Merovingian dynasty

Dimitris Stamatios | May 29, 2023


The Merovingians were a dynasty that ruled much of present-day France and Belgium, as well as parts of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, from the 5th to the mid-8th century.

This lineage descends from the Salian Franks, who were established in the 5th century in the Cambrai and Tournai regions of Belgium, in the person of Childeric I. The history of the Merovingians is marked by the emergence of a strong Christian culture among the aristocracy, the gradual establishment of the Church in their territory and a certain economic recovery following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The word “Merovingian” comes from the name of King Merove, a semi-mythical ancestor of Clovis.

Under the Ancien Régime and in the 19th century, some French legal scholars and historians referred to the lineage as the “first race” of Frankish kings.

The Merovingian dynasty arose from the Frankish aristocracy. The Franks, united in a league since the 3rd century AD, gradually settled in the north-east of the Roman Empire, and more particularly in Belgian Gaul, where the ancestors of the Merovingians had taken root. From the early years of the Empire, more or less homogeneous migrant groups moved steadily from east to west, driven by Attila’s Hunnic Empire (395-453), and attracted to Gaul by the stability of the Pax Romana. The first Franks entered the Empire legally, some joining the Roman army and hoping to make a great career there, like Richomer and Arbogast, others settling in the Empire as colonists. Later, Frankish migration to northern Gaul intensified with the decline of Roman authority and the fall of the Western Empire. Enriched by their service to Rome, some of the great Frankish families acquired considerable local power. One of these families, that of Childeric I and his son Clovis, established the first royal Frankish dynasty.

Clovis’ conquests

The first representative in history of the Merovingian dynasty, Childéric I, son of Mérovée, ruled the former Roman province of Belgium Seconde on behalf of the Empire. His son Clovis (466-511), king in 481, was originally just one of the many minor kings under whose rule the Salian Franks were divided. Since his kingdom, which corresponded roughly to the size of the ancient Roman city of Tournai, did not provide him with the forces he needed to carry out the attack he was planning against Syagrius, the Roman officer who still ruled the region between the Loire and the Seine, he enlisted the help of his relatives, the kings of Thérouanne and Cambrai. But the victory went to him alone. With Syagrius defeated, he appropriated his territory and used the overwhelming supremacy he now enjoyed over his former equals to get rid of them. Either by violence or cunning, he overthrew or destroyed them, won recognition from their peoples and within a few years extended his power over the entire region encircled by the Rhine, from Cologne to the sea. The Alamanni, who had established themselves in Alsace and the Eifel and were threatening the new kingdom with an attack from the east, were defeated and annexed at the end of the 5th century. Having thus secured possession of the whole of northern Gaul from the Rhine to the Loire, the king of the Franks was able to devote himself to conquering the rich Aquitaine region, dominated by the Visigoths and their king Alaric II. Converted to Catholicism around the year 500, Clovis was eventually able to use their heresy (the Visigoths adhered to Arianism) as an excuse to wage war against them: he defeated them at Vouillé in 507 and extended the frontier as far as the Pyrenees. The Burgundian kingdom (to which he had allied himself by marrying Clotilde, daughter of King Chilperic II and niece of Gondebaud) and Provence still separated him from the Mediterranean. Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, had no intention of allowing the Frankish kingdom to extend as far as the gates of Italy, so Clovis had to give up Provence, which Theodoric annexed to his own kingdom for greater security. This rapid expansion of the kingdom of the Franks (Latin regnum francorum) was facilitated by his conversion to Catholicism, which ensured him the support of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy and the Catholic Church. He set up his capital in Paris around 507.

When he died in 511, Clovis had not settled his succession, and the kingdom was divided between his four sons. According to Gregory of Tours, the Metz region went to Thierry, Orleans to Clodomir, Paris to Childebert and Soissons to Clotaire. For Bruno Dumézil, but also for Geneviève Bührer-Thierry and Charles Mériaux, this division should not be understood as a strict division of the kingdom. The four brothers were kings at the same time, but the integrity of the regnum francorum was partly preserved, which explains the relative ease with which certain Merovingian kings managed to reunite the kingdom on the death of their brothers (for which they were sometimes themselves responsible). This is not unusual when compared with the succession of Roman emperors such as Constantine I. This fragile understanding between the brothers also explains the conquest of Burgundy around 534 by Childebert and Clotaire (at the request of their mother Clotilde, according to Gregory of Tours), followed by Provence. The kingdom was reunited in 558 by Clotaire I, then divided again between his sons in 561. Three large territorial entities gradually formed within the kingdom: Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy (Aquitaine came under the authority of a dynasty of independent dukes). In 613, Clotaire II, grandson of Clotaire I, succeeded in reunifying the kingdom of the Franks. As Bruno Dumézil points out, far from regressing as a result of these divisions, “the surface area of the Frankish world doubled between the death of Clovis and the end of the 6th century”.

Historians have long considered that the division of the kingdom between the sons on the death of the king reflected the fact that the Germanic peoples, and the Franks in particular, considered the kingdom to be the king’s personal patrimony, and that the notion of the state was unknown to them. Bruno Dumézil explains, however, that the Roman notion of the “fisc” had not disappeared, and that a precise list of “public” lands was kept by the Merovingian kings.

