The Slave Queens of Merovingian France

I’m back in the States for a few weeks, which means I’m taking a break from bead research and excavations. Instead, I’ve resumed work on the textual sources for the early medieval slave trade. I’m working through some classic studies on medieval slavery, trying to hunt down the sources for understanding what slavery was like in France before the vikings arrived.

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Around 660, the chronicler Fredegar recorded that the Merovingian family descended from an ancestor named Merovech, who was conceived when his mother was attacked by a sea beast with five horns. Merovech’s name translates loosely to “sea cow.” Sadly, no sketches of such a sea cow survive from the Merovingian period, but this sea pig of 1537 has a history all its own. (Antonio Blado, “Monstrum in Oceano,” 1537.)

The Frankish peoples were ruled at this time by a family known as the Merovingians (ca. 500-750 AD). The fragmentation of their kingdoms might have made things difficult for slave traders, but their frequent fighting ensured a steady crop of captives who could be sold as slaves. It seems that the general direction of this trade went from north to south, with many slaves being sold along the way before reaching the distant markets of Marseilles, Rome, and Naples. Right now, my interests lie with a specific group of this human traffic that never reached the Mediterranean: the slave queens of Merovingian France.

For early Merovingian kings, marriages were seen as a way to secure political alliances, but as they grew stronger, it became increasingly dangerous for them to tie rivals to the throne through marriage. Some began to experiment with ways of gaining heirs without making themselves vulnerable to in-laws: they married their slaves.

Although we lack substantial information for many of the Merovingian monarchs, we have evidence that a surprising number of them married their slaves. The most commonly cited examples include: Chilperic I of Soissons married the slave Fredegund (d. 597); Theudebert of Austrasia married his slave Bilichild (d. 610); Dagobert I of the Franks married Nanthild (d. 642), who was likely a slave, and he later fathered an heir with his concubine Ragnetrude (ca. 630); and Clovis II of Burgundy and Neustria married Balthild (d. 680), who was later venerated as a saint.

These are the most secure examples, and taken together, they testify that for almost a century, there was usually at least one prominent slave ruling as a queen. And since we lack so much information from this period, it’s worth comparing the better attested case of Charlemagne, who is known to have had at least four legitimate wives as well as five concubines. The Merovingian kings may have kept similar harems, meaning there might be a large number of concubines and slave queens who have left no trace in our surviving records.

witt_1887_fredegund_tries_to_kill_her_daughter_rigunth
Fredegund is a difficult character to sympathize with, in part because the elite men who wrote about her lacked all respect for slave queens. In one of their favorite anecdotes, Fredegund lost patience with her princess daughter who kept teasing her mother for her servile past. (Henriette De Witt, Vieilles Histoires de La Patrie, 1887; via Wikimedia Commons.)

So what did it mean to be a slave queen in Merovingian France? The best known slave queen is Fredegund, although her reputation is grim. The website Rejected Princesses rates her as “cartoonishly, overwhelmingly evil.” This image derives first and foremost from Gregory of Tours, who used Fredegund as a bête noire in his moralizing History of the Franks. Gregory had the chutzpah to publish his muckraking on Fredegund while the queen was still alive, sometime during the early 590s. Somehow he got away with it. Perhaps the aging Fredegund wasn’t so bad after all, or perhaps her deeds were so infamous that censuring Gregory would have confirmed rather than repudiated his claims.

Nevertheless, Gregory was circumspect about calling Fredegund a slave, and he doesn’t even give her a proper introduction. She seems to have been but one of many wives initially belonging to Chilperic I of Neustria (r. 561–584). Gregory notes that she rose to prominence through intrigue and murder, but he cautiously directs blame toward Chilperic, who was safely dead by the time he published his book. Without naming names, Gregory presents Chilperic as one of those petty kings who was “so worthless as to marry even slaves” (Greg., IV.27). And while Gregory himself never states that Fredegund was such a slave, he coyly allows her daughter to the levy the charge:

Chilperic’s daughter Rigunth often defamed her mother, saying that she would return her mother to slavery while she herself was a mistress. And sometimes they hit each other with hands and fists. Her mother said to her: “Why do you molest me, daughter? Behold the things of your father, which I have in my power. Take and do as you please.” And when she put her arm in to take things from the chest, her mother took hold of the lid and drove it against her neck. But those outside broke into the chamber, snatching the girl from imminent death. After this, the enmity between them grew ever more fierce, and there was no particular cause, unless it was that Rigunth pursued adultery. (Greg., IX.34)

Typical Fredegund, according to Gregory, and he suggests that Rigunth had no more honor than her low-born mother. These are, however, but hints and echoes of Fredegund’s rise from slavery. Gregory’s reluctance to describe Fredegund as a slave contrasts with his otherwise brutal picture of her, perhaps because he thought Fredegund would kill even her own daughter for daring to voice such a charge.

