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In Search of an Acceptable Past: History, Archaeology, and ‘Looted’ Graves in the Construction of the Frankish Early Middle Ages

Part of the Bioarchaeology and Social Theory book series (BST)


The Early Middle Ages have provided material for imagining selves and groups in a wide range of contexts since the earliest beginnings of the historical and archaeological disciplines. Considerable recent research has shown how modern political conflicts and regional-national identities have crystallized in this period in particular. This essay traces ways in which early medieval remains, mainly from the richly furnished cemeteries, have been brought into play in developing scholarly and popular accounts of the history of France. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the recovery of considerable numbers of finely worked grave goods from the large rural cemeteries provided material for studying and reevaluating Merovingian-period societies, previously only glimpsed in written sources and largely out-competed as national ancestors by the popular appeal of Gaulish warriors. Yet paradoxically, another form of discovery in the same burial grounds seemed to place them back in the Dark Ages: many graves were found to have been ransacked and robbed soon after burial, making the communities of the time appear lawless and barbarous. Archaeological attitudes towards excavated early medieval graves, and in particular the many thousands of graves already reopened in antiquity, not only highlight key aspects of the development of the discipline, but also reveal ways in which the remains of the dead may be integral to processes of national identity construction.


  • Merovingian
  • Historiography
  • Grave reopening
  • National identity
  • France

6.1 Introduction

The memory of France’s origins is complex, with the search for an appropriate past for the French state and nation animating debates since the eighteenth century. Considerable recent research has shown how modern political-nationalist conflicts have crystallized in the early medieval period in particular. Its narratives of the fall of Roman power in the West, mass migrations of barbarian peoples, the rise of the Catholic Church, and the emergence of royal houses have all played into competing constructions of France as of other European nations (e.g. Citron, 2008; Díaz-Andreu, 2007; Effros, 2003, 2012; Graceffa, 2009a; Perrin-Saminadayar, 2001; Pomian, 1992). Moreover, as elsewhere, the evolving sense of the French past has been closely intertwined with the creation and development of academic disciplines and the country’s scientific institutions (e.g. Gran-Aymerich, 2007; Schnapp, 2005). This essay will trace ways in which material remains, which for the Early Middle Ages come mainly from the richly furnished cemeteries , have been brought into play in shifting historical accounts of the period. In particular, it focuses on the unwelcome realization that as well as beautiful artifacts, the burial grounds also contain inescapable evidence that the living frequently carried out a form of grave robbery, in which they interfered with the bodies and possessions of the recent dead.

The early medieval period has provided material for imagining selves and groups in a wide range of contexts since the beginnings of the archaeological and historical disciplines (e.g. Frantzén & Niles, 1997; Lucy, 2002; Hills, 2003; Williams, 2008). In particular, attempts to locate a golden age which defines a place or a group have a long and rich history (e.g. Andrén, 2013). Meanwhile archaeologists and historians of the Early Middle Ages have emphasized how, long before modern nation-building brought its impetus, competing and often contradictory roots were already being traced in the historical record by those seeking a self-image and a source of social power in the ancient past (Beck, 2016; Billard et al., 1996; Effros, 2001; Semple & Williams, 2015; Williams, 2006, pp. 145–178). Most relevantly for this paper, the Merovingian dynasty which so spectacularly dominated Europe from its base in France from the sixth to mid-eighth centuries AD used both the written record and distinctive material culture to anchor its ruling prerogative in ancestry claims which have colored interpretations of its legacy to this day.

Indeed, while ethnonationalist anxieties are a major focus of the later nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography, concerns about the right to rule and rightful forms of law and governance are an even longer-term theme throughout attempts to root the present in aspects of France’s past. For the modern era, Agnès Graceffa (2009a) in particular has argued that the lack of consensus on a common origin story is grounded in a series of longstanding confrontations between the social estates of the realm (nobility vs. Third Estate), classes (aristocracy vs. bourgeoisie), and institutions (learned societies vs. universities). Intertwined with and at times surpassing the need to define the French people against their German neighbors, internal disputes over the conception of the citizen and how and by whom he should be governed are deeply tied into the imagery of France’s history.

For this reason, in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1789, the issue of France’s origins became critical in the construction of the new polity, with conflicting visions of the French past playing out in the work of historians over subsequent generations. The diverging historiographical trends reveal the divisions that existed in a country deeply affected by the consequences of revolutionary upheaval, producing a series of different conceptions of the definitive French historical narrative, all drawing on the centuries of Roman occupation and its aftermath. As we will see, the nobility and Catholic historians held fast to the early medieval pedigree traditionally traced for the ruling house. They claimed forebears in the Merovingian dynasty, which was said to have emerged from barbarian tribes known as Franks who had entered Gaul during the collapse of Roman rule. Meanwhile the intellectual elite and academics placed the highest value in a classical, Roman heritage, and liberal historians and advocates of the working populace increasingly drew on an image of a rebellious indigenous population of Gauls resisting first Roman imperial control and then the Frankish aristocracy.

The new discipline of archaeology was drawn into these lines of debate chiefly as an auxiliary science to history. The historical record relates that, in the decades around AD 500, the Frankish tribes were united in northern Gaul under king Clovis of the Merovingian dynasty, who subsequently became the first Christian king in Western Europe. The Merovingian kings came to rule not only Gaul but also lands to the east of the Rhine, and exerted their influence much further across Western and Central Europe. In the material record, increasing finds of burials furnished with weapons and other finely crafted grave goods dating to the post-Roman centuries were taken to represent this incoming, conquering population of Germanic Franks, and were viewed through the shifting lenses of national self-projection.

Early publications of these Merovingian-period burials are illustrated with plates celebrating the richness and variety of the grave goods and costume elements, which provided a fittingly splendid early medieval past. Yet from the first antiquarian excavations, it was also apparent that many of the handsomely furnished and carefully arranged interments seemed to have been reopened and ransacked only years after burial. Instead of proud forebears, had the Franks been shameful tomb robbers, desecrating the resting places of their own relatives? As this paper will show, commentators have persistently struggled to reconcile these traces of robbery with their understandings of the period. The disturbed burials jarred especially with the narrative of a proud Merovingian royal past, in which free-spirited Frankish people were justly and lightly ruled by consent.

Putting the debate about the excavated dead and their place in France’s origin stories in its historical context, this chapter discusses how national identity was built from the work of historians and other scholars, and how contemporaries interacted with past societies and their mortuary practices. In particular, we will trace reactions to evidence of grave reopening in early medieval cemeteries as a route into exploring the development of discourse concerning France’s origins and the relationship between history and mortuary archaeology. At the same time we bring into focus a practice that has long been perceived as an obstacle to understanding early medieval society, but which nevertheless occupies a prominent place in the historiography of Merovingian archaeology.

6.2 The Franks Before 1789: Origins of the French Monarchy

Today, the ancestors of the archetypal French citizen are unquestionably Gauls. Presented in school textbooks as brave warriors challenging the Roman conquerors, they embody the modern French nation (Brunaux, 2008; Dietler, 1994; Pomian, 1992) (Fig. 6.1). Their presence in the national imagination can be traced back to the fourteenth-century rediscovery of classical texts, especially the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo (e.g. IV.4.2–5: Strabo, 1923) and the Roman historian Tacitus (e.g. Historiae IV.57–62: Tacitus, 1931), which included descriptions of Western European peoples. These resonated at a time when Italian Renaissance historians were claiming the Roman past for themselves, pushing back against the traditional claims of classical inheritance, which were widespread among European nobility, often through lineages linking back to the legends of Troy . Outside Italy it became desirable for scholars to present a sense of a deep and honorable history within their own territories, often drawing on images of past military prowess, especially against the might of Rome (Pomian, 1992, pp. 64–65).

