Friday, August 1, 2014

In defense of the Franks (and other “barbarian hordes”)

How long did the Romans remain in undisturbed possession of Gaul?
About 800 years, when various "Barbarian hordes" successively over-ran the country, and drove back the Roman armies.
Who were the principal of these barbarian hordes?
The Burgundians, the West-Goths, and the Franks.
The above statement is from a nineteenth century primer on French history. This one however:
During the second half of the fifth century the mighty Roman Empire in Western Europe collapsed. This was due to a long period of internal decay and the invasions by barbarian hordes.
is from 2014.

The idea that the Middle Ages began with “barbarian hordes” sweeping down out of the north to destroy what had been Western (i.e., Roman) civilization is an enduring one. Along with this comes an idea of these invaders as forest-dwelling primitives who brought on “Dark Ages” of chaos and destruction. This image is all the more persistent for being useful; writers who want to foretell the next decline and fall of Western civilization regularly invoke it to suggest what awaits us:
Djuvara believes that these “barbarian hordes” will transform “civilized and prosperous Christian Europe of today into Euro-Indo-Arabia of tomorrow.”
Unfortunately, anyone unfamiliar with this era may well, however unconsciously, envision it in these terms, seeing early France as a lawless place where cities had essentially disappeared, where people lived in isolated enclaves straight out of numerous TV shows and films set in some uncertain “Dark Age” where only lone heroes like Conan or Xena could fend off marauding bands and isolated petty tyrants. Of the food, one blogger recently wrote: "The entirety of the Roman Europe became taken over by Barbarians, that is, a variety of Germanic tribes. These northern invaders relied on subsistence agriculture and foraging for wild plants." 

Running all through the “Dark Ages” image is that old theme of the “barbarian hordes”. As Brewer notes, the main such groups in France were the Burgundians and the “West-Goths” (Visigoths), but above all the Franks. What then were the Franks like? Did they sweep into Gaul, destroying everything in their path? Were they indeed primitives, living on “subsistence agriculture and foraging for wild plants”? And did they reduce Gaul to a similar state?


How destructive was the Frankish invasion (if that's what it was) of Gaul?

Consider this overview of the conquest of Gaul by the “civilized” Romans:
The death toll over these eight years likely rose into the hundreds of thousands... and tens if not hundreds of thousands more were enslaved. Some entire communities were largely wiped out – the Veneti and Eburones for example, and the inhabitants of Cenabum.
The (necessarily estimated) figures vary: “In the course of seven years, Caesar had... killed perhaps a million people;” (Nardo); “The casualty figures for the Gauls, Germans and Britons combined ran into the hundreds of thousands;” “Caesar's Gallic War must have dealt a major blow to the size and balance of Gaul's population.” (Gilliver/Whitby)

No such figures exist for the Frankish take-over of Gaul, in part because it was far more rapid but also (as will be seen) the Franks, however violent they were in specific raids or battles, did not overall seek to displace or even especially change their subject populations.

Compare this too to the behavior of a far more “civilized” group in later centuries: the Spanish, who found two flourishing, sophisticated cultures in South America and... eradicated them. Nor was it the Franks who forced their fellow human beings to fight to the death for the entertainment of bloodthirsty crowds.

Viewed under these lights, the Franks (like some of their fellow “barbarians”) come out looking pretty good.

This said, one cannot deny the Franks' reputation for ferocity. There are indeed cases where they massacred at least small groups of people and they did take some time to lose their old habit of living by pillage. In one famous incident, one of Clovis' sons, Theuderic (reigned 511-533/534), silenced rumbling from his followers by allowing them to loot and pillage Auvergne (but in part, it seems, because he thought the people there had betrayed him). While civil wars would later cause much suffering, such profit-minded raids would largely end until the advent of the Vikings centuries later.

