Debates over the concepts of continuity and change after the end of the Roman Empire have been central to scholarship on the early medieval west for centuries. The articles in East and West in the Early Middle Ages: The Merovingian Kingdoms in Mediterranean Perspective refocus attention away from whether early medieval kingdoms continued or changed formerly western Roman practices or whether continued connections between western Europe and the Mediterranean were simple importations from the East. Instead, the articles, as the introduction by Yitzhak Hen and Stefan Esders suggests, examine the “complicated and multilayered social, cultural, and political relations” the Merovingian kingdoms had “with their eastern Mediterranean counterparts, that is, the Byzantine Empire and the Umayyad Caliphate” (3). These articles consider the wide variety of relations that connected the Mediterranean as a dynamic process: a give and take between states, communities, and individuals. Moreover, by identifying trans-Mediterranean connections, the volume encourages scholars to ask more specific questions about how these processes functioned on a local level. Delving deeper into these dynamic developments within individual post-Roman kingdoms will help us to identify what precisely changed from the early sixth to the end of the seventh centuries for the people living within them.
The volume contains twenty-one articles divided into five sections: Expanding Political Horizons, Patterns of Intensification: the 580s, The Pope as a Mediterranean Player, Religious and Cultural Exchange, and Rethinking the Late Merovingians. The sections follow a rough chronological order with a thematic clustering within each section offering connections between articles. This review will discuss particular articles from each section to highlight these themes.
In the first section, Yaniv Fox's “Anxiously Looking East: Burgundian Foreign Policy on the Eve of Reconquest,” examines the alliances that emerged after the disappearance of the last western Roman Emperor. He demonstrates the continuities in political, diplomatic, and military activities in the period before the Gothic War, which resembled late Roman civil wars without delineated territorial kingdoms, as “Burgundian” rulers sought alliances with the East. His article makes one ask: did all three Burgundian rulers—Gundobad, Sigismund, and Godomar—have similar goals or did each understand his rule differently?
The second section, “Patterns of Intensification: the 580s,” moves chronologically forward to examine a Mediterranean world now divided between kingdoms. If the first section looks at the emergence of states, articles in the second section focus in on individuals and their experiences in a connected Mediterranean. Wolfram Drews's article on “Hermenegild's Rebellion and Conversion: Merovingian and Byzantine Connections” and Benjamin Fourlas’ article on “Early Byzantine Silver Offered for the Eternal Rest of Framarich and Karilos” identify roles that individuals played in the wider Mediterranean. Fourlas’ article in particular draws our attention to two people likely from the Merovingian kingdoms who enrolled in the Byzantine army and donated silver church objects during their time in the East. Fourlas connects these two men to Emperor Tiberius’ military recruitment drive in the west (574–5), which underscores the ongoing connections between the two sides of the Mediterranean.
Also in this section is Andreas Fischer's evocative article, “Money for Nothing? Franks, Byzantines and Lombards in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries.” This article provides a rationale for the singularity of the 580s, one not provided in the volume's introduction. Fischer demonstrates that the Byzantine emperors of this period embarked on a new foreign policy by providing subsidies to Lombard duces and Merovingian elites in southern Gaul. These subsidies prevented western kings from unifying and strengthening their states and thus emerging as rivals to the eastern empire. Fischer connects the Merovingian subsidies to the quasi-imperial coinage minted in southern Gaul at this time. One avenue for further research would be to connect Fischer's examination of Lombard subsidies with coinage minted in Italy during this same period. Nevertheless, Fischer insightfully reveals how the internal processes of state formation in the 580s were tied to larger currents of trans-Mediterranean diplomacy.
