Tenebrae Refulgeant: Celestial Signa in Gregory of Tours
Gregory Halfond (Framingham State University)
The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe Issue 15 (October 2012)
In October 585, Gregory of Tours (ca. 539–94) took a brief sojourn in Carignan, taking lodging at a monastery located several miles from the castrum. During his stay, Gregory was awoken at night on three separate occasions by strange illuminations in the sky. On the first two nights, bright rays of light (radii) appeared in the North, while blood-red clouds appeared in the East and in the West. On the third night, the rays appeared again, and were joined by still others issuing forth from all directions, all directed towards a huge cloud (nubis) in the middle of the night-sky. Gregory, watching from his window, could only assume that these strange signs (signa) presaged some future disaster (Gregory of Tours Historiae 8.17). Upon his return to Tours, Gregory learned that two islands had been destroyed by heavenly fire at the very time he had witnessed the celestial phenomena and that a pond located on another island near Vannes had turned to blood (Gregory of Tours Historiae 8.24–5).
The pages of Gregory’s Historiae are full of similar descriptions of bizarre natural phenomena of the sort customarily interpreted in Antiquity as portents of future events (Wallis 1918; Bloch 1963; Berger 1980; Rasmussen 2003). Portents (signa or prodigia), both explicitly and implicitly identified as such, appear in every book of the Historiae save one (Book 3). The overwhelming majority of these signs are astronomical in nature. The highest concentration of celestial portents appears in Books 4–6 and 8, which collectively cover the years AD 544–586. Gregory himself was born ca. AD 539 in Clermont-Ferrand and became bishop of Tours in 573. Thus, the bulk of portents recorded in the Historiae are ones that Gregory, in theory, would have been able to observe with his own eyes. Nevertheless, some interpreters have dismissed Gregory’s signa as mere literary devices that mark narrative divisions in his text, provide narrative foreshadowing, and offer implicit moral commentary (e.g. Riché 1976, 204).1 However, others follow Giselle de Nie in accepting their deep theological importance for Gregory and his contemporaries.