Episode 1: After the Fall, the Beginning
Back in 2016, I had the opportunity to visit France; as a part of this trip, my wife and I, like millions of others, made it a point to visit the Palace of Versailles just outside of Paris. Walking through the grounds, it was impossible not to be awed by everything in sight. The gardens were huge and immaculate, the main palace was ornate to the point of being gaudy, and in my mind every single item, no matter how large or small, was connected to 1,500 years of history. We strolled to the Petit Trianon and saw where Marie Antoinette took refuge from reality in an idealized village custom-tailored to her wants and tastes. We walked the Hall of Mirrors and stood in the same room where, 100 years before, world leaders signed a treaty that ended the first World War while simultaneously assuring everyone involved that there would be a second. Finally, we ended up in the Gallery of Battles, a massive hall filled with over a hundred busts and paintings depicting all of the military glories of France up through the year 1805. At the end of this hall, prominent in its place at the head of all of the other works of art, is a massive painting. It shows a moment of pitched fighting in the center of a major battle. The dead, wounded and dying are sprawled on the ground, and near the center of the picture a soldier looks to be falling backward with a freshly struck arrow lodged in his chest, right into the path of a black warhorse. Above all else, this is the part of the painting that catches the eye; not the dying soldier, but the horse and its rider. The horse is staring straight into the enemy lines and looks as if nothing in the world short of death will stop it from joining the fight. And atop this horse sits an exposed man with long hair, his arms held wide apart with his left hand extended toward the sky. He is practically inviting an arrow or a lance to hit his torso, something that would certainly kill him as he has on almost no armor. He is riding into battle with little more than the axe in his hand and the sword on his side for protection, and rather than looking at the battle raging around him he is looking to the sky. Even without knowing his story at the time, it was clear to me that he was invoking God to join his side in the fight.
This man, I was later to understand, was Clovis, one of the first individuals to truly be able to take on the mantle of “King of the Franks.” His painting, standing at the head of the Gallery, depicts the beginnings of modern-day France, a history that began all the way back in the 5th century and pre-dates even the “fall” of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE. This history is a part of so much of what defines “the West” today: the rise of the Catholic Church and the spread of Protestantism, the 100 Years War, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, burnings at the stake and beheadings with the guillotine; all of these events happened in the time of the French Kings and Queens. Sometimes these events happened to the French Kings and Queens. No matter the case, the impact of these people and the events of their times changed the world and shaped the course of events. But honestly, as I stood there on that day in Versailles, staring up at that guy on a horse, who was in turn staring to the heavens and imploring God to take his side, I really didn’t know all that much about this topic. What I have learned since then, and have continued to strive to learn more about, is a history that, quite honestly, puts most works of fiction to shame.
You see, the story of the French monarchy is about SO much more than the beehive hairdos and powdered faces of the French monarchs that most of us in the U.S. have become accustomed to seeing in movies and TV shows. Don’t misunderstand me, that is a part of it, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. What intrigues me, and that we will be diving into here, is the history of long-haired, mystical kings; of queens making power plays in a male-dominated society, and stories of patricide, fratricide, and every other type of -cide possible. It’s the history of court members making power grabs and overthrowing regimes; of deals made to unite religions and compel alliances; and of miracles, saints and relics appearing through the years to change the course of events and make the impossible possible. Professor Paul Freedman may have said it best when he said of these times, “we're into what certainly seems like a combination of thugs and miracles.”
Welcome to the inaugural episode of Thugs and Miracles, the podcast where we will be looking back at 1,500 years of European history, through the eyes of the kings and queens of France. Before we get too much deeper into the story, let’s talk about where we’re going to start. As I said earlier, the French monarchy starts back in the 5th century. What made me choose this specific time as the start point, you may ask? Well, there’s three reasons in particular. First, the area of modern-day France had been more or less under Roman control for centuries and had been known as Gaul. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 CE when Odoacer led the overthrow of Romulus, the last of the Roman emperors in the west, and became the King of Italy. The Germanic tribes had obviously been spreading for some time before this final dagger to the heart took place, but to start claiming a new dynasty before the old Empire was even dead seems slightly impetuous to me, so we’ll just start at 476.
