A little air of empire

The Frankish kingdom which emerged between the VIe and the VIIIe century promoted political and religious diversity, before the Carolingians put an end to this pragmatism. Between Rome and Charlemagne, did Europe experience an empire??

What is an empire? Reading the latest book by Bruno Dumzil, Sorbonne-University professor and recognized specialist in the first centuries of the Middle Ages, does not provide us with an answer, but encourages us to explore this question further.

Historical decryption

The Mrovingian Empire : the choice of the title is in itself paradoxical, because everyone knows that the Merovingian kingdom succeeded the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476. From now on, and until the coronation of Charlemagne in the year 800, there will be only one empire recognized as such as the Eastern Roman Empire.

The history of this part of the world between VIe and the middle of VIIIe century is therefore traditionally a story of kingdoms barbarians, whose degree of romanization is more or less profound, and the political organization more or less solid. Within this fragmentation, there is no doubt that the kingdom of the Franks, led by a king always from the Merovingian family, was for a long time the most powerful of all these kingdoms, to the point that it managed to extend over all of Gaul and to the confines of Germany. Did the territorial extent of Frankish power make it a empire?

Dumzil's objective is not so much to defend the imperial character of the Frankish kingdom as to show why and how the Merovingians managed to build a powerful and successful political entity for more than three centuries. The keys to this success lie, according to the author, neither in the heritage of Rome, although it is widely accepted, nor in a new specifically Germanic contribution, but in the capacity of the Frankish elites to innovate, to invent new political practices.

It is this deciphering which is at the heart of the story that Dumzil offers following a classic chronological plan, from the appearance of the Franks in the political game of the Roman Empire to the IIIe century until the seizure of power by Ppin the Short in 751.

The art of sharing

The success of the Frankish kingdom is based on the existence of a royal dynasty never called into question until the middle of the VIIIe century, accompanied by a sharing system allowing several Frankish kings to govern different parts of the territory at the same time, without any one having predominance.

From generation to generation, sharing follows one another and is not the same, giving rise to all kinds of division and configuration which arise above all from the need to negotiate with different groups of followers: sharing limits internal disorder, facilitates the policy of expansion and guarantees the maintenance of a political life specific to each of the parties, in the form of different palaces. Gradually, the existence of subkingdoms Merovingians crystallize around three cores: Austrasia in the east, Neustria in the west and Burgundy in the southeast, which corresponds less to the emergence of feelings of identity than to that of groups of aristocrats defending their own interests.

It is therefore less the dynastic principle in the strict sense than the negotiation between the different actors which ensures the longevity of the kingdom. On the other hand, the fact that kings can only be chosen from among the descendants of Clovis prevents the bloody rivalry of aristocratic groups to seize the throne, as we see in Visigothic Spain: the Merovingian king can act as an arbiter between the great because that he belongs to another family.

The crises that the kingdom went through, between 586 and 613 then between 639 and 681, although they turned into civil war, never led to the political implosion of the Merovingian world, neither in the central spaces, nor in the first circles of Frankish domination, even if they contribute to accelerating the emancipation of the peripheries. Dumzil emphasizes that, despite the scale of certain crises, we cannot speak of a breakup of the Frankish world over three centuries, but of a more or less cowardly management of the peripheries, as we observe in many other empires.

The general political context, which evolved over these three centuries, obliged the Merovingians tinker (p. 25) new systems with each change. Until the end of VIe century, the possibilities for expansion remain significant. But internal peace presupposes the existence of an external war zone, because we only get rich through conquest, pillage and redistribution of spoils.

Civil wars

From this point of view, the civil war which broke out in 573 was also a product of the stabilization of the western part of the ancient Roman Empire, where competition must now be managed within the kingdoms. THE VIIe century inaugurates the entry into a new world whose main change comes from the erasure of Byzantium as a privileged partner and the shift of Frankish interests from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

The first half of VIIe century is considered as the apogee of the Merovingian kingdom which gained in coherence around kings who increasingly claimed divine inspiration, strengthened collaboration with the great sanctuaries close to the palace such as Saint-Denis, while ever better structured family groups emerged, gradually forming an authentic nobility, based on the service of the king, but also on heritage goods and on the foundation of monasteries.

Dumzil shows that these decades are above all those of a progressive mutation: if Merovingian power is well established at the center of the system, that is to say essentially in the Paris Basin, the peripheries tend to emancipate, to the point that the king loses control in Germany , but also in Burgundy, from the 640s. at the end of the new civil war of the 670s, the balance between the king and the great found itself definitively transformed and the real area of ​​domination of the Frankish Palace was considerably restricted (p. 211).

The epilogue of this final crisis was the gradual seizure of power by a family of the Austrasian aristocracy, the Pippinides, ancestors of the Carolingians, who governed the palace from 687 and fought against the transformation of the Frankish kingdom into a mosaic of local potentates.

In the last chapter, entitled Rebirth of an empireDumzil emphasizes all the new developments initiated by the Pippinides in the first half of the VIIIe century, even before they seized royal power, while insisting on the documentary bias. Because we only know this story through late documents written to the glory of the Carolingians.

Towards the Carolingian Empire

The most eminent of the Pippinides, Charles Martel, presents himself above all as a war leader: the geopolitical change which saw the rebirth of external threats in the 720s encouraged the great to put themselves at the service of the one who would be capable not only of preserving the kingdom , but also and perhaps above all to redistribute the loot.

Unlike the Merovingians, Charles relies first on his family network and on a group of warriors professionals which are directly linked to him: undoubtedly he did not invent heavy cavalry, but he comforted this group of warriors by giving them the material means to train through the granting of land.

The Pippinides also promoted a new vision of the Church as the spearhead of new conquests and created new episcopal seats in Germany, while no Merovingian king had touched the ancient network of dioceses. The populations of peripheral areas (must) henceforth have complete loyalty, both to Christian dogmas and to the orders of the Christian prince. (pg. 269)

We recognize here the beginnings of the Carolingian order based on the desire for unification of standards from the center to the margins. THE regnum Francorum did not die. He gave birth to the empire of iron and faith which would be that of the Carolingians (p. 282).

No one doubts that the Carolingians are a pure product of the history of the Frankish kingdom. But is the continuity so great?? In his conclusion, Dumzil returns to the question of the Merovingian empire which he describes as an empire factemphasizing that the Franks benefited from not assuming imperial stature: The Frankish world was content to give itself the air of an empire, to play with words and symbols, () but without becoming its prisoner. (p. 287).

In contrast to the rigidity of Carolingian ideology, the Merovingian Empire would have, if not promoted, at least tolr, political, religious or spiritual diversity (p. 289) and would thus have survived thanks to the DIY and at pragmatism.

But what is an empire without ideology? Doesn't every empire produce an ideology that justifies its domination?? What is an empire whose leader almost never uses imperial and universalist rhetoric?? Beyond this question of the imperiality or not of Merovingian power, Dumzil gives us here a vast and excellent summary of what we can know today about the Merovingian world.