I recently mentioned a need to re-read Gregory. I thought before I got started on this that I’d offer a brief overview of him. I should preface this by saying you can get a better bio of Gregory in the introduction to just about any translation of his work but this will help me frame my thoughts. 1
Georgius Florentius Gregorius, commonly known as Gregory of Tours, was born in the later 530’s in Clermont, in the Auvergne region of Gaul. His family appears to have been of some significance in the Gallo-Roman aristocracy. Throughout his works Gregory references relatives and ancestors who held important posts. To a certain extent, the Bishoprics of Clermont and Lyons had become “family sees” and Langres wasn’t far behind. Gregory’s family seemed to be first in line for these posts.
Gregory did not, it appears, receive a classical education. He himself notes a gap in the literary abilities between himself and his friend, Venantius Fortunatus, who was trained as a Roman rhetor and was known as a poet. It’s hard to tell exactly how much of Gregory’s ignorance was feigned and how much was real – the ecclesiastical education he received was likely light on the classics and concentrated on religious works, the Bible, Psalms, Sermons and the writings of the Fathers such as Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. To at least some extent Gregory appears to have lacked literary ability however he also tried to write in such a way that common people could understand it.
Gregory’s youth and early adulthood took him up the ladder of religious advancement in a fairly straight line up to his becoming a Deacon in c. 562-3. In the early 570’s he ran into trouble though. In 571 the bishopric of Clermont became available. Gregory would have been a logical choice to take over but he didn’t get it, though it did go to Avitus, a friend of his. Two years later the Bishopric of Lyons, where Gregory was Deacon, became available when Nicetius, Gregory’s patron and great-uncle, died. This would have been an even more logical post but he did not get it either; possibly because his brother Peter became involved in a dispute in Langres where he was accused of plotting against another priest in order to become Bishop, possibly because Nicetius had been something of an abrasive individual who’d antagonized some important people. Whatever the reason, it seems that at the time these Bishoprics became available, the reputation of Gregory’s family was at a low point.
Tours was a more interesting situation and what happened there seems to be the result of a mixture of luck and Gregory becoming more aggressive in asserting his rights. The Bishopric was held by a distant relative of Gregory’s, Eufronius. Tours is some distance from where Gregory’s family had its greatest influence and he cannot have been considered a favorite to take over after Eufronius’ death. However Gregory cultivated the patronage of several influential individuals in the area including King Sigibert, Radegund and the Bishop of Reims. Against the odds and the resident Archdeacon, Riculf, Gregory was named to this fairly important see.
Gregory as Bishop
Gregory had some serious problems when he first became bishop. Tours was a disputed city, both between Neustria and Austrasia and between Sigibert and his brother, Chilperic, as they engaged in a civil war. Early in his Bishopric Gregory allied himself with Sigibert who had the upper hand in the conflict, most of the time. This backfired when he died in 575 and his brother took over.
Chilperic wasn’t Gregory’s only opponent however if we were going to name a “nemesis” for Gregory, he’d be the choice. Gregory writes extensively of their disagreements and his personal animosity for the King comes through. But Gregory was smarter by now and he actively strengthened his position. Some of this was by his activity as Bishop including actively opposing Chilperic at a Church Council, however to me it seems that his greatest ally was a dead man.
Other than as the author of his History of the Franks, Gregory’s claim to fame was as a promoter of miracles in general and, specifically, the Cult of St. Martin of Tours. From the beginning of his episcopacy Gregory began recording the miracles of St. Martin and worked to promote the Saint. By the late 570’s, the Cult of Martin was very strong, strong enough, apparently, to provide Gregory with the ammo he needed to hold onto his see. His position appears to have become fairly solid by 580, even more so when Chilperic was assassinated in 584.
As Bishop, I have a hard time figuring out exactly how much influence Gregory had. It’s clear that he was a person of some significance. He had a strong core of patrons and was a friend of Fortunatus, one of the most respected clerics of the time. He was an active participant in Church Councils and engaged in theological discussions (though sometimes using flawed arguments). Kings and nobles used him as an envoy. At the same time we have to look at the accident of survival. Gregory’s our number one source for the history of the period and he will have appeared more prominent than he likely was, despite the fact that his works do not engage in a high degree of self-promotion. At the same time, the fact that so much of his work has survived and that he was later named a Saint indicates that he was well-respected.
For my money, while I can’t say that he was one of the leading theological minds of his era, his active promotion of miracles and various Saints’ cults, in particular Martin but others as well, speaks of his influence. He wasn’t a Gregory the Great whose works influenced doctrine for centuries, but his advocacy for Saints and miracles ensured that he would be remembered and, I believe, makes it likely that he was well-respected by contemporaries. In particular, the Cult of St. Martin, already significant, expanded to where he was easily the most famous Saint in Gaul. Gregory must receive the credit for this.
Gregory as Historian
His influence as a historian is pretty indisputable. Gregory is our preeminent source for 6th century Gaul. Only Fortunatus can be considered another “major” source for the period (there are some other, brief Vitae and sources but nothing approaching the scale of these two). The question has always been: How reliable is Gregory?
The answer to this varies among historians. I have never seen anything where he has been considered to be an out-and-out fabricator. I have seen summaries where he is considered to have engaged in much embellishment and had such a narrow world view as to not have much historical value.
