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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Officers or Gentlemen? The Frankish Aristocracy in the Sixth Century: Part 1

[This is the second part (the first installment of the first article can be found here) of what started off as a single article about the changes in the Frankish aristocracy around 600 but which has turned into a trilogy!  This piece, again broken up for ease of reading, deals with the period between c.525 and c.575 and argues that the Merovingians transformed the local elite of northern Gaul (not hugely independently powerful in the late Roman period) into a service aristocracy in this period.  This first chunk deals with the historiographical background.
As with 'The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy', this piece is still very much in draft form and lacks notes or any scholarly apparatus.  Any comments are welcome - indeed invited.  Again, once the piece is properly worked up and submitted for publication I will probably remove it from the blog.]

This paper examines the nature of the northern Gallic, or Frankish, aristocracy of the Merovingian kingdom during the sixth century.  This has long been a controversial matter, with some scholars arguing for the existence of a hereditary élite class, independent of Merovingian royal legitimation, and others that the magnate stratum was dependent upon royal favour for its social, political and economic pre-eminence.  The bulk of this debate has concerned the interpretation of sixth-century written sources (or in some cases their lack), which have usually been viewed in isolation or interpreted in line with preconceptions drawn from the analysis of other types of data.  This paper looks at this evidence in broader context, addressing the problem on the basis of the full range of available sources of information.

Most of the areas of debate will be touched upon below but a brief overview of the stances taken by past writers will perhaps be useful in providing some orientation for the reader.  On the one hand, some historians have argued that the Frankish aristocracy existed simply as the extended household of the Merovingian kings, in other words as a service aristocracy.  I will term this, unsurprisingly, the ‘service aristocracy’ reading.  The principal support for this position is the absence of any reference to an aristocratic caste in the earliest Frankish law-codes, the Pactus Legis Salicae of the early sixth century and the Lex Ribvaria of the early seventh.  The only individuals recognised as more privileged than their fellows are those with a connection to the king.  Backing this up have been various technical arguments about the laws’ provisions for land-owning and the apparent absence of an independently wealthy and powerful Frankish aristocracy in the Histories of Gregory of Tours.

Opponents of this view (adopting the ‘established aristocracy’ position) do not necessarily agree with each other on the details and take ‘Germanist’ (seeing the Frankish aristocracy as a direct continuation of that which existed in the pre-migratory Frankish homelands) or ‘Romanist’ (stressing a greater degree of continuity with the region’s Gallo-Roman aristocracy) approaches in varying degrees and admixtures.  The evidence for this view is, in some ways, more exiguous than that for the ‘service aristocracy’ interpretation.  First, it turns on counter-factuals: various ways of explaining away the laws’ silence about an aristocratic rank.  Then, more reasonably, it adopts alternative interpretations of the snippets of information found in Gregory’s writings.  An apparently stronger plank of support for this reading is provided by the lavishly furnished burials found in northern Gaul between c.475 and c.525, the wealth of these burials being taken as a reliable index the deceased’s social rank.  This interpretation has some variations.  The similarity in rite between the lavish burials of this archaeological horizon and that of the Frankish king Childeric I in Tournai has been used to suggest that the men interred in these graves were the followers, perhaps the leudes, of the Merovingian royal house.  An alleged southwards spread of such burials in line with the presumed Frankish advance further supported this reading.  Of course, if the leudes of Childeric and Clovis were just service aristocrats, these graves might support the alternative interpretation.  The debate would here concern how one understands the nature of early Merovingian leudes.  Traditionally, however, the wealth in these burials has been held to indicate a more secure and established social pre-eminence of the families whose dead were laid to rest in these tombs: something more than simple royal officials.