Fig. 6.1
figure 1

School notebook front cover (c. 1900) with illustration representing Gaul’s chiefs gathered by Vercingetorix to fight off the Roman invaders. The emblematic elements that have shaped the popular imagination are all present: the wild boar, the winged helmet, the Gaulish rooster, the moustache, the long hair. These symbols are well-known from the very popular Asterix comic strip. (Imprimerie Ducourtieux & Gout, Limoges; © Réseau-Canopé – Les collections du Musée national de l’Éducation, inv. no. 1979.32146.11)

Yet it was to be many centuries before the Gaul came to be seen as the definitive ancestor of the French people. For one thing, until the development of archaeological excavation practice began to unearth and identify the settlements of the native Gallo-Roman population, largely a twentieth-century development, the Gaul was an indistinct figure with historical grounding for the most part only in texts by outsiders. But more pressingly, the legitimacy of the power of the French monarchy had long been based on its Frankish origins and the conquest of Gaul by Clovis. For several centuries, France’s royalty had been taking up major events in Merovingian history and integrating them into their own public ceremonies and self-representations. Thus, the French coronation rite was an explicit reference to the baptism of Clovis in Reims. Invoking the writings of Hincmar—a ninth-century archbishop of Reims, great canonist, theologian, member of a prominent family, and close to King Charles the Bald—who had portrayed the baptism of the first king of the Franks as a royal coronation, the city of Reims became the official place of the coronation of the French kings from the twelfth century (Citron, 2008, p. 132). Then again at a time of unrest in the fifteenth century, we see the young Charles VII reaffirming his position as the future king of France by being represented on coins sitting in majesty on the celebrated eighth/ninth-century bronze chair then known as the ‘throne of Dagobert’, after the last powerful Merovingian king (Le Jan, 2006, p. 32). This chair is still preserved in the Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

Yet this was by no means simply a question of an aristocratic Frankish, Germanic past set against classical heritage. France had a visible and highly valorized Roman past in the form of the many standing monuments in its cities, not least in Reims itself. The Merovingian dynasty, which like several other European monarchies had sought to establish a legendary classical existence for itself in its supposed barbarian homelands, was also framed as the inheritor of the Romans, with its worth demonstrated by conquest, and as carrying on classical traditions, not as in opposition to the earlier imperial powers. Furthermore, in a similar way to the Bretons and the Normans, the Merovingians claimed a mythical lineage back to prestigious Troy : in the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar an ancestor of the dynasty is a certain Francion (Francus), son of a brother of Aeneas, who founded a kingdom between Rhine and Danube after he left the legendary city (Kıvılcım Yavuz, 2015, pp. 136–138). This plotline, which gave the Merovingians a shared ancestor with Romulus and Remus, persisted through the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, Rigord and Guillaume Le Breton added to its prestige by making Francion the son of Hector (Burguière, 2003, p. 44; Delaborde, 1882, pp. 55 and 170), thus positioning the Merovingian family as the heirs of Troy (Coumert, 2006, 2016, pp. 1123 and 1335; Le Jan, 2003, pp. 1239–1240).

The fractures in the national story traced above persisted for generations, especially where the legitimacy of royal power was concerned, leading to competing but also entangled narratives which have drawn on different nuances and associations. But it was above all increasingly critical approaches to ancient history which, from the middle of the fifteenth century, started to undermine the Trojan origins of the Franks. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Gauls became vehicles for the expression of political views and attempts were made to integrate them into the history of the Frankish monarchy. For example, François Hotman presented the Gauls and the Franks as two allied peoples struggling against the Roman invaders, but at the same time consigned the Trojan origin of the Franks to the realm of fiction (Hotman, 1573, pp. 22 and 34).

After the Bourbons inherited the French throne from the House of Valois at the end of the sixteenth century, the Trojan myth was revived, but with less prominence for the claim to a Germanic origin of the Franks. Thus when the magnificently furnished grave of Childeric I, father of Clovis, was discovered accidentally during refurbishment works in the church of Saint-Brice in Tournai on 27 May 1653 it was the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Habsburg, who commissioned a study of the treasures (Chiflet, 1655), rather than the French royal house (Effros, 2003, pp. 31–35; Pomian, 1992, pp. 48–50; Wagner, 1973, pp. 23–24). In line with rival Habsburg interests, this publication used the many golden ‘bees’ with garnet wings that had been found among the objects to support a suggestion that bees and not the fleur-de-lys had been the insignia of the Merovingians and thus that there was no link between Merovingians and Bourbons (Fig. 6.2).

Fig. 6.2
figure 2

Of the objects discovered in Tournai in 1653, only a few remain today following the 1831 burglary at the Cabinet des Médailles de la Bibliothèque impériale where the ‘treasure of Childeric’ was kept (left); enlarged image of one of the two remaining ‘bees’ (top); fourteenth-century illumination Grandes Chroniques de France (c. 1375–1379, ms. Français 2813, fol. 3v) depicting King Charles VI wearing the fleur-de-lys embroidered coronation robe at Reims in 1380 (right). (Bibliothèque nationale de France, public domain)

During the mid-eighteenth century, ongoing arguments about the legacy of the Frankish invaders are typified by two prominent authors: Henri de Boulainvilliers, count of Saint-Saire, and Jean-Baptiste Dubos, abbot, diplomat, and historian. For the former (Boulainvilliers 1727), France’s history began with the conquest of Gaul by the Franks in the fifth century AD. A new political entity and a cohabitation between two peoples emerged: a people of conquerors (the Franks) who constituted the state, and a conquered people (the Gauls) without political and legal rights, reduced to enslavement by the new masters (Pomian, 1992, pp. 67–68; Venturino, 1999, pp. 50–51). Following Montesquieu’s reading of French society, Boulainvilliers depicts the Franks not as subjects of a king, but as free nobles living in an aristocratic regime. The right of conquest ensured their legitimacy. Yet rather than eulogizing force and violence, he considered that when successful, the act of force acquired a form of legitimacy (Venturino, 1999, p. 51). The aristocracy’s right to own land and dominate the Gallo-Romans was thus presented as an inherited right.

Dubos’ narrative is, by contrast, much closer to today’s dominant line of interpretation. He refuted the position taken by Boulainvilliers: he described the Merovingian period as a succession of treaties that gradually bound the Franks and the Gallo-Romans together (Dubos, 1734). The Franks did not impose themselves by force, but by a legitimate transfer of power from the Roman authorities (Graceffa, 2016, p. 1151). Likewise, the Frankish nobility should not be perceived as an elite using coercion to settle in Gaul. In the absence of conquest, the nobility could not legitimize its domination over other social classes on this specific criterion. However, the traditional approach represented by Montesquieu and Boulainvilliers was largely maintained; only in recent decades has an analysis resembling that of Dubos gained currency (Pomian, 1992, pp. 67–71).

6.3 The French Revolution: Questioning of a Frankish Past

The French Revolution brought about a profound change in the meaning of the legitimacy of royal power. As Margarita Díaz-Andreu and Agnès Graceffa have both emphasized, the new meaning given to the word ‘nation’, that of a body formed by citizens, with the state as the political expression of collective sovereignty, led to a rejection of the nobility’s inherited right of conquest over the people (Díaz-Andreu, 2007, p. 64; Graceffa, 2009a). The figure of the Frank changed from conqueror to violent usurper, as illustrated by a speech delivered by theorist and politician Abbé Sieyès in the year of the revolution. The abbot wondered:

Why would it [the Third Estate] not send back to the forests of Franconia all those families who still have the mad claim of being from the race of the conquerors and of having succeeded to the right of conquest ? The nation, then purified, will be able to console itself […] to be reduced to believing that it is now composed only of the descendants of the Gauls and the Romans. In truth, if we want to distinguish between birth and birth, could we not reveal to our poor fellow citizens that the one we get from the Gauls and Romans is worth at least as much as the one that would come from the Sicambres, Welches, and other savages from the woods and bogs of ancient Germania?Footnote 1 (Sieyès, 1789, p. 17)

At the end of the eighteenth century, the opposition between Gauls and Franks in the national imagination thus reflected a greater confrontation in the country. Above all, this was a conflict between two estates of the realm, on the one hand the Third Estate, for whom only the descendants of the Gauls were the true French, and on the other hand the aristocracy, seen as heirs of the Frankish warlords (Burguière, 2003). The figure of the Merovingian was deeply marked by this change of perspective. All the elements initially attached to the greatness of the period (the Trojan origin myth, right of conquest, Clovis’ conversion, Salic law, and so forth) were gradually deconstructed, rewritten, and set in opposition to Gallo-Roman civilization (Graceffa, 2008, 2009b).

