(Seal of Childeric)
Today’s blog take a quick look at some of the disputes surrounding Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, composed late in the sixth century. It is one of the most important medieval histories to survive from Late Antiquity. Its value, however, as an accurate sources for Merovingian Gaul remains controversial.
The vision of the Early Middle Ages as an era of decline and pessimism continues to have “a strong hold on the European historical imagination.” 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!’
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 tended to see 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.”
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.
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.” 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. 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.”
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.
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. 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. One finds 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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
Gregory did not call his work, History of the Franks. This title only came into use in the eighth century CE. 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.
Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin Books, 1974), 63.
Martin Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, trans. Christopher Carroll (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 102.
Gregory of Tours, 63.
 Gregory of Tours, 380.
 Gregory of Tours, 253.
Gregory of Tours, 253.
 Gregory of Tours, 254.
 Gregory of Tours, 254.
 Gregory of Tours, 185.