No, this post isn’t more about academic baking, this is about the recent lecture I had to give on ‘Frankish Gaul’. I’m currently giving some lectures on an antique/early medieval survey course at Cambridge, and one of them required covering the Merovingians in a single lecture (so we can have lots of time to linger on the Carolingians). Aside from the need to fill in my ignorance rapidly, I also had to find a way of tackling 300 odd years of history (c. 450-750) in just under 60 minutes.
I suspect that the standard concise way of dealing with the Merovingians is to have a three pronged approach: Clovis, Gregory of Tours, and Carolingian mayors and their puppet kings. These are certainly the three things I tend to think about first when the Merovingians are mentioned. But this time I decided I was going to try and do something that was a little more historically sophisticated. I was going to give the students snapshots of three different Merovingian periods, and show them that it wasn’t just 300 years of non-memorably thuggish kings before we get to the Carolingians and proper civilisation.
So I structured my lecture around three sources, each spaced about 100 years apart. (Because I am also doing a lecture on the rise of the Carolingians, I could cheat slightly and ignore the eighth century). The first one was Childeric I’s tomb from c 482, which is a good way into the late antique world of Franks as foederati, and the merging of Roman and barbarian culture (sword fittings, signet ring with Latinised name). I also had the horse burials found around the grave to contrast with Clovis’ conversion, and the Byzantine solidi found in the tomb as a kick off point for discussions of the economy, and east versus west contrasts.
For the second snapshot, I had, inevitably, to go with Gregory of Tours, so I gave the students the revolting nuns of Holy Cross Poitiers. As well as being a great story (though I couldn’t get all the juicy details in), it raises questions about Gregory’s purposes in writing (Jennifer Robbie gave an interesting paper several years ago at Leeds on the story’s apocalyptic emphasis), about the role of royal women and religion, and about rival Merovingian kings, who might nevertheless co-operate. I didn’t manage specifically to get an economic angle from this story, but Gregory does have tax collectors in Poitiers at around the same time, so that was another connection to make.
My last source was the Passio Leudegari, which gave us the 670s, and enabled me to use a lot of very useful background material from Fouracre and Gerberding’s Late Merovingian France. As well as bishops getting murdered (which is always useful for a 9 am lecture), we have forceful mayors of the palace who are not Carolingians, Leudegar chopping up silver to distribute in Autun and the Luxeuil connection (where both Ebroin and Leudegar got exiled). That made it easy to connect up to themes about the changing locations and forms of monasticism (nice contrast to Poitiers), and the burgeoning North Sea economy.
Whether the execution of the idea worked , I’m not entirely sure: it may still have been a bit much to get into the hour. But it did get me thinking far harder about change within the period, and anything that stops us ending up with a largely Gregory of Tours based view of the Merovingians has to be an advance. At least this time, to change the culinary metaphor, the students may have got a Gregory-filled sandwich, but it did have some substantial slices of other material on either side.