Topic of Family Relations in the Correspondence of the Austrasian Court and Representatives of the Byzantine Empire
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Topic of Family Relations in the Correspondence of the Austrasian Court and Representatives of the Byzantine Empire
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Yulia Vershinina 
Affiliation: Lobachevsky University
Address: Russian Federation, Nizhny Novgorod

The period of the Merovingian rule in Francia (late V — middle VIII centuries) was marked by the production of a significant number of written sources of various genres. The letters that came to us from this period (more than 600), for a long time have been used as a source of information, primarily on the political history of the early Middle Ages. The purpose of this paper is to prove that letters can and should also be considered as an important source for studying the perception of kinship in the early Middle Ages. For this, we will deal with only a small part of the epistolary works related to the period under consideration — the letters of the dowager queen of Austrasia Brunhilda and her son king Childebert II, sent by them to the wife and son of the Byzantine Emperor Mauritius I, Patriarch John IV of Constantinople and the Visigothic prince Athanagild with missions to Byzantium in 580—590, which could be found in the collection known as “Austrasian Letters”. The letters in question were related to the so-called “Athanagild episode”. The Visigoth prince Athanagild was the grandson of queen Brunhilda, the son of her eldest daughter Ingunde. He was captured by the Byzantines during his father’s unsuccessful revolt against his grandfather Leovigild. Traditionally, these letters were analyzed either as a description of the true feelings of the grandmother and uncle to their grandson and nephew, or as a means of political manipulation. In our opinion, they should be studied with the reference to the perception of norms of family relations existed among their potential audience. If we assume that the “Austrasian Letters” were a collection of samples of epistolary works or a “textbook”, it can be argued that the images of family relations transmitted by them should not have caused mistrust or rejection in their readers, as E. Gillett insists. After all, if these letters had reflected relationships atypical or unacceptable for the community, it is most unlikely then that their inclusion in the “textbook” would have made any sense. Had they been unusual after all, then, they were perceived as a positive deviation from the norm, but not as something unthinkable or like some negative deviation. This assumption is even more true if we take into account the thesis of E. Thomas about the use of “Austrasian Letters” as a tool for defending queen Brunhilda’s the interests. It is clear that the dowager queen of Austrasia (or her followers) relied on a perception of kinship shared by at least the intended audience of the “Austrasian Letters” (the upper part of the Frankish aristocracy and episcopate) in creating the image of a woman unquestionably loyal to her family. In other words, in order to improve the potentially negative opinion about Brunhilda prevailing in the upper circles of Frankish society, the behavior and feelings expressed by the dowager queen of Austrasia and her son towards their grandson and nephew had to look positive and provoke a positive response from the readers of the letters. Thus, an attempt to return Athanagild from Byzantium captivity could have be perceived by the contemporaries not as something unusual, but as behavior well corresponding to the idea of the relationship of kins that existed in the period under consideration, at least among the aristocracy. Brunhilda’s feelings for her grandson, which she expressed in her letters, could be perceived not as something exaggerated and artificial, but as a natural experience of a grandmother separated from her grandson. The Childebert’s II reticence, which he demonstrated in his letters, may also be a tributed to existing notions of acceptable behavior. Most likely, we will never be able to answer the question of whether Brunhilda really loved her grandson, whether the queen and her son sincerely hopped to secure Atanagilda’s reunion with the family, or they only exploited this situation to pursue their political goals. However, when analyzing early medieval sources, it is important to take into account the perception of kinship, and compare the data with the material of other narratives. After all we cannot be sure even that Brunhilda and Childebert’s II letters concerning the “Athanagild episode” reached their recipients, or that the content of these letters corresponded to what we have. We do not know the role of Brunhilda herself and her son in the drafting these letters. But we can argue that the content of the letters certainly did not contradict the audience’s perception of kinship relations. At least, if not with the Byzantine courtiers, then with the Frankish aristocracy for which the “Austrasian Letters” were intended. Otherwise, they simply would not have been included in the collection of examples of the epistolary genre, and even more so, they could not have been used, as E. Thomas suggests, as a part of the policy of consciously shaping queen Brunhilda’s positive image by her faithful followers.

Epistolae Austrasicae, kinship, relatives, feelings, emotions, Gaul, Byzantium, early Middle Ages
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