• Ben

Season 2, Episode 6: Love, War and Politics

Samo sat alone before his campfire. Though his eyes were closed and he looked to be asleep, he was actually considering the battle to take place the next day and how best to prosecute his attack. The man was a successful military commander many times over, and any and all of his compatriots knew better than to disturb him as he planned for battle. He had earned this respect from them, his Slavic army, but tonight in particular they shied away from him so as to allow him to better sharpen his tactics for the coming struggle. Because tomorrow was not going to be a battle like so many others they had fought, battles in which the Slavic Wends showcased their military superiority. No, tomorrow was to be a battle against the greatest power in the land besides the Byzantines, the greatest army of any group in the West.

Tomorrow’s battle was to be against the Franks. And Samo, the great leader of the Slavs, was particularly attached to this battle since he had, after all, started his life as one of those in the West. To all of those in the camp, he was Samo the King, but he had begun his time with them as Samo the Frank.

Samo victorious
Samo with his army (drawing by Karel Rélink)

A decade earlier, Samo had been a lowly merchant, a seller of weapons who cared little about who he sold to or how the arms he procured were used. His was a simple trade: find the person or people willing to give him the most for the stock he had on hand at any given time. And the Wends had been among his favorite customers; living just to the east of Austrasia, they were constantly battling to free themselves from their long-time oppressors, the Avars. Something about their status as underdogs appealed to Samo, and he developed a rooting attachment to the group. He was happy each time their leaders returned to him in search of more swords and pikes, axes and shields, and he even began to reduce his rates to help supply them better. In return, the Wends repaid him with women; he seemed to have a new wife from them every year and a son or a daughter from that wife. His growing family, coupled with the ongoing mismanagement he saw in his homeland of Francia, made him more and more an immigrant to the Wends.

One day in 622, Samo was finishing a deal with some of the senior chiefs of the tribe when he heard them discussing battle plans for yet another fight against the Avars. He noted the intention by these senior strategists to meet the opposition on open ground in the middle of a field not far from where they currently spoke. Samo, despite his normal habit of remaining neutral in the business of warring parties to whom he could supply more product, finally could not help himself as he listened to the men commit themselves to a plan he knew would be a losing one. He spoke: “I understand, as I am sure all of you do as well, that the Avars will meet you on the field of battle riding the horses for which they are famed. So as I hear you discussing the notion of taking to battle with them in an open field, I cannot help but admire your bravery, but I also find myself wary of your unwillingness to use the natural terrain in this area to mitigate your enemy’s advantage.”

With that, Samo outlined to those present a plan that combined stealth and subterfuge with the natural strength and bravery of the people he had adopted as his own. He told them about a mountain valley near to where they hoped to make their stand, and suggested that instead of leaving themselves exposed and in the clearing, they send out a smaller force of one-third, comprised of their fastest men and riders. When this small force was to be set upon by the Avars, they were to turn and run into the valley; the Avars, a bloodthirsty tribe intent on slaughter, would almost certainly follow them without thought. And it was when this occurred and the Avars were firmly tucked into the valley with little room to move laterally, that the second third of the Wends should rise from concealment and form their lines, joining with the men who had just fled the field. Finally, to ensure the Avars could not simply ride away and avoid battle in tight confines, the final third of the Wends should move into position in the mouth of the valley, effectively trapping the Avars from escaping.

The battle planners were initially quiet as they heard Samo speak; then, as they began to understand and appreciate the brutally efficient reasoning of his plan, the men began to grow excited and boisterous. What they saw before them had turned from being yet another struggle against a group they simply hoped to wound and slow, and instead turned into an opportunity for them to end years of bloodshed from people who had attempted to dominate them for as long as any Wend could recall.

“This plan,” the senior chief said, “is excellent, and may well lead us to victory. But you, Samo, by merit of having put it forth, have lost your benefit of simply being a weapons merchant. Tomorrow you ride with us; your fortunes and ours will become one.”

