Ancient History & Civilisation

THE FRANKS AND ROMAN GAUL

The intrusion of Frankish power into Roman Gaul presents us with a similar intellectual problem to that which has generated such different views of the Adventus Saxonum. At broadly the same time as historical sources (in this case of slightly better quality) indicate that Frankish power was building up west of the River Rhine, a new burial habit was adopted across wide areas of Gaul north of the River Loire. Roman burial patterns, in Gaul as elsewhere, had evolved over the centuries towards inhumation with no gravegoods. Around the year 500, however, there was a sudden explosion in richly furnished burials right across the region, and it became common for most graves to contain at least something. Males were customarily buried with a range of weapons, together with some personal items, females with rich costume jewellery of kinds not dissimilar to those found in lowland Britain in the early Anglo-Saxon period (Map 12). The big question, as north of the Channel, is this: can elite transfer followed by cultural emulation satisfactorily account for all the observable data?

The March of the Merovingians

The rise of Frankish power under the Merovingian dynasty was essentially a phenomenon of Roman imperial collapse. The term ‘Frank’ first appears in contemporary sources right at the end of the third century, like that of the Alamanni, but postdated accounts of the crisis earlier in that century give Franks a major role, and there is no good reason to disbelieve them. It is unclear, as we saw in Chapter 2, whether subgroups given the Frankish label (Ampsivarii, Bructerii, Chattuarii, Chamavi, Salii) in our late Roman sources had any real sense of overall political community. They lived in sufficient physical proximity to make political interrelationships a necessity and may even, like the contemporary Alamanni, have seen moments of real confederation under leaders of pre-eminent power. But the sources do not allow for certainty, essentially because Ammianus tells us much less about them than about the Alamanni. At this point, like so many Germani all along Rome’s European frontiers, the different Frankish groups were the Empire’s semi-subdued clients. Individual Franks were regularly recruited into the Roman army, some rising to top commands, while whole auxiliary contingents occasionally served on particular campaigns. Yet at the same time, campaigning was periodically required to keep them from raiding the Empire too successfully and too often; or even, when opportunity presented itself, from seeking to annex pieces of Roman territory. After the defeat of Chnodomarius the Alaman, for instance, the Emperor Julian also found himself having to fend off Salian Franks who were trying to move on to Roman territory.59 With the decline of the western Empire in the fifth century, this balance of power was undermined, and the Frankish cat leapt vigorously out of the bag. Frankish groups figure more prominently, and in a wider range of roles, in the declining western Empire’s affairs from around the 460s, when we start to hear in particular of a group of Franks led by one Childeric.

Childeric’s father, eponymous founder of the Merovingian dynasty, was called Merovech, but all the sources report of him was that he was the offspring of a sea monster. And even Childeric’s career is full of question marks. His grave at Tournai in modern Belgium is one of the great all-time finds of European archaeology (Plate 16). When the mound was opened in May 1653, the excavators found a staggering array of gold and jewellery, including a signet ring which conveniently carried the name of the grave’s occupant: Childeric regis (King Childeric). Many of the items were subsequently stolen from their display cabinet in 1831, but they had been extensively recorded in great, if sometimes mistaken, detail within two years of their discovery. At that point, famously, the pins of Childeric’s brooches were thought to be pens. The sad remnants of the original treasure can now be viewed in the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris. Fascinatingly, a recent re-excavation of the burial site has revealed that, aside from this plethora of gold, Childeric was also buried with the corpses of at least twenty-one horses in three separate pits. Among the gravegoods were some of the unfortunate animals’ gold fittings. A few of these, found in the first excavation, had generated another of history’s great foul-ups. In the time of Napoleon, according to one of the more imaginative ideas of the excavator, they were interpreted as the remains of a great royal cloak, and the Corsican emperor had one made, embossed with similar designs, for his imperial coronation in 1801.60

The grisly magnificence of Childeric’s tomb marks him out as a powerful warlord, but still leaves many puzzles, especially when compared with the historical sources. These amount to a tantalizing series of vignettes, including the arresting comment that he was exiled for eight years at one point for seducing too many of his followers’ women. Putting the complexities of his personal life to one side, these vignettes show his career to have been immersed in the death throes of Roman imperial power in Gaul in the 460s. By that time, the Empire’s central authorities had lost control of much of their tax base, with the result that its power was in terminal decline. In Gaul, this manifested itself in an increasing difficulty in exercising control over both the Empire’s own army commanders and the various groups of outsiders (such as Alaric’s Visigoths) who had already been settled there. Thus we find Childeric in 463 leading a Frankish contingent serving in the forces of Aegidius, commander of the Roman army in Gaul, who was fighting the Visigoths. Such was the complexity of imperial dissolution by this date, however, that the Visigoths were allied with the central imperial authorities in Italy against Aegidius, who was in rebellion. Whether this shows Childeric as loyal to the Empire or not is a thoroughly moot point. It is also clear that he never ruled more than just one group of Franks, who, even in the next generation, operated in a number of separate warbands.

What the sources don’t shed any light on is the original basis of Childeric’s power. Was he a prince of the Franks selling the services of his warband to the Roman state, or had he followed a more Roman career, rising though the ranks of the Roman army of the Rhine in the years of its decline? The other large gap in his career profile is how he moved from subordinate ally of Aegidius in the 460s to ruler of a substantial chunk of Roman Gaul by the time of his death. Immediately afterwards, Bishop Remigius of Rheims wrote to Clovis, Childeric’s son and heir, in terms that portray him as the ruler of the former Roman province of Belgica Inferior. On the basis of this description, and of his Belgian resting place, the source of Childeric’s power has traditionally been placed in the north. But the limited information we have from the 460s places him further south and much more within a Roman military context. It has recently been suggested that the real source of his power was his command of a substantial part of the old imperial field army, after central control over it had finally collapsed. This is certainly possible, but would make his Belgian burial just a little odd. The evidence is equally compatible with seeing him as a Frankish warband leader who played Roman politics while there still seemed real rewards to be won from it, then returned to a more straightforwardly Frankish political context once the Empire had lost all meaning in Gallic political life. The Burgundian king Gundobad, for instance, followed the same kind of career trajectory at exactly the same time. Either way, we have to see Childeric as one of the most successful warrior leaders to emerge from the wreck of Roman power in Gaul, commanding one of the largest remnants of its former forces, and operating alongside those headed by other commanders mentioned in our sources, such as Aegidius’ son and heir Syagrius and the Counts Arbogast and Paul.61