Family conflicts

This reflection on the scope of the successive divisions of the kingdom should not, however, mask the reality of the bloody conflicts experienced by the Merovingian dynasty at the end of the 6th century. Gregory of Tours recounts them at length in his Ten Books of History:

For almost fifty years, there was a family feud between Clotaire I’s two sons, Chilperic I and Sigebert I, and their respective wives, Frédégonde and Brunehaut. According to Gregory of Tours, Frédégonde, mistress of Chilpéric I, had his wife Galswinthe, a Visigothic princess, assassinated and took her place as queen. Galswinthe’s sister Brunehaut, also wife of Sigebert I, asked her husband to take action to obtain compensation for the murder. Frédégonde’s husband, Chilperic I, appeared at first to submit, but he did not keep his promises, and war eventually broke out between the two brothers. This conflict is often analyzed as the manifestation, on a kingdom-wide scale, of the principle of “faide”, the right to vengeance, comparable to the law of retaliation.

The toll of this family conflict is heavy:

At the end of these fifty years of conflict, Clotaire II succeeded in reunifying the kingdom of the Franks, but not without having eliminated the troublesome and pretenders to the throne. He reunited :

Clotaire II (584-629) is credited with building a castle at Clichy in the Hauts-de-Seine region, a site probably discovered while hunting. There’s nothing to suggest its form or importance. However, in 626, Clotaire II convened a council of bishops and princes from Neustria and Burgundy. His son Dagobert I, king of the Franks from 629 to 639, married Gomatrude there in 629, which suggests that the palace was of some importance.

Of Clotaire II’s two sons, Charibert and Dagobert, the former died prematurely in 632, and his son Chilperic died shortly afterwards, bringing about the unification of the territory. The short reign of Dagobert I marked a period of apogee and relative peace in the Merovingian kingdom. It was also under his reign that the last conquests towards Germania took place, making it possible to reach the Danube.

The last Merovingian century saw the political rise of an aristocratic Austrasian family with a bright future: the Pippinids. As early as the reign of Clotaire II, Pépin I de Landen allied himself with the king against Brunehaut, and obtained the mayorship of the Austrasian palace. His descendants, Grimoald and then Pepin II of Herstal, managed to retain it intermittently, and at the end of the 7th century took over the mayoralty of the Neustrian palace for a time. In 717, a son of Pepin II, Charles Martel, took center stage as mayor of the Austrasian palace. He faced resistance from the Neustrian aristocracy, led by Raganfred, mayor of the Neustrian palace since 715. The Neustrians had turned an obscure monk named Daniel into a Merovingian king, who struggled to establish himself under the name of Chilperic II. When he died in 721, leaving no heir, it was Charles Martel’s turn to take a Merovingian out of a monastery and make him king: Thierry IV. Thierry IV never really came into his own, however, and lost out to his powerful mayor at the palace. When Thierry IV died in 737, Charles Martel was so influential that he was able to do without a king until his own death in 741. His son, Pepin III le Bref, succeeded him, and although he initially chose to place a Merovingian, namely Childeric III, on the throne in 743, he did not hesitate to depose Childeric III eight years later and elect himself king in his place. Thus began the Carolingian dynasty.

Slow decline of the Merovingians

From 639 onwards (at the end of the reign of Dagobert I) began the era of the rulers whom Charlemagne’s biographer, Eginhard, called the “idle kings” in his 9th-century Vita Karoli (Life of Charlemagne), in order to legitimize the Carolingian takeover of power. In reality, their inaction was mainly due to their weakness and powerlessness. They were often very young, and family quarrels for power left them with little life expectancy, so Merovingian rulers became the playthings of the aristocracy.

On the other hand, in a general context of economic crisis in the West, the wealth acquired by their predecessors had dwindled considerably, following the cessation of military campaigns to expand the kingdom, the misappropriation of taxes and the expenditure incurred to overcome revolts and buy the loyalty of vassals.

The authority of the Merovingians weakened during this period of poverty and decline of the monarchy, while the mayors of the palace, known in Latin as major domus or magister palatii, gradually took over. Originally a simple steward, over time the mayor of the palace became the real administrator of the kingdom, comparable to the prime minister in the late Middle Ages, due to his central role in relations with the Frankish aristocracy. As a member of the aristocracy, the mayor of the palace naturally defended the interests of the nobility, and the office of mayor grew in prestige. Gradually, the role of mayor of the palace came to include initiating wars, negotiating agreements with neighboring countries, and appointing bishops, dukes and counts. Of the three mayors of the palace, the mayor of Burgundy disappeared quite early on, and then the struggle began between the other two.

The landed aristocracy of Austrasia, more powerful than the great landowners of Neustria because they were further removed from the king and the old Roman administration, had an advantage in a state based almost exclusively on landed wealth. Between the mayor of Austrasia, Pépin de Herstal, who represented the great, and the mayor of Neustria, Ebroïn, who remained faithful to the old royal conception, the battle was unequal: Pépin triumphed. From then on, there was only one palace mayor for the entire monarchy, and it was the Pippinid family who provided it. The Pippinids had long enjoyed a position of power in the north of the kingdom, which they owed to their wealth of land. Its domains were numerous, especially in this half-Romanic, half-Germanic region of which Liège, then a simple village, forms the center, and spread into Hesbaye, Condroz and Ardenne; Andenne and Herstal were its favorite residences. Rich marriages further increased his influence. From the union of the daughter of Pepin of Landen and the son of Arnoul of Metz came Pepin of Herstal, mentioned above, who was the first to truly exercise regency in the entire Frankish monarchy.