With that, Samo the Frank had become, for all intents and purposes, Samo the Wend. He rode into battle with the group, taking his place among the first third of the soldiers as they lured the Avars into the valley. He watched as his plan succeeded beyond his wildest hopes: the stream in the valley had flooded recently and the ground had become soft, slick and muddy. The Avars and their horses could barely ride, much less turn, charge, or retreat. When the last group of Wends closed the mouth of the valley and sealed any chance of retreat, Samo could see the looks of despair on the faces of the Avar leaders.

And it was glorious.

From that day forth, Samo rode with the Wends and their Slavic confederation. His ties to the Franks became less and less, though he remained known in the West as Samo the Frank. His family grew, and before long he had 12 Wendish wives, who altogether bore him 22 sons and 15 daughters. He proved to be a magnificent commander, even going so far as to lead his confederation in a siege against the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 624. Though he failed in taking that capital, he lost no respect for the failure. The walls of Constantinople were just too high, and its location made it impossible to attack from any angle except a single lane of advance. Still, to have brought war to the gates of the Eastern Roman Empire: this was an advance beyond the dreams of most of the formerly enslaved Wends, a group that had never known the feeling of dominance until Samo began to lead them. And wanting to cement this feeling, the Wends chose to make Samo’s position amongst them permanent. They named him King, and for years to come he, a one-time merchant of lowly Frankish provenance, ruled a group of warriors that would fight against the mightiest powers in the known world.

It came to pass, several years later as the Wends and the Franks lived near to one another, that a group of Frankish merchants were killed while dealing with a small group of Wends. Stories varied as to how and why this happened, but one fact was beyond dispute. Franks had been murdered, and Dagobert, King of the Franks, could not let that insult stand. It didn’t matter that the Wends involved in the altercation claimed that the Franks had been haughty and rude to them, nor did it matter that the Wends denied accusations that they had pilfered the dead men’s goods once they had been killed. Dagobert needed something more, a larger and more grand gesture, to appease his anger; as such, he sent his messenger, an envoy named Sichaire, to treat with Samo and seek justice. Now, it didn’t help that Samo tried to avoid meeting the envoy, although his reasoning for avoiding the man made sense: quite simply, nothing he would be able to say would both appease Dagobert and leave him in good standing with his people. So rather than get stuck in an impossible situation, Samo avoided it. Still, Sichaire pressed the point and was finally able to weasel his way before the King. Incensed that he had had to struggle for the meeting (he, an envoy of the King of the Franks!), Sichaire was especially haughty to Samo; this in turn informed Samo’s response, especially after the envoy demanded justice for the murdered Franks.

“I will give them justice,” Samo told Sichaire. “It is my intent to hold a trial for those involved here in our lands, and we will render justice upon them as we, the Wends, see fit.”

This declaration did not sit well with Sichaire. “No,” he said, “this will not suffice. King Dagobert expects more and will accept no less. You and your people must submit to him, and it will be he who passes judgement among the people involved in this incident.”

Samo attempted to cool the situation. “I’ll admit, the land where we currently live is claimed by the Franks and their King, and we will accept this and live peacefully, if he should want to keep the peace with us.”

Sichaire, feeling he had taken the upper hand, responded, “It isn’t possible that Christians, servants of God, would make peace with dogs.”

Samo had had enough. He motioned ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, with his head, and within seconds his guards fell on Sichaire. They held the man’s arms behind his back and then kneed the envoy in his stomach, dropping him to his knees. Samo stood before him, moving his face in front of the envoy’s so the man could see the fire in his eyes and feel the spittle from his lips as he spoke down at him.

“If you are the servants of God, then we are the dogs of God. As such, you will act continually against us, and as such, we have received permission to tear you apart with our teeth.”

Thus Sichaire had ended up back before Dagobert, the bearer of news that undoubtedly meant war. And so Dagobert had assembled his armies, and Samo had prepared for the clash. He had held off the Lombards and an association of Germanic tribes, both fighting in support of the Franks. And he had let word go out exaggerating the toll that these battles, skirmishes really, had had upon his ranks. Just as with the Avars, he had let one-third of his strategy lie in deception, and one-third of his strategy lie in choosing a battlefield that benefited his side. Tomorrow, he planned to use the last third of his strategy to close the door behind the trap into which the Franks were advancing. Like the Avars, he wouldn’t let a soul escape alive.

