Gregory of Tours

Gregory of Tours is probably the most famous historian of the Merovingian kingdoms. He was made bishop of Tours by King Sigibert I in 573 and witnessed – and recorded – twenty years of bella civilia (civil wars), political intrigue, and plague before his death in c. 594.

Gregory’s stories are far from transparent. The history as a whole is framed as ‘universal history’, starting with Adam and Eve, and proceeding in chronological order up to Gregory’s own times. On a number of occasions he pauses to state the age of the world. Many stories form pairs or groups which provide alternating good/ bad examples of behaviour. Gregory’s Latin style is both deliberately blunt and laced with irony and sarcasm. Few historians believe that Gregory was a naive diarist of his chaotic times. Martin Heinzelmann has seen in the Historiae a concern to reform the Church within an ecclesiological and eschatological framework. Before that, Walter Goffart had suggested that Gregory was writing a ‘satire’, and although he later announced that he regretted using the term, it is hard to escape the dark humour. One of the challenges that faces future students of Gregory’s work is how to square the rhetoric and story-telling with more traditional historical analysis.


Gregory’s Historiae – often misleadingly called The History of the Franks – was written in stages throughout Gregory’s episcopate.

Latin Text: ed. by B. Krusch & W. Levison, MGH SRM, 1.1. (Hanover, 1951). [link]

Manuscripts: the oldest extant manuscripts contain the first six books only and, in a somewhat unsystematic way, edit out many of the chapters containing information on Gregory or other bishops. The earliest extant manuscript which resembles the full text of Krusch and Levison is only from the eleventh century (Monte Cassino, 275). A number of variations are evident…

Original Full Version

A2 Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek, NKS 1878 2o [link] – one of the oldest extant fragments of Gregory’s work, possibly from early seventh-century Tours. It was once part of the same codex as Leiden Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL 21 and BAV Reg. lat. 689. This fragment contains text from V. 1-3. It belongs to the same textual family as the Monte Cassino manuscript.

A3* Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, lat. 1451 [link] – a ninth-century compendium of canon law, which includes extracts from Gregory (V. 43, 44; VI. 5; VI. 40) on theology on ff. 11v-15v.

Six-Book Version

B1 Cambrai, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 684 [link] – the oldest example of a six-book version of Gregory’s text, written in the seventh century in an uncial script. Books VII-X were added later in a careful half-uncial which likely still predates AD 800.

B2 Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België, MS 9403 [link] – the first part was likely written late in the seventh century or early in the eighth century (I personally suspect later rather than earlier). In the ninth century, from 184r, a scribe added the last four books.

B3 Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VQL 63 [link] – an early-eighth-century witness, written in a variety of hands, some using minuscule, some half-uncial. The manuscript may have been written in Tours, but at least most likely a centre where insular influences were less pronounced.

B4 Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, lat. 17654 [link] – again early-eighth-century, but this time written in a careful uncial script, possibly in Jouarre. Bischoff wondered if the choice of uncial connected the manuscript with ‘English scribal art’, which encouraged a revival in the form – but it is difficult to prove that uncial had been in decline everywhere while the new minuscules were on the rise.

B5 Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, lat. 17655 [link] – this is yet another example of the early six-book version of Gregory’s text. The first couple of pages were written in a distinctive script associated with Luxeuil, but from f. 3v the script is an ‘everyday cursive’ which can be attributed to the scriptorium of Corbie between c. 670 and c. 730.

B6 Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Aug. Fr. 104 [link] – a fragment written in ‘Frankish uncial’, likely from the early eighth century, with fish-and-bird ornamentation. Text from I. 17-19.

Hybrid Versions

C1 Heidelberg, Universitatsbibliothek, Cod. Pal. Lat. 864 [link] – this Lorsch product, produced c. AD 800, is a curious addition to the early tradition because the text is spliced with the Fredegarian Historia vel gesta Francorum, so that Book X is the earlier work’s Book III but only up to 741 – the year the Annales regni Francorum pick up the ‘official’ narrative of the Frankish kingdoms under the Carolingians.

C3 Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, lat. 9765 [link] – a later witness to the Gregory-Fredegar hybrid, likely tenth-century.


E1 Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, lat. 10848 [link] – a ninth-century compilation (835-7) about St Martin of Tours, including extracts from Gregory I. 48, II. 1 and X. 31.

Select Bibliography

A. Breukelaar, Historiography and Episcopal Authority in Sixth-Century Gaul: Histories of Gregory of Tours Interpreted in their Historical Context (Göttingen, 1994).

W. Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton, NJ, 1988; reprinted with new preface Notre Dame, IN, 2005)).

G. Halsall, ‘The Preface to Book V of Gregory of Tours’ Histories: Its Form, Context, and Significance’, English Historical Review, 122/ 496 (2007), 297-317 [pw link]

M. Heinzelmann, Gregor von Tours, Zehn Buecher Geschichte. Historiographie und Gesellschaftskonzept im 6. Jahrhundert (Darmstadt, 1994); translated by C. Carroll as Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (Cambridge, 2001). Such a comprehensive re-evaluation of Gregory’s major work that even Goffart deferred to its authority in the 2005 preface to Narrators.

Y. Hen, ‘Clovis, Gregory of Tours, and Pro-Merovingian Propaganda’, Revue Belge de Philologie et d’histoire, 71 (1993), 271-276 [link]

G. de Nie, Views from a Many-Windowed Tower: Studies of Imagination in the Works of Gregory of Tours (Amsterdam, 1987).

A. C. Murray, ‘Chronology and the Composition of the Histories of Gregory of Tours’, Journal of Late Antiquity, 1. 1 (2008), 157-96 – an important statement about what can and what cannot be said about the way in which Gregory composed his work.

H. Reimitz, ‘Social Networks and Identities in Frankish Historiography. New Aspects of the Textual History of Gregory of Tours´Historiae’, in R. Corradini, M. Diesenberger & H. Reimitz (eds.), The Construction of Communities in the Early Middle Ages – Texts, Resources and Artifacts (Leiden, 2002), 229-268.

– – -, History, Frankish Identity, and the Framing of Western Ethnicity 550-850 (Cambridge, 2016) – a major new study, even if the starting point is that Gregory does not talk much about ethnicity.

D. Shanzer, ‘Review Article on Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (Cambridge, 2001), by Martin Heinzelmann’, Medieval Prosopography, 23 (2002/4), 247-66 [link]

I. Wood, ‘The Secret Histories of Gregory of Tours’, Revue Belge de Philologie et d’histoire, 71 (1993), 253-270 [link]

– – -, ‘Gregory of Tours and Clovis’, Revue Belge de Philologie et d’histoire, 63 (1985), 249-272 [link]

2 responses to “Gregory of Tours

  1. Pingback: King and Mayor, 699 (Fun with Merovingian Dates 2) | merovingianworld·

  2. Pingback: Apocalypse, Merovingian and Modern | merovingianworld·

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