Of Gregory, Miracles, Daily Life and Flatulence

13 Oct

I hope folks think this post is filled with very little of the last but I needed a catchy name – my readership has been down the last few weeks and I’m not venturing into the world of cool marginalia just yet.

I’ll get to the important stuff later but Gregory has a thing with bodily fluids. Not every time, but quite frequently when someone is healed something is expelled as a sign of healing. He gives us blood flowing from the eyes of the blind, vomiting up of blood and pus for those with stomach pains, more vomiting of blood and/or pus for mutes – when folks get healed, the badness leaves their bodies in a very tangible manner.

The same holds true for demons – they are usually vomited out. And in one case, I had to chuckle. Apparently the oil from St. Martin’s tomb was pretty potent stuff. Aredius of Limoges is cured of a sharp pain by smearing some on himself. A man with an infected hand, a woman possessed of a demon and a blind man were healed. One man was possessed of a demon by the nail of his thumb – expelling this demon drew blood. One of my favorites is, “Since the oil had restored many possessed people to health, he [Aredius] placed some of it on the head of one man who possessed, I think, a more hideous demon. Immediately the man expelled the demon in a blast of air from his bowels.” This brings to mind so many juvenile jokes that if I started with it I might never stop. But the next time I have too much bean dip . . . 1

Gregory’s miracles have much more to say – I just decided to start from the bottom. (OK, they also inspire bad puns). I found it interesting that some of his miracle-workers engaged in a very limited form of healing; effective, apparently, against limited, specific illnesses. For example, Saints Venerandus and Nepotianus take care of people with chills. 2 Bishop Medard of Soissons had a tree growing over his tomb which, if you grabbed a splinter from and used as a toothpick, cured toothaches. 3 Romanus calms the waters of the Garonne River and rescues those about to perish. 4

But that’s not what’s important about the miracle stories, not to me anyway. There are some aspects of history – who did what to whom when and where – but as I mentioned before, I think the most valuable aspects of these is what they tell us about society in 6th century Gaul.

A lot of the time when I jotted down my notes for these the object was fairly simple. Next time I get into a conversation with someone about the Medieval Period and they bring up the; medievals didn’t wash, read, love their children, love their husbands/wives, give two cents about women, etc., I have information to counter them with. This isn’t the only thing I noted, but it’s a big part of it. So while I have notes about the Doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of the Virgin, faith being equated with sustenance, evidence of Bubonic Plague, religious patronage impacting individual advancement, and so on, what I’m going to focus on with this post are those mythbusting talking points.

Abbreviations used in footnotes (Latin name in parentheses):

VM – The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin (Libri de virtutibus sancti Martini episcopi)
VP – Life of the Fathers (Liber vitae Patrum)
GC – Glory of the Confessors (Liber in gloria confessorum)
GM – Glory of the Martyrs (Liber in gloria martyrum)
HF – History of the Franks (Historiae)

Evidence of Love

Regarding love, one I often hear is, “People in the Middle Ages didn’t love their children.” This is often rationalized as reasoning that because children had such a high mortality rate that people inured themselves to the death of the young by not becoming too attached to them. The obvious counter to this (at least when this reasoning is given) is arguing whether folks in the 19th century didn’t love their children or whether people in very poor countries don’t today. But Gregory provides some ammo too.

A young boy, about a year of age, is starving to death after his mother died. When the boy contracts a fever his father runs to the Church carrying him where he is baptized. As the father weeps, the child appears to die when St. Martin heals him. 5

A girl, aged 12, has been completely paralyzed for six years and has been cared for by her parents for the entire time. After prayer and offerings, Martin heals her. Hard to believe her parents didn’t love her if they cared for her for six years as a paralytic. 6

In another account a boy still at his mother’s breast (but evidently a few years old) becomes severely ill and is cured by Martin. What’s striking about this account is the grief of the parents. The mother wept continuously and the father was so overcome with grief that he couldn’t bear to remain in the church while she prayed. 7

Another woman is so overcome by the loss of her son that she can’t stop weeping for days until she is visited by Saint Mauricius. 8 Another little boy, about three years old, is carried for days while ill and his parents are crushed when he dies, later to be revived at the tomb of Maximus of Riez. 9

