Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE TO THE NARRATIVES. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
PREFACE TO THE NARRATIVES. - 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:
PREFACE TO THE NARRATIVES.
It is an assertion almost proverbial, that no period of our history is so arid and confused as the Merovingian period. This epoch is the one most willingly abridged, most slurred over, most unscrupulously passed by. There is more indolence than reflection in this contempt. If the history of the Merovingians is difficult to disentangle, it is by no means uninteresting. On the contrary, it abounds in singular events, in original characters, in dramatic incidents so varied, that the only difficulty is that of placing such numerous details in order. The latter half of the sixth century especially, presents to both writers and readers the greatest wealth and interest; either because this epoch, being the first of that mixture of the aborigines and conquerors of Gaul, was on that account more poetical, or else because it owes interest to the naïf talent of its historian Georgius Florentinus Gregorius, known by the name of Gregory of Tours.
The manners of the destroyers of the Roman empire, their savage and singular aspect, have been frequently described in our day, and they have been twice described by a great master.* These pictures are sufficient to imbue forever, with its local and poetical colouring, the historical period extending from the great invasion of the Gauls in 406, to the establishment of the Frankish domination; but the succeeding period has not been the subject of any artistic study. Its original character consists in an antagonism of races no longer complete and striking, but softened by a number of reciprocal imitations, caused by the mutual habitation of the same territory. These moral modifications, which present themselves on all sides, under different aspects, and in different degrees, multiply general types and individual physiognomies in the history of the period. There are Franks who remained pure Germans in Gaul, Gallo-Romans irritated and disgusted by the barbarian rule, Franks more or less influenced by the manners and customs of civilized life, and Romans become more or less barbarian in mind and manners. The contrast may be followed in all its shades through the sixth century, and into the middle of the seventh; later, the Germanic and Gallo-Roman stamp seem effaced and lost in a semi-barbarism clothed in theocratic forms.
By a fortuitous, but singularly fortunate coincidence, this complex and varied period is the very one of which the original documents offer the most characteristic details. It met with an historian marvellously suited to its nature in an intelligent and saddened witness of that confusion of men and things, of those crimes and catastrophes, in the midst of which the irresistible destruction of ancient civilization was accomplished. We must come down to the time of Froissart to find a narrator equal to Gregory of Tours in the art of bringing the personages on the scene, and animating them by dialogue. Every thing which the conquest of Gaul had placed together, or in opposition, on the same territory, races, classes, divers conditions, are imaged in his sometimes humorous, sometimes tragical, but always truthful and animated narratives. They are like an ill-arranged gallery of pictures and sculpture; they are like ancient national songs, curtailed, thrown together without connection, but capable of classification and of forming a poem, if this word, so indiscriminately used in the present day, can be applied to history.
The idea of undertaking a work of art as well as of historical science on the century of Gregory of Tours, was the result of these reflections; I conceived it in 1833. My plan decided on, two methods presented themselves: a continued narrative of a series of political events, or detached narratives, each containing the life or adventures of some persons of the period. I did not hesitate between these two methods; I chose the second; firstly, on account of the nature of the subject, which presented materials for a varied and complete picture of social transactions, and of the destination of humanity in political, civil, and domestic life; secondly, on account of the peculiar nature of my principal source of information, The Ecclesiastical History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours.
In order that this curious book should have its full weight as a document, it must become the ground-work of our narrative history, not for what he says of the principal events, for those are to be found elsewhere, but for the episodes, the local events, the sketches of manners, which can be met with nowhere else. If these details are combined with a series of great political events, and inserted in their respective places in a complete narrative, they will make little figure, but rather encumber its progress at every step; moreover, it would be necessary to give colossal dimensions to history written in this way. This is what Adrian of Valois did in his three folio volumes of the Gestes des Franks, from the first appearance of the Franks to the fall of the Merovingian dynasty; but a book like that is purely one of science, useful to students, but repulsive to the mass of readers. It would be impossible to imitate or translate into French the work of Adrian of Valois; and were it attempted, the object, in my opinion, would not be attained. Although allowing himself a wide field in his voluminous chronicle, the learned man of the seventeenth century often prunes and abridges; he omits facts and details, softens all roughnesses, renders vaguely what Gregory of Tours distinctly expresses, suppresses or perverts the dialogue, and looks only to the meaning, the form to him being of no consequence. Now, the form is the principal thing; its smallest lineaments must be observed, must be rendered by study clearer and more spirited, and in it must be contained all that historical science furnishes us respecting the laws, manners, and social state of the sixth century.
