Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY XXI.: ON SOME ERRORS OF OUR MODERN HISTORIANS, A PROPOS OF A HISTORY OF FRANCE IN USE IN OUR COLLEGES. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
ESSAY XXI.: ON SOME ERRORS OF OUR MODERN HISTORIANS, A PROPOS OF A HISTORY OF FRANCE IN USE IN OUR COLLEGES. - Augustin Thierry, The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era 
The Historical Essays, published under the Title of “Dix Ans d’Études historiques,” and Narratives of the Merovingian Era; or, Scenes of the Sixth Century, with an Autobiographical Preface (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
ON SOME ERRORS OF OUR MODERN HISTORIANS, A PROPOS OF A HISTORY OF FRANCE IN USE IN OUR COLLEGES.
The criticism of the historical works destined to be placed in the hands of students is not one of the least useful; for if the writings of this kind have less originality than the others, they exercise more influence, and the errors they contain are more dangerous, because they are addressed to readers unable to defend themselves from them. I am about to endeavour to correct some of those which are to be met with in a work published under the title of Tableaux Séculaires de l’histoire de France, by a professor of the university; not that this work is worse than many others, but in order to bring forward the enormous vices of editing which are invariably propagated from year to year, in all the histories of France destined for public instruction. The author of the Tableaux Séculaires announces under the date of 413, that a chief of the Burgundians, named Gundicare, takes the title of king. What he here gives us as a fact is not one; it is not true that in the year 413, the chief of the Burgundians exchanged his title of chief for another title; that he ceased to be a chief in order to become something different; nothing like this is related by the historians of the period. Only, if we open the chronicles, we shall find under that date, or near it, “Rex BurgundionumGundicharius,” or “Rex Burgundionum factus Gundicharius.” These expressions in the language as well as in the thoughts of the historians, signified nothing else but that Gondeher, chief of the Burgundians, Gondeher, became chief of the Burgundians.* Because it is under the date of 413 that the name of Gondeher joined to the word rex is met with for the first time in the Latin histories, it does not at all follow that in the year 413 Gondeher adopted or received from his nation the Latin title of rex, a title which historians give him, because they are unable to write that with which he was qualified in his language. It is exactly as if they said, that in the year 413 Gondeher called himself Gundicharius, because his Germanic name appears for the first time under this date with Latin orthography and termination.
Such a supposition appears a wild one, and yet it is not without an example. Grave historians have related as a positive fact, that the chief of the Franks, Chlodowig or Clovis, took the name of Louis after his baptism, and this because they found in some Latin history written after this baptism, the name of Chlodowig Latinized into Lutovicus or Ludovichus, instead of being rendered Chlodovechus, that is to say, deprived of the Frankish aspirate which the Gaulois were tired of writing and pronouncing. It is another illusion of the same kind which makes historians assign an epoch at which the Franks took kings and ceased to have dukes. We find in the Latin writers sometimes the words Francorum duces, and sometimes those of Francorum reges; this difference of expression, which is frequently met with à propos of the same personages, is a mere variety of style. Our modern writers have seen in it political revolutions.—Those who prided themselves on exactness noted that the word reges, being employed after that of duces, that duces again being used, and followed ever afterwards by reges, it was perfectly evident that the Franks had been at first governed by dukes, then by kings, then again by dukes, and finally by kings. The author of the Tableaux Séculaires tells us, that after Clodion, Mérovée, a relation of that prince, was raised on the buckler. It is time to give the personages of our history their real names, and no longer to reproduce those doubly disfigured by the Latin language and that of the old French chronicles. No man of the nation of the Franks was ever called Clodion or Mérovée. The Chlodio, which we make Clodion, is nothing but the Latin form of the Germanic word Hlodi, the familiar diminutive of Hlod, which signifies striking, celebrated, illustrious. In the same way Merovechus is Latinized from Merowig, which means eminent warrior. In the second place, the title of prince, introduced at this period of our history, upsets facts and ideas. This phrase of modern language is entirely inapplicable to the manners and customs of that period; unless the word prince is taken in its purely ancient signification, and that in using it, no other meaning is attributed to it except that of the Latin word princeps, which means chief or commander.
Our author mentions, under the date of 511, Clotaire king of Soissons, Thierry king of Metz, Clodomir king of Orleans, and Childebert king of Paris. I will not again insist on the inexactitude of the proper names;* I will only remark that the expressions of original authors, rex Parisiis, rex Suessionibus, are detestably translated by the words king of Paris, king of Soissons, &c. The Latin of these authors means literally king or chief at Soissons, king or chief at Paris, &c.; which signifies, that such and such a man, one of the principal chiefs of the Franks, the commander of a tribe or a large portion of the army, had his head quarters either at Paris or at Soissons.
The combination of the title of rex or king with the name of a country, adopted in our language, has contributed to change the primitive signification of that title. When they said rex Francorum, king of the Franks, this was perfectly clear: a king of the Franks is a chief of the Franks. But when we say king of France, a very different idea, that of a more modern and far more complex political situation presents itself to the mind: yet hardly any one is conscious of the confusion. We establish kings of France at a period when all present France was the enemy of the Frankish kings, far from constituting their kingdom. Children are asked who the first king of France was. No one perceives that this is a very ill-expressed question. What is meant by first king of France? is it the first who literally bore the title of king of France? Then it must be one of the kings of the third race; for those of the two first not speaking French, did not take a French title, and their qualification, whether in Latin or in the Germanic language, answered to that of king of the Franks. Is it the person whom Roman authors first called Francorum rex? we must find out in these authors the precise moment at which one of them wrote these words in the place of Francorum dux. Or is it the first of all the chiefs of the Frankish nation? It would be equally impossible and useless to discover his name; it is much more important to know precisely what a chief of the Franks was.
