Gregory of Tours

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
8 min readDec 1, 2023
St Gregory and King Chilperic I, from the Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V, 14th-century illumination.

Today is the 1,485th anniversary of the birth of Gregory of Tours (30 November 538–17 November 594), who was born in Auvergne (at the time, part of Austrasia in the Empire of the Franks) on this date in 538 AD — or thereabouts. There are some sources that give the year of his birth as 539; there are also sources that give the place of his birth as Clermont. The sixth century in Western Europe was a time of turmoil and few records are available, making it difficult to establish an unambiguous historical record, and it is remarkable to some extent that we have even approximate dates for the birth of Gregory of Tours.

The nineteenth century medievalist Augustin Thierry wrote in his Tales of the Early Franks: Episodes from Merovingian History that Gregory was one of the predominant figures of the age:

“I have made a minute study of the characters and destinies of the various historical figures, and I have tried to bring reality and life to those most neglected by history. Among these personages, whether famous or obscure nowadays, will predominate four figures who are typical of their age: Fredegund, Chilperic, Eonius Mummolus, and Gregory of Tours himself: Fredegund, the ideal of elemental barbarism, oblivious to any distinctions between good and evil; Chilperic, the man of barbarian stock who acquires a taste for civilization and a surface polish, without any inner reform; Mummolus, the civilized man who turns barbarian and who quite wantonly becomes depraved so as to be at one with his age; Gregory of Tours, the man of a past time — of a time better than the present, which is a burden to him — who faithfully echoes the regret evoked in some noble souls by a dying civilization.”

In his book on Gregory, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, Martin Heinzelmann implicitly attributes a philosophy of history to Gregory:

“Miracles and saints, or ‘miracles and slaughters,’ not only represent a key part of Gregory’s philosophy of history, but could also be used to organize a society and its history. Mitchell appreciated this and therefore recognized and described this role of the saints as both exponents and instruments of Gregory’s social ideas. While, for Goffart, Gregory’s central theme was the contrast between human failings and the exemplary existence of the saints, Mitchell has rightly argued for the presence of an ‘overarching message of redemption and reformation’ as a factor in the unity and arrangement of this historical work (Mitchell 1983: 129). However, Mitchell failed to make the decisive step in her explanation of the literary and spiritual structure of the Libri historiarum decem because she did not see the link Gregory made between sixth-century society and the Christological society of all true believers. This Christological society is the ‘ecclesia Christi’.”

Later in the book, Heinzelmann says, “Bishop Gregory has also been accused of being a ‘realist’… who neither valued nor practised abstract thought,” and he footnotes this comment with comments on two other scholars:

“In this sense, even Goffart 1988: 142: ‘he repudiated philosophy in all its systematizing manifestations’ (also ibid.: 143, for perjorative judgements on Gregory’s theology); also de Nie 1987: 209: ‘his handling of metaphors shows that Gregory prefers thinking in visual units to thinking in abstract categories’. De Nie forwards the same explanation for Gregory’s lack of interest in ‘concrete causal connections’ and the absence of a structure to the Histories.”

The reference in the above is to Walter Goffart, whose chapter on Gregory in his The Narrators of Barbarian History: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede and Paul the Deacon is titled, “Gregory of Tours and ‘The Triumph of Superstition’,” which latter triumph is a reference to Gibbon. Gregory seems to embody the Triumph of Superstition, and Gibbon its antithesis. But Goffart sees something more in Gregory:

“Gregory’s concept of the past, though partly Orosian, strikes an unexpectedly original note. Its irony foreshadows the Voltairian idea that history depicts only crimes and calamities, but Gregory, not stopping there, found room for the countervailing virtutes sanctorum: the mad world castigated by the holy prophet also contained its critic and what he stood for. Though nourished by the Bible, Gregory’s idea of history as a mixture of opposites could hardly have arisen independently of the literary genre in which it found expression.” (p. 229)

Goffart also says of Gregory:

“…he spoke for something new, different, and assertive. He forces us to confront the possibility that the ‘triumph of superstition’ had a positive face, whose existence and worth in the history of thought deserves acknowledgment even, perhaps especially, outside a confessional context. For the future of European intellectual development did not hinge only on successive ‘renaissances’ of the classical tradition. Something other than a profitless detour in the history of thought was involved in such non-Hellenic improbabilities as an omnipotent and incarnate God, creation out of nothing, and daily miracles.” (p. 232)

Goffart has an interesting discussion of how other historians have viewed Gregory as the “Herodotus of Barbarism” and consigned him a place in the history of thought as representing the lowest nadir of civilization after the collapse of the Roman Empire (the Thierry quote above seems to correspond to this representation). No one disputes that the world that Gregory chronicled was one of violence, brutality, and superstition, but Goffart urges us to see the role of non-Hellenic influences in the ferment of rapidly changing European society. If this world seems strange to us, it can also be weirdly wonderful.

