Seminar CXLV: Gregory of Tour’s F-word

I’m sorry it is taking so long to get momentum up again here. The arrival of Internet at home only occurred quite recently and all my teaching is on new courses so weekly maintenance of them is taking a while. There’s also an issue about exactly what to update with: I’m a year behind with seminars or very nearly, and they’re none of them advertisements for where I now work because I didn’t go to any here in that year, and my non-seminar blogging is even further behind, though that doesn’t date so badly. Obviously one thing that makes no sense to do is to blog papers on which others have already reported, and yet here I am doing just that. The paper in question is one by an ex-colleague, someone else who since got a job, Dr Erica Buchberger, and on the 10th October last year she was speaking at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title “Romans in a Frankish World: Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and Ethnic Identities”, and Magistra already covered this at Magistra et Mater, but I have some things I want to add, what can I say, so here we are a year in the past. What’s a year when we’re discussing the sixth century, after all?

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of what even the Bibliothèque nationale de France call the History of the Franks, from Wikimedia Commons

As Magistra says, the issue at issue here was why Gregory, our foremost source for the early Frankish kingdoms, does not mention Romans among the population of the Frankish kingdoms, and Erica was arguing that because he still thought of everyone in his area as being Roman really, the word never needed to come up, especially as in broad terms it meant much less than an identity based on city and family or origin. In arguing this she has to deal with the fact that Gregory’s contemporary Venantius Fortunatus is quite happy to call people Romans, but as she observed, they are writing very different kinds of text, Gregory’s Histories in a Church tradition and apparently for a small private Church readership, and Venantius public praise poetry of a kind where ancient referents were just a lot more likely to have traction. And I’m fine with that, to an extent, and certainly the bit about Venantius.

I had, however, when this paper was given lately been re-reading Gregory, and I find it harder to be sure whom he meant by `Franks’. The Histories are translated as History of the Franks and for us it’s what they’ve become, but Gregory’s own titles appears just to have been Ten Books of Histories; even here there was no ethnicity.1 It’s not as if Franks don’t come up a lot but I have to say that it seems to me, not having done a proper count or anything, that the places are few, very few, where you could not replace the word `Frank’ with `warrior’ and have it do basically the same job. The Franks, as a group, is most often the army, or so it seems to me. Self-evidently Gregory thought descent and family was important, he praises many a person for the family they belonged to, and sneaks a great many of his own relatives on to stage without giving that away, and some of the people he praises for this nobility of birth are even Franks, in as much as they are in the military or civil government, have Germanic not Latin names and hang out at court. But single Franks identified as such are rare in the narrative, and where they do turn up they’re usually carrying weapons.

Museum display of supposedly-Frankish arms

‘Frankish’ arms, including the axe known for this reason as a ‘francisca’, in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, image from Wikimedia Commons

Obviously there are reasons why I read it like this, and they are principally that I have been using this as a test reading for early medieval texts that seem to be talking about ethnicity for a long time, ever since I read an article a while back that suggested that by the ninth century `Goth’ might be more or less a professional category.2 I also find it possible to get to this point by extrapolation from work like Guy Halsall’s suggesting that `barbarian’ units in the late Roman army might have been as ethnically Roman as they were barbarian, if either category really means much in a world already mixing; an analogy would be football teams like the Washington Redskins, who are not, I believe it is safe to say, native Americans or whatever the correct term is for `people who got here before the people we think we are did’ (to pick a topical example).3 I suspect that Professor Halsall wouldn’t go as far as this but you can see how one could get from there to a position where “Join the Army! Be a Frank!” doesn’t seem like a completely stupid slogan to imagine, especially given that what `Frank’ means etymologically is no more than `free man’. And, as was noted in questions, it’s not as if even Gregory is perfectly clean here; almost all his relatives whom he names are churchmen and have good Latin names, and the exception is a maternal uncle, Gundulf, who is a count. If Gregory didn’t say that man was his relative, I’m sure we’d largely assume he was a Frank. And I suspect he was, in the terms of the time, but I don’t think that has to mean Gregory thought he himself was one. One might even argue that, since families mix all the time and the upper nobility was quite presumably blended between immigrants and locals in most of the Gaulish cities by now, anyone who went into either civil administration or Church probably had both immigrant forebears and local ones and could duly emphasise whichever strand of ancestry he chose as his career developed. But I do wonder if even that much attempt to preserve an idea of ethnic descent is necessary to understand these texts and the time.

