A retrospective on France's 'First Dynasty.'
In the first episode of this podcast I talked about how the words ‘France’ and ‘French’ are not set, but are ever-evolving concepts. Related to this is the question: when did ‘France’ begin? There are certainly precursors to France, going all the way back to the first humans. In the 19th and 20th centuries French historians tried to connect their heritage to ‘nos ancêtres les Gaulois,’ ‘our Gallic ancestors.’ But most histories view the Franks as the beginning of France and the French. The Franks were the last major migrating people to become dominant in the land that we now call France. It is their names, their customs, their history and a version of their language that developed over time in a straight line to the present. While French people inherited many things from the Gauls and the pre-Celtic peoples, the Franks are generally viewed as the direct cultural, historical and biological ancestors of the French. It’s a bit hard to argue against it, when after all, France takes its name from Francia and the French, from the Franks.
Naturally then, the Merovingians are often called France’s first dynasty. From Clovis I to Childeric III, this dynasty, named after the semi-legendary king Merovech, led the Franks to expand Francia beyond western Germany and modern-day Belgium, to encompass a vast area that included nearly all of modern-day metropolitan France. Such an accomplishment would earn this dynasty praise and a place of pride within French memory, right? Well, Clovis I has a pretty good reputation as the guy who united the Franks and founded Francia as a powerful kingdom. Clovis I doesn’t have the same respect or fame that some other country’s founders get like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and perhaps even in France he isn’t universally-known, but among those who know him he is at least an important footnote on how France got started.
The rest of the Merovingians have a reputation for corruption, incompetence, brutality and unchristian behavior. This primarily comes from Carolingian propaganda. When Pepin the Short assumed power he slandered the Merovingians as sinful do-nothings. Even a thousand years later the slander has stuck, since the Merovingians from Clothar I through Clothar II were engaged in self-destructive civil wars, while the descendants of Dagobert I were largely figureheads. In sum, of the nearly two-dozen Merovingian kings, only Clovis I, Clothar II and Dagobert I have good reputations, while the rest of the dynasty are viewed negatively. Some view the first half of the dynasty as maintaining a barbarian’s ruling mindset: taking multiple wives and concubines, fathering as many children as possible and splitting the country up between sons. Others view them as a simple product of their time. The early medieval period, long-known as the Dark Ages, was a brutal era. The Roman Empire fragmented, and migrating peoples overturned the established order. Chaos reigned and order was maintained by sword and lance. How could the Merovingians be any different?
So how are we to look upon the Merovingians? Do they deserve the bad reputation they have, outside of maybe the three powerful kings?
To properly reevaluate this dynasty I think we need to start by looking at the challenges they faced. There were dozens of major groups of peoples in post-Roman Europe. In Clovis I’s lifetime Francia was occupied by the Burgundians, the Visigoths, the Alans, the Armoricans and the Romans in the Kingdom of Soissons. To the north and east were the Frisians, Thuringians, Jutes, Angles, Saxons and Alamans. Finally the Ostrogoths settled in Italy before the Lombards encroached on their territory. Yet of all these, the Franks became the most powerful and dominant during the Merovingian period. The Franks accomplished this either due to the martial brilliance of their leaders, or due to the Franks’ sheer size relative to their neighbors. If the latter were the case, it shows how capable the leaders were since they kept a huge group of people together. Few of the new European peoples controlled a large country with relatively stable borders like the Franks did and none did so for as long. The closest were the Visigoths in Hispania, though many of them were forcibly pushed southward by the conquering Franks! Only the Eastern Roman Empire could compete with this great early medieval kingdom.
One of the major challenges facing the post-Roman world was instability caused by decentralized rule. The Romans could maintain a large empire because of the centrality of Rome itself. It was a metropolis unlike anything the ancient world had seen. Is location at the midpoint of the empire, vast road networks and sea routes meant that bureaucrats in Rome kept appraised of events throughout the empire and could coordinate famine relief and troop movements when necessary. The fall of Rome meant that large cities became targets for raiders and roads were left to decay and were plagued by bandits. Famine in a city meant flight or death. The most populous city in Roman Gaul was Lugdunum with possibly 200,000 people. During the Merovingian period the most populous city was Paris with a population of perhaps 25,000. Roman leaders could control a handful of powerful cities in a region, which in turn dominated the countryside. In post-Roman Europe, cities were small pinpricks in a sea of small towns.
