09.02.08, Collins, Die Fredegar-Chroniken

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Walter Goffart

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.008


Collins, Roger. Die Fredegar-Chronikon. Monumenta Germaniae Historica Studien und Texte vol. 44. Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2007. Pp. xv, 152. ISBN: 978-3-7752-5704-6.

Reviewed by:
Walter Goffart
University of Toronto (emeritus) and Yale University

A book called Die Fredegar-Chroniken, published under the aegis of the MGH (a great source collection), suggests a new edition of "The Fredegar Chronicles." This slim book is a monograph, definitely a weighty one, as witness the copious listing of Fredegar manuscripts (pp. 55-75, 96-130). The manuscript descriptions greatly expand their counterparts in Collins's earlier monograph on the same subject: Fredegar (Series: Authors of the Middle Ages, ed. P. Geary, vol. IV, 13; Aldershot, Hants.: Variorum, 1996), pp. 119-31. But once one realizes thatFredegar-Chroniken is something other than an edition, what exactly it is and how it relates to the monograph of 1996 are not self-evident.

The "Introduction" should help. Almost all of it explains why what we know as the (one) Fredegar chronicle consists in reality of two different works with much content in common. (Hereafter, I'll call the two works the Merovingian and the Carolingian Fredegar). Uncovering this formerly unseen duality is Collins's central and praiseworthy achievement, anticipated in earlier publications of his. He has succeeded in adding a distinct, eighth-century Historia vel gesta Francorum, which needs a new edition, to the known, definitively edited seventh-century compilation; and he invites us to value each of the compilers as a creative author. Here and later (as will be seen below), he gives wholly plausible explanations of this duplication and clears up many confusions. We are shown the crucial fault of Bruno Krusch's critical edition (1888).

While this discovery is convincing and merits sustained applause, it accounts for only some of Fredegar-Chroniken. Readers are entitled to be told, inter alia, how the book of 2007 is connected to Collins's Fredegar of 1996, with whose contents there is much overlap. Does Fredegar-Chroniken stand alone, mixing new work with old, or is it an enlarged German adaptation meant to introduce a future new MGH edition; perhaps by Collins? We are given no clue as to what to expect. The scope and goals of the book are never revealed.

This said, Collins's Fredegar- Chroniken, however undefined, is a major contribution to Frankish history and the study of early medieval historians. The Merovingian Fredegar--an anonymous work to which the name Fredegar came somehow to be attached--used to be deplored as an unworthy continuation of Gregory of Tours' Histories, rich in critical problems, awful in language, biased in various ways, and, most of all, meager in content. Headed by a set of otherwise known earlier chronicles, it was often limited in editions to its "original" chapters, neglecting much new matter in the opening books. This "core" Fredegar was prolonged in the eighth century by continuations: chapters written under Carolingian-family auspices, furnishing valuable but limited information down to 768 (the accession of Charlemagne). One resorted to Fredegar because nothing fuller and better was available, and one used him for "source value," plucking the scraps of new information he supplied and disregarding the "legends." A shift in the Fredegar landscape began in 1958 with J. M. Wallace-Hadrill's article, "Fredegar and the History of France" (reprinted in his The Long-Haired Kings and Other Studies [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962], pp. 71-94), and more appreciative commentary has appeared since then, doing justice to one of the rare thought-out works of historical scholarship of the seventh century. (An admirable contribution of this sort, too late for Collins, is Joaquin Martinez Pizarro, "Mixed Modes in Historical Narrative," in Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, ed. E. M. Tyler and R. Balzaretti [Turnhout: Brepols, 2006], pp. 91-104). Collins's two monographs are milestones in this well-deserved rehabilitation.

Collins gives Fredegar-Chroniken two parts, in keeping with his demonstration of dual Fredegar compilations. The focal point of each one, as noted above, consists of voluminous manuscript descriptions of the five text classes. All the manuscripts and fragments (except the many but comparatively irrelevant ones of class 5) have the whole of their contents listed, along with exhaustive codicological details. These descriptions are followed by accounts of manuscript transmission, one for each compilation (classes 1-3, pp. 75-81, then 4-5, pp. 130-39). The importance, value, and skill of these sections can hardly be overemphasized. There has been nothing comparable since Krusch's fundamental article of 1882, now clearly superseded. A complement to the manuscripts is the comprehensive section on the "Influence and Afterlife" of the Fredegar chronicles (pp. 139-45), carefully tracing users of Fredegar in the Middle Ages as well as the printing history of the chronicle. (It is hard to tell why Collins omits the very creditable, new French edition of O. Devillers and J. Meyers, not unknown to him.)

