An argument for Merovingian control in Álava

So, I promised there would be more academic content soon, and I think this is some of it, though there might be room for debate. You see, we’re still back about four years in my academic life here, in October 2017, at which point something happened which I had never before experienced, which was… research leave. It was only one semester, and I had to finish four articles in it, but still, it was a bit of a shock to the system, as I had to learn how to manage unstructured time again.1 Probably the below has nothing to do with anything I was supposed to be doing, but I’m going to explain my happening on it as part of that learning process and just tell you about it.

Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun

Professor Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun of the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

So, in a fairly obscure volume of proceedings from a conference in Galbiate, Northern Italy, in 1991, there is a paper by Basque archaeologist Agustín Azkarate Garai-Olaun called “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue”.2 I’m not sure why he decided to publish this in English, but I’m glad he did or when noting the contents of the volume I might not have bothered to skim it. Having done so, though, this is what I found, summarised as bullets:

  1. We know very little with any security about the history of the ‘Wascons’ (as he unfortunately chose to translate Vascones) in late Antiquity, because writers about them tend just to repeat stereotypes about obstreporous barbarians who wouldn’t toe political lines (pp. 179-180).
  2. Since the fifth century saw them attacked by Romans, Sueves then Visigoths, all coming through the Western Pyrenees, the Basques must have been involved in things (pp. 180-183).
  3. Nonetheless, the first real textual whisper we get of their existence after the collapse of Roman government is a Visigothic royal campaign against them in 581, followed by many more, after a few of which we also start to have records of Basque raiding and even settlement in south-western Gaul, in the patch, indeed, which is now Gascony (pp. 183-184).
  4. However, archaeologically, these violent settlers are basically undetectable; they did not apparently use a distinctive material culture which can be recognised in finds or organise settlement in any distinctive way (pp. 184-185), BUT!
  5. A cemetery at Aldaieta, close to Vitoria, has instead shown, as well as quite a variety of burial rites, weaponry and dress fittings of decidedly Frankish types, rather than the Visigothic ones which the Visigothic sources’ claims of dominion might lead one to expect (pp. 184-186). So, what’s up with that?
  6. Well, others have noted place-names south of the Pyrenees based on the word ‘Frank’, and the pseudonymous Frankish chronicler Fredegar reports sixth-century Frankish campaigns into the Iberian Peninsula as far south as Saragossa, and even Frankish rule of the northern province of Cantabria under a duke actually (and suspiciously) called Franco; but in general no-one much from either side of the Pyrenees in the modern era has thought this at all likely and have pointed to the lack of material evidence which might support it (pp. 186-188).3
  7. So, obviously, Aldaieta looks a lot like that material evidence, as does further burial evidence from a cemetery in Pamplona, where the excavator classed the goods as Merovingian (i e. Frankish) and everyone who’s written about it since has called them Visigothic, and another then-unpublished site called Buzaga adds to this sample (pp. 188-190).
  8. So, maybe this is how come the Basques could keep chasing off the much-more-powerful Visigoths: they had Frankish back-up (pp. 190-191)! He promises more support for this soon (p. 191), and I have not come across it but the man has published a lot, I haven’t read it all, perhaps it’s out there. But this is enough to think with.

It’s an unusual argument: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else contend that the Merovingian Franks had any control in the Iberian Peninsula, though he has cites for others. But there are things one can line up with the idea. Gregory of Tours records a number of sixth-century Frankish campaigns bound for the Peninsula. They didn’t all get there, but it was still evidently Frankish campaigning space.4 It would also make a certain amount more sense of the Carolingians’ repeated attempts to intervene over the Pyrenees, which have never really fitted with their expressed idea of renovatio regnum francorum, ‘renewal of the kingdom of the Franks’, if some of that territory had in fact previously been claimed by Frankish kings, and an ongoing idea of that kind might even explain the otherwise rather odd apparent obeisance on the part of King Alfonso II of Asturias to Charlemagne recorded by the Royal Frankish Annals in 798, odd because as we normally understand things their territories didn’t meet so you’d think Alfonso could cheerfully ignore Big Chas across the mountains.5

An early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso

All the images I can find of the Aldaieta excavation are full of skeletons, perhaps naturally enough given it was a cemetery dig but still perhaps not what you need with your possibly-breakfast reading. Instead, here is an early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso.

