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.
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.
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
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.
MEROVINGIAN WORLD VIEW
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.
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.
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,
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.
TRANSFORMATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS
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.
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.
OF THE TRANSITION
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.
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.
SUCCESSOR STATES: ITALY UNDER THE
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
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?"
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
OF ROMAN AND GERMAN WAYS
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
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.
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.
AND BARBARIAN LAW
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.
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).
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.
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
GERMANIC IDEA OF LAW
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.
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.
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
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.
CONCEPTS OF KINGSHIP AND THE STATE
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.
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
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
IN ECONOMIC ORGANIZATION
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CLIMATE OF VIOLENCE
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.
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.
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.
IN FRANKISH SOCIETY
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.
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.
WOMEN AND THE CHURCH
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.
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.
one could drag her from the altar by force without defiling the sanctuary; as
long as she stayed in the church she was safe.
"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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Serfdom condition between slavery and freedom in which legally free men and
women were permanently bound to the lands they cultivated for their lords.
Compurgators " oath- helpers" who swore alongside an accused criminal
in Germanic court procedure.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
Romulus Augustulus (475-476) last emperor to rule in the Western provinces,
deposed by the Herul Odoacer.
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.