Gotland during the Viking Age

It’s common wisdom that Gotland went it’s own way during the Viking Age—but that’s certainly not because Gotlanders weren’t connected. On the contrary, Gotlanders had a habit of collecting things that showed just how connected they were. From the thin soils of this rocky isle, archaeologists have uncovered more than 168,000 coins from the Viking Age, which is all the more remarkable since no one in Scandinavia was making coins at this time. Many of the Gotland coins still bear the marks showing when and where they were made, indicating that this idiosyncratic island was tied to trade routes spanning North Africa, Western Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Stavars skatt, a Viking Age hoard from Hemse in Gotland.
Stavars Skatt. This hoard from the mid-900s from southeast Gotland consisted of almost a thousand silver dirhams and two silver bracelets. Tens of thousands of dirhams have been discovered on Gotland, and although they have often been cut into smaller pieces to be used for their silver weight rather than as minted coins, numismatists have still been able to identify where and when many of these were made. It’s more difficult, however, to know how long it took for these coins to reach Gotland, and how long they circulated before they were buried. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

But when did Gotland become a hub for this trade? And did these routes exist before the ‘silver fever’ of the late 800s? This is where glass becomes important. During the early medieval period, almost all glass was produced solely in the Near East—Egypt, the Levant, Syria, and Iran. But it was used all over, including on Gotland. If Gotland glass looked different from the rest of Scandinavia prior to the 870s, then we have a sure indicator that Gotlanders were forging eastward connections before they developed their hunger for silver. To this end, I’ve examined some 2500 beads from Gotland (and still counting!). Here’s some of my initial observations.

Necklace beads of glass and fossil from Ire Grave 133B.
Ire Grave 133B, ca. 540-660. This is a typical Vendel Period necklace. The red, orange, and green glass beads at the top of the frame were common throughout the Baltic and appear in large numbers, for example, on Bornholm. These beads were probably imported in finished form. The white beads, however, were made from local fossils and rarely circulated beyond Gotland. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

To begin with, Gotland beads looked a lot like the rest of the Baltic during the Vendel Period preceding the Viking Age. This is an important baseline, because it shows that as the Iron Age transitioned into the Viking Age, people around the Baltic were largely consumers feeding off a single market—albeit one that was dispersed and had few if any major hubs. But Gotlanders did have local pride, and they fashioned beads made from some of the fossils found readily in the limestone bedrock that makes up much of the island. They made cylinders from the stems of ancient sea lilies, and they ground medium-sized round beads from the coral reefs that had been home to the world’s first vertebrates. These beads are relatively rare in other places, at least throughout the western Baltic which I know best, reinforcing the impression that Iron-Age Gotlanders were entering long-distance markets as consumers rather than as producers of exotic goods. They abandoned the cylinder beads perhaps before 700, although other fossil beads continued in use throughout the Viking Age.

Vendel Period fossil beads.
Vendel Period Beads from Gotland, ca. 540-660. The white cylinder beads were made from fossilized sea lilies (crinoids) common in the Gotland limestone. The unworked fossils at the front still have the appearance of plant stems, but the beads have been ground and polished into the smooth white appearance that Vendel Period Gotlanders seem to have preferred. The round white beads were mostly made from tabulate coral fossils, which often turn a buttery yellow when lit with a strong light. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

In the early 700s, new trading sites began to appear across southern Scandinavia at places like Ribe and Åhus. At first, these were mere trading camps, set up seasonally, but later they became more permanent towns for craftwork and exchange. Beadworkers lived in these towns, and their products traveled north among the elite communities living in what is now Sweden. But I’ve seen very few of these beads on Gotland. This tells us not only that Gotland was peripheral to the economic expansion that was tying the Baltic closer to Western Europe during the Merovingian/Carolingian transition. It tells us also that pre-Viking Age Gotlanders didn’t depend on these networks for access to glass—they must already have had some access via non-western routes, probably still making use of the dispersed networks that had been their basis for exchange throughout much of the Vendel Period.

