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Merovingian Anarchy by Gregory of Tours

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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As mentioned previously, Gregory of Tours was a Catholic bishop who lived in France in the 6th century. This section includes the beginning of Book V, in which Gregory begins to tell the history of the Merovingians in the 6th century.

Definitions

Background

As explained in the previous section, the Franks were a nomadic barbarian group from central Asia who invaded Europe during the fourth century. They began to settled down by the fifth century and lived in a sedentary monarchy under the the Merovingian dynasty founded by Clovis (ruled 481-511). Clovis converted to Christianity in 496, thanks mainly to the influence of his wife, Clothilda of Burgundy.

Following Clovis' death, his sons fought amonst themselves and with other Frankish nobles from 511-558. They divided the Frankish kingdom and eventually one of them, Lothar, defeated the other three. Lothar's son Sigibert (ruled 561-575) inherited his father's kingdom but died before he could produce an adult heir. More warfare followed and Sigibert's son Childebert (ruled 575-596) and his brother Chilperic divided the Frankish kingdom in two. Childperic never ruled a kingdom himself, but he enabled his son Lothar II to inherit the eastern part of the Frankish kingdom, and Lothar II's son Dagobert reunited the Frankish kingdoms about 630. All of this shows that the Franks had a form of government led by a king, but they did not have a way to transfer power peacefully from one generation to the next.

Map of Merovingian Europe
Merovingian Europe
Wood carving of a medieval battle
A medieval battle scene

During this period of intermittent civil war from 511 to 751, the class of Frankish nobles developed. Successful warriors acquired land and followers, and intermarried with descendants of Roman senators, who still possessed prestige even though they no longer had the backing of a strong Roman government. The result was a class of nobles that provided not only military leaders, but also most religious leaders, including bishops, in the Frankish kingdom. The Frankish nobles, each with his own army, provided many challenges to Merovingian centralization and thus Frankish kings (the central government) had trouble collecting taxes or obtaining soldiers from nobles with which to fight non-Frankish opponents.

Evidence of Merovingian royal weakness can be found in the small size of their governments, as Frankish kings had few officials. The most important official was the mayor of the palace, a noble selected by the king to serve as an intermediary to the other nobles. The mayor of the palace represented noble interests by advising the king on what was possible and impossible. This was important because it provided a means for nobles to disagree with the king without having to challenge the king directly, since that could lead to accusations of treason, a war to defend one's honor, and even civil war if other nobles picked sides. In the event of a serious dispute between the king and the nobles, the king could attempt to resolve things by replacing the mayor of the palace instead of going to war against one or more of his nobles.

Over time, as the Frankish mayors of the palace became skilled at managing relations between weak kings and rebellious nobles, they became more powerful than kings themselves. One mayor of the palace, Pippin II, began to create a new basis for centralized Frankish authority in 687 when he simultaneously served as mayor of the palace in two different Frankish provinces during a period of civil war. Later, his son Charles Martel, a mayor of the palace during 714-741, gained a great reputation by leading the army that defeated a Muslim invasion force near Tours in 732. In 751, Charles Martel's son Pippin III (Pepin the Short) asked the pope to recognize him as the true king of the Franks, which he did, and by inheriting his father's throne, Pippin III's son Charlemagne founded a new line of kings, the Carolingian dynasty.

Questions

  1. Following the death of King Sigibert, his five-year old son Childebert was proclaimed king. What kind of king would a five-year old boy become? Who was in charge of the government?
  2. What kinds of things symbolized wealth to the Merovingians?
  3. What was the function of the Keeper of the Privy Seal in the Frankish court?
  4. Who were more powerful in this reading, church officials or nobles?
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