496 and all that

Both the last IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar of 2012 and the first of 2013 were on the Merovingians: first up we had Edward James on “Visualising the Merovingians in nineteenth-century France” and then Étienne Renard from Namur on “From Merovech to Clovis: what can we really know?”

Edward James’ talk, as he explained, was really a companion piece to an article he’s just published: “The Merovingians from the French Revolution to the Third Republic”, Early Medieval Europe 2012 20 (4) 450–471. He started by talking about the changes during the nineteenth century in school history textbooks. There was a noticeable contrast between two of the most popular textbooks during the century. Laure de Saint-Ouen’s Histoire de France depuis l’établissement de la monarchie jusquà nos jours (1827) recounts the history of France as series of 71 chapters on kings from Pharamond to Louis XVI. Just over fifty years later, Ernest Lavisse, La première année d’histoire en France: leçons, récits, reflections (1884) (later entitled Histoire de France: Cours élémentaire and reissued up to 1950), after a chapter on Clovis and his baptism, states: ‘The descendants of Clovis were almost all bad kings’ and promptly goes onto the Carolingians.

Such changes were a reaction to the end of the French monarchy (after its restoration between 1814-1848) and also to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and drew on French revolutionary ideas putting the emphasis on histories of peoples rather than kings, and of the Gallo-Roman rather than Germanic roots of France. The latter is still intermittently a live issue: when Pope John Paul I went to Reims to celebrate the supposed anniversary of Clovis’ baptism, protestors took to the streets in Paris shouting “Vercingetorix not Clovis.”

In this talk, Edward was concentrating on visual evidence, looking at a tradition of French historical painting that he argued was inspired by possibly the “greatest historian of the early nineteenth century”, Walter Scott. One of the key figures was Paul Delaroche, described by one contemporary as a “court painter of decapitated monarchs”, such as in his famous picture of Lady Jane Grey awaiting execution.


Delaroche’s more intimate style, influenced by Dutch genre painting, moved away from an academic style of historical painting that tended to be despised by critics as “arte pompier” (fireman art), because there was normally a man in what looked like a fireman’s helmet lurking somewhere in the scene. After 1830, however, there were more serious attempts to use archaeological evidence to get costumes etc correct, while technological advances in printing, such a lithography and steel engraving made illustrated histories more widely available.

The Merovingian scenes that these painters were portraying, meanwhile, were often inspired by Augustin Thierry who wrote a series of articles (‘Nouvelles Lettres sur l’histoire de France: Scènes du sixième siècle’) taking the goriest bits of Gregory of Tours and increasing their luridness. (He also increased the barbarity of the Merovingians by using “Frankish” versions of their names e.g. “Hlodewig” for Clovis and “Hilperik” for Chilperic. (Charlemagne, incidentally, is “Karl-le-Grand”).

The result of this mix of archaeology and enthusiastic narrative include paintings such as Laurence Alam-Tadema’s The Education of the Children of Clovis where small children practice indoor axe-throwing:


Other artists also painted the Merovingians, such as the illustrations that Jean-Paul Laurens did for Thierry’s book, described by Edward as including lots of images of conspirators in dark cellars. There were even pictures of non-existent Merovingian atrocities painted, such as Évariste Luminais’ picture of ‘Les énervés de Jumièges’ (also known as “The Sons of Clovis II”), recording a legend that Queen Balthild had two of her rebellious sons hamstrung and left to die on a raft on the Seine.

Edward did point out that there weren’t that many nineteenth-century paintings of the Merovingians; topics from the fifteenth to seventeenth century were far more popular. And the urge to do distinctly Merovingian paintings seems to have died out fairly soon: from the late nineteenth century, pictures showing Gallic and Frankish warriors become very hard to distinguish, merging into the general barbarian prototype of Asterix. This perhaps reflected the view, articulated by the historian Fustel de Coulanges, that seeing French history as a battle between the races of Gauls and Franks was unproductive. Instead, French history was seen as developing from a single barbarian phase before being civilised by the Romans and Christianity.

This study of the nineteenth century is part of a larger project by Edward on reactions to the Merovingians from the Carolingian period onwards. But the re-imagining of Merovingian history was already taking place under the Merovingians themselves. Étienne Renard’s paper was an attempt to make sense of the information for Frankish kings before Childeric I, without assuming that we can just follow Gregory of Tours’ account, given that Gregory was writing more than 100 years later and had no first person information on Childeric’s predecessors.

We were given a fairly detailed handout, but Étienne was speaking in French and my knowledge of fifth-century history isn’t brilliant, so apologies if what follows is scrambled. Most of the talk was about Chlodio and Merovech. Gregory says that Chlodio was king of the Franks and of very noble family (HF 2-9); we know both from Gregory and Sidonius Appolinaris that Chlodio conquered the Artois region, but according to Sidonius, he was defeated by the Roman emperor Majorian around 445-450. Chlodio was said to come from Dispargum and Étienne argued for this being Duisburg in Brabant, rather than in Thuringia.

One of Étienne’s main arguments was an attempt to deduce information on the possible relationship between Merovech and Chlodio from two Merovingian genealogies. These were probably composed under Clothar II in the early seventh century, but survive only in three tenth-century manuscripts. Both include some early names in common: someone who might be Chlodio, his son (called Glodobaud or Chlodobaud), and then Childeric and Chlodoveus (= Clovis). One of the genealogies included three extra names between Chlodobaud and Childeric: Mereveus (= Merovech), Hildebric and Genniodus. Étienne argued these were maternal ancestors: Genniodus was possibly called something like Gennhildis and was Childeric’s mother, Hildebric and Merovius are then her father and grandfather. One version of the genealogy had simply omitted these names, while another had attempted to fold them into a father to son list.

It’s fair to say that this idea didn’t convince the audience overall, but then that included a fair proportion of people (myself included) who tend to see authors of genealogies as quite happy to make things up as they go along rather than trying, however clumsily, to preserve earlier traditions.

Étienne also went on to talk about Childeric, but since by that point both my concentration and his time were running out, all I can add is that he was trying to put together Gregory’s account of Childeric being exiled (HF 2-12) with Priscus’ account of Attila having a Frankish prince as an ally and Childeric’s pagan funeral to argue that Childeric may have stayed at Attila’s court for some years. The significance of the burial, including the sacrificed horses, got some discussions going afterwards, especially when Jon Jarrett pointed out that Childeric couldn’t have organised his burial himself, so what did this say about Clovis and his attitude to his father? Étienne wondered if there were Thuringian parallels, given that Childeric’s wife Basina may have been Thuringian, and added that the nearest parallels for the burial in the period were from Moravia.

We thus ended with an event that we could be reasonably sure happened and can be fairly closely dated, but whose background and significance we’re not at all sure of. It’s also one marked by seemingly gratuitous violence (at least for the horse-lovers among us), but that had obvious symbolic importance to someone. Somehow that seems to sum up the fate of the entire Merovingian dynasty, doomed to spend the next 1500 years providing grisly material for fantasies.


6 thoughts on “496 and all that

      • Sorry, never saw this reply! The answer would have been, usually, when a student has quoted a secondary source for something without much sign of knowing what the actual evidence was, but I could also imagine using it where the sources of our sources are a necessary thing to think about. I would argue, for instance, that the fact that Bede was extremely well-informed about the history of the Church in Kent has left us too ready to assume that he had anything other than recent hearsay for Pictland, that kind of thing.


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