In the weirdly wonderful world of Gregory, nature is as treacherous as human beings — as likely to be maleficent as beneficent. Ellen F. Arnold’s paper, “Rivers of Risk and Redemption in Gregory of Tours’ Writings,” examines Gregory’s depiction of rivers and flooding, in which, “the waters have agency, or at the very least are the means of the saints asserting their agency within the natural world. Rivers respond, judge, and even, occasionally, appear to speak.” Arnold further observes:

“Waters wash, punish, threaten, cleanse, and thwart. Giselle de Nie asserts that ‘in Gregory’s works, water is sometimes experienced as the treacherous life in this world, and sometimes as the manifestation of something holy, as a symbol of divine renewal and in man.’ Yet we must also remember that waters were real environmental forces that acted upon landscapes, cityscapes, and human lives. As active ecosystem forces, rivers did work; they scoured channels, added nutrients to fields (enriching a Christian harvest literally, not only metaphorically), and supported fish life and human economies.”

In such a world, with not only rivers but all of nature imbued with supernatural meaning, and thus rightly viewed with superstitious awe, one might reasonably be fearful. Ancient writers like Lucretius warned of the dangers of superstition inspiring fear — a naturalistic view that we largely accept today. However, supernatural fear might also inspire us to a greater effort to attain virtue. The PhD thesis of Catherine-Rose Hailstone, Fear in the Mind and Works of Gregory of Tours, suggests that Gregory was a link between Roman paideia and a new Christian context of character formation:

“…demonically-inspired fear exists in connection with — while simultaneously being the counterpart to — his concept of the fear of God. This is significant because it explicitly shows that Gregory’s works, which are foundational to our knowledge of the sixth-century world, are an excellent, yet unrealised, source for early Christian attitudes about the self, its formation, and the place of the self within the order of the world and divine cosmos. In continuing and preserving the Classical tradition of writing discourse on the self, Gregory’s works give historians new opportunities to study Merovingian notions of the self, the formationof the good Christian, and how the Merovingians developed Roman paideia.”

Is Gregory’s implicit philosophy of history to be understood as a Providential conception, following St. Augustine? In one of the Goffart quotes above, Gregory is called, “partly Orosian.” Orosius (c. 375–420) was a contemporary and a student of Augustine, who is said to have written his Historiae Adversus Paganos (The Seven Books of History against the Pagans: The Apology of Paulus Orosius) at the behest of Augustine. Karl Löwith, in his influential Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History says of both Augustine and Orosius:

“To a Christian believer like Augustine or Orosius secular history is not meaningful in itself but is a fragmentary reflection of its supra-historical substance, the story of salvation, which is determined by a sacred beginning, center, and end.”

Löwith also makes an interesting comparison between Orosius and Burckhardt:

“It is only in Burckhardt’s Reflections on History, in particular in the essay ‘On Fortune and Misfortune in History,’ that we find a similar insight into the fallacy of our comparative judgments and into the correlation of action and suffering as the general pattern of all human history. The difference in their analyses is, however, that Burckhardt was confronted with modern optimism and the belief in progress, Orosius with ancient pessimism and the idea of decay. Consequently, Burckhardt had to emphasize the ultimate insignificance of our claims to happiness, while Orosius, as an apologist, had to insist on a relative betterment of Christian times, separating them on account of ‘the more present grace of Christ’ from ‘the former confusion of unbelief’…”

I have called Löwith’s work a non-philosophy of history, as as Löwith maintains that philosophy of history as we know it today is a mere secularization of Christian providential views of history, and therefore inherently illegitimate as an intellectual enterprise. However, we can approach this rather differently, observing, as I have many times noted, that Western philosophy of history begins with Augustine’s City of God, so that we should not be surprised that philosophy of history grows out of Augustine (and Orosius) as this scholarship in incrementally secularized and incrementally transformed from a providential theology into a philosophy properly speaking. In this way, Gregory is a link in the chain that selects, modifies, and augments the tradition transmitted from classical antiquity and adapts that tradition to radically changed circumstances.

Further Resources