Merovingian Things 1: The Fredegar Manuscript

One of my ambitions for 2019 is to make some serious progress with a new project provisionally entitled Merovingian Worlds. And, I thought, a good way to make some progress would be have a semi-regular feature on Merovingian ‘things’. Books, jewellery, charters, relics – whatever. A good place to start, my thoughts continued, would be with the oldest manuscript of the Fredegar Chronicles (BnF, lat. 10910). It is one of my favourite ‘Merovingian things’. I once had a lovely day examining it in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris – something that is no doubt harder to arrange now that the manuscript is available online.

The Chronicles are famous as the most substantial historical work of the Merovingian period. The author edits together various chronological lists, followed by a digest of works by Jerome, Hydatius, and Gregory of Tours to establish a narrative up to 584. For the period 584 to 643, the author composed some of his own narrative, but almost certainly also drew on some otherwise now-lost sources. The narrative stops at that point, although later events are mentioned in asides, putting the dating of the text to around 660.

Who Fredegar actually was is one of the great tricky issues of early medieval history. The name is used in no manuscript, appearing first in a work of Charles Fauchet’s in 1579. Where he got the name from, we have no idea. And so many people have called the author ‘Pseudo-Fredegar’ or, if they are in a particular awkward mood, ‘So-called Fredegar’. If he were called ‘Fredegar’, he doesn’t really help us to understand the text, because there isn’t a Fredegar known from other sources for 660 screaming out to be associated with the text. The text itself has led to contrasting views of the author as people have sought to fill in the gaps, with some people convinced he was probably in the Church (he could write, he had read the Life of Columbanus), and others convinced he wasn’t (he seems a bit more interested in court politics and international affairs than the Church). But none of this, as interesting as it is, quite helps us to understand the manuscript.

The manuscript itself is a modest but substantial thing. The pages measure around 235x175mm (although some are smaller) and there are 187 folios. It is written in uncial, once stingily described by E. A. Lowe as ‘not very expert’. Stylistically, it compares well with the script in a late-seventh-century manuscript from Lyon or its environs (Lyon MS 602), which might give an indication of the origin of our manuscript. It is often dated to 715 or thereabouts because there is a note for that year at the very end by a priest called Lucerius – although it looks like this was added later (see picture below). At worst, it gives us as terminus ante quem for production.

The murky chronological note of Lucerius (f. 184r)

Where the manuscript lived is difficult to say. It was owned for a time by Jacques Sirmond (d. 1651), a French Jesuit whose scholarly pursuits saw him produce early editions of several early medieval chronicles and council records. Before his death, he gave the manuscript to the college of Clermont in Paris (hence it is sometimes called the Claromontanus), from which place it was subsequently obtained by León-Louis Barcas, the duke of Lauragais (or his family); and he then gave it as a present to Louis XV in 1771. A century later, Bruno Krusch and then Gabriel Monod used it as their base manuscript for the first modern editions of the work, and it has been a central part of Merovingian studies ever since.

Features such as the Lucerius note are where the manuscript becomes interesting. From the point of view of it providing a good presentation of the Fredegar Chronicles, it is rather disappointing. The spelling is on the erratic side and it doesn’t seem to have been the great ancestor of a long line of other manuscripts. Wallace-Hadrill called it ‘sterile’. But it shows, in its own way, the Chronicles as a living text.

A good example of playing with the compilation is provided by the treatment of Isidore of Seville’s Chronicle. A full copy of Isidore’s chronicle is labelled as ‘Book III’ in the manuscript but, oddly, the scribe placed it after ‘Book IV’. There has been some doubt whether Fredegar (or whoever) intended it to be included, for three principal reasons other than its odd placing. First, much of the relevant material is included already as part of the various chronological lists that make up Book I – something which seems even stranger considering the the copy of Isidore is (unusually for Fredegar) not abridged or edited. Secondly, including Isidore as Book III breaks up the narrative flow from the histories of Jerome-Hydatius to Gregory to Fredegar to no good end. And finally, other copies of Fredegar omit Isidore’s chronicle in this form. The conclusion, maintained in different ways by Krusch and Goffart, is that Fredegar did not mean to include a full copy of Isidore’s Chronicle in his work. What we should not lose sight of, however, is that it is still important that the scribe of lat. 10910 or its exemplar thought that it worked.

The end of Fredegar and the Beginning of Isidore (f. 170r)

In addition to the odd treatment of Isidore and the Lucerius note, there are a few other features that suggest something of a living tradition at play:

  • There are lots of annotations, many seemingly near-contemporary, so engagement with the text was active rather than purely passive.
  • There are a few marginal annotations in Greek plus a picture of two historians, possibly Eusebius and Jerome, titled in what purist E. A. Lowe once called ‘barbarous Greek characters’, later transliterated into Latin characters underneath. This shows active flirtation with cross-cultural expression, even if it is ‘barbarously’ done [23v].
  • There is a list of popes that ends with Theodore’s appointment (642), but which was later extended up to the sixteenth year of the pontificate of Hadrian (788) [23r].
  • There is a picture, possibly of St Helena holding the True Cross, that has clearly been rubbed for spiritual benefits [75v].

    St Helena(?) rubbed out (75v)

  • While the spelling of the scribe has been mocked for its clumsiness, it may sometimes indicate used pronunciations, e.g. ‘Merohingi’ for Merovingians and ‘Fog’ for the Emperor Phocas. These may not all have been generated by the scribe rather than by the writer of the exemplar, but many of these were not spellings that became fossilised in the textual tradition, so we can see something of the intrusion of how language was used over time.merovingians

The Claromontanus may have been disappointing for scholars trying to establish the original text of Fredegar’s work. But its very imperfections also highlight little things about the way people engaged with Merovingian history books that might otherwise have been lost. For that, the Claromontanus is invaluable.

Further Reading:

R. Collins, Die Fredegar-Chroniken (Hanover, 2007).

W. Goffart, ‘The Fredegar Problem Reconsidered’, Speculum 38. 2 (1963), 206-41.

B. Krusch, ‘Die Chronicae des sogenannten Fredegar’, Neues Archiv 7 (1882), 249-351.

H. Reimitz, History, Frankish Identity and the Framing of Western Ethnicity 550-850 (Cambridge, 2014).