This piece of artwork is from a 14th-century manuscript of the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis that is housed in The British Library, where the text is labeled BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 50v. Shown in the painting is an event from the reign of King Guntram of Burgundy (r. 561-593). The king, depicted in the artwork with a crown on his head, was known as one of the more peaceable kings involved in the bloody politics of the 6th-century Franks, yet this particular incident was a blemish on his generally-benevolent reign.
In the painting, King Guntram of Burgundy raises his sword in preparation to strike down two men. These unfortunate fellows were Guntio and Wiolich, the brothers of Guntram’s ex-wife, Marcatrude. Guntio and Wiolich were bitter that the king had cast aside their sister, who died not long after her dismissal from the palace. When King Guntram subsequently married another woman, Austrechild, she also became an object of hate for Guntio and Wiolich. Driven by their anger, the brothers apparently were much more vocal in their criticisms about the royal couple than was proper. Even worse, the children soon birthed by Austrechild were not spared from the hateful remarks of the brothers. Yet, it is rarely safe to provoke a king, especially in the Middle Ages, and King Guntram did not take their provocations lightly. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), a bishop and acquaintance of King Guntram, wrote of how the king retaliated against his former in-laws:
“King Guntram killed the two sons of Magnachar, who himself had died some time before. His excuse was that they [Guntio and Wiolich] had made hateful and abominable remarks about Queen Austrechild and her children. He seized their possessions and added them to the royal treasury. Later on Guntram lost his own two sons, who died of some sudden disease” (History of the Franks, V.17).
The last sentence of that quote leads us to the scene pictured on the right side of the painting—the two children shown lying in bed. These sons of Guntram were Chlotar and Chlodomer, who both died of dysentery in 577. Bishop Gregory of Tours, the aforementioned author of the quote above, hinted in his writings of his belief that the deaths of King Guntram’s sons were divine punishment exacted for the wanton execution of Guntio and Wiolich. Perhaps King Guntram believed this, too, as Bishop Gregory claimed that the king once stated, “For my sins I have had the misfortune to be left childless” (History of the Franks, V.17). This sentiment seems to be re-created in the illustration featured above, for when King Guntram strikes down toward Guntio and Wiolich, he also strikes down at his young sons.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.