Monday, April 02, 2007

Gregory of Tours: Historian with the Pentecostal Problem

I have begun reading Gregory, Bishop of Tours (AD 536-594), known generally for his History of the Franks. Fortunately, however, I am also reading Walter Goffart's Narrators of Barbarian History (ah, now you see the connection to the Mongol empire), which puts the work much more effectively in context than the translation's introduction. Goffart points out that as it left Gregory's pen, the work was titled simply "The Histories" and was not particularly focused on the Franks. Nor was his intended audience Franks, but rather the Gallo-Romans of what is now central and southern France. I'll probably blog a few parts of it later, but I'd like to blog some of Goffart's introductory comments, where he uses Gregory's other works to define his position and aims as an author and Christian.

Its [i.e. Gregory's "The Course of the Stars"] wider interest stems from Gregory's disproportionately long introductory paragraphs about the Seven Wonders of the World, commentaries that enjoyed a small medieval circulation apart from the treatise they head. Here . . . Gregory is concerned with miracula "wonders," as distinct from more individualized virtutes, "miracles," worked by God through saints and their relics. Gregory sets out a straightforward argument: philosophers, in their learned leisure, have singled out seven miracula "as more marvellous than others"; they include Noah's Ark and Solomon's Temple as well as classical splendors, such as the Colossus of Rhodes, the Theater at Heraclea, and the Pharos [lighthouse] of Alexandria; these wonders, even if some were built pursuant to God's command, were "none the less established by men" and therefore have perished or are subject to destruction; there are other wonders, however, that come directly from God, "which in no age grow old, by no accident fall, by no loss are diminished, except when the Maker shall have ordained that the universe be destroyed"; these are

the tides,
the annual fruitfulness,
the phoenix,
Mt. Etna,
the springs of Grenoble,
the sun, and
the moon and stars.

. . . Before detailing the reckoning of time from the stars, he wished to remind readers emphatically that stellar motion, like the tides and courses of the sun proceeds from God and is not an inevitable operation of nature
(pp. 131-32).

Regardless of the distinctions pre-Christian sages might make, [in Gregory's view] ostensibly ordinary and regular operations of nature did not differ from sudden, arbitrary acts of divine power; a continuum existed between expected and unexpected aspects of God's providential rule; and these facts dissolved human pretensions to wisdom and proved them vain. Opennness to wonders was the true and only science offering men liberation from the death-bringing life they endured.

In this perspective one should not expect the eight books of Miracula to be a record of amazing happenings . . . To grade wonders by degree of supernaturalness hardly concerned Gregory; his object, rather, was to multiply them; "no [ecclesiastical author] has related more miracles than Gregory of Tours." One basis for disbelief had always been that miracles were a thing of the past, richly documented in the Gospels but vanished from the world of everyday experience. The whole thrust of Gregory's Wonders is to illustrate the ordinariness of the miraculous, available today, near at hand, in the most commonplace objects. Far from wishing to stake out a monopoly for [the miracles done by the relics of] his own St. Martin of tours, his narrative celebrate a host of saints, great and small, ancient and modern, and portray the dissemination through every part of Gaul of their holy graves and powerful, wonder-working relics. Gregory himself, who laid no claims to special merit, details personal experiences of the miraculous at every stage of his life and thrusts himself forward as a leading witness to divine generosity. Unlike the miser's hoarded treasure, the riches of heaven were profusely poured out upon humanity, only to be reached for in order to be grasped. Both the Martyrs and the Confessor close with tales of avarice, the message of each book underscored by its contrary (pp. 134-35).