Although Childeric was highly successful, it was in the reign of his son that Frankish history was really transformed. As you’ll find it in the textbooks, Clovis reigned from c.482 to 511, but only the date of his death is certain. His accession has to be worked out from other dating indications in the account of his reign provided by the later sixth-century historian Gregory of Tours. These, however, are not trustworthy.

The outlines of Clovis’ career are clear enough, but many question marks hang over the details. Shortly after his accession, Clovis is traditionally held to have extended his territory as far as Paris, well beyond the confines of Belgica Inferior, by defeating Syagrius, who probably inherited what was left of Aegidius’ old command. The victory has long been part of the Clovis story, but the source base is extremely thin. The victory is placed in 485/6 by Gregory of Tours, the only author to report it, and has recently been the subject of controversy, particularly over the likely size of the territory under Syagrius’ command. But if there is considerable reason to wonder about Gregory’s chronology, as we shall see in a moment, the campaign itself was probably historical enough.62Less doubt surrounds the overall effects of this and Clovis’ other campaigns. By his death in 511, he had taken most of south-western Gaul from the Visigoths, brought the Burgundians under Frankish hegemony, and ranged widely on the eastern bank of the Rhine, with the Alamanni in particular having been brought under his sway. In the process, the Frankish world was turned upside down. Not only did Clovis conquer large tracts of ex-Roman territory, but he also eliminated many rival Frankish kings. Gregory of Tours mentions seven individually: Sigibert and his son Chloderic who were established at Cologne, Chararic and his son, Ragnachar plus his two brothers, Richar and Rignomer, who held power in Cambrai and Le Mans. There is also a reference to ‘other relatives’, who may or may not have been rulers with independent power bases. A political patchwork, where power had been divided between a number of independent princes, gave way to the undisputed sway of a single monarch. Gregory was careful to note that, on executing each of his rivals, Clovis added their followers and treasure to his own power base.63

Precisely when this restructuring of Frankish politics occurred is unclear. Again, our only narrative is provided by Gregory. Writing sixty years and more after Clovis’ death, Gregory was clearly stitching together stories about Clovis from a variety of sources, in many cases having to guess at their chronology. The Visigothic campaign is well dated by other sources to 507, but independent confirmation of the other events is lacking, and Gregory’s overall vision of Clovis’ military progress is deeply suspect, not least because all the major campaigns are placed at convenient five-year intervals through the reign. This could, of course, be correct, but it does look as though Gregory (or even a later interpolator) just spaced them out evenly. There are also more specific reasons for suspicion. Clovis’ great victory over the Alamanni is placed by Gregory in the fifteenth year of the reign (496), but contemporary sources record him inflicting a huge defeat on the Alamanni about a decade later. There could have been two campaigns, of course, but if there was only one it will be Gregory who is mistaken. Controversy also surrounds his account of Clovis’ conversion to Catholicism. Gregory places it just before the attack on the Arian Christian Visigoths, and was thus able to portray that campaign as a Catholic crusade that God crowned with victory. Another contemporary source puts baptism after the victory, and implies that Clovis had at least toyed with the idea of converting to Arianism.64

The elimination of Clovis’ Frankish rivals, likewise, is traditionally dated to c.508, because Gregory places all these killings after the defeat of the Visigoths. This is entirely possible, but it is just as likely that the rivals had been eliminated in stages throughout his career. Clovis’ reported excuse for eliminating Chararic, for instance, is that the latter had failed to aid him against Syagrius. But Syagrius had been defeated (admittedly only according to Gregory) in c.486 and it seems odd for Clovis to have waited more than twenty years before taking out the defaulter. You also have to wonder how Clovis managed to put together enough military power to defeat the Alamanni and Visigoths in such quick succession, if he had not already increased his power base by incorporating these other warbands, and this would be my own best guess at the true story. Nonetheless, the overall picture is clear enough. In a career analogous in its effects to the combined careers of Valamer and Theoderic among the Ostrogoths (Chapter 5), Clovis created one of the most powerful of the successor states to the western Roman Empire by simultaneously annexing large tracts of Roman territory and uniting a series of previously independent Frankish warbands.65

How much Frankish migration was part of this process?

The Divided Kingdom

Both historical and archaeological sources demonstrate that from within the sixth-century Frankish kingdom there emerged two distinct zones, broadly separated from one another by the River Loire. South of the river there was considerable continuity with the Roman past. Many of the old Roman landowning families retained their estates, along with much of their culture and many of their values. As they appear especially in the writings of Gregory of Tours and Venantius Fortunatus, two generations after Clovis, these people spoke Latin, were conscious of their Roman senatorial heritage, and retained an interest in Roman culture. This is not to say that the new kingdom had left their lives untouched. It was no longer possible for them to follow bureaucratic careers in the imperial administration, for example, and success or failure now had to be fought out at the royal courts of Clovis and his Merovingian successors, the source equally of major secular and Church appointments. There were also important economic developments, with Marseilles replacing Arles, for instance, as the chief entrepôt for Mediterranean trade. Nonetheless, south of the Loire intrusive barbarian settlements seem to have been few in number: one or two have been identified potentially in the Charente, and on the border with the Visigoths in Aquitaine. Otherwise the archaeological landscape continued to resonate to sub-Roman norms in its funerary rites, the dead being buried without gravegoods, and in its general material culture. There is hardly any sign of Frankish immigration at all, not even at the level of Norman conquest-style elite transfer, and the basic Roman unit of local political, social and administrative life – the city (civitas) together with its landowners – remained firmly in place.66