Samo sat alone before his campfire and envisioned the battle yet to come in the field before the battlements of Wogastisburg.

Tomorrow, the Franks would bleed.

This is Thugs and Miracles.


Season Two, Episode Six: Love, War and Politics.


Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to take a look at what Dagobert did when he was the ultimate power in Francia. One particularly interesting thing about Dagobert, and a fact that I think sheds some light on his reign as a whole, is that he only spent one year of his life as the de facto King of All the Franks. He’s listed, rightly, as one of the few early Merovingians to accomplish the task of unifying the Kingdom under a single throne, but court intrigue and an inability to properly tend to a large land mass made it all but impossible for him to properly extend his authority. As such, he would end up being the sole King come 632 and the death of his brother Charibert II, and would split the Kingdom in 633 when he placed his son, Sigibert III, on the throne in Austrasia. Now mind you, Sigibert was all of three years old when this happened and was clearly nothing more than a symbol for the Austrasian court to rally behind, but the fact remains: Dagobert unified the throne and sauntered about as the King of All the Franks for an exceedingly short period of time.

At any rate, for the rest of today we’re going to explore Dagobert’s reign through three factors, which make up the title of this episode: love, war and politics. His love life is significant because a) Dagobert’s mindset of being easily swayed is on full display with how he flowed through his wives, and b) his heirs would take the throne at a very young age, either for the aforementioned reason of giving the Austrasians a “king” to rally behind, or because, spoiler alert, Dagobert won’t end up living to a particularly old age. His succession, in particular, marks the beginning of “les rois fainéants” period of the Merovingian Dynasty, or the “do-nothing Kings.” Whether it’s fair to blame these Kings, most of whom were never given a really great chance to establish themselves, or if it’s better to blame the increasingly obtrusive aristocracy who pushed them to the side is open to debate. However, as we’ll see over and over again in the history, catchy phrases and nicknames have a habit of sticking to people and eras, even when they’re not factually correct or appropriate. Alas, the next 100 years or so of Kings caught the title of “do-nothing,” and no matter how we view it, there’s probably nothing that can be done to change that moniker.

Past love, we’ll take a look at Dagobert’s success, or lack thereof, as a military commander; from the opening story and Dagobert’s earlier martial forays - those that required him to call his Dad to bail him out and cost him a chunk of his scalp - you can probably guess how that’s going to turn out. And finally, we’ll look at the politics, and in particular the court of Dagobert. He succeeded, perhaps in spite of himself, to have a court that attracted the attention of neighboring Kingdoms and one which became an early center of culture and arts. His time in power was so strong, culturally, that some historians refer to the period as the “Merovingian Renaissance.” Now, it’s never going to be confused with 15th century Florence, but it was still a pretty good start considering that the Franks, as well as everyone else in Europe at this point, were still picking up the pieces of the recently deceased Western Roman Empire. This cultural growth will ultimately serve to attract people to the Frankish court, allowing important networks that will come into play throughout the history to establish, thrive and grow.

Alright, with all of that said, let’s get to love! This next portion comes from a book entitled “The Royal Mistresses of France, or, The Secret History of the Amours of All the French Kings.” It was written in 1695 by Monsieur Claude Vanel and has one of my favorite sub-titles of all time, and it lays out wonderfully how Dagobert bounced between his “amours.” I have edited the passage slightly for flow, but otherwise, Monsieur Vanel, the floor is yours:

“Dagobert, the son of Clothar, had espoused in his Father's life time, Gomatrude, an Austrasian Princess… But there was so terrible an antipathy between the young married couple, that it was never to be reconciled; whither it was through an insurmountable disagreement of their humours, or whither they inherited the hatred of their Families… Dagobert, who was a great lover of music, going one day to the Abby of Romilly, to hear Vespers, heard a voice that pleased him extremely. So that after Mass was done, he went into the convent and desired to see the person that had sung with so melodious a voice. With that, the Abbess sent for her, and presenting her to the King, told him her name was Nantild. Nor was Dagobert less charmed with her beauty, than he had been taken with her voice, and leading her aside, told her, 'twas a great loss to the world, that so amiable a person should be mewed up in a cloister. To which Nantild replied, that she had not assumed the veil of a sequestered life, but in obedience to her parents, who had constrained her to quit the world; and that if his Majesty would grant her his protection, she would renounce her vows. The King was overjoyed to find his hopes so fairly flattered by the yielding disposition of the young virgin, for whom he began already to feel a violent Passion. So that he was no sooner returned to Paris, but he sought which way to break the knots that bound him to Gomatrude; and finding his prelates complaisant enough to approve his design, he caused his marriage to be declared void: and being by that means at liberty, he sent for Nantild out of her convent, and publicly espoused her.

