In September 2003, I was on holiday in Normandy and visited a Sunday market at Trouville-sur-Mer. A beanpole of a man, in a coarse woollen three-piece suit, was there selling second-hand books. Most of it was rubbish -- cheap police novels, a 1930s encyclopedia, a large, glossy hardback about keeping goldfish -- but a cardboard box at the end looked altogether more promising. I picked out The invention of printing in China and its spread westwards (in English) and a two-volume work called De Moïse à Mohammed: L'Islam, entreprise juive (From Moses to Mohammed: Islam, a Jewish project). Under these was a clear plastic folder containing loose leaves from sixteenth and seventeenth century books and some manuscript pages. They were expensive, more than I wanted to pay, but I looked through them anyway as the bookseller fussed around me. When I gave him the money for the books I had decided to buy, he smiled and gestured at the antique pages. "Which do you like? Maybe I can do a better price." I smiled back. "I'm interested in early medieval material. Merovingian." He laughed. Documents from the era of France's first post-Roman dynasty are like hens' teeth and practically priceless. They do not turn up on market stalls. Maybe in the days of the great manuscript-hunters like Father Sirmond, or the nineteenth-century scholars of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, things might be found in unexpected places, but these days anything from the sixth to eighth centuries is going to be under lock and key in some university, cathedral or national library.
I had asked the bookseller for what he could not possibly have in order to extricate myself. Now he had a sad look as though he was dealing with a fool, said nothing more and just gave me a ten-euro note in change. Sheepish, I wandered off through the rest of the market to do the food shopping I had really come for -- a few marmande tomatoes, some tomme de Savoie, a hundred grams of mousse de canard, a five-euro helping of cassoulet and couscous, a boule 'bio'. On the way back past the book-stall, I tried to avoid the man's eye. However, he seemed to have been looking out for me. "Monsieur." He waved a hand cupping a cigarette in my direction. I nodded and was going to walk on, but he beckoned me over. "You like Merovingian stuff, eh?" He jerked his head sharply back, with a severe expression on his face, then gave me a curling business card. "Come to my shop. Maybe I have something that would interest you." The card bore his name and an address in Rouen. The telephone number was added in small writing with a blue pen. "Thank you very much," I nodded. "Really, you have some Merovingian documents?" "Maybe." He peered down at the business card. "Come, you will see." He turned to the side, where someone was wanting to buy the book on goldfish. I held up my hand as a goodbye, palm facing forward, then walked away.
It had been my intention to go to Rouen anyway, the following Wednesday, but I had no thought of taking up the bookseller's suggestion. I joined a tour of the cathedral, and afterwards I wanted to ask the guide about Bishop Praetextatus, who on 24 February 586 had been murdered there in his own church, supposedly on the orders of the Merovingian queen Fredegund. Another man was there before me, asking question after question. Eventually, I managed to butt in. The guide recited the familiar story of Praetextatus's death but otherwise told me nothing I did not already know. I asked about Praetextatus's tomb and he said that nothing remained from the cathedral of that time. I knew that, but I had hoped there might be some local traditions. Was there perhaps a church dedicated to him; he was a saint, after all? By now the guide was getting impatient with me. He said there was no church dedicated to Praetextatus, and turned his back, to address a woman who also wanted to ask him something. I think it was the frustration of this encounter that made me decide to visit the bookshop after all. I went to the tourist office opposite the cathedral and asked directions.
M. Levillain's bookshop was in a suburb of Rouen, among a few shops on one side of a small square crammed with parked cars. The architecture was nineteenth century, run-down. The other businesses included a tabac, a massage parlour and a kebab shop that was all plastic, grease and slot machines. Levillain's shop-window was covered by yellow-tinted polythene, and behind it were piles of paperbacks, modern hardbacks and some large leather-bound volumes, none of which looked particularly marketable. But the sign said 'Livres anciens', which has a Pavlovian effect on me, and I went inside to the ching of the door opening and closing. It looked and smelled exactly as one would expect -- ageing bookshelves, moulding paper, narrow spaces between piled-up books creating a cave-like environment. Levillain came out of a backroom. He stopped, raised his eyebrows, then bowed a little. "Bonjour, Monsieur." "Bonjour. Ça va?" "Aaaah, bon, bon." I ran my eyes over the shelves. I thought I would leave it to him to refer back to our last conversation and suggest showing me whatever he had to show. I did not want to appear too keen. It would be nice to have something Merovingian, but I imagined whatever he had would cost more than I could justify to myself. However, he left me, his only customer, to browse. I felt under a face-saving obligation to buy something. I hate getting to know second-hand booksellers for that reason -- the loss of anonymity makes it hard to walk out of the shop empty-handed. In this case, when I discovered volume 2 of Gérard Coulon's work on the Gallo-Romans for just 9 euros, I was much relieved. Now I could spend a little money and depart with honour. After looking along the remaining shelves and finding nothing more, I approached the cash desk, a darkly stained wooden table, on which were untidy piles of books, an aged cash-register, and a brass bell. Behind the desk was an open doorway into another room. There M. Levillain was sitting at a tall bench, something like a carpenter's bench, attached to the far wall. He had his back to me, and was working at a computer. "Errr, Monsieur," I ventured. He looked round, then got up and came over. I paid for the book and received my change. The quietness, the gloom, the smell of mouldering tomes that would never sell in a million years. The air of unspoken desperation and failure. My paltry purchase. It was all very embarrassing. I was on the verge of walking out of the shop without asking about the supposed Merovingian materials, but the stupidity of coming so far then giving in to my timid inhibitions forced me to speak. "Err, you said you might have some manuscripts of the early middle ages?" Levillain pursed his lips in the Gallic manner and inclined his head. "Ah, ouiii". "Are they for sale? May I see them?" Levillain laughed. "Désolé. Not for sale." He paused. "But I will show you." He beckoned me into the back room.