On to reason number two: the group that would ultimately rise to power in France was, appropriately, the Franks. But in 476, the Franks were only one of many other Germanic tribes looking to expand their powers. Other tribes throughout Europe included, but were by no means limited to, the Visigoths, the Burgundians, the Alamanni, the Thuringians, the Frisians, the Saxons, the Danes, the Angles, the Jutes and the Ostrogoths. Even the Franks were not a united group; they were split into multiple factions that included, among others, the Salian Franks and the Ripurian Franks. Of these, the Salian Franks would ultimately take the lead, unify the tribes, and begin to amass territory. But as of 476, these groups held a relatively small chunk of the continental pie, with their borders essentially limited to the area of modern-day northern Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Long story short, the Franks had not yet become the capital-F Franks. To give a better idea of the situation, I’ve included a link to a map by Thomas Lessman in the show notes that really shows the situation very nicely. Lessman has also made a ton of other really cool world history maps over on his site worldhistorymaps.info, and I recommend checking them out.
So, all of that takes us to point three: the person who ultimately took the Franks from being a small northern tribe to being a West European powerhouse was that guy I mentioned earlier, the one on top of the horse imploring God for help, Clovis. Clovis didn’t begin his rise to power until 481, and it wasn’t until he was on the scene that things really started moving and shaking for the Franks. I mean, yeah, there were earlier people who took the title of King, and we’ll talk about two of them in subsequent episodes, but for all intents and purposes, Clovis was the first capital-K King of the capital-F Franks, and if you need any further proof of that, just remember, his portrait is the first one hanging in France’s Gallery of Battles. He kicks off France’s first royal dynasty, the Merovingians; the dynasty which took their name from Clovis’s grandfather, Merovech.
Before I go any further, let me recap: It’s 476 CE, the Western Roman Empire has just fallen, and the area that encompasses modern day France is divided between multiple tribes and sub-tribes. This leads to two questions: who exactly were these tribes, many of whom, such as the Angles, Saxons, Goths and Vandals, have names that are still known today, and why exactly was the loss of Roman hegemony such a distinct event?
As to the first question, who were the Germanic tribes: well, long story short, these tribes had kind of always been around in the north of Europe. Archaeological evidence indicates they most likely were present on the European plains of Denmark and southern Scandinavia as far back as the Neolithic Age, when humans first began controlling their environment through the use of agriculture and the domestication of animals. The tribes grew over the course of millennia, and with growth, they often took to migration in an effort to find new lands to harvest and grow. It’s pretty much the story of human existence in a microcosm. As groups migrated, they would eventually run into other groups and, people being people, conflict began. This conflict hardened the tribes, and they placed a premium on developing their people as warriors; this almost certainly explains how and why these groups were able to spread as far and wide as they did, it was a form of barbarian Darwinism. If you were born into a group and you wanted to feel as if you belonged and if you wanted to gain power, you naturally took on the ethnic identity of the group. For most of these, military force and participation was part and parcel of what it meant to belong to any given tribe. In the first century BCE, as these militaristic tribes moved south into what is modern-day southwestern Germany, they made contact with the great military power of the day, the Romans, as they were looking to expand their territory north into the region of Gaul. Both Caesar and Tacitus wrote about the Germans, with Tacitus describing their warlike behavior in this way:
“When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to ascribe one's own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; his vassals fight for their chief. If their native state sinks into the sloth of prolonged peace and repose, many of its noble youths voluntarily seek those tribes which are waging some war, both because inaction is odious to their race, and because they win renown more readily in the midst of peril, and cannot maintain a numerous following except by violence and war. Indeed, men look to the liberality of their chief for their war-horse and their bloodstained and victorious lance. Feasts and entertainments, which, though inelegant, are plentifully furnished, are their only pay. The means of this bounty come from war and rapine. Nor are they as easily persuaded to plough the earth and to wait for the year's produce as to challenge an enemy and earn the honour of wounds. Nay, they actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they might win by their blood.”