These data apart, the ‘established aristocracy’ reading relies upon four approaches.  One is the employment of unsubstantiated (indeed largely unsubstantiatable) assumptions about the pre-migration Frankish aristocracy (often grounded in traditional beliefs about ‘early Germanic’ society, held to be universally applicable across all Germanic-speaking barbarians).  Another derives from preconceptions about the local Gallo-Roman aristocracy, equally based upon importing notions of late Roman aristocracy thought to have Empire-wide relevance although founded in data that is quite restricted in its geographical and social provenance.  Whether these ideas are applicable in this way to the northern Gallic aristocracy has not always been interrogated.  The third approach has been to take evidence from across the Merovingian period.  This view is based upon two premises.  One is that early Merovingian data are so few that (as might be clear from the summary above) they are incapable of furnishing any decisive argument for either ‘service’ or ‘established’ readings.  Thus one needs to bring in other, later material.  This method is associated with a ‘regressive’ approach, holding that the picture of the aristocracy that emerges in the better-documented seventh century can be extended backwards to the late fifth-century Merovingian take-over of northern Gaul.  Quite sophisticated defences of this approach have been offered, based around the shared Roman-Christian heritage of the early Middle Ages and the fundamentally unchanging bases of social distinction (essentially, land and honour) in the era.  The fourth approach, not dissimilar from the ‘regressive’ method, identifies features which the late Roman magnates and region’s equally powerful ninth-century Carolingian Frankish nobility shared and link the two via a straightforward line of development through time.  Nonetheless, however reasonable one may think this quadruple set of assumptions to be, it cannot be denied that it contains no decisive element.  Each view can equally reasonably be countered, even if the somewhat depressing alternative offered is simply that ‘we do not know’.

A new consideration of this well-worn topic is timely because the subject, having effectively lain dormant for some years, has been recently reinvigorated by the discussion in Chris Wickham’s The Framing of the Middle Ages.  Wickham sides with the historians who have followed the ‘established aristocracy’ reading, probably the majority interpretation amongst those who have considered the issue.  Indeed, he argues that the northern Gallic aristocracy was, within the context of the early medieval West (and perhaps even farther afield) an exceptionally wealthy group of landowners.  Wickham’s reading contains more nuance than most previous versions of this argument and an engagement with the full range of material, archaeological and documentary.  In particular, he introduces an economic dimension to the discussion, based upon study of ceramic materials.  Such an analysis was not possible even twenty years ago, and therefore adds importantly to previous archaeological investigations of the topic, which have concentrated almost exclusively upon the evidence of excavated cemeteries, the distribution of grave-goods and the existence or otherwise of ‘tombes de chef’ or ‘Adelsgräber’ (alluded to above).  Wickham poses the question of how the newly established Merovingian kings, confronted by an already extant Gallo-Roman aristocracy in the region and by Frankish noble families, could have reduced all of these magnates to the status of mere service aristocrats.  Surely, he says, the extermination or forcible removal of such people on a region-wide scale is not to be envisaged – a conclusion with which it is difficult to disagree.  Wickham’s argument also relies to some extent (though again to a lesser extent than with previous writers) upon the extrapolation of the early Merovingian situation from the better documented seventh and eighth centuries.  In the late Merovingian period, let alone the Carolingian, Wickham’s conclusion about the wealth of the Frankish élite is hard to dispute – whether or not it was as exceptional as he claims is a question that this paper does not and cannot address, but the case is well-made and plausible. 

Another reason for a new look at this old subject, implicit in my discussion of Wickham’s argument, is the dramatic increase in the range and quality of archaeological data since about 1990.  In the early 1990s it was still possible to criticise Merovingian archaeology for being excessively rooted in very traditional readings of the cemetery evidence.  At that point, although excavation of rural settlements of this period was beginning to take place, exploration (and, even more so, publication) of such sites remained scarce.  This has changed dramatically, presenting us with valuable insights into dwellings, spatial organisation and rural economy, an invaluable counterpart to the display of status visible in the cemeteries.  In addition, studies of the artefacts produced on these sites have increased in number and sophistication.  Most notable here has been the attention to ceramic data, and the construction of typologies and chronologies for the pottery found on rural sites.  Again, this body of data, whilst coming into being, barely existed in 1990.  These developments have emphasised one of the most valuable aspects of archaeological evidence, the ability to pay attention to regional and chronological diversity and precision.  Using these data we can avoid treating the north of Merovingian Gaul as an undifferentiated mass in regional as well as chronological terms.  Such a variegated picture is not possible from the written sources until well into the Carolingian era. 

