Thursday, November 11, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Gregory of Tours!

Some Penguin Classics do their level best to promote their subjects to the front ranks of old books, and when they're right, they get all my support. Needless to say, this support certainly applies to Gregory of Tours, the Metropolitan bishop of Tours from 573 to his death in 594, and to his magnum opus, the Historiae Francorum, the History of the Franks. It's nothing less than criminal that this book isn't better known, and Penguin Classics has been doing their part to change that fact, publishing Lewis Thorpe's hugely engaging translation in an affordable, accessible paperback since 1974.

As with the best Penguin Classics, everything you need in order to read and enjoy the classic at hand is presented to you in one volume. In a fifty-page introduction, Thorpe provides a masterful overview of Gregory's life and times, from his illustrious senatorial genealogy to his complex and sometimes contradictory character (Thorpe makes a fairly convincing case that Gregory himself was a kind-hearted and even "lovable" man). Sixth century Gaul - indeed, sixth century anywhere - was no place for the faint of heart; Thorpe, delightfully, makes this clear early on:
The History of the Franks is spattered with blood and festering pus, it re-echoes with the animal screams of men and women being tortured unto death: yet Gregory never once questions this effective method of extracting confession, implicating confederates, or simply satisfying the blood-lust of Queens and Kings.

Gregory's text was famously disparaged by Gibbon and has too often been characterized as a barren annal fit only for historiographical ransacking, but Thorpe consistently displays a marvelous sensitivity to seeing Gregory the man in the text, as when he refreshingly points out the bishop's proclivity for quipping:
... he had a wry and pawkish sense of humour, which to my knowledge has never been noticed before. Time and time again, usually at the conclusion of some most serious passage, of some stomach-turning description, he adds an amusing comment, often a sly quip at himself.

Certainly no popular translator had ever noticed that side of Gregory's book before, and the fact that Gregory could spare the energy for wit is remarkable. Bishops in his day were incredibly powerful figures in their community, overseeing their vast clerical fiefdoms with an authority not yet pithed by populism. Gregory dealt personally with four Merovingian rulers - Sigibert, Chilperic, the regent Guntram, and Childebert II (and their often fiercely powerful wives, daughters, and mothers) and had to do his best to protect his sphere of power from everything that cold and unrefined age could throw at it, from warfare and brigandage to widespread epidemics of plague and dysentery to oddities like the time a wolf was found wandering around inside the walls of Poitiers (don't look at me - I was living in Ireland at the time).

Science was still more than a thousand years in the future, so Gregory's time was perforce a time of wonders and signs. He himself was a small man with a picky stomach, so it's not surprising that his work is suffused with physicality - it's one of the book's most consistently fascinating themes, made all the more so by the obvious fact that Gregory himself was unaware of it. His account of the brief tenure of one Pappolus as bishop of Langres amply displays not only this characteristic but the chatty warmth Thorpe so rightly points out - and a first-rate ability to write dramatic prose:
I have heard it said that his behaviour in Langres was extremely bad, but I will not record his evil deeds, for I do not wish to appear to be a denigrator of my fellow churchmen. I must, however, tell you the manner of his death. In the eighth year of his episcopate, when he was carrying out a visitation of his parishes and the villas belonging to his see, Satin Tetricus appeared before him one night as he slept. The Saint's face was threatening and he said: 'What are you doing here, Pappolus? Why do you befoul my diocese? Why do you rob the Church? Why do you scatter the flock which was entrusted to my care? Off with you, resign your bishopric, leave this neighbourhood and go somewhere else far away!' As Tetricus said this he struck Pappolus a mighty blow on the chest with his staff which he held in his hand. Pappolus woke up. While he was wondering what all this meant, he had the impression that his chest had been pierced and he suffered excruciating pain. He could not bear the sight of food and drink, and he made ready for the death which he felt was near. What more can I say? On the third day he vomited blood and died.

Gregory's History of the Franks is everywhere as gripping and fascinating as in that passage, and yet the work is unknown today outside of a very limited academic circle, despite the fact - which should surely tip the scales! - that I myself have praised it to the skies once before. Gregory was a devout individual, but perhaps he had seen too much blood and pus in his life to trust the things he cared about entirely to divine providence, and this accounts for the charmingly human admonition with which he concludes his great book:
I, Gregory, have written the ten books of this History, seven books of Miracles, and one on the Lives of the Fathers. I have composed a book of Commentaries on the Psalms. I also wrote a book on the Offices of the Church. I know very well that my style in these books is lacking in polish. Nevertheless I conjure you all, you Bishops of the Lord who will have charge of Tours cathedral after my unworthy self, I conjure you all, I say, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Judgement Day feared by sinners, that you never permit these books to be destroyed, or to be rewritten, or to be reproduced in part only with sections omitted, for otherwise when you emerge in confusion from this Judgement Day you will be condemned with the Devil.

His holy brethren did their part, and more: editions of the History of the Franks are plentiful. And Penguin Classics has also done its part, giving the reading world this splendid volume filled with Thorpe's boisterous Englishing of Gregory. All that remains is for readers to see the light.

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