The Merovingian Exhibition at Saint-Dizier

Austrasia – the Forgotten Merovingian Kingdom

While in Paris to see the exhibition on Merovingian Times, remember to take a detour to Saint-Dizier to see the exhibition on Austrasia and the Eastern Frankish Kingdom

Map of Austrasia c. 550
Map of Austrasia c. 550. Source: Saint-Dizier 2016

Saint- Dizier lies no more than 200 km to the west of Paris to the south Reims. This is a small and rather insignificant town, which nevertheless deserves a visit from anyone even mildly interested in the history of the Early Middle Ages. Here excavations have uncovered some very rich furnished graves, but also abundant evidence about the settlement and the people, who lived there at mid 6th century. This winter (2016-17) it is especially exciting to make the detour as the city hosts a remarkable exhibition on the early Middle Ages in Eastern Francia. To understand the context. though, it is necessary to begin with a bit of background.

Lady from Grez-Doiceau/dame de Grez-Doiceau.
Lady from Grez-Doiceau/dame de Grez-Doiceau. Depot aux Musees Royeaux d’Art et d’Histoire de bruxelles, Namur, Direction de l’Archaeologie de Wallonie. Reconstruction by Benoit Clacys 2005

When Clovis died in AD 511, his four sons inherited his realm, which was divided into four parts. While Clotaire inherited the old core of the Frankish kingdom around Tournai, Clodomir got the region reaching from Paris to the Atlantic, Childebert received Normandy, and Theuderic held the north-eastern part from Thuringia to Reims. When Theuderic died in 534, his throne curiously enough passed unhindered to his son Theudebert, whose son, Theudebald, peacefully took over in AD 548. However, at his death in 555, the throne passed to his granduncle Clotaire, which meant the first end of Austrasia. However, a few years later the sons of Clotaire were obliged to divide their inheritance and Sigebert ended up with the eastern part, now called Austrasia for the first time. Merovingian history is often told as a series of royal partitions among the heirs of a dead king followed by a contractions; however, in the end the Merovingian kingdom was ruled from the eastern part, Austrasia, were from also – in a later phase – the Carolingians led to unite Neustria and Austrasia.

Lady from Grez-Doiceau/dame de Grez-Doiceau. Depot aux Musees Royeaux d'Art et d'Histoire de bruxelles, Namur, Direction de l'Archaeologie de Wallonie
Lady from Grez-Doiceau/dame de Grez-Doiceau. Depot aux Musees Royeaux d’Art et d’Histoire de bruxelles, Namur, Direction de l’Archaeologie de Wallonie

It might be claimed that the Carolingians were not so much the heirs of the Merovingian dynasty, but the heirs to the Austrasian throne. However, this is not how the history has usually been told. Quite the opposite has been the case, the challenge being that Austrasia arguably bridged across the Ardennes, Alsace and Lorraine and far into the region around the Middle Rhine towards the Middle Elbe. Both French and German, it has been – as history tells us – contested land between France and Germany from the 9th to the 20th century. Accordingly, when French historians later wrote about the Merovingians, they conveniently characterised Austrasia as the periphery and Neustria with Paris as its centre.

It is this, which makes it possible to mount an exhibition with the French title: Austrasie – le Royaume mérovingien oublie. The rest of us, however, will know better. This was indeed the old core of the region conquered by Clovis and reigned over by Charlemagne. We are in fact, in the heartland of the Merovingians.

But all this makes the present exhibition even more interesting as the museum has succeeded in bridging their own excellent collection with spectacular loans from collections in Germany. Showpiece may indeed be the grave of the little prince found beneath the floor in the Cathedral in Cologne. But this is complemented by other exciting finds, like for instance the jewels, which belonged to the so-called Lady of Grez-Doceau as well as more local finds, which belonged to the princely graves excavated in the centre of Saint-Dizier. What makes this exhibition especially interesting though are the results from excavations of settlements – not least the local site at Crassées.

While the exhibition in Paris this autumn focus on art, the exhibition at Saint-Dizier focus on the daily life in the Merovingian world.

Both should be visited!


Austrasie. Le royaume Mérovingien oublie
Espace Camille Claudel
9, avenue de la République
52100 Saint-Dizier


Austrasie. Le royaume mérovingien oublie.
Ed. by Virginie Dupuy
Silvana Editoriale 2016















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