North of the Loire, the situation could not have been more different. Somewhere between c.400 and c.600 AD, life moved decisively away from the established norms of the Roman era, in ways that were not dissimilar in material cultural terms to what we have already observed in Anglo-Saxon England. As in lowland Britain, the civitas, that stalwart of Roman administration, disappeared from view. There is no evidence that military service was organized here in the sixth century on the basis of civitas contingents, as it was in the rest of the kingdom. Social and economic structures were likewise transformed. Legal sources portray a society recategorized, again as in Anglo-Saxon England, into three social groups: the free, a class of permanent freedmen, and slaves. The second of these, it is worth remembering, was unknown to the Roman world. There is also much qualitative evidence that a Roman-style restricted aristocracy was replaced with a broader social elite of less entrenched pre-eminence – again, as in Anglo-Saxon England. The legal sources do not differentiate by different wergilds, for instance, between the mass of freemen and a smaller nobility; Gregory of Tours does not refer to any major figure from the north as a ‘noble’ in the course of his massive narrative of sixth-century events (where many, from old Roman families south of the Loire, are so designated); and large, compact landed estates, the essential building block of socioeconomic dominance for a true aristocracy, only began to re-emerge in this region in the seventh century. Up to that point, the term villa simply meant a geographical area, not a centrally run unit of agricultural production.67

This does not mean that there weren’t significant variations in wealth in these northern territories, or even that their old Roman elites had completely disappeared. Well into the seventh century, leading landowners of the former Roman regional capital at Trier determinedly styled themselves ‘senator’ in inscriptions. One surviving Roman landowner from the early Merovingian period has even left us a will: no less a figure than Bishop Remigius of Rheims himself, whose congratulatory letter to Clovis on his accession provides us with key information about the rise of the Merovingians. But Trier was clearly exceptional. Over eight hundred, or about a third, of all the post-Roman inscriptions of northern Gaul have been found in its environs, with none of the other old Roman cities of the region producing any comparable cache. And while Remigius’ will is decent enough evidence that some kind of Roman elite survived, it does show him to have been only a very modest landowner compared either with his properly Roman ancestors of the fourth century or his later Frankish successors of the seventh and beyond.

None of this evidence fundamentally contradicts the broader picture, then, that the social structure of northern Gaul would not be dominated by a small aristocratic elite until after 600 AD, unlike the regions south of the Loire where descendants of the old Roman aristocrats remained firmly in place. Culturally too, discontinuity was manifest. In wide areas of the north-east, episcopal succession was not continuous from the late Roman period into early medieval times (Map 12). So a period of positive paganism, or at least Christian interruption, must be envisaged in these lands. At the same time, the language line was also on the move. Germanic dialects became prevalent to the west of the old Roman frontier on the Rhine.68

Material culture, too, north of the Loire was significantly different from southern areas of the kingdom. In the late fifth and the sixth century, inhumation that was furnished – sometimes spectacularly – became the vogue, replacing Roman-style burial. Men were buried not only with some personal items, but also with weapons: normally a long sword (spatha), javelin (angon), axe (francisca) and shield (of which only the conical boss usually survives). Women were buried fully clothed with their jewellery, their clothing fastened with a brooch at each shoulder. The brooches themselves were often framed in cloisonné work, with semi-precious stones mounted in individual settings. This was a Roman form of decoration in origin, but had become widely popular in barbarian Europe as a characteristic element of the ‘Danubian style’ that evolved in the Hunnic Empire. Even burial sites changed. In the sixth century, many of these new furnished burials were within new cemeteries well away from old habitation sites, the graves arranged in ordered lines (hence their technical German term Reihengräber, ‘row-grave cemeteries’).69 These centralized cemeteries presumably reflect some sense of community among an otherwise more dispersed rural population, rather like the large cremation cemeteries of East Anglia. All this firmly indicates that a new, non-Roman social order had come into being, and there is no doubting the degree of discontinuity it represents. What were its causes?

Parts of north-eastern Gaul had suffered heavily in the raids of the later third century, and, unlike most of the Roman west, rural prosperity in some of its zones seems not to have recovered. But this was true only of a relatively restricted area to the west of the Lower Rhine. Throughout the fourth century, by contrast, Trier and the entire Moselle valley remained a hub of prosperous romanitas: in town, country and culture. The city itself was an imperial capital for many years. Further to the north-west in Picardy, likewise, an active villa culture seems to have survived the disasters of the third century, while the frontier continued to be heavily and actively defended by extensive fortifications and large numbers of troops. While the third-century crisis had caused some lasting disruption, the region between the Rhine and the Loire as a whole was by no means abandoned by the Empire, and active Roman life continued across much of it.70 Substantial structures of Roman life remained to be toppled here, therefore, before any new order could emerge.

One body of evidence has sometimes been thought to show that a bout of pre-Merovingian Frankish immigration played a direct role in the process of imperial dissolution in these territories. Excavations of some late Roman cemeteries in the region have thrown up furnished inhumation burials ranging in date from c.350 to 450 AD. Unlike their Merovingian counterparts, these earlier inhumations are relatively few, just small clusters in cemeteries where the mass of burials entirely lacks any gravegoods. Males – whose graves predominate in these clusters – were buried with weapons and Roman military belt sets; a smaller number of females were buried alongside some of the men, with jewellery and personal items such as glass and pottery. These burials were first identified as a group by Hans-Joachim Werner, who argued that they were the graves of Franks known from historical sources to have been forcibly resettled on Roman territory in the 290s, as so-called laeti. He also saw the continued distinctiveness of these men and their descendants as an important contributory factor to the later Frankish conquest of the region in the time of Clovis: a sign that a first phase of Frankish settlement had disrupted the normal patterns of Roman life. As was pointed out by H.-W. Böhme, however, the graves date from a generation or two after the settlements of laeti mentioned in written sources, and, more importantly, are the remains of individuals of reasonably high status, whereas laeti were not even fully free. Böhme suggested, therefore, that the graves belong to the category of higher-status barbarian immigrant called foederati, linking them to a succession of Frankish officers known to have risen to high Roman rank in the fourth century.71 The graves, he argued, belonged to their slightly less distinguished peers. Nonetheless, Böhme’s argument kept the overall connection between the burials and an important group of immigrant Franks.

