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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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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