This view is not currently at the forefront. Gregory is considered a man of his times. The miracle stories are viewed as ahistorical, of course, but does this mean that Gregory himself did not believe them and deliberately constructed them? I don’t think so. He was a product of his times and his writings indicate a deep belief in the active participation of the Saints in his world, and that they were truly a force with great power and influence.
And for those who believe he pretty much made up his miracle stories, I don’t believe this is a necessary explanation. There is no doubt that sometimes people get sick and then get better. There is little doubt that in 6th Century Gaul, seeking the aid of a Saint was a fairly standard response to misfortune, including sickness. If an ill person went to St. Martin’s Church, prayed at his tomb and touched a tapestry or drank a little tomb dust water and then recovered, I don’t think we need to believe in a miraculous reason for this, or be surprised when Gregory attributes this to the Saint. Or, if a terrible storm rages and people in a house pray to Martin and find their house spared while nearby trees are uprooted and barns blown over, we don’t have to look very far to see how tornadoes behave – I can go look at damage within ten miles of where I live. By the same token, if someone was at sea, crossing a river or on a lake and a storm came up and they were afraid they might die, praying is not an unusual response and Gregory claiming the Saint’s efficacy shouldn’t be either. Of course the folks whose ship sank or who were killed by raiders wouldn’t be running around talking about how ineffective their prayers were.
Maybe if there had been a 6th century Celsus or Porphyry we’d have some texts telling us about the dozens of corpses carried out of St Martin’s Church when their prayers failed them, or hear how a slave taken by raiders watched his entire family killed despite their prayers. We don’t and when you consider the belief system of the time and that Gregory was particularly strong in his faith in the power of miraculous intervention, I don’t think we need to accuse Gregory of deliberate falsification.
One of the areas in which Gregory tells us the most about his world is through his miracle stories. A while ago I read Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties that Bound (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). In it she examines fourteenth and fifteenth century coroner rolls to glean information about the life of peasants in Late Medieval England. Their lives may have largely been hidden but by examining the manner of their deaths Hanawalt was able to learn a great deal about the daily lives of peasants.
I would argue that we can do the same for Gregory’s miracle stories. The stories themselves are less interesting than who came to Martin’s tomb and why. Clearly parents loved their children in the sixth century, as so many carrying their children for miles for healing, sometimes after nursing their withered bodies at home for years, attests. They work on the sabbath, if need be, though occasionally they end up with a cramped hand. And they will travel at need, sometimes considerable distances even when they lack any social standing. There’s a lot to learn from the miracle stories.
When it comes to his contemporary civil wars, conflicts, activities of Kings, Queens and nobility; there is little to flatly point to and say, “Gregory was right here – so-and-so corroborates it,” or that archaeological evidence confirms something. At the same time, there isn’t much to contradict him either and while I think we can safely credit Gregory with emphasizing the power of the saints and the Church over that of lay rulers, I also think it likely that, as far as he was able, he accurately represents what went on during his time. This is disputable of course, but there’s substantial detail and some cases where Fortunatus backs him up. In his History he is also very explicit about where he gathered his information about what occurred in the earlier period covered, including copying entire passages from other works and attributing where he found this information. Would he have done this and then made up most of what he said about his own times, when people reading his works would have their own memories to contradict him with? I don’t consider this plausible. Without evidence to the contrary and taking into account his point of view and motivations, in particular his tendency to favor ecclesiastical sources of power and influence, I think we can give him some credibility. His was not a world view but when it comes to the regional conflicts, it appears that we can consider Gregory reasonably reliable.
One of the reasons I’m about to dive into Gregory is that over the last 10 years or so he’s been receiving much more mention in books I’m reading and in sessions at Kalamazoo. I should be able to assess what he has to say a little better now than I did a decade ago. Also, everyone says to read Gregory’s works together which I didn’t do the first time. 2
ADDENDUM: Since this post seems to be drawing a bit of traffic, I want to mention that I wrote two other posts based on this reading project:
- A short post on Gregory’s disgusting miracles. To be honest, this one isn’t my best but it may provide some amusement.
- This one discusses a couple of aspects of what I think Gregory’s miracle stories say about daily life in 6th Century Gaul along with a couple of items from his Histories.
The works of Gregory I have and am about to read/re-read are:
James, Edward, trans., Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1991). ISBN: 9-780853-233275.
Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.
*Van Dam, Raymond, Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. Princeton, NJ:: Princeton University Press (1993). ISBN: 9-780691-021126.
Van Dam, Raymond, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Confessors. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2004). ISBN: 9-780853-232261.
Van Dam, Raymond, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Martyrs. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2004). ISBN: 9-780853-232360.
* This includes translations of Gregory’s The Sufferings and Miracles of the Martyr St. Julian and his four books of The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin.
1 Personally I think Van Dam (1993) offers the most complete background on Gregory but any of the introductions to the translated works provide some information.
2 Most of this has been written from memory which I think is pretty much correct. As I go through Gregory’s books I may add a bit to this, including some footnotes. I read a lot of Gregory a decade or so ago. His The History of the Franks was one of the first primary sources I ever read after I became interested in Medieval History. I have not read either the Glory of the Martyrs or Glory of the Confessors before, for some reason.