Vita Wandregesili - BNF Ms. Lat 18315, 24v

Merovingian Afterlife

Autopsies and Philosophies of a Merovingian Life: Death, Responsibility, Salvation

In the seventh century a cluster of problems about death, agency, and accountability arose in conjunction with new ideas about the afterlife. In a new article the background and impact of these new evolving ideas is explored by Jamie Kreiner.


“Hold the day of death right in front of your eyes, every day”. Thus preached Eligius of Noyon in the first half of the 7th century [1]. And thus – apparently – admonished a number of Merovingian hagiographers and theologians reflecting about the moral dilemmas of leading a good life in a world where individuals were severely hampered by the society and culture, they lived in but also were believed to have a personal responsibility.

In a new article, this cluster of problems is explored in fascinating detail. Apparently Merovingian intellectuals challenged and adapted late antique theories of moral responsibility and eschatology in view of the increasingly attractive possibility that the soul’s destination after death could be influenced by earthly actions. Especially pertinent seems to have been the idea that saints – and thus also other mere mortals – would receive revelations ore forebodings about their imminent deaths, that they might in time correct the balance sheet by vigilant prayer and penitence. “What we can see in both the felix exitus [the felicitous death] and the martyr’s finale, then was that death served as a rhetorical-moral trigger but also as an unbeatable opportunity to recast the arc of the life that had preceded it”, writes Jamie Kreiner (p.135).

These changes were informed by an increasingly social understanding of human choice and behaviour, and that whole knot of related philosophical propositions surfaced in hagiography, when authors began to explain more fully how and why their protagonists died.

But it was also followed up by the difficult question about how much responsibility an individual might have for him- or herself? Or rather: how much influence culture and societal restraints exerted on any would-be saint bent on living a good Merovingian life.

The article by Kreiner amply demonstrates how Merovingian thinkers were increasingly reluctant to envision salvation as an “unconditional amnesty” (p. 141). Instead they positioned a diet of prayer and almsgiving as a necessary medicine, at the same time as they casted their saintly heroes and heroines as teachers and guides. “If penance was a medicine, culture could be too”, writes Kreiner, ending this very profound and deeply engaging article with exploring how this new kind of Merovingian ethics and theology bore the roots to the educational programmes, which came to characterise Carolingian Culture.


Autopsies and Philosophies of a Merovingian Life: Death, Responsibility, Salvation
By Jamie Kreiner, Assistant professor of History at the University of Georgia.
In: Journal of Early Christian Studies 22:1, 113 -152

Jamie Kreiner is also the author of a new book (March 2014): The Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingian Kingdom.


[1] Diem mortis suspectum cotidie ante oculos habeatis. From: Praedicatio de supremo iudicio 1, by Eligius of Noyon. MGH SS re. Merov. 4:751 (The attribution of these sermons to Eligius have been contested, see Heaven’s Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity. By Isabel Moreira. Oxford University press 2010

FEATURED PHOTO: The Death Scene in the Merovingian Manuscripts holding the Vita Wandregesili elaborated with coloured display capitals. From: BNF Ms. Lat 18315 Vita sancta Wandregisili, 24v



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