Recently, however, Guy Halsall has challenged the whole idea that these graves belonged to immigrants at all, on the reasonable grounds that furnished inhumation was not the funerary rite practised by Franks beyond the frontier in the late Roman period. In fact, Frankish burials of the period c.350 to 450 (and, indeed, earlier) are undetectable in the confederation’s heartlands between the Rhine and the Weser. Enough work has been done in these areas to suggest that this is not just a gap in the evidence. Almost certainly, Franks in the wild disposed of their dead in an archaeologically invisible manner, quite likely cremation followed by a scattering of the ashes. It is also the case that the belt sets and weaponry contained in the furnished male burials on Roman soil were all of Roman manufacture. The idea that burial with weapons was a Germanic habit, Halsall argues, is an anachronistic back-projection from later Merovingian practice, when furnished inhumation did spread through the Frankish world. Rather than indicating that these graves were occupied by non-Romans, this fourth- and fifth-century group of furnished inhumations shows that a new, competitive burial practice was spreading among the would-be social leaders of the region. As imperial structures offered increasingly less support to those whom they had previously benefited, competition for social superiority began, and a new furnished burial ritual was one element in the process.72 This is obviously a variant of the same argument used in the case of fifth-century Britain, but in Gaul the new burial rite certainly came in long before there was any large-scale Frankish immigration.

On balance, neither of these interpretations seems entirely convincing. The disparate nature of the find spots of these graves – cemeteries attached to military installations, rural settings, and even some in urban graveyards – indicates that, in life, the people being buried in this fashion were not a unified group, but individuals operating in a variety of contexts. It is certainly very difficult to see them, therefore, as any kind of Frankish fifth column. Both the chronology of the burials and the nature of the male gravegoods also suggest, more generally, that they were individuals working within and not against Roman imperial structures. But nor is the social-stress argument completely convincing either. For one thing, the furnished burials start too early (c.350 AD) to be associated with any major decline in Roman imperial power in the region, which even Halsall would not date before the late 380s, and I and others would actually date to the aftermath of the crisis of 405–8.

The burials are also relatively few. If they were the products of a process of social competition, it was a very low-key one. And that the individuals concerned might just possibly have been Germanic immigrants of some kind (though not necessarily Franks) is suggested by the female graves that accompany some of the males. Not every male has a female counterpart, but in Picardy as many as half do, which is a strikingly healthy proportion. And while the goods buried with the men are undoubtedly Roman-made, their accompanying womenfolk were buried with ‘tutulus’-style brooches, which are otherwise found only in a group of rich Germanic burials from the Lower Elbe, far beyond the Rhine in Saxon country. The Elbe brooches are mostly of slightly different types from those found in northern Gaul, and the latter may be earlier in date. In that case, the brooches would not provide any reason for thinking these burials Germanic, since Roman fashions were often adopted by Germanic elites beyond the frontier. But, for the moment at least, the jury appears still to be out on these more technical matters, and if this brooch type does prove to be basically non-Roman we may still be looking at the burials of migrants who did well in the Roman system. Either way, Halsall is entirely convincing both that the burials have nothing obvious to do with later Merovingian-era burial habits and that, even if Germanic, they would provide no compelling evidence for a large-scale late Roman settlement of Franks between the Rhine and the Loire that facilitated Clovis’ later triumphs.73

If the north–south divide within the sixth-century Merovingian kingdom cannot be traced back to a preceding Frankish settlement north of the Loire in the late Roman period, part of the explanation lies in the fifth-century political history of the region, in which Franks played a part. Arguments for a large-scale withdrawal of Roman power before the crisis of 405–8 are no more convincing here than they are in the case of Britain.74 But as the potent mixture of invasion and usurpation began to work havoc with the power base of the western Empire, then parts at least of northern Gaul, like Britain another fringe region of the Empire, began to feel a similar loss of protection. Thus Armorica – north-western Gaul (now Brittany) – revolted at the same time as Britain in 409/10, likewise perhaps from the control of the usurping Emperor Constantine III. But whereas Britain was cut permanently adrift from the Empire at this point, serious efforts were made in the 410s to bring northern Gaul back under the imperial umbrella, when the worst of the initial crisis had been weathered. And throughout the first half of the fifth century, periodic efforts were made to maintain imperial control north of the Loire: a mixture of direct interventions against breakaway groups, maintaining some regular Roman forces in the region, and occasionally implanting irregular ones.75

In the longer term, however, these ongoing attempts to project imperial authority in northern Gaul were steadily undermined by the knock-on effects of the crisis of 405–8. As we shall see in the next chapter, the imperial centre progressively lost control of its key revenue-producing districts, and with them its capacity to maintain significant military forces and control its regional commanders. As a direct result, it could no longer protect the key structures of Roman civilian life. This all came to a head in the mid-450s in the additional chaos generated by the collapse of Attila’s Empire (Chapter 5) – the context in which Childeric rose to prominence in the 460s. Northern Gaul thus navigated its way from Roman past to Frankish future via a political process that was both long-drawn-out and highly contested. It began with the Rhine crossing of 31 December 406, and didn’t really come to an end until Clovis consolidated his power in the decades either side of the year 500. In the meantime, the region had seen many contestants for power: Roman central authorities, local self-help groups (often labelled Bagaudae after third-century bandit groups), barbarian invaders and settlers, and, eventually, Frankish military forces. The process was also essentially a violent one. So we should not wonder that the region’s Roman landowning elite suffered huge disruption. Their villas were rich and vulnerable, and here, as everywhere else where the capacity of Rome’s armies to provide security withered away, the villa network failed to survive the process of imperial collapse.76

