Part 2 of this article can be found here
The Frankish Aristocracy
The Frankish Aristocracy
Those Treveri who turned to the barbarians for support bring us to the other element involved in studying the origins of Merovingian northern Gaulish social structure: the incoming Frankish aristocracy. The social structure of the Franks, when living outside the Empire, is, however, difficult to evaluate. The archaeology of the Frankish homelands is in many regards exiguous and relevant observations of Roman writers are scanty – a fact that Gregory of Tours encountered as early as the 570s. Frankish communities seem by and large to have employed an unurned cremation rite that left no archaeological traces. Nonetheless this does suggest that the funeral ritual was not the focus for significant expenditure of resources on the manifestation of status, or for competition between kindreds in that regard. Settlement architecture offers some insights suggestive of similar trends. The site at Heeten reveals a small fortification controlling iron extraction. Whether the iron obtained was used within Frankish society and politics (restricting access to the material to those with good relationships with the ruler) or traded with the Roman frontier is unclear but either scenario would see a ruling stratum with politically valuable assets. Trade with the frontier probably also explained the growth of the site of Wijster (Netherlands). It does not seem unreasonable to posit a steady increase in the stability of the power-bases of the numerous local Frankish leaders. Roman frontier policy, insofar as it existed, seems to have prevented the emergence of rulers of the whole Frankish confederacy during the fourth century but does not appear to have undermined the reality of the power of local leaders. When the late fourth-century civil wars broke out, one response to the withdrawal of troops from the frontier to engage in warfare in Italy and elsewhere was evidently the signing of treaties with the barbarian leaders beyond, further bolstering their authority. This will not have been lessened when two such rulers, Sunno and Marcomer, inflicted a defeat upon Roman forces despatched by the equally Frankish magister militum Arbogast. Arbogast’s death in civil war did not produce any amelioration of the situation on the frontier. Claudian is clear that Stilicho’s flying visit to the region did little more than shore up the treaties with the barbarians beyond. As a strategy, this neglect of the crucial Rhenish limes may seem surprising to those brought up on the traditional, misleading narratives of ‘barbarian invasion’ but it fits well with the way the Romans assigned little practical military (as opposed to ideological) value to the so-called barbarian threat, especially when conflict against rival Roman forces loomed. Furthermore, it was not necessarily an ineffective strategy. When a large group of barbarians from the interior of Germania arrived on the Rhine in 405 or 406 and forced their way into the Empire, the local Franks fought hard – if ultimately unsuccessfully – to defend the frontier, killing a Vandal king in the process. No resistance by regular Roman forces is mentioned.
|A Frankish aristocrat...|
Thus, if there was no established, independently wealthy Gallo-Roman aristocracy for the Merovingians to deal with in northern Gaul, it seems much more likely that a group of powerful Frankish noble or royal families existed with quite well-established power within their communities. Whether there were similarly established aristocratic rungs beneath these lesser rulers, or whether the power of the kings was based upon a more fluid network of leudes or followers is difficult, even impossible, to establish. Nonetheless, traditional historiography has tended to assume that these social strata were those from which the sixth-century Merovingian Frankish leudes (or at least those of this class whose families hailed originally from barbaricum) ultimately descended. Some link seems probable, but the model needs reassessment. For one thing, it remains predicated upon a vision of Frankish settlement that sees it operating as a moving front of invasion, gradually rolling from north to south, somewhat in the manner of the front lines in the World Wars. The reality is likely to have been considerably more complex.
The Frankish settlement of northern Gaul was a slow, complicated process. Some Franks had been settled in Toxandria since the fourth century and doubtless retained contacts with their relatives north of the Rhine. It is probably a mistake, however, to see Frankish migration into northern Gaul as an inevitability once the Romans’ hold on the Rhone frontier was loosened, as it was, fatally, between 388 and 413. The mechanisms of migration require closer consideration than, typically, is involved in the usual assumptions and narratives that see the barbarians as piling up against the limites for some generally unspecified reason and thus inevitably spilling into and swamping or flooding the provinces beyond (in the usual liquid metaphors beloved of the idiom) once the barrier (seen, naturally, as a dam) was removed. The latter is, unsurprisingly, an interpretation beloved of those who present the ‘barbarian migrations’ as a xenophobic, anti-multiculturalist warning to us all. Some barbarians moved as large groups, not peoples but as sizeable contingents related in some way or other to a leader or group of leaders. The latter usually moved into the Empire, in a dynamic witnessed over and over since at least the first century BC, when their standing in their homeland was seriously challenged (often, ironically, as a result of Roman interference). Such mechanisms explain most of the well-known large-scale movements such as the Gothic migration into Thrace in 376 and the ‘Great Invasion’ of 405/6, some participants in which eventually ended up in Carthage thirty years later (these barbarians had arrived in Spain in 409, making this the only dramatic short-term, long-distance migration by any large group in the whole fifth century). There was no Frankish migration of this sort in the first half of the fifth century.