On the other hand… Gregory’s reports, unlike Fredegar’s, don’t imply any Frankish success in establishing a presence south of the Pyrenees; indeed, as Azkarate notes, what Gregory implicitly records is Basque settlers pushing north, not Franks south. It might be that the Merovingians set out to reverse that, but no-one says so. The Carolingians intervened in plenty of places that didn’thave old Frankish claims and always found a justification, and by the time they did it the government on the other side was even foreign and hostile of religion, though the Basques were not and still got hurt badly by the Carolingian efforts.6 Furthermore, the argument that the Basques would have needed Frankish support to throw off Visigothic overrule looks weaker when one remembers that they threw off Carolingian overrule long after the Visigoths were gone (though by then, we could probably use other evidence, including burials at Pamplona again, to suggest that they may have had Muslim back-up…7 The Asturian appeals to the Franks have by now been plausibly put in the context of long-term contests for the Asturian kingship, which may have been split down party lines over exactly the issue of ties to the Franks and, perhaps, consequent choices of Christian sect according to ‘Mozarabic’ Adoptionism led from Toledo and ‘Frankish’ or ‘Roman’ Orthodoxy led from Aachen, and that may be enough to explain both Alfonso II’s sending a tent to Charlemagne and some Frankish-looking architecture in Oviedo.8

An early medieval belt buckle and weapon fittings from burials at Aldaieta, Basque Country

Actually, I tell a lie, here is some of the Aldaieta kit, apparently on display at the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum Mainz, or at least on their website (linked through)

But all that is textual argumentation, you may say, and Azkarate was presenting archaeological evidence, as he points out, indeed, “archaeological data which is often more truthful given its involuntary nature” (p. 180), so hasn’t he still got a point? Well, obviously, material culture is portable, and anyone can use it unless there is some restriction, economic or social, on doing so. I’m conscious that in England there are good cases of proven-locals buried with ‘Germanic’ weapons, that on the eastern Frankish border there have been found Saxons with Thuringian kit and that in the territories of the Avars, to judge by their chosen dress fittings, as someone put it at a seminar I was at once, ‘men are from Bavaria and women are from Byzantium’.9 This stuff is chosen, that’s the point; pots don’t mean people and Frankish weapons do not have to mean Frankish occupation, rather than Frankish arms sales, or raided Frankish armouries, since even arms sales would tell us about contact and a power balance; I’m not sure, given their concern about exporting weapons to the Vikings, that the Franks would have been kitting out Basques when they had to fight them nearly as often.10 But that is to look back from the Carolingian period and its concerns onto the Merovingian one, whose kings surely had their own ideas (and no Vikings).

So at the end I’m not sure. I’ve never seen anyone else pick this up; but given where this came out, in a conference volume almost all of which is Italian-focused, would anyone else who needed it have found it? I didn’t come across this by deliberate search, I know that much.11 Obviously a lot hangs on the ‘ethnic’ identification of these weapons and grave-goods, and they were all a small number of the burials in their cemeteries, which again opens up questions about who carried (or at least was buried with) weapons in these societies. I’m no kind of archaeologist, barely know my Salin from my Saxon, so I shouldn’t be allowed to pronounce, really. But I wonder if there is anyone reading who has a better idea, or fewer scruples…


1. To be completed: Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535; idem, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: Cereal Yields in Early Medieval Europe and the 2:1 Misapprehension” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67.2 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28; idem, “Keeping it in the Family? Consanguineous Marriage and the Counts of Barcelona, Reviewed” (forthcoming) and idem, “Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia” in English Historical Review (forthcoming). Actually completed: Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics”; idem, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 34 (forthcoming); “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, for Michelle Armstrong-Partida, Dana Wessell Lightfoot and Alexandra Guerson (edd.), Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Lincoln NB 2020), but rejected from that volume and only later accepted to be published in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), 125-152; and Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”. Some difficult meetings followed those relevations… But we’ll tell that story, or not, as we get there.

