Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"A Great Many Things Keep Happening"

A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad. The inhabitants of the different countries keep quarrelling fiercely with each other and kings go on loosing their temper in the most furious way. Our churches are attacked by the heretics and then protected by the Catholics; the faith of Christ burns bright in many men, but it remains lukewarm in others; no sooner are church buildings endowed by the faithful that they are stripped again by those who have no faith. However, no writer has come to the fore who has been sufficiently skilled in setting things down in an orderly fashion to be able to describe these events in prose or in verse.

Thus St. Gregory of Tours begins his History of the Franks, and it is, for my money, the most engaging beginning to any history book I have ever read. And despite the dull moments to be expected in 604 pages of small print, the rest of the book mostly lives up to this beguiling beginning.

Quoting from memory here, C.S. Lewis once began an essay like this (more or less).

Some people say that while the pagan finds no meaning in history, the Christian historians knows that all history has a direction, that it is going from Creation, and Fall, through Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, to full and final Redemption. For the Christian historian, history has a purpose and a direction. To which I respond (says Lewis, if I remember aright), that most Christian historians aren't nearly that bad.

He goes on to point out that while the biggest possible picture may be plain to the Christian, getting from that to the hear and now, to the events actually recorded is something not at all plain. C.S. Lewis didn't mention him, but Gregory of Tours knew that long ago.

One barrier to proper appreciation is the widespread idea, rightly debunked by Walter Goffart, that Gregory is only telling the story of "barbarians." All those bad things keep happening, the conventional-minded historians say, because Rome has fallen. Implication: normally things don't fall apart. Gregory would not agree. All those bad things happen because that's what always happens. That's the way kings act. That's the way soldiers behave. And the rich -- that's what they do. And the poor -- well, what can you expect? But there's also normal life, which can be pleasant -- as long as you don't expect any moral improvement.

People talk a lot about "Constantinianism" and its pernicious effects. What about Gregory of Tours, bishop two centuries after Constantine? He's a man of influence and social power, scion of an old Senatorial family most of whose relatives were called saint this or that, confidant of kings on numerous occasions, and extoller of Clovis as Catholic against the Arian Goths. Isn't he a natural "baptize the current social order, bless the king's wars" kind of guy?

Not at all. In fact, he is shockingly "irresponsible," taking absolutely no responsibility for the continuance of government, and praising virtually none of its functions. Support the death penalty? If Gregory had his way all the prisons would all be emptied:

One night in the gaol at Clermont-Ferrand the chains holding the prisoners came undone by the intervention of God, the gates of the lock-up were unfastened, and they all rushed out to seek sanctuary in a church. Count Eulalius had them loaded with fresh chains, but no sooner had these been placed in position than they snapped asunder like brittle glass. Bishop Avitus pleaded for his prisoners to be released, and they were given their liberty and sent home (p. 553).

Torture is routine in every criminal investigation. Does Gregory ever speak against it? Of course not. But does he ever think releasing any criminal would be a bad idea? Of course not again.

As for taxes, he's always against them.

At the request of Bishop Maroveus King Childebert sent tax inspectors to Poitiers: Florentianus, Mayor of the Queen's Household, and Romulf, Count of hi own Palace. Their orders were to prepare new tax-lists and to instruct the people to pay the taxes which had been levied from them in the time of Childebert's father. Many of those who were on the lists had died, and, as a result, widows, orphans, and infirm folk had to meet a heavy assessment. The inspectors looked into each case in turn: they granted relief to the poor and infirm, and assessed for taxation all who were liable (p. 515).

Well that sort of responsible collaboration with the king was not Bishop Gregory's style -- and elsewhere his portrait of Bishop Maroveus shows a man seemingly uninvolved in the properly religious functions of his diocese. Here's Gregory's approach:

After this they came to Tours. When they announced that they wre about to tax the townsfolk, and that they had in their possession tax lists showing how the people had been assessed in the time of earlier kings, I gave them this answer: 'It is undeniable that the town of Tours was assessed in the days of King Lothar. The books were taken off to be submitted to the King. Lothar had them thrown in the fire, for he was greatly overawed by our Bishop, Saint Martin [dead by the way for about a 150 years, but throughout a living presence and the real hero of Gregory's history]. When Lothar died, my people swore an oath of loyalty to King Charibert, and he swore in his turn that he would not make any new laws or customs, but would secure to them the conditions under which they had lived in his father's reign. He promised that he would not inflict upon them any new tax-laws which would be to their disadvantage (pp. 515-16).

Well, some one of the townsfolk produced tax rolls for Tours, but by the power of Saint Martin, the malefactor died of a fever and

an official letter came back almost immediately, confirming the immunity from taxation of the people of Tours, out of respect for Saint Martin (p. 517).