The role of the Franks themselves in all this would appear to have been substantial, but not primary. As we have seen, Frankish forces become prominent only towards the end of the process, in the 460s. This pattern stands in marked contrast to the history of lowland Britain, where the disappearance of any imperial protection was quickly followed by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon raiders, mercenaries and migrants who displaced sitting Roman landowners in a pretty direct fashion. Unlike those Anglo-Saxons, therefore, the Franks cannot be fingered in any simple way for the destruction of Roman life north of the Loire, which began long before the Franks emerged as a major military power. Indeed, given that Roman interventions in Frankish politics had probably aimed, as with the Alamanni, at preventing the emergence of larger and more dangerous coalitions among them (Chapter 2), the unified Franks should themselves be thought of as basically a post-Roman phenomenon, in the sense that Clovis’ career would not have been possible had the Empire maintained its full military and political capacities.77 But if there is good reason to separate the erosion of Roman life in northern Gaul from the effects there of rising Frankish power, what role did Frankish immigration play there in the Merovingian sixth century?

Skulls and Sarcophagi

In trying to answer this question, we are pretty much dependent upon archaeological evidence. Gregory of Tours does not deal with the issue of Frankish settlement, and the archaeology poses the same basic methodological problem that we have just encountered in lowland Britain. The new burial habit in northern Gaul coincides chronologically with the rise of Frankish power, but was everyone buried with gravegoods a Frankish immigrant? If so, we would be looking at something like a Völkerwanderung, since the newReihengräber, replete with furnished burials, became widespread across northern and eastern Gaul (Map 12).78

There have been many attempts to resolve the problem. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century investigators were convinced that skull shapes could do the trick. Indigenous Celts, they argued, were brachycephalic (round-headed), whereas immigrant Germans were dolichocephalic (long-headed). Other scholars looked at details of burial rite. The use of sarcophagi was thought a uniquely Roman habit, and the same label was attached to burials without gravegoods, of which there are some in most Reihengräber. Sadly, none of these older methods works. There are no simple ethnic differences in skull shape, and explicitly documented Franks have been found in sarcophagi. Nor are the burials without gravegoods any more useful. These show a marked tendency to cluster on the edges of the Reihengräber, and modern excavation methods have shown that use of these cemeteries started in the middle and worked outwards. The real explanation for the absence of gravegoods is chronological. From the seventh century onwards (as was also the case in longer-lived Anglo-Saxon inhumation cemeteries – if cemeteries can have a long life), there was a marked decline in the use of gravegoods, probably under the influence of Christianity, until funerary rites returned to the unfurnished burial typical of the late Roman period.79

If no simple method has yet emerged for telling Romans from Franks, there is some entirely convincing evidence that some of the men buried with weapons in the sixth century were of indigenous Gallo-Roman stock. An excellent case study is the large, carefully excavated cemetery at Krefeld-Gellep on the Lower Rhine in northern Germany. This is one of few burial sites that remained in continuous use from the late Roman into the Merovingian period. In c.500 AD, close to an existing late Roman cemetery, a second cemetery was inaugurated with the interment of one richly furnished burial and subsequently continued in use with a pretty standard collection of Merovingian furnished burials. Opening the second cemetery, however, did not lead the first to close, and what happened there is striking. Furnished inhumation – with standard Merovingian collections of weapons and jewellery for males and females, respectively – quickly became the normal mode there too. The original excavator and secondary commentators have all concluded, surely correctly, that in the first cemetery an existing late- or now post-Roman population adapted itself to the new cultural norms inaugurated by the rich burial in cemetery two: a beautiful case of elite emulation at work. And what happened so demonstrably at Krefeld-Gellep is likely to have been happening right across northern Gaul, in other areas where existing late Roman cemeteries were entirely replaced by Reihengräber, and where, consequently, it is not possible to demonstrate a similar cultural evolution. Many of these new Reihengräber surely must include populations of Gallo-Roman descent who adapted themselves to the new Merovingian-era norms.80

A further body of evidence which seems, in part at least, to reflect this process consists of those cemeteries whose use began with one particularly rich burial, like that second cemetery at Krefeld-Gellep. Thanks to a half-century of careful work on the chronology of Merovingian material culture, this pattern has been documented at a whole string of sites: Mézières in the Ardennes, Lavoye on the Meuse, Pry, Gutlingen, Chaouilley in Lorraine, Rübenach, Héruvillette and Bale Berning. It might be tempting to think of many of the burials in such cemeteries as those of Frankish immigrants, but you can’t just assume so. This has been demonstrated at Frénouville in Calvados. Here, a freak genetic marker in the form of a cranial suture shows that substantially the same population remained in place before and after the rise there of furnished inhumation, even though the new rite appears in an entirely new Merovingian cemetery. The furnished-burial habit was imported into Frénouville, it would seem, by just the one elite family responsible for the rich ‘founding’ burial in the new cemetery, but by the mid-sixth century it had spread right across an indigenous population that now also used the new cemetery.81 The evidence is unimpeachable, therefore, that, in part, the new habit of furnished inhumation spread so widely over northern Gaul because the indigenous Gallo-Roman population adopted it with enthusiasm.

