THE HISTORY OF THE FRANKS BY GREGORY, BISHOP OF TOURS, is an historical record of great importance. The events which it relates are derails of the perishing of the Roman Empire and the beginning of a great modern state and for these events it is often the sole authority. However although Gregory was relating history mainly contemporaneous or recent, we must allow largely for error and prejudice in his statements of fact.
It is rather as an unconscious revelation that the work is of especial value. The language and style, the intellectual attitude with which it was conceived and written, and the vivid and realistic picture, unintentionally given, of a primitive society, all combine to make the History of the Franks a landmark in European culture.
After reading it the intelligent modern will no longer have pleasing illusions about sixth-century society.
Gregory’s life covers the years from 538 to 594. He was a product of central Gaul, spending his whole life in the Loire basin except for brief stays elsewhere.The river Loire may be regarded
as the southern limit of Frankish colonization and Gregory therefore lived on the frontier of the barbarians.
He was born and grew up at Clermont in Auvergne, a city to which an inexhaustibly fertile mountain valley is tributary. In this valley his father owned an estate. Its wealth brought Clermont much trouble during the disorderly period that followed the break-up of Roman rule, and Gregory gives a hint of the eagerness which the Frankish kings felt to possess this country.
After 573 Gregory lived at Tours in the lower Loire valley. This city with its pleasant climate and moderately productive territorial background had more than a local importance in this age. It lay on the main thoroughfare between Spain and Aquitania and the north. Five Roman roads centred in it and the traffic of the Loire passed by it.
The reader of Gregory’s history judges that sooner or later it was visited by every one of importance at the time. It was here that the Frankish influences of the north and the Roman influences of the south had their chief contact.
However the natural advantages of Tours at this time were surpassed by the supernatural ones. Thanks to the legend of St. Martin this conveniently situated city had become “the religious Metropolis” of Gaul. St. Martin had made a great impression on his generation.
A Roman soldier, turned monk and then bishop of Tours, he was a man of heroic character and force. He had devoted himself chiefly to the task of Christianising the pagani or rural population of Gaul and had won a remarkable ascendancy over the minds of a superstitious people, and this went on increasing for centuries after his death.