Now, we should take Tacitus’s description of the Germans with a grain of salt, as it’s unlikely that the Roman actually saw first-hand what he was writing about. His stories were colored by nearly two centuries of Roman interactions and warfare in Gaul, as well as those of travelers to the region. It’s more than a little possible that Tacitus was cherry-picking his facts as he wrote to spice up his descriptions. Another issue with the writing of Tacitus is that he penned his accounts of the Germanic tribes in the mid 1st century, so while his writing is interesting and colorful, it likely does not accurately represent the state of play in Gaul three to four centuries later. What Tacitus does give us with his writing is an insight into how Romans viewed the Germans, and also lends credence to the Roman point-of-view that the tribes on the border should be taken seriously as a threat. Patrick Wyman summed it up best in his outstanding Fall of Rome podcast: From the Roman point-of-view, which is the only point-of-view we have to work with since the Germanic tribes did not commit their history to writing, the barbarians “existed outside of history, an eternal unchanging force living outside the borders and opposed in every meaningful way to civilization itself as represented by the Greeks and the Romans.”
However, this xenophobic point-of-view put forth by the Romans of the barbarians as some sort of unstoppable horde was likely due as much to Roman politics as it was to any actual threat prior to 376 CE. In his book Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Guy Halsall notes the following:
“We cannot escape the conclusion that in the fourth century the struggle was still a hopelessly unequal one. The barbarians north of the Rhine-Danube line and Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea could hardly, even in concerted action, have contemplated the conquest of the Empire. Perhaps for that reason, before 376 and for a long time afterwards, none ever tried it. The ‘barbarian threat’ was as much a Roman creation as a barbarian reality.”
So what happened in 376? Well, long story short, Goths along the Danube began to pile up and place pressure on the border. These Goths were refugees from fighting inside of their territory, running from a Central Asian steppe group known as the Huns. The Huns, given the nickname the scourge of God, were cavalry soldiers who were able to make extremely fast charges into areas, often routing armies before they even had a chance to stand in resistance. The Huns were so effective that by 376, given the choice between facing the Huns or begging the Romans to let them across the Danube, the Goths chose the Romans. The Romans mishandled the situation and, after two years of mismanagement and outright incompetence, the Goths rebelled. This culminated in 378 when the Roman Emperor Valens, seeing a chance for a great military triumph with which to endow himself with glory, rushed into battle against the Goths in the town of Adrianople, with “rushed” being the key word. The Goths were able to counter the Roman’s attack, which emanated from a strung-out battle column, and then flank the Romans with their cavalry. The line fell in on itself, the eastern field army was slaughtered, and 10-20,000 quality troops were lost in one shot. The Emperor himself was killed, with a popular story claiming the Goths burned a farmhouse into which Valens had fled. Fighting continued for several more years after this incident, but in 382 the Goths signed a treaty with the Romans that allowed them to move into Roman territory as a semi-autonomous group, the first such group that was actually allowed to live on Imperial soil. From this point and forward, Roman power projection tends to get more and more confined. The Empire enlisted entire tribes to fight other groups and began to focus more and more on the defense of their southern holdings. By the early fifth-century, Rome had lost control of Britain entirely and had ceded much of northern Gaul politically and economically. The Franks, the Burgundians, Alemanni and Alans followed the Goths lead and moved into areas that had once been off-limits to them as holdings of the Empire.
