Baptism of Clovis, by Master of Saint Giles, c.1500, oil on panel / Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, London
Gregory of Tours and Procopius as historians
Left: Procopius on Justinian mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, 527-457 CE / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Gregory of Tours, by Jean Marcellin. stone, before 1853. / Cour Napoléon in the Louvre
Gregory of Tours. Here we enter further into a stranger world. It begins fairly reasonably, as if it’s another history course with great powers, states, recognizable theories of government, and practices of government. Now we’re into what certainly seems like a combination of thugs and miracles. And I hope that you’ll see, if you haven’t seen already, that far from being contradictory, thugs and miracles go together, historically.
We’ve already entered into a somewhat strange realm with Procopius. Procopius’ Secret History certainly is a strange story, with strange theories of causality and a strange cast of characters. But it is narrated in a high classical style. Insofar as the pieces are a bit jumbled, it’s because it wasn’t completed. But, as you will have seen, if you think about Procopius, he is easy to read because he’s leading you on. He has several points to make, and he makes them with great rhetorical power. His Secret History is in the classical tradition of the invective. And in a way, we are better able to understand this because our own political discourse has gotten much more crude and extreme in the last thirty years or so.
So political invective, historical invective, stylistically well-composed, is not unfamiliar to us. But Gregory of Tours is. In a way, I’ve cheated by giving you the assignment from this edition of Alexander Murray, because he rearranges and excerpts things. The full work is much fatter, and Murray tries to make the story fairly coherent with headings, grouping things together, explaining a little what’s going on, to say nothing of the nice maps and genealogical tables in the back. But that loses some of the random quality– or seemingly random quality– that Gregory has. He has this funny way of seeming to move from one thing to another without any kind of transition or for no apparent purpose.
So in one of the little sections of Book 3 that’s not in Murray, he’s telling us now we have a miracle: “There lived at the city of Langres, Saint Gregory, that priest of God famed far and wide for his miracles and virtuous deeds. While I am talking about this bishop, I thought you would like me to tell you something of the town of Dijon, where he spent his youth.” Well, wait a minute. Did I ask about Dijon? Do I even know where Dijon is? Weren’t we talking about Theuderic and Chlothar and their feud? How have we gotten into, first of all, a story of a saint, and second, a little travelogue about Dijon?
So that is Gregory. You’ve got to like this. And I think we are better equipped—you, especially– because we’re not so linear as we used to be. You know, magazines used to be just a set of articles, and that was it. And then about twenty years ago, they started just breaking up into these miscellaneous things with little observations, and here’s what’s happening in Wichita Falls. But, you know, I don’t live there. But so what? You know, food festival in Colorado Springs, and what about this train trip in New Zealand? Well, I’m not in New Zealand, either. You know what I mean. This kind of little offers from all over the place, little possibilities, observations, wit and wisdom. This is the experience of modern media.
So I wouldn’t say that Gregory is ahead of his time, but I don’t want you to complain to me– well, I mean, you can, but I will not be incredibly sympathetic with, “Wait, I don’t know where this stops and begins.” Or “Wait, are we responsible for Theodebert versus Theuderic?” The answer to that is “No.” I’m not going to give you a short answer about which of these names is best for your cat. [laughter]
Or, you know, name at least five of Clovis’ grandchildren. But the rhythm of this, the power of these rulers, their thuggery or their violence, their internecine violence, their respect for miracles, Gregory’s sense of God’s intervention, is very important to grasp. And we will talk about the actual historical importance of this people that Gregory chronicles, the Franks. The chief thing about the Franks from Gregory’s point of view is that they are Catholic Christians. They never– unlike almost all other of the invaders of the Roman Empire– they never go through a period of Arianism. Clovis converts from paganism to regular-guy Roman Christianity. And from Clovis’ point of view, that is what is of chief importance– from Gregory’s point of view.
Gregory of Tours, the Author and his Writings
Statue of Saint Martin of Tours cutting his cloak in two above the Höchst Castle’s gate, Germany / Wikimedia Commons
Gregory of Tours, the author, is writing in the late sixth century. So around the same time, a few decades later, perhaps, than Procopius. Gregory lived from 539 to 594. In his time, there was still a distinction between Romans and barbarians, and Gregory was very conscious of himself as a Roman. He was from a distinguished Roman senatorial family. Note that he uses the word “senatorial,” a rank of the Roman Empire, even though the Roman Empire, from our point of view, certainly hasn’t existed for a hundred years or so.
