I shall place first in this book a miracle that I experienced recently. We were sitting at dinner after a fast and eating, when a fish was served. The sign of the cross of the Lord was made over it, but as we ate, a bone from this very fish stuck in my throat most painfully. It caused me great distress, for the point was fastened in my throat and its length blocked the passage. It prevented my speaking and kept the saliva which comes frequently from the palate, from passing. On the third day, when I could get rid of it neither by coughing or hawking, I resorted to my usual resource. I went to the tomb and prostrated myself on the pavement and wept abundantly and groaned and begged the confessor's aid. Then I rose and touched the full length of my throat and all my head with the curtain. I was immediately cured and before leaving the holy threshold I was rid of all uneasiness. What became of the unlucky bone I do not know. I did not cough it up nor feel it go down into my stomach. One thing only I know, that I so quickly perceived that I was cured that I thought that some one had put in his hand and pulled out the bone that hurt my throat.And it goes on like this. Gregory's History of the Franks, even the abridged version I read, is full of stories about miracles that don't deliver on their punchline. One goes like this: a woman is being coerced by Arians to be baptized into their heretical religion. She prays to God for deliverance. God obliges: "When she was being forcibly immersed in that filthy bath ... she stained the water with a worthy ointment, that is, she defiled it with excrement." Then the heretics behead her, divine intervention or no. Where is the miracle? Presumably if the poor woman was looking for martyrdom, she could have found it rather more easily. But that doesn't bother Gregory. You live, great; you die, so much the better.
Pannichius, a priest of Poitou, when sitting at dinner with some friends he had invited, asked for a drink. When it was served a very troublesome fly kept flying about the cup and trying to soil it. The priest waved it off with his hand a number of times but it would go off a little and then try to get back, and he perceived that it was a crafty device of the enemy. He changed the cup to his left hand and made a cross with his right; then he divided the liquor in the cup into four parts and lifted it up high and poured it on the ground. For it was very plain that it was a device of the enemy.
- from Gregory, Bishop of Tours, Eight Books of Miracles
There is a certain innocence to this style of historical delivery which keeps the book from being a mere compendium of pious stories. God, here, is not someone who conveniently steps in with a miracle whenever one of His more virtuous handmaidens comes down with some malady. He's more like a force of nature: any confluence of luck and virtue is interpreted as a divine act, but what happens afterwards is not His responsibility. In one unusually long strand of narrative, the son of a Frankish king rebels against him and strikes out on his own. By all accounts, he's a better person than his dad is. When he takes refuge with Gregory, though, he reads the omens and finds them to be unfavorable. Gregory purses his lips and says, in essence: sorry, buddy, you should have honored thy father and thy mother. For several chapters, he narrates the prince's grim and inevitable demise. So it goes.
The secular parts of the History aren't much better. A bewildering array of -rics and -bads slaughter, betray, and beget one another. A leader presented at first as a fair and competent man soon becomes a hunted and ridiculed pariah, with no pity from the historian. Bishops are as likely to be sniveling bootlickers as noble defenders of the faith. It is a world where even the kings have to fight simply to survive, despite all their pretensions to royal authority. The caprice of God and man makes for a world of utter nihilism; where Bede gloats, Gregory shrugs his shoulders.
His narrative thus occupies a place somewhere between the self-assured orderly progression of a Macaulay and the Hayden Whitean ideal of the unstructured chronicle ("Jan. 1: Half the monks died of the plague. Feb. 1: Sunny. Two lambs born"). As the book ends, Gregory implores his successors: "if you will not be condemned with the devil and depart in confusion from the judgment, never cause these books to be destroyed or rewritten, selecting some passages and omitting others, but let them all continue in your time complete and undiminished as they were left by us." The History is his own act of self-realization, an attempt at creating something permanent amidst all the blood and chaos--but it never takes itself for granted or concedes to the historian the authority of the world-builder. These are but the traces of authorship. So if he weaves his own life in with the rest, if he devotes space to his personal squabbles and little miracles as well as the affairs of kings and generals, we can forgive him. He's demonstrating the utility of history for life.