There are very few still-existing histories dating to the Merovingian period. Gregory of Tours’ Histories and The Chronicle of Fredegar are the only long-form histories, and both were written by men and were mostly about men. Theirs were histories of great kings and saints, which largely excluded women. When women do emerge in the histories they are usually depicted as godly widows and nuns, or jezebels deceiving the hearts of men and imparting chaos upon the realm by unnaturally asserting themselves into politics.
Despite this, historians can still decipher some aspects of life for elite Merovingian women in these and other primary sources such as the poems of Venantius Fortunatus, or the Austrasian Letters, a series of correspondence between nobles. While women’s history has often been occluded, women have always played an important role in the development of society. Moreover, Merovingian women were inordinately powerful and probably had a greater role than the Gallo-Romans who came before them, or the Carolingian women who came after. It would be wrong to call the Merovingian period a golden age for women; it really wasn’t a golden age for anything, if you believe the chroniclers. But Merovingian Francia was an unsettled society. Incoming Franks slowly adopted Gallo-Roman laws and customs, while the Catholic Church struggled to develop coherency and hierarchy within the post-Roman world. The relative fungibility of politics and the law, combined with a weak and disorganized church meant that Frankish women in the early to mid-Merovingian period wielded remarkable power and influence.
Frankish women were important shapers of society since before their settlement in Western Europe. Before Clovis I conquered what we call France and settled his people, the Franks were semi-nomadic, and men were warriors, raiders and occasional traders. Their frequent movement meant that Frankish men brought their women clothing and jewelry from across Europe, notably brooches which the Franks became famous for. Women adopted these styles and developed their own, making colorful and elaborate clothing and finery of precious metals and jewels. By the time Clovis I became King of all the Franks, Frankish women were among the most fashionable in all of Europe. One woman, Arnedgundis, was buried at Saint-Denis with a purple dress, a red cloak decorated with gold thread embroidery, two gold and garnet disc brooches, a long gold and garnet dress pin, two gold earrings, two hairpins, a large gold filigree plaque-buckle, golden buckles and strap-ends from shoes and cross-garters and a gold ring. Meanwhile, Queen Bathilde wore a chemise made of Chinese silk. Most women, even many nobles, couldn’t afford this level of haute culture, but Frankish women developed remarkable clothing and accessories, including fashion trends. Francia’s close connections with the Byzantine Empire led noblewomen to wear golden earrings in the eastern style.
The fashionable Frankish women made a stark contrast to their drab men, whose clothing was made to be practical. Men didn’t want to be perceived as effeminate and so they didn’t experiment as much with fashion. Instead, Franks wore trousers and tunics which stretched down to the ankles in front and back for coverage, but only came down to the knees on the sides, allowing them to easily maneuver in combat. When Franks went off to war they could lie on the ground and sleep in these tunics since they were essentially thin sleeping bags. At court or in ceremonies men might wear togas.
Speaking of court, women were regular fixtures there where they wooed nobles on behalf of their more brutish husbands so that they didn’t fight each other over land or titles. Gregory of Tours and other strict moralists attacked noblewomen for beguiling men, but they kept their positions as informal diplomats and peacemakers all the same. Noblewomen were also important advisers to their husbands, as was the case with the Queens Clotilde, Fredegund, Brunhilda and many others.
Women were much more public figures compared to the Roman period where they were shut in their estates. Noble women patronized the arts and learning, even commissioning manuscripts which bolstered literacy throughout the kingdoms. The histories underestimate how much women contributed to Frankish culture since female patrons had to include credit for their husbands when they sponsored artists, while husbands did not have to share their glory. Finally, women were instrumental in church formation. While men built the frames of the great churches, women often decorated their interiors.
