King and Mayor, 699 (Fun with Merovingian Dates 2)

It is important to go and look at medieval manuscripts. Charles West reminded us about this yesterday in a blog post about his new project, ‘Turbulent Priests’. He had been in Brussels examining an twelfth-century manuscript of a text based on Pseudo-Isidore, and he had been struck by the marginal notices which had never really formed part of the way that the text had been discussed. Scholars often use manuscripts to find witnesses to texts so that they can reconstruct the ‘best text’ for modern editions. They are not always interested in extra material, therefore, which means lots of material which doesn’t ‘fit’ gets side-lined. (This was also a theme in my recent contribution to Darby and Wallis’s Bede and the Future).

Some of the consequences of this ‘best text’ editing can be unfortunate. The standard MGH Latin text of Gregory of Tours’ Histories, for instance, is really based on a polished-up eleventh-century version. Martin Heinzelmann, Helmut Reimitz and others have therefore had work to do reconstructing how and why the text developed in the way that it did. The MGH version of the Fredegar Chronicles and its ‘continuations’, meanwhile, have also come in for criticism, notably by Roger Collins. The main text is based on an early but unique working of the material; the continuations are tagged on the end, when really that are the last part of a separate composition. Don’t always believe what the modern edition tells you! But also do go and see if you can find interesting things that the editors thought were irrelevant to their project.

I was thinking about this issue already this week because I posted on twitter about a dating clause in a Merovingian copy of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s Chronological Canons, just recently made available for consultation on e-codices. Eusebius’s material was one of the foundation stones of early medieval chronology. Rather than a history per se, it is an extended argument about world history, with columns linking up Biblical and Classical chronology. For Eusebius, this work established the antiquity of Biblical history, while correcting what he considered to be errors in the standard Christian calculation of the age of the world. (Basically, Julius Africanus placed the incarnation of Christ in c. 5500, while Eusebius thought it was in closer to 5200). The Canons circulated widely in the Latin world and formed the basis of the late Antique chronicle tradition. This chronicle tradition alone underscores that the Canons were not a stable text, but a resource to be used.

And so we get to our Merovingian witness: Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 219, written in a decent Merovingian uncial, possibly in Fleury. The scribe likely copied from a version made in 624, because the main text itself ends by noting that the present year is the equivalent of that year: 5,824 years since Creation, in the 12th indication (i.e. the 12th year of the old 15-year Roman tax cycle), in the time of Emperor Herakleios (r. 610-41).

What is interesting about this witness is the ‘front page’. A scribe has taken a blank page to write in nice big capitals the following (just filling space?):

In the fifth year of King Childebert, king of the Franks; Pippin commanding. From Adam there are 5,900 years. Easter was on 23rd March. The Ascension of the Lord was on 1st May. 140, by the numerical cycle of years (the repetition of the cycle from the top).

From e-codices

From e-codices

Bruno Krusch

Bruno Krusch

The text is not exactly unknown, and indeed I first read about it in a classic article by Bruno Krusch from Neues Archiv, first published in 1884, on Easter calculations. Krusch was also interested in it because it was one of a number of examples of little dating clauses which helped to provide a firm chronology for the Merovingian kings. Legal records from the reign of Childebert III survive, but their dating clauses tend to be in relation to the year of the king’s reign. Here, we have a note which gives us a firm start for Childebert’s reign (695… because 695=Y1, 696=Y2 etc).

The appeal to the power of Pippin II, mayor of the palace, looks as if it might confirm the long-held suspicion that Pippin was pulling the strings. It is interesting that there is no attempt here to give the date relative to Pippin’s authority, maybe from his victory at Tertry in 687. There was a tradition of identifying dates by who the consul was, to which our note does not really contribute. Still, that tradition should give us pause for thought, because it does mean that it was relevant to mention Pippin regardless of Childebert’s power. Childebert was well thought of and was, it seems, able to stand up to Pippin in legal disputes.

Finally, the note is another reminder that Merovingian time-reckoning was wedded to the Easter table of Victorius of Aquitaine (455). Victorius’s table ran for 532 years, ending in 559. It was then used from the beginning again, hence the reference to the 140th year of the cycle’s repetition. We might also want to remember that Victorius advocated Eusebius’s chronology, which helped to ensure that the two authorities were cited together e.g. by Gregory of Tours. It is probably not a coincidence that Eusebius’s authority on the matter was scarcely questioned in the West until Victorius’s tables were abandoned. Incidentally, that process was already underway closer to Pippin himself in 699, as he had recently begun to patronise a team of English and Irish missionaries, led by St Willibrord, who would be integral to the promotion of the ‘Greek’ Easter of Dionysius Exiguus.

So there we are: simply by going ‘back to the manuscripts’ and looking at bonus material added to a text by one scribe, we have opened up just a little more about cultures of time and power in the Late Merovingian world.