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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 325-326
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Gregory of Tours:
History and Society in the Sixth Century
Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century. By Martin Heinzelmann. Translated by Christopher Carroll. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Pp. xii, 235. $59.95.)
This far-reaching study was originally published at Darmstadt in 1994 as Gregor von Tours (538-594) ,,Zehn Bücher Geschichte". Historiographie und Gesellschaftskonzept im 6. Jahrhundert. It appeared during the 1400th anniversary of Gregory's death, when many learned conferences on the historian took place, especially in France. Martin Heinzelmann, long-time editor of the journal Francia, has published at least eleven articles on Gregory in addition to this book. With Pascale Bourgain, he is preparing a new critical edition of the Histories. He is uniquely qualified to shed light on Gregory.
Heinzelmann's monograph, in addition to its main argument, makes many convincing contributions. They include a resolute critique of earlier scholarship; a study of Gregory's usage of the word ecclesia; a demonstration of the value of the chapter headings for interpreting chapter contents; important discussions of Gregory's language and use of typology; and an account of the manuscript tradition. He compiles a prosopography of Gregory's extended family and searchingly considers his life; and he takes advantage, virtually for the first time, of two precious instruments for Gregory study, namely, the Montreal concordance to the Histories and Margarete Weidemann's methodical dissection of Gregory's works in her Kulturgeschichte der Merowingerzeit (1982).
Heinzelmann's goal is to discover a thematic, ecclesiological Gregory whose "historiographical interests [focused] on the development of a socio-political concept of society [that wished] to see the leadership of the Christian state entrusted to the joint government of bishops and king" (p. 1); this concept was sustained by "the typological and eschatological ecclesia as the ideological framework and background of history" (p. 189). Such abstractions are unusual in writings about our bishop. The early nineteenth-century historian, Augustin Thierry, said that Gregory's work was "comme une gallerie mal arrangée de tableaux et de figures en relief"—in other words, a succession of disconnected fragments. Heinzelmann counteracts this still current conception and interprets Gregory's history as a unified work, with a collective theme and the practical purpose of guiding Merovingian kings.
The case is strongly argued, with much evidence and deep conviction. Its certain applicability to parts of the Histories—book 1 and much more—means [End Page 325] that it will have to be respectfully weighed even by those whom it repels. Lately, Gregory has been prized for grasping particulars and portraying them with an approximation of realism; his glory is that he offers a vivid panorama ofindividual sinners and saints. To those who see Gregory in this way, Heinzelmann's concentrated scenario for the Histories substitutes a theologian enamored with abstractions for the more familiar narrator of particular circumstances.
Heinzelmann has little interest in Gregory's depictions of individual lives and circumstances. He disregards large tracts of the Histories, including many with obvious bearing on his argument. His Gregory trusts in the collectivity of bishops, whom kings should listen to. But what many readers find gripping in the Histories is the gallery of deplorable bishops, lovingly portrayed—Urbicus of Clermont, Droctegisel of Soissons, Badegisel of Le Mans, Egidius of Reims, Felix of Nantes, Bertramn of Bordeaux, Cato and Cautinus of Clermont, Salonius of Embrun, and Sagittarius of Gap; even the worthy Praetextatus of Rouen and Theodore of Marseilles have conspicuous blemishes. The same goes for kings: Gregory plies us with bad deeds by the "good" Guntram and good ones by the "bad" Chilperic. Does the real Gregory exalt the collective episcopate and kingship or does he steep us in the ambivalence of real life? Because this question is not faced, let alone resolved, Heinzelmann's approach may seem one-sided.
His interpretation, well and solidly argued, will have an enduring place in studies of Gregory's Histories and will certainly polarize them. A good...