Open Letters, which bills itself as “a monthly arts and literature review,” is a good read, but it’s turning out to be of particular interest to the medieval-minded. Not only are they serializing Adam Golaski’s quirky translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and running a blog review of Runemarks, a novel for teens about what happens after Ragnarok, but the latest issue also includes an appreciation of Gregory, the 6th-century bishop of Tours, and his monumental History of the Franks.
Advising against modern smugness when evaluating the beliefs and behavior of medieval people, Steve Donoghue laments Gregory’s present obscurity:
In the past two hundred years, he’s had some half-dozen competent translators and many talented annotators. But he isn’t read anymore by the general public that was in his own day very much his target audience, and this is a shame. The darkness is still there, howling just out of reach, and faith is still a prickly, dangerous undertaking, and lavatories are still perilous places. We proceed now without one of our readier guides, at a time when every saint is needed.
Donoghue makes an enthusiastic argument for Gregory’s modern relevance, drawing an iffy contrast between Christian piety and medieval storytelling but rightly pointing out that one of the enduring appeals of the History is its author’s penchant for the memorable anecdote:
We should be grateful Gregory isn’t so pious that he can resist a good story — his History teems with them, most presented with a slightly wry bemusement that fits as naturally in our cynical age as it did in his more naïve one, that is, in fact, evergreen.
When we studied Gregory of Tours in grad school, my classmates and I had a great time comparing our favorite lurid incidents from Merovingian history. Donoghue’s article prompted me to mosey over to my bookshelf, grab my own shabby copy of Gregory, and find this episode on one of several earmarked pages:
Rigunth, Chilperic’s daughter, was always attacking her mother (Fredegund), and saying that she herself was the real mistress, whereas her mother ought to revert to her original rank of serving-woman. She would often insult her mother to her face, and they frequently exchanged slaps and punches.
“Why do you hate me so, daughter?” Fredegund asked her one day. “You can take all your father’s things which are still in my possession, and do what you like with them.”
She led the way into a strong-room and opened a chest which was full of jewels and precious ornaments.
For a long time she kept taking out one thing after another, and handing them to her daughter, who stood beside her. Then she suddenly said: “I’m tired of doing this. Put your own hand in and take whatever you find.”
Rigunth was stretching her arm into the chest to take out some more things, when her mother suddenly seized the lid and slammed it down on her neck. She leant on it with all her might and the edge of the chest pressed so hard against the girl’s throat that her eyes were soon standing out of her head. One of the servant-girls who was in the room screamed at the top of her voice: “Quick! Quick! Mistress is being choked to death by her mother!” The attendants who had been waiting outside for them to emerge burst into the strong-room, rescued the princess from almost certain death and dragged her out of doors.
The quarrels between the two were even more frequent after this. There were never-ending outbursts of temper and even fisticuffs. The main cause was Rigunth’s habit of sleeping with all and sundry.
That’s good stuff; outside of the sagas, medieval prose rarely offers a lovelier combination of trenchant observation, casual internecine violence, and deadpan Germanic delivery.
I don’t know if I agree with Donoghue’s claim that modern people are that much more lost for being unfamiliar with Gregory of Tours, but I do know that Gregory is a master of the sensational anecdote, the sort of episode that gets modern students thinking about the difference between behaviors that are typically medieval and traits that are universally human. For that, I’d count Gregory useful even if the old bishop hadn’t already taught me the most valuable life lesson of all: when a Merovingian matriarch offers you jewelry, don’t think twice; run.