16.04.11, Reimitz, History, Frankish Identity and the Framing of Western Ethnicity, 550-850

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Ian Wood

The Medieval Review 16.04.11

Reimitz, Helmut. History, Frankish Identity and the Framing of Western Ethnicity, 550-850. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought Fourth Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. pp. xiv, 511. ISBN: 9781107032330 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Ian Wood
University of Leeds

The central concern of this book is the notion of Frankish identity, and it addresses in detail the question of its changing importance and its changing meaning. It begins in the early Merovingian world, which had emerged out of the Roman Empire: there were Frankish kings, governing regions that were not Frankish, and which were held together by an oath of loyalty that had originally been military (Reimitz throughout makes considerable use of the recent elucidation by Stefan Esders of the political structure of the Frankish kingdom). When Gregory of Tours wrote his Histories, the unifying feature of the Merovingian kingdoms was Christianity (an argument that both vindicates and significantly modifies Walter Goffart's interpretation of Gregory's work). Three-quarters of a century later Fredegar preferred to emphasise Frankishness, and he provided the Franks with a distant past in Troy that the bishop of Tours had not hinted at. But Frankishness was contested. In the early eighth century the author of the Liber Historiae Francorum regarded the Franks as being first and foremost the north-western Neustrians, who were under threat from the north-eastern Austrasians. He or she also deliberately cast the Franks as the Chosen People, following the Old Testament Model. Subsequently Carolingian authors used these earlier texts, and added to them, to legitimise their Carolingian masters. The Carolingian expansion, however, inevitably had an impact on the issue of Frankishness: the Empire contained a number of different peoples, and this necessitated a reconsideration of what it was to be a Frank. For anyone with an interest in the question of early medieval identity and ethnicity this is an immensely important and subtle discussion.

But while the core argument concerns identity, it is conducted through a detailed analysis of the historical narratives set down between the late sixth and mid ninth centuries, with the result that the vast majority of the book is devoted to an analysis of those histories--and in many ways this is even more valuable than the central argument. Thus Reimitz deals at length with Gregory of Tours, Fredegar, the Liber Historiae Francorum, and the early Carolingian Annals and Chronicles, or in fact one should say with these texts in all their different recensions, because one of the major achievements of this book is that it looks not only at Gregory of Tours's Histories, but also the changing manuscript versions of them: so too with Fredegar, the Liber Historiae Francorum and the various recensions of the Frankish Annals. Some of recensions of our major narrative sources are so particular that they have to be treated as new sources in their own right. But Reimitz does not confine his analysis of identity to a discussion of the historical narratives, for he also has important observations to make on the various different recensions of the law codes issued in the Merovingian and Carolingian periods.

Reimitz's concern with the major texts in all their various manuscript variants allows us to see that our source material is a good deal richer than is usually realised, and it also allows us to follow in much greater detail a debate within Francia about the definition of the Franks. We begin with Gregory of Tours himself, who was not particularly interested in the Franks, and on the rare occasions that he talks about Francia he usually has in mind a small area east of the Rhine. In his downplaying of the importance of the Franks he seems to be reflecting the sixth-century norm: even the title Rex Francorum is uncommon before the days of Childebert II (575-595). In fact the Merovingians are not the only sixth-century ruling family to play down their ethnic affiliation: for instance, the Gibichungs preferred to see themselves as kings (reges) rather than as kings of the Burgundians (reges Burgundionum), just as Theodoric the Great preferred not to limit his title with an ethnic descriptor. After Gregory's Ten Books of Histories, Reimitz turns to the so-called Six-Book Version--that is a slimmed down version of the first six books--with remarkable results: from a meticulous analysis of what was cut out of Gregory's text we see how the seventh-century editors who created this recension brought the original into line with the circumstances of their own day. Reimitz's analysis and conclusions on this are a major step forward in our understanding of the fate of the bishop of Tours's work.

Thereafter Reimitz provides an equally rich analysis of the Fredegar compilation, in various of its manifestations, beginning with the earliest MS (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, ms. lat. 10910) (although I wondered whether in an earlier draft Reimitz said yet more about this manuscript, since on p. 285 he refers to his previous discussion of the work of the copyist Lucerius, a discussion, which, as far as I could see, is no longer in the book: the index, which might usefully have been more extensive, provides no help). Among the many points of particular interest one may single out the discussion of the Trojan origins of the Franks. Reimitz also offers an extremely thought-provoking exploration of the question of where the earliest Fredegar compilation may have been put together, pointing to the monastery of Remiremont, on the Moselle. Clearly the lead compiler or compilers had access to Jonas of Bobbio's Life of Columbanus, and must therefore have had contact, even if indirect, with Luxeuil (which, albeit in a different kingdom is less than 40 kilometres from Remiremont), but he or they did not entirely see eye to eye with the hagiographer. In fact one can go further along this path than Reimitz does. Fredegar was deeply interested in the monasticism of St Maurice d'Agaune, which was the model for Remiremont. Equally important, the chronicler approved of the maior palatii Aega, whom Jonas hated. Even if the location of the text in Remiremont must remain uncertain, it is absolutely clear from Reimitz's discussion that Fredegar belongs in a community with Columbanian connections, but at the same time one that was at odds with some aspects of Jonas's thought. There is surely more to be done in looking carefully at where Fredegar and Jonas part company, and indeed the whole corpus of Jonas's works might usefully be discussed fully in the context of Reimitz's discussion of the debates between texts.

