Saint Vincent de Paul, a biography 04 – The story of his captivity

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: José María Román, C.M. · Translator: Joyce Howard, D.C.. · Year of first publication: 1981.
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Chapter IV: The story of his captivity

An unexpected legacy

 Let us now read the letters that Vincent de Paul, in his old age, had tried so hard to destroy1.

In the early months of 1605, Vincent’s affairs seemed to be progressing very favourably. This is the first piece of information we can glean from the first letter. He had just come back from a short trip to Bordeaux, when he discovered that a good old lady from Castres had left him in her will some land and furniture which were worth about 400 crowns2. These were owed to her by an individual of very dubious character. It was just what Vincent needed. The money would pay off his debts and meet the expenses of the rash enterprise referred to earlier, his designs on a bishopric.

Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Vincent hired a horse and set off for Castres. This is the first time we hear of Vincent riding a horse; it won’t be the last. During his life he travelled many leagues on horseback and he became so familiar with equestrian terms that he used many of them in the talks and conferences he gave3.

An unpleasant surprise was waiting for him at Castres. The villain had disappeared in the direction of Marseilles, where he was said to be living in grand style off the fortune he had dishonestly acquired. Vincent decided to pursue him. The only difficulty was that he had no money to pay for the journey but he very soon found the answer to the problem. Without giving the matter a second thought, he sold the horse he had hired (he would pay for it on his return) and set off again on his journey. Luck, or rather Providence, was on his side. When he arrived in Marseilles, he had the fugitive thrown into prison and then came to an agreement with him. The rogue paid him 300 crowns in ready cash and Vincent was satisfied. He immediately got ready to return to Toulouse. Then came the setbacks.

The ship is boarded

Vincent took the advice of a gentleman who was following the same route and decided to go by sea to Narbonne, which was the first stage of his return journey. The sea was calm, the wind favourable, and everything bespoke a pleasant and speedy voyage. He would arrive more quickly and it would be cheaper. As things turned out “he would never arrive and he would lose everything he had.”

A few miles off Marseilles, three Turkish brigantines were lying in wait near the coast of Provence (it was now July) for boats coming from the fair at Beaucaire “the finest fair in Christendom”. On board were Berber corsaires from the regency of Tunis, who specialised in the capture and sale of Christian slaves. They rammed Vincent’s boat. There was a brief struggle and of course the French surrendered to the enemy who outnumbered them, but not before losses were inflicted on both sides. One of the Turkish squadron commanders died and four or five rowers died too. The French suffered two or three losses and many wounded. Vincent was wounded by an arrow, and this injury was to serve him as a “clock”4 for the rest of his life. In reprisal for their losses, the Turks cut the French pilot to pieces. They ill‑ treated the rest of the crew and passengers and took them captive. With these prisoners on board, they continued on their course for about a week, attacking and looting any ships they encountered. Perhaps it was because their boats were overloaded, that the pirates set free any people who had surrendered without resistance. Finally, they headed for Barbary and arrived at Tunis.

The slave market

As soon as they disembarked, the slaves were led to the market place. Here their clothing was removed and they were each given a pair of breeches, a linen jacket and a cap. In this guise, and with a chain round their necks, they were marched round the city. Those who were selling the captives took good care to make it known that this cargo had been captured from a Spanish ship ‑ this was a necessary cover‑up so as not to provoke the intervention of the French consul. France had made a series of treaties with the Turks which guaranteed them freedom of trade, and of navigation for her ships. Everything was carried out in an orderly fashion, according to the good and time‑honoured customs of the slave markets. Merchants could probe wounds to judge how serious they were, could check the appetite of their merchandise, calculate their strength, see how well they could walk, examine their teeth…

The fisherman and the doctor: his first two masters

Once the inspection was over and the sale agreed upon, there began for Vincent two years of captivity that were relatively peaceful. He was first bought by a fisherman but the new slave proved to be such a bad sailor that his owner had to get rid of him. Vincent then fell into the hands of a colourful character who was a doctor of metallurgy, an alchemist and something of a wizard, who boasted of his powers to turn base metals into gold. He hadn’t yetdiscovered the philosopher’s stone (but he was very close to it). He distilled the five essences, he had remedies for all manner of sicknesses and he could even make a skull talk. For this latter achievement, he had invented a contraption which deceived the gullible people into believing that it was Mohammed speaking through the mouth of the skull.

Vincent didn’t have a bad time at all. His main duty was to keep the dozen or so ovens lit, day and night, because these were needed for the old alchemist’s concoctions. This man was both humane and approachable. He took a liking to the young slave and tried to interest him in the Islamic religion, promising to bequeath him his wealth and his discoveries. Vincent contented himself with learning the treatment for stone, an illness that had afflicted his friend and benefactor, Monseiur de Comet.

