Merovingian Gaul and Germany, 500-751

Merovingian nobleman, V – VII century

6th or 7th century Merovingian

In 589 a group of the leading aristocrats of the kingdom of the Frankish king Childebert II (575-96), led by Duke Rauching, plotted Childebert’s assassination. They had long been opposed to Childebert’s mother Queen Brunhild (d. 613) and her supporters, and, even though Childebert was now an adult (he was probably nineteen), Brunhild was gaining in authority. But they were found out. Rauching, who may have had royal ambitions, was killed at once on Childebert’s orders at the king’s palace (probably at Reims), and his huge wealth was confiscated. His closest supporters, Ursio and Berthefried, had already mobilized an army, and they fled to a hill-top church in the wooded Woëvre region above Verdun, which overlooked Ursio’s estate-centre, and which had been a fortification in pre-Roman times. The king’s army besieged the church and Ursio was killed; Berthefried fled to Verdun cathedral, where he sought sanctuary, but he was killed there anyway, to the great distress of the local bishop.

This narrative, like almost all our evidence from sixth-century Gaul, is known to us because of the extensive writings of Gregory, bishop of Tours. Gregory, an active political bishop of Roman senatorial background, had been appointed in 573 by Brunhild and her husband Sigibert I (561-75), and there is no doubt of his support for the queen’s party. He detested Rauching for his sadism, and he retells the deaths of the conspirators with verve: Rauching tripped at the door of the king’s private room and cut about the head with swords, his naked body then thrown out of the window, Ursio overwhelmed by his enemies outside the church, Berthefried hit by tiles from the partly dismantled cathedral roof. Gregory’s partisanship goes with his narrative gifts to make him one of the most interesting and illuminating authors in this book, but we cannot avoid seeing sixth-century Gaul pretty much exclusively through his eyes. It is over-optimistic to take him on trust, and, in the last decade or so, the careful literary structuring of Gregory’s work has become widely accepted. But as we saw in Chapter 1, even if we do not believe everything he says, the density of his descriptions allows us to learn from the assumptions he makes. Whatever the accuracy of his account of this conspiracy, we can at least conclude that it was plausible to picture certain things: that a royal court could be riven by factions; that queen-mothers could have considerable political power (note that Gregory ascribes no political protagonism to Childebert’s wife Faileuba); that major aristocrats could be very rich, and could have what amounted to private armies, but that their political ambition was concentrated on royal courts; that such men did not base themselves on private fortifications, unlike in the world of castles of the central Middle Ages – for Ursio’s last stand was notably makeshift in Gregory’s account; and that people might expect sanctuary to be respected, even if this did not always happen. All these conclusions are amply borne out slightly later, by sources from seventh-century Francia; they made up some of the basic parameters of Merovingian political practice. This conspiracy was traditionally read by historians as a deliberate attempt to limit royal power; there is no evidence for that. But the image of the Merovingian political world as one in which kings consistently faced over-mighty subjects who had both character and resources would not be a false one. These points will be developed in this chapter. I shall give a political narrative first, and then set out some of the basic structures and patterns of political action of the Merovingian period as a whole.

