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Born in 538 or 539 at Arverni, the modern Clermont-Ferrand; died at Tours, 17 Nov., in 593 or 594. He was descended from a distinguished Gallo-Roman family, and was closely related to the most illustrious houses of Gaul. He was originally called Georgius Florentius, but in memory of his maternal great-grandfather, Gregory, Bishop of Langres, took later on the name of Gregory. At an early age he lost his father, and went to live with an uncle, Gallus, Bishop of Clermont, under whom he was educated after the manner of all ecclesiastics in his day. An unexpected recovery from a serious illness turned his mind towards the service of the Church. Gallus died in 554, and Gregory's mother went to live with her friends in Burgundy, leaving her son at Clermont in the care of Avitus, a priest, later Bishop of Clermont (517-594). Avitus directed his pupil towards the study of the Scriptures. According to Gregory, rhetoric and profane literature were sadly neglected in his case, an omission that he ever after earnestly regretted. In his writings he complains of his ignorance of the laws of grammar, of confounding the genders, employing the wrong cases, not understanding the correct use of prepositions, and the syntax of phrases, self-reproaches that need not be taken too seriously. Gregory knew grammar and literature as well as any man of his time; it is a mere affectation on his part when he poses as ill-instructed; perhaps he hoped thereby to win praise for his learning. Euphronius, Bishop of Tours, died in 573, and was succeeded by Gregory, Sigebert I being then King of Austrasia and Auvergne (561-576). Charibert's death (567) had made him master of Tours. The new king was acquainted with Gregory and insisted that in deference to the wishes of the people of Tours he should become their bishop; thus it came to pass that Gregory went to Rome for consecration. The poet, Fortunatus, celebrated the elevation of the new bishop in a poem full of sincere enthusiasm whatever its defects ("Ad cives Turonicos de Gregorio episcopo"). Gregory justified this confidence, and his episcopal reign was highly creditable to him and useful to his flock; the circumstances of the time offered peculiar difficulties, and the office of bishop was onerous both from a civil and a religious point of view.
He undertook with great zeal the heavy task imposed on him. In the near past King Clovis had both used and abused his power, but his services to the social order and the fame of his exploits caused the abuses of his reign to be in great part forgiven. His successors, however, had fewer merits, and when they sought to increase their authority by deeds of violence, almost endless civil war was the result. Might overcame right so often that the very notion of the latter tended to disappear. Barbarian fierceness and cruelty were everywhere rampant. During the war between Sigebert and Chilperic, Gregory could not restrain his just indignation at the sight of the woes of his people. "This", he wrote, "has been more hurtful to the Church than the persecution of Diocletian". In Gaul, at least, such may have been the case. The Teutonic tribes newly established in Gaul, or loosely wandering throughout the whole Roman Empire, were well aware of their physical prowess, and disinclined to recognize any rights save that of conquest. Their chiefs claimed whatever they desired, and the army took the rest. Whoever ventured to oppose them was put out of the way with pitiless rapidity. The civilization on which they so suddenly entered was for them a source of annoyance and confusion; coarse material pleasures appealed to them far more than the higher ideals of Roman life. Drunkenness was prevalent in all classes, and even the proverbial chastity of the Franks was soon a forgotten glory. Vengeance threw off all restraint of religion; the powerful and the lowly, clergy and laity, were a law unto themselves. Queen Clotilda, the model of women, was popularly thought to have nourished feelings of revenge against the Burgundians for more that thirty years (see, however, for a rehabilitation, G. Kurth, "Sainte Clotilde", 8th. ed., Paris, 1905, and article CLOTILDA). Guntram, one of the best of the Frankish kings, put to death two physicians because they were unable to restore Queen Austrechilde to health. This being the moral temper of the upper classes, it is needless to speak of the Gallo-Frankish multitude. It is greatly to St. Gregory's honour that amid these conditions he fulfilled the office of bishop with admirable courage and firmness. His writings and his actions exhibit a tender solicitude for the spiritual and temporal interests of his people, whom he protected as best he could against the lawlessness of the civil power.
