Why You Should Read St. Gregory of Tours

A new edition of his Lives of the Fathers and Miracles of Julian and Martin offers a profound look at early medieval Catholicism

Saint Gregory of Tours, 19th century statue by Jean Marcellin, in the Louvre
Saint Gregory of Tours, 19th century statue by Jean Marcellin, in the Louvre (photo: Wikimedia commons)

Early in his brief book The Miracles of the Martyr Julian, St. Gregory of Tours writes, “I am not the least qualified or experienced enough to tell about these things, for I have neither been instructed in the arts of grammar nor educated in the literary culture; but what am I to do, since may love for my patron impels me so strongly that I cannot be silent?”

There you have the essence of St. Gregory in one of his typically homely, yet oddly beautiful, sentences. He was, indeed, not a “learned” man by the standards of many Church Fathers and other writers of his time. His Latin was, to be frank, pretty poor, and his style is rough and ready rather than elegant. He never quite grasped Latin noun gender. His work is what he says it is: an act of love and profound devotion. As such, it soars beyond the Ciceronian ideals of Latin prose to reach a poetic (and I do mean poetic) heights more refined writers rarely achieve. These skills are amply in evidence in Lives and Miracles, a new volume edited and translated by Giselle De Nie for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Harvard, $30)

Bishop of Tours 
Gregory of Tours is best remembered for his Decem Libri Historiarum (better known to English readers as The History of the Franks), which provides a primary witness to the transition from antiquity to the middle ages. He begins with the creation of the world, then takes us through the conversion of Gaul, the Merovingians and other rulers, and up to the year of his death in 594. Along the way we get some vigorous history and polemic, with the violence and perfidy of politics contrasted with the ideals of the Church and her saints, and found wanting. 

There are a few things you need to understand about Gregory to really grasp his work. Although he wasn’t raised in Tours, he was deeply connected to it, tracing kinship to thirteen of his eighteen predecessors as bishop. He was in the worst place at the worst time in 6th century Gaul. The position of Tour in Loire Valley places it between northern and southwestern Gaul, and as brutal civil wars raged this was a poor place to be. The battles between competing Merovingians weren’t epic, but they were nasty and had a disproportionate effect on the populace.  It almost like a gang war. At times it seemed like the judgement of the Lord lay heavily on the people, and that the end times might not be so far off.

His book on the Franks situates Gaul in the tradition of Christen history influenced by Eusebius, and sees avarice and impiety as the root of the conflicts. But as he tells us in the beginning of his History, he is writing “for the sake of those who are losing hope as they see the end of the world coming nearer and nearer.”

Thus, his historical work is laced with signs and portents of the inbreaking of the other world into this one, not to raise fear, but to restore hope. This is why his hagiographical writing and historical writing must be understood together: they form a complete picture of the world as Gregory saw it.

The Mighty Deeds of the Saints
The one work that influenced centuries of hagiography was The Life of St. Martin of Tours by his contemporary, Sulpicius Severus. Though both Martin and Sulpicius had lived and died two centuries before Gregory, they were an ever-present reality in his life. The form and content of Sulpicius’s Life influenced Gregory’s own writing, and Matin himself continued his works and deeds into Gregory’s own time.

This is the important for understanding Gregory, his time, the medieval mind in general, and indeed all Catholicism, although we’ve lost much of that understanding. The immaterial, eternal reality and the time-bound physical world touch at certain places, in certain moments, and through certain people. The best example, of course, is the eucharist, but there’s more to it than that.

As historian Peter Brown points out, “Gregory’s world was full of tombs.” Those tombs and their relics were important not because medieval Catholics were morbid or superstitious, but because the provided a point of contact between this world and the next. The cult of saints was not some retro-fitted Catholic version of pagan worship, but a new sacramental understanding of reality in which heaven and earth touched. Because of the resurrection, death was no longer something hideous in the brutal world of Gregory, but something beautiful. There’s a real aesthetic  sense on display in Lives and Miracles, as Gregory uses tales to uncover the inbreaking of the God into the world through the works of his chosen saints, and shows us its beauty.

The nature of sin and its consequences is the other ongoing theme, although it’s not as grim and ongoing as some might expect for medieval accounts. Brown, in his seminal essay “Relics and Social Status in the Age of Gregory of Tours,” identifies “reverentia” as the key concept in Gregory’s world. This encompasses an entire range of behaviors that amount to giving proper respect to certain objects and moments in order maintain a rhythm of life tied to the will of God, as expressed in the physical realm through relics, sacred time, and other aspects of sacramentality. 

