This illustration comes from a 14th-century manuscript of the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis that is housed in The British Museum, where the manuscript is labeled BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 64. Although the illustration was painted in the 14th century, the events that the artist re-recreated in this particular scene occurred in the 6th century. The gruesome acts depicted above were said to have occurred in the city of Paris during the reign of King Chilperic (r. 561-584) and Queen Fredegund (d. 597). As can be guessed from the image, the story that inspired the art is not a pleasant tale.
All of the pain and bloodshed portrayed above reportedly was set in motion when the royal couple’s two-year-old son, Theuderic, died of dysentery in the year 584. It was a tragic, but natural, death due to disease. Fredegund and Chilperic, however, were driven by their despair and disbelief into thinking that foul play was involved. In particular, the royal couple allegedly came to believe that witches and sorcerers in Paris were responsible for the death of their son. Suspicion was especially focused on healers who had come to Paris to treat those suffering from disease. Bishop and historian, Gregory of Tours (c.539-594), wrote of the witch hunts that occurred because of these conspiracy theories: “Fredegund then had these poor wretches tortured in an even more inhumane way, cutting off the heads of some, burning others alive and breaking the bones of the rest on the wheel” (History of the Franks, VI.35). As for the man shown tied to the stake, being beaten, he appears to be Mummolus, a man accused by the royals of being a sorcerer. Gregory of Tours mentions this unfortunate fellow, writing, “Mummolus was extended on the rack and then flogged with treble thongs until the torturers were quite exhausted. After this splinters were driven beneath the nails of his fingers and toes” (History of the Franks, VI.35). The tortured man survived his ordeal in the short term, but reportedly never fully recovered from his wounds and ultimately succumbed to them. Finally, the scene on the far right side of the illustration, shows Fredegund destroying memorabilia that reminded her of her deceased son. On this Gregory of Tours wrote, “Any object in gold or silver was melted down in a furnace, so that nothing whatsoever remained intact to remind her of how she had mourned for her boy” (History of the Franks, VI.35).
Such, then, is the story told by the complicated illustration featured above. It shows accused witches being burned alive, the imprisonment and torture of other suspected individuals, such as Mummolus, and the melting down of any metallic items that made Fredegund think of young Theuderic. Unfortunately for Fredegund, it would not be the last traumatic experience of the year—King Chilperic would be assassinated only months later.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.