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Gender in the Merovingian World

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 4 of 4)

The earliest Merovingian aristocrats: the ‘Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon’
[Part 3 of this article is here]

The period between the final demise of the Western Empire and the end of the first quarter of the sixth century has long been considered to form a fairly discrete chronological unit, in its first phase largely defined by a series of prestigious graves. From two of the best-known, this archaeological horizon is often known as the ‘Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon’ or, from a specific form of metalwork and ornamentation, defined by the ‘polychrome’ style. When chronologies of objects were developed through typology and patterns of association, the last quarter of the fifth century and the first quarter of the sixth became known as Böhner’s Stufe I. The coherence of this phase has been confirmed by subsequent studies of other regions, refined through the use of computerised techniques.

These burials have long been the subject of discussion. The traditional reading is that they represent the leudes of Clovis, settled and granted lands in conquered territory. The dates of the burials thus represent the stages of the Frankish conquest of northern Gaul, the latter seen very much in line with the ‘moving front’ model. There is no reason to dispose of this interpretation, provided that one is clear about how one understands the power relationships involved, both between the king and the aristocrats and between the aristocrats and the remainder of the free population.

The burials of the first half of Böhner’s Stufe I are – classically – those of adult males, lavishly furnished with grave-goods: weaponry above all, but also with belt-sets (like the sword hilts decorated in particular styles), ceramics and bronze and glass vessels. Furnished inhumation (especially of male graves) had been less common in the middle quarters of the fifth century (a decline which I have associated with an uncertainty over how one displayed legitimate status in the de facto absence of the Empire but with no clear successors to that power either). With the burials of the last quarter of the fifth century, it burst back into fashion. Many of the graves under discussion are, furthermore, ‘founder graves’. Some may have been accompanied by above-ground monuments. Burial no.319 at Lavoye (département of Meuse) possibly had a barrow built above it; Childeric I’s famous grave in Tournai almost certainly did. Indeed, the relationship between burials like Lavoye 319 and Childeric’s grave has lain at the heart of the problem. Classically, the aristocratic graves, tombes de chef or Adelsgräber are seen to be copying the royal ‘mode funéraire’ established with Clovis’ interment of his father. Thus, runs the argument, when Clovis arranged for his own burial in a church (Holy Apostles, later Ste Geneviève) in Paris in 511, the Frankish aristocracy imitated this too and were interred under their own newly-founded Eigenkirche.

There are important problems with this interpretation. One is that of relative chronology. It is by no means clear that Childeric’s burial predates its ‘imitators’ – if we leave aside the universally-cited but entirely unreliable date given for Childeric’s death by Gregory of Tours, the Tournai burial has exactly the same absolute chronological indicators as Lavoye 319, for example: 474x491. Thus, when he buried his father, Clovis could have been developing a form of burial that was already being employed by local aristocrats to demonstrate their standing, but taking that demonstration to an extreme degree – as one might expect. The relative chronology of these burials and their use in establishing a political history of northern Gaul is also blurred, first, by a reliance upon Gregory of Tours’ dubious chronology of Clovis’ reign and, second, by circular arguments. Burials south of the Somme, for example, must date to after 480 because that was the date at which the Franks (to whom these burials are attributed) acquired this region; the Franks only occupied the lands south of the Somme after 480 because Frankish burials in those lands are all later than that date. When one adds the facts that the historical record provides no support for the vision of a steady, north-to-south advance of the Franks (as discussed above) and that there is no good a priori reason to assign these burials necessarily to invading Franks in any case, it becomes apparent that the traditional reading is no more than an elaborate construct. Whether Clovis started a new fashion by burying his father in this way or whether (as seems to me to be rather more likely) he employed an existing fashion in an unusually elaborate fashion to make a particularly important statement at a moment of dynastic crisis, is impossible to establish from the evidence as we have it.

Apart from issues of chronology, the ‘emulative’ nature of the late fifth- and sixth-century ‘tombes de chef’ is further questioned by the fact that such burials continue through the sixth century and even beyond, whereas Childeric’s grave is, as far as we know, unique amongst Frankish royal burials (with neither predecessors nor successors), especially if one looks more closely at cemeterial context. To found a new cemetery or a new part of a cemetery one might expect unusually lavish displays of grave-goods; that such displays were not exactly replicated in succeeding generations is not really surprising. The absence of such graves does not imply that the local aristocrats had taken to interring their dead under churches. The building of churches to serve as aristocratic mausolea does not, in any case, really take off until the seventh century whether in town or country. In the sixth century, if aristocratic burials took place under churches, they did so in the civitas-capitals and in the castra and vici, on which the pagi were centred, in other words in the administrative nodes of the kingdom.

Associated with this suggestion is the fact that, at least In Picardie, the ‘tombes de chef’ associated with the ‘Frankish conquest’ are actually away from the civitas-capitals and other centres of the region (figure 2 [This is just a net of Thiessen Polygons based on the towns of the area and laid over the distribution of burials, in the best traditions of the New Archaeology of the 1970s]). Taken together, these points shed an important light upon the nature of these early ‘aristocratic burials’. The rite of burial with grave-goods is essentially a transient display of status (or a claim to status) that requires an audience present either at the grave-side or along the route of the funerary procession. Burials in the countryside, like Lavoye 319 (in Lorraine rather than Picardie but likewise located some way from a civitas-capital) would thus represent demonstrations of status to other members of a rural community. Interestingly Françoise Vallet showed many years ago that these late fifth-century graves are, while often on different sites, found in roughly the same (thus peripheral) parts of the countryside as the late fourth- and early fifth-century lavish burials.

