Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The First Queen

Clovis’ mother was the Thuringian Queen, Basina.  Famed for the scandal she caused in leaving her first husband, Bisinus, to marry Clovis’ father Childeric, she was clearly a woman of remarkable power in a society not poor in the exploits and strength of women.  It was Basina who gave Clovis his name, a rare fact preserved in a history full of men.  Of course, a very great deal of what composes “history” in this period is stitched from legend and half-truths, propaganda and hagiography.

Clovis, I would say, was highly interested in propaganda, and I make it an explicit point in The Ax and the Vase that he depended heavily upon it in his quest to increase his kingdom from the Roman province of Belgica Secunda into a vast Frankish power standing in its own right.  The legend of his vengeance concerning the Vase at Soissons was only one of many tales which have a distinctive flavor about them, of making a public point for the sake of display.  His conversion, and fairly worthwhile evidence that he modeled himself on Constantine, follow a pattern of propaganda it was impossible not to manipulate intentionally, as I believe the king himself must have done, in the writing of his story.  He wrote it himself first, after all.

It’s not impossible he could have had an example in legend-making from the mother who gave him life, gave him his name, and gave him, even, the legend of a Merovingian dynasty (unnamed at that time, of course) itself.

Basina is said to have used King Childeric, Clovis’ father, to make a point upon their wedding night.  Before she will consummate their marriage, she sends Childeric outside thrice to look about him and tell her what he sees each time.  The first time he steps out, he sees a lion.  The second, he sees bears, wolves, or leopards.  The third, he reports seeing marmots or dogs, “lesser animals.”

Each iteration of Childeric’s investigations illustrates a deterioration, first shown in Gregory, which must have been perceived by contemporaries, of the dynasty Clovis founded.  The Merovingians started out strong, to be sure – Clovis’ conquests, his wealth, his production of princes, his career and his rule were in many ways the paragon of monarchical success.  He was the biggest thing the Franks had ever seen, and there was pride, fear, and resentment both within his life and beyond it.  The epochal developments of his reign – Clovis became the first Catholic king in Western Europe; he set forth the famous (infamous) Salic Law – were themselves the stuff of legend, and could have been no accident as such.  Yet when his kingdom passed on to his four sons, divided as patrimony between them, the power held by one lion was compromised by the division, and the Merovingian legacy (far from being Christ’s bloodline) became a famous litany of family squabbles.

Of course, the likelihood that the tale of the lion and the lesser beasts, told a generation or so after Clovis’ own death, was really told before even his birth, is slender at best.  This doesn’t stop me from using the story in any case.  In telling certain stories, those who are familiar with the attendant legends expect to see how this piece or that part may be handled; and the story reflects and fits so well with Basina’s character it would have been unthinkable to leave out this story.

Then, as tends to happen – I cut so much of her out that the tale was lost.  Indeed, Basina herself lasts only a few pages now, and is sacrificed very early in the going indeed; victim of an arbitrary but nagging need I had to be rid of her.  She ends by suffering much the same fate of Morgause at the hands of her son Agravain, but without the bloodshed.  Basina, instead, is shut out of society – the worst punishment a Frank could suffer, in a culture utterly bound by family ties.

In some ways, the loss of this powerful feminine presence may be a great loss for the novel, but as a woman writing first-person from the POV of a decidedly male character, I could not abide her presence.  Perhaps instinctively, perhaps even jealously, as the feminine author of this legendary king, I could not brook the presence of any other feminine force which brought him into being.  Indeed, until the advent of Queen Clotilde, the novel is notably unbalanced by female characters; even Clovis’ friedelehe, Evochilde, dies with little more accomplished than bearing his first son, Theuderic.

The French remember the end of the Merovingian dynasty, in particular, with the epithet they gave those kings known as do-nothing kings:  the roi fainéant.  The story of the dynasty goes much as the story of Basina’s animals goes, and by the end little boys and ineffectual heirs have most people all but rooting for the advent of the Carolingians, who had ruled from behind the Merovingian throne for generations, as Mayors of the Palace.  Yet the individual stories of Merovingians, and certainly their women, do not suffer from the same tarnish, the same flagging vigor as the tale of the dynasty as a whole.

Radegund, whose uncle betrayed Clovis’ eldest son Theuderic (this story is alluded to toward the closing chapters of Ax), and who herself was apparently close with Gregory of Tours.  She was a poetess and another saint, and one of those women along the line who was closest to Clovis’ sons.

Aregund, one of six wives of the notorious Clotaire I (son of Clovis), whose tomb’s discovery in 1959 shed much light on Frankish craft, society, and burial – and, not incidentally, whose state of preservation was good enough that her DNA was able to provide proof, in 2006, that her line carried no characteristics of Middle-Eastern extraction.  This has been put forth to put paid to the Merovingian Heresy, though of course there is no real way to destroy the allure of conspiracy theories for those who love them.

Waltrude, one of the many sainted wives of Frankish nobility of the Merovingian period, exemplifies the flux in which marriage and monastic vows still existed as late as the seventh century:  after a fruitful marriage, both she and her husband, Count of Hainault chose to retire into the church.  Like so many Frankish/Merovingian saints, she founded a convent.  The city of Mons arose around this holy site.

Waltrude’s possible sister, Aldegonde, is remembered both for her founding of a hospital, which became Maubeuge abbey.  Her fortitude in the face of terminal breast cancer is remembered 1300 years later.

A favorite Merovingian queen, Balthild, started her life as an Anglo-Saxon child of nobility, sold into servitude, and finally married to a king who loved her.  She is alternately described as ruthless or as humble and modest, but what remains clear and true of this sainted queen is that she held, and used, real power.  She endowed many religious institutions.  Her seal matrix (a fascinating two-sided design for use in official and personal documentation) survives to this day, and it is she who is credited with the abolition of (at least) Christian slavery, as well as guiding the minority rule of her son Clotaire.  Three of her sons eventually became kings in their own right, and she too retired to an abbey, where she is said to have spent the rest of her life in service to those in poverty and suffering illness.

Of Frankish women, the matrimonial tales can rank among the most fascinating glimpses both of their character and the society itself, in which they lived.  There are raging legends of women who stood up against betrothals they did not desire, the scandalous remembrance of Basina, of course, who left one king and wed another, becoming mother of a dynasty herself – and the stories like Balthild’s (not unique in the annals), of women who suffered servitude either by birth or by misfortune, and who then rose to become queens with influence and indelible places in the history of this maddening, fascinating line of rulers.  With the place family held in Frankish life, the mothers’ and wives’ prominence is undeniable and noticeable.  Basina may have been a scandal, but she was not, I think, regarded with actual surprise; women in this society were not reduced to ciphers in their own time nor down through the generations.  A certain Itta, called Merovingian herself by some sources, indeed came to Basina’s own role for the Carolingians, as mother of the new dynasty – once Basina’s marmots had run their deteriorated course.

There is so much drama in these characters – in these players of our world’s history – you can’t help but see that they must have been on the stage.  Any one of them – or their sisters, their mothers, their daughters – might make a hundred novels’ worth of inspiration.  I have my list set, for at least three novels of my own.  Still, it would be fascinating to see someone take these stories and tell them, restore them, weave them anew for the rest of us.  Let me know if you are inspired!

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