Can we believe Gregory of Tours about Obama?

Historians once largely believed what Gregory of Tours wrote in his ‘Ten Books of History’ (which is how the History of the Franks is now more accurately referred to). Gregory might be naive (all that reporting of miracles), but his artlessly gory portrayals of Merovingian life told us all we needed to know about the horrors of Merovingian society.

A more recent view of Gregory, along with many other medieval historians, is that his history reflects his own prejudices or that he is writing propaganda. Nevertheless, even though his text is not transparent, we can read through it to get useful material. We can see the outlines of particular actions by his enemies through his distorted stories about them. Alternatively, for social/cultural historians, even if his stories are not true at all, but purely propaganda, they reflect what a king or a queen or a bishop could feasibly do. Propaganda, after all, needs to be plausible.

I would have adhered to such views once, but recent events have made me less certain. If you look at many of the claims circulating in the US about Barack Obama, (such as the claim that he is not a citizen) they’re not remotely plausible, and yet they’re widely accepted. One answer is that this is simply because such stories have been pushed so hard by particular powerful interest groups. But there are implausible stories which have achieved wide circulation and belief without such long term propaganda efforts: Slacktivist has an interesting example of one.

And some claims go beyond the merely deeply implausible to a different level. Take the claim that Obama’s plan for health care involves ‘death panels’, for example. You could see this as an extreme distortion of some possible plans for living wills or not paying for heroic treatment of the terminally ill, but it’s probably better to see these statements as symbolic. Obama is an evil ruler and therefore of course he is planning death panels, because that’s what evil rulers do. And, in glorious circularity, he is planning death panels and so that is ‘proof’ that he must be an evil ruler.

I’ve just been reading Martin Heinzelmann,Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (CUP, 2001) who argues convincingly and in great detail that Gregory is using symbolic figures in the Ten Books of History: the Good King, the Bad King, the Good Bishop etc. What he doesn’t really get into is looking at how that might affect historians who actually want to know something about the sixth century (as opposed to those wanting to understand how Gregory’s mind works). If Gregory’s stories are largely symbolic, can we take anything factual from them beyond a few names and events? Or are we faced not just with a distorted mirror on the Merovingian past, but a fantasy view of it?

What if we can’t trust Gregory? What does it mean for Merovingian history? He provides a very detailed narrative for the second half of the sixth century, but I suspect it’s possible to reconstruct a skeleton political history for the period from other sources. The biggest problem may be for social history, and especially women’s history. Most studies of Merovingian women rely crucially on Gregory for the social details of laywomen’s lives. Hagiography and letters just don’t give us that texture. But what if his stories of good and evil queens aren’t just distorted and sometimes misogynistic reactions to real women? What if they are just symbolic stories of eternal good and evil women, loosed from any anchoring in Merovingian reality? If you can’t hope to reconstruct a historical Obama from his opponents’ fantasies, will you be able to learn anything true about Hillary Clinton?


8 thoughts on “Can we believe Gregory of Tours about Obama?

  1. Excellent post. You make a great point about the problmes involved in reading sources like Gregory as evidence for social history (especially in the early medieval period, where sources of all kinds are thin on the ground).


  2. This is interesting, as ever, and comes just at the right time for something I’m writing for eventual blogging too, so thankyou for that. As to the question, I don’t claim to have an answer but I suppose that we have to think about audience. I agree with you that the audience is too often used as a kind of truth-governor and that it’s very hard to know what they would believe. Look, for example, at the scuttlebutt that Liutprand of Cremona peddles about the kings of Italy and their queens (especially their queens). Was any of it true, or was it palace gossip at least, or did he just make it up because it would make his friends at Ravenna snort their wine out through their noses? At least with Liutprand we have some idea about his audience, but I don’t know that we do for Gregory, though Joaquin Martínez Pizarro at Leeds was showing some ideas of how we might categorise them. His findings would tend to indicate that the audience in question was well-informed, whereas the death panels example is a case of people who are anything but (even though the information is there—I’m aware that I haven’t really expressed the character of that situation). However, I don’t think even writing for well-informed people has to be historically truthful if they might find obvious untruth or exaggeration more amusing…

    So I don’t know if the texts will really tell us, as you put it, “what a king or a queen or a bishop could feasibly do”; I think you’re quite right to be sceptical there. But I hope they can still tell us what would play well with their texts’ audience, even if as with Gregory the audience we can prove is mainly much later than and presumably different from that the author had in mind.


  3. There was something else I meant to work that into, which is an extension of the argument. There is a gap in the range of audiences, I think, between Birthers and the people who believe in death panels, and the audience of Gregory of Tours. Whatever else you may think of Martínez’s analysis of the text, I thought his argument that the text is for a literate élite is pretty well-founded. But the people who are lapping up the death panels stuff are a completely different level; in the Middle Ages they would be, well, they would be the people at Lyons with the pair of people who had supposedly fallen off a sky-ship from Magonia. Which makes Glenn Beck a stormbringer. Ugh: that’s almost too apposite.

