Historians once largely believed what Gregory of Tours wrote in his ‘Ten Books of History’ (which is how the History of the Franks is now more accurately referred to). Gregory might be naive (all that reporting of miracles), but his artlessly gory portrayals of Merovingian life told us all we needed to know about the horrors of Merovingian society.

A more recent view of Gregory, along with many other medieval historians, is that his history reflects his own prejudices or that he is writing propaganda. Nevertheless, even though his text is not transparent, we can read through it to get useful material. We can see the outlines of particular actions by his enemies through his distorted stories about them. Alternatively, for social/cultural historians, even if his stories are not true at all, but purely propaganda, they reflect what a king or a queen or a bishop could feasibly do. Propaganda, after all, needs to be plausible.

I would have adhered to such views once, but recent events have made me less certain. If you look at many of the claims circulating in the US about Barack Obama, (such as the claim that he is not a citizen) they’re not remotely plausible, and yet they’re widely accepted. One answer is that this is simply because such stories have been pushed so hard by particular powerful interest groups. But there are implausible stories which have achieved wide circulation and belief without such long term propaganda efforts: Slacktivist has an interesting example of one.

And some claims go beyond the merely deeply implausible to a different level. Take the claim that Obama’s plan for health care involves ‘death panels’, for example. You could see this as an extreme distortion of some possible plans for living wills or not paying for heroic treatment of the terminally ill, but it’s probably better to see these statements as symbolic. Obama is an evil ruler and therefore of course he is planning death panels, because that’s what evil rulers do. And, in glorious circularity, he is planning death panels and so that is ‘proof’ that he must be an evil ruler.

I’ve just been reading Martin Heinzelmann,Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (CUP, 2001) who argues convincingly and in great detail that Gregory is using symbolic figures in the Ten Books of History: the Good King, the Bad King, the Good Bishop etc. What he doesn’t really get into is looking at how that might affect historians who actually want to know something about the sixth century (as opposed to those wanting to understand how Gregory’s mind works). If Gregory’s stories are largely symbolic, can we take anything factual from them beyond a few names and events? Or are we faced not just with a distorted mirror on the Merovingian past, but a fantasy view of it?

What if we can’t trust Gregory? What does it mean for Merovingian history? He provides a very detailed narrative for the second half of the sixth century, but I suspect it’s possible to reconstruct a skeleton political history for the period from other sources. The biggest problem may be for social history, and especially women’s history. Most studies of Merovingian women rely crucially on Gregory for the social details of laywomen’s lives. Hagiography and letters just don’t give us that texture. But what if his stories of good and evil queens aren’t just distorted and sometimes misogynistic reactions to real women? What if they are just symbolic stories of eternal good and evil women, loosed from any anchoring in Merovingian reality? If you can’t hope to reconstruct a historical Obama from his opponents’ fantasies, will you be able to learn anything true about Hillary Clinton?