Adversus paganos: Disaster, Dragons, and Episcopal Authority in Gregory of Tours
By David J. Patterson
Paper given at the First Annual Virtual Symposium on Pre-Modern Studies, Athabasca University (2013)
Introduction: In 589, a great flood of the Tiber river sent a torrent of water rushing through the city of Rome. According to Gregory, a contemporary bishop of Tours with contacts to the south, the floodwaters carried with them some rather remarkable detritus: several dying serpents and, perhaps most strikingly, the corpse of a dragon. The flooding was soon followed by a visitation of bubonic plague, which had been haunting Mediterranean ports since 541. After Pope Pelagius II succumbed to the pestilence, he was succeeded by another Gregory, “the Great,” whose own pontifical career began in the midst of what must have seemed truly an annus horribilis to the beleaguered Roman populace.
This remarkable chain of events—a series of calamities that began with flooding and the appearance of a dragon and culminated in plague and the death of a pope—leaves us with puzzling questions. Why should a sixth-century bishop have associated dragons with the clades, the divinely rendered disasters, of flooding and pestilence, and what particular significance could someone like Gregory have imagined in such a narrative?4 For a modern reader, Gregory’s account, apart from its dragon, reads as nothing so much as the description of a natural disaster, or a series of them—events all too familiar in our own age (and, we might imagine, any other). The language of natural disaster is well known in contemporary political discourse: we send, or request, international aid in the wake of devastating hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes; we anticipate, plan for, and debate climate change and global pandemics with trepidation; and we listen with concern to reports of tornadoes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.
Ted Steinberg is among a growing number of historians who have recently demonstrated increased interest in the historical study of natural disasters. Steinberg has sought to articulate the complex social, legal, political, and religious ramifications that make even the term “natural disaster” anything but straightforward. Natural disasters are frequently labeled “acts of God,” a categorical definition with crucial implications for insurance companies. In the pre-modern period, “acts of God” were assumed to be punishments meted out for human sin, the retributive results of divine anger and judgment. Steinberg argues that the modern equivalent is, in contrast, more often morally inert, removing blame rather than assigning it. It is seen as a product of random and unpredictable natural forces, rather than the visitation of divine wrath elicited by specific human wrongdoing.
Put another way, to label something an act of God is to shift its cause away from human agency and political will. Steinberg follows this logic to its cynical conclusion, observing that such a shift of emphasis allows preventable catastrophes and poorly managed disasters to escape the taint of social or political culpability. Consequently, in the wake of a tragedy such as Hurricane Katrina, the category of “natural disaster” becomes problematically amoral. After all, if the disaster was “natural” in origin, how could government officials—or anyone for that matter—be held responsible for its devastating effects?