There are some key differences nevertheless. The changes of site or the foundation of new areas within cemeteries is one; the different forms of material culture are another. Rather than being imported from barbaricum, ultimately from the Danubian Hunnic realm, it now seems most likely that the costume represented by the grave-goods of the Flonheim-Gültlingen burials was of a more widespread later fifth-century type, using artefacts made in the Mediterranean and associated with the ‘barbarian’ late Roman armies. The ‘barbarian’ import of the costume is thus of a rather more subtle and specific form than was once thought. In a northern Gallic context, especially when one remembers the intimate connections between the Merovingians and the Loire army (demonstrated clearly enough in Childeric’s burial), such a ‘Roman-barbarian military’ identity would be associated with the Franks. Nonetheless, the material’s association with a new political order seems clear, as is further underlined by the fact that this material tends to appear in burials only from c.475, and thus the precise moment that the western Empire was dissolved, de facto if not de jure. Another difference between the graves of ‘Stufe I’ and those of the late fourth-/early fifth-century ‘horizon’ is that the former are overwhelmingly the burials of adult males.

If we take all of these features together a significant change is suggested. The rite itself makes clear that local instability continued. However, a rupture with the preceding situation is evident. The bases of local pre-eminence had changed; claiming legitimate imperial Roman status in the old way was now ruled out. Local authority was associated with the Franks and their military forces (once again demonstrating the Merovingians’ political advance from the south rather than the north). This might have involved changes in the local ‘pecking order’; new families might (as in the traditional interpretation) have been brought in and settled on lands by Childeric and Clovis. Alternatively, a local family might have sided with the Franks, adopted their identity and been given power in the community. Such a family could well have been that which had held sway since the fourth century or before, or it could have been an opportunistic rival. In each case, a dependence upon the Franks is clear enough. So too are the risks involved in the gamble. Unlike twentieth- and twenty-first-century historians, the inhabitants of the late fifth century did not know that this move towards the Franks would turn out to be the ‘right’ one. Furnished burials of Stufe I are not especially numerous, especially in its first half (the Flonheim-Gültlingen horizon proper); only after about 500 are women and children found in any numbers. At Lavoye itself only a dozen or so burials belong to the half-century between 475 and 525, compared with about 200 from the succeeding fifty to seventy-five years – although the group is characterised by well-furnished burials with clearly-marked gender differences. Even the probable family of the ‘chieftain’ of grave 319 do not appear to have associated themselves with him in death until the second quarter of the fifth century. Evidently it took time to convince the people of northern Gaul of what Hegel might have called the Reason of History! In such a situation the dependence of the subjects of these burials upon Frankish backing is underlined. The developments of the remainder of the sixth century (not the subject of this paper) only serve to emphasise this.

Closer to the urban or sub-urban nodes of the region, it may be that the families who supported the Franks demonstrated this link to their rivals and the potential distributors of patronage in burials in the civitas-capitals, the castra and the vici themselves, perhaps under any churches that existed at that time. Some of the burials of the period, grave 1760 at Krefeld-Gellep for instance, are found close by such nodal points. Again, though, a link to the new powers is clear. In defence of the old view, however, it must be repeated that the bulk of locally-important families simply (in terms of their archaeologically-visible traces) sat on the fence for much of this period. That said, the dynamics of the situation are clear. The economic stagnation of the period is amply demonstrated. The craft-specialisation visible in the polychrome objects of Stufe I soon disappears and the further decline of Argonne-Ware production by c.540 has been mentioned. Rural settlements and any urban occupation remain notable chiefly for their archaeological invisibility. Acquiring the resources to establish local leadership on a more solid footing, let alone breaking out of very local political arenas, was fast becoming a matter of association with the Frankish kingdom as it became ever more powerfully established in Gaul. This dynamic is even visible in the Triererland, where (in contrast to the so-called Föderatengräber horizon, c.375-c.450) some (albeit not many) Stufe I burials are known and where, as in the rest of northern Gaul, furnished burial had become common across rural communities by c.525, even if the epigraphic habit of the ‘senators’ continued in the civitas-capital itself.

When the Merovingians established their rule in Gaul north of the Loire, then, it can be fairly solidly established on the basis of the evidence we have that, even by the last quarter of the fifth century, they held the ‘whip hand’ in any dealings with the local aristocracy. Outside Trier, no independently powerful aristocracy existed (whether in socio-economic or cultural terms). There was no need for widespread purges, exiles or expropriations across the region. What made the core of the Merovingian kingdom so resilient was the fact that, by 500 at the latest, local leaders came to the kings for the basis of their authority. The creation of an independently wealthy, powerful Frankish nobility would, in the context I have outlined, have been a more difficult task than the acceptance of the existing situation. The class of landed magnates that we know so much about by the late seventh century and which was indeed (or at least could be), by the late eighth century at the latest, unusually wealthy in pan-European terms (richer indeed than many a king in the British Isles), was a much more recent creation.

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