He was certain (prisoners always are certain) that one day he would be free, and that this remedy would alleviate the pains of the aged gentleman who was suffering, even if he hadn’t been able to save Monseiur Comet, senior, who had died of the same disease. If only he had known sooner about this effective remedy! Now that he was deprived of human resources, Vincent sought help from heaven and commended his cause to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. She would surely obtain for him the freedom he so earnestly desired.

From one owner to another: the renegade

Vincent’s peaceful existence in the doctor’s house came to an abrupt end when the Grand Turk summoned the doctor to Constantinople. Vincent now became the property of one of the doctor’s nephews. This was in August, 1606. The doctor died during the voyage and his nephew immediately got rid of Vincent because he found out that a French ambassador was coming to Tunis with authorisation from the Sultan to free any Frech slaves. Monsieur Savary de Brèves did arrive in Tunis on 17th June, 1606. This gentleman was a skilful negotiator but his talents brought only minimal results. He left for France on 24th August with a band of 72 slaves from among the thousands who were left either to languish in the baths (slave prisons) of the Bey of Tunis, or to stay in the clutches of private owners5. Vincent was not one of the lucky few. The next person to buy him was a renegade from Nice or from Annecy6. He took Vincent inland with him (well out of the reach of the investigating French envoy) and brought him to his farm; a “temat” or “to’met” which he apparently cultivated for the Great Lord who was theoretically the owner of all that land.

A change of scenery meant a change of occupation for the slave. He now had to dig the soil in the heat of North Africa’s burning sun. The work was difficult but the slave enjoyed more freedom. The renegade had three wives. Two of them showed an affectionate interest in the captive. One was a Christian belonging to the Greek Schismatic Churh and the other wife was a Mohammedan. This latter used to like going to the fields where Vincent was working, and she would ask him to sing. Vincent, who remembered so well the Breviary he used to recite every evening in his humble student’s lodging, and the Old Testament passages he had studied in the lecture halls of Toulouse, would intone with great emotion and a feeling of nostalgia, the psalm of the Israelites in captivity, “Super flumina Babylonis”, and followed this with the Salve Regina and other hymns. The pure notes of the Gregorian chants soared into the silence of the sun‑filled fields. The Turkish woman was moved and filled with wonder. What a sublime religion that must be if it inspired such beautiful and evocative hymns! Her husband had been very wrong to abandon it; she told him so that very night. The renegade agreed. He was more than repentant. The words of his wife, (likened by Vincent to “another Caiphas or Balaam’s ass”) meant that the man’s secret feelings of repentance could be contained no longer. The next day he told Vincent of his plan to flee to France at the first opportunity.

Set free

The opportunity didn’t arise, however, until ten months later. It was then that master and slave embarked, one day, in a small skiff and made for the sea. They were in luck and they made the Mediterranean crossing without mishap. On 28th June, 1607, two years after Vincent’s capture, they disembarked at Aigues Mortes and made their way to Avignon.

In that pontifical city, Vincent’s restless compass was to find another North Star which would point him towards the third of his youthful projects, and also, though here we are anticipating future events, to the third of his failures. The Pontifical Vice Legate in Avignon (we must remember that at this time the city and its surrounding territory constitutedan enclave of papal sovereignty on French soil) received back the penitent renegade and promised to help him enter the monastery of the Fate ben Fratelli in Rome. He also took a fancy to the intrepid priest from Pouy. Vincent won the hearts of Comet, the generous old lady from Castres, the alchemist, the renegade’s wife and this, his fifth benefactor, by no other means than his kindness which seems to have been contagious, and perhaps by his air of vulnerability which belied his apparent self assurance. These were weapons he was to employ in pursuit of nobler aims for the rest of his life.

Pietro de Montorio, as the Vice Legate was called, was preparing to return to Rome after completing his triennial mission7. He would return as soon as his successor arrived. He told Vincent that he had a good relationship with this man. He undertook to procure a good benefice for him, the benefice that Vincent had been seeking in vain for five years. That rash project which had taken Vincent from Toulouse, first of all to Bordeaux, and then to Castres and Marseilles, and finally to the coasts of Tunisia, had been a complete failure. Vincent’s two years in captivity saw the plan collapse like a pack of cards ‑ if indeed there was ever any substance to it. Vincent accepted the Vice Legate’s proposals with enthusiasm. Here was a new avenue opening up to him. For the plan to be successful he would need, as he told his benefactor, documentary proof of his ordination to the priesthood and his degree in theology. On the face of it, this was Vincent’s reason for writing the first letter to Monsieur de Comet. He also wanted to reassure his relatives and close friends about his sudden disappearance, and finally, he wanted to satisfy his creditors, even if, for the moment, he could only offer promises. He did have some money as the renegade convert had made him a present of about 120 crowns. But for the moment he needed these to pay for the journey and his stay in Rome, even though he could count on the Vice Legate for support and for lodgings. He would pay later on… At the age of twenty seven, Vincent didn’t have too many scruples about taking other people’s money without permission and using it for his own purposes.