He notes the eighteen bishops of Tours, his see, all but five were related to him. That shows you that being a bishop was a Roman office, an elite Roman office, even in the barbarian period. And also you’ll see that Gregory’s behavior shows us that the bishops, to some extent, have inherited Roman offices and Roman responsibilities. They are part of the government, and in a sense, opposed to the more brutal aspects of Merovingian, Frankish government.
Gregory became bishop of Tours in 573, and so he was bishop for twenty-one years. He probably began writing this book– which is actually just called The Book of the Histories–shortly after his election. So he’s writing in the 570s to early 590s.
He begins Book 1, which we haven’t read, with the story of creation and takes it to the death of Saint Martin, the great patron of Tours. And then he begins, properly speaking, with at least the legendary history of the dynasty of the Frankish kings, the descendants of a certain Merovech, hence Merovingians, the name for this dynasty.
Gregory also wrote a number of saints’ lives and martyr stories. He was very attached to Saint Martin. At one point, in one of those episodes not in Murray, he says, “If you celebrate the feast of Saint Martin faithfully, you will gain the protection of the saintly bishop in this world and the next.” And indeed, that’s very important. Remember when Clovis– and this is in Murray, on the page 17– when Clovis decides he’s going to attack the Visigoths? Now, he says he’s attacking them because he can’t stand to have Arians occupying Gaul, which is on page 16. “Then Clovis said to his men, ‘I take it very badly that these Arians hold part of Gaul. With God’s help, let’s go and conquer them, and bring the land under His authority.’” And a soldier seizes hay from a poor peasant. This is just the way soldiers are. They need that hay, the civilian has the hay, they’re on the march, he grabs it.
But this peasant is on the lands of Saint Martin, of land belonging to Tours. And the king, thug though he is, has issued an order saying the troops were not to take anything except fodder and water. And in fact, sort of hay is fodder. Nevertheless, “the king, who quicker than it takes to say it, had him put to the sword.” Guy, you’ve made a mistake. And he’s killed. And Clovis says of this incident, “How shall there be hope of victory, if we offend the blessed Martin?”
So you’ve got to take seriously, if you want to call it superstition, fine. But the Frankish rulers are at least amenable to influence from the priests, bishops, guardians of the saints. And notice– because we’re going to come back to this a lot. You’re going to see it everywhere in the early Middle Ages, post-Roman world– the saint is not dead. It’s not like Martin is some just kind of presence, the way, you know, the happy dead who are indifferent to us. Martin is an angry saint, or potentially angry.
In fact, all saints worth anything in the early Middle Ages are very touchy. If you seize hay from land belonging to their church, they’ll strike you dead, or they will see to it that you die in battle. And Gregory is indeed full of incidents in which holy figures, alive or dead, have this kind of ability to mobilize supernatural power.
What is his historical model? I mean if Procopius, in The Wars, models himself after Thucydides, and if in the Secret History he models himself after a tradition of invective, what is Gregory’s model? We don’t really know his sources. One reason why he’s so important is that for an awful lot of the history of the Merovingians, he’s about all we have. And although disorganized–quote “disorganized” — from our point of view, he’s very detailed. But he does have a model, and that model is the Bible, the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. If you read the Old Testament, it is, as I think I’ve said before, full of violence and full of miracles. And they are sort of jumbled up. The hand of God is very apparent in the Bible. And generally speaking, those who disobey God are punished.
The same is true in Gregory, although the hand of God is a little more mediated by those holy figures– saints, hermits, bishops– that we just discussed. There is a little bit more of a priestly power, but then again, the Bible has figures like Moses, who are able to– Joshua, who’s able to stop the sun. Priestly figures, indeed.
So from Gregory’s point of view, there is a continuity between biblical history and the history of his times. He describes, in the prologue to Book 2– which is not in Murray– that his plan is to describe the holy deeds of the saints and the way in which whole races of people were butchered. OK, you got a problem with that? At least the second part we all know is what history’s about. It’s the first that’s a little tough, the holy deeds of the saints.
