Merovingian layer cake

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.


4 thoughts on “Merovingian layer cake

  1. I like your approach. Hard to say how I’d have dealt with it. Knowing me, a bunch of little snippets that wouldn’t have meant that much.

    I really like your choice of the nun revolt for the second snapshot. It isn’t an obvious one, at least not to me (I might have gone with the Cato/Cautinus thing from the standpoint of contrasting the King/Bishop/Clerical relationship with what came both before and after) but it’s a great way to pull in so many different strands – Radegund’s apocalyptic letters, a crummy bishop who didn’t help things and a judicial process to deal with it.

    I like the others too – Childeric/Clovis is good and I might have put more emphasis on the conversion. I like your way better.

    As for Leudegar, all I can say is that he had it rough. I can imagine the students digesting that one – killed AND maimed? Too bad you didn’t have a couple more lectures to be able to dive into the Merovingians a bit more.


  2. Admirable. I teach, on a recurring basis as the first of a three part survey, a two hour class that covers the period from Constantine through Charlemagne. (The other sections are Charlemagne through Runemede, and Runemede through Bosworth Field. I do it only because no one else will. I’m thinking of demanding beer as part of my compensation package.) I haven’t been able to put together a thematic structure quite like yours, but I think I will have to revisit my syllabus and think about dinking around with it again.


    • The thought of trying to teach the Middle Ages in 6 hours would have me lying down in a darkened room! I really wouldn’t know where to start – I know that teaching in the US requires being able to do these very general surveys, but this seems exceptional. (Though I did recently hear a talk by someone who’d been asked to write a book chapter on Eurasian social history 500-1500).

      I think snapshots and a few anecdotes might be worth trying for something this broad, if only because they give a better ‘flavour’ to the history. It’s easy to get terribly bland when you’re talking about kings or nobles or ‘the Church’, and it’s useful to have a sudden vignette of William Marshall having to have his helmet removed by a blacksmith because it was so bashed, or the ‘Gospel according to the Mark of Silver’.


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