The History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours
Gregory, Bishop of Tours, born in 539 A.D. (or C.E.) and bishop of Tours from 573-594 A.D. was the son of (Gaulish) Roman Senators and bishops from the Roman region of Gaul. With Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and thus the Empire’s, and with his shift of the government center to Constantinople in the East, the Church’s officers were transformed from regional shepherds of a smallish cult spread thin throughout the Empire to civic and religious leaders. As such, they were literate, well-connected throughout the more established regions of the receding Western Empire and essential in guiding recently converted peoples in Christianity. In addition, they sought to guide the kings of these new peoples in Christian leadership and modeling.
The preexistent cultural norms of the Germanic peoples were, however, often at odds with the Christianity. For example, how do you tell a people who worships warrior gods of thunder and hammers to follow a god that not only died on a cross, but went like a “lamb led to the slaughter”? How do you explain that religious heritage includes such ignominious origins as those of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt? Finally, how do you tell a violent culture to “love thy neighbor as themselves” and to “turn the other cheek”?
These problems were sticky and persisted throughout medieval history. When Gregory writes his History of the Franks, the Franks had already converted to Christianity under the Merovingian, Clovis, who had also defeated Visigothic Aryans encroaching from Spain and prevented them from spreading their corrupting heresy on the Roman church in Gaul–making him twice over a hero. Their conversion was rather incomplete. Leaving a host of problems for church leaders. Principle among these was the method of inheritance. It was traditional to leave everything of a father’s divided equally among his sons. While this meant that one was not left out simply based on the order of his birth, it also created some nasty problems for the Merovingians at each succession. The rampant practice of fratricide directly influenced the composition of Gregory’s History of the Franks. (A problem compounded by multiple wives.) I am particularly interested in showing this by analyzing Book I of the history in this post.
The entire History as a whole is divided into ten books. The first book begins with sacred history–biblical events and early Christian history. In the second, Gregory discusses the coming of the Franks and the life and conversion of Clovis, concluding with his death. The subsequent books are about the newly Christian Franks up through Gregory’s own day. It is particularly his selections from the sacred history of the Bible and the Early Church that I want to address.
Gregory opens his opus with the following words:
Proposing as I do to describe the wars waged by kings against hostile peoples, by martyrs against the heathen and by the Churches against the heretics, I wish first of all to explain my own faith, so that whoever reads may not doubt that I am a Catholic. (Book I, Preface)
He then goes on to apologize for the poor state of his Latin and that of many of his contemporaries. After a statement of belief, confirming that he is no heretic and is fully competent as a Catholic bishop among the newly converted in a world surrounded by pagans, he explains the literary models who are influencing him:
The chronicles of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea [a contemporary of Constantine's who wrote about his conversion and is thus a source for Gregory as much as a muse], and of the priest, Jerome, explain clearly how the age of this world is computed, and set out in systematic form the entire sequence of the years. Orosius, too, who looked very diligently into these matters, made a list of all the years from the beginning of the world until his own day. Victorius did the same thing, when he was making inquiries about the dating of the Easter festival. If our Lord is willing to give me His help, I will follow the example of these writers whom I have mentioned and in my turn reckon the entire series of years from the very first creation of man down to our own time. I will do this more easily if I begin with Adam himself. (Book I, Preface)
Given the size of the Bible, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, a), this is reinventing the wheel, and, b), a tome the size of which rabbits could burrow into and make a happy home for all their brood. However, he is not quite as good as his word, in this case. He does not, in fact, rewrite the Bible. He is very particular about his selections from sacred history, all of which is done to a purpose. As we see this method abandoned by later historians who presumably find it redundant to address biblical events, we can see that part of his purpose is for the sake of an uneducated public of newly arrived converts, who have not fully replaced their pagan ways and knowledge with that of Christianity. But, more than that he is concerned with particular failings among this new people, and his sacred history is tailored to redress these deficiencies.