Glass beads from Ribe, 725-760.
Beads from the Ribe Posthuset Excavation, 725-760. These particular beads were made (and lost) at a seasonal campground for craftsworkers in western Denmark. The blue beads decorated with red, white, and sometimes yellow were made primarily in Ribe and later at Åhus in southern Sweden. They occasionally spread to elite sites northward throughout Sweden, although I’ve seen very few in the collections on Gotland. Even as western craftsmen and merchants were increasingly sailing into the Baltic, Gotlanders looking for trade must have been seeking other routes. (Sydvestjyske museer, Ribe, DK.)

The only site where these new Scandinavian-made beads appeared in appreciable numbers seems to have been at Paviken, which was a trading site established on Gotland’s west coast perhaps as early as 750. Imports from 750 to 800 were primarily restricted to the generic colors of green, white, and blue. These colors appear not only dominant among the finds at Paviken, but also as the exclusive elements of bead assemblages in other places as well. For example, an elite grave at the old cemetery of Ire on Gotland’s east coast includes melted beads of green, white, and blue, and it should probably be dated to this period. Similarly, these colors make up the entire palette of the molten beads found near the Fröjel picture stone, indicating that this otherwise undatable monument was probably set up at about same time, in the years just prior to 800.

Glass beads from Paviken, Gotland.
Beads from Paviken, Gotland, ca. 750-850. This is a typical selection of beads from the site. The blue bead at the top left is a rare example that could be classified as being Ribe-style, suggesting that although traders may have been stopping at Paviken as early as the mid-700s, their visits were probably few and brief. The segmented beads at the top right show stronger connections to the early Viking Age towns of Hedeby and Åhus, where this style seems to have been a major import during the early 800s. The beads on the bottom with criss-crossed lines have long been associated with Birka, which was also growing at this time, although they appear in other places as well. But the red-and-black checkerboard at the right has few comparisons in other western collections, indicating that Gotlanders still tied into other trade routes pointing toward the centers of glass production in the Near East. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

Beads from the trading town of Paviken show increasing similarities to the west beginning in the early 800s. Beadmaking may already have been abandoned in northern Europe at that time, but the growing trading hubs were developing more-or-less direct connections with the Near East. Previously, most beads had been made from molten glass that had been wrapped around metal mandrels. But the new beads were made from glass that had been drawn or blown into tubes, and then formed into a desired shape like small discs or multiple ‘segments’ joined by narrow waists. Distribution patterns suggest that this technique might have been practiced solely near the primary production centers around the Eastern Mediterranean. Hedeby in southern Jutland was probably a main point of entry for these beads into the Baltic networks, with Birka in central Sweden and Truso in northern Poland as regional redistribution hubs. Paviken was able to shunt off some of this trade between Hedeby and Birka, with what appears to have been an increasing degree of success for a short period after about 830. Notably, similar beads have also been found around a pair of picture stones at Buttle, suggesting that these stones may also have been raised perhaps around 850.

Mandrel and Bead from Paviken, Gotland.
Mandrel and Bead from Paviken, Gotland, ca. 750-850. Despite the abundant evidence for beadmakers at sites like Ribe and Åhus in the 700s, most Viking Age glass beads seem to have been imported in finished forms. This unique find from Paviken, however, reveals just how Viking-Age beads were made. The beadmaker would have used an iron mandrel like this one (probably with a wooden handle that has decayed and disappeared) and wrap glass beads around it. They would usually have coated the mandrel with clay, so that they could slip the bead off when it was finished. Traces of this clay often survive fused to the glass interior of the bead, although it has dissolved from the mandrel. This bead also has a single depression, which is where the beadmaker added glass of a different color to create an eye. But since these different glasses had different chemical properties, they separated as the glass cooled or aged, which is a fairly common occurrence among archaeological finds. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

At the same time, however, new styles of beads begin to appear in the Gotland collections. Among the beads from Paviken, there are a few examples in turquoise glass with few if any parallels from the ninth-century West. Paviken also has a few examples of mosaic beads—made by a special technique of stacking glass so that it has a cross-section with a desired image or pattern, then placing tiles cut from these cross-sections together and wrapping them around a mandrel, so that they make a bead—which I have seen almost nowhere else. (Western sites also have mosaic beads, but not with these particular mosaic patterns.) Presumably, this means that Gotlanders were continuing to develop their own connections east, not mediated by the traders of Birka or Hedeby. Perhaps they had been inspired by their far-traveling neighbors, or perhaps they were driven by a desire to compete, but by the mid-800s, Gotlanders were surely seeking ways to cut out the middle man in their pursuit for eastern imports.

