The Merovingians was the name of the royal family, which led the Post-Roman, Frankish kingdom from c. 480 CE to 751 CE
In the 4th century, the Romans invited people from east of the Rhine to take up commissions in the Roman army. A significant part of these recruits came from the region between the Rhine and the Weser. This led to the establishment of a number of distinctive Frankish regiments, which took part in the battles between the Romans and the Huns. Later they fought on the side of the Romans against the Visigoths.
Gradually, during the 5th century, this influx of people from the east tipped the political and cultural balance. A major reason was probably the masses of people, who fled from Germania Interior as the Huns pushed forward in the mid 5th century. This fed a demographic shift, which the Roman administration gradually had to accept as part of the new world order. Thus, when the Roman commander (Magister Militum) Aëtius, fought back the Huns at the battle of the Catalunian Plains in AD 454, he accomplished it with an army not just consisting of sporadic German mercenaries; rather, he built a coalition of allies consisting of (among others) Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks, each ruled by their own warlord or “king”.
Childeric and Clovis
Since 358 the Franks had been settled around Toxandria, in the region covering modern day northern Flanders and southern Holland. However, in the mid 5th century, Aëtius assigned the fortified cities in the region – Cambrai, Arras and Tournai – to the lordship of Chlodio. It was his son, Merovech, who took part in the battle against the Huns in 454. Later, his son Childeric had to spend a decade further east until he was recalled in 463 by Aegidius, who the Francs had made Magister Militum per Gallias. Childeric now took part in the wars against the Visigoths until his death around 481/2 at Tournai; at which point his realm was inherited by his son, Clovis.
It is during the reign of Clovis (481 – 511) that the Franks established themselves as the major power in Roman Gaul, establishing a dynasty, the Merovingians, which was to rule until the Carolingians took over in 751.
Fundamental to this were the wars, which Clovis fought. His first victory took place in 486 CE, when he defeated the son of Aegidius, Syagrius, at the battle of Soissons. Another victory followed in 496 CE at the battle of Zülpich, fought against the Alemannen. Some years before, he had married Chrodechild, a Burgundian princess. According to Gregory of Tours, this led to his baptism at the end of the 5th century (date is disputed). In 507 CE he defeated the Visigoths at Vouillé. Until his death in 511 CE, he ruled supremely over most of the present day France. Although later split up by his sons and descendants, the kingdom of Clovis continued to re-establish itself as the core of the realm of Francia up until the Carolingians took over in the 8th century. While the father of Clovis, Childeric, was buried at Tournai as a pagan, Clovis was buried at Abbey of St Genevieve in Paris.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, this led to use “The Merovingian Time” as a kind of shorthand for the early Middle Ages c. 500 – 750.
The Merovingian Times
Covering a period of more than 250 years it is important to note that the period witnessed a number of major shifts of climatic, economic, political, religious, and cultural art. Nevertheless, the period is also characterised by certain common features, which may be broadly outlined in this way:
- Climatic deterioration – the period was in the early 6th century marked by the repercussions of dramatic climatic events caused by volcanic eruptions leading to a generally cooler and wetter climate.
- Economically, Gaul was characterised by a shift from a slave (and villa) economy to a peasant economy. Still enmeshed in the Mediterranean, the focus would gradually shift from south to east and north.
- Politically, the period was marred by a high degree of warring between different factions led by multiple heirs fighting for the over-lordship. But it was also characterised by a marked legalistic effort resulting in a large corpus of so-called “barbarian” laws and numerous cartularies.
- Religiously, the period witnessed the gradual establishment of powerful bishops and abbeys controlling the foundation of villages and parochial systems as well as missionary activities pushing towards the east and north. As an important royal collaborator, the church played a very important role in the ongoing effort to kit a constantly fluid social landscape together.
- Artistically, the period was marked by a legacy clearly demarcating the visual expression from that of the later Carolingians. Another element was the creation of a new genre, the multiple hagiographies of the period. A third important element was the great historical oeuvres left by Gregory of Tours, Bede, Paul the Deacon and Isidorus.
