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Merovingians

Merovingians Frankish dynasty (476–750). It was named after Merovech, a leader of the Salian Franks, whose grandson, Clovis I (r.c.481–511), ruled over most of France and, converting to Christianity, established the common interests of the Frankish rulers and the already Christian population of his new kingdom. Pepin III overthrew the last Merovingian king and founded the Carolingian dynasty.

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Merovingian

Merovingian a member of the Frankish dynasty founded by Clovis and reigning in Gaul and Germany c.500–750. The word comes from the medieval Latin Merovingi ‘descendants of Merovich’ (semi-legendary 5th-century Frankish leader said to be the grandfather of Clovis).

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Merovingian

Merovingian pert. to the line of Frankish kings founded by Clovis (c.500). XVII. — F. mérovingien, f. medL. Merovingī pl., f. L. form (Meroveus) of the name of their reputed founder; see -ING3, -IAN.

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Merovingian

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Merovingians

Merovingians, dynasty of Frankish kings, descended, according to tradition, from Merovech, chief of the Salian Franks, whose son was Childeric I and whose grandson was Clovis I, the founder of the Frankish monarchy. Merovingian kings followed Frankish custom in dividing the patrimony. After the death (511) of Clovis I, the kingdom was divided among his descendants into various kingdoms, which later became known as Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy. These kingdoms, whose borders were constantly shifting, were often combined; for brief periods, they were all united in a single realm under Clotaire I (558–61), Clotaire II (613–23), and Dagobert I (629–39). The rule of the Merovingians before Dagobert I was disturbed by chronic warfare among aristocrats and rivals for power, notably between Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia and Queen Fredegunde of Neustria. Dagobert I was the last active ruler; his descendants were called the rois fainéants, or idle kings. They were entirely subject to their mayors of the palace, the Carolingians, who became the nominal as well as the actual rulers of the Franks when Pepin the Short deposed (751) the last Merovingian king, Childeric III. See Childebert I; Theodoric I; Guntram; Chilperic I; Sigebert I; Childebert II.

See S. Dill, Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age (1926, repr. 1966); J. M. Wallace-Hedrill, Long-Haired Kings and Other Studies in Frankish History (1982); P. J. Geary, Before France and Germany (1988); E. James, The Franks (1991).

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Merovingians

MEROVINGIANS

A family of Frankish origin which established an extensive kingdom in Gaul during the late 5th and early 6th centuries over which the family ruled until 751. The Merovingian dynasty drew its name from Merovech, a semilegendary chieftain of the Salian Franks during the period in the mid-5th century that witnessed the rise of that branch of the larger Frankish people to prominence in northern Gaul between the lower Rhine and the Somme rivers.

Clovis I. The real founder of the dynasty was clovis (ruled 481 or 482511), grandson of Merovech, whose succession as leader of the Salian Franks was by right of blood, giving to the heirs of Merovech a sacral position, which served them well in terms of retaining the allegiance of their subjects. But Clovis also owed much to the advantages his predecessors had gained as allies serving the Roman imperial government in its efforts to retain its hold over northern Gaul. Clovis made his mark chiefly as a successful warlord who won a series of victories over various rivals: over Syagrius, a general who was the last to claim to represent Roman imperial authority in northern Gaul; over the Alemanni, Germanic rivals of the Franks; over the visigoths, another Germanic people already established as rulers of southern Gaul and Spain; and over the chieftains of other Frankish tribes who were rivals of the Salians. These triumphs made Clovis the sole ruler over the kingdom of the Franks, which by his death in 511 embraced most of Gaul as well as an important foothold east of the Rhine and which was generally recognized as a major power in the western part of the old Roman Empire.

Clovis was more than a successful, albeit brutal warrior king. Although the extent of Frankish settlement in Gaul remains an open question, there seems little doubt that there were few Frankish settlers compared to the indigenous population and that the heaviest Frankish settlements were between the Seine and the Rhine. Their numerical inferiority made their rule of a vast realm inhabited by non-Franks difficult. Without ever abandoning the use of force as an instrument of power, Clovis took important steps to establish the effective institutional foundations that allowed his family to rule the Frankish kingdom for more than two centuries and to play an important role in shaping the future course of western European history. His conversion to orthodox Christianity, the religion of most of the people occupying the territory he conquered, was a decisive factor in making his regime acceptable. His decision meant that he repudiated arianism, a version of Christianity adhered to by his rival Germanic kings but viewed as heretical by most of his Gallo-Roman subjects; his championing of orthodoxy was especially important in rallying the Gallic episcopacy to the support of his regime. In organizing the administration of his vastly enlarged kingdom Clovis left intact a wide array of Roman administrative structures and practices concerned with justice, taxation, and law enforcement. As a consequence, the establishment of the new ruling regime meant little change for much of the population of the kingdom of the Franks. From the beginning of his reign Clovis drew Gallo-Romans into service in his army and his political administration. He thereby provided a setting in which the assimilation of the conquering Franks and the conquered Gallo-Romans, especially the elite Gallo-Romans, rapidly took shape. The vast amount of land that his conquests put at his disposal allowed Clovis to reward his Frankish followers with grants of land that turned them into major landholders whose economic interests and lifestyles were increasingly similar to those of the indigenous aristocracy of Gaul. These measures marked a major step in making Clovis king of all who lived in Francia rather than being merely king of the Salian Franks.

