Gregory of Tours

Gregory of Tours

Infobox Saint
name=Saint Gregory of Tours
birth_date=November 30 c. 538
death_date=death date|593|11|17|mf=y or 594cite encyclopedia | title =St. Gregory of Tours | encyclopedia =The Catholic Encyclopedia | volume =7 | publisher =Robert Appleton Company | date =1910 | url = | accessdate =2007-01-16]
feast_day=November 17
venerated_in=Roman Catholic Church

caption=Saint Gregory of Tours, depicted in 19th century statuary as Bishop of Tours and bearing his "Historia Francorum"
birth_place=Auvergne, Francecite web | last = Jones | first = Terry | title = Gregory of Tours | work = Patron Saints Index | url= | accessdate = 2007-01-16]
death_place=Tours, France
titles=Bishop of Tours

Saint Gregory of Tours (November 30, c. 538 – November 17, 594) was a Gallo-Roman historian and bishop of Tours, which made him a leading prelate of Gaul. He was born Georgius Florentius Gregorius. He wrote in an ungrammatical and barbarized style of late Latin; however, it has been argued that this was a deliberate ploy to ensure his works would reach a wide audience. [Mitchell and Wood (2002)] He is the main contemporary source for Merovingian history. His most notable work was his "Decem Libri Historiarum" or "Ten Books of Histories," better known as the "Historia Francorum" ("History of the Franks"), a title given to it by later chroniclers, but he is also known for his credulous accounts of the miracles of saints, especially four books of the miracles of Martin of Tours. St Martin's tomb was a major draw in the 6th century, and Gregory's writings had the practical aspect of promoting this highly organized cult.


Gregory was born in Clermont, in the Auvergne region of central Gaul. He was born into the upper stratum of Gallo-Roman society as the son of Florentius, Senator of Clermont by his wife Armentaria II, niece of Nicetius, Bishop of Lyons and maternal granddaughter of Florentius, Senator of Geneva. Of the eighteen bishops of Tours who preceded him, all but five were connected with him by ties of kinship. His father evidently died while Gregory was young and his widowed mother moved to Burgundy where she had property. 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 culture of early medieval Europe. 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 periods of violence and turmoil in Merovingian politics.

Gregory struggled through personal relations with four Frankish kings, Sigebert I, Chilperic I, Guntram, and Childebert I and he personally knew most of the leading Franks.


The "Historia Francorum" is in ten books. Books I to IV recount the world's history from the Creation but move quickly to the Christianization of Gaul, the life and times of Saint Martin of Tours, 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, relations between him and Gregory were tense. After hearing rumours that the Bishop of Tours had slandered his wife, Chilperic had Gregory arrested and tried for treason - a charge which threatened both Gregory's bishopric and his life. The most eloquent passage in the "Historia" is the closing chapter of book VI, in which Chilperic's character is summed up unsympathetically.

The third part, comprising books VII to ­X, takes his increasingly personal account to the year 591. An epilogue was written in 594, the year of Gregory's death.

Problems of interpretation

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. In addition, his ridiculing of pagans and Jews reflected how his works were used to spread the Christian faith. For example, in book 2, chapters 28-31, he describes the Pagans as incestuous and weak. He describes the process of how a newly converted King Clovis leads a much better life than that of a Pagan. After Clovis's conversion he heals all the conundrums he once experienced as a Pagan. Gregory's education was limited: the narrowly Christian one available, ignoring the liberal arts and the pagan classics. It is said that he constantly complained about his use of grammar. He did not understand how to correctly write masculine and feminine phrases. 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." However, we must keep in mind that he seems to have thoroughly studied the lengthy and complex Vulgate Bible, religious works and a number of historical treatises, which he quotes from quite frequently, particularly in the earlier books of the "Historia Francorum". The main impression that historians once retained from the "Historia" focused on the violent anecdotes that Gregory relates. Until recently, historians have tended to conclude that Merovingian Gaul was a chaotic, brutal mess. Recent scholarship has refuted that view. Through more careful readings, scholars have concluded that Gregory's underlying purpose was to highlight the vanity of secular life and contrast it with the miracles of the Saints. [See especially Goffart (1988) and Mitchell and Wood (2002)] Though Gregory conveys political and other messages through the "Historia", and these are studied very closely, historians generally agree that this contrast is the central and ever-present narrative device.