But this should not cause us to doubt that Fredegund was indeed a slave. Over a century later, an anonymous author reworked Gregory’s stories into a new Liber Historiae Francorum, and with Fredegund long dead, he had the freedom to be more explicit. Whereas Gregory attributed the rise of Fredegund to the indulgences of her then-dead husband Chilperic, the author of the LHF offers a much more elaborate account:

When Chilperic marched against the Saxons, his wife Audovera gave birth to a daughter. But Fredegund deceived her, saying: “Mistress, my master returns; how can he receive his daughter unbaptized?” The queen then called for a bishop to baptize the girl, but when the bishop arrived, there was no one available to be the girl’s godmother. So Fredegund said: “We can find no one equal to you—be bold and receive her yourself!” So she took the girl from the font.

When the king returned, Fredegund met him along the way. She said: “With whom will my master sleep tonight, since my mistress has become a godmother to your daughter and is now your spiritual sister?” And he said: “If it is forbidden for me to sleep with her, then let me sleep with you.” And when the king entered his hall, he said to his queen: “You have done a wicked thing in your simplemindedness, and you may no longer be my wife.” He made her put on the holy veil and become a nun along with her daughter, and he exiled the bishop. Fredegund then bound herself to him as the queen. (LHF, 31)

It’s hard to know how far we should trust this story, which offers new details for events from the early 560s even though it wasn’t written until after 727. Would a slave have known the minor points of church law that Fredegund uses against Audovera? And is this shrewd but unscrupulous Chilperic the same man as Gregory’s depraved and capricious king?

Regardless, this passage lets us know that Gregory’s indirect comments about Fredegund’s slave background seemed unambiguous to early readers. Fredegund had been a slave, she was considered a lesser person for that, and the Merovingian kings had weakened their ability to rule by bringing people like her into the family.

This later account also reveals some of what Gregory could or could not say while Fredegund still lived and breathed. His image of Fredegund as a fearsome queen and his reticence to talk about her history as a slave reflects an image that Fredegund herself sought to promote, or was at least one that she was willing to allow. In Gregory’s silences, we hear an echo of Fredegund’s voice.

queen_fredegonde_seated_on_her_throne_gives_orders_to_two_young_men_of_terouanne_to_assassinate_sigebert_king_of_austrasia_window_in_the_cathedral_of_tournai_fifteenth_c
Queen Fredegund issues orders to assassinate Chilperic’s brother Sigibert, king of Austrasia. Chilperic was similarly assassinated in 584, but Fredegund maintained power until her death, focusing many of her latter years on a feud with her fellow queen Brunhilda. (Sketch of Cathedral Window, Tournai, France; via Wikimedia Commons.)

Translations are my own, with some adaptations to accommodate online readers. I don’t think that early medieval authors would have minded these revisions, but if you’d like to get closer to their works, I’d recommend:

  • Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin, 1974).
  • Alexander Callander Murray, ed. and trans., From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).
  • Erin T. Dailey, Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

More on other Merovingian queens to come!

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4 thoughts on “The Slave Queens of Merovingian France

  1. Bonnie Effros

    Interestingly, Matt, the images you use here are from the late nineteenth century and a product of the growing interest in the Third Republic for skewering anything faintly royal following the fall of Napoleon III. In part, the interest in this period stemmed from Augustin Thierry’s highly tabloid “Récits des temps mérovingiens” (published first serially in the “Revue des deux mondes” in the 1820s), which was reissued by Hachette in the early decades of the Third Republic with illustrations by the republican and historical painter Jean-Paul Laurens. But I would also suggest that if you continue to focus on the idea of “slave” queens, that you also think about those taken in war. Radegund of Poitiers is not typically referred to as a slave but she was indeed held and (if we believe Venantius Fortunatus) married to the king against her will.

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    1. Thanks for this—fascinating to see how medieval critiques of particular rulers got revived a thousand years later to pillory the very idea of monarchy. I’ll make a note of it the next time I use images like these.

      I found the women listed above mentioned in several places, but without much documentation, so I started digging deeper. I’m still thinking about how slavery fits in with things like de Jong’s work on oblates and Kosto’s study on hostages, although their works pointedly exclude slaves and people like Radegund. I’ll keep an eye out for her!

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  2. Bonnie Effros

    I also recommend Janet Nelson’s article “Queens as Jezebels” published in Medieval Women in 1978, for thoughts on Gregory of Tours’ misogyny.

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  3. Pingback: Using X-rays to Study Glass – text and trowel

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