How Dark were the Dark Ages? Some New Views on the Histories of Gregory of Tours, Fredegar, and Bede

The three centuries after the fifth-century fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe have long been bleakly described as the “Dark Ages.” In accordance to this historiographical tradition, it has been argued that the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, and the subsequent rise of successor “barbarian” kingdoms, brought about both the decline of civilization and the triumph of superstition over rationality.[1] In the past forty years, however, historians have begun to question this paradigm. At the vanguard of this movement, Peter Brown’s, The World of Late Antiquity (1971), presented a more optimistic vision of the breakup of the Roman Empire. Instead of seeing this period as an era of decay, leading to the “backward” Greek Byzantine Empire and the barbarised kingdoms of Western Europe, Brown and his followers present Late Antiquity as a complex period of cultural germination. These researchers have argued that developments in this era—particularly the intellectual growth and spread of Christianity—have helped to shape the modern as well as the medieval world. Because of the increased focus on this era, in the past forty years, the period known formerly as the “Dark Ages,” has become somewhat ‘brighter.” Scholars have reworked the model of Western Europe gradually crumbling into ignorance as the Empire retreated to the East and “barbarian” peoples flooded into the West. In the past few years, however, several studies have questioned this more optimistic vision of the end of the Ancient World and the advent of the Early Middle Ages. So too have these works criticised what they see as an over-reliance on the newer historical methods preferred by social historians (e.g. Heather; Ward-Perkins).

This essay explores some of the current historiographical debate surrounding the Early Middle Ages. It examines three histories from this era: Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks,[2] composed late in the sixth century, the Chronicle of Fredagar with its continuations, compiled by several authors in the seventh and the eighth centuries, and Bede’s eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. By understanding, how these Early Medieval historians depicted this era, a greater understanding and appreciation of this important period may be achieved.

All three of these sources contain vital information about the early formation of individual states in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Gregory of Tours’ writings and Fredegar’s chronicle provide historians with nearly a continuous historical record of Gaul, from the decline of Roman rule in the fifth century, to the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in the eighth century. Bede has long been venerated as the first “English” historian, and his work provides valuable insight into the important centuries after Britain became separated from the Roman Empire.[3]

With the paucity of written sources available for the Early Middle Ages, Gregory and Bede have often been seen as representing the dying embers of Classical civilization. In, Narrators of Barbarian History, Walter Goffart suggests that scholars have long used Gregory’s Histories as proof of an increasingly turbulent and violent world. He adds that Gregory’s “boundless faith in miracles is deemed to show that the Gaul he lived in stood closer to the Haitian hinterland than to the fellowship of decorous Christians.”[4] Fredegar’s work is often portrayed as a feeble attempt to follow the great Christian chroniclers of the past. J. M. Wallace-Hadrill claims: “Fredegar knows that the golden age lies behind, and the end of the world not so far ahead.”[5] Like Gregory and Fredegar, Bede described the history of a former Roman Province that had been taken over by “barbarians.” While scholars have generally been unanimous in their praise of Bede’s writings, most, like Patrick Wormwald, have seen Bede as an anomaly in an increasingly uncivilized world.[6]

Gregory of Tours

This vision of the Early Middle Ages as an era of decline and pessimism continues to have “a strong hold on the European historical imagination.”[7] The following passage from Gregory’s introduction to the Histories has often been used as proof that the bishop recognized that he lived in an era of decline:

In fact, in the towns of Gaul the writing of literature has declined to the point where it has virtually disappeared altogether. Many people have complained about this, not once but time and time again. ‘What a poor period this is!’ they have been heard to say. ‘If among all our people there is not one man to be found who can write about what is happening today, the pursuit of letters is dead in us!’[8]


Moreover, Gregory’s work was the first historical composition to be produced in Gaul in one hundred and fifty years.  Goffart claims, however that this decline in historical literature had less to do with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the arrival of the Franks, and more to do with Christian writers’ rejection of historical writing.[9]

A growing body of research suggests that Early Medieval writings like, Gregory’s and Bede’s, must be seen as literary creations first, and as histories second, if at all.  Goffart, for example, maintains that treating Bede’s and Gregory’s writings as purely historical works is a mistake. He writes: “history was the medium of the writings not its goal.”[10] I would agree that to appreciate Gregory or any other Early Medieval historian, one must understand the author’s purpose.