Ascension of the Pippinids

When the Muslims invaded Aquitaine, Pepin de Herstal’s successor, Charles Martel, came to offer them a fight on the plains of Poitiers, and the momentum of the Muslim cavalry broke against the lines of his heavy infantry. Once the invasion had been halted, the Muslims retreated, retaining in Gaul only the area around Narbonne, from where Pepin the Short was to expel them in 759.

The triumph at Poitiers made Charles Martel the master of the kingdom. He took advantage of this to give it a solid military organization. Until then, the army had consisted solely of free men, raised in the counties in times of war. It was a simple militia of foot soldiers, equipped at their own expense, difficult to assemble and slow in its movements. After Poitiers, Charles decided to follow the example of the Arabs and create a cavalry that could move quickly to meet the enemy, replacing the advantage of numbers with that of mobility. Such a novelty presupposed a radical transformation of previous customs. Free men could no longer be expected to maintain a warhorse, acquire expensive riding equipment or learn the long and difficult art of combat on horseback.

To achieve this goal, it was necessary to create a class of warriors with the resources to match the role expected of them. A wide distribution of land was made to the most robust vassals of the mayor of the palace, who did not hesitate to secularize a good number of church properties for this purpose. Every man-at-arms granted a tenure or, to use the technical term, a benefice, was required to raise a war horse and provide military service at any requisition. A loyalty oath further reinforced these obligations. The vassal went from being a servant to a soldier whose existence was assured by the possession of a piece of land. The institution spread rapidly throughout the kingdom. The aristocracy’s immense estates enabled each of its members to build up a troop of cavalrymen, and they never failed to do so. The original name of bénéfice disappeared a little later, replaced by that of fief. But the essence of feudal organization itself is to be found in the measures taken by Charles Martel. This was the greatest military reform Europe had seen before the advent of standing armies. It was to have profound repercussions on society and the state. Basically, it was simply an adaptation of the army to an era when the large estate dominated all economic life, and its consequence was to give the landed aristocracy military power along with political power. The old free men’s army did not disappear, but it became a reserve that was used less and less.

Charles Martel’s relations with the Church had not been harmonious. The latter reproached him for his secularizations, and resented his refusal to come to the aid of the papacy under pressure from the Lombards, even though Pope Gregory III had honored him with a special embassy to solemnly hand him the keys to the tomb of the apostles. Less absorbed by the war, his son Pepin the Short, who succeeded him in 741 as mayor of the palace and governor of the kingdom, quickly established close relations with Rome.

At the time he took power, the Anglo-Saxon missions to the pagan Germans beyond the Rhine had just begun under the leadership of Saint Boniface. Pepin immediately showed him a zeal and benevolence to which the apostles of Christianity were not accustomed. His motives were inspired by political interest. He understood that the most effective way to pacify the Frisians, Thuringians, Bavarians and Saxons, and to prepare for future annexation, was to begin by converting them. Hence the interest he took in Boniface’s plans, the support he gave him, and the favor he showed towards the see of Mainz, which, by becoming the metropolis of the new Germanic Church, linked the latter to the Frankish Church from the outset.

Boniface, however, a submissive son of the papacy in his capacity as an Anglo-Saxon, only set to work after having sought and received the assent and instructions of Rome. His relationship with the mayor of the palace made him the natural intermediary between the mayor and the pope. Now, each of them, needing the other, was eager to get closer to him. Pepin, already king in fact, aspired to be king in law. But he was reluctant to take the crown away from its rightful owner, who still had a long dynastic tradition. In order to carry out the coup d’état, it was necessary to be able to shelter under the highest moral authority, by obtaining the approval of the Roman pontiff. The Pope, faced with an untenable situation, also needed Pepin. Indeed, the time had come to break with the Byzantine emperor, whose heretical Caesarism was becoming increasingly arrogant, and who was allowing the Lombards, through impotence or ill will, to advance to the gates of Rome (the Lombard king Aistulf seized the exarchate of Ravenna in 751).

The alliance was easily concluded. In 751, deputies of Pepin gravely asked Pope Zacharias whether it would not be more appropriate for the title of king to belong to the person who exercised supreme authority, rather than to the person who possessed only the appearance of it. No less gravely, the Pope corroborated their opinion on this point of political morality. A few weeks later, Pepin was proclaimed king by an assembly of nobles. The last descendant of Clovis, Childéric III, was shorn and sent to the Abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, where he spent the rest of his life. The date of his death is unknown. Perhaps never before has a dynasty disappeared amid such indifference and following such an easy coup d’état.

To ensure his legitimacy, Pepin was crowned king in 754 at Saint-Denis by Pope Stephen II. His coronation subsequently marked the advent of the Carolingian dynasty.

Christian expansion thanks to sacred royalty?

The baptism of Clovis symbolizes the conversion of the Franks to Christianity, bringing about the fusion of this Germanic people with the Gallo-Roman people. This event appears to be the origin of the sacred monarchy of the kings of France, and thus one of the origins of the French nation (cf. the title of Eldest Son of the Church borne by the kings of France).

The Merovingian kings, successors to Clovis, continue to possess a certain sacrality, although they do not benefit from the clerical ritual of coronation, unlike the Visigoth kings or the Carolingian kings. Régine Le Jan argues that this sacrality should not be reduced to its magical and pagan dimension (the heil), but that there was still the possibility of a Christian sacrality not controlled by the clergy, particularly in the 6th century. This sacredness is expressed in the functions assumed by the Merovingian king, and manifests itself in numerous rituals.

