[The third installment of this draft article on the sixth-century aristocracy (which begins here) looks at the significance for the debate of the legal evidence and of terminology for aristocrats in the narrative sources. The argument is that both forms of evidence, while they permit the reasonable supposition that some families maintained social pre-eminence within their localities, this position was not secure or recognisable by southerners as amounting to a real form of social distinction. The failure of the laws to recognise an aristocratic stratum might have originated as a royal strategy but by the middle of the sixth century it seems to have been a reasonable approximation of reality.]
Part 2 is here
In this context we can reconsider the earliest of the Frankish law-codes, the Pactus Legis Salicae, and its failure to mention any sort of a noble caste. The Pactus only recognises two types of freeman: the Frank, with a wergild of 200 solidi and the Roman tributarius, whose wergild was 150 solidi. The only men raised above this general stratum are the presumably Frankish members of the trustis regis (the royal retinue: wergild 600 solidi or double that of the Frank), the Roman members of the convivia regis (the royal table: wergild 300 solidi or double that of the tributarius), the pueri regis (the “King’s Boys”) and comites (companions; here meaning counts: royal officers). All of these exceptions are defined by a connection to the king. As mentioned, the interpretation of this fact has been a matter of debate. On its own, it is difficult to make the absence of a legally-recognised aristocratic stratum bear much weight in proposing that such a class did not exist in reality. Arguments against it have been numerous. The kings deliberately did not recognise such a group as a means of strengthening their own position. Alternatively, the law-makers felt that they could not legislate for a noble wergild; in practice the magnates would set their own blood-price. Another possibility is that the class of ‘Franks’, with a higher wergild than ‘Romans’ is itself the aristocracy. Or the coverage of the Pactus is hardly comprehensive and the absence of laws specifically relating to the aristocracy might not therefore be significant. Indeed there are legal ‘documents of practice’ which decree that ‘Salic law’ be followed in circumstances not covered at all by the Pactus. Finally, the law itself was only a symbolic text with no necessary grounding in reality; texts actually showing that the Pactus and its provisions were followed in practice are entirely lacking. By contrast we have later documents recording legal decisions that flatly contravene what the Pactus said should be done.
These arguments against the significance of the Pactus’ silence are of uneven weight but there is something in all of them. The weakest – like a crude progression from the law’s silence to actual absence – turn on the idea that the law was directly applicable in practice. In the sixth century, the extent to which this was the case is impossible to gauge. In defence of the idea that there was some connection between code and practice, we can point to some similarities between the processes it envisages and those described in narrative sources and the fact that the law set geographical boundaries on the area within which it thought it was applicable (between the Ardennes and the Loire). The best way forward seems to be to remember that the law was a deliberate composition, not a simple, passive transmission of age-old custom. Even if, as seems very plausible, it was assembled at least in part from pre-existing royal decrees, the Pactus is very consistent in its vocabulary, especially when using ethnic terminology (here it differs from Burgundian law, for example). It does not seem unreasonable to hypothesise that its authors assembled materials, and phrased their discussion of issues, in a deliberate fashion, whether this was to provide a practical law-book, or simply an object text that symbolised Clovis’ capacity as a law-making king, in Roman fashion.
Viewed thus, several suggestions are possible. One is that, as Chris Wickham wrote nearly twenty years ago, it is significant that the range of relationships and legal situations envisaged by the legislators did not encompass the activities of major, wealthy landlords or their intrusions into a society of small-landowners. For it is not simply the absence of a recognised aristocratic stratum, with its own wergild, that matters. There are no references to the relationships that suggest the existence of such a class, either. This becomes clear through comparison with seventh-century Lex Ribvaria. Comparison with other codes suggests that the failure to mention a magnate stratum with a higher wergild than the normal freeman is deliberate. We should not expect this absence, as a matter of course, because of the de facto ability of aristocrats to set their own blood price. Burgundian, Anglo-Saxon and Lombard laws all recognise such a class. Furthermore, why ordinary aristocrats could not be legislated for because of their ability to set their own wergild, but aristocrats with royal backing could be so restricted is a problem left unanswered. Thus the lack of recognition of an aristocracy with status independent of royal approval might indeed have been a deliberate royal statement. This need not imply that such a group did not exist in practice but the absence from the law of other indices of its presence, which comparison with other codes suggests would normally act to restrict its power, argues that it was not, in reality, very significant.
Other sixth-century evidence permits the argument that even if, when the Pactus was issued, the law-makers’ deliberately ignored a magnate class as a statement of royal power, by the middle of the sixth century the dependence of northern Gaulish local leaders upon royal legitimation was a normal state of affairs. This is suggested from the analysis of the region’s rural cemeteries during the middle quarters of the century, as already discussed. That reading of the excavated data finds support in some aspects of the written sources. The first such aspect to consider is that of terminology. Gregory of Tours, for example, only employs the term nobilis once to describe a northern Gallic family, referring to the brothers Bodegisil and Bobo. Otherwise, within Gaul, Gregory restricts his use of the term nobilis to the Merovingian royal family itself, and to southern Gallic senators. His description of an embassy to Constantinople, one of the occasions when Gregory refers to Bodegisil, suggests why this might have been. He describes the ambassadors as ‘Bodegisil son of Mummolenus, from Soissons, Evantius son of Dynamius, from Arles, and Grippo, a Frank’. For Gregory, then, it seems that one’s civitas of origin and the name of one’s father were the principal criteria for inclusion in the social stratum that encompassed the senatorial nobility. In this, he does not seem too different from his near contemporary Isidore of Seville, whose definition of nobilis, within the category of ‘terms for people’ (de quibusdam vocabulis hominum), was one whose ‘name and lineage are known’.