On the bench where Levillain had been working, next to the computer, I now saw a thick leather-bound codex lying open. He invited me to look more closely. It was unmistakeable, the exaggeratedly loopy, spider-like script of the Merovingian era. I reckoned it to be Luxeuil Minuscule, dating from the eighth century. And here was not a single book of it but, I guessed from the roughly twenty books in similar binding lying on the bench, a whole library of equally ancient documents. The most likely would have been a collection of charters, i.e. land deeds and court judgements, but the script in question was not used for such legal documents. "What is this?" I asked. Levillain tugged one of the books from the pile and opened it at the front. My skills as a paleographer are minimal, but even I could decipher the heading in large letters: Theoderici regis historia familiae suae quae et stirps regalis regum Merovingorum, "King Theuderic's history of his family, otherwise known as the royal dynasty of Merovingian kings". I had never heard of such a text. I thought it might be some kind of joke or hoax. Levillain was studying me closely. "You know this?" he asked. "Not at all" I replied, "there is no such work". Levillain smiled.
I will not detain you with a full account of the long and intense discussion that followed, the many questions I had, the painstaking scrutiny of the manuscript, and how I slowly became convinced this was a genuine and hitherto unknown text of Merovingian history. The first question was which King Theuderic was supposed to have written it. As Levillain showed me, this could be deduced from the author's preface, where he fulminates against the Carolingian family that replaced his own as the Frankish royal dynasty. It seemed this Theuderic was the son of the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, who reigned from 743 to about 751. Though styled 'king' in the title, Theuderic never actually made it to the throne, for he and his father were dispatched to separate monasteries when Pippin I deposed Childeric and had himself and his family anointed as the new Frankish royalty.
I of course wanted to know how the work came to be in Levillain's possession, and Levillain explained. Theuderic was an inmate of the monastery of St Wandrille, also called Fontenelle Abbey, where he spent his time labouring on this history of his family, which had ruled Frankish Gaul for two and a half centuries. No doubt, he dreamed of the downfall of the Carolingian usurpers and his own restoration. His family had weathered similar crises before. Yet it was not to happen, and Theuderic would die in the reign of Pippin's son, Charlemagne, when Carolingian prestige was at its highest. He left no children. He did leave, however, the complete manuscript of his Merovingian history, and this was preserved by his well-wishers in the monastery -- secretly, for fear it might be destroyed by Carolingian sympathisers. The manuscript was locked away and over time forgotten. St Wandrille suffered badly from the Viking invasions and in the French wars of religion. After the revolution it was suppressed completely, and the monastery's archives were dissipated. In 1894, the surviving abbey buildings were re-purchased by the Benedictines and monastic life was restored. Some of the archives known to have been held in safekeeping were reassembled and given back. Fast forward to the late twentieth century. Among the community's monks was M. Levillain's brother, Pierre, who had been appointed as its archivist. One day, going through the materials from the eighteenth century, he came across a handwritten note that referred to a document having been entrusted to a priest, apparently a relation of one of the monks, in nearby Brittany . This document was described as the Historia Theuderici regis, and said to be in twenty books. Brother Pierre was curious. He asked his abbot whether he might be allowed to track down the lost work. The abbot said no. Nevertheless, Pierre was determined to go ahead, and he enlisted the aid of his brother, Michel, the secondhand bookseller. It took the two of them a decade of research but eventually they discovered these volumes in the possession of a Breton farmer. The custodian had no idea of the books' importance and readily handed them over to the Levillain brothers, swayed by the prestige of the Benedictine monk and a modest amount of cash.
"Who knows about these books?" I asked. "They are an amazing find. The world of Merovingian scholarship will go crazy to get its hands on them."
Levillain tutted and shook his head. It was a sensitive situation. His brother had defied his abbot to track the books down, and yet they belonged by rights to St Wandrille. He was not free to dispose of them, but neither could he seek official permission from the monastery while the present abbot remained in charge. I suggested ways in which Levillain might get round this, but he was unmovable on the issue. I asked why he had invited me to see them. He said it was a sudden whim. He regretted it afterwards, but when I turned up at the shop he again had the urge to share his secret with someone that might appreciate it. Since I was a casual stranger, he felt it was safe. He could deny everything if need be.
