As I mentioned in last week’s post, I am teaching a course on how medieval and early modern historians used history to create a national identities. This poses many questions surrounding the claims of authenticity, for example. Another question that arises concerns itself with how does one define history and what exactly is a historian.
Today we have a pretty clear idea I think of what history is and what a historian is. Anyone that studies past events or people, or even past cultures and ideas can be considered a historian. There is an expectation that this historian will do her best to provide an objective interpretation of the past.
However, this was not always the case. One of the first books that my students will tackle will be Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks. This work is still considered one of the best sources for understanding the early years of Merovingian France. The Merovingians were the Frankish tribe who dominated Western Europe for centuries and provided the first kings of the slowly evolving Frankish kingdom. But Gregory of Tours was also a bishop of the important city of Tours, coming from a wealthy and well connected patrician family.
Why is this book important apart from being one of the more comprehensive histories of sixth century France. For one thing, in Gregory’s history the role of the Church and God were never far from the narrative, even when relating the founder of the Merovingian state, Clovis’ act of vengeful brutality in book 11, chapter 27, in the well known incident involving the vase of Soissons where the Frankish ruler waited a year to exact a murderous penalty from a soldier who had refused to return this vase to the church at Soissons the soldier had looted. Clovis was no doubt a bad ass, there some problems with the accuracy of this story. But for Gregory, those doubts were easily swept aside, after all what better than to show how Clovis was a defender of the rights of the church. Bashing in the skull of someone was small potatoes because Clovis had earlier converted to the right kind of Christianity and ensured that the Franks would be Catholic as Christianity was rebranding itself after the Arian controversies. So, in the grand scheme of things, a few bashed in skulls and the extermination of your family is really a small price to pay.
The other important thing about Gregory’s work is that as a chronicle, Gregory attempted to simply relate various episodes from Frankish history, but also to counter the influence of the Liber Historiae Francorum (which my students will also read – awesome, I know).
During Gregory’s lifetime a civil war had broken out between two factions of the Merovingian family, led by the wives of rival clients who insisted on attempting to kidnap and murder each other in the bloodsport known as Merovingian politics. Brunhild, the widow of Sigismund (murdered at the instigation of the woman her murdered her sister). Fredegund, the wife of Chilperic and the woman who instigated the murder of Sigismund and murdered the sister of Brunhild. The authors of the Liber Historiae Francorum had come out in favour of Fredegund – not surprising since by the time the Liber was being compiled, Fredegund’s faction had triumphed. One doesn’t need to have a PhD to realize that it’s good form to remember which side your baguette is buttered on.
Gregory on the other hand, supported Brunhild’s faction and although he died before Brunhild was executed by Chilperic by being drawn and quartered, sought to discredit the Liber Historiae Francorum. Gregory was interested in doing this also because he disliked the fanciful myth making in the Liber which had the Franks being descended from Francus, a solider fleeing from the fall of Troy. Gregory was interested in real history.
To be fair, claims of descent from Trojans was a commonplace, after all doesn’t sound better to claim descent from a hero of the Trojan War (even if he did run away like a little girl) than to acknowledge the truth – that you were obscure tribes people from the wilds of Germany who made by building on the remaining structures of the Roman Empire.
Gregory on the other hand didn’t buy the mythic origins of the Franks and sought to discredit the Liber Historiae Francorum. In book II, chapters 9-10, he offers a more believable explanation of the origins of the Franks. However, as already noted, Gregory’s work fully accepted the role of God in the unfolding of history and his first book outlines a lengthy history form the Creation of the world to the coming of the Franks, with the result that, while it’s silly to think the first Franks came from Troy, it was because they were plugged into a Christian cosmological history that explained their success over their neighbours because God favoured them.
The History of the Franks is a great read and really deserves to be read by a wider audience. Gregory of Tours had a talent for storytelling which is one of the many reasons many of our favourite stories of Merovingian France have continued to entertain us even today. But it is also a useful introduction to the evolving nature of what history looked like and how it was used to legitimize the successes of a nation.