For both Europe and France, the 7th century was a period of Christian penetration and expansion. The evangelization of towns and aristocratic circles, in which the bishops were directly involved, and that of the countryside in full demographic expansion, favored the multiplication of places of worship (Merovingian monasteries (en)), which very quickly became centers of advanced sacred studies, and the development of a parish network, with rural estates of some importance having their own church by the 8th century at least.

The functions of the Merovingian king

As with other Germanic peoples of the 5th century, the royal institution was born among the Franks through contact with Rome. The need for an authoritative interlocutor and the influence of the Roman model produced a new form of political organization. The various Germanic peoples, fragmented and multi-ethnic, built cohesion by crystallizing their identity around a royal figure who acted as a “core of tradition” (Traditionskern). Thus, the Franks exist from the moment a leader calls himself “King of the Franks” (rex francorum), and proposes to those who follow him that they accept his own ancestry (going back to a mythical past) as that of the people as a whole. The king draws from his ancestors, whether historical or mythical, a charismatic power, the heil, which he maintains through his war victories and which legitimizes his position. The royal institution thus placed itself above kinship groups and lineage chiefs, claiming to ensure their cohesion and prosperity.

The functions of peace and fecundity are of divine origin: by channeling and controlling them, the royal institution fashions for itself a sacred legitimacy. The king thus tends to concentrate in his own person the jurisdictional function, to guarantee peace, and the warlike function, to ensure the prosperity of his people. The concentration in one person of these two functions, often assumed in polytheistic societies by two distinct gods, was facilitated by the adoption of monotheism: Christianity and its single, indivisible God established the sacredness of a single, indivisible kingship.

Peace is ensured by the creation of law: this is a sacred function, both legal and religious; indeed, the Old Testament is often referred to as “Law”. The king formulates the law and enforces it. Thus, Clovis convened the first Council of Orleans in 511 and put the Salic Law in writing, probably before 507 according to Régine Le Jan. Similarly, “Clotaire II and Dagobert strongly asserted their legal-religious authority by convening a council in Paris and promulgating the Edict of 614, followed by the Law of the Ripuaries and the first Law of the Alamanni”. Clotaire II was likened by the clergy to David, king legislator and judge.

Prosperity is ensured by wars, which the king wages annually in the fine season to expand the territory capable of producing wealth, while amassing booty to share with his followers.

The king’s sacredness is also expressed in his domestication of space. He defines and controls access to certain sacred spaces, which are withdrawn from common use. By founding monasteries and instituting immunity, he provides income to the clergy who pray for his salvation and that of his kingdom, while limiting the number of people who can access the sacred. Similarly, the institution of forestes in the 7th century circumscribed wilderness areas in which the king reserved the right to hunt. “The king can create the forbidden and dominate all forms of sacred space”.

These sacred functions are complemented by rituals that affirm the king’s legitimacy to rule.

Rituals and elements of legitimacy

Merovingian kingship, like many others, required a ritual to express and create consensus. This ritual, the elevation of freemen on the bulwark, has been wrongly attributed to a Germanic tradition, whereas it is in fact an imperial imitation. It was used by Roman emperors elected by their armies, and was transmitted from East to West in the 4th century through contact between Germanic peoples and the Roman army. The ritual was still in use in Byzantium at the end of the 6th century. The ritual of the bulwark is part of a symbolism, common in both East and West, in which vertical elevation translates access to the divine sphere, to the sacred. According to Régine Le Jan, when Gregory of Tours refers to this ritual in his Ten Books of History (late 6th century), it is clear that he disapproves of it, as it is not controlled by clerics; for the bishop of Tours, this ritual expresses the election of the king by his warriors, but not his election by God. In fact, in the West as in Byzantium, this ritual disappeared from the 7th century onwards, when the clergy monopolized the royal coronation ritual.

Traditionally, the new king must ride around his kingdom on an oxcart. This ritual of the circuit symbolizes the king’s taking possession of the territory within which he multiplies the forces of production and fertility. This archaic ritual was mocked by Eginhard, Charlemagne’s faithful biographer: in his attempt to discredit the Merovingian dynasty, he described kings constantly wallowing in an oxcart, forging the image of lazy kings. However, this is a very ancient fertility rite, already documented in Tacitus’ Germania.

Among Frankish kings, election, symbolized by elevation to the throne, was combined with heredity, manifested in the transmission of the dynastic name. Merovingian kings very quickly passed on the full names of their ancestors to their children: the name was both a tool of identity and a political program. Thus, Clovis’ sons (Clodomir and Clotaire I) gave the same Burgundian name to their own sons (Gunthar

The symbolism of long hair as a seat of sacred power and strength is present in biblical tradition. In the Old Testament, we read that consecration to God implies renouncing the cutting of one’s hair. This same symbolism is expressed when the judge Samson loses his superhuman strength after having his hair cut by Delilah. While the wearing of long hair among the Franks long predates their conversion to Christianity, Régine Le Jan explains that it was Gregory of Tours who gave this long hair its full symbolic weight, creating the image of the hairy kings (reges criniti) and placing the Merovingians in the tradition of the kings of the Old Testament. Pepin the Short did not neglect the power of this symbol, and when he decided to depose the last Merovingian, Childeric III, with the approval of Popes Zacharias and Stephen, he did not omit to have him shorn.

