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A Frank Look at History

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I am a book annotator. Of course I never write in the margins of library books, and I wouldn’t dream of marking books lent by a well-meaning friend: I’m a book annotator, not a sociopath. But a pencilled note or punctuation mark in the margin of my own books is a form of ownership, a tiny graphite beacon for future browsing and (on occasion) an aid to concentration. Most of these notes are unobtrusive – a line here, an asterisk there – but there is one book that I own which is annotated to the point of deranged excess: the Penguin Classic by Gregory of Tours, entitled The History of the Franks and translated by Lewis Thorpe. Its 700 pages are covered in pencilled comments and cross-references and notes in blue, black and green biro, its cover cross-hatched by the tiny wrinkles and folds that only a well-loved paperback can have. It is probably the one book I would save if my house caught fire, and not simply because Gregory describes a lot of burning houses.

There are two reasons for the surfeit of annotation in my copy. The first (and most obvious) is that Gregory’s History was a core text in my undergraduate degree and was pored over with a diligence that approached frenzy when Finals loomed. The second reason is that Gregory’s is both a complex text and an exceptionally rich one – this is the work of a historian who had a thousand things to say, who recounted triumphs and disasters, and described them in tangential passages about blood-feuds and curses. It is a book to be read with fingers in a dozen pages at once. Or by writing in the margins in biro.

Gregory was bishop of the French city of Tours in the latter half of the sixth century AD. At the time, most of what is now France (and parts of Germany and the Low Countries) was ruled by the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks, who established their kingdoms in the shell of the Roman Gallic provinces. The most famous Merovingian was King Clovis, who was said to

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I am a book annotator. Of course I never write in the margins of library books, and I wouldn’t dream of marking books lent by a well-meaning friend: I’m a book annotator, not a sociopath. But a pencilled note or punctuation mark in the margin of my own books is a form of ownership, a tiny graphite beacon for future browsing and (on occasion) an aid to concentration. Most of these notes are unobtrusive – a line here, an asterisk there – but there is one book that I own which is annotated to the point of deranged excess: the Penguin Classic by Gregory of Tours, entitled The History of the Franks and translated by Lewis Thorpe. Its 700 pages are covered in pencilled comments and cross-references and notes in blue, black and green biro, its cover cross-hatched by the tiny wrinkles and folds that only a well-loved paperback can have. It is probably the one book I would save if my house caught fire, and not simply because Gregory describes a lot of burning houses.

