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The Merovingians were a Salian Frankish dynasty that came to rule the Franks in a region known as Francia in Latin, largely corresponding to ancient Gaul, for 300 years from the middle of the 5th century.
The Merovingian dynasty was founded by Childeric I (c.457 – 481) the son of Merovech, leader of the Salian Franks, but it was his famous son Clovis I (481 – 511) who united all of Gaul under Merovingian rule.
After the death of Clovis there were frequent clashes between different branches of the family, but when threatened by its neighbours the Merovingians presented a strong united front.
During the final century of the Merovingian rule, the dynasty was increasingly pushed into a ceremonial role. The Merovingian rule ended in March 752 when Pope Zachary formally deposed Childeric III. Zachary's successor, Pope Stephen II, confirmed and anointed Pepin the Short, in 754 beginning the Carolingian monarchy.
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The Merovingian ruling family were sometimes referred to as the "long-haired kings" (Latin reges criniti) by contemporaries, as their long hair distinguished them among the Franks, who commonly cut their hair short. The term "Merovingian" comes from medieval Latin Merovingi or Merohingi ("sons of Merovech"), an alteration of an unattested Old West Low Franconian form, akin to their dynasty's Old English name Merewīowing, with the final -ing being a typical patronymic suffix.
- 1 Origins
- 2 History
- 3 Government and law
- 4 Religion and culture
- 5 Historiography and sources
- 6 Numismatics
- 7 Language
- 8 Merovingians in pseudo-history and popular culture
- 9 References
- 10 Notes
- 11 External links
The Merovingian dynasty owes its name to the semi-legendary Merovech (Latinised as Meroveus or Merovius and in French as Merovée), leader of the Salian Franks, and emerges into wider history with the victories of his son Childeric I (reigned c.457 – 481) against the Visigoths, Saxons, and Alemanni. Childeric's son Clovis I (481 – 511) went on to unite most of Gaul north of the Loire under his control around 486, when he defeated Syagrius, the Roman ruler in those parts. He won the Battle of Tolbiac against the Alemanni in 496, at which time, according to Gregory of Tours, Clovis adopted his wife Clotilda's Catholic (i.e. Nicene) Christian faith. He subsequently went on to decisively defeat the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse in the Battle of Vouillé in 507. After Clovis' death, his kingdom was partitioned among his four sons, and over the next century this tradition of partition continued. Even when several Merovingian kings simultaneously ruled their own realms, the kingdom — not unlike the late Roman Empire — was conceived of as a single entity ruled collectively by these several kings (in their own realms) among whom a turn of events could result in the reunification of the whole kingdom under a single ruler. Leadership among the early Merovingians was probably based on mythical descent (reflected in Fredegar's account of the Quinotaur) and alleged divine patronage, expressed in terms of continued military success.
Upon Clovis' death in 511, the Merovingian kingdom included all the Franks and all of Gaul but Burgundy. To the outside, the kingdom, even when divided under different kings, maintained unity and conquered Burgundy in 534. After the fall of the Ostrogoths, the Franks also conquered Provence. After this their borders with Italy (ruled by the Lombards since 568) and Visigothic Septimania remained fairly stable.
Internally, the kingdom was divided among Clovis' sons and later among his grandsons and frequently saw war between the different kings, who quickly allied among themselves and against one another. The death of one king created conflict between the surviving brothers and the deceased's sons, with differing outcomes. Later, conflicts were intensified by the personal feud around Brunhilda. However, yearly warfare often did not constitute general devastation but took on an almost ritual character, with established 'rules' and norms.
The frequent wars had weakened royal power, while the aristocracy had made great gains and procured enormous concessions from the kings in return for their support. These concessions saw the very considerable power of the king parcelled out and retained by leading comites and duces (counts and dukes). Very little is in fact known about the course of the 7th century due to a scarcity of sources, but Merovingians remained in power until the 8th century.
Clotaire's son Dagobert I (died 639), who had sent troops to Spain and pagan Slavic territories in the east, is commonly seen as the last powerful Merovingian King. Later kings are known as rois fainéants ("do-nothing kings"), despite the fact that only the last two kings did nothing. The kings, even strong-willed men like Dagobert II and Chilperic II, were not the main agents of political conflicts, leaving this role to their mayors of the palace, who increasingly substituted their own interest for their king's. Many kings came to the throne at a young age and died in the prime of life, weakening royal power further.
