A weekly history podcast that will cover France from 3 million years ago to present. Presented by Gary Girod, with contributions by numerous scholars.
A weekly history podcast that will cover France from 3 million years ago to present. Presented by Gary Girod, with contributions by numerous scholars.
36 – The Medieval Transformation Part 1: Cults, Miracles and Saints
Hello everyone. Quick reminder my debut novel The Maiden Voyage of New York City is out through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. If you are looking for a character-driven, speculative science-fiction story, please check it out and support yours truly.
Second, the Intelligent Speech Conference is happening this June 27th. I and other top podcasters will be giving talks and hosting panels on hidden figures throughout history. For $10 you can get a virtual ticket and watch the hosts of the History of Ancient Greece, Wittenberg to Westphalia and myself present in our fields. There’s an incredible lineup that you don’t want to miss so check out Intelligent Speech Conference 2020.
Today’s episode will be the first in a series examining the transformation of society from Antiquity to the early medieval period. The Gallo-Romans left behind a number of traditions that continued or were copied by the Franks, but the fall of the Roman Empire and the triumph of Francia led to major changes which had a ripple effect that transformed all of society to one degree or another.
The two most immediate and large-scale differences between antiquity and the medieval period were the composition of the army and the organizational division of society. First, the Roman Empire had a professional army. Even at its lowest point, Rome maintained a professional military that was paid through taxation and could be sent anywhere within the empire and even beyond its borders. The barbarian kingdoms could not reliably raise the funds required to sustain professional armies due to their poor organization, and lack of records; itself caused by their own illiteracy. Instead, Frankish armies were assembled on the spot when a lord ordered the local healthy, adult males to assemble into their militias. These local forces usually refused to march too far beyond their hometowns since they had crops to harvest and families to care for. Because of this, medieval society was much smaller in scope, as everyone but the elites lived, fought and died within 50 miles of where they were born.
These irregular armies weren’t paid through taxation but by plunder. As such, wars in the medieval period were always devastating. As you’ll recall, Roman wars were often brutal, but the worst Roman atrocities were committed against non-Romans; in medieval society Frankish cities regularly plundered their neighbors as was the case with Orléans attacking Blois, while Châteaudun fought Chartres.
Every healthy, adult male was expected to fight, and naturally everyone had weapons, even if it was just modified farm equipment like axes. This meant life was more brutal. Localities could fight against each other whenever one of the numerous Merovingian kings died, or when tensions between cities reached a boiling point. Likewise, murder became much more common.
The second major difference between antiquity and the medieval period was the division of society. The Roman Empire was divided between civilian and military spheres. The barbarian kingdoms were divided between the secular and religious. The political leaders of Francia were the Merovingian kings, who issued laws, administered justice, defended the realm and collected and distributed taxes. Beneath them were the duces, with individuals having the title dux; these were the precursors to ‘dukes.’ Each dux ruled over a region and beneath him were the comes. ‘Comes’ has often been translated as ‘count,’ and while they occupied a similar space in the secular hierarchy beneath duces, comes had very different roles from counts and usually heard lawsuits. Kings and duces commanded the loyalty of leudes, the only professional fighters in Francia, who were sworn to their lords. The leudes were the precursors to knights. Nearly everyone outside of the political hierarchy was a peasant or lowly merchant and were the subjects of
35 – The Last Saints of Gaul
Episode 35: The Last Saints of Gaul
A few quick announcements before we get started. First, I did a 90-minute-long episode with History’s Most about what caused the French Revolution. It is a fascinating conversation wherein we talked about the many possible causes of one of the world’s most important political and social upheavals. So go check it out at History’s Most Podcast.
Second, my debut novel is now officially out! The Maiden Voyage of New York City is a near-future sci-fi epic about New York in a flooded world, through the perspective of six different characters as they navigate the floating metropolis and uncover a dangerous plot that could send the city crashing into the ocean. If that sounds interesting to you check it out on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or whichever site you use to buy your books.
