The Merovingians: The Kings and Queens of the Franks

MerovingiandynastymapMythologized and circumscribed for over 1500 years, the Merovingians were a powerful Frankish dynasty, which exercised control much of modern-day France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Low Countries. During the Early Middle Ages, the Merovingian kingdoms were arguably the most powerful and most important polities to emerge after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, blending Gallo-Roman institutions with Germanic Frankish customs. Recent discoveries and new research in the field of mortuary archaeology — the study of how cultures treat the dead and what they believe about the afterlife — has renewed considerable interest in the Merovingians.

In this feature interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Bonnie Effros, a Professor of History at the University of Florida, about the ways in which the “archaeology of the dead” can help rewrite an important chapter in European history.

JW: Dr. Bonnie Effros, it is a pleasure and privilege to welcome you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! The Merovingians (c. 457-751 CE) played a crucial role in Western Europe’s transition from “ancient” to “medieval,” and I am very excited to learn more through archaeology about their culture and politics.

I would like to begin by asking you a question that has long interested me: Why did Merovingian kings wear their hair long as a ritual custom? Was it symbolic of male virility and martial prowess on the battlefield?

BE: For more than a century, modern historians have written about the Franks (as opposed to other Germanic kings) as the “long-haired” kings based on references made by Gregory of Tours (c. 538-594 CE), Agathias (c. 530-582/594 CE), and authors of a variety of saints’ Lives dated from the early medieval period. Following these writers, they viewed the Franks’ long hair as an essential element of their royal power. Indeed, according to Merovingian historians and hagiographers, if one wanted to overthrow a Merovingian king, the act usually necessitated cutting his hair, and indeed tonsuring him like a monk, so that he could no longer legitimately occupy the throne of one of the Frankish kingdoms.

Historians, especially in modern Germany, have thus traditionally understood the Merovingian kings’ long hair as physical symbol of what they believed was sacral power; a status that marked them as having special or even magical powers that predated and survived long past King Clovis’ early sixth century CE conversion to Christianity. In the last decade or so, however, some scholars have questioned our reliance on this image of Merovingian kings, since it seems to suggest that the Franks had not fully embraced Christianity even by the late sixth century CE. They suggest instead that while the Frankish kings may have indeed worn their hair long, an image preserved most famously in the signet ring preserved in Childeric I’s mound grave (c. 481/2 CE) in Tournai, Belgium, its interpretation had steadily changed over time. Rather than being seen as a source of magical or pre-Christian power, as some Carolingian authors suggested, long hair, which had a role in Judeo-Christian tradition as well (think Samson!) was fully integrated into the Frankish leaders’ powers as Christian kings.

“There are many reasons why one might want to study the Merovingians…I think they have great relevance to understanding Franco-German relations in the past century and a half…Therefore, work on the Merovingians can tell us much about not just the Early Middle Ages but our own time as well.”

JW: Much of your research involving the Merovingians has pertained to mortuary archaeology. This is a challenging area of inquiry as it requires you to blend history with archaeology, and anthropology with art history.

What can mortuary archaeology tell us about the history of the Frankish kingdoms, once we strip away centuries of Carolingian propaganda, modern nationalism, and centuries of significant social change?

BE: One of the challenges offered by mortuary archaeology is that we rarely find burials in connection with the grave markers that might have once existed to identify the occupants of particular sepulchers. Thus, for nearly two centuries, archaeologists have wrestled with the question of how to read the contents of early medieval graves, which were not arranged by chance (as in the case of the dead from a natural disaster, such as at Pompeii) but by survivors. The first point, then, to keep in mind is that graves are not mirrors of the lives of those buried within them but rather of the social relationships held by that individual to family, supporters, and other interested parties.

