Episode 2: Merovech, the Ghost Who Spawned A Dynasty
On a bright summer day In 410 CE, a young woman was enjoying herself near the North Sea, near to the English Channel, while spending the summer there with her husband. Their summer residence, away from where they spent the rest of their year in Tournai in modern-day Belgium, allotted her the time to enjoy the simpler things in life: sunshine, fresh sea air, and a small respite from the near-constant battle planning her husband and his soldiers were perpetually engaged in. More than all of these, however, she had the chance to revel in being newly pregnant and awaiting a child, her first. You see, this young woman was a queen; she was young and she was pretty, and she had caught the eye of Chlodio, the king of the Salian Franks in Northern France. She had one role in this life, and that was to produce for her king a male heir who would, in time, take on the role of King himself. She could feel the baby inside of her now; all she had to do was wait.
On this day in 410, the young queen rested through the morning before finally deciding at around noon to go to the water to bathe. She went down to the shore alone; the area was secure and the weather was calm. She had bathed in this same water in the same way many times before, and on this day there were no signs to indicate that anything would be different for her. This young woman, this young queen, walked down to the water and, facing the sea, took off her clothes. No one looking at her from the direction of the water on that day would have noticed the small rise of her belly where Chlodio’s child had just started to grow inside of her. With that, she stepped forward into the waves. The water lapped over her feet, then rose over her body to her waist, then further up until it covered her shoulders. Finally, the young queen closed her eyes, held her breath, and plunged her head into the water.
When she rose again out of the water, she could tell without even opening her eyes that she was not alone. She smiled, assuming that the only person who would have the temerity to come near her as she, the queen of the Franks, bathed, would be her husband and the father of her child. The thought briefly crossed her mind in the instant before she opened her eyes, “How did he get here without me noticing? And all the way around me to the far side from the shore…” She opened her eyes to see her husband; but he wasn’t there. There was, however, a sight that our young queen could never have imagined in her wildest imagination.
Before her in the water was a massive creature, half fish in the same vein as a mermaid from the waist down, and from the waist up the huge, broad body of a bull. Neither spoke a word, because somehow in his presence she knew that this creature had been sent forth by Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Having been sent to her by a god, the queen relented and put up no fight; I mean, what good would it do to fight against the bull-headed proxy of a god? The beast, the quinotaur, began to swim around her. He encircled her and pulled her further out to sea, away from the sight of any mortal who would dare to attempt to stop him. Once away from land, the quinotaur stopped circling and came directly upon the pregnant queen; he pulled her to him and, surprisingly gently, made love to her in the sea. When they had finished, the queen could feel the change inside of her; the quinotaur had not hurt her unborn child, but rather, had added his divinity to the child. The baby inside the young queen remained Chlodio’s, but now carried with it the strength and the power of the Gods. The quinotaur, finished with his task, returned the queen to the shore. She put on her clothes and returned to the safety of her home and her husband. She never divulged to anyone what had happened to her on that day, and several months later she delivered to her husband her first child, a masculine child named Merovech. This child, born of both man and the gods, would go on to be powerful in will and invincible in battle, and he himself would lend his name to the line of kings who followed in his wake: The Merovingian Dynasty.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Alright, I have to admit to having taken a bit of liberty with the original story concerning Merovech and his parentage, not insofar as making up new details about the scene, but insofar as trying to make the story more, well, relatable. You see, the fable of Merovech’s dual father parentage was written around 660 CE in a book called the Chronicle of Fredegar; the story, as recounted there, reads much more factually, as if the author is simply committing to paper a half-fact/half-rumor that everybody already knows, which in this case was the fact that the Merovingian kings descended from the gods. Fredegar wrote:
“It is said that, when Chlodio was staying with his wife on the seashore in the summer, his wife went to the sea around noon to bathe and a beast of Neptune resembling the quinotaur sought her out. Right away she conceived by either the beast or her husband and afterwards gave birth to a son called Merovech, after whom the kings of the Franks were later called Merovingian.”
Too simple, right? I mean, the way Fredegar writes the story, everyone just kind of knows and accepts what happens. No one takes issue with the idea of the queen having been seduced, coerced or assaulted. No one seems to mind the idea that their new king has a third party involved in its creation, or that it’s just kind of weird for any number of reasons that a fish/bull hybrid was the best idea the gods had to impregnate a young woman – and believe me, people have tried to sketch this out, and it never quite makes sense. Nope, everyone is just kind of cool with the idea that the new crown prince is a demi-god.
