The myth of Merovech, the Merovingians and who were Clovis's noble Ancestors?
Who were Clovis' noble ancestors spoken of by Bishops Remigius and Avitus in their letters to him? Avitus especially lauds Clovis ancestors:
“Of all your ancient genealogy you have chosen to keep only your own nobility, and you have willed that your race should derive from you all the glories which adorn high birth. Your ancestors have prepared a great destiny for you; you willed to prepare better things (for those who will follow you). You follow your ancestors in reigning in this world; you have opened the way to your descendants to a heavenly realm.”
Avitus states that Clovis' ancestors had also reigned in this world, meaning he was from a long line of Frankish kings. He was pleased that Clovis was preparing a new path for his own descendants, that of Christianity. Merovech is supposed to be one of these kings of the past, Clovis' possible grandfather according to Gregory. So we should examine the origin tale of the Merovingi.
Fredegar, writing in about 660CE relates the full tale of the mythical birth of Merovech the supposed founder of the Merovingian dynasty. He tells the story such :
“It is said that, when Chlodio was staying with his wife on the seashore in the summer, his wife went to the sea around noon to bathe and a beast of Neptune resembling the quinotaur sought her out. Right away she conceived by either the beast or her husband and afterwards gave birth to a son called Merovech, after whom the kings of the Franks were later called Merovingian.”
Gregory may have known of this legend as he mentions that “Certain authorities assert that king Merovech, whose son was Childeric, was of the family of Chlogio”. So there was some doubt as to the paternity of Merovech; was he Chlodio's son or the Quinotaur's? We can see that by Gregory's time he believed Childeric's father to be Merovech, probably due to these legends, that sought to explain and etymologise the word Merovingi. Alexander Callander Murray explains in his 1998 work - Post vocantur Merogingii, Fredegar, Merovech and 'Sacral Kingship - that the mythical story of Merovech appears to be a concoction to explain the Merovingian bloodline; so an etymological explanation created in the seventh and eighth centuries with a fable woven around it1. He supports the view that Merovech was not mythical and that he was indeed a king of the Franks. He agrees with the idea suggested by Johannes Georg Von Eckhart in the early eighteenth century, that the name Merovech became the sea beast itself, explaining it as 'mer' - 'the sea' and 'veh/vieh' - 'a beast'. This is novel solution but veh/vieh does not readily lend itself to the suffix ving/veng. Gregory uses the form Merovech. It also overlooks the fact that Merovech was conceived of the beast with Chlodio's wife, not the beast itself. I would like to suggest an alternative below that could explain the identity of the beast.
Karl Hauck (1955) suggested that the word comes from an old cult myth of the Franks derived from the God Freyr and closely links it to the bull cult, this despite it's close association with a real life king Chlodio. Murray dismisses this bull evidence, such as the golden bull head found in Childeric's grave and indeed the Quinotaur (five headed bull) in this story, but finishes by saying :
“If notions of divine descent and bull cults are to be considered pertinent, they have to be sustained by the context of the story itself and, most importantly must be shown to be the best categories available for interpreting the peculiarities of the tale.”
I hope to show that the bull reference is indeed very relevant in the context. Murray suggests the possibility that the tale took form due to the revival of the name Merovech in the time of Chilperic (obit 584) whose son was so named. Gregory would have been a contemporary. This would suggest the legends were forming by this time and Gregory was therefore aware of the speculation surrounding the origin of the name. Gregory may have avoided using the tale in his own work due to its overtly pagan nature, although he did point out that the Franks were pagan at this time. His only other possible concession to this story was stating that he was unsure as to the relationship of Chlodio and Merovech as mentioned above. It remains though that this tale may not yet have taken its final form in his time, so he may not have been aware of it all. The form Merovingian was not used until the eighth century. Fredegar used Merohingii, The earliest form, Mervengus, in the singular, was mentioned by Bobbio in 640CE. With these two earliest forms, confusing a 'v' with an 'h' we might suggest an earlier 'u' in this position, hence Meruingi. All long after Gregory's time though and Gregory himself did not use the term. Certainly not in Clovis' time where Remigius was still mentioning the poetic form of his ancestors - the Sicambrian Franks. So, if as Murray suggests, that the mythical tale was an invention of the seventh century onwards, should we be looking at a legitimate etymology for the word or an invented etymology based around sea and beast?
In a legitimate etymology the suffix 'ingi' means 'descendants of', or 'belonging to' an example being the Thuringi or Toringi. (descendants of Thor) and the Carolingi, (descendants of Charles the Great). Also note the Gothic tribe the Tervingi/Teruingi (possibly also descendants of Thor) and Jordanes mentions the Evagreotingi (descendants of mighty horsemen?). 'Belonging to' usually denotes a place. The prefix mero is likely derived from mer-, mir-, mar-, to PGmc *mērjaz 'famous'2, an example being Meroildi (famous in battle), rather than mer – sea. The original word in a legitimate etymology could then have been Meroingi or Meruingi, (this latter form could readily produce the early Mervengus) the meaning of which seems to be descendants of the famous. The form Teruingi above for Tervingi shows well this possibility where u/v replace each other. We could postulate Mervigius or Merovig (famous fighter) as a possible explanation but they would not produce Mervengus or Merovingi. We could also postulate 'belonging to the sea' as an alternative, possibly relating to the Salian Franks but this doesn’t quite equate to a name place or named ancestors place.