Third, I will be participating in the Intelligent Speech Conference 2020, June 27th. This will be an online conference of top history podcasters, such as the hosts of The History of Ancient Greece Podcast, The History of Byzantium, Wittenberg to Westphalia and many more. Viewers who purchase a $10 virtual ticket will be able to tune in to their favorite podcasters and participate directly in conversations with us. For more information, check out their website. I hope to see you there as it will be a blast. Now, on with the show.
Today’s episode examines the last Gallic saints from the late fourth century into the early sixth century. The proliferation of saints was important as they converted the population to Catholic Christianity. Moreover, after their death these saints gave spiritual power to the churches and abbeys they founded, the relics they left behind, and the bishops who took up their positions. Just as the Romans developed an identity of themselves from the foundational myth of Romulus and Remus these saints’ stories shaped the identity of the people of Gaul and Francia as the Roman Empire collapsed. Thus, these saints served many purposes in life and in death. They provided new foundational myths which their followers used to create identity and community. Their legends provided spiritual authority to localities as pilgrims flocked to their shrines and visited their relics. They also set a precedent for future Catholic leaders.
There are quite a few problems the historian faces when researching saints from this time period. First, these records are almost always written by Christian chroniclers, who had a vested interest in making these people seem, well, saintly. Second, many of these records come from second-hand accounts, relayed through letters that are now lost, though, this isn’t always the case, and in fact most of our knowledge of Avitus of Vienne comes from his own writing.
Third, since the chroniclers were medieval-era Christians they embellished the texts with supernatural stories. Now, I’m not saying these stories aren’t necessarily true, but that we don’t know the exact context these take place in, nor do we know what is metaphorical and what is literal. An example of this would be the story of Saint Denis. As you’ll recall, Saint Denis supposedly had his head cut off, then picked up his own head and preached the gospel for days. It’s possible that the original writer did mean that this literally happened. Or, the writer could have been using a metaphor, that even after his death his words lived on. Often when we read these fantastical stories from medieval chroniclers we interpret them as fairy-tales and nonsense because, well, they aren’t exactly the sort of thing you see in everyday life. Yet, what we must understand is that the Christian chronicles were simultaneously both historians and proselytizers of the Christian faith and thus their work is a blending of both. Thus, when we read these stories we need to keep in mind that we have to read them in multiple ways,
34 – Gaul No More
The Western Roman Empire falls. Gaul is no more, & three kingdoms vie to replace it. Antiquity ends & Clovis turns the land into the first great medieval kingdom: Francia.
Hello everyone, before we begin I want to make a quick announcement. First of all, life has been hard with the quarantine and having to conduct my teaching duties online, but I have been working even harder! I aim to be back to my schedule of a main series episode every other week.
Second, I have a book coming out May 15th called ‘The Maiden Voyage of New York City.’ After publishing short stories for ten years this will be my debut novel. The Maiden Voyage of New York City is a science-fiction story that takes place in, where else, New York, after the glaciers have melted and the world has flooded over. The city becomes a ‘Venice with skyscrapers’ and a new world wonder as its giant towers float on platforms. Yet a conspiracy threatens to send it crashing into the ocean to join the mythical Atlantis.
The story follows six main characters, including the world’s most famous gonzo journalist, who exposes New York’s dangerous underworld. A mayor whose political ambitions ascend with her city. A Boroughs cop struggling with her own mental illness and her uncertainty in her partner, who looks to escape the rough city before it claims him. A young fugitive framed for a murder he didn’t commit. A brilliant scientist who invents a motor that allows the skyscrapers to sail along the coast.
You can order it through Barnes and Noble’s website, and I will include links across social media and on our page. It’s $15.99 for a physical copy and only $3.99 for a digital copy. So if you need something to read while you are in quarantine and want to support my dream by purchasing a copy and giving it a positive review, assuming you like it, I would appreciate more than you could ever imagine. If I can make money through my fiction to cover my expenses it will free me up to do more podcasting, so it helps me and the show. So, if this sounds like something you would enjoy, please check it out.