Customerism and the concept of mundium

The Merovingian regnum francorum was above all based on a network of loyalties. Kings distributed lands, revenues and “public” offices (the most common being that of count) from the royal treasury (the fisc, a concept borrowed from Roman times) to reward loyal aristocrats and secure their support. The royal treasury, both private and public (because the king was an emanation of the people), had thus replaced the “public goods” of Roman times, a development that laid the foundations of vassalage.

The system of clientele, inherited from the Roman Empire, encourages the weak to place themselves under the protection (mundium or mainbour) of a powerful person in exchange for their freedom or independence. This process, known as “recommendation”, requires the protégé to serve his protector according to a synallagmatic contract. The father of a family protects his sons from his mundium until they reach adulthood. Daughters remained under their father’s mundium until they married, passing on the duty of protection to their husbands. Unlike Roman law, which required the bride’s father to pay a substantial dowry, Merovingian law stipulated that the largest transfer of property was from the groom to the bride’s father. It also provided for a third of the groom’s property (the tertia, a dower) to revert to his wife on his death. “It’s not a question of buying his fiancée: this sum seals the bond between the two families and marks the father’s consent”.

Palace administration

The administration of the royal palace was entrusted to palatine officers, loyal and companions of the king, still often secular:

The palace also housed the king’s personal guard (the “truste”), made up of his most loyal warriors (“antrustions” or “leudes”), as well as the nutriti (literally “nourished”) in Dagobert’s time, i.e. the children of the great aristocratic families, sent to the king’s court to be trained and, often, to eventually hold an important position.

Counts and bishops

Local power was vested in the counts (comes or “companions” of the king), appointed by the king and based in the major cities. The count was in charge of a district made up of several pagi (which gave rise to “country”), a division inherited from the Roman Empire, and was a true relay of power. His functions were diverse: he summoned free men for the royal army (the ost), levied certain taxes and presided over the county court (the mallus) in the name of the king. The office of count had a bright future: it survived throughout the Middle Ages, and its holders asserted their independence whenever central power failed. As early as the Merovingian period, some counts formed veritable dynasties and became uncontrollable, especially in the peripheral regions of the kingdom. Part of the kingdom’s aristocracy became hereditary nobility. By the end of the 7th century, the title of duke of the Franks, or dux francorum, could formalize an aristocrat’s dominion over a vast territory (several Pippinids bore the title of duke.

In each city, alongside the counts, there were also bishops, officially freely elected by their fellow citizens, but whose election in practice required the consent of the king. In addition to being fully competent to make Church law (within councils), bishops were entrusted with important civil responsibilities in the cities under their charge. They were an important link in the administration of the Merovingian kingdom.

The Merovingian Church

The Merovingian rulers, who claimed divine origins and kinship with Christ, were quick to recognize the potential of the Church: Clovis saw it as a formidable instrument for legitimizing his reign in a world where Christianity was tending to replace Roman legality. Indeed, following his baptism, he asserted his authority over the bishops at the first Council of the Gauls in 511, bringing the churches under his authority.

The history of the Frankish church from 600 to the death of Pepin (768) is divided into three periods: during the first, as the Merovingian kings one by one lost control of their kingdom, the ancient form of ecclesiastical life in Roman Gaul gradually disappeared, and religious centers such as the abbey of Saint-Denis, near Paris, began to appear. The second period, under the rule of the mayors of the palace, saw all organized church life rapidly dissolve; synods and councils were no longer held, and abbeys and bishoprics were secularized. In the third period, under Carloman and Pepin, a genuine renewal of discipline and a desire for reform became clear: Pepin was the true founder of the Frankish kingdom; he was the first to propose the objectives, ideals and methods of government that his son Charles was to bring to the highest degree of perfection. At the end of this transitional period, situated between the last years of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Frankish monarchy, the status of the Church in Gaul changed: it had started out as a mere extension of Roman Christianity along the roads and rivers of southern Gaul, and eventually became a more territorial regional church directly governed by the king.


In the early Merovingian period, Church and State were not really separate: the authority of the bishops was linked to that of the king, and vice versa.

The organization and administration of the Church was then governed by bishops, who resided in the “cities” or large towns with which Christianity had formed a close bond: the presence of a bishop in such a place made it a city. From the 4th century onwards, these bishops not only assumed pastoral power within their dioceses, but also became powerful temporal lords, representing and protecting their communities. These bishops had control over the finances and clergy of their dioceses, as well as over the estates belonging to their churches, and as central power weakened, these bishops emerged as the only real source of authority and became the true rulers of the country, maintaining this role under the early Merovingian kings, who had neither the resources nor the organization appropriate to a civilized society. They governed the “cities”, dispensed justice and remedied public calamities.

At the local level, churches continued to be founded as Christian influence spread from road and river routes to rural areas. By the end of the 7th century, most of Gaul was Christian, with the Church occupying at least a quarter of cultivated land, but not all of it: indeed, apart from a few churches in the major “cities” and monasteries, religious life was very simple: the priest served a private church throughout his life, and therefore needed only a limited knowledge base, such as religious legislation on marriage and incest. His main duties were to say mass and baptize. At the time, spouses were not yet obliged to have their marriage blessed by a priest, although the practice was common. It is likely that the priest only came into contact with the higher authority on the occasion of the annual synod held in the cathedral during Holy Week, at which time he procured the holy oils for the year. Episcopal visits must have been rare, if not unknown.

