contributor.author: J.M.Pizarro

title.none: Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours (J.M.Pizarro)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.023 02.07.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: J.M.Pizarro, SUNY Stony Brook, jmpizarro@notes.cc.sunysb.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Heinzelmann, Martin. Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 235. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-63174-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.23

Heinzelmann, Martin. Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 235. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-63174-2.

Reviewed by:

J.M.Pizarro
SUNY Stony Brook
jmpizarro@notes.cc.sunysb.edu

For a couple of decades now it has been clear to students of the early middle ages that Gregory of Tours did not write a history of the Franks, or a national history of any sort. This important negative advance in our understanding of Gregory raises new questions and lends increased urgency to some old ones. What kind of historian was he, then? What sort of book did he set out to write? In which of the literary genres of the sixth century should the Libri historiarum X be placed? Unhelpful to any investigation of these matters are two assumptions that remain widespread: that Gregory was a naive observer and narrator of the events that took place around him, and that he had no interest in abstract conceptions of society and history, which he might otherwise have used to interpret what he related.

Martin Heinzelmann's monograph Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, which appeared in German in 1994, offers a convincing, carefully argued refutation of these stereotypes and replaces them with a reading of Gregory as a theologian of history who subordinated his stories to typological symmetries and schemes. In building his case, Heinzelmann draws upon the work of several earlier scholars. Gregory's familiarity with typological thinking had been demonstrated by Felix Thurlemann in 1973. Walter Goffart's much-debated Narrators of Barbarian History of 1988 had described the alternation of "miracles and slaughters" in Gregory's history as a trait derived from satire. Though he refers frequently to this systematically "literary" reading of Gregory, Heinzelmann appears disinclined to treat the bishop of Tours as a satirist, and in many respects comes closer to Kathleen Mitchell's unpublished dissertation of 1983, which approaches the Libri historiarum X as an illustration of the social ideals and policies that should animate a Christian community. He also builds upon a groundbreaking essay published by K. F. Werner in 1987 which demonstrates the significance in the early middle ages of a genre of universal history known as historia and modeled on Orosius, a Christian, late-imperial genre that outlines by the selection and arrangement of its episodes the ideal of a Christian community led towards its earthly and supernatural aims by the shared leadership of bishops and kings.

Chapters 1 and 2, "Gregory of Tours and his Family" and "Autobiography and History", address Gregory's self- representation and conclude that it is scanty and impersonal because the author is exclusively concerned with his role as a bishop of the Lord. Neither the few references in his work to his aristocratic-senatorial background, which bring it up solely as a requirement for the episcopal dignity, nor his accounts, in Books V-X, of personal interventions, which fail to add up to an autobiography or a character portrait, address the bishop of Tours as an individual. Only his public role matters, and in particular his interventions before the secular power, comparable to those of the prophets before the Jewish kings of the Old Testament and intended to exemplify the various facets of the episcopal office as conceived within the genre of historia.

Chapter 3, "Ten Books of History: genre, structure, and plan", starts out from the "oath" by which Gregory, at the end of the Libri historiarum X, exhorts future bishops of Tours to respect the organization of his book and hand it down to posterity unchanged. These highly emotional lines would seem to indicate that the plan of the work was of considerable importance to its author and that the by now traditional description of it as a farrago of naively reported episodes is likely to be wide of the mark. Heinzelmann argues that each book of Gregory's history is organized symmetrically, with especially significant chapters placed at the beginning, middle, and end. The themes brought out by these patterns are ecclesiological, and most often concern the collaboration of the leaders of the church with the leaders of the state, i.e. kings. The principle by which such themes are structured is antithesis, understood here as a recurrent figure in God's eloquentia rerum, the quasi-rhetorical arrangement of the very facts and events of history, by means of which they proclaim their own significance and providential design. This arrangement is most evident in Books V-X, which Gregory dedicated to fifteen years of contemporary history while he was bishop of Tours and did not intend to publish in his lifetime. Books V-VI focus on the reign of Chilperic, "the Nero and Herod of our time" (VI. 46), who serves to exemplify the impious king. Books VII to IX center on Guntram, who illustrates the bonus rex. Book X, a book with apocalyptic elements, points in various ways to the end of time and the coming of an eschatological ecclesia.

Chapter 4, "Gregory's ecclesia Dei: the eschatological church and the concept of society", presents the framework of ideas embodied in Gregory's account of Merovingian history. The first subheading of this chapter, "Gregory as a Theologian", sounds almost like a provocation, so deep has the prejudice sunk that the bishop of Tours had neither the time nor the ability to entertain abstract conceptions. Heinzelmann points to the distinction Gregory makes between ecclesia, the eschatological church, and ecclesiae, the territorial churches headed by bishops, and argues that it is the community of saints, or ecclesia Dei, that keeps the historical church on the path of convergence with its eschatological fulfillment. Gregory, however, had more interest in ecclesiastical politics than in purely theoretical speculation, and the timeless ecclesiological patterns that emerge from his work are intended primarily to support Guntram's favored policy of full cooperation between church and state in every aspect of public administration and to undermine the form of government preferred by Chilperic, which involved some separation of spheres of authority.

The Libri historiarum X that emerges from Heinzelmann's succinct and tightly reasoned pages is quite a new thing. No longer can we consider it as primarily a narrative, or its chief object as the preservation of history. Before anything else, it traces a model of society directed by its rulers and priests, who are themselves guided by an eternal ideal. What unfolds in time matters less than the unchanging schemes that orient its unfolding. This startlingly novel reading of Gregory's work does not sacrifice its value as historiography or as a major source of information on Merovingian Gaul, since the abstractions of the Libri historiarum X are illustrated and fleshed out with the events of the author's day. It cannot be said, then, that Heinzelmann has reduced what used to count as a major historical source to "mere literature".

Some parts of Heinzelmann's argument require further documentation. In particular, it would be interesting to know what the literary and theological models would have been in the sixth century for the symmetrically coded form of composition and interpretation he proposes, whereby the beginning, middle, and end chapters of individual books bear the thematic weight of the whole. It would also pay to look more closely at the scope of the history from which Gregory drew his examples. If we believe, with Heinzelmann, that Books I-IV, that cover from the Creation to the murder of Sigibert in 575, were originally conceived as an independent work intended for publication in the author's lifetime, and only later joined to the six books of Zeitgeschichte that make up the rest of the Libri historiarum X, then the range and proportions of the work remain accidental, despite any number of editorial revisions, and an element of the arbitrary must be allowed to disrupt the theological design of the whole.

This excellent book will have a lasting impact on the study of Gregory's work and of Merovingian civilization, and it is good to have it in English. The translation is of the rough and ready sort, and makes Heinzelmann say some strange things, such as that the parousia is the apparition of the Antichrist before the Last Judgment (145), with no indication that this is an exceptionally rare use of the term, or that the cathedral church of Paris was bought from Syria (p. 83 note 90), when in fact it was the bishop's household that was staffed by Syrian clergy. On occasion the German has been misunderstood, as in p. 206, where "antithetical counterweights to one of the many ills afflicting the world" should read "antithetical counterweights to a world afflicted by many ills."