As concerns "Authors--One or Several?" Collins subscribes to single authorship of the Merovingian Fredegar, but grudgingly, with quiet undercutting. He remarks that the subject of authorship "has become deadlocked" (8), and he accords much space to the old, strained, and tedious arguments for multiple composition. Scant attention is paid to the work and reasoning of the 1960s researchers who discredited multiplicity and vindicated single-authorship. A one-author stalwart, Alvar Erikson, is left out of the bibliography. Yet scholars, Collins included, have agreed in accepting one author for more than twenty- five years. It seems weird for Collins to endorse single authorship himself while maintaining that the subject is in "a state of impasse" (91)--which it is not, except for one flimsy doubt. Collins is not even-handed. When he turns to his cherished Carolingian Fredegar, he peremptorily sweeps aside the long-held belief that it has multiple authors (88). Advocates of a one-author Merovingian Fredegar are not allowed to be as right as he is about the Carolingian one.

The ambivalent account of authorship contrasts with Collins's sensible avoidance of the problems of Fredegar's language, to which Krusch, Wallace-Hadrill, Kusternig, and Devillers assigned many pages. Later work on medieval Latin has wholly outdated them. It is typical, though, of the unexplained relationship between Collins's two monographs that he justifies his dodging of language in Fredegar (111-2) but not in Fredegar-Chroniken.

In the section "Who was [the Merovingian] Fredegar?" Collins spends too long with the drab details of how the name Fredegar for the author came into use. Mainly, though, he analyses how difficult it is to give the Merovingian Fredegar a geographical localization and to pin down his political orientation. These questions have been foci of Fredegar criticism. Collins rightly shows how slippery Fredegar is, and how defective efforts to bring him to ground have been; he admirably commands what Fredegar exactly says and the details of Merovingian history. After weighing the options on offer, he concludes, with prudent restraint, that Fredegar was "a layman of high rank, whose activity was in the kingdoms of Neustria and Burgundy" (p. 25; Fredegar, p. 111, also says "around the year 660"). I would add something to this identification. Fredegar intermittently resorts to the language of charters (Urkundensprache). He may well have come from among the legal experts called "referendaries," a major Merovingian court office still occupied by laymen in the seventh century.

Under the heading "Time of Composition and Contents," Collins retraces the evidence leading to the conclusion that the Merovingian Fredegar worked near 660. He also considers the vexed question whether the world chronicle of Isidore of Seville found in the oldest Fredegar manuscript belongs with the Frankish compilation (it doesn't). Other hard questions about contents are satisfactorily dealt with. Collins sensibly concludes that Book 1, consisting of miscellaneous chronological lists, was probably not given final polish. He largely disregards the parts posing no technical problems, namely Hydatius and Gregory. This is regrettable: it would be worthwhile to examine how Fredegar edited them.

The pages on "The Structure of the Chronicle" concern the articulation of the Merovingian Fredegar into books and chapters. The subject is an unavoidable part of Collins's (unstated) program, and he acquits himself well. But these pages are heavy going and of little except specialist concern. The main questions cannot be answered, and some of them apply to divisions made by copyists rather than Fredegar himself.

The part of Fredegar-Chroniken of widest non-technical interest concerns "Fredegar's Sources." In an explicit introduction, the Merovingian Fredegar lists the trunk of his compilation--Jerome, Hydatius, Gregory of Tours--but he does not acknowledge the sources used for the extensive material that he weaves very skillfully into the base texts of all his books, the passages generally called his "interpolations." The one interpolation we can check is of the Life of St Columbanus, copied into Book 4: Fredegar never says that he drew it from the well known Vita by Jonas of Bobbio. Elsewhere, new material can be detected, or suspected, but without its being possible to identify sources. These are among the most appealing parts of the chronicle, and Collins's discussion of many of them, though ample and able, is not exhaustive. Perhaps his best idea is that the long stories about Theoderic, Justinian, Heraclius, and, probably, a Persian queen all reached Fredegar from Italy along with rich material on the Lombard kings. Collins comes closest in this section to studying the Merovingian Fredegar as a historical narrative. His observations are valuable, and one hopes that others will join him in pursuing this subject (as Martinez Pizarro, cited above).

