- Gregory of Tours: The Merovingians
The Ten Books of History written by Gregory, bishop of Tours, during the last decades of the sixth century, is the most important surviving account of life in Merovingian Gaul. Gregory also authored numerous works of hagiography and saw his oeuvre as a whole in which he juxtaposed the admirable lives of holy people with the seamy lives of lay people. Gregory enjoined posterity to treat his works, especially the [End Page 218] History, in a unified way and not abridge or edit them. The bishop's injunction was heartily ignored, and within a few decades of his death, edited versions of the first six books of The Histories began to appear. These focused upon the history of the Franks, as a sort of Geste Francorum, which greatly distorted Gregory's message, but more accurately represented the interests of the early medieval editors, their patrons, and their audiences.
Alexander Murray, one of the world's leading specialists in Merovingian history, has provided an abridgement and excellent translation of Gregory's Ten Books along with a first-class introduction, and useful bibliography. The volume is completed by numerous study aids such as genealogies, high-quality maps, and a list of the civitates of Gaul. Murray also includes reproductions of twenty-one drawings of episodes in Merovingian history by the nineteenth century artist Jean-Paul Laurens. Originally, these and a great many more were executed for Augustin Thierry's Récits des temps mérovingiens, first published in Paris in 1882. I strongly disagree with Murray's inclusion of these artistic renditions based upon Laurens's imagination and stimulated by Thierry's romanticism. Many of these pictures, upon careful examination, remind this viewer of nineteenth-century costumes created for Wagner's romantic operas based upon late medieval German myths. Wagner was surely a great composer and Laurens certainly was an artist of talent, but the work of neither is useful for our understanding of the Middle Ages, however much their efforts may be have been responsible for misleading contemporaries as well as future generations.
Murray's selections from the histories, books 2 through 10, do a fine job in illustrating Gregory's main theme of the seamy side of the life of lay people in Merovingian Gaul. As an appendix, Murray includes additional items on the church, but, these, in general, do no credit to that institution. In short, Murray works effectively to undermine Gregory's overall purpose in writing The Ten Books of History. This, however, is only a delict if one regards Gregory's aims as more important than providing information regarding, for example, Merovingian political life. However, it will be left to the instructor, who uses this fine book, to explain to students how, when, and where Gregory very frequently provided 'spin' on political events, in ways very familiar to modern politicians, by which he intended to make reasonable decisions and actions seem fundamentally corrupt and wrong-headed.
Finally, it is to be reiterated that Murray makes clear that Gregory's work was abridged, and he takes note of some of the principles fundamental to those abridgments. What has been needed for a very long time is the publication of the texts of these abridgments in a manner similar to the ongoing publication of the various versions of the [End Page 219] Anglo-Saxon chronicler. By providing such texts we will gain insight into the men who abridged the Ten Books and why they did exactly what they did. Professor Murray could have begun this very valuable process by providing a translation of the first of these abridgments rather than using excerpts from the entire Ten Books. He could have then included examples of interpolations from other versions and, perhaps most importantly, his introduction to this process likely would have been a tour de force of exceptional scholarly value as well as an innovative teaching tool of great use for instructors on the seventh and eighth centuries.
Despite my quibbles, I strongly recommend Murray's volume as the best and most consistent translation...