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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

THE POST-ROMAN WORLD

 

 

GREGORY OF TOURS

 

Sixty years after the last Western emperor was deposed, Bishop Gregory of Tours (538-594) was born. His family, which held the senatorial rank still highly prized by the nobility in Gaul, had produced at least four generations of bishops. A grand-uncle had been Bishop of Lyons, a greatgrandfather Bishop of Langres, and an uncle, who trained the boy Gregory in the lore of the Church, was Bishop of Auvergne. At a time when many bishops were illiterate, Gregory was a model of culture. He wrote mediocre if not barbarous Latin, with a large vocabulary enriched by Germanic and Hunnish words. Educated chiefly in Christian literature-the works of pagan authors he shunned, fearing "to fall under sentence of eternal death"-Gregory left treatises on Miracles and the Lives of the Fathers, an astronomical work to be used in determining the time of church services, and a History of the Franks. His History is perhaps the most informative single record of sixth-century society.

 

Two things made Gregory's account unusually well informed. First, he lived in the leading city of southern France, at the confluence of five major trade routes. North of Tours lay regions that had never been part of the Roman Empire; the Franks who lived there came often to Tours, and the city was under Frankish, or Merovingian, rule during Gregory's episcopal tenure. The bishop's second advantage as a chronicler was that he lived at the site of what was then the most revered shrine in the West. St. Martin, a missionary monk with an unequalled reputation for healing -besides hundreds of lesser miracles he was said to have raised three men from the dead-was buried at Tours, and thousands of the sick and possessed came each year to his tomb to be healed.

 

From his milieu Gregory drew the matter for his History. In structure the work was ambitious, including nothing less than a history of the world from creation to Gregory's own time. This Christian scheme gave political events and personalities their meaning; since the climax of human experience was the life of Jesus and the growth of the church, people and happenings were judged from an ecclesiastical viewpoint. The names of Frankish nobles who despoiled church properties were noted, along with the calamities God sent to punish them afterward. Rulers were judged, not by their effectiveness in war or government, but by their treatment of churchmen and heretics, and their degree of respect for church lands. King Chilperic, for example, who despite his treachery was interested in literature and even theology, became in Gregory's account a monster who like Nero rejoiced to see entire regions devastated with fire and whose "belly was his god." Because Chilperic ridiculed the bishops and "hated nothing more than churches," Gregory condemned him to eternal damnation.

 

Events too were interpreted in terms of their impact on belief. Any occurrence attributable to the wonder-working effect of saints or their relics was described in detail. The dark influences of witchcraft, demons or magic were chronicled with care, and miracles and conflicts between good and evil powers were given as much attention as the fratricides, organized violence, and civil wars that were the common scourge of Merovingian society.

 

THE MEROVINGIAN WORLD VIEW

 

Gregory of Tours described his theme as "the struggles of kings with the heathen enemy, of martyrs with pagans, of churches with heretics." This polarization of good and evil forces was at the heart of the Merovingian world view. To Gregory's contemporaries, the events of earthly life were less important than the supernatural forces which prompted them. Religion for the Merovingians was far broader than church buildings and clergy; it was the sole means by which men and women survived the inescapable onslaughts of the devil.

 

In this struggle for survival saints were indispensable. Saints were men and women who through the unusual purity of their lives were able to draw on the supernatural powers of good to cure the sick, exorcise demons, and even, like St. Martin, raise the dead. Saints were spiritual magicians whose powers did not cease with their death but clung to their relics, garments, and tombs. Thus Gregory's father as a young man asked a bishop for the ashes of a saint to wear as a talisman. All his life he wore the ashes in a gold case around his neck (never knowing from which saint they came), and after he died Gregory's mother wore them. Both his parents, he wrote, were spared countless assaults, illnesses, and accidents through the merits of the holy talisman. On one occasion it put out a fire, on another it turned away a thunderstorm.

 

Even minor indispositions were cured by the countervailing force of sanctity. "Whenever headache comes on, . . . or a dullness of hearing or a dimness of sight or a pain," Gregory confided to his readers,

 

I am cured at once when I have placed the affected part on the tomb [of St. Martin] or the curtain hanging before it, and I wonder within myself that at the very touch the pain is immediately gone.

