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Absent Friends: With a Little Help from Saint Martin

By (April 1, 2008) No Comment

Gregory of Tours, the 6th century author of The History of the Franks (Historiae Francorum), was the proud descendant of a long line of clerics, bishops, and saints. His father, Senator Florentius, was a respected member of the Gallic landed gentry; his mother, the formidable Armentaria, was the granddaughter and the great-granddaughter of saints. Gregory was made deacon at Tours in 563, and ten years later, at the age of 35, he became the nineteenth Bishop of Tours, a post he would hold until his death in 594. He himself would become a saint, by dint of sheer genealogy, in due time.

This litany alone is likely enough to drive most prospective readers away, but they should stay. Bishop Gregory may have been insufferably pious – in fact, given his saintly gene pool, he could be called grotesquely pious – but he lived in a weird, violent, fascinating time, the very heart of the so-called Dark Ages and the seething, murderous adolescence of Christianofascism (religions, like the humans who create them, are vicious as adolescents and gradually grow out of it…except for Unitarianism, which was born old), and he was no idle spectator but an active part of the clerical and political (indeed, the two were still largely one) affairs of the Gaul of his day.

The era of Bishop Gregory’s life, the end of the sixth century, was no time for the faint of heart. The winters were much sharper and longer, the sun seemed more distant even in summer, and there was no technology anywhere more sophisticated than the lever. If you contracted a childhood disease, you didn’t go to the local clinic for a quick inoculation – you either lived or died (most died). If you accidentally cut your arm on the blade of a scythe, you got tetanus and had no access to a handy shot to fix things: instead, you watched your veins turn dark right up your arm, with the pain increasing every day, and you either survived or you didn’t. And this is to say nothing of the viral super-bugs that stalked the world then as now; survive war, survive childhood, survive tetanus, survive what you like, these super-bugs could still find you and mete you out a wailing, horrible, messy, prolonged death. Bubonic plague and especially dysentery were rampant, and true medicine was still thirteen centuries away. Merely to live required considerable tenacity; to live and lead often called for extraordinary individuals.  

And make no mistake: Gregory lead. He was a bishop in his great church at a time when such bishops were much more than simple exalted clerics: they were mighty secular figures, overseeing large land holdings and treasures of plate and ornament, with social dependents, and tax revenues. They restored churches, they consulted with royalty, they created villages. Bishop Gregory led no cloistered life; he was the sixth century equivalent of a state governor or other local potentate. That somebody in such a position should in addition to all his other tasks take upon himself the writing of history cannot be seen as anything but a priceless gift to posterity. Gibbon wrote of him disdainfully, “…he has omitted almost everything that posterity desires to learn,” but in this rare instance, the great historian of Rome is wrong. We could hardly ask for better than the man we have.

He wrote a surprising number of books (and fulfilled all his many clerical duties – tradition has it that Gregory was a small, frail man, but his sheer output argues otherwise: he must have been a dynamo): an astronomy handbook, a commentary on the Psalms, a tract on the offices of the Church. But the work that will always be associated first with his name in his History of the Franks, which chronicles a dizzying variety of events, major and minor, in the world of the Merovingian kings and queens of Gaul (although he actually begins his work with God creating the universe and Adam and Eve, “in order to give the proper context”). The latter portions of the book (considerably post-Eden) concern events with which Gregory was personally involved, and it’s to his credit that he matches that involvement with a historian’s obligation to set it all down on paper. This he does without much in the way of literary style, a fact he acknowledges without apology: “My Latin may be provincial, but I can hardly pass over in silence the things I’ve seen.”

He saw quite a bit. Although Tours was his base of operations (and source of considerable pride, since it contained the earthly resting place of the blessed Saint Martin, a fourth-century ninny who somehow managed to get himself canonized as the patron saint of soldiers), he traveled everywhere in Gaul, from Poitiers to Paris to Bordeaux to Orleans to Rheims. Time and again in the History, he is an eye witness to the things he’s describing, and although there might be a hint of credulousness in him, there is no trace of mendacity, no suspicion that he is ever massaging his material to favor some point he wants to make (to say the least, by contrast, the same cannot be said of Gibbon himself).

That element of credulousness goes hand in hand with faith, and it can lead our ever-earnest narrator into unintentionally funny places, as in his story of the pious Saint Sidonius Apollinaris, who’s threatened one day by a scurrilous priest with malice in his heart (all translations are from the Omont and Collon 1885 edition):

When he [the scurrilous priest with malice in his heart] got up the next morning on hearing the bell which called to matins, this man was full of spite against the holy man of God, and he was busy scheming how he could further his plans of the night before. He went off to the lavatory, and while he was occupied in emptying his bowels, he was emptied of his soul instead.

(Oddly, a thousand years later God would still be loitering around men’s lavatories, as Martin Luther would attest).