When Clovis' last Roman opponent fled to the Goths, the Franks threatened them with war if he was not handed over. The Goths' role in the fall of Rome has left them with an enduring reputation for ferocity, but these Goths (Visigoths) chose to hand their guest over, in chains – because, Gregory of Tours notes unkindly, “fear is natural to the Goths”. Certainly, the latter too were not the bloodthirsty primitives some might imagine, but it is also true they were Arians – that is, to Gregory's mind, heretics (though Christians) and so objects of his contempt.

In another famous case, the Thuringian king Hermenfroi made the mistake of betraying Theuderic. Theuderic and his brother Clothar (reigned 511-561) invaded and devastated Thuringia (and took Hermenfroi's niece Radegund, then a child, to later make her Clothar's wife). But this was hardly the impulsive violence of untutored barbarians; to the contrary, it was a reminder not to betray the Franks.

This is ironic because, if the Franks were not randomly and crudely violent, they were one thing: treacherous. Not least to each other. In fact, the long litany of murders, cruelties and wars which makes up much of Gregory de Tours' History of the Franks is above all between them. A ringing example comes from that very invasion of Thuringia. Theuderic, having enlisted his brother Clothar's help in that effort, then planned to kill him. Rather comically, Clothar spotted the feet of the intended killers under a curtain, thwarting the plot. Still more amusingly, Theuderic, to lull his suspicions, gave him a great silver platter as a gift, then, regretting it, sent his son after Clothar to ask for it back. And got it. (“Theuderic,” writes Gregory, “was very clever at such tricks.”)

Not all such family quarrels ended so humorously; the Frankish monarchs (and their relatives) seem to have been more dangerous to themselves than anyone else. Unfortunately, when this led to civil war or war with other Germanic allies, it was often civil populations that suffered. But the same would be true through much of French history, no matter how “civilized” the government.

As for the murderous quarrels themselves, anyone who considers these proof of the Franks' barbaric nature might compare them to the incidents in I, Claudius, which, though fiction, is based on actual Roman history. If the Franks come off poorly in the comparison, it is only because their cruelties were less refined.

Invaders or saviors?

Whatever the Franks' true nature, were they indeed unwelcome outsiders, come to conquer Gaul; or were they familiar allies of the Gallo-Romans, and their saviors?

The latter, some historians argue. Trends in history change, and this one may be contradicted in its turn, but an increasing number of modern historians see Clovis' triumph in a far more benign light. Before even citing such positions, however, it may be necessary to clear away some demonstrable misconceptions.

One is any idea that the Franks “came out” of any place, dark forest or otherwise. Arguably, this may have been the case when they first appeared in Roman Gaul, but by the time Clovis (430 – 486/487) became the first French king (c. 486), the Franks had not only been settled in much of what is now Belgium, they had been interacting with the Romans for some time. In fact, they had been their allies, or at least their clients. (Much of the Roman army in fact was dominated by Germanic soldiers by then.) Childeric (c. 440 – 481/482), Clovis' father, had fought alongside the Romans against the Visigoths and the Saxons. The two cultures were in regular contact. Russell: “Geary has demonstrated the existence of a long tradition of Frankish exposure to Roman material culture and Roman military tradition.”

Lorren draws this picture, largely based on archaeological evidence:
In a general way, there was not in the Vth century a substitution of one civilization for another: German migrations did not brusquely put two peoples in contact who did not know each other. The reality is certainly nuanced but, without reducing so complex a phenomenon to a simple slow and peaceful penetration, without taking into account combats and attacks, one can admit that this epoch marks the completion of a long period of permanent contacts and of interpenetrations.... It is not a question – which would be unthinkable – of the substitution of one population for another but of the progressive copenetration of two civilizations. Already before the Vth century, a mixed civilization was created which pursued and solidified itself in its originality after it.
One would expect an “invasion” to lead to the replacement of the defeated by the victors, at least in many places. But instead, writes Lorren, one sees a new civilization emerge:
This new civilization, based on compromise and synthesis of diverse elements leads to the rebirth also of multiple indigenous influences which had preceded the Roman epoch, such as already Germanic or Celtic influences for example. Cemeteries common to Germans and the local population, agrarian life, the anthroponyms and toponyms, vestimentary or familial habits attest not to a competition or a struggle but a fusion.
Another misconception is that Clovis defeated any substantial portion of the Roman power. In fact, there was very little Roman power in the north by then, so little in fact that a Roman official named Syagrius (430 – 486/487) was able to run a kind of rump state centered on Soissons (and so somewhat optimistically called “the kingdom of Soissons” by Gregory de Tours). This was the Roman that Clovis defeated to become ruler of Gaul (albeit, initially, a small part of it). The fact that such a minor character (or, more precisely, his father) had been able to establish such a power base gives some idea of how little influence the Empire exercised at this point.