Beads of glass and cowrie shell from Ire Grave 218A.
Ire Grave 218A, ca. 850-900. This massive necklace of 217 beads was buried with a seven year-old girl, testifying to the hopes that Viking-Age families placed in their daughters and the sorrow of their loss. Most of the artifacts from this grave date to around 900, although at least one was in a style that didn’t become common until after 950. But judging by the beads, this burial either included a few old heirlooms or in fact occurred closer to 850. A date closer to 850 would suggest that the white seashell beads were coming north in large numbers before Gotlanders established their central position in the Viking-Age silver trade. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

One of most significant symbols of their success seems to be a sudden influx of cowrie shell beads, which appear in large numbers in the decades around 900, around the same time that silver began to flood north. Numismatic studies indicate that much of this silver was mined in the Hindu Kush between present-day Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with a large portion reminted on its way via the Jewish Khazars living north of the Caspian Sea. But these cowrie shells came from even further afield, from the shores of the Arabian Sea. Interestingly, many of these shell beads seem to have been coated with some sort of a resin, perhaps to make them shine with a sparkly gloss or maybe even to give them the false appearance of thin but resilient beads made from amber. Regardless, these beads show that Gotlanders had achieved their own direct contacts east. More importantly, cowrie shells are almost entirely absent from the Paviken collections, suggesting not only that this trading town failed and folded before the silver tide began to flow, but also that Gotland’s trade was based not on urban merchants but rather on elite enterprise.

Beads from Kopparsvik Grave 189
Kopparsvik Grave 189, ca. 900-950. Artifacts in this grave allow us to date the burial as early as 900, but based on bead styles, I’d certainly place this collection later than Ire Grave 218A pictured above. The white beads are again cowrie shells, although many of them have been coated in a resin that at least now is a dirty brown. The lumpy dark beads with eyes sometimes mixed with lines became common across the northern world during the mid-900s, and these may in fact be some of the earliest examples in Scandinavia. Their later spread across the Baltic and into the North Sea helps illustrate how Gotlanders cemented control over long-distance networks and became trend-setters along the way. (Gotlands museum, Visby, SE.)

This story is, of course, not complete. I’m exploring ways to develop more precise dating for the beads, since currently I’m relying only on beads found in contexts with other datable objects. I also need to think carefully about what, if anything, these interpretations can tell me about the Viking Age slave trade, which is the primary subject of my research. In particular, it raises questions about who controlled the slave trade, when they might have controlled it, how far they could have trafficked their captives, and in what volume. Furthermore, my research methods have caused me to examine a lot of later materials that don’t bear directly on my research questions but may nevertheless lead to better analysis through comparison. For example, the contrasting beads from the merchants of Paviken and from the elite cemeteries of Ire and Barshalder suggest networks of exchange that diverged and ultimately conflicted. In contrast, the beads from the later town of Fröjel and the elite cemetery of Kopparsvik outside Visby suggest that elite and mercantile networks converged and ultimately reunited as the Viking Age drew to an end.

Fröjel Church, Gotland.
Fröjel Parish, Gotland. After Paviken declined in the mid-800s (an observation based solely on my interpretation of the beads excavated there), a new trading town subsequently sprung up at Fröjel, apparently in the late 900s. A small elite cemetery was excavated nearby, indicating that Gotland elites were learning to live as members of more urbanized trading communities. (Fröjel Parish, Gotland, SE.)

This post has been longer than most, but I write it with thanks to the staff of Gotlands Museum, whose hard work in supporting this research has been surpassed only by their hospitality in welcoming me as a guest. The researchers at the Uppsala University Gotland Campus have also generously offered me access to collections from their recent excavations, as well as fruitful conversation. It may take several years for this research to move from dissertation to publication, so I hope that during the interim, this brief summary may serve as a useful aid as they continue to develop their collections and support other students and researchers.