 

THE TRANSFORMATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS

 

That this perception of human affairs prevailed in sixth-century Gaul is the most valid witness to the fall of Rome. Between the world view of, say, Bishop Ambrose of Milan and that of Gregory of Tours there are few points of similarity. To be sure, both Ambrose and Gregory were Christian bishops. But where Ambrose was a practical man of affairs, skilled in diplomacy and statecraft, Gregory engaged in spiteful feuds with local chieftains. Where Ambrose fought heretics in church councils and through theological invective, Gregory denounced and feared them as agents of the devil. And where Ambrose envisioned the church as a powerful institution destined to act as moral arbiter throughout the vast expanse of the Roman Empire, Gregory saw it as a localized refuge for the victims of demonic forces. Ambrose was heir to the full measure of Latin culture, pagan, and Christian; his thinking was politically sophisticated, his writing subtle and eloquent. By contrast, Gregory's learning was partial, his grasp of rhetoric deficient; his experience of worldly affairs was as legal arbiter in the bloody assaults and reprisals that made up regional politics in Frankish Gaul.

 

In short, between Ambrose's time and Gregory's a thorough transformation had taken place in the Roman world. There had occurred, in the historian Ferdinand Lot's phrase, a "break in the psychological continuity of history." Lot believed that the people of the sixth century had experienced a "renovation of the world within," a psychological transformation that made the Roman past all but incomprehensible to them. Though they carefully maintained many of the titles, social ranks, and outward forms of that past, its values were lost. New values, rooted in local experience, Germanic culture, and above all in folk Christianity, had taken their place.

 

NATURE OF THE TRANSITION

 

Three major changes marked the transition from the Roman world to the world of the early middle ages. The first was a change in the character and personnel of government. The sprawling, heavily centralized Roman Empire was replaced by autonomous regions under barbarian rulers, each region marked by its own law and institutions. Germanic concepts of personal responsibility and reciprocal honor between man and man replaced the impersonal, monumental authority of the Roman state. From Italy to Britain, Germanic chieftains who viewed as private possessions the lands they ruled took over the powers, but not the public obligations, of their Roman predecessors.

 

The second transformation was cultural. Roman and Germanic elements merged with a distinctly Christian world view to create the psychological climate familiar to Gregory of Tours. The third was economic and social: continuing a process well under way by Constantine's time, the complex urban-centered economy of the ancient world was giving way to the simpler manorial system of the middle ages, with its narrow social hierarchy of serfs (coloni), slaves, and landowners.

 

THE SUCCESSOR STATES:  ITALY UNDER THE OSTROGOTHS

 

By 500 the first of these changes was well under way. In the West, every province that had once been Roman was now in barbarian hands. In Italy, where the Master of the Soldiers Ricimer had ruled since 456, the last of the Western emperors, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by Ricimer's successor Odoacer in 476. In less than twenty years Odoacer was killed by the leader of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric (493-526), who then ruled Italy as the official deputy of the eastern emperor Zeno.

 

Theodoric, a ruler of remarkable urbanity and civilized moderation, believed in the exalted destiny of his Gothic and Roman subjects, who were uniquely fitted "to unite the forethought of the Romans and the virtue of the Barbarians." Preserving intact the Roman administrative system in Italy, which he entrusted to Romans rather than Goths, Theodoric formally confiscated a portion of all Roman estates to support his barbarian followers. Through a network of kinship alliances (several of Theodoric's female relatives were married to barbarian rulers outside Italy) he sought to spread his civilizing influence throughout the entire Germanic political world. In the carefully rhetorical wording of his Roman minister Cassiodorus he warned other rulers that "War is a terrible thing," and asked his own subjects "where peace might be looked for, if there is fighting in a civilised State like ours?"

 

Theodoric's humane and tolerant rule was marred only by the political murder of the Roman philosopher Boethius, accused of plotting to overthrow the Ostrogothic kingdom. This incident apart, Theodoric gave both his Roman and Gothic subjects every reason to be satisfied with his rule, maintaining the grain supply, public baths, and circus amusements, and reapportioning taxes more equitably; "I had rather our Treasury lost money," he declared, "than the taxpayer be driven to suicide."

 

Overall, Theodoric recovered the lofty sense of imperial mission, lost since the early empire, which subordinated personal ambition to the good of the populace. "Let other kings desire the glory of battles won, of cities taken, of ruins made," Theodoric wrote. "Our purpose is . . . so to rule that our subjects shall grieve that they did not earlier acquire the blessing of our dominion."

