Merovingian France

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Tomb of Childeric . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 519

At the end of the year a.d. 406 a confederation of Germanic peoples, including Vandals, Suevi, and Alans, crossed the frozen Rhine near Mainz and began plundering as far as Spain and North Africa. The Rhine frontier (limes) was never to be restored, and the Great Invasions, or Migrations, had reached Gaul. These movements were set off by the arrival from central Asia of the Huns in the 370s, thus provoking the panicked Visigoths to break into the Roman Empire; they were to bring numerous "barbarian" peoples into the western provinces to stay and found new polities. The decisive phase occurred between the 450s, when the collapse of Hunnic power and the accelerating fragmentation of Imperial Rome's authority left the field free for new players, and the years around 600, when major population movements took a hiatus and enduring territorial identities began to emerge in the west.

By that time the most successful barbarian dynasty was clearly that of the Merovingian Franks, reunited under Clotaire II and his son Dagobert in the early seventh century. The lands between the Loire and the Rhine, which had been provinces of Roman Gaul, were becoming known as Francia, the heartland of this "Frankish" power, which extended south into more Romanized regions (Aquitania, Burgundy, and Provence) and eastward into Germanic territories (Thuringia, Alemannia, and Bavaria). What were the roles of the "Franks" and the "Romans" in the development of this new power and of the cultural dynamism that was to carry the Franks to such heights in the oncoming Middle Ages? These questions have been at the heart of historical debates for centuries and have provided the framework for the evolution of Merovingian archaeology. They spring from the paradigm of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which first took form under Renaissance historians. When archaeology began to play a role, this paradigm was conceived in terms of identifying the historical actors, already known from the written sources, through studying their graves.

funerary archaeology

In 1653 during construction near the church of Saint-Brice in Tournai, Belgium, workers came upon a "treasure" of gold and silver coins, along with a profusion of iron and bronze objects—some clearly weapons—and bones, including two human skulls and a horse skull. Thanks to the prompt action of local authorities and the interest taken by Archduke Leopold William in asserting ownership, most of these finds were collected and given for study to the archduke's personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, who was a noted historian. In 1655 Chifflet published a detailed account of the find, as it could be reconstructed from witnesses and study of the artifacts, each one carefully illustrated.

Chifflet identified the find as the burial of the Frankish king Childeric, on the basis of a gold signet ring that depicted a long-haired warrior holding a spear and that was inscribed "CILDIRICI REGIS." According to the major narrative source for Frankish history, written by Bishop Gregory of Tours (d. 593), Childeric, a ruler of the western Franks, had fought alongside Roman commanders in the later fifth century and had died in a.d. 481/482. His son, Clovis, then attacked and defeated the Roman general Syagrius (486), launching a fighting career during which he eliminated rival Frankish rulers and defeated other barbarian peoples to establish, by his death in 511, the first dynasty to rule France, the Merovingians. The archduke took the Childeric collection with him to Vienna; after his death it was offered to King Louis XIV as a diplomatic present and disappeared from sight until the nineteenth century.

Over the next two centuries, as graves with artifacts turned up in northwest Europe, "antiquaries" argued over their attribution to specific groups of ancient peoples known from written sources. After 1800, early industrialization (the construction of roads and railways) led to the discovery of thousands of graves; this discovery combined with the growth of scientific methodologies and the Romantic enthusiasm for a national past created a climate favorable to the emergence of "national archaeologies." In 1848 Wilhelm and Ludwig Lindenschmidt argued convincingly that the twenty-one well-furnished graves that they had excavated at Selzen (Rheinhessen) must be Frankish because two of them included gold coins of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565). They published a careful tomb-by-tomb description with sketches depicting all the objects in place.

Between 1855 and 1859 the abbé Cochet published three influential volumes based on his many excavations in Normandy. His approach was more general. He contrasted the indigenous (and pagan) Gallo-Romans, who typically placed offerings of food, tableware, and small coins with their cremated dead, with the invading Germanic warriors, who laid the unburned bodies in graves, along with weapons and, for women, ornaments such as brooches and hairpins. Cochet's methods were crude. He usually did not publish tomb drawings or site plans or grave assemblages, and he did not pay heed to the chronological dimension of artifacts. For example, his "typical Frankish warrior" was shown carrying weapons of different periods and even female ornaments. Although Cochet rescued Childeric's grave from the obscurity into which it had fallen, he did not appreciate its potential value as a precisely dated closed-finds assemblage. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm for Merovingian archaeology stimulated interest in this new discipline in France and abroad.