"But Heaven was not pleased to prosper this marriage, for the new Queen had no offspring; which insensibly cooled the affection of Dagobert toward her, and infused into him a desire to go and hold his Grand Assizes in all the principal cities of his realm… Now while he lay at Blois, a young lady came and presented a petition to him, demanding Justice against the Count, who abusing his authority, had possessed himself of certain lands that belonged to her Father. She made her addresses with such a comely grace, that the King was charmed with her deportment, and promised that Justice should be done her. After she was gone, he sent for the Count, and being informed of the particulars of the whole affair, he commanded him to make Ragnatrude satisfaction; for that was the name of the fair lady. The next day she came with her father to return her humble thanks to the King, who ordered them both to follow the court during his progress. Dagobert also gave so many marks of his affection to the lady that she could not remain insensible; and at length, upon his return, she was brought to bed, at Orléans, of a son, who was christened Sigebert by Charibert, King of Aquitaine, who was Dagobert's brother. The ceremony of baptism was solemnized by St. Amant, Bishop of Utrecht… Ragnatrude, for several years, preserved the heart and inclinations, of Dagobert, remaining faithful to him. But happening again into the company of Nantild, he could not withstand her caresses; and then he had a son by her, that was named Clovis, and who succeeded him in the Kingdom. The birth of that young Prince rekindled his first flames; he begged pardon of Nantild for his youthful going astray, and sacrificed Ragnatrude to her love. Who seeing her self despised, retired into a Convent.”

So, exploring Dagobert’s love life, he never actually married Ragnatrude, but instead kept her as a concubine and had a child with her. And this child, despite being a bastard in the technical sense, was still placed into the line of succession in much the same way we’ve seen the Franks do in the past; a prime early example of this was Clovis’s son, Theuderic I. At any rate, and I admit that this next thought ranges into speculation, but it’s interesting that for as much of a libido as Dagobert is attributed, he had very few children. According to Fredegar, in the midst of his reign, Dagobert was “overly addicted to debauchery, he had like Solomon, three queens and a multitude of concubines. His Queens were Nanthilde, Vulfégonde and Berchilde. I would be bored to insert in this chronicle the names of his concubines, such as they were in great numbers. His heart became corrupted, and his thoughts strayed from God.”

Despite sleeping with all of these women and apparently having a great time with all of his “debauchery,” Dagobert only had two sons. He sent his first wife packing for being infertile, he set his second wife to the side when she didn’t conceive quickly, and he only ever succeeded in getting a child to term when he brought Ragnatrude to bed. Now, without knowing anything about Ragnatrude and not wanting to necessarily impugn her reputation, it strikes may as entirely possible that she had perhaps come to the King already pregnant, then quickly claimed the child as his. The same can be said for Nanthilde; she didn’t conceive until after the King had gone away and returned. Who’s to say that she hadn’t perhaps found a way to get a head start, so to speak, knowing that Dagobert probably wouldn’t be able to finish the task? I mean, these people were playing for high stakes. Of course, I repeat what I said earlier, that this is purely speculation on my part; however, I would have loved to have had a 7th century Maury Povich DNA test on both Dagobert’s sons Clovis II and Sigibert III.