 

THE BYZANTINE RECONQUEST

 

In actuality Theodoric was independent of his nominal superior, the eastern emperor Zeno. But Zeno's successors had not lost all hope of restoring control over the western territories their fourth-century predecessors had ruled. Justinian (527-565), who came to the throne a year after Theodoric's death, dreamed of reestablishing the supremacy of Constantinople over the entire Roman world. First he sent his general Belisarius to campaign against the Vandals in Africa, then ordered him to recapture Italy. Belisarius seized Rome, but encountered stubborn resistance from the Ostrogoths; led by Totila, they eluded both Belisarius and later Justinian's Grand Chamberlain Narses until 552. From that time the presence of a governor, or exarch, at Ravennd symbolized the official restoration of Byzantine rule in Italy.

 

In his own eyes Justinian's reconquest was a complete success. "Never except under our reign," he wrote in his law code, "has God granted the Romans to achieve such triumphs." In reality his boasted reconquest was limited and fleeting. North Africa and Spain were restored to nominal rule from Byzantium, but Gaul was voluntarily abandoned to the Franks. The hard-fought victory in Italy was won not by Byzantine troops but by armies made up of mercenary Huns, Heruls, Lombards, and even a few Persians. Of these, the Lombards were soon to challenge and defeat Byzantine power in northern Italy.

 

Disaster struck throughout Justinian's Empire. In 529, plague and famine annihilated a' large part of the population in the east, and unusually severe earthquakes also swept the Byzantine provinces. Antioch, among the largest and most prosperous cities of late antiquity, was destroyed first by an earthquake and then by Persians who razed the walls and buildings and systematically killed the inhabitants.

Most important, Justinian's attempt to revive the western empire ensured its lasting ruin. Rome was captured and ravaged five times during the Gothic wars, and barely escaped destruction by Totila. Her agriculture all but ruined and her cities depopulated, Italy struggled under the renewed burden of Byzantine taxation. The administrative system and public services the barbarian Theodoric had tried to preserve the Roman Justinian destroyed. In Rome itself, the public dole, the maintenance of police functions, and the choice and supervision of the City Prefect were taken over by a significant new power: the pope.

 

THE FRANKISH KINGDOM

 

The most enduring new political unit of the fifth and sixth centuries was the kingdom of the Franks. In 486 the Frankish leader Clovis supplanted the last direct representative of Roman power in the West, the Roman general Syagrius, in what is now northern France. Over the next twentyfive years he defeated the Alemans and Visigoths to the east and south, carving out a large kingdom and receiving from the eastern emperor the title of consul. Clovis' political and military successes were dwarfed by his religious policies. Alone among the Germanic tribes the Franks had not been converted to Christianity by Arian missionaries. When Clovis took over Syagrius, authority he still worshiped the Frankish tribal gods; a few years later he was converted, along with his warriors, to orthodox Christianity. The political consequences of Clovis' conversion were great. All the major barbarian tribes-Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals, and Lombards-were Arians, and as such were kept from true integration with the Catholic populations they lived among. As Nicene Christians the Franks were able to ally themselves both with the Roman populations they ruled and with the higher clerics who were gradually becoming a significant force in local government. Thus while Clovis' sons and grandsons showed little interest in administration and less in religion, their orthodoxy guaranteed them the valuable support of a network of literate church off icials.

 

Merovingian bishops such as Gregory of Tours were the focus of social as well as political order. Besides settling disputes and dispensing charity, they paid the ransoms of captives, ran the regional jails, and oversaw the construction of public works. In times of famine they directed relief efforts. When the rivers flooded, they paid laborers to rebuild bridges and even to construct dams and dykes.

 

The social contribution of the higher clergy helped to guarantee the longevity of Frankish rule. The Merovingian kingdom-so called because Clovis and his heirs claimed descent from the Frankish hero Merovech

withstood partition, constant warfare, court treachery, and a line of weakling kings (rois faineants) until in the early seventh century a new power, the Mayor of the Palace, appeared. The most prominent of the Mayors of the Palace, Charles Martel ("Charles the Hammer," 714-741), led the Franks in turning back a Moslem assault near Tours in 732 and began a new dynasty, the Carolingian.

 

GERMANIC CULTURE

 

Romans who lived among the barbarian peoples of Italy, Gaul, and Spain found that they varied widely in behavior and morality. The Vandals are feeble, the Goths treacherous, the fifth-century historian Salvian wrote; he found the greedy Alans and mild Burgundians quite civilized compared to the savage Saxons and Franks, whom he accused of human sacrifice and senseless cruelty. In general, though, Roman observers thought the Germans lacked "religious or superstitious awe"-a trait fundamental to the Roman character-and were puzzled by their changeable temperaments. The Roman poet Sidonius Apollinaris described the barbarians settled in Gaul as "stark and brutal folks," whose "ferocious natures" alternated between "bestial dullness" and passionate violence.

