Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.09

Bonnie Effros, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2003.  Pp. 272.  ISBN 0-520-23244-5.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew M. Reeve, Art, Queen's University (
Word count: 1351 words

The past decade has seen the publication of a number of important studies dealing with the archaeology, religion and culture of death during the Middle Ages, with a particular focus on the archaeological evidence from the Early Middle Ages.1 Bonnie Effros's new book, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages is a welcome and complementary addition to this wave of literature. Unlike many of these studies, which deal specifically with either the archaeology of individual sites or interpretations of medieval burial practice on the basis of gender, ethnicity or chronology, this study is a critical survey of the history and historiography of Merovingian mortuary archaeology. In the author's own words, this book is "a discussion of the ways in which changing scholarly interpretations over the past 3 centuries have shaped our vision of the early medieval past", and it "explores some of the common pitfalls of the collaborative use of historical descriptions and archaeological evidence [to] illustrate some of the consequences of borrowing uncritically across disciplines in the study of Merovingian mortuary practices". Amidst a field of focussed studies, Effros's work is a commendable attempt to fill a gap in academic discourse which has been open since the publication of Edouard Salin's fundamental study in 1952.2 Although it cannot be discussed here in depth, the present book forms something of a pendant to another recent book by the same author, Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), which provides an account of the medieval written sources.

In the first two chapters, Effros begins with an overview of the key developments that shaped the conceptions and representations of Merovingian burials from the Middle Ages to the present. Chapter 1, "Antiquaries, Historians and Archaeologists", covers the Middle Ages through the late nineteenth-century. Following a discussion of the manipulation of Merovingian burials during the High and Later Middle ages at St Denis and elsewhere, Effros turns to the use of Merovingian remains in the seventeenth-century. Here the author focuses upon the 1653 discovery of the tomb of the monarch Childeric (f. 481), and the eventual publication of Jean-Jaques Chiflet's pioneering Anastasis Childerici I Francorum Regis sive thesaurus sepulchralis in 1655. Effros explores a fascinating political context for the use of Merovingian monarchs' remains, namely the way in which living monarchs connected their own dynasties with those of the Merovingian past, thus asserting for themselves an ancient pedigree, a practice elsewhere called "the invention of tradition". Connections of this sort had a varied history. The French Revolution confirmed the profound connection of ancient remains to the legacy of contemporary monarchs when ancient tombs were rifled and destroyed as symbols of the tyranny to which the French had been subjected. This context of historical and nationalistic reassessment bore the seeds of antiquarian interest to preserve and protect funerary remains in museums, where they became entombed as emblems of national history rather than emblems of royal auctoritas. This chapter concludes with a discussion of the origins of modern archaeological methods in the nineteenth century and their foundations in growing nationalism, the general lines of which have been sketched out elsewhere in recent studies of the history of archaeology and the history of the museum. In the second chapter Effros considers the legacy of antiquarian scholarship to mortuary archaeology in modern, "professional" assessments of Merovingian burials. Here she provides a compelling survey of the literature and methodologies of twentieth-century research, including a comprehensive overview of current concerns in the field, which are aptly summarised in her subheadings such as: 'Explaining the Evolution of Merovingian Burial Rites: A Process of Christianisation?', 'Economic and Legal Factors Affecting Mortuary Practice' and 'Gender, Age and the Distribution of Grave Goods'.

The third and fourth chapters turn from the historiography of the discipline to the interpretation of grave goods and the cemeterial topography of Merovingian graves. Through an analysis of the important cemeteries of Merovingian Gaul at Köln-Müngersdorf (Germany), Frénouville (Lower Normandy) and Lavoye (Meuse), Effros provides a critical examination of the various interpretations of grave goods, focussing particularly on the range of assumptions scholars bring to bear upon material evidence in the construction of Merovingian burial practices, and the elusive notion of "the social order". The fourth chapter considers the external features of Merovingian burial that played a role in shaping and expressing group identity, from burial in cemeteries to the gradual transition of exclusive burials within churches.

There is much to praise in this book. It is clearly and crisply written, and it takes account of an unusually wide range of literature on mortuary archaeology and on the history of archaeology as a discipline.3 By her own admission, Effros writes "as a historian, albeit one very familiar with the archaeological record". Despite the unusually broad field of literature surveyed in this book, it is comprehensively researched and fully footnoted throughout. Unlike many studies of early medieval archaeology, Effros's book is not impervious to the charms of theory. She makes good use of a variety of sources such as Arjun Appadurai's, The Social Life of Things, which add considerably to the intellectual depth of her project. Also, unlike related studies, this book is an enjoyable read, a characteristic all too often overlooked in scholarly reviews, and an aim too seldom sought by authors of archaeological monographs. Finally, the University of California Press has produced a handsome and reasonably priced volume with clear illustrations.