Alright, now that we have an idea of who the Germanic tribes in Gaul were, how the Romans had generally viewed them, and how they arrived into the region, we move on to the second question, which was asking why the fall of the Roman Empire was such a big event for the region of Gaul and the people living there. Eventually, no matter whether you subscribe to the point of view of Rome falling mainly from outside pressures placed on the empire, or collapse from within caused by years of neglect, poor leadership, and general decay, the Western Roman empire did fall. But why was this such a big deal? Well, first off, as previously noted, the loss of the Roman Empire was a slow burn; the decline took place over centuries, and so it wasn’t like people just woke up one day in 476, á là 28 Days Later, just to realize that all of the Romans were gone. Instead, what happened took place over such a gradual length of time that it’s entirely possible that if you had been living amongst the Franks in 476 as Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor and took the mantle of King of Italy upon himself, you could have lived that entire year and never once have felt so much as a bump, historically-speaking. But for a century before this, there would have been a gradual withdrawal of the Romans from your area and from your day-to-day life as the Western Empire contracted and returned back to its Italian borders. You see, no matter how backward the Roman histories would like to portray the barbarians pressing on Rome’s borders, these groups were actually relatively tied into the Empire. Again, according to Patrick Wyman, in the geographic estuary that existed along the border, “the Romans and barbarians were friends, trading partners, political allies and tooth-and-claw enemies all at the same time.” Romans drew recruits for their legions out of the tribes and brought Roman goods to the north. For the Franks in particular, they had worked alongside and within the Empire, fighting against other Germanic tribes not so much for the aggrandizement of the Franks, as for the greater good of the Roman Empire. They actually fought against Attila and the Huns when they rampaged into Gaul; as we’ll see later, it’s entirely possible that Merovech, the man from whom the Merovingian Dynasty would eventually take their name, was present at these battles and fought on the side of the Empire. In fact, while writing about the Franks around 570, the Byzantine historian Agathias described the group in this way:
“The Franks are not nomads, as some of the barbarians certainly are, but actually follow a political system that is for the most part Roman, and the same laws as us. In other respects too – contracts, marriage and religion – they follow the same practice.”
Basically, the Franks had been Romanized, and once the Roman Empire left they did their best to hang on to a culture that they knew worked; of course, things changed and morphed over the course of time, but even nearly 100 years after the seminal event marking the end of the Western Roman Empire, representatives from the Byzantines, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, were still able to show up and see many of their rules, traditions, and administrative actions still in use.
One thing that did go, and that the Franks couldn’t simply copy or emulate, was the economy. Eventually, no matter how gradually it happened, the Romans were unable to continue power projection into Northern Gaul and left the area. When this happened, they not only left those who had been allied with them to fend for themselves, but they also took a pretty big source of economic wealth and activity with them. This left a vacuum that was going to be filled one way or another, and in this period of history, when might made right and, as Thomas Hobbes would put it, the life of man was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short,” the vacuum was going to be filled by those with the most military prowess. Military strength equaled the ability to expand and encroach on new lands, to raid and to gather plunder, and a way to make up for the fact that trade was no longer a very lucrative option. Enter the growing strength of the Franks. The group came out of the decline custom-built, so to speak, for the new world they were about to inhabit. Coming of age in that strange geopolitical estuary in the north, they were able to keep enough of what was Roman in terms of institutions and traditions, and marry it with the military strength needed to overcome what they lost economically, to become one of the strongest groups in Gaul.
There’s one final thing we must discuss to fully illustrate the setting of the time we are speaking about, and that’s religion (because after all, the show’s name is Thugs and Miracles). When the Franks were about to make their ascent, they were still pagan, but had had many inroads made into their culture through both the Arians and the Catholics. Not much is known about the pagan religion they had practiced up until this point, but they were certainly not entirely devoted to Christianity as of yet in 476. However, Christianity had been spreading in Gaul for several hundred years at that point, and the Church was gaining more and more strength. In fact, this strength grew to such a degree that historians have even asked how did the Christian religious position acquire so much power and control? Well, it was certainly a variety of factors, but long story short, the Roman governors left Gaul, just like the military did in our earlier discussion. The people who stepped into this vacuum were the bishops; they had the trust and faith of the people, the support of the Church, and as good a tie as anyone to the traditions and culture of Rome through their ties back to the Pope. As historian Yitzhak Yen wrote, this “could have also been aimed at and encouraged by the Church. But, it would never have been successful unless people had been ready to accept the authority of the bishop, and it seems that only a basically Christian society would have agreed to do so.”
