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The Kingdom of the Franks expanded from Austrasia, established by the Merovingian dynasty

The Merovingians (also Merovings) were a Salian Frankish dynasty that came to rule the Franks in a region (known as Francia in Latin) largely corresponding to ancient Gaul from the middle of the fifth century. Their politics involved frequent civil warfare among branches of the family. During the final century of the Merovingian rule, the dynasty was increasingly pushed into a ceremonial role. The Merovingian rule was ended in 751 when Pepin the Short formally deposed Childeric III, beginning the Carolingian monarchy.

They were sometimes referred to as the "long-haired kings" (Latin reges criniti) by contemporaries, for their symbolically unshorn hair (traditionally the tribal leader of the Franks wore his hair long, as distinct from the Romans and the tonsured clergy). The term "Merovingian" comes from medieval Latin Merovingi or Merohingi ("sons of Merovech"), an alteration of an unattested Old West Low Franconian form, akin to their dynasty's Old English name Merewīowing,[1] with the final -ing being a typical patronymic suffix.

Contents

Origins

The Merovingian dynasty owes its name to the semi-legendary Merovech (Latinised as Meroveus or Merovius), leader of the Salian Franks, and emerges into wider history with the victories of his son Childeric I (reigned c.457 – 481) against the Visigoths, Saxons, and Alemanni. Childeric's son Clovis I (481 – 511) went on to unite most of Gaul north of the Loire under his control around 486, when he defeated Syagrius, the Roman ruler in those parts. He won the Battle of Tolbiac against the Alemanni in 496, at which time, according to Gregory of Tours, Clovis adopted his wife's Nicene Christian faith. He subsequently went on to decisively defeat the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse in the Battle of Vouillé in 507. After Clovis' death, his kingdom was partitioned among his four sons, and over the next century this tradition of partition would continue. Even when several Merovingian kings simultaneously ruled their own realms, the kingdom — not unlike the late Roman Empire — was conceived of as a single entity ruled collectively by these several kings (in their own realms) among whom a turn of events could result in the reunification of the whole kingdom under a single ruler. Leadership among the early Merovingians was probably based on mythical descent and alleged divine patronage, expressed in terms of continued military success.

History

Frankish gold Tremissis, imitation of Byzantine Tremissis, mid-500s.
Coin of Chlothar II, 584-628. British Museum.

Upon Clovis' death in 511, the Merovingian kingdom included all the Franks and all of Gaul but Burgundy. To the outside, the kingdom, even when divided under different kings, maintained unity and conquered Burgundy in 534. After the fall of the Ostrogoths, the Franks also conquered Provence. After this their borders with Italy (ruled by the Lombards since 568) and Visigothic Septimania remained fairly stable.[2]

Internally, the kingdom was divided among Clovis' sons and later among his grandsons and frequently saw war between the different kings, who quickly allied among themselves and against one another. The death of one king would create conflict between the surviving brothers and the deceased's sons, with differing outcomes. Later, conflicts were intensified by the personal feud around Brunhilda. However, yearly warfare often did not constitute general devastation but took on an almost ritual character, with established 'rules' and norms.[3]

Eventually, Clotaire II in 613 reunited the entire Frankish realm under one ruler. Later divisions produced the stable units of Austrasia, Neustria, Burgundy and Aquitania.

Triens of Dagobert I and moneyer Romanos, Augaune, 629-639, gold 1.32g. Monnaie de Paris.

The frequent wars had weakened royal power, while the aristocracy had made great gains and procured enormous concessions from the kings in return for their support. These concessions saw the very considerable power of the king parcelled out and retained by leading comites and duces (counts and dukes). Very little is in fact known about the course of the seventh century due to a scarcity of sources, but Merovingians remained in power until the eighth century.

Clotaire's son Dagobert I (died 639), who had sent troops to Spain and pagan Slavic territories in the east, is commonly seen as the last powerful Merovingian King. Later kings are known as rois fainéants ("do-nothing kings"), despite the fact that only the last two kings did nothing. The kings, even strong-willed men like Dagobert II and Chilperic II, were not the main agents of political conflicts, leaving this role to their mayors of the palace, who increasingly substituted their own interest for their king's. Many kings came to the throne at a young age and died in the prime of life, weakening royal power further.

