It was issued 1,400 years ago today! On 18 October 614, the Merovingian king Chlothar II promulgated the Edict of Paris, following the defeat of his rivals and the unification of the Frankish kingdom.[1] In the middle of the twentieth century the Edict was labelled a ‘Magna Carta of the Frankish nobility’ – a description which celebrated liberties obtained by the aristocracy against a once-powerful monarchy, no longer able to bend the leading men of the kingdom to its will.

In many respects the Edict marked a high point of Chlothar’s reign. He remains an obscure figure for much of his early reign, not least because he was only 4 months old when his father, Chilperic, died (584) and then he spent much of his minority eclipsed by royal adult relatives Guntram, Childebert, Theuderic and Theudebert. Gregory of Tours even suggests that Guntram doubted his nephew was a legitimate son of Chilperic’s, but that Queen Fredegund was able to persuade him otherwise. In the Fredegar Chronicles (c. 660) Chlothar comes into focus first as an ally of Theuderic’s against Theudebert in 611 who Theuderic subsequently turns against two years later. When Theuderic died in the Austrasian city of Metz before he could meet Chlothar in battle, the leading Austrasian nobles invited Chlothar to take charge of the region. The king spent time putting affairs in order and eradicating rival lines to the throne. To drive the point home, he had Theuderic’s grandmother Brunhild paraded naked through the streets and then dragged to death by wild horses. The tale of triumph was later cemented in the Life of Columbanus, in which Jonas of Bobbio recounted a prophecy that Chlothar would prevail against his relatives. The king ruled successfully for another sixteen years.

Merovingian Map

The issuing of the Edict seems to stand right at the turning point in Chlothar’s reign, since it was issued the year after he assumed control of Austrasia and Burgundy. Curiously, the Fredegar Chronicles include one of their many narrative breaks at precisely this point and nothing is said about the issuing of the Edict. Nothing is mentioned either about a related event: the well-attended Council of Paris held a week earlier, which unusually brought together bishops from across the Frankish kingdoms and even Kent. The silence of the chronicle may just highlight that so-called Fredegar, working nearly 40 years later with patchy raw materials, knew nothing about these proclamations. This alone starts to raise questions about whether the Edict was of much importance. The manuscript tradition is not inspiring here either: the text survives in only one manuscript, and that is an eighth-century canon law collection from Rheims (= Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1743), where it is copied directly before one of only two witnesses to the Council of Paris. The value of the Edict seems to have scarcely outlived its immediate historical context.

For many earlier generations of historians, it is what the Edict represents that is crucial to its importance. In its most famous clause, Chlothar announced that judges were to be appointed locally, rather than (presumably) from among the king’s own men at court. The justification for this is clear in the text: local judges will find it harder to subvert justice because they will be accountable to their own communities. Public officials were also reminded that they could not override pre-existing immunities granted to churches and magnates. This is precisely where some scholars saw an erosion of royal/ state authority, on the grounds that any concession to the local aristocracy must erode the power of the centre. At the more surreal end of such analysis, the triumph of the aristocrats against the monarchy represented a victory for Germanic liberties against an oppressive Roman state, even though the ruling benefited Gallo-Romans etc against a Germanic king! Perhaps it even represented the beginning of the end for Merovingian rule, which then limped on for over a century until the Carolingians put it out of its misery. (Clue: the real weakening of Merovingian authority probably only really occurred in the eighth century).

In 1994 Speculum published an important article by Alexander Callander Murray which undermined most of these negative lines of thought.[2] Murray’s main goal was to understand what was really meant by ‘immunities’ and what it really meant for a king to grant away rights. For the clause about judges, Murray pointed out the awkward fact that it read very much like a paraphrasing of an order from Justinianic Roman law. Chlothar was at worst making mild concessions about local administration in a Roman manner, all while stating the importance of pre-existing rights. No wonder the Edict never became a real rallying point for the Frankish nobility: it did not promise anything that exciting.

But, of course, as we know from the persistent misuse of the contents and history of Magna Carta itself – historians and politicians often a tendency to exaggerate and misrepresent. It is always worth looking at things in context.

[1] The date is derived from the heading in the one surviving manuscript, where it dated to the 31st year of Chlothar. As he became king in Sept 584, immediately marking “year one”, Oct 614 lay in “year 31”. Failure to count inclusively means that the Edict is sometimes mis-dated to 615.

[2] A. C. Murray, ‘Immunity, Nobility, and the Edict of Paris’, Speculum, 69. 1 (1994), 18-39.