Merovingian Dates and the Formulary of Angers (or Not)

Putting dates to events in the Merovingian period can be a pain. AD-dates were not popularly used until well into the eighth century. What we have instead are infrequent references to years from the Passion of Christ, years from the beginning of the world, years according to the Easter table of Victorius of Aquitaine (Year 1 = 560…) and regnal years of kings. It is a bit alien. It might be one of the reasons why historians prefer Carolingian sources: they aren’t quite so confusing.

Anyway, I was reading about the Formulary of Angers, a (probably) sixth-century collection of exemplar legal documents. Merovingian dates have caused something of a headache with dating with this text. In the sole surviving manuscript, there are a couple of computistical items and a brief chronological note that seem to break up the run of exemplar documents. It reads:

From the beginning of the world up to the Pasion of Christ there are 5,229 years. From then, though the reigns of Clovis, Clothar, Theoderic and Childeric, from the beginning of the world there are 5,880 years to the 3rd year of the reign of King Theuderic.


The chronological note in Fulda LB D1

Karl Zeumer, editing the text for MGH, thought that the chronological note couldn’t belong to the legal formulary because it isn’t a legal formula (fair enough) and that the material that followed it was probably added later, maybe after the note. He therefore dated it to around 676 on the basis that Theuderic had become king in 673. He sidestepped the issue that 5,880 equates to 679 years, which was not the third year of Theuderic’s reign if you count from 673. Bruno Krusch, also working for the MGH, backed Zeumer up on this point. Then, in 1981, Werner Bergmann, troubled by the discrepancy, argued on the basis of minor inconsistencies in Gregory of Tours’ Histories that there was a mistake and it really referred to 591. Not that it is clear what Gregory of Tours’ Histories has to do with the legal formulary, especially given the problems with likely scribal errors. (This is compounded in some other work where people used Lewis Thorpe’s English translation, as he mistranslated the Roman numerals at the end of Gregory’s work, leading to some further unfortunate confusions).

This is all rather awkward because the ‘discrepancy’ isn’t all anyone seems to have thought it was. The problem, it seems, is that it is hard to date the beginning of Theuderic III’s reign.

The initial problem is posed by the Liber historiae Francorum, a potted narrative chronicle of 726/7. The Liber historiae Francorum states that Clothar III, Theuderic’s predecessor as king of Neustria, died after reigning for four years and was ‘still a boy’. This information seems on first read to contradict a statement that he became king on the death of his father (d. 657) with his mother as regent, but the problem is resolved if we consider it a statement about how long he ruled without his mother (4 years!). Still, the text is frustrating because it continues by noting that Theuderic III became king (no date given) until ‘sometime later’ (no duration of time given) he was deposed in favour of his older brother Childeric II, then king of Austrasia. Childeric II in turn was killed (again after an unspecified amount of time) for his psychopathic tendencies, paving the way for Theuderic III to return to the now-united throne (date unspecified).

Other narrative sources (i.e. Life of Eligius and Suffering of Leudegar) offer little extra precision about dates. To get a chronological anchor, we need to appeal to other sources. Of immediate help is a note in an old Easter table, later copied in a ninth-century manuscript, that the author’s ‘present year’ was 5,894 years from the beginning of the world up to the sixteenth year of Clothar III’s reign. That 5,894 synchronises with AD-dates (only popularised the following century) to give the year 673. One part of a note at the end of a copy of Isidore’s Chronicle suggests that Childeric reigned in Neustria for 2 years and 6 months and that when Theuderic succeeded him it was 648 years from the Passion of the Christ and 5,876 years from the beginning of the world – information which synchronises with 675. There is also a Neustrian ‘royal catalogue’ that acknowledges Theuderic as king only after Childeric had reigned for two years. Already, then, we don’t have to go back to 673 for the beginning of Theuderic III’s reign.

A further useful thing to know about the ‘years from the beginning of the world’ is that they don’t start on 1 January. Roman Christian calendars tended to place the beginning of the world year on 25 March in line with the equinox (with some arguing for a slightly earlier date but still in March so it doesn’t affect what I’m about to say). For Childeric to reign 2 ½ years from sometime in 673 must mean that Theuderic succeeded him quite a bit later than March of 675. Each of Theuderic’s regnal years comfortably straddled two ‘years of the world’ as follows (for the first three years) if they ran, say, July to July:

Theuderic’s 1st year = AM5876-7 = 675-6

Theuderic’s 2nd year = AM5877-8 = 676-7

Theuderic’s 3rd year = AM5878-9 = 677-8

And suddenly the gap looks a lot smaller that Zeumer, Krusch or Bergmann maintained, if part of the third year of Theuderic’s reign could be labelled as being in the 5,879th year of the world and we are trying to get to 5,880.

Can we make the whole thing work? Well, as it happens, the author’s date of 5,229 for the Passion of Christ in the quote I gave above is one year out. The standard Merovingian date for the Passion is 5,228 years from the beginning of the world. And if they have miscalculated by one there, then that means their 5,880 could also be one year out – it should be 5,879, the year we are now looking for. By looking at the numbers carefully, then, it seems that the most likely ‘problem’ is that the author had miscalculated the age of the world by one year, building on an earlier minor error. We can be happy after all that it belongs to the 3rd year of the reign of Theuderic III.

But, as Alice Rio noted, that probably doesn’t help us to date anything about the Formulary of Angers because that does seem to be a sixth-century text, this is a seventh-century computus, and it is all in a late-eighth-century manuscript that may not reflect anything about the authorial intentions of the formulary’s compiler. Still, it provided a nice illustration about the value of being careful with numbers.