The secret histories of Gregory of Tours

Gregory of ToursThe secret histories of Gregory of Tours

By Ian N. Wood

Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, Vol.71:2 (1993)

Introduction: ‘I remember the opinion which Sallust held in respect of those who attack historians : “It seems to be hard to write history ; first because, deeds have to be represented accurately by words, and next because many ascribe those words with which you criticise wrongdoing to malevolence and jealousy”‘

The general context of Gregory of Tours’ first reminiscence of Sallust is the rule of Chramn in Clermont in the mid 550s. More specifically Chramn was persecuting Firminus and his wife Caesaria. He had replaced Firminus as comes by Salustius, son of Evodius. Eventually Firminus and Caesaria fled for sanctuary at Brioude. In so doing they overtook bishop Cautinus, who made his own dash for safety as a result. Gregory does not make the relevance of the quotation absolutely clear. It may have been brought to mind by the fact that Evodius’s son had the same name as the classical historian. Nevertheless, for the bishop of Tours it seems that there was a connection between misrule, fear, their representation and the problems of being an historian, as described by Sallust.

In recent years the spiritual side of Gregory’s Histories has been firmly brought into focus, but the possibility that there may be a political aspect to them and to their literary form has been little considered, except with regard to some of the conflicts between members of Gregory’s family and their rivals, notably Priscus of Lyons and Felix of Nantes. It is likely, however, that what the bishop of Tours said and the way in which he expressed himself was conditioned by the politics of the Merovingian court in his day. As a bishop Gregory, like his episcopal colleagues, was closely involved in court politics : he was an actor in them, and constrained by them. Exploration of the relationship between the political situation and Gregory’s narrative presentation of events is made difficult by the fact that our knowledge of the period is largely, though not exclusively, derived from his Histories: at times both the overt political context in which the bishop was writing and also the unspoken factors underlying the literary presentation of the politics involved have to be reconstructed from one and the same source. Fortunately, however, Gregory expresses differing attitudes towards the same episodes and individuals at different moments in his writings. Although there is a possibility that the conflicts in the earlier books of the Histories are sometimes the result of inadequate evidence rather than deliberate manipulation of material, where there are anomalies in the narrative relating to Gregory’s own lifetime they are less likely to result from a shortage of information. They, therefore, provide fissures which allow the historian to prise his or her way into an understanding of the pressures which weighed on Gregory.

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