Weber, Axel G.: Der Childebertring und andere frühmittelalterliche Siegelringe, Hamburg 2014, VII, 267 pages & 67 ills. in the text and numerous tables. ISBN 978-3-8300-7702-2

Some years ago, the existence of a golden signet ring from a private German collection became known; on the surface of its seal it shows a side profile of a male, bareheaded bust with long hair, holding a lance in his right hand and a shield in his left. The depiction is surrounded by the inscription +HILDEB/ERTIREGIS. Despite the unusual spelling of Childebert as Hildebert, there is no doubt that the image and writing on this ring refer to one of the four Merovingian kings of the same name.

At the beginning of the last century, the solid gold ring weighing 40.56g inexplicably ended up in a private collection, from which the current owner bought it several decades ago. The first owner had said that the ring came 'from the Metz region.'

The only known signet ring thus far which can be unequivocally attributed to a merovingian king is that belonging to Childeric, the king of the salian Franks, who, after his death in 482, was buried in Tournai, and whose tomb was rediscovered in 1653 when they were building a poorhouse. In 1831 the ring was stolen and the thieves melted it down with most of the other golden objects of the tomb inventory. Now, the above-mentioned signet ring with the inscription HILDEBERTI REGIS is the only remaining signet ring belonging to a merovingian king. Naturally, this statement assumes that its authenticity can be proven beyond doubt. To this end, the material was analyzed at the Curt-Engelhorn-Zentrum Archäometrie in Mannheim to ascertain the composition of trace elements and isotopes on a scale of micrometers. A process developed only a few years ago used to measure uranium/thorium-helium in a mass spectrometer gave a direct conclusion regarding the age of the ring. This method of investigation, which Professor Otto Eugster co-developed and applied at the Physikalische Institut of the Universität Bern, is a trailblazing innovation in ascertaining the age of a golden object. The process enables us to determine the point in time when the gold used to make the object was melted down. The investigation proved that the Hildebert ring cannot be a more recently made fake.

As part of this work, the question of the name starting with H is the object of a special, philological-onomastic investigation by Wolfgang Haubrichs, University of Saarbrücken, who is an expert in this special field. In his essay he documents the repeated and clearly definable use of H instead of the usual CH around the end of the sixth century in the eastern, austrasian writing area.

Ring-typological and iconographic comparisons, here with images of coins and rings from the second half of the seventh century, exclude the possibility that it could have been made in this late period, whereby the last two of the four kings with similar names, Childebertus adoptivus (656-662) and Childebert III (694-711), are irrelevant. As an affiliation with the first king to bear the name, Clovis I's son Childebert I of Paris, can fundamentally not be discounted, it seemed necessary to investigate the situation in the Church of St. Vincent too, the present-day Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Childebert had the church built, strongly supported it and was buried there after his death in 558. However, later on his tomb was transferred to another location within the church. Therefore, nothing could be found which links the church where the king was buried, the king's tomb and the signet ring. However, a finding sui generis is, going by the onomastic evidence, the reference to the eastern, austrasian part-kingdom with its capital Metz, and thus the original city given as the place where the ring was found, namely 'Metz', should not be disregarded as a clue even though it can no longer be verified today. These considerations lead the author to the conclusion that the Hildebert of the ring is Childebert II of Metz (King of Austrasia 575-596, King of Burgundy 592-596).

In an effort to identify concurrences with and differences from the now well-known Childebert ring, other early medieval signet rings were also taken into consideration. Here, the lombardic rings and lead seals, of which a number have been passed down only in the form of illustrations from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, constitute a closed group which is largely uniform in appearance. Looking at all the lombardic seals and signet rings known thus far, the old controversy of whether the king's seal is always visible in the pictures and the royal office bearer is named only in the inscription, or whether both form one unity, can be answered in favor of the latter, as several lead seals bear the title dux in addition to the name. A high socially ranking governing elite can be assumed to have a right to their own portrait.

