The History of the Franks
Gregory of Tours on Heresy and Sickness
The portrayal of heretics in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks suggests that those who do not subscribe to the orthodox Christian system of beliefs and practices are akin to being a plague upon the entire world. It is Gregory’s belief that all things that happen and that will happen are steeped with the power of God, and therefore, to be in opposition to this God and the Holy Trinity is to stand against the very constitution of the universe. This is made evident in the literal sickness that plagues these nonbelievers as well as the negative effects the spread of their incorrect (as far is Gregory is concerned) views damage the world around them. As far as Gregory is concerned, heresy is a poison on every level.
To fully understand his portrayal, we must understand what exactly Gregory considers to be heretical. To do this, we can look at how he discusses two different groups that exist outside of orthodox Christianity and why he discusses them that way: Pagans versus Arians. Pagans are commonly polytheistic people, therefore do not believe in the Christian God or Trinity, but rather their own set of Gods and customs. Arians are those who believe in the Christian God, but do not believe in the Holy Trinity being of equal power, rather God himself being supreme over Christ and the Holy Spirit, and so therefore are unorthodox Christians. Some hold that pagans are heretical, but for Gregory this is not so. He views them as a rural, simple people: they simply do not know any better, so they follow their wrong viewpoint innocently. Arians however, though believing in the Christian God, Gregory finds to be wholly guilty of heresy. How can it be that one who does not believe in his God at all is considered free of heresy, but one who does is the heretic? The answer is simple: heretics choose. The term heresy itself comes from the Greek word “hairetikos” – literally meaning “able to choose”. As Gregory sees it, pagans have not made a conscious choice against Christianity, as they are largely unaware, and therefore not at fault for following a different religion or set of beliefs. They simply do not know any better.
The Arians, however, have seen the truth in the ways of Christ but have actively made the choice to believe and follow something else, and as Gregory would see it, something inaccurate – a twisted version of Christianity. The fact that Arians understand orthodox Christianity but have still done as much to be re-baptized under Arianism instead, abandoning their original, correct views to champion the belief of the Arians and that the trinity is unequal, is a direct act of violation against the true and proper church of Christ. For this reason, Gregory’s portrayal of those he deems heretical are largely associated and linked to disease, even implying that these people are a sickness in and of themselves, as if heresy is an all-encompassing plague of disbelief. In an argument with an Arian named Agilan, Gregory says “you are absolutely wrong about the Holy Trinity and, what is more, the way your founder, Arius, met his end shows just how perverse and wicked your sect is” (309). Arius having died by hemorrhaging and excretion of his lower intestinal track lines up perfectly with this belief – suggesting his death by violent sickness was a consequence of his views and the founding of his blasphemous religion. After the argument ends and Agilan returns to Spain, Gregory notes further that “[Agilan] fell seriously ill: as a result he felt a compulsion to accept conversion to our religion” (310), further cementing the heretical person as being fundamentally ill, not only of mind, but of body as well – something that can be reversed upon return to the true faith.
Another example of this reversal is in Gregory’s recounting of Cyrola, bishop of Heretics, in book II. Cyrola was largely against Christianity and, in this specific instance, sought to fake a miracle – paying a man to stand in the street, pretending to be blind, where Cyrola could approach him and pretend to heal his sight. When it came time to perform their con, the man who was meant to be acting blind found he had actually gone blind, in punishment of their mockery of God, and his willingness to be complicit in this act in return for money. Declaring his transgressions and sudden return to the belief in the equal trinity, two saints laid their hands upon his head and his vision was once again restored, making “quite clear how the bishop of the heretics was covering the eyes of men’s hearts with the miserable veil of his doctrine, so that none could see the true light with the eyes of faith”(112), therefore both literally and figurally causing them blindness. When that veil is removed, and the truth is no longer denied, the sickness of heresy, as Gregory recounts many times, leaves the body and allows for wellness to return to the lives of the repentant.
In Gregory’s portrayal of heretics, he makes it clear that he finds them not only the harbingers and harbourers of disease, he also finds them disgusting in terms of morality and judgement. The reason he feels so strongly about the choices and beliefs in the lives of the heretical is simple: these people know better. Unlike those of Pagan faith, heretics, and by extension Arians, have knowledge of the true power of God and the tantamount Holy Trinity, and have yet decided to forgo this knowledge in favor of wilful ignorance. Gregory offers several episodes that serve as evidence of not only their sickness, but their thorough return to health upon returning to the light and truth that is the orthodox Christian God and belief system. There is only one path for Gregory, and to stray from that path is to be stricken down as punishment for erroneous denial of the true workings of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Edited by Betty Radice. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1974.