By William M. Daly
Speculum, Vol. 69, No. 3 (1994)
Introduction: Bona fide historians who prefer secondary sources, especially deceptive ones, to primary sources do not come readily to mind. In modern accounts Charlemagne prospers without the archangel Gabriel as a strategic guide. Anglo-Saxon and Norman tall stories about William the Conqueror have given way to writs, Domesday Book, and the Bayeux Tapestry. Columbus no longer astounds his contemporaries by his standing eggs on their heads, and further down the road of time, George Washington’s shoulders have flexed free of the burden of Mason Weem’s pieties. Yet many twentieth-century historians continue to reprocess as gospel sixth-century legends and didactic fiction that portrays the first Frankish king of Gaul as a thoroughgoing barbarian.
In the meantime the primary sources have rarely been allowed to speak clearly and fully, center stage, in their own voices. Instead, when they have not been neglected, what they can divulge has too often been subordinated to providing context for less trustworthy materials or to furnishing incidental grist, sometimes mistranslated, for speculative modern hypotheses. My purpose in what follows is to draw attention to what the early sources can offer on their own, individually and as a group. Random survivals by coincidence that they are, they undeniably constitute a tantalizing incomplete jigsaw puzzle of information. Nonetheless, the features of the real-life Clovis who fragmentarily emerges from them fit together into a stunning surprise.