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Merovingian Dynasty, ca. 500-751

In Gaul a fusion of Roman and Germanic societies occurred. The first King of the Merovingian Dynasty - Merovech (Merovee) - was king of the Salic Franks 448-457. Clovis, a Salian Frank belonging to a family supposedly descended from a mythical hero named Merovech, became the absolute ruler of a Germanic kingdom of mixed Roman-Germanic population in 486. He consolidated his rule with victories over the Gallo-Romans and all the Frankish tribes, and his successors made other Germanic tribes subjects of the Merovingian Dynasty. The remaining 250 years of the dynasty, however, were marked by internecine struggles and a gradual decline. During the period of Merovingian rule, the Franks reluctantly began to adopt Christianity following the baptism of Clovis, an event that inaugurated the alliance between the Frankish kingdom and the Roman Catholic Church. The most notable of the missionaries responsible for Christianizing the tribes living in Germany was Saint Boniface (ca. 675-754), an English missionary who is considered the founder of German Christianity.

Towards the end of 406, the Suevi, Vandals, and Alans approached the Rhine. Tradition relates that in 428 the Salian Franks were ruled by a certain Clodion, who resided at Dispargum in the district of Tongres. His reputed predecessor, Pharamond, must be dismissed as a wholly mythical character; the accounts of Clodion himself are more than doubtful. According to tradition, his relative Meroveus succeeded him as chief of the Salians. The mythical Meroveus was succeeded by his almost equally mythical son, Childeric, who died in 481. Clovis, son of Childeric, was raised on the shield by the Salians to be their war lord.

Starting out with a mere handful of followers, Clovis had by his military prowess attached a number of tribes to himself. Brought up in the Arian faith, he had married a Catholic wife. The conversion of the Merovingian chieftain, Clovis, to the Catholic faith is an event of primary importance in the history of the papacy. Observing the power and influence of the papacy, and anxious to avail himself of papal support, he professed conversion in 496, and his entire following united with him in adherence to Catholicism, three thousand of whom were baptized along with himself soon after his conversion. As he expected, the Catholics rallied around him as the only Catholic prince in the West, and assisted him in conquering the Arian princes. The Goths had become luxurious and disinclined to the hardships of war, and were easily overcome by the Prankish warrior. Victory followed victory until Gaul, Burgundy, and Bavaria were more or less firmly united under one government. Thus was established a vigorous Catholic power, which found its interest in promoting the papacy.

The Merovingian name may be traced to the beginning of the seventh century as the distinctive appellation of the royal family, and even of the French monarchy. This government was a despotism, tempered by assassination. From the moment in 613 that Clotaire II had united all the provinces in universal peace under the same sceptre, the Merovingian monarchy, so long agitated by civil dissensions, seemed to have gained ascendancy in the west. But the victory of this prince had been that of the aristocracy ; and the leudes, who had enriched themselves at the expense of the throne, had recently secured, from the weakness of their kings, the hereditary possession of those lands which roval munificence had at first permitted them to retain. As though the treaty of Andelot had been insufficient to guarantee the successive transmission of the seigneurial benefices, Clotaire II had still farther sanctioned the edict of 614, which had been voted by the representatives of the growing nobility, and consecrated by the assent of the bishops, who began, about this time, to participate in public affairs. By the middle of the eighth century the Merovingian rulers had degenerated and their power fell into the hands of the mayors of the palace. These were more attentive to the interests of the church than the earlier Merovingian rulers had been.

During the seventh and eighth centuries the Merovingian line of Frankish kings degenerated to a condition of weakness both pitiable and ridiculous. As the royal family became less worthy, the powers of government gradually slipped from its hands into those of a series of ministers commonly known by the title of Mayor of the Palace (Maiar Domus). Together with the aristocracy arose this new power, which was destined ultimately to achieve the total ruin of the Merovingian dynasty. The Mayors of the Palace, at first merely stewards of the royal household, had usurped the whole powers of the state. Pepin d'Heristal [r 687-714], absolute master in both in Neustria as well as in Austrasia, strengthened his power by the defeat of tributary peoples who had sought to regain their independence during the dissensions of the Franks. He disposed, at three different epochs, of the crown of Neustria, in favour of Clovis III, of Childebert III, and of Dagobert III, and bequeathed the mayoralty, at his death, to his grandson. Charles Martel, mayor of the palace (r 714-741), conquered the Saracens in 733, and more completely in 739, when he drove them from Provence. Charles Martel contrived to make his peculiar office hereditary, and at his death in 741 left it to be filled jointly by his two elder sons, Karlmann and Pepin the Short, decided that it would be to their interest to keep up the show of Merovingian royalty a little longer and in 743 allowed Childeric III to mount the throne.

The Merovingian institutions formed a new system composed of elements partly Roman, partly Germanic; and the powerful influence of Christianity must not be left out of account. These elements were combined in varying proportions according to circumstances, and according to the needs and even the caprices of men. These institutions were in a state of continual evolution, and those which obtained in Gaul in the time of Charles Martel are strikingly different from those in the time of Clovis. The kingdom was divided into districts known as pagi. At the head of the pagus was the count, comes. Unfortunately the Merovingian counts, greedy of gain and ill-supervised, did chiefly evil. Often it was necessary to concentrate in the hands of a single administrator authority over several counties. In this case the king placed over the counts a duke. The duke was principally a military leader; he commanded the army, and the counts within his jurisdiction had to march under his orders. The duchy did not form a permanent administrative district like the county ; it usually disappeared along with the circumstances that gave rise to the appointment.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:02:23 ZULU