This episode and the next one or two will complete the Medieval Transformation series, as I talk about how life changed from late-Antiquity under the crumbling Roman Empire to the medieval period under the Merovingians. After that, we’re going to get right back onto the political narrative with Clothar II and Dagobert, until we reach the Pippinids and Charles Martel.
Merovingian society was divided into four major legal groups: the aristocracy, clergy, free people and then slaves. The relative importance of an individual can be measured in their weregild, the amount of money one would have to pay as compensation for killing them. Since only pieces of the Salic Law survive we don’t know how much each tier’s weregild was. If it was similar to the Anglo-Saxon system, killing a bishop was 80 times more expensive than killing a freeman, while killing a king was 300 times more expensive.
If the top 5% of society were the nobility and clergy, the next 5% were merchants and craft-workers who largely worked for that first group. We’ve already talked a lot about the well-to-do, so let’s talk about the rest of society. The bottom 90% of people within Francia were free peasants with their own land, tenant farmers working on a noble’s land and slaves. Slaves tended to work on villas for the wealthy landowners that could afford to purchase them. It is likely that the enslaved population of Francia declined after Clovis I. Between Clovis and Charlemagne there were roughly three hundred years wherein the Franks only conquered a few major territories, meaning less people were war prisoners. Likewise, without major conquests the Frankish economy was relatively weak and few could afford slaves, especially those imported from the rich Mediterranean. Still, some aristocrats bought slaves as a means of showcasing their wealth. These slaves were usually impoverished Franks who sold themselves into slavery, or the descendants of slaves who inherited their parents’ status. The few slaves that came from outside Francia were usually from Slavic tribes, and it is from the word ‘Slav’ that we get the word ‘slave.’
For free people life centered around tightly-knit, rural villages which were both the cultural center of a community and the center of a saint’s cult. Cities declined precipitously since the Antonine Plague. In the 6th century Paris probably had a population of 20,000 and was the largest city, followed by Bordeaux with 15,000 and some sizeable cities in the south, such as Marseille and Arles. Some historians have argued that these population figures should be cut in half, so debate continues on their actual size.
Many Frankish peasants lived in fonds de cabane, or sunken huts, which were essentially holes in the ground with a thatched roof on top. Well-off peasants may have built up, and the underground part was merely a storage unit. Most Merovingian buildings were made out of wood, including churches and villas, and so practically nothing survives from that era, unlike the preceding Roman period or the proceeding Carolingian period.
The Roman cement mixture was lost as were a lot of other Roman technical innovations. Water mills were used only along the Rhone river. Many tools such as ploughs, scythes and hoes were mostly or even entirely made of wood since iron was rare. Iron was so rare that people prayed to saints for lost iron objects and recovered iron was listed among saint’s miracles. Iron tools were primarily used to make wooden tools, since they couldn’t be spared.
Life was regulated by stages. First there was childhood. Children of the nobility were educated, boys more than girls, while common children worked the fields. After childhood one entered puberty. Once boys and girls sexually matured they entered a new phase. Men took up an occupational role, almost invariably their fathers’, while women married, birthed children, raised them and cared for the household. Here the household isn’t just a physical house but could extend to business and political affairs as well so a woman’s role expanded with her husband’s relative power and importance. Elders were cared for by their children.
Life was marked by rites of passage. First there was baptism, wherein an infant was dunked in water, symbolizing their entry into the Christian faith and the washing away of their sins. By the mid-6th century infant baptism was near-universal as most Franks adopted the trappings of Christianity and its basic beliefs, though many held on to superstitions, something which I’ll talk about in a future episode.
The next rite of passage was marriage. There were two kinds of marriage; one was a marriage overseen by a priest which was for the aristocracy. The second was a less-formal acceptance of a man and woman as a new household, which was what most peasants did, as marriage did not legally require an ecclesiastical ceremony until the 12th century. This type of marriage could be very simple and unceremonious, but there was usually some feasting and of course, drinking.