Just war? Well, the Bretons keep raiding and sacking Frankish cities.

In this year the Bretons ravaged Nantes, Rennes, and the neighborhood. They stole the wine-harvest, destroyed the cultivated fields and carried off as slaves those who lived on the country estates. They kept none of the promises which they had made. Not only did they break their pledges, but they even stole property belonging to our Kings (p. 512).

Crusade time? No quite.

While these things were happening, the Bretons were busy ravaging the open country around Nantes and Rennes. King Guntram put Duke Beppolen and Duke Ebrachar in charge of an army, and ordered them to march against the Bretons. Ebrachar had an idea in his head that if he and Beppolen were to win a victory Beppolen would usurp a dukedom. He therefore started a quarrel, and the two enlivened the whole march by abusing, taunting, and cursing each otehr. Wherever they passed they burned, slew, and sacked, committing every crime in the calendar . . . . (p. 556).

With the ambiguous help of Bishop Regalis peace was patched up between Ebrachar and the sly Breton leader Waroch, and the Frankish army retreated.

As they passed through the Tours region they are said to have collected a great deal of booty and to have robbed a great number of people, for they caught the local inhabitants unawares.

But just when you thought justice unattainable, some else keeps happening:

Many of those who took part in this expedition went to King Guntram and alleged that Duke Ebrachar and Count Willachar had been bribed by Waroch to lead their troops to disaster. When Ebrachar appeared at court the King reproached him bitterly and ordered him to leave his presence. Count Willachar fled and went into hiding (p. 558).

Slavery? Taken for granted; not a word of abolitionism. But one time, two Frankish kings took hostages from the senatorial families. Some escaped, but Attalus the nephew of Saint Gregory (another saint and bishop, this time of Langres, great grandfather of our historian friend) was enslaved to a Frankish nobleman around Trier (in today's Germany) and made a groom. With the help of another slave, Leo, he escaped and after thrilling adventures got to Rheims:

They went in and found a man, whom they asked to tell them where the priest Paulellus lived. He gave them the necessary directions. As they crossed the city square, the bell rang for morning prayer, for it was the Lord's Day. They knocked at the priest's door and went in. Leo explained whose servant he was. 'My vision has come true, then,' said the priest. 'This very night I dreamed that two doves flew in and perched on my head. One was white and the other black.' Leo said to the priest: 'May the Lord grant us indulgence for [eating before communion on] His holy day. We beg you to give us something to eat. The fourth day is now dawning since we last tasted bread or meat.' The priest concealed them and gave them some bread soaked in wine. Then he went off to morning prayer. Later the Frank [i.e. the owner] put in an appearance, still looking for his two slaves. The priest told him a lie, and he went off once more. The priest was an old acquaintance of Saint Gregory. When they had eaten, the two slaves felt stronger. They stayed two days in the priest's house. Then they went on again and were brought before Saint Gregory. The Bishop was delighted when he saw them both. He wept on the neck of his nephew Attalus. He made Leo a freedman, and all his progeny, too, and he gave him a piece of land of his own on which he lived in freedom with his wife and children all the days of his life (p. 179).

And while Gregory hails King Clovis as a Catholic champion against the Arians, he concludes with such a story of hypocrisy, greed, and treachery on the part of the newly baptized king that makes it impossible to take unironically his concluding assertion that Clovis

walked before Him with an upright heart and did what was pleasing in His sight (p. 156).

But then again, Clovis always made sure to stop his ravages on the borders of Saint Martin's bishopric.

Gregory of Tours truly took no responsibility for Caesar: and that lack of responsibility included abdicating any responsibility whatsoever for social reform or melioration. His church advocated no positive social change, or progressive reform of the laws. That would come later, with the great reforming movements of the eleventh century to the present.

But he and his fellow bishops with few exceptions would harbor just about any escaped slave, plead with the King for just about any prisoner, argue if possible to have just about any community spared of taxes, and expect nothing but the worst whenever the King took up arms against marauding Bretons or peaceful Gothic heretics. This was his version of "Constantinianism". Because he took no responsibility for reforming the kings, he had no compunction about supporting any of their victims, and always told the truth about them, even of those whom he more or less liked (such as Guntram).

It was the earnest reformers who got slavery abolished and torture banned -- it is hard to say that the bishops of the early Middle Ages used all the opportunities they could for doing good. But abjuring reform had one attractive by-product -- it meant abjuring the hypocrisy that earnest reformers always embrace when the progressive regime they've have fought for finally becomes law. By accepting his world entirely as it was, he could tell the truth about it, not in bitterness but in love, indignation, and pity.

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