Cité épiscopale d’Albi
1 The “Collégiale Saint-Salvi” owes its vast terrain, “l’Ort en Salvi,” the garden of Monsieur Salvi, to its ancient royal origins.
Is the primitive sepulchre of Saint Salvi to be found on the current site of the church? Nothing is less certain, but when in 943 this site was given to the monks on condition that they build a church in honour of Saint Salvi, his relics were transferred there and underneath the main altar lie a narrow crypt and the vestiges of very ancient constructions.
Saint Salvi lived amongst the wreckage of what was the Roman Empire.
Of what had been the Gallic civilisation there remained only scattered remnants, shaken by continuous convulsions, a puzzle which refused to fall into place and in which Albi was a piece that moved ceaselessly.
We would know nothing of Albi in this period were it not for Gregoire (538-594), Bishop of Tours, who wished to provide a position for a family to which he was vaguely allied, the noble gallo-roman family of Didier-Salvi which dominated the Albi region in the 6th century.
The family included Didier, a duke who attempted to create for himself a huge principality in the Toulouse region after 470, and Salvi, an Albigeois count, descendant of Syagrius and a provincial prefect.
The family is a good example of the Aquitaine aristocracy which controlled society by the simple fact that it was seen to constitute ’the elite.’ They thus served as figureheads of the institutions of the declining Roman Empire and the nascent Merovingian ’state.’ The privileges, responsibilities and status of the ecclesiastical order devolved ’ipso facto’ upon this aristocracy.
The Didier-Salvi family included several Bishops, the rapid sanctification of which increased the family’s prestige and consolidated its power.
After completing studies in law and the humanities, Salvi was a practising advocate in Albi for some time. On becoming a monk he left public life and enclosed himself in a monastery at the gates of Albi where he undertook a life of solitude and prayer, following the sayings of the Desert Fathers which had been adapted and defused across Gaul by St Martin of Tours.
He observed such complete abstinence that he was believed dead and his burial ceremony was prepared but at the last moment he opened his eyes as though awakening from a deep sleep. The humble Salvi was thus considered an elect of God and was named Bishop in 574.
Salvi was as good a Bishop as he had been a monk. In these difficult, chaotic times of the early Merovingian era, the Bishop was at once spiritual leader, defender of the city, protector of the poor and conscience of the people.
Salvi maintained his ties with the ruling classes. He convinced King Chiléric to concentrate his energies on ruling well rather than theologising badly. During a trance he is said to have been told that he was too important to the church to be allowed to die as he wished.
During an outbreak of famine and bubonic plague, Salvi chose to remain in the city to devote himself to the sufferers. He himself was to fall victim to the plague and died after 10 years as Bishop, in 584.
His shrouded body was buried in the monastery in which he had lived. In the 10th century his remains were placed in a sanctuary built in the 10th century upon the site of the Collégiale Saint Salvi under the altar of Saint Saturnin.
The Collégiale Saint-Salvi is the oldest sanctuary in Albi to be dedicated to a local saint.
Until 1230 Saint Salvi retained his pre-eminent position in the church. Upon entering the church the Bishops would bow before the relics of the holy Bishop.
In the 13th century the crypt beneath the main alter was moved and the tomb of Saint Salvi was lost.
1Translated from "Albi, biographie de ma ville", Jean Roques, pp37-42.