St. Gregory of Tours

The Frankish bishop and historian St. Gregory of Tours (538-594) was a Christian leader who wrote a valuable history of the Franks.

The son of a prominent family in the territory of the Arverni in south-central France, Gregory was born on Nov. 30, 538. His father had been a Roman senator, and relatives of his mother had held high offices in the Church. As a boy, he studied not only the Bible and the lives of the Christian martyrs but also the secular literature of his time. At 25 he became a deacon in the Church. In 573, while he was in Tours to seek a cure at the tomb of St. Martin for a mysterious sickness he had contracted, Gregory was asked by the people to stay and become their bishop.

Two years later the city of Tours came under the control of Chilperic, a cruel and callous king of the Franks, a man who enforced his orders by blinding those who disobeyed him. For 9 years Gregory matched wits with Chilperic, trying to protect his people from the King's brutality. Chilperic did not dare attack the bishop openly because Gregory had too much support among the people. Over the years the two leaders learned to live together in an uneasy peace. When a visiting bishop, appalled at the stories of Chilperic's atrocities, asked Gregory what he saw on top of the King's palace, Gregory wearily replied, "A roof." The other bishop said, with some fervor, "I see the naked sword of the wrath of God."

In his last 10 years as bishop after Chilperic had died in 584, Gregory was involved in a great deal of political and diplomatic activity. He kept peace and order in the church of Tours, reacting with a quiet firmness to those monks and nuns who occasionally proved troublesome.

Gregory also found time to write. He produced a history of the Frankish people which, despite its being overly long and crudely written, has become the principal source of knowledge about the history, language, religion, and social customs of that people. Gregory wrote from a partisan, Christian point of view, excusing the crimes of those kings who favored the Church and pointing out the defects in the others.

Gregory also wrote on miracles and on the lives of the saints, frequently revealing a personal belief which was close to superstition. His liturgical manual, in which he described how the hours for the various prayers can be figured from the arrangement of the stars, is another valuable relic of his age. Gregory died on Nov. 17, 594, and was quickly accepted by the people of Tours as a saint.

Further Reading on St. Gregory of Tours

Gregory's The History of the Franks, translated by O. M. Dalton (2 vols., 1927), contains a lengthy introduction on his life and importance. Ernest Brehaut's translation (no date) of Gregory's History has some of Gregory's writings on miracles as well and attempts to analyze Gregory's religious ideas in the context of the 5th century. A useful chapter on Gregory is in Sir Samuel Dill, Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age (1926).

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