Martin Heinzelmann argues that Gregory set out to judge the moral behavior of his own society, thus limiting his description of people to “those who behaved with a Christian social morality, and those who did not.” In this way, Gregory was able to avoid the charge that he was following the pagan literary tradition by glorifying “famous men.” Consequently, despite its appearance as a historical work, Histories follows the same model as his hagiographical writings.[11] By combining the miraculous history of the saints with contemporary events, Gregory hoped to reveal to his audience that God’s grace was present in their own age.

Like previous Christian writers, Gregory often simplified history as a battle between good and evil. Heinzelmann asserts that Gregory’s Histories followed the historical example found in Orosius’ History Against the Pagans. He writes: “His [Gregory] division of his work into books and chapters; the moral and didactic value he attributed to events; and the emerging role of the rex-king or emperor-in history.”[12]

The Histories served as Gregory’s tool for preaching. By showing his readers that history was cyclical, Gregory was able to argue that both “bad times” and “good times” were temporary:

A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad. The inhabitants of different countries keep quarreling fiercely with each other and king’s keep on losing their tempers in the most furious way. Our churches are attacked by the heretics and then protected by the Catholics: the faith of Christ burns in many men; but remains lukewarm in others.[13]


Despite his interest in the secular world, Gregory hinted that a “perfect” world was only available in the afterlife.

This did not mean, however, that Gregory felt that the spiritual battle on earth was not one worth fighting. In fact, Gregory’s Histories stressed that, in order to achieve harmony in the secular world, Gaul’s bishops and the Frankish kings needed to get along.[14] Gregory’s scathing description of many of the Frankish leaders provides evidence that the Franks and the local bishops struggled to achieve political supremacy.

Throughout Gregory’s work, “evil” Frankish kings refused to cooperate with Christian leaders. We see an example of this theme in his negative portrait of king Chilperic (ruled 561-584):

There was nothing that he hated so much as he hated the churches. He was perpetually heard to say: ‘My treasury is always empty. All our wealth has fallen in the hands of the Church. There is no one with any power left except the bishops. Nobody respects me as King: all respect has passed to the bishops in their cities.’ With this in mind, he made a practice of tearing up wills in which property had been bequeathed to the bishops. He trampled underfoot the royal decrees of his own father, thinking that there was no one left alive who was interested in seeing that they should be carried out. It is impossible to imagine any vice or debauchery which this man did not practice. He was always on the watch for some new way of torturing his subjects. Whenever any were judged guilty of some crime or other, he would have their eyes torn out of their head.[15]


Since bishops like Gregory were incapable of standing up to the Franks’ military superiority, perhaps, the church leaders condemnation of violence served as a means to both, shame Christian Franks, and win the support of the local population. If this is the case, then Gregory’s interest in secular history may merely be his attempt to protect his Church’s autonomy.

Nonetheless, Gregory did not entirely reject the Franks use of violence. He differentiated between unjust internal conflicts and just wars against “foreign” enemies. Gregory warned the Franks that their greed and propensity to engage civil war would ultimately lead to their destruction:

It gives me no pleasure to write of all the different civil wars, which afflicted the Frankish people and their rulers. . . . The Franks ought, indeed to have been warned by the sad fate of their earlier kings, who, through their inability to agree with each other, were killed by their enemies.[16]


Gregory did not condemn all warfare. He praised Clovis’ ability to lead the Franks to victory over their enemies. He wrote:

Just think of all that Clovis achieved, Clovis the founder of your victorious country, who slaughtered those rulers who opposed him, conquered hostile people and captured their territories, thus bequeathing to you unquestioned dominion over them![17]


In Gregory’s vision of history, the Franks led by righteous leaders would cease fighting each other and harassing the local clergy, and take on their rightful role as protectors of the Church and people.