The conflict between mayors was ended when the Austrasians under Pepin the Middle triumphed in 687 in the Battle of Tertry. After this, Pepin, though not a king, was the political ruler of the Frankish kingdom and left this position as a heritage to his sons. It was now the sons of the mayor that divided the realm among each other under the rule of a single king.
After Pepin's long rule, his son Charles Martel assumed power, fighting against nobles and his own stepmother. His reputation for ruthlessness further undermined the king's position. Under Charles Martel's leadership, the Franks defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours in 732, limiting the expansion of Islam onto the European continent. During the last years of his life he even ruled without a king, though he did not assume royal dignity. His sons Carloman and Pepin again appointed a Merovingian figure-head to stem rebellion on the kingdom's periphery. However, in 751, Pepin finally displaced the last Merovingian and, with the support of the nobility and the blessing of Pope Zachary, became one of the Frankish Kings.
The Merovingians derived their royal power from their long hair, which was thought to confer upon them martial prowess. Childeric III, the last Merovingian king, was notable for his thick golden-red hair, which was said to reach to his lower back. This was unusual; it was customary for men of the Early Middle Ages to wear their hair at or near the shoulders, which made Childeric's hair exceptionally long even by Merovingian standards. Childeric's mane, with its striking color and length, was a major asset to him (and possibly his greatest claim to hold the throne) at a time when the Merovingian dynasty was faltering. As such, the usurper Pepin made shearing Childeric his foremost strategic goal, correctly reasoning that the psychological impact of cutting Childeric's famed hair would be more critical in deposing the dynasty.
When Childeric was captured he was forcibly tonsured. It is not clear if Pepin himself wielded the scissors, but after a brief struggle the king's hair was severed. Pepin shortly thereafter ordered the shearing of Childeric's teenage son Theuderic, whose blonde hair was reported to reach nearly to his waist.
The impact of these twin haircuts was immediate; both Childeric and Theuderic, whose exceptionally long hair endowed them with royal mystique in the eyes of their countrymen, were rendered ineligible to hold the throne.
Childeric and Theuderic, bereft of their long hair (Pepin was said to have kept the two severed manes as trophies), were sent to live in monastic confinement. With Pepin, the Carolingians ruled the Franks as Kings.
Government and law
The Merovingian king redistributed conquered wealth among his followers, both material wealth and the land including its endentured peasantry, though these powers were not absolute. "When he died his property was divided equally among his heirs as though it were private property: "the kingdom was a form of patrimony" . Some scholars have attributed this to the Merovingians lacking a sense of res publica, but other historians have criticized this view as an oversimplification.
The kings appointed magnates to be comites (counts), charging them with defense, administration, and the judgment of disputes. This happened against the backdrop of a newly isolated Europe without its Roman systems of taxation and bureaucracy, the Franks having taken over administration as they gradually penetrated into the thoroughly Romanised west and south of Gaul. The counts had to provide armies, enlisting their milites and endowing them with land in return. These armies were subject to the king's call for military support. Annual national assemblies of the nobles and their armed retainers decided major policies of war making. The army also acclaimed new kings by raising them on its shields continuing an ancient practice that made the king leader of the warrior-band. Furthermore, the king was expected to support himself with the products of his private domain (royal demesne), which was called the fisc. This system developed in time into feudalism, and expectations of royal self-sufficiency lasted until the Hundred Years' War. Trade declined with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and agricultural estates were mostly self-sufficient. The remaining international trade was dominated by Middle Eastern merchants, often Jewish Radanites.