Power Struggles after the Death of Clovis. After Clovis' death in 511, his kingdom was divided among his four sons, each being awarded a portion of the territory between the Rhine and Loire which constituted the heartland of kingdom of the Franks along with an important city in that territory as a capital (Paris, Soissons, Orleans, and Reims), and each was assigned a portion of Frankish holdings south of the Loire in Aquitaine. This division was dictated in part by Germanic custom which provided that each surviving male should receive a share of a father's patrimony while maintaining that that patrimony, that is, the kingdom, remained an entity belonging to the family. No less important in shaping the division were the concerns of Clovis' queen, Chlotilde, who was anxious to protect the interests of her three sons by Clovis against the ambitions of an older and more experienced son of Clovis by a concubine. This practice of dividing the kingdom among royal heirs became the source of endless intrigue and frequent bloody strife among members of the Merovingian family and their followers, who were trying to take advantage of their kinsmen to gain a larger share

of the kingdom of the Franks. The baneful effect of such civil strife was somewhat veiled during the reigns of Clovis' sons, the last of whom died in 561. It was muted by the continuation of Frankish expansion and the policy of assimilation begun by Clovis. Working together and separately, his sons solidified Frankish control in Aquitaine, added the realm of the Thuringians, the kingdom of Burgundy, Provence, and Rhaetia to the kingdom of the Franks. They also conducted raids into Spain, the land of the Saxons, and Italy that produced booty and tribute. By 561 the kingdom of the Franks under the Merovingians reached its greatest size and the zenith of its standing in the western part of the empire once ruled by the Romans.

In 561 the kingdom, briefly united under Clovis' last surviving son, Chlothar I, was again divided among his four sons. The next half-century witnessed a succession of savage struggles for power. The causes of these struggles were multiple: the ambitions of individual kings; the need of rival Merovingian family members to prove on the battlefield their suitability for kingship; the neversated urge of members of the royal family to fill their coffers with booty to reward their followers; the unexpected death of kings, often at the hands of assassins, leaving a power vacuum that stoked the ambitions of royal relatives; muddied rights of succession brought about by serial marriages of the kings; the intrigues of aristocratic families seeking to win royal favor or to escape from rulers attempting to limit aristocratic privilege; and the ambitions of queens, especially widowed queens, to assure the well-being of their offspring. As the family rivalry and successive partitions of the kingdom unfolded, a division of the kingdom into three distinct entities began to take shape: Austrasia, in the northeast centered between the valleys of the Meuse and the Rhine rivers and including Alemannia and Thuringia east of the Rhine; Neustria, the northwestern region of the kingdom centered in the Seine valley and extending to the Loire on the south and the borders of Austrasia on the north and east; and Burgundy, located in the valleys of the Saôn and the Rhône rivers. Peripheral territories, such as Aquitaine, Provence, and Bavaria sought to elude Frankish control without ever being totally successful. Some of the most violent chapters in this phase of Merovingian history were stoked by a rivalry that pitted Brunhilde (d. 613), a Visigothic princess who was the wife, mother, and grandmother of a succession of kings ruling over Austrasia and for a time Burgundy, against Fredegund (d. 597), consort and mother of successive kings of Neustria. This violent chapter in Merovingian history finally ended with an uprising of the aristocracy of Austrasia which resulted in gruesome murder of Brunhilde in 613. That revolt was triggered in part by Brunhilde's effort to institute measures aimed at curbing the steady growth of aristocratic power at the expense of royal authority, a development that was a major consequence of a half-century of strife within the royal family.

