Gregory Of Tours’ Close Encounter With The Rhine

Bishop Gregory of Tours was a busy man in 585. Bouncing back and forth between the Frankish realms of King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593) and King Childebert II of Austrasia (r. 570-596), he did a lot of traveling at that period of time. During one of his missions, Gregory journeyed far from his French bishopric—he found himself dining with King Childebert II in the city of Koblenz, situated along the intersection of the Rhine and the Moselle Rivers. Gregory, a historian as well as a bishop, included his own experiences in the historical text that he wrote, known as The History of the Franks. If the conversations he recorded in the text from Koblenz reflect his mission in the region, he seems to have been interested in helping King Guntram and King Childebert II organize an ecumenical council of Frankish bishops from both of their realms. Another issue, however, blocked progress on the council; King Guntram had arrested Bishop Theodore of Marseilles (a man who always seemed to be in some trouble) and Childebert II refused to move forward with the idea of the ecumenical council until Bishop Theodore was released. This stalemate went unresolved, and Bishop Gregory ultimately decided to leave from Koblenz.

Feeling down-to-earth that day, Gregory of Tours decided to take a public ferry at the start of his journey home. He apparently made his departure at rush-hour for riverboat travel, as he found the docks filled with a wide variety of people, all waiting impatiently for the ferry. When one such boat arrived—Gregory’s boat—all of the loitering pedestrians rushed onboard, causing a chaotic scene. In the overcrowding that ensued, the boat came very close to sinking. Gregory of Tours wrote about this dramatic and dangerous incident in his text:

“I found waiting on the bank a boat which had been made ready for me. I went on board, but a motley crowd of individuals followed me. As the boat filled with men it also filled with water. God in His omnipotence performed a miracle, for, though the boat had water up to the gunwale, it could not sink. With me I had some relics of Saint Martin, and other Saints, too. It was to their miraculous power that I owed my preservation. The boat was steered back to the banks which we had just left” (History of the Franks, VIII.14).

Ferrymen successfully brought the swamped boat back to the shore, and Bishop Gregory and the other passengers were able to step back onto dry land without any injury. While the boat was drained of water, Bishop Gregory went about ensuring that the next vessel he boarded would be a private transport. The bishop succeeded in having this arranged. He wrote, “None of the interlopers was allowed in again and I crossed the river without incident” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VIII.14).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Ships from the 14th-century manuscript BL Royal 20 D I, f. 176v, [Public Domain] via and Creative Commons).



  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

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