Merovingian partitions: a ‘genealogical charter’?

Merovingian partitions: a ‘genealogical charter’?

By Marc Widdowson

Early Medieval Europe, Vol.17:1 (2009)

Abstract: This paper considers the classic accounts of Frankish partitions in 511 and 561 in light of the agenda of Gregory of Tours in the later 580s. While the partitions’ political origins have long been emphasized, the concern here is with the political motivations of the source on which we depend, almost exclusively, for our knowledge. This discussion questions whether there were ever actually definite agreements to divide the kingdom, and suggests claims about shared inheritance supplied a ‘genealogical charter’ that justified and deflected attention from the interests of people like Gregory, in what was a continuously contested, evolutionary process.

Introduction: It is thirty years since an influential paper changed the way historians think about the Frankish partition of 511 – no longer as a realization of traditional Germanic practice but as a context-specific settlement between Theuderic, Clovis’s most mature heir, and Chlothild, the mother of Clovis’s younger but more legitimate sons. The argument is now generally accepted, and not only among Anglophone scholars. Some who see a role for ‘the inheritance and succession rights of the sons’ nevertheless concede that matters were ‘presumably not determined by this exclusively’. Another partition occurred in 561, after Chlothar I died, and here even Gregory of Tours acknowledges the political dimension, no doubt because it occurred in his own lifetime. While Chilperic I tried to monopolize the succession, his half-brothers soon forced him to divide the kingdom among them all.

My aim here is to reconsider what Gregory says about these partitions in light of another recent strand of scholarship, that concerned with exposing Gregory’s artifices and agendas. Specifically, I will argue Gregory’s assertions about partitions in 511 and 561 were designed to underpin assumptions implicit in the Treaty of Andelot (587), a ‘live’ issue at the time he was writing. Anthropologists have the concept of a ‘genealogical charter’, whereby past family relations are used to explain and legitimize present-day relations between social groups, and such that the putative genealogy changes to match the situation on the ground. Gregory seems to have been doing something similar, sanitizing past politics and casting them in an easily understood inheritance model, to account for the divisions that existed in his own day. To show the artificiality of Gregory’s construction, I will explore evidence that the politics of ’511′ and ’561′ were more drawn out and contested than previously emphasized. By ‘drawn out’, I mean in the order of decades rather than years, and by ‘contested’, that the rival kings had different conceptions of what, if anything, had been agreed.

The structure of the paper is as follows. First, I will make some brief remarks about 511, concerning additional challenges to the idea of a shared inheritance among four brothers. I will then discuss the civil wars after 561, suggesting that these deny the existence of any formal, consensual partition, and that belief in the partibility and heritability of the kingdom was the contentious position of one faction. Finally, I will show how the Treaty of Andelot relies on this contentious position, and that Gregory was closely aligned with the thinking that lay behind it. My argument is that while inheritance did not determine the kingdom’s political divisions, it provided a conceptual resource that could be used to describe and defend them.

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