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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Officers or Gentlemen? The Frankish Aristocracy in the Sixth Century: Part 4

[In the last installment of this piece (which begins here), I examine the role of royal service in maintaining aristocratic power.  It is argued to have been essential and this fact allows us to see the sixth-century Merovingian kingdom as a state in a very real sense.]
Part 3 is here

Gregory describes the redeployment of royal patronage on one occasion.  Following the suppression of the ‘Revolt of the Dukes’ (587) in Austrasia, Gregory says that a number of other dukes were demoted and others promoted to replace them.  All of the Frankish magnates whom we encounter in the pages of the Histories occupy positions within the administration of the realm, as duke, count, patricius and so on.  None of these titles, it is worth reminding ourselves, was hereditary; as implied in the preceding discussion, it is very difficult to find a title (even the general rank) remaining in the same family before the late sixth century.  Obviously it is impossible to know how they obtained their position in the hierarchy; one imagines that they probably came from the loosely-defined de facto aristocracy mentioned earlier.  Nonetheless, what emerges very clearly from Gregory’s account is the absolute dependence of these powerful aristocrats upon the royal court for their status.  We simply do not find an equivalent of the late Roman senatorial nobleman who spent brief intermittent periods in the service – negotium – of the state between longer spells of otium on his estates, or of the brooding late medieval noble plotting in his castle.  When demoted from office, such figures disappear from history.  Consequently the possibility that one might lose one’s position at court drove magnates to extreme actions, such as the Revolt of the Dukes just mentioned. 

The actions of the Austrasian dukes and those of the Neustrian aristocrats after Chilperic’s assassination (584) are very revealing.  The Neustrian magnates who found themselves away from court (generally accompanying an embassy to Spain) sided, on the whole, with Gundovald, a claimant with Byzantine backing.  The Austrasian dukes planned to murder Childebert II and replace him with his infant sons.  Clearly there were two principal options.  Ideally, an aristocratic faction wanted a malleable king (especially a child) whom they could control.  This allowed them to monopolise access to the court and to control the distribution of royal patronage, while still acting with the legitimacy of royal officers.  It is significant, therefore, that the Revolt of the Dukes occurred as Childebert II entered his majority (technically from Christmas 585); the faction of the dukes involved had controlled the court for most of his minority and were now threatened with demotion and replacement.  The Neustrian aristocrats who were at court in late 584 found themselves in the happy position where they could control the court of the infant Chlothar II.  On the other hand, the palatine magnates accompanying Princess Rigunth to Spain were now likely to find their return to favour barred by other factions.  Therefore they took the option of siding with an adult king, Gundovald.  An adult king, even if unlikely to be controlled by particular faction, at least had the corresponding merit of distributing and redistributing patronage between groups, ensuring that all had access and all had their turn.  This was better than exclusion from the court by a rival group.  Note, though, that there was no question of replacing the Merovingian dynasty.  By this stage the Merovingians had clearly established the idea that they were the only throneworthy family in the realm.  There was no Frankish noble lineage to match them; certainly none that could persuade other families to accept their pre-eminence.  Thus it is significant that one of the rebellious Austrasian dukes, Rauching, took to claiming that (like Gundovald) he was a son of Chlothar I.

Those excluded in this way tended to leave the kingdom altogether, as Duke Lupus did during Childebert II’s minority.  Similarly, after the Revolt of the Dukes, Gregory tells us that many men moved to other regions for fear of (pertimescens) Childebert II.  One assumes that they were linked in some way to the subdued rebellious faction.  Their fears were justified.  Childebert II was not a man to cross.  In one of Gregory’s more chilling stories, when the king and his court were watching bear-baiting at Metz, a certain Magnovald was dragged from Childebert’s presence and butchered, his body being thrown into the street as a sign that this killing had been carried out legitimately.  This was done causis occultis.  Some suggested that Magnovald’s alleged murder of his wife was the cause but no one knew; there was not even a show-trial.

Magnovald’s property was confiscated by the fisc.  This indeed was the fate of the property of all those who fell foul of the king: Guntramn Boso, Rauching, Eberulf and many others.  Some stories imply, furthermore, that the king was by no means necessarily disinheriting their heirs in such action.  Even those who were not in disfavour might have their property taken back into the fisc when they died.  The fact that the sons of another Bodegisel were able to inherit their father’s land without forfeiting any of it appears to have been a point of some note to Gregory.  The implications of the story are elucidated by another tale wherein, after their father was killed (evidently near Poitiers) in pursuit of a petty dispute, the sons of Waddo had to go to the king (again, Childebert II) before they were allowed to inherit his lands.  Childebert seems, however, soon to have changed his mind, stripped them of these estates and given them to his rebellious cousin Chlothild.  Royal interference in matters of inheritance is further suggested by Gregory’s repeated complaint that Chilperic of Neustria tore up the wills (testamenta) of those who died leaving land to the church.  This might in part stem, as Edward James suggested, from the fact that Pactus Legis Salicae did not envisage that the inhabitants of the northern Frankish realms could make wills at all.  Indeed no sixth-century northern Gallic wills survive.  If correct, this in turn would support the interpretation of the Law as having some practical import.  Another reason for Chilperic’s ire, however, might be that – given that the king is unlikely to have taken much interest in the social strata below that of the more powerful aristocrats – royal grants were not gifts in perpetuity and thus not the recipient’s to give away.  Parallels can be sought in a roughly contemporary antiqua (old law) in the Visigothic Forum Iudicum, concerning property acquired by a saio whilst in someone’s service.  Any weapons given by the patron may be kept if the saio leaves the patron’s service, but any other property ultimately remains that of the patron.  The Visigothic Law concerning the permanence of royal donations belongs to the seventh century, when it would – equally – evidently not be out of step with contemporary Frankish practice.  