The fight against paganism

Paganism persisted for a long time, as did many superstitious ceremonies and witchcraft inherited from a Celtic or Roman past. In those days, every conscientious bishop devoted part of his life to apostolic preaching, and although only he, according to tradition and canon law, had the right and duty to expound articles of faith, zealous abbots and priests were seen evangelizing the inhabitants of remote, uncivilized lands. In 554, King Childebert issued a decree banning idol worship in his kingdom. Around the same time, Procopius of Caesarea said of the Franks: “These Barbarians have their own way of being Christian; they still observe many of the customs of ancient idolatry, and offer impious sacrifices and human victims to know the future”.

At the time of the treaty between the Roman Empire and the Salian Franks, led by kings who would become the Merovingians of historiography, it was recalled that succession to the office of General remained the prerogative of the Roman Princeps. The latter was soon no longer in a position to impose his choices; he could only validate them, at the request of the general who had taken command after the death of his predecessor. In practice, the general, king for his people, was appointed according to the Germanic customs prevailing among his people, and this choice was validated by the Princeps senatus.

According to Germanic tradition, the Frankish kingdom was considered a patrimonial asset, i.e. the kingdom was the king’s family estate. There was no longer any distinction between the state, its person and its property. Military victories led to an increase in the king’s family property. Its division was based on the Germanic Salic law. This law excluded women from the succession as long as there were male heirs. Thus, on the death of the king, the kingdom was divided between his male children, even though a woman could inherit an estate in full possession and not simply as usufructuary. The title of King of the Franks, or Rex Francorum in Latin, is generic. It is transmitted from father to son, from one generation to the next, within the same family, that of the Merovingians.

It’s important to remember, however, that the expression “Salic law” refers to two very different realities.

Practical difficulties

The first practical difficulty was that the kingdom had to be divided fairly. The death of the king was followed by numerous negotiations to decide which regions each son would inherit. Secondly, the division of the kingdom meant that there was no longer a single ruler at the head of a large kingdom, but several rulers at the head of several small kingdoms, which considerably weakened the power of the Frankish dynasty. However, the division of the kingdom was not as anarchic as one might think. Although they each had a piece of Frankish territory, they all wished to preserve the unity of the Regnum (kingdom) (political unification of the peoples of the Frankish league (Chattes, Chamaves, Tubantes…), into a single people, the Franks). Each heir was therefore considered Rex Francorum, i.e. king of the Franks. The king reigned over a people, not a territory. This quest for unity was such that borders were always strongly defended against various invasion attempts. So, although divided, the Frankish kingdom was still considered a unit. Lastly, Paris, the former capital under Clovis, lost this role to become the symbol of the kingdom’s unity, as it was excluded from the divisions.

Political consequences

Several parts of a territory could be reunited by force, or if one of the brothers died childless.

The division of the kingdom thus created fratricidal conflicts dictated by greed, which were generally followed by serial murders or wars between sister kingdoms. Fustel de Coulanges saw Merovingian kingship as “a despotism tempered by assassination”.

Take Clovis I, for example: his death was followed by the first division of the kingdom between his four sons: Theodoric, Clodomir, Childebert and Clotaire. Clodomir died during one of the many conquests undertaken by the four brothers. The others then massacred their nephews to rule out any heirs, with the exception of Saint Cloud, who had his hair shorn (the hair of Merovingian kings was legendary; they derived their strength and charisma from their hair, which they left long). Theodoric died after invading Thuringia. His successors soon followed in the wake of constant warfare. Clotaire invaded his elder brother’s territory. Childebert died shortly afterwards without issue. Clotaire reunited the entire Frankish kingdom. But it was when Childebert died that things really came to a head. Clotaire died with four heirs: Caribert, Chilperic, Gontran and Sigebert. This led to a second division of the kingdom, followed by a long and tragic “family saga” involving the families of Sigebert and Chilperic. This family quarrel, largely fueled by the hatred between their respective wives, Brunehaut and Frédégonde, quickly turned into a civil war (known as the faide royale).

When Sigebert married Brunehaut (reputedly a beautiful, intelligent girl…), his jealous brother married Brunehaut’s sister Galswinthe, who was eventually strangled in her bed by Frédégonde, Chilpéric’s mistress and future wife. Hatred thus grew between the two couples. Frankish territories passed from hand to hand. Eventually, both Sigebert and Chilperic were assassinated by Frédégonde. The two queens, both guardians, clashed, killing nephews, cousins and uncles to put their respective sons on the throne.

Frédégonde and Brunehaut’s hatred of each other deepened the division between Austrasia and Neustria. It caused the kingdom to lose all unity and hampered the development of the Merovingian dynasty. Family conflicts also benefited the mayors of the palace. These wars impoverished the kings, while the mayors of the palace grew richer and more powerful, bringing them to the throne with the advent of Pepin the Short.

Until the reign of Dagobert I, the Merovingian state was not fundamentally different from the Roman tradition. After the profound upheavals caused by the invasions, the social state of the country returned to its former Roman character. Imperial tax lands passed into the hands of the king, but the great Gallo-Roman landowners, with rare exceptions, retained their estates, organized as they had been under the Empire. Trade slowly returned to normal. Marseille, the center of the great maritime trade with the Orient, welcomed the Syrian merchants who were to be found in the major cities of southern Gaul and who, along with the Jews, were the country’s main merchants. The inland towns retained a bourgeoisie of merchants, some of whom, in the 6th century, are known to us as wealthy and influential notables.

