epithalamium for Sigibert: wanton king into Christian marital ideal

Fornication , adultery, and violence were prevalent among the sixth-century Merovingian elite. In 566, the Christian court poet Fortunatus wrote an erotically charged epithalamium for the marriage of the Merovingian king Sigibert and the Visigothic princess Brunhilda. Fortunatus’s epithalamium obliquely refers to Sigibert’s youthful wantonness and notably ignores intrafamilial violence. It praises Sigibert for embracing the Christian ideal of monogamous marriage within which loving, vigorous sexual relations produce children for a joyful dynasty.

Fortunatus’s epithalamium begins with natural effects of spring. The earth warms, new growth pushes up, and buds swell with the promise of fruit. Fortunatus explicitly associates birds and bees with procreation:

Sipping flowers and charming with delicate humming,
bees hide away in combs their delicious honey.
Fecund in providing progeny with a pure marriage bed,
one desires from a flower to bring forth masterful children.
Ready by obligations with love for posterity,
the twittering bird hurries, hastening toward children.
With offspring each, although old, becomes young in them.
When all thus reappear, the world has joy.

{ Praemittens flores gracili blandita susurro,
deliciosa favis mella recondit apes.
Progeniem reparans casto fecunda cubili,
artifices natos gignere flore cupit.
Nexibus apta suis pro posteritatis amore
ad fetus properans garrula currit avis.
Semine quisque suo senio iuvenescit in ipso;
omnia dum redeunt gaudia mundus habet. }[1]

Fortunatus celebrates the work of male worker bees, wrongly called drones. Moreover, with the lovely Brunhilda understood as a flower, a couplet about bees readily represents a marital ideal for Sigibert:

Fecund in providing progeny with a pure marriage bed,
one desires from a flower to bring forth masterful children.

Although directly referring to birds, the verse “ready by obligations with love for posterity” seems also to be urging Brunhilda and Sigibert to have children. In five successive verses Fortunatus uses five different words for offspring. His point is clear: the world has joy in creatures reproducing.

King Chilperic strangling his wife Queen Galsuenda in order to marry his lover Fredegunda

Fortunatus’s reference to progeny from a pure marriage bed alludes by contrast to fornication, adultery, and violence among King Sigibert’s fellow Merovingian elite. Sigibert’s father King Chlothar I had five wives and additional mistresses. His diverse sexual relations created political problems. Most prominently, a certain Gundovald claimed to be Chlothar’s illegitimate son. Gundovald’s paternity claim prompted armed conflict over royal succession in southern Gaul. Moreover, Chlothar had extramarital sex with King Theudebald’s widow Vuldetrada. Only when bishops criticized him did Chlothar end that relationship.[2]

Sigibert’s brothers also strayed far from Christian ideals of intimate love. Sigibert’s older brother King Charibert engaged in sexual relations with a broad range of women:

King Charibert married Ingoberga, with whom he had a daughter. The daughter afterwards married a husband in Kent and followed him there. At that time Ingoberga had in her service two young women who were daughters of a poor man. The first was called Marcovefa. She wore a nun’s clothes. The other was Merofled. The king was strongly taken in love for them. They were, as I said, the daughters of a wool worker. Ingoberga was jealous that the king was taken in delight by those young women. She secretly gave their father work to do, so that when the king saw it, he would hate the man’s daughters. While their father was working, she summoned the king. He expected to see something altogether novel. He saw only the father weaving the king’s wool. Upon seeing this, he stirred in anger, cast off Ingoberga, and married Merofled. He had another herder’s woman, that is the daughter of a guardian of sheep. Her name was Theodogild. By her he had a son. As soon as that son came from the womb, he was carried to the grave. … After this, Charibert united in marriage with Marcovefa, Merofled’s sister. For this reason the holy bishop Germanus excommunicated both of them.