Second, we should keep in mind that the most frequent tendency on the part of archaeologists, especially in the 19th century CE, an epoch of modern nation building, was to think foremost about the ethnicity of the dead. When graves were uncovered by engineers or agricultural workers, whether during the building of railroads or the planting of vineyards, the first question often posed by those involved was whose body they had found. They raised the question of whether the deceased were possibly Franks or Romans or Burgundians, something they thought might be determined by the kinds of artifacts found with the dead. Typically, weaponry was seen as a sign of a Germanic burial whereas the lack of weaponry might be a Roman. (Today, similar efforts are launched with the assistance of DNA studies of the skeletal remains in these same graves).

The difficulty, of course, in pursuing this line of inquiry is that it assumes that ethnicity was something biological and fixed, rather than being one of an assortment of identities expressed by every individual over the course of his or her lifetime; some of these facets of identity, like ethnicity, may have been mutable depending upon the circumstances. We thus need to avoid the type of questioning that brings with it many implicit assumptions not just about early medieval graves but early medieval society more generally. These specific concerns likely reflect the concerns of 19th century CE historians more than they do the inhabitants of early medieval society.

CharterofClotildeFinally, to come back to your question, I would argue that mortuary archaeology does not offer evidence particularly well suited to understanding the nature of entities as large and as amorphous as early medieval kingdoms. Rather, graves provide us with evidence better suited to revealing intimate details about individuals and the communities to which they belonged. Namely, I would suggest, as has the archaeologist Frans Theuws (who in turn borrowed the phrase from the medieval historian Lynda Coon), that it is helpful to think about burials as “sacred fictions.” In other words, graves provide snapshots of the way in which the living wished to remember the dead. If a family had access to wealth, they might want to bury a loved one in a manner that reflected status or connections. If it was a much cherished child who died, parents might want to lay their infant to rest with his or her favorite possessions or in a place they thought would keep him or her protected after death. Our job is to try to sort out the significance of the remaining symbols with the recognition that we may not understand all of the circumstances that these items and rituals reflected.

JW: Dr. Effros, you have also conducted extensive research into the social significance of Merovingian burial rites. Initially, the Merovingians used the occasion of death to display personal wealth and power by placing objets d’art, jewels, and weapons into graves and upon erected monuments. However, these practices eventually gave way to Roman Catholic Masses and prayers for the dead, which were performed by members of the clergy at churches. Why did this shift occur, and what do these changes suggest about the evolution of Merovingian society and personal piety?

BE: Burial rites are intrinsically conservative customs; just as today, they tend not to change drastically from generation to generation unless catastrophic circumstances like disease or war force burials to be performed in a hurried manner or break the chain of the transmission of rituals between generations. In the case of the Early Middle Ages (c. 476-1000 CE), it is clear that Christian conversion did not bring about a marked change in the way in which the dead were laid to rest. We cannot tell from most early medieval graves whether the deceased was Christian or not, since there was no immediate shift in burial customs. The main exceptions are burials that occurred in churches or those that contained or were marked by objects or epitaphs with blatantly Christian references. For the most part, however, families continued to bury their dead much as they had before conversion.

Essentially, I would explain these circumstances by observing that priests were scarce commodities in the early medieval West outside of cities; at rural cemeteries found all across Europe, this meant that burial custom was conducted mainly by families and remained fairly stable in the era of Christian conversions. It was foremost in monastic houses and ecclesiastical communities that contemporary clerics began to effect change. At such sites, we can see surviving burial markers and tombs decorated with crosses and know that Masses were celebrated for the dead. It is likely here that lay élites saw the attractiveness of being buried with Christian items. While many still opted to be buried (even in churches) with a wealth of grave goods, others adopted the language of a high status Christian burial which could involve non-traditional symbols, locations, and customs for that region.

It would nonetheless be many centuries, sometime between the eighth and tenth century CE (depending upon region), before the Church was in a position to forbid certain burial customs like mounds and developed exclusive cemeteries for Christians. It is also likely (but not easily confirmed) for much of the early Middle Ages that a specifically Christian liturgy was not performed as a matter of course for the majority of Christians at the time of their burials.