 

Even the kindliest of the Germans offended their Roman neighbors by their personal habits. The Heruls tattoed their cheeks blue-green; the Goths barked out their words and wore their- fur skirts until they rotted against their legs; what the Visigoths ate the Romans pronounced inedible. Their disgust culminated with the discovery that the Burgundians groomed their hair with rancid butter. But even those with least love for the Germans had to admire their splendor. Sidonius described the wedding procession of the Frankish prince Sigismer-his flame-red cloak and golden ornaments, his bodyguard in boarhide boots, green and red mantles and fur cloaks, and the gleaming swords, spears, and axes that rounded out their display.

 

BLENDING OF ROMAN AND GERMAN WAYS

 

The Christian poet Prudentius wrote that "Roman and barbarian differ as quadruped from biped, as the mute from the articulate." Yet the longer they lived together, sharing not only the same regions but often the same estates, the smaller their differences became. Germanic generals who commanded the Roman armies were as cultivated and Romanized as they were physically awesome. By the fourth century envious Romans were imitating the dress and coiffures of these striking barbarians; Emperor Honorius had to issue repeated edicts forbidding his subjects to wear trousers, fur coats, and long hair within the precincts of Rome.

 

Practicality demanded that the Germans learn Latin, and the Romans the barbarian tongues. In a letter Sidonius told of one Roman provincial who had learned Burgundian so perfectly that the Burgundians themselves feared to speak their language in his presence "lest they commit barbarisms." While some barbarians took Roman names, as many Romans took Gothic or German names. Theodoric the Ostrogoth called himself Flavius, while a number of Romans named their children Genovefa or Vedastus after Germanic heroines and heroes. Roman and German also exchanged levels of education. The Roman Emperor Justin (518-527), Justinian's predecessor, could neither read nor write, while a relative of the Ostrogothic ruler Athalaric was better educated in the Greek classics than most Romans and called himself a Platonist.

 

Even in Gaul, where their settlements were permanent, the Germans were fewer in numbers than the Romans, yet as the centuries passed the process of cultural assimilation favored the Germans. Roman culture was not so much dissipated as lost, often deliberately. The schools of rhetoric were closed; the legal centers collapsed for lack of students. For every aristocrat who prized his senatorial ancestry and scorned to "weary his patrician limbs with peasant's toil" there were dozens of others who were glad to work their lands, and who hid their ancestry behind Frankish names, dress, and customs. And for the thousands of serfs who worked the fields, the cultural transformation of the early middle ages meant little more than a change of masters.

 

ROMAN AND BARBARIAN LAW

 

"The true march of civilization is the observance of law, which makes possible community life and separates man from the brutes." The author of this legal pronouncement was not a learned Roman jurist but a sixtycentury Goth, and his abstract and idealistic concept of law shows the continuing influence of Roman legal thought on at least one barbarian ruler.

 

A fortunate product of the disruptions and changes of the late empire and early middle ages was the systematic collection and organization of the written law. From the third century on collections of laws were made, both by legal scholars and at the official command of the emperors. These early compilations, among them the Theodosian and Valentinian Codes, culminated in the great Code of Justinian-a voluminous legal corpus in several parts (the Institutes, an introductory legal text, the Digest, a compendium of court decisions, the Codex, made up of the laws or "constitutions" of the emperors, and the Novels, or recent opinions of the emperor on various points of law).

 

The importance of Justinian's code for the later middle ages and early modern Europe was very great. In addition to serving as an authoritative base on which new legal systems could be constructed and new laws written , it represented a distillation of three far-reaching principles which underlie Western legal thought. The first of these was the belief that the written laws of the emperor were a true reflection of the abstract quality we call justice. The second was the assumption that laws were above all a mechanism for maintaining order, not for exploitation or duress. And third, the code embodied the principle that, when laws ceased to represent justice, they could and should be changed.

 

The extensive legal activity of the late empire had a pronounced effect on barbarian law as well. The first written codes of Visigothic, Burgundian, and Frankish law were made just before or during Justinian's reign. The Visigothic ruler Euric even prepared a code of Roman law, the Breviary of Alaric, for his Roman subjects, and until the twelfth century it was this collection and not the Justinian code that Western rulers turned to as the authoritative source of Roman law.