Women regularly oversaw the managing of estates, particularly when their husbands were off to war. They could become fabulously wealthy as Gregory of Tours notes in a story about Fredegund’s dowry for her daughter Rigunth. He says,
“[King Chilperic] invited the Frankish leaders and his loyal subjects to celebrate the engagement of his daughter. Then he handed her over to the Visigothic envoys, providing her with a tremendous dowry. Her mother added a vast weight of gold and silver, and many fine clothes. When he saw this, King Chilperic thought that he had nothing left at all. Queen Fredegund realized that he was upset. She turned to the Franks and said: ‘Do not imagine, men, that any of this comes from the treasures amassed by your earlier kings. Everything you see belongs to me. Your most illustrious King has been very generous to me and I have put aside quite a bit from my own resources, from the manors granted to me, and from revenues and taxes. You, too, have often given me gifts. From such sources come all the treasures which you see in front of you. None of it has been taken from the public treasury.’”
Fredegund couldn’t do anything she wanted with her vast wealth as she was expected to use it for the public good, but the fact that she controlled enough money to astound a king shows just how wealthy politically-apt and business-savvy women could become.
Women were only ever truly independent upon the death of their husbands, at which point they could manage their estates in their own right. Gregory of Tours held that widowhood was a chance for women to show their piety and devote themselves to the church rather than pursue earthly power. While a fair number of widows did retreat to a nunnery, many Frankish women held on to their fortunes or remarried and became the matriarchs of powerful families, as was the case with the early Pippinids who eventually replaced the Merovingians.
Women could also become remarkably powerful by becoming holy figures. Women with reputations for visions or miracles could attract large followings, as was the case with Monegund, who became an anchorite on her husband’s estates after the death of her two daughters. She developed such a following that she left and founded the nunnery St. Pierre-le-Puellier near St. Martin’s. Monegund’s husband tried to have her returned because he wanted to use her reputation to further himself, but she was too adored for him to assert his privilege as husband.
What was remarkable about this period was that social status often mattered more than gender. Noblemen had more power than noblewomen, but noblewomen had more power than those below them, meaning that being female was only a half-step down the social ladder. The wife of a duke could be more powerful than a comes, while queens were far more powerful than even the greatest dukes. Some women could even share male privileges under certain circumstances, as in the case with nuns during communion. Nuns and laymen had to wash their hands to receive communion while laywomen had to cover their hands. Furthermore, church seating assignment was ordered by functional roles, not gendered roles. Separating genders within a church occurred during the Carolingian period.
Marriage was a complex affair for elite Merovingian women. On the one hand, it brought them power, security, allowed them to bear children, and who knows maybe the guy was actually not terrible. But the most powerful Merovingians, namely kings, resisted the church’s calls for monogamous relationships. Which isn’t to say that Merovingian kings were polygamous; these men married one woman, who became their queen, but kept concubines in order to produce heirs. Thus, the Merovingians practiced marital exclusivity, if not sexual exclusivity, much like their fellow Germanic tribes and the pre-Christian Romans. But the church didn’t buy this loophole and as the Merovingians’ power waned and the church’s waxed they enforced a one-wife policy.
Queens had certain privileges above the concubines, and it is why many queens sought to retain their positions by marrying after their husband’s death, though another way to remain queen was to rule as regent. This is why Brunhilda tried to control who her sons married so that she would not be replaced as queen. We can’t say for certain what privileges queens had, but Clotilde and Radegund’s enormous offerings to the church and Fredegund’s dowry for Rigunth demonstrate they had some access to the royal treasury or other state income. Some queens took tax money from cities, and some nobles bought favor with queens. Moreover, a king gave his bride a dos, a financial sum, unlike his concubines who received no money. Merovingian queens were not elevated as part of a ceremony and their position came from marriage to the king, unlike in the later Carolingian period where queenship came during an official ceremony.
Merovingian descent was not strictly patrilineal, but could be matrilineal, as was the case with the early Pippinids. The Pippinids, who later became the Carolingian ruling family, claimed legitimacy through the marriage of Clothar II’s daughter Blithildis to Anspert. Pippin II inherited the Pippinid house through his mother, the wealthy and powerful Begga. It was only in the late 8th century that the Pippinids emphasized patrilineage through the male Arnulf, whereas before their right to rule came through their female ancestors. Even when women didn’t bring titles into a family they could still bring in power and wealth, as was the case with Plectrudis, the wife of Pippin II.