AbeillesdeChildericIerJW: Archaeology — mortuary or otherwise — rarely provides us with detailed information about identifiable persons. However, there was a recent exhibition in Frankfurt am Main, Germany that showcased exquisite burial objects, which included drinking cups, horns, and glasses belonging to several Merovingian queens.

Can you comment briefly on the powerful role of Merovingian queens and the symbolism of the kinds of objects with which they were buried? At the same time, why was the job of being a queen potentially so dangerous?

BE: Indeed, both the luxury objects deposited in the few royal graves that have been identified in the last century and historical descriptions of these women, demonstrate that Merovingian queens were often honored by their contemporaries. Others were not. Let us look at the mixed reputations of Merovingian queens known from the historical accounts of authors such as Gregory of Tours.

Clothild (d. 545 CE), the Burgundian wife of Clovis I (c. 466-511 CE), was credited by Gregory of Tours as having helped convince her pagan husband to convert to Catholic Christianity. After her husband’s death in 511 CE, she retired to Tours, where she paid her respects to the relics of Saint Martin. For her contributions, Clothild later gained recognition as a saint. Although her grave has never been located (it is thought to rest somewhere under the road that runs in front of the Pantheon in Paris, once the site of a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve), we can be quite certain that it contained an important assemblage of goods as was typical of high status graves in this era.

Becoming queen under the right circumstances could elevate women of less than desirable backgrounds or circumstances to great heights. Such was the case of Radegund (d. 587 CE), a Thuringian princess taken captive by Clothar I (c. 497-561 CE); when she reached her teens, Clothar married Radegund and made her queen. Eventually she fled her royal spouse, who apparently kept several wives or concubines simultaneously, to found a monastery in Poitiers, France. Even after leaving her husband, the former queen maintained a powerful network that allowed her to negotiate with the Byzantine Emperor for a relic of the Holy Cross for her cloister. She received a prominent burial as a saint and miracle worker at her monastery in Poitiers.

Likewise, the possibly high-born, Anglo-Saxon slave Balthild (d. 680/1 CE) became queen after her marriage to Clovis II (637-655 CE). She exercised enormous power during her reign, especially after she was widowed, when she acted as regent to her son, Clothar, for nearly a decade. However, after her son came of age, she appears to have been forced to join the royal foundation of Chelles for the remainder of her life. As a result of her monastic vows and lifestyle — recorded in a saint’s Life — she was considered a saint both by the Merovingians and Carolingians (751-987 CE). Among the relics preserved of the queen is the richly embroidered “chemise” or shirt that she was said to have worked during her lifetime; it was decorated with a series of necklaces that resemble the clothing of the Byzantine Empress Theodora (c. 500-548 CE) as portrayed in the mosaics of late antique Ravenna, Italy.

BeltArnegundHowever, we must not forget that aristocratic marriages were often the product of temporary political alliances, and women (and their children) often became the victims of these arrangements when they were no longer desirable or profitable. The Visigothic princess Galswinth (540-568 CE), the sister of Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia (c. 543-613 CE), for instance, was brought to Gaul from Spain to marry King Chilperic (539-584 CE) in 567 CE. According to Gregory of Tours, soon after their marriage, the hapless Galswinth was strangled in her bed, and Chilperic lost little time in marrying his mistress Fredegund (who, it was alleged, later murdered him). Even politically savvy (and no doubt ruthless) queens like Brunhild, a lifelong enemy of Fredegund (d. 597 CE), could not outwit the odds forever. According to the Liber Historiae Francorum, the Austrasian queen faced a brutal execution after Clothar finally managed to reunite the Merovingian kingdoms.

It is thus clear that Merovingian queens faced daunting challenges and great dangers as a consequence of their powerful positions. There is no doubt that holding onto the status and authority they gained through arranged marriages, which was enhanced especially after the death of their spouses and before their offspring reached the age of majority, was not an easy task.

