Vivien’s First Holy Communion and Death on the Battlefield of Aliscans

October 3, 2019

Our Chansons de geste somehow are silent concerning this festival, which is calculated to bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened: One can find only a  single reference which leads us directly to this grand ceremony. It is true, that this episode is incomparable, and ought to be placed beside—quite on a level with the death of Roland.

This occasion was the first communion of Vivien, on the evening of the battle of Aliscans.

We must picture to ourselves, here, an extensive field of battle, upon which two nations—what do I say? Two races—are rushing one against the other furiously, and occupied for two hours in endeavoring to exterminate each other. The French, the Christians—these two names were gloriously synonymous—the “men of God” are beaten, and Islam is conqueror!

Almost interminable piles of knights and dead horses indicate the places in which have taken place the thousands of duels of which a battle in those days consisted. All the French, with the exception of fifteen, have bitten the dust, and the infidels still number one hundred thousand!

Everywhere around arise the cries of the dying and the wounded, the whinnying of riderless horses, and the joyous cries of the victors. And yonder, not far off, in a beautiful green valley beside a spring—in a beautiful spot in which the cries of the combat are but faintly heard—a very young man, almost a youth, is lying stiff, perfectly white, his hands crossed. One would have pronounced him dead, if his clasped hands did not now and then beat his chest, and if his eyes had not occasionally been turned upwards to the heavens, and if one had not heard him murmur the word God.

This youth is the nephew of William of Orange—it is Vivien who is dying!

Saint William of Gellone, the medieval William of Orange.

William himself is yonder in the midst of the fourteen survivors of the Christian army, whom he overtops in his great height. He is there seated upon his horse Baucent and is thinking of his nephew whom he loves as a son.

“Where is he? Where is Vivien?” he cries.

Then he adventures across the battlefield in search of him living or dead. “Where is he? Where is Vivien?”

Providence has pity upon William, and conducts him to the corner of the secluded valley in which Vivien is dying; and there is the Count of Orange, in the presence of the young man with the blanched face, who scarcely moves and hardly breathes.

Suddenly an idea occurs to this grim warrior, who is himself covered with blood, for he has fought since morning like a furious lion:

“He will die without having partaken of his first communion.” Then he exclaims, “O why did I not arrive sooner?” The good William actually has the sacred elements in his possession, and he regrets that he cannot place the wafer piously upon his nephew’s lips. But alas those lips are cold and dead!

Suddenly the young man stirs: It is an almost imperceptible movement. Life, as the old poet says, returned to him for an instant, and “leaped into his breast.” William, then, possessed by one idea, speaks to him very gently—

“Do you not wish to eat the consecrated bread?” he says.

“I have never tasted it,” replied the dying man, “but as you are there I feel as if God had sent it to me.”

Then in that little grass-grown valley, beneath the great tree near the spring, an indescribable scene took place. William became grave as he assumed the priestly office, and said to his nephew—

“You must confess to me, because I am your nearest relative, and because there is no priest here.”

“I am quite willing,” replied the youthful Vivien in a weak voice, “but you will have to support my head against your chest. I hunger, yes, I hunger for that bread. Hasten, for I die, I die!”

Then he makes his confession, but can remember only one fault.

“I made a vow that I would never retreat one step before the Infidel, and today I have failed to keep my oath!”

The supreme moment has arrived. William takes the wafer and places it between the parted lips of Vivien. There are thousands of angels present to witness the sight and to bear that soul to Heaven. Vivien’s countenance lights up once again, but Death descends from his head to his heart. He falls back with a sigh; he is dead! Gone from this world to Paradise, to never-ending happiness, to complete the day of his first communion.

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 117–21.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 694


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