Despite these shifts, the Merovingian royal precedent retained enough credit that upon the ascent of the House of Bonaparte as Emperors of France in 1804, the first dynasty of France again became a historic reference point. The throne of Dagobert was transported from Paris to the Camp de Boulogne for Napoleon I’s use during a military ceremony on 16 August 1804 (Anonymous, 1805, p. 126) and Childeric’s bees replaced the fleur-de-lys (Fig. 6.2) as the monarch’s personal symbol (Masson, 1908, p. 67). During Napoleon’s coronation ceremony on 2 December 1804, golden bees adorned the velvet mantles of the Emperor and Empress, the robes of princes, and officers of the Crown, as well as various objects such as carpets, wall-hangings, and the cushion on which the crown of Charlemagne had been placed (Masson, 1908, pp. 293–326).

Antiquarian attention was simultaneously turning to symbolic places linked to the earliest French kings. In 1807, in anticipation of the demolition of the Parisian abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, which had been confiscated by the revolutionaries in 1791 and converted into a Neoclassical Pantheon, excavations were organized to find the graves of Clovis, his wife Clothilde , and their daughter. From this early ‘rescue excavation’, we still have the notes and drawings made by Alexandre Bourla (Fig. 6.3) , one of the government architects responsible for the work (Périn et al., 1985, p. 151; Velay, 1989, p. 35).

Fig. 6.3
figure 3

During demolition work on the old church of Sainte-Geneviève, in 1807 Alexandre Bourla unearthed a large number of Merovingian sarcophagi in the crypt. (Vue générale des fouilles exécutées en 1807 dans la crypte de l’abbaye Sainte-Geneviève, A. Bourla 1850; Bibliothèque nationale de France, public domain)

The figure of Clovis in particular had always been relatively spared, even by the revolutionaries who worked intensively to discredit the Franks and their role in the construction of France. Clovis was seen as the first significant barbarian king to convert to Christianity in the history of Western Europe (Fig. 6.4), whose baptism by Saint Remi was a deeply embedded national myth (Citron, 2008, pp. 127–128; Dumézil, 2005, pp. 152–155). After the First French Empire, the figure of Clovis remained unifying in a profoundly Catholic France until the 1840s. The prompt adoption of the new religion by Clovis was invoked in the epithet ‘eldest Daughter of the Church’ (« fille aînée de l’Église ») used by historian Frédéric Ozanam in 1836 to describe France, and more spectacularly in 1841 by preacher Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, refounder of the Dominican order after the Revolution, in a speech in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris (Barbiche, 2015, p. 171).

Fig. 6.4
figure 4

Portrayal of Clovis as king of the Franks and first Christian king by Antoine L. F. Sergent, painter and engraver close to the revolutionaries, 1791. (Portraits des grands hommes, femmes illustres, et sujets mémorables de France, P. Blin 1786–1792, pl. 1; Bibliothèque nationale de France, NA-33-4, public domain)

6.4 The Nineteenth Century: A New Representation of the Frankish Past

Throughout the nineteenth century we see continued disputes, often bitter, between the rival currents of thought set up in the Revolutionary period. On the liberal side, the historian Augustin Thierry’s writings had the greatest impact on French collective memory. His Récits des temps mérovingiens (Thierry, 1842), was reprinted more than thirty times in large print runs for the period 1867 to 1888 and often presented to successful pupils as a prize in republican schools (Amalvi, 1994, pp. 315–316; Graceffa, 2010b, p. 21). In Thierry’s telling, the historical figure of the German was synonymous not with freedom but with ferocity (Fig. 6.5). His arrival in Late Roman Gaul was accompanied by a return to the state of nature and consequently a form of wildness (Graceffa, 2008, p. 89). Far from the position defended by Boulainvilliers, the historian perceived no legitimacy in the French royalty or in the right of the nobles to own the land. On the contrary, the violence of the conquest, the usurpation of power by the Franks and the moral decadence that characterized the Merovingian kings were all arguments presented in support of Thierry’s anti-nobility, anti-royalist, but also anti-Germanic position. And he goes even further: the Revolution and political unrest that undermined France at the beginning of the nineteenth century were the direct consequence of the conquest of the Franks and the suffering they brought with them (Rignol, 2002, pp. 89–90). These positions were based largely on textual criticism, and in particular that of the works of Gregory of Tours. The contribution of archaeology was minimal in his work (Schnapp, 2005, p. 54) and little attention was being paid to Merovingian finds at the time Thierry was writing (Effros, 2012, p. 315).

Fig. 6.5
figure 5

School textbook narrating the history of France in the form of illustration. The Merovingian period is represented by four vignettes: 1. A chief, Clovis; 2. The Franks as looters; 3. The cruel Franks; 4. King Dagobert. (Histoire de France, apprise par l’image, E. Devinat and F. Raffin 1926, Courtesy of Auraria Library)

Aspects of Thierry’s narrative landed well: for Benjamin Guérard, director of the École des Chartes from 1848 to 1854, the incoming Franks

destroyed […] the authority, ideas, monuments, institutions of a vast empire; [they] erased, as far as possible, the lessons of experience acquired through social life, and turned off the lights of the human spirit applied to the government of peoples.Footnote 2 (Guérard, 1844, p. 276)

Other sides of Thierry’s theories were not completely embraced by Guérard. Most significantly, he refused to associate the Franks as a Germanic people with modern Germans. However, as we will see, subsequent political events—the 1870–1871 war with Prussia; the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine; the trauma of World War I—would challenge Guérard’s restrained approach by fostering a lasting Germanophobia on French territory.

The approach of another influential liberal historian and politician, François Guizot, was more moderate. By establishing a link between the emergence of European civilization and the arrival of the Germanic peoples in Gaul, Guizot gave the latter a central place in the issue of France’s origins (Graceffa, 2010a). He argued that on the eve of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, four fundamental elements were in place which would lead eventually to the French Republic: the Roman imperial tradition, Christianity, the idea of individual freedom (one of the few positive contributions credited by Guizot to the Franks), and the man-to-man bond (Graceffa, 2010a, p. 292). This moderate analysis should not, however, obscure his negativity towards the Merovingians. The criticism was still the same: by the violence of the conquest, Clovis and his successors removed all political legitimacy of the Franks in Gaul, and therefore also from the French monarchy.

By contrast other writers, mainly with royalist or Catholic backgrounds, responded to the liberal rejection of the Merovingian as ancestor by offering a diverging vision of the Frank: a being who is certainly undisciplined, but far from the savage depicted by Sieyès. René de Chateaubriand, a leader in French Christian historiography, offered a positive image of the Merovingian period. For him the behavior of the Franks should not be associated with that of savages but rather with that of children in the infancy of their development. The Merovingian dynasty was the heir of the Roman Empire (Chateaubriand 1831, p. 230) and a precious ally of the Church, which had made it possible to complete the process of Christianization of the West, in which the French people became the very first Christian people in Western Europe. Ozanam followed in the same vein, taking up the idea of Frankish barbaric innocence which Christianity would discipline (Graceffa, 2008, p. 91).