Lives and Miracles
The three works translated in Lives and Miracles provide copious examples of this worldview. 

The two largest works are The Life of the Fathers and The Miracles of Bishop Martin. In between in a shorter work called The Miracles of the Martyr Julian.

Life of the Fathers is a series of biographical sketches of holy men of Gaul, some of them Gregory’s relatives. Each begins with a preface drawing a lesson from the life about to be told, while each life tells of the way God made his works known in the world through the mighty deeds of these saints. As is common with tales after the age of martyrs (and under the influence of the the desert hermits), there is a focus on extreme asceticism in the lives on these men. These were written to be read as entertaining and didactic tales during communal meals, and thus make brisk and satisfying devotional reading even today. 

The Miracles are of in entirely different style. Here we find those works of Gregory that caused later scholars to snort in derision at his extreme credulity. It seemed, to them at least, that he would believe any story he was told about a miracle if it had some connection to the tomb of a saint. Were horses healed because people vowed to pay a tithe to Martin’s chapel and brand their horse with the shape of the chapel key? Gregory tells us about it. St. Martin intervenes for everything from headaches and diarrhea to demonic possession, ghost attacks, and death. Gregory thought it his duty to preserve these stories because of the witness they offered to the sanctity of saints and the power of God. Some he witnessed personally, others he had from reputable sources, and still others he merely “heard.” Often there are cues in the text that tell us how close he is to a source. We may to believe them or not, but they are meant to illustrate deeper truths about reverentia.

Modern readers may think the line between faith and superstition is very thin in Gregory. Some writers have remarked that what we see here is simply baptized paganism, complete with magic, amulets, and the replacement of gods and spirits with saints and holy men. For example, when Gregory describes people being cured of diarrhea by drinking a “potion” made from the dust of St. Martin’s tomb, some may feel we’re in sketchy territory. (It’s worth noting that De Nei’s translation of the Latin “hausto,” which means “drink” or “draft,” as “potion” in this passage is provocative rather than precise.)

Again, we have to set our mind back to the 6th century. Medicinal drafts and ritual practices were deeply embedded in the culture. In the Christianity of 6th century Gaul, this was the form folk culture took. It was a language they understood. The Church was teaching them that they simply misunderstood the mechanism of action: it was God through his holy saints who effected the miracles. 

In an otherwise good introduction to Lives and Mircales, De Nie shows a somewhat shallow understanding of this sacramentality when she distinguishes between things moderns would understand to require “physical antidotes” and things Gregory thinks are caused by “invisible evil spiritual entities.” It’s not that simple. This is one of those “both/and” things. The Christianity of 6th century Gaul certainly was clear in understanding sin as the root of much physical suffering, and piety as its cure.  But, again, the body served as a convergence point of the physical and spiritual. They knew the physical causes of certain diseases and maladies, but believed they occurred and were cured for more profound reasons. They saw meaning in life, with God able to work through everything, either to reward or punish, with saints, spirits, demons, relics, and tombs among His instruments.

All of this shines forth in Lives and Miracles, which is an excellent addition to any Catholic library. At 944 pages, it’s a chunky brick of a book, but half that is the Latin text on facing pages, and the hyper-short chapters (some little more than a paragraph) make it easy reading. This is, as far as I know, the first Latin/English publication of these texts. There’s another contemporary English translation of Life of the Fathers by Edward James, and several notable translations and studies of Gregory by Raymond Van Dam. His Saints and Miracles in Late Antique Gaul include the Miracles of Martin and Julian among other texts. De Nie’s translation is a little more clear and easy to read, and offers the Latin, while Van Dam has more extensive commentary. Die Nie’s endnotes are quite good, and draw on Van Dam’s work, among others. The book itself is beautifully made, with cloth covers, heavy endpapers, and a handsome golf dustjacke.

Flipping through the Miracles of Bishop Martin you’ll find page after page of short paragraphs all with similar headings such as “About the mute woman” and “About my stomach ache,” and you may begin to think this is just a litany of repetitive healing stories. Below the surface, though, you find people and their times coming to life in these little vignettes. Sure, the “plot” may repeat, as the lame and blind are healed, but the telling never ceases to engage. Gregory’s work has the feel and power of folktales: homely narratives told simply and with a purpose. The cumulative effect is to bring a lost world back to life and allow us to understand how they thought and felt and lived their faith.