There are two reasons for the surfeit of annotation in my copy. The first (and most obvious) is that Gregory’s History was a core text in my undergraduate degree and was pored over with a diligence that approached frenzy when Finals loomed. The second reason is that Gregory’s is both a complex text and an exceptionally rich one – this is the work of a historian who had a thousand things to say, who recounted triumphs and disasters, and described them in tangential passages about blood-feuds and curses. It is a book to be read with fingers in a dozen pages at once. Or by writing in the margins in biro. Gregory was bishop of the French city of Tours in the latter half of the sixth century AD. At the time, most of what is now France (and parts of Germany and the Low Countries) was ruled by the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks, who established their kingdoms in the shell of the Roman Gallic provinces. The most famous Merovingian was King Clovis, who was said to have been the grandson of a sea-monster. He converted his people to Catholic Christianity and had a nasty habit of decapitating disrespectful underlings with lusty blows of his axe. Clovis had been dead for around eighty years at the time when Gregory was writing, but he continued to cast a long shadow over the world he had created. In Gregory’s time, Frankia was ruled by Clovis’s sons and grandsons – the ‘long-haired kings’ of later French foundation myths – who jostled for influence and sought to expand their power over these rich lands and over one another. But for all their violent internecine squabbling, this was not a wholly ‘barbaric’ society. As Bishop of Tours, Gregory had an important status within this early medieval world: he was a representative of a new episcopal aristocracy who took on much of the burden of civil leadership, and who helped maintain classical culture in a period we traditionally regard as a ‘dark age’. Gregory himself came from a prominent family and enjoyed his own close network of alliances and friendships across Gaul. As a result, The History charts the collision of different cultures and represents the attempts of one man to make sense of – and perhaps shape – this changing world. It is this which makes the work so endlessly rewarding to modern readers. Lewis Thorpe’s Penguin translation is the most easily accessible English rendering of the text. As a translation it is far from perfect – Gregory’s intended title was actually The Ten Books of Histories (or simply Histories) – and on top of this there are some strange renderings of the Latin, and some frankly bizarre footnotes, which reveal some of Thorpe’s less progressive political attitudes. But ease of availability can make up for a lot, and the translation certainly makes for a gripping read. What the Penguin version doesn’t provide, however (and what no edition should), is the crucial advice to the first-time reader: don’t start at the beginning. Instead, read the preface and then skip ahead to Book 3, where the real action starts. In doing so, you’ll miss out Gregory’s long preamble on Biblical history, the Roman Empire and the early bits of Frankish history down to the death of Clovis. These are worth coming back to eventually (especially the bits about Clovis), but the early parts are confusing for the unprepared reader, and slow-going compared with what comes later. Instead, nip forward to Book 3 and the reigns of Clovis’s four warring sons, Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert and Lothar, and be plunged straight into the glorious early medieval world of bishops, nuns, saints and blood-feuds. Thereafter, The History is a patchwork of vivid episodes which are a joy to read even if the precise significance of what is happening can sometimes be hard to follow. As befits a history which covers several generations and a large swathe of western Europe, the text is stuffed with hundreds of characters, many with appealingly strange (or frustratingly similar) names. Some of the more prominent become familiar friends as the work progresses – the scheming King Chilperic, who had pretensions to literary sophistication but could only sign his name by using a stencil; the pious King Guntram, who donated relics to Gregory’s church at Tours but ordered horse dung to be flung at diplomats who displeased him; and of course Gregory himself – always measured, always just, always seeming to hide something. Other figures appear less regularly, and move in and out of the narrative, as the action switches between kingdoms. But Gregory’s succinct sketches populate this world with a rich tangle of distinct figures, even if they can sometimes be a little overwhelming in their profusion. Some of the most memorable characters only appear once. Sichar and Chramnesind were two Frankish nobles known only from three paragraphs of Gregory’s work, but who are emblematic of the text as a whole. After a night of heavy drinking, these two fast friends fell out, primarily because Sichar boasted excessively about having killed several close relatives of Chramnesind. Naturally, Chramnesind took this rather badly, responded in kind and so started a brutal conflict between the two families, triggering a diplomatic crisis between the kingdoms of Chilperic and Guntram. Things did not end well. In a similar vein, Gregory tells us of two brothers called Salonius and Sagittarius, who probably came from an old Gallo-Roman family, to judge from their names. Both became bishops but, unlike Gregory, they used their influence for nefarious ends, establishing themselves as mobsters or petty gangsters in the region around Lyons, and avoided disgrace only through the misguided support of the Pope. This reprieve proved brief; Salonius and Sagittarius turned to feasting, alcohol and fornication, and were eventually thrown in prison. Gregory’s account closes with the tantalizing note that they escaped but says nothing more about their fate. This marvellous tableau is rich in female characters too: many of Gregory’s greatest villains (and heroes) are women. The historian reserves particular bile for Queen Fredegund, the consort of King Chilperic, and regent for her son Chlothar II. (If you are starting to wonder about the names, you can begin to appreciate why my copy of the text is so heavily marked.) Fredegund is certainly the villain of Gregory’s work and he catalogues her scheming and skulduggery, and her attempted assassination of at least five other Merovingian figures with fascinated horror. Yet in spite of this, she remains an impressive figure and somehow retains her glamorous dignity even when she is having a literal punch-up with her own daughter. All of this may make Gregory’s Frankia seem very bloody – and it certainly was – but the violence is tempered by a deep religiosity. On occasion this is the quiet faith which we might today associate with the monks and nuns of the early Church, and this was certainly a world of many saints. But these churchmen and women still lived Historywithin a bloody world, even when they weren’t personally bashing heads. Gregory also describes a robust Christian world – of saints who cause the shackles to leap from the limbs of recalcitrant prisoners, or a God who causes sinful rulers to die in the most hideous and painful ways. Gregory’s model bishop was not a churchman who piously intoned from the pulpit but one who got his hands dirty in the names of his parishioners and supplicants. Perhaps more importantly, Gregory’s is a profoundly human work, and often a very funny one. For a long time, the Bishop of Tours was regarded as a disingenuous commentator on the world around him: the helter-skelter nature of his History seemed so strange that it was hard to detect a literary or political plan behind it all, and the writer was simply assumed to have just written what he saw without much thought. Modern commentators on the text (and there are many) are much less certain of this, and The History is now most commonly read as a deft attempt to navigate through the difficult environment of the sixth century: to create a place for the Church, for Gregory, for his favoured friends and relations, in this world, and to make sense of it too. But even this image of Gregory as literary architect cannot deny the power of his succinct personal sketches – of the evil queen or the stupid king, of the greedy monks who were drowned in a tsunami on Lake Geneva when digging for treasure, or the citizens of Poitiers who tried to steal St Martin’s relics to glorify their own church. Gregory’s History is fascinating for these details just as it remains a puzzle in the wider sense. I’ve been returning to it for years – and adding brief notes each time – and still don’t really understand it. And that seems like a good recommendation to me.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Andy Merrills 2020


About the contributor

Andy Merrills once confessed his love of Gregory of Tours in a cover letter seeking archaeological work in France. This led to merciless teasing over the months that followed, but he stands by his opinion. He now writes and teaches on the early medieval world, especially North Africa.

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