In other words, there was a power vacuum at this point, one no more advantageous to the Gallo-Romans than the Franks. Werner, looking at these events, writes:
Nothing... allows us to speak of "conquest": Clovis' Franks were the allies, if not the saviors, of the Gallo-Romans, and the enemies – better, the rivals – of other Barbarians.
It is Remy of Reims, a key contemporary witness, who with a single word converts our conjecture into certainty. To members of the high clergy who dared criticize Clovis' memory, the old bishop evokes the merits of the great king, who was "custos patriae" [“protector of the country”].
(Some readers might object, reasonably enough, that the Franks did loot and pillage along the way, especially at the start, making them strange “saviors” by modern standards. But consider that as late as 1639, the citizens of Abbeville still suffered depredations from the very soldiers sent to protect them. (Louandre) It would remain the case long after the medieval era that armies were dangerous to civil populations, no matter what side they were nominally on.)

Far from being driven out or killed by the Franks, the Gallo-Romans remained the main occupants of Gaul:
My research... has led to the conclusion that it is not the "Frankish people" who "conquered and occupied" a country, but a king, or rather a dynasty, who took power in a regnum which already existed. In declaring himself, after the fact, chief of all the Francs (rex Francorum), he gave the name of this people to the regnum which from then one was his: regnum Francorum. The elite itself of this kingdom was not exclusively Frank. The king's subjects were, if one may say, multinational, but in the majority Gallo-Roman; they nonetheless made of the qualification for their king, rex Francorum, a sort of manifesto, or tool, of their political identity. In fusing with the Frankish elites, the Gallo-Roman elites helped the king guarantee the continuity of social life.
“If the Franks were barbaric brutes,” Werner asks, “why did they not brutally let the subject populations know that they must accept their defeat and submit to the victor's law, which modern historians, they, know so well how to describe?” He goes on:
Well, the Frankish kings never make the legitimacy of their power repose on conquest, but, to the contrary, on a peaceful legitimacy. In their clementia principalis (an imperial formula), they display their desire to be the protectors of their subjects. In the acts of nomination of high functionaries..., they exhort the latter to respect the law of all the gentes: Franci, Romanis (named immediately after the Franks), Burgundiones and all the others. Roman law was never abolished; it continued to apply for the Romani and, of course, for the Church.
And in fact, as numerous writers have pointed out, the “conquered” influenced the “conquerors” as much, if not more, than the other way around:
In the mass of Romanized populations of Gaul, the "intruders" were Romanized rather rapidly (with the exception of the north-east and a few enclaves)... As for the Roman elites in Gaul, the bishops who came out of them would be richer and more powerful  than before under the Merovingians, who would make the number of abbeys rise from a few units to several hundreds.... It is privileged classes, Roman and barbarian, who will direct Frankish Gaul.
No doubt opinions differ on this complex subject. But certainly a number of modern scholars view the Franks, not as destructive conquerors, but as a force for order at a moment when Rome had largely abandoned that role.


