Wood engraving of a Merovingian country nobleman’s estate / Yale University, Creative Commons
What Holds Society Together?
Lectionnaire mérovingien (VIIème siècle). Manuscrit sur parchemin. Le plus ancien livre conservé en Alsace. (Ms 1). Coll. Bibliothèque humaniste de Sélestat. / Photo by Claude Truong-Ngoc, Wikimedia Commons
Remember that the reason we’re studying them is as an example of barbarian kingship, barbarian states, and the post-Roman world. “Post-Roman” meaning that the Roman Empire is gone, but the society is not completely severed. Its connections with the Roman tradition are not severed. This is most obvious in the Church and the survival of Latin learning, bishops, Christianity, literacy. But even though we seem to be in an environment of rather primitive, and even, we could use the word loosely, barbarian kings, I hope that we’ll see that within Gregory’s narrative, there is evidence of a kind of royal administration and a certain sense of purpose.
We are entering a period in which we have to start asking, “what held society together?” This becomes a question when two things start to fail. One is the government. Where it’s really not clear that there is a government, other than powerful people plundering less powerful people. And the other factor is when the people themselves don’t really believe that there is any force holding their society together, anything that they unconsciously give deference to.
So we’re all familiar with what are called now “failed states.” That is, polities that have an official existence, but that cannot seem to keep the most basic form of order within their borders, whatever those borders may be. So unfortunate states like Somalia, or no longer, but ten years ago, Liberia, Sierra Leone, were examples of failed states. And this is a phenomenon that has grown in the contemporary world.
In the Middle Ages– and here we’re talking about the period from the collapse of Roman authority in the West in the fifth century until at least the twelfth century– there are various kinds of societies that are held together. They’re not as anarchic as Somalia, actually. But they are not held together by government in the sense that we understand it. They are held together partly by informal social networks and ties. Things like kinship, family, private vengeance, religion.
But by having to ask the question “What holds society together?” you are already making a kind of statement about the sort of society you’re talking about. I would say that the United States has, for most of its history, been a polity in which this kind of question didn’t have to be asked. It’s not that people loved the government, or even particularly deferred to it. But that in their everyday life, in their everyday gestures and in their everyday assumptions, they assumed that they were protected. They normally did not have to go out with a weapon in order to feel that they would not be robbed. There are exceptional communities where that’s not been true.
But generally speaking, you could assume that the police or the police forces intimidated criminals or potential evildoers. You would, you know, send your bills in by mail, assuming that they would arrive, that a government agency would take care of the transport of them. You might try not to pay as much taxes as you perhaps owed, but you wouldn’t really try to just be under the radar of the government, because you would assume that you couldn’t do that. You would have to make some kind of tax payment. And on and on. Educating your children, signing up for Social Security, being part of a community.
The mark of privilege, then, historically, is not having to think about the ties that hold your society together. If you had to come up with a standard with which to measure human happiness, that might not be such a bad one.
Now, there are other forms of human happiness. Total independence. The idea of the person who lives out somewhere on the farm and is completely self-sufficient, has all of the food that they need, either that they catch or cultivate, lives in some kind of wonderful climate in which the food grows on trees. Dreams of authors of the nineteenth century in Europe and America about the South Sea Islanders.
So we have in our imagination the idea of living a blissful life without any particular social ties, or only the most casual ones. But I think we all know that usually, such an existence, when it, in fact, exists at all, is an invitation for someone else to plunder it and to steal it. Part of the reason for social ties is company. Part of the reason for social ties is protection.
So when asking what held Barbarian societies together, we’re asking something that’s more than just a banal question of medieval sociology. We’re asking a question about the fundamental nature of a society that is not so unsuccessful as people think. You know, again, nobody wakes up in 560 AD saying how unfortunate it is that they’re alive in the Dark Ages. They didn’t call it the Dark Ages. They didn’t think it was the Dark Ages. And it wasn’t the Dark Ages, I hope to show.
Gregory of Tours
Gregory of Tours, by Jean Marcellin. stone, before 1853. / Cour Napoléon in the Louvre
Now, Gregory of Tours is a great source because he gives a lot of very miscellaneous information. He’s perhaps a source who likes violence, though. He likes violence for reasons we were talking about last week. He wants to show that on the one hand, the life of human beings is terrible and full of outrage and violence, but that it is redeemed by God’s solicitude. And that those people who recognize God’s power, as manifested through bishops, saints, the rites of the church, will, if not prosper always in this life, at least receive a reward that is commensurate with their loyalty to God.
