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22.06.13 Rotman, Hagiography, Historiography, and Identity in Sixth-Century Gaul

22.06.13 Rotman, Hagiography, Historiography, and Identity in Sixth-Century Gaul

It is difficult to break new ground in a field so well covered as the works of Gregory of Tours, especially where the question of identity is concerned. Tamar Rotman aims to do this; that is, to “rethink” Gregory’s own aims and purpose in writing by looking at his hagiography as complementary to his historiography. Gregory was Bishop of Tours on the River Loire from 573 to 594, when he died. His oeuvre consists, in his own words, of “ten books of histories, seven books of miracles, and one book about the life of the fathers,” plus “a commentary on the Book of Psalms, and one book about the liturgical offices of the church” (Historia Francorum X.31). Of these, his ten books of histories have been the most studied for they provide a unique source for the history of Gaul in the sixth century. They have, accordingly, attracted the attention of prominent scholars, such as Eric Auerbach, Walter Goffart, Martin Heinzelmann, Jamie Kreiner, Helmut Reimitz, Giselle de Nie, and Ian Wood. Tamar Rotman’s position is that in comparison three of Gregory’s books of hagiography, namely the Glory of the Martyrs,the Glory of the Confessors, and the Life (NB, not Lives as here on 20, n. 27) of the Fathers, have been understudied.

The argument here is that a more concentrated study of the three books of hagiography reveals a narrative that parallels and complements that of the Histories. The Glory of the Martyrs,which focuses on the early history of Christianity, parallels the first book of the Histories. The Glory of the Confessors, which presents the early history of the Gallican Church, matches the next three books of the Histories, which deal with the foundation of the Merovingian kingdoms, and the Life of the Fathers deals with the contemporary history of the Gallican Church and has its parallel with the last six books of the Histories, which treat the history of Gregory’s own time. The point of the ensemble is to show the construction of a Christian kingdom with a Gallo-Christian identity and “in which bishops wielded authoritative superiority” (133). One very interesting suggestion that Tamar Rotman makes en passant is that by juxtaposing his own biographical details with those of the various saints (including members of his own family) and stressing the pre-eminence of the bishop, Gregory was presenting himself as a candidate for sainthood. If so, he was patently unsuccessful.

Rotman’s strongest section is her analysis of the Glory of the Martyrs and her explanation of why so many eastern saints, who would not go on to enjoy a cult in Gaul, were included (here she is coming off the back of a project which examined Merovingians in eastern perspective). The prominence of Syrian and Palestinian saints, she argues, was to show the Gallican Church’s roots in the birthplace of the faith. Italian saints were also featured as an endorsement of papal orthodoxy. The Glory of the Confessors then follows on by showing how Christianity came to flourish in Gaul, nurtured by saintly bishops who built the Church in Gaul, an episcopate which then produced its own saints. Gregory went on to celebrate twenty more of these in The Life of the Fathers. Perhaps the author felt that the point about Gaul as a land of saints had already been made, but it is a pity that she does not go into more detail on the Life. In this work, Gregory wrote apreface to each life and there is a lot of material here that tells about his view of the clerical and Christian values worthy of emulation. Secondly, for one of his entries, on Lupicinus, we have a much fuller and earlier text from about the year 510: the anonymous Vita Patrum Iurensium. This can be used to show what Gregory left out of his much-shortened version and it tells us more about how he adapted earlier narratives to fit his purposes. For instance, he cut all the women out of the story. Thirdly, the Life says more about the Gregory’s view of the superiority of bishops in that he portrays abbots and hermits as being of lower social status, and prone to setbacks brought about by faintheartedness, vainglory, and quarrelling: they need bishops to help them out. All this would have been extra grist to Rotman’s argument, and there was certainly room for it in what is a slim volume.

The study is drawn together around the issue of identity. This is what is delivered by Rotman’s “rethinking” of Gregory. Steering between Moore (a cultural identity with a distinctive religious dimension) and Reimitz (the construction of a communal identity based on a deep Christian past that overleapt the Romans) the author comes up with a specifically Gallo-Christian identity. This was communicated to the educated elite through the Histories, whereas Gregory’s hagiography, which broadcast the same message, contained “stories to which almost anyone in Merovingian society could relate” (116). The message was in large part constructed by othering those outside the Gallo-Christian circle. The fall guys were above all the Arians (homoians) of Spain. There is a lot here to unpick. First, one wonders why Gregory did not, or could not, write the kind of providential history that Gildas, Isidore, and Bede did. If one answer is that he did not have a “people” to champion, that might tell us more about the relatively weak and broad identity he went for. The second question is whether the Gallo-Christian identity was there before Gregory, in the Vita Patrum Iurensium for instance. And there again it is relatively weak, tepid even. Thirdly, the way in which Gregory tarred the Spanish church with Arianism, which was an anachronism by the time he was writing, requires more thought. One suggestion might be that there was an underlying rivalry over Martin here. The recent identification of sixth-century charters from San Martin de Asán in the foothills of the Pyrenees, one of which is as early as 522, shows that there was an early Martin cult there. It was associated with the burning of eternal lights, as was the cult in Gregory’s accounts. It could be argued that it was the successful monopolization of the cult north of the Pyrenees that later forced the Spanish to find their own Martin (of Braga). Finally, the statement that anyone in Merovingian society could relate to the miracle stories needs fleshing out. The point behind all these questions is that “rethinking Gregory” would be greatly helped by looking outside the Gregory canon in order to place him in a wider perspective. Working with some, not all, of Gregory’s hagiography, the author does make progress, and that is some achievement in such a crowded area. With the exception of a sequence of two pages in which the personal pronoun is entirely abandoned (something the Press should have caught) this is a readable and rather enjoyable book which does indeed succeed in getting us to think about Gregory afresh.