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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Adversus paganos : disaster, dragons, and episcopal authority in Gregory of Tours Patterson, David J.


It is commonly assumed that, in the early Middle Ages, those phenomena which modern readers might recognize as “natural disasters” were instead interpreted as divine punishments resulting from human sin. The appropriate response to such phenomena thus involved individual and collective penance. This thesis investigates one particularly inscrutable account of a “natural disaster” recorded by Gregory of Tours in Book 10 of his Histories: a catastrophic flood of the Tiber River that was followed by an outbreak of pestilence at Rome. The flooding was accompanied by striking "signa" and ominous portents: the corpse of a dragon was washed downstream together with several serpents. The calamity not only destroyed church property but also claimed the life of Pope Pelagius II. I conclude that Gregory’s description of these events indeed confirms the notion that calamities readily construed by modern readers as natural disasters were seen in the late sixth century as divinely ordained punishments. Yet Gregory’s interpretation of the disasters befalling Rome is also quite complex; the dragon and serpents, I conclude, represent the pagan god Asclepius, and thus form part of a complex interpretive framework drawing upon pagan historiography and the works of Christian apologists. Through this interpretive framework, Gregory sought to reveal the immediate causes of Rome’s divine punishment, the logic behind Pelagius’ death, and the appropriate or ideal role of “the good bishop” or “good shepherd”—represented in this instance by Gregory the Great—in providing succor and ameliorating the effects of a punishment wrought by God.

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