The Sources of Merovingian History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
  2. Pre-Clovis Sources
  3. Laws and charters
  4. Inscriptions
  5. Letters and literary works
  6. Lives
  7. Annals, chronicles and histories
  8. Abbreviations


Anyone studying the Merovingians will begin with the Histories of Gregory of Tours. These are available in a lively, though by no means entirely reliable, Penguin Classics translation (see the picture below for my well used copy).


From here, students will likely pass to the Chronicle of Fredegar and the Liber Historiae Francorum. These three--Gregory, Fredegar and the LHF--form the backbone of Merovingian history, though with varying detail.


Gregory is the fullest. He tells a good story, he brings out people's personalities, and he develops various interwoven sub-plots. He also introduces himself, both as a character and in terms of his authorial opinions, so we get to know him as a person.

Fredegar is next. His work becomes increasingly detailed towards the end, but he stops short some ten years before the time that he was writing, probably because he died before he could complete his work. If he had been able to bring the story up to his own day, his text might have been as rich as Gregory's.

The LHF is briefest and narrowest in its concerns. It consists of a series of relatively short chapters, retailing facts and doing little to build up narrative tension in the way that Gregory does.


Most of what we know about the political history of Merovingian Gaul comes from these three works. Their coverage is quite patchy. Gregory is an eyewitness from about 560 to the end of his book in 591, though he does not begin to get detailed until the later 570s. Fredegar is an eyewitness from perhaps c. 610 to 642 when his chronicle ends. The LHF goes up to 726/27 and its author was presumably an eyewitness for the two or three decades before that.


Gregory, who begins his book with Adam and Eve, provides some murky and anecdotal information about the earlier Merovingian era. Both Fredegar and the LHF recapitulate Gregory, adding odd bits of new material, but Fredegar's information is doubtful and by the time we get to the LHF it is in the realms of legend.



The above diagram shows both the portions of Merovingian history for which we have eyewitnesses and the portions for which we otherwise rely on one of these three authors.

The final two or three decades of Merovingian rule are covered by the Annales Mettenses Priores, continuations of Fredegar and the Royal Frankish Annals. Nevertheless, much is obscure and we do not even know exactly when the last Merovingian was deposed.


Our backbone of Merovingian history is fleshed out by a large number of saints' lives, including some by Gregory of Tours. Hagiography is written with an even more overt agenda than these histories. It is intended to glorify its subject, which often involves justifying or defending someone who was a controversial figure in his or her day. Accurate historical reporting is not high on its agenda.


We also have some collections of letters. The Epistulae Austrasicae apparently consists of letters that were used as templates but some have important historical information. Others are the collected letters of various bishops. Such letters are mostly from the late fifth or early sixth century and to some extent rescue the beginnings of Merovingian rule from total obscurity. There are some later letters though, as well.

An example of Merovingian script


Another major type of evidence comprises legal instruments of one kind or another. These include law codes, including the famous Lex Salica, royal edicts, wills, formularies (collections of model legal documents) and charters (usually documenting transfers of property). Law can give some insight into a people's concerns and therefore a glimpse of social history, but has to be treated carefully, insofar as laws may be anachronistic and do not necessarily imply that the situations to which they refer were common. Wills and charters may be used to build up pictures of land-holdings, which can shed light on political and social structures. Some special charters, known as placita, record the outcomes of court proceedings and can tell us about particular episodes almost like narrative sources (histories and saints' lives).


A final category of evidence consists of inscriptions. As far as the Merovingians are concerned, historians have typically been unable to wring much from such material, but perhaps some budding scholar will change this.


Almost all our sources for the Merovingians consist of material generated within the Merovingian kingdom. We do get information from elsewhere, but it consists largely of scraps.


This may be partly put down to the lack of historical continuity in the Merovingians' ex-Roman neighbours, Italy, Spain and Britain. Britain of this era hardly produced any documentation for its own history, let alone what was happening on the continent. Meanwhile, Visigothic Spain fell to Arab conquest in 711, and Lombard Italy fell to the Merovingians' successors, the Carolingians, in 774, so that for both kingdoms there is a shortage of material contemporary with the Merovingian era. 


Writers in the Byzantine empire also displayed a distinct lack of interest in what was happening in the former Roman province of Gaul. This is perhaps because the Byzantines had many concerns of their own during these centuries, including, from the seventh century, the encroachments of the rapidly growing Islamic empire.


Almost all the documentary sources relevant to Merovingian history are available, in the original Latin, in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH). Many have been translated.