 

THE GERMANIC IDEA OF LAW

 

Roman models encouraged the codification of barbarian law, but did not substantially alter its content. Fundamental to Germanic legal thought were four concepts far removed from the Roman idea of law. Where the Romans saw law as territorial, covering every subject of the emperor throughout his kingdom, the Germans perceived law as personal-an attribute of each individual. To the Germans, every man "carried his law with him," no matter where he went; if (as often happened) a quarrel broke out between a Frank, a Burgundian, and a Roman, each had to be judged according to his own law.

 

Closely associated with this was the belief that each individual had his or her own worth-reckoned in money-calculated on the basis of social standing, military or craft skills, sex, and age. In criminal legal procedure the worth, or wergeld, of the individual was crucially significant. If a murder was committed, under Germanic law the accused murderer purged himself of guilt by swearing his innocence, accompanied by -oath helpers" or compurgators who swore that his oath was untainted. The greater the wergelds of his oath-helpers, the more potent the oath of the accused.

 

The wergeld also permitted economic compensation for physical injury-a legal mechanism of the greatest importance in a society where even a minor affront could trigger a blood feud between rival families. If the murdered man was a slave, under Burgundian law the murderer could compensate the victim's master (and be quit of all further punishment) by a payment of a wergeld of thirty gold coins. If the victim was a freeman of artisan status, his wergeld would be determined by the rarity and value of his occupation; carpenters were valued at forty gold coins, blacksmiths at fifty, skilled goldsmiths at two hundred. The wergeld of a nobleman, bishop, or of the king himself was far too high for any ordinary freeman to pay. In the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon laws of Hlothaere and Eadric the wergeld of a nobleman was set at three hundred shillings, while an average man's most valuable possession, his cow or ox, was valued at only six shillings.

 

A final difference between Roman and Germanic legal concepts concerned the origin and unalterability of law. To the Romans, laws were specific written enactments, drawn up by rulers or legislators to bring about justice and order in particular circumstances. As such they were subject to change. To the Germanic peoples, law was an unwritten mass of custom and folk wisdom of which written enactments were only an approximation. Law could not be created; it could only be declared by the oldest and wisest members of the community. Law was immemorial; therefore it was sacred and could not be changed.

 

GERMANIC CONCEPTS OF KINGSHIP AND THE STATE

 

Germanic ideas about law combined mystical reverence for unwritten custom with a continuing effort to forestall social conflict and the blood feud. The same blending of venerability and practicality characterized the Germanic concept of kingship. Revered as descendents of gods, Germanic kings were believed to be endowed like saints with magical potency. Churchmen strengthened this belief through the liturgical formulas of the royal coronation, which added the divine favor of the Christian God to the sanctity inherent in the ruling family. The wonder-working powers of the Merovingian kings were symbolized by their long hair; once it was cut, they lost their semidivine status.

 

Though surrounded by an aura of the sacred the authority of the Germanic kings was in origin military. It was rooted in the comitatus, the Germanic warrior band whose loyal fighting men defended their leader to the death on the battlefield. In return it was the leader's duty to reward his followers with booty and to provide them with food and arms. Germanic kings such as Clovis patterned their governments on this kind of reciprocal, highly personal relationship. Instead of booty, the king's fighting men were rewarded with lands, which they governed on his behalf.

 

The antique idea of a state governed by politicians, bureaucrats, and hereditary rulers was lost. In Merovingian times the state was merely so much conquered territory; the king the most charismatic war leader; the bureaucrats the trusted warriors and friends of the king. The concepts of public power, public welfare, and the moral responsibility of the ruler to his subjects had all but disappeared.

 

CHANGES IN ECONOMIC ORGANIZATION

 

Midway in Gregory of Tours' tenure as bishop a charter was drawn up to describe the villa of Tresson. The villa was in the region of Le Mans in northern France, and was among the estates of the episcopal see of Le Mans. Tresson was large, but most of it was uncultivated; the entire staff of laborers attached to the villa consisted of a man and wife with an infant child, six male and female servants, and a stable boy. These ten people were all slaves, and all lived in the house and stable of the man who supervised the villa for its owner, the Bishop of Le Mans.

 

In its under-cultivation, its lack of a sufficient labor force, and its clerical ownership Tresson was typical of northern French rural organization. The villa was run by slaves, but was unlike the thriving estates of the late empire with their slave gangs and immense expanses of cultivated acreage. In its slave labor Tresson was in fact an anachronism, for though there were still many slaves in sixth-century France slavery was giving way to serfdom-a status which combined limited personal freedom with the permanent bonding of the serf to the land he cultivated.