And for what it’s worth, that’s probably the way the kings of that time would have wanted this story to be taken. You see, 660 is just slightly after the midway point of the Merovingian dynasty and 90 years removed from when the dynasty would be replaced by the Carolingians. The world of 660 was shrouded in superstition, and kings were no exception. The Merovingian kings reveled in their ability to give the perception of being mystical healers; they wore their hair long as a sign of their position and their abilities, and they actively used the power of, and their alliance with, the Catholic Church to keep up the appearance of God’s rightful rulers. Certainly, allowing a myth to perpetuate that their entire lineage could be connected directly to the gods was unlikely to produce any harm while at the same time pushing their aura of supernatural supremacy. They may not have actively promoted it, but if the thought were out there…
Anyway, let’s get back to Merovech for the time being. Who was he? Well, the short answer is: We’re not exactly sure. There are several stories of Merovech that point to the notion that he was the King of the Salian Franks, the portion of the Franks living nearest the sea in what is nowadays Belgium and the Netherlands. He was possibly the father or brother of Childeric, who was in turn the father of Clovis, and he was maybe present at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, aka the Battle of Châlons, the epic battle that handed Attila the Hun his only significant military loss. However, none of this is set in archaeological fact, and plenty of what has been set down in the preeminent histories of these times is pretty scant. Take, for example, Gregory of Tours and his description of Merovech in his History of the Franks:
“Certain authorities assert that king Merovech, whose son was Childeric, was of the family of Chlogio.”
And – that’s it. I mean, for being the well-spring of a dynasty and a guy born as the result of a lunchtime tryst with a god’s pet bull-fish, not to mention someone who stood in battle against one of the greatest military commanders of all time and won, it’s just plain weird that Gregory didn’t devote more time to him in the History of the Franks. As we’ll see, Gregory loved a good story as much as anyone, so in a way it is telling that he didn’t have much to say about Merovech. And for that matter, it wasn’t just Gregory who wasn’t talking about Merovech: in his General Chronological History of France written over a millennium later in the 17th century, François de Mézeray notes, “He Reigned almost 11 years, and dyed Anno 458. We know nothing either of his Age, nor of his Wife, nor his Children, but only that Childeric his Successor was his Son.”
Alright, with all of this being said, let’s focus for a moment on the major event that occurred in the time period when Merovech would have been alive, the aforementioned Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, also known as the Battle of Châlons. Again according to de Mézeray, in this battle, “Aetius, General of the Romans, Meroveus, King of the French, and Theodoric, King of the Visigoths…joyned their Armies together.” In this way, the great powers of Gaul banded together in common cause to stop Attila, the so-called scourge of God, from marching any further into their territory. But there is so much more to this story…
First off, who was Attila? According to the Roman historian Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, Attila was “of middle height, he was manly in appearance and well made, neither too frail nor too heavy; he was quick of wit and agile of limb, a very practiced horseman and a skillful archer, he was indefatigable with the spear. A born warrior, he was renowned for the arts of peace, without avarice and little swayed by desire, endowed with the gifts of the mind, not swerving from his purpose for any kind of evil instigation.” He was also at the head of an alliance of his Huns and multiple other tribes, all of whom followed him not so much because of his manly appearance, but because he was considered nearly invincible in battle and therefore a sure thing to earn his warriors plunder through raids and warfare. He had been running through the Eastern Roman Empire for nearly a decade prior to the Battle of Châlons on June 20, 451, and after so much time in the East he was started to realize three things: first, the East was getting pretty much dried up after so much success by the Huns; second, the West had been pretty much untouched and was still loaded with wealth; and third, with the legions in the East pretty much destroyed, there was no risk of Attila getting blindsided from the rear if he decided to cross the Rhine. It wouldn’t take much convincing to push Attila to attack; enter Honoria, the sister of the Western Roman Emperor Valentin III.
