In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Merovingian Period Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews: Art and Ethnicity
  • General Overviews: Art
  • Bibliographies and Journals
  • Image Databases

Art History Merovingian Period Art
Genevra Kornbluth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0095


Strictly understood, “Merovingian” refers to a ruling dynasty among the Franks, and some scholars use the term in this limited sense. But as the cohesiveness of various groups has been increasingly questioned over the past few decades, it has also come to have geographical import, referring to the many different cultures in central and western Europe from the mid-5th to the mid-8th centuries. Such cultures include people identified as Franks, Alamanni (Alemanni, Alemans), Burgundians, Goths, Visigoths, Lombards (Langobards), and others; terms used include the more generic “barbarians” and “Dark Ages” and, chronologically, the “Migration Period,” following and intersecting with Late Antiquity. The negative connotations of “barbarians” and “Dark Ages” reflect a common devaluation of Merovingian culture based on uncritical acceptance of Carolingian propaganda and the Renaissance paradigm. Most preserved art of this period comes from many thousands of burials. There are also large-scale survivals—sarcophagi and architectural sculpture—but outside Italy, little wall painting remains. Few objects have been studied by art historians, even among works long known, and excavators are constantly adding to the corpus. Most scholarship listed in this article is archaeological. The field is very ready for new art historical approaches. Potentially meaningful details of individual objects have been neglected in favor of the broad trends that interest archaeologists. Contemporary Anglo-Saxon art, though it has much in common with Merovingian art, is generally treated as a distinct field. Separation of the two areas is reinforced by language: Merovingian culture has been studied most often in the languages of the Continent, while Anglophone scholars have tended to look at the United Kingdom and Ireland. This article focuses on the territories of modern France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. It excludes Spain and Italy, the British Isles, Denmark, Scandinavia, and the large quantity of related material to the east, from Austria and Hungary to Russia. It also excludes architecture and epigraphy. (For architecture, see the Oxford Bibliographies in Art History article Early Medieval Architecture in Western Europe.) Because simply finding objects is difficult and time-consuming, it includes many catalogues and corpus publications. To focus on recent developments, it generally does not include material published prior to 1981, for which see Nees 1985, cited under Bibliographies and Journals.

General Overviews: Art and Ethnicity

Some scholars find the historical model of migration by coherent tribes, long the dominant paradigm for interpretation of Merovingian art, still useful (Brown 1995). Many others question it, describing instead a gradual development of distinctive self-identity among different groups (Geary 2001). Those historians are themselves divided over the levels and continuity of cohesion among different peoples, the dates when such solidarity was achieved, and the working of elites responsible for instigating and maintaining that sense of group identity (Gillett 2006). In the context of these debates, art historians must ask whether objects played a role in constructing group identity (Brather-Walter 2019; Halsall 2011; López Quiroga, et al. 2017; Martin 2014; Périn and Kazanski 2011), if so how, and if not, how we will conceptualize works hitherto classified as “Frankish” or “Visigothic.”

  • Brather-Walter, Susanne. “Bow-Brooches as Ethnic Indicators? A Myth of Early Medieval Archaeology.” In Archaeology, History and Biosciences: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 107. Edited by Susanne Brather-Walter, 85–99. Berlin: DeGruyter, 2019.

    Established typology and distribution models of brooches do not account for transitional types or small detail variations. Motifs, ornament, overall shape, and techniques of production can point in different directions. Changes can reflect widespread fashions, and size tends to increase over time.

  • Brown, Katharine Reynolds. Migration Art, A.D. 300–800. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.

    Short introduction using the migration paradigm.

  • Geary, Patrick J. “Barbarians and Ethnicity.” In Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World. Edited by Glen W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, 107–129. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.

    Formation of distinct groups (Alamanni, Franks) in response to Roman societies and policies. Argues that such groups were neither cohesive nor inherently stable.

  • Gillett, Andrew. “Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe.” History Compass 4.2 (2006): 241–260.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2006.00311.x

    Historiography and current debate over ethnogeny, the development of ethnic identities. Defines the Goths and others as “polyethnic assemblages, groups of variegated provenance fused by political and cultural means” (p. 244). Questions the applicability of classic ethnogenesis theory to the early medieval context.

  • Halsall, Guy. “Ethnicity and Early Medieval Cemeteries.” Arqueología y Territorio Medieval 18 (2011): 15–27.

    DOI: 10.17561/aytm.v18i0.1462

    Critique of the stance in Périn and Kazanski 2011, though responding to the publications of these authors in 2008/2009 focused on Spain.

  • López Quiroga, Jorge, Michel Kazanski and Vujadin Ivaniševic. Entangled Identities and Otherness in Late Antique and Early Medieval Europe: Historical, Archaeological and Bioarchaeological Approaches. BAR International Series 2852. Oxford: BAR, 2017.

    Proceedings of a conference held in Madrid, 2013. Includes continuation of the debate between Halsall and Périn/Kazanski: Guy Halsall, “Otherness and Indentity in the Merovingian Cemetery,” and Michel Kazanski and Patrick Périn, “Archéologie Funéraire et Ethnicité en Gaule à l’époque mérovingienne (Réponse à Guy Halsall).” Périn/Kazanski in French.

  • Martin, Max. “Ethnic Identities as Constructions of Archaeology (?): The Case of the Thuringi.” In The Baiuvarii and Thuringi: An Ethnographic Perspective. Paper delivered at a conference on “The Bajuvarii and Thuringi,” held 10–14 September 2004 in San Marino. Edited by Janine Fries-Knoblach, Heiko Steuer, and John Hines, 243–270. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2014.

    Connection between burial goods and ethnic identity, using the example of fibulae. Evaluates work of Ursula Koch, Gerard Jentgens, Frank Siegmund. Concludes that the basic forms of bow fibulae can indicate ethnic identity.

  • Périn, Patrick, and Michel Kazanski. “Identity and Ethnicity during the Era of Migrations and Barbarian Kingdoms in the Light of Archaeology in Gaul.” In Romans, Barbarians and the Transformation of the Roman World. Edited by Ralph Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer, 299–329. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

    Summary of ways that artifacts are integrated into discussions of ethnic identity. A rare publication in English by these major scholars.

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