 

As the economic structure of the ancient world collapsed, villas like Tresson became the primary focus of economic life. Trade between the former eastern and western provinces of the empire declined. Pirates and barbarian fleets closed off the once-flourishing sea traffic, while overland transport was menaced by the breakdown of police power and recurrent local warfare. Regional and then local self-sufficiency in food and other necessities was the only means of survival.

 

The most striking evidence of this transformation of the economic order was the changed appearance and function of cities. Once vital, crowded centers of commercial exchange, by Merovingian times they had shrunk to depopulated, disease-infested ruins. Urban life did not end entirely, but the towns of the early middle ages had populations the size of villages, and their chief activities were religious and (in the most provincial sense) political, not economic.

 

In antiquity cities were primarily centers of trade to which goods came for sale to city-dwellers and for distribution to the suburbs and countryside. Ancient cities were the hub of agricultural life as well: their markets absorbed the produce of the surrounding farms, which were organized not for self-sufficiency but for profit.

 

Medieval towns were primarily administrative centers for the church and for secular rulers. Though infrequent fairs were held in or near the towns, neither traveling merchants nor the farmers of the region relied on the urban marketplace to sell their goods. Instead, each villa produced what its own occupants needed; any surplus was bartered to another nearby farm.

 

Though they were to become predominant the villas, or great estates, were not the sole economic units of the early middle ages. Mixed in among large estates or farms were peasant villages whose independent inhabitants farmed their own small plots of land. By the eighth and ninth centuries most of these free villages had become dependent properties of a local lord or churchman, with their populations entering voluntary serfdom in order to gain the protection of a powerful lord. But the disappearance of the free village was gradual, and in some parts of Europe a few peasant villages remained independent throughout the middle ages.

 

MEROVINGIAN RURAL SOCIETY

 

The narrowed economic geography of early medieval Europe was accompanied by a narrowed sense of community. The social horizons of most people shrank to the confines of a single estate or hamlet. Society was to them the nearest village; government the strongest landlord; religion the local priest and folk beliefs. The sense of being part of a larger culture was gone. To the serfs and peasants of the early middle ages, culture meant rural folkways, while to the landowning aristocracy it meant constant small-scale warfare, supplemented by brawling and the pleasures of the hunt. Merovingian coins were still called by their Roman names-the gold solidus and silver denarius-but by the eighth century, when coins disappeared entirely, even this echo of the Roman past had died out.

 

The most characteristic institution of Merovingian society, serfdom, was a unique combination of the disadvantages of slavery and freedom. Unlike slaves, who were fed and housed at their owners' expense, serfs were responsible for their own survival. Unlike free peasants, who owned their land and were at liberty to settle where they chose, serfs farmed their masters' lands and could not leave them. Most of the lower orders of Roman rural society had become serfs by the fifth century; the rigid casteoriented social legislation of the late empire bound all laborers who had worked for others for at least thirty years to the land as serfs. Thousands of barbarians voluntarily sought serfdom under Roman masters, and those rebels, urban criminals, and social misfits who escaped the executioner were made serfs as a matter of course.

 

Merovingian landowners held life and death control over the planned destinies of their serfs. They determined which lands each man would farm, and which woman he would marry. Indirectly, they controlled the fate of his children as well, since in most places it was customary to divide a serf's holding equally among his sons when he died. The landowner set the amount of rent and labor services each of his serfs owed, settled their quarrels and tried their offenses at his manorial court, and sent his own soldiers after them when they tried to escape.

 

Absolute masters on their own lands, powerful lords dominated the surrounding countryside as well. Royal administrators respected their wealth and were intimidated by their private bodyguards. Churchmen tried to intervene in their quarrels but to little effect. Recognizing no high moral or political authority, the Merovingian landowning class was taking on a new character. No longer distinctly Roman or Frankish, it was a class of leaderless belligerents, contemptuous of learning, institutions, and organized government.

 

THE CLIMATE OF VIOLENCE

 

It was this class that created the psychological tone of Merovingian society. A passage from Gregory of Tours' History illustrates this climate in fatal detail.  Gregory told how one Christmas a certain Sicharius sent a messenger to invite the bodyguard of his neighbor Austrighiselus to drink with him. Insulted when his messenger was unceremoniously killed, Sicharius and his fighting men met Austrighiselus' men, and in the fight that followed a number of wounds were received by both sides. Sicharius fled, leaving his valuables in a church guarded by four of his servants. Hearing that Austrighiselus had broken into the church, slaughtered the servants, and stolen the treasure, Sicharius demanded a settlement under Frankish law; Austrighiselus paid him the servants' wergelds and returned the treasure. But Sicharius' honor had not been satisfied. With his fighters he broke into the house of one of Austrighiselus' men and killed everyone he found there.

