In an age of oddly-chosen historical comparisons, this week the Merovingians turned up in Brexitland! Kate Maltby, writing in the Guardian about forcing a general election, commented:

“Take your pick of the Merovingian mechanics by which we get there – a no-confidence vote, parliament blocking no deal – an election is coming.”

Merovingian Gaul, famous for its parliamentary democracy?

I’m not sure exactly what Maltby was thinking of beyond the alliteration. Her academic interest is in the reception of ideas, stretching back to Homer, in Elizabethan literature. Something on belligerent politics has turned up on her radar. Maybe the need to disempower with haircuts, as was suggested. But it was surely not no-confidence votes or parliament blocks.

[It still generates an interesting world of thought, because Boris Johnson is the great-grandson (on his mother’s side) of the celebrated palaeographer Elias Avery Lowe. Lowe had an excitingly international career and transformed Merovingian studies and our understanding of late antiquity more generally with the multi-volume series Codices Latini Antiquiores (digitised here with some updates if you ever need it). Sometimes I wonder “what would Lowe have done?” in response to Johnson. But that’s probably best left to the kind of Oxford dinners I don’t get invited to anyway.]

What might “Merovingian Mechanics” mean if it were a thing?

1) The Clovis Manoeuvre: Imitating King Clovis would offer some political tactics familiar to 2019. Clovis got ahead, partly by accident of birth and partly by allying with anyone who offered him an advantage, in the process convincing different factions that he was exactly what they needed until he didn’t need them. Some judicious smashing in of skulls was necessary to convince some people. When granted a minor honorific title by a distant emperor, he talked up its symbolic importance and held a parade. Gregory of Tours praised Clovis as a ‘New Constantine’ – a title in no way supposed to resonate with the fact that the only story Gregory told about Constantine in his Histories was that he killed his wife and son horribly.

2) Chlothar II’s Unity Play: Chlothar’s career started young and much of his early years was played out with the Frankish kingdom divided between rival kings. Chlothar got ahead mostly by keeping a relatively low profile until his key rivals had taken each other out. He united the kingdom in 613 only when invited to do so by powerful nobles in the eastern kingdoms (Austrasia and Burgundy) after their king, Theuderic, died suddenly en route to fight Chlothar. Eager to appease his new followers, Chlothar had the previous king’s grandmother paraded naked through the streets on a camel and then trampled by wild horses, but not before accusing her of the death of ten kings (three of whom were minors Chlothar himself had just dealt with…). Then he held a big council in Paris to heal wounds and reaffirm old rights, such as the importance of having local judges for local people so that people wouldn’t get scammed. Imagined unity was restored until he decided to split the kingdom with his son and it all started again.

3) An Unholy Mess: The high point for noble conspiracies was in the 670s and it rarely went to plan. Having elected a man called Ebroin as their mayor, the western nobles decided that he wasn’t doing what they wanted. Forcing him out of office (and into a monastery), they invited the much cooler King Childeric II to rule over them from Austrasia. Alas, Childeric turned out to be too frivolous, and as tensions grew between the king and the nobles, Childeric ended up asserting his authority by having a guy called Bodilo tied up and beaten. This was too much for the nobles, who had Childeric and his wife murdered. They elected a new mayor called Leudesius, but then Ebroin escaped, murdered Leudesius, and won. Not to be outdone, the Austrasians attempted to bolster their position by electing a king called Dagobert who they didn’t know because he had been hiding in Ireland for half a generation. When he turned up, he listened more to his advisors than the people used to being in charge, so the old guard had him killed. Things then calmed down briefly.

4) The Carolingian Play: after 250 years, even the Merovingians were bored of being in power, and it was too much work to find new ones willing to do the job. Eventually Pippin III, who was both well-educated and good in a fight, noted that he had all the power and the king (Childeric III) didn’t, even though he had rustled him up out of nowhere to start with. Going for the moral high ground, Pippin sent representatives of different parts of the kingdom to ask the pope as a neutral observer (with close professional ties to his family) whether he could be king. Getting the right answer, Pippin was then elected king by his followers in 751 and… then the historical records go mysteriously quiet for a couple of years until everybody agreed. And so Carolingian Mechanics could begin, with a proliferation of law, propaganda, mass murder, and state-sponsored terror, but with poems and new books.

Merovingian mechanics possibly aren’t a good idea.