Voices of History: Gregory of Tours and the Frankish Kingdoms

Today I’d like to pick up the thread left when I considered the historian Gildas, whose work on the transition from Roman to mediaeval Britain has remained so influential until today.  At around the same time Gildas sat down to pen De Excidio Britanniae, in the mid-6th century, another prominent historian was born across the Channel in the territories of Frankish Gaul. Born Georgius Florentius, but later known as Gregory, he was descended from a pround and prominent senatorial family. Upholding Roman aristocratic traditions, his family wielded great political influence and even monopolised for several generations the bishopric of Tours and others.

Fronticepiece of a 7th century manuscript of Gregory’s Historia Francorum, a considerable literary achievement. (Wikimedia)

It was to this background that Gregory owed much of his success, and which allowed him to write the works, including ten books of history usually referred to as the History of the Franks, which have made him such a prominent figure in modern scholarship on the Middle Ages. Having become the Bishop of Tours after a period of education in that city, he acted as a powerful political figure not only in his own region, but also in those of the other Frankish kingdoms located in modern France. His personal relationships with many kings, as well as with cultural figures like poet Venantius Fortunatus, gave him unparalleled access onto the significant events of his day. These he set into the perspective of world history–beginning with the Creation–and recorded for the betterment of his contemporaries and posterity.

If he owed much of his success and later recognition to the continuity of his family traditions–which linked him back to the Roman aristocracy–however, his world was frighteningly new. During the 5th century, a group of Germanic ‘barbarians’ known as the Franks had begun to gain power in the lands of Roman Gaul, forming their own kingdom under Childeric, a man presumed to rule the area around Paris and Soissons, near Belgium. This process was advanced by Childeric’s son Clovis, and the Frankish dynasty known as the Merovingians.

By Gregory’s day, they ruled from Belgium south to the borders of Visigothic Spain–an area hotly contested by the two groups–and often clashed with their neighbours the Ostrogoths in Italy. This territory was not held under a single king, however, but was split into mini-kingdoms known as teilreich, which coalesced into the areas of Neustria, Austrasia, Burgundy, and Aquitaine.

The Frankish lands, in Merovingian and Carolingian times. Gregory himself was writing from Austrasia. (Wikimedia)

These areas, ruled by various lineages of the Merovingian dynasty, were constantly subject to internecine rivalries between uncles and brothers, fathers and sons. It is this world which Gregory depicts, using an anecdotal style replete with detail and vivid characterisations. Some are family stories, including the efforts of Gregory’s own great grandfather to redeem his nephew from slavery, but most deal with the turbulent affairs of the Frankish royal lines. He preserves, for example, a story eerily reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which two young princes are killed for their claim to the kingdom, as well as many tales of outrage, revenge, and sexual licentiousness.

Throughout, his history aims to present contrasts, demonstrating that wicked deed lead to wicked ends, while the good are rewarded. The actions of a ‘wicked and cruel woman named Amalberg,’ who ‘sowed the seeds of civil war’ are thus condemned, while another royal woman, Radegund, is praised for her ‘prayers, fasting, and almsgiving,’  which enhanced the status of Christianity in her husband’s lands. Many of the Frankish kings are also caricatured by Gregory, portrayed as brutish, vengeful, and sinful, though some, like Theudebert, ‘ruled his kingdom with justice, respected bishops, endowed churches, relieved the poor, and bestowed favours on many with a pious goodwill.’ 

As you can see in the above, Gregory’s moral standpoint–an important part of his identity, derived from his standing as a churchman–pervades his history, which strove to demonstrate the actions of divine providence in human events. This bias can at times place serious limitations on the text. Conflicts between the Visigoths and Franks are portrayed by Gregory as a religious conflict between Catholicism and Arianism (considered a heretical form of Christianity), for example, and his chronology is riddled with inaccuracies.

The Baptism of Clovis, as imagined by the 16th century painter ‘The Master of St Gilles.’ Historically significant, the baptism has proved problematic for modern historians. (Wikimedia)

These problems characterise his portrayal of one of the most significant events of Frankish history–the conversion of King Clovis to Christianity. According to Gregory, Clovis desired to accept Christianity, but was anxious that his people might reject him if he did so. In order to assuage his concerns, God inspired his people to ‘shout out together, “Dutiful king, we shall drive away our mortal gods, and we are ready to follow that immortal God preached’ by the Catholic bishop Remigius. Gregory goes on to relate how over 3,000 men were baptised along with their king. This event, however, took place over 50 years before Gregory’s own time of writing, and were commemorated in a scanty number of sources. Whether Gregory was working here from oral recollections, or from a number of letters which have survived from the reign of Clovis, is unclear, but his attempts to date the baptism are demonstrably inaccurate.

These difficulties, however, do not invalidate the factual nature of many of his contributions, particularly when he wrote about the events of his own lifetime. Even when the truthfulness of an episode is in doubt, however, their details can provide insight into the social milieu of the times. Although not all royal concubines poisoned their rivals, for example, the intense competition between royal sons and their various mothers was a powerful source of friction in the history of the dynasty. The efforts of bishops to reduce the tax burden on their home cities, or the slave-owning practices of prominent Franks likewise illustrates the lived experience of Gregory and his contemporaries.

For this reason, his voice as been a rich source of knowledge for historians seeking to understand how his world of Roman aristocrats and Frankish kings functioned, how Christianity spread among pagans, and how the successor dynasty–the Carolingians–came to power.

Learn More: 

The Historia Francorum is available in English translation online here, but the excerpts above are taken from the translation in Murray, Alexander Callander, ed. and trans. From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader, (Toronto, 2008).

For more on the difficulties of Clovis’ baptism, see Wood, Ian N., ‘Gregory of Tours and Clovis,’ in Revue Belge de philologie et d’histoire, 63 (1985), pp.249-272.

The major work on Gregory of Tours remains Goffart, Walter, The Narrators of Barbarian History, (Princeton, 1988), though some of it’s conclusions are controversial.

5 thoughts on “Voices of History: Gregory of Tours and the Frankish Kingdoms

  1. Slightly off topic, but this era really had some amazing names. Merovingian is a beautiful-sounding word: same for Neustria and Austrasia (even if they do sound like suspiciously like the kind of place you might find in a fantasy novel or some other kind of genre fiction).

  2. I agree that some of them are very beautiful, but I find many of the personal names rather silly. Radegund, Hermenegard, Wisigard…the list goes on. Some of the Visigothic names are also quite comical, among these my favourite has got to be Swinthilla (although he was a rather nasty individual.) With these names, as well as all the melodrama and revenge-seeking, it’s easy to see some of Gregory’s stories as the precursors to Wagnerian opera!

    One of my favourite things about the Merovingians, however, is the legend that they traced their lineage back to a sea monster! They also had some very strange ideas about hair, and royalty especially were marked out by their long tresses. Sometimes, if you wished to depose someone, it was enough to shear off their hair and deposit them in a monastery.

    • Haha! Nothing wrong with tracing yourself back to a sea monster! And yes, you’re right, those names are silly-sounding and it reminds me of a friend telling me about bellicose etymologies in Germanic names, especially: Wikipedia says Brunhilde means “breast plate battle” and Gertrude is “spear maiden/spear strength”…
      Swinthilla is the best though. Is that Swin as in swine? I’m pretty sure it’s a common Indo-European stem, or if not, it appears in German, Latin and Greek.

  3. Pingback: Let Us Be Frank: The Merovingian Kings | mediaevalmusings

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