JW: Following the death of Clovis I, there were frequent and bloody clashes between his descendants. These recurrent hostilities weakened royal power, which permitted the Merovingian aristocracy to obtain enormous concessions in return for their support.

Eventually, the kings lost their political authority to officials known vaguely as maiores palatii (“great men of the palace”). Aside from issues of royal inheritance, which historical factors allowed this breakdown of power to occur?

BE: Our picture of especially the Merovingian period is shaped by the ideological objectives of the historians who wrote about the early Frankish kingdoms. Thus, when talking about the early Merovingian monarchs, Gregory of Tours catered his narrative to fit a larger objective of showing God’s punishment of those who transgressed Christian law. As noted by the historian Walter Goffart, this means that what many of us know as The History of the Franks was not called that by its author; Gregory instead intended his Histories as a work of Christian universal history. Consequently, we must be wary of assuming that it is an accurate and objective work of historical writing.

FibulaeAregundAs you noted above, the problematic nature of historical works dated from the Carolingian period is even more pronounced, since historians like the author of the Chronicle of Fredegar were eager to demonstrate how the Merovingian kings — characterized as the “do-nothing kings” — had lost their right to rule. Such works served to justify the Carolingian takeover of the throne in the second half of the 8th century CE. These sources therefore seriously cloud our ability to sort out what caused the weakening of royal power at the end of the Merovingian dynasty.

We can nonetheless be certain that no single factor in isolation but rather a combination of factors led to the eventual demise of the Merovingians. Among the causes of their eroding power base were the repeated (and disputed) divisions of the kingdoms among royal heirs (in the absence of the custom of primogeniture), damaging conflict between the Austrasian and Neustrian kingdoms in Frankish-controlled territory, decentralization of authority once belonging to kings in favor of the aristocracy, and the rising power of the mayors of the palace who met many of the royal obligations that the Merovingian kings could not or would not fulfill on their own.

JW: In your latest work, Uncovering the Germanic Past: Merovingian Archaeology in France, 1830-1914, you move into the era of the French Industrial Revolution. As French industrialists laid railroad lines and commenced expansive quarrying operations, Frankish artifacts were routinely discovered, casting doubts upon the “Gaulish” origins of the French nation.

What prompted your interest in the discoveries made by these French archaeologists, and what unique insights can you share with us? Given Franco-German rivalry, before and after the Fin de siècle, I would not be surprised that many would have liked to suppress such finds!

merovingiansacoBE: Thank you for asking, James! I was drawn to this project after visiting European museums of Merovingian artifacts; I wondered why they organized their collections as they did, and how these objects came to their institutions (or those further afield, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art). I likewise asked why so many pieces lacked firm provenance. This opened up for me a new world of 19th century CE antiquarianism and archaeology, which really lit my imagination.

What I discovered was the complex network created by local archaeologists and historians that existed in the form of learned societies all across France (and in fact across Western Europe). As there was no formal archaeological training in this period, all involved were amateurs and tried to make sense of finds made in their city or region (or even in their backyards). Many were very invested in heightening pride in the past of their region.

As you note rightly, however, in the case of Merovingian artifacts (which were interpreted as Germanic finds, whether Frankish, Burgundian, or Visigothic), these were the source of great interest locally but were embraced less eagerly by central French authorities and academics, who were not pleased to see how widely the presence of these “invaders” was felt in France in the migration period. As a result, many academics ignored evidence of Merovingian finds in favor of Celtic and Gallo-Roman material of the preceding epoch. This was the case not only in the 19th century CE, but the early 20th century CE when the French found themselves on numerous times at war with their German neighbors.

Thus, what truly fascinated me was the way in which French historians opted to turn their backs on inconvenient remains discovered by amateurs that challenged their narrative of France’s Gallo-Roman ancestry. German historians, by contrast, did not ignore these finds and catalogued them assiduously based on the publications of French learned societies dating back over a century. In the absence of a French narrative of the significance of these remains, German scholars essentially had a free hand to interpret these artifacts and cemeteries as they saw fit.

metzJW: Before concluding our interview, I wanted to make a point of asking you what is the legacy of the Merovingians and why should we continue to study them? Forgive me for any impertinence in asking this question as well, but which “Merovingian” topics would you most like research in the future?

