Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Review: The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751 by Ian N.Wood

The 1994 book 'The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751' by Ian Wood aims to address the period of the eponymous dynasty's rule and influence over significant parts of Western Europe up until its usurpation by the Carolingians. Wood approaches this task in a manner which combines chronology with thematic analysis allowing the reader to understand continuity and change on a number of important topics. However, the inconsistent way in which this is done raises questions about the target audience of the book.

Chapters on the political context are the most frequent and form the backbone of the chronological narrative. Starting from early barbarian settlement in Gaul the chapters describe the main events up to the deposition of the last Merovingian King, Childeric III, by Pippin. These chapters attempt to analyse any changes in the conduct of politics throughout the covered centuries. However, in some instances they fall short, especially in the early chapters which can be overly descriptive and short of analysis. Later on, with the rise of the Mayors of the Palace, the political side of the book becomes more in-depth. This is mainly in part due to the increased level of insightful analysis of primary sources, especially when facing the challenge of texts which may possibly considered as Carolingian propaganda. The book tends to focus on the Kingdom of Neustria, while at the same time Austrasia is noticeably covered to a much lesser degree. However, Wood is successful in describing what can be known about periphery territories. For example, we learn when Frisia and Alamania fall in and out of the Frankish sphere of influence. Likewise, the complex political situation in Aquitaine is described in detail.  Nevertheless, it remains clear that the focus of the book is on the Kingdom of Neustria.

The narrative of events is  dispersed with more analytical chapters. These are mainly on the Church, including its production of culture, and the economy. Other topics are assigned individual chapters, such as Merovingian Law and the role of royal women (most notably Brunhild). Nevertheless, Wood manages to place these chapters alongside the more politically oriented ones in a way that maintains the chronology. This is useful in showing economic and social changes over time, but means an opportunity to connect them more closely to the main narrative is missed.

Wood mainly relies on textual sources for the book and is  aware of the limitations of what he uses. Understandably, his early chapters are heavily reliant on Gregory of Tour's History, a pivotal source for the early Merovingian era. The Chronicle of Fredegar and its continuators are frequently used later in the book. However, Wood also uses a range of other sources, even if they are consulted less. Archaeological evidence is noticeably slim, when present it is only used in the context of the economy. The excavations of the emporia Dorestad are particularly used well. Numisatic evidence is also used to describe the economy. While, Wood could have perhaps used more forms of material evidence, this is often in part due to the nature of the evidence available rather than  a fault attributable to the author. Indeed, his shrewd use of textual evidence in situations which may be unexpected helps to fill in some of the gaps. For example, in the chapter 'Land, Wealth and the Economy' he manages to infer from hagiography more details regarding the economic structure of the Frankish Kingdoms.

One of Wood's main arguments is that the transition between the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties was one of continuity. He argues against the idea of a Merovingian decline. His emphasis on cultural continuity,  including the production of manuscripts at Luxeuil and Corbie, implies that the Carolingians built on the achievements of the Merovingians, reliant on them for later developments. The same can be applied to the development of the emporia and also law. The political transition from the Merovingians to the Carolingians was also steady, featuring continuities on top of changes.

The book is also heavily footnoted and features a detailed bibliography. Wood states that citations of secondary material are aimed at students whose primary language is English. Works in French and German are only provided where no English alternative is available. This is prioritised over the inclusion of the latest scholarly research. The book also contains genealogies of the Merovingian dynasty. These are useful in particular when used in conjunction with the political narrative, due to the brevity of which some monarchs are dealt with. However, placing them to the front of the book or alongside the narrative may have made them more prominent for the reader. A number of maps are also included and these are helpful in providing a general overview of boundaries, but naturally are limited in the complexity they can show. These similarly could have been included earlier in the book to help the student or general reader.

                                             Seal of Chilperic II from a letter dated 716

To conclude, 'The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751' by Ian N.Wood is an attempt to offer an account of the entire Merovignian period, while at the same time maintaining thematic analysis by combining it with the chronological narrative. Wood is successful in doing this, however the chapters vary in depth and quality. Some political chapters are heavily descriptive and could have benefited from more analysis of textual sources or the means of implementing power itself. Chapters that tend to be focused on a particular issue, such as different aspects of the Church and economy tend to be more insightful. Nevertheless, Wood's approach both shows change and continuity in a mostly clear way and his argument that the Carolingians owe a lot to the Merovingians is persuasive.

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