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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

     Merovingian Paris

           Merovingian Paris: Paris briefly became the Frankish capital under Clovis I, who adopted Christianity and was baptized at Reims ca. AD 498, the first of a long series of royal baptisms. According to the late 6th century History of Gregory of Tours, Clovis' conversion was largely due to the influence of his second wife, the Burgundian Princess Clothilda.

          In AD 507 Clovis defeated the Visigoths at Voillé and took over Aquitaine. Eventually he gained control over most of ancient Gaul, now called the Kingdom of the Franks. From his chosen capital at Paris, Clovis coordinated the political and economic organization of his kingdom with a council of bishops. There he instituted the Salic Law, which codified the traditions of the Salian Franks with Roman law, still in force in Provence in southern France. Part of the Salic Law stipulated that a kingdom be equally divided among the immediate heirs of a ruler. Clovis' immediate successors, styling themselves "Merovingian" after a mythical ancestor named Meroves, divided up the Frankish kingdom into three areas, Austrasia in the east, Burgundia, and Neustria, the latter synonymous with France west of Burgundy.

          With the conversion of Clovis to Christianity, Paris was established as an important religious center. In about 510 Clovis founded the church of Sainte-Geneviève (fig.1) on the West Bank at the site of the saint's tomb. There Clovis was eventually buried, but later interred at the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis. Sainte-Geneviève remained in use for over 1200 years, until converted into the Panthéon during the French Revolution.

[Fig. 1: View of Sainte-Geneviève from the 1552 Plan de Bâle].

          During the reign of Clovis' son Childebert I, the original church at St-Germain des Près, then called Sainte-Croix-et-Saint-Vincent was built in 556-558 (fig.2). St. Germain, bishop of Paris and a principal inspiration for the church's creation, founded the adjacent monastery of Saint Symphorien. Both the church and monastery eventually became the Benedictine Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés, renamed after St. Germain was canonized in 756. At this church, King Childebert placed the tunic of St. Vincent taken from the Holy Land. The church also preserves the remains of King Childebert, who died on the day of the church's consecration in 558; and of St. Germain, initially buried under the portico of the primitive church in 576 and later transferred to its interior. By 1020, the Saint Symphorien chapel had been constructed to honor the memory of this saint, who symbolically protects the rulers of the Merovingian dynasty, interred here until the reign of Dagobert I.

          Both St-Germain-des Prés, which was rebuilt in the beginning of the 11th century, and Sainte-Geneviève were decorated with marble and mosaic and roofed with bronze tiles. At St-Germain, the marble columns in the triforium are all that remain from the early 6th century church. The architecture of St-Germain, despite being nearly destroyed by the Normans four times, still contains several Romanesque elements including the nave and the exterior tower. The choir and apse  (fig.2) were influenced by the Gothic style. Sainte-Geneviève and St-Germain also contained many excellent examples of Romanesque art including portrait statues and capitals with biblical themes (fig.3), now preserved at the Musée national du Moyen Âge and Musée du Louvre. Some fragments of 13th century stained glass at St-Germain-des-Prés have been recovered from the destroyed Lady Chapel, built by Pierre de Montreuil. The life of St. Vincent was a common subject, along with scenes depicting Childebert I on horseback who brought the relic from Spain. In the mid 6th century Childebert I also founded the cathedral of St. Étienne (St. Stephen) on the the Île de la Cité, which was eventually replaced in the 12th century by Notre-Dame cathedral.

 [Fig.2: Gothic choir and apse of St-Germain-des Prés (12th-13th centuries), showing flying buttresses (photo: Athena Review)].

          When the Frankish King Dagobert I, reigning from AD 628-637, offered his protectionto the monks at the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis in the northern part of Paris and was later buried there, this began an unbroken line of French monarchs being interred at this church. An underground crypt at Saint-Denis includes a small Merovingian area, and a larger Carolingian section directly underlying the 12th century construction of the Gothic choir and ambulatory.

          The economic power of the Church: In organizing the Frankish government, Clovis and his successors fully utilized the already well-established organizational power of the church. Since the late Roman Empire, the town-based bishops were linked to local representatives in county districts, whose counts (from comes, "companion" to the emperor) held high positions in the army and government.

          The economic power of the church had solidified after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 332. At that time Imperial statute allowed the church to take over land taxes from Roman country villas, many owned by senators. Many villas continued to function as viable economic entities after the 4th and 5th century AD, now as the seats of counts. Other villas fell into ruins, and their stones were reused to build new communities or villages, a name obviously derived from "villa" (MacKendrick 1972).

            With the collapse of urban trade caused by the fall of the Roman empire in the late 5th century, the prosperity of villas and dependence by the bishops on their taxes helped "ruralize" the early medieval economy, with a hierarchy of local dependencies leading to feudalism. This only changed in the 11th-14th centuries, when town life and commerce were revived in northern Europe (Pirenne 1936; Bloch 1943; Bély 1996).

          Under the Merovingian kings, most of the actual local power went to the managers of the castles or estates, called major domus or mayors, who frequently feuded with one another. After the death in AD 639 of Dagobert I, considered the last effective Merovingian king, the palace mayors formed an alliance to govern the kingdom. Out of their ranks eventually arose a gifted war leader named Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer) who repelled threats by Saxons and Frisians in northern

[Fig.3: Romanesque capital from St-Germain-des Prés, showing Daniel in the Lion's den (photo: Athena Review)].

Germany. By the early 8th century the Moslems had taken over Spain and also threatened to invade France. In AD 732, Charles Martel stopped the Saracens in a battle near Poitiers, ending their expansionist policies into western Europe.


Bély, L. (ed). 1996. Dictionnaire de l'Ancien Régime: royaume de France, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

Bloch, M. 1943. Feudal Society. Vol.1 (tr. L.A. Manyon). Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Caesar, J. 50 BC. The Conquests of Gaul (tr. S.A. Handford, 1951, revised in 192 by J.F. Gardner). New York, Viking Penguin Inc.

Gregory of Tours (orig. 6c AD). History of the Franks. (tr. E. Brehaut Ph.D, 1916). New York, Columbia University Press.

Mackendrick, P. 1972. Roman France. New York, St. Martin's Press.

Pirenne, H. 1936. A History of Europe. (tr. B. Miall). New Hyde Park, New York, University Books.

The above text appears on pages 26-28 of Ancient and Medieval Paris: A Background to the Gothic era of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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