The conflict between mayors was ended when the Austrasians under Pepin the Middle triumphed in 687 in the Battle of Tertry. After this, Pepin, though not a king, was the political ruler of the Frankish kingdom and left this position as a heritage to his sons. It was now the sons of the mayor that divided the realm among each other under the rule of a single king.

After Pepin's long rule, his son Charles Martel assumed power, fighting against nobles and his own stepmother. His reputation for ruthlessness further undermined the king's position. During the last years of his life he even ruled without a king, though he did not assume royal dignity. His sons Carloman and Pepin again appointed a Merovingian figure-head to stem rebellion on the kingdom's periphery. However, in 751, Pepin finally displaced the last Merovingian and, with the support of the nobility and the blessing of Pope Zachary, became one of the Frankish Kings. The deposed Merovingian was sent into a monastery, bereft of his symbolic long hair. With Pepin, the Carolingians ruled the Franks as Kings.

Government and law

Merovingian Kingdoms

The Merovingian king was the master of the booty of war, both movable and in lands and their folk, and he was in charge of the redistribution of conquered wealth among his followers, though these powers were not absolute. "When he died his property was divided equally among his heirs as though it were private property: the kingdom was a form of patrimony" (Rouche 1987 p 420). Some scholars have attributed this to the Merovingians lacking a sense of res publica (engl. republic for "public matter"), but other historians have criticized this view as an oversimplification.

The kings appointed magnates to be comites (counts), charging them with defense, administration, and the judgement of disputes. This happened against the backdrop of a newly isolated Europe without its Roman systems of taxation and bureaucracy, the Franks having taken over administration as they gradually penetrated into the thoroughly Romanised west and south of Gaul. The counts had to provide armies, enlisting their milites and endowing them with land in return. These armies were subject to the king's call for military support. There were annual national assemblies of the nobles of the realm and their armed retainers which decided major policies of warmaking. The army also acclaimed new kings by raising them on its shields in a continuance of ancient practice which made the king the leader of the warrior-band. Furthermore, the king was expected to support himself with the products of his private domain (royal demesne), which was called the fisc. This system developed in time into feudalism, and expectations of royal self-sufficiency lasted until the Hundred Years' War. Trade declined with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and agricultural estates were mostly self-sufficient. The remaining international trade was dominated by Middle Eastern merchants, often Jewish Radanites.

Merovingian law was not universal law equally applicable to all; it was applied to each man according to his origin: Ripuarian Franks were subject to their own Lex Ripuaria, codified at a late date (Beyerle and Buchner 1954), while the so-called Lex Salica (Salic Law) of the Salian clans, first tentatively codified in 511 (Rouche 1987 p 423) was invoked under medieval exigencies as late as the Valois era. In this the Franks lagged behind the Burgundians and the Visigoths, that they had no universal Roman-based law. In Merovingian times, law remained in the rote memorisation of rachimburgs, who memorised all the precedents on which it was based, for Merovingian law did not admit of the concept of creating new law, only of maintaining tradition. Nor did its Germanic traditions offer any code of civil law required of urbanised society, such as Justinian caused to be assembled and promulgated in the Byzantine Empire. The few surviving Merovingian edicts are almost entirely concerned with settling divisions of estates among heirs.

Religion and culture

Frankish gold Tremissis with Christian cross, issued by minter Madelinus, Dorestad, The Netherlands, mid-600s.

Merovingian culture was so thoroughly imbued with religion that Yitzhak Hen, Professor of Medieval History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, found that a presentation of Merovingian popular culture was essentially synonymous with Merovingian religion, which he presented through written texts.[4] Merovingian culture certainly witnessed an extensive proliferation of saints.

Christianity was brought to the Franks by monks. The most famous of these missionaries is St. Columbanus, an Irish monk who enjoyed great influence with Queen Balthild. Merovingian kings and queens used the newly forming ecclesiastical power structure to their advantage. Monasteries and episcopal seats were shrewdly awarded to elites who supported the dynasty. Extensive parcels of land were donated to monasteries to exempt those lands from royal taxation and to preserve them within the family. The family would maintain its dominance over the monastery by appointing family members as abbots. Extra sons and daughters who could not be married off were sent to monasteries so that they would not threaten the inheritance of older children. This pragmatic use of monasteries ensured close ties between elites and monastic properties.