During the second half of the nineteenth century the historiography of Frankish origins would retain little from these moderate approaches, with a primitive vision of the Germans gaining ground. Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc expressed the general feeling of the French about the Early Middle Ages in particularly strong terms:

when the barbarians broke into Gaul, the ground was covered with Roman monuments, the indigenous populations were long trained in Roman life. It took three centuries of disasters to make people forget Roman traditions.Footnote 3 (Viollet-le-Duc, 1858, p. 116)

Viollet-le-Duc saw nothing worthwhile in the Franks; on the contrary, their lack of civilization kept them from any possibility of possessing their own art and know-how (Gourdin, 1989, p. 23). Merovingian architecture was described as a pale reflection of Roman artifice, with debris heaped by unskilled workers barely capable of laying rubble and brick, making ceramics “of a coarseness that is similar to the first attempts of the most barbarian peoples” (« d’une grossièreté qui rappelle les premiers essais des peuples les plus barbares ») (Viollet-le-Duc, 1874, p. 144).

6.5 Nation, Legacy, and the Material Past

French scientific communities began to structure and institutionalize themselves from the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, with their forms and directions heavily shaped by self-understandings in relation to the nation state and its past (Gran-Aymerich, 2007). Graceffa has demonstrated how the Revolution of 1789 gave rise to national sentiment, transforming the word ‘nation’ into “an autonomous concept of substitution in relation to the king” (« un concept autonome de substitution par rapport au roi ») (Graceffa, 2009b, p. 59). Previously focused on royalty, the nation now defined itself in relation to its citizens: an entity that aimed to be unifying and should share a common history. The monumental expression of this new feeling was formed through the emergence of a new notion, that of legacy: a past, including a material past, belonging to the nation.

This new interest in national heritage had two main consequences: the first was the creation of institutions designed to preserve and enhance France’s treasures; the second was promotion of “the cultural education of the people” (« l’éducation culturelle du peuple ») (Gran-Aymerich, 2007, p. 133). In this context the first Commission des monuments was set up in 1790 by the newly formed Assemblée nationale, with the aim of listing and preserving national heritage in the form of standing remains. The same year, Alexandre Lenoir was authorized to collect portable objects worthy of being preserved by the nation, and in 1791, he was entrusted with the Musée des monuments français, located in the cloister and gardens of the convent of the Petits-Augustins in Paris (Poulot, 1986, pp. 497–531).

In her comprehensive account of the history of French archaeology, Ève Gran-Aymerich (2007) highlights the long development of the discipline, showing that its initial legitimacy was built on archaeological research conducted outside the national territory. Archaeology in France was from the start an archaeology of the Great Civilizations, and even as the nation began to refocus its origins more and more within the limits of its geographical space, it was the remains of monuments linked to the classical Roman past which were most highly valued, for both their architectural achievement and imperial associations. Even spectacular discoveries such as Childeric’s grave , which aroused the curiosity of antiquarians for a time, did not raise any real archaeological consideration for early medieval remains (Pomian, 1992, pp. 48–50).

As the eighteenth century came to a close, Lenoir had to fight for the recognition of medieval art and its preservation. Only Greek and Roman art, according to nineteenth-century historian Camille Jullian, attracted crowds to the Musée central des Arts from its opening in 1793 (Jullian, 1897, p. VI). The situation began slowly to change in the following years, when antiquarian Aubin-Louis Millin inaugurated the first teaching of archaeology in France at the Cabinet des médailles in 1795 (Gran-Aymerich, 2007, p. 37), including high medieval as well as Roman monumental remains. Indeed, a high-status interest in visiting and viewing national and regional antiquities had long been developing in France as in many other European countries, and this included prehistoric and medieval remains. Books dedicated to the country’s monumental heritage were published and ‘touristic’ travels led people—mostly from the bourgeoisie and aristocracy—along the route of their own past (Díaz-Andreu, 2007, pp. 318–337). However, the focus here remained the aesthetic appreciation of picturesque aboveground buildings and ruins, rather than an urge to dig into the national soil.

Connectedly, as the Romantic movement gained ground at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the origin of the nation was increasingly sought in its land, in an older past whose exaltation came to be embodied under the expression nos ancêtres les Gaulois . The Merovingian moment, while remaining a significant element in the history of France, now definitively lost its founding character. This contribution of nineteenth-century historians to the construction of French identity is considerable, judging by the durability of the expression even in the current political sphere: in 2016, during the election campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy declared “as soon as you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls” (« Dès que l’on devient français, nos ancêtres sont gaulois ») (Morin, 2016), while three years later, at a conference in Denmark, President Emmanuel Macron referred to the French as “Gauls resistant to change” (« Gaulois réfractaire au changement ») (Le Monde, 2018).

6.6 Learned Societies and National Archaeology

Under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, the rise of archaeological research was chiefly driven by the development of learned societies, rather than being promoted by the state. This gave French archaeology a degree of independence, in particular by allowing it to gradually free itself from the influence of historians. Considered one of the fathers of field archaeology in France, Arcisse de Caumont founded the Société des antiquaires de Normandie in 1824. A scholar with a great curiosity, he played a key role in the development of archaeology in Normandy, encouraging the exploration of prehistoric, Gallo-Roman, and Merovingian archaeological sites. He was largely supported by Guizot (Effros, 2012, pp. 37–38). De Caumont’s main interest was in synthetic works and in particular those relating to monuments and objects constituting ‘national antiquities’ (Verron, 2004, p. 133). The Middle Ages were at the center of his concerns, as attested by his Cours d’antiquités monumentales (published from 1830–1841): almost half of the volumes were dedicated to the medieval period (Verron, 2004, p. 133). Aware of the need to go beyond the local framework of Normandy, in 1833 he invited scholars from the various provinces to a scientific congress based on the model offered by Germany (Bercé, 1986, pp. 542–547). The following year, he founded the Société française pour la conservation des monuments nationaux—the future Société française d’archéologie—and organized the first archaeological congress in France (Gran-Aymerich, 2007, p. 61).

Nevertheless, the increase in the number of studies on the medieval period should not mislead about the place of the Merovingian era in the building of France’s history. The attention of historians and archaeologists in the years 1860–1910 was mainly focused on the Gothic high medieval period from the twelfth century. The Merovingian age continued to suffer a negative image, reinforced by a political situation that linked together the barbarians of the classical world, historical Germanic tribes, and modern Germans. Before the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), German historical science was well-regarded by French historians. Even just after the French defeat, some historians, such as Ernest Renan, argued that France must reconsider its education and university system based on the German model if it wished to regain its place among the great European nations (Schnapp, 2005, pp. 57–58). However, the defeat and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine soon brought about a change in the process of nation-building: the French sought to prove their difference to Germany. The theory of a culturally advanced Germanic antiquity, which had brought a certain form of freedom and social equality to the Roman world, was rejected by the majority of French historians, or simply ignored (Graceffa, 2008, 2009a). The Franks now generated historical interest only from the moment they became part of French history.

The years from 1860 to 1910 saw the first excavations officially supported by the Government and academic institutions. However, it was France’s Gaulish past which was highlighted with the excavations of Alesia (1860–1865), Gergovia (1861–1862), and Bibracte (1867–1895), supported by Napoleon III to enhance his Histoire de Jules César (Napoléon, 1865). Moreover, by instituting the Commission de topographie des Gaules in 1858, the Emperor encouraged research into the pre-Roman past, moving France’s origins back beyond Merovingian royalty.