Gregory is a pessimist. One of the reasons– one of the themes that guides this work– I was going to say one of the reasons he wrote this work, but I don’t want to kind of venture that far out. One of the aspects that unites this work is a sense of the decline of the Franks, from the model, Clovis, to the fools that he feels he has to deal with, like Chilperic. Three generations– the generation of Clovis, the generation of Clovis’s sons, the generation of Clovis’s grandsons. Each one worse than the one before it.
So if he had grudgingly acknowledged that the sons of Clovis fulfilled, in some sense, a mission in accord with God’s plan, he was much more clearly hostile to this third generation of Merovingian leaders. He says at one point in a part that is not in Murray, “To this day, one is still amazed and astonished at the disasters which befell these people.” And I think I mentioned this little passage before. “We can only contrast how their forefathers used to behave, and how they themselves are behaving today.”
So he is scolding the current generation and exalting the older ways. He is scolding them for their violence. But what about the fact that, as we emphasized, Clovis was violent? What he’s really scolding them for, then, is not violence as such, but violence channeled to unproductive ends. Violence is inevitable, in Gregory’s world. Violence in defense of the true faith is not only acceptable, but necessary in order to defend that.
And Gregory’s interest, as I hope I’ll show, in the true faith, is not just a defense of Christianity as a religion, but Christianity as the thing that holds society together. If you asked Gregory what holds society together, he would give some kind of answer on the order of the bishops, the saints, the supernatural, the Church. And then if you said, “Well, what is the role of the king in this?” It’s basically to terrorize people. To make sure that the mere threat of divine vengeance is backed up by threats of a more immediate sort. Throughout the history of the Franks, although not excerpted so much in the edition we’re using, there are examples of people who hold God, Saint Martin, or the bishop, or some other saint in contempt, and who pay for it, often with their lives.
So in Gregory’s official presentation of events, any defiance of God is met with a thunderbolt. But he’s not actually a fool. I know in the dark moments of 2 AM, reading Gregory, that thought may have crossed your mind. And I know that you repressed it very quickly, and it’s evil of me even to raise it.
But lest you think that he’s just a credulous guy who lived in the sixth century AD and whatever, he is perceptive, and he understands that most people, most of the time, thunderbolt of God notwithstanding, need something a little more immediate to whip them into shape. That is, to follow a kind of basic civil order. And that is supposed to be the ruler. So it’s fine for the ruler to be violent. And it’s even OK if some people get caught in the jaws of the state, if we can call it that, or let’s say, the jaws of the king, who should not have been punished.
The Bishops and the King
Bronze medal portrait of Childeric / Wikimedia Commons
But look at the people he’s dealing with. He’s dealing with people who were violent, as well as kind of silly and quixotic. He has this little conversation with Chilperic that reminds one of pseudo-learned people, bloodthirsty dictators with pseudo-learning, on the order of Muammar Gaddafi. People who sort of study some stuff, and decide that they’re experts on it because they’re able to terrorize their population.
“So Chilperic issued a circular”– this is on page 111– “a circular to the effect that the Holy Trinity was to refer not to distinct persons, but only God. That it’s unseemly for God to be called a person, like a mortal of flesh and blood. He also declared that the Father is the same as the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the same as the Father and Son.” Well, you know, people had died, and they certainly had written huge controversial works, and had lots of councils over this issue. And this is not right. Nobody actually really believes this in Christianity.
“This is how it appeared the prophets and patriarchs, he said, and this is how the law itself proclaimed Him.” Meaning Christ. And he then tells Gregory, “OK. This is the law I want you and the other members of the church to believe.” And Gregory said, “Give up this false belief. You must observe the doctrines passed onto us by other teachers of the Church, who followed in the footsteps of the apostles, the teaching furnished by Hilary and Eusebius, and the confession you yourself made at baptism.”
