Gregory of Tours

Gregory of Tours
(ca. 538–594)
   Gregory of Tours was a sixth-century Gallo-Roman bishop, historian, and writer of SAINTS’ LIVES, whose Historia Francorum (History of the Franks) is our most important source for the history of early Merovingian France.
   Gregory was born Georgius Florentius to a distinguished Roman family in Avernus (now called Clermont-Ferrand) in Gaul. Six of his relatives served as bishops, and his father was descended from a second-century Christian martyr named Vectius Epagatus. After his father’s death, the young Gregory lived with his uncle Gallus, who was bishop of Clermont, and who educated him as a churchman of the time.When Gallus died in 554, the Clermont priest Avitus took over Gregory’s education, schooling him in the Scriptures. In 573, he was appointed bishop of Tours upon the death of Bishop Euphronius, another uncle, and upon his ascension to the see he changed his name to Gregory to honor Gregorius of Langres (507–540) a sainted ancestor of his mother.When he went to Rome for his consecration, the poet FORTUNATUS wrote an enthusiastic poem to celebrate the event.
   It appears that Fortunatus’s confidence was well-placed. Gregory was an effective and memorable bishop, all the more impressive considering the circumstances under which he served: Rival factions of Frankish warriors were fighting each other for control of Gaul, and his see of Tours was the scene of battle and pillaging on more than one occasion during his episcopate.He traveled widely and met with many of the most powerful leaders of the Franks to protect his people and the rights and property of the church in his district. These firsthand experiences of some of the most important events and people of his age gave him the raw material of his famous and influential History of the Franks. In 10 books,Gregory gives a universal history, focusing largely on contemporary events, for which his history is invaluable. In Book 1 Gregory presents the history of the world from Adam to the Frankish conquest of Gaul, and in Book 2 he focuses on Clovis, the first Merovingian king of the Franks. In Book 3 he brings the history down to 548 and the reign of King Theodebert, and in Book 4 he goes through the reign of Sigebert (575). Beginning with Book 4, Gregory is relating events of which he had personal knowledge, and he depicts himself as playing an important role in many of the major events. Books 5 through 10 seem to have been written very close to the time of the events they record, at intervals between 575 and 591. For the most part Gregory tells a simple, unadorned story, and attempts to do so in an impartial manner. But he also was especially interested in the unusual or extraordinary—crimes, wars, and other unusual events—particularly miracles, in which, as an officer of the church, he had a tremendous interest.
   Certainly Gregory’s religious attitudes deeply influenced his historical masterpiece, but they were even more apparent in his other literary productions. His see of Tours was one of the holiest sites in Gaul, since it housed the remains of St. Martin, the fourth-century bishop of Tours whose tomb was visited by numerous ailing pilgrims annually, and the stories of their miraculous cures inspired Gregory’s imagination. His first literary effort was a book concerning the miracles of St. Martin in 575. He continued to document Saint Martin’s miracles in two more books finished in 581 and 587, and in a fourth book that he never completed.After 581, he wrote a life of another Gallic saint, Julian the Martyr, who had died near Gregory’s hometown of Clermont-Ferrand. In 587, Gregory began writing his Liber in gloria martyrum (Book of the glories of the martyrs), which tells of more miracles accomplished by the Gallic martyrs who died during Roman persecutions.
   Ultimately, Gregory’s contribution to early medieval letters was significant.His history was enormously influential and is still the chief source of political, spiritual, and cultural history of the Frankish kingdom of the sixth century. His saints’ lives, as early examples of the genre, were circulated widely and helped influence the development of that literary form.His late Latin language is also interesting to linguistic scholars. But in his own heart, his literary output served to further his religious aims: to tell the story of how Christianity survived and even thrived in the turbulence of his time, and to present a view of history that demonstrated God rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked.
   ■ Gregory of Tours. Life of the Fathers. Translated with an introduction by Edward James. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 1985.
   ■ Heinzelmann, Martin. Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century. Translated by Christopher Carroll. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
   ■ Mitchell, Kathleen, and Ian Wood, eds. The World of Gregory of Tours. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002.
   ■ Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West from the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Translated by John J.Contreni.With a foreword by Richard E. Sullivan. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1978.
   ■ Thorpe, Lewis, trans. The History of the Franks. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1974.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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