And particularly as they’re not off on the side. The popular imagination loves what might be called “holy deeds of the saints.” If you look at gossip magazines of the lower sort, or kind of internet folklore, weird births, raining frogs, space aliens, all sorts of supernatural events clog them. Along with stars– that is, movie stars or media stars—gossip, and a little bit of history, a little bit of current events. This is not so dissimilar, in that sense.
Gregory is both a historian and a political actor. He does not have either the luxury or the irrelevance of most historians now, who sit comfortably– or in my case, not very comfortably, since I’m in an unrenovated office– but comfortably enough [laughter] in universities and maybe comment on what’s going on. No. Gregory is very, very involved with the Merovingian rulers.
And he has to display courage. He refuses to surrender fugitives who have sought asylum in his cathedral when they are demanded by royal officials. He defends his fellow bishop, Praetextatus, who was accused by the king of treason. You’ll be reading about this for next week. He’ll have arguments, again in your reading for next week, with the king himself about the Trinity, and has to defend himself against the charge of slandering the king’s concubine– really, here, the word “concubine” isn’t quite right, because these kings are kind of polygamists– against the king’s favorite, Fredegund. And Gregory is tried for defaming her. He resists taxes.
He seems to have been a small man. He suffered ill health, or at least he took an inordinate interest in his own health. He was a great believer in potions made with dust from the relics and tombs of holy men. A medicine prescribed as potio de pulvere sepulchre, a potion made from sepulcher dust. But it’s got to be of the right kind of people.
Gregory of Tours on the Franks
Bronze portrait of Chilperic / Wikimedia Commons
What is his attitude towards the Franks? I’ve said he regards them as thugs and barbarians. But at the same time, he regards them as the people of Israel, reborn as a race favored by God.
The Franks claimed claimed to be descended from refugees of fallen Troy. Thus, like the Romans. In fact, we don’t really know anything about them until they appear in Roman sources in the third century. We don’t know what held them together. We’re back to this problem of ethnogenesis. Do they speak a common language? Do they just travel in a pack together? Do they regard themselves as a people having a common ancestor? Well, we don’t really know.
Constantine’s father, at the end of the third century, dealt with them and settled them in what’s now the Low Countries, Holland and Belgium. They were federati, which you remember means allied armies of the Empire. They served the Empire actually fairly loyally in the early fourth century, and they became rich doing so.
We don’t really know if the supposed ancestors of Clovis– Merovech himself, for example– were real or legendary. Supposedly, Merovech is Clovis’ grandfather. We don’t know if he existed. But we do know something about his father, Chilperic. We know about him because his grave was dug up in the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, all the stuff that was in his grave, most of it was stolen in 1831. But drawings had been made before that, and they show that he owned or was buried with a cloak embroidered with cicadas, a crystal globe, a gold bracelet, a Frankish amulet. His horse’s — well, we assume it was his horse’s head buried with him, and it was covered with precious metal. He was also buried with 100 gold coins and 200 silver ones. And a signet ring that shows him with long hair, and the ring is inscribed– in case we wondered who this was– King Chilperic.
The long hair is important. It is a symbol of the power of these rulers. It is a kind of dynastic charisma. And indeed, one of the best books about these rulers, by an English historian is called Long Haired Kings.
What is all this stuff? The stuff that’s buried with him? A lot of it comes from Byzantium. A lot of this would have been bribes or goodwill gestures by the emperors interested in keeping some nominal loyalty on the part of the barbarian tribes in the collapse of the Western Empire.
Clovis succeeded Chilperic, his father, as the head of this federated tribe of now a nonexistent empire. All that remains of the Empire is a Roman commander. Remember we mentioned, in the life of Saint Antoninus of Noricum, that an emissary was sent from the Roman army to try to get paid and discovered that the Empire no longer existed. That there was nobody to pay them. Syagrius, S-Y-A-G-R-I-U-S, is a little bit like this. He’s a general in northern Gaul of the Roman Empire, and now that the Roman Empire ceases to exist, he’s on his own. And he is a rival for Clovis, and one of the first targets of his expansion.