A gold chalice from the Treasure of Gourdon.
Cover of Merovingian sarcophagus with Christian IX monogram, Musée de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Frankish column from Notre-Dame de la Daurade, Toulouse, carved 400-600 CE.

Numerous Merovingians who served as bishops and abbots, or who generously funded abbeys and monasteries, were rewarded with sainthood. The outstanding handful of Frankish saints who were not of the Merovingian kinship nor the family alliances that provided Merovingian counts and dukes, deserve a closer inspection for that fact alone: like Gregory of Tours, they were almost without exception from the Gallo-Roman aristocracy in regions south and west of Merovingian control. The most characteristic form of Merovingian literature is represented by the Lives of the saints. Merovingian hagiography did not set out to reconstruct a biography in the Roman or the modern sense, but to attract and hold popular devotion by the formulas of elaborate literary exercises, through which the Frankish Church channeled popular piety within orthodox channels, defined the nature of sanctity and retained some control over the posthumous cults that developed spontaneously at burial sites, where the life-force of the saint lingered, to do good for the votary.[5]

The vitae et miracula, for impressive miracles were an essential element of Merovingian hagiography, were read aloud on saints’ feast days. Many Merovingian saints, and the majority of female saints, were local ones, venerated only within strictly circumscribed regions; their cults were revived in the High Middle Ages, when the population of women in religious orders increased enormously. Judith Oliver noted five Merovingian female saints in the diocese of Liège who appeared in a long list of saints in a late thirteenth-century psalter-hours.[6]

The characteristics they shared with many Merovingian female saints may be mentioned: Regenulfa of Incourt, a seventh-century virgin in French-speaking Brabant of the ancestral line of the dukes of Brabant fled from a proposal of marriage to live isolated in the forest, where a curative spring sprang forth at her touch; Ermelindis of Meldert, a sixth-century virgin descended from Pepin I, inhabited several isolated villas; Begga of Andenne, the mother of Pepin II, founded seven churches in Andenne during her widowhood; the purely legendary "Oda of Amay" was drawn into the Carolingian line by spurious genealogy in her thirteenth-century vita, which made her the mother of Arnulf, Bishop of Metz, but she has been identified with the historical Saint Chrodoara;[7] finally, the widely-venerated Gertrude of Nivelles, sister of Begga in the Carolingian ancestry, was abbess of a nunnery established by her mother. The vitae of six late Merovingian saints that illustrate the political history of the era have been translated and edited by Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, and presented with Liber Historiae Francorum, to provide some historical context.[8]

Merovingian saints of more than local cult

Kings

Queens and abbesses

Bishops and abbots

Historiography and sources

"The story of the Franks, especially of the earlier Franks, is rich in fable but poor in history."
—Preface to Lewis Sergeant's The Franks

There exists a limited number of contemporary sources for the history of the Merovingian Franks, but those which have survived cover the entire period from Clovis' succession to Childeric's deposition. First and foremost among chroniclers of the age is the canonised bishop of Tours, Gregory of Tours. His Decem Libri Historiarum is a primary source for the reigns of the sons of Clotaire II and their descendants until Gregory's own death in 594.

The next major source, far less organised than Gregory's work, is the Chronicle of Fredegar, begun by Fredegar but continued by unknown authors. It covers the period from 584 to 641, though its continuators, under Carolingian patronage, extended it to 768, after the close of the Merovingian era. It is the only primary narrative source for much of its period. Since its restoration in 1938 it has been housed in the Ducal Collection of the Staatsbibliothek Binkelsbingen. The only other major contemporary source is the Liber Historiae Francorum, an anonymous adaptation of Gregory's work apparently ignorant of Fredegar's chronicle: its author(s) ends with a reference to Theuderic IV's sixth year, which would be 727. It was widely read; though it was undoubtedly a piece of Arnulfing work, and its biases cause it to mislead (for instance, concerning the two decades between the controversies surrounding mayors Grimoald the Elder and Ebroin: 652-673).

