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Entry by Joëlle Quaghebeur, 2009

Born around 420, Geneviève (Geno-veifa ‘born from a woman’s breast’) came from a family which was representative of the social and ethnical changes that occurred in fifth-century Gaul. Her name points to her filiations to the Germanic world, with the claim of a direct line of descent on the mother’s side. Indeed, her mother, Geroncia, was a Roman, and her father Severus was a Romanised Frank who became, following a high-ranked military career, both a public magistrate in Lutecia and a member of the Curiales assembly. Upon his death, Geneviève, an only child, succeeded him in office under the Theodosian code (438).

In 429, in the family home in Nanterre, she met Germanus of Auxerre on his way to Britain. He invited her to devote her life to God. Ordained deaconess by Germanus himself, then a consecrated virgin, she developed remarkable mystical qualities (especially the gift of prophecy) that would be admired as far away as Syria: Simeon Stylites requested before his death in 459 he ‘be remembered in her prayers’. Her strong faith became an instrument of struggle in the fight against Arianism. Between 451 and 475, she erected a basilica on the site of the tomb of the first Bishop of Paris, Denis the martyr. She raised a tax for this construction (despite a civil war) and personally supervised the work because of her significant administrative responsibilities. She thus set to defend the cult of Saints condemned by the Arians. She also went on a pilgrimage to Tours (then ruled by ArianVisigoths) with Martin, who had witnessed anti-Arian Orthodoxy.

Geneviève was also involved in the political life of her time. In 451, she comforted the people of Lutecia concerned by the approach of the Huns led by Attila, whose goal (which they achieved) was to be besiege Orleans. Geneviève had uncontested authority in surrounding areas, and was an interlocutor with the ethnic groups, Roman or Germanic. She defended the local population over whom her municipal and religious prerogatives gave her authority. In 475-476, she went to Laon, where the Frankish king Childeric solemnly welcome her and granted her the release of prisoners. Although he had remained a pagan, the king also granted immunity to churches in the area that were under his authority. He kept acting as a faithful servant of the Roman world that had bestowed upon him his title. His way of exercising power led Geneviève to choose the Franks as defenders of Christian Romanism and of Gaul’s unity. Despite the blockade established by Childeric and his son Clovis, against her city (476-486), her confidence in the Frankish court was not shaken. Geneviève probably felt supported by God when Clovis chose to marry the Catholic Burgundian princess Clotilde. Therefore, the process began as she had anticipated: the Franks, from whom she originated, should be the people who, by adopting the Catholic faith, would preserve the institutional political and spiritual Roman legacy. She died in 502.

The very close proximity of Geneviève to the Frankish kingdom explains why Clovis and Clotilde chose to build on the site of her tomb (already known as a place of miracles) a basilica dedicated to the Holy Apostles. They then chose to lie there, so the Royal Frankish race would continue to benefit from the virtues of the female saint. Her Vita was written in 520, during the lifetime of the queen, by a cleric of her entourage. Being the contemporary heroine of the foundation of the Frankish kingdom, namely the centerpiece of the accession of monarchs to Christianity, Geneviève has remained revered as the patron saint of Paris over centuries, and as a holy founder and a role model for women’s civilising qualities. Under the Old Regime, the cult of her relics was revived in every major crisis in the capital. Geneviève continued thereafter to play a central role in the construction of national identity. As such, she is one of three or four women who have never disappeared from history books. In recent historiography, she has become a figure of interest more specifically because of the account delivered in her Vita on the state of Gaul at that time, on the institutional and diplomatic choices made by the Franks and on the major political role played by women in the Frankish aristocracy.

(translated by Martine Sauret)


  • Vita Genovefae virginie Parisiensis, Br. Krusch éd., M.G.H., Scriptores rerum merowingicarum, t.III, Hanovre, 1896, p.215-238.

Selected bibliography

  • Dubois, Jacques et Beaumont-Maillet, Laure, Sainte Geneviève de Paris, Paris, Beauchesne, 1982.
  • Heinzelmann, Martin et Poulin, Joseph-Claude, Les Vies anciennes de sainte Geneviève de Paris, Bibliothèque de l'École des Hautes Études, IVe section, t.329, Paris, 1986.
  • Perrin, Patrick, «La tombe de Clovis», dans Recueil de Mélanges offerts à Karl-Ferdinand Werner, Maulévrier, 1989, p.363-378.
  • Rouche, Michel, Clovis, Paris, Fayard, 1996.

Selected bibliography of images

  • Circa 1210-1220 : Sainte Geneviève, column statue on the Portal of the Coronation of the Virgin (North), Paris, Notre-Dame.
  • Circa 1380-1390 : Anonymous, Tableau reliquaire de sainte Geneviève (hallmarked and gilded silver, low relief covered with translucent enamelwork), Paris, musée de Cluny (inv. Cl. 23314) -- Paris de Clovis à Dagobert (Exhibition Catalogue), dir. Michel Fleury, Guy-Michel Leproux, Dany Sandron, Ville de Paris, Centre culturel du Panthéon, 1996, no.137, fig. p.119 (Elisabeth Antoine); Paris 1400. Les arts sous Charles VI (cat. d’expo.), éd. Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye et François Avril, Paris, musée du Louvre, 2004, no.21, fig. p.61.
  • Circa 1510-1515 : «Maître de Claude de France», Sainte Geneviève (illustration), Paris, École des Beaux-Arts (M.95) -- François Avril et Nicole Reynaud, Les Manuscrits à peinture en France 1440-1520, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale/Flammarion, 1993, no.176, p.319-321.
  • 1694 : Nicolas Largillière, Ex-voto des échevins de Paris à sainte Geneviève, Paris, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont.
  • 1874-1891 : Cycle dédié à la vie de sainte Geneviève (fresques), Paris, Panthéon (Puvis de Chavannes, L'enfance de sainte Geneviève et rencontre de sainte Geneviève et saint Germain, nef mur sud; Puvis de Chavannes, sainte Geneviève ravitaillant Paris assiégé et sainte Geneviève veillant sur Paris, choeur mur nord; Jules Delaunay, La marche d'Attila et sainte Geneviève calmant les parisiens, nef côté nord; Théodore Maillot, Les miracles de sainte Geneviève, bras sud transept; Jean-Paul Laurens, La mort de sainte Geneviève, choeur mur sud) -- François Macé de Lépinay, Peintures et sculptures du Panthéon, Paris, Éditions du Patrimoine, 1997.


  • «Au milieu du scepticisme de notre époque, elle apparaît bien moins comme un personnage historique que comme un mythe, une personnification de la piété et de la charité» (rubrique «Geneviève», Grand Dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle par Pierre Larousse, t.VIII, Paris, 1872).
  • «Cette vierge forte unissant aux qualités charmantes de la femme, le courage, l'énergie, l'esprit d'initiative» (Godefroid Kurth, «Étude critique sur la vie de sainte Geneviève», Revue d'Histoire ecclésiastique, t.XIV, 1913, p.78).
  • «C'est pour subvenir aux besoins des habitants affamés [...] que Geneviève, une fille héroïque qu'avait vouée à Dieu Germain d'Auxerre [...] partit par voie d'eau jusqu'à Arcis-sur-Aube» (Fliche, Augustin et Martin, Victor, Histoire de l'Église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours, t.4, De la mort de Théodose à l'élection de Grégoire le Grand, Paris, Bloud et Gay, 1945, p.394).
Also known as Saint Genevieve
Birth date 422
Death 502
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