Gregory calls him “king of the Romans.” What does that mean? Rome didn’t have kings. We don’t really know what title he used. We have no documents from him, no coins. Probably Byzantium, the eastern Roman Empire, didn’t like him, and probably they supported Clovis. At any rate, he was killed in 486, and Clovis’ next target of expansion was the Visigoths, those Arians that Gregory tells us about in the passage previously mentioned.
Clovis and Christianity
Baptism of Clovis, by Master of Saint Giles, c.1500, oil on panel / Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, London
The story seems dubious. The story being that they plundered this church, the Church of Rheims. The bishop asks Clovis for this silver bowl to be returned. Clovis says he’s got to consult his men, because they have a kind of booty splitting muster. Notice that this shows a certain leader/follower relationship, rather than absolute ruler/follower relationship.
Clovis says to his men something on the order of “me hardies,” or “my good men.” “Me hardies” maybe is a little too pirate-like. “So,” he begins. “So I want that ewer to return it to the Church in addition to my share of half.” And one soldier says, “No, you get half of that, just like everything else. Takes out his axe, one of the important weapons of the Franks, and splits the silver thing in half. And Clovis doesn’t do anything immediately. In a later muster, he says to the guy, recognizing him, “Your kit is a mess. Your shield, you call that a shield?” And he knocks something down, and as the guy picks it up, Clovis takes up his own axe and splits the guy’s head. Saying as he does so, “Thus you did to my ewer, or my basin, in Soissons.”
Dubious story, but interesting because it shows both the power of the ruler and some limitations, as well as his type of piety. Power–actually, you know, the president of the United States actually does have the power to kill people. We’ve seen it in action. Though at a distance and under certain, very special circumstances. But basically, it takes a certain kind of ruler to be able to kill someone outright like that. It still happens, but we’re talking about people like Qaddafi or despots.
So certainly, as with killing the guy who stole the hay from Saint Martin’s land, Clovis is following a certain set of leadership tips that basically amounts to winning by maximum intimidation, I think it’s fair to say.
But he’s got to do this in a careful way, because his followers are very important. They are powerful. He does depend on them, and he’s got to give at least the impression of being the leader of a band and not the kind of ruler of the state that we might be more familiar with. Leadership is personal, but there’s a kind of tribal sense, or tribal sense of democracy.
The other thing about the story, of course, is once again the controversy is over piety towards things of the Church, even before Clovis has, at least according to Gregory, officially converted. It’s not that you should be nice to the Church because it’s good to be a nice person. It’s that you’ve got to be nice to the Church because the Church is in command of supernatural weapons that will overcome the weapons of this world. The supernatural interpenetrates the physical or historical at every point in Gregory’s narrative. So the overwhelming fact for Gregory, as I said before, is that he is orthodox, or Catholic, i.e., not Arian.
Clovis is, in Gregory’s eyes, the new Constantine. Someone who has miraculously been turned, thuggish though he is– and Constantine was, as well– to advance God’s work. Of course, Gregory regards him as a barbarian, and he shows him as a barbarian. He portrays him honestly, or at least unflatteringly. As was said, he murdered his family. And then moreover, if you remember on pages 19 and 20, he pretends to be really sorry that he can’t find anybody that he’s related to. He’s searching findmyfamily.com for a genealogy or high school classmates. Anybody who could be his friend. But in fact, he is just searching them out to kill them. And he’s got all sorts of tricks to kill his relatives.
Chlodéric / Wikimedia Commons
Nevertheless, in the same chapter that describes his trick on Chlodéric, Gregory tells us, “Having aquired the kingdom of Sigibert and its treasury, he also received those people under his dominion. For daily the Lord laid his enemies low under his hand and increased his kingdom, because he walked before Him with an upright heart and did what was pleasing in His sight.” Right? This is just after Clovis, after the death of Sigibert, calls all the people together, says, “I don’t know what happened, but the sons of Sigibert seem to have died as they were showing my envoy’s treasure. Here’s my proposal, make me king.” And they say, “Oh, OK. Great, yeah. Step on the shield and we’ll lift you up, just like the Roman emperors. ”
Is Gregory a comedian? Or is he saying– and I think this is more likely, although he is hilarious to read. I mean, I hope he’s amused you. I hope while you were cursing me for giving you this assignment, or at least praying to some saints to strike me dumb or erupt in boils or probably not anything very strong, like you’ll notice that occasionally people lose their intestines when they go to the bathroom. Probably not. The heretic Arias, for example, and others who betray the saints. Anyway, whatever curses you were summoning up to me, I hope you actually found this fun. This course is fun, as I think I told you way back in the beginning of September.
