Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Descendants of Clovis

When Clovis died, he left four sons. The Germans followed the practice of dividing the property of the father equally among his male children. The Franks now applied this rule to the kingdom which Clovis left, and divided it just as though it were ordinary property. Each son received a portion of the kingdom, and each was independent of the others. This plan turned out very badly and caused a great deal of misery. None of the kings was ever satisfied with his own portion; but each wished to secure for himself the whole kingdom which Clovis had ruled.

So murders and civil wars became very common among these "Merovingian" princes, as they were called. Almost all of the descendants of Clovis died a violent death; or else their long hair,—which was their pride and the mark of their kingship,—was cut and they were forced into monasteries.

At one time, when one of the sons of Clovis died, his two brothers sent a message to their mother Clotilda saying:

"Send us our brother's children, that we may place them on the throne."

When the children were sent, a messenger came back to the grandmother, bearing a sword and a pair of shears, and telling her to choose whether the boys should be shorn or slain. In despair the old queen cried out:

"I would rather know that they were dead than shorn!"

Probably she did not mean this; but the pitiless uncles took her at her word. Two of the boys were cruelly slain; the third escaped from their hands, and to save his life he cut off his own hair and became a priest.

Merovingian Kings


After a time the land of the Franks was divided into two divisions, and the people were called respectively East Franks and West Franks. Each land had a separate government. The West Franks gradually came to speak a language which was based on the old Latin language which the Romans had introduced into Gaul; and, long afterward, this grew into the French tongue of to-day. The East Franks, on the other hand, kept their old Germanic tongue, which finally developed into the German language as it is now spoken.

About a hundred years after the time of Clovis, two terrible women were queens in these lands. Their names were Fredegonda and Brunhilda; and their jealousy and hatred of each other caused them to commit many murders and stir up many wars. It is hard to say which of the two was the worse, but we feel some pity for Brunhilda because of her terrible end. She had murdered her grandchildren in order that she might keep the power in her own hands, and she was charged with causing the death of ten kings of Frankish race. But at last she fell into the hands of her enemies; and although she was an old woman of eighty years, she was put to death by being dragged at the heels of a wild horse. Her terrible rival had died some years before.

In many respects the laws of the Franks, and indeed of all the Germans, seem very strange to us. One of their strangest customs was that of the "feud," as it was called, and the "wergeld." Both of these had to do with such struggles as the one between Brunhilda and Fredegonda. In our day, and also among the Romans, if any one injured a man or killed him, the man or his family could go to law about it, and have the person who did the injury punished. But among the old Germans the courts of law had very little power, and many preferred to right their own wrongs. When a man was killed, his relatives would try to kill the slayer. Then the relatives of the slayer would try to protect him; and in this way a little war would arise between the two families. This was called a "feud"; and the struggle would go on until the number killed on each side equaled the number killed on the other.

By and by men began to see that this was a poor way of settling their grievances. Then it became the practice for the man who did the injury to pay a sum of money to the one who was injured; and the families helped in this, just as they had in the feud. When the payment was given for the slaying of a person it was styled "wergeld" or "man-money."

After this the feud was only used when the offender could not or would not pay the wergeld. Every man,—indeed every part of the body from a joint of the little finger up to the whole man,—came to have its price; and the wergeld of a Frank or of a Goth was about twice that of a Roman; and the wergeld of a person in the King's service was three times that of a simple freeman.

Another interesting thing about the old Germanic law was the way the trials were carried on. Let us suppose that a man is accused of stealing. We should at once try to find out whether any one had seen him commit the theft; that is, we should examine witnesses, and try to find out all the facts in the case. That was also the Roman way of doing things; but it was not the German way.

The Germans had several ways of trying cases, the most curious of which was the "ordeal." If they used this, they might force the man who was accused to plunge his hand into a pot of boiling water and pick up some small object from the bottom. Then the man's hand was wrapped up and sealed; and if in three days there was no mark of scalding, the man was declared innocent. In this way they left the decision of the case to God; for they thought that he would not permit an innocent man to suffer.

Merovingian Kings


Besides this form of the ordeal, there were also others. In one of these the person accused had to carry a piece of red-hot iron in his hand for a certain distance. In another he was thrown, with hands and feet tied, into a running stream. If he floated, he was considered guilty; but if he sank, he was innocent, and must at once be pulled out. All of these forms of trial seem very absurd to us, but to men of the early Middle Ages they seemed perfectly natural; and they continued to be used until the thirteenth century.

In spite of the wickedness of the descendants of Clovis, and in spite of the divisions of the kingdom, the power of the Franks continued to increase. For about one hundred and seventy years the Merovingian kings were powerful rulers; then, for about one hundred years they gradually lost power until they became so unimportant that they are called "do-nothing" kings.

The rich estates which Clovis had left to his descendants were not wasted, through the reckless grants which the kings had made to their nobles. So poor were the kings that they could boast of but small estates and a scanty income; and when they wished to go from place to place they were forced to travel in an ox-cart, after the manner of the peasants. Now they had few followers, where before their warbands had numbered hundreds. All this made the kings so weak that the nobles no longer obeyed them. The government was left more and more to the charge of the kings' ministers; while the kings themselves were content to wear their long flowing hair, and sit upon the throne as figureheads.

The time had come when, indeed, the kings "did nothing." They reigned, but they did not rule.