A moment in Gregory of Tours illustrating canon law textual criticism

Gregory of Tours and Salvius of Albi before Chilperic I

Gregory of Tours and Salvius of Albi before Chilperic I

In his History of the Franks, (written ca. 593/4) 5.18, Gregory (Bishop) of Tours provides a lengthy description and discussion of the trial of Praetextatus, Bishop of Rouen, by King Chilperic who was accusing Praetextatus of colluding with Chilperic’s enemies and selling/giving away some of the king’s goods for his own profit. Eventually, despite Gregory testifying in the trial as to Praetextatus’ innocence, and the worthiness of Praetextatus’ testimony, some of Chilperic’s cronies trick Praetextatus into making a confession that he had colluded with Chilperic’s son Merovech to have Chilperic murdered. Praetextatus’ hope was that he would receive mercy and clemency from the king.

King Chilperic, unfortunately, was operating to please his wife Fredegund. And if a Frankish king or lord is ever doing something nasty because of his wife or mistress in Gregory’s History, he will see it through to the end, even when — as Chilperic does — he secretly admits his opponent’s innocence. Interestingly, the case does not initially begin because of Fredegund but because Chiperic hears that Praetextatus ‘was bribing people to against his [Chilperic’s] interests.’ It is only later that Gregory brings in the Fredegund connection. Later on, after Chilperic’s death, Fredegund and Praetextatus will have a run-in again.

But Gregory’s portrayal of royal women is a discussion for someone else.

The next, after Praetextatus’ admission of guilt, Gregory and the other bishops were sitting around awkwardly, having told Chilperic that they wouldn’t do anything to Praetextatus without the canons of the church (that is, the regulations concerning ecclesiastical discipline). Thus the following:

King Chilperic went home to his lodging. He sent to us a book of the canons, with a newly-copied four-page insert, which contained what appeared to be apostolic canons, including the following words: ‘A bishop convicted of murder, adultery or perjury shall be expelled from his bishopric. -Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 5.18, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics)

Praetextatus is accordingly sent into exile and only recalled after Chilperic’s death.

This story about the book of the canons is very intriguing. I like first of all that Gregory says nowhere whether this was a forgery, but he obviously thought so. It’s more than a little suspicious that the sought-after canon is on a ‘newly-copied four-page insert’. And Gregory says that these only appeared to be apostolic canons. He is saying without saying it that Chilperic doctored a manuscript to get the desired results — and he went straight to the source, providing apostolic canons, not ones from a church council or a pope, but the Apostles themselves.

Did Chilperic think the bishops would be deceived, or did he assume they would just give in at this point? Gregory, at least, was not deceived.

What gave Chilperic away was the fact that the quire was newly-copied. It didn’t match. It was not, as a modern person might assume, the fact that the forged text alleges to be from the apostles. This is because there is a text called the Apostolic Canons, and it was included in many canon law books throughout the Middle Ages.

Forgery is a not uncommon phenomenon in canon law. The very Apostolic Canons, or the text known as the Apostolic Constitutions, are forgeries. We have at least one forged letter of Leo the Great. In the mid-ninth century, a group of canonist-forgers known as ‘Pseudo-Isidore’ forged an extensive series of papal letters from the ante-Nicene period.

The Chilperic forgery in Gregory is an egregious example of someone making stuff up simply to get his way. While that tends to lie beneath all forgeries, it is also the case that many medieval people made forgeries in the name of someone who, they believe, would have said what the forgery said … if only they had said it. And I’m fairly sure the Apostles would not have been keen on murderers and adulterers as bishops!

Finally, this story also reminds us of the fragility of the integrity not only of any text, but of compilation-style texts — by which I mean a series of canons, into which any unscrupulous character could slip in a new canon or even silently remove one and renumber it all. But not only canons, but sources such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or those trendy Jesus-sayings-sources like the Gospel of Thomas.

The job of the text critic is to engage in textual archaeology and unearth the truth about any potential interpolations and to never take a text claiming apostolic authority at face value. Gregory of Tours seems not have, either.

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