BMCR 2021.12.39

Death and afterlife in the pages of Gregory of Tours: religion and society in late antique Gaul

, Death and afterlife in the pages of Gregory of Tours: religion and society in late antique Gaul. Social worlds of late antiquity and the early middle ages, 6. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. Pp. 324. ISBN 9789462988040 €109,00.

Allen E. Jones’s recent study tackles a subject that is hardly studied: the theological views of the sixth-century Merovingian bishop, Gregory of Tours. When it comes to Gregory, scholars tend to focus on his role as a historian and hagiographer, but they rarely delve into his theological views, and they overlook his pastoral responsibilities and the fact that he was also, and perhaps more so, a spiritual leader. Thus, Gregory’s theology surely deserves further consideration, and Jones’ study is a welcome beginning in this respect. His study offers a fresh new perspective on Gregory of Tours and his works, and it paves the path for further studies on the theology of Gregory of Tours.

In Death and Afterlife, Jones attempts to explore Gregory’s theology and use it to explain Gregory’s purpose for composing his extensive corpus of writings. According to Jones, this corpus is “a literary effort borne out of a gradual process of an individual seeking to give meaning to a lifetime of experiences in Gallic society” (p. 16). He further explains that Gregory’s “practical theology” is rooted in his experience with death during his early years. In other words, Jones uses death to explain Gregory’s pastoral work as well as the intentions behind the composition of his Ten Books of Histories. The Histories, Jones argues, were Gregory’s means to propagate a soteriological theology through which he was able to depict the past and give spiritual guidance to Merovingian monarchs. Gregory, he explains, “expected readers to study, compare, and contrast the details about particular people’s actions, characters, and deaths, which done they might realize the need to repent of their own sins and improve the likelihood of salvation” (p. 110).

The study is divided into two parts: Death (Chapters 1-3) and Afterlife (Chapters 4-6). The first part mainly discusses Gregory’s early life until his consecration as the bishop of Tours, giving special attention to his experience with death and the development of his theological views about saints, sinners, and the afterlife. Throughout this part, Jones explains how death affected Gregory’s upbringing and choice of ecclesiastical career, arguing that Gregory’s encounter with death at an early age was a formative experience that molded his future. Jones goes as far as suggesting that the bubonic plague of 543 (when Gregory was 4 or 5 years old) had a significant impact on Gregory’s perception of life and death, arguing that “Gregory would have felt terror enough whenever his relatives eventually did inform him how the disease had ravaged the people living to the south and then encroached towards his homeland” (p. 29).

Jones gives special attention to the relationship between Gregory and the saints, emphasizing the role of the saints as mediators who “could and would intercede on behalf of deserving souls at Last Judgment” (p. 86). This helps him lay the theoretical grounds for his discussion on Gregory’s role as a pastor and explain his theology of sin and redemption (chapter 3). Both subjects received very little attention from scholars of Gregory of Tours. The first part of the book concludes with a discussion on who is considered a saint, arguing that Gregory held a soteriological theology of grace and human agency that deviates from that of Augustine. Moreover, Jones argues that Gregory composed his entire corpus of writings to propagate this theology, which emphasizes the role of saints in the redemption of the faithful.

The second part of the book delves into Gregory’s perception of redemption and the afterlife. There, Jones examines the effect of death and the afterlife on Gregory’s historiographical narrative of the Merovingian Kingdom. More precisely, Jones explores Gregory’s depiction of the Merovingian kings and his moral expectations from them. In chapter 4, the core of the book, Jones breaks down his theory and methodology of analyzing Gregory’s works. The chapter offers a philological analysis of the vocabulary Gregory used to depict heaven, hell, and, most importantly, death. Gregory, Jones argues, used different words and phrases to describe those who he believed would eventually reach heaven and those who were doomed to hell. This theory helps Jones to delineate Gregory’s views on the fate of Merovingian rulers and their souls (chapters 5 and 6) and thus explain the purpose of Gregory’s writings.

Jones does an excellent service for the ‘Gregorian’ scholarship by looking into the theology of Gregory of Tours, and his study opens new ways to discuss Gregory and his works. He has some thought-provoking ideas, interesting theories, and courageous speculations. However, there are several flaws in Jones’ observations, most of which result from misinterpretations or overinterpretations of the primary sources.

Indeed, death leaves a mental mark on people’s minds. Yet Jones’ pseudo-psychological analysis of Gregory’s childhood and adolescence tends to be anachronistic. He portrays mental and emotional reactions that, he assumes, Gregory may have experienced to fatal events, such as the aforementioned bubonic plague or the death of his father and other close relatives. He does so without giving any evidence from the sources that support his arguments. Moreover, reading Jones’ examination of Gregory’s biography raises the question of whether Gregory’s experience with death was unique. After all, all human beings experience death throughout their life until their own demise, and are affected by it and deal with it in different ways. But if one wishes to claim that such a common experience left a special mark on a particular person, so much so that it defined their career and intellectual formulation, as Jones does in regard to Gregory of Tours, the argument must be better contextualized and supported not only by primary evidence but also by contemporary theoretical scholarship from the field of Cognitive History.[1]

The philological analysis of Gregory is noteworthy. While scholars tend to overlook Gregory’s Latin and are quite critical of its quality, Gregory’s vocabulary and literary qualities deserve further discussion. This is where Jones’ study of Gregory’s perception of sainthood (in Part I) and his vocabulary of death (in Part II) innovates. Yet both discussions are not entirely coherent, and at times are superficial because of Jones’ tendency to brush aside the literary contexts in which Gregory wrote. For instance, Jones mentions several preachers and theologians who may have influenced Gregory, such as Augustine of Hippo, Avitus of Clermont, Sidonius Apollinaris, or Nicetius of Trier (Chapter 3). Still, he does so briefly, and he gives hardly any concrete examples of their influence. It would have been helpful to compare their writings and Gregory’s to see what he took from them and why. To put it differently, further study of Gregory’s literary context is needed in this case.

Jones also argues that Gregory used a consistent vocabulary of death, and that it served specific reasons which would be clear for his audience. For instance, he maintains that Gregory used specific phrasings to depict the deaths of holy people, such as interire or Iudicium Dei (pp. 172-182) as codes to indicate to fate of these people and their afterlives. However, Jones does not demonstrate this lexical consistency. It could have been helpful to include an appendix or a table referencing all the occurrences of a specific phrasing that Gregory used in his texts. Furthermore, some of the phrasings Jones mentions are quite common in late antique and early medieval Latin literature. Here, too, it would have been beneficial for the study if these arguments had been examined in the broader literary context in which Gregory composed his works. It should be noted that Jones does attempt to show that some authors influenced Gregory. Still, as in the previous case, he hardly analyzes their texts and vocabulary of death, nor does he pay adequate consideration to the extent of their influence on Gregory – how well did Gregory know these authors, and why did he choose to follow them precisely on these lexical matters.

To conclude, the study under review is certainly thought-provoking, and it offers a new perspective on Gregory of Tours, who may have written his Histories with a particular soteriology in mind. Jones is correct in observing that contemporary scholarship tends to overlook the theological aspects in Gregory’s writings and his role as a bishop, a preacher, and a spiritual leader. Death and Afterlife in the Pages of Gregory of Tours is indeed a good starting point for this much-needed scholarly discussion.


[1] See for instance the recent volume edited by Juliana Dresvina and Victoria Blud, Cognitive Science and Medieval Studies: An Introduction (University of Wales Press, 2020).