One final note on just how overt Dagobert was being with his wanton ways at this time: King Judicael of the Bretons, who had come to Clichy from the Brittany Peninsula to pay homage to the King and render his fealty, actually refused to eat with Dagobert because, again according to Fredegar, “he was religious and filled with the fear of God. When Dagobert took his seat at the table, Judicael, leaving the palace, went to dinner at the house of an an official that he knew was attached to the holy religion. The day after, having taken leave of Dagobert, Judicael returned to Brittany loaded with presents from Dagobert.” This says a lot. Judicael, making a visit between heads of state, refused to dine with Dagobert because he was so out of sorts with proper religion! Dagobert was known to whip and tonsure dinner guests who disrespected him, and I can only imagine what would happen even nowadays if a head of state travelled to another country and then refused to break bread with the monarch. It’s a hugely telling story of how the Merovingian King was viewed at this time.

Okay, so moving on from Dagobert the womanizer; let’s look at his martial skills now that he’s the King of All the Franks and finish today’s opening story. For this, I turn to historian Charles Oman:

“Dagobert was the last Meroving who took arms to extend the limits of the Frankish power. He supported the pretender Sisinand in Spain, by aid of a Burgundian army, made an alliance with Heraclius against the Lombards, and entered into a protracted war with the Slavonic tribes of the East. On the Elbe, the kingdom of Samo the Frank was now at the height of its power. Dagobert took alarm at its rapid growth, and when the Wends plundered part of Thuringia, in 630, sent against them three great armies, comprising the whole military force of Austrasia. Two of these expeditions fared well, but the third suffered complete annihilation at Wogastisburg, in Bohemia, and the victorious Slavs ravaged Thuringia and Bavaria, from Saal to Danube, with fire and sword, till Radulf, duke of Thuringia, at last checked them, in 633.”

Alright, so some of the details vary between our sources, but the overall gist remains the same. Dagobert was not afraid to go off and fight wars, especially against Germanic groups to the east. He had fought the Saxons, and now here he is going up against the Slavs and the Wends. The problem I see for Dagobert is that he seems to have a serious issue with leaping without looking; he got in way over his head against the Saxons a few episodes back, barely escaping the battlefield himself, and now here he is in a situation where he’s running three different armies out to fight a group who has a pretty impressive track record and a very competent commander. Maybe it was hubris, maybe it was overestimating his strength and underestimating that of the enemy, or maybe he just got unlucky with the third battle, but no matter how it happened, Dagobert managed to lose nearly an entire army. As a general rule, having phrases like “complete annihilation” associated with your military campaign is very, very bad. Even if it wasn’t the total rout that Oman and Fredegar both claim, we know that Samo pretty clearly cleaned Dagobert’s clock, then continued to loot the border provinces for years to come. Radulf, as noted in the passage, may have regained control of the borders, but Samo and the Wends would remain a military concern for the remainder of Dagobert’s reign and then some. Samo himself wouldn’t die until 658, well after Dagobert would be laid to rest in St. Denis.

Okay, moving to the final point of our triad: politics and courtship. I mentioned in a recent episode that the manner of ruling in the Merovingian kingdoms was evolving over time. It was moving away from a brute force empire, the type in which someone such as Clovis I excelled. Now, here in the 7th century, we’re seeing a dynamic wherein the aristocrats had to be taken into account when making decisions. These people could serve to make a King’s reign much more effective, or alternatively, they could slow-roll and water down policies put forth by the monarch to the point that, the further one were to get from the Parisian seat of power, these decrees were barely adhered to. In short, a King needed to have a different set of skills to effectively rule, skills that involved patronage, networks, and the cultivation of a shared culture. And we see Dagobert starting to develop these skills. Chlothar II and Dagobert greatly scaled back the itinerant nature of the court, opting instead to stay, by and large, in one location. This allowed the building of more permanent institutions and the attendant physical infrastructure, and also allowed for shared cultural sites such as the aforementioned adornment of Saint Denis. And it was with this cultural growth that we start to see people coming to the court – or being sent there by well-meaning benefactors – looking to increase and develop the networks and relationships that would benefit them throughout their life. Dagobert’s court, in a way, became a sort of early Middle Ages version of LinkedIn. According to Yitzhak Hen:

“Aristocrats from all corners of the Merovingian kingdom sent their children to be educated at court with the young princes and under the supervision of the major domus… Consequently, a flow of talented young aristocrats frequented the Frankish court, and turned it into a lively centre of cultural activity. Its fame grew far and wide, so that it even reached the Anglo-Saxon queen Æthelburh, who sent her sons to be educated at Dagobert’s court. What was taught at court, and precisely in what context, is not at all clear. Pierre Riché has argued that it was not a school in the scholarly sense of the word, since those who were sent there had already received literary education at home, but more of a staff school that trained officers and bureaucrats to ensure a steady supply of loyal officers.”

