After Rome, before Francia: Religion, ethnicity, and identity politics in gregory of tours’ ten books of histories

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Despite the best efforts of a generation of revisionist scholarship, Gregory of Tours is still presented in most of the general handbooks of the early Middle Ages as the historian of the Franks. There are at least three reasons for this. The first has nothing to do with Gregory. No matter that he called his principal work Ten Books of Histories: to an English-speaking audience, this text remains most accessible in the translation of Lewis Thorpe, The History of the Franks. The second, again, is extraneous. Gregory is our principal source for the Franks and their kings in the sixth century: no matter what he says, he is their historian by default. The third reason does have to do with Gregory. In the second half of his Histories, from Book V onwards, Gregory shows his readers that he kept company with Frankish kings. He is at once their courtier, their victim, and their would-be adviser - in whatever role, at his own insistence, he is in the frame with them. For all that, this chapter suggests, Gregory sought to hold the Franks and their kings at arm’s length. He resisted Frankishness, just as he resisted Romanness. Both as an actor in and as an author of Histories, Gregory avoided too strong identification with all the kingdoms of this world. Gregory lived and wrote, it is argued here, at a liminal moment: after the collapse of the Roman imperial dispensation, but before the crystallization of a new order. He could see what shape that order might take: plenty of his contemporaries, whether bishops or kings, Frankish warriors or Gallo-Roman grandees, increasingly promoted or acquiesced in Frankish identity as a rallying point and a centre of signification at precisely the time when Gregory was working on his Histories from the 570s onwards. Gregory, however, stood against the closing down of a broader, more inchoate politics of identity. As is clear from his preface, he saw himself as a narrator of confusion: ‘a great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad’. Many of the contradictions and incoherencies in Gregory’s Histories have been taken as evidence that Gregory was unable to erase or reconcile all of these by the final revision he made to the text at the end of his life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMaking Early Medieval Societies
Subtitle of host publicationConflict and Belonging in the Latin West, 300-1200
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781316481714
ISBN (Print)9781107138803
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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