Perhaps the strangest accusation against the Franks is that they destroyed what civilization they found. It is probably far fairer to say that they failed to restore it to what it had been. Roman cities in Gaul, for instance, were already in decline before their rule: "Most late Roman fortifications in Gaul... enclosed a much smaller area than had been inhabited previously." "most Roman centres in Gaul suffered during the disasters of the third century." (Nicholas); “Archaeology shows that the cities of northern and central Gaul suffered general, gradual, but very real decline in the late empire and post-Roman periods” (MacGeorge).

The Franks were poorly placed to restore the technologically and bureaucratically advanced culture that had preceded them. But they hardly set out to destroy it. If anything, many showed an almost childlike eagerness to imitate it. Written law, for instance, was unknown to the Germans. Yet all the Germanic groups, not only the Franks, but the Burgundians and the Visigoths, were quick to have their laws set down in writing (necessarily in Latin). Clovis issued edicts in Latin almost from the start. Fortunatus mentions thermes (hot baths) in Clothar's palace and Anthimus records various Roman delicacies – sow's womb, peacock – and seasonings served at Theuderic's table. Gregory of Tours tells how Chilperic (reigned 561-584) had circuses built at Soissons and Paris "where he gave shows to the people" (Chilperic also wrote Latin verse, though Gregory claims it was execrable). He also describes two dissolute bishops who regularly went to the baths before dining, just like any decadent Roman.

Once Clovis had converted, he and subsequent Merovingian kings financed various religious institutions, thereby reinforcing the wealth and authority of what remained an essentially Roman church.

If cities remained weak, they hardly disappeared or lost their importance. Metz, Soissons and Paris would all house royal residences. Bishops were established, as a matter of course, in major cities and church councils were held in them.

The Franks had excellent reasons to adopt two Roman institutions: taxes and tolls. After all, why burn and pillage a city when you could simply collect revenue from it on a regular basis? This did not always go smoothly; after two of her children died, the otherwise sulfurous (in Gregory's view) Fredegund told her husband to burn the tax rolls. But basically the whole Roman system of wills, contracts, donations, and all the financial apparatus such documents supported became, in whatever form, standard in France.

France was not always well-governed, not least because of in-fighting among the Franks, and key aspects of Roman infrastructure, such as good roads and public education, declined or disappeared. But none of this was due to any willful destruction by the Franks or any other Germanic groups. Roman culture was unique and represented centuries of development. The Franks simply were not equipped to revive its almost mechanical structure and efficiency. Still, their fundamental embrace of their subjects' culture can be summed up in one very simple fact: France for centuries has been a Latin, not a Germanic, country.

Other barbarians

Of all the Germanic groups, few have as ugly a reputation as the Goths, whose name has lingered on as a threat by rebellious adolescents in the form of a movement meant to be frightening. Much of this reputation rests on their role in the fall of Rome (410).

First, note that the Goths were divided into two groups: the Visigoths (the “West” Goths) and the Ostrogoths. The simplest thing to say about the latter is that they produced one of the greatest and most admired rulers of this period, Theodoric the Great (reigned 475–526), who established a kingdom at Ravenna which was one of the glories of its time. Otherwise, it was the Visigoths who sacked Rome.

This event occurred under Honorius (384-423), who was then emperor in the West (already a weak position at that point). Stilicho, a Vandal-Roman general (showing in itself how integrated Germanic groups were with Romans), was Honorius' guardian in his youth and the best defender against the Visigoth Alaric (reigned 395–410). Ultimately however Honorius distrusted Silicho and had him executed, two years before the sack of Rome. 

People suspected of favoring Stilicho had already been slaughtered mercilessly within Rome. Once he was executed, says Greenwood,
the Roman soldiery... could find no more appropriate mode of testifying their joy than by murdering the wives and children, and pillaging the property of the barbarian auxiliaries entrusted to their protection.... The kindred and relatives of the slain flocked together from every quarter, and simultaneously threw themselves into the arms of Alaric for redress and retribution.
Even then Alaric restrained himself and sought only monetary compensation and an exchange of hostages. "The proposals of Alaric were rejected, and the only chance of safety to Italy and Rome was wantonly thrown away."