But what was the origin of this rite, and why was it adopted? One strand within modern archaeological theory tends, as we have seen, to interpret clusters of relatively rich burials as evidence of social insecurity and competition. Because status was not clear, families aimed to put on a competitive show for their neighbours. Such an interpretation is clearly possible in this instance. The rise of the Merovingian kingdom enforced, as we have seen, rules on social status that were new compared with its Roman predecessor, and you can see precisely why this might have sparked off social competition.82 But this is not the only possible explanation, nor in this case even the most persuasive one. For one thing, the same remaking of the social order happened south of the Loire, but this did not spark off burial competition. You could reasonably counter this with the fact that there the old elites survived with many more of the building blocks of their social distinction intact, so that there was no need for them to compete; but there are other more significant objections to the social-stress theory as well. Above all, the neatly laid-out Reihengräber look much more like highly organized communal spaces than arenas of intense social competition. Their carefully ordered lines strongly suggest that burial was being policed in some way. As indeed do the goods put in the burials: particular categories of dead – adult but not elderly males and young women at the height of childbearing – were consistently buried with more goods than others. Again, it has been suggested that this is because these deaths were more stressful, but the law codes tell us that this is when wergild was at its height, and that could just as well be the key point.

In more general terms, the legal evidence does indicate both that there were clearly marked-out status groups in Merovingian society – free, freed and slave (which interlinked with adjustments for age to give the precise value of any individual) – and that some clear functions were attached to the different groups. Free and freed could be called on to fight, for instance, but slaves were excluded from what was seen as a higher-status function. Other legal evidence also calls for public ceremonies to be held when an individual was promoted from one status group to another, and for the most part, these rural social communities were small enough for everyone to know one another.83 These observations suggest a significantly different interpretation, in which burying males, particularly with weapons, certainly represented an assertion of status, but in which, at the same time, it was far from easy to claim an inappropriate status in small-scale, not to say claustrophobic, rural societies.

By itself, therefore, the social-stress argument is far from self-evidently correct, and the evidence we have for the spread of the furnished habit suggests another line of explanation, if one that retains an element of social stress within it. The richest of all the Merovingian furnished burials is in fact the oldest: that of Childeric himself. His burial (481/2) was followed in close order, perhaps very close order, by a series of rich, but not quite so staggeringly rich burials, known as the Flonheim-Gutlingen group – a name that doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. None of these graves can be dated with absolute precision. In stylistic terms, their gravegoods are so similar to those found with Childeric that the burials must be coincident with his, but they are located outside the limits of the old Roman province of Belgica Inferior, the territory that Childeric is traditionally thought to have bequeathed to Clovis. This suggests, on the face of it, that they followed at least Clovis’ initial conquests, but the argument is possibly circular, since, as we have seen, Childeric’s territories may have extended beyond Belgica Inferior. Either way, they clearly belong somewhere in the last quarter of the fifth century.84

There are no such chronological doubts about the further spread of the new burial habit. Next in line is a set of less rich though still strikingly well-furnished burials, Rainer Christlein’s so-called Group C burials – another far from exciting term, but at least easier to say. These burials provide both a chronological and a qualitative link between the small numbers of hugely rich burials dating to the late fifth century and the more numerous, if more modestly furnished, graves that are characteristic of the Merovingian period proper and which date in fact from the sixth century rather than the later fifth, and probably mostly from its second quarter rather than the first.85 On balance, this chronological progression of the habit suggests that the new burial rite gained general currency by trickle-down effect from the very grand funerals of Childeric and his immediate associates. The new rite represented a huge break from past Frankish practice – cremation followed by the scattering of the ashes – and hence it is perhaps not surprising that it took the best part of fifty years to take general hold.

It makes a kind of intuitive sense that Merovingian inhumation developed as the wider population started to emulate – on a more modest scale – the practices of its leaders. This effect is often seen, of course, but doesn’t add up to anything like a full explanation of the phenomenon. In the case of Childeric’s himself, the idea of mounting a really grand burial, dripping in gold, was probably a spin-off from the funerary habits of the Danubian style generated in Attila’s Empire at its height. The Germanic world had seen occasional clusters of rich burials before the fifth century, though none in properly Frankish areas, but as we saw in Chapter 5 the Hunnic Empire marked a watershed in the deposition of wealth with the important dead. The staggering wealth of the Hunnic and immediately post-Hunnic horizons entirely eclipsed anything seen before in the amount of gold put in the ground. The Franks were not among the Huns’ most dominated subjects, but they did fall sufficiently within Attila’s orbit for him to have interfered in a succession dispute, and the Danubian style did generally change the norms of barbarian burial.

From that point on, the practice of rich burials for leaders became widely adopted, and lasted well into the sixth century. It would come as no surprise, then, for Frankish leaders of the generation after Attila to have adopted the practices of the greatest Empire that non-Roman Europe had ever seen. It is also true that Childeric and Clovis – it was the latter who presumably organized his father’s funeral – were busy changing the nature of Frankish politics. Both had every reason to mobilize Hunnic practice so as to mark out the fact – or claim – that Childeric had been a Frankish ruler quite beyond the ordinary. This certainly means that there was a strong element of competitive display in the revolutionary funeral Clovis arranged for him. Indeed, if the Flonheim-Gutlingen burials were of the same date, rather than a little later as is usually supposed, then the display would have become all the more competitive, since they could even have been the burials of rivals rather than lieutenants.

The subsequent spread of the habit more broadly down the social scale is not so easy to explain. What was powering it, obviously enough, was new wealth that became available within Frankish society thanks to the astonishing conquests particularly in the time of Clovis, but expansion did also carry on into the reigns of his sons. Against this background, it is perhaps reasonable to think of the later, but still comparatively rich, Group C burials as the crucial catalyst. These men were presumably intermediate leaders whose families wanted to show off their high status by burying their dead along the chic new lines pioneered by their kings. This would be linked to a process of social competition, since Clovis’ conquests put a lot of new wealth into new hands, and what we are seeing here, it would seem, is the winners showing off. This reflex then worked its way down to a much more everyday social level, where, presumably, similar processes were at work, as the wealth generated by conquest percolated down the scale, generating winners who wanted to show themselves, and perhaps also losers who were desperate not to be seen as such, until the new order eventually solidified and produced the much more stable-looking Reihengräber cemeteries of the mid-sixth century.