Episode 34: Gaul No More
This episode marks the end of an era that lasted 525 years & which took us 17 episodes to cover, including this one. We are finally drawing the curtains over Roman Gaul, as Western Rome and its rump states collapse, and the Franks under Clovis I conquer nearly all this land and transform it into the Kingdom of Francia. Our journey through Roman Gaul and the era of antiquity was incredible, but today we will lay them to rest and move on to Francia and the medieval period.
Attila’s invasion of Gaul in 451 and Italy in 452 sent shockwaves through the West, as the Visigoths and Romans struggled to maintain their holdings in Gaul. But as unsettling as these foreign invasions were, internal political scheming made the situation even worse. In 453 Visigothic King Thorismund was assassinated and replaced by his brother Theodoric II. This fratricide almost certainly weakened Visigothic cohesion and Theodoric II was far less effective a leader than his namesake. Meanwhile in 454 in Rome, Emperor Valentinian III personally murdered his general Aetius after decades of disagreements. The following year, he was assassinated in turn by Aetius’ loyalists. This chaos gave the Vandals in North Africa the opportunity to sail up and sack Rome in 455 and while there they killed the new emperor.
The sack of Rome showed the world that the Western Roman Empire was barely an empire anymore. It had lost much of its eastern holdings to Ostrogoths, the Vandals took North Africa, the Visigoths increasingly took Hispania, and Gaul was divided among numerous kingdoms. All that remained outside of Italy were the center and southern Gaul and patches of Hispania. Barbarian invaders surrounded the Western Romans on all sides, and could even
33 – The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains
The Scourge of God descends upon Gaul. Aetius must rally what remains of Western Rome and unite with his nemesis Theodoric of the Visigoths. Together, they will fight Western Rome’s last great battle against Attila and his Huns.
When I started this podcast in January 2019 I decided that I wanted to tell the whole story of France. Rather than just telling a political history of the French state, or focus on French culture, I wanted to tell the history of France. To me France is a powerful word that encompasses the French people, language, culture, government, origins and influence abroad. While I’ve focused on the Hexagon, I’ve always been willing to look at events abroad, because the history of a country and a people cannot be told without their connection to the broader world, something which we have to do in order to understand the significance and context of The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.
Historians from the 19th century and before described this battle as one of the most important battles of all time, as civilized Christians beat back the barbarian hordes. While this is quite the overstatement, symbolically, this battle was hugely important as a culmination of enormous historical developments that ended an entire era across Eurasia. If you remember my talk about historical theory in episode 10 where I discussed catalysts versus longue durée, this battle was a catalyst for the transformation of Gaul into Francia, but it only came about because of long-term changes. From the mid-2nd century to the late 3rd century the Eastern hemisphere underwent one of the greatest transformations in its history, as a global pandemic shifted the balance of power from sedentary peoples to nomadic Central Asian warriors. Most of this episode will be about events in Gaul, but if you’ll indulge me, let’s go down the rabbit hole together.
Around 10,000 BCE humans first developed agriculture. While this might seem like a natural and innocuous transition, this early scientific discovery led to global conflict between those who wanted to settle in one location, versus the nomads, who migrated with their flocks and hunted game. For millennia the nomads dominated since they could easily escape danger or raid settled peoples. Numerous civilizations across Eurasia developed and went extinct, including the monument builders of western France around 5,500 BCE to 4,500 BCE that we talked about in Episode 3. Around 3,000 BCE the first settled civilizations emerged that continued on in some form or another to this day, in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Civilization, the process in which a people settle in one location and develop cities, began to take root across Eurasia, particularly along a longitudinal line favorable to agriculture that stretched from Northern Africa and Hispania in the West to China in the East.
The flowering of civilization meant the end of the Neolithic period and the beginning of Antiquity. Nomads still existed in Eurasia and Northern Africa, but by the 3rd century BCE they were heavily outnumbered by civilized people because the latter had reliable food sources. Moreover, sedentary peoples developed writing and numerous technological advancements at a faster pace than the nomads. Civilized people called nomads ‘uncivilized’ because they didn’t live in cities, but despite the evolution of that term to mean ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant,’ nomads were neither. Nomads often came into contact with civilized people and learned from them, while developing their own innovations, albeit at a slower pace due to their lack of writing. But the world was changing and civilization was winning.