With the elimination in 613 of Brunhilde and her grandsons as rulers of Austrasia and Burgundy, the entire Frankish kingdom was reunited under Chlothar II, a son of Fredegund, who had ruled in Neustria since 584, and his son, Dagobert I (629638). During this quarter century of relative peace the Merovingian dynasty reached its apogee. Chlothar recognized that the local power of aristocratic families had expanded to the point where they played a decisive role in the governance of the kingdom and that their support was crucial to royal authority. He sought to regularize relationships between crown and nobles by issuing an edict in 614 that made important concessions to the nobles in terms of controlling appointments of local officials while clarifying the sphere of royal authority. Chlothar II and Dagobert I encouraged members of aristocratic families to come to the royal court, increasingly fixed at Paris, where they could be educated for royal office and earn rewards resulting from personal ties with the king. They could also make contacts with other aristocrats and fashion marriage alliances that would enhance family fortunes. The rulers increased their reliance on bishops and abbots as agents of royal power, a policy that involved royal control over appointments to those offices and grants of immunity, which freed church property from royal control. Their religious policy gave increasing weight to religious ideas as the ideological underpinning of monarchy that had earlier emphasized a warrior ethos.

The Rise of Aristocratic Families. Upon the death of Dagobert I in 639 the kingdom of the Franks was divided between his two sons; one ruled over Neustria and Burgundy, and the other reigned in Austrasia. Although men of some ability, they were unable to contain the seemingly irresistible advance of the local aristocratic families toward control of Gaul. The kings became "do-nothing kings" (rois fainéants ), living dissolute lives and often dying young, sometimes as victims of assassins. Real power in the kingdom of the Franks was increasingly wielded by aristocratic factions, especially those led by one of the chief officials in each of the royal courts, the mayor of the palace. He utilized the wealth and prestige attached to that office to form extensive followings powerful enough to threaten royal power and rival aristocratic families. These factions and their leaders were not interested in ending Merovingian rule. Rather, they sought to control the royal office and its resources as a means of expanding and enriching their local bases of power. The violent rivalry among these factions finally culminated in 687, when an Austrasian faction, led by Pepin II of Herstal, won a decisive victory over a Neustrian force in a battle at Tertry. Pepin II counted among his ancestors a certain arnulf (d. 643/647), a rich aristocrat who served many years in the Austrasian royal court and then became bishop of Metz, and Pepin I of Landen (d. 640), likewise a descendant of a powerful family who served the Austrasian king as mayor of the palace and used that office to increase his wealth and expand his circle of followers. These two men collaborated in bringing about the downfall of Queen Brunhilde in 613. The position of this dynasty, known variously as the Arnulfings or the Pippinids or eventually the carolingians, was greatly strengthened by the marriage of Arnulf's son to Pepin I's daughter. Their son, Pepin II, was the victor at Tertry.

Decline of the Merovingians. Pepin II's victory at Tertry marked a turning point in the history of the Merovingian dynasty, setting it on a path toward its end. Pepin II assumed control of the office of mayor of the palace in Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy, thereby beginning a de facto reunification of the kingdom of the Franks. It was still theoretically ruled by Merovingian kings, but it was coming increasingly under Pepin's control. He was able to contain the resistance to his domination that still existed, and his cause was helped by the good will still enjoyed by the "long-haired kings" whom he claimed to serve. At his death in 714 the dominant position he had established was briefly threatened by efforts of aristocrats in Neustria to escape Austrasian authority, by the Frisians who allied with the Neustrians to remove the threat of Pippinid expansion, and by a quarrel within Pepin II's family over succession. The victor was his illegitimate son, Charles, later dubbed Martel (the Hammer), who until his death in 741 utilized his position as mayor of the palace, serving the Merovingian kings but also using them to overcome internal opposition. He reestablished control over Burgundians, Alemanni, Thuringians, and Aquitainians, all of whom had enjoyed some success in escaping Frankish control. He also won a victory over Muslim invaders of Gaul at a battle near Poitiers in 732 that led some to hail him as the savior of Christendom. Although charles martel left the Merovingian throne vacant after 737, his heirs as joint mayors of the palace, pepin iii the Short and carloman, sought to fortify their position among the Frankish aristocracy by arranging the selection of a member of the Merovingian dynasty as king in 743. A few years later Pepin III, who became sole mayor of the palace after the retreat of Carloman to monastic life, turned to Pope stephen ii to ask whether or not it was right that he who had no power should enjoy the title of king. A response from the pope indicating that he who held power should be king emboldened Pepin in 751 to request and receive from his magnates election as king of the Franks. Once elected Pepin III deposed the last Merovingian, Childeric III.