Thanks to this regular trade, which kept goods and money flowing through the population, the king’s treasury, fed by the tonlieux, had considerable resources at its disposal, at least as considerable as those derived from the income from royal estates and the spoils of war.

Important civil servants, chosen from among the great, demonstrated a singular independence from power, and taxes were often levied by the count for his own personal benefit. The weakening of the ancient Roman administration, cut off from Rome and whose last vestiges the king was struggling to maintain, enabled the aristocracy of large landowners to take an increasingly strong position vis-à-vis the king and within society. From the 7th century onwards, the aristocracy began to dominate, especially in the north-east, in Austrasia, where Romanization had been almost completely erased.

This ever-expanding aristocracy does not have all the characteristics of the nobility. It is not distinguished from the rest of the nation by its legal status, but only by its social status. Its members are, to use the language of their contemporaries, “grands” (majores), “magnates” (magnates), “potentes” (potentates), and their power derives from their wealth. All were large landowners: some descended from wealthy Gallo-Roman families predating the Frankish conquest, others were favorites who had been lavishly endowed with land by kings, or counts who had taken advantage of their position to build up spacious estates. Whether Roman or Germanic by birth, the members of this aristocracy formed a group linked by common interests, in which the variety of origins soon disappeared and blended into the identity of customs. As the kingdom, to which they supplied the most important of its agents, proved more and more incapable of guaranteeing the person and property of its subjects, their position became more assertive. Their private position and personal influence grew stronger, taking advantage of the weakness of successive kings. As officers of the king, counts had little concern for the people they were supposed to protect. But once these people have surrendered their lands and people to them and joined their domains, these same counts, as great landowners, will extend their powerful safeguard over them. These powerful agents of the king, by constantly extending their clientele and private property over men and lands, take away from the king his direct subjects and taxpayers.

The relationship established between the powerful and the weak is not simply an economic one between landlord and tenant. Born of the need for territorial jurisdiction, it creates a bond of subordination between them that extends to the whole person. The contract of recommendation, which appeared as early as the 6th century, gave the protégé the name of vassal (vassus) or servant, and the protector the name of elder or lord (senior). The lord was obliged not only to provide for his vassal’s subsistence, but also to provide him with permanent help and assistance, and to represent him in court. The free man who recommends himself retains the appearance of freedom, but in fact has become a client, a speran, of the senior.

This protectorate that the lord exercises over free men by virtue of recommendation, he naturally also exercises with greater intensity over the men who belong to his domain, former Roman colonists attached to the glebe or serfs descended from Roman or Germanic slaves whose very person, by virtue of birth, is his private property. His authority over this dependent population is both patriarchal and patrimonial, combining justice of the peace and justice of the land. At first, this was simply a situation of fact. From the 6th century onwards, the king granted an ever-increasing number of immunity privileges. By this we mean privileges granting a large landowner (usually an ecclesiastical property) exemption from the right of public officials to intervene in its domain. The immunist is thus substituted on his land for the agent of the kingdom. His competence, purely private in origin, was legally enshrined. However, it is difficult to say that the State capitulates to the immunist, since the latter’s jurisdiction emanates from the king and is exercised in his name.

By the end of the Merovingian period, only modest territories remained under the direct jurisdiction of the king, which originally extended over the entire kingdom. Piece by piece, it was ceded to the aristocracy in order to buy their loyalty. The continual partitioning of the monarchy between Clovis’ descendants, the alternating separation and reunion of the kingdoms of Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy, the continual reshuffling of borders and the civil wars that ensued, were an excellent opportunity for the great to haggle over their devotion to the princes whom the chance of inheritance called to reign over them and who, to secure the crown, were quite ready to sacrifice the heritage of the dynasty.

For the first time, the Neustrian aristocracy and the Austrasian grandees were at odds. The advent of aristocracy naturally led to the emergence of local influences.

The Muslim conquest of the Mediterranean was to precipitate the political and social changes that were to come. Until then, in the midst of a society sliding towards seigneurial ownership, towns had been kept alive by trade, and with them a free bourgeoisie.

In the second half of the 7th century, all trade ceased on the coasts of the western Mediterranean. Marseille, deprived of ships, withered away, and all the towns in the south of France declined in less than half a century. Throughout the country, trade declined, and with it the bourgeoisie. There were fewer professional merchants, less commercial traffic and, as a result, the tonlieux almost ceased to feed the royal treasury, which was no longer able to meet the government’s expenses.

From then on, the aristocracy was the only social force left. Faced with an impoverished kingdom, it possessed wealth and authority, along with land; all that remained was to seize power.

From Charlemagne’s reign onwards, a veritable campaign to denigrate the Merovingian dynasty began, led by Eginhard.

In order to justify the Carolingian coup d’état of 751, the latter left posterity with a very dull image of the Merovingians, which some 19th-century historians picked up on, an image that was disseminated by the school, and which is still in the minds of many.

Thus, he portrayed the Merovingians as kings who did nothing, as having done nothing, i.e. without any remarkable deeds; this was translated by 19th-century historians as lazy, and not helped by the image conveyed, and mocked, by Eginhard of kings travelling in ox-drawn carts. However, among the Franks, it was an old custom for the new king to pass through his lands on a cart pulled by oxen, not only to get to know his kingdom, but also to use his mythical power to encourage the agricultural yield of the land.