By the 1st century CE, Augustus ordered the invasion of Germania, Persia solidified its hold on the eastern frontiers so it could control the Silk Road, and Han China was beating the nomadic Xiongnu (匈奴) to their north. The civilized
32 – Barbaria
Gaul is a battleground & Rome is on the retreat. The Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks vie for supremacy while Gauls are trapped in between them…yet maybe ‘Barbaria’ isn’t as bad as it seems.
By the year 418 many Romans feared that Romania had been replaced by Barbaria. On the one hand, the Romans were right that central state authority had broken down across the near-entirety of Gaul. The emperor and Senate only directly controlled the southern coast. The middle-west third of Gaul became an autonomous part of Rome known as the Seven Provinces. The remaining two-thirds of Gaul was under the control of the Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks, with Armorica breaking off to form its own state.
As Gaul nears its post-Roman phase it is time to examine who these peoples and states were, and the long-term cultural and political impact they will have upon Francia, and eventually France. I think the simplest way to do this is to start this tour with the least impactful to the most impactful.
The least impactful group in the long-term were almost certainly the Visigoths. The Visigoths were a confederation of Germanic peoples who had lived in Eastern Europe before they were pushed westward by the Huns and Alans. The Visigoths raided the Western Roman Empire in their search for a stable food supply, and many of them eventually settled in southwestern Gaul and northern Hispania in 418 under King Wallia. When Wallia died the next year, King Theodoric I took control of the Visigoths and became an incredibly important figure, who I will talk about more in this and the next episode. During the 5th century the Visigoths had an enormous impact on the political and military situation. But by 508 the Visigothic Kingdom was almost entirely swallowed up by the emergent Francia, and most Visigoths submitted to their new rulers or fled into Hispania.
Culturally, the Visigoths left almost no impact on France. According to C.E.V. Nixon despite inhabiting southern Gaul for nearly a century there is almost no archeological or cultural artifacts remaining for three main reasons. First, the Visigoths adapted to Gallo-Roman culture. The Visigothic people had been wandering, raiding and pillaging for a century, making them very strong warriors but they weren’t very literate, couldn’t construct complex buildings and largely lacked the skills of sedentary people.
The second reason is that when the Visigoths arrived in southern Gaul they allowed the local Gauls to continue their businesses as usual…so long as they got a cut of the profit and grain. While this might sound like a raw deal for the Gallo-Romans, you might be surprised to hear that it was probably better than living under Roman rule. In fact, a number of Romans actually fled Western Rome to the Visigothic Kingdom for economic opportunity! Rome was taxing its people to the brink in order to fight off its numerous invaders so Romans under Visigothic control actually paid less in taxes to their barbarian overlords than they would have to their fellow Romans. As such, life continued as usual under the Visigoths, who encouraged and copied their Gallo-Roman counterparts.
The third reason why the Visigoths left so little cultural impact is because the Gauls despised the Goths who they viewed as uncultured. The Visigoths were relative newcomers, unlike say, the Franks, who the Romans were well-acquainted with. While the Franks had adopted many Gallo-Roman habits and in turn influenced them, the Visigoths were still adjusting to their new sedentary lifestyle. Moreover, the Visigoths under Alaric I were responsible for sacking Rome in 410 and for many Roman citizens the Goths embodied the worst of the barbaric tendencies.
For all these reasons the Romans abhorred Gothic culture, while the Visigoths adapted to Roman culture, law and state bureaucracy. This Visigothic Kingdom even adopted the The
31 – The Long War: Rome and Francia
The Huns march westward, pushing uncountable numbers of Germans towards Rome. The Romanized Franks have to defend Gaul while the empire crumbles. But the more successful the Franks are the more they realize Rome needs them more than they need it.
I know, I know, It’s been a little longer than I intended, I know. But thankfully, much of this is due to a lot of positive things happening, and good news for the podcast as well.