His stories of marital love are less frequent but equally compelling. One case is of a chaste marriage; an anonymous couple known as “The Two Lovers.” When a husband and wife who lived their entire lives as virgins while sharing the marriage bed die, their tombs are placed on opposite sides of the church but move next to each other in the night. 10

The other two cases Gregory mentions are more traditional – husbands and wives who love one another and have honorable marriages. In one case, the husband predeceases his wife. On dying a year later, as she is placed in the same tomb his arm reaches out and embraces her. 11 Reticius’ wife dies and soon thereafter he becomes bishop of Autun. Later, after his death as he is placed in her tomb he “regained his spirit and addressed his wife.” 12

Of course Gregory uses these stories as ideals however they were almost certainly told as part of his sermons. He wouldn’t have included them unless he thought people could relate to them. Most of the folks who read this blog have never thought otherwise (not recently anyway) but if you want some other evidence on love to toss someone’s way, Gregory has it.

Schools and Lay Education

Gregory also mentions schools and from the way he portrays them in these two stories, they weren’t a rarity or even that hard to get access to.

Leobardus, a contemporary of Gregory’s from Auvergne was born, “. . . not of senatorial family, although he was of free birth.” The way his schooling is portrayed suggests that it was normal for the free to attend – or at least not unusual. “When it was time he was sent with the other children to school, where he learnt some of the psalms by heart, and without knowing that he would one day be a cleric he unknowingly prepared himself for the Lord’s service.” 13

There are a couple of things I read into this. First, it doesn’t appear that the school was restricted to boys. Also, the fact that his learning the psalms appears not to have been the norm and that he didn’t go to the school planning to become a cleric seems to indicate that this wasn’t a church school, though it doesn’t eliminate the possibility.

Patroclus was another non-noble free boy from Berry (Bourges region) and got into an argument with his brother who went to school while he tended sheep. Patroclus, “. . . left his sheep in the field and hastened to the boys’ school . . .” This school, while gender-restricted, also doesn’t appear to have been a clerical school as after receiving his education he went to work for Nunnio, a close acquaintance of Childebert and his mother believed that he would marry right up until he was tonsured and entered the clergy. 14

Gregory is surprisingly (to me anyway) matter-of-fact about education. He doesn’t portray non-noble free boys attending schools as anything unusual, or offer any discussion about needing a patron to gain entrance. He provides at least some evidence that non-nobles were often educated during the 6th century.

The final miracle story I think will make a useful piece of armament relates to plumbing. Another of the myths I always hear is that after Rome fell (because for these folks the world crashed and burned – I shouldn’t make fun since 15 years ago I believed the same thing) almost all technological knowledge was lost. This is plainly ridiculous and there have been plenty of books written about it. One of the items people often discuss as lost was plumbing. People’s excrement now evidently lay wherever it was deposited. Medievals lost their olfactory senses and apparently didn’t understand that stuff flows downhill, especially when a little water’s added. This one is easily countered. Charlemagne’s Aachen complex and baths is the one I like to use but Gregory has a nice one for the 6th century.

Located in the Plain of Osset near Seville was a Christian shrine including an artificial pool which miraculously filled each Easter Sunday. The Visigothic King Theudigisel, an Arian, thought the filling of the pool was some sort of trick. For three years he tried to cause the miracle to fail, the first two years by sealing the door to the shrine and posting guards around it, the third year by ordering trenches to be dug around the church to prevent underground pipes from filling the pool. Obviously, if plumbing was unknown in Gregory’s day, he wouldn’t be telling a story about folks digging to find it. 15

I’m starting on Gregory’s History of the Franks now. I doubt I come across anything someone else hasn’t already found but I was struck by two blatant errors in his narrative from Book 2. He portrays a persecution of Christians in Africa by the Arian King of the Vandals, Huneric, as resulting in thousands of deaths. 16 Victor of Vita doesn’t say anything of the kind, though he does discuss some fairly vicious acts, including yanking the scalps off people. Now for Victor this wasn’t the cheeriest of times but his account of a large-scale exile of Catholics shows that Huneric didn’t want to create a bunch of martyrs, he just wanted them out. 17

Gregory also talks about the Visigoth Euric engaging in a slaughter of Christians and references a letter of Sidonius Apollinarus as evidence. 18 The problem is, in the letter, (at least the one Thorpe footnotes in the Penguin edition, to Basilius, Bishop of Aix) Sidonius doesn’t talk about this either. He speaks of persecution and of Catholics not being allowed to fill vacant clerical positions including bishoprics, but he doesn’t describe any kind of widespread murder. 19 Is Gregory’s propensity towards exaggerating violence here something which continued when he described events of his time? Gregory’s been pointed to as evidence of widespread feuding and violence among Merovingian royalty but I can’t help wondering if he may have overblown this, even beyond just focusing on it. Or maybe he was just mistaken about things that for him weren’t current events.