Growing curiosity for France’s material heritage thus prioritized the classical and the Gothic, continuing to disregard the greater part of underground remains, and leaving the Merovingian period in semi-darkness. However, some key pioneers saw valuable information in funerary remains, beyond the opportunity to recover artifacts for display. These forward-thinkers promoted the kinds of legal protections and careful excavation methods which we have only recently started to see as standard. As early as 1824, Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy, a member of the recently founded Institut national des sciences et des arts, was the first scholar to propose a chronological classification of archaeological remains in France based on the observation of the different burial practices from prehistory to the seventeenth century (Legrand d’Aussy, 1824). He recommended that archaeological discoveries be supervised with a protocol adapted to each stage of the excavation. Legrand d’Aussy’s suggestion gained little traction at the time, with real interest in the excavation of Merovingian cemeteries only developing in conjunction with the many discoveries linked to the construction of the railway in the later part of the century (Effros, 2003, p. 60). On the other side of the Rhine, the situation was different. In 1848 Wilhelm and Ludwig Lindenschmit published the excavations of the Merovingian cemetery of Selzen, which represents the first reference work on the Frankish funeral and is still widely cited (Lindenschmit & Lindenschmit, 1848).

6.7 Merovingian Archaeology: The Contribution of Urban Planning Work

Subsequent advances in Merovingian archaeology in France were largely due to the great urban development and modernization work that began in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Paris, medieval sites appeared one after another as the city was modernized with old streets removed or modified with new traffic lanes, the construction of a complete sewer system, and numerous other works (Velay, 1989). Prolific Parisian excavator Théodore Vacquer revealed hundreds of Merovingian sarcophagi and numerous artefacts at the churches of Saint-Marcel and Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais (Périn et al., 1985). Beyond Paris, the country’s modernization was led by the development of the railway, and with it the unexpected discovery of many early medieval cemeteries. These discoveries drove the evolution of French archaeologists’ view of the Merovingian period. Far from the impression of Viollet-le-Duc, who had perceived no form of art and therefore no civilization among the ‘barbarian’ peoples, the exploration of these vast cemeteries provided archaeologists with a wide range of objects attesting to the artistic skills and technical abilities of the Franks. Collectors were also becoming more and more numerous and avid, leading to an ever-increasing number of digs in search of beautiful objects (Effros, 2003, pp. 60–61).

Scientific publications reflected this newfound interest in the artifacts of the post-Roman ‘invaders’. Grave goods from each burial were carefully listed and detailed, often stating the composition of each object, its size, state of conservation, and location in relation to the body (Cosserat, 1891, p. 5). The skeletons and graves themselves were of lesser interest as sources of information. While plates of illustrated grave goods regularly appeared in the publications of learned societies, the bones and their contexts were rarely depicted. In the absence of official standards in the excavation of burial sites (Effros, 2012, pp. 109–125), archaeologists recorded only aspects which engaged their attention. Human remains were typically mentioned only when they could be linked to a historical figure or, as we will see below, were being used to define national identity through the study of their morphological characteristics.

However, further observations began to be made at some excavations of large cemeteries. Notably, the construction of the boulevard Arago was an opportunity for Vacquer to explore the former church of Saint-Marcel on rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève and its cemetery between 1868 and 1874 (Jones, 2007; Périn et al., 1985, pp. 183–199) (Fig. 6.6). His field notes describe how the state of preservation of skeletons could be seen to vary according to the type and state of their grave:

In sarcophagi empty of soil the bones are consumed and fallen into dust or at least, very reduced and very friable; they have taken on a purplish hue or wine lees. It is only in sarcophagi empty of soil that we find bones impregnated with violet crystallizations that have divided their molecules. It is mainly the large bones, especially those of the lower limbs, that show these crystallizations. In pits, or in sarcophagi full of soil and especially sand, the bones are very well preserved.Footnote 4 (Vacquer, n.d.).

Fig. 6.6
figure 6

Excavation under the direction of Théodore Vacquer, presumably at Saint-Marcel (Paris) during the second half of the nineteenth century. (Fouilles à Saint-Marcel [Paris], Fonds Théodore Vacquer, ms. 222, fol. 224: excavation of the old Saint-Marcel cemetery, Boulevard Arago; Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France)

6.8 Archaeologists and the Practice of Grave Reopening

One of the most striking contexts in which observations about human remains and the state of their burials began to be made is in the growing number of references to ‘robbery of Merovingian graves’ seen in the publications of the second half of the nineteenth century. The abbé Jean Benoît Désiré Cochet, a central figure for the founding of the archaeological discipline in France, was one of the first archaeologists to accurately describe evidence of grave disturbance, recording it repeatedly during his numerous excavations. Cochet was able to bring together observations of a number of elements to identify and understand how the ‘robbery’ was carried out. He based his determination of past reopening on the evidently displaced bones seen in the disturbed graves, but also on observations of the unusual positions of artifacts, the presence of iron fragments in grave fills (Cochet, 1854, p. 193) and, new for the time, by the evidence of intrusive cuts dug into the graves. For example, during the excavation of the Merovingian cemetery of Envermeu (Seine-Maritime) in September 1854, Cochet noticed a square pit located in the middle of a disturbed grave , whose shape reminded him of a funnel. He made a connection between this opening and holes observed in Merovingian stone sarcophagi, as well as in Carolingian and Capetian tombs (Cochet, 1854, p. 169).

It seems quickly to have become an established fact in the French archaeological community that Merovingian graves had been desecrated by their contemporaries, or at least in a very remote period (Cochet, 1854, pp. 264–265). Relaying a general feeling within scholarly circles, Cochet wrote that

[…] grave violation is an elementary thing in archaeology. A Merovingian cemetery that has come to us in its integrity must also be considered a rarity and a piece of good fortune.Footnote 5 (Cochet, 1857, p. 144)

Auguste-François Lièvre, librarian of the city of Poitiers and president of the Société archéologique et historique de la Charente, reported similar practices south of the Loire (Lièvre, 1894, p. 7), while Auguste Nicaise left quite detailed descriptions of reopened graves from archaeological explorations around the small village of Saint-Quentin-sur-Coole (Marne ), in 1882. Informed of the discovery of bones in the area, Nicaise began to investigate with a long probe used to feel for likely burials. By this method, which was widely used in the province of Marne as elsewhere in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. in Kent, southern England: Brent, 1863, p. 309), he identified several Merovingian graves, some of which were reopened:

a third research made me discover three more burials: I only found bones in disorder and providing clear evidence that these graves were robbed at a time that is already very far away. In the two previous explorations, I had noticed that some burials had similar evidence, the bones no longer in their anatomical position, the head sometimes in the middle of the body or on the legs. This probably explains the poor quality of the grave goods in this site, where only the worthless objects were left.Footnote 6 (Nicaise, 1882, p. 122)

Prohibitions against the sacrilege of disturbing the dead and against removing objects from graves seen in some of the Germanic early law codes were taken to refer to the reopening now widely recognized in French cemeteries (Cochet, 1855, p. 156; Lièvre, 1894, p. 7). This provided a readymade historical interpretation of the apparent evidence that the Franks were stealing valuables from burials and led to negative commentary across the reports of reopening. Following his description of disturbed graves in the cemetery of Quentin-sur-Coole, Nicaise adds:

Located, like most Merovingian cemeteries […] on a height that dominates a vast horizon, this site, whose graves were at most 60 to 80 cm deep, must have easily attracted the attention of these robbers, tomb raiders, who were threatened in vain by the many edicts of our first-race kings and even the criminal laws of the invaders themselves.Footnote 7 (Nicaise, 1882, p. 122)

Similarly, in his Sépultures gauloises, romaines, franques et normandes, Cochet attributed the removal of grave goods to the greed of Merovingian plunderers, seduced by all the objects that could “flatter their eyes” (« flatter leurs yeux ») (Cochet, 1857, p. 135). The sepulchral interventions also made it into publications by historians, though the degree of grounding in the archaeological material is sometimes doubtful. In his Étude sur la civilisation française, Albert de Marignan mentioned at length

the habit [of the Merovingians] of burying the dead with their jewels [...]; [encouraging] theft and grave violations, thieves [...] being sure to take a rich loot in gold and jewelry […].Footnote 8 (Marignan, 1899, p. 341)

Meanwhile in eastern France, according to antiquarian Édouard Fleury, the deposition of rich and precious objects in graves was the cause of numerous reopenings because “there was sometimes more interest in robbing the dead than in robbing the living” (« On eut plus d’intérêt parfois à voler les morts qu’à voler les vivants ») (Fleury, 1878, p. 142).This immediate and overriding perception of the reopening evidence as the Merovingian population stealing from the dead has had lasting consequences for archaeological research. For one thing, the certainty of being confronted with the practice during each excavation of a Merovingian site often led archaeologists to overlook the scientific potential of these ‘damaged’ cemeteries. Since the evidence was already understood, no value could be gained by examining it further. A comment by the excavator of the cemetery of Audun-le-Tiche (Moselle), typifies the general feeling that persisted for many decades in the archaeological world: the practice of grave robbery seems to have been a local sport practiced at all times (Simmer, 1988, p. 97).