The author of the Tableaux Séculaires proposes himself another no less ambiguous question.—When was the nobility established? To give a date of some sort, he replies, that the nobility was established in the ninth century. But what is meant by the establishment of the nobility? is it the establishment of exclusive rights of a certain class of men upon the soil and the other inhabitants of the country? or is it the establishment of the Latin qualification of nobilis? If it is the privileges which are meant, their origin is clear; they are derived from the conquest; they are the conquest itself. As to the title of nobilis, it is difficult to say when the conquering race adopted it for the first time, if it was an invention of its own pride, or of the flattery of the conquered. Whichever it was, the epithets of praise were not unpleasant to it: it often boasted of itself, and spoke of itself as an illustrious race founded by God himself, strong in arms, firm in its alliances, of singular beauty and whiteness, of a noble and healthy body, audacious, active, and terrible.* Since the victory of the Franks, the words nobilitas and nobilis were almost always joined to their national name.—We find Francicæ gentis nobilitas, de nobili Francorum genere, homo francus nomine et re nobilis. In the first periods of the conquest, when the names of nations were still used to distinguish the races, when the word Romans was used to distinguish the conquered, the name of Frank, alone and without epithet, signified a man superior to others. Later, when the national name of the conquered gave place to names derived from their special condition, like those of serfs and villains, the national name of the conquerors likewise vanished, and was replaced by the epithet of praise which had at first accompanied it. At first the words nobilis francus were used, then francus or nobilis were used indifferently, and lastly, only the word nobilis was used. This has happened; but at what precise epoch? This is what it is impossible to discover, any more than the gradual variations of the language, the birth or decline of words.
The long habit of joining the name of Frank to the epithets of honour which accompanied it, and which contained the idea of power, of liberty, of riches, and even that of the moral qualities which constitute nobility of soul, was the cause that this name itself became an equivalent adjective to those with which it was usually combined. In the twelfth century, the word frank was used in opposition to chétif, that is to say, of poor and low condition.* We know in what moral sense this word is now employed, and it is to our ancient political condition that it owes the energy which has caused it to be adopted by several foreign nations. The Germans, for example, use it to express the condition of free men in all its fulness. They say, frank und frey, frank and free. This signification, more modern for them amongst whom the difference of conditions did not answer primitively to a difference of race, has led several critics into error on the real signification of the name of the Franks in the ancient Teutonic language. They have thought it was equivalent to that of free men, and they were mistaken.† This name of a warlike confederacy, formed for attack rather than resistance to foreign oppression, had a meaning similar to the impression which those who adopted it wished to produce around them. It properly signified violent or rough, and indicated the will to carry war to the extremity without fear and without mercy.
I beg your pardon for the dryness of these remarks. If it is permitted to be minute, it is in what affects the truth of local colouring, which must be the characteristic of history. Ours is cold and monotonous, because every thing in it is cold and stiff; truth alone can give it piquancy and interest. The prospect of that object is required to diminish the dulness of the dry paths which must be traversed before it can be attained.
[* ] Gonde-her signifies an eminent warrior, and the name of the nation may be translated by that of confederate warriors.
[* ] In making all possible concessions to custom, these names should be written Chloter, Theoderik, Chlodomir, and Hildebert. These names signify celebrated and excellent, extremely brave, celebrated and eminent, brilliant warrior. Generally, all Frankish names, and even those of the other Germanic nations of the period of the great invasion, are formed by the connection of two qualifying adjectives. The number of these monosyllabic adjectives is sufficiently limited for it to be easy to draw up a list of them; they are joined at random, and so as to form sometimes the first, sometimes the second part of the name. The only difference between the names of men or women is, that the latter are less varied, and generally finish by certain words which in men’s names are always placed at the beginning, like Hild and Gond. Thus Hildebert is the name of a man, Berte-hild that of a woman. The same difference exists between Gonde-bald and Bald-gonde. The e placed at the end of the first word, and which marks a stop between the two parts of the name, is often replaced by other vowels, like o and u in the dialect of the Franks, i in that of the Alemanni and Longobards, and a in that of the Goths. But these vowels bearing no accent, were pronounced indistinctly, and thus resembled the mute e.
[* ] Gens Francorum inclyta, auctore Deo condita, fortis in armis, firma pacis fœdere, candore et formâ egregiâ, corpore nobilis et incolumis, audax, velox, aspera. (Pro log. ad Leg. Salic., Scriptores Rerum Francic. tom, iv.)Thibeau fut plein d’engein et plein fut de feintié.A homme ne â femme ne porta amitiéDe franc ne de chétif n’ot merci ne piyié.
[* ] (Vers sur Thibaut le Tricheur, comte de Champagne.)
[† ] See the words Vrang and Frech in Wachter’s Glossary. It seems that in the dialect of some of the nations which formed the Frankish confederation, the name of the association was pronounced without an n, and that Frac or Frek was used instead of Frank or Frenk. It is perhaps for this reason that the seals of several of the early kings bear the words Fracorum rex.