Thoughts on the End of a Season (Part 1.2) – Mommy Issues
Updated: Jul 25
Item #2 – I never would have imagined the ways in which Merovingian women were a part of the history, or the wide-ranging impacts of their interventions. Let’s start our look at this topic at – where else, Dr. Freud? – the beginning. For us, this means taking a look at the founder of the Merovingian Dynasty, Merovech, and the entire basis for any supposed supernatural power residing in these early kings. If you remember (and it was Episode 2, so you’re forgiven if you don’t), Merovech was the son of a Salian Frank tribal leader named Chlodio and an unnamed Frankish queen. This young queen is said to have taken a bath in the sea one day, during which time she was seduced by a sea-bull known as the Quinotaur that was sent by Neptune himself. The Quinotaur was able to mingle his essence with the baby already in the young woman’s womb, thus providing him with the powers of the gods…
Alright, where to start unpacking this? First off, I know a bull is a virile animal and a potent symbol of masculinity, but it seems un-royal to breed with livestock. I’m probably showing a lack of imagination, or a tremendously biased modern mind, but I never read the story of the Quinotaur and thought to myself, “Well, that clearly indicates that those are people I want in charge.” Maybe the simple presence of divinity was enough to make pagan believers see beyond the bestial nature of this origin story. Beyond this, the story outright denotes the idea that this first Merovingian mother was unfaithful to her husband, thereby calling into question the legitimacy of her child. And if the first Merovingian was illegitimate, doesn’t that make the whole line illegitimate? Moving on…
The next mother who presents some significant issues to us is Saint Clotilde. The stalwart wife of Clovis I brought four boys into the world who lived to adulthood, and she was present to make sure Clovis’s kingdom was divided into quarters after the great king’s death. All of this sounds great, very above board and fair, and it would have been fine if Clotilde had left well enough alone – which of course she wouldn’t. Clotilde harbored a deep grudge against the kings of her former homeland, Burgundy, for the crimes committed against her family years prior (ironically, Clotilde was about to exercise some mommy issues on her boys in an attempt to exorcise hers). Gregory of Tours claims Clotilde incited her sons to war, and when they heeded her call, her oldest son, Chlodomir, became the first to follow his father in death (listen to all of this in more detail in Episode 10). Fortunately, he left behind two kids, and Clotilde took them in and cared for them. Unfortunately, these boys were causing issues for Chlothar I vis-à-vis his ability to take control of his late brother’s lands so, in a slightly heavy-handed approach, he sent a message to his mother asking her to send the boys. She complied, thinking he was going to tutor his nephews; however, once they were under his control, Chlothar sent his mother a pair of shears and a sword. The message was clear: would she rather see her grandsons given a tonsure so as to live out life as priests, or simply murdered? Her response - “It is better for me to see them dead rather than shorn, if they are not raised to the kingship” – was taken literally, and the boys were killed.
Who knows, if Clotilde hadn’t taken as active a role as she attempted to in her son’s lives, her eldest may have lived longer; her grandchildren may not have been killed by their uncles; and years of civil wars may have been avoided. But then again, the Merovingian boys were always looking for some excuse to fight, so quite honestly, Clotilde’s actions may have expedited the process, but some version of this story was almost certainly going to happen regardless of what she did.
Finally, let’s look at the side-by-side comparison of what happened when a Frankish mother, Brunhilda, stayed on the scene for too long, versus what happened when another larger-than-life Frankish mother, Fredegunda, exited the scene before her son was too old. In this case, Fredegunda died when her son, Chlothar II, was about 13; this meant he would have no issues possessing power in his own right, and without a former regent trying to cling to power. Brunhilda, on the other hand, lived to 70. She basically refused to hand power back over to her son when he reached the age of majority, imposing herself into his kingdom and his decision-making well past the time she had any legal right to do so. Childebert hadn’t objected at first; this made him look weak. When he finally did start to assert himself, well, let’s just say that it was just a little too coincidental that both he and his wife died in their mid-20s, leaving their young children in a regency that – surprise, surprise – Brunhilda controlled. Theudebert II had managed to extract her from Austrasia in 599, but the whole scene was drama the young king didn’t need early in his reign. Worse than that, Brunhilda used the slight as a raison d’être to spur Theuderic II, now King of Burgundy, to repeatedly attack his brother over the next few years. The intra-family fighting was glorious from Chlothar’s point-of-view; he gained ground on his rival kings every time their armies clashed and diminished themselves, all while he looked on from afar, and was part of the reason he was able simply walk into power in 613 rather than having to put up much of a fight for his cousin’s crowns.
So, yeah, I knew women played a role in early Merovingian history, but somehow, someway, I just thought that role would be… different. In the case of Clotilde and Brunhilda, it becomes evident that women could assert themselves in this time and place but had to be careful to avoid overstepping their boundaries or staying around too long. Fredegunda seems to confirm this: she died before she had the chance to wrestle with her son for power, and as such, there’s less violence in her immediate family than in the families of Clotilde and Brunhilda. For these headstrong women, I have to imagine this would have been a difficult, slippery, and discouraging game to play.