Golden Legend – Life of John the Almoner

[Saint John the Almoner]Here followeth the Life of Saint John the Almoner.

Saint John the Almoner was patriarch of Jerusalem. He saw on a time, in a vision, a much fair maid, which had on her head a crown of olive, and when he saw her he was greatly abashed and demanded her what she was? This maid answered to him: I am Mercy which brought from heaven the son of God, if thou wilt wed me, thou shalt fare the better. Then he, understanding that the olive betokeneth mercy, began that same day to be merciful in such wise that he was called Almoner or amener, and he called alway the poor people his lords. Then he called his servants and said to them: Go through the city and write ye all the names of my lords, and when he saw that they understood not his words, he said to them: They be they that ye call poor and mendicants, I call them my lords, and I say they be my helpers, and trust it well that they mow help and get me the kingdom of heaven. And because he would stir the people to do alms, he said that when the poor men were once together warming them against the sun, they began to tell who were good almsmen, and them would they praise, and blame them that were evil. Among all other he told this narration.

There was sometime a toller named Peter in a city, and was a much rich man, but he was not piteous, but cruel to poor people, for he would hunt and chase away poor people and beggars from his house with indignation and anger. Thus would no poor man come to him for alms. Then was there one poor man said to his fellows: What will ye give me if I get of him an alms this day? And they made a wager with him that he should not, which done, he went to this toller’s house and stood at the gate, and demanded alms. And when this rich man came and saw this poor man at his gate he was much angry and would have cast somewhat at his head, but he could find nothing, till at last came one of his servants bearing a basket full of bread of rye, and in a great anger, he took a rye loaf, and threw it at his head, as he that might not hear the cry of the poor man. And he took up the loaf and ran to his fellows and said truly that he had received that loaf of Peter’s own hand. And then within two days after, this rich man was sick, and like for to die, and as he lay he was ravished in spirit, in which he saw that he was set in judgment, and black men bringing forth his wicked deeds, and laid them in a balance on that one side, and on that other side he saw some clothed in white, mourning and sorrowful, but they had nothing to leave against them in that other balance, and one of them said: Truly we have nothing but a rye Ioaf which he gave to God against his will but two days gone. And then they put that loaf into that balance, and him seemed the balances were like even. Then they said to him: Increase and multiply this rye loaf, or else thou must be delivered to these black moors or fiends. And when he awoke he said. Alas! if a rye loaf have so much availed me which I gave in despite, how much should it have availed me if I had given all my goods to poor men with a good will. As this rich man went on a day clothed with his best clothes, a poor shipman came to him all naked and demanded of him some clothing, for the love of God, to cover him withal, and he anon despoiled himself, and gave to him his rich clothing, that he ware, and anon the poor man sold it; and when he knew that the poor man had sold it, he was so sorry that he would eat no meat, but he said: Alas! I am not worthy that the poor man think upon me. And the night following when he slept, he saw one brighter than the sun, having a cross on his head wearing the same cloth that he had given to the poor man, and he said to him: Why weepest thou Tollener? And when he had told him the cause of his sorrow, he said to him: Knowest thou this cloth? And he said: Yea, Sire; and then our Lord said: I have been clothed therewith sith thou gavest it to me, and I thank thee of thy good will that thou hadst pity of my nakedness, for when I was a cold thou coveredst me. And when he awoke he blessed the poor people, and said: By the living God! if I live I will be one of his poor men. And when he had given all his good to poor men, he called one of his secret men whom he trusted well and said to him: I have a secret counsel to tell thee, and if thou keep it not secret and do as I bid thee, I shall sell thee to the heathen men. And he took him ten pound in gold and had him go into the holy city, and buy some necessary ware, and when thou hast so done, take me and sell me to some christian man, and take that money that thou shalt receive for me and give it to poor people. And the servant refused it, and he said: Truly if thou sell me not, I shall sell thee to the barbaries. And then he took this Peter the tollener as he had commanded him, which was his master, clad in vile clothing, and led him to the market and sold him to an argenter for thirty besants, which he took and dealt it among poor men. This Peter then thus sold was bound and put into a kitchen for to do all foul works, in such wise that he was despised of every man of the servants. And some oft smote him and knocked him about the head, and called him fool. Christ appeared oft to him and showed him his clothing and the besants and comforted him. And the Emperor and other people were sorry for Peter the tollener. And it happed that noble men of Constantinople came unto the place whereas Peter was for to visit holy places, whom the master of Peter bade to dinner, and as they sat and ate at their dinner, Peter served and passed by them, and they, beholding him, said to each other in their ears, how like is this young man to Peter the tollener, and as they well saw and advised him they said: Verily it is my lord Peter; I shall arise and hold him, and when Peter understood that he fled away privily.