According to Gregory, however, the contemporary Frankish leaders were a sorry lot. Gregory claimed that, in contrast to Clovis’ austere life, the current Frankish peoples had become consumed with a love of luxury. According to Gregory, this obsession caused the Franks to covet their neighbors’ goods, which, in turn, led to civil war:

Your homes are full of luxuries, there are vast supplies of wine, grain and oil in your store-houses, and in your treasuries the gold and silver are piled high. . . . Why do you all keep on stealing from each other? Why do you always want something, which someone else possesses?[18]


Gregory concluded his harangue against the Franks by alluding to Orosius’ description of the rise and fall of Carthage. He claimed that Carthage had risen because of its unity and then collapsed because of its disunity. Gregory suggested that by working together, the Frankish kings and the Church’s bishops would receive God’s grace, and, therefore, live in peace and flourish.[19]


Despite many historians’ attempts to represent Bede as the first “English” historian, Dominic Janes argues that Bede’s Ecclesiastical History must be seen primarily as a tool for “spiritual instruction.” Janes’ emphasizes that, at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, Bede indicated that he had “given his life to the study of Scripture.”[20] This Biblical vision of history is apparent throughout Bede’s writings.

Bede believed that the spiritual and the physical weakness of the Britons had caused the fall of Roman Britain. He claimed that the Britons “were untrained in the science of war,” and, as a result, had to rely on the Angles and the Saxons to protect them from marauding Picts and Scots. Bede blamed the Britons’ defeat on their lack of faith, claiming: “Many were compelled to surrender to the invaders; others, trusting in God’s help where no human hand could save them, continued their resistance.” Bede lamented, however, that these stouthearted Christians were the exception, and he asserted that the, “Lord’s flock and Pastors” had abandoned Christ, and, like the pagans, given “themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence.” Bede concluded that the Britons’ sinfulness had evoked God’s wrath, and he proclaimed that the treachery of the Anglo-Saxons had “been ordained by God as a punishment for their [Britons] wickedness.”[21]

Bede venerated the Anglo-Saxons. Mary Garrison claims that this adulation followed examples found in the Old Testament. She declares that Bede depicted the Anglo-Saxons as “God’s chosen people, even when, as pagans, they attacked Christian Britons.” Bede’s vision of history “allowed no room for the British as the elect, despite his admiration for some British saints.”[22]

According to Bede, Britain’s isolation from the “true” Roman Church had long hindered the island’s spiritual development. Bede illustrated how this separation from the center of Christianity had allowed the Britons to fall into heresy. An example of this tendency towards sin may be seen in Bede’s description of the rise of the Briton Pelagius at the end of the fourth century CE. Bede remained aghast that the Britons had supported Pelagius, permitting him to spread the “heretical” notion “that man had no need of God’s grace.”[23]

Bede’s distaste with the Celtic Church is apparent in his writings.

Bede described how the Celtic system of Christianity, based on monasticism, had gradually declined, and was replaced by the highly centralized Roman Church in Britain.[24] Bede condemned the Britons for their failure to convert the Saxons, yet, he argued that this oversight was all part of God’s larger plan: “But God in his goodness did not completely abandon the people [the Saxons] whom he had chosen, for he remembered them, and sent this nation more worthy preachers of truth to bring them the faith.”[25] Therefore, Bede’s image of the Anglo-Saxons might have less to do with his need to create a “national” history, and more to do with his desire to show the battle for supremacy between the Celtic Church and the Roman Church.

Fredegar and his continuers

Unlike Gregory and Bede, Fredegar and his continuers were chroniclers. Fredegar borrowed heavily from previous Christian historians such as, Eusebius, Jerome, Gregory, and Isidore. However, despite these limitations, Fredegar did not merely copy these sources, but constantly inserted his own material.[26] Many of these additions are crucial for modern historians’ understanding of Gaul’s history in the sixth and seventh centuries CE.

