I studied the early Frankish kingdom for a term as an undergraduate: enough to be able to bluff my way through a 90-second conversation on the difference between Merovingians and Carolingians, which for casual conversational purposes is usually enough. But one of my abiding impressions of the period was of its bracing obscurity. The depth of our ignorance, and the fragility of the evidence base for the knowledge we do have, about basic matters of political chronology is, to an early modernist, profound. Everyone ought to spend some time studying a subject where ‘facts’ as basic as who ruled in what order are open to dispute and can be upended by new discoveries.
So although it is well outside my patch, I can’t resist picking out the article on sixth-century Francia from the July number of JEH. Gregory Halfond’s ‘Ecclesiastical Politics in the Regnum Chramni: Contextualising Baudonivia's Vita Radegundis, ch. 15’ has an alarming title for those, like me, who may not immediately know what it is referring to, but it is a wonderful demonstration of what’s possible in this period.
Halfond begins with a passing reference in a seventh-century Life of the sixth-century saint Radegund. A nobleman named Leo fell prey to a malady of the eyes en route to an ecclesiastical council convoked by two named bishops. He stopped at Radegund’s convent, where his own daughter was also a nun. While there, he prostrated himself before one of Radegund’s vestments, prayed to the Virgin, and was eventually healed; he continued to the council and there gave thanks.
An unremarkable enough medieval story, you might think. But Halfond shows what can be done with this sort of thing. First, he is able to use passing architectural detail in the account to nail the date of the event to the period 552-561. This matters, because there was no known ecclesiastical council during that period. The council has previously been thought to be one which took place between 561 and 567, but it can’t be, because that one was specifically convened in order to elect the successor to one of the bishops who convened this one. He is compelled to the conclusion that this is a stray account of ‘an otherwise-unattested synod, with no details about its agenda, acts, or even precise date or location’ (478).
And that’s only where the fun begins. He is then able to make a very compelling case that this mystery council must have assembled in Acquitaine during the (as it turned out) shortlived kingdom established by Chramn, the rebellious son of the Frankish king Chlothar: a rebellion which we know took place and was afterwards described as violent and disruptive, but that’s about it. Halfond is able plausibly (though not conclusively) to identify Leo as one of Chramn’s key supporters; to date the council to the period 555-558; and to suggest that its agenda was sacralising Chramn’s rule and securing his support for existing episcopal prerogatives.
It’s a virtuoso piece of dogged historical deduction. And as he concludes, ‘it is perhaps rather fortunate,’ at least for us, ‘that Leo’s eyesight happened to fail him as he rode past the convent of Holy Cross’.