Besides: if you want to query Gregory for identities, wouldn’t it also make sense to look at how he uses the word `Gaul’… ?


1. The two translations usually used are The History of the Franks, transl. Oliver M. Dalton (New York 1927) and The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints). They’re both good but that’s not what the title is! The rest of this post would be more rigorous with book and chapter citations, but they would mean me slowly going through the whole work clocking ethnicity terms, duplicating Erica’s work in fact. I didn’t do that when re-reading and I shan’t do it now, so my impressions remain impressionistic; if someone feels they’re wrong and wants to substantiate that I’m more than happy to indicate as much in additions to the post or whatever.

2. Jesus Lalinde Abadia, “Godos, hispanos y hostolenses en la órbita del rey de los Francos” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), II pp. 35-74.

3. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. pp. 189-194.

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13 responses to “Seminar CXLV: Gregory of Tour’s F-word

  1. All I’ll say (since I already commented in Magistra’s post and would just be repeating myself) is that I want to read her dissertation. Her Romans in Gaul argument sounds as interesting as her Goths in Iberia one.

    • Well, I absolutely agree, though I wouldn’t object if she boiled her argument down into two or three pithy articles at the same time, you understand….

      • What! Concise arguments, thoughts and concepts? Efficient use of time? Phooey to that! Bury me in words, arcane tertiary concepts, and leave me in a futile pursuit of the unattainable footnote. ;)

      • Erica Buchberger

        I’m working on it, Jon, I promise! And having started juggling teaching and research, I entirely understand why your blog is a year behind.

  2. Well, social identities exists at least since sumerian times. So, if the problem is to try to define to what social identification X (ie: Gregory) considered himsel to belong, that’s a problematic question because usually it’s not explicitly stated, and even then, the meaning of words changes and are usually local to his own ‘context’ (and that’s also a very hard to define concept).
    In any case, ‘ethnicity’ does not seems to be a useful category, but that does not mean there were no social identities, just that they were not properly recorded (according to our current criteria).
    As for being ‘roman’ on merovingian Gaul, there were probably many senses going on together (I was thinking for example about the different meanings of ‘romana lingua’ in subsequent centuries, or the strong identificaction of Reims-Rome in carolingian times)…

    • I would agree, personally, that ethnicity isn’t a useful category, not least because like other scholarly stop-words (‘feudalism’ being top of the list maybe) it’s not always clear what an audience will understand by it. Nonetheless, the early medieval texts use terms that we understand to be ethnic, and attribute characteristics to peoples, so we can’t just make this a twentieth-century problem. I entirely agree that there must be many senses to Roman, though; there’s room for a lot more work there!

      • Yes, and in the case of ‘roman’ and ‘frank’, this ‘ethnic’ component was very probably promoted/manipulated by an imperialistic project. Take for example the (lack of) use of the name ‘Karl’ on carolingian times…, an illustrative case of a ‘political’ social taboo, imo.

  3. Gregory tends to refer to the people we think of as Gallo-Romans by reference to their civitas, so not as “Gauls” or “Romans” (unless you are of the view that only a Roman could properly belong to a civitas so Gregory’s audience must have understood his reference to a person’s civitas as also being a reference to that person’s romanitas. Given that Sidonius refers to someone as a “Gothic citizen” – civis Gothus – (there are other such examples includng of a citizen of the Alamans, of the Franks, and of the Venedoti) I’m not sure I would assume any equation between citizenry and being Roman.

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