In the half-century before World War I thousands of graves were opened, often as the byproduct of construction. What may be called the "ethnic paradigm" remained dominant. In 1860 Henri Baudot published an account of graves at Charnay (near Dijon), which he thought must be those of Burgundians before their kingdom was conquered by the Franks in 534. In 1892 and 1901 Camille Barrière-Flavy published material from graves in southwestern France, labeling it "Visigothic" on the principal ground that the Visigoths had ruled this region until their defeat by Clovis in 507. Some researchers developed notions of field methodology and the critical problems posed by the material uncovered. The abbé Haigneré in 1866 published a study of four cemeteries in Boulogne with a list of artifact assemblages for each grave and, for one site, a plan with each grave numbered. In Picardy, Jules Pilloy proposed the first chronological study of Merovingian artifacts. He distinguished an early period that corresponded to the invasions; a second one marking the growth of Merovingian power in the sixth century; a later phase of transition, when weapons such as the throwing axe (francisca) disappeared from grave groups and a new type, a single-edged short sword (scramasax), appeared; and a final phase, characterized by such objects as iron plate buckles with silver and gold inlay (damasquinure), which he took to be Carolingian (fig. 1).

While such men as Pilloy and the abbé Haigneré were laying the foundations for sound research, other diggers were pillaging sites to sell the booty on the expanding antiquities market. The example of Fréderic Moreau illustrates another type of excavator of the day. He worked on a vast scale, opening thousands of graves. Although he was known to present artifacts to visitors, he kept a daily excavation journal, maintained a restoration laboratory in his house, and privately printed summaries of his work in folio albums with splendid color lithographs. World War I led to a significant decline in Merovingian archaeological activity in France, lasting into the 1960s. Excavations were few and limited in scope; the most important general studies were by foreign scholars, such as the Swede Nils Åberg and the German Hans Zeiss. Édouard Salin kept the French tradition alive. A mining engineer from Lorraine, he began excavating rural cemeteries in that region in 1912 and continued to dig and publish through the 1950s. He gave impetus to technical studies by founding, with Albert France-Lanord, the first laboratory in France specializing in archaeological metallurgy, the Musée de l'Histoire du Fer in Nancy. He proposed an ambitious general interpretation of the Merovingian period founded on graves, written sources, and laboratory analysis. The technical studies of Merovingian metalwork were highly innovative, demonstrating the complex skills that went into making pattern-welded swords, iron belt buckles decorated with patterns of inlaid gold and silver wire, and gold-and-garnet and gold filigree brooches.

Salin's historical vision remained firmly within the boundaries of the "ethnic paradigm": He set out to distinguish Gallo-Roman from Germanic graves on the basis of typical artifacts and funerary customs and to identify the particular groups of "invaders"—Franks, Burgundians, Alemanni, and Visigoths. These groups were presumed to have come into contact with one another at the time of the "Great Invasions" of the fifth century, as distinct groups with fully formed funerary traditions. At a particular site, such as Villey-Saint-Etienne in Lorraine, the archaeologist could discern how, over time, these traditions interacted, giving rise to a new funerary culture in later Merovingian times. Salin stressed that all aspects of this practice—grave construction and orientation, cemetery organization, such traces of ritual activity as fire, and body position—needed to be considered along with the artifact assemblages. Like the abbé Cochet, Salin was deeply interested in what could be learned about ideology and religion from these graves.

Salin's earlier notion of "progressive fusion" overlaps here with the idea of "Christianization." He assumed that the original funerary culture was pagan, the antithesis of the Christian funerary culture practiced by the Gallo-Romans, and that the latter gradually triumphed, leading to the abandonment of the old "row-grave cemeteries" and the disappearance of artifacts from graves during the later Merovingian period. At the end of his career, Salin engaged in the excavation of Merovingian sarcophagi in the crypt of the abbey church of Saint-Denis, associated with King Dagobert (r. 629–639).

During the 1970s and 1980s French archaeology became more professional, and Merovingian archaeology benefited for the first time from leadership based in research organizations. Excavations by the C.R.A.M. (Center for Medieval Archaeological Research) in the Caen region soon corrected the earlier impression that there had been little Merovingian activity in western Normandy; Frénouville was the first Merovingian cemetery in France to be totally excavated and published. In the Rhône-Alps region a group of archaeologists from Geneva, Lyon, and Grenoble excavated numerous early medieval churches and cemeteries in consultation with one another. One of them, Michel Colardelle, published a global study of funerary archaeology in this region from the late Roman to the medieval period.