Hen later notes that there was a “powerful network nurtured at the court of Chlothar II and Dagobert I” filled with “talented authors, engaged in literary and artistic work that constituted the very essence of late Merovingian court culture. Subsequently they were the instigators of a creative and prolific literary activity… these remarkable courtiers-ecclesiastics-scholars turned the ecclesiastical institutions throughout Gaul into centres of religious cultural activity, marked by their formative experiences at the royal court early in life.”


CONCLUSION: We’re going to stop here this week, but before we do, I’m going to confess to a bias on my behalf. And for what it’s worth, I think this bias is pretty relatable, especially if you have ever had high expectations for a book, TV show or a movie, expectations built up based on all of your friends telling you how good it was and how much you’re going to love it, only to find yourself disliking it mostly because it didn’t live up to the hype everyone generated for it. This is pretty much what happened to me with Dagobert! You see, tons of sources refer to him as the last great Merovingian King. His name carries cultural currency, with French children singing about him in nursery rhymes all the way to the present day. And his association with Saint Denis makes him seem like a great and pious ruler. So when I started learning about Dagobert, I kept expecting to read some story about his greatness, about something he did that was so absolutely monumental that no one had done before, and instead what I found seemed (to me) to be a spoiled, impatient rich kid, easily swayed into making bad decisions both militarily and romantically. I just wasn’t impressed, and maybe I should be. But I just didn’t get it.

Now, compare that with Samo. He was totally unexpected for me, a person who I had never even really heard of until he was destroying Dagobert’s armies and looting his provinces. Because he was a new discovery to me, he felt like a revelation. Here’s someone who left his original tribe, joined up with a new group who was on the ropes, and totally turned everything around for his people. He ultimately ends up leading battles against the Franks and the Byzantines, and even lays siege to Constantinople. And the confederation he leads ultimately became the basis for the Slavic people… I mean seriously, I became kind of a Samo fanboy, very much at the expense of Dagobert. Is this an academically sound argument? Absolutely not. And is it biased? Certainly. But still, given the choice between the two, I have to admit, if I were to do further research, I'd look at Samo.

King of the Slavs
11th century fresco of King Samo in the Znojmo rotunda in Moravia

Next episode, however, because we're focusing on the Franks, we’re going to return to 639 and an aging King Dagobert (and by aging I mean 36 years old). He’s the senior King of the Franks, with his son, Sigibert III, ruling in Austrasia at the junior age of six. Even in a time when 15 was considered the age of majority, Sigibert was way too young to hold power in his own right, so we’ll look at who was ruling the ruler at this time. We’ll also explore just how Dagobert I departed the world and again, spoiler alert, it’s anticlimactic. For a guy some historians claim “had the ruthless energy of a Clovis and the cunning of a Charlemagne,” well, his death won’t live up to the glorious hype Dagobert certainly may have hoped for. His death will mark the end of the greatest extent of Merovingian power; going forward, we’re going to see the effects of the rules put into place by Dagobert’s father, Clothar II, really come into play. The Edict of Paris made the question of when the aristocrats were going to assert themselves not so much a question of “if” as much as “when”; well, “when” will start… in our next episode.


OUTRO: Alright, as always, 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, a list of sources, an updated monarchy/family tree, and also a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com. Be sure to sign up for our free e-mail list so we can keep you up to date with all things T+M and announcements on new shows. Speaking of email, you can write to us at thugsandmiracles@gmail.com, you can hit us on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. Also be sure to check out the #TimeTravelTalks hashtag and account on Twitter, as well as HistoryPods.com and their associated Twitter handle, @podsofhistory. And if you haven’t already, please take a moment to head over to your podcast player of choice and leave T+M a rating. We appreciate all of your kind words and positive critiques, and, as always, we appreciate you!

Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you again in two weeks, as we continue to explore Thugs and Miracles.

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