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Friday, 16 December 2011

Good King Chilperic? (again)

Chilperic and Fredegund
About ten years ago I wrote a piece about Gregory of Tours and Chilperic I of Neustria - usually regarded as Gregory's model 'bad king':

‘Nero and Herod? The death of Chilperic and Gregory of Tours’ writing of history.’ The World of Gregory of Tours, ed. K. Mitchell and I.N. Wood, (Brill; Leiden, 2002), pp.337-50. ISBN 90-04-11034-8.

Here I argued that the negative image of Chilperic belongs entirely to Histories 6.46 and after, in other words to the portion written during the supremacy of Guntramn of Burgundy of whom, I argued, Gregory really was afraid.  Before 6.46, Gregory's image of Chilperic is fairly positive; he criticises and praises in a broadly consistent fashion.

Anyway, be all that as it may, today I was looking at this post in Steve Muhlberger's excellent blog and as a result (and also because, as luck would have it, the MGH edition of Gregory's Histories was open at more or less exactly the right page on my desk) I had another look at Histories 7.2.  This is a hugely interesting passage for all sorts of reasons, such as the fighting between the men of Blois, Chateaudun, Orleans and Chartres (which I think is a part of Guntramn grabbing a piece of the newly deceased Chilperic's kingdom, but let's leave that to one side for now).  What caught my attention was the opening phrase, and the accompanying note in Krusch and Levison's edition:
Defuncto igitur Chilperico inventamque tam diu quesierat mortem ... (Chilperic thus having died, having found the death which he had sought so long...)

Now, Thorpe's (in)famous Penguin classics translation renders this as 'No sooner was Chilperic dead, he having met the fate for which he had been asking so long..."  This isn't a bad rendition and once again we would seem to have more evidence of the outpouring of venom which some have thought Gregory now felt he could write, his 'pet hate' (in Wallace-Hadrill's words) being dead - or as I would (have) prefer(ed) - an attention-grabbing but superficial phrase condemning the Neustrian king, but written to appease Guntramn. 

However, Krusch and Levison's note 3 refers to S. Hellmann comparing the Latin with the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse of John) 9.6: Et in diebus illis quaerent homines mortem et non inveniant eam (And in those days men will seek death and they will not find it).  The idea that Gregory had this phrase in mind when he wrote this passage seems reasonable but if it was a deliberate evocation of that passage then more reflection is worthwhile and interesting.  The next sentence of Revelation says something like 'men will desire death but death will fly from them' - all this being in the context of huge locusts being released after the breaking of the fifth seal, and these locusts being tasked with torturing men but not killing them.  Indeed, just before Chilperic's death, Gregory says a huge plague of locusts descended on part of Gaul (Histories 6.44)...  But let us think on.  Here we have locusts terrorising Gaul and a verbal invocation of the Book of Revelation and the torturing of men.  However, Chilperic finds the death he sought.  Does this actually mean that Chilperic was released from the torments of life?  I think it is worth pondering whether Gregory's phrase, which looks superficially like a condemnation of the dead king (and I assume was meant to look that way) was, again, a covert phrase of - if not praise - then at least of more neutral thinking about the old rascal.  I think Gregory had come to think that Chilperic was not all bad, or at least that he had been savable (compare his vision of the dead king in Book VIII).  Possibly there is a hint of melancholic reflection on the murdered king here?


  1. Very nice. This sits pretty well with the tonal tripwire at the end of the previous chapter, when after all the vitriol on Chilperic's wickedness, Gregory suddenly jettisons the negative tropes and tells us that Mallperic of Senlis, who'd been 'sitting in his tent for three days and unable to see him' came and washed his body and dressed it 'and spent the night singing hymns' before bearing him off for burial.

    On the other hand, you could also go for something nastier. The Revelations passage is gagging for an eschatological reading isn't it? This is a glimpse of Hell, where the resurrected sinner curses the life he's earned at the only death he'll ever get.

    So perhaps what Gregory is telling us here (leaving a cranny of indeterminacy to avoid sounding like he knows the mind of God) is that Chilperic got exactly what he'd been asking for all along: a swift exit at the point of a gutting knife, followed by eternal cohabitation with hungry insects.

    All of which makes me think it'd be nice to know a bit more about Mallperic, upon whom much seems to depend. Does he turn up anywhere else?

  2. Sounds to me like Chilperic had been ill for a long time and welcomed death as a relief.


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