{ Charibertus rex Ingobergam accepit uxorem, de qua filiam habuit, quae postea in Cantiam, virum accipiens, est deducta. Habebat tunc temporis Ingoberga in servitium suum duas puellas pauperis cuiusdam filias, quarum prima vocabatur Marcovefa, religiosam vestem habens; alia vero Merofledis: in quarum amore rex valde detinebatur; erant enim, ut diximus, artificis lanarii filiae. Aemula ex hoc Ingoberga, quod a rege diligerentur, patrem earum secretius operari fecit, futurum ut dum haec rex cerneret, odio filias eius haberet: quo operante vocavit regem. Ille autem sperans aliquid novi videre, aspicit hunc eminus lanas regias componentem: quod videns, commotus in ira, reliquit Ingobergam, et Merofledem accepit. Habuit et aliam puellam opilionis, id est pastoris ovium, filiam, nomine Theudechildem, de qua et fertur filium habuisse, qui ut processit ex alvo, protinus delatus est ad sepulcrum. … Posthaec Marcovefam, Merofledis scilicet sororem, coniugio copulavit. Pro qua causa a sancto Germano episcopo excommunicatus uterque est. }[3]

A king marrying a wool-worker’s daughter was irregular. Marrying both of a wool-worker’s daughters, as well as the daughter of a shepherd, was extraordinary. That’s an extreme pastoral fantasy enacted in real life.

Fredegunda and Chilperic rekindle their affair after Chilperic strangles his wife Galsuenda

King Chilperic, another of Sigibert’s older brothers, also had multiple wives and an affair with his wife’s servant. While married to Audovera, Chilperic had sexual relations with Fredegunda, who was among Audovera’s “lowest household servants {familia infima}.”[4] Chilperic regarded with envy Sigibert’s marriage to Princess Brunhilda, daughter of Visigothic king Athanagild:

When King Chilperic saw his brother’s royal marriage, although he already had many wives, he solicited Brunhilda’s sister Galsuenda. He promised through ambassadors that he would relinquish his other wives if only he could have one suitable to himself. He felt he merited to receive the offspring of a king. Her father accepted these promises. As before, the father similarly sent his daughter with great wealth. Indeed Galsuenda was older than Brunhilda. When Galsuenda came to King Chilperic, she was received with great honor. United to him in marriage, she delighted him with great love. She had bestowed upon him great treasure. But for love of Fredegunda, with whom he had sexual relations earlier, a great scandal arose among them. Galsuenda had already been made a convert to Catholic law and baptized. While complaining to the king that she was continually enduring wrongs and saying that she had no dignity living with him, she asked that she be allowed to relinquish the treasure that she had brought with her and be permitted the freedom to return to her fatherland. Dissembling with his wits, the king with soothing words calmed her. In the end, he ordered a servant boy to strangle her. The king found her dead on the pillow. … Although the king shed tears for her death, after a few days he married Fredegunda.

{ Quod videns Chilpericus rex, cum iam plures haberet uxores, sororem eius Galsuintham expetiit, promittens per legatos se alias relicturum: tantum condignam sibi, regisque prolem mereretur accipere. Pater vero eius has promissiones accipiens, filiam suam, sicut anteriorem, similiter ipsi cum magnis opibus destinavit. Nam Galsuintha aetate senior quam Brunichildis erat. Quae cum ad Chilpericum regem venisset, cum grandi honore suscepta, eiusque est sociata coniugio: a quo etiam magno amore diligebatur. Detulerat enim secum magnos thesauros. Sed per amorem Fredegundis, quam prius habuerat, ortum est inter eos grande scandalum. Iam enim in lege catholica conversa fuerat, et chrismata. Cumque se regi quereretur assidue iniurias perferre, diceretque nullam se dignitatem cum eodem habere, petiit ut relictis thesauris, quos secum detulerat, liberam redire permitteret ad patriam. Quod ille per ingenia dissimulans, verbis eam lenibus demulsit. Ad extremum eam suggillari iussit a puero, mortuamque reperit in strato. … Rex autem cum eam mortuam deflesset, post paucos dies Fredegundem recepit in matrimonio. }[5]

Fredegunda sends assassins to murder King Sigibert
assassin murders King Sigibert

Murder makes adultery even worse. Fredegunda herself arranged for the murder of her husband’s brother King Sigibert. She reportedly also attempted to have assassinated Sigibert’s wife Brunhilda, Sigibert and Brunhilda’s son Childebert II, as well as King Chilperic’s brother King Gunthram. Fredegunda even attempted to kill her own daughter Riguntha, whom she had with Chilperic:

Riguntha, Chilperic’s daughter, would also bring forward malicious charges against her mother Fredegunda. Riguntha would say that she herself was the lady-lord and that her mother should be returned to her servitude. She would harass her with many and frequent reproaches. Her mother said to her, “Why are you so troublesome to me, daughter? Here are your father’s things that I have with me. Take them, and use them as you would.” Having gone into a royal storeroom, she opened a chest containing jewels and precious ornaments. From that for a very long time she pulled out diverse things, and offered them to her daughter standing by. She said to her, “Now I’m tired of doing this. Put your hand in,” she said, “and take whatever you find.” While Riguntha was putting in her arm to take out things from the chest, her mother, having seized the chest’s lid, slammed it on her neck. With such strength she pressed the chest’s edge against Riguntha’s throat that Riguntha’s eyes were ready to crack out. One young servant-woman who was inside the room cried out with a loud voice, “Come quickly, I beg, come quickly. My lady is being violently strangled by her mother!” And the servants waiting outside for them burst into the room and pulled the young woman from imminent death and led her outside. After this, the hostilities between them spread more furiously, and they had no greater cause than following Riguntha’s adulteries. Brawls and fistfights were always associated with them.

{ Rigundis autem, filia Chilperici, cum saepius matri calumnias inferret, diceritque se esse dominam, genitricemque suam servitio redeberit, et multis eam et crebro convitiis lacesserit ac interdum pugnis se alapisque caederent, ait ad eam mater: Quid mihi molesta es, filia? Ecce res patris tui, quae penes me habentur, accipe, et utere ut libet. Et ingressa in regesto, reseravit arcam monilibus ornamentisque praetiosis refertam. De qua cum diutissime res diversas extrahens filiae adstanti porregeret, ait ad eam: Iam enim lassata sum; inmitte tu, inquid, manum et eiece quod inveneris. Cumque illa inmisso brachio res de arca abstraheret, appraehenso mater operturio arcae super cervicem eius inlisit. Quod cum in fortitudine praemeret atque gulam eius axis inferior ita adterreret, ut etiam oculi ad crepandum parati essent, exclamavit una puellarum, quae erat intrinsecus, voce magna, dicens: Currite, quaeso, currite: ecce! domina mea a genitrice sua graviter suggillatur. Et inrumpentes cellolam, qui coram foribus eorum praestulabantur adventum, erutam ab imminente interitu puellam adduxerunt foris. Post ista vero inter easdem inimicitiae vehementius pullulantes, et non de alia causa maxime, nisi quia Rigundis adulteria sequebatur, semper cum eisdem rixae et caedes erant. }[6]

Fredegunda, although persecuting her daughter Riguntha for committing adultery, allegedly herself committed adultery with Bishop Bertram of Bordeaux.[7] Women in general are no more angelic than men are. In contrast to authorities’ widely disseminated domestic-violence myths, violence between mothers and daughters has been more prevalent than violence between fathers and daughters.

Fredegunda attempting to murder her daughter Riguntha

Some Christian bishops of Sigibert’s time engaged in fornication and adultery. That was a matter of laughter to some in the court of King Gunthram, Sigibert’s older brother:

From the time when Palladius and Bertram were summoned to the king’s banquet, they roused and reproved each other about many of their adulteries and fornications, and with non-negligible perjuries also. About these matters many laughed, but a non-negligible number indeed, who were livelier in knowledge, lamented that among the Lord’s bishops the devil’s weeds should be so sprouting.

{ Nam cum iterato ad convivium regis Palladius atque Bertchramnus acciti fuissent, commoti in invicem multa sibi de adulteriis ac fornicatione exprobraverunt, nonnulla etiam de periuriis. Quibus de rebus multi ridebant, nonnulli vero, qui alacrioris erant scientiae, lamentabant, cur inter sacerdotes Domini taliter zezania diaboli pullularent. }[8]

The bishops Palladius and Bertram, apparently friends at this time, seem to have been just teasing each other at the royal banquet. One wouldn’t have to be much livelier in Christian knowledge to recognize that their behavior was seriously sinful.

According to Saint Gregory, the sixth-century Bishop of Tours, Gunthram was a relatively good king. Gunthram’s moral goodness seems to have been relative to his peers:

The good king Gunthram first subjoined Veneranda, who was his handmaid, in bed with her as his concubine. From her he had a son named Gundobad. Later he married Marcatrude, daughter of Magnachar, and transferred his son Gundobad to Orleans. However, Marcatrude was jealous of Gundobad after having a son. She contrived Gundobad’s death. She sent him, so they say, poison in a drink and thus poisoned him.