I’ve already discussed a number of important Frankish political figures and saints within Francia, but now let me tell you about two Frankish princesses of the late 6th century who forever changed Hispania and Britannia, and consequently altered the history of Western Europe. The first princess is Ingund, born around 567 to King Sigebert I and Queen Brunhilda. At the age of five her father was killed by assassins and both her and her mother were threatened by King Chilperic I and Queen Fredegund. In 578 at the age of 11, her mother arranged for her to be married to Hermenegild, the heir-apparent of the new Visigothic dynasty, in what she hoped would be a counter-alliance against Chilperic. Ingund left northeastern Francia and arrived in Toledo in 579 where she married Hermenegild at the age of 12.
According to Gregory, Queen Goiswintha demanded Ingund convert to Arianism like most of the Visigothic nobility but Ingund remained true to her faith. At this point, the Queen assaulted her, tore off her clothes and had her thrown into a baptismal pool. I hate to call Saint Gregory a liar again, but this story was almost certainly pro-Catholic propaganda that used the topos of Christian persecution by heathens to further the Catholic faith. In reality, all information points to Ingund being warmly received by the aged Visigothic Queen. Moreover, there were a fair number of Catholics in Hispania and by all accounts they tolerated her faith.
Shortly after the wedding Prince Hermenegild and his bride left for Seville where they ruled on behalf of King Liuvigild. While there, Ingund supported Catholicism and made a close friendship with a monk named Leander who later became the bishop of Seville. At the time Southern Hispania was very different from the north, as there were more Hispano-Romans than Visigoths, and thus more Catholics. This combined with an influx of Catholic refugees from northern Africa due to the Three Chapter Controversy, meant that Hermenegild probably ruled over a majority Catholic population. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire under Justinian I and his successors conquered much of southern Hispania in their attempt to recreate the Roman Empire. Hermenegild realized he was surrounded by Catholics who might be more loyal to one of their own nobility or to the Byzantine Empire and he understood that Arianism was falling out of fashion.
Over the next three years Ingund supported Catholicism and almost certainly played a role in her husband’s conversion. Hermenegild then rallied his Catholic supporters in a revolt against his Arian father. The revolt failed, and in 585 Hermenegild was killed when he refused to deconvert. In 584 Ingund fled to Byzantine-controlled southern Hispania and travelled to Carthage, where she died, though her son Athanagild survived and made it to Constantinople where he was raised by Emperor Maurice. Though they lost the war, Hermenegild died a martyr and his wife was a celebrated hero of the faith. By 586 Hermenegild’s brother Reccared took the throne and converted to Catholicism. Though the Arians fought to retain their place of power over the following century Hispania became a Catholic nation.
Our second princess was Bertha, daughter of Charibert I. In 580 she was married off to
Æthelberht, the pagan, Saxon king of Kent, on condition that she be allowed to practice her religion. When she left Francia for southern Britannia she brought her chaplain with her and began a proselytizing mission. There she restored a church in Canterbury which she dedicated to Saint Martin’s. That church is still standing, and is the oldest continuously-used church in the English-speaking world.
She almost certainly prompted Gregory of Tours to send forty missionaries in 596, to convert the populace. By 600, Æthelberht converted, though, like Hermenegild, it was probably for political reasons as he wanted to ally with the Merovingians. Whatever his motives, Æthelberht became a patron of Catholicism. He and his wife built many churches including Christ Church, which was later torn down and replaced with the Canterbury Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican church. Moreover, the king and queen sponsored missionaries who spread Catholicism across Britannia. Bertha is still venerated as a saint, though as in Hispania, there was a backlash against the encroaching Catholicism. Nevertheless, their actions paved the way for conversion and were instrumental in connecting the Anglo-Saxon settlers to the broader Catholic world.