He’s got to say this. I mean, he is very courageous to say this to the king. But the king– it is like somebody who is extremely powerful denying very basic scientific facts. Stalin tried to impose the biological theories of Lysenko, which basically went against the consensus of evolutionary biology at the time. So this kind of pseudo-learning is a feature of people who, since they’re being acclaimed as geniuses and as leaders, assume that their expertise carries over to all sorts of fields.
Well, the king grows angry. He says, “It’s quite obvious that I regard Hilary and Eusebius as my bitterest opponents on this issue.” Not only have Saints Hilary and Eusebius been dead for years, but they’re saints, they’re theologians. You know, it would be like me saying, “Well, obviously Charlemagne and Clovis are my enemies.” A statement that is ridiculous.
And note Gregory’s response: “It would suit you better to watch out you do not make God or his saints angry.” And that could really serve as one of the themes of the entire work. “For you should know that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all distinct in person.” And then he goes on to the theological justification.
And then the king’s response is, “I’m going to find some people smarter than you are.” And Gregory says, “Such a person will not be smarter, but an idiot. Anyone who wants to follow what you propose would be an idiot.” “Grinding his teeth at this response, he said, no more.” And another bishop is consulted. So the king gives this up. And then he starts writing a treatise on the alphabet and wants to add some letters, and tells the teachers that the educational system needs to be modified to include these letters.
Well, I go into this digression to show you, first of all, Chilperic actually is literate. He is actually educated. He’s at least educated enough to have half-baked ideas, and that’s more than some kings of this time and later will be. He tried writing poetry, as well. He also tried to depose Gregory as bishop, which is in some later books.
The Basis of Merovingian Power
Relief statue of Queen Clotilde from the Notre Dame Cathedral, c.1163 CE / Wikimedia Commons
Who are these people, then? What is the basis of their power? The kingship is, in large measure, based on inherited status. The Merovingian family had an aura of sacredness and prestige that made it impossible to conceive of anybody not of their bloodline ruling. This power is partly the prestige of Clovis, who is seen as really the father of his people, bringing them into what would become France, or the Land of the Franks, and converting to Christianity.
But a lot of the prestige is what might be called “pre-Christian.” The long hair. The riding around in carts, four-wheeled carts. And we’ve seen that the long hair is quite crucial. Once it’s cut in a humiliating manner, the representative of the family loses some crucial kind of prestige.
Remember that choice presented to Queen Clotilde: the scissors or the sword. You want your grandchildren scalped, or at least, given a military haircut, or– actually, a monastic haircut, in this context — or do you want them killed? And she is so angry at this that she, in fact, says “killed.” That shows you, at least, the humiliation that is involved in this haircutting.
These kings also practice something on the order of polygamy. They are Christians, but they are still tribal leaders in a society in which the possession of the women, in the plural, is a sign of status. One passage that describes a number of different things fairly usefully is on page 58. And this is the marriage. And again, it seems random when you’re reading through it, but then that’s the point of lecture, is to highlight the seemingly random, isn’t it.
On page 58, Chilperic’s wives: “Chilperic asks for Brunhilda”– this other, Visigothic queen of one of his brothers– “asks for the hand of her sister, Galswinthe, although he already had several wives.” OK. So he promises the envoy he will put away the other wives. He will renounce them, and he will be married only to Galswinthe. And so with these assurances, her father sent his daughter, as he had send the first, along with a great deal of wealth. This is what’s called a dowry, a payment made by the bride’s family to the groom.
“When she came to King Chilperic, she was received with great honor and made his wife. And, for the time being, his love for her was considerable, for she had brought great treasure.” OK. It’s not a, you know, a “we both like horseback riding” kind of relationship, although they probably did.
“But because of his love for Fredegunde”– who is another wife, a low-status wife, a wife who didn’t bring him much money, but who was mesmerizing, or beautiful, or certainly had a hold over him. “Because of his love for Fredegunde, whom he had before, a disgraceful conflict arose to divide them. Galswinthe had already been converted to the Catholic creed.” That is, she had been a Visigothic princess raised as an Arian. She’s now been converted.
“She complained to the king of the wrongs that she constantly had to endure, and said that he no respect for her. Finally, she asked him to give her her freedom to return to her native land if she left the treasures that she had brought him.”
Which seems like a reasonable deal. “But he made up various excuses, he mollified her with sweet words, and in the end, he had her strangled by a slave, and he himself found the corpse on the bed.”
