Due to the presence of the tomb of Saint Martin (d. 397) in the city of Tours, the region was considered a holy site and eventually became immune from taxes in the 6th century. After Tours had enjoyed this tax-free designation for decades, tax collectors working on behalf of King Childebert II (r. 575-595) arrived in the city around the year 589 to revoke Tours’ tax-exempt status. The collectors were in for a fight, however, as the local bishop, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), debated with a vengeance against the imposition of the tax.
Bishop Gregory, who happened to be a historian, began by reciting to the tax collectors the long precedent of kings granting and upholding Tours’ tax immunity. In the era of the Christian Merovingian Kings of the Franks, the first ruler to exempt Tours from tax was King Chlotar (r. 511-561). This was upheld by Chlotar’s son, King Charibert (r. 561-567). Tours was then inherited by Charibert’s brother, King Sigebert (r. 561-575), who also exempted the city from tax. Finally, Sigebert’s son and successor, King Childebert II, had left Tours untaxed until the time tax collectors entered the city in 589. Citing this long precedent, Gregory argued it was wrong to tax the city now. Yet, if this was not enough, the bishop had a plan B—the supernatural plan.
Besides arguing the history of Tours’ long tax-exempt status, Bishop Gregory also began strongly hinting that those responsible for placing a tax on the holy city would face divine retribution. Gesturing to the tax plans that the collectors carried, Gregory claimed to have said, “God will surely punish the individuals who have produced it after such a long passage of time, just to despoil my citizens” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, IX.30). This threat was greatly amplified by a freak occurrence—an acquaintance of the tax collectors reportedly fell ill that day and quickly died. Whatever the case, Bishop Gregory managed to convince the tax collectors to send a message to King Childebert II asking for clarification and guidance over their orders regarding Tours. Facing pushback and given a chance to reconsider, King Childebert II ultimately decided to leave Tours be. Bishop Gregory described the king’s response, stating, “An official letter came back almost immediately, confirming the immunity from taxation of the people of Tours, out of respect for Saint Martin” (History of the Franks, IX.30). Heeding the king’s wishes, the tax collectors left Tours without collecting any taxes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a bishop as judge from BL Royal 10 D VIII f 130v (manuscript of Decretum, with the Glossa ordinaria), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.