Writing about the Merovingians in the Early United States

Q. Can you summarize what your book is about? What are its findings?

The book is a study of Early American impressions, retellings, and appropriations of Merovingian history between 1776 and 1860. It explores both how American readers and writers were able access information regarding early medieval history and historiography, as well as the myriad (and surprising) uses to which they put this knowledge. 

Q. What is the main argument presented in your book?

A. The book’s main premise is that the uses and abuses of Merovingian history by early Americans is indicative of a less linear, and more diverse and transnational, historiography than traditionally has been recognized. As easy as it is to dismiss early American engagement with Merovingian history and historiography as ill-informed, frequently derivative, and hopelessly parochial, arguably it is the semi-detachment of this engagement from “mainstream” European scholarship that allowed early Americans to identify those facets and themes of Merovingian history of the greatest relevance to themselves and their young nation.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?

A. The project originated with a somewhat impromptu search of an online database of historical newspapers. I recently had read Ian Wood’s groundbreaking study of modern scholarly engagement with the early medieval past, and I was curious as to whether eighteenth and early nineteenth century European interest in – and debates over – the founding of the Frankish kingdom in Gaul had any contemporary resonance on the other side of the Atlantic. So, I typed in a few initial search terms such as “Clovis,” “Merovingians,” and “Franks,” and was shocked by the sheer quantity of results that emerged. As I began to read through the results of this and subsequent searches of early American references to the Merovingians, it became increasingly clear to me that American writers and editors, like their European counterparts, recognized a contemporary relevance in Frankish history, although they were by no means in agreement as to what this relevance was. So, I quickly decided that I needed to explore this previously-neglected corner of historiography further.

Q. What was the most surprising or exciting thing that you discovered during your research?

A. It is very difficult to choose only one example, as the Merovingians appeared within contexts that I never could have imagined, from poetic responses to the French Revolution published in local newspapers, to eschatological prophesies, to American tours of European comic operas. As much as educated early Americans looked to classical antiquity as a model, they certainly were not unaware of the history of the period that followed.

Q. What impact do you hope that this book will have?

A. At the very least, I hope that readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the sheer diversity of ways in which Merovingian history specifically was both interpreted and appropriated by late eighteenth and early nineteenth century writers. More broadly, however, I hope that readers – particularly those more familiar with early American than medieval European history – will take away from this case study an appreciation for the ways in which the Early Middle Ages served as a common frame of reference in conversations about politics, race, and religion occurring centuries later and a continent away.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. As of this moment, I have retreated – at least temporarily – back into the early medieval period itself, and resumed my ongoing studies of Merovingian-era bishops and their councils, as well as the treatment of Jews in Christian texts. However, I would love at some point to return to my historiographical research, specifically to trace American engagement with early medieval history up through the early twentieth century.

The book is now available! Find your copy here!

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