Amid his labours for the general welfare he upheld always what was right and just with prudence and courage. By his office he was the protector of the weak, and as such always opposed their oppressors. In him the Merovingian episcopate appears at its best. The social morality of the sixth century has no braver or more intelligent exponent that this cultivated gentleman. Gregory explains the government of the world by the constant intervention of the supernatural: direct assistance of God, intercession of saints, and recourse to the miracles wrought at their tombs. He also played a prominent part in increasing the number of churches, which were then the centres of religious life in Gaul. The cathedral church at Tours, burnt down under his predecessor, was rebuilt, and the church of St. Perpetuus restored and decorated. Since the days of Clovis the Church had held, through her bishops, a preponderating position in the Frankish world. In the eyes of the people the bishops were the direct representatives of God, and dispensed His heavenly graces quite as the king bestowed earthly favours. This was not owing, however, to their moral or religious position, but rather to their social influence. With the spread of the rude barbarian civilization in Gaul the old Roman civilization, especially in municipal administration, was unable to cope. The civil authority was unequal to the former responsibilities it assumed, and was soon oblivious of its obligations. The public offices, however, which it neglected corresponded to pressing social needs that must somehow be satisfied. At this juncture the bishops stepped into the breach and became at once politically more important under Frankish than they had been under Roman rule. The Frankish kings gladly recognized in them indispensable auxiliaries. They alone possessed science and learning, while they rendered signal services on different missions freely intrusted to them, and which they alone were capable of fulfilling. On the other hand they were slow to reprove their barbarian masters or to resist them. Gregory himself says in his reply to Childeric: "If one of us were to leave the path of justice, it would be for you to set him right; should you, however, chance to stray, who could correct or resist?". The only duty the bishops seem to have preached to the Frankish kings was a conscientious fulfilment of the royal duties for the good of souls. This duty the kings did not deny, though they often failed to execute it or took refuge in a too liberal conscience.
Tours, which had long possessed the tomb of Saint Martin, was one of the most difficult sees to rule. The city was continually changing masters. On the death of Clotaire (561) it fell to Charibert, and when he died it reverted to the kingdom of Sigebert, King of Austrasia, but not till after a lively conflict. In 573, Chilperic, King of Neustria, seized it, but was soon constrained to abandon the city. He seized it again only to lose it once more; at last, on the assassination of Sigebert in 576, Chilperic became its final master, and held it till he died in 584. Though Gregory took no direct part in these struggles of princes, he has described for us the sufferings they caused his people, also his own sorrows. It is easy to see that he did not love Chilperic; in return the king hated the Bishop of Tours, who suffered much from the attacks of royal partisans. A certain Leudot, who had been deprived of his office through Gregory's complaints, accused the bishop of defamatory statements concerning Queen Fredegunde. Gregory was cited before the judges, and asserted his innocence under oath. At the trial his bearing was so full of dignity and uprightness that he astonished his enemies, and Chilperic himself was so impressed that ever afterwards he was more conciliatory in his dealings with such an opponent. After the death of Chilperic, Tours fell into the hands of Guntram, King of Burgundy, whereupon began for the bishop an era of peace and almost of happiness. He had long known Guntram and was known and trusted by him. In 587, the Treaty of Andelot brought about the cession of Tours by Guntram to Childebert II, son of Sigebert. This king, as well as his mother Brunehaut, honoured Gregory with particular confidence, called him often to court, and entrusted to him many important missions. This favour lasted until his death.