The Merovingian dynasty ruled the Franks for two hundred and fifty years until 751; its hegemony was the work of Clovis (481-511). Clovis, son of a late Roman warlord and Frankish king based at Tournai, Childeric I, conquered the rival Frankish kings who had occupied separate sections of northern Gaul, and the surviving non-Frankish warlords of the north; he also established hegemony over the Alemans in the upper Rhine valley, and, as we saw in Chapter 4, in 507 conquered Visigothic Aquitaine as well. Clovis thus reunited three-quarters of Gaul after the confusions of the fifth century. He also converted to Catholicism, the first major ‘barbarian’ king to do so (perhaps after a brief period as an Arian), and his example, given his military success, would mark future choices in the other Romano-Germanic kingdoms too. By 550 or so, Frankish rule was fully established in the Burgundian kingdom and over the south German tribes who were crystallizing as the Bavarians; a looser Frankish hegemony was recognized in northern Italy, in central Germany, east to Thuringia, in Brittany (the only part of Gaul never fully conquered by the Franks), and maybe even in Kent. The core Frankish lands were always in the north of Gaul, and the major royal centres stretched from Paris and Orléans, through Reims and Metz, to Cologne: these were not exactly capitals in an administrative sense, but they were places where kings could frequently be found, and around which they moved their courts and administrators, from palace to palace, along the Oise valley near Paris or the Moselle near Metz. The kings seldom went to the south of Gaul; from these northern ‘royal landscapes’, the richer and more Roman south was ruled through networks of dukes, counts and bishops. Frankish hegemony east of the Rhine is less well documented, and was certainly less tight: the dukes of Bavaria and Thuringia usually had considerable freedom of action. But it existed nonetheless, and for a century the kings saw their eastern border as roughly that between modern Germany and the Czech Republic. The Merovingian Franks were thus both the people who created the political centrality of the Paris to Cologne region for the first time, a centrality it has never lost since, and the first people to rule on both sides of the Rhine frontier of the Roman empire. East of the Rhine was a simpler society, and it lacked the basic Roman infrastructure of roads and cities, or Latin as a language, but slowly, between 500 and 800, some of the contrasts between Gaul and Germany receded, and briefly, in the Carolingian period, they would have similar histories.

Clovis put his own family, called by 640 at the latest the Merovingians after his shadowy grandfather Merovech, firmly into the centre of politics: after 530 or so no one is documented claiming the Frankish kingship who did not also claim Merovingian parentage, until the Carolingian coup in 751. It is worth stressing how unusual this was: the Gothic and Lombard kingdoms never had dynasties that lasted more than three or four generations (usually less); only the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and, outside the Germanic world, those of the Welsh and Irish, were as committed to the legitimacy of single ruling families, and these were all tiny polities. Early on, the Merovingians associated kingship with wearing uncut hair; this became a family privilege, and hair-cutting was an at least temporary ritual of deposition. The Merovingians also saw ruling as a sufficiently family affair for the Frankish lands at the king’s death to be regularly divided between his sons; they did this first at Clovis’s death in 511, again at the death of his last surviving son Chlotar I in 561, and again at the death of Dagobert I in 639, whose father Chlotar II had reunited the kingdoms by force in 613. All in all, there were only twenty-two years of Frankish unity between 511 and 679, when the by now weakened family was reduced to a single line. The political history of the period can easily be reduced to rivalries, and perennial wars, between competing Merovingians. This would make for dull reading; what follows focuses on some of the major figures.

The half-century after Clovis was marked by fighting between his sons, but also by external conquests; this was the period in which the Franks gained serious international recognition, particularly from the eastern Roman empire, for the first time, and it must have been the period in which people in Gaul and Germany realized that Merovingian rule was there to stay. The king who best encapsulates that is Theudebert I (533-48), king of the north-eastern Frankish kingdom based on the Rhineland, which held hegemony over central and southern Germany from there. It was probably Theudebert who set up the powerful Franco-Burgundian Agilolfing family as dukes of Bavaria, to act both as the core of a developing Bavarian identity, and as a long-standing sign of Frankish overlordship; and it was certainly Theudebert who took advantage of the Gothic war in Italy and intervened there systematically, for the first time but not the last. The Constantinopolitan historian Agathias in the 560s claimed he was even planning to attack the eastern capital, that is, that he was part of a line of ‘barbarian’ invaders going back to Alaric and Attila. Theudebert’s international pretensions were also expressed by minting gold coins with his name and portrait on: these are the first ‘barbarian’ coins to claim this imperial prerogative, and the east Romans were greatly offended. It is interesting that, although Theudebert ruled the sector of the Frankish lands where civilian Roman traditions were weakest, the idiom of his rule was so often expressed in Roman terms; the stories Gregory tells about him are frequently expressed in terms of his fiscal policies – a tax remission for Clermont, an unpopular decision to tax the Franks themselves, a large loan to Verdun to kick-start the city’s commerce after a time of trouble. But the openness of the Franks to Roman traditions and imagery was there from the start; bishops wrote admonitory letters to kings from the beginning of Clovis’s reign onwards, councils of bishops were regularly held in the north of Gaul after 511, and the kings in 566 welcomed the Italian poet Venantius Fortunatus to their courts to write them all impeccably Roman praise-poems, which he did for kings, queens, aristocrats and bishops (including Gregory of Tours) for three decades.