2. Agostin Azkarate Garai-Olaun, “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo and Lanfredo Castelletti (edd.), Il territorio tra tardoantico e altomedioevo: metodi di indagine e risultati (Firenze 1992), pp. 179–191.

3. The Fredegar reference is equivalent to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar with its Continuations, translated from the Latin with introduction and notes (London 1960), XXXIII (p. 21), though I don’t have access to that and get the reference from Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd edn (Oxford 1990), pp. 91-92, who gives the translation as: “He [King Sisebut of the Visigoths] won Cantabria, previously held by the Franks, for the Gothic kingdom; a duke named Francio had conquered Cantabria in the time of the Franks, and it had long paid tribute to the Frankish kings.” For me this raises the question, when the heck was ‘the time of the Franks’ from Fredegar’s perspective? But for most other people it has raised the question of whether Cantabria must mean Cantabria as we know it or whether it could include modern-day Álava (Collins, Basques, pp. 91-92). For Azkarate’s purposes, however, it doesn’t matter, since he’s focused on Álava.

4. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (London 1974), III.9 (pp. 170-171), III.29 (pp. 186-187), VI.41 (p. 375), VIII.28 (pp. 456-457) and VIII.30 (pp. 459-460), of which only the first, second and fifth were actually more than plans.

5. On the Carolingian ideological pitch, as evinced by the man who actually secured their transpyrenean territories, Louis the Pious as King of Aquitaine, see Josef Semmler, “Renovatio Regni Francorum: die Herrschaft Ludwigs des Frommen im Frankenreich 814-829/830″ in Peter Godman and Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 125–145. On Charlemagne and Asturias, try Roger Collins, “Spain: the Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272–289, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521362924.014, pp. 279-280. He only gives it a paragraph but that is really about all the evidence by itself is worth.

6. Quite a debate has developed in recent years about the Carolingian motivations for intervening in the Iberian peninsula. Compare Jonathan P. Conant, “Louis the Pious and the Contours of Empire” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 336–360, Daniel G. König, “Charlemagne’s ›Jihād‹ Revisited: Debating the Islamic Contribution to an Epochal Change in the History of Christianization” in Medieval Worlds Vol. 3 (Vienna 2016), pp. 3–40, and Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “‘Those same cursed Saracens’: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 405–428.

7. José Antonio Faro Carballa, María García-Barbarena Unzu and Mercedes Unzu Urmeneta, “Pamplona y el Islam: Nuevos testimonios arqueológicos” in Trabajos de arqueología Navarra Vol. 20 (Pamplona 2007), pp. 229–284. There’s also the fact that the Arabic sources in the Peninsula for this area seem to think that the Kings of Pamplona were under pact to the Emir, which could very easily have been true: see Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010), pp. 194-198.

8. Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: Inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso Antón, Hugh Kennedy and Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: Political Discourses and Forms of Legitimacy in Medieval Societies, The Medieval Mediterranean 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223–262.

9. England: Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland and Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope Evidence for Mobility, Subsistence Practice, and Status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Washington DC 2005), pp. 123–138, cf. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past & Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22–43, though to be fair to Härke his views have shifted in the light of critique, and idem, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Reading 2011), pp. 1–28, is probably a better reflection of them, if less relevant. For the Saxon-Thuringian example see Patrick Geary, “Rethinking Barbarian Invasions through Genomic History” in Magyar Régészet / Hungarian Archaeology (Autumn 2014), pp. 1–8. A less anonymous reference for Avar material culture could be Falko Daim, “Avars and Avar Archaeology: an introduction”, trans. Ingrid Bühler, in Hans-Werner Goetz, Jörg Jarnut and Walter Pohl (eds), Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval peoples and kingdoms in the transformation of the Roman world, Transformation of the Roman World 13 (Leiden 2003), pp. 463–570.