From the time of his election to the episcopate Gregory began to write. His subjects seem to have been chosen, at the beginning of his literary activity, less for their importance than for the purpose of edification. The miracles of St. Martin were then his main theme, and he always cherished most the themes of the hagiographer. Even in his strictly historical writings, biographical details retain a place often quite disproportionate to their importance. His complete works deal with many subjects, and are by himself summarized as follows: "Decem libros historiarum, septem miraculorum, unum de vita patrum scripsi; in psalterii tractatu librum unum commentatus sum; de cursibus etiam ecclesiasticis unum librum condidi", i.e. I have written ten books of "historia", seven of "miracles", one on the lives of the Fathers, a commentary in one book on the psalter, and one book on ecclesiastical liturgy. The "Liber de miracles b. Andreae apostoli" and the "Passio ss. martyrum septem dormientium apud Ephesum" are not mentioned by him, but are undoubtedly from his hand. His hagiographical writings must naturally be read in keeping with the spirit and tastes of his own times. An edict of King Guntram, taken from the "Historia Francorum", illustrates both quite aptly: "We believe that the Lord, who rules all things by His might, will be appeased by our endeavours to uphold justice and right among all people. Being our Father and our King, ever ready to succour human weakness by His grace, God will grant our needs all the more generously when He sees us faithful in the observance of His precepts and commandments". The mental attitude of the king differed little, of course, from that of his people. Nearly all were deeply persuaded that all events were divinely foreseen; but sometimes even to a superstitious extreme. Thus, despite the contemporary social degradation and crimes, the people were ever on the alert for supernatural manifestations, or for what they believed to be such. In this way arose a religious devotion, real and active, indeed, but also impulsive and not properly controlled by reason. Providence seemed to intervene so directly in every minute detail that men blindly thanked God for an enemy's death just as they would for some wonderful grace that had been granted them. The supernatural world was always quite near to the men of that age; God and His saints seemed ever to deal intimately and immediately with the affairs of men. The tombs and relics of the saints became the centres of their miraculous activity. In the contemporary hagiographical narratives those who refuse to believe in the miracles are the exception, and are generally represented as coming to an evil end unless they repent of their incredulity. Occasionally one notes a reaction against this excessive credulity; here and there an individual ventures to assert that certain miracles are fictive, and sometimes impostures. Sensible men endeavour to calm the too ardent credulity of many. Gregory tells us of an abbot who severely punished a young monk who believe he had wrought a miracle: "My son", said the abbot, "endeavour in all humility to grow in the fear of the Lord, instead of meddling with miracles."
Gregory himself, though he relates a great many miracles, seems occasionally to have doubted some of them. He knew that unscrupulous men were wont to abuse the credulity of the faithful, and many agreed with him. Not everyone was willing to consider a dream as a supernatural manifestation. This distrust, however, affected only particular cases; as a rule belief in the multiplicity of miracles was general. The first work of Gregory was an account in four books of the miracles of St. Martin, the famous thaumaturgus of Gaul. The first book was written in 575, the second after 581, the third was completed about 587; the fourth was never completed. After finishing the first two books he began an account of the miracles of an Auvergne saint then famous, "De passione et virtutibus sancti Juliani martyris". Julian had died in the neighbourhood of Clermont-Ferrand and his tomb at Brioude was a well known place of pilgrimage. In 587, Gregory began his "Liber in gloria martyrum", or "Book of the Glories of the Martyrs". It deals almost exclusively with the miracles wrought in Gaul by the martyrs of the Roman persecutions. Quite similar is the "Liber in gloria confessorum" a vivid picture of contemporary or quasi-contemporary customs and manners. The "Liber vitae Patrum", the most important and interesting of Gregory's hagiographical works, gives us much curious information concerning the upper classes of the period.