 

The mounting loss of life in the feud now came to the attention of the bishop, who lectured the two rivals sternly and then offered, as a gesture of peace, to pay from church funds all the wergelds of the dead and wounded to forestall Austrighiselus' revenge. The attempt at arbitration apparently failed, for at this point one of Austrighiselus' relatives, Chramnesindus, entered the feud on behalf of his injured kinsman. Sicharius was now determined to go to the king, but on the journey one of his servants tried to assassinate him. The rumor spread that the attack had succeeded, and Chramnesindus, believing Sicharius to be dead, loosed his vengeance in full. With all his men he systematically looted and burned Sicharius' house and lands, destroying the crops and slaughtering or driving off all the cattle. The lands of Sicharius' chief fighting men were also sacked, and when Sicharius returned alive, he brought the matter to court a second time. This time a settlement was reached. The principals in the feud were symbolically reconciled, the church paid for all the damage, and the kin on both sides swore never again to reopen their dispute.

 

Gregory's account ends with this judgment, but later in his Histor we learn that Sicharius killed Chramnesindus several years after the supposed end of the feud.

WOMEN IN FRANKISH SOCIETY

 

Women had a full share in the spectacular cruelty of Merovingian society. They participated in the ritualized slaughter of the blood feud, fighting alongside their husbands and in rival gangs among themselves. Another account in Gregory's History describes the tumultuous siege of a convent taken over by two noblewomen who killed the abbess and resisted the bishop and the king's soldiers for weeks before being brought to justice for their crimes.

 

But though they shared in its violence women were in no sense full members of Frankish society. Like other Germanic codes the law of the Franks gave free women high wergelds, and prescribed harsh penalties for rape. But these protections were not intended to safeguard women themselves but to protect the legitimacy of their unborn children, who with their mothers were the property of the men. The authority of fathers and husbands over their female relatives in Frankish law was as unrestricted as that of the patriarch in republican Rome. Women were lifelong minors under the legal guardianship of their male relatives. With their children or without them, wives could be sold by their husbands to other men in return for goods or property. Marriage and divorce were more flexible than in early Rome, but adultery was another matter. Adulterous women were smothered in mire.

 

GERMANIC WOMEN AND THE CHURCH

 

Though they were sheltered in law circumstances often deprived Germanic women of male protectors. A seventh-century chronicle tells how a young girl was seized by a nobleman and taken to his bed. Later, as he slept, she took his sword and smashed his skull, and before his kinsmen were aroused she rode to the king to plead her case. Impressed by her bravery, he absolved her of her crime.

 

Less courageous women turned for protection and shelter to the church, which offered sanctuary to criminals, political rebels, and reluctant brides. Among the Merovingian saints was a young girl named Glodesind, who when her father ordered her to marry hid among the relics in the church, praying that God would strengthen her to preserve her virginity.

 

No one could drag her from the altar by force without defiling the sanctuary; as long as she stayed in the church she was safe.

 

Glodesind's "virile spirit," the hagiographer wrote, allowed her to resist her father through six days and nights without food or water. Interpreting her stubbornness as a miraculous sign, Glodesind's father conceded defeat, and she lived and died a virgin.

 

The hagiographer's transformation of a rebellious if pious daughter into an exemplar of Christian sanctity was only one of many indications that, slowly but steadily, churchmen were changing the shape of medieval society.

 

SUMMARY

 

In his life and writings Bishop Gregory of Tours typified the world view, historical understanding, and mentality of the post-Roman world of the fifth and sixth centuries. Events were seen as less important than the supernatural forces of good and evil which prompted them, while religion -and in particular the wonder-working power of saints-was a means of overcoming the hazards of life and demonic forces. Gregory of Tours' outlook is evidence of the transformation of consciousness that took place in the post-Roman world, a transformation one historian has called "a break in the psychological continuity of history."

 

The transition to the early middle ages was characterized by a change from centralized to regionalized government, often by barbarian rulers. After the twenty-year reign of the Herul Odoacer Italy came under the rule of Theodoric, an urbane and civilized Ostrogoth with a vision of the peaceful coexistence of Romans and Germans.

