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Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

Clovis' Sons and Creeping Merovingian Anarchy (511-640)

From Roman Gaul to the Merovingian Kingdom of the Franks (450-511)

Charlemagne and the Carolingian State(s) to 843


Upon Clovis' 511 death, the Frankish Kingdom was administratively divided among his four sons, Clodomir, Theuderic, Childebert, and Chlotachar, or Clothar I. Though frequently feuding, they cooperated to extend Frankish dominion to Thuringia in the east of old Frankish lands (531), the southern Kingdom of Burgundy (534), as well as Provence, taken from the Ostrogoths in 536. By 540, The Ostrogoths had been forced to surrender Alamanni lands northeast of Burgundy to the Franks, and Bavaria recognized Frankish overlordship. These areas were divided among the brothers in a patchwork. Clodomir died in 533, his western areas divided among his surviving brothers. The youngest, Clothar, ruled all Frankish lands after his brothers' deaths (558- 62). At his death, another four-fold division occurred among the leading members of the Frankish Merovingian family. Ancient Frankish lands straddling the Rhine were called Austrasia, apportioned to Sigibert. Northern and Western Gaul was given to Chilperic, and called Neustria (new lands). Guntram received Burgundy, between Austrasia and Italy, while Aquitane, in southwest France, went to Charibert. The latter died in 567, with Aquitane being divided among his surviving brothers. In these realms, kings relied on warlords and close associates to administer areas as counts. Holding increasing amounts of land, a nobility arose.

For the next forty years, Frankish rulers were occupied with incessant internecine fighting, interspersed with territorial additions. Sigibert of Austrasia had married the Visigothic princess Brunhilde, and Chilperic had married her sister Galswintha, not wanting to be left behind in royal marriages. He murdered her shortly thereafter and married his concubine Fredegund, provoking Sigibert's ire. An Austrasian-Neustrian feud then broke out, and Sigibert invaded his brother's domains, defeating Chilperic and acquiring local count's support for his rule. Fredegund had him murdered, whereupon Austrasian forces returned, taking their dead leader's infant son Childebert. King Guntram of Burgundy protected the child, making him the Burgundian heir. His mother Brunhilde became regent and real ruler of Austrasia. Guntram died in 593, by which time Chilperic had been assassinated, with Neustrian kingship going to his son Clothar II. When Childeric as well died in 595, Brunhilde was left as sole ruler of Burgundy and Austrasia, in the name of her grandsons Theudebert and Theodoric. Austrasian counts, though were chafing under their Visigothic queen whose chief supporter was Theodoric. His brother in turn led a faction of nobles against him in war, but was defeated in 612. Theodoric died the next year, and Austrasian nobility refused to recognize new infant kings and continued Brunhildian rule. Thus, they turned to the Neustrain king Clothar II, who accepted rule of both regions, reuniting most of the Regium Francium.

Clothar had been accepted through notable help. Two of them were the Metz Bishop Arnulf and Pepin the Elder of Landen. To secure such help, he had to issue the Edict of Clothar (614) where he agreed that in the future he would appoint counts not from palace officials, but from local landowners, lay and clerical. Also during these years, deputies in the major Merovingian subdivisions would head the royal household with the title of Major Domo, or Mayor of the Palace. From this time kingly power began to decline quickly. Dagobert (629-638) was the last of Clovis' descendants to rule in more than name. After his death and re-division of Frankish lands, kings were short-lived, unskilled, and constantly at war with each other. Real power passed to Palace Mayors. Dagobert's in Austrasia had been Pepin of Landen, who was able to make his family the hereditary holder of the position. Though one grandson was killed trying to make himself king in 656, another, Pepin of Heristal, would be a more successful Austrasian mayor.


This period has been viewed unfavorably in comparison to the years of Clovis and immediately after. Called the era of 'decadent and do-nothing kings' -- rois faineants in French historiographical parlance--or a period of young-dying, 'simple-minded', 'mentally-affected' kings, the dizzying political narrative contains important trends, and demonstrates not a break from Clovis, but extension of dynamics of those years: 1) The political center of Christian Europe continued to move to Northeastern Gaul, as this region's fiscal-cultural link to the Mediterranean was sundered. 2) Plunder, by kings, counts and occasional invaders continued apace. 3) The Roman-period financial, political, and physical infrastructure disappeared further.

More than that, certain processes with roots in the 510s become more aggravated. First is the Frankish approach to royal succession and territories. Like other Germans, franks felt it unjust if all the king's sons did not receive a portion of the royal domain. Though allowance was made for the dominant position of the oldest son, all were supposed to receive certain areas and prerogatives within them. This gave rise to the problematic parcellization of sovereignty. More serious, however, was the nature of the post-Clovis divisions. The different territorial chunks making up an individual king's realm were not geographically connected. Adjoining areas could all belong, at least in theory, to different kings. The reasoning for this was that a king's sons were to share all of the royal lands. Concretely, it appears that post-511 division schemes were meant to give each son a portion of Clovis' 486 territories as well as portions of lands that were conquered by him and afterwards. The administrative difficulties here are easy to see. When a particular inheritor was displeased with his allotment, however, civil war was unavoidable, especially since there was no particular reason to view one's brother as superior.

This plays into the second trend of the seventh to mid-eighth century: the internalization of violence within Frankish borders. With the Saxon and Thuringian revolts in the 550s and the death of Clothar I in 561, the limits of Frankish external expansion had been reached. As is the case in most recently settled societies based on booty-accumulation and governed by still semi-nomadic values, violence turned inward. Therefore, Merovingian history has been called "despotism tempered by assassination." This coincided with weaker kings who were themselves locked in fratricidal strife for the same reasons, such that what central administration as had previously existed went through a two-fold modification. First, kings themselves were no longer the principles in administration. Mayors took over this function, first as royal agents in the palace. This was related to the second part. These mayors were increasingly effective because of their local connections as counts, or military strongmen such as dukes. The 614 Edict of Clothar strengthened local power even more. With estates growing at royal expense or due to conquest of surrounding counties, the mayors acquired the finances and retinues necessary for patronage of Churches, monasteries, and other rising ambitious men, who were in turn kept in check by the mayors' armed gangs.

In effect, mayors and lesser nobles had a common interest: "the mayor of the palace was able to keep the monarchy in tutelage because of the support he received from the 'nobles', while they owed their whole livelihood to him." What is being spoken of here is vassalage and the elements of a feudal relationship in a localized world. An aspiring noble would do well to 'commend' himself as a vassal to a more powerful man, and the latter would gain more support for his expansionist agenda, just as the former would be raised in status with his master. Often, ascent took the form of being awarded an amount of property by the lord, which the vassal held as a tenant, conditional upon performing some usually military service. In the eighth century, such land was called a benefice. This dynamic was integral to the roots of the Carolingian dynasty as represented by Pepin. The Carolingians rose due to accumulation of noble support; the Carolingians in turn consulted the nobles before taking action. Thus something approaching a common, 'public interest' could evolve, and only from this period do we see local level leaders caring somewhat more about rural order and security than had the Merovingian kings.

Throughout it all, the Church remained especially important. During the most severe periods of civil unrest, bishops and priests would provide administrative continuity, charity, and even security. Something of a parallel administration, each city had a bishop. Often from the late-Roman senatorial families, their level of culture and civic mindedness was somewhat elevated. Further, rising men--such as Pepin's family--would often ally themselves with the Church, thereby increasing their legitimacy, as well as basis of support. There was another side to it, however. It was increasingly difficult for clergy so closely interacting with secular powers to maintain autonomy, just as the Frankification of the provincial episcopate degraded the quality and discipline of the clergy.

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