So we are left with descendants of the famous. So who were these famous ancestors that the sixth to seventh century Frankish elite claimed as their own? Clovis and Childeric for sure but the others? Mero appears as a suffix or prefix in Frankish names. If we look at the ancestors of Chlodio, who I suggest was Childeric's father (and others his grandfather), we find his illustrious genus. Chlodio's grandfather is said to be Richomeres (obit 393, famous noble), who became an important official within the Roman Empire as a Comes, Magister Militum and more importantly as an Eastern Consul in 384. This was a time of very influential Romano Frankish Generals. In the west Merobaudes (famous fighter/ruler), another, mero, was also a Consul in 377 and 383. The son of Richomeres was the father of Chlodio (according to Fredegar) - another mero – Theudomeres (obit 422). This meres suffix sometimes appeared in Latin sources as mero, ie Theudemero. Whether Richomeres was related to Merobaudes is unknown.
Little is known of Theudomer(es) . He possibly supported the usurper Jovinus with his Franks and was executed when a Roman army crushed the rebellion. Gregory of Tours mentions that he was the son of Richimer and Ascyla and calls him Theodomer and that he and his mother were killed by the sword3. This just before he mentions Merovech and Chlodio. I would suggest then that the Merovingian origin could have been derived from Richomeres and then more specifically Theudomero. Why Theudomero? Because his name means 'people fame' but the mero part may have been considered and legends made, over the years leading up to the sixth and seventh centuries, as meaning 'the sea', hence 'belonging to the sea'. Then the first part of his name Theudo, was construed as 'theuto', the Frankish word for bull, so 'bull from the sea'. In effect Theudomero was possibly the father of Merovech rather than Chlodio, hence Gregory' concern as to his paternity.
In conclusion we have seen that the earliest attested singular form Mervengus possibly derived from an earlier Meruingi, becoming Mervingi and then ultimately Merovingi when the birth of Merovech was mythologised. The original meaning descendants of the famous, was lost and the myth makers seeing the name Theudomer in Gregory of Tour's work, just before Chlodio's and Merovechs could use Theudomer's name as a construct for the bull from the sea that ravished Chlodions wife, thereby inventing an etymology to explain both his name and birth.
So did Merovech exist? Murray suggests he did, others suggest he is a myth. There was one other son of Chlodio mentioned at the time of his death. The elder son, who sided with Atilla and probably lost his life at Chalons. Was this Merovech? If not then the problem remains. In support of his existence is the fact that the name reappeared in the late sixth century when Chilperic named his son Merovech. But was this because there was a real life Merovech or was this because the legend had become current by this time? Difficult to say.
If Childeric was the son of Merovech and he a son of Chlodion this would present difficulties. The average age of a Frankish warrior king at death does not seem to have been more than about 45. So Chlodion would have been born in around 404. Say he had Merovech at the age of 18, in 422, so that in 449 Merovech would be 27. In this case Merovech could not be the elder young son of Chlodion who sided with Atilla as he was too old. Priscus describes the younger as being about 13/14, the elder brother then could be no more than say 17/18, meaning he was born in around 431. So say he had Childeric when he was 18, then Childeric would be born in 449. But this would be impossible for Childeric as he would only be eight years old in 457!!. He also then couldn't possibly be the younger son described by Priscus. So we can now see why Gregory must have had his doubts as to Merovechs paternity. Gregory says that the rumour was that Merovech was of the family of Chodion, hence not necessarily his son. So he could have been a brother. This presents another difficulty. Chlodion is presented in contemporary records as the only king of the Salian Franks at the time. If Merovech was also a king following the death of Theudomer in 422 we should have heard of his exploits and his own kingdom. Wood though has pointed out that Germanic kingship did not always pass onto other brothers on succession. The record is silent though concerning any kingdom of Merovech.
If Merovech was a brother of Chlodion he could not possibly be the elder son of Chlodion who disputed the kingship in 449/450, so again, no kingdom. If the legend is trying to say that Merovech was the son of Theudomer, it also presents difficulties. Merovech then would have been born long before 422 and then surely would have become king or disputed the kingship with Chlodion. But as above the record is silent. So we end up going in circles looking for an imaginary king Merovech who surely never existed. Take away Merovech and everything works perfectly. Childeric born in 435 then becomes the younger son of Chlodion, described by Priscus, the elder sons name unknown. In 450 Childeric would have become 15 and entitled to his portion of the kingship, causing the dispute with the elder brother. His brother sided with the Hun of Atilla. It's probably where he met his end at the battle of Chalons. Our only stumbling block is Gregory's statement that Childeric was the son of Merovech. This may purely be due to the legend that was developing at the time. If he had any existence then he was not a king and was possibly just a son of Theudomer and died at the same time as Chlodion which probably counts him out as an illustrious ancestor of Clovis.
If all of this has some semblance of truth then Clovis indeed had a very famous bloodline, from Childeric his father, then Chlodion and going all the way back to the fourth century Roman Consul Richomeres. More importantly though, Clovis' sons' could claim that they were descended from very famous ancestors, lauded by Avitus and Remigius, starting with Clovis himself and hence the Mero(v)ingi were born.
1 Murray, Alexander C. ( Editor) After Rome's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History University of Toronto Press 1998, Post vocantur Merogingii, Fredegar, Merovech and 'Sacral Kingship' pages 121 - 142
3 Histories II.9