Wednesday, April 6, 2016


Giselle de Nie (ed.), Gregory of Tours: Lives and Miracles. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 39. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. xxx, 944. ISBN 9780674088450. $29.95.

Reviewed by Shami Ghosh, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (

Version at BMCR home site


Georgius Florentius Gregorius, born in 538 or 539 in Clermont-Ferrand into a prominent Gallo-Roman family, was bishop of Tours from 573 until his death in 594. His many writings—the most famous of which are undoubtedly his Decem libri Historiarum—are our most important narrative sources for the history of Gaul/Francia in the sixth century (not least because of the relative paucity of narratives from that period). His hagiographic works are fundamental not only for our understanding of the cult of the saints and its spread and significance in the period, but also as windows into clerical and (to a lesser extent, to be sure) popular views of religion, life, death, and the relationship of the human to the numinous, as well as the ways in which the latter manifested itself through human agency and in nature. They are also useful (if not very straightforward) sources for various aspects daily life in the later sixth century, and have indeed been so used by a number of historians in recent decades. The edition and translation of some of these texts are thus a very welcome addition to the Dumbarton Oaks series.

The works presented here are the Life of the Fathers (Vita patruum), the Miracles of the Martyr Julian (Virtutes sancti Iuliani), and the Miracles of Bishop Martin (Virtutes sancti Martini). The first is a collection of biographies of Gallic saints, all of whom lived within what was by the time of writing the Frankish kingdom, though some were born elsewhere. These saints were of many varieties: bishops, abbots, hermits; a slave, a beggar, and landed men. The models for these lives were the fourth-century Historia monachorum of Rufinus, and the Vita sancti Martini of Sulpicius Severus from around 400, though the latter is rather longer than any of the individual lives provided by Gregory. Gregory's purpose, moreover, is, as de Nie points out, not so much to give us the "individual lives as such but the kind of life that all saints share" (xvii). Julian was also a local saint, a martyr of Brioude in the Auvergne, whose cult was incorporated into the liturgy of Clermont-Ferrand by Gallus, Gregory's uncle. Saint Martin of Tours was already the focus of an important cult before Gregory's lifetime, and the subject of the influential hagiography by Sulpicius Severus mentioned above. The narratives about both these saints concern primarily their miracles rather than their lives as such.

As is the case with most of the texts in the Dumbarton Oaks series, those presented here have been both edited and translated into English before. The standard edition used by most scholars is that of Krusch; there is also an earlier edition of Bordier, itself largely based on an edition from the end of the seventeenth century.1 The Life of the Fathers has been translated into English by Edward James; and the other two texts are available in translation as part of a book- length study of saints and miracles by Raymond van Dam.2 De Nie chooses to present a text in a more 'normal' or 'correct' orthography (by which is meant one that follows classical norms) than most Merovingianists might be used to, and thus bases herself on Bordier rather than Krusch, who preferred to stay close to very Merovingian readings. Beyond the matter of orthography, there were also some (mostly quite insignificant) divergences between Bordier and Krusch even with regard to content; de Nie's text follows Krusch in all but two instances across all three texts (Miracles of the Martyr Julian 5.1; and Miracles of Bishop Martin 60.9), and she appends a concordance of readings in both Krusch and Bordier. Chapters are also numbered differently in these editions for the Miracles of the Martyr Julian, and de Nie here follows Bordier rather than Krusch, but her notes provide appropriate cross-references to Krusch's numbering as well.

Unlike the previous editions (but following the pattern of this series), this volume presents little information on the manuscript traditions and variants. It is also quite sparse in terms of introduction (30pp.) and annotation (56pp.) for the Life of the Fathers, the introduction and notes (and maps and family trees, both missing in de Nie's edition) will still be useful, if now slightly outdated in some respects. For the other two texts, Van Dam's study is of course invaluable, and obviously the present edition could not have aimed to replace it. De Nie also gives readers, in addition to a very useful general index, an index of illnesses, including signs to indicate when an affliction is caused by divine punishment or by the devil, and ranging from animal disease through cramps, fright, gout, fishbones in the throat, plague, rigidification and toothace to the simple "wound". (Somewhat oddly—to my mind anyway—"death" and being struck by lightning are also included in this index of illnesses.) A whole entry with numerous sub-entries is devoted to Gregory's own ailments.

In terms of the quality of the translations, there is little to choose between de Nie, James, and Van Dam. De Nie's translation of the Life of the Fathers appears (to this reader at least, and on the basis of only a few sample comparisons) both more exact and close to the original in style, and more pleasant to read, than that of James, who also favors a more paratactic style, whereas de Nie keeps the structures of her sentences closer to that of the Latin; but James is nevertheless perfectly readable and in no way inaccurate. In contrast, Van Dam's translations of the two other texts seem to me to be slightly closer to the original, but the differences between his and de Nie's efforts are, in terms of quality, negligible. Readers lacking sufficient Latin for the original will thus certainly benefit from this volume's translations, not least because James's text is no longer in print, and Van Dam's translations are embedded within a much larger monograph; and those with some Latin but still needing a translation will be glad to have the original on the facing page, which the two other translations do not provide.

This is a handsomely produced book, and eminently affordable for the amount of text and translation contained within it; I can wholeheartedly recommend it for any scholar or library interested in sixth-century Gaul/Francia.


1.   Henri L. Bordier (ed.), Les livres des miracles et autres opuscules de Georges Florent Grégoire, évêque de Tours, Société de l'Histoire de France, Publications 88, 103, 114, Paris: J. Renouard, 1857, 1860, 1862; Bruno Krusch (ed.), Miracula et opera minora, Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.2, Hanover: Hahn, 1885.
2.   Edward James (trans.), Life of the Fathers: Gregory of Tours, Translated Texts for Historians 1, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1985 (2nd edn 1991); Raymond van Dam, Saints and their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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