Merovingian law was not universal law equally applicable to all; it was applied to each man according to his origin: Ripuarian Franks were subject to their own Lex Ripuaria, codified at a late date , while the so-called Lex Salica (Salic Law) of the Salian clans, first tentatively codified in 511  was invoked under medieval exigencies as late as the Valois era. In this the Franks lagged behind the Burgundians and the Visigoths, that they had no universal Roman-based law. In Merovingian times, law remained in the rote memorisation of rachimburgs, who memorised all the precedents on which it was based, for Merovingian law did not admit of the concept of creating new law, only of maintaining tradition. Nor did its Germanic traditions offer any code of civil law required of urbanised society, such as Justinian I caused to be assembled and promulgated in the Byzantine Empire. The few surviving Merovingian edicts are almost entirely concerned with settling divisions of estates among heirs.
Religion and culture
Christianity was introduced to the Franks by their contact with Gallo-Romanic culture and later further spread by monks. The most famous of these missionaries is St. Columbanus, an Irish monk who enjoyed great influence with Queen Balthild. Merovingian kings and queens used the newly forming ecclesiastical power structure to their advantage. Monasteries and episcopal seats were shrewdly awarded to elites who supported the dynasty. Extensive parcels of land were donated to monasteries to exempt those lands from royal taxation and to preserve them within the family. The family maintained dominance over the monastery by appointing family members as abbots. Extra sons and daughters who could not be married off were sent to monasteries so that they would not threaten the inheritance of older children. This pragmatic use of monasteries ensured close ties between elites and monastic properties.
Numerous Merovingians who served as bishops and abbots, or who generously funded abbeys and monasteries, were rewarded with sainthood. The outstanding handful of Frankish saints who were not of the Merovingian kinship nor the family alliances that provided Merovingian counts and dukes, deserve a closer inspection for that fact alone: like Gregory of Tours, they were almost without exception from the Gallo-Roman aristocracy in regions south and west of Merovingian control. The most characteristic form of Merovingian literature is represented by the Lives of the saints. Merovingian hagiography did not set out to reconstruct a biography in the Roman or the modern sense, but to attract and hold popular devotion by the formulas of elaborate literary exercises, through which the Frankish Church channeled popular piety within orthodox channels, defined the nature of sanctity and retained some control over the posthumous cults that developed spontaneously at burial sites, where the life-force of the saint lingered, to do good for the votary.
The vitae et miracula, for impressive miracles were an essential element of Merovingian hagiography, were read aloud on saints’ feast days. Many Merovingian saints, and the majority of female saints, were local ones, venerated only within strictly circumscribed regions; their cults were revived in the High Middle Ages, when the population of women in religious orders increased enormously. Judith Oliver noted five Merovingian female saints in the diocese of Liège who appeared in a long list of saints in a late 13th-century psalter-hours.
The characteristics they shared with many Merovingian female saints may be mentioned: Regenulfa of Incourt, a 7th-century virgin in French-speaking Brabant of the ancestral line of the dukes of Brabant fled from a proposal of marriage to live isolated in the forest, where a curative spring sprang forth at her touch; Ermelindis of Meldert, a 6th-century virgin related to Pepin I, inhabited several isolated villas; Begga of Andenne, the mother of Pepin II, founded seven churches in Andenne during her widowhood; the purely legendary "Oda of Amay" was drawn into the Carolingian line by spurious genealogy in her 13th-century vita, which made her the mother of Arnulf, Bishop of Metz, but she has been identified with the historical Saint Chrodoara; finally, the widely-venerated Gertrude of Nivelles, sister of Begga in the Carolingian ancestry, was abbess of a nunnery established by her mother. The vitae of six late Merovingian saints that illustrate the political history of the era have been translated and edited by Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, and presented with Liber Historiae Francorum, to provide some historical context.
