[Here - broken down into four parts for - comparative - ease of reading, is a piece I have been working on of late. It is still very much in first draft form and thus very woolly, un-foot-noted and unchecked. When it is foot-noted, checked and edited down, I will send it off to a journal and take it down from the blog, so if you wish to comment or otherwise have any input - which will duly be acknowledged - now is the time.
Essentially the piece confronts a key element in the debate over whether or not the Merovingian aristocracy was an independently wealthy magnate class or - essentially - a service aristocracy dependent upon the kings. It deals with the assumption, which would be very important, if not fatal, for the second interpretation (which has generally been my own), that there were established Gallo-Roman and Frankish aristocracies/magnate classes existing in northern Gaul when the Merovingians took over. Using a full range of evidence and paying close attention to regional diversity, the paper demonstrates (I hope!), first, that outside the Triererland the late Roman aristocracy was not an independently wealthy nobility of the type known elsewhere, second (Part 2) that the crisis of c.400 reduced the Gallo-Roman aristocracy's wealth and power further, third (Part 3) that, via a close study of Frankish migration and its mechanisms, we can see that the Frankish leaders who settled in Gaul in the fifth century were already closely dependent upon the Merovingians by c.500 at least, and fourth (Part 4) that a consideration of the archaeological traces of the northern Gallic aristocracy between 475 and 525 underline the point established in the rest of the article: that neither the Franks nor the Gallo-Romans presented the Merovingians with a powerful landed aristocracy with which to contend. The mighty landed aristocrats of the seventh, eighth and especially ninth centuries were members of a class that was a later creation (of c.600).]
The nature of the Frankish aristocracy has featured heavily in the historiography of Merovingian Gaul. One of the main problems has been whether or not the northern Gaulish aristocracy, which we might term Frankish (as opposed to the more Gallo-Roman magnates of Aquitaine and Provence or the hybrid Gallo-Roman/Burgundian/Frankish élite of Burgundy), was formed of families whose wealth, local standing and power existed independently of the patronage of the Merovingian royal dynasty. This debate has never been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Perhaps, one hopes, it never will be (at least in its entirety) but a new contribution is nevertheless required. Chris Wickham’s monumental Framing of the Middle Ages recently presented a strong case for the wealth and independence, indeed for what he suggested was, in comparative perspective, the quite unusual wealth and independence, of the northern Gallic Frankish aristocracy throughout the early medieval era.
Wickham’s contribution is unusual in that it made well-informed use of archaeological as well as documentary sources and, perhaps more importantly, excavated material other than that normally employed for this kind of enquiry. Most previous studies have drawn mainly upon the evidence of excavated cemeteries for an archaeological insight into local social structures, giving at best a partial image. Wickham however employed ceramic data, which now exists in sufficient quantity and quality for reasonable observations to be made – something that was not true even twenty years ago. This would itself be reason enough for a re-examination of the economic bases of the Frankish aristocracy.
Wickham’s case is solid and well-argued and, for the second half the period covered by his survey (thus c.600-c.800), his conclusions seem entirely valid. Moreover, they are in harmony with what has, perhaps, always been the most common interpretation and with other recent scholarly work which has suggested a more direct continuity between the Gallo-Roman nobility of the region and the land-owning magnates of the Carolingian world. This paper argues against this trend. In a companion essay I deal with the nature of the sixth-century northern Gallic aristocracy and its transformation around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries. Here, I address a fundamental basis of the ‘established aristocracy’ view. That is the nature of the social élite that existed in northern Gaul at the time of the establishment of the Merovingian kingdom. This paper questions the validity of Wickham’s (and others’) assumption that the Merovingian kings had to confront already-established Gallo-Roman and Frankish aristocracies in the creation of their realm.
Like Wickham’s discussion, it will use the whole range of data available to us, documentary, archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic. As well as chronological change, geographical diversity will be noted. One problem with the period covered by this paper, the late fourth and fifth centuries, is the general absence of written evidence. This means that the overwhelming bulk of the evidence used will be archaeological. Nevertheless, a great advantage of this form of data, and of the cemetery material in particular, is that, as well as being increasingly voluminous, it is securely anchored in time and space, allowing us to explore change through time, something which, as noted, has not always been recognised in previous studies, even Wickham’s. It will also allow us to shed a critical light upon the handful of well-worn fragments of written evidence which do seem to treat with the social structures of the region, most notably Salvian’s On the Governance of God.