His "Life of the Fathers" comprises twenty hagiographies of the most prominent men of the preceding generation, taking in a wide range the spiritual community of early medieval Gaul, including lives of bishops, clerics, monks, abbots, holy men and hermits. The singular 'Life' is used in the title as the collection of lives is intended to furnish an image of the uniform nature of glorious Christian lifestyles, with each individual life structured so as to bring out specific aspects of the ideal.Fact|date=September 2008 For example, St Illidius is praised for his purity of heart, St Brachio the abbot for his discipline and determination in study of the scriptures, St Patroclus for his unwavering faith in the face of weakness, and St Nicetius, bishop of Lyon, for his justice. It is the life of St Nicetius of Trier, though, which dominates this book; his great authority and sense of episcopal responsibility which is the focus of Gregory's account as his figure, predestined to be great, bestrides the lives of the others. It is told that he felt a weight on his head, but he was unable to see what it was when turning around, though upon smelling its sweet scent he realised that it was the weight of episcopal responsibility. ("Life of the Fathers", XVII, 1) He surmounts the others in the glory of his miracles, and was chosen by God to have the entire succession of past and future Frankish kings revealed to him.

A further aspect of this work to note is the appearance of Gregory himself in certain sections, notably in the life of St Leobardus. This is for two reasons - firstly, it creates a distinct link between the temporal and the spiritual worlds, firmly placing the accounts of the lives in a world which is understandable and recognisable, or, seen from the other angle, confirming the presence of miracles in the temporal world. Secondly, the intercession of Gregory serves to set Leobardus straight, after he had been tempted by the devil ("Life of the Fathers", XX, 3), and so this act further enhances the authority of bishops as a whole.Fact|date=September 2008

A fighter against heresy

Gregory's avowed aim in writing this book was to 'fire others with that enthusiasm by which the saints deservedly climbed to heaven', though this was not his sole purpose, and he most surely did not expect his entire audience to show promise of such piety as to witness the power of God flowing through them in the way that it did for the fathers. More immediate concerns were at the forefront of his mind as he sought to create a further layer of religious commitment, not only to the Church at Rome, but to local churches and cathedrals throughout Gaul. Along with his other books, notably the "Glory of the Confessors", the "Glory of the Martyrs" and the "Life of St. Martin", meticulous attention is paid to the local as opposed to the universal Christian experience. Within these grandiloquent lives are tales and anecdotes which tie miracles, saints and their relics to a great diversity of local areas, furnishing his audience with greater knowledge of their local shrine, and providing them with evidence of the work of God in their immediate vicinity, thus greatly expanding their connection with and understanding of their faith. Attacks on heresy also appear throughout his hagiographies, and Arianism is taken to be the common face of heresy across Europe, exposed to great ridicule. Often, the scenes which expose the weaknesses of heresy ("Glory of the Martyrs", 79, 80) focus on images of fire and burning, whilst the Catholics are proved right by the protection lavished on them by God.

This was of great relevance to Gregory himself as he presided over the important see of Tours, where extensive use was made of the cult of St Martin in establishing the authority of the bishopric with the congregation and in the context of the Frankish church. Gregory's hagiography was an essential component of this. However, this should not be seen as a selfish grab for power on behalf of the bishops who emerge so triumphantly from the Life of the Fathers, but rather as a bid for hegemony of doctrine and control over the practice of worship, which they believed to be in the best interests of their congregation and the wider church.