Frankish practice might descend from late Roman, with the ‘salary’ of royal officers being paid through the grant of tax revenue from particular, defined assets – probably referred to as villae.  The existence of the system is confirmed by a story in the Histories and it makes sense of the apparent ease with which villae could be granted away, taken back and re-granted, as in the story of Waddo’s villa near Poitiers.  It also allows us to understand the meaning of the term villa as it appears in seventh- and earlier eighth-century usage.  A further advantage of this reading is that it makes sense of the social relationships witnessed in the Pactus Legis Salicae.  A freeman (ingenuus) granted the right to take the tax from a designated villa or small geographical unit would remain a freeman like the inhabitants of the villa; the latter would stand in no legally inferior or dependent status to him.  This means of salarying state officers would make sense in an effectively non-monetary economy like that of sixth-century northern Gaul.  The relevant surplus could be extracted and used by the recipient without leaving the locality, any responsibility for converting payments in kind into gold (whether from villae assigned to him as his salary or from other villae from which he was tasked with tax-collection) becoming that of the salaried officer in question.  The only currency we know about in Gaul at this time (outside a small-denomination coinage effectively restricted to Marseille) is imported Byzantine solidi and Gallic imitations struck by the Merovingian kings.  Such coins were of very high value and doubtless therefore circulated (alongside their late Roman predecessors) only among the most powerful socio-political classes, something that made these coins ideal vehicles for royal and imperial propaganda.  With a more or less fixed content of 1/72 of a pound of gold, they should, however, be understood more as convenient units of bullion than as coins proper.  Even in the monetized late Roman period, the value of the solidus to the other elements of currency had been inflationary.  The only other coinage in use appears to have been residual Roman currency, which is frequently found in the pouches with which many Merovingian males were buried.  When taken alongside the presence of balances in lavishly-furnished male burials, we might conclude that local leaders, and especially (one assumes) those with an official title, had a responsibility for ‘weights and measures’.  These old coins presumably circulated as bullion and it was a local leader’s word that determined their worth as pieces of precious metal.

Taken together, the advantages of royal service were clearly considerable for northern Gallic aristocrats.  Legal privilege was only one of these.  In addition, responsibility for taxation and for levying the army from an increasingly broad stratum of ‘Franks’ constituted an important source of local patronage.  The revenue from royally-bestowed villae could be considerable, especially where numerous such ‘fiscal assets’ were accumulated by an officer like a duke or count.  Royal gifts were also prestigious as well as valuable.  Thus it is not surprising that the competition for patronage was fierce and that this outweighed any nascent magnate identity.  It is not surprising that a king like Childebert II could very rapidly call out an army of a sufficient size to spell doom immediately, even for an allegedly large force assembled by the rebellious dukes Ursio and Berthefried.  With all these points made, it is clear that the early Merovingian kingdom can and should be considered a state.  It had the ability to raise an army and use it as an independent coercive force, as well as being able to pay its officials through a, however obscurely, functioning taxation system.  It thus had the means to make its writ run in the myriad communities that were located within its bounds.  Ideologically too, it appears to have managed to monopolise conceptions of legitimate power.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the ability of the third generation of Merovingians (the sons of Chlothar I) to maintain a tight grip on authority while rarely taking the field at the head of their armies.  Unlike other realms, the Frankish kingdoms endured serious military reverses in this period (at the hands of Bretons, Goths and Lombards) without political crises ensuing.  On the other hand, while failure does not seem to have redounded to the kings’ shame, any credit for victories does seem to have allowed the Merovingians to maintain the ideology of triumphal rulership.



When the Merovingians took over the governance of northern Gaul in the later fifth century they were, with few exceptions, not confronted by a powerful, independently wealthy magnate class.  Over the next century, the kings managed to reduce the status of this group further, so that it became yet more dependent upon royal service for its local pre-eminence.  The kings’ actions should probably not be regarded as policy.  Many can be viewed as continuations of the later Roman emperors’ style of governance, maintaining checks and balances and the even distribution of royal favour.  Because of this they find parallels in the activities of other post-imperial kings.  It may be no more than the happy genealogical accident that the Merovingians were able to maintain father-to-adult-son succession for four generations between Childeric I and the sons of Chlothar I that enabled them to be more successful than any other post-imperial dynasty.  Nonetheless that factor reveals the inherent weakness of the system.  Much like the late Empire, political stability relied upon the tenure of the throne by an adult capable of distributing and redistributing patronage and maintain balance between different aristocratic factions.  Again like the Empire, a series of royal minorities, in this case after Sigibert I’s assassination in late 575, produced a critical situation.  This occurred, furthermore, at a point when other contingent factors could come together to exacerbate any crisis in the legitimacy of government carried out in the young king’s name.  The transformations in the nature of the Frankish aristocracy that occurred as a result of this combination of circumstances lie outside the scope of this paper.  As the sixth century entered its last quarter, contemporaries could only have perceived the Merovingian kings as exercising a tight control of legitimate power and a literally life-and-death authority over their aristocrats.  In these circumstances the idea that the latter formed an independently powerful social class would have seemed a long way from reality.


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