This has been fun. I’m not sure if anything will come up worth posting about in the rest of Gregory’s Histories but if so, I’ll throw it in. Those have been pretty well analyzed though so I don’t know as I’ll come up with anything new. Of course I haven’t read about Gregory’s Victor/Sidonius misrepresentations anywhere else either but I’m sure it’s been done.

1 GC 9

2 GC 36

3 GC 93

4 GC 45: Romanus didn’t exactly rescue Gregory but calmed the river so he could cross.

5 VM 2.43: This account could be interpreted as more of a fear of the boy dying unbaptized than love but first, it doesn’t read that way to me and second, even if the father’s primary fear was of his son dying unbaptized, wouldn’t this also show his love for the boy?

6 VM 3.2

7 VM 3.51

8 GM 75

9 GC 82

10 GC 31

11 GC 41

12 GC 74

13 VP 20

14 VP 9: Interestingly, both Patroclus and Leobardus were expected to marry by their families. Leobardus even went so far as to perform all the usual pre-marriage ceremonies until he was “freed” by the deaths of his parents.

15 GM 23-4; Gregory has Theudigisel ruling for three years when his reign was actually from 548-9. Gregory wasn’t always up to snuff when discussing things outside his period. This story makes a nice example for why I believe his miracle stories are of less value for telling “what happened” than what Gregory believed and what he thought would make a good message for his audience. The pool and shrine may or may not have existed (I’m unaware of archaeological or other textual evidence confirming it) but it’s almost certain that subsurface pipes and plumbing did in Gregory’s day and that he believed his audience would be at least somewhat familiar with it.

16 HF II.3

17 Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution, 2.8 mentions that many Catholics served in the royal household dressed as Vandals so perhaps the mass killing Gregory discusses is in reference to them – Victor doesn’t read that way to me though. For hair-pulling, which is a very mild term for what Victor describes, see 2.9. In 2.15 Victor discusses Huneric killing thousands on taking the throne from his father Geiseric however this was in an effort to consolidate his rule and it’s not apparent that most of those killed were Catholic. It’s possible; perhaps his father was willing to overlook his administrators’ religious beliefs so long as they helped him run his kingdom and Huneric was “cleaning things up” but Victor doesn’t discuss this, with the possible exception of linking this to the household members referred to in 2.8. See 2.26-37 for details of the exile.

18 HF II.25

19 Sidonius Apollinarus, Epistolae, 7.6

Anderson, W. B., trans., Sidonius Apollinarus: Sidonius II, Letters III-IX. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1965). ISBN: 9-780674-99462-0.

James, Edward, trans., Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1991). ISBN: 9-780853-233275.

Moorhead, John, trans., Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1992). ISBN: 9-780853-231271.

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.

*Contains The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin.


Posted by on October 13, 2010 in Hagiography, Literature


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11 responses to “Of Gregory, Miracles, Daily Life and Flatulence

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    October 14, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Patroclus was another non-noble free boy… with a name from the Iliad. If we're to assume Gregory or his source weren't making this up, there was education in that family already and this free boy may be something of a special case. I suppose with enough special cases you have a generalisation but it gives me pause.