Honoria was one of those women who crops up throughout history who had the habit of not liking to be told what to do and who had the gumption to do something about it. This habit has led many historians to label her as wanton and/or promiscuous, which quite honestly probably tells all of us much more about the views of the historian writing about her than the woman herself. At any rate, sources tell us that Honoria was married off to a Roman senator named Bassus Herculanus; not wanting to marry the senator - but also given no say in the matter by her brother Valentin – Honoria took matters into her own hands and sent word to Attila in the spring of 450 that she could use his help to get her out of her unwanted marriage. Sources differ about what she said exactly, but Attila apparently read it exactly how he wanted to read it. He responded to her by essentially saying “Yes, I will marry you, and I’ll also take half of the Western Empire as dowry.” Now this could have been Honoria’s plan, or it could have been the worst possible misreading of a letter asking for a little support, but either way, Honoria’s message essentially gave Attila the pretext he needed to invade the West. Valentin refused to give away half of his Empire, and Attila crossed the Rhine in early 451.
It didn’t take long, and Attila, along with the Ostrogoths, the Ripuarian Franks, the Thuringii, the Gepids, the Scirii, the Heruli, and a group of the Burgundians, began tearing into Gaul. He had some famous individuals helping him as well, such as Valamir and Odoacer – the latter would later have the glory in history to depose the last Roman Emperor in the West in 476 and complete the “fall” of Rome – and together they sacked Strasbourg, Metz, Cologne, Amiens and Reims. They were able to get as far as the modern-day city of Orleans before Rome was able to send a force to meet them.
The Romans were a more thrown-together band of forces. The Roman commander, Magister Militum Flavius Aetius (“the last of the Romans”) was in Northern Italy when Attila pounced, and had to make his way north to meet the Hunnic invasion while simultaneously receiving no real support from the hapless Emperor, and having to grow his forces by begging, borrowing and convincing other Gallic tribes to join him along the way. The most important of these was arguably Theoderic I, the leader of the Visigoths. Theodoric initially resisted this call to arms, something Attila was counting on. Attila had likely figured that Theodoric would take this opportunity to break off from the Romans and grow stronger while Aetius weakened himself against the Huns. After some time, however, Theodoric decided that working with the Romans was preferable to dealing with the Huns, and he threw his lot in with Aetius. Other members of this hastily assembled force included the Burgundians, Saxons, Armoricans, and Alans, as well as the Salian Franks. They were able to arrive at Orleans just in the nick of time: Attila’s forces were breaching the walls, and the bulk of his force was setting up outside of the city. Aetius and his warriors were able to jump into the fight and take advantage of the urban environment to push back the Hun’s mounted warriors. They were pushed out of the city and into retreat, with Aetius hot on their heels and able to overrun the rear guard. SIDE NOTE: This last part got me a little, since the Huns were supposed to be mainly a mounted force while much of the Roman force was on foot. It seems to be entirely possible that the Huns were either physically tired from having breached the walls of Orleans, while the Romans and their tribal counterparts were still relatively new to the fight and fresh, or that the Huns had literally plundered so much in their run through the Western Empire that they were physically weighed down by how much they had taken. Either way, the fact that the rearguard was overtaken while in retreat should tell you something.
Anyway, Attila used his retrograde to find a place more suitable for his style of fighting, and ultimately fell back to the Catalaunian Plains near Châlons. The ground in this area was nearly flat except for a hill on Attila’s left flank. Both sides prepared for the fight, and it must have been a tremendous sight that night before the battle to see both sides arrayed for combat. Sources claim that both sides brought hundreds of thousands of men to the field, with one even claiming that the death toll alone for both sides was as high as 160,000. These numbers are almost certainly grossly exaggerated, and contemporary historians place the total numbers of soldiers fighting in the battle at closer to 30-50,000 men per side. This is still an extraordinary number of soldiers on a medieval battlefield, and also speaks volumes of the abilities of Aetius to gather such a large force in such a relatively short amount of time. Anyway, with the single hill as the one piece of key terrain, I will pass the narrative over to the 6th century historian Jordanes for some color commentary:
“So then the struggle began for the advantage of position we have mentioned. Attila sent his men to take the summit of the mountain, but was outstripped by Thorismud [crown prince of the Visigoths] and Aetius, who in their effort to gain the top of the hill reached higher ground, and through this advantage easily routed the Huns as they came up. When Attila saw his army was thrown into confusion by the event he [urged them on with a fiery harangue and . . .] inflamed by his words they all dashed into the battle. And although the situation was itself fearful, yet the presence of the king dispelled anxiety and hesitation. Hand to hand they clashed in battle, and the fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting---a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded. There were such deeds done that a brave man who missed this marvelous spectacle could not hope to see anything so wonderful all his life long. For if we may believe our elders a brook flowing between low banks through the plain was greatly increased by blood from the wounds of the slain. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled with gore. In their wretched plight they were forced to drink what they thought was the blood they had poured out from their own wounds.”