{ Gunthchramnus autem rex bonus primo Venerandam, cuiusdam suorum ancillam, pro concubina toro subiunxit; de qua Gundobadum filium suscepit. Postea vero Marcatrudem, filiam Magnarii, in matrimonium accepit. Gundobadum vero filium suum Aurilianis transmisit. Aemula autem Marcatrudis post habitum filium in huius morte crassatur; transmissum, ut aiunt, venenum in potu maedificavit. }[9]

King Gunthram founded the Church of Saint Marcellus and was buried there. After his death, his subjects acclaimed him as a saint. The Christian liturgy added a feast day for Saint Gunthram on March 28. A person doesn’t need to live a sinless life in order to become a Christian saint. Gunthram surely didn’t exemplify Christian ideals as a husband.

Queen Brunhilda judicially executed

According to Fortunatus, Gunthram’s brother Sigibert was passionately in love with Brunhilda. They weren’t heading into a marital alliance merely serving high political objectives:

The royal eminence was inflamed, not even with night’s sleep
did his heart rest. With his eyes and mind he was returning
to the face that Love had planted and exhausting his mind
with frequent, mistaken embraces, deceived by a phantom.

{ Regalis fervebat apex, nec nocte sopora
cordis erat requies, oculis animoque recurrens
ad vultus quos pinxit Amor mentemque fatigans
saepe per amplexum falsa sub imagine lusit. }[10]

These mistaken embraces with a phantom recall Aeneas’s mistaken embraces with phantoms of his wife Creusa and his father Anchises. From a Christian perspective, the sixth-century Merovingian court could be regarded as moral disaster analogous to the destruction of Troy. Fortunatus, however, insisted on prophesying good in the context of passionate love:

Sigibert loves, seized with fire for Brunhilda,
who pleases him. She is suited for bed, of mature, marriageable age,
her virginity swelling into bloom. When embraced by her husband,
she with her first fruits will please him. No injuries to her modesty
does she bear, and so she can be better called a queen.

{ Sigibercthus amans Brunichildae carpitur igne,
quae placet apta toro, maturis nubilis annis,
virginitas in flore tumens, complexa marito
primitiis placitura suis, nec damna pudoris
sustinet, unde magis pollens regina vocatur. }

Other queens of Brunhilda’s time undoubtedly weren’t virgins at the time of their marriages. Fortunatus, however, doesn’t celebrate virginity in itself. He makes clear, both implicitly and explicitly, that both Sigibert and Brunhilda will experience sexual pleasure in marriage. In this epithalamium, Venus herself attends the marriage. Venus praises Brunhilda’s beauty and addresses her as a virgin “soon to please her spouse {placitura iugali}.” As for the marital embrace, “this the virgin also desires {hoc quoque virgo cupit}.”

Sigibert himself apparently wasn’t a virgin. Fortunatus implicitly presents Sigibert as having sinned sexually as a young man. However, having matured beyond his youthful wantonness, Sigibert will now fulfill the Christian ideal of marriage:

Sigibert, created for our joy, is exulting
in making a vow. He who is now free from other loves
submits to beloved chains. With youthfulness moderating,
his chaste mind seeks marriage, restraining wantonness.
He flees to marital bonds, he in whom his age insinuates nothing.
Modest in heart, one ruler for all peoples,
to himself he confers restraints. As nature seeks,
according to marriage’s law, he is content with one woman’s embrace,
such that his love does not sin, but serving a chaste marriage bed,
restores with children the house where an heir would play.

{ Sigibercthus ovans, ad gaudia nostra creatus,
vota facit, qui nunc alieno liber amore
vincula cara subit, cuius moderante iuventa
conubium mens casta petit lasciva retundens;
ad iuga confugit cui nil sua subripit aetas.
Corde pudicus agens, rector tot gentibus unus,
et sibi frena dedit, sed quod natura requirit
lege maritali amplexu est contentus in uno,
quo non peccat amor, sed casta cubilia servans
instaurat de prole lares, ubi luserit heres. }[11]

Sigibert “at this very moment {nunc}” is free from other loves. That suggests that he enjoyed other’s women’s embraces in the past, perhaps even in the immediate past. Although still possessing youthful vigor, he has curbed his “wantonness {lasciva}.” Other men of his age, encompassing both personal lifespan and impersonal history, flee from marriage, which they associate with chains. Sigibert, however, runs for the chains of marriage. He limits himself to having sex with one woman within marriage and thus does not sin from a Christian perspective. Sigibert of course is not yet married. With his epithalamium, Fortunatus creates an other-worldly prophecy for Sigibert to fulfill.

sixth-century royal couples

Although as divorced from the reality of his time as it is from ours, Fortunatus’s epithalamium presents a marital ideal with enduring appeal. Many persons today might still aspire to the sort of marriage that Fortunatus invoked for Sigibert and Brunhilda:

May you advance, long joined in limbs and united in heart,
both equal in character, in merits and manners both equal,
each ornamenting your gender with your laudable actions.
May you encircle one another’s necks in a single embrace
and spend all your years in peaceful amusements.
May each desire what delights the other,
and both share equal health protecting your two hearts.
May one love, held firm in living union, nourish you.