Late Roman Background
This conclusion is based principally upon the archaeological evidence. The northern Gallic aristocracy had never been the wealthiest in Gaul. Studies have suggested that it was less locally dominant than its counterparts in southern Gaul even at the time of the Roman conquest. An exception to this rule might have been found in the civitas of the Treveri, in the lower Moselle valley, and the unusual character of the aristocracy in this area persisted throughout our period and beyond. In the prosperous early imperial era, northern Gaul saw the creation of numerous villas, but these tended to be fairly small establishments. A crucial change occurred after the third-century turmoil, when these settlements were either abandoned or (probably to an even greater degree than is currently known) changed decisively in their form and archaeological visibility. Increasing stress has recently been laid on the fact that better quality excavation and analysis reveal that many fewer of these sites were abandoned than had been believed. This has been vital in reassessing the settlement pattern and economy of late Roman northern Gaul. Nonetheless, even the more subtle analyses suggest that the rates of abandonment were very high, frequently in the region of 50%.
Concentration upon continuity of occupation also ignores a very important aspect of the problem – the change in the character of the settlement itself. The classical villa, stone-built with tiled roofs and, frequently, mosaic floors, often with under-floor hypocausts, manifests a particular set of social and economic relationships between the owner of the villa buildings and other inhabitants of the locality. Whatever the precise function of the site, whether working farm, ‘country house’ or hunting lodge (and this surely varied from site to site and from one phase of occupation to another), the villas reveal an ability to concentrate surplus and spend it upon the construction of a building that made a permanent mark upon the landscape. Such a building made a claim for the owner’s active subscription to a particular set of cultural attitudes associated with the Roman Empire, however those attitudes were played with and modified in local context. Stone-quarrying, tile-manufacture and mosaic-construction all required specialist manufactures and industries, organised transport networks and so on. Though the potential sophistication of timber architecture should not be neglected, it remains the case that the construction and maintenance of stone buildings necessitated a more complex matrix of specialist skills and industries. The change from these structures to timber, thatch- or shingle-roofed halls therefore marks a vitally important change in the nature of the local social élite and of the northern Gallic economy.
Debate on this change has hitherto tended to focus upon whether the shifts involved implied an economic decline. It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in some ways at least, this must have been the case, but the best explanation of the transformation of the northern Gallic countryside in late antiquity seems to be to link it to the nature of the Roman Empire that emerged after the ‘third-century crisis’. It has for some time been noted that the evident change in the region’s settlement actually post-dates the conventional dates of the ‘crisis’, coming after Gaul’s reincorporation into the legitimate Roman Empire by Aurelian, who crushed the separate ‘Gallic Empire’ in the 270s. This precise political historical context can be combined with what we know of the Late Empire’s political economy to produce the following reconstruction.
One effect of the third century’s economic difficulties was, as is well known, an increase in the levying of taxes, and in the payment of state employees, in kind. Another well-known late imperial characteristic was the residence of the emperors on the frontiers, in the west most often at Trier (former home of the Gallic emperors). This presence was associated with a concentration of higher-grade troops near the Emperor himself and renewed emphasis on frontier defence and military operations against the barbarians (classic signs of imperial good management). This change, the shift in the system of taxation and payment, and other reorganisations of the hierarchy of troop-types within the army resulted in troops being concentrated in northern Gaul but spread over a wider expanse of the countryside. These features were crucial to the survival of the ensuing ‘inside-out’ late Roman Empire.
These points can be combined with the suppression of the Gallic Empire to suggest that the transformation of the northern Gaulish countryside resulted from the harnessing of the region’s surplus to the maintenance of the huge imperial presence now more or less permanently stationed in the area. Confiscation of the lands belonging to supporters of the Gallic imperial regime may have been associated with other expropriations or ‘compulsory purchases’ to ensure that the production of foodstuffs and other materials was geared to the supply of the large number of troops and civil servants. This hypothesis sidesteps the old argument about economic decline. Production could have continued on a scale commensurate with, or even greater than, that which existed before, but far less of the surplus would have accrued to the region’s local élite. This could nonetheless have meant a decline of sorts – in aristocratic wealth and in some of the industries that had hitherto existed to maintain high-status dwellings and way of life. Some slack was nevertheless taken up by the imperial presence in the region. The regional distribution of the late Roman northern Gallic fine-ware, Argonne Ware, seems geared to the supply of the frontier bases and the Rhenish glass industry flourished as well. The scale of production created by this demand might have stimulated the export of these classes of material further afield, to Britain and elsewhere. Indeed northern Gaulish products were traded far beyond the imperial frontier. Bronze bowls known as the ‘Vestland Type’, because of the concentration of find-spots in Norway, seem for example to have been produced in the Meuse valley. The precise form of exchange represented by this ‘export’ doubtless varied between a possibly ‘normal’ market exchange with barbarian communities immediately beyond the limes, through exchange with what resemble ‘gateway communities’ around the Baltic coasts, to diplomatic payments to the interior of Germania Magna. To whom any profits from the commercial transactions included within this range fell is impossible to establish. Some of it doubtless went to the imperial treasury, other elements probably ‘piggy-backed’ upon the empire’s ‘command economy’ and ended up with those to whom this was entrusted, and some surely represented independent commercial enterprises conducted by such producers, perhaps generated by the possibilities attendant upon large-scale imperially-sponsored manufacture. Some, therefore, must have ended up in the hands of the northern Gallic aristocracy, probably explaining the continued existence, as such, and refurbishment of at least some of the region’s villas.