There was a porter which was both deaf and dumb, and by signs he opened the gates, and Peter bade him by words to open the gates; and he anon heard him and receiving speech answered him, and Peter went his way. And the porter returned into the house speaking and hearing, whereof all they marvelled, to whom he said: He that was in the kitchen is gone out and fleeth away, but know ye for certain that he is the servant of God, for as he spake and bade me open the gate, there issued out of his mouth a flame of fire, which touched my tongue and mine ears, and anon I received hearing and speaking. And anon they all went out and ran after him, but they might not find him. Then all they of the house repented them, and did penance, because they had so foul entreated him.

There was a monk named Vital which would assay if he might raise any slander against Saint John. And Saint John came in to a city and went unto all the bordels of common women and said to each of them by order: Give me this night and do no fornication. Then he entered into the house of one and was in a corner all the night on his knees in prayer and prayed for her. And on the morn he went and commanded to each of them that they should tell it to no man, yet one of them manifested his life. And anon as Saint John had prayed she began to be tormented with a devil, and anon the other women said to her: God hath given to thee that that thou hast deserved, because she entered for to do fornication and not for none other cause. And when it was even, the foresaid monk Vital said tofore them all: I will go thither, for that woman abideth me, then many blamed him, and he answered and said: Am I not a man as another is? I have a body as other men have, is God only wrath with monks? they be men as other be. Then some of them said to him: Take to thee a wife, and change thine habit so that thou scandal not others. He feigning himself wroth said: Verily I shall not hear you, who that will be slandered let him be slandered, and let him smite his forehead against the wall, be ye ordained to be my judges of God? Go ye and take heed of yourselves, for ye shall give none accounts for me; and this he said with a loud voice. And then they complained to Saint John of his governance, but our Lord harded so his heart that he gave no credence to their words, but he prayed God that he would show his works to some creature after his death, and that it should not turn to his blame that defamed him. By this means he brought many for to be converted, and set of them many for to be closed in religion. In a morning, as he went from them one of these common women met with a man that entered in for to do fornication, who gave to him a buffet and said: Thou wicked man, why amendest thou not thy wicked living? And he said to him: Believe me right well that thou shalt have such a buffet that all Alexandria shall assemble to wonder on thee. And after that the fiend came in likeness of a man, and gave him a buffet, and said to him: This is the buffet that the abbot Vital promised thee, and anon he was ravished with the fiend, and tormented so that all the people drew to him and wondered on him; but at the last he was repentant and was healed by the prayers of Saint Vital. And when the servant of God was nigh his end he left in writing to his disciples: Judge ye never before the time; and when he was dead the women confessed what he had done, and all they glorified God, and namely Saint John, saying: Would God that ilke buffet that he took I had taken.

There was a poor man in the habit of a pilgrim came to Saint John and demanded alms, and he called his dispenser and bade him to give to him sixpence, which he received, and went his way, and changed his clothing, and came to the patriarch and asked alms, and he called his dispenser and bade him to give him sixpence of gold, and when he had given to him and was departed, the dispenser said to his lord: Father, at your request this man hath received twice alms this day, and hath changed his habit twice; Saint John feigned as he had not heard it. And the poor man changed his clothing the third time, and came again to Saint John, and asked yet the third time alms, and then the dispenser told his lord privily that he was the same beggar, to whom Saint John said: Give to him twelve besants, lest it be my Lord Jesu Christ that will prove me whether he might more take or I give.

On a time it happed that one Patricius had certain money of the church which he would put in merchandise, but the patriarch would in no wise consent thereto, but would it should be given to poor people, and they could not accord but departed all wroth. And after evensong time the patriarch sent to the archpriest Patricius, saying: Sir, the sun is nigh gone down, and he hearing that anon he wept, and came to him and asked for forgiveness. On a time the nephew of the patriarch suffered wrong of a taverner, and complained lamentably to the patriarch and could not be comforted, and the patriarch said to him: Who is so hardy that dare say against thee or open his mouth against thee? Believe me, son, that I shall this day do for thee such a thing that all Alexandria shall wonder on it. And when he heard that he was well comforted, weening that the taverner should have been sore beaten. And Saint John seeing that he was comforted kissed his breast and said: Son, if thou be verily the nephew of mine humility, make thee ready to be scourged and to suffer of every man beatings, chidings and wrongs, for very affinity is not only of flesh and blood, but it is known by the strength of virtue: and anon he sent for that man and made him free of all pension and tribute. And all they that heard this wondered greatly, and then understood they that he had said before, that he would so do that all Alexandria should wonder thereof.

The patriarch hearing of the custom that is when the emperor is crowned, there shall come to him the makers of sepultures and bring stones of marble of divers colours, and demand the emperor of what stones he will have his grave made, or of what metal. Saint John remembering this, commanded to make his sepulture, but yet he did not do make it all but left it imperfect unto his end. And he ordained that at every feast, when he was with the clergy, some should come to him and say: Sire, thy monument or sepulture is not all made, but imperfect, command that it may be made, for thou wotest not what hour thou shalt die, ne when the thief cometh.