Consuming Beads: A Tentative Chronology of the Viking Age

This week I finish the second stage of my research, so I’d like to take a few moments to sum up what I’ve seen. In previous posts, I’ve documented highlights from my visits to Copenhagen, Lund (SE), Bornholm, and Schleswig (DE). Since then, I’ve been on whirlwind trips to Ribe, Aalborg, Odense, and Langeland. At this point, I’ve completed a survey of over 6,000 beads from the Viking-Age, a large number of which have yet to be published.

Has it all been worth it? I’ll let you decide. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll sketch a quick chronology of early Viking Age bead consumption as it now appears to me. I’ve seen pre-Viking Age beads from ca. 700 at central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, as well as from the trading camps of Ribe and Åhus. And I’ve seen beads from the full flush of the Viking Age from the burgeoning emporia of Hedeby and Sebbersund, as well as from the small cemeteries of the Danish archipelago. These early and late beads look dramatically different, and not only do they come from different places, they also come from different kinds of places. Between 700 and 900, a whole new set of consumers gained access to necklace beads, and they were using them in a whole new set of ways.

Phase 1 (660-700). Scandinavian society revolved around central places during the early middle ages, otherwise referred to as the Germanic Iron Age. Elites who built their power at these sites distinguished themselves by showcasing exotic objects made from materials like glass and gold, which could not be obtained locally. They left glass and gold as votive deposits at places like Sorte Muld and Uppåkra, and they buried them with them when they died. Their societies stabilized with the rest of Europe as northern climates recovered from the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, while the enduring strength of Eastern Mediterranean economies meant that access to exotic goods remained consistent throughout this period. This consistency contributed to a conservative sense of fashion, with styles of clothing and jewelry changing only slowly. Beads tended to be simple but made from high-quality glass. Favorite colors like blue, green, and white would have complemented the prominent blues of women’s dresses.

Beads attributed to Bækkegård Grave 109, ca. 630–660. Similar necklaces featuring white, blue, and green glass beads were common from 630–800. This necklace also included decorated beads, but these were all mixed up during shipment and can no longer be assigned to particular graves.  (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, DK.)

Phase 2 (700-760). Western Europeans built on the improving climate with agricultural reforms and commercial enterprise. North Sea merchants carried this prosperity into Scandinavia by partnering with Danish elites to establish a trading camp at Ribe, a sheltered spot where coastal traders could exchange wares with the deep-sea merchants who traveled around Jutland into the Baltic. Soon the camp at Ribe had a companion market at Åhus in Sweden. The old elites must have watched these sites carefully, but craftspeople increasingly worked on their own terms, outside the patronage networks of central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld. They engaged in traditional work with local materials like amber and antler, and for the first time Scandinavian craftspeople also gained proficiency with glass. The new markets secured steady access to this exotic good, while aspiring elites were eager to consume the new fashions being made. These beads—typically a translucent blue glass decorated with red, white, and yellow rings—moved out from the fledgling markets and into the most prestigious circles of Scandinavian society.

Blue beads with decorated with complex lines of red and white, probably made in Ribe or Åhus and buried among elite families on Bornholm, 700–760. (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, DK.)

Phase 3 (760-790). This seems to have been a period of retrenchment. The glass in Ribe and Åhus came from major production centers in the Near East, which prospered as the Islamic conquests put an end to the perennial conflicts between Byzantium and Persia. But the caliphate overextended, and in the 750s, it began to break apart. Distant provinces revolted and a major coup rocked the center. This interrupted the supply of new glass to Scandinavia, where glassworking faltered. The ubiquitous blue beads disappeared and were replaced by thin ‘wasp’ beads—a style that maximized length and minimized material. Many of these beads were black with yellow rings, but they appeared in other colors as well. Access to glass was the determining factor, and bead makers weren’t terribly concerned with color. From this perspective, the late 700s were bleak. Ribe’s trade restructured and Åhus may have been abandoned. Craftspeople and merchants dispersed to a looser but more robust network of smaller trading sites. Some of these would later flourish, but in the uncertain years of the late 700s, most remained ramshackle affairs that have left few archaeological traces.

Wasp bead from Sebbersund, ca. 760–790. One of the earliest artifacts from Sebbersund, which would later develop into a major trading port for traffic taking the Limfjord between the east and west coasts of Jutland. (Aalborg Historiske Museum, Aalborg, DK.)