The next generation of Merovingian kings is the best documented, for their rule forms the core of Gregory’s work. Chilperic (561-84) and his infant son Chlotar II (584-629) in the north-west, Sigibert I and his son Childebert II in the north-east (Theudebert’s former kingdom), and Guntram (561-93) in Burgundy make up an agonistic set, with Chilperic portrayed as the worst of these kings and Guntram as the best (Sigibert and Childebert, even though they were Gregory’s most direct patrons, are less clearly characterized). Gregory disliked Chilperic because he saw him as tyrannous, hostile to the church, and the fomenter of civil war; Chilperic had the smallest kingdom with the fewest external boundaries, which partly explains the fact that he fought his brothers, and he also conquered Tours and backed Gregory’s local rivals. Guntram’s virtues are, conversely, particularly stressed by Gregory after 584; he was then the only adult Merovingian king left alive, and he acted as patron to his two young nephews (the wars between them notably quietened down after a treaty in 587), alongside their queen-regent mothers, Brunhild for Childebert and Fredegund, Gregory’s other main enemy, for Chlotar. Gregory knew both kings well; his accounts of his meetings with Guntram are affectionate, but he was very formal and wary with Chilperic, who threatened him (Gregory threatened back). But what is really most striking about the kings is their similarity: they were all prone to violent anger (leading to injustice and cruelty) and equally violent repentance; they constantly sparred, taking city-territories from each other like chess pieces. And they cooperated when they had to, including against a claimant to the throne, Gundovald, who said he was Guntram’s brother and who gained quite a lot of support from aristocrats who were on the losing sides in court faction-fighting, in 583-5.

The swirl of war and faction is encapsulated in the Rauching conspiracy of 589 which we started with, and this shows us the importance of the detail of court politics. By now it is clear that the royal courts, and their ruling kings and queens, were the foci for the rivalry of powerful aristocrats, who constantly sought office, at court or as the dukes (army leaders with a regional remit) of each kingdom. Kings when adult could dominate these factions, and had no scruples about killing losers, often in unpleasant ways. Queens-regent for younger kings often had a more difficult time of it, and both Brunhild and Fredegund had periods of considerable marginality when their sons were small. They were not respected as much as kings, and when they resorted to violence to make their point they were often met not so much by fear as by resentment; every powerful queen had at least one hostile chronicler. Royal wives during their husbands’ lifetimes had less power; for one thing, Merovingian kings frequently had several wives and concubines at once, who manoeuvred for the succession of their own sons. But the importance of Merovingian legitimacy was by now so great that royal mothers were allowed a substantial political space, even when their children were grown; nor did their social origins matter (Brunhild was a princess, but a Visigoth; Fredegund was of non-aristocratic birth). Brunhild built on this after Gregory’s Histories end in 591, for she remained influential throughout Childebert’s life, and then was regent for his two young sons after his death in 596, particularly Theuderic II in Burgundy, and even, briefly, for her great-grandson in 613. If Guntram dominated politics in 584-93, Brunhild did in 593-613: on and off, perhaps, but sometimes in effective control of virtually the whole Frankish world.