Following the examination of the Fredegar compilation Reimitz turns to the Liber Historiae Francorum, which we know was written in Neustria in 727. Here he makes less of the question of authorship than has been made by other writers, although there is probably more to be said about its likely composition in Soissons, not least because of what we can deduce about levels of culture in the city from Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 9850-2, which was produced at the monastery of St-Médard in the early eighth century. Reimitz's concern at this point, however, is primarily with the representation of the Franks in the Liber Historiae Francorum, which he compares closely with that in Fredegar, contrasting the notion of gentes in the earlier compilation with that of populus in the later history. This discussion of the representation of the Franks, which includes important observations on their supposed Trojan origins, also makes extremely valuable comparison with Lex Salica. Moreover, in the course of the discussion Reimitz convincingly presents the historical work as being very much more imbued with the Bible than has often been thought--though here he surprisingly omits to cite the article published by Philipp Dörler in Networks and Neighbours (2013)--a rare gap, for Reimitz is usually extremely full in his bibliographical citations.

After the Liber Historiae Francorum, Reimitz turns to the eighth-century version of the Fredegar Chronicle produced by counts Childebrand and Nibelung, which, following Roger Collins, and surely correctly, he treats as a work in its own right, calling it the Historia vel Gesta Francorum. The distinction between the original Fredegar compilation and its early Carolingian recreation is made all the clearer by the fact that the discussions of the two versions are separated by the discussion of the Liber Historiae Francorum, which indeed was used by Childebrand and Nibelung. Reimitz compares their representation of the Franks with that to be found in the mid-eighth-century church councils and Frankish law codes, and attention is also paid to what can be learnt from the use of formal titles made by the Carolingians and their agents (here drawing on Herwig Wolfram's study of titles, Intitulatio).

Reimitz's consideration of the Frankish historiographical texts continues with a discussion of the various Frankish Annals, which are all carefully distinguished. Anyone seeking a clear description of the different annals, major and minor, their likely origins, and their distinctive traits, could not do better than begin here, where a vast array of information is made intelligible. The relationship between the various historical texts and the politics of the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious is mapped out with exemplary clarity. This is a discussion that is not only important for what it has to say about the historical texts produced during the period, but also for the light it sheds on the various factions whose viewpoints are represented in the different annalistic texts. And the discussion takes in Einhard's Vita Caroli, as well as the Annales Bertiniani.

Thus, while Reimitz's main concern is with Frankish identity and its representation, and the implications that this has for a reading of ethnicity in the early Middle Ages, underlying his examination of this issue is a sustained analysis of all the major historical texts from the period stretching from Gregory of Tours in the sixth century to Hincmar in the ninth. And it is a discussion that is informed not just by a knowledge of the printed editions of the texts, but also of the manuscripts, which complicate the story immeasurably. As well as being a study of ethnicity and identity, this is a study of the early historical writings produced in Merovingian and Carolingian Francia. Moreover, the histories, chronicles, and annals themselves are constantly set alongside other sources, particularly the laws, and also against the actual events of the time.

A book of this richness inevitably opens up new horizons, which means that it reveals lines of exploration that merit further consideration. It would be worth integrating the seventh- and eighth-century Frankish hagiographical texts into this discussion, as fully as the law codes. Of course only a limited number of works of hagiography deal with the issue of identity and ethnicity which concerns Reimitz, but some of the more 'political' of the Lives do contain relevant material, and certainly the corpus of Jonas of Bobbio's writings has much that relates to Fredegar, especially given Reimitz's suggestion that the latter may have been associated with Remiremont.

There are a very few slips that might be picked up in a reprint. Leaving aside a small number of typographical errors, Reimitz states (186) that according to Jerome the Burgundians arrived on the Rhine in the reign of Gratian, when in fact in the Chronicon (as well as Orosius and Fredegar) this happened during the reign of Valentinian (although Gratian had been raised to the purple during his father's lifetime). And the combination of Gregory of Tours's comment on the Burgundians living along the Rhône with Jerome's reference to Titus's completion of the foundation of Avenches is confusing (185). In discussing the treatment of Aetius in the Carolingian Chronicon Universale (348), Reimitz fails to make the point that the statement that the death of the magister militum led to the end of the Western Empire is a direct quotation from Bede, who himself was quoting Marcellinus comes. Non-German speakers will be puzzled by Abelenus of Genf, rather than Geneva (401). An inhabitant of the Auvergne is an Auvergnat not an Auvergnais, at least in my experience and according to my French dictionary (174, 198). The slips, however, are remarkably few and far between.

This, then, is a work that anyone interested in either the issue of either the issue of early medieval identity and ethnicity, or in the question of Frankish historiography, will have to read: and she or he will profit greatly from so doing.

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