Similarly, in a Carolingian era when short hair was fashionable, presenting the Merovingians as kings who didn’t cut their hair also conveyed this idea of laziness. Yet here too, long hair was a sign of power among the Germanic peoples, and when Pepin the Short deposed the last Merovingian king, he took great care to shear him, more to remove one last attribute of his quasi-divine power and show that he was incapable of ruling than to apply the monastic tonsure.

In the 9th century, at a time when the whole pagan mystique of the Germanic king was somewhat forgotten, Eginhard was able to turn it on its head in a propaganda venture that worked well, since even today we still have an inglorious image of these kings.

Merovingian tombs were plaster sarcophagi, wooden coffins or, in some cases, individuals buried in the ground. These usually contained a great deal of glass jewelry, weapons, remnants of clothing and various offerings. It wasn’t until the Carolingian era that offerings were banned by the Church as a pagan practice.

Generally speaking, studies show that during these periods, people were healthy and robust, and rarely suffered from dietary deficiencies.

Children’s graves were relatively common and, like those of adults, contained various types of furnishings. In those days, children were not baptized until the age of three or four, when it was certain that the child was healthy and would live, as baptism was very expensive. Children who died without being baptized were buried as non-Christians, outside the sacred enclosure.

We can see a certain continuity in the way the Merovingians ate and “table manners” compared to the Roman world (see Cuisine of Ancient Rome). It’s fair to say that the early Merovingians retained their “Roman-style” table manners. Indeed, the same characteristics can be found in the dining rooms of the elite, which were richly decorated on walls and floors. However, the Merovingians had their differences.

Table and place settings

Tables were set with care and, above all, according to precise rules that could vary. Covered with a white tablecloth, the table was square, oval or rectangular in shape, set on trestles on which a plank was placed (unlike the Romans, who had a fixed table). This “flying” table was surrounded by many guests. These people were seated on benches and stools around the table.

Each person at the table had a spoon and knife, but no fork, which appeared later. Service materials were varied, including wood, marble, gold, silver and terra sigillata, a red-glazed ceramic characteristic of Roman service. Another aspect of the Merovingian table is that there is no individual plate, but rather a “trencher”, i.e. a piece of bread used as a plate.

Table service

Meals in the Merovingian period were served in two different ways: either a single dish was brought to the table for all guests. The most beautiful side of the dish was turned towards the most important guests. There were therefore inequalities between guests. Or servants brought several meals at the same time.

From Gregory of Tours’ Decem Libri Historiarum, we can conclude that there were four services. The order of these services was as follows:

While the servants cleared the table, the guests ate salty food to quench their thirst. The meal turned into a binge, which sometimes lasted into the next day.

The traditions

Before sitting down at the table, the guests washed their hands, and a member of the church blessed the meal for each course. Outside the table, “entremets” played music and kept the guests occupied, as the meal could take several hours. The Merovingians had a certain table manners.

The Merovingian dynasty died out with Childéric III and his son Thierry. Genealogists have long sought to find unknown descendants, but no certainty has yet been uncovered. The Carolingians’ claims to descend from the Merovingians through a daughter of Clotaire I are recognized as fictitious. Nevertheless, historians have put forward several leads.

External links


  1. Mérovingiens
  2. Merovingian dynasty
  3. Les débats des historiens sont encore vifs au sujet de cette date. Certains placent la conversion dès 496 tandis que d’autres ne l’imaginent pas avant 511.
  4. Christian Settipani pense que le roi en question n’est pas Childéric II mais Clotaire II ou Dagobert Ier.
  5. Zur fränkischen Frühgeschichte siehe den aktuellen Überblick bei Ulrich Nonn: Die Franken. Stuttgart 2010; vgl. auch Erich Zöllner: Geschichte der Franken bis zur Mitte des sechsten Jahrhunderts. München 1970 und die diversen Beiträge im Katalog Die Franken. Wegbereiter Europas. 5. bis 8. Jahrhundert. 2 Bde. Mainz 1996 (Neuauflage 1997).
  6. Allgemeine historische Überblicke zu den Franken bei: Eugen Ewig: Die Merowinger und das Frankenreich. 5. aktualisierte Auflage, Stuttgart 2006, S. 12 ff.; Sebastian Scholz: Die Merowinger. Stuttgart 2015, S. 30 ff.; Ian N. Wood: The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450–751. London 1994, S. 33 ff.; Erich Zöllner: Geschichte der Franken bis zur Mitte des sechsten Jahrhunderts. München 1970, speziell S. 37 ff.
  7. ^ Ottenendo anche, secondo G. Zecchini, una vittoria di peso in uno scontro precedente la battaglia vera e propria, che avrebbe privato Attila di un importante alleato come il contingente dei Gepidi.
  8. ^ Burgunda era sua moglie Clotilde, che ebbe una parte rilevante nella conversione di Clodoveo.
  9. ^ Brezzi 1978 op. cit., pagg. 58, 60 (vol. I). Parametro titolo vuoto o mancante (aiuto)
  10. ^ Cardini – Montesano, Storia medievale, Le Monnier Università, Firenze, 2006, pag. 79.
  11. ^ a b Pfister, Christian (1911). “Merovingians” . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 18 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 172–172.
  12. ^ Babcock, Philip (ed). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1993: 1415
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