The "Historia Francorum" is of salient historical interest since it describes a period of transition from Roman to Medieval, and the establishment of the French state,Fact|date=September 2008 which was to remain remarkably large in terms of population and territory, and fortunate in terms of wealth, stability and unity for its time throughout the Medieval period compared with other European states.Fact|date=September 2008 Gregory's hagiographies are also an invaluable source of anecdotes and stories which enrich our understanding of life and belief in Merovingian Gaul, whilst it is fascinating to study works such as these which must have excited their audience to such an extent. His motivation behind his works was to show readers the importance and strength of Christianity. His extensive literary output is itself a testimony to the preservation of learning and to the lingering continuity of Gallo-Roman civic culture through the so-called 'Dark Ages'.


The following represent key modern texts on Gregory of Tours, including the most recent translations of his work.

While Lewis Thorpe's translation of "The History of the Franks" is more accessible than Brehaut's, his introduction and commentary are not well regarded by contemporary historians (see Secondary Sources, below).

Primary sources


* "Gregorii episcopi Turonensis. Libri Historiarum X" (ed. Bruno Krusch and Wilhelm Levison), MGH SRM I 1, Hannover2 1951

* "Miracula et opera minora" (ed. Bruno Krusch), MGH SRM I 2, Hannover 1969, 211-294 (repr. from 1885)


* "Fränkische Geschichte". 3 vols. (transl. Wilhelm von Giesebrecht and Manfred Gebauer), Essen 1988.
* "From Roman to Merovingian Gaul. A Reader" (ed. and transl. Alexander Callander Murray; Readings in medieval Civilisations and Cultures 5), Toronto 2000, 287-446
* "Glory of the confessors" (ed. and transl. Raymond Van Dam; Translated Texts for Historians 4), Liverpool 2004 (2nd edition), ISBN 0-85323-226-1.
* "Glory of the Martyrs" (ed. and transl. Raymond Van Dam; Translated Texts for Historians 3), Liverpool 2004 (2nd edition), ISBN 0-85323-236-9.
* "Liber de passione et virtutibus sancti Iuliani martyris" und" Libri de virtutibus sancti Martini episcopi", in: Raymond Van Dam (ed.), Saints and their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul, Princeton 1993, 153-317.
* "Life of the Fathers" (ed. and transl. James Edward; Translated Texts for Historians 1), Liverpool 1991 (2nd edition), ISBN 0-85323-327-6.
* "The History of die Franks" (transl. M. Dalton), Oxford 1927.
* "The History of the Franks" (transl. L. Thorpe), Penguin 1974.

Bilingual Editions

* "Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent Grégoire évêque de Tours" (ed. and transl. Léonard Bordier), vol. 1, Paris 1857.
* "Zehn Bücher Geschichten. Band I-II."(ed. and transl. Wilhelm Giesebrecht and Rudolf Buchner), Darmstadt 1955-1956.

econdary sources

*Peter Brown, "The Cult of the Saints" (London, 1981)
*Walter Goffart, "The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550–800)" (Princeton, 1988)
*E James, "The Franks" (Oxford, 1988)
*Reinhold Kaiser. "Das römische Erbe und das Merowingerreich", (Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte 26) (München, 2004)
*Kathleen Mitchell and Ian Wood (eds.), "The World of Gregory of Tours" (Leiden, 2002)
*R Van Dam, "Saints and their miracles in late antique Gaul" (Princeton, 1993)
*Ian N Wood, "The Merovingian kingdoms 450-751" (London, 1994)
*Ian N Wood, "Gregory of Tours" (Oxford, 1994)
*Shannon McSheffrey, "The History of the Franks" (Harmondsworth, 1974)


External links

* [ History of the Franks] (original Latin text, complete)
* [ Catholic Encyclopedia: Gregory of Tours]
* [ Excerpts from "Historia Francorum" with Ernest Brehaut's critical analysis of Gregory in the context of his time] , from Medieval Sourcebook
* [ S. Georgii Florentii Gregorii Turonensis Episcopi liber ineditus De cursu stellarum ratio]

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