The last part of that quote is particularly interesting to me, the part about a “basically Christian society.” Notice he didn’t say, “a Catholic society.” At this point, Christianity was still trying to figure itself out as a religion. It had gone from being state-persecuted to being state-sponsored within the Roman Empire relatively quickly, and it was only 164 years before the fall of the Empire that Constantine converted to the faith. 164 years is just not a lot of time, especially back in a time when transportation and communication took orders of magnitude longer than they do today. Additionally, there were different interpretations of Christianity going around, as I had mentioned; in 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in order to clarify a central ecumenical position, but this was only after the concept of Arianism had already taken hold in many different places. The difference between the Arians and the Church under Constantine was that the Arians stressed that God is unique and self-existent; he created Jesus, and therefore, Jesus was not self-existent and was not a part of God himself and was not co-eternal. The Roman Church said that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were all one and the same. This may sound like a fairly minor point to us today, but at the time it was a really big deal. Constantine exiled Arius, the head of the Arians, from the Empire, and the foundational theology of Arianism was denounced as heresy to the Roman Church. However, the cat was already out of the bag at that point, and Arians were spreading their version of Christianity in Gaul at the same time as the Roman Church. This led to the establishment of religious fault lines that, again, people being people, were quick to defend and exploit. As an example of this, Gregory of Tours book History of the Franks begins by clarifying his position without ambiguity: “As I am about to describe the struggles of kings with the heathen enemy, of martyrs with pagans, of churches with heretics, I desire first of all to declare my faith so that my reader may have no doubt that I am Catholic.” He goes on to stir the pot by saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord God, born of the Father, not created. [I believe] that he has always been with the Father, not only since time began but before all time. For the Father could not have been so named unless he had a son; and there could be no son without a father. But as for those who say: "There was a time when he was not, I reject them with curses, and call men to witness that they are separated from the church.” And really, that’s just page one of History of the Franks!
So that was the state of religion in 476: Christianity was wide-spread throughout Gaul, but there were still pockets of tribes that were as of yet unconverted, mainly in the north of the region. Of those who had converted, a schism had already formed between the Catholics who believed that Jesus, the Son, was a co-equal of God, the Father, and the Arians, who believed that Jesus was created by God and therefore not as divine as God himself. In 476, this schism was serious, but not out of control; however, the waters were being stirred, oftentimes by the holy men representing either side. At one point the Catholic Gregory of Tours even received a message from a member of the Visigoths, an Arian named Aglian, essentially telling Gregory to calm down. He said:
“You must not blaspheme against a faith which you yourself do not accept. You notice that we who do not believe the things which you believe nevertheless do not blaspheme against them. It is no crime for one set of people to believe in one doctrine and another set of people to believe in another. Indeed it is a proverbial saying with us that no harm is done when a man whose affairs take him past the altars of the Gentiles and Church of God pays respect to both.”
This level of thoughtfulness and respect was to become a hallmark of the Middle Ages; ha, yeah right, just kidding. Just as would happen between so many different sects in so many different religions over the course of history, the stage was set for a brutal showdown and a conquest of different groups, using the religious argument as a pretext for the coming violence. And such was the world into which the first Kings and Queens of France walked into. The crumbling, and sometimes still living, remnants of the Western Roman Empire, combined with the ascendancy of the Catholic Church, laid the groundwork for the political and economic situation in the area that had been Gaul, was about to become Francia, and would eventually become what we know it as today, France. The competition for power between multiple competing tribes living in a relatively confined area ensured that blood would be spilt and a winner, if such a term is even appropriate in such a brutal environment, would be the one who could harness all of these elements together. This competition was only going to be won by someone who was strong enough to impose his will, a thug, but no thug was strong enough to do it all alone. He was going to need the help of the Church and their saints and their relics. This thug was going to need a few miracles.
Alright, well thank you for joining me on this inaugural episode of Thugs and Miracles. I hope you stay with me for many more as we follow this thread over the course of 1,500 years. In two weeks we’ll be looking at Merovech, the man who gave his name to the first dynasty of French kings, and as you’ll see, it doesn’t take too long for things to get interesting, what with Merovech purportedly having been conceived by a sea-god and having fought against Attila in what was one of the few defeats inflicted on the great Hun, all before giving up his crown to his son, Childeric. The only problem is, Merovech maybe never existed at all, and is possibly only a part of history because his aquatic formation story was catnip for a population just leaving paganism behind, and the medieval historians who wanted to imbue their leaders with miraculous properties. We’ll explore this, the Battle of Chalôns, and much more next week.
One last thing before we go, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode and a list of sources will also be available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please stop by and leave a comment. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle, or leave a comment on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ThugsAndMiracles/. Finally, if you enjoyed the show and have a moment, please consider leaving a review on whichever platform you get your podcasts. My name is Benjamin Bernier, and I’ll look to see you in two weeks with the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.