Significant Merovingian saints
- Guntram, king of Burgundy (died 592);
- Sigebert III, king of Austrasia (died ca. 656);
- Dagobert II, king of Austrasia, son of the former (died 679)
Queens and abbesses
- Genovefa, virgin of Paris (died 502)
- Clothilde, queen of the Franks (died 544/45)
- Monegund, widow and recluse of Tours (died 544)
- Radegund, Thuringian princess who founded a monastery at Poitiers (died 587)
- Rusticula, abbess of Arles (died 632)
- Cesaria II, abbess of St Jean of Arles (died ca 550)
- Glodesind, abbess in Metz (died ca 600)
- Burgundofara, abbess of Moutiers (died 645)
- Sadalberga, abbess of Laon (died 670)
- Rictrude, founding abbess of Marchiennes (died 688)
- Itta, founding abbess of Nivelles (died 652)
- Begga, abbess of Andenne (died 693)
- Gertrude of Nivelles, abbess of Nivelles (died 658) presented in The Life of St. Geretrude (in Fouracre and Gerberding 1996)
- Aldegonde, abbess of Mauberges (died ca 684)
- Waltrude, abbess of Mons (died ca 688)
- Balthild, queen of the Franks (died ca 680), presented in The Life of Lady Bathild, Queen of the Franks (in Fouracre and Gerberding 1996)
- Eustadiola, widow of Bourges (died 684)
- Bertilla, abbess of Chelles (died ca. 700)
- Anstrude, abbess of Laon (died before 709)
- Austreberta, abbess of Pavilly (died 703)
Bishops and abbots
- Amandus (c. 584 – 675), one of the great Christian Saints of Flanders.
- Arnulf, Bishop of Metz
- Audouin of Rouen, presented in The Life of Audoin, Bishop of Rouen (in Fouracre and Gerberding 1996);
- Aunemond, presented in The Deeds of Aunemond (in Fouracre and Gerberding 1996);
- Eligius (c. 588 – 660) chief counsellor to Dagobert I and bishop of Noyon-Tournai
- Gregory of Tours, Bishop of Tours and historian;
- Hubertus, Apostle of the Ardennes and first Bishop of Liège.
- Lambert (c. 636 – c. 700), bishop of Maastricht (Tongeren)
- Leodegar, Bishop of Autun; presented in The Suffering of Ludegar (in Fouracre and Gerberding 1996);
- Praejectus The Suffering of Praejectus (in Fouracre and Gerberding 1996);
- Prætextatus, Bishop of Rouen and friend of Gregory;
- Remigius, Bishop of Reims who baptized Clovis I
Historiography and sources
A limited number of contemporary sources describe the history of the Merovingian Franks, but those that survive cover the entire period from Clovis' succession to Childeric's deposition. First among chroniclers of the age is the canonised bishop of Tours, Gregory of Tours. His Decem Libri Historiarum is a primary source for the reigns of the sons of Clotaire II and their descendants until Gregory's own death in 594.
The next major source, far less organised than Gregory's work, is the Chronicle of Fredegar, begun by Fredegar but continued by unknown authors. It covers the period from 584 to 641, though its continuators, under Carolingian patronage, extended it to 768, after the close of the Merovingian era. It is the only primary narrative source for much of its period. Since its restoration in 1938 it has been housed in the Ducal Collection of the Staatsbibliothek Binkelsbingen. The only other major contemporary source is the Liber Historiae Francorum, an anonymous adaptation of Gregory's work apparently ignorant of Fredegar's chronicle: its author(s) ends with a reference to Theuderic IV's sixth year, which would be 727. It was widely read; though it was undoubtedly a piece of Arnulfing work, and its biases cause it to mislead (for instance, concerning the two decades between the controversies surrounding mayors Grimoald the Elder and Ebroin: 652-673).
Aside from these chronicles, the only surviving reservoires of historiography are letters, capitularies, and the like. Clerical men such as Gregory and Sulpitius the Pious were letter-writers, though relatively few letters survive. Edicts, grants, and judicial decisions survive, as well as the famous Lex Salica, mentioned above. From the reign of Clotaire II and Dagobert I survive many examples of the royal position as the supreme justice and final arbiter. There also survive biographical Lives of saints of the period, for instance Saint Eligius and Leodegar, written soon after their subjects' deaths.
Finally, archaeological evidence cannot be ignored as a source for information, at the very least, on the Frankish mode of life. Among the greatest discoveries of lost objects was the 1653 accidental uncovering of Childeric I's tomb in the church of Saint Brice in Tournai. The grave objects included a golden bull's head and the famous golden insects (perhaps bees, cicadas, aphids, or flies) on which Napoleon modelled his coronation cloak. In 1957, the sepulchre of Clotaire I's second wife, Aregund, was discovered in Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. The funerary clothing and jewellery were reasonably well-preserved, giving us a look into the costume of the time.