6.9 Merovingian Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century: Auxiliary Science of History

The negative perception of the figure of the Merovingian in the nineteenth century is key background to the reception of the grave reopening evidence. As described above, the Merovingian moment was defined in this period by critical historians like Thierry and Guizot, with the added impetus of rising anti-German sentiment in the decades leading up to World War I. As the century progressed, scholars, institutions and curricula were all reaching agreement on the importance of Gaul in the history of France. The spirit of the end of the nineteenth century is expressed in a book in praise of France’s Gaulish past, L’archéologie, son domaine et son influence sur les progrès matériels et moraux du XIXe siècle, written by the excavator of the Saint-Quentin-sur-Coole site mentioned above (Nicaise, 1894). Nicaise defended a glorious Gaulish past, these “archives contained in our soil” (« archives renfermées dans notre sol ») (Nicaise, 1894, p. 265) that only archaeology could disclose, revealing all its potential for “the glorious history of our national origins” (« la glorieuse histoire de nos origines nationales »). The arrival of German peoples into the Roman Empire was as a “torrent of barbarians” (« une trombe de barbares »), ravaging and devastating everything in their path (Nicaise, 1894, p. 266).

The signs of widespread desecration of graves seemed to support this discourse, providing material proof of the decline of Gaul under the Merovingians. Undermining the more sympathetic view which had been defended by Chateaubriand and Ozanam, grave reopening could not be seen as testifying to the wild innocence of the Franks, nor their role in the completion of Europe’s Christianization process. On the contrary, Fleury and Lièvre drew upon the sacrilege of the reopening practice and the Church’s desire to put an end to it, as seen in the early prohibitions, to further depreciate the image of the Merovingian ancestor (Fleury, 1878, p. 149–150; Lièvre, 1894, p. 7).

This period also sees the (lamentable) moral characteristics of the Frankish incomers as described by historians increasingly linked to their physical manifestations in the skeletons excavated by archaeologists. In the excavation report of the Merovingian cemetery at Saint-Quentin-sur-Coole, Nicaise undertook an osteological analysis of the skeletons discovered, taking up the idea that the ‘barbarian’ physically carried in him the evidence of his savagery. Morphological observations of long bones and jaws indicated that individuals belonged to “a vigorous [...] stubborn, tenacious, energetic [...] race in a word, a race of conquest and prey” (« une race vigoureuse [...] entêtée, tenace, énergique [...] en un mot, une race de conquête et de proie ») (Nicaise, 1882, p. 123).

Nicaise also mentioned the large size of the individuals, a characteristic regularly associated with the Germans. As far back as 1842 Cochet had already seemed surprised by the stature of the skeletons excavated at Étretat (Seine-Maritime ), which he described as gigantic (Cochet, 1842; Flavigny, 1989, p. 33).

Cochet was active in Normandy, where a long-standing tie between archaeologists and physical anthropologists existed since the mid-nineteenth century (Effros, 2012, pp. 173–174). Cochet corresponded with physical anthropologists and sometimes invited them to his excavation sites. For example, Étienne Serres, professor of anatomy and physical anthropology at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Paris, joined Cochet on the site of Londinières. In return, Cochet sent him several bone samples for his studies.

These studies contributed to a nationalist discourse on the figure of the Frankish warrior. Large in size and strength, the Frank was rough, courageous, and intrepid. In this respect, he was similar to another much later ‘invader’ of Gaul, whose historiographical trajectory has many similarities with that of the Germans: the Norman. Like the Frank, he had been described in the pre-Revolutionary period as a fearsome warrior whose right of conquest allowed him to ensure his legitimacy of settlement and power in France, but also in England. After the Revolution of 1789, the Norman took on the appearance of an invader and oppressor (Guillet, 2005) and was explicitly linked to the earlier Germanic incomers in both ethnicity and character. Thierry, in his Histoire de la conquête de l’Angleterre par les Normands, attributed the same primitive origin to the Normans, Franks, and Anglo-Saxons. However, the Norman violence surpassed that of the Germans on the continent, whose Christian religion seems to have softened morals somewhat, unlike the Scandinavians, who remained faithful to the old gods of Germania (Thierry, 1830, p. 95–96).

6.10 Merovingian Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: Gradual Independence

Around the start of the twentieth century a number of changes were set in motion which all contributed lastingly to the development of archaeology in France, including the reform of the university system, which gave the discipline professorial chairs; the inclusion of prehistoric periods in the national narrative; and the increasing involvement of scientific fields in archaeological investigation. A dramatically widening range of questions came to be asked of funerary remains, with detailed studies of artifacts and increasingly also skeletal remains (Treffort, 2010, p. 216).

Unfortunately, this new era for the Merovingian past did not benefit the issue of grave reopening, which tended to become a bare mention in excavation reports, most of the time to justify the disappointing absence of grave goods in affected burials. At the same time as the question of the origins of France was moving away from the concerns of archaeologists, the matter of the responsibility for grave disturbance was also losing interest (e.g. Roland, 1908). Concerning the cemetery of Villevenard (Marne), for example, Léon Coutil and Augustin Roland simply concluded that the graves had been the object of an “old violation ” (« violées anciennement ») (Coutil & Roland, 1913, p. 139). The same incuriosity is visible at Selles (Marne) on the eve of World War II: the many acts of reopening were attributed to “a period that is probably very remote” (« une époque sans doute très reculée ») (Tassin, 1938, p. 75).

Only the work of Édouard Salin stands out as equal in this regard to that of Cochet a century earlier. The scope of Salin’s research on Merovingian cemeteries is still visible today in many publications (Fig. 6.7). In particular, he was one of the first archaeologists to recognize the diversity of the profile of reopeners. Beyond the Merovingian phase, grave robbery could occur at ‘any time’ and be the result of diggers acting without professionalism and destroying sites of significant dimensions in search of beautiful objects (Salin, 1939, p. 35, 1952, p. 262), or “greedy grave diggers” (« la cupidité des fossoyeurs ») taking advantage of the installation of new graves to partially plunder the oldest ones (Salin, 1960, p. 233). In his book La civilisation mérovingienne, Salin links grave disturbance with the testimony of ancient texts (Salin, 1952). He cites in particular the early laws, but also Cassiodorus and Gregory of Tours, as well as Paul the Deacon, making the book a longstanding reference publication on the question of the looting of Merovingian graves in France (Chenal & Barrand Emam, 2014, pp. 489–490; Demolon, 2006, p. 20; Liéger & Marguet, 1992, p. 101).