May you thus celebrate again as parents your children’s wedding vows,
and may you have grandchildren, your own children’s offspring.

{ Ite diu iuncti membris et corde iugati,
ambo pares genio, meritis et moribus ambo,
sexum quisque suum pretiosis actibus ornans,
cuius amplexu sint colla conexa sub uno,
et totos placidis peragatis lusibus annos.
Hoc velit alterutrum quidquid dilexerit alter;
Aequa salus ambobus eat duo pectora servans;
unus amor vivo solidamine iunctus alescat.

Sic iterum natis celebretis vota parentes
et de natorum teneatis prole nepotes. }[12]

A scholar has described Sigibert, according to Fortunatus’s epithalamium, as a “forever young almost-fertility-god turned monogamous family man.”[13] That description implicitly derides a central aspect of Sigibert’s transformation. In Fortunatus’s epithalamium, Sigibert becomes a monogamous family man with complete joy, and he prolifically co-creates new, beloved life. In short, Sigibert lives the Christian marital ideal.

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[1] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, “On the lord and king Sigibert {De domno Sigiberctho rege},” vv. 7-14, Latin text from Roberts (2017), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s a French translation. Subsequent quotes above from Fortunatus’s Carmina are similarly sourced. Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition of Fortunatus’s poems. Leo’s Latin edition differs little from Roberts’s Latin edition.

Sigibert I became king of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia in 561 when his father King Chlothar I died. Sigibert married Princess Brunhilda, daughter of Visigothic king Athanagild, in Metz in 566.

[2] Clothar I, also known in English as Clotaire and Lothar, united Frankish lands to become King of the Franks from 558 to his death in 561. Clothar was simultaneously married to five women: Guntheuc, Radegund, Ingund, Aregund, and Chunsina. Ingund was the mother of Sigibert and his brothers Charibert and Gunthram. Chilperic was the son of Clothar and Aregund.

On the paternity of Gundovald / Gondovald, Widdowson (2008). On Clothar’s relationship with Theudebald’s widow Vuldetrada, Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories {Decem Libri Historiarum}, also known as History of the Franks {Historia Francorum}, 4.9.

[3] Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories {Decem Libri Historiarum} 4.26, Latin edition of Krusch (1951), my English translation, benefiting from that of Thorpe (1973) and Brehaut (1916). The Latin edition of Migne (1849) is readily available in Patrologia Latina 71, columns 159 – 572. Subsequent quotes from Decem Libri Historiarum are similarly sourced.

Gregory’s elevation to Bishop of Tours in 573 was irregular and surprising. He was neither well-known nor highly regarded in Tours, a major city of Gaul. However, Gregory gained the support of Aegidius (Egidius), Bishop of Reims, and Radegund, who married King Chlothar I and later became abbess of the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. King Sigibert and Queen Brunhilda also supported Gregory for Bishop of Tours: “Applauding Sigibert, and Brunhilda as well, favors him to this honor {Huic Sigibercthus ovans favet et Brunichildis honori}.” Fortunatus, Carmina 5.3.15, “To the citizens of Tours about Bishop Gregory {Ad cives Turonicos de Gregorio episcopo}.” Apparently in violation of Gallic church law, Gregory was consecrated Bishop of Tours in Rheims rather than Tours. Van Dam (1993) p. 64. Gregory’s position at Tours was initially tenuous. He strengthened his position through skillful use of saints and the support of his mother Armentaria. Id. pp. 65-8; Dailey (2015) pp. 23-4.

[4] Wemple (1981) p. 56, citing The Book of the History of the Franks {Liber historiae francorum}, an eighth-century chronicle. Fredegunda and Brunhilda are also known as Fredegund and Brunhild, respectively. More generally, medieval Frankish names are not well-standardized in English.

[5] Decem Libri Historiarum 4.28. King Chilperic married Fredegunda in 567. Wemple (1981) p. 56. He thus was married to Galsuenda (Galswintha) for less than a year.