It’s a sad corollary of human failing that some of the sights Bishop Gregory reports in the 6th century are all to well known to the 21st, as in his account of an Easter parade:

On the blessed day on which our Lord ascended to Heaven in glory after redeeming mankind, while psalms were being sung and the Bishop was progressing from the cathedral to [a nearby church], the crowd following him attacked the Jewish synagogue, destroying it completely, down to its foundations.

But although the History is replete with violence, pestilence, negligence, and putrescence, it is not a depressing book. Quite the reverse, and this is thanks to our author, who throughout writes in such a sincere and unpretentious voice that the reader (well, the ones whose synagogues aren’t being destroyed, anyway) cannot help but be effortlessly borne along, charmed the whole time. Gregory mentions himself remarkably few times for such a personal work; he prefers to put his stories forward without distraction, and he has an infallible ear for such stories. Modern readers will encounter all the manifold strangenesses of the Dark Ages (and will, quite unknowingly, be spared far worse: the Merovingians, while not quite as luminous as the Carolingians who would supplant them and usher in a mini-Renaissance, were still by and large refined when compared with the general run of mankind at the time; had Gregory been writing about the Germany of his day, for example, his book could not possibly have been so companionable) – saints’ relics, holy body parts imperfectly preserved, portents in every rainbow.

Gregory was as quick to see the hand of God as any of his contemporaries – indeed, more so, since he more often than not had the hand of Saint Martin sloshing around in his rucksack:

I myself stayed for some time with King Childebert at Coblenz. One night I stayed at his table until well after dark. When he dismissed me, I got up and went down to the river, where my boat was waiting. I got in, but I was followed by a drunken group of clods. As the boat filled with men, so too it filled with water. But God in His Omnipotence performed a miracle, for although the water rose to the gunwales, the boat would not sink. I had with me relics of Saint Martin and other Saints, and their miraculous power saved me. The boat returned to the bank we’d just left, the clods were ushered off, and the water was scooped out. The crowd was not allowed back on board, and I made the crossing in safety.

The modern secular mind sees a swarm of problems with this little anecdote: non-religious common sense picks it apart at every seam. The boat did not sink, but it would have, had it kept taking on water – a process that was stopped not by God or the blessed Saint Martin (both of whom seem jointly involved in the rescue) but by promptly returning to shore, off-loading the late-night revelers, and bailing the bilge. A latter day reader, noting all this in the forensic light of the post-Enlightenment era, will be tempted to dismiss the whole thing – and Gregory along with it, and by extension the History along with him – as mere backwater superstition, devoid of interest or relevance.

  It need hardly be said that this would be a mistake. Bishop Gregory lived at a time when living was akin to groping along in the dark, constantly aware of monstrously powerful forces (some benevolent, many more not) swirling and howling just beyond the narrow borders of the visible world. Eclipses staggered the solidity of the world; storms had no rational explanations; each person’s own body was trembling and rumbling with mysteries to which nobody alive had any kind of key. Gregory was no fool: he had a solid education, an autodidact’s terror of being duped, and his affairs took him all over the world of his province. If he could see God’s presence in a simple river mishap, anybody alive today, if transposed to his time, could see the same. This is the humility that the present should always feel when faced with the past. In fact, hardly past at all: the 21st century – most certainly including the United States – is in the grip of a wave of religious fundamentalism, across all creeds, rabid enough to rival anything in Bishop Gregory’s day. When an American cleric can call the deaths of thousands of innocents in the attacks of September 11th God’s punishment of the United States for the sin of homosexuality, we are all too close to the 6th century to be smug about relics preserved in jars. In chronicling the extremisms of his own day, Gregory of Tours is (pace Gibbon) giving us precisely what we should desire to learn about the past: that, as someone once observed, the past isn’t even past.

We should be grateful Gregory isn’t so pious that he can resist a good story – his History teems with them, most presented with a slightly wry bemusement that fits as naturally in our cynical age as it did in his more naïve one, that is, in fact, evergreen. Take the story of Clotild, the wife of King Clovis. Gregory tells us that she wanted their first child to be baptized in the Catholic Church, not consecrated in the pagan beliefs of his father. The reader can virtually see Gregory’s eye glinting at her priceless quote:

The first child Clotild bore for Clovis was a son. She wanted to have the baby baptized, and she was insistent that her husband yield: “The gods you worship are useless,” she’d tell him. “They can’t even help themselves, let alone anybody else.”

He consented, naturally.

Gregory’s History comes down to us in a comforting plenty of manuscripts, and his reception at the hands of historians has generally been more graceful than that Gibbon affords him. In the past two hundred years, he’s had some half-dozen competent translators and many talented annotators. But he isn’t read anymore by the general public that was in his own day very much his target audience, and this is a shame. The darkness is still there, howling just out of reach, and faith is still a prickly, dangerous undertaking, and lavatories are still perilous places. We proceed now without one of our readier guides, at a time when every saint is needed.

Steve Donoghue led a force from his home in Blois to Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204. With the booty gained from sacking the Byzantine capital, he funded a tremendous library, which he has since increased, and which he refers to for his literary blog Stevereads