The intellectual center of the Merovingian revival was the A.F.A.M. (Association Française d'Archéologie Mérovingienne; French Association of Merovingian Archaeology), founded in 1979 by Patrick Périn. Périn's study of a rich early Merovingian cemetery in his hometown of Charleville-Mézières led him to focus on the refinement of chronological systems as the key to progress. He developed an artifact typology based on a series of cemeteries in the Champagne-Ardennes region, studied the frequency of object associations and their changes over time, and proposed a system of phases tied to absolute chronology by well-dated reference graves. Périn also stressed the fundamental importance of using these tools to study the internal dynamics of each cemetery, or its "topochronology."

The decades of the late twentieth century were marked by higher standards of fieldwork, more post-excavation specialist studies, and a much more critical attitude toward the problems of interpreting fragmentary archaeological data in the light of selective written sources. The direct link assumed by Salin between religion and funerary practice has been criticized, for example. Correlations that were drawn between funerary culture and ethnic identity now appear much more complex and ambiguous. The close and careful work of several archaeologists has supported the emergence of a "Germanic" funerary rite within and beyond the Roman frontiers during the late empire (c. a.d. 350–450), which provided the basis for the Frankish funerary rite that emerged and spread under Childeric and Clovis. A generation later, this cultural model was established in newly conquered regions, from Basel in Switzerland to Saintes in Aquitania.

Most researchers now agree that the Visigoths did not have an archaeologically distinct funerary culture while they occupied Aquitania, nor did the early Burgundians in eastern France, except, perhaps, for a few artificially deformed skulls. This is an unusual example of a plausible ethno-cultural conclusion drawn from skeletal data. Other studies have established that, while much can be learned from physical anthropology about ancient population structures, their health, and their relative homogeneity, these data do not lend themselves to ethnic profiling. Funerary practice could, on the other hand, reflect episodic assertions of group or regional identity, such as the belt buckles with Christian iconography that flourished briefly in part of Merovingian Burgundy. Researchers have pointed to the need to allow for the role of ceremony and display, usually archaeologically invisible, in understanding funerary practice. For the region around Metz, for example, the funerary domain might well have been a site of contest among local elite groups struggling for hegemony.

settlement archaeology

Settlement archaeology is a new and rapidly expanding field in France. As late as 1970 fewer than twenty sites were known, and none of them were explored more than partially. Not until 1972 was a Merovingian village—Brébieres, near Douai—excavated and the finds published in France. Between 1980 and 1993, 127 new sites became known, and the number has continued to rise.

This trend reflects the building boom in those years, coupled with legally mandated salvage archaeology, which is carried out with great methodological rigor at a pace and on a scale that dwarfs anything done in the past. For instance, in 1998 a team that included specialists of the prehistoric, Iron Age, and Roman and Merovingian periods was charged with evaluating and excavating a 237-hectare area at Onnaing (near Valenciennes) before the construction of a Toyota plant. Initial analysis indicated the development of many small settlements in the Late Iron Age and the earlier Gallo-Roman period, with general abandonment of sites before a.d. 200 and reoccupation in one place by a Merovingian settlement with sunken-featured buildings (SFBs). From that time the fertile Onnaing plain was given over to intensive cultivation.

While this example of landscape archaeology that allows us to situate Merovingian settlement in a period of long duration is quite exceptional, it also serves to underline the tentative nature of any general conclusions one might draw today, so soon after the Brebières excavation. The full-scale publication of more recent sites is still awaited. The information now available is unequally distributed geographically. A great density of sites in northern France contrasts with scarcity in western and southern France.

Brebières offers an object lesson in the dangers of drawing hasty conclusions from available data. The excavation disclosed some thirty-one SFBs spread out along either side of a street several hundred meters long. These were small rectangular buildings, 3 to 6 meters long and 2 to 3.5 meters wide, with wattle-and-daub walls and thatch roofs supported by two, four, or six wooden posts set into the dugout floor. There were few fireplaces. Located near a marsh, which was drained by two ditches, this site suggested to some scholars a damp, cramped, and squalid lifestyle, an impression that re-enforced the theory of economic decline and cultural regression following the Great Invasions.