Fig. 6.7
figure 7

Graves 12, 15, and 17 from the Frankish cemetery of Rheinsheim (Germany). Grave 12 is reproduced in the second volume of La civilisation mérovingienne (Salin, 1952, fig. 50), and is one of the earliest drawings of a disturbed tomb in an archaeological publication in France. (Garscha, 1936, p. 455; courtesy of Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart, Esslingen am Neckar)

Meanwhile for historians, the trauma of the world wars reactivated the figure of the wild Merovingian. In 1915 historian Camille Jullian did not hesitate to draw a parallel between the trenches dug in northeastern France and those dug by the Gauls and Romans to block the way from Germanic invasions (Jullian, 1931, p. 10). A few years later, he compared the arrival of the Germanic populations to an invasion in which Gaul was “sacked […] from top to bottom” (« saccagée […] de fonds en comble ») (Jullian, 1922, p. 191). For his part, Ferdinand Lot refused to consider the arrival of the Franks in Gaul as a conquest, but rather as a stranglehold or takeover (« mainmise ») accepted by the Gallo-Roman substrate (Lot, 1927, p. 347). However, in many ways the Merovingians remained barbaric beings, dominated by “a suspicious, capricious, cruel, selfish despot” (« un despote soupçonneux, capricieux, cruel, égoïste ») (Lot, 1927, p. 379). The formalism of Germanic law, “a non-misleading sign of a backward civilization” (« signe non trompeur d’une civilisation retardataire »), is an example of the “narrow mind” (« esprit étroit ») of this people (Lot, 1927, p. 425). Armed conflicts between the two countries radicalized divisions and left scholars with little choice but to behave like patriots (Graceffa, 2009a, p. 195).

This image of the German did not (entirely) survive the post-war period. Under a new generation of researchers, the historical discipline was rethought, refocused on social realities. A new periodization emerged at the end of the 1950s, with Late Antiquity and medieval France henceforth divided between pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian times (Graceffa, 2009a, pp. 289–297). The dissolution of the Western Roman Empire was no longer the result of a flood of barbarians in Gaul, but of a multitude of factors both internal and external to the Late Roman Empire. The textual sources were revised and published in new series with evocative titles: Les Classiques de l’Histoire de France au Moyen Âge (1923–); Sources chrétiennes (1942–); Sources d’histoire médiévale (1965–). Nationalist ideologies gradually faded. However, this renewal of the historical discipline should not mask the reality that the Early Middle Ages remained a period which was little invested by medievalists (Graceffa, 2009a, p. 301).

Following its own path, Merovingian burial archaeology in France experienced significant development in the 1970s and 1980s. The discipline was increasingly professionalized and extensive cemetery digs were carried out by a new generation (Landes, 2009, pp. 61–65). Following Salin’s lead, archaeologists began to reproduce the assumption the reopening had happened after the cemeteries were abandoned (e.g. Bayard et al., 1981, p. 158; Simmer, 1988, p. 97). The figure of the barbarian Merovingian looting his own dead moved away somewhat. However, this observation must be qualified by the relative lack of interest of archaeology in reopened graves. Indeed, the frequency of the practice in Merovingian cemeteries was mainly mentioned as a disadvantage since it ‘deprived’ archaeologists of valuable information on burial practices. This situation is visible in the archaeological reports of this period: for example, the report of the excavation of 25 graves in Sannerville (Normandy) in 1979 contains only drawings of the undisturbed tombs (Pilet, 1981).

It was not until the 1990s that the study of ‘grave robbery’ began to take a more prominent place in archaeological publications. This was also a time when medieval written sources were being gradually reintegrated into more holistic archaeological perspectives, after largely disappearing in the 1960s in a desire for complete self-reliance in the interpretation of the material record. Now those responsible for post-depositional interventions became once again the Merovingians themselves: increasingly detailed assessment of the evidence in the graves led archaeologists to review their first impressions and it became an established fact that reopening went back to the period of use of the site. For example, many graves in the cemeteries of Haudricourt (Normandy ), Gaillon-sur-Montcient (Ile-de-France ), and Royaumeix/Menil-La-Tour (Lorraine ) were reported as disturbed while the sites were still in operation (Liéger & Marguet, 1992, p. 101; Mantel et al., 1994, p. 183; Regnard, 2001, p. 36).

The increasingly important place of ‘grave robbery’ in archaeological publications coincided with a reinvestment by historians in early medieval questions from the 1980s onwards. A distancing from the subjectivity of written sources is noticeable. The vocabulary changed: the term ‘conquest’ was no longer used, but instead ‘integration’. Religious identity became an essential concept in Merovingian history: The Franks evolved into ‘civilized’ beings thanks to the Church (Graceffa, 2009b, p. 304) which progressively framed the most important stages of human life (birth, marriage, death). In studying ‘Christian death’, historians could not ignore the practice of reopening burials. Far from giving rise to negative remarks, it seems to have been accepted as a fading part of Merovingian history, which the evolution of Church-led burial practices would soon override. Moreover, in the historiography of the final part of the twentieth century the figure of Clovis alone seems to embody the whole of the Early Middle Ages, to the detriment of the material evidence offered by the large numbers of Merovingian dead then being retrieved from the widespread and often large field cemeteries. The commemoration of his baptism in 1996 in particular occasioned numerous publications (Dumézil, 2019; Sot, 2000).

For decades after Salin no archaeologist would publish an in-depth study on the disturbed tombs. Salin remained the essential reference in all French publications mentioning disturbed early medieval burials, usually cited alongside German archaeologist Helmuth Roth, who in 1978 published a wide-ranging survey of the evidence for reopening among the different ethnic groups traditionally delineated in the material culture of early medieval Europe. It is typical of approaches until nearly the present day that for Roth the ethnic group is the main unit of analysis, and even the main cultural agent, with rates of reopening in cemeteries compared between ‘Frankish’ and ‘Alammanic’ areas, for example (Roth, 1978).

Here we see perhaps the most profound shift of all in the role of the Frank as ancestor. Over the last decades, early medieval society has been the subject of major new reflections and studies which profoundly alter understandings of what it means to talk about the Franks as a ‘people’ and their place in ancestral lineages (e.g. Graceffa, 2009a; Halsall, 2007; Le Jan, 2003; Wood, 1994). Most substantially, the idea that the furnished burial rites which appear in post-Roman Gaul are evidence of an incoming Germanic population bringing in their traditions and material culture from Barbaricum has been largely dismantled within academic discourse (for entry points into these long-running discussions see Halsall, 2007; Périn & Feffer, 1997; Wood, 2013 and references therein). Recent approaches have instead taken a constructivist line, emphasizing that elements of artifact styles, dress, and customs were actively selected and deployed in order to create specific associations and build group identities on a variety of scales. The early ‘Frankish’ populations thus become residents of northern Gaul laying claim to Germanic associations, with perhaps a fairly minimal input of influential elite incomers. Material culture long said to be associated with Germanic incomers, even the furnished inhumation rite itself, actually lacks origins outside the empire, and is instead argued to have arisen in the specific circumstances of the post-Roman power vacuum (e.g. Halsall, 2007). Going further, James Harland (2019) has questioned whether in understanding the associations which early medieval people wished to invoke in their material culture, Germanic is in fact a relevant category, or whether a widely shared sense of Germanness as a cultural ethos has a basis in the material record.

An increased freedom to operate at scales both much smaller and greater than that of ethnic groups has had a significant impact on the study of post-depositional interventions in cemeteries. At the closer end of the scale, new excavation methods and much more detailed analyses of individual burials have made it possible to reconsider the reopening evidence in terms of a human-scale practice. The increasing number of studies on the topic grounded in close analysis of material evidence in recent years attests to this new interest (Aspöck, 2011; Chenal & Barrand Emam, 2014; Dobos, 2014; Klevnäs, 2013; Noterman, 2016; van Haperen, 2010; Zintl, 2020), while more source-critical approaches are also being made to the written sources (e.g. Dierkens, 2011; Guillot, 2013; Nótári, 2012).