The following is the plan which I laid down for myself as the subject demanded: to choose the culminating point of the first period after the mixture of the two races; there, in a given space, to collect and unite in groups the most characteristic events, to form a suite of pictures succeeding one another progressively, varying their size while giving breadth and gravity to the different masses of the narrative; widening and strengthening the tissue of the original narrative, by the help of inductions suggested by legends, poems of the period, the diplomatic documents, inscriptions and figures. Between 1833 and 1837, I published the Revue des deux Mondes, under a provisory title,* six of these episodes or fragments of a history impracticable in its entire state. They here appear with their definite title: Récits des temps Mérovingiens, and form the first section of the entire work, the second of which will likewise have two volumes.
If unity of composition is wanting in these detached histories, there will at any rate be unity of impression left on the mind of the reader. These narratives, occupying little more than the space of half a century, will be in some measure connected by the reappearance of the same persons, and they will often serve to develop one another. There will be as many of these masses of separate narrative as I shall find facts comprehensive enough to serve as centres, as rallying points to many secondary facts to give them a general meaning, and by them produce a complete dramatic action. Sometimes it will be the narration of some individual, to which will be joined a picture of the social events which influenced it; sometimes a series of public events, to which, as it proceeds, will be added personal adventures and domestic catastrophes.
The mode of life of the Frankish kings, the interior of the royal abode, the stormy lives of the nobles and bishops; usurpation, the civil and private wars; the intriguing turbulence of the Gallo-Romans, and the undisciplined brutality of the barbarians; the absence of all administrative order, and of all moral ties between the inhabitants of the Gallic provinces, in the heart of the same kingdom; the renewal of old rivalries and hereditary hatreds of one canton towards another, one city towards another; everywhere a sort of return to a state of nature; and the insurrection of individual will against law and order under whatever form presented, whether political, civil or religious, the spirit of revolt and violence penetrating even into the female monasteries;—such are the various pictures I have endeavoured to sketch from cotemporary remains, and the assemblage of which presents a view of the sixth century in Gaul.
I have made a minute study of the characters and fates of historical personages, and have endeavoured to give reality and life to those whom history has most neglected. Amongst these persons, four figures, types of their epoch, will be found pre-eminent: Fredegonda, Hilperik, Eonius Mummolus, and Gregory of Tours himself; Fredegonda, the ideal of elementary barbarism, without consciousness of right and wrong; Hilperik, the man of barbaric race, who acquires the tastes of civilization, and becomes polished outwardly without any deeper reformation; Mummolus, the civilized man who becomes a barbarian, and corrupts himself in order to belong to his age; Gregory of Tours, the man of a former epoch, but one better than the present, which oppresses him, the faithful echo of the regrets which expiring civilization calls up in some elevated minds.*
The narratives of the Merovingian times will, I think, close the circle of my works of historical narrative; it would be rash to extend my views and hopes beyond. Whilst I endeavoured in this work to paint Frankish barbarism, mitigated in the sixth century by the contact of a civilization it destroyed, a reminiscence of my early youth crossed my mind. In 1810, I was finishing my studies at the college of Blois, when a copy of “Les Martyrs,” brought from without, circulated through the college. It was a great event for those amongst us who already felt a love of the beautiful and of glory. We quarrelled for the book; it was arranged that each one should have it by turns, and mine fell on a holyday at the hour of going out walking. That day I pretended to have hurt my foot, and remained alone at home. I read, or rather devoured the pages, seated before my desk in a vaulted room, which was our schoolroom, and the aspect of which appeared to me grand and imposing. I at first felt a vague delight, my imagination was dazzled; but when I came to the recital of Eudore, that living history of the declining empire, a more active and reflecting interest attached me to the picture of the eternal city, of the court of a Roman emperor, the march of a Roman army in the marshes of Batavia, and its encounter with an army of Franks.