Wickham downplays the significance of Gregory’s failure to use the word nobilis for northerners, by stating that Venantius Fortunatus, unlike Gregory, does employ the term for Frankish aristocrats. In fact, scrutiny reveals Venantius’ use of the term to be more or less the same as Gregory’s. He describes as ‘noble’ southern Gallic senators, the Merovingians and one northern Frank, who dwells in Toulouse. Otherwise he uses the word to qualify virtues or objects in a religious context.
Nonetheless, looking at the usage of particular terms is not without its problems, given the almost total lack of written evidence from northern Gaul itself. The sources available are essentially from Aquitaine or – in the case of the works of Venantius Fortunatus – of a poet from Italy. One issue is whether the failure of these writers to discuss the northern, Frankish aristocracy in the terms usually employed for nobility is significant, or at least in what ways it is significant. If the northern Gallic magnates were not recognisable as noblemen in the traditional Roman way, does that really mean that they cannot – functionally – have formed a similar type of ruling stratum? There are, after all, other words which are used to describe northern aristocrats. Some – seniores, proceres, potentes, or optimates for example – do not have a bearing on the precise enquiry as their general meaning of ‘leading men’ does not necessarily carry with it an implication about the relationship between their status and royal service one way or the other. Other phrases do, however: maior natu for example.
This is important because, if nothing else, it demonstrates that no position taken on this topic is likely to represent a hard-and-fast ‘right answer’. Indeed none of the argument presented thus far implies that there was no Frankish aristocracy, defining the latter in a loose sense as a group of people more powerful, in de facto terms at least, than their fellows. The analysis of the archaeological cemetery evidence discussed earlier does not by any means suggest that some families did not remain dominant within their localities right through the period from the fourth century to the seventh. Members of such kindreds might indeed be described as maiores natu. In some areas, in any case, what we might term a noble class – using the word noble to distinguish an aristocracy more narrowly defined by its birth and culture as well as its wealth and standing – certainly did exist. The ‘senators’ of Trier are the clearest example.
Another point that must be made is that royal service contained mechanisms that could foster some of the characteristics of such a nobility. Service in the schola palatina – the royal military household, where the training of the Pueri Regis presumably took place – clearly included literary education, enabling Frankish service aristocrats to partake in Latin literary culture to some extent at least. Bonds forged between the Pueri themselves could create a sense of group solidarity (maintained by an epistolary culture derived from that of late imperial times), as is most famously attested at the end of the period covered by this paper with the circle of Desiderius of Cahors, which was formed when in the service of Chlothar II and Dagobert I. Royal service, like late imperial, also brought with it certain honorific titles. Viri illustri are attested and, in the capitularies, even viri magnificentissimi optimates. These honorifics might also be used to foster a class identity amongst an essentially service aristocracy. Such titles, however, were not hereditary.
Nonetheless, conclusions are possible. It is clear that, to writers like Gregory and Venantius, most of the Frankish aristocrats – even the powerful ones – whom they met or who featured in their accounts of sixth-century history did not, unlike the Merovingian kings themselves, meet the criteria for nobilitas normally used by their own class. Some people who appeared in Gregory’s other tales or who commissioned poems from Venantius seem, in a local context, to have been members, by birth, of a stratum of leading families. It would be difficult indeed to envisage a situation, even within the fluid sixth-century context proposed here, where such families did not exist. What is at stake is the security of such families’ power and the relative of royal patronage and of local pre-eminence in terms of lands, wealth and so on.
To shed further light on this issue, one obvious source of information is Gregory of Tours’ Histories, with its account of the doings and, usually, violent ends of numerous Frankish aristocrats. Gregory’s evident refusal to incorporate the Frankish magnates within his category of nobiles has been mentioned. One reason for this might have been the fast turn-around of post-holders within the Merovingian realm that resulted from the kings’ adept control of patronage. This would usually mean that Gregory (and Venantius) was rarely aware of the names of these aristocrats’ fathers or their family relationships. It is interesting to speculate, too, on the self-presentation of such men, however, and to wonder whether they presented themselves simply as, for example, ‘Grippo the Frank’. Perhaps patronymics were not habitually given precisely because aristocratic southerners would likely be none the wiser for it. By way of modern English analogies, questions such as ‘what school did you go to?’ or (for instance) ‘would that be the Hampshire Fortescue-Smythes?’ are questions that can only be, and therefore are only, properly answered by members of the same, privileged class as the questioner. They aim primarily at elucidating that class-relationship and only secondarily at extracting actual information. They do not necessarily put all the power in the hands of the questioner as difference can be just as aggressively asserted by a negative response, but social space is nevertheless marked by the exchange.
Part 4 is here
Part 4 is here