I begged Levillain to let me study the document in detail. I would need a lot of time because of the difficulty of reading the ancient script and because my Latin is far from fluent. He replied that he was leaving for his annual holiday the coming Sunday. Nevertheless, he could help me out. The books had been in his possession for several years now and he had not been idle. He had first transcribed the Latin onto his computer, then translated the Latin into French. This was excellent news. I asked him straight away for a print-out. He refused, which at the time I thought deeply unreasonable, but now I understand. There were the concerns he had already expressed about revealing the work's existence, and the fact that here he had something immensely valuable - he balked at giving it away so casually. On the other hand, during the three days before he went away, Levillian would allow me to read through the work there in his shop. Looking back, I realise how generous this was - there was little reason why he should have given me, a perfect stranger, any kind of access at all.
Levillain allowed me to work from his hard copies of the Latin and French versions. I bought a blank notebook from the tabac, and started immediately. Although, that evening, I had to return to my lodgings in Honfleur, I was back the next morning. Levillain left me to work alone, but from time to time points cropped up that I wanted to discuss with him. He knew the Merovingian period inside out, and his translation was steeped in notes, linking the information in Theuderic's history back to what we have from the long-known, existing Merovingian sources. How I worked was to read through Levillain's translation and make notes based on his. Where Levillain indicated that Theuderic's information repeated a known source (something I could usually confirm from my own memory), I merely recorded the reference. Where he indicated it supplemented or contradicted known sources, I scrawled down the new information in an increasingly cryptic shorthand that I made up as I went along. If something was particularly unexpected, I checked the Latin, and often picked Levillain's brains. Occasionally, but very rarely, I thought there were other ways of reading Theuderic's text. On the Thursday and Friday evenings, Levillain and I ate together at a café. Mostly we talked about the Merovingians, but I learned a little of his life. Decades ago he had followed his older brother into the monastery, but quickly left. He was unmarried. He had been ill and been told by the doctors to stop smoking, but could not. He spent each August in the south of France, on the farm of a cousin. The bookshop was inherited from his father; these days, it brought barely enough to live on, but he eked it out with some legacies. As I got back to work on the Saturday, my heart sank at how much I still had to read, with time now running out. Hunched and almost trembling, I jabbed at the page, trying to get everything down. Levillain allowed me to continue working after dinner and then to have a few hours sleep in his rooms above the shop, before starting again at dawn. I persuaded him to delay his departure to late morning, then to delay it again. Around half past two in the afternoon, when Levillain had put his suitcases in the car and was standing over me drumming his fingers, I reached the end. As I drove back to Honfleur it poured with rain, then the sun came out and I saw an intense rainbow against a thunderous black sky.
Levillain made me promise not to divulge anything without his permission. In fact, back in England, I soon told the story to an academic I knew, while attending a seminar on the early English church. He was dismissive and, I have to say, not at all interested. Following this encounter, I decided to keep it to myself after all.
Over the next six months, as I studied the notes I had taken, questions cropped up, things I wished I had checked at the time. I dusted off Levillain's business card, and rang him on the telephone. Day after day, there was no reply, so I wrote him a letter. That too went unanswered. In the autumn of 2004, I was able to return to Rouen. Levillain's shop was locked and deserted. I asked at the tabac. Ah, poor M. Levillain, he had died the previous winter. The lady from the tabac had found him in his shop, coughing up blood. He looked terrible, like a ghost. They took him to hospital, but he never returned. His brother, the Benedictine, had come a few times to supervise the removal of his effects and much of the stock. People expected the shop would be put up for sale.
I hesitated for a couple of days, but then drove to the monastery and asked to speak to Levillain's brother. When he arrived, his jaw was clenched, his lips pouting; he frowned. "I am sorry to disturb you," I began, "I was very sorry to hear about Michel." He said nothing, nor did his expression change. I went on to explain the situation, even though my command of French seemed to desert me and I stumbled over the words. I knew about the Historia Theuderici. For myself, I would like to have another look at Levillain's translation. More widely, I thought it was time for the document's existence to be made public. Brother Pierre's only reaction was a slight narrowing of the eyes. "Impossible, unbelievable," he said. "I do not know what you are talking about. Go away." That is exactly what I did. When I had got back to England and recovered my composure, I wrote a letter to Brother Pierre with all the things I should have said at the time. I have never heard back from him.
That then is how I obtained Theuderic's lost and secret history of the Merovingians. Several years have gone by, and I am not getting any younger. I believe I should do what I can to let the world see this material and judge for itself. I have done my best to reconstruct Theuderic's text from my memory and my rushed notes, the product of little more than three days' study. I trust Brother Pierre (I have changed his name) has put the original manuscript somewhere safe, and that one day it will come to light. In the meantime, I can only offer this inferior version and the story of how it came to be.
On a technical note, I have reproduced, as best I could, M. Levillain's apparatus that relates Theuderic's text to other Merovingian works. I have also added some commentary of my own concerning Theuderic's reasoning and information. I know many readers do not like such notes, and my advice would be simply to ignore them, as this will in no way detract from the understanding or enjoyment of the text. The notes are only there for the benefit of specialists who wish to trace Theuderic's material to its source.