Nonetheless, the diversity revealed by the excavated data allows us to look at the documentary evidence in a new light.  Rather than heaping all of the written sources together to make a ‘pile’ that looks more statistically significant, we can consider each source according to its genre and provenance in time and space and assign more significance to the differences between them.  The approach adopted is based upon the use of as wide a range of forms of data as possible – documentary, epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological – each treated in context and on its own terms and with conclusions merged at a higher level.  I have previously described this approach as ‘multi-disciplinary’.  The aim is thereby to avoid teleology and other problems arising from the merging of evidence from diverse chronological and geographical contexts. 

When adopting the highly contextualised ‘multi-disciplinary’ method used here, one result can be that the written record’s scantiness can lead to interpretations being founded on very small data-sets, sometimes upon individual anecdotes.  On the other hand, when rigorously separated out by time and place, seemingly generic sources begin to manifest differences which might have been hidden by a concentration upon a corpus of material taken as a whole.  These particularities become significant when compared with similar trends manifested in other types of evidence.  The confrontation of different types of data, of differing genres and of quite divergent forms (excavated and textual) further allows us to evaluate the significance of chronological variation and to select some interpretations over others, as better able to explain a wider range of the observable evidence.  This goes some way towards circumventing the problems created by limited quantity and indecisive statements of the written data.  The emphasis on change further entails exploration of the dynamics of change, located in the relationships between élites and their neighbours and rivals at the local level, and those between these aristocrats and the kings on a wider stage.

This paper argues, somewhat against the historiographical trend, in favour of the ‘service aristocracy’ interpretation.  It nevertheless stresses the dynamics for change and the development of an élite class in this region, an aspect of the debate which has not received due attention.  As well as chronological change, geographical diversity must also be noted.  As will be explored in in depth in a separate article, the unusually wealthy Frankish landed aristocracy envisaged by Wickham (and indeed clearly visible by the ninth century at the latest) was a creation of the important decades on either side of the year 600.  Although countered here, Wickham’s rephrasing of the debate has nonetheless led to a refinement of the ‘established aristocracy’ position, to its grounding in a broader range of evidence and to increased subtlety and sophistication.  Similarly, if my own view is ultimately rejected, it is hoped that it will make a similar contribution to refinement and nuance in any future consensus opinion.

In another separate study, I address the subject of the type of aristocracy which faced the Merovingians in northern Gaul, as they established their realm.  There I demonstrate that the Romano-Gallic aristocracy of the region was by no means a securely established, independently wealthy élite.  The principal exception to this rule (to which I shall return) was found around the former imperial capital of Trier, where aristocrats had been unusually wealthy since the early Roman period.  The Frankish aristocracy might have been more deeply rooted within the structures of society but the extent to which this remained true after the settlement of northern Gaul is unclear.  An analysis of the late fifth- and early sixth-century ‘horizon’ of lavish burials (sometimes called the ‘polychrome’ or the ‘Flonheim-Gültlingen’ horizon) supports the claim that the component of the northern Gallic élite that owed its origins to the Frankish migration was associated, or soon had to associate itself, with the Merovingian royal house.  The same was true of its northern Gallo-Roman counterpart.  This study removes most of the argument that, when the kingdom was created, the Merovingian dynasty was confronted by locally well-entrenched leaders.  In this context, selective displays of political violence, such as the eradication of rival royal families (competing foci for political legitimacy), encouraged other Frankish leaders to compete for Merovingian support.  A widespread cull, or mass deportation, of the region’s existing aristocracy need not be posited to understand how the Merovingians established dominance over the leaders of local communities.

Part 2 is here