However, it is based on only a partial investigation of the site, for work was limited to a 50-meter-wide band whose surface had been scraped away before the archaeologists arrived. There may have been larger surface-level buildings whose traces had been destroyed, or that lay beyond the excavated area. The SFBs could have been only outbuildings used for storage or workshops, as the discovery of such artifacts as loom weights suggests. Brebières also has to be understood in relation to the nearby royal villa of Vitry-en-Artois (known from written sources), to which it probably belonged. In 1985 more SFBs were found in a rescue operation at Vitry, as well as posthole alignments, which suggest a ground-level timber-frame house. At Juvincourtet-Damary (Aisne) three such houses were excavated. The largest (15 by 5 meters) had an entrance porch leading to two rooms, one a living room equipped with a fireplace and the other used for sleeping.

By the mid-1990s many timber-frame buildings had been documented in the northern part of France. More information about the complexities of site evolution also has become available. It has been suggested that Juvincourt, for example, was a hamlet within a polynuclear village. When founded at the beginning of the Merovingian period, it consisted of several surface-level buildings with SFB outbuildings. In the later sixth century, settlement shifted to the north; by the mid-seventh century it had relocated even farther north, with several aligned buildings facing a rectangular enclosure. By the ninth century the settlement had been abandoned.

Excavation of the settlement at Mondeville, near Caen in Normandy, sheds new light on the dynamics of early medieval settlement and its role in the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, tying it to the evolution of funerary practice as well. Occupied in the Iron Age, Mondeville became a vicus (substantial rural settlement) with houses built on solid stone foundations. By about a.d. 300 these houses were replaced by SFBs: small timber-and-thatch buildings with floors dug into the bedrock. Timber architecture remained characteristic until about a.d. 700, when houses with stone foundations reappeared. This also may have been the time when a church with stone foundations was built within the settlement and burials were made around it, a sign that the traditional separation of the living and the dead was giving way to new Christian attitudes. There is more evidence of this shift at Saleux, in Picardy, a particularly interesting site since the entire settlement, in use from the seventh to the eleventh century, was excavated along with the necropolis of almost twelve hundred graves. At first the dwellings were placed close to the river and the dead buried on higher ground, a good distance to the west. The burial site focused around a special grave housed in a stone sarcophagus and protected by a wooden structure. During the eighth century this structure was transformed into a small timber church, which was later rebuilt in stone; the cemetery was enclosed by a ditch. By then the village itself had advanced to adjoin the churchyard, providing a plausible early example of the typical medieval village, with the living and the dead knit into a seamless community around the parish church.

Was the Merovingian period fundamentally in rupture with antiquity, or should more stress be laid on elements of continuity? Did the basic patterns of medieval life have their roots deep in this period, or did they emerge essentially around the end of the first millennium, after centuries of instability and poverty? Lively debate on such critical questions has replaced the assumption that archaeology's role is merely to provide artifacts that illustrate a historical narrative (whose outline is firmly fixed by written sources) or, at most, to fill in the gaps. In the last decades of the twentieth century there was a fundamental change not only in the scale and precision of excavation but also in the scope of the larger archaeological enterprise, as it has been called upon to collaborate with other disciplines in confronting historical questions. Boundaries once thought secure now seem fluid, as is apparent in the interaction of those "Merovingian archaeologists" primarily concerned with rural settlements and cemeteries, with scholars working on the related problems of cities and Christianity during this period.

urban and christian archaeology

In 1830 concern for preserving the past, which had been growing since the destructions caused by the French Revolution, led France to create the Commission des Monuments historiques (Historical Monuments Commission), whose trained architects went to work restoring medieval churches. A parallel pursuit, whose origins go back to the Renaissance, was the study of early Christian remains, such as carved sarcophagi and inscriptions. The French presence in North Africa and the Near East also led to pioneering archaeological studies of early Christian buildings, many still standing in part, in the former provinces of the Roman Empire. Because few monuments from that time survived above ground in France itself, interest in the heritage there was slight before the mid-twentieth century. Change began when the fifth International Congress of Christian Archaeology was held at Aix-en-Provence in 1954.

Under the influence of the great historian Henri-Irénée Marrou, the critical centuries from a.d. 300 to 800 were seen less as a time of decadence and collapse (the "Dark Ages") than as a dynamic and creative period (late antiquity) driven by the novel forces released by Christianity. It was clear that any attempt to study this phenomenon archaeologically must involve excavating cities, for they were the heart of the early Christian world. How had the hundred civitas capitals of Gaul, the nodal points of the Roman administration that had become in the Christian empire the seats of bishops as well, fared with the barbarian onslaught? Much of the evidence was hidden; the great medieval cathedrals were built atop complex groups of early Christian buildings. A variety of literary sources, inscriptions, sarcophagi, coins, and vestiges of old buildings offered many avenues for research. Given the poverty of resources for excavation in France and the lack of trained excavators and of training programs, what could be done?

