[In this second chunk of the article, I look at the dynamics of royal-aristocratic relations and how the maintenance of patronage could work to undermine the local status of aristocrats. Archaeological evidence is then adduced to show a further weakening of local aristocratic power by the middle quarters of the sixth century.]
Part 1 is here
The exception to this rule, just mentioned, was the aristocracy of the Triererland. This serves as an instructive case study of the problems that the Frankish kings might have faced, and how they dealt with them. The aristocracy of the middle Moselle Valley had been closely connected with the imperial Roman presence in the region, when the western Empire’s main capital was located at Trier (western Emperors residing regularly at Trier between the 280s and 388). As well as holding large estates and lavish villas, which might have survived the early fifth-century crises better than those in other regions, it had a powerful sense of its own Roman identity. References to the senators of Trier are known – uniquely for Merovingian Gaul north of the Loire. Indeed, the rapacious aristocracy of northern Gaul, so long (probably mistakenly) employed as a paradigm for the late Roman aristocracy, may be specifically located to this region. Their senatorial identity is represented not only in the statements of the evidence but also in its form. Trier has produced about a quarter of all the late antique epigraphy from Gaul, and almost all such data found north of the Loire. In regional context, this Roman means of commemoration stands out like a sore thumb. As well as a self-confident Roman aristocracy, Trier also possessed an episcopate with an awkward tradition of speaking out against secular rulers, actively maintained during the first half of the sixth century by Saint Nicetius. With all this in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that the attempts by the Merovingian kings of Austrasia to establish themselves at Trier failed. By the middle of the sixth century they had abandoned the former imperial capital and moved up-river to Metz. Against the physical backdrop of the old imperial buildings (in one of which, the cathedral, Nicetius staged one of his confrontations with King Theudebert of Austrasia) and against the ideological background of Justinian’s attempted reconquest, accompanied as it was by the proclamation of the West’s loss to barbarians, any early Merovingian efforts (like Theudebert’s) to present themselves simply as legitimate successors to the Roman Emperors – as emperors in new guise – was surely doomed to failure. When the audience for such attempts was composed of a noble stratum far more confident about its traditional Roman credentials, their failure was assured.
The Merovingians therefore, like most other post-imperial rulers, betook themselves to lesser Roman centres, like Paris and Metz. Metz was a Roman city which offered all the elements of an ‘imperial complex’ like that at Trier or Constantinople: a cathedral, and audience chamber and an amphitheatre. These however had not been unified into such a complex by the emperors. Metz thus presented a suitably Roman ‘canvass’ upon which the Merovingians could nevertheless inscribe their own political identity. Here, moreover, the Merovingians could appoint their own men to the episcopate, largely removing the threat of awkward confrontations with bishops. As a result of this attention, Metz had, by the middle of the eighth century, largely eclipsed Trier. Used to having their rulers living amongst them, the Trier aristocracy now had to travel up the Moselle to Metz to obtain the patronage of the Merovingian kings. Once there, of course, they found themselves in competition with the kings’ own servants and with aristocrats from across the rest of Gaul. Their local wealth and pre-eminence availed them little in this context.
This relationship between the royal court and local aristocrats is paradigmatic for understanding early Merovingian northern Gallic social structures. Royal patronage was even more important to the aristocrats of the other parts of the region, whose wealth and familial standing were less secure than those of the Trier ‘senators’. Reduced to precarious authority even within their own localities, the best means of cementing this leadership and of involvement in politics on a wider stage (such as had been possible to their fourth-century ancestors) was to obtain the patronage of the Merovingian rulers. This dynamic is important as, as already noted, it removes the need to assume a widespread programme of political assassination or purges.
By the opening of the second quarter of the sixth century, which this paper takes as its rough chronological starting point, other developments had further strengthened the Merovingians’ hand. In addition to the removal of rival branches of the Frankish royalty, already mentioned, which (as is less widely appreciated) continued into the reigns of Clovis’ sons, the defeat of the Visigothic kingdom and the acquisition of Aquitaine from 507 onwards was a decisive moment. Although the conquest of southern Gaul was a more complex and drawn-out process than is often imagined, with much territory retaken by the Goths under Theudis and thus having to be conquered again (perhaps as late as the 530s), by 535 Burgundy and Provence had also been added to the Frankish kingdom. These conquests massively increased the Merovingians’ store of patronage. Northern aristocrats could be rewarded with offices (such as those of count or duke) south of the Loire. This may not have happened on a large scale but it did not have to do so to have crucial effects. The imposition of northerners as local civil and military governors, with royally-bestowed rights to collect taxes, hear court cases and levy the army, will have made a considerable difference to a southern Gallic nobility, used to having a powerful Gothic ruler living amongst them for the best part of a century. Now they had to compete with Frankish royal officers for the favour of a monarch who dwelt to the north, rapidly becoming Francia. While this dynamic enabled the Merovingian realms to secure their control over Aquitaine, Burgundy and Provence, to a greater degree than their Carolingian and later successors, it similarly maintained the kings’ ability to play off the northern aristocrats against each other in the contest for royal patronage. This competition for patronage could be played out in various formal settings. Gatherings of the army, the chief political assembly of the kingdom, and of the Franks especially, were occasions for the kings to reward and punish, as the famous story of the Vase of Soissons makes clear. Gregory calls this a meeting on the campus martius. Whether this was named for a place, on the model of the campus martius in Rome, or for a date (1 March) is not clear. Certainly an annual assembly on 1 March (the Marchfield) seems to have been in existence by the 590s, when Childebert II issued all three of his edicts on that date. It is possible that by the 590s a fusion of the date and the location had occurred. Some adaptation of Roman practice is probable.
