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The Carolingian renovatio of the earlier ninth century was marked by an intensified interest in “the teachings of the ancient fathers.” Where the Church Fathers had long served as indispensable sources for biblical interpretation and exegesis, the reform agenda of the Church councils between 816 and 836 saw these Fathers employed increasingly as authoritative guides to the ordines, the orders of Christian society. Chief among these patristic authorities was Augustine of Hippo (354–430), whose influence in the early Middle Ages has often been cast as ubiquitous and all-encompassing by modern historians. To be sure, Augustine was an important source for the Carolingian reforms. Yet, rather than presuming that his nominal impact was all-pervasive in ninth-century political and ecclesiastical discourses, I shall endeavor to show both the great utility and the discursive limits of Augustine’s name, and the authority tied to it, within the conciliar texts of this period. Despite the purportedly thorough Augustinianism of the Carolingian reforms, “Augustine” is often present via later, patristic mediators, the most significant and formidable among them being Pope Gregory the Great (540–604). Gregory was arguably the ultimate Augustinian mediator for the Carolingians (and beyond), but his great innovation was the development of an adaptable language of hierarchical, spiritual, and political authority, a mode of admonition particularly well-suited to the aims of the Carolingian reform program.
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.