Other migrations were undertaken by small groups or individuals. Sometimes these constituted ‘career migration’, such as motivated by the desire to serve in the Roman army. A permanent change of residence did not necessarily ensue although frequently it did, especially if the recruit reached the army’s higher echelons. Otherwise, barbarians might cross the frontier in search of ‘a better life’, perhaps employed by the Roman state to farm otherwise ‘deserted’ lands, and have a steadier and more assured access to the items of Romanitas which held such attraction in the barbarian homelands. Some furnished burials of late fourth- and early fifth-century northern Gaul have been interpreted as those of such immigrants. Although the evidence for this reading is more or less non-existent, it is likely that some of the local leaders whose families displayed their status in these graves were of non-Roman or specifically Frankish extraction. They nonetheless used the occasion to stress just how Roman their status was.
It is valuable to ponder the existence of these dynamics in the early fifth century. At the higher political level, the withdrawal of organised Roman presence from the Rhine seems – fatally for the ‘straining dam’ hypothesis – to have had no immediate effect on the Frankish polities beyond. Stilicho and, perhaps, other leaders bolstered the power of the frontier kings with treaties and subsidies. This encouraged the Franks to the active defence of the Rhine against the Vandals noted earlier. In this connection one might nevertheless envisage some Frankish groups moving into the Empire, centred on aristocrats or petty kings, perhaps ousted as the greater kings became more powerful in the absence of the old imperial frontier regulation. Although it is likely that they moved further into Gaul to seek the sources of imperial power, it is also possible that whatever residual forces remained on the Rhine (perhaps fast turning into local warlords rather than regular units) would have taken on such recruits. It is also conceivable that such leaders were drawn in by the social and political crisis in northern Gaul, where they could provide armed backing to particular factions. This would be the situation that Salvian witnessed. In this context one might see how an émigré Frankish aristocrat could quite easily become a local leader of some standing and authority. This dynamic might lie behind Gregory of Tours’ famous account of how the Franks crossed the Rhine and set up kings in each pagus. A need for powerful support and backers in the unstable northern Gaulish local politics might also have sucked the power of the Frankish kings southwards and westwards across the Rhine. Such an expansion could also have been produced by the movement of other Franks into the region, when political differences and hostility spilled over into the old Roman province. The dynamics here could have been rather different, though, as any Frankish leaders installed in regions would (it seems reasonable to assume) have been those in a particular relationship with the king. Frankish leaders settled independently might also have been able to maintain their position only by accepting the rule of a greater king.
The proliferation of ‘woulds, coulds and mights’ in this discussion so far illustrates our absence of hard data and reliance upon hypothesis and analogy. Nonetheless, the mechanisms proposed appear plausible and some support for these dynamics can be found in the scanty written record, outside Salvian’s diatribe. Sidonius’ panegyric for Majorian refers to a victory by Aëtius at the vicus Helena – somewhere in northern Gaul (Hélesmes in the département of Nord [France] has been suggested) – over a group of Franks. The ‘battle’ itself seems principally to have involved breaking up a wedding party. This need not have been as farcical an event as might initially seem to be the case, bringing with it as it does the image of grizzled legionaries overturning the cake and skewering the best man in mid-speech. Quite apart from possibly representing a marriage alliance with a northern Gallic magnate family (as Salvian might have envisaged) such an occasion would doubtless have been the occasion for the bestowing of gifts upon local aristocrats, cementing the Frankish leader’s local standing. To have attracted Aëtius’ attention, this must have been a political event on some scale. The location at a vicus is perhaps also instructive, given what was said earlier about the possible roles of such intermediate settlements in late imperial Gallic society. The incident underlines the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy followed by the representatives of the Ravenna government whenever they were in the region, governing ‘by punitive expedition’, and the seriousness of the decision to join the barbarians or otherwise unauthorised local leaders. An earlier defeat by Aëtius of an encroaching Frankish group is mentioned in the 420s.
The movement of ordinary groups of Franks in search of social and economic betterment seems less likely in this scenario. The socio-economic crisis in northern Gaul would surely act as a deterrent compared with the comparative stability (at this stage) of the trans-Rhenan lands. Migrating groups tend also to have to be sure that there is an extant community within the host population that will accept them. Under imperial government (ironically for the usual views), official sanction and organisation of barbarian settlement eased this process considerably. Without organised imperial presence on the frontier the information exchange across the Rhine must have become much more irregular and unreliable. Fifth-century Frankish migrants, then, would have moved in anything other than the ‘wave’ usually envisaged. It is far more likely that they trod well-known routes towards already-existing Frankish communities. The military leaders mentioned above could thus have acted as ‘scouts’; once established, news of their success could have travelled back to their homelands and possibly encouraged others to join them. In this scenario, the local standing of such leaders would be enhanced by the arrival of their fellows from beyond the old frontier. Nonetheless, one still needs to question why, in the circumstances of the earlier fifth century, other Franks would want to leave their old homes and move to Gaul.