So apart from the fun angle, people are instruments of the Lord, and they walk in the sight of the Lord even if they are not themselves good people. The Lord makes use of instruments, of people who are forceful. It’s important to be forceful. If Clovis was a nice guy– and we’ll see, and have already seen some examples of rulers who were nice, often intellectual, and ineffectual. Gregory prefers effectual with some violent touches to ineffectual, because being a ruler is a hard job in a barbarian world, in a fallen world.
Gregory, in this sense, is like Augustine. The world has fallen. The world is corrupt. There are no good people in power. And if they are in power, it is either unusual or they’re not going to be in power for long. Therefore, it is important to be violent. It is important to be able to intimidate your troops. It is important to seek out those who would oppose you. And if they’ve got to be killed, they’ve got to be killed.
The reason for this is that the work of the Lord has to be advanced, according to Gregory, and the Church has to be protected. For Gregory is exemplifying what I said would happen as predicted by Saint Augustine. The Empire might cease, but the Church would not. The Church would deal with whatever successors came up, be they Arian, or preferably not. Be they cultivated, or more likely barbarian. And as barbarian leaders go, Clovis and his sons were not so bad.
We’re not really sure how Clovis converted. Because Gregory is invested in a story that likens Clovis to Constantine, we have the same kind of thing. Before a battle, he makes a deal with God that if he wins the battle, he will convert. We don’t really know if he was converted before this battle in 494, as Gregory reports, or maybe in a battle against the Visigoths in 506. But it doesn’t really matter.
It’s very important that the Arians be defeated. He’s got a story that’s not in Murray, in Book 2, Chapter 23, in which an Arian bishop named Cryola. Cryola is angry because he sees the Catholic bishops performing miracles all over the place. So he pays a guy to pretend to be blind, and then to greet him as he comes to Church, and beg him to heal his sight, and then to say, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been healed. I can see.” But God punishes this by making him actually blind, at this point. And then the guy, very helpfully from the Catholic point of view, said “Oh, I wasn’t blind. This evil bishop, Cryola, bribed me in order to pretend to be blind, but now God and his saints, Saint Martin in particular, have punished me. ” And so that it takes a Catholic bishop to heal him back to sight.
So this is Gregory’s attitudes towards the Arians. On the other hand, he does report that the Franks besieged Saragossa. This is on pages 41, 42. The Spanish city of Saragossa. They’ve gotten that far in their attacks on the Visigoths. But the Arians were able to fight them off. “They circled the walls carrying the tunic of Saint Vincent and singing psalms. With the women dressed in black, their hair hanging loose, covered in ashes, lamented. Seeing the situation, Theodebert returned. He gave up the siege.” The Arians may be heretics, but they’ve got the tunic of Saint Vincent. And the power of that relic is so great that even in the hands of miscreants, it’s not to be opposed. Saint Vincent, a very important saint and the patron of Saragossa.
So the Arians are fakes, but they are not completely without spiritual power, either. And this is a kind of universe in which there are natural and supernatural forces. And it’s not that one trumps the other, exactly, but that they both have to be taken into account.
So, Clovis consolidates a large kingdom in most of what would become France. Roman Gaul, medieval France. France named after this group, the Franks. The Visigoths now were pushed out into Spain and just that part of France bordering on Spain.
Clovis received the favor of the Church because he was Catholic. His conversion, let’s say around 500, is ninety years before the Visigoths become Catholic. And this aids him greatly, because the Church is in possession of learned people, financial resources, and spiritual power. So we follow the Franks– and we will follow them up through Charlemagne and his successors– because they are successful, and because their own self-consciousness is as the rightful rulers of the former Western Empire. A claim that in various generations is more or less of a reality and that is by no means inevitable, but is something that they will eventually make good on. For the time being, Clovis considers himself a representative of the Byzantine Empire, but a representative who very conveniently doesn’t have to do anything. The Byzantine Emperor sends him the title of consul. He’s very pleased at this, but it doesn’t bind him, really.