In the heat of this terrific battle, the Alans – never really the most reliable troops anyways, and fighting on the side of Aetius – were driven from the field. This exposed the Visigoth’s flank and nearly led to a panic, but Theodoric was able to save the day by quickly riding to the scene and imploring his forces onward. When doing this, however, he was knocked from his horse and, unlike Jon Snow, was trampled to death upon hitting the ground. Human psychology under stress is a strange thing though, and for some reason the death of their commander actually served to increase the fighting spirit of the Visigoths. They held the line and ultimately succeeded in pushing the Hunnic forces back. On the other side of the field, less is known about the exploits of Aetius and the Romans. This could be because Aetius pulled his punches and chose to save as much of his legion as possible, but it’s also possible that the historical sources, such as Jordanes, had a Gothic background and chose to write more about the exploits of his people than of the Romans. Either way, little is known about the left (Roman) side of the line compared to the right (Visigothic) side. What we do know is that Thorismund, the Visigoth crown prince, regrouped his forces on the far right of the line and charged the enemy flank, ultimately driving the Ostrogoths from the field and forcing the Huns to fall back. At this point dusk began to fall and the fighting ended for the day.
The following morning, Attila had a massive pyre erected; this was not so much for his fallen fighters, but for himself. Attila’s position was incredibly tenuous, and he probably could have been attacked again. Atilla built the pyre with this in mind, and likely decided that if everything went badly for him, that he would rather give himself to the flames than to his enemies. Luckily for him, politics ruled the day. Aetius decided that a diminished and controllable Hunnic force would provide a nice counterweight to the north and east to help keep some of the more rebellious Germanic tribes in line, and he also likely didn’t want to gamble on an uncertain outcome against one of the greatest military conquerors the world had seen to that point. Instead, he convinced Thorismud, the crown prince, to go back to Toulouse, well to the south and west, and make his claim for the Visigothic crown before his brothers could beat him to the punch in the wake of his father’s death. He then withdrew the rest of his forces and allowed Attila to fall back over the Rhine and out of Gaul. This would serve as the last great Roman victory for the Western Roman Empire, and would also lay the groundwork for Attila to head around as south toward Italy. He would die before getting to take full credit for the fall of Rome, but as I mentioned earlier, his lieutenant Odoacer would be there to finish the job in 476.
So now that I have spent all of this time talking about the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, did you notice anyone missing from the narrative? If you said Merovech, I would tend to agree with you. Almost all of the sources seem to agree that the Franks fought on both sides of the conflict and were minor parties to the battle in both formations. Almost nothing is written of what Merovech actually did at the battle, which begs the question: What was his role in all of this? Was he even there?
For what it’s worth, I have come to fall into the camp that believes Merovech may not have even existed or, if he did, he could have just as easily been part of some messy family politics that actually ended with him fighting and dying on the losing side at the Battle of Châlons. For starters, he’s barely mentioned by relative contemporaries such as Gregory of Tours. Gregory may have had a desire to gloss over the Frank’s pre-Clovis and pre-Catholic history, but he was able to come up with an entire paragraph discussing Clovis’s great-grandfather, Clodio, and an even longer write-up discussing the wanton ways of Childeric, Clovis’s dad. But Merovech, the grandfather? He got just that one line, and even that was couched with the mitigating opening phrase of “Certain authorities assert…” Outside of his aquatic conception tale, there’s just not that much out there talking about the guy.
Beyond writing, there’s no archaeological evidence to help Merovech’s case either. The tomb of his son Childeric was found on May 27, 1653 and provided a wealth of information about both Childeric and Clovis. It was filled with coins and assorted treasures, as well as the remains of the royal stable – indicating the horses were sacrificed to join their master in death. All in all, it was a relatively lavish affair, and as a result we can confirm Childeric’s existence. We even have a crude idea of what he have looked like, thanks to his likeness having been captured on a signet ring. None of this exists for Merovech.
