The Lost Civilisation of the Merovingians

How bad was the state of learning in the Merovingian kingdoms? It is hard to say. Something I want to do in my present work on the Merovingian worlds is to be more positive than some scholars like to be. But there is a problem: the problem of loss.

In a recent study, Ian Wood estimated there are around 200 manuscripts from Merovingian Francia, of which around 175 are from the period after 600.[1] The caution is necessary: it is impossible, really, to be sure where many manuscripts came from when the uncial of northern Italy was basically the uncial of Gaul or the mountains or Bavaria. Rosamond McKitterick, playing the same game, estimated around 300. By contrast there are c. 7000 manuscripts from the first 150 years of the Carolingians. McKitterick voiced the feeling that ‘the problems of survival are from the Carolingian are likely to have been no less than those for the Merovingian period’ and that the stark difference ‘represents a real increase in the quantity, and the quality, of book production’.[2]

What we are left with shows a preoccupation with the Bible, the Church Fathers, and both secular and canon law. Merovingian culture, it has been argued, was conservative and more centred on orthodoxy than on originality.

At the same time, however, scholars studying the Merovingian period have not always quite managed (in my humble opinion) to conceptualise the volume of loss. Let’s take a quick tour through some of my favourite areas of interest:

Hagiography! Ten years ago Martin Heinzelmann produced a very handy guide to the extensive hagiographical production of the period. There was a lot of it. It is not always easy to determine whether a text was definitely produced before 751 or not and some people have been less optimistic than Heinzelmann. Still, it is worth noting that basically all of it is preserved only in manuscripts that postdate 751 – from the works of Gregory of Tours and Jonas of Bobbio to the more generic stuff no one reads.

History! There are, happily, a few Merovingian copies – or partial copies – of Gregory of Tours’ Histories. The Chronicle of Fredegar survives in only one Merovingian copy and not, it seems, in a version from which the many later ones derive. The Liber historiae Francorum of 727 only survives from copies that likely postdate 751, but then it was late to the scene. For some people, these three texts more or less exhaust proper historical production, reflecting poorly on the period. But there are lots of hints that there were more small-scale products such as that by Marius of Avenches, which of course survives only in a Carolingian manuscript alongside a stray historical note about Brunhild that might suggest another lost work. Some parts of Fredegar and its extended Carolingian version almost certainly draw on such ‘lost’ texts. Two post-Carolingian copies of Isidore’s Chronicle contain a Merovingian chronological note for 672, which suggests more lost originals. Early Carolingian annalistic chronicles stretch back to the late Merovingian period and could reflect historical notes from then, although some historians prefer to imagine that they MUST be later confections in their entirety because they imagine that that is more likely.

Computus and calendars! In theory, most major churches must have had calendars and Easter tables to organise their liturgical year. The only Merovingian manuscript containing both is the famous one from St Willibrord’s Echternach. Willibrord’s Easter table was Dionysian, but most of the Merovingian world followed the table of Victorius of Aquitaine. There is one extant Merovingian copy of such a table. One. When almost all the major churches must have had a copy. There are of course manuscripts that hint at lost versions: the famous ‘Bobbio Computus’ of 826/7 includes a copy with a dating clause to 673, a tenth-century manuscript in Bremen contains the prologue of a version from 699, and there are two late copies of a shortened version for the years 700-771. Arno Borst published three computistical texts from Merovingian Gaul in his 2006 Schriften zur Komputistik, and only one of them is in a Merovingian manuscript (the Computus of 727). It makes it very hard to know how much of the anonymous and generic computistical material one finds in Carolingian manuscripts might once have come from Merovingian exemplars.

Medicine! There is a common assumption that medical knowledge basically completely disappeared north of the Alps until the Carolingians (re)imported it. Again, this is because most of the manuscripts of medical texts postdate 751. But not all of them: the same manuscript bundle that contains the Computus of 727 contains the Galenic De febribus, extracts from the Pseudo-Hippocratic Dynamidia and Pseudo-Apuleius on the properties of herbs, a short (incomplete) extract from the Oribasian commentary on Hippocratic aphorisms, and a lot of medical recipes that as yet have no identified source. Okay, it is one manuscript, but it implies access to other manuscripts that have been lost, and those unsourced recipes should be intriguing. This generates the question: is it unusual because it contains medical texts or is it unusual because survives? Hmm.

Letters! All Merovingian letter collections survive in post-Merovingian copies.

Charters and legal documents! Most of the extant ones survive because they were kept in a single centre, Saint-Denis (and those ones are now in the Archives Nationales in Paris). Merovingian legal formularies – all bar one in Carolingian copies of course – suggest a more extensive bureaucratic and archival world than has survived. Ganz and Goffart, working with an estimate by Karl-Ferdinand Werner, once reckoned that what we have probably represents 0.001% of what there was. 0.001%! It is a guess, of course. But how can we make sweeping judgements about a society with that level of loss?

With charters, we can perhaps see some reasons why the survival of Merovingian words might have fared worse than Carolingian ones. Most were written on papyrus, now very frail because papyrus is not as robust as parchment. They were written in a script that is really hard to read. The spelling and abbreviations are maddening. And also, suspiciously, the centres that did produce archived extensive early charter records that have survived – Fulda? Lorsch? St Gall? Freising? – tend not to be major centres of Merovingian Gaul. It is not just that ‘the Carolingian world had better production and archiving strategies’ – it is also that it had a lot of new or rejuvenated centres developing these processes from scratch, and in a post-papyrus world. As Guy Halsall argued in 1995, there was not always the same perception that the use of written documents necessitated long-term preservation of them. Anyway, we can play the ‘why did/ didn’t things survive game’ at length – it is a good game, and often says more about the imagination of scholars than actual evidence. That is certainly what some people will think reading this blogpost, I am sure.

The point, though, is simple. For the Merovingian world, absence of evidence (or lack of evidence) is not evidence of absence. A significant amount of what we know about the period has only survived in later copies of texts, and that should remind us that so much of the direct evidence has been lost. Loss, rather than simple decline, should be a major theme in our understanding of the period. I mean, can we really be sure Carolingian and later scribes copied half of what was available? It is a theme, however, that is still often used negatively to imply that the Merovingians had little-to-no culture. In any other field, people would quickly say that the amount of evidence, sadly, is not statistically meaningful. But you can’t blame the peoples of the Merovingian world for that.

 

[1] Wood, ‘The Problem of Late Merovingian Culture’, 201-2.

[2] McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word, 167.