By 1986, when the International Congress of Christian Archaeology returned to France (Lyon), impressive progress had been made, thanks to creative and energetic scholarly enterprise and to the growth of publicly mandated salvage archaeology. Since the mid-1970s a group of scholars had been meeting regularly to pursue a critical and systematic study of all the sources, written and material, for each of the Gallo-Roman towns that had become episcopal seats in late antiquity. At the same time research-oriented archaeologists developed focused research programs in partnership with the Archaeological Service of the Ministry of Culture, local and regional authorities, and businesses and private enthusiasts. The most thoroughgoing long-term project has been under way in the city and canton of Geneva since the 1970s, until 1998 under the direction of Charles Bonnet. The archaeology of religious edifices has been a specialty of the Bonnet team. Their most spectacular accomplishment was the thorough excavation of the cathedral and its surroundings, showing how a complex Merovingian cathedral group (including a bishop's palace with a sixth-century mosaic pavement) developed out of late Roman administrative buildings (fig. 2).

While it would be imprudent to draw quick conclusions from the vast amounts of new data generated by this type of work, two general comments can be made. First, it is clear that the urban component of Merovingian civilization was much more important and dynamic than once was thought and that Christianity was the primary force in the survival and redefinition of these towns. That the over-whelming majority of the Roman civitas capitals in Gaul did survive as urban settlements, apparently without any break in continuity, is a clear contrast with the discontinuity found in Britain.

The nature and scale of survival varied dramatically. It was most attenuated in Tours, once a planned Roman town of 80 hectares. By a.d. 500 there remained a 9-hectare walled citadel by the river, where the bishop in his cathedral and the count in his hall kept company. Two kilometers to the west stood a funerary church dedicated to Saint Martin, around which a new community, called by a contemporary the vicus christianorum (settlement of the Christians), was emerging. Most of the old Roman town, between these points, had become fields. The western pole grew rapidly, stimulated by the popularity of Saint Martin's tomb as a goal of pilgrimage; it came to be enclosed within its own wall. In Geneva, around a.d. 500, the bishop's monumental new buildings were filling the walled hilltop citadel; other new churches were revitalizing the suburbium (the area around the core) below. Farther out in the countryside churches were going up as well.

This picture leads to the second general observation authorized by recent research: the Christian impact on the rural world. At Sezegnin, about 10 miles from Geneva, a rural cemetery of more than six hundred graves developed around three privileged burials in the center. They were not "elite" graves in the traditional social sense, for they included almost no artifacts, but they were set off by a wooden structure that can be interpreted as a memoria, a monument to commemorate the honored Christian dead. The fugitive traces of such a structure would have escaped attention in the past, but there is growing evidence in the core Frankish regions to the north that by the later sixth century elite burials were shifting to unmistakable Christian contexts.

A rural cemetery excavated at Hordain (near Douai) shows that an emphatically un-Christian burial style (cremation under tumulus) co-existed c. a.d. 550 with richly furnished (weapons and ornament) inhumation burials in a funerary chapel built in the midst of the cemetery. In Belgium a private funerary chapel at Arlon included an elite warrior grave and that of a young woman buried sometime around a.d. 600 with ornaments that included a Christian silver locket. One of the earliest well-dated examples of richly furnished elite burials in a Christian context (c. a.d. 530/540) comes from the old Roman town of Cologne, capital of the Rhenish Franks. In a chapel within the atrium of the cathedral a young boy was buried with weapons (including a helmet) and furniture (bed and chair); beside him a young woman lay with finery that rivals that of Aregonde in Saint-Denis a generation later. Thus both archaeological finds and written sources associate the Merovingian elites with the towns and stress the vitality of the Christian culture there. Even funerary practices were beginning a gradual shift toward what would emerge in the Carolingian period as a fully Christian organization of death.

See alsoMerovingian Franks (vol. 2, part 7); Tomb of Childeric (vol. 2, part 7).


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Peytremann, Edith. Archéologie de l'habitat rural dans le nord de la Gaule du IVe au XIIIe siècle. 2 vols. Association Française d'Archéologie Mérovingienne Mémoires, no. 13. Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France: Musée des Antiquités Nationales, 2002. (The first general study of the subject, with a complete site catalogue.)

Pilet, Christian. La nécropole de Frénouville: Étude d'une population de la fin du IIIe à la fin du VIIe siècle. 2 vols. BAR International Series, no. 83. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1983.

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Bailey K. Young