Yet, the Merovingians managed to rule over this vastly different country. The local levies defended small towns, while Frankish lords fought off larger threats. Finally, the king and his vassals kept enemy raiders at bay while going on the offensive against potential enemies. Furthermore, they oversaw a competent judicial system that reached across the country and into these small localities. Royal-appointees travelled to small towns and administered justice. Sometimes even kings travelled to small towns and dispensed justice. Clothar II was famous for doing this in Burgundy, which ensured the love of the people and the anger of nobles who resented a popular and powerful lord. These legal connections instilled cultural norms and basic recognition of literacy. Bureaucrats even developed their own beautiful, distinctive writing form, known as Merovingian script. They managed to keep their dispersed, rural community united through these new administrative connections.
Additionally, Francia doesn’t seem to have had either the anti-tax riots or the roaming poor bandits of the Roman period. The Merovingians didn’t leave behind the massive building projects that Rome did, but they also didn’t squeeze peasants into murdering tax collectors or wandering the countryside in mobs that pillaged to survive. If a Frank did fall into utter poverty they could always sell themselves into slavery and acquire subsistence from their new master; and as a bonus, Franks treated their slaves much better than Romans did. The Merovingians could not recreate the urban glory of Rome, but they did manage to do what Rome and most of their barbarian neighbors couldn’t; they developed a cohesive, workable medieval system. Merovingian Francia developed bipartite manorialism which became one of the major European medieval social and economic organizational tools.
Another challenge facing early medieval peoples was over religion. In 325 at the Council of Nicea, Constantine tried to create a unified theology for Christianity. Despite his consistent persecution of those sects deemed heretical, Christianity never coalesced into one faith. By 476, Western and northern Europe were divided between Catholic Christianity and Arianism. Catholicism was supported by the papacy in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire, while Arianism was the majority belief of most barbarians. Clovis I couldn’t have known that adopting Catholicism would benefit his country in the long-term; according to the record, his wife Clotilde convinced him to convert due to genuine piety. What’s remarkable is that the Merovingians managed to develop a unified religious system that served the spiritual needs of their people, developed Francia’s culture and literacy, and legitimized Frankish rule.
From the outset, Merovingian monarchs patronized monasteries, churches, shrines and holy sites. These royals also recognized the importance of religious authority and some even became bishops, abbots or abbesses. They invited noted missionaries such as Columbanus, into their lands and proselytized to what is now Germany, Belgium, Ireland and Britain, developing important economic and cultural connections. By converting the Frisians, Thuringians and west Germans the Franks could conquer and rule over them with spiritual authority. This spiritual power even influenced Hispania to convert to Catholicism. While Hispania, Britain and other regions fought over religion, Francia developed a largely unified, complex religious outlook and organization that maintained order, produced culture and exerted powerful influence to all of its neighbors.
A third problem facing early medieval states was economic decline. Roman infrastructure could not be replicated and people had to spend more of their time working for subsistence than for production. All Atlantic-facing areas were poorer than the Mediterranean-facing countries, which had access to wealthier and more extensive trade routes. Francia had a few sizeable cities on the southern coast, but since Septimania had massive fortresses most of the southern coast was out of Francia’s hands. Yet, the Franks were easily the richest of all the Atlantic-facing countries, and could marry their daughters off to foreign lords laden down with chests of gold. Foreign conquest, combined with raids into northern Hispania, northern Italy and western Germany pumped wealth into the country. Outside of force, the Merovingians maintained trade routes through their vast country and with the Byzantine Empire, through which they traded swords for Chinese silks and other exotic goods.
The Merovingians made many mistakes during their rule, but by comparison, look how long their dynasty and country lasted. Italy was a pockmarked battleground that was repeatedly invaded by new groups of people establishing their own polities. Ireland and Britain were split into numerous petty kingdoms. To their east, many peoples were semi-migratory or lived in poorly-developed, unstable polities based around powerful military leaders. The only neighboring kingdom that could compare was Visigothic Hispania, which fell around 714-716. The Franks faced many challenges but they developed more culture, power, influence and wealth than any people of the great migration period, except maybe the Visigoths. Meanwhile, Francia was the greatest European kingdom of its age, dwarfed only by Byzantium in the east.
So now that we’ve talked about the challenges the Merovingians’ faced and their success, let’s talk about their failures. Here we can divide the Merovingians in half, with Clovis I to Dagobert I representing the powerful warrior-kings, and Clovis II to Childeric III being the roi fainéants. The most evident criticism of the warrior-kings was that they divided the realm between their sons, which led to civil wars that weakened Francia. These divisions genuinely hurt Francia as the ambitious sons fought for their fathers’ territory, but we have to remember there wasn’t a good alternative. The Merovingians had to have numerous children in order to expand their house. The many children became bishops, abbots or abbesses, married Frankish or foreign nobles and bolstered the family’s power. If the Merovingians didn’t have many children than their small family could be outnumbered.
