The Frankish Pretender Gundovald, 582–585. A Crisis of Merovingian Blood
By Walter Goffart
Francia, Vol.39 (2012)
Introduction: In the autumn of 582, a claimant to Frankish kingship named Gundovald landed in Marseilles, returning from exile in Constantinople with covert support from very powerful persons in the kingdom. He made little immediate stir. Two years later, just after a reigning king had been assassinated, Gundovald rose in rebellion, was proclaimed king by major backers, flared briefly, and was brutally suppressed. This cluster of events has not escaped the attention of historians of the Merovingians. The small body of relevant source material, virtually all of it from the Historiae of Gregory of Tours, has been picked over many times. Nevertheless, much of the story remains disputed terrain.
With the exception of two incidents, all our information comes from Gregory of Tours, whose Historiae were completed in the 590s, close to the events in question. Gregory’s seventh book, addressing less than one year (the shortest span of any of the ten books), is centrally concerned with the aftermath of the assassination of King Chilperic of Neustria and Gundovald’s ensuing usurpation (584). Every event I shall relate implies the prefix »Gregory tells us«; every passage of direct discourse consists of words placed by Gregory into the speaker’s mouth. Readers should recall this limitation without further reminders; the reports are Gregory’s selection, edited by him, and seen through his eyes. There is no escaping this one-dimensionality.
Also, Gregory’s point of view is integral to his reportage. We have no platform of observation independent of him; he cannot be »corrected« or »rectified« on the basis of information that he supplies. Thus, for example, a speech by the Austrasian duke Guntram Boso carries with it Gregory’s view that Guntram Boso was a habitual liar; accusations by King Guntram are not isolated facts free from Gregory’s assessment of the king’s character. Any study based on Gregory presupposes these cautions (resembling ordinary source criticism). A third point concerns Gregory’s chronology of composition. He portrays vividly contemporary history but wrote from a distance, unmoved by passing vicissitudes.
Top Image: 15th century depiction of Guntram and Gundovald