Overall, though, the nature of this élite very likely changed too. If the majority of northern Gallic land was now imperially-owned, it could nevertheless have been leased to palatine aristocrats on long-term emphyteutic leases. Other parcels of land might have been used to reward civil and military service and still others could have been used for the traditional retirement gifts to soldiers. In all of these cases it is easy to see how insufficient surplus remained for estate-owners to continue the construction and maintenance of old-style villa buildings. Either possession of the territories and revenues was temporary or the land was not owned on a very large scale. One imagines that the managers of fiscal or imperial estates would not, furthermore, be retaining more of the fruits of the lands for which they were responsible than was necessary for the upkeep of ordinary dwellings and storage facilities. In this context the observable developments in the late Roman landscape of northern Gaul are easily explicable, without resort of ideas of economic decline or a rejection of Romanitas.
The latter concept, although much promoted in recent years, is particularly unlikely. Building a villa in the fourth century did not make a political statement in the same way as the construction of such a building in the centuries around the birth of Christ, in that it did not represent a new form of monumentalisation that differed from that which went before and proclaimed an adherence to new social, cultural and political modes of life. Nonetheless, the continued centring of Roman aristocratic culture on the villa cannot be denied. Furthermore, if one looks at the symbolism of the grave goods deposited in burials during the time of crisis around 400 (to be discussed shortly) one can see that they focus overwhelmingly upon the traditional symbols of Roman aristocratic life, the bases of social distinction and élite pastimes. A continuing subscription to precisely these well-established modes of Roman aristocratic life is clearly attested. The idea that the regional élite engaged in some form of active ‘de-Romanisation’, let alone ‘anti-Romanisation’ is extremely improbable.
Wickham presents a more interesting and subtle modification of the idea under the heading of the region’s militarisation, a process which is certainly demonstrable. Buildings within late Roman fortifications have frequently proved difficult to detect, leading Wickham to suggest that the late imperial military did not invest resources in lavishly-appointed dwellings. Therefore, runs the argument, a more militarised aristocratic culture would involve much less attention devoted to lavish building. This is an interesting possibility but it seems less plausible if scrutinised closely. The absence of buildings within late Roman forts is sometimes possibly explained by a lack of excavation within the walls, and on occasion, doubtless, by the failure to detect structures on top of more elaborate and indeed more sought-after early imperial phases. Nonetheless a relative reduction in the permanence and elaboration of officers’ quarters is a hypothesis worth testing and, if accurate, could be significant in the ways that Wickham suggests. It might be the case that the Roman army’s officer corps had (when compared with civilian private building) never invested in especially elaborate dwellings within their forts. If so, though, even if there were not a decline in the relative sophistication of their quarters, a militarisation hypothesis could explain a shift from investment in buildings to an investment in other forms of display. The Roman army’s officer corps was especially fond of its ‘awe-inspiring’ costume and adornment. State factories, interestingly known as barbaricaria, were devoted to the gilding and ornamentation of officers’ armour. All these points support Wickham’s idea.
However, other points counter it. One is that the late Roman ‘soldier emperors’ were very far from neglecting their private quarters and constructed new and very elaborate palaces (most notably, perhaps, at Salona in Dalmatia). The lavish villas in the immediate hinterland of Trier, the imperial capital, also suggest that imperial officers, at the higher end at least (some of whom, surely, were military), still desired impressive homes. A vital factor might have been late Roman aristocratic culture, which tended to avoid spending private money on public building, something which doubtless goes far to explaining the changes on urban sites. The early imperial army had sponsored local markets and private craftsmen to a considerable degree, in a way that paralleled the use of private money on civic projects in the civilian sphere. Given the fluidity that existed between civil and military careers at this time, this is not surprising. The later army, by contrast (and again unsurprisingly given the contemporary nature of civilian political life), was supplied overwhelmingly via the state and its workshops. Roman officers might, like their civilian counterparts, have spent money on private dwellings (urban and rural) but not on the public structures of their barracks. Given Late Roman law’s frequent enactments about officers who stayed away from their regiments for long periods of time, this suggestion gains further credibility. These laws demonstrate that military service continued to be an option for the Roman aristocracy and that it was encompassed within the usual aristocratic norms of otium and negotium. Roman officers seem to have spent large amounts of time living away from their barracks. Further, when, during the fifth century, we can examine areas of Gaul where the Roman aristocracy became militarised but remained wealthy, we see that they continued to spend money on their villae (even if, admittedly, less than before) as well as maintaining retinues and taking part in campaigns. A simple militarisation of the northern Gallic aristocratic culture seems, then, to be unsatisfactory as an explanation for the reduction in the number and scale of villas.