[6] Decem Libri Historiarum 9.34. Of course interpersonal violence throughout history has been predominantely violence against men. Both women and men are responsible for social conditions that sustain violence against men.

[7] Leudast, Count of Tours, accused Bertram and Fredegunda of committing adultery. Leudast attributed that information to Gregory of Tours. In synod at Berny-Rivière in August, 580, Gregory denied under oath that he had made an accusation of adultery against Bertram and Fredegunda. Decem Libri Historiarum 5.47, 5.49, and 8.9; Shanzer (2015) pp. 678-81.

Gregory accused Leudast himself of repeated, egregious adultery:

Yet Leudast was often caught in committing adultery in the holy side-chapel itself. The queen, undoubtedly disturbed that a place consecrated to God should be so polluted, ordered him to be ejected from the holy church.

{ Sed et in adulteriis saepe infra ipsam sanctam porticum deprehensus est. Commota autem regina, quod scilicet locus Deo sacratus taliter pollueretur, iussit eum a basilica sancti eici. }

Decem Libri Historiarum 5.49.

[8] Decem Libri Historiarum 8.7. This banquet occurred in 585. Bertram was Bishop of Bordeaux, and Palladius, Bishop of Saintes. Both supported Gundavold’s paternity claim on King Clothar I. Gunthram, recognized as a legitimate son of King Clothar, opposed Gundavold’s paternity claim. Decem Libri Historiarum 8.2. Bertram and Palladius, allies in supporting Gundovold in 585, subsequently became bitter enemies. Decem Libri Historiarum 8.22. On this banquet and the relationships between the persons, Shanzer (2015) pp. 675-6.

[9] Decem Libri Historiarum 4.25.

[10] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 43-6. The subsequent three quotes above are from id. vv. 51-5 (Sigibert loves…), 100 (soon to please her spouse), 56 (this the virgin also desires).

Gregory of Tours described Sigibert’s pursuit of marriage to Brunhilda:

After King Sigibert saw that his brothers had been accepting wives unworthy of themselves, and to their debasement associating in marriage with women-servants, he sent an embassy to Spain. With many gifts he asked for Brunhilda, daughter of King Athanagild. This young woman was elegant in her work, lovely in looks, honorable and proper in behavior, prudent in advice-giving, and pleasant in conversation. Her father did not refuse the marriage, and the previously mentioned king sent her with great treasure. Sigibert gathered to himself the elders, prepared banquets, and with immense happiness and joy married her. And although she was subjected to law of Arian Christianity, by the bishops’ preaching and by the king’s admonition, she converted, believed in the unity of the blessed Trinity, and was baptised. She persevered as a Catholic in the name of Christ.

{ Porro Sigyberthus rex cum videret, quod fratres eius indignas sibimet uxores acciperent, et per vilitatem suam etiam ancillas in matrimonio sociarent, legationem in Hispaniam mittit et cum multis muneribus Brunichildem, Athanagilde regis filiam petiit. Erat enim puella elegans opere, venusta aspectu, honesta moribus atque decora, prudens consilio et blanda colloquio. Quam pater eius non denegans, cum magnis thesauris antedicto rege transmisit. Ille vero, congregatus senioribus secum, praeparatis aepulis, cum inminsa laetitia atque iocunditate eam accepit uxorem. Et quia Arrianae legi subiecta erat, per praedicationem sacerdotum, atque ipsius regis commonitionem conversa, beatam in unitate confessa Trinitatem credidit atque chrismata est. Quae in nomine Christi catholica perseverat. }

Decem Libri Historiarum 4.27. Marriage among the Merovingian elite focused on the status issues of central pragmatic concern in modern “romantic” love:

Good relations with their neighbors could lead to a marriage between them, but marriage was not the precursor to peace and cooperation. Rather, marriage with prestigious foreign kings, princes and princesses served to enhance the royal status of the Merovingians. This is why discussions of the foreign marriages of the Merovingians in the sources reveal a strong emphasis on wealth, status, royal blood, character and beauty rather than alliances, treaties, and peace.

Crisp (2003) abstract, p. iii, similarly, p. 223. Cf. Dailey (2015) Chapters 4-5.

[11] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 27-36. The Latin verbs subrepo / surrepo {to creep or insinuate} and subripio / surripio {to purloin} are often confused in Latin texts of late antiquity. Gil (1984) p. 189. In Carmina 6.1.31, “cui nil sua subripit aetas,” id. reads a form of subrepo. I follow that reading. Other translations: “his youth exercises no allure,” Roberts (2017) p. 351; “he whose age stole nothing from him,” George (1995) p. 27.