Contemporary and later historians have criticized the Merovingian period as tumultuous and fractured, as kings ruled over a divided kingdom with an ill-defined state. This estimation isn’t entirely wrong, though this perspective focuses on elite men and fails to include the experiences of women. For women, particularly elite women, the Merovingian period offered remarkable opportunities. Before, Gallo-Roman society was heavily patriarchal, and I don’t say that in the modern sense of the word meaning “male-favored” but in the original sense. From the Latin ‘pater’ meaning ‘father’ and ‘archy’ meaning ‘rule,’ Roman society was a literal patriarchy, where the household was the core unit of society and the father ruled as a despot, with the power of life and death over his household. After Caesar’s invasion and Augustus’ Romanization, Gallo-Romans kept some vestiges of Celtic society such as female priests. Yet, centuries of Roman role impressed this patriarchal model onto Gaul.
When the Franks arrived in Gaul they brought with them cultured women who traded with the rest of Europe in fineries and who were accustomed to appearing at court to soothe over differences between rivals and foster alliances between households. The Franks were never egalitarian, but their society wasn’t as rigid as the Romans’, and women were freer and more powerful than women in the Roman Republic and Empire.
The Catholic Church viewed powerful women as a threat to the ‘natural order’ and it adopted many of the patriarchal Roman ideas. Moreover, scripture declared that wives should submit to their husbands. Bishops applied the ideology of patriarchy to the church and themselves the role of patriarch. Priests became ‘fathers’ of flocks, while the Bishop of Rome became the ‘Pope’ literally ‘Papa’ of the entire Catholic Church. Yet, the church was weak and divided during this period. It still contended with pagans without and heretics within. Even non-heretics weakened central church power as monks and nuns fought for spiritual autonomy. Thus the weakness of the Catholic Church, combined with Frankish culture dominating Gallo-Roman culture gave women in the region a level of power and liberty not experienced since before Caesar’s invasions.
Things began to change in the 6th century. The Catholic Church grew stronger and further centralized its rule. It subordinated monasteries to bishoprics, who answered to the Pope. Nuns were increasingly cloistered from the world so that they couldn’t exert religious power over the faithful. They were restricted or even prohibited from sponsoring banquets so that they couldn’t have a platform for popular engagement with the public. Meanwhile clerics could host banquets which they used to further their power. Later, at the Council of Ver 755 abbesses were forbidden from travelling unless granted kingly privilege, in order to curtail their influence at court, while abbots could travel freely.
As time progressed the Franks became more Romanized and adopted more patriarchal cultural and legal practices. Strangely, monogamy may have actually weakened women’s power, since in the Merovingian period the core unit of society was the extended family. The wife and the concubines shared responsibility for care of the household, which gave the wife more time to run the estate and appear at court. When the Carolingians came to power and accepted monogamy the immediate family became the central unit of society and the wife was expected to care for the household herself while her husband ruled the country. Thus, queens were increasingly pushed into the domestic sphere while kings ruled the public sphere.
Women have always been integral to history, even if histories are silent on them. Even as they lost rights and freedoms under the Carolingians, high and low women were active participants in the development of Francia. But for all its faults, Merovingian Francia may have been a relatively bright age for women, as queens, saints, abbesses and even common women could wield far more power than in the preceding and proceeding eras.
“Powerful Women in a Patriarchal Society: Examining the Social Status and Roles of Aristocratic Carolingian Women” by Kristen Blankenbaker, The Purdue Historian,Vol.5 (2012)
Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, Ed.s Leslie Brubaker and Julia M.H. Smith, 2004
Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite by E.T. Dailey, 2015
Property and power in the early middle ages, ed.s Davies and Fouracre, 1995.
Creating Community with Food and Drink in Merovingian Gaul, by Bonnie Effros, 2002
The Franks by Edward James, 1988.