Among the courtiers of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584) was an interesting figure named Priscus. This man walked a dangerous line during his life. On the one hand, he was a leader among the oppressed and maltreated Jewish community in France, while on the other, he actively joined the inner circles of the Frankish kings and bishops, the very people who had the power to oppress his people. Priscus was able to keep up this precarious balance for decades. He became something of a procurement agent for King Chilperic, skillfully acquiring and transporting to the king whatever items the monarch might need. Impressed by such work, King Chilperic began to show affection for Priscus, and encouraged his continued interaction with the realm’s courtiers and bishops. One of the men that Chilperic introduced to Priscus was Bishop (and historian) Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who commented in his History of the Franks that Priscus and King Chilperic were “on familiar terms” and that the king treated Priscus “kindly” (Book VI, chapter 5). Yet, the whims and opinions of monarchs can easily change with time.
Around 580, when King Chilperic lost two sons during a dysentery epidemic, the king became more concerned and interested about theology and the church. His new wave of religious zeal began benignly with lavish donations of wealth to Christian religious institutions. Soon, however, he was not only giving money, but orders—he pressured his bishops to amend church theology and, by 582, he ordered Priscus and the Jewish community in Frankish lands to convert to Christianity. Gregory of Tours and his fellow bishops were able to successfully fend off King Chilperic’s proposed amendments to Christian theology, but Priscus and the Jewish community found it much more difficult to resist the king.
Priscus, for his part, refused the king’s command to convert. With this refusal, the warmth, familiarity and kindly spirit of the relationship between King Chilperic and Priscus was shattered. Gregory of Tours, who kept informed on these events, wrote, “Priscus in particular could not by any persuasion be induced to accept the truth. The King was furious and ordered him to be locked up, saying that if he would not believe of his own free will he should be compelled to listen and to believe despite himself” (History of the Franks, VI.17). Priscus was eventually released from the prison, still not having converted, and he tried to resume his life. Unfortunately, his tribulations were not over.
Once free, Priscus continued to resist King Chilperic’s demands for conversion and instead kept up his regular attendance at the local synagogue, doing so unthreateningly and unarmed. Despite the peaceful nature of his protest, Priscus’ resolve infuriated many of King Chilperic’s courtiers, if not the king, himself. Such friction, sadly, led to a tragic outcome. According to Gregory of Tours, Priscus and his friends were one day walking to their synagogue when a gang led by an associate of King Chilperic ambushed them in the street. As Priscus and his companions were unarmed, they were quickly massacred by the assailants. The killers, however, misjudged the response of the community to the attack. Such bloodshed in the street shocked the city, and Priscus, despite his recent tension with the king, was well-liked in the community. Outraged by what happened, the city folk reportedly formed a mob and attacked the assassins. Of the gang that attacked Priscus, only its leader was able to escape with his life, fleeing to a neighboring Frankish kingdom ruled by Chilperic’s brother, King Guntram (r. 561-593). Even though he fled the city, the murderer was not ultimately able to escape Priscus’ family, friends and supporters. Gregory of Tours wrote, “A few days later he was killed in his turn by some of the relations of Priscus” (History of the Franks, VI.17).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (“The Banishment of the Jews”, from Portuguese history, illustrated by Roque Gameiro c. 1917, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.