Byzantine coinage was in use in Francia before Theudebert I began minting his own money at the start of his reign. He was the first to issue distinctly Merovingian coinage. On gold coins struck in his royal workshop, Theodebert is shown in the pearl-studded regalia of the Byzantine emperor; Childebert I is shown in profile in the ancient style, wearing a toga and a diadem. The solidus and triens were minted in Francia between 534 and 679. The denarius (or denier) appeared later, in the name of Childeric II and various non-royals around 673–675. A Carolingian denarius replaced the Merovingian one, and the Frisian penning, in Gaul from 755 to the 11th century.
Yitzhak Hen stated that it seems certain that the Gallo-Roman population was far greater than the Frankish population in Merovingian Gaul, especially in regions south of the Seine, with most of the Frankish settlements being located along the Lower and Middle Rhine. The further south in Gaul one traveled, the weaker the Frankish influence became. Hen finds hardly any evidence for Frankish settlements south of the Loire. The absence of Frankish literature sources suggests that the Frankish language was forgotten rather rapidly after the early stage of the dynasty. Hen believes that for Neustria, Burgundy and Aquitania, colloquial Latin remained the spoken language in Gaul throughout the Merovingian period and remained so even well in to the Carolingian period. However, Urban T. Holmes estimated that a Germanic language was spoken as a second tongue by public officials in western Austrasia and Neustria as late as the 850s, and that it completely disappeared as a spoken language from these regions only during the 10th century.
Merovingians in pseudo-history and popular culture
The Merovingians are extensively featured in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, in which they are claimed to be descended from Jesus and survived their deposition in 751. The book was later revealed to be based on a hoax originating with Pierre Plantard in the mid-20th century.
- Beyerle, F and R. Buchner: Lex Ribuaria in MGH, Hannover 1954.
- Eugen Ewig: Die Merowinger und das Frankenreich. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2001.
- Patrick J. Geary: Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Kaiser, Reinhold: Das römische Erbe und das Merowingerreich, (Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte 26) (München, 2004)
- Rouche, Michael: "Private life conquers State and Society" in Paul Veyne (ed.), A History of Private Life: 1. From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1987.
- Werner, Karl Ferdinand: Die Ursprünge Frankreichs bis zum Jahr 1000, Stuttgart 1989.
- Oman, Charles: The Dark Ages 476-918, London, 1908.
- Wood, Ian: The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751, New York: Longman Press, 1994.
- Effros, Bonnie. Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World. Penn State Press, 2002. ISBN 0-271-02196-9.
- Charles Knight, The English Cyclopaedia: Volume IV, (London : 1867); p. 733 "We have no circumstantial account of this important event, except that Pepin was anointed at Soissons, in March 752, by Boniface, bishop of Mainz, called the Apostle of Germany, before the assembly of the nation."
- Claudio Rendina & Paul McCusker, The Popes: Histories and Secrets, (New York : 2002), p. 145.
- Babcock, Philip (ed). Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1993: 1415
- Archibald R. Lewis, "The Dukes in the Regnum Francorum, A.D. 550-751." Speculum 51.3 (July 1976, pp. 381-410) p. 384.
- Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (Routledge, London, 2003)
- Rouche 1987, p. 420
- Beyerle and Buchner 1954
- Rouche 1987, p. 423
- J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Frankish Church,, V: "The Merovingian Saints" (1983), pp. 75-94.
- Judith Oliver, "'Gothic' Women and Merovingian Desert Mothers" Gesta 32.2 (1993), pp. 124-134
- Oliver 1993:127.
- Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640-720 (Manchester University) 1996.
- Hen, Y. (1995). Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, A.D. 481-751. pp. 24-25. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-10347-3
- U. T. Holmes, A. H. Schutz (1938), A History of the French Language, p. 29, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, ISBN 0-8196-0191-8
- Merovingian art and architecture
- The Oxford Merovingian Page.
- Dr Deborah Vess: Merovingian and Carolingian bibliography, sources and web links.
- Marek, Miroslav. "Genealogy of the Merovingian dynasty from Genealogy.eu". Genealogy.EU. External link in
- Merovingian Archaeology at the Museum of the Dark Ages (France).