Why didn’t he just let her go, keeping the treasure? Um, humiliating, probably. Better to kill her. Why didn’t he do what he said he did? You know, he’s a barbarian ruler.
“After her death, God revealed a great sign of his power. A lamp burned before her tomb, suspended by a cord. Without anyone touching it, the cord broke, and the lamp fell to the pavement. The hard pavement gave way before it, and the lamp, as it had landed on some kind of soft substance, was buried in the middle and not all broken. To those who saw it, this did not happen without a great miracle.”
Well, as miracles go in Gregory of Tours, this is pretty pedestrian. A freak accident. The lamp breaks, the exterior breaks, but the actual lamp part does not. But it is a sign in Gregory, and these things don’t happen at random in Gregory.
“The king wept over the body, and then after a few days, took Fredegunde back again as his wife. When he did this, his brothers attributed Galswinthe’s killing to his orders and toppled him from power.”
The editor points out that probably they didn’t, actually. This is a little bit too pat, and it may be a case of Gregory arranging the world so that the evil get punished in ways that they ought to, rather than in the ways that they do or don’t.
But nevertheless, the portrait is of a polygamous king, a king who accumulates treasure, a king who is unscrupulous enough to kill his wife, does not seem to hide it very much. However, vengeance is taken on him both by supernatural powers and by natural forces.
So in talking about the bases of kingship, we have blood, and then war leadership. I have tried not to overemphasize the violence of this society, but it is a society in which war leadership is one of two major criteria of political leadership, the other being spiritual leadership, that we’re going to talk about towards the end of the lecture.
The loyalty of the king’s entourage was based on his ability to reward them with plunder. Remember that King Chlothar goes out to fight the Saxons, but the Saxons actually give him a good deal, and offer to give up a lot of their territory. And he says to his men, “I think this is a reasonable thing. The Saxons are pretty well armed. They’re going to negotiate with us.” It’s on pages 50-51.
But the men won’t accept that. They haven’t come on this military expedition for political reasons. They want plunder. And so they force him, they threaten to kill him if he doesn’t lead them into battle.
So in certain respects, we’re back to the situation of Clovis. On the one, hand he seems very powerful. On the other hand, he seems intimidated by his followers. And this is an accurate picture of the position of rulership at this time. The king has to reward his followers. Because they’re not following him for reasons of abstract political loyalty. They’re not Merovingian patriots. They don’t have a national anthem. They don’t have a flag. They have a pledge of allegiance, but it’s a private pledge of allegiance, of warrior to warrior.
He has two ways of rewarding them– plunder or land. He can’t pay them a salary, because the economy does not produce revenue in quite this way. It does, but it doesn’t produce enough to reward soldiers in the way they want to be. Therefore, a successful leader is one who leads his troops into victory in battle. If he doesn’t expand his possessions, if he doesn’t lead them successfully, he’s going to have to start giving away lands that belong to the king, or to the state, if we can call it that. And once he starts doing that, he’s going to start having an erosion of his own revenue to the weakening of his dynasty and his power.
For the time being, in the world of Gregory of Tours, the kings are wealthy. There is a description of an extraordinary dowry sent with a princess named Rigunth, beyond the page assignments that you read. And there was so much stuff that “it took fifty wagons to carry the gold and silver and other ornaments.” “The Franks offered many gifts, some giving gold, some silver, many giving horses, and most garments.” “The mother of the princess brought so much gold and silver and garments that when the king saw it, he thought he was left with nothing.” Ha ha ha.
In fact, the quantities of gold, silver, silks and other fine fabrics are quite impressive. Kings are very wealthy. And they’re wealthy because of plunder, but also because of taxes. If you read Gregory carefully, you will see that the kings are collecting taxes. In order to collect taxes, you’ve got to have some sort of records. You’ve got to know where people are. You’ve got to have a kind of a register of property.
I’m distinguishing taxes from plunder. You can plunder your own people. That is, you can just ride around and take cattle that happen to be passing by, or burn people’s farms, or shake them down, you know, threaten to cut off their ears if they don’t cough up a certain amount of money in treasure. The problem with that is, of course, you start killing your own economy, and even Barbarian kings recognize that. But they do then have a kind of administration.
