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  • Writer's pictureJ. W. Barlament

The Mythical King at the Founding of France

The Merovingians may be confined to history trivia today, but for over 1,000 years after their downfall, they retained a formidable legacy as the founders of France.

The Franks were only one of dozens of Germanic tribes to move south and invade in the last two centuries of Western Rome. Though they may have formed a coherent cultural entity, they shared no common political identity or leader until a consolidation process by the subgroup of the Salian Franks that took a hundred odd years to complete. The final victory of this tribal consolidation wouldn’t come until King Clovis of the Merovingian Dynasty defeated his last internal Frankish rivals in the early 500s. The turning point, though, can very well be said to have been the reign of his grandfather and dynastic namesake, Merovech.

The historical importance of this founding figure can hardly be overstated. The Franks, united by Clovis and ruled by the Merovingians for the next two centuries, established the longest-lasting and most stable of any of the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms. The Carolingian dynasty that succeeded them was made up of even greater historical titans, not least of whom was Charlemagne, the so-called Father of Europe, who united so many lands under his rule he was crowned the Emperor of Rome by the pope. And, when the Carolingian Franks finally splintered and collapsed, the succeeding states of East and West Francia would eventually become the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France, laying the foundations for one of Europe’s longest political dramas.

Who, then, really was the murky founder of the first truly great medieval dynasty? The answer, as always, is complicated. Merovech was one of several competing Frankish petty kings in the mid-400s AD. Very likely, he joined the coalition of Roman general Flavius Aetius and Visigothic king Theoderic I that defeated the armies of Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in the year 451. The rest is guesswork.

We have two main types of historical documents from this period in Europe; chronicles and genealogies. The genealogies are fairly settled; Merovech was the father of the petty king Childeric I, who in turn fathered Clovis I, who’d finally unite the Franks. His own parentage among them is disputed, though, and seemingly influenced by the chronicles, and it is here that the problems begin. Only one chronicle goes into detail about the birth and life of Merovech — strange, considering his outsized historical role — and unfortunately for us, that chronicle is the 7th-century Chronicle of Fredegar. Fredegar isn’t the name of the author, but a later title simply using a common Frankish name. The real author’s identity is unknown and contested; as is the historical accuracy of most of what the chronicle says.

According to this Fredegar, Merovech was son of petty king Chlodio, grandson of Pharamond and great-grandson of Marcomer; most likely a real historical figure, but according to Fredegar, the “son of Priam”. And, as succeeding Frankish documents take it for granted that the Frankish people were descendents of Trojan refugees and the Merovingians the descendents of Trojan royalty (with no outside historical backing), this is very likely referring to that Priam. But the oddities don’t end there.

Actually, if we’re to listen to Fredegar, Merovech was only nominally the son of Chlodio. Chlodio’s wife birthed him, alright, but his actual biological father was a mythical monster not seen anywhere else in Frankish or even European literature; the Quinotaur. This Quinotaur, referred to in the chronicle as “the beast of Neptune which resembles a Quinotaur”, of course means “five-horned bull”; but besides just being five-horned, this bull was also mostly water-dwelling, hence its connection with Neptune. In the chronicle, this beast appeared to Chlodio’s queen when she was bathing in a bay and impregnating her there before disappearing back into the sea. Merovech, therefore, was some sort of demigod, if the tale’s to be believed.

Nowadays, with this admittedly out-there origin story and the mystery surrounding the rest of his life, many later scholars dispute whether the Quinotaur was some sort of scholarly mockery, or whether Merovech even really existed in the first place. Both are possible, of course; we have no direct evidence from his lifetime. Still, for a mockery to be the only existing evidence of an entire founding figure, or especially that figure’s fabrication in just two generations’ time (at most) seems extreme. We know by King Clovis’ time of Merovech’s purported existence. Did, then, the king and his subjects really make up Merovech entirely just decades after his death? Perhaps a simpler answer hides in plain sight.

“Victory of Merovech at the Battle of Catalaunian Fields”, Emmanuel Fremiet, 1867 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Merovech’s origin story seems strikingly reminiscent of older Greco-Roman myths, like the abduction of Europa by Zeus in bull form and the birth of the Minotaur from the intercourse of a Cretan queen with a sacrificial bull. The “five-horned” aspect, too, has been speculated to be an allusion to the combination of the two horns of the bull with the three-pronged trident of Neptune. These clear Greco-Roman parallels suggest that the story may have been carefully constructed; a fabrication to connect the Merovingian rulers with the old Romans and establish them as worthy successors.

The Franks were no strangers to making up details. Even their names betray it; Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian to become king, fathered Charlemagne, famous for his towering height (at least 6'0, though biographers suggest more along the lines of 6'4). His grandson, Charles the Bald, from all depictions and contemporary accounts had long, flowing hair. These epithets, as we understand today, were more than likely sarcastic or only used post-mortem or by enemies to ridicule. Could their Merovingian predecessors not have attached fake origins to their very real kings for the opposite effect?

It’s here that we must fast-forward for a second all the way to 1653, for it was then that the tomb of Childeric I, Merovech’s supposed son, was discovered in Tournai, Belgium. In it was a horde of golden artifacts. Most had mere decorative patterns around them. Dozens, though, were little golden bees; the most prominent symbol of the Merovingians throughout their reign, for some unknown symbolic use, all the way until the dynasty’s end. Just one, meanwhile, was a little golden statue of a fabulous bull’s head. Now, we don’t know now of any pagan Frankish bull-gods, but to be fair, there’s essentially no trace left of Frankish religion before Clovis’ conversion to Christianity. But could this statue be a representation of some old bull deity, as were so common in Germanic religions? And could a legacy of bull veneration have inspired the story of the Quinotaur?

The genealogy, too, of Marcomer-Pharamond-Chlodio-Merovech seems more like an attempt to string together the most famous (and probably unrelated) petty kings of every generation into one line for legitimacy’s sake. But if Merovech had truly only been the fourth accomplished king in his line, why would the dynasty have been named after him? And yet, the 8th-century Liber Historiae Francorum lists Merovech as great-grandson of Marcomer, and Marcomer as son of Priam of Troy, whether meaning his literal son or simply his descendent. This doesn’t mean that the genealogy is correct, of course. What it does mean is that it was very likely accepted amongst the Franks themselves. And that, considered alongside Childeric’s bull, makes it seem perfectly reasonable that they accepted the Quinotaur story as very real and very legitimizing. Whether “Fredegar” made it up themselves or adapted it from some sort of preexisting folk story, it seems there was plentiful cultural precedent behind it.

Whether or not these mythic details had emerged in Merovech’s or even Clovis’ lifetimes is probably impossible to know. The weight of Merovech’s legacy, though, is indisputable. Whatever his people believed about his birth, his involvement in the battle that stopped Attila from ransacking Gaul is more likely fact, and that would’ve surely provided him mounds of legitimacy regardless of birth (especially since the battle might have wiped out some petty Frankish rivals fighting on the wrong side).

And long after his purported 458 AD death — 1,346 years, to be exact — he was still making his name known. Napoleon, in preparation for his 1804 coronation, chose the golden bee of Childeric’s tomb as his emblem. As an animal, of course, the bee can carry any number of symbols. As a golden statue of an animal, though, it’s an invocation of the dynasty and the pivotal kings who founded France.

artifacts from Childeric’s tomb; original bees and decorative sword parts on left, reconstructions of stolen artifacts on right (National Library of France, Römisch-Germanisches Museum)

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