The final rites were death and burial. These were incredibly important in Frankish culture and Christian theology. Franks were famous for their graves, as they buried their dead with objects commemorating the person’s life, including valuable plates and drinking vessels, tools and weapons. Franks feasted at the grave and put food in sepulchers to commemorate their ancestors. The Catholic Church discouraged these as pagan practices and encouraged the Franks to be more somber at funerals and offer their food to the poor. The church progressively replaced these feasts with the Eucharist, the eating of bread and wine to symbolize the spiritual intaking of Christ.
Peasants naturally spent most of their time in the field or pasture. Wealthier peasants raised livestock, of which cattle was the most prized. While the Romans had preferred wheat, the Franks raised barley and dark grains, as they brought with them a northern European taste. These grains were hardier and could be made into beer, the Germanic drink of choice. Even as the Franks made more beer they also produced more wine since the latter was necessary for the Eucharist and other religious purposes. Moreover, noble Franks wanted to associate themselves with Romanness by drinking wine.
Which brings us to the Franks and alcohol. There’s a lot to say on that topic, because for the Franks getting plastered was one of their favorite pastimes. Before canning and modern refrigeration, food spoiled far more easily. To keep barley and grapes from going to waste, peasants turned these into beer and wine, which provided much-needed calories. Drinking was a regular part of nearly every substantial event, including feasting, marriage ceremonies and festivals. Drinking became a culture unto itself, particularly for men who used it as a symbol of union and friendship. Peasants visited taverns and connected with friends. Kings drank when they commemorated a successful treaty. As always, men judged each other by how well they could hold their liquor and naturally this led to more drinking as men tried to prove they could outdrink their fellows. Merovingian nobles often invited other aristocrats to their manors for a banquet and they would drink so heavily that they would all pass out on the floor, at which point the servants would remove the dining furniture to provide more floor-space for their blacked-out betters.
Drinking was also an important feature of Catholicism. As mentioned before, the Eucharist included wine. Christians celebrated numerous saints’ festivals with alcohol. There were multiple saints, such as Saint Vaast, whose miracles included providing alcohol through supernatural means as Jesus had done at the Wedding at Cana.
With all this drinking there was naturally a lot of drunkenness, drunken fights and vomiting. Legal records attest to frequent brawls and public indecency due to alcohol, and both the church and state tried to curb these excesses. The church admonished drunkenness and promoted fasting. If the Frankish laws were anything like the early Anglo-Saxons’ then there were laws against vomiting in public, with the exception of vomiting on holy days. People were allowed to vomit on holy days because it was assumed that they drank for religious reasons rather than to get drunk.
While the Franks drank to excess they actually drank less than the Anglo-Saxons and the Goths. Gregory the Great even described one fellow as ‘drinking like a Goth,’ to symbolize their excess. During the Carolingian period drinking was de-stigmatized as drink was offered to the poor as an act of charity and drinks were held in remembrance of the dead in a more ceremonial fashion.
Even though peasants didn’t have Netflix they still had other forms of entertainment. Children played games though we don’t know what these were. Adults hunted, sometimes with hawks. They also played a board-game called tabulae, which may have been a precursor to backgammon. There were ball games, including one in which a group of people stood in a circle with one in the middle. The people in the circle threw the ball to each other while the person in the middle would try to catch it. If the person in the middle did, then the last person to throw would replace them in the middle.
With cities in decline local officials couldn’t afford to put on large-scale public games. This and church condemnation led to the end of gladiatorial fights, then chariot races, though the latter continued at least in Arles until the 6th century. The two most popular shows were mimes, a buffoonish parody of daily life which was often vulgar, and pantomime, a dance to music. The church opposed these as immoral and cracked down on theaters, but the mimes and pantomimes just performed in streets or markets, often at fairs and festivals. These were very popular and kept going into the Carolingian period, despite the church’s condemnations.
People went to fairs and markets for entertainment. The Merovingian period was poorer than the Carolingian and fairs were annual or seasonal and often directed at foreign merchants, not internal markets. Aside from fairs, there were feasts. For poor peasants, feasts were opportunities for gift-giving and kinship rites. There is some evidence that even Christian Franks participated in feast days that honored pagan gods, which the church successively replaced with celebrations for saints. The church feared that non-Christian feasting was a gateway to heresy, since Dungeons and Dragons and rock music hadn’t been invented yet. Finally, people attended church regularly and religious ceremonies when they occurred.