Fredegunde, Queen Consort of Chilperic I / Wikimedia Commons
And here again, we have an interesting interaction of what might be called the practical and the superstitious. The death of Chilperic’s son by dysentery, described on page 105. There’s a serious epidemic. The epidemic is, of course, announced by portents. Whoever heard of an epidemic disease that wasn’t preceded by comets, or eclipses, or, you know, heavenly phenomena? “While the kings were quarreling again, dysentery affected nearly all of Gaul. High fever with vomiting, extreme pain in the kidneys, headaches, and neck pain, saffron-colored or even green vomit. Some people thought it was a secret poison.” Blah blah blah. It affected children. “We lost children so sweet and dear to us, whom we sat on our laps, or carried in our arms, and nursed with such care.”
Chilperic’s younger son became sick. When they saw that the end was near, they baptized him. He was doing a little better when his older brother named Clodebert was stricken by the same disease. Now, these are the children of Fredegunde, the lower-status but extremely powerful concubine, wife, whatever you want to call her.
“And Fredegunde, seeing that they were in danger of death, became repentant.” And she says,
“For a long time, the divine goodness has endured our evildoing. Often it has rebuked us with fevers and other afflictions, and repentance did not follow. Look, now we are losing our sons. The tears of the poor, the laments of widows, and the sighs of orphans are killing them. We are left without a reason for gathering up anything. We pile up riches and do not know for whom we gather it. Our treasury will be left without an owner, full of plunder and curses. Were our storehouses not already overflowing with wine, were our barns not already full of grain, were our treasuries not laden with gold, silver, precious stones, necklaces, and the rest of the trappings of emperors? Look, we are losing what we held to be even more beautiful. Now please, come, let us burn all the unjust registers.”
In other words, let’s burn the tax registers. Let’s burn the records we have of who owes what. “And let what was sufficient for your father, King Chlothar, be sufficient for us.”
“And then she ordered brought forward the registers that Marcus”– we don’t know who he is– “had delivered from her cities. She had them thrown in the fire and then turned to the king,” who’s not eager to have his registers burned, but finally he does. And they stop future assessments. And the kids die anyway. “After this, King Chilperic was generous to cathedrals, basilicas, and the poor.” He’s sort of learned his lesson.
But it’s very interesting, this idea that what is killing their children is the vengeance of God, and that the poor, the widows, the orphans, the people that they have oppressed, have a kind of power of vengeance by mobilizing this supernatural force.
On the one hand, this is a regular old story. People, when they are faced with difficult situations, often pray, often promise, make some sort of deal. Get me out of this, oh Lord, and I will A) never do it again, B) do something else, C) I’ll be really grateful. And sometimes it appears to work, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it is a perfectly understandable emotion. But the belief that supernatural forces affect politics, the belief in the political leaders themselves, the knowledge that they are evil, and that God has, at least for a while, committed this evil is very, very powerful, and very, very uppermost in the mind of even an uneducated and, as Gregory himself demonstrates, normally thoroughly unscrupulous character like Fredegunde.
So what makes a good ruler, according to Gregory? Not peacefulness, since he believes the job of the ruler is to inflict fear, at the minimum, and damage, more likely. At one point, he describes Theudebert, one of the sons of Clovis, one of the members of the second generation, the closest thing he has to a good ruler. He says of Theudebert, “He ruled his kingdom justly, respected his bishops, was liberal to churches, relieved the wants of the poor, and distributed many benefits with piety and goodwill.” So he is a just ruler and an effective one. But after that, all of his good qualities amount to treating the Church well and treating the poor well, and the Church is supposed to represent.
The Church in Frankish Society
The royal palace, later church, of Santa María del Naranco, an example of Asturian architecture of the Ramirense period, 848 CE / Wikimedia Commons
So in the remainder of the time, we should consider, what is the Church? What do we mean by the Church? Any questions so far?
The Church in this society is represented by bishops and monasteries. We will be talking about monasteries next week. The difference is that bishops rule from cities even if they are just a little shell remnants of Roman cities. Nevertheless, they rule from a population center. They are involved with ordinary people, or at least their administrative apparatus deals with regular life. Monasteries are more a retreat from regular life, where monks, as you’ll read in the Rule of Saint Benedict, live in a kind of isolated community, renouncing the world.