I had read in the history of France, used by the scholars of the military college, and our classical book, “The Franks, or French, already masters of Tournay, and the banks of the Escaut, had extended their conquests as far as Somme. . . . Clovis, son of King Childéric, ascended the throne 481, and by his victories strengthened the foundations of the French monarchy.”* All my archæology of the middle ages consisted in these sentences, and some others of the same kind, which I had learned by heart. French, throne, monarchy, were to me the beginning and end, the groundwork and the form of our national history. Nothing had given me any notion of M. de Chateaubriand’s terrible Franks clothed in the skins of bears, seals, and wild boars, and of the camp guarded by leathern boats, and chariots drawn by huge oxen, of the army placed in the form of a triangle, in which could be distinguished nothing but a forest of javelins, of wild beasts’ skins, and half-naked bodies.† As the dramatic contrast between the savage warrior and the civilized soldier gradually developed itself, I was more and more deeply struck; the impression made on me by the war-song of the Franks was something electrical. I left the place where I was seated, and marching from one end of the room to the other, repeated aloud, and making my steps ring on the pavement:—
“Pharamond! Pharamond! we have fought with the sword.
“We have hurled the battle-axe with two blades; sweat ran from the brow of the warriors, and trickled down their arms. The eagles and birds with yellow feet uttered screams of joy; the crows swam in the blood of the dead; all ocean was but a wound. The virgins have long wept.
“Pharamond! Pharamond! we have fought with the sword.
“Our fathers fell in battle, all the vultures moaned at it: our fathers satiated them with carnage. Let us choose wives whose milk shall be blood, and shall fill with valour the hearts of our sons. Pharamond, the song of the bard is ended, the hours of life are passing away; we will smile when we must die.
“Thus sang forty thousand barbarians. The riders raised and lowered their white shields in cadence; and at each burden, they struck their iron-clad chests with the iron of their javelins.”‡
This moment of enthusiasm was perhaps decisive of my future vocation. I had then no consciousness of what had passed within me; my attention did not dwell on it; I even forgot it for many years; but when after inevitable stumblings in the choice of a profession, I gave myself up wholly to history, I remembered that incident of my life and its minutest circumstances with singular preciseness. Even now, if the page which struck me so forcibly is read aloud to me, I feel the same emotion I did thirty years ago. Such is my debt to the writer of genius who began and still reigns over the new literary epoch. All those who in various ways follow the paths of this epoch, have likewise found him at the source of their studies and their first inspirations; there is not one who ought not to say to him, as Dante did to Virgil:—
[* ] M. de Chateaubriand; Les Martyrs, livres vi. et vii.; Etudes, ou Discours Historiques, étude sixième, Mœurs des Barbares.
[* ] Nouvelles Lettres sur l’Histoire de France.
[* ] Decedente, atque imo potius pereunte ab urbibus Gallicanis liberalium cultura litterarum . . . cum gentium feritas desæviret, regum furor acueretur . . . ingemiscebant sæpius plerique dicentes: Væ diebus nostris, quia periit studium litterarum a nobis. (Greg. Turon., Hist. Franc. Eccles., apud Script. Rer. Gallic. et Francic., t. ii. p. 137.)
[* ] Abrégé de l’Histoire de France à l’usage des Elèves de l’Ecole royal militaire, faisant partie du cours d’études redigé et imprimé par ordre du roi, 1789, t. i. p. 5 et 6.
[† ] Les Martyrs, livre vi.
[‡ ] Les Martyrs, livre vi.