Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks (580s-594)

Splendid, splendid: this is what you want from a history: viz., interminable lists of battles and meetings by people you've never heard of but whose names you find a constant delight, interspersed with theological debate and the occasional Sign and Wonder. Most of it, then, is like this:
While King Chilperic was still in residence at Nogent-sur-Marne, Biship of Rheims arrived on an embassy, with the chief notables of Childebert's court. A conference was arranged and they made plans to deprive King Guntram of his kingdom ... Lupus the Duke of Champagne had long been harassed and despoiled by those who were hostile to him, especially Ursio and Berthefried.[328-9]

It should be law: any booksellers selling a history book be required to ask 'do you want Berthefrieds with that?' The Cs alone are worth the price of admission: the son of Lothar I is called 'Chramn'; the King of the Alamanni is 'Chroc' and Chilperic (a major player, is Chilperic, which is ... you know, great) has a daughter called Chroma. I shall never need to invent a SF or Fantasy name, ever again.

The signs and wonders sometimes live up to their name (snakes falling from the clouds, loaves of bread bleeding when broken etc) but more often than not Gregory relates things under the 'signs and wonders' heading that seem to me less than wonderful, and significant only of ordinary winter weather: 'great signs and wonders ... floods devastated parts of Auvergne. The rain continued for twelve days ... in Bourges there was a hailstorm' [295-6]; 'signs and wonders ... that year the wine harvest was poor, water lay about everywhere' [483].

But by far my favourite intervention is when Gregory stops his narrative in Book VII in order (chapter 41) to tell us about a giant. Understand, the whole of this (admittedly fairly short) chapter is given over to this. 'One of the servants of Mummolos was brought to the King. He was a giant of a man, so immense ...' Yes you're excited. A genuine giant. You're thinking, what, 40 or 50ft tall? You read on: 'so immense that he was reckoned to be two or three feet bigger than the tallest man ever known. He was a carpenter by trade. He died soon afterwards.' [425] So, to recap: Gregory stops his history to tell us about a man two foot taller than a Frenchman. Isn't that splendid? 'Never mind the battles and councils, look over here! A fairly tall person!' Chramn it, I'm two foot taller than a Frenchman. Which leads me to believe that I ought to be in the history books. Where is the modern day Gregory of Tours to immortalise me?

1 comment:

Niall Harrison said...

Having just this minute returned from France, I am in a position to confirm that I, too, am several feet taller than a Frenchman. And I know I'm taller than you. I shall expect my immortalisation any day now.