Q: How hard was it to work out a chronology of Merovingian history? A: Very hard.
I have pointed out before that the shift from Merovingian to Carolingian historical writing involved a significant change. Carolingian histories frequently used AD-dates for orientation, even recording the year in some chronicles when no events were recorded. Merovingian histories, by contrast, frequently didn’t use much more universal than what the year of the reigning king was and more frequently skipped years. There are a good number of Carolingian copies and appropriations of Merovingian histories. In very few at all was there any effort to “translate” old chronologies into the new system. Because it was hard work.
We can illustrate this neatly with one of the oldest surviving sets of “annalistic” notes in a Carolingian Easter table: the Annals of Flavigny, from the very-early ninth-century manuscript Leiden, UB Scaliger 28. It represents one of the first sustained efforts ever to apply AD-dates to Merovingian history. You wouldn’t quite know this from looking at the MGH edition by Georg Pertz from 1839 because he omitted most of it, but that’s how working on this period often goes. In the manuscript, the annals are part of complex effort to cross-reference two different Easter tables and their associated chronological reckonings (Dionysius, his AD-dates and the shorter “Hebrew” age of the world; and Victorius, his “years of the Passion,” and the longer “Greek” age of the world).
Here is a spot translation of the Merovingian section (balancing Pertz by omitting most of the material repeated in Carolingians annals after 700).
517 – Clovis died [= 511].
533 – In the 15th year of Chlothar [= 526] and the time of Chalmegiscl, the bishop of Avenches and Lausanne, Ermendrude built the monastery of Baume.
553 – Theudebert son of Clovis died [= 547/8].
558 – Childebert son of Clovis died.
568 – Chilperic, Guntram, Sigibert reign; Chlothar died [having ruled] 23 years [= 561].
582 – Sigibert died [= 575].
583 – Childebert, his son, reigned.
591 – Chilperic died; his son Chlothar reigned [= 584].
598 – The tunic of Christ was found.
599 – King Ago [= Agilulf] rose among the Lombards.
600 – From the morning to the middle of the day the sun appeared diminished.
601 – [On left: Marius of Avenches and Lausanne died].
601 – Guntram died; Childebert his nephew reigned [= 592].
603 – Many signs appeared in the sky.
604 – Many signs were seen in the sky.
605 – Pope Gregory died [= 604]. Childebert died [= 596].
606 – Theuderic and Theudebert his sons reigned.
620 – Theudebert died [= 612].
622 – Brunhild was killed [ = 613].
629 – Chlothar made his son Dagobert partner [= 622/3].
635 – Chlothar died [= 629].
641 – Clovis [= 639].
663 – Childeric 2 years 6 months [= 662/3?].
667 – Chlothar 4 years [= 657?].
674 – Childeric 2 years [= 673].
677 – Theuderic 17 years [= 675].
681 – Pope Agato.
682 – The Sixth Synod was held [in Constantinople = 680-1].
688 – Pippin was made mayor of the palace.
690 – Clovis 2 years.
695 – Childebert 17 years .
708 – Dagobert 5 years [= 711].
714 – Chilperic 5 [= 715].
719 – Theuderic 17 years [= 721].
736 – There were seven years without a king.
743 – Childeric 9 years.
Most of the annalist’s effort is a mess from a chronological perspective. As you can see, he starts by misdating the death of Clovis I in 511 to 517 and then manages only to get the death of Childebert I right until he gets to the start of Childebert III’s reign in 695. The size of error in that time ranges from 7 years late (for the deaths of Sigibert I and Chilperic) to two years late (for the beginning of Theuderic III’s reign). Curiously, within that, the annalist’s references to celestial observations correspond almost accurately to reports in the Fredegar Chronicles (IV.19 and 24).
The annalist was no doubt constrained by the resources they had available. If they had used a copy of Fredegar for the “signs,” we might also see it reflected in the reference to Chlothar II making Dagobert his royal partner (consors). That is misdated in the Annals from 623 to 629, although the Fredegar Chronicles say that it happened “in the 39th year of the reign of Chlothar” (IV.47) and our annalist had misdated the first year of his reign to 591, so at least there we can see how one mistake possibly led to another, give or take some wonky counting. To get this so wrong, but the signs almost right, might suggest we are dealing with a layered compilation rather than a single coherent historiographical venture.
