The rise of the Carolingians or the decline of the Merovingians?
By Emily Wilson
Access History, Vol.2:1 (1998)
Introduction: The transference of power from the Merovingians to the Carolingians in France is one of the most confusing periods of early medieval history. In coming to a conclusion about whether this transference was due more the decline of the Merovingians, or more to the rise of the Carolingians, there are many considerations, often conflicting, and the sources are far from comprehensive. Nevertheless, this is a period which repays consideration, as it was instrumental in the formation of medieval France. Ultimately, a conclusion to the question ‘should we speak of the rise of the Carolingians or the decline of the Merovingians?’ may not be possible.
This essay will argue that the terms “rise” and “decline” suggest an inevitability which is not supported by the evidence. In so doing the focus will be almost exclusively on political history for the reason that this is the area that the documentary sources shed the most light. Unfortunately, while this is the area that leads to the most certain conclusions, this will mean that the paper will have to gloss over certain aspects of ecclesiastical and economic history—both areas which have a significant impact on this question, and have largely ignored the areas of military and diplomatic history, also important in any consideration of this period. By focusing on political history however, it will be shown that this was a period characterised by a vitality and change, where the eventual victors were far from certain.
The historian examining the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties faces a problem familiar to any historian of the early medieval period: the scarcity of sources. In one respect, the sixth century is well served by the works of Gregory of Tours. Gregory’s History of the Franks provides much important information about the politics, both secular and ecclesiastical, of the sixth century. It must be remembered, though, that Gregory was writing from the point of view of a bishop of the Catholic Church, and with a very decided bias in favour of this institution. He was also a member of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, and thus may have been biased against the Franks. It cannot be denied that he is sometimes inaccurate, and that his account of events is often distorted, whether intentionally or not. Apart from these flaws, he is, in many cases, the only source we have for events of this period, making it impossible to verify his version. His motives and audience in writing remain unclear, although J. M. Wallace-Hadrill has made some plausible suggestions.
The evidence for the seventh century is even more problematic. The main source is the Chronicle of Fredegar. This source provides interesting information, but has some obvious flaws, from the point of view of providing evidence. First and foremost, it is a chronicle and not a history, so it does little more than record a list of events. There are some inconsistencies in the record. There is some confusion over the author, or authors, making it difficult to judge the aim of the Chronicle. It ends in 642 (it was probably completed around 660). There are, of course, the continuations of Fredegar, but these were only added in the eighth century, and were probably composed on the instructions of Charles Martel’s halfbrother, Count Childebrand. This must cast great doubt on their neutrality. The Liber Historiae Francorum was written around 727, probably north of Paris, and relates events from a Neustrian perspective, providing an alternative point of view. However, it does date from a period when Charles Martel’s power was well established, and it is possibly not very accurate.