Yet even then Alaric only blockaded the city, ultimately winning concessions and promises of further ones. The story for a long time after this is of near-concessions by the Romans, last minute refusals, a moment when Alaric was actually welcomed by the Romans, still further dithering until:
the Gothic king saw himself duped by the imperial government, his warnings derided, and his menaces met by defiance; no course remained but to convince his adversaries of their error by woeful experience; and he resolved reluctantly, but firmly, that Rome should pay the penalty of the willful folly of her vain and capricious ruler."
Greenwood goes on:
It is impossible to withhold our praise from the temper in which Alaric approached Rome. Every precaution was taken to restrict, as much as possible, the bloodshed and destruction, which, in case of capture by storm, could not be wholly prevented. It was strictly enjoined that the lives of all who took refuge within the churches... should be spared; and that in the pursuit of plunder the warriors should abstain from needless outrage or vengeful slaughter.
(Note that the Goths themselves were Christians, though Arians.) Greenwood allows that events were probably bloody nonetheless, but adds "if the proper allowance be made for the impression the event itself was calculated to produce, and for the character of the assailants, we think the amount of suffering inflicted and endured will be reduced far below what might have been expected."

The sack of Rome then followed craven, indecisive and even murderous behavior by a weak Roman administration and was, if not restrained, intentionally limited by its leaders; nothing like the savage, unrestrained orgy of impulsive destruction a brief resume might suggest. 

Alaric died shortly after. The Visigoths then ended up in the south of France, where they established a kingdom that lasted for several generations, “the first barbarian state to be firmly established on imperial soil, the state traditionally known as 'the kingdom of Toulouse'” (Musset). At this point (418) they become feodorati of... Rome. That is, less, than a decade after the sack of Rome, the Visigoths were back in the Romans' good graces. Though the Visigothic occupation in Gaul was hardly pacific – some of the most searing descriptions of barbarian atrocities come from this period – they soon established a state whose later legal codes would show remarkable balance and care for the rights of both barbarians and Romans.

The other main Germanic group in early France was the Burgundians. These Burgundians, who probably came down from Scandinavia, were very unlike the refined aristocrats who would later create the reknowned Burgundian court. The history of the Burgundians is harder to reduce to broad lines. They became Catholics early on, which distinguished them from the Arian Goths, for instance. They also served as feodorati, apparently faithful feodorati, of the Romans. Very little about them, in fact, suggests the violence or conquest often associated with the word “barbarian”. They too would establish a moderate and balanced legal code; ultimately they would end up being assimilated by the Franks.

Final thoughts

The individual stories of the Germanic groups in Gaul are complex and too extensive to more than outline here. But hopefully one thing that is clear from the above is that none of these were crude, forest-dwelling savages living by destructive impulse. By the time these groups made inroads into Gaul, all had had enough contact with Rome to be influenced by, even attracted to, its values. These groups, too, showed nuanced and strategic thinking. If all were capable of violence, all too lived in violent times. By the time they were established in Gaul, they showed signs of looking beyond looting and pillaging as they, more or less consciously, moved towards settled lifestyles. What is more, quite far from trying to destroy what remained of Roman civilization, they attempted, however clumsily, to embrace and revive it.

The most important point here is that the very phrase “barbarian hordes” is of dubious use in serious history. These were individual groups, with individual histories, and not undifferentiated masses of wild-eyed primitives. Anyone seeking to understand this period will want to start by looking beyond such stock phrases.



Claude Lorren, Luc Buchet,“Dans quelle mesure la nécropole du haut Moyen Âge offre-t-elleune image fidèle de la société des vivants ?”, Actes des congrès de la Société des historiens médiévistes del'enseignement supérieur public, V6 1975 

Musset, Lucien, The Germanic Invasions: The Making of Europe, AD 400-600 1975  

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