Sarcastic Author's Birthday | Newberry

Sarcastic Author's Birthday

Well, the goal was to find something of importance in the literary world for November 29, from which I could build a blog. The date is not entirely featureless: it is Madeleine L’Engle’s birthday, as well as the birthday of Sue Miller and Wright Morris, whose books we see in plenty at Book Fair time. It is the birthday of C.S.Lewis, of Bronson Alcott AND his more famous daughter, Louisa May. And Merle Travis, author of one of the greatest of all I Hate My Job songs (16 Tons) turns 100 today.

But amid all of this I was distracted by learning that Lothar I, king of the Franks commonly known as Lothar the Great, died November 29 in 561. This may not mean a lot to your daily grind (that cup you got at Starbuck’s) but I’ll see what I can do.

Lothar I, who ruled the Merovingian Franks for some fifty years, largely by knocking off his brothers, nephews, at least one son, and any other relative who wanted the job, produced magnificent Last Words. On November 29, 561, he died shaking his fist at the ceiling and demanding, “What kind of King can there be in Heaven if he is prepared to let a great king like me die in this way?” One presumes his question was answered not long after that.

We owe this information to a cranky, funny-looking historian who, by coincidence, celebrates his 1,478th birthday tomorrow, November 30. St. Gregory of Tours wrote a landmark history of the Merovingians, in and around his other duties as Metropolitan Bishop of Tours, the highest ranking church official in the kingdom. He was so, um, singular in his work that one writer, in the Catholic Encyclopedia, named him the only person ever canonized for having a bad temper. (I would debate that, but we’ll save that for my next bestselling book.)

Gregory wrote his book, he says, because “a great many things keep happening, both good and bad”, and if there is a better way to start a history, I haven’t heard of it. The first third of his book is swiped from the Bible and earlier historians, but then he gets down to the history of his own era. Since he was a ranking member of Frankish society himself, he met most of the people he writes about, and has depicted the lives of some really remarkable villains. Basic textbooks on French history generally cover this period in a few shuddering paragraphs, noting that the kings and queens seem to have been diligent in indulging most of the Seven Deadly Sins, and it is thanks to Gregory that we have so much detail about it that the reader turns with relief to the days of Charlemagne.

Gregory expressed false modesty about his style and his grammar (false modesty because, according to people who read medieval Latin, his style and grammar were honestly very bad) but in the end it served him well. Because he didn’t know how to write the elegant, fancy phrases popular in his time, he just wrote things as he saw them, and with a certain grim sense of humor. When a political fugitive, on the run and thoroughly drunk, came to the church’s altar for sanctuary and reclined in an intoxicated stupor all through services, Gregory notes “Even my singing didn’t wake him.” He was sarcastic about the sins of his contemporaries, and found only a couple of people to praise: the great founder of the Frankish realm, who was safely dead, and the person (I don’t want to spoil the story for you) who modern historians believe bought him his job as bishop. (Later historians place this person in the lowest circle of Hell.)

If you should want to read Gregory’s tale of lust and murder in the sixth century, and the War of the Queens, we will have a couple of translations for sale in July. But today or tomorrow, you can raise a glass in his honor. (His favorite beverage seems to have been water infused with dust from the tomb of St. Martin. If you can’t get that, Starbuck’s should do.)

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