Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Very Merovingian Muddle.

Popular Nonsense.

A brief search of the word ‘Merovingian’ on the Internet will provide one with an amusing array of farcical nonsense, largely inspired by ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or ‘The Matrix’. Conspiracy theorists and neo-mystical spiritualists seem to love the Merovingians almost as much as the Celts. These kings of the Franks have suddenly become the descendants of the House of David, the lost bloodline of Christ, benefactors of the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Knights Templar, born of Atlantis, enemies of the papacy, and defenders of the common man. A truly astonishing feat. It’s almost unbelievable. Actually, no, it’s completely unbelievable.

Just the Facts.

The Merovingians are, more than likely, not the descendants of Christ, or any member of his family, friends, anyone who ever knew him personally, any of their friends, or probably anyone who was ever born in Israel. And by the phrase ‘more than likely’ I mean ‘almost incontrovertibly accepted by every serious scholar in the field, unless some new and previously unheard of fact comes to light (which, in fairness, could happen, however unlikely it may seem), and if anyone ever tells you otherwise, walk away slowly’.

Firstly, Atlantis? Really? Aren’t we over that? Wasn’t there a memo? If Bob Ballard hasn’t found it, no one will.

The majority of the fantasy circulating about the Merovingians appears to be due to their name. This great dynasty of the Franks was legendarily founded by a man named Merovech, hence Merovingian.  It has been proposed that the derivation of the name Merovech, or Merovius in Latin, means something like ‘from the sea’, which is clearly an invitation to suggest Atlantean origins. A more elaborate interpretation suggests it means ‘descended of the fish’, the fish being a symbol associated with Jesus. Very inventive. But that is all it is, invention. Since he would have been a Frank, his name would have been probably Frankish, not Latin, so the ‘mer-‘ part of his name may not mean ‘sea’ but ‘renown’ or ‘fame’. Some writers popularise the ‘sea’ aspect of the name to lend credence to their theories, but if they took a moment to check their sources they’d find evidence to the contrary. One of the earliest historians of the Merovingians, Gregory of Tours, writing in the 6th century, makes no mention of the fantastical origins of Merovech, beastly or messianic, which one would think would be something worthy of note. This little fabrication did not appear until much later in the 7th century, when the Merovingians were inventing a history to suit their political designs; it was to their benefit to be associated with the divine, it granted an other-worldly authority to their declining power. The earliest genealogies of the Merovingians include no gods, or their sons. The association with a pagan divinity appeared over two centuries after the death of Merovech, but we have to wait for over a millennium before the claim of Christ’s bloodline appears.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Wholly Crap.

The connection of the Merovingians to Christ appeared for the first time in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982, and gained popularity in 2003  (guess why), and is based on nothing other than the hypothesis of the authors that Merovech has some connection to ‘fish’, and the fish was an early symbol of Christ. Really. They just made it up. There is no reference in the annals of the Franks, the histories of the Franks, in the letters, documents, charters, or decrees of the Franks that their ruling dynasty was of the bloodline of the Messiah. Which you’d think would be something they’d trumpet from the rooftop of every palace and church, so they could install themselves as theocratic rulers of Christendom. Which they didn’t. Not one of them, for hundreds of years. So that theory sounds a bit fishy (see what I did there?). They also claim that the Merovingians were the enemies of the papacy, which is the villain of their tale, because the pope deposed them. Well, he didn’t. A man named Pippin, or Pepin, did. And he basically blackmailed the pope into agreeing with him.

The Merovingian Empire, and the dynasty that ruled it, was founded by a man, who was just a man. But not just any man, a man who was quite good at killing other men,Clovis and conquering places, a trait which many of his descendents inherited. This man was Clovis, since there is little evidence that Merovech existed. There is nothing mystical, magical, or messianic about the Merovingians. So if you ever meet anyone who says otherwise, just say “no, that is historical equivalent of a monkey flinging poo at you and pretending that it’s a sign of affection”.

On the Virtues of Beards.

Villainy or Liberty?