Speaking of religion, one common misconception of the Merovingian period was that there remained a strong pagan influence. One of the reasons this myth continued is due to the debate over what exactly constitutes a Christian. For minimalists all one had to do to be a Christian was be baptized, renounce other gods and accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior. For maximalists it was an adherence to church doctrine in all its forms. While many scholars believe being a Christian is somewhere in the middle, exactly where that middle is, is difficult to define. The Carolingians later claimed the Merovingians were more pagan than they were in order to defame them, but most Franks accepted the basic tenets of Christianity and participated in its most important rites. A handful of Merovingian priests wrote about paganism and that wasn’t close to their primary concern.
The Catholic Church brought many people into the Christian fold by Christianizing their old practices. Pagan holidays were replaced by saints’ festivals. Superstitious incantations were replaced by the sign of the cross. Sacrifices to pagans and idols was replaced by offerings to the church. Prayers to spirits and deities were replaced with prayers to intercessory saints. Many Franks believed that dreams were sent from the spirit world and the church reinterpreted this as God sending dreams to his chosen. Dreams and visions became miraculous and numerous saints, included Gregory of Tours, claimed to have them.
Priests claimed that people who didn’t adhere to Christian dogma would be physically punished by God in this life. Work on Sunday was banned and priests told stories about people who were struck with illness for laboring on this holy day. Christians were taught to make the sign of the cross before breaking bread and Christians believed that the cross would allow them to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan deities. To discourage this, Caesarius of Arles told them that the cross would backfire and work against them if they did it.
The Merovingian economy was relatively weak, though this wasn’t entirely the Franks’ fault. The Franks inherited a late-Roman economic system, meaning elites held the vast majority of land which tenant farmers and slaves worked. In this system there was little production in good times and devastation in bad times. Frequent wars and bandits disrupted trade routes; yet the Roman roads and waterways still existed, so trade continued, albeit less frequently than before.
Gold was less abundant under the Merovingians and was more frequently used for jewelry and church vessels than for coins, which were bronze and silver. Much of the gold the Franks possessed went into the Mediterranean economy, usually Byzantium, for their goods, notably papyrus from Egypt, and wine from Gaza. Gold, traditional terra sigillata pottery and weapons were the three main commodities that the Franks exported to the Mediterranean. Frankish swords were durable and extremely flexible. They were made of pattern-welding, wherein a number of bars of different qualities of iron and steel are welded, hammered and twisted together, producing suppleness and attractive swirling patterns. The technique was Celtic, but the Franks improved it. Then in the 6th century they decorated their swords with gold. Frankish swords weren’t the strong, stiff weapons often depicted in movies. These types of swords were impractical as they tended to break easily. Since swords were expensive, medieval swords needed to be flexible so that they could be used reliably in combat. Legend has it that some Frankish swords were so flexible one could bend the tip all the way back to touch the pommel, which is something I think Bugs Bunny did in Looney Toons. This is clearly an exaggeration, but nonetheless, Frankish swords bent to remarkable degrees. The Franks also traded regularly with the Germanic world. Their weapons and glass went all the way to Frisia and Sweden.
Merchants facilitated trade and in every large city there were communities of foreigners, usually Greeks, Syrians or Jews, who in turn travelled throughout Francia. Since merchants served the aristocracy and paid heavy tariffs they were in contact with powerful people and could become powerful in their own right. Gregory of Tours recounts that one Syrian merchant named Eusebius bribed his way to being bishop of Paris in the mid-6th century and put other Syrians in positions of power.