These verses have been superficially interpreted. With much influence from Gregory of Tours, they have been read as meaning that Sigibert “deliberately shunned the casual liaisons of his brothers.” George (1995) p. 25; similarly, id. p. 130, citing Decem Libri Historiarum 4.27. A more perceptive reading suggests “Fortunatus may have lightly touched on previous entanglements of Sigibert’s in his epithalamium (C. 6.1.28 qui nunc alieno liber amore).” Shanzer (2015) p. 680. While Fortunatus is writing with a light touch, he communicates in numerous ways Sigibert’s youthful sexual promiscuity and more generally the Merovingian elite’s failings relative to Christian sexual morality.

Fortunatus’s Carmina 6.1 appears to be an example of figured speech. Practice of “figured speech {oratio figurata / λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος}” appears in Fortunatus’s Carmina 9.1 (“To King Chilperic {Ad Chilpericum regem}”). Shanzer (2015) pp. 677-86. On the classical practice of figured speech more generally, Howell (2017).

Carmina 6.1 is an epithalamium in the “true classical tradition.” George (1995) p. 25, n. 1. For Fortunatus, it’s “among his most classical works … similar to epithalamiums by Claudian, Ruricus, and Sidonius.” Williard (2016) p. 209. The first 24 verses of Carmina 6.1 are in Fortunatus’s typical elegiac couplets. The remaining 119 verses are in hexameter, “the traditional meter in late antiquity for epithalamium.” Roberts (2017) p. 863, note to 6.1.25. The poem features the traditional Roman love gods Cupid and Venus, as well as classical characterization of lovesickness. Fortunatus, a Christian in the Christian Merovingian court, doesn’t mention Christ and the Christian church at all. Both Sigibert’s previous wantonness and the Christian marital ideal are implicit.

[12] Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, vv. 132-9, 142-3. On how this Christian marital ideal related to classical ideals of marriage, Williard (2016) pp. 209-16. Scholars have scarcely taken seriously Roman men’s subservience to their wives and the understandable reluctance of Roman men to marry. Of course, ignorance and myth-making concerning men’s gender position is currently enormous.

Both Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours depicted Brunhilda highly favorably. For Fortunatus writing specifically about Brunhilda, Carmina Appendix 6, “On Queen Brunhilda {De Brunichilde regina}.” For commentary on that poem, Williard (2016) pp. 205-7. Other historical sources present Brunhilda as thoroughly wicked. Thomas (2012). Gregory of Tours, however, drew a stark contrast between the good Brunhilda and the wicked Fredegunda. Hemmer (2013) pp. 22-49; Dailey (2015) Chapters 6-7. Although probably less so than academics in Westernized societies today, Gregory of Tours faced constraints on what he could write and wrote with concern for his own personal interests. Yet unlike much academic work today, Gregory wrote with complex rhetoric and subtle patterning. Wood (1993).

[13] Herschend (2018) p. 13. As early as 1981, one can perceive anti-meninism tainting scholarly understanding of intimate heterosexual relations in Merovingian Gaul. Consider this claim:

The combination of the Germanic polygyny and the Roman institution of concubinage gave almost complete license to men to be promiscuous, furthered male dominance, and accentuated sexual double standards in Merovingian society. As long as there were no strict requirements for the legalization of unions and the legitimization of children, polygyny continued unabated in the royal family.

Wemply (1981) p. 38. Men’s sexuality has typically been regulated more harshly than women’s sexuality, and punishment for adultery has typically been gender-biased against men. Scholars writing about gender historically should test their understanding on their own societies in their own time by asking the following questions: why do men lack reproductive choice of the sort championed for women and why do men have to endure forced financial fatherhood? Why have cheap DNA paternity tests not been used to eliminate fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge?

More recent scholarship has rejected the existence of Merovingian polygyny while ignoring Fortunatus’s implicit critique of the Merovingian elite’s sexual behavior. Consider this scholarly program:

we will challenge the hypothesis that Merovingian kings practiced polygamy (or more specifically, polygyny) — a theory built upon an overly credulous approach to the stories in Book IV of the Histories {by Gregory of Tours}. Certainly, the Merovingians fell short of Gregory’s monogamous ideal, marrying several wives over the course of their lifetimes and keeping concubines as well. But they did so as part of a coherent, reasoned policy that used the exclusivity associated with the status of ‘wife’ to define the position of the ‘queen’. With some justification, Gregory criticised the Merovingians’ approach for leading to political instability and civil war, but he took his critique to excess, and it is doubtful that his alternative — uncompromising monogamy — stood a chance at improving matters.