On the other hand, the crisis of the Empire and the decline of effective imperial presence on the Rhine might have made extant Frankish immigrant communities more permanent. Critical study of modern migration suggests that the relative closing of borders and clamping down on state benefits for immigrants in the late 1970s and afterwards, rather than cutting off the flow of incomers, made those already living in the host countries less likely to return home (as had previously been the case) – for fear that movement back again, to find work, would become impossible – and instead a desire to bring their families to the host country to ensure the benefits that were still available. It is not difficult to see similar mechanisms at work in the fifth-century frontier provinces. A big part of the migration of Germanic-speaking barbarians in the fourth century was ‘career migration’: service in the army followed by a return home. Without the regular army’s presence, the Frank was more likely to stay in Gaul than to return across the Rhine, and perhaps find a means of bringing his relatives to join him there. There might have been a shift in the dynamics of Frankish involvement in northern Gaul during the late 440s, as will be discussed later.
The late Roman army in Gaul was, however, still recruiting from the Franks, and this point piles further problems upon the traditional ‘moving front’ model. From the middle of the fifth century the Roman field army in Gaul seems to have operated from bases along the Loire valley. Controlling this line enabled easier movement to north, south, east and west, while holding the crossing points effectively prevented such movement by opponents of the government. The stationing of some barbarian groups settled in the fifth century might, by the middle of the century, have been aimed at further strengthening this strategic deployment (doubtless seen neither as a permanent arrangement nor as acknowledging any formal retreat of the frontier). As the lands that could effectively be taxed by the imperial government shrank during the fifth century crisis, it became more necessary to recruit troops from barbaricum. Thus any Franks entering Roman service would have been drawn to the Loire rather than the Rhine. Given the points made earlier it might be the case that, to a greater degree than in the fifth century, those who had them brought wives and families along as well. It is therefore far from unlikely that Frankish settlement did not simply push southwards according to the ‘moving front’ model. An important focus for settlement was well ‘behind the lines’ in central Gaul.
By the late 450s, the recruitment of Franks to the Loire army was such that the army itself appears to have been known and referred to as ‘the Franks’. One stimulus for this was Frankish politics. In the last major barbarian invasion of Gaul, by Attila in 451, the Huns were joined by a king of the Franks whose candidature for the throne they had supported. His brother and rival, following to the traditional mechanisms of barbarian politics, fled to the Empire and thus the Loire army. Consequently, when the Roman army met the Hunnic forces at the Campus Mauriacensis (or the Catalaunian Fields) there were Franks on both sides.
It might be the case that, by the middle quarters of the fifth century, the Frankish territories were suffering experiencing their own crisis. Early fifth-century stability had, as mentioned, been brought about by treaties with and subsidies from the Empire, as it turned its gaze inwards, away from the frontier. By the 440s, though, the Empire had been absent from the Rhine frontier zone for a generation or more. This might indeed have produced a crisis of legitimacy for the Frankish rulers, especially in times of succession, as the events before Attila’s 451 invasion illustrate. Archaeology provides some confirmation of the hypothesis. Wijster had been abandoned by the second quarter of the fifth century, by which time furnished inhumation, a classic index of some sort of social instability at the local level, had made their appearance in the region. By the last quarter of the century, the rural settlements (like Gennep) that were flourishing at the century’s start also experienced contraction.
It is quite likely that the Frankish king supported by Aëtius before the Catalaunian Fields was Childeric, eventual founder of the Merovingian dynasty, found leading the Franks in campaigns on the Loire by the 460s. When he was stripped of office following the execution of emperor Majorian in 461, Aegidius, the magister militum commanding the Loire forces, apparently (according to a famous story told by Gregory of Tours) adopted the title of ‘King of the Franks’. Gregory tells us that this was during an eight-year exile of Childeric amongst the Thuringians. One possible reconstruction of events is that Childeric had been given command of the Loire forces by Aëtius but was removed from that command under Majorian (who became emperor in 457) and replaced by Aegidius. He resumed his command after Aegidius’ death, which took place eight years later, in 465. Childeric might have returned from the north two years earlier, either as a rival for military leadership or as a subordinate commander for Aegidius. The latter is possible as Aegidius, whose command had been ‘illegitimate’ since 461 might have needed to win allies and support (and Frankish recruits) in the face of aggression from the Ravennate government and its Gothic army in Aquitaine. Aside from his famous grave in Tournai and Gregory’s story of his exile in ‘Thoringia’, the sources locate Childeric, without exception, on the Loire or near Paris.
So far, our enquiry has demonstrated that neither the Gallo-Roman population of northern Gaul, nor the incoming Franks had a significant, powerful aristocratic stratum, with which the Merovingian rulers of the late fifth and sixth centuries would have had to contend. Indeed, especially once Clovis had eliminated or cowed his rivals for authority in the north (the other Frankish kings, the Alamans and the Thuringians) it is clear that he held the whip-hand in any relationship with local leaders. Archaeological cemetery evidence further illustrates the situation.
Part 4 can be read here