Gregory's determination to multiply the holy is nowhere more apparent than in his positive and uncritical approach to authentication. In the famous foruth-century Life of St. Martin by Suplicius Severus, the first miracle that the saint performs after becoming bishop of Tourse involves the discrediting of a false cult; the people venerated a tomb, thinking its occupant to be a martyr, but Martin summoned up the dead man's spirit and made him confess that he was only an executed robber. Much as Gregory loved the patron of his see, this example went unheeded in his Wonders. . . . St. Martin himself, in his only personal appearances in Gregory's Confessors, calls forth a bishop and religious lady from their graves, lending his prestige to the certification of their holiness and animating their cult. The episcopal authority Gregory wielded, far from being exercised to restrain popular devotion, stoked the delicate flames of belief by increasing the objects of reverence (p. 135).

. . . He may have known that popular piety discriminated among holy objects, just as it preferred martyrs with passion narratives to those without; but Gregory gave no encouragement to such fastidiousness. Where relics were concerned, anything would do: a little dust, a shred of bark, oil from a lamp, wax from a candle, a bit of rope (p. 135) . . . . Early chapters of the Confessors successively celebrate miracles by a stone on which St. Martin sat, a tree that he moved, a chapel at which he prayed, oil from a lamp at his tomb, a grape from a vine that he planted, and a modern apparition of his close to Langes. . . . . (p. 136).

Gregory's lack of discrimination vis-a-vis miracles and relics is consistent with his view that the tides and heavenly bodies were directly and continually actuated by God, not just set in motion at the Creation. Properly, that is, uncritically understood, sudden miraculous events were hardly less frequent or common than the predictable happenings that philosophers called natural phenomena. The ubiquity of miracles is not an idea incidentally reflected in the Wonders. It is the work's central teaching, an unstated lesson conveyed by sheer repetition (p. 136).

As Goffart points out, the usual interpretation is to see this as the result of the age's credulity. Gregory was an able man, but the superstition and credulity of the age infected him as it had everyone else. But Goffart shows that this is not plausible. Gregory's works were directed at an audience which was actually full of skepticism and shrewd common sense, who found it hard to believe or benefit from (as he admits is true for himself as well) from the words of Scripture. Words on a page don't convince, because nobody believes what's written in books. Only what appears before your very eyes, right now, can be believed. And that desire certainty only miracles, especially posthumous miracles, performed by a relic, can give.

As reflected in Gregory's works, his contemporaries in all walks of life credulous and uncritical, but they were also guided by practical common sense. They knew that, as a rule, nothing untoward occurred when one committed perjury, seized church property, oppressed the poor, worked on Sundays, or otherwise offended against divine precepts. To them, as to us, the absence of a thunderbolt from heaven, smiting the offender, was as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise. That comfortable certainty was precisely what Gregory sought to counteract. In opposition to the view of a predictably indifferent nature, operating as it was bound to do, he did not conjure up a contrary philosophy. Their basis was philosophy; his was history -- the evidence, preferably of an eyewitness, recording the multitudinous factual moments when, in defiance of human wisdom and alleged natural necessity, the unexpected occurred (p. 137).

It comes as a surprise to anyone reared on the idea that Merovingian Gaul [i.e. AD 500-750] marks a low point in humane letter that Gregory should still have considered it timely to place himself at the service of Christianity in its combat with the allurements of classical culture. Yet the first preface of the Wonders -- that to the Martyrs -- invokes the locus classicus of Jerome's repudiation of Cicero, amplified in Gregory's rendition into "the clever arguments of Cicero and the false tales of Virgil" (p. 137).

The pastorate he undertook to exercise through his writings could hardly have been directed elsewhere than among the educated, Roman-descended, and hereditarily Christian elements of the Frankish kingdom. The palpable events they were being invited to contemplate were mainly those occurring in their own neighborhood. Addressed to such ears, the [cautionary] tale of Jerome's attachment to classical letters was not wholly anachronistic. Neither were Gregory's efforts to combat "philosophy" (p. 138).

Gregory's miracle stories have three characteristics: 1) they are in his lifetime; 2) they are simply presented one after another; and 3) they make no attempt to hold up the saints as models of conduct. Why?