10. On the Carolingian bans on weapon export, the reference I most easily have is Anne Stalsberg, “Herstellung und Verbreitung der Vlfberht-Schwertklingen: Eine Neubewertung” in Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters Vol. 36 (Bonn 2008), pp. 89–118. On the Basques getting away from their rule, see Collins, “Spain”, pp. 284-289. As for the fact that goods transfer need not mean trade, of course you have all got bored by now with me citing Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, but it’s still really important.

11. It must be admitted that Professor Azkárate has tried addressing other audiences: while looking for images for this post, I found out about A. Azkárate Garai-Olaun, “Francos, Aquitanos y Vascones: Testimonios arqueológicos al Sur de los Pirineos” in Archivo Español de Arqueología Vol. 66 (Madrid 1993), pp. 149–175, online here, which is very much the same argument as idem, “Western Pyrenees”, and Agustín Azkarate, Aldaieta: necrópolis tardoantigua de Aldaieta (Nanclares de Gamboa, Alava), Memorias de yacimientos alaveses 6 (Vitoria 1999).

15 responses to “An argument for Merovingian control in Álava

  1. Allan McKinley

    Someone with less scruples about stomping all over other disciplinary areas? There’s an invitation I can’t resist!

    My obvious question here is simply why would we label these grave goods as Frankish? On the grounds of where they were manufactured maybe, but unless someone has done some detailed scientific analysis how do we know these items are Frankish in origin and not vasconian made in a ‘Frankish’ style? After all, for male assemblages at least, if Guy Halsall has taught us anything (other than the second verse of On Ilkley Moor ba Tat (sic)) it’s that Frankish material culture was of Roman not Germanic origin, and the Vascones could clearly have accessed the same material culture.

    That said, this fits with the sort of penumbra of ‘Frankish’ mortuary material found surrounding the Merovingian kingdoms, in southern and eastern Britain and across the Rhine (I’d be inclined to bet that you find it in northern Italy as well, but don’t know the material). It’s exact significance is unclear, as the British material makes direct control unlikely (no-one has produced any argument for Merovingian naval power in the Channel as would be required to enforce this), but we can say that there seems to have been some benefit perceived by various people living in small and perhaps unstable polities bordering the Merovingian kingdoms in burying dead males with grave goods similar to those used within the Merovingian kingdom.

    On this comparative basis I’d be inclined to doubt this can be taken as prima facia evidence of Merovingian control of the western Pyrenees (I have a bias here I guess though: I tend to view the Vascones as one of those upland areas which are effectively immune from external control). It might be part of something more interesting though, which is the ethnogenesis of the Basques. If the Vascones only pop up as a post-Roman people around the time of these cemeteries being populated (de-populated?) this might not be coincidental. I think you can argue that the Saxon identity can be tied into this Merovingian penumbra (for a start it existed both in Britain and on the European mainland in a sort of arc…) so the Vascones becoming a recognisable group in the same context would be equally likely.

    That’s just some speculation from someone whose only real qualification to comment here might be mild disappointment that he didn’t get to see some interesting skeletons with breakfast, but I would suggest that as with all burial archaeology the significance of these cemeteries is more complex and ultimately also probably more local than simple political identification. But it’s made me think, for which many thanks.

  2. Evil Steve

    I don’t see any particular issue with Garai-Olaun’s interpretation of the material evidence. The areas either side of the ‘channel’ have complex relationships, as does those relationships dependent on ‘orthodoxy’. Britonia and Brittany come to mind here, and presumably it would be no different for Basque (Vasc-, Wasc-, Gasc-) country. It could be, of course, that the Frankish cultural element is not direct, but mediated by places like Kent. On the orthodoxy note, Tours potentially projected its authority into Galicia via its support of Martin of Braga, so there might be religious underpinning to adopting Frankish material culture as well. The area is notoriously independent, even to this day, so it wouldn’t surprise me that this independence was based on a tradition of leveraging diplomatic ties to enable that way of life?

    • Allan McKinley

      Steve – you’ve piqued my interest there. What’s the basis for assuming the bishops of Tours were seeking to exercise authority in Gallicia? I’ve always found Martin of Braga hard to place in the history of the cult(s) of Martin of Tours, but my feeling is that he was an example of a dedicee of a non-Touranian cult (I’d say like those seen in sixth-century Italy) with Gregory of Tours making an academic attempt to claim Martin of Braga for Tours after the fact. But I’ve not really done the work on that I should have done so that’s currently unsubstantiated.