The Significance of the Merovingian Dynasty. The Merovingian dynasty has not enjoyed a good reputation over the centuries; the period during which they ruled has repeatedly been described as the darkest of the Dark Ages. In part, they earned a bad name by their penchant for violence and treachery. In part, their reputation was blackened by Carolingian propagandists seeking to justify the usurpation of the Frankish crown by the dynasty that replaced the Merovingians. The dynasty had the misfortune to be center stage during an era when the territory and the population over which it ruled were suffering from the effects resulting from the transformation of the civilization of the Mediterranean world once ruled by the Romans. That tortured process witnessed long-term developments in western Europe that cast a shadow of failure over those involved: depopulation; the decline of urban life; the shrinking of trade; the onset of agricultural self-sufficiency; the fragmentation of political authority; the militarization of society; the depression of the lower classes of society into dependency; the barbarization of literary culture; the paganization of religious life; the vulgarization of manners.

When viewed from a perspective defined by this grim setting and when new evidence resulting from archeological investigations is taken into account, the history of the Merovingians does not seem quite so negative. Rather, the Merovingian epoch appears as a time of new beginnings which had major importance in relieving the stresses cause by the demise of Roman civilization and in shaping the future of Western Europe. As rulers the Merovingians created a political and social environment which promoted the assimilation of conquerors and conquered. That process resulted in the survival of vital elements of both pre-Merovingian Germanic and Roman cultures and the recombination of these survivals into political, legal, social, economic, and mental structures that provided the institutional framework for a new civilization based in northwestern Europe. Even in Merovingian times the vitality of the new structures was demonstrated by such things as slowly increasing population, land clearance, the renewal of cities as religious centers, the development of new trade routes linking northern Gaul, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, and the development of new technical skills, especially in metal-working. The Merovingian rulers pursued a policy that promoted the spread of a common form of Christianity as a unifying and stabilizing force in society. Their support of the episcopacy was crucial to the development of the internal organization of the Christian community and to the enhancement of that organization's capacity to enlarge its role in meeting the spiritual and material needs of the faithful, especially those living in an increasingly rural world. Their patronage of monasticism, especially that form introduced by the Irish monk, Columbanus, was crucial in expanding the role of that institution in converting pagans, defining new forms of piety, especially those appealing to the aristocracy increasingly rural in outlook, and encouraging the survival and renewal of Latin literary culture as an instrument for deepening the faith. When those facets of the history of the Merovingian dynasty are taken into account, it becomes obvious that the future history of Europe cannot be reconstructed without considering what happened during the two and a half centuries of Merovingian rule.

Bibliography: Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Historiarum Libri X, ed. b. krusch (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merowingicarum 1; Hannover 1937), English translation as Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans, with intro. l. thorpe (Harmondsworth, Eng. 1974). Chronicorum qui dicuntur Fredegarii Scholastici Liber IV cum continuationibus, ed. b. krusch (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarm 2; Hannover 1888) 1214. The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar, with its Continuations, trans. with intro. j. m. wallace-hadrill (London 1960). Liber historiae Francorum, ed. b. krusch, (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarm 2; Hannover 1888) 215328, English translation as Liber historiae Francorum, trans. b. s. bachrach (Lawrence, Kans. 1973). Capitularia Merowingica, ed. a. boretius (Monumenta Germanicae Historica, Leges, Sectio II: Capitularia regum Francorum 1; Hannover 1883) 123. Concilia Galliae, A.511A.695, ed. c. de clercq (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 148A; Turnhout 1963). Epistolae Merowingici et Karolini aevi, vol. 1, ed. w. gundlach and w. arndt (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae 3; Berlin 1892) 110213, 439468. Die Urkunden der Merowinger (Diplomata regum Francorum e stirpe Merovingia), ed. c. bruhl, t. kÖlzer, m. hartmann, and a. stieldorf (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Diplomata; Hannover 2001). Vita sanctorum generis regii, ed. bruno krusch, (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merowingicarum 2; Hannover 1888). Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi merowingici et antiquiorum aliquot, ed. b. krusch and w. levison (Scriptores rerum Merowingicarum 37; (Hannover 18961920; reprinted, 19841997). Die Gesetze des Merowingerreiches 481714, vol. 1: Pactus legis Salicae: Recensiones Merovingicae, ed. k. a. eckhardt (Germanenrecht, Texte und Übersetzungen 1; Göttingen 1955). Venantius Fortunatus, Personal and Political Peoms, trans. with notes and intro. j. george (Translated Texts for Historians 23; Liverpool 1975).

[r. e. sullivan]

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