Now that I’ve mentioned them, it’s time to talk about Jews in Francia. It’s difficult to know how widespread the Jews were. There were many Christian writings about encounters with Jews, wherein the two debate theology and the Jew comes to the realization that Christianity is superior and converts. Modern scholars have questioned whether or not any of these Christian writers ever met a Jew, and it is possible that these stories are just topoi, a formulaic way of telling a story in order to prove a point. Due to a lack of documents we don’t know when the first Jews arrived in Gaul. It is possible that Jewish immigrants came to Massalia as early as during the Roman Republic since it was a major port. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the last Jewish Revolt in 132-135 led to a mass exodus for Jews throughout the Empire. Many went to the city of Rome, though it is possible some could have resettled in Gaul.
The first record of Jews in Gaul was in the fourth century. As the Roman Empire Christianized Jews were persecuted because Christians held them responsible for killing Christ. In response, Jews migrated to Gaul, which had a far lower Christian population. Jews congregated in Provence and along the Rhône and Saône, the two major rivers exiting to the Mediterranean. Most Jews lived in Marseille, Narbonne and Arles, with few populations in the north until the Carolingian period, though small pieces of what might be menorahs or other Jewish artifacts from the late 4th into the 5th century have been found in Bordeaux, Trier and Avignon. This concentration in southern river-adjacent cities meant that many had extended merchant networks. However, not all Jews were merchants and many served in the army, as judges or local officials.
Francia Christianized under Clovis, yet Jews lived like most Gallo-Roman subjects under his reign. They dressed like Romans and followed Roman laws, while Frankish subjects followed their own set of laws. As Francia became more Christian, Jews were prohibited from holding public office. At the Council of Agde 507, Christians were ordered not to eat with Jews or heretics upon pain of excommunication or beating. Jews were forbidden from going out in public during the tense period that lasted from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday or mixing with the Christian population. Marriage to Jews was forbidden, although there’s some evidence that it continued frequently until the 7th century. Finally, Jews were prohibited from being tax collectors and judges. In 538, at the Third Council of Orléans, the church decreed that a bishop must redeem a Christian slave in the service of a Jew if he takes refuge in the church. Thus, one way for slaves of Jews to free themselves was to convert to Christianity.
Despite all these stipulations, Francia was relatively more tolerant to Jews than much of the Christian world, which viewed them with hatred over the issue of Christ’s death, and with suspicion. Just as a comparison, in the 7th century the Visigoths forced Jews to be baptized as the zealous new Catholic monarchy tried to create a unified kingdom. In Francia, the Bishop Avitus of Clermont and King Chilperic I tried to forcibly convert Jews, but aside from these brief attempts, Jews were allowed to live as a separate part of society.
There’s two last things I want to talk about today and those are the extreme weather and pandemics of the mid-6th century, two things which those of us living in the 2020s can surely relate to. In 536 the Byzantine historian Procopius wrote, “during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear.” Historians working with scientists have concluded that a massive volcanic eruption either in Iceland or El Salvador spewed ash across the world, dimming the sun. Years of irregular cold followed across the world and there were reports of numerous crop failures from Byzantium to Ireland and in Mesoamerica. In Francia, many were forced to sell themselves into slavery to avoid starvation.
Then in 541 yersinia pestis, the plague, broke out in Egypt. From there it spread across Europe, killing tens of millions. The post-Roman world was off to a rough start. Meanwhile, the Arab peninsula was less effected by the plague, and the sudden cooling actually meant unusually good crops for this hot region, leading to a boom in the Arab population. Thus, these two disasters weakened Europe, Byzantium and Persia and set up the rise of the Arabs in the proceeding century something which will be very important as we move forward.
The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, by Esther Benbassa , and Malcolm B. DeBevoise, 1999
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
Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World by Patrick Geary, 1988
Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul: Selected Studies in History and Archaeology, 1992-2009 by Guy Halsall, 2009.
Culture and Religion in Merovingian Gaul, A.D., 481-751 by Yitzhak Hen, 1995.
The Franks by Edward James, 1988.
Dreams, Visions and Spiritual Authority in Merovingian Gaul by Isabel Moreira, 2000.
The Economic History of European Jews: Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages, by Michael Toch, 2012
Saints and their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul by Raymond Van Dam, 1993
The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 – 751, by Ian Wood, 1994