The process did, though, take a while. The new burial habit really only became established from c.525 onwards, nearly half a century after Childeric’s death, and this leaves more than enough time for other factors to have impinged. In Anglo-Saxon England, for instance, cremation quickly disappeared with the coming of Christianity, which clearly regarded it as an illegitimate form of funerary rite. Even though Christianity had only just begun to spread among the Franks in the early sixth century, this may also have helped push funerary habits towards inhumation, even if it had nothing to do with the amount of wealth on show.86

The direct progression down the social scale from Childeric’s burial to those of the second quarter of the sixth century suggests that we should associate the new rite pretty directly with the rise of Frankish power, and particularly with the way in which the wealth of conquest generated competition. But the fact that a strong element of acculturation can be so clearly demonstrated in the spread of furnished inhumation – that indigenous Gallo-Romans clearly bought into the new habit in spades – does not mean that there was little or no actual Frankish immigration into northern Gaul, or that the spread of the new ritual was entirely unconnected to this process. On the contrary, there is every reason to think both that Frankish immigration into northern Gaul was substantial, and that it played a major and direct role in spreading the new burial habit.

The evidence for Frankish migration west of the Rhine veers from the specific to the general. The detailed case study of Krefeld-Gellep again commands attention. If, as seems likely, the original cemetery continued to be patronized by the indigenous population, a key question becomes who was being buried in the second cemetery, from whose foundation the furnished burial habit then spread over to the first? As the excavators suggested: most likely a community of immigrant Franks. The rich founding burials at the heart of some of the other new Reihengräber, likewise, look like elite immigrant Franks around whose new social power local rural societies were being remade: hence the relocation of burial sites as well as the adoption of the furnished habit. At first sight, then, the archaeological evidence leads us back to the kind of impasse we have just encountered with the Anglo-Saxons. On the one hand, the new burial habit originated as a trickle-down effect from a new and immigrant Frankish elite. On the other, it was adopted – much more demonstrably in this instance – by considerable numbers of the indigenous population. In the absence of very specific archaeological evidence such as that available in the cases of Krefeld-Gellep or Frénouville, distinguishing between burials of those of Frankish as opposed to Gallo-Roman descent is impossible. Any particular individual might perfectly well be one or the other – or, indeed, both, since intermarriage surely must have occurred. It is possible, however, to take the argument further.

If the only evidence for immigration were the handful of richly furnished burials at the heart of several of the new Reihengräber cemeteries, Frankish migration into northern Gaul could very plausibly be considered as elite transfer followed by cultural emulation. But there is excellent evidence, in fact, that a much more substantial migration flow underlay the acculturation process. It is worth thinking for a moment about broader patterns of continuity and change right across the Merovingian kingdom. As we have seen, a few furnished burials have been found south of the Loire. In these areas, however, the new habit did not take hold, and the indigenous population as a whole stuck to established burial norms. Within the overall Frankish kingdom, therefore, adopting the burial rite was not an automatic process. It was not enough just to dump the odd Frank in a Gallic landscape for everyone suddenly to be overcome with the brilliant new idea of burying weapons and other valuables with the dead.

A priori, it is possible to think of several reasons why the new habit should have caught on in the north and not in the south, but there is a correlation between Reihengräber and levels of Frankish settlement. As with Anglo-Saxon England, the linguistic evidence is again crucial. In general terms, the overall effect of Frankish immigration was to shift the line of Germanic language use westwards from the Rhine frontier by a width of territory that varied between about 100 and 200 kilometres (Map 12). But this was the end result of a complex process and did not occur all at once around the year 500. In the first instance, Frankish immigration seems to have generated interlocking patterns of linguistic islands. Even within the area where Germanic eventually prevailed, some of the larger former Roman centres remained Romance-speaking down to the ninth century: particularly Aachen, Prüm and the old Roman capital at Trier. At the same time, place-name evidence indicates that Germanic-speaking communities originally spread much further westwards than the current language line. Germanic place names can be found well to the north-west of Paris, in Normandy and Brittany, meaning that, as in England, a Germanic-speaking elite must have survived in these regions for long enough to give their names to the permanent settlements that eventually emerged (Map 12). In northern Gaul, more or less permanent villages and estates evolved a little sooner than in Anglo-Saxon England, from the seventh century rather than the eighth, so that isolated Germanic place names don’t necessarily provide evidence for very lengthy language retention – maybe just a century or so.87 Nonetheless, as in Anglo-Saxon England, these Germanic linguistic islands could only have been created by migrant groups that included women and children as well as men, even if the much more restricted westwards drift of the overall language line provides a broad indication of where Frankish settlement was at its most dense.

Although we lack specific historical evidence, it is most likely that the process that brought these immigrants west across the Rhine was similar in some important respects to that which brought Anglo-Saxons to England. While not by any means the richest of Roman territories, northern Gaul was in the main economically more developed than neighbouring non-Roman territories to the east of the Rhine, and, more simply, the Frankish political dominance created by Clovis’ victories meant that more land could be acquired in outright ownership in the newly conquered territories than was easily available at home. This is not to say that lands east of the Rhine were overpopulated, any more than was Normandy in 1065, but just that military victory opened up exciting new possibilities for wealth acquisition, and the expectation among Clovis’ followers that some of it would come their way. Especially after the dramatic successes of Clovis’ reign, the demand for seriously substantial rewards among his following would have been overwhelming. These expectations are likely to have gone well beyond the distribution of looted movables and on to the level of landed assets – as happened in a variety of ways in the other successor kingdoms to the Roman Empire – and such demands had to be satisfied.88 In reality, there were always alternative leaders for followers to turn to should expectations not be fully satisfied. The spread of the high-status founding burials of the new Reihengräber across the landscape of northern Gaul, in my view, is most likely an archaeological reflection of the allocation of due rewards to Clovis’ loyal followers (and possibly those of his successors too).

