• Ben

Never Research Your Heroes

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

There's a saying that you should never meet your heroes. Well, as I recently found out, you should never research them either.

You see, I had heard nothing but good things about King Dagobert I. He's the Good King, le bon roi Dagobert! He's a part of children's rhymes and has even been a part of French buddy comedy movies. And, more than all of that, tons of historians fawn over the guy; he's the "last great Merovingian King" and supposedly had “the ruthless energy of a Clovis and the cunning of a Charlemagne.”

This painting, by Emile Signol (1804-92) belongs to the Portraits of Kings of France, a series of portraits commissioned between 1837 and 1838 by Louis Philippe I and painted by various artists for the Musée historique de Versailles
Dagobert Ier, roi d'Austrasie, de Neustrie et de Bourgogne

With this in mind, I began my research; I was certain to love this guy, right? Well, I started off with the best of intentions and... was surprised that the first thing I found out about him was that he was kind of a snot as a kid. He whipped one of his Dad's friends and then ran away from being punished. If not for the intercession of a Saint, Chlothar II probably would have killed him before Dagobert could ever get to a throne.

Alright, thinks I, he was a wayward kid; who wasn't?! He'll get better... So fast forward a few years, and the young King - given a realm by his Dad to practice on - decides that a war sounds like fun. Maybe he's about to show us the stuff of Great Alexander, a military prodigy just waiting for his chance to shine. So just like Alexander, he lines up his army and runs out into the field... and unlike Alex, Dagobert gets knocked out and has a chunk of his scalp ripped off. His men carry him to safety, and he's forced to place a collect call to Chlothar to come pick him up. Which his Dad does, but not without having to display some heroics of his own.

So again, here I am thinking that maybe war wasn't Dagobert's thing, but that's okay because he was le bon roi and good things have to be just around the corner. So on I read, figuring he must have been a great husband... and that's when Frédegar tells us that the list of concubines that Dagobert takes to bed is too long a list to have to write out in full. He leaves one wife, runs off to get another, leaves the second wife when she doesn't have a kid 30 seconds after they're married, gets one of the concubines pregnant, then sends her off to a nunnery when he gets back around wife #2 and "can't resist her caresses." And then he finally gets his wife pregnant, but with all of the "debauchery" going on I can't help but think it strange that Dagobert doesn't have kids everywhere. Which then makes me think that maybe his concubine and his wife gave him a little help, a head-start so to speak, in making their heirs... especially if they knew he wasn't going to get the job done alone. Which then makes me question the whole bloodline of the Merovingian dynasty...

So where are we at? Dagobert was a spoiled brat, he was a garbage military leader, and he may have screwed up the royal lineage. He must have something huge about to happen! I think excitedly, just knowing that centuries of historians couldn't be this wrong.

Well, something huge did possibly happen: Dagobert may have launched one of the first widely successful pogroms against the Jews! Because, already being unlikeable as things were, Dagobert took a turn toward absolutely detestable. From the podcast:

"You see, the Edict of Paris, signed in 614 by Chlothar II, banned all Jews from public office; however, Dagobert - at the urging of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius - seems to have gone a step further. According to the Gesta Dagoberti, a biography of the King’s life, “King Dagobert…led by the zeal of God and with the advice of the pope and of the wisest men, he ordered that all the Jews that were not willing to receive new birth through holy baptism be immediately driven from the ends of his realm.” Thomas MacMaster, in a really well-written article entitled, “The Pogrom That Time Forgot”, tells us that, “the most successful purge of Jews was probably that undertaken in Merovingian Gaul. The few known sources claim that all Jews there had either been converted or driven out. This may be credible as there is no positive evidence for the existence of a Jewish community within Francia in the century after Dagobert.”

Yep, Dagobert makes the jump into the ranks of Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and Hitler by taking part in genocide. And then he dies! He gets dysentery from drinking dirty river water and he dies. Like, the most anticlimactic death possible for a King touted as "great" and "good." All of this leaves me wondering: What were centuries of historians thinking???

For what it's worth, Dagobert appears to have had a pretty progressive Court, and he endowed a ton of resources into Saint Denis. The property that would go on to become the burial place of the Kings (and the site of the 1998 World Cup win by France; allez les Bleus!). But seriously, the Court was maybe something he was an active part of setting up, but more than likely it was his advisors who made it a proper place to learn and network. And as far as the Shrine of Denis, well, given his life story I kind of feel like Dagobert was trying to buy his way out of sin rather than setting up a lasting monument. And while it would eventually become a massive and elaborate tomb, I again can't bring myself to believe that that was what Dagobert was actively aiming for. If nothing else, Dagobert was the King; it wasn't like he was giving the Church his last two dimes or going hungry. And none of this, even if it actually was remarkable, makes up for the possible persecution of an entire faith. While I try to stay politically neutral and give historical figures the benefit of "it was different back then," genocide is always bad. Remember that if you take nothing else away from this article: genocide = bad.

So in the end, my research "hero" gave money that had no practical effect on his life to the Church for a monument to aggrandize himself, and he was the de facto head of a Court he probably had little to do with growing and maintaining. And that's it. These are the items that have had scholars "oohing" and "ahhing" for generations, and I don't know how to feel about this.

Maybe I missed something. Maybe everyone else is right and I'm just too dense to get it.

Or maybe, I formed my own opinion based on my own research, and found out that the common narrative is not always the correct narrative. Maybe I learned something, and in this case, it's this:

If you don't want to ruin your heroes, don't shine too bright a light on them...

To hear the whole podcast on the death of Dagobert and his legacy, click here or on the Podcast tab above!

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