In the following, two previously unknown signet rings from private ownership are introduced. One of them shows a cleric performing the orans gesture and with the name +LEVDOALDVS. Bishops of this name are known from the second half of the sixth century in Bayeux and Avranches, and it is possible that the ring is linked to one of them. The fact that only a person of very high social standing bears a golden signet ring supports the assumption that the Leudoaldus mentioned on the ring is one of the two bishops.

The other ring, which comes from Spain according to the collection inventory, shows a profile portrait with a diadem bearing the inscription TEVDILAD. We are probably supposed to interpret the D at the end of the east germanic male name Teudila as D(ominus). The owner of a gold signet ring who is referred to as dominus and who wears a diadem can only be a member of royalty, and thus we read of a figure called Teudila, son of the Visigoth King Sisebut (612-621), who was the first Visigoth prince who entered a monastery to become a monk. His name was passed down in a letter which his devout father wrote to him on this occasion.

Other signet rings dealt with in the study are those which for a long time were subject to well known and sometimes controversial interpretations. Thus numerous dates have been suggested for the ring of +GRAIFARIVS from the Valais, which is in the Landesmuseum in Zurich today, ranging from around 500 AD to the mid-seventh century. In terms of form and typology, it can be placed in the second half of the sixth century and thus would not conflict with Reinhold Kaiser's theory, which links Graifarius to Vaefarius dux and explains this with the sound shift from W to G which can be documented early on in Romance-language areas. Vaefarius exercised ducal power in pagus ultraiuranus, the region in which the ring was found; he is known to have died in 573. It follows that the profile portrait of a long-haired figure wearing a diadem has to be King Gunthram of Orléans, to whose part-kingdom the pagus had belonged since 561, thus he would be the one who dedicated the ring with the friendly honor utere felix to Graifarius/Vaefarius.

The ring of ARNEGVNDE is dealt with in detail. It was discovered in 1959 in sarcophagus 49 underneath the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris. According to the excavator Michel Fleury, the woman, buried with precious offerings, is Queen Arnegunde, one of the wives of Chlothar I (511-561) and mother of the heir to the throne, Chilperic I (561-584). He justified this claim with the ring's central monogram, which he deciphered as REGINE. According to this, the monogram decodes her title (Queen) and clearly shows her name in letters. Subsequently, this led to very different interpretations of the find, which were complicated even more by the sketchily documented excavation and the objects on the inventory list which went missing shortly after the discovery. It was not until 2003 that they were rediscovered in a remote location and underwent renewed investigation, especially the remains of the skeleton. The discrepancies in the dating of the offerings, the dates of the birth and death of Arnegunde and the reading of the monogram are considerable. In his study, A. Weber decodes the latter as AREGVND, a version of the name which Gregory of Tours also uses and incidentally he refers to examples of parallels between the monogram of a name and the name circling this in letters on rings of that period, as well as Adolf Gauert's conclusion that no title monograms are known hitherto in a merovingian context.

A signet ring dated at around the mid-seventh century has been linked to Sigibert III (633/34-656). This connection is based on the ring's image of the head of a long-haired man in profile, with the letters S and R on the left and right of it, which have been interpreted as S(igibertus) R(ex). Even though there is considerable evidence that the long hair could indeed refer to a Merovingian, there is no conclusive proof.

Neither can the last signet ring presented in the study be pinned down in historical terms. To be more precise, the piece is a double sided seal matrix of a gold signet ring which someone found using a metal detector in 1998 in the county of Norfolk in England. On one side it shows a man and a woman, presumably a couple, under a cross, while on the other side there is a long-haired head, with a cross above it and the letters BALDE/hILDIS in an anticlockwise direction. This name (Balthild in its romanized form) naturally calls to mind the wife of Clovis II (639-657). After Clovis' death, Balthild, who originally came from Britain, had considerable political influence as regent for the heir to the throne, who was still a minor. Even without the verifiable historical reference, the ring surface is a significant document of the iconography of seal portraits in the second half of the seventh century.

Finally, in a short digression, Weber sheds light on the social status of the goldsmith and the occurrence of gold in the merovingian kingdoms of the sixth century. Naturally, this is of particular interest for the fields of activity, working conditions and sales potential of this profession - just as for the goldsmith who made the king's signet ring.