This thesis proposed here, relating changes in the region’s settlement pattern and economy to changes in the late imperial state, accounts for the developments on urban as well as rural sites. Late Roman northern Gallic towns famously underwent serious contraction. This has largely been judged from the length of the late imperial walled circuits, a blunt method which must give misleading results in at least some cases, such as that of Bavay, where the town walls only enclosed the forum. Even so, recent excavation confirms the abandonment of large areas of early Roman towns. These restricted urban ‘enceintes’ probably do not mark economic decline as such. Where details of their above-ground appearance are known, they often show care and attempts at decoration. That the foundations (frequently the only element retrieved archaeologically, of course) include large amounts of reused masonry from demolished early Roman buildings and grave monuments permits no extrapolations about the haste or emergency conditions in which the walls were built. The period of these walls’ construction is much less well established than was once thought. Rather than having been thrown up rapidly in the last quarter of the third century in response to barbarian invasions, their construction could have extended through the fourth century and possibly beyond. Nonetheless the use, in the walls’ foundations, of large quantities of often good-quality sculpture from cemeteries and public buildings makes a statement about urban change that cannot be lightly dismissed.
These fortifications and their scale have valuable things to tell us nonetheless. I suggest that their short length results partly from the well-documented unwillingness of late Roman local aristocrats to spend their money upon public building projects. It might also stem, to some extent, from a lack of independently wealthy aristocrats in the towns’ hinterlands. This decline in the prosperity of the northern Gallic elite probably also lies behind the reduction in the scale of occupation in towns as the small landowners, those not employed to manage imperial estates, seem, as we have noted, to have generally lacked the secure control of surplus necessary to sponsor urban development and manufactures, town houses and so on. A further factor, quite well understood in Britain, would be the rise of lesser settlements, the so-called vici (now often themselves fortified as castra or castella). These settlements often arose as markets and by the late imperial period had probably done much to erode the civitas-capitals’ dominance as economic central places, in economic terms. The Gallic urban hierarchy underwent significant changes in the late imperial era, with some sites (like Verdun, in northern Gaul) gaining civitas status. Slightly further south, by the sixth century (when Gregory of Tours famously remarked upon the fact) the castrum of Dijon had become notably more important than its civitas-capital, Langres. Against such a back-drop it should not be surprising if intermediate settlements rose in importance relative to that of the cities.
The general thesis proposed here to explain late imperial change in northern Gaul is confirmed to some extent by exceptions to what seems to be the general rule. One is the region around Trier, which, although quite badly hit in the third century in terms of the rate of villa-abandonment, nevertheless has the largest and most lavish examples of fourth-century northern Gallic villas (as intimated earlier). Trier itself, of course, saw a rash of public building focused on the imperial presence there and that is the crucial issue. With the emperors and their senior palatine aristocrats resident there for much of the late third and fourth century, it is no surprise that resources could be spent on the city, or that wealth found its way into Trier’s immediate surroundings. When one considers that the prosperity of the aristocrats of the Treveri had been unusual in the early and even pre-Roman eras, the fact that the Triererland bucks the general trend should scarcely be unexpected. The idea that imperial patronage was the main factor determining variations from the norm gains further support at Metz, the next city on the Moselle, to the south of Trier. If Trier’s abnormally long walled circuit probably belongs to the early Roman period, then the 72 hectares enclosed at Metz make that city’s walls by far the longest late Roman enceinte in northern Gaul, perhaps in all of Gaul. The castra of the civitas of Metz also have unusually long walled circuits. This exceptional scale of fortification surely relates to the presence around Trier of troops available for such building projects. An inscription documents the construction of the Langmauer, a long wall presumably enclosing an estate, by a unit of primani.
Even if it does not explain the decline in the number and elaboration of villas, the militarisation of northern Gaul is nevertheless a feature of the region’s archaeology which supports the general hypothesis. The fortification of granaries and other rural sites seems to be associated (as indeed may the walling of urban administrative centres and some villages) with a concern to ensure the safety of supplies ear-marked for the army. The deployment of symbols in inhumations in the region, especially when these become more lavish in the century’s last decades, underlines the close link between imperial (probably especially military) service and local status. For most of the period before 400, official belt-sets and brooches, the badges of rank in the army and civil service, are the most common grave-goods in male burials.
Part 2 Here