Aside from these chronicles, the only surviving reservoires of historiography are letters, capitularies, and the like. Clerical men such as Gregory and Sulpitius the Pious were letter-writers, though relatively few letters survive. Edicts, grants, and judicial decisions survive, as well as the famous Lex Salica, mentioned above. From the reign of Clotaire II and Dagobert I survive many examples of the royal position as the supreme justice and final arbiter. There also survive biographical Lives of saints of the period, for instance Saint Eligius and Leodegar, written soon after their subjects' deaths.

Finally, archaeological evidence cannot be ignored as a source for information, at the very least, on the modus vivendi of the Franks of the time. Among the greatest discoveries of lost objects was the 1653 accidental uncovering of Childeric I's tomb in the church of Saint Brice in Tournai. The grave objects included a golden bull's head and the famous golden insects (perhaps bees, cicadas, aphids, or flies) on which Napoleon modelled his coronation cloak. In 1957, the sepulchre of Clotaire I's second wife, Aregund, was discovered in Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. The funerary clothing and jewellery were reasonably well-preserved, giving us a look into the costume of the time.

Numismatics

Coin of Theodebert I, 534-548.

Byzantine coinage was in use in Francia before Theudebert I began minting his own money at the start of his reign. He was the first to issue distinctly Merovingian coinage. On gold coins struck in his royal workshop, Theodebert is shown in the pearl-studded regalia of the Byzantine emperor; Childebert I is shown in profile in the ancient style, wearing a toga and a diadem. The solidus and triens were minted in Francia between 534 and 679. The denarius (or denier) appeared later, in the name of Childeric II and various non-royals around 673–675. A Carolingian denarius replaced the Merovingian one, and the Frisian penning, in Gaul from 755 to the eleventh century.

Merovingian coins are on display at the Monnaie de Paris in Paris; there are Merovingian gold coins at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Médailles.

Merovingians in pseudohistory/popular culture

Tremissis or Charibert II (629-632), minted at Banassac, bearing his effigy and name.

Various myths have the Merovingians as descendants of the Trojans[9], or of a five-headed sea monster known as the Quinotaur. The Merovingians are extensively featured in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, in which they are claimed to be the descendants of Jesus, based on a hoax originating with Pierre Plantard in the mid-twentieth century. The 2006 film, The Da Vinci Code, based on a book by Dan Brown, is a fictional treatment of themes from Holy Blood. In it the main character, Sophie, discovers that she is a descendant of the Merovingian blood line as well as Jesus Christ.

The word "Merovingian" has even been used as an adjective, at least five times in Swann's Way by Marcel Proust.

The Merovingian is the name of an antagonist in the second and third installments of The Matrix trilogy. Also referred to as the Frenchman, he displays some characteristics of Merovingian dynastic behavior.

References

  • Beyerle, F and R. Buchner: Lex Ribuaria in MGH, Hannover 1954.
  • Eugen Ewig: Die Merowinger und das Frankenreich. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2001.
  • Patrick J. Geary: Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Kaiser, Reinhold: Das römische Erbe und das Merowingerreich, (Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte 26) (München, 2004)
  • Rouche, Michael: "Private life conquers State and Society" in Paul Veyne (ed.), A History of Private Life: 1. From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1987.
  • Werner, Karl Ferdinand: Die Ursprünge Frankreichs bis zum Jahr 1000, Stuttgart 1989.
  • Oman, Charles: The Dark Ages 476-918, London, 1914.
  • Wood, Ian: The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751, New York: Longman Press, 1994.
  • Effros, Bonnie. Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. Penn State Press, 2002. ISBN 0-271-02196-9.

Notes

  1. ^ Babcock, Philip (ed). Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1993: 1415
  2. ^ Archibald R. Lewis, "The Dukes in the Regnum Francorum, A.D. 550-751." Speculum 51.3 (July 1976, pp. 381-410) p 384.
  3. ^ Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (Routledge, London, 2003)
  4. ^ Yitzhak Hen , Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, A.D. 481-751 (New York: Brill) 1995.
  5. ^ J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Frankish Church,, V:"The Merovingian Saints" (1983), pp. 75-94.
  6. ^ Judith Oliver, "'Gothic' Women and Merovingian Desert Mothers" Gesta 32.2 (1993), pp. 124-134.
  7. ^ Oliver 1993:127.
  8. ^ Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640-720 (Manchester University) 1996.
  9. ^ Peter G. Bietenholz, Historia and Fabula: Myths and Legends in Historical Thought 1994:190.

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