Like that of lowland Britain for Anglo-Saxons, the land and wealth of northern Gaul had been exercising a magnetic pull on neighbouring Franks long before Roman imperial collapse allowed settlement to proceed. Franks had been raiding across the northern Rhine frontier since the third century, and when political circumstances were favourable, whole groups of them had sometimes attempted to annex particular territories. In a famous incident of the 350s, for instance, the Emperor Julian had to expel Frankish groups who had taken advantage of a Roman civil war to seize control of the city of Cologne and some surrounding areas. Some of these Franks claimed that they were refugees from Saxon attack, so that there may have been an additional political motive, but the attraction of Roman wealth is clear enough from the long history of cross-border raiding.89 By the same token, a strong enough field of information was already in operation to kick-start a migration flow, and northern Gaul was in no sense terra incognita for inbound Franks.

The sources offer us no clear sense of the size of these Frankish migration units. The degree and longevity of linguistic change indicates that many of them included women and presumably also their children. If it is correct to see the migration process as driven by a process of political reward, as broadly it must be, then these migration units will probably have consisted of the warrior to be rewarded and his dependants, familial and otherwise. But, as the later evidence from Viking Danelaw shows, this could still have taken the form of rather more people than a nuclear family. There, whole warbands seem to have been settled together with the followers gathered around their immediate leaders, and this could easily have happened in the Frankish case too. The legal evidence suggests, for instance, that freedmen stood in permanent dependence to particular freemen, so a freeman and his semi-free dependants might well have moved as a group. This may also have been true of greater lords and their free retainers (and the free retainers’ freedmen too).

The linguistic islands were created, presumably, as these migrant groups established themselves in the landscape. Where these people were more densely packed in, total language change eventually followed; where less so, their linguistic influence shows up now only in Germanic place names. In this case, however, as was not true of the Anglo-Saxons, Frankish migration seems to have begun only after total military victory, and there are no hints of a Gallo-Roman Aurelius Ambrosius. Frankish units of migration could therefore be smaller and, once again, the influence of political structures on the migration process is clear. Parallels with the Norman Conquest would also suggest that this process of land acquisition was unlikely to have been fully under royal control. One of the things that emerges from Doomsday Book is how much unlicensed appropriation had gone on in the twenty years since 1066, one plausible motivation for the report’s creation being that, on the back of this free-for-all, William was unclear in 1086 about who among his followers held what. Overall, we might see Frankish intrusion into northern Gaul as a non-random form of wave of advance, where the intruders were all looking for a nice piece of Gallo-Roman countryside to make their own.90

The available materials can only leave many questions unanswered, but the evidence for large-scale Frankish migration (if in small units) is unimpeachable. And the crucial point for present purposes is that there is also enough to indicate a clear link between migration and the establishment of the furnished burial habit. On one level, this is strongly suggested by the link between rich founding burials and the spread of the furnished habit into particular localities. And more generally, where there was no migration, as south of the Loire, then no Reihengräber appeared. Identifying a link between Reihengräber and Frankish migration, however, is not a complete contradiction of the social-stress explanation of the new burial habit, in fact more a refinement. From the Frankish perspective (as from the Anglo-Saxon or Norman in parallel circumstances), the fact that migration was about securing new wealth meant that there was a substantial element of social stress inherent in it, on at least two levels.

First, the Frankish followers of Clovis and his sons were competing fiercely among themselves for the largest shares of the spoils of conquest (as William’s followers did after 1066). This was an anxious business for all concerned: hence perhaps their original tendency to show off their new wealth by burying large amounts of it with their dead in imitation of the sub-Attilan practices of their leaders. At the same time, the process was stressful for the indigenous population, who found themselves invaded by an intrusive new elite and incorporated into a kingdom that was imposing upon them new duties based on the alternative conception of a triple-tier social order and the rights and responsibilities appropriate to each of those tiers. For the indigenous population, therefore, in the midst of the major reshuffling of the social deck of cards set in train by Frankish victory, the new game in town was to find their way to the best possible outcome. This naturally meant cosying up to a member of the incoming Frankish elite, if one happened to settle in your immediate locality, a process illustrated perhaps at Frénouville; or more generally negotiating recognition of the highest possible status for yourself in the eyes of the new Frankish rulers. Either way, it is immediately apparent both that the process would be inherently stressful – and stressful in spades – and that there would be a powerful tendency to absorb the cultural and other norms currently sweeping through the Franks as they showed off the new wealth of conquest.

Immigration and social stress are not competing explanations for the spread of the furnished burial ritual and the emergence of the new Reihengräber cemeteries. The process of Frankish migration itself generated competition and social stress which here took the form of the widespread adoption of burial trends that had their origin in the Danubian style of the Hunnic Empire. That, however, was in the beginning. Once the period of negotiation was complete and it had been decided who was free, freed or slave, then, as the nature of the Reihengräber cemeteries and the legal evidence suggest, the new social order acquired a greater stability.

For all the problems that the sources present, it emerges that the creation of the Frankish kingdom involved migration on two or, better, three levels. South of the Loire, there was very little. Only a few garrisons were established, and while elite life there resonated to the new demands of Frankish kings, the amount of cultural and socioeconomic disturbance in the first instance was limited. North of the Loire, the picture is very different, although linguistic evidence indicates that this area requires subdivision. Between the River Rhine and the new Germanic/Romance language border, migration was significantly heavier than further west, where only some place names were affected in the longer term. In both parts of northern Gaul, however, the revolutionary nature of the changes is apparent. This was not a case of elite replacement, but, like the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Roman Britain, a redefinition of the entire meaning of elite status, and the social norms and value structures upon which it rested. The fact that some of those participating even at the upper levels were probably descended from indigenous inhabitants of the region does not make the transformation any less revolutionary, nor hide the fact that it was successful Frankish political expansion, involving a substantial element of migration, that made it all happen.

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