Phase 4 (790-820). Glass imports renewed during this period, and the loose network of small sites began to consolidate around a few urban nodes. These sites show intensifying relationships with the Near East, no longer mediated through Francia and the Western Mediterranean. Islamic coins were circulating in Scandinavian markets by the 780s, and in the 790s, bead imports spiked. These beads came in a few standard styles made from drawn glass, which couldn’t be replicated in the north. Scandinavian glassworkers could make exquisite beads by heating glass and wrapping it around a mandrel, but they lacked the technology or expertise to blow glass, draw it into tubes, and form it into a desired shape. Bead imports proliferated at Ribe and the revived settlement of Åhus, but they’re curiously rare at elite sites and cemeteries. In part, this is because a large number of the beads lacked perforations, which raises questions about what exactly they were being used for. Overall, it seems that although craftspeople were still occupying traditional places, Scandinavian connections and consumption patterns were beginning to change.

Drawn beads found in a craftsworking site at Åhus, ca. 790–820. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, SE.)

Phase 5 (820-860). During this period, a new set of settlements left the old ones behind. Elite women stopped losing their beads at the central places of the Germanic Iron Age, which gives them a sense of abandonment. Ribe and Åhus also disappear from the archaeological record—if these communities persevered, they moved to new sites yet to be identified. Meanwhile, a different set of settlements began to take off. Places like Sebbersund and Hedeby had been among the trading posts that popped up in the late 700s, but only in the mid-800s did they became complex and densely populated sites. Their expanding trade included a new style of drawn bead—tiny rings of blue, yellow, white, and black. These beads rarely made it into elite graves, although hundreds were found in the so-called Hedeby harbor purse. This set of beads was found packaged with a handful of coins, suggesting that they might have served a monetary function as well. If so, they add a new dimension to our understanding of this period. Islamic coins were still rare, and most coins from this period came from Western Europe. But the Hedeby harbor purse suggests that Scandinavians were also forging connections east, well before the silver fever began in the 850s.

A selection of the 600 small drawn beads found in the Hedeby Harbor purse with seven silver coins, ca. 820–860. (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

Phase 6 (860-900). This was another period of extreme disruption in the Islamic world, as short-lived caliphs struggled to control the Turkish slave-soldiers whom they had empowered. Silver imports slowed, as did glass. Meanwhile, Christianity was taking root in Scandinavian towns, and the new Christians quit burying their dead with grave goods. This led to a declining demand for beads in some places, even as a new demand sprang up in the Danish archipelago. A form of Norse paganism was taking shape there, building its mythology around the old cultic site of Gudme. People in the area started burying their dead with grave goods like necklaces, even as their Christian counterparts were giving it up. These cemeteries tend to be modest, suggesting limited material wealth, but several graves contain an extra body—presumably a slave sacrifice. These island burials contrast to the trading towns, which evidence economic distancing from the Islamic world and cultural convergence with the West. The appearance of glass beads in the Danish archipelago conversely suggests that not only did some Scandinavians maintain contact with the Islamic world, but that these Scandinavians also had access to extra human bodies—at the same time that vikings were reaping captives from the west and Islamic elites were seeking a new source of slaves for their harems and armies. This gives much food for thought about the role these island communities played and the potential extent of human trafficking in the Viking Age.

Stengade Grave BØ, ca. 950-1000. A woman aged 40–50 was buried on the island of Langeland with this set of beads, typical for the late Viking Age. There are some ‘retro’ styles, like the blue and white beads, but the quality of glass is different and they have corroded much more quickly than glass from the early Viking Age. There is also a pair of amber pendants, which are often found in cemeteries, like Stengade, where Thor’s hammers are also found. (Langelands Museum, Rudkøbing, DK.)

I must note that this chronology is only tentative—a working framework as I continue to analyze data and conduct new research. In particular, I am uncertain about the changes of the late 700s and whether this should be seen as a period of retrenchment, at least with regard to long-distance trade. Nevertheless, the glass evidence points to strong connections with the Islamic world beginning around 790 and intensifying in the early 800s. This indicates that these connections existed well before Scandinavians began to import Islamic silver in large quantities. Moreover, the ways in which the glass was being used gives us clues to what Scandinavians were doing to acquire it.

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.

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.

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 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!