There was a rich man which saw Saint John, having in his bed but vile clothes and not rich, for he had given all his goods to poor men. He bought for him a much rich coverture for his bed and gave it to Saint John. And in a night, as it lay upon him, he could not sleep, for he thought three hundred of his lords might well have been covered withal, and made all that night lamentation saying: Ah Lord, how many be there of my lords now in the mire, how many in the rain, how many so cold that their teeth beat together, and how many that sleep in the market place; and said to himself. And thou wretch devourest the great fishes, and restest in thy chamber with thy wickedness under a coverture of twenty-six pounds to warm thy carrion. And after he would never be covered therewith, but on the morn he did do sell it and gave the money thereof to poor people. And when the rich man saw it he bought it again and took it to the blessed Saint John and desired him no more to sell it, but keep it for himself. And anon after Saint John sold it again and gave the money of it to poor people. And when the rich man wist it, yet he bought it again and brought it to Saint John full goodly, and said to him: We shall see who shall fail of us, or thou in the selling or I in the buying; and thus it was oft bought and sold, the rich man seeing well that he might well minish his riches in this manner without sin, to the intent to give it to poor people. And they both should win in this manner, that one in saving of their souls, and that other in getting reward. And Saint John would draw men to do alms in this manner; he was accustomed to tell of Saint Serapion, when he had given his mantle to a poor man and after met with another that had cold, he gave him his coat, and himself sat all naked. And one demanded of him: Father, who hath despoiled thee? And he had in his hand the book of the evangelists and said: This hath despoiled me. And anon he saw another poor man, and then he sold the book of gospels and gave the price thereof to poor men, and when he was demanded where his book of the gospels was, he answered and said: That the gospel commandeth and saith: Go and sell all that thou hast, and give it to the poor, I had this gospel and I have sold it like as he commanded.

On a time he gave to a poor man five besants, and the poor man had disdain thereof and began to chide and despise him in his visage because he had no more alms, and when his servants saw that, they would have beaten him, and then the blessed John defended them saying: Suffer ye him brethren and let him curse me, lo! I have these thirty years blasphemed by my works Christ, and may not I bear one blame or vice of this man? And he commanded that a sack of money full should be brought tofore this poor man, that he should take as much as he would.

On a time, after that the gospel was read in the church, the people went out and talked idle tales, and this holy patriarch apperceived them and followed after and sat down among them, and said to them: Sons, there as the sheep be, there must be the shepherd also, and therefore, either ye must enter with me into the church or else I must abide with you here, and thus he did twice and thereby he taught the people to abide and stand in the church.

Another time there was a young man had ravished a nun, and the clerks reproved the young man thereof tofore Saint John, and said he ought to be cursed therefor, because he had lost two souls, his own and the nun’s. Then Saint John withstood their sentence saying: Not so my sons, not so, I shall show that ye commit two sins: first, ye do against the commandment of God which saith: Judge ye not, and ye shall not be judged. Secondly, ye wit not for certain whether they have sinned into this day, and have not been penitent and have repented them. It fell many times that Saint John was ravished in his prayers, and was in a trance, and he was heard dispute with our Lord in these words: So, good Lord Jesu Christ, so; I in parting and thou in ministering, let us see who shall overcome.

On a time when he was sick and vexed with the fevers, and saw that he approached his end, he said: I yield to thee thankings for thou hast heard my wretchedness praying thy goodness that at my death should be found with me but one besant or one piece of money, and that yet I command to be given to the poor. And then he yielded his soul unto Almighty God. And his venerable body was put in a sepulchre where the bodies of two bishops were buried, and the two bodies by miracle gave room and place to the body of Saint John, for they removed each from other and left the middle void for his body.

A little time tofore his death there was a woman had committed a great and horrible sin, and durst not be shriven thereof ne show it to no man. Saint John bade her write it and seal it, and bring it to him, and he would pray for her. She assented thereto; she wrote her sin, and diligently closed and sealed it and delivered it to Saint John. And anon after Saint John waxed sick and died, and when she heard that he was dead she supposed herself confused and shamed, for she weened that he had delivered it to some other man, and she came to his tomb, and there wept and cried much lamentably, saying: Alas! alas! I supposed to have eschewed my confusion and now I am made confusion unto all others, and wept bitterly praying Saint John that he would show to her where he had left her writing. And suddenly Saint John came and appeared to her in the habit of a bishop, on either side of him a bishop, and said to the woman: Why troubles thou me so much, and these saints with me, and sufferest not us to have rest? Lo, here our clothes be all wet of thy tears, and then delivered to her her scroll again, sealed as it was tofore, saying to her: See here thy seal, open thy writing and read it; which anon she opened and all her sin was defaced and clean out, and she found therein written: All thy sin is forgiven and put away by the prayer of John, my servant. And then she rendered thankings to our Lord God and to Saint John, and then Saint John with the two bishops returned into their sepulture. This holy man Saint John flourished in the year of our Lord six hundred and five, in the time of Phocas the emperor.