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Gregory of Tours (538-594) was a Gallo-Roman historian and bishop of Tours, which made him the leading prelate of Gaul. He wrote in a clumsy, ungrammatical and barbarized late Latin attempt at a literary style, which is full of vitality nevertheless and many Frankish and Germanic terms. When inspiration fails, he is quick to fall back on the linguistic formulas of doctrine. Withal, he is the main contemporary source for Merovingian history. His most notable work was the Historia Francorum ("History of the Franks"), in ten books, but he is also known for his credulous accounts of the miracles of saints, especially four books of the miracles of Martin of Tours. Martin's tomb was a major draw in the 6th century, and Gregory's writings had a practical aspect of promoting this highly organized cultus. Gregory has been canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic church. Gregory shares the Gaulish appetite for miraculous events, the more incredible, the more thrilling.
Gregory was born into the upper stratum of Gallo-Roman society, of senatorial rank on both sides, as he tells us, in Clermont, in the Auvergne region of central Gaul. Of the bishops of Tours from the beginning, all but five were connected with him by ties of kinship. He spent most of his career at Tours, though he travelled as far as Paris. The rough world he lived in was on the cusp of the dying world of Antiquity and the new barbarian culture of early medieval Europe (the "Dark Ages" according to 19th century historians). Gregory lived also on the border between the Frankish culture of the Merovingians to the north and the Gallo-Roman culture of the south of Gaul.
At Tours, Gregory could not have been better placed to hear everything and meet everyone of influence in Merovingian culture. Tours lay on the watery highway of the navigable Loire. Five Roman roads radiated from Tours, which lay on the main thoroughfare between the Frankish north and Aquitania, with Spain beyond. At Tours the Frankish influences of the north and the Gallo-Roman influences of the south had their chief contact (see map). As the center for the popular cult of St Martin, Tours was a pilgrimage site, hospital, and a political sanctuary to which important leaders fled during the violence and turmoil of Merovingian disorder.
Gregory's canonization as a saint of the Roman Catholic church may make some readers uneasy about criticizing him as a chronicler. "It is rather as an unconscious revelation that the work is of especial value," is the way his translator, Ernest Brehaut, introduced the work in 1915.
The Historia Francorum is in ten books. Books I to IV recount the world's history from the Creation but moves quickly to the Christianization of Gaul, the conversion of the Franks and the conquest of Gaul under Clovis, and the more detailed history of the Frankish kings down to the death of Sigebert in 575. At this date Gregory had been bishop of Tours for two years.
The second part, books V and VI, closes with Chilperic's death in 584. During the years that Chilperic held Tours, the relations between him and Gregory were tense. The most eloquent passage in the Historia is the closing chapter of book VI, in which Chilperic's character is unsympathetical1y summed up.
The third part comprising books VII to X, carries the increasingly personal account to the year 591. An epilogue was written in 594, the year of Gregory's death.
One must decide when reading the Historia Francorum whether this is a royal history, and whether Gregory was writing to please his patrons. It is likely that one royal Frankish house is more generously treated than others. He was also a Catholic bishop, and his writing reveals views typical of someone in his position. His views on perceived dangers of Arianism (still strong among the Visigoths) led him to preface the Historia with a detailed expression of his orthodoxy on the nature of Christ. His scorn of pagans and Jews should be seen in the context of the time. Gregory's education was limited: the narrowly Christian one available, ignoring the liberal arts and the pagan classics; though he had read Virgil, he cautions us that "We ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death."
Gregory of Tours embodies the unresolved contradictions of a wild transitional era. "How could Gregory be so shrewd and worldly-minded in his struggle with Chilperic and at the same time show such an appetite for the miraculous?" Ernest Brehaut asked. A contemporary professor of history has asked his students about Gregory, "Is he a civilized man writing down the follies and cruelties of a barbaric age? Is he a barbaric and superstitious product of a backward society? Is he a careful and honest historian, or a disorganized, even disingenuous promoter of poorly-concealed agenda? Or did he have a consistent agenda?"