Gregory is not writing exegesis–that is, he is not writing biblical commentary–instead, he is focusing on past events. In other words, he is writing history, and that history begins with God making the heaven and the earth in “His own Christ, that is in His own Son, who is the origin of all things.” (Book I, 1) He goes on to explain the creation of the first man and his fall, what is known in Christianity simply as the Fall:
When the basic elements of the whole earth had been created, He took a lump of malleable clay and shape man in the form of His own image and breathed into his face the breath of life, so that he was turned into a living soul. While he was asleep a rib was taken from him and the woman Eve was created. There is no doubt at all that, before he committed sin, this first man Adam was similar to our Lord and Saviour. Christ in His Passion fainted and, when He produced water and blood from His side, He procured for Himself a Church which was pure and immaculate, redeemed by His blood and cleansed by the water, having no blemish, and no wrinkle, that is to say washed clear by the water and stretched on the Cross to remove any wrinkle. (Book I, 1)
Note, here, how Gregory explains that it is through man’s choice that the created man, made in Christ’s image, was “driven out into the travails of the world.” It is through Adam’s sin that we are all tainted. He explains the inherent need to be saved to the Franks, who would otherwise only consider a god’s intervention when caught up in a travail or two. Gregory also introduces the sacrifice of Christ as it relates to Adam. So, he explains that in mankind’s genesis, comes mankind’s need for salvation, and this salvation comes in the form of Christ sacrificed on the altar of the cross. Furthermore, the Church’s genesis issues from this sacrifice, indeed from the body of Christ as it lays stretched upon the cross. This is borderline exegetical, but it is also, arguably more so, historically instructive. The event of Adam’s fall from grace is the mirror image of the latter event of Christ’s sacrifice to undo Adam’s sin. It was inconceivable to the Early Christian, Late Antique and Medieval church that anything in the Old Testament could be understood without the knowledge of the Gospel’s salvific message. (Book I, 1)
The next biblical episode that he recounts is the story of Cain and Abel who are not named, but referred to as the sons of Adam and his companion. In this he explains the description of an event that is a central theme of the work for the sake of his contemporary world:
When God graciously accepted the sacrifice offered by one of these, the other was inflamed with jealousy and he swelled up with anger. He was the first man to shed his brother’s blood and to murder a member of his own family, for he seized hold of his brother and overcame him and slew him. (Book I, 2)
There is no mention of the quality of Abel versus the meanness of Cain. The sole purpose of the story is to describe Cain’s craven fratricide, caused by envy and wrath. Cain’s sins begin with his motives for slaying his brother which is the great misdeed.
The following chapter is a clipped version of the events surrounding Enoch the Just (so clipped in fact they scarcely make sense in Gregory’s retelling) but it does open by saying: “From that moment [Cain's crime] onwards the entire human race never ceased to commit one execrable crime after another, except Enoch the Just…” (Book I, 3) Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7, describe Noah and the ark and the story of his sons following the flood: Japheph, Ham and Shem. Chus, Ham’s son, establishes idolatry and goes to Persia where he becomes Zoroaster and teaches his followers to worship fire before being consumed by it himself and worshiped as a god. Chapter six goes on to describe the city of Babel and its pride, describing it as “Babylon, built by the giant Hebron, who was the son of Chus.” (Book I, 6) It is chapter seven that we learn about Shem’s line and its progression to Abraham. Instead of talking about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, Gregory talks about Christ having revealed to Abraham that the day of salvation would come when Christ would “suffer for us in place of a sacrifice”:
Sulpicius Severus tells us in his chronicle that this sacrifice of Abraham’s was offered on Mount Calvary, where our Lord was crucfied, and to this day this is generally accepted in the city of Jerusalem. On this hillside stood the Holy Cross, to which our Redeemer was nailed and from which flowed His blessed blood. (Book I, 7)
Chapter eight mentions Issac, Esau and Job. Chapter nine introduces Jacob and tells the story of his sons. Here, again, in the story of Joseph and his dreams we get a story of brothers sinning against their brother. Joseph’s dream, “filled them with burning jealousy, and they sold him for thirty pieces of silver to some Ishmaelites who were on their way to Egypt. Later there came a famine and the brothers went to Egypt in their turn.” (Book I, 9) That chapter concludes with the Hebrew captivity in Egypt. This is significant for its humiliating status. The new converts were not inclined towards humility, even towards the Church, and the supposition is that this contributed towards their ruthlessness with each other, especially among brothers following a king’s death. They would be impressed with the mighty power of God against the Egyptians, described in chapter ten. Interestingly, Gregory describes the passing through the Red Sea as a largely metaphoric description for baptism and not as a particular miracle in which God opened a path for the Moses and the Hebrews through the water.
While in chapter eleven Gregory explains that the Israelites dwelt in the desert for forty years, he does not mention the Hebrews’ struggles with obedience. Rather, an understanding of Late Antique monastic devotion seems to better reflect his vision of this period:
For forty years after this the Israelites dwelt in the desert and familiarized themselves with their laws, and lived on the food of the angels. Once they had assimilated the Law, they crossed the Jordan with Joshua and were given permission to enter the Promised Land. (Book I, 11)
In the deserts of Egypt, early Christian holy men (known as the Desert Fathers) had withdrawn for a strict ascetic life based on advanced meditative prayer. This is the early root of monasticism formed the basis and the goal for early western monastic traditions that were contemporary with Gregory. I think his description seems to have more in common with this idea. It avoids the ungrateful disposition of the freed Hebrews and their attempt at idolatry, failings that come up again in the Old Testament and which Gregory references. (I must point out that Gregory was a bishop not a monk and this interpretation of the above chapter may not stand up to deeper scrutiny.)
