According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the year 580 was a particularly horrible year for people living in the regions of France and Spain. The poor 6th-century denizens of those regions reportedly faced threats from the air, ground and water, all combining to form a stew of horrible natural disasters and epidemics. Here are just a few of the events that Gregory of Tours claimed to have happened in the vicinity of France for the year 580.
Intense flooding was said to have occurred in the region of Auvergne, France, in 580. Gregory reported that several rivers overflowed and harmed the properties of nobles and peasants, alike. Crops and livestock were killed by the rising waters, and the flooding occurred so rapidly that human lives were also lost. Of the major cities affected by the floods, Lyons appeared to have been the most damaged, as its very walls were undermined by the rushing water.
Possible Meteor Strike
Gregory of Tours claimed that bright moving lights were seen in the sky near Tours and Bordeaux. When the light disappeared, a loud impact sound was heard in France. Gregory wrote, “a bright light was seen to traverse the sky and then disappear in the East. A sound as of trees crashing to the ground was heard throughout the whole region, but it cannot hardly have been a tree for it was audible over fifty miles and more” (History of the Franks, V.33). Within the same paragraph, Gregory claimed that “Villages around Bordeaux were burned by a fire sent from heaven” (History of the Franks, V.33). The lights, sounds and fire coincided with a series of earthquakes that shook southern France and the bordering regions of Spain. Whether or not these individual occurrences are truly connected is difficult to determine, but the earthquakes and fires were destructive, all the same, leaving many without shelter and food. Some refugees from these disasters reportedly fled toward Spain, but rockslides in the Pyrenees accompanied the earthquakes, crushing anything in its path.
Possibly exacerbated by the homelessness and poor living conditions caused by the floods, fires and earthquakes in 580, the entirety of France was reportedly hit by a devastating epidemic of disease. Gregory of Tours identified the illness ravaging the land as dysentery, and no one—young or old, rich or poor—was safe from its clutches. The household of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584) was particularly hard-hit. Chilperic personally fell ill, as did two of his sons. King Chilperic survived the disease, but his two afflicted children, unfortunately, were not as lucky. Chilperic’s brother, King Guntram (r. 561-593), also suffered loss because of the epidemic; his wife, Queen Austrechild, caught the disease. Two doctors, named Donatus and Nicolaus, were brought in to treat the queen, but despite their best efforts, Austrechild died—in consequence of their failure, the two doctors were executed.
Gregory of Tours was able to write about the deaths of queens, princes, counts and bishops without showing much emotion in his writing, but when he moved on to the toll that the epidemic took on children in France, his pain went unmasked. It ranks as one of the most emotional passages in his ten-book text. Gregory of Tours wrote:
“The epidemic began in the month of August. It attacked young children first of all and to them it was fatal: and so we lost our little ones, who were so dear to us and sweet, whom we had cherished in our bosoms and dandled in our arms, whom we had fed and nurtured with such loving care. As I write I wipe away my tears and I repeat once more the words of Job the blessed: ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’” (History of the Franks, V.34).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Sodom and Gomorrah afire, by Jacob Jacobsz (flourished 17th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.