Roman versus GermanicIn all this, the question of how to describe the relationship between the “Roman” versus “Germanic” heritage has contributed to a vast literature, both academic and more popular. Whichever way this balance is characterised, there is no doubt complexity reigned. Undoubtedly, people were initially identified as to their affinity towards Roman respectively Germanic culture. However, to what extent, belonging to a so-called tribe – Franks, Alleman, Thuringians etc. – mattered, is on the other hand highly questionable. More likely, the most important linchpin for people in early medieval Francia was the hamlet or homestead in a territory ruled by and “belonging” to a liegeman answering to the royal dynasty – in this case, the Merovingians. Although the “barbaric” laws operated with a different set of rules for different people – Franks or Romans – it is likely this soon became an atavism.
Towns, Hamlets and Villages
It is a fact that many Roman cities changed their outlook in the early Middle Ages. Centres were no longer found in the forums but were rather located in the often large episcopal complexes consisting of cathedrals, baptisteries, private quarters and chapels. These were often found at the periphery of the town-plan. However, many cities had been heavily fortified and as such, they continued to offer walled and secure accommodation for secular as well as ecclesiastical elites (monasteries and convents). As such, cities and towns kept up the role as important local centres.
However, in the countryside, types of settlements shifted. No longer was the Roman Villa with its large-scale economy dominant; instead, the household and the homestead became the most important nucleus. This later shifted again in Carolingian times, when large manors came to dominate once more; a fact, which for a long time muddled the debate when historians tried to envision daily life in the countryside. Also, the extent to which homesteads were located in villages has been highly debated. It is now generally believed that this was the case in many instances and indeed traces of different sorts of collaboration between peasants inside villages and even between several villages (keeping a bull in common) can be found in the very early parts of the Lex Salica, the law code, which was partially the work of Clovis.
Without the numerous grave-finds, our knowledge of the Merovingian period would be decidedly meagre.
Sometime in the second half of the 5th-century cremation was substituted with burials in furnished graves. Whatever the inspiration for this shift, it has left us with literally tens of thousands of graves in which people were laid to rest with weapons, horse-gear, jewellery, coins, pots and pans, food, or unique artefacts like musical instruments, ploughing utensils etc. Such graves were placed in rows with a west-east orientation and close to their farms and homesteads. These graves might be constructed in different ways according to the region but as a rule, they consist of a simple cut in the earth, perhaps lined with wood; or the dead person might be laid to rest in a coffin. Occasionally graves might be specially marked out in the landscape by the erection of mounds surrounded by fences or ditches. In the 19th and early 20th century, a great effort was made to identify different forms and patterns of the grave-goods as expressing particular ethnic identities. However, modern studies make it more likely that many of the objects found in the graves were valuables, which might be traded or exchanged as gifts across long distances.
Although the many objects found in the graves differs in terms of artistic expression and the quality of the work, and although different styles and types have been registered, catalogued and mapped, it is nevertheless possible to detect certain specific elements, which were characteristic over much of the Germanic successor kingdoms – and which did not particularly look or feel Roman.
Why were the Merovingians and the Franks so successful? Indeed, this is a legitimate question, which has been answered in different ways. However, there is no doubt that one contribution was their close working relationships with the scions of the old Roman aristocracy, which glided into the prestigious positions as bishops. While other Germanic successor kings identified themselves as Arians (Visigoths) with more or less pagan affinities, the Franks early on became Catholics. This enabled them to forge alliances in their expansionary politics with both living and dead saints, hence the vast hagiographic literature.
On the other hand, though, the Merovingians – as later the Carolingians – operated a system of partible inheritance of sons. This meant that their realm from time to time became split between numerous heirs, leading to strife and wars. In the eighth century this lead to an opening for a Frankish noble family with origins in the Arnulfing and Pippinid clans of the 7th century Later known as the Carolingians, they increasingly played a dominant role until they finally overtook the realm in 751 CE and had the last Merovingian ruler overthrown with the acquiescence of the Pope and the Frankish nobles.
Lectionarius gallicanus, c. 700. From the Abbey of Luxeuill