The mistaken start for Chlothar’s reign might account for misdating Brunhild’s death from 613 to 622. It would suggest an inconsistent approach, otherwise we would expect a result of more like 619/20. An alternative might be that our author had to hand a version of the “chain of chronicles” that includes Marius of Avenches’ Chronicle. His source material certainly had connections to Marius because it recorded his death in 601. Our sole copy of Marius’ chronicle, from the ninth century, includes an addendum on the murder of Brunhild. The murder is not dated precisely in the text (at 113v) but it is followed by a dating clause to the fortieth year of Chlothar, the 5,822nd year of the world, equivalent to 623 or 622 in some Carolingian translations. A careless reader could easily conflate the story and the date. Or not. It is but a suggestion.
A third source might have been a regnal list. All the reigns from Childeric II onwards have a length of reign given. And if we ignore the first three entries – because they are a mess – the lengths of reigns correspond to early regnal lists we have! Where are these lists, you might ask? Almost exclusively in Carolingian copies of Salian Law books, such as this early one, now in Wolfenbüttel (at 37r-v) [Krusch’s edition here]. We don’t know if they definitely had pre-Carolingian ancestors, but one presumes they got the info from somewhere. The list would have been tricky to adapt into a chronographical work because it only lists the length of reigns, without any appeal to universal measurements of time like the world age.
Identifying a law book as a potential source for chronology probably rules out the existence of a lost set of Merovingian annals. This is a shame. Our annalist did, however, have a copy of the Annals of Lorsch or one of its relatives. That particular text is a little odd about the last Merovingian kings, as it fails to mention any of them after the death of Childebert III in 711 despite likely containing a genuine early-eighth-century layer. Strangely, even the detail for Childebert doesn’t seem to have provided a secure date for our annalist, who gives the wrong year of 708 for the succession of Dagobert III (= the death of Childebert). Our annalist seems to have been having trouble with inclusive vs exclusive counting while working backwards. He was right that Childeric III became king in 743, but the seven years of interregnum before that take you back to 737 not 736, so we are one out there. Then the seventeen years of Theuderic IV should take you back to 721 not 719, but now we are a second year out. To get the start of Childebert’s reign correctly placed in 695, therefore, suggests our annalist knew the date or worked it out on a separate basis.
I do have a speculative idea on what that separate basis might have been. Remember the whole framework was designed to compare different chronological and computistical reckonings? Some of those old Easter tables had chronological notes that cross-referenced Merovingian reigns, Easter tables, and the “year of the world.” We don’t have such a note for Childebert but to get the right date despite all the other mistakes going on might suggest reference to something like that. Obviously there have been at least one Merovingian Victorian Easter table somewhere in the chain of sources for this manuscript.
The regnal list alone was certainly only going to get our annalist so far as it ran it out with Theuderic III (r. 675-91). He seems to have known that Childeric II reigned for two years, which he did in Neustria from 673-5, but here given as 674-7(!). Before that he gives Theuderic’s older brother Chlothar III four years, which the Liber historiae Francorum does too – something usually labelled a mistake as he had become king in 657, but he was only a minor until 669 so that works if we consider it the four years of majority rule. Did our annalist therefore also have a copy of the Liber historiae Francorum? It is difficult to know. If he did, he had another source that told him Childeric II became king in Austrasia in 662/3, because he confusingly gives Childeric a second two-year reign from 663-7(!), presumably confused by knowing about the later Neustrian reign.
One can imagine it looked like a relatively straightforward task, to calibrate Merovingian and Carolingian histories using a handy pile of relevant texts. It turned out not to be. (Indeed, not all Merovingian chronology is nailed down even now, despite the best efforts of Bruno Krusch and Margarete Wiedemann [here and here]). Doubtless, it mattered little. In the manuscript context – alongside Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time and treatises on computus – the history probably mattered less than the calculation of time more generally. Few such compilations were intended to be for more than local reference. But it shows that already by the early ninth century, it was hard to join up Merovingian and Carolingian pasts.
 The manuscript is variously dated between 804 and 816, mostly on the annals in the Easter table. As these annals are “additions” it can be difficult to be sure how soon after the main copying they were added. The main entries are what is at least a very similar script. The whole manuscript must postdate 801 as that is the annus praesens given in an updated copy of Bede’s De temporum ratione… an annus praesens which, as it also appears in the near-contemporary manuscript Würzburg, UB m.p.th. 46, might not be original to the Leiden manuscript.