Last week Prof Bonnie Effros visited St Andrews to give a talk on ‘Camille de la Croix’s Case for 72 Previously Unknown Martyrs of Poitiers’. It provided an insightful and important case study about how the medieval past has been contested in response to later politics and beliefs. Sadly, she noted afterwards, early medieval historians are not often particularly interested in the nineteenth century, and historians of the nineteenth century are not particularly interested in views on the Middle Ages. This is a shame.
Why should people care about nineteenth-century ideas about the Merovingians? Put simply: because nineteenth-century writers shaped so much about how we see the Merovingians, and much of the power of their views stemmed from how they wrote with presentist agendas. It is instructive to see how much ‘common sense’ and ‘neutrality’ about the past can be much less certain than it may first appear.
The case of Camille de la Croix is an interesting one. Born in 1831 in Tournai, de la Croix became a Jesuit, and by 1864 he had come to reside in Poitiers. Once in Poitiers, he developed a reputation as something of an archaeologist. Over the next few decades, he was involved in the uncovering and interpretation of several important sites in and around Poitiers, winning national acclaim as a result. The particular case Prof Effros discussed was the discovery of the hypogeum (Hypogée des Dunes), just to the southeast of the River Clain and the Roman and medieval core of Poitiers. An inscription seemed to talk about 72 martyrs, and Père de la Croix was quick to suggest that this was probably proof of a significant Christian population in the city, with the martyrs victims of the Diocletian persecution (ca 303). This was an exciting piece of evidence for Père de la Croix, as it seemed to prove the city’s Christian history was much longer than some people had assumed. And it was not without a certain logic.
After the announcement of the discovery in 1880, critics soon raised doubts about the dating and interpretation. Jules Quicherat, in particular, urged caution. At a time when several other late-antique sites had been unearthed, notably the crypt of Jouarre in 1869-70, the hypogeum looked much later. Père de la Croix softened his views a little in response, with a dating to the late-sixth century, but maintained the earliest date he could. It probably actually dates to around 700.
The case is interesting because it highlights the development of a different narratives about Gaul and its history in the nineteenth-century France. Among many historians, notably Augustin Thierry (d. 1856), the Merovingians represented the imposition of foreign, Germanic tyranny in Gaul. Often mostly on the basis of a few choice stories from Gregory of Tours, they evoked a world of chaos and barbarism that stood in marked contrast to the post-Revolution political ideals to which they subscribed. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 ensured such anxieties about national identity, political organisation, and the past continued. The work of Père de la Croix is striking in this context, Prof Effros noted, because it rejected a nationalist framing of history in favour of a religious one, and attempted to use archaeological evidence rather than written histories to do so. Oddly, at least in the French historiography, it took a long time for these narratives – religious and political, archaeological and textual – to be analysed together, because they were devised from and for the needs of different groups.
Poitiers must have been an odd place for Père de la Croix to work. Round the corner from the Centre d’Études Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale today there is a small version of the Statue of Liberty, erected in the nineteenth century by masons in direct response to the raising of the statue Notre-Dame des Dunes, near where the hypogeum was discovered. Identity and the past flowed into the present. Indeed, in 1873, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes had been commissioned to produce paintings of Poitevin history for the Hôtel de Ville in the city, and one of the moments he chose was ‘reconciliation’ after the Battle of Poitiers in 732, with Duke Charles Martel and the bishop of Poitiers apparently happy to see each other, while defeated Saracens are consoled in the foreground. This was not just ‘a scene from history’ – in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, with competing political factions and a rise in anti-clericalism, this was itself a major political statement about the need for unity. Even if it does, now, seem rather racist.
History is never a neutral game. We could collect ‘all the facts’, but what would we then do with them? One does not have to be a radical postmodernist to realise that, as soon as people start telling stories with the past, they have to make decisions about what story they are telling, and what sources and ideas they want to give prominence. It is also striking just how often ‘hard facts’ are really opinion in the guise of ‘received wisdom’. (This is very much not to deny that there are such things as facts, by the way – just to suggest that there is a lot of slippage between them and how they are interpreted). Recent studies such as Prof Effros’s have been of great value for exposing how often our evidence and its interpretations come with histories that need to be interrogated.
 For much more on this subject see Effros, Uncovering the Germanic Past (Oxford, 2012) and Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford, 2013).