The third section, “The Pope as a Mediterranean Player” examines the role of the pope as broker between east and west, who shaped the knowledge of ideas and politics across the Mediterranean. Sebastian Schloz's “The Papacy and the Frankish Bishops in the Sixth Century,” highlights the centrality of Italy through his examination of letters concerning the bishops of Arles (the Epistolae Arelatenses genuinae). He offers a detailed reconstruction of the quadripartite relations between the pope, his Gallic vicar (the bishops of Arles), the Frankish king, and the emperor. Schloz focuses on the period of the Three-Chapters Controversy during which the bishops of Arles, along with the pope, attempted to mediate differing Christologies. These shifts in how and why people communicated are connected with the Merovingian kingdoms gradually following their own theological path. While beyond the scope of Scholz's paper, one is curious not just about the role of the papacy but also about how shifts in power within the Merovingian kingdoms may have been significant in this process.
Section four, “Religious and Cultural Exchange,” is concerned with the movement of people, ideas, and knowledge across the Mediterranean from relics of the True Cross moving to the West to Willibald's travels to the East. Jamie Kreiner's “A Generic Mediterranean: Hagiography in the Early Middle Ages,” takes the book's overall discussion a step further by building upon her first monograph on Merovingian hagiography to examine similarities across the Mediterranean. She draws our attention to three key cultural factors for hagiography: believable accounts, appeals to memory, and an episodic style to promote political policies. Kreiner provides a comparison between Merovingian hagiography and Syriac, Arabic, and Persian literature, all of which contain these factors. Her article provides a template for future trans-Mediterranean studies of medieval culture.
Finally, section five, “Rethinking the Late Merovingians,” is a collection of articles that have a chronological coherence, although they differ in focus. Stefan Esders explores the shared heritage of seventh-century Merovingian bishops who, by imagining the world in a Christian Roman framework, were never as isolated as is often believed. Lawrence Nees's “Merovingian Illuminated Manuscripts and their Links with the Eastern Mediterranean World,” probes Islamic and Merovingian manuscript similarities to highlight, like Kreiner, how similar requirements—in his case scribal legibility—led to comparable answers across seemingly rigid linguistic boundaries.
Ian Wood's article, “Contact with the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Merovingian Period,” answers the East and West's central thesis directly. He walks through the evidence of the complex and multilayered connections between the Merovingian world and Byzantium between the writing of the Chronicle of Fredegar (mid-seventh century) and the Life of Willibald (mid-late-eighth century). The article is a masterpiece in its survey of extant Merovingian sources and looks beyond histories to theological and apocalyptic works. Wood shows that a consideration of these genres is integral to understanding how the west thought about the east. His conclusion begs the question: what else would a closer examination of non-historical works reveal about Merovingian society that has been overlooked previously?
There are numerous other intriguing articles in this volume and sub-fields specialists will surely find articles of interest. Scholars of the papacy will enjoy Rosamond McKitterick's “archaeological” investigation of a single Liber pontificalis manuscript. Likewise, Yitzhak Hen's analysis of the Liber scintillarum brings this eclectic work into focus and suggests further avenues of research on similar compendia that have been dismissed as simple codification projects.
Given the varying approaches of the volume's articles, from studies of individual texts and people to empire-wide foreign policy, the volume does not propose a single model that scholars might use when considering the Merovingians in a Mediterranean context moving forward. The volume does leave one wondering whether the Merovingians were unique in the wider Mediterranean world. Did other post-Roman states, particularly Visigothic Iberia, have similar relations with the east? Or was there something unique about the Merovingians? If the latter, should we stop seeing the Merovingians as normative and see them instead as outliers?
These questions were not supposed to (and could not be) answered by East and West in the Early Middle Ages. This volume provides the first step in demonstrating that the relations between the Merovingian kingdoms and the East were complex and multilayered and, thus, places the “first” early medieval kingdom back into the rest of the late antique Mediterranean. This shift in analytical framework will certainly be a source of exploration in the future, which another recently published volume from some of the same scholars, The Merovingian Kingdoms and the Mediterranean World, will likely discuss further. We have moved past the old paradigm of a localized Merovingian world, uninterested in intellectual knowledge or connected to the rest of the Mediterranean, but I, for one, am excited to see what comes next.