Fredegar’s work demonstrated that the Franks wanted to promote their links with Classical world. Fredegar remained interested in the affairs of the Byzantine Empire and Thrace, and he took time to describe many of the political developments in the area of the former Roman Empire. It was Fredegar who first mentioned that the Franks, like the Romans, were descended from refugees from Troy. Therefore, when Fredegar described the inability of seventh-century Byzantine Empire to protect the Christian world from foreign invasions, he may have been attempting, as well, to promote the Franks as God’s new selected people.[27]

The chronicles’ eighth-century continuers had a much more provincial view of history. They were mostly concerned with the internal affairs of the Frankish kings. Rosamond Mckitterick asserts that the continuers’ primary goal was to glorify the ascendance of the Carolingians in the eighth century CE, and show how their rise signified the arrival of a new “golden age.” By linking their historical account to Fredegar’s chronicle, these Carolingian writers sought to justify the emergence of Carolingian dynasty at the expense of the Merovingian rulers.[28]

Like Bede with the Anglo-Saxons, the chroniclers emphasized that the Franks were God’s chosen people. Mary Garrison claims that the eighth-century Carolingians used history as a means of creating a link with the biblical past. The Franks grafted their history “onto an ancient and sacred past . . . . To its users, it affirms a belief in the abiding presence of God in history, a continual making of the present is not merely a re-enactment, but also in a sense a fulfillment of words and events in the Bible.”[29]

Unlike Fredegar, who portrayed the dispute between the Saracens and the Byzantines in political terms, the continuers described the eighth-century battle between the Saracens and the Franks in Gaul as a religious struggle. They argued that, during their invasion of Southern Gaul, the Saracens had focused on destroying as many Christians and Christian Churches as possible. According to the chronicle, luckily for the defenseless Christians, Charles Martel, “a mighty man of war, stood his ground, and “utterly destroyed their [Saracen] armies; scattering them like stubble before the fury of his onslaught; and in the power of Christ he utterly destroyed them.”[30] In contrast to the Byzantines, the Franks were depicted as the protectors of the entire Christian world. The Franks had replaced the “Romans” as God’s chosen people, and for that reason, it became their duty to protect Western Europe from the infidels.

A close examination of the Early Medieval sources reveals that modern historians must reevaluate their description of these centuries as years of decline. All of the writers examined in this essay shared a Christian vision of history. Gregory, Fredegar, and Bede attempted to describe their worlds in Christian terms. Each followed examples found in the Old Testament, and envisioned an ideal Christian state guided by virtuous Christian kings and pious martyrs. This model had a lasting impact on European history. In the Early Medieval world the existence of martyrs, saints, and miracles served as proof of God’s hand in contemporary events. Like the virtuous men and women of Classical literature, the martyrs and saints served as heroic examples for all Christians to emulate. By placing their worlds in a Biblical context, these writers sought to reassure their readers that God remained interested in their world. These works, however, must not be seen as early attempts of nationalistic history. These writers lived in a Christian world and followed Biblical models of history. While the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons could be described as God’s chosen people, the notion of a France or an England was still a long way off.



[1]Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History A.D. 550-800: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 230.


[2]Gregory did not call his work, History of the Franks. This title only came into use in the eighth century. Therefore, when referring to Gregory’s work, I will follow Goffart’s example, and refer to it simply as Histories. Edward James, The Franks (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 17.


[3]Goffart, 235.


[4]Goffart, 230-1.


[5]J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, introduction to The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar: with its continuations, by Fredegar and continuers (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960), 10.


[6]Goffart, 237.


[7]Goffart, 231.


[8]Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin Books, 1974), 63.


[9]Goffart, 117.


[10]Goffart, 433.


[11]Martin Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, trans. Christopher Carroll (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2001), 102.


[12]Heinzelmann, 105-6.


[13]Gregory of Tours, 63.


[14]Heinzelmann, 104


[15] Gregory of Tours, 380.


[16] Gregory of Tours, 253.


[17]Gregory of Tours, 253.


[17] Gregory of Tours, 254.


[18] Gregory of Tours, 254.


[19] Gregory of Tours, 185.


[20] Dominic Janes, “The World and its Past as Christian Allegory,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2000), 112-13.


[21] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo-Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1955), 54-5.


[22]Mary Garrison, “The Franks as the New Israel? Education for identity from Pippin to Charlemagne,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000),  157.


[23] Bede, 49.


[24] Leo Sherley-Price introduction to, A History of the English Church and People, by Bede, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1955), 22.


[25] Bede, 66.


[26] Hadrill, 9-11.


[27]The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar: with its continuations, (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960), 54.


[28]Rosamond Mckitterick, “Political Ideology in Carolingian Historiography,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 169-70.


[29]Chronicle of Fredegar, 117.


[30] Chronicle of Fredegar, 91.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s