Gregory's fame as a historian rests on his "Historia Francorum" in ten books, intended, as the author assures us in the preface, to hand down to posterity a knowledge of his own times. Book I contains a summary of the history of the world from Adam to the conquest of Gaul by the Franks, and thence to the death of St. Martin (397). Book II treats of Clovis, founder of the Frankish empire. Book III comes down to the reign of Theodebert (548). Book IV ends with Sigebert (575), and contains the story of many events within the personal knowledge of the historian. According to Arndt these four books were written in 575. Books V and VI treat of events that took place between 575 and 584, and were written in 585. The remaining four books cover the years between 584 and 591, and were written at intervals that cannot be exactly determined. Gregory relates, indeed, as stated above, the story of his age, but in the narrative he himself always plays a prominent part. The art of exposition, of tracing effects to their causes, of discovering the motives which influenced the characters he described, was unknown to Gregory. He tells a plain unvarnished tale of what he saw and heard. Apart from what concerns himself, he always tries to state the truth impartially, and in places even attempts some sort of criticism. This work is unique in its kind. Without it the historical origin of the Frankish monarchy would be to no small extent unknown to us. Did Gregory, however, correctly appreciate the spirit and tendencies of his age? It is open to question. His mind was always busied with extraordinary events: crimes, miracles, wars, excesses of every kind; for him ordinary events were too commonplace for notice. Nevertheless, to grasp clearly the religious or secular history of a people, it is more important to know the daily popular life than to learn of the mighty deeds of the reigning house. The morality of the people is often superior to that of its governing classes. In Gregory's day, great moral and religious forces, beloved by the people, must have been leavening the country, counterbalancing the brute force and immorality of the Frankish kings, and saving the strong new race from wasting away in civil strife. From Gregory's account, however, one could scarcely conclude that the people were altogether satisfied with their religion. What Gregory failed to note in a discriminating way, perhaps because it did not enter into the scope of the work, a contemporary, the Greek Agathias, has observed and put on record.
The theological ideas of Gregory appear not only in the introductions of his various works, and especially to his "Historia Francorum", but also incidentally throughout his writings. His theological education was not very profound; and he wrote but one work immediately theological in character, his commentary on the psalms. The book entitled "De cursu stellarum ratio" (on the courses of the stars) was written for a practical purpose to settle the time, according to the position of the stars, when the night office should be sung. The "Historia Francorum" makes known, in its opening pages, Gregory's theological views. The teaching of Nicaea was his guide; the doctrine of the Church was beyond all discussion. God the Father could never have been without wisdom, light, life, truth, justice; the Son is all these; the Father therefore was never without the Son. In Jesus Christ Gregory saw the Lord of Eternal Glory and the Judge of mankind. He sometimes speaks of the death and the blood of Christ as the means of redemption, though it is not clear that he grasped the inner meaning of this doctrine. He saw in Christ's Death a crime committed by the Jews; in the Resurrection, on the other hand, it seemed to him he beheld the Redemption of mankind. From the psalms he had learned that Jesus had saved the world by His blood, but Gregory's idea of Christ was not that of the Lamb slain for the sins of "the world"; it was rather that of a great king who had left an inheritance to his people. Generally speaking his theological writings exhibited the influence of the Frankish idea of royalty. He does not seem to have been deeply versed in the teaching and the writings of the Fathers on the Incarnation and Death of Christ. This is evident from the story he tells of a discussion he had one day in the presence of King Chilperic with a Jewish merchant. The Jew had questioned the possibility of the fact of the Incarnation and Death of Jesus, and Gregory, without making a direct reply, went on to assert that the Incarnation and Death of the Son of God were necessary, seeing that guilty man was in the power of the Devil and could only be saved by an incarnate God. The Jew, pretending to be convinced, made answer: "But where was the necessity for God to suffer in order to redeem man?" Gregory reminded him that sin was an offence, and that the death of Jesus was the only means of placating God. The Jew in turn asked why God could not have sent a prophet or an apostle to win mankind back to the path of salvation, rather than humble Himself by taking human flesh. Gregory could only reply by lamenting the incredulity of those who would not believe the prophets, and who put those who preached penance to death. And so the Jew remained unanswered. This controversy displays Gregory's lack of dialectical and theological skill.
APA citation. (1910). St. Gregory of Tours. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07018b.htm
MLA citation. "St. Gregory of Tours." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07018b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Judy Levandoski.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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