. He was baptised by Saint Remy and grew up in the school run by this great saint.
The King of the Franks gave him the privilege of freeing prisoners who he thought worthy of being pardoned. As an adolescent he refused the invitation to receive a high place in the hierarchy of the church preferring to work in a more humble role. In the company of his brother Liphard he spent some time in the Monastery of Micy near Orleans, which was directed by Saint Maximin, from which many saints emerged. Saint Maximin presented him to the Bishop of Orleans who ordained him a deacon.
Leonard left Micy and headed south towards the Limousin, a region then as now covered with forests. He followed the steep sided valley of the River Vienne until he reached a ‘mountain’ on which grew the forest of Pauvain. He established an hermitage in this forest, facing the mountain. On the other side of the river stood a castle in which the local princes and their entourage lodged when they came to hunt in the region.
The vita sancti leonardi recounts the legend of his saving, by prayer, a Queen of the Franks who was having a very difficult delivery of a child, which happened when she was staying at this castle while her husband was hunting. Subsequently the King, very relieved by this deliverance, gave Leonard the right to a part of the forest that he could encircle during a night, riding a donkey. On this territory, which came to be called Noblat, Leonard built an oratory called Our Lady Beneath the Trees, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Remy. Through his prayers, in a hole dug by his two followers, an inexhaustible water source flowed, thus avoiding the effort of bringing water up hill from the River Vienne.
The fame of the piety and compassion of Leonard soon attracted crowds of people and particularly former prisoners sure of being welcomed after they had been set free.
By clearing the land in the huge forest the former delinquents found they could work the land made available and, by believing they had a future, did not return to their former illegal activities. This was one of the most ancient examples of the reinsertion of freed prisoners. Former relatives, and servants close to them, heard of all the remarkable successes of Leonard and came to give service to God alongside him, and he shared out portions of the forest with them.
Leonard died, still bathed in piety, on a 6th November in the heart of his commune and was buried in the oratory that he had built. Around this, miracles continued to be remarked upon: “Even dead he created Miracles”
The renown of the wonders which took place around the tomb of Saint Leonard attracted crowds of people to come in pilgrimage and thus a small town progressively grew up around his tomb, which took his name.
The vita places the period in which Saint Leonard lived between the end of the 5th century and the start of the 6th century. Europe at that time was suffering enormous upheavals.
The Roman Empire, after resisting for a long period to the external pressure affecting it from migrating armies, collapsed in 476 in the west. Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, entered Italy in 489 at the head of an army and was crowned King of Ravenna. He reigned only in Italy.
Gaul was shared between several conquering peoples who were pagan and adepts of the Arian heresy. However in the centre of Gaul there was a Christian Gallo-Roman population who were faithful to the precepts of the Council of Nicaea.
At the beginning of the 5th century a profoundly spiritual movement emanated from the Christians motivated by a renewed ideal: renounce the acquisition of riches and power and the practice of asceticism. The main Christian personalites, Saint Germain bishop of Auxerre, Saint Genevieve in Paris, Saint Remy bishop of Reims, and the bishops of central Gaul followers of Saint Martin of Tours, became the inspiration and influence on the events of these times.
They developed an actual spiritual network which was very active and rather than confronting the Arian kingdoms by force they did their utmost to convert them.
King Clovis was at the start of his reign, and rather insignificant at the head of a Franco-Salian population in the north of France. He would go on to extend his territory and influence slowly but surely towards the south, coming up against the other powers occupying Gaul. He was converted to Christianity and was baptised at Reims in 499. To complete his conquests, Clovis occupied Aquitaine in the south-west of Gaul by forcing the Visigoths into Spain during his campaign of 507 directed toward Poitiers, Limoges and Arles.
As a result of this, the circumstances appeared favourable for the hermit Leonard to install himself at Noblat at the crossroads of routes leading to the River Vienne, to begin evangelising a population which had been freed from the occupation of the Visigoths with their Arian views. They were now released from their repression against the Christian religion.
The town of Saint-Léonard de Noblat
Origins and Development
Since we do not possess documents relating to the town of Saint Leonard de Noblat before the 10th century, it is not really possible to date, accurately, the birth of the town. However, its situation at the crossroads of two important cross country routes which have existed since antiquity, (one linking Bourges and Bordeaux, the other from the Gallic oppidum near Villejoubert to Card near the town of Ambazac) linked to the fact that a ford over the River Vienne, allows us to suppose that a collection of houses appeared around the Gallo-Roman period into the Middle Ages. It is also likely that a religious establishment was constructed helping to create some development of population.
As from the 11th century the existence of the town of Noblat, served by canons and a representative of the powers which existed at that time, and a representation of justice, are attested to in the manuscripts. The publication of the Vie de Saint Léonard (the life of St.Leonard) and the growing fame of this holy man, clearly contributed to the development of the city.
A collegiate church, big enough to provide for a growing number of the faithful, was constructed to replace the smaller existing church. The town acquired a certain level of autonomy, giving it the right to elect its consuls. At that time its perimeter was the same as the town centre which still exists today.
The commercialisation of beef and skins for leather was developed in the 15th century. The production of copperware added to its commercial activities. Two centuries later, thanks to the development of numerous watermills on the River Vienne and its tributaries, a textile industry, and especially paper making, made the town of Saint Leonard de Noblat a successful industrial centre whose prosperity resulted in the construction of houses demonstrating this prosperity.
The construction of a bridge over the River Vienne at the end of the 18th century, and a century later when the railway gave a new commercial vigour to the town.
The Town Today
With a population of 4,800 inhabitants, and as the seat of a community of communes which encompasses more than 10,000 inhabitants, the town of today crossed by the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella (the Vezélay route) is a pole of some standing, east of Limoges. Its history, its architecture and its festivities attract a great number of visitors.