Now, in actual practice, there would be more similarities than differences, particularly as these monasteries were involved with the world quite a lot. But it is the bishops that represent, to the extent that any aspect of society does, a continuation of the Roman order, a continuation of the notion that there is a kind of educated ruler of local society. So the bishops are members of prominent families. They’re often members of Roman prominent family.
Remember that Gregory was Bishop of Tours? The great relic of Tours was the cape of Saint Martin. His family had been bishops of Tours because they were locally prominent under the Roman Empire and continued this prominence under the Merovingians. Not necessarily peacefully or easily. As I said, Chilperic tried to have him deposed, and you’ve seen the episode in which they don’t get along very well. But nevertheless, his family, of what he calls senatorial rank, even though there’s no Senate anymore, were locally quite prominent.
This relic that they guard is not the only reason for their power. But bishops, as well as monks, are associated with some kind of saint protector. And the saint protects churches that have relics of the saint. A relic could be a bone, like an arm or a jaw, or it could be a piece of clothing associated with the saint.
In the case of Saint Martin–Saint Martin it was a military figure, whose most famous act of piety was he was stopped by a beggar while on horseback, and he split his cloak with a sword, and gave part of it too clothe this beggar. And this relic itself, the cloak, or a cappa, was held by the church of Saint Martin of Tours. And indeed, it is thought that the word “chapel” comes from the word for “cape.” It’s sort of a sacred space within a church where, in this era, relics would have been kept. We’ll talk a lot about relics and why they are powerful, but for now, I do want to talk about the mobilization of sacred power. Because we don’t have to ask the question, well, did it really work? Did this really happen? Did Saint Martin really revenge himself on people who plundered lands belonging to him? The important thing is to realize that the conception of the saint is not merely that of a pious respect, but of fear of a living presence. Somebody who, although dead, is not dead in the normal understanding of the word “dead.” The bishops and monks mobilize a kind of locus of sacred power.
Now again, at 2 AM, after you were done thinking that Gregory was a fool, it may have occurred to you that this sounds a lot like polygamy [correction: polytheism]. This seems to multiply deities. It seems to multiply the sites, the places where the sacred has an effect. And shame on you for such a thought. How can this be polygamous [correction: polytheistic], just because there seem to be a bunch of different people wielding sacred power? We don’t have to deal with this. Certainly, there seem to be a lot of people, most of them not alive, wielding sacred power. And it’s a rather threatening kind of power, at that.
The bishop is a religious leader. Some of them are religious leaders in the sense of powerfully religious forces, but most of them are more squires than preachers. That is, they are landowners, patrons, more or less generous to the poor or to the people of the area that they rule. It’s not a religion of deep introspection. We don’t have a lot of mystical thinkers in the sixth century. We don’t have a whole lot of ethical concern, except for the notion of the poor as a collection of people with certain rights to the ear of God. “The poor” does not mean exactly what it means now– the marginal, the people below some kind of income level. It means basically ordinary people without any particular unusual power in society.
In certain respects, the Church is an aspect of the power of the king. In certain respects, it defies the king. Gregory himself, and his work is full of other examples of bishops who stand up to the ruler and remonstrate with the ruler. That is, scold the ruler. But they can’t really do this by themselves. They have to mobilize at least the potentiality of a kind of power that goes beyond merely the prestige of their family or the prestige of their office.
So, for example– and again, this is something that’s not in the Murray addition– an example of the power of Saint Martin. This is at a monastery, the Monastery of Latte, where some other relics of Saint Martin are kept. “A force of hostile troops approached and prepared to cross the river which runs by, so that they might loot the monastery of Latte.”
Saint Martin monastic complex / Wikimedia Commons
“‘This is the monastery of Saint Martin,’ cried the monks. ‘You Franks must not cross over here.’ Most of those who heard this were filled with the fear of God and so withdrew.” Oh, uh, I just thought it was a regular old monastery. Sorry. “Twenty of their number, however, who did not fear God, had no respect for the blessed saint, and they climbed into the boat and crossed the river. And driven on by the devil himself, they slaughtered the monks, damaged the monastery, and stole its possessions.”