Today a bearded man is often the villain, a malevolent force in a Disney movie, a Machiavellian character in a TV show, the man quietly asked to step aside for a detailed search in an airport. Facial hair has become a relative oddity in most professions outside of education, and has almost become synonymous with a hedonistic student life, extreme religious ideologies, or fringe cultures in society. Yet this was not always the way…

The Mark of a Man.

The Ancient Egyptian elite wove gold into their beards, the Mesopotamians and Persians admired well-groomed facial hair, for the Indians it was a sign of wisdom, and for the Greeks it was a sign of virility and was almost sacrosanct. Alexander the Great demanded that his soldiers cut their facial hair as their opponents frequently seized it to better kill them. And even though Aristotle adopted this new fashion, a bearded man was generally accepted as being a philosopher. The Romans really enjoyed shaving, having little or no hair on their body, except for a neat haircut. For them beards became either a symbol of achieving manhood, mourning, or squalor. The Romans may have seen the beard as barbaric, since they were the rulers of the ‘civilised’ world, and many of their enemies wore beards, and grew their hair long.

The Long-haired Kings.

The so-called ‘Barbarian’ kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire were often ruled by dynasties which embrace facial hair. The Ostrogoths and Visigoths, which dominated Italy and Spain respectively, enjoyed long hair and moustaches. The Frankish royal family, the Merovingians, were commonly refered to as ‘the long-haired kings’. They even had strict rules about how long a man could wear his hair and beard depending on his social status. Indeed if a rebellious lord was captured, he was not killed, but made to shave his face and scalp, and cast into a monastery. Often such rebels would reappear several years later at the head of a new army, but only once their hair had grown back. The Carolingians maintained this hairy fashion, but their successors, the Capetians, had abandoned facial hair by the 12th century, and, with only a few exceptions, beards and moustaches were no longer grown by the monarchs of France. The Holy Roman Emperors also abandoned beards in the 12th century, by they were revived briefly in the 16th, but again went out of fashion. The rulers of the various Spanish kingdoms often wore beards, almost as often as they didn’t. In England, the Anglo-Saxons had a proud tradition of hairiness, which became a symbol of defiance when the short-haired Normans conquered the country, as it did in Scotland and Ireland. Even during the English Civil War, the shaven were godly puritan Parliamentarians, know as the Roundheads for their short hair, though they soon began to grow their hair long in defiance of the rulings of the Church of England. Peter the Great of Russia even tried to force the men of his empire, who have had an ancient and flamboyant love affair with facial hair, to become clean-shaven as a mark of civilisation, though many maintained a beard or moustache in defiance.

Catholicism and the Beard.

Why, you might wonder, was there a hiatus of facial hair between the 12th and 16th centuries, possibly the most religious period of European history? It may have been due to the fact that the Church began to threaten their wearers of beards with excommunication. Anselm of Canterbury encouraged the preaching of clean-shaveness and short hair throughout England, even though the king was fond of long curly hair, and punished Canterbury after the death of Anselm by allowing the see to remain vacant for several years. When the bearded Richard the Lionheart returned from the Crusades, he found his kingdom clean-shaven due to the influence of the clergy, which had filled the void of authority due to his absence. This clerical disgust of the beard is made deeply ironic by the fact that Jesus and his apostles are more often than not portrayed as being long of hair and beard, and that many popes followed this tradition.

The Modern Beard.

The beard appears to be fashionable, but not in fashion, in this era. The Presidents of the USA often wore beards, though none have done so since 1913. The beard vanished after 1914 due to the popularity of the clean-cut military look, a style which dominated the media of the English-speaking world until the 1960’s and the rise of counter-culture. This disdain for militarism brought on by the Vietnam War encouraged rebellion and civil disobedience, one aspect of which was a revival of long hair and beards. This trend has been maintained by students, musician, actors, and such, but the beard has yet to make a popular return to the Western world, probably due to its association with explosive anti-Western extremism.

The wearing of facial hair has become correspondent to immorality, and the clean-shaven has become the paradigm of virtue. In the past, facial hair has been a symbol of impiety, wisdom, defiance, and liberty, and as such it is to be embraced.

One cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion – G.K. Chesterton.