Although this book has a great deal to offer a wide readership, as a student of later medieval burial practice and commemoration I was somewhat disappointed with Effros's discussion in Chapter 1 of the practice of exhuming and displaying the corporeal remains and artefacts of ancient kings, founders and benefactors in churches during the High and Later Middle Ages. Effros rightly points out that early medieval graves were frequently plundered in an attempt to discover prestigious remains. These early archaeological investigations (not unlike some of their early-modern successors) were driven by an ideological premise: by exhuming and representing ancient remains, medieval institutions attempted to emphasize their own antiquity and prestige as the rightful places of burial of the venerable.4 While this tradition is acknowledged, there is little discussion of the retrospective monuments themselves, or their architectural and intellectual contexts.5 Although these issues have been discussed elsewhere in recent literature, they are a crucial part of the history of early medieval burials, and readers will rightly expect a fuller discussion.

A small but important problem with this book is its title, and particularly the adjoinder 'and the Making of the Early Middle Ages'. The all-embracing and seemingly trans-disciplinary nature of the title is not as well suited to the contents as it might be. This study is not a comprehensive account of the historiography of the early Middle Ages from the Merovingian period to the present; nor is it an account of the formation of the so-called Early Middle Ages. Despite the contemporary climate in which specialised studies in the humanities are frowned upon and are often 'broadened' to increase their scope and readership, Effros's title suggests wide-reaching claims that are not fully explored in the text. A further problem with the title is, as every medievalist will know, its clear reference to Sir Richard Southern's fundamental study of medieval religion, The Making of the Middle Ages.6 Readers will anticipate a critique of Southern's book (and indeed this would prove a most interesting exercise within the context of death and commemoration), but this is not attempted, and Southern's book is not even cited in the footnotes.

While this reviewer has some minor quibbles with the text, this should not and cannot detract from what Effros' study truly is, a fascinating and much needed account of the histories and methodologies of mortuary archaeology in early medieval Europe. With this in mind, a more appropriate title for this study might be Prolegomena to the Study of Early Medieval Mortuary Archaeology. As this suggests, this book is an excellent introduction to the field, and it should find a prominent place on the shelves of scholars and students alike.


1.   For recent reviews of the literature, see Tania M. Dickinson, "What's new in early Medieval burial archaeology?", Early Medieval Europe 11:1, 2002, 71-87 and C. Skull, "How the Dead Live: Some Current Approaches to the Mortuary Archaeology of England in the Fifth to Eighth Centuries AD", Archaeological Journal 157 (2001), 399-406. For a discussion of recent literature on high and later medieval tombs, see J.A. Holladay, "Tombs and Memory: Some Recent Books", Speculum 78 (2003), 440-450.
2.   Edouard Salin, La civilisation mérovingienne d'après les sépultures, les texts et le laboratoire, 2 vols. (Paris: Éditions A. et J. Picard), 1952.
3.   There are, however, some notable omissions, such as Alain Schnapp's general study on the history of archaeology, The Discovery of the Past, (London and New York: Harry Abrams), 1997, which deals extensively with burial archaeology.
4.   On retrospective effigies in general, see P.G. Lindley, "Retrospective Effigies, the Past, and Lies", Medieval Art and Architecture at Hereford Cathedral (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XV), ed. D. Whitehead, 1995, 111-121. Lindley's study fails to mention an important point: the thirteenth-century monuments were, in fact, replacements of supposedly eighth-century retrospective monuments, now known from a description by William of Malmesbury. For a translation of this passage, see William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Bishops of England (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum), trans. D. Priest, (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2002), 202.
5.   For a survey of burial and architecture (not cited by Effros), see H. Colvin, Architecture and the Afterlife (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). On the use and manipulation of the Merovingian past by ecclesiastics in the High Middle Ages, see for example, W.W. Clark, "'The Recollection of the Past is the Promise of the Future'. Continuity and Contextuality: Saint Denis, Merovingians, Capetians and Paris", Artistic Integration in Gothic Buildings, eds. V.C. Raguin, K. Brush, P. Draper (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 92-113, and ibid., "Defining national historical memory in Parisian architecture (1130-60)", Grégoire de Tours et l'espace gaulois, eds., N. Gauthier and H Galinié (Tours 1997), 341-58.
6.   R. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London, 1953), and subsequent eds.

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