In an interesting paper on this topic, author and historian Dane Pestano lays out a final, interesting argument against the existence of Merovech based on the timeline of births and deaths that historians feel reasonably confident about. From his paper:
“So we end up going in circles looking for an imaginary King Merovech who surely never existed. Take away Merovech and everything works perfectly. Childeric born in 435 then becomes the younger son of Chlodion, described by Priscus, the elder son’s name unknown. In 450 Childeric would have become 15 and entitled to his portion of the kingship, causing the dispute with the elder brother. His brother sided with the Hun of Atilla. It’s probably where he met his end at the Battle of Châlons. Our only stumbling block is Gregory’s statement that Childeric was the son of Merovech. This may purely be due to the legend that was developing at the time.”
So, long story short, if we can accept the idea that Gregory was writing about Merovech as a tacit acknowledgement that people were talking about his crazy origin story and the Merovingian king’s having a demi-god embedded in their ancestry, rather than out of a well-researched genealogy, then it’s easier to take him out of the equation. And if we take him out of the equation, nothing is really lost in the timeline of this era.
With all that said, it is possible that Merovech existed and his exploits were simply not well recorded, and any physical traces of his existence have been lost over the years. But for my money, it makes more sense that Merovech’s name entered the history books when oral traditions started passing down the story of a quinotaur mixing his demi-god genetics into the bloodline of the Frankish kings; in general, people enjoy stories like that, and the Frankish kings probably wouldn’t have been in any rush to dispel rumors of their divine ancestry. If that’s the case, I can see where Gregory would be willing to write about the existence of the man in general – essentially bowing to popular opinion - but, not wanting to give credence to a pagan story, omitted the parts about aquatic sea monsters impregnating a queen. Later writers such as Fredegar owned the story, and in that way Merovech not only becomes “real,” but also becomes a great starting point when talking about the line of Frankish kings due to his supposed divinity. And with that, the Merovingian dynasty got its name, even though Merovech himself possibly never even existed.
One final alibi, if you’ll permit me: my OCD begins to kick in when I leave a key person’s story unfinished, so going forward you can expect me to do this near the end of our shows as we say goodbye to historical figures who played a role in our history but don’t move on to the next episode. This week, we’ll finish Attila and Honoria, the two whose star-crossed love launched the Hunnic invasion of Gaul. As for the first, Attila, he was quick to regroup after his loss near Châlons. He moved into Italy, destroyed Milan and marched on Rome. He never took the “Eternal City,” either because a) Pope Leo I was able to send out an embassy to Attila, successfully imploring him to not sack the city, b) the Huns believed Rome was cursed and capturing it would bring them ruin, c) Attila’s army was wrung out due to the malaria and dysentery that was endemic in Italy at that time, or d) a combination of all of the above. Whichever path you chose, the end result was that Attila ultimately fell back to defend his own territory once he received word of the Eastern Roman Empire attacking his rear. In 453, he had one final night of partying after getting married yet again, though never to Honoria, and on that marital night he withdrew to his room and suffered what was possibly the worst nosebleed in all of recorded history, dying unceremoniously in his sleep.
As for Honoria, she didn’t fare much better, and depending on how you look at it, worse. Mark Longo put it succinctly:
“Ultimately, Honoria became neither Roman empress nor a Hun queen. Attila never rescued her, and she was eventually sent back to Rome and left to her brother's justice. Not wanting to cause a scandal by having her executed, and unwilling to send her back into exile where she could scheme again, Valentinian settled on a suitable third option. After years of struggle, Honoria finally suffered the fate she had been dreading all along: She was married off to an elderly Roman senator, and the rest of her life went unrecorded by history.”
As Oscar Wilde would say centuries later, and as Honoria would almost certainly agree, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Alright, thank you for joining me on this second episode of Thugs and Miracles. In our next episode we’ll be moving on to more tangible history and looking in more depth at Childeric. While I don’t doubt his existence, you’ll see that the history stays messy. Depending on who you believe, he was either a competent military commander who greatly expanded the holding of the Franks and fathered one of their greatest kings, or he was a degenerate who was sent into exile for being a bit too over-the-top and crude, even for a 5th century Germanic tribal leader. We’ll explore this in detail and see if we can’t form our own opinion.
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.