  3. Alan – no smoking gun I’m afraid – just that Gregory is a contemporary admirer of Martin and has a good understanding of what is occurring in Spain, which implies good contacts. Tours has experience with dealing with the ‘Insular’ problem, and Galicia has such a problem, on top of the Arian sensibilities of the Gothic elites. My understanding is that Martin was directed by Tours to Braga (an event that mirrors, perhaps, the later one of Theodore to Canterbury), and in this period of profound papal weakness and schism, there is a sense, in my mind, that some metropolitans are taking up the ‘slack’, of which Tours is one, as well as that ‘new kid on the block’, Iona. Hope this makes sense of a sort.

  4. “what are the implications for the tin trade?” You’ve lost me: what relation do you perceive between iron-making and tin? Or do you mean to imply that Britain’s bronze requirement could also have been met by recycling?

    But even then why would that carry any great implication for the export trade in tin?

    • You’re quite right, whatever I was thinking didn’t manage to cross the gap in that logic. I was rushing to finish up before going out, is my only excuse. I was coming at it from the wrong end, suspecting that trade was dropping, even export trade in tin (mainly because no post-Roman source anyone’s located mentions British tin for centuries), and jumped straight to domestic metal use without anything between. Mea culpa!

  5. On Galician Britonia there is also E.A. Thompson’s 1968 article in Christianity in Britain, 300-700, and more recently Simon Young’s, “The bishops of the Early Medieval Spanish diocese of Britonia”, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 45 (2003), pp. 1-20.
    Gregory of Tours claims no role for himself in sending Martin of Braga to Spain. Indeed one wonders if Martin would have been welcomed quite so warmly by the Sueves if he was seen as an emissary of the Franks (especially if the Franks ruled south of the Pyrenees!).
    Speaking of which, you can say what you want about the archaeological interpretation of the grave goods, but the Fredegar reference stands and is difficult to explain away entirely (although the “Cantabrian senate” referred to in Braulio’s Life of Aemilian suggests self rule for the area rather than Frankish rule). Worth noting that the Pyrenees were not a political border during the Visigothic period with the Visigoths ruling north of the mountains on the eastern side in Septimania. No reason per se why the Franks couldn’t rule south of the mountains on the western side. Indeed the Frankish invasion of Spain in 541 is said by the Chronicle of Saragossa to have come through Pamplona suggesting a possible western interest (or maybe Childebert just wanted to avoid having to march through Visigothic Gaul).

    • Evil Steve

      my limited understanding is that Gregory of Tours reports that the Seubian king, Chararic, converted to Nicene Christianity on the basis of the relics of Martin of Tours (perhaps delivered by Martin, soon to be of Braga, though he is conflicting in his details here; he certainly links the two) healing Chararic’s son from leprosy, so there is a sense that Tours has some form of influence c. 560. We also have Bishop Liudhard (accompanying Bertha), establishing a church to St Martin in Canterbury around the same time?

      • I’m not sure you’ll find much dispute round here that Tours was influential early (not least because of Allan Scott McKinley, “The First Two Centuries of Saint Martin of Tours” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 173–200, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2006.00179.x, of course)! But we might here have a justifiable debate about two things, firstly how much of that influence was the work of Gregory of Tours rather than of his predecessors (and how much of it he subsequently attempted to mobilise under his control to secure his apparently initially shaky grasp on the town’s loyalty) and secondly about how it might have been transmitted to the Suevic kingdom. Mark is not wrong, I think, to wonder whether the Franks would be welcome south of the Pyrenees; but I then wonder, on a principle that has been used to explain the divisions in later Asturian politics mentioned in the post, whether the fact that the Merovingians were being a problem to the Visigoths might in fact have given the Merovingians and Sueves an interest in common. This was after all not far off the extinction of the Suevic kingdom, so any ally might have been helpful.

    • Thankyou also for references, Mark! Always much appreciated.

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