Moreover, while we in the present might say, “Why not just designate one person to be king and the other sons could get lesser positions?” Well, look how that worked out in the Roman Empire. One-person rule doesn’t ensure stability, as designating a leader showed the Praetorian Guard and the army that there was nothing special about a Caesar and he could be replaced at will. Conversely, monarchs who get their position through birth are often incompetent and incapable of meeting the needs of their country. Early medieval Europe was rural and marked by bad communication and transportation. Most people were barely literate or even illiterate, they had very little access to education, and spent most of their lives working for their own subsistence. These people were incapable of an advanced, stable, relatively equitable political system. In an era of continual, ever-present violence, a political leader’s job was protecting his people and that meant they had to be a warrior and had to be present when conflict broke out. Importantly, these warrior-kings needed to be strong enough to smash external and internal threats, as the Merovingians defended their subjects and discouraged revolt. The civil wars did weaken Francia and for that the Merovingians are at fault, but given that there was no [necessarily better] alternative this dynasty was not uniquely bloodthirsty or corrupt. Individual kings like Clothar I may have overdone the whole kinslaying thing, but as a whole the dynasty was not necessarily any worse than any other during the period.
Now we need to talk about the rois fainéants. Carolingian propaganda holds they were a corrupt, lazy and incompetent series of rulers that were incapable of overseeing Francia. I agree that they were incapable…because they were children. When I was 9 and wearing my Ninja Turtles costume I wasn’t ready to rule a kingdom, how could we expect any of them to do so? Meanwhile, these later kings had little power by this time due to nobles usurping power from children, so we can’t blame corruption in the kingdom on them. Additionally, some later Merovingians had reputations as competent, benevolent leaders, as is the case with Childebert III, also known as Childebert the Just for his fair and wise judgements.
So now that we’ve looked at the Merovingian dynasty’s successes, failures and the challenges that defined them, what is their legacy? Religiously, their rule was a high point as Francia’s missionaries proselytized to the British Isles, Central Europe and supported Catholics in Hispania and Italy, making it one of the most religiously impactful countries in the world at the time. Culturally, the Merovingians developed poetry, art and even new writing styles, and helped maintain and develop literacy. They adapted their law and administrative system to fit the rural landscape. They were economically vibrant, and the most successful Atlantic-facing country. They were a military powerhouse and the most dominant force west of Byzantium. Far from the failure that they are often depicted as, the Merovingians took a large grouping of different tribes and united them through culture, religion, law and administrative innovations. The Franks settled into one place and established a country more successfully than any of the other peoples that moved west through Europe during the Great Migration Period. This incredible accomplishment owes a lot to the Merovingians.
Though, we can’t give them all the credit as often the Merovingians made great decisions for unrelated reasons; Clovis I converted his people due to the personal arguments of his wife, not any long-term plan to ally with Byzantium and Italy. Often Merovingians joined the church because they wanted to make amends for their families’ sins, as was the case with Clotilde abandoning politics to focus more on religion after her son Clothar I murdered two of her grandsons, or when Radegund fled from Clothar I and sought sanctuary at Poitier (if you can’t tell, Clothar I was a bad guy). Meanwhile, the Merovingians largely adopted their laws from the Salic Law and Roman Law. Through wisdom, force, luck and happenstance, the Merovingians built on what came before and left behind one of the greatest kingdoms of the period. In retrospect, this was truly incredible since during the Late Roman Empire, Gaul was one of the poorest regions, wracked with political chaos, poorer infrastructure and consistent raids and brigandry. But while post-Roman Italy, the Balkans and North Africa became poorer and weaker, in some ways Francia exceeded late-Roman Gaul. Even though the dynasty did not last, it left behind one of the greatest medieval kingdoms in Europe.
Alright that’s it for the main series episodes this year. When we return in January, we’ll do a deep-dive of the Battle of Poitiers, and then follow the Carolingian dynasty and their rule over Francia. Thanks for making this another great year. If you enjoy our content please consider becoming a patron or making a one-time donation as it really keeps us going, tell your friends and family about us, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and have yourselves a Happy Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, National Maple Syrup [US Dec. 17] Day, Winter Solstice, or whatever gives you joy and meaning. This is Gary and I will see you next year.