    Anyway, the point is, I don’t think we need to worry quite as much you do about the plausibility of Gregory, but we do need to know more about his audience. In which case, er, I guess Martínez is doing the right thing?


  4. The issue of audience is certainly an important one, but I’m not sure it’s entirely about class/education. I think what we’re seeing increasingly in the US is what are sometimes called information bubbles, or what I’d call closed systems: people addressing an audience of ‘believers’ who don’t really hear dissenting voices. It’s not really propaganda in the normal sense, intended to win over converts from another side. It’s self propaganda, intended to reinforce group belonging by ridiculing/demonizing an external group. (This isn’t just a right-wing thing, I’d say: if you look at a lot of what some modern atheists say, for example, it’s not very effective as a tool for ‘conversion’, which they ostensibly want, but it is very good at reinforcing atheists’ sense of themselves as superior to believers).

    If you talk about an out-group who your audience are distant from (geographically/socially/culturally) you can get away with telling them whoppers: indeed they may want to hear them. It’s the same in the Middle Ages. The dog-headed men never live nearby; stories are circulated about the wicked deeds of heretics, Jews, closed groups like the Templars. In contrast, it’s much harder to get people to believe bad things about people they know well: think of all those people who can’t believe that the man next door was a murderer/gangster/con man etc, even though the objective evidence should have got alarm bells ringing. And if you have hostile members of the audience who will point out the flaws in your argument, you have to be quite careful about sticking a fair measure of truth in with your lies or at least have plausible lies. UK politicians may be brutally unfair about each other, but they’re not normally completely fantasising about the other side’s actions.

    I think a lot of Carolingian texts are written and circulated within an elite audience who share values even if they may disagree politically, and the texts are intended at least partly to ‘convert’ them to a particular point of view: think of the propaganda wars of the 830s and 840s, or the eighth century attempts to reinforce Carolingian rule. Implausible statements at this level about members of this elite are likely to get pulled apart. Which was why Lothar II was a fool to claim that Theutberga had not only committed sodomitical intercourse with her brother, but conceived a child from this, which she then aborted. If he’d just stuck to anatomically plausible lies, his life might have been easier (though possibly it would have made no difference). In contrast, Carolingian authors could make up any old stories they wanted about the Greeks.

    Martin Heinzelmann argues that once Gregory started writing contemporary history (after Book 4) he decided he wasn’t going to publish the work in his lifetime. He sees Books 1-4 as a unit, but one that was then put into a larger work which Gregory repeatedly reworked until his death. I think it’s the fact that Gregory writes a book of blatantly symbolic history and that it wasn’t intended to be read by his contemporaries that rings alarm bells: two of the normal checks on propaganda have been removed.

    Which leaves the question: should we be treating Gregory as if he’s a standard propagandist historian like Einhard or ‘Fredegar’ or should we ignore the fact that he hasn’t got many good jokes and see him as the Notker or Liutprand of his time: important for the history of mentalities, but not to be trusted an inch otherwise?


  5. I think Gregory and Liutprand compare pretty well, though I’ve always figured Notker as more moralising, telling worthy stories to the young monks. The oddest thing about Notker is his number of comedy bishops, really. Of course, Gregory kind of has comedy barbarians. I don’t know any of these authors as well as I should, of course, and the historiography on them hardly at all. But yes, I wouldn’t trust Gregory or Liutprand for political analysis or indeed chronology very far at all. But they are an almost endless source of ribald stories.


  6. These discussions are wonderful; I view them as a member of an audience,in this instance an audience that will reflect lack of in-depth subject knowledge but, I do have some intellect to work out what is nonsensical. On the other hand, I also fear that there are others who will not use intellect, at whatever level, to assess the evidence, however limited, of what they hear and see. Even more fearful to me, are those who believe everything they hear, that is what they like to hear, based on their already formed prejudices, and do not question anything. You give good examples of the latter possibility.

    The worst scenario is a population cowed into agreeing to anything.

    Do we learn anything about Hillary Clinton from the texts? On the basis of your synopsis, I would suggest, apart from a construction and reconstruction of the person, a woman, according to someone else’s views,we have to study what is in our public domain about her, then perhaps we may be in a position to look at comparative historical texts if there are any that suit.


  7. Einhard may have been propagandist, like all those writing in the early middle ages, but he was certainly not a ‘standard historian’ He knew that he was doing something original, he tells us so, and he did not think he was writing history.


  8. I should have read this the moment I got it, part VI
    Part Three of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe is called ‘Representation and Reality on the Artistry of Early Medieval Literature’, and is one of the thicker and more enjoyable sectio…


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