By 613, the seventy-year-old Brunhild had made too many enemies, particularly in the north-eastern kingdom, now known as Austrasia, which she had just taken back by force. Chlotar II, who had hitherto been confined to relatively few city-territories in Neustria, the north-west, got an aristocratic coalition together and overthrew Brunhild. He had her torn to pieces by a horse in public, in an act clearly designed to mark a new beginning, and he and his son Dagobert I (623-39) ruled a more or less unitary kingdom for a generation. Chlotar maintained the three courts of the previous period, however, as the foci for aristocratic politics, particularly Neustria and Austrasia (Burgundy tended to go with Neustria). These courts sometimes had sub-kings (as Dagobert was in Austrasia in 623-9, before his father’s death), but they also now each had a single aristocratic leader, a maior domus, ‘leader of the household’ (‘mayor of the palace’ is the traditional English translation). Aristocratic rivalries began to concentrate on obtaining the position of maior, or else on using that position to overthrow rivals, as with the confrontation between the maior Flaochad of Burgundy and the patricius Willibad in 643, a small war in which they both died; the events were written up dramatically in Gregory’s continuator, called by modern historians Fredegar, around 660. These rivalries became sharper after 639, when Dagobert was succeeded by children, Sigibert III (632-56) in Austrasia and Clovis II (639-57) in Neustria; both of the latter were succeeded by children too. It became ever more important to be a maior under these circumstances, and there was also often a clash between the maior and the queen-regent, who remained a powerful force in this period. The classic example of this is the stand-off between Balthild, regent for her and Clovis II’s sons in 657-65, and the Neustrian maior Ebroin (659-80, with interruptions); this is well documented above all because Balthild was forced into a monastery at Chelles near Paris in 664-5, and a saint’s life was written about her. By now, in fact, saints’ lives are our major sources for high politics, for many saints were aristocratic (see below, Chapter 8); this also means that the continuing violence of politics, already stressed by Gregory, was even more emphasized by writers for moralistic purposes.

The seventh century was a turning point for Merovingian royal power: by the early eighth, real authority was in the hands of maiores, who were after 687 almost all from a single Austrasian family, the Arnulfings-Pippinids, descended from two of the major Austrasian supporters of Chlotar II, Arnulf bishop of Metz and Pippin (I) of Landen. Historians have therefore devoted considerable attention to determining when it was that the Merovingians began to lose control: was it in 639, with the death of Dagobert? Or was it earlier, or later? An older generation of historians thought that Chlotar II marked the moment of change, arguing that he gave away too much to gain aristocratic support; he does seem, indeed, to have restricted his own taxation powers substantially, as we shall see, even if it is no longer thought that he also conceded local judicial power to the aristocracy. But Chlotar and Dagobert’s centrality is by now rarely doubted, and more recent historians have gone the other way, arguing that even late seventh-century kings like Childeric II (662-75) and Childebert III (694-711) had a good deal of power, at least once they gained adulthood, and that the royal courts never lost the importance for aristocratic politics that they had unarguably had a century earlier. This may indeed have been the case, in particular for Childeric II. But royal hegemony was not as automatic as it had been. Fredegar tells us with some gusto of Chlotar II’s killing of Godin, son of the Burgundian maior Warnachar, around 626, even after Godin had been persuaded to do a pilgrimage around the holy places of Gaul to swear loyalty, and the Liber Historiae Francorum is keen to recount the death by torture of the maior Grimoald, son of Pippin of Landen, on Clovis II’s orders in 657. But when Childeric had an aristocrat called Bodilo bound and beaten in 674, small beer for an earlier king, this was regarded as illegal behaviour, and Bodilo himself apparently had the king and queen killed in 675, precipitating a major crisis.