They made the, you know, gold and silver chalices, all of these properties that they had taken, “into bundles, and piled on their boat. Then they pushed off into the stream. But the keel began to sway to and fro, and they were carried round and round. They lost their oars, which might have saved them. They tried to reach the bank by pushing the butts of their spears into the bed of the river, but the boat split apart. They were all pierced through by the points of their own lances. They were killed by their own javelins. Only one of them remained unhurt, a man who had rebuked the others for what they were doing. If anyone thinks this happened by chance, let them consider the fact that one innocent man was saved among so many who were doing evil. After their death, the surviving monks retrieved the corpses from the bed of the river. They buried the dead bodies and replaced their own possessions in their monastery.”
OK? So this is what happens to people who plunder monasteries. On the one hand, the story is useful for the fact that they plunder monasteries anyway. And without asking the question, did their boat really sink? We can see a notion of the violence of society being directed to illegitimate ends, and then being punished by the Church.
In terms of the question that we have been asking, what held society together, a lot of the answer has to be the church and its perceived mobilization of spiritual power. It’s not the only answer, but it is an important aspect of the cohesiveness of a violent, but not completely unstable society.
Let me give you one more example. “Palladius inherited the office of count in the region of Javols.” J-A-V-O-L-S. A quarrel ensued between him and Bishop Parthenius, in which this count insults the bishop, abuses him, accuses them of all sorts of crimes, and seized the property of the Church, which is, of course, what he really wanted to do.
They both go to the King’s court. Palladius accused the bishop of being weak and effeminate. “‘Where are your darling boys,’ cried he, ‘with whom you live in shame and debauchery?’ The vengeance of God soon brought an end to these attacks.” The following year, Palladius lost his countship and became terrified that King Sigibert wanted him killed, and eventually he commits suicide.
“I find it hard to believe that this horrible deed could have been achieved without the help of the devil. For the first would was enough to kill him, unless the devil came to his assistance to give him strength to carry out his terrible plan through to the end. He stabbed himself twice. His mother rushed in, beside herself with grief, fainted in front of her son. The whole family bewailed his fate. He was buried at the monastery of Cournon, but not in Christian ground, and no mass was sung over him.”
Moral of the story? And Gregory is great at telling you the moral of the story. “It is clear that this fate befell him only because he had wronged his bishop.” OK? Message of the book– don’t mess around with these bishops. This is a world in which spiritual power is effectively mobilized to social cohesion.
The End of Merovingians
Death of Brunhild / Wikimedia Commons
Gregory dies in 594. I just want cast an eye forward, because we’re going to pick the story up with the successors to the Merovingian dynasty, the Carolingians. Carolingians, retrospectively named for their most famous member, Charlemagne– “Carolus” in Latin. The Merovingian-Carolingian transition is in the middle of the eighth century.
So this dynasty had another 150 years or so after Gregory, and they continued to be involved in civil war. Eventually there was a terrible feud between our friend Fredegunde, wife of Chilperic, and Brunhild, married to Sigibert. Brunhild was sister of the murdered Galswinthe, whom Fredegunde had basically gotten murdered. So Brunhild tries to avenge her murdered sister. Sigebert makes war on Chilperic. Fredegunde hires assassins to kill Sigebert.
And you’ve seen that Brunhild married the wayward son of Chilperic named Merovech. Merovech eventually commits suicide. Brunhild, eventually after these guys pass from the scene, rules, and so does Fredegunde. Chilperic is assassinated. Fredegunde rules in the name of her son. And so, in fact, in the late sixth century, the rulers are these two powerful and feuding women. In 613, Chlothar the second, son of Fredegunde and Chilperic, capture the aged Queen Brunhild and had her torn apart by wild horses.
What is happening here, behind the unedifying drama of violence and feud within a dysfunctional family– dysfunctional, a word unknown in Merovingian Frankish, I’m pretty convinced– is that certain regions of the Frankish realm are identified. If you look on the last of the maps in the appendix to the Murray addition, you’ll see reference made to the two regions that don’t really correspond to today. One is Austrasia, which is a kind of land that encompasses the Rhine regions, Belgium, a bit of Holland, Northeastern France, and Neustria, which is more the heart of France. Paris, the Seine. These will become sort of two sub-realms of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom. And our people that we’re going to be following towards the end of the course, the Carolingians, will be associated with Austrasia.