Dailey (2015) p. 101 (program for id., Chapter 5). Consider Dailey’s claim in relation to Fortunatus’s Carmina 6.1. Fortunatus wrote Carmina 6.1 in 566, seven years before Gregory at age thirty-four was appointed Bishop of Tours. Gregory probably wrote the first four books of his Decem Libri Historiarum from 576 to 580. The subsequent six books probably were composed about 587-93. Smith (2010) pp. 65-6. This chronology implies that long before Gregory of Tours wrote Decem Libri Historiarum, Fortunatus apparently regarded the Christian marital ideal as likely to improve matters for Sigibert, Brunhilda, and their Austrasian realm. In inferring “coherent, reasoned policy” in Merovingian elite sexual relations, Dailey fails to account for Fortunatus’s implicit critique in Carmina 6.1.

[images] (1) King Chilperic strangling Queen Galsuenda. Illustration from the Great Chonicles of France {Grandes Chroniques de France}, made about 1375-79. From folio 31r in Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Français 2813. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fredegunda and King Chilperic rekindle their affair after Chilperic strangles his wife Queen Galsuenda. Excerpt from painting titled “Fredegund and Chilperic.” Painted by Auguste Couder about 1826. Preserved in Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans (Orléans, France). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Fredegunda sends assassins to murder King Sigibert. Excerpt from painting titled “Fredegund distributes daggers.” Painted by Emmanuel Herman Joseph Wallet in the nineteenth century. Preserved as accession number 2419 in Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai (Douai, France). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Assassin murders King Sigibert. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 33v in BnF, Français 2813. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (5) Fredegunda attempting to murder her daughter Riguntha. Image from De Witt (1887) p. 27. Image on Wikimedia Commons. (6) Queen Brunhilda judicially executed. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 60v in BnF, Français 2813. Here are another medieval illustration of Brunhilda’s execution, and a modern painting. (7) Royal couples in discussion. Illustration from Grandes Chroniques de France. From folio 15v in BnF, Français 2813.


Brehaut, Ernest, trans. 1916. Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Selections, translated with notes. New York: Columbia University Press. Alternate presentation.

Crisp, Ryan Patrick. 2003. Marriage and Alliance in the Merovingian Kingdoms, 481-639. Ph.D. Thesis, Ohio State University.

Dailey, E. T. 2015. Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite. Leiden: Brill.

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George, Judith W., trans. 1995. Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Gil, Juan Fernández. 1984. “Interpretaciones Latinas.” Habis. 15: 185-200. Alternate source.

Hemmer, Richard. 2013. A woman’s life in Gregory of Tours’ Histories. M. Phil. Thesis, University of Vienna.

Herschend, Frands. 2018. “How Norse Is Skírnismál? – a Comparative Case Study.” The Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History. 23: 1-44.

Howell, Justin R. 2017. The Pharisees and Figured Speech in Luke-Acts. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Review by Jonathan Thiessen.

Krusch, Bruno, ed. 1951. Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Historiarum Libri X. Pp. 1­-537 in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.1. Second edition (first, 1884). Hannover: Hahnian Library.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Shanzer, Danuta. 2015. “Capturing Merovingian Courts: a Literary Perspective.” Pp. 667-699 in Le Corti nel’ Alto Medioevo. Settimane di Studio della Fondazione Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo, 72. Spoleto, 24-29 April 2014. Spoleto, Italy: Fondazione Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medioevo.

Smith, Adrian. 2010. The ‘Prehistory’ of Gregory of Tours: An Analysis of Books I-IV of Gregory’s Histories. MPhil Thesis, University of York, UK.

Thomas, Emma Jane. 2012. The ‘second Jezebel’: representations of the sixth-century Queen Brunhild. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1974. Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. Harmondsworth Middlesex England: Penguin Books.

Van Dam, Raymond. 1993. Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. 

Wemple, Suzanne Fonay. 1981. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Widdowson, Marc. 2008. “Gundovald, ‘Ballomer’ and the Problems of Identity.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire. 86(3-4): 607-622.

Williard, Hope Deejune. 2016. Friendship in the Works of Venantius Fortunatus. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Leeds, UK.

Wood, Ian N. 1993. “The secret histories of Gregory of Tours.” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire. 71-2: 253-270.

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