Those who follow me personally know I’m not just a historian but a writer as well. My debut novel “The Maiden Voyage of New York City” is coming out this May 15th and I have been working to promote that. It is currently up on Barnes and Noble’s website if you want to check it out; every purchase helps this podcast since it gives me a source of income, and it’ll help me achieve my dream!
Otherwise I was a guest on Radio France Internationale where I talked about the Sakai Incident, in which French sailors were attacked by samurai in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration. I was a guest on History’s What If podcast where we talked about what would have happened if the monarchy reestablished themselves in 1792. And I am set to be a guest on History’s Most probably in April. I was scheduled to give a talk about podcasting with the University of Houston Center for Public History, although the Coronavirus has delayed that.
So some final good news; I can promise a main series episode every other week starting in June since this is the last semester I will be TAing at the University of Houston. I love teaching and going the extra mile for my students, but over the past few years the federal government and the state of Texas have repeatedly cut education funding; when I entered UH in 2015 I had 75-100 students to teach; today I have 150 and two of my colleagues have 300 without any additional resources and the smallest of pay increases. It is becoming impossible to adequately do the job, and since the podcast and my writing career are taking off, I figured I would give this a try.
Between now and June I am going to try to put out a regular series episode every 2 weeks as normal, though my other obligations and the chaos caused by the Coronavirus might force me to scale it back a bit. I do apologize; anyone who has followed this podcast for any length of time knows I am an absolute workhorse. I have been on a pretty good streak putting out episodes on a weekly basis when I can get guests and offering transcripts and sources for all episodes. Believe me, this episode hasn’t taken an extra long time because I was twiddling my thumbs.
Thank you very much to everyone who has been patient. Special thanks to my patrons for making this possible; John, Karen, Jeffrey, Yonatan, Brad, Mark, Haley, Mehmet, Ryan, Kevin, Elizabeth, Michelle, Steven, Michel, Eric, Jeremy, Kyri, Demetrio, Kathleen, Eric R., Amanda, Rani, Reflect, Eliza and Bengt-Ake. And Phillip for the repeat donations. Thank you all so much for supporting me. Now, on with the show.
Today we’re going to move from the early 4th century into the early 5th century, from the end of Constantine’s reign to the devolution of Roman authority in Gaul. From Constantine’s death to the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Franks and Romans were involved in a long process where the former replaced the latter, as a people and as leaders, as Gaul transformed into the new Francia. This process was often violent, as Franks across the Rhine invaded Gaul every time Rome fell into civil wars. But the Franks were more often allies of the Romans against the Alemanni, Vandals, Saxons and later the Huns. They earned their place within Gallic society and the military, but corruption and incompetence from the Emperors frustrated the Franks. Rome was decrepit and decaying, while the Franks were strong, growing and capable. During the 4th century the Franks simultaneou
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Direct and detailed. Thank you
I thoroughly enjoy this podcast. It’s exactly the scope I was looking for that includes sociology with political history. I like that he identifies the inflection points that result in significant culture changes. It’s a rich story that he tells.
For example, I would have never read Caesars Gallic Wars. Gary walks through Caesar’s account in detail, with the necessary fact checks, and even pronounces Vergincentorix for me!
I would like to hear more about the daily life of the everyday person. For example, what is lost and what is gained by the average Jean-Luke as the Roman influence wains and the new political order takes hold.
But what sets this podcast apart are the interviews that punctuate the narrative with vivid color. Everyone should have a Dr. Taylor Marrow in their life.
These podcasts are the new history textbooks. Imagine if your teacher assigned an episode for home work each night then discussed all the details in class. It’s a powerful way to learn.
Chip in $5 every month. It’s worth it. I throw in $10.
Thank you for the hard work.
One of my favorite podcasts
Gary does a great job of connecting France’s history to that of the rest of the world and shows how interconnected everything truly is. I am always looking forward to more content!
Steps into the void
Enjoy the podcast. Historian driven. Steps into the void of French history podcasts admirably.