John S. Ott
HST 354U – Early Medieval Europe
Portland State University
Reading Guide :
Gregory of Tours, The Histories (aka History of the Franks)
This week we will be reading extracts from Gregory of Tours' Histories (in our translation called The History of the Franks, but this was not the title he gave it) and a few selections from the Salic Law, which was codified during the rule of Clovis, king of the Franks (486-511 C.E.). Gregory, like his predecessor Martin, was bishop of Tours (on the Loire River, in central France), from 573-594 C.E. He was born to a prominent aristocratic family from the Auvergne region of south-central France, and was one of many bishops in his family (which included numerous saints). He grew up in the households of relatives who were bishops, where he would have been educated and prepared from youth for a life in the clergy. For Gallo-Roman aristocrats, to become bishop was a prized office, combining religious guidance with civic administration and involvement in secular politics. Gregory moved in the highest circles of sixth-century politics, and traveled widely within the Frankish kingdoms.
Sixth-century politics meant kings and queens, counts and dukes, bishops and saints, and Gregory served, knew personally, and/or observed a great many during his lifetime and professional career. Gaul in Gregory's day, after its unification under Clovis, was the scene of bitter fratricidal warfare among the grandsons of Clovis (the sons of Chlothar I, who ruled from 511-561). Tours, Gregory's city, was subject to the authority of four different kings between 573-594, as well as a series of counts, secular officials appointed by the kings to exercise political authority in the cities of the realm.
Gregory's Histories is the most complete written source we have for this period of Frankish history. He composed it in 10 books, which cover history from Creation down to the year of his death in 594. He was essentially finished with the work by the time he died, at the age of 56. The periods covered in each book vary widely. The first book, for example, begins with Creation and continues down to the death of St Martin of Tours in 397, a span of nearly 5600 years. The second book runs from the death of Martin in 397 C.E. to the death of the Frankish king Clovis I in 511 (114 years). As the Histories progresses, the books cover shorter periods of time, and the overall focus of the work is on the events of the last twenty years of Gregory's life.
As you read, you will be confronted with an at-times dizzying array of names and places. Keep in mind two things:
- There are genealogical tables of his family and the Merovingian dynasty in our translation; they may be helpful. I would refer to the latter, in particular.
- It is probably most helpful to track the fortunes of the major players--Clovis, Clothild, Lothar, St. Martin, Chramn--and don't worry too much about minor events and individuals. Look rather at the big issues: Gregory's dominant concerns, his subject matter, the kinds of events he records, how he situates his local history within the universal story of Christian history, his appraisal of events and their outcomes. I recommend that, before you begin, you read/skim the translator's Introduction, although this is optional.
(1) How does Gregory's recapitulation of the ancient history of the Old and New Testaments function within the overall context of the Histories? Why did he begin his history with Creation? What sorts of events does he highlight from biblical and Roman history?
(2) What sort of people is Gregory primarily interested in? To what groups do they belong? What is his stated (unstated?) purpose in recording the Franks' turbulent history?
(3) What role do women play in Gregory's narrative? Which women are vilified, which are exalted, and why?
(4) What resources or qualities were indispensable for achieving success in the Merovingian world? Are particular kinds of behavior praised? rewarded? punished? Can you discern broader patterns at work?
(5) Assess the role of magic, miracles, and religious conversion in the Histories. How might a historian interpret Clovis's conversion, for example? Is it "genuine"? Does it matter whether it was, or wasn't? What about the conversion of his followers?