I have a treasure trove of weird, short papers I’ve done throughout my academic and professional career. Every now and then, I revisit my folders to find a source, and run into an occasional gem of an essay that was either an assignment, or a way for me to start additional research that I never followed up on.
My persona is most definitely not Merovingian, nor do I play one on TV, but I’ve spent more time reading Salic Law than I want to admit. This article is a very short paper I wrote examining the use of insults to incite feuds. After Pennsic, I think I’m going to revisit this topic and expand it into something more suitable for publication in an SCA context, because insults!
If you are interested in citing this, I’ve posted a version of it on Academia.edu here for access, please do not cite my blog:
Insult “Culture” and Violence in Early Merovingian Gaul
Gregory of Tours made his opinion of the Merovingian rulers quite clear throughout his Historia. These Frankish kings and queens were nothing more than brutish, blood-thirsty, and revenge-driven maniacs who turned a blind eye to the Church and its teachings, much to the chagrin of the bishop holding the pen. Gregory’s words were rather scathing, but in between the lines of disdain toward the violence inherent in the line of Long Haired Kings, the Bishop of Tours provides other clues as to what was going on to bring about such ensanguined entropy. The paper will argue that intense gossip and insults may have been used as a tool to provoke feuds, and incite violence in aristocratic Merovingian society.
Salic Law, during which the first draft was composed under Clovis I around the year 500, has an entire section devoted to insults, and the fines (wergeld) that they carry. These insults range from being rather base by accusing somebody of homosexuality, or accusing them of being an informant or calumniator. This speaks a great deal of how strongly an insult was taken in the Frankish kingdom for it to have been codified in law. If these accusations were strong enough to incite the paying of wergeld to the victim, then what would the odds have been that such pejorative phrases would incite violence as a response, and that the laws were conceived in attempts to stop this response?
Autumn Dolan explores this avenue in her paper on the topic, “’You Would Do Better to Keep Your Mouth Shut’: The Significance of Talk in Sixth-Century Gaul.” Dolan states that the social ramifications of such things could have gravely damaged reputations more so than a sword could. Dolan herself focuses more on just the culture of verbiage that is evident in Salic Law, but also reverts back to Gregory’s histories. Gregory served up the tale of Firmin, the Count of Clermont, and Caesaria, his mother-in-law, in Book IV of his Historia, during which Firmin was “offered serious insults” by Chramnus, and forced to seek sanctuary in the cathedral with his mother-in-law. Chramnus then orders to have them taken from the cathedral, and does so by send a man to basically lie to them in attempts to get them to leave. As soon as they were within arm’s reach of the open cathedral doors, they were taken into custody violently, and sent into exile.
Dolan uses this as only one example of how insults could be dangerous, but fails to mention that the use of the insults, and subsequent lying to coax the two from the church, was a gateway to a violent end. Using the insults here was a catalyst, not the be-all-end-all technique to scare somebody away. Firmin and Caesaria were not just told to go away, they sought sanctuary because they knew that they were in immediate danger due to the defamation of their character. Since the insults were from the mouth of the king, versus anybody else, the idea of receiving compensation went just as easy as they were plucked from the door of the church. In the end, Chramnus got what he wanted. It is possible that if Firmin had taken the insults and immediately fled into exile, that they would not have been pursued, but the fact that he chose to stay in Clermont meant that he believed there was a sliver of a chance for a fight, either legal or physical, but in the end it took nothing more than the bishop to turn his back, and devious lies to draw them back into danger.
The laws pertaining to certain infractions against women may also demonstrate how such attacks could be taken not just as defamation against the woman in question, but also to her family. Dolan alludes to this in her paper as well, and offers a quote from Gregory, when Chilperic exclaims that the “slander of my wife is considered my shame.” Referring back to Salic Law, an interesting excerpt involves the releasing a woman’s hair from its restraints. This would cost the assailant a wergeld of thirty solidi, no small fine by any means. It would seem obvious that, with the law written in such a way to discourage violence, that heavy fines were put into place in order to discourage this behavior knowing that the shaming of an aristocratic woman could result in subsequent bloodshed in the form of a feud. This of course doubles back to the chapter on insults.
Laws are written for a reason. With dedicated chapters on insults in Salic Law, and Gregory of Tours’ interesting accounts of violent happenings in sixth century Gaul, it appears that an actual culture of shaming individuals as a way to spark feuds may have been a common occurrence in what Gregory described as a violent society. Whether it be a way to get under the skin of a political rival, or a backhanded attack by pulling a woman’s hair, the Merovingian’s certainly had a dark way of dealing with their business.
Gregory of Tours. “History of the Franks”. In From Roman to Merovingian Gaul. Edited and translated by Alexander Callander Murray. University of Toronto Press: Toronto. 2000.
Gregory of Tours. “History of the Franks”. In The Internet History Sourcebook. Edited by Paul Halsall. Translated by Ernest Brehaut. https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/gregory-hist.asp. Accessed November 22, 2015.
“The Salic Law (Lex Salica.)” In From Roman to Merovingian Gaul. Edited and translated by Alexander Callander Murray. University of Toronto Press: Toronto. 2000.
Dolan, Autumn. “‘You Would Do Better to Keep Your Mouth Shut:’ The Significance of Talk in Sixth Century Gaul.” In Proceedings from The Western Society for French History 40 (2012.) http://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wsfh/0642292.0040.001?view=text;rgn=main. Accessed November 22, 2015.
 “The Salic Law (Lex Salica.)” In From Roman to Merovingian Gaul. Ed. and trans by Alexander Callander Murray. (University of Toronto Press: Toronto. 2000.) 552.
 Autumn Dolan, “‘You Would Do Better to Keep Your Mouth Shut:’ The Significance of Talk in Sixth Century Gaul.” In Proceedings from The Western Society for French History 40 (2012.) http://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wsfh/0642292.0040.001?view=text;rgn=main. Accessed November 22, 2015.
 Gregory of Tours. “History of the Franks”. In The Internet History Sourcebook. Ed. by Paul Halsall. Trans. by Ernest Brehaut. https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/gregory-hist.asp. Accessed November 22, 2015. Located on page 308 in the Murray edition, however it is abridged. The Internet History Sourcebook has the complete chapter.
 Dolan, 5, Gregory of Tours, VI.49.
 Salic Law CIV 1-3, as noted by Dolan.