Thus the kings had, by the second quarter of the sixth century, established themselves in a position of more or less unassailable authority within their realms. There were other policies that helped to underline this position. One was their well-known practice of avoiding marriage with the daughters of their aristocrats, preferring low-born women and foreign princesses. This ensured that no Frank could claim membership of the family without the recognition of a reigning king. Royal daughters, too, appear to have been kept out of the marriage market, except for alliances with neighbouring kingdoms. Though decried by some contemporaries, and whether or not it was designed to do so, the division of the realm in fact also helped to bolster the Merovingian supremacy. Opposition to one king only crystallised around his brother or cousin in another of the Teilreiche. More probably based upon the pragmatic division of the Roman Empire than upon any kind of ‘Germanic’ inheritance custom, the provision of more than one court facilitated admittance to royal presence. This further enabled the tight control over the distribution of patronage mentioned earlier. While this was to the kings’ advantage, the ease of access and the prevention of a monopoly of the court by any particular faction were doubtless seen as aspects of good governance by many aristocrats.
The kings’ dominance and their evident reduction of local leaders to the level of a service aristocracy can be seen further in social and economic developments of the second and third quarters of the sixth century. This can be traced archaeologically in two or three areas. The first is the further deterioration of the late Roman fine-ware tradition. By 540, Argonne Ware production, which had hit a critical point in the mid-fifth century, entered a final phase of decline. Between that point and its final disappearance from the record around 600, only a limited range of undecorated forms were produced. A similar trend might also be manifest in the fact that artefacts of Böhner’s Stufe II (c.525-c.575/600) manifest much less craft-specialisation than was visible in, for example, the polychrome garnet-inlaid objects of the late fifth-century Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon. Although the belt seemingly remained a key item of masculine costume, the belt-buckles of the middle quarters of the sixth century are for the most part plain, unadorned ring-and-tongue designs, sometimes with a simple incised decoration on the loop or tongue, occasionally on the ‘scutiform’ terminal of the latter. Where plaques are attached these too are often undecorated. Most of the decoration that we see is invested in female apparel such as brooches but here too the objects are, for the most part, simply cast.
One reason for this must be that the security of local leadership was now even less than it had been in the preceding 100 years. Surplus was now spent on a cycle of rituals that involved the display and consumption of resources, the bestowal of food, weaponry and other movables or parcels of land in return for alliances and support. Such rituals clustered around the life-cycle, particularly the processes of socialisation (evidently a long, many-staged procedure for males), betrothal and marriage. Death and burial were the other key focus for such activity and it is from the practices associate with this that we have our most plentiful evidence in the form of archaeological cemetery data. Between c.475 and c.500, in the Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon proper, most furnished burials were of adult males. In the subsequent quarter of a century, children and females became more common, giving the phase some similarities with the archaeological horizon of the so-called Föderatengräber in the late fourth and earlier fifth centuries. We appear to have some locally prominent families marking their status within the community through the use of elaborate ritual. The increase in numbers of such graves seems to reveal a growing number of such kin-groups using material culture linked with the Franks to symbolise a claim for local authority. The gradual use of the burials of women and children as foci for display suggests that the competition for local authority was becoming more severe, as deaths of all sorts of family-members could bring status into question and require smoothing over with ritual activity. This activity not only displayed claims for legitimate authority to an audience assembled for the funeral, via appropriate material cultural symbols and emblems; it appears to have been accompanied by feasting and the bestowal of other gifts, maintaining or strengthening ties with other kindreds within the community. A burial appears to have been an occasion to show that a family could inter one of its members with the appropriate obsequies to the best of its ability. Within this, there was – obviously – a competitive element. It is important, therefore, to underline that the ‘wealth’, or otherwise, of a burial is not a passive index of the formal rank or status of the deceased or his/her family, but an active claim to local standing.
By the second quarter of the sixth century, however, this practice had become very much more widespread. For example, at the cemetery of Lavoye (dép. Meuse), there were only a dozen graves in its first phase (c.475-c.525) but about two hundred in the phase spanning the remainder of the sixth century. Of these, at least three quarters were buried with grave-goods. Rather than being clustered with particular families, though, grave-goods were now very clearly distributed according to the age and gender of the deceased. Community norms appear to govern the forms of material deemed appropriate for individuals of particular ages and gender, as well as the overall lay-out of the cemetery itself. Clearly the extent of competition for authority had increased with the participation of a wider range of families in the rituals that served to augment as well as cement local relationships. Burials which are marked out from their contemporaries have to be sought more subtly than in previous phases, usually marked by having more of the correct forms of artefact – and especially gender-related artefacts – for a person of that age and sex. More obviously unusual burials are nevertheless known, and on some sites distinction is created through the breach of the cemetery’s usual norms.
Thus we can propose from a variety of archaeological sources that authority within a community was now much less secure than had earlier been the case. In these circumstances a connection with the royal court and its patronage was one of the best means of securing such pre-eminence independently of local political allegiances.
Part 3 is here
Part 3 is here