His reason for appealing to the span of living memory is set ou in the preface to the first book about St. Martin: "The miracles that the Lord our God [performed through] St. Martin in the flesh He now deigns to confirm daily to strengthen the belief of the faithful . . . . Therefore let no one doubt past miracles when he beholds the gift of present signs given forth, since he sees the lame made straight, the blind given sight, etc." (p. 139). . . . The Incarnation was an academic notion if located in the days of Caesar Augustus; it was credible if the miracle of the Word taking flesh occurred repeatedly in the present (pp. 139-40).
Even when connections are obvious, as in the five chapters of Martyrs featuring Arian heretics, Gregory simply runs on from one episode to the next. He plainly asserts that sheer quantity will have greater impact than any verbal at persuasion, such as a thread of argument woven through a more compact whole; as he puts it, the eloquence he lacks will be compensated for by "the very accumulation of numerous miracles" (p. 140).

The lesson of recent miracles was one of deeds, not words. For words in books were futile, incapable of convincing or of occasioning changes in conduct. Gregory claims to have personally experienced their impotence. Tutored by the priest Avitus at Clermont, he had bent over the Scriptures, but "they did not bring me to discernment . . . because I am unable to heed them." If words could move, and not just entertain, men would be living by the Gospel, as they manifestly were not (p. 140) . . . . The verbal recreation of forgotten examples of conduct was a pointless exercise among men possessing rich stores of skepticism (p. 141).

"Therefore because those things which St. Illidius carried out [while alive] before this time [=the present] have, we believe, been forgotten and not come to our knowledge, we shall set out those [miracles done by his relics] which we have experienced by the witness of our own eyes or have learned were perceived by faithful men." Gregory's time frame was very narrow. The past beyond the observer's memory was as good as lost . . . but within what was left, there were were . . . affirmation of divine power that were apprehensible to the sense. And such facts were anything but rare (p. 142).

Goffart points out how both Gregory of Tours and his more or less contemporary Pope Gregory the Great were dealing with the legacy of attacks on the smooth language of the pagan philosophers. Gregory the Great used the analogy of the cave like Plato, but unlike Plato, it was not philosophy that brought to mind the truths beyond the sense but willingness to belief some concrete message.

For both Gregories, however, there remained the grave pastoral problem of how to penetrate the skepticism and doubt of their congregations, of how to overcome the understandable reluctance of men to grasp anything except visible experience. It was very well for divine revelation to be the source of truth, but how else was that revelation to be communicated if not through books? The point of departure for Pope Gregory's allegory [of the cave] is that the Scriptures and Christian letters are unconvincing. Men hear what they say about heaven, but the readings remain mere talk, at best conveying what others, but not the listeners, have experienced (p. 144).

. . . . The foundation of humanistic culture had been the faith [Plato] pioneered in the potential of language -- the inherent power of properly constructed verbal sequences to compel assent. Together with many other Christians, Gregory of Tours celebrated the Lord's "destruction of the vanity of worldly wisdom"; but, where the persuasive force of language was concerned the destruction cut both ways . . . In a baptized world, discourse no longer persuaded as it once had. For the language in which Christian truth was clothed was indistinguishable from, and no more credible than, the language in which philosophical "vanities" were expressed. By undermining the instrument it shared with pagan culture, Christianity had, in its triumph, created a population of skeptics. Few witnesses are more forthright than the two Gregories in testifying to the vanished force of properly constructed verbal sequences. Only experience, not words, commanded credence (pp. 144-45).

[Gregory] would set before them the wonders of today. God's free, inexplicable, and unexpected intrusions into daily life, served up "hot off the fire," were Bishop Gregory's challenge to the skepticism of his audience; and history, conceived in the Wonders as an aggregate of such episodes, was the form he gave to his militant anti-intellectualism. . . . Because words on a page were futile, he would turn his back on style and assign persuasiveness to facts (p. 145).

This is the Pentecostal problem -- how to make people who routinely discount all book learning believe a book, even if it is God's book. And this is the Pentecostal solution: make experience of God's miraculous power a daily affair.

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