Collins rightly stresses that Krusch's fundamental edition of Fredegar prints a work that has never existed in manuscript, namely, a Merovingian Fredegar simply followed by a series of Carolingian "continuations." Later editions have made the same mistake. What actually exists, as Collins explains in the "Introduction" (see above), is a new compilation, the Carolingian Fredegar, probably completed ca. 751 and distinctly articulated in three books. The new work deserves the name Historia vel gesta Francorum given in a colophon written into one manuscript between the 751 core and the few chapters continuing the chronicle down to 768. This colophon credits the initiative for the Historia to Childebrand and his son Nibelung, relatives of Pepin III (King Pepin I). Collins opens the second part of Fredegar-Chroniken with a detailed account of these particulars. As already said, this uncovering of separate Fredegar compilations is his main achievement, no small feat.

The class 4 manuscripts exemplify a Historia vel gesta in the following form (Collins never lays out the three books succinctly):

1) The De cursu temporum of Quintus Iulius Hilarianus plus the first Fredegar's Book 2, the latter fattened by the insertion of the Historia Daretis Frigii de origine Francorum, a long, new account of the Trojan origin of the Franks;

2) the condensed version of Gregory of Tours (formerly book 3);

3) the first Fredegar's ninety "original" chapters, prolonged by a bridging part of the anonymous Liber historiae Francorum (a well known work of 727), and concluded by chronicle entries from Charles Martel to the advent of Charlemagne.

So constituted (and free of interpolations) the Carolingian Fredegar is much less personal than its predecessor (91), but the intent to build up a comprehensive "history of the Franks" is conspicuous in both compilations. In the Carolingian Fredegar, the components have been revised, extended, and updated to form a basically new ensemble. Neither Fredegar won acclaim, however worthy his achievement. The manuscript evidence and the rarity of citations in later histories show that both had very limited circulation.

Collins rounds out his study of the Carolingian Fredegar with sections on its authorship and authority (Aussagewert). The latter merits special attention for its weighing of the testimony of the chronicle (is it contemporary or retrospective?) and its attention to other Carolingian chronicles, such as the Annales regni Francorum.

There are points of detail about which Collins should perhaps not be given the last word. Here are the ones that occur to me: - The opinion that Fredegar had no use for the catalogue of Roman consuls accompanying his copy of Hydatius, and deliberately omitted this list, deserves to be entertained (Fredegar-Chroniken, pp. 28-29).

- The statement that the Lombard Desiderius was elected king "cum consensu praedicto rege Pippino" is more credible than Collins allows (96). Of course the consent was not a "verfassungsrechtliches oder politisches Erfordernis," but since the election was contested, it is not implausible that Pepin's consent should have been sought or offered as a precaution.

- Collins seems to have retreated from the contention (Fredegar, p. 83) that 660 is only a terminus ante quem non and that the proper dating should be stated as between 660 and 714-15, the date of the first manuscript. This formulation is needlessly cautious. There is no trace in the Merovingian Fredegar of a date later than 659.

- The view (56) that the oldest manuscript comes from the Lyon region or the Rhone valley is uncertain. Paleographic resemblance to one Lyon manuscript does not look like strong evidence. The main appeal of this localization may be that it is startling.

- The relationship of Gregory of Tours and Fredegar in the class 5 manuscripts is much more clearly stated in Fredegar, p. 128, than in Fredegar-Chroniken.

- Kusternig's omission of Fredegar book 1 from his edition is venial by comparison with other modern editors' omission of the entire books 1-3 (32).

- The bibliography of Fredegar is notably more complete than the "Literaturverzeichnis" of Fredegar-Chroniken. The German footnotes are a needed but hardly exhaustive complement. At least one item noted in the latter (n. 109: Woodruff ) is untraceable from the information given.

In closing this long review it need hardly be said that Collins's work on Fredegar is fundamental and indispensable. The pains he has taken and the years he has spent with this often intractable text have been worthwhile. He has rejuvenated study of an engrossing source. When the Merovingian Fredegar copied out the chronicle of St Jerome, he came across a line saying that the army of Marcus Aurelius was decimated by pestilentia. For "plague," he substituted "a flood of barbarians (inundatio gentium)" (2:37, Krusch, p.62). A seventh-century author, who, long before "the barbarian invasions" were a commonplace, dared to make this original emendation, had to have a genuinely historical mind.

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Author Biography

Walter Goffart

University of Toronto (emeritus) and Yale University