BE: There are many reasons why one might want to study the Merovingians. For me — at least in the case of my most recent book — I think they have great relevance to understanding Franco-German relations in the past century and a half. German scholars and politicians, for instance, used alleged finds of Franks to justify the invasion of Alsace-Lorraine in 1870 CE, stating that the region had been settled by Germanic peoples since time immemorial. As you can imagine, the same argument resurfaced to the east of the Rhine during the First and Second World Wars. Therefore, work on the Merovingians can tell us much about not just the Early Middle Ages but our own time as well.

My work on the history of Merovingian archaeology has in fact led me away, at least briefly, from the Merovingians; my current project is looking at French excavations in Algeria following the invasion of North Africa in 1830 CE. I am interested in how colonial excavations of famous Roman ruins like Timgad and Lambaesis helped the French justify their presence in North Africa, since they argued that they were following in the footsteps of the Roman army. Similarly, classical remains helped future generations of French settlers identify with something familiar in their adopted land.

JW: I thank you so much for speaking with us. We await your next study with anticipation and appreciate having the opportunity to share your expertise! We wish you many happy adventures in research.

BE: Many thanks for this opportunity! I enjoyed it a lot!

Image credits:

  1. Map of Merovingian territories. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. Image created by Rudric, 2008.
  2. A 7th century CE noblewoman named Clotilde (“Chlodechildis”) endowed a monastery at Bruyères-le-Châtel near to Étampes, France. This is the original charter. Among the signatories was Bishop Agilbert of Paris, formerly Bishop of the West Saxons, whose last recorded act this is. The document is dated 10 March 673 CE. Access to the original document is restricted and microfilm copies only may be consulted. ARCHIM, French Ministry of Culture, Reference #: 00000277. This image is a faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.
  3. Bees in gold belonging to King Childeric I (c. 440-481/82 CE). Head and throat are in gold, while the wings are encrusted in garnet. Bibliothèque nationale de France. This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less. Image created by Romain0, 9 September 2011.
  4. Belt plaques from the finery set of Queen Aregund (c. 515–573 CE), wife of Clotaire I (511–561 CE). Merovingian Gaul; silver, glass paste, and garnet. Deposited to Louvre Museum by National Museum of Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. This image is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. Image created by Jastrow, 2006.
  5. Pair of fibulae from the finery set of Queen Aregund (c. 515–573 CE), wife of Clotaire I (511–561 CE). Merovingian Gaul; gold and garnets, c. 570 CE. Found in a tomb of Saint-Denis in 1959. On deposit from the National Museum of Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. This image was released into the public domain and this applies worldwide. Image created by Jastrow, 2006.
  6. Cover of Merovingian sarcophagus at the Musée de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image created by Uploadalt, 2007.
  7. The basilica and former monastic church of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains in Metz, France. This building is indexed in the Base Mérimée, a database of architectural heritage maintained by the French Ministry of Culture, under the Reference # PA00106812. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Image created by Mr. Marc Ryckaert (MJJR), 11 July 2011.

bonnie13810Dr. Bonnie Effros is a Professor of History and the Rothman Chair and Director of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida, where she has taught since 2009. She is the author of Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World (1998), Creating Community with Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul (2002), Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Middle Ages (2003), and Uncovering the Germanic Past: Merovingian Archaeology in France, 1830-1914 (2012). Dr. Effros earned her Ph.D. in history at UCLA (1994), where she specialized in the European Middle Ages. Previously, Dr. Effros taught at the University of Alberta, where she held an Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of History and Classics; at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville; and at Binghamton University, where she served as Chair of the Department of History.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Bonnie Effros, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. Translation of image captions from French to English was provided by Mr. James Blake Wiener. Special thanks is extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.