    • Curt Emanuel

      February 17, 2014 at 9:23 am

      This is a very late addition but (and I wish I could remember where I read it) apparently Patroclus was a fairly common name back then. I don’t think using that name should be considered evidence that Gregory invented the story though I’ll defer to my earlier comment about his reliability when it comes to events he was separated from either by time or geography. I promise I read it someplace. For now I’m stuck with an online source which I’m not familiar with, so I can’t say a thing about its accuracy.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    October 14, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I wasn't very clear on this so maybe I need to add another paragraph. I don't think you can read Gregory talking about Patroclus as evidence of much of anything from the early 6th century, or even that some guy named Patroclus did much of this. Not without additional evidence. Gregory just wasn't that good with recounting events from just a few decades before.I think it's a better indication of how things were in Gregory's day, in the Toulouse and surrounding regions. That's what he knew and those are the people he would have told this to and who would have been asked to believe it. I do read this as an indication that schooling was likely available to non-noble free boys.The other issue is that neither of these two came from poor families. Patroclus' family were landowners with sheep (and he was able to acquire, according to Gregory, a position pretty close to the king) and Leobardus' parents give a long speech about their trying to build family wealth as a reason he should marry and add to it. We're not talking free laborers but folks fairly high up on the free food chain which perhaps I should have emphasized.

  3. theswain

    October 14, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Do remember that the Iliad had been translated and condensed into Latin, Ilias Latina, in which Patroclus does figure. So certainly that indicates education of some kind, I think, without claiming direct knowledge of the Greek epic.

  4. LCC

    February 17, 2014 at 5:31 am

    Regarding schools, if they were not church schools, who ran them? How were they funded, where were they located, and who were the teachers? The fact that Gregory himself did not receive a formal education, and that he wrote his works in the “Vulgar” or common Latin so as to be more widely readable by his contemporary audience, and that funerary and other evidence shows a decline in literacy among the free populace during this time period, suggests to me that perhaps schools were indeed a rarity and/or hard to access. Could you comment further? I’m very interested in details about daily life during the era of Gregory of Tours, and would appreciate any further insight you might have into schools or the education of children at that time.

    • Curt Emanuel

      February 17, 2014 at 9:03 am

      I’m going to address the last part of your comment first. Unfortunately, Gregory is the major source on daily life which we have for the period; there isn’t a lot of other material. There is some, Venantius Fortunatus, some letters between clergy, etc., but those don’t give the details of daily life which Gregory does.

      I’m not aware of any studies providing any kind of analysis of the literacy levels among free people in Gaul during the Empire and under the Merovingians. I’d appreciate you letting me know of them. Funerary evidence is different as are epigraphs but you had a Merovingian vs Roman culture and a change from monumentary tributes to the dead to furnished graves. Plus with the societal fragmentation, getting stone was a bit tougher. Of course the number of the free was different too as slavery was less common. I don’t know how anyone can accurately assess this – I think it likely that literacy rates fell but to get there I keep having to fall back to, “it seems to make sense that” sort of statements.

      As for the schools, in reading this over, I worded things poorly. What I meant is that these were not schools which existed solely to train young people to become clergy. They were likely (though I don’t consider the evidence definitive) still run by clergy. There were still some tutors out there who likely trained individual members of the nobility, some at least (Chilperic played music and wrote poetry, hard to see him picking that up at a school run by the church). My point is that some people thought schools back then existed for the sole purpose of training kids to become clerics. Based on Gregory this seems not to have been true.

      I can theorize where some philosophical schools may have continued under the Merovingians, partly because they seemed to be so distrustful of the Church. But I don’t know of any evidence though again, Gregory doesn’t say who ran the schools, just that they existed. I think we’ve become very ingrained with the idea that by the 6th century all schools were run by the Church. I think folks should be at least open to the possibility that philosophically-based instructors (I suspect these would have been Christians, just trained in philosophy) were around to at least the early 7th century, someplace. As late as the mid-7th century you see letters exchanged between clerics which indicate philosophical training (so I’ve been told, I’m looking forward to the forthcoming translation by Ralph Mathisen of Desiderius’ letters and accompanying notes/introduction). I can theorize an early philosophical training followed by religious instruction for older kids who decided they’d become clerics.

      There’s such a lack of the kind of source material which address these issues that it’s tough to say exactly what was going on but I get a bit nervous thinking that all traces of Roman society were effaced by the mid-6th century, including schooling. Things were certainly very different but at that time chunks of Rome remained (by the later 7th century, from what I’ve read, I think evidence shows that for the most part it did not). I’m just concerned that a lot of the “blank-filling” has come from assumptions which deserve closer analysis. Grad students take NOTE!!!!

      Thank you for your comment and for momentarily yanking me out of the mid-3rd century “Church” and into the 6th century.


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