Previously largely dismissed as either a simple act of greed or as damage to the burial record, the reopening of Merovingian-period tombs is nowadays interpreted as a complex custom, or set of customs, and as common to many early medieval European regions. The recent studies emphasize the selective nature of the removal of artifacts, as well as possible manipulations of the human remains themselves. Moving away from conceptions of the Early Middle Ages in terms of peoples, with ethnic groups as the main ancestral actors, there is a new interest in the elements of social customs and material culture which were shared over wide areas or actively used to differentiate groups (Wood, 2013, pp. 310–329). Bringing together the recent studies of the reopening practices in different regions, we now see that this may have been an activity which linked communities across the far-flung areas of Merovingian influence (Klevnäs et al., 2021). In France, the practice no longer highlights the barbaric character of the Franks, but on the contrary attests to the richness and complexity of the funerary, religious, and social practices of early medieval people.

6.11 Conclusions

France’s Frankish past seems to have been more easily assimilated and accepted by archaeologists than by historians. The increase in the number of excavations of Merovingian cemeteries in the second half of the nineteenth century confronted researchers with the materiality of a historical period which had been perceived until then only through textual sources. The development of learned societies in the nineteenth century contributed significantly to the renewal of approaches to the Merovingian issue. Excavations carried out by enlightened amateurs such as Cochet, Fleury, and Vacquer proved that the Early Middle Ages were not a period of total regression, at least in terms of the arts and funeral practices. In particular, the ability of the Merovingians to produce beautiful objects through the skill of their craftspeople changed perceptions of these ‘barbarians’. Interest in the Merovingian period was first of all an interest in its material culture, which sometimes appeared contradictory in the eyes of scholars: how could such a barbaric society produce such beautiful objects? The regular discovery of richly furnished burials throughout the nineteenth century gradually led archaeologists, and to a certain extent historians, to reconsider the people from across the Rhine. Nor was the general public insensitive to Merovingian skill. Reflections on France’s national identity by historians had positive effects: their choice to enrich their discussions on the savagery of the Franks with archaeological data gave an impetus to the discipline. Critical enquiry thus developed around methods for excavation, observation, and recording of archaeological remains. In terms of the reopening evidence, one element stands out: descriptions of disturbed burials were more numerous and precise in the nineteenth century than in the middle of the twentieth century, only to be surpassed in very recent years.

Despite the many archaeological discoveries and the critical reflection carried out by historians and archaeologists in the last decades, the image of the Merovingian is still apparently attached to that of the barbarian in the popular imagination. This is reflected in a number of recent museum exhibitions in France which, as the catalogues highlight, seek to deconstruct the myth of the violent Merovingian, the destroyer of Roman civilization, and the dynasty of « rois fainéants » (‘do-nothing kings’). The exhibition organized by the Musée de Normandie in Caen in 2018 is particularly revealing of this persistence in the collective imagination with its title Vous avez-dit barbares? (“Did you say Barbarians?”). Some exhibitions, on the other hand, maintain the myth of the Frank coming out of the German forests and bogs, just as described by Sieyès during the French Revolution. In the promotional video for the 2017 exhibition Austrasie, le royaume mérovingien oublié (“Austrasia, the forgotten Merovingian kingdom”) at the Musée d’Archéologie nationale de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, for example, a warrior armed with a shield and a spear is repeatedly seen apparently scouting in a dark forest (Fig. 6.8).

Fig. 6.8
figure 8

Extract from the promotional video for the exhibition Austrasie, le royaume mérovingien oublié. (Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication)

As this paper has shown, by emancipating itself from historical accounts, early medieval archaeology has not necessarily transformed Merovingians into acceptable ancestors, but rather has contributed to their acceptance in France’s long history. The increasing number of exhibitions focusing on them in recent years, despite the ambiguity of some portrayals, attests to this continuing interest by the French in their Frankish past.


  1. 1.

    « Pourquoi ne renverrait-il [le Tiers] pas dans les forêts de la Franconie toutes ces familles qui conservent la folle prétention d’être issues de la race des conquérants et d’avoir succédé à des droits de conquête? La nation, alors épurée, pourra se consoler […] d’être réduite à ne se plus croire composée que des descendants des Gaulois et des Romains. En vérité, si l’on tient à vouloir distinguer naissance et naissance, ne pourrait-on pas révéler à nos pauvres concitoyens que celle qu’on tire des Gaulois et des Romains vaut au moins autant que celle qui viendrait des Sicambres, des Welches et autres sauvages sortis des bois et des marais de l’ancienne Germanie. » (All originally French texts in this chapter were translated by the authors.)

  2. 2.

    « [ils] ont détruit […] le pouvoir, les idées, les monuments, les institutions d’un vaste empire; [ils] ont, autant qu’il leur était possible, effacé les leçons de l’expérience acquise par la vie de société, et éteint les lumières de l’esprit humain appliqué au gouvernement des peoples. »

  3. 3.

    « Lorsque les barbares firent irruption dans les Gaules, le sol était couvert de monuments romains, les populations indigènes étaient formées de longue main à la vie romaine. Aussi fallut-il trois siècles de désastres pour faire oublier les traditions romaines. »

  4. 4.

    « Dans les sarcophages vides de terre les os sont consommés et tombés en poussière ou du moins, très réduits et très friables; ils ont pris une teinte violacée ou lie de vin. C’est seulement dans les sarcophages vides de terre qu’on rencontre des os imprégnés de cristallisations violettes qui en ont divisé les molécules. Ce sont principalement les gros os, surtout ceux des membres inférieurs qui présentent ces cristallisations. Dans les fosses, ou dans les sarcophages pleins de terre et surtout de sable, les os sont très bien conservés. »

  5. 5.

    « […] la violation des sépultures est chose élémentaire en archéologie. Aussi l’on doit considérer comme une rareté et une bonne fortune un cimetière mérovingien qui serait arrivé jusqu’à nous dans son intégrité. »

  6. 6.

    « une troisième recherche me fit découvrir encore trois sépultures: je n’y rencontrai que des ossements en désordre et attestant avec évidence que ces tombes avaient été violées à une époque déjà fort lointaine. / Dans les deux explorations précédentes, j’avais remarqué que quelques sépultures portaient de semblables traces, les ossements n’étant plus dans leur position anato-mique, la tête se trouvant parfois au milieu du corps ou sur les jambes. Cette circonstance explique probablement la pauvreté du mobilier funéraire de ce gisement, où l’on n’avait laissé que les objets sans valeur. »

  7. 7.

    « Placé, comme la plupart des cimetières mérovingiens […] sur une hauteur qui domine un vaste horizon, ce gisement, dont les sépultures avaient, au plus 60 à 80 centimètres de profondeur, a dû facilement attirer l’attention de ces pillards, violateurs de tombeaux, vainement menacés par les nombreux édits de nos rois des premières races et même par les lois pénales des envahisseurs eux-même. »

  8. 8.

    « L’habitude [des Mérovingiens] d’ensevelir les morts avec leurs bijoux […], [encourageant] les vols et les violations de sépultures, les voleurs […] étant sûrs de faire un riche butin en or et en bijoux […] »


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This paper was written as part of the project ‘Interacting with the Dead. Belief and conflict in Early Medieval Europe (AD 450–750)’ at Stockholm University funded by the Swedish Research Council (Project 2017–01950). The authors are grateful for comments received from Anders Andrén, Agnès Graceffa, Catherine Hills, and Estella Weiss-Krejci.

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Noterman, A.A., Klevnäs, A. (2022). In Search of an Acceptable Past: History, Archaeology, and ‘Looted’ Graves in the Construction of the Frankish Early Middle Ages. In: Weiss-Krejci, E., Becker, S., Schwyzer, P. (eds) Interdisciplinary Explorations of Postmortem Interaction. Bioarchaeology and Social Theory. Springer, Cham.

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