So much for Clovis. Establishment of Frankish hegemony. The prominence of the Franks in the post-Roman West. The first Catholic people among the barbarian invaders.
The Sons of Clovis
Sons of Clovis, by Évariste Luminais, oil on canvas / Galerie d’art de la Nouvelle-Galles du Sud
Now we turn briefly to his sons. He divided his kingdom equally, and you have a map in the back that shows the division of the realm under Clovis’ sons, Chlothar, Childebert, Chlodomer, and Theuderic. This practice of division is dangerous. It is usually a better idea to give it to one son, because then you don’t divide the kingdom. On the other hand, if you have four sons who are all militarily competent, they’re going to fight with each other. And in fact they fight with each other, as Gregory describes in Book 3, even though they’ve been given divisions.
The violence of Clovis’ sons is crude and even ludicrous. So for example, this awful incident of Chlodomer’s sons being protected by Clovis’ queen Chlothild. And her sons, the boys’ uncles, Chlothar and Theuderic, invite the boys to come for a visit. And Chlothild, who seems rather credulous, says, “Great idea!.” Once they are in the power of these two brothers, who of course like Clovis want to kill their relatives, particularly their younger relatives, they send a sword and a pair of scissors, right? “Which will it be,” the messenger asks the queen. “Cut off their hair or kill them?” Cutting off their hair will symbolize that they’re no longer eligible for rulership. And it may lead to them being put away in a monastery or something like that, but they’re taking early retirement. They’re twelve, fourteen years old, but they’ve had it
And Chlothild is so angry, at least according to Gregory, that she says she’d rather see them die. And then they kill them. They kill them in this ludicrous way, because one of them gets cold feet, and the other is furious and takes up the sword, and just kills them. Even though they’re begging. I mean, it’s a rather gruesome scene.
Meanwhile, in a scene that we haven’t got in Murray’s edition, Theuderic attempts to kill Chlothar. He invites him, and he’s got men waiting to ambush him, but the cloth isn’t low enough down. They’re sort of behind a partition, a cloth partition, but Chlothar can see their feet. And so he kind of turns back and starts to walk out of the hall. And then Theuderic says, “No, no, no, I just invited you to give you a gift.” And he gives him a silver goblet or something like that. So, Chlothar escapes from this, but Theuderic is so angry at having been tricked that he then sends a messenger saying it was a mistake to give back the goblet. So, I mean, these guys, what can I say?
Yet beneath the barbarian acts is a society that is still being governed fairly closely. There is a fairly sophisticated administration still. There’s a gold coinage, which takes a lot of resources to maintain. These rulers are collecting taxes, and they are collecting taxes according to written records. There’s public land. There’s revenue from land belonging to the king. The kings are reasonably conscientious about the appointment of bishops.
What is Gregory’s attitude towards these sons of Clovis? He certainly portrays them as fratricidal. Nevertheless, on page 26, he tells us that the brothers were endowed with great courage and had considerable military resources. Once again, their power is directed more for good than for bad. And a lot of their power for bad is merely directed at each other. He considers them, in other words, appropriate rulers for savage times.
At one point, two of the brothers make war against a third. Specifically, Childebert and Theuderic against Chlothar. Chlothar is the guy who has just been depicted by Gregory as the tough one, the one who killed the two nephews. He’s also an adulterer. And yet, faced with his brother’s armies, he prays to God. And his mother, Queen Chlothild, prays to Saint Martin. So powerful are these prayers that the two brothers are unsuccessful. A hailstorm pelts their troops, spares Chlothar, and Chlothar is victorious. The brothers do not succeed in dislodging him.
Here then, we have the power of the Merovingians and the limitations on that power. The limitations are partly military, partly that of fratricidal intrigue, of people getting killed. But they’re also partly supernatural. And as you read further into the grandsons of Clovis, people whom Gregory himself has dealings with, particularly the wayward Chilperic, you’ll see rulers that Gregory considers to be evil and rulers who are really falling away from the example. But what interests us in our readings for next week is the nature of this society. What’s holding it together if it’s rulers are so violent? Why is it not just falling apart into fragments and shattering? How could this dynasty rule over a polity for something on the order of 250 years?