 

In the east Emperor Justinian dreamed of reconquering the western regions of the empire, and his general Belisarius actually succeeded in bringing parts of Italy and Africa back under Byzantine rule. The reconquest was fleeting; the damage done by plague and famine in the east and by the repeated ravaging of Italy in the west were more permanent, however.

 

The most enduring political unit of the fifth and sixth centuries was the kingdom of the Franks. Led by Clovis, the Franks carved out a large kindgom in what is now northern France. Unlike other barbarian tribes who were converted to Arianism the Franks were converted to orthodox Christianity, which gained them the support of literate churchmen such as Gregory of Tours. The bishop's role in maintaining social order helped to guarantee the longevity of Frankish rule. The Frankish kingdom outlasted constant warfare and court treachery until the early seventh century, when it was supplanted by a new dynasty, the Carolingian.

 

Romans reacted strongly against the behavior and customs of the Germans, but the longer they lived in proximity the slighter their differences became in culture and language. Their laws remained separate, however. The Roman Justinian Code was not only an enduring and influential repository of laws and court decisions but a distillation of the Roman concept of laws as written embodiments of justice which could be changed. Barbarian law codes were also made in the fifth and sixth centuries; they preserved the Germanic concept of law as personal, unwritten and unalterable. The barbarian codes also set out the legal principles of the wergeld, "oath-helping," and economic compensation for physical injury.

 

The Germanic concept of Vingship revered kings as descendants of gods, possessing magical potency, but the authority of the Germanic kings was derived from the institution of the comitatus, or warrior band. In the barbarian kingdoms Roman ideas of public power, public welfare, and the moral responsibility of the ruler to his subjects were replaced by more personal forms of rule.

 

Merovingian economic organization was characterized by rural villas worked by serfs permanently bonded to the lands they cultivated. Trade declined and ultimately disappeared, and regional and local self-sufficiency in foodstuffs became a necessity for survival. The vital, crowded cities of the late empire gave way in the Merovingian period to depopulated, disease-infested ruins serving religious and minor political functions. Most villages populated by free peasants became dependent properties of local lords or churchmen by the eighth and ninth centuries.

 

As the economy shrank the sense of belonging to a wider community than the immediate village or hamlet was also lost. Most men and women were serfs whose lives were controlled by their masters, who belonged to a landowning class contemptuous of learning, institutions, and organized government. Along with their wives, these ungovernable belligerents devoted themselves to anarchic violence and blood feuds. Women in Frankish society were the property of their male relatives, and could be bought or sold at will.

 

Terms

 

11. Serfdom condition between slavery and freedom in which legally free men and women were permanently bound to the lands they cultivated for their lords.

 

10. Compurgators " oath- helpers" who swore alongside an accused criminal in Germanic court procedure.

 

9. Comitatus Germanic institution of the warrior band in which loyal fighting men defended their leader to the death in return for booty, food, and arms.

 

8. Wergeld (literally, "worth money") the value in coins ascribed to every individual in the barbarian kingdoms of the early middle ages; used in legal procedure and in settling disputes between rival families.

 

7. Justinian Code codification of Roman law prepared by Justinian's jurists, consisting of Inshtutes, Digest, Codex, and Novels; from the later middle ages the classic legal reference for Western jurists and legislators.

 

6. Merovingian term used to describe the kingdom founded by Clovis, derived from the claimed divine ancestry of his house, which traced its descent to the legendary hero Merovech; superseded by the Carolingian kingdom founded by Charles Martel (714-741).

 

5. Justinian (527-565) Byzantine ruler whose abortive and destructive attempt to reconquer the West met with stubborn Gothic resistance; supervised preparation of the definitive compilation of Roman law, the Justinian Code.

 

4. Clovis (481-511) Frankish king who supplanted the last Roman military ruler in Gaul and built a large kingdom by conquest. His conversion to orthodox (rather than Arian) Christianity gained papal and episcopal support for the Frankish kingdom.

 

3. Theodoric (493-526) Ostrogothic king who, after killing Odoacer, ruled Italy as nominal deputy of the eastern emperor Zeno; attempted to reform Roman administration and "Civilization" by combining the best skills of Romans and barbarians.

 

 

2. Romulus Augustulus (475-476) last emperor to rule in the Western provinces, deposed by the Herul Odoacer.

 

1. Gregory of Tours (c. 538-594) Bishop of Tours whose History of the Franks recorded the violence of sixth-century Frankish society along with its world view and political structure.