It seems to me that the late seventh century does indeed mark a considerable diminution of a specifically royal centrality. Perhaps the turning point was less Dagobert’s death than those of his sons, for the dominance of maiores over the courts became routinized once it was clearly going to last for another generation, and renewed royal protagonism under Childeric II would be more resented. It was, anyway, after the death of Dagobert’s sons that maiores began for the first time not only to control kings but to choose them. Grimoald, as maior of Austrasia (641-57), exiled Sigibert III’s son Dagobert to Ireland, and had his own son Childebert made king instead (656-62?); Childebert was Sigibert’s adopted son, so Merovingian paternity was theoretically maintained. This odd and ill-documented affair ended badly for Grimoald, who was killed as a direct result, although Childebert somehow seems to have lasted a few years more. Later, at Childeric II’s death, Ebroin did the same, temporarily inventing a king in Austrasia to keep his hand in during that political crisis, before switching his support to the new Neustrian king Theuderic III (so says, at least, the saint’s life of his bitter enemy and victim, Leudegar bishop of Autun). Seen from this standpoint, Childeric II’s politics seem even more atypical by now. Kings still had a role as a rallying point for aristocratic factions, and their courts remained central to aristocratic political aspirations, but maiores and political bishops had become the major protagonists. Ebroin dominated his time, but he was always a controversial figure, and he did not establish a stable regime for himself. Pippin II in Austrasia was cannier; he was Grimoald’s nephew, and his family was eclipsed for two decades, but it remained very rich and influential around Liege on the Meuse, and by the late 670s he was maior in Austrasia again. In 687 the Austrasians defeated the Neustrians at the battle of Tertry, and Pippin became maior for all the Frankish lands. Pippin II lived to 714, and the civil disturbances of the thirty years after 656 ended at Tertry, although Neustria and Austrasia remained separate. That did not change until a briefer civil war, in 715-19, which pitched Pippin’s probably illegitimate son Charles (Martel) against his widow Plectrude, with Neustrian anti-Pippinids as a third force contending with them both. Charles defeated them all, and established himself as sole maior (717-41), with a firmly Austrasian base. The Neustrian court was abolished; Charles Martel became the only focus of rule, and his heirs, the Carolingians, would remain so for a long time. Charles’s victory in 719 thus changed the political scene much more completely than Pippin II did in 687, perhaps even more completely than Chlotar II had done in 613.

Another respect in which the later seventh century saw a real involution of Merovingian authority was its geographical scale. The wide hegemony of the sixth-century kings was still there under Dagobert I, who fought a war in 631-4 against Samo, a king who for a time united the Wends, Sclavenian tribes (see Chapter 20), in or around what is now the Czech Republic. Dagobert called Thuringians, Bavarians and even Lombards from Italy to fight for him there; he also legislated for the peoples east of the Rhine, and appointed bishops there too. But at his death Radulf duke of Thuringia revolted and established autonomy; and across the next generation both Bavaria and Alemannia slipped out of effective Frankish control. More striking still was Aquitaine: this was part of the core Frankish lands, and had in the sixth century been divided between the northern kings, but Dagobert in 629 briefly made his half-brother Charibert II (629-32) king of part of Aquitaine, and by the 650s it had a separate duke. In the political crisis of 675, Duke Lupus seems to have claimed royal status, and in the eighth century Duke Eudo (d. 735) was clearly an autonomous ally of Charles Martel; full-scale war was needed in the 760s to bring this large and rich region fully back into the Frankish fold. War was in fact in general needed to establish Carolingian control over the whole area of traditional Frankish hegemony in the eighth century; the peripheral principalities were keener on Merovingian legitimism than on Charles’s new political structure, and Charles found several quasi-autonomous princes even in his core lands whom he had to subdue by force, as well as, further south in Provence, the patricius Antenor and then the dux Maurontus, whom Charles fought in the 730s. Charles had a large central territory in Neustria, Austrasia and northern Burgundy which still looked to the court, and which he could draw on for the continuous border wars that marked his rule and that of his successors, but it was not until his sons took over Alemannia in 746 and then Aquitaine, and until his grandson Charlemagne took over Bavaria in 788-94, that Dagobert’s hegemony was re-established, in rather more solid form by now. This geographical retreat is a marker of the fact that the instability of the post-Dagobert generations did indeed do harm to Frankish authority.


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