In chapter twelve, Gregory expounds on the importance of obedience to God by saying that “they ceased to observe God’s commandments and were often forced to submit to the domination of foreign peoples,” following the death of Jacob–a really threatening consequence to a people such as the Franks. David, meanwhile, gets little mention other than that he is the descendant of Abraham and the father of Soloman. Soloman is praised for his decision to ask for wisdom instead of kingdoms and riches–another knock on embattled Franks!–and also praised for building the Temple and expending such wealth on it–also, a nudge to his contemporaries who would occasionally not only fail to endow new churches but would in the civil wars at times strip churches of any wealth for their own use.
In chapter fourteen, Gregory again is pointing out the disastrous nature of idolatry when after the death of Solomon the tribes are split into the kingdoms of doomed and idolatrous Judah and (slightly more) faithful Israel–this is a useful warning against relapse for a people that still held many of their pagan beliefs. This comes to a head in chapter fifteen when the Lord finally loses patience with his people and “stirred up Nebuchadnezzar, who led them captive to Babylon”. This experience, Gregory reveals is a metaphor for the enslavement of the soul in sin, and whereas it is Zerubbabel who restores the Temple and the the Hebrews to the city of Jerusalem, it is Christ who restores the sinner to God. From the captivity and the complaints which followed the restoration of the Temple, Gregory proceeds to the Gospel. I find it significant that Gregory leaves out any of the military exploits of the Hebrews from the Old Testament. Clearly, it is defeat resulting from disobedience that he wishes to convey to the new peoples as opposed to any incentive to go into battle.
Over the next two chapters, Gregory explains briefly the extra-biblical history to show that he had “information [not] only about the Hebrew race,” and explains what other kingdoms were contemporary with the Israelites, up through Julius Caesar which sets up Augustus’s reign. Chapters nineteen through twenty-four are devoted to key elements of the Gospel. What follows are the stories of the New Testament, including the Acts of the Apostles and to a lesser extent the events as they are related in the epistles (letters of the New Testament), and then the persecutions under the Roman emperors. Some of this comes from the traditions of the Church as written by the Church Fathers, such as Jerome, who wrote commentaries and histories. The sufferings of prominent martyrs are recounted and their love of God eulogized. Until chapter thirty-six, the stories are about the struggle of the Early Church, but then the story and history changes with the conversion of Constantine and the Roman Empire. Constantine is confined to the thirty-sixth chapter and Gregory’s treatment of the emperor is remarkably sparse and selective:
Constantine was the thirty-fourth to hold the Roman Empire and he reigned happily for thirty years… In the twentieth year of his reign Constantine killed his son Crispus with poison and his wife Fausta in a hot bath, because they had planned to remove him from his throne by treason. During Constantine’s life-time the revered wood of our Lord’s Cross was discovered, thanks to the zeal of the Emperor’s mother Helena. (Book I, 36)
Constantine’s motives for killing Crispus and Fausta are unknown to history, but Gregory considers it justifiable that he executed them on the grounds of treason. He does not avoid the fact, nor does he condemn it. From that point he shifts quickly to Helena’s discovery of the True Cross. Gregory leaves out the controversies of his reign, his meddling in Church doctrine and his pursuit (persecution) of the heretics in his Empire. Gregory’s sparse treatment of Constantine is in contrast to the eastern traditions (in which he is a saint for his conversion) and among some in the Roman tradition. His praise for Clovis is above that of Constantine even though he goes into greater detail about Clovis’s failings.
From this point onward the stories of the Early Christian and Late Antique holy men and women dominate with fewer stories from the Roman government–now largely relocated to the East and Constantinople–and in particular bishops become a focal point. Book I concludes with Martin of Tours. He does not go into Martin’s story, but Martin was soldier in the Roman army who leaves its martial service to serve God–a well-known story in Gregory’s day.
The entirety of Book I precedes the coming of the Franks and sets the tone and lessons for this new people. Gregory is driving home the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice for man’s sin and also trying to set a Christian standard for Merovingian kings and princes in his contemporary world. Dominating so much of the following books is this catalogue of violence, especially done in the wake of a king’s death among brothers–a practice that will continue through the Carolingian era. The conversion of Europe takes centuries, both because of new peoples coming to settle and because religious traditions die hard. In particular, the problem of violence plagues the Church and its converted flocks. Gregory is at an early stage in this trajectory, although he believed he must be at the end of it and felt sure that the world was surely coming rapidly to its conclusion.