Friday, October 14, 2016

The History of the Franks

 The History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours

I was pretty scared of this book, which is a solid 600 pages of early medieval history.  I should not have been nervous at all, because this history is crammed full of gripping stuff!  Feuds, intrigues, miracles, and weird stories spill out all over the place.  I had about as much fun with this as it is possible to have with 600 pages of early medieval history.

Gregory was the bishop of Tours in the late 6th century, during the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings.  He served through four reigns.  His history is in ten books, and starts with the creation of the world, moving to Frankish history, and then to the history he personally witnessed.  Of course he wrote in Latin.

Book I is a summary of Biblical history, pretty much, except that Gregory continues through early Christian history up to the death of St. Martin of Tours in 397.  I will admit to skimming this one, since I am already pretty familiar with that.  But Gregory had a reason for including it; he's situating his own Frankish land in a Christian setting, showing God's plan from the start right through to current times.  The Franks, as a Christian people, are part of the kingdom of God and see their predecessors all the way back.  Then Book II talks about the wars and movements of various tribes--the Vandals and Franks and so on. 

Merovingian kings wore long hair, unlike most Franks
 After that, we get a nice tour of the first half of the 6th century, and a very detailed account of the second half, which is closer to Gregory's time.  He knew all the major Frankish people and frequently intervened in affairs. so he appears personally quite a bit in the last third of the book.  One king, Chilperic, actually put Gregory on trial for treason.  Chilperic does not get a good writeup in this history, and is the major villain of half the book, since he managed to outlive everyone else.  I kept wondering if he would ever die!  All his sons died in wars, so he had another one, and he died too, but Chilperic just kept going.

The entertainment rarely stops, so here are a few choice passages:
In Touraine this same year, one morning before the day had dawned, a bright light was seen to traverse the sky and then disappear in the East.  A sound as of trees crashing to the ground was heard throughout the whole region, but it can hardly have been a tree for it was audible over fifty miles and more.  [A largeish meteor maybe?]  V.33

At this time there livednear the town of Nice a recluse called Hospicius.  He was a man of great abstinence, who had iron chains wound round his body, next to the skin, and wore a hair-shirt on top.  He ate nothing but dry bread and a few dates.  In the month of Lent he fed on the roots of Egyptian herbs, which merchants brought home for him.  Hermits are greatly addicted to these. VI.6
[A hermit's story] There came to me certain bishops whose plain duty it was to exhort me to press wisely on with the task which I had begun [standing on a pillar].  Instead they said to me: "It is not right, what you are trying to do!  Such an obscure person as you can never be compared with Simeon the Stylite of Antioch!  The climate of the region makes it impossible for you to keep tormenting yourself in this way.  Come down off your column, and live with the brethren whom you have gathered around you."  [As the footnote says, "This sort of thing was no doubt all right in the Middle East, but the climate of Northern Gaul was hardly suited to it."]  VIII.15

Meanwhile Bishop Bertram died in Bordeaux.  Berthegund then came to her senses.  "What a fool I have been," she said, "to listen to the advice of my stupid mother!"  IX.33

At this time Droctigisel was Bishop of Soissons.  He had been out of his mind now for nearly four years, through drinking to excess.  Many of the citizens maintained that this was brought about by witchcraft, through the action of an archdeacon whom he had dismissed from his post.  He was certainly more mad when he was inside the city walls, whereas whenever he ventured outside he behaved fairly normally.  IX.37
In contrast, here is a sad passage that contradicts the theory we sometimes hear that medieval people didn't care as much about their children as we do:
The epidemic began in the month of August.  It attacked young children first of all and to them it was fatal: and so we lost our little ones, who were so dear to us and sweet, whom we had cherished in our bosoms and dandled in our arms, whom we had fed and nurtured with such loving care.  As I write I wipe away my tears...V.34
As a bishop, Gregory is of course primarily concerned with the faith of the people, so he spends a lot of time talking about heresies and splinter sects.  The Longobards and the Vandals are prone to Arianism.  Pelagianism shows up once or twice, but not nearly as often as Arianism.  He also devotes a large section to convincing a priest that the resurrection is real (the priest believes everything in his theology except the bit about being resurrected someday).

The names are quite difficult to keep straight.  Everyone is named Chilperic, Theudebert, Gundovald, or something similar. 

The final passage is very interesting; it's just Gregory's close and his solemn curse upon any of his successors who change his books.  He's worried that future bishops will find him unpolished and want to pretty things up a bit, so he invokes the seven arts and the curse of God to make sure they don't.  It's also clear that Gregory does not expect many people besides future bishops to read his works at all!  Here I am, about 1400 years later, reading his book that he assumed only fellow clerics would ever see.

I am so glad I read this history.  It was way more fun than I thought it would be.  Only the size (OK, and the names) is intimidating, so don't let it scare you--try it out!

PS:  One funny thing: this is all about the history of the Merovingian kings, so eventually I remembered about the goofy theory that the Merovingians were descended from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.  A few minutes of googling let me know that the Priory of Sion mentioned in the Da Vinci Code is supposed to be this secret society bent on putting Merovingian descendants on all the thrones of Europe.  (This seems like a silly sort of goal, but then it's a silly sort of theory.)  Well, all I've got to say is, anybody who thinks the Merovingians were somehow special or holy has obviously not read anything about them; they were a bloodthirsty lot who specialized in killing each other off all the time.  And they weren't Christian until around 500.  A good legendary origin is always fun, and I bet Chilperic would have been all in favor of using it (until Gregory got him for heresy, which he would have), but this one is pretty ludicrous.


Gin Jenny said...

Okay, super important Q: You say that you had as much fun with this book as it is possible to have with 600 pages of early medieval history, and I would like some clarification on what that means in this context JUST BECAUSE if I said those words, I would not mean them in a positive sense. I would mean them like "well the bar was really low and it hit the bar I guess." Like how would you compare this massive super old history book to like, Herodotus or Edward Gibbon for example?

Jean said...

I've never read Gibbon, but Herodotus is really hard for me. This was not easy, but it was not too hard either, and it was frequently entertaining, especially since I was willing to remain a bit fuzzy on details like how exactly Chilperic was related to Gundovald and so on; I didn't plan to take detailed notes or make family trees or anything. Keep in mind that I do kind of *like* medieval history, but it was way more entertaining than the Venerable Bede or the Romance of the Rose. Harder than Geraldus Cambrensis, but mostly because it's longer. (I have reviewed all of those here, so you can search for the posts if you like.) Intermediate level.