Back in Rome again

Vincent found himself in Rome for the second time in less than eight years. He lived in the Monsignor’s house and enjoyed his confidence. His board and lodgings were assured. He used his free time to study at one of the universities in Rome. In return, he acted as servant to the Roman prelate and entertained him as a minstrel. In Renaissance and Baroque Rome this was a common enough practice and Vincent turned to his advantage the tricks he had learnt from the old Turkisk doctor ‑ the little secrets of alchemy, Archimedes’ mirror and the talking skull. It was Ginés de Pasamonte at the court of Rome!8

Pietro de Montorio used to brag about the skills his servant had learnt and even mentioned them to the Sovereign Pontiff, then Paul V, the Borghese Pope who had just entrusted to Maderno the work of completing Michelangelo’s basilica. The Vice Legate continued to promise favours to this talented and likeable servant. This led to a further request for a copy of his university certificates and letters of ordination. The previous ones were invalid because they didn’t bear the signature or seal of the Bishop of Dax. Vincent hoped that Monsieur de Comet would intervene again on his behalf in this matter. He signed his second letter to him, as he had done the first, with his surname written in one word, Depaul. He never wrote it any other way although his contemporaries and consequently all Vincentian biographers were accustomed to write it in two words ‑ de Paul. This detail is of no great significance. The registers of the Landes district, and certain legal documents relating to Vincent, use both forms indiscriminately. Neither form is indicative of nobility. The particle “de” just indicates the place of origin. Thousands of lowly peasant families on both sides of the Pyrenees used it in their surname.

  1. The complete text of the letters is in volume two of S.V.P. I p.1‑17: ES p.75‑78. We recommend you to read the whole text. References in the following text are taken from it.
  2. In the 17th century French coinage kept to the medieval monetary system which dates back to the time of Charlemagne and which continued to operate in England until the second half of the 20th century. The monetary unit was the “livre” which was subdivided into coins of lesser value. The “livre” was divided into 20 “sous” which, in turn, were divided into 12 “denarii”. Before decimalisation the English pound was worth 20 shillings and the shilling was worth 12 pence. In the 17th century the French “écu” was a silver coin worth 3 livres. It is more difficult to estimate the present day value of these coins because prices and wages have changed so much over the years. It might be helpful to know that in 1629 the income of a French parish priest was fixed at 300 livres (100 écus) a year while a journeyman’s pay could vary between 7 and 11 sous (approximately half a livre) a day.
  3. A. DODIN. “Lecciones sobre vicencianismo” p.235.
  4. Translator’s note: The author uses the word “clock” because in St. Vincent’s time the barometer was not yet invented. Vincent’s wound would be affected by the weather and it would keep him awake. (hence, “clock”)
  5. BAUDIER. “Inventaire de l’Histoire des Turcs” (Paris 1631) 1.17 p.235; refered by COLLET, op. cit., Vol.1 p.19; JACQUES DU CASTEL, “Relation des voyages de Monsieur de Brèves…” (Paris 1628); refered by COSTE, M.V. Vol.1 p.50.
  6. It is not easy to read this word. It has been traditionally interpreted as Nice but modern editors think it should read Nissy o Niçy, that is to say Annecy.
  7. Vincent states that the Vicelegate completed his three year term of office on the feast of St. John. Other documents would suggest that the date was 14th June, but this may be due to a misreading of the text. Anyway, Vincent’s statements tally perfectly with that we have learnt from other sources. In fact, on 27th July, 1607, Monsignor Montorio writes to Cardinal Borghese, informing him that he will remain in Avignon until his successor, Giuseppi Ferreri, archbishop of Urbino, arrives. The phrase that Vincent used is almost word for word the same as Montorio’s. He arrived in Rome on 30th October, 1607. We have no information about Montorio’s departure from Avignon but it must have been sometime after 31st August that year. For information about this, and the situation generally, see Montorio’s biography, cf. JEAN PARRANG, “Un mécène de Saint Vincent de Paul: Pierre François Montoro (dit Montorio)” (┼ 1643): Annales (1937) p.245‑259; ibid. (1938) p.615‑623; ibid. (1943‑1944) p.224‑28. The latter part of this article was written by Fr. Raymond Chalumeau from notes by Parrang who died before he could finish the work.
  8. Ginés de Pasamonte was a character in “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, and may have been inspired by the historical figure “Jerónimo de Pasamonte” who, like Vincent, was a captive in Algeria. The fictional character, Gines de Pasamonte, was involved in various escapades and at one time had a puppet show.

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