The Franks


The Franks Essay, Research Paper

The last phase of the Western Roman Empire, the period of transition

between Romanity and the rise of a new medieval world, is marked by

successive incursions of Barbarians from the north. In particular, there were

the Goths (Visigoths and Ostrogoths), Alans, Suebi, Vandals, Huns, and the

Franks. Dominating present-day northern France, Belgium, and western

Germany, one of these groups, the Franks, established the most powerful

Christian kingdom of early medieval western Europe.

The origins of the Franks are obscure. They seemed to have

developed as a distinct people during the 1st or 3rd century A.D. as a result

of a fusion of many small Germanic tribes living along the east bank of the

lower Rhine River. While the tribes were linked by language and

institutions, they were not united politically(Malcolm 9) Two large groupings

of the Franks, the Salians and the Ripuarians, existed as early as the 3rd

century. Each of these was divided into many petty kingdoms rules by

warrior chiefs whose personal ability and success in war determined the

fortune of each kingdom( McNeill 75)

The turning point in the Franks history came with their movement

west of the Rhine into Roman Gaul.(Latouche 216) In the mid-3rd century

the Franks tried unsuccessfully to expand westward across the Rhine into

Roman-held Gaul. In the mid-4th century the Franks again attempted to

invade Gaul, and in 358 Rome was compelled to abandon the area between

the Meuse and Scheldt rivers(now in Belgium) to the Salian Franks. During

the course of these drawn-out struggles, the Franks were gradually

influenced by Roman civilization. Some Frankish leaders became Roman

allies in the defense of the Roman frontier, and many Franks served as

auxiliary soldiers in the Roman army.(Mcneill 76)

The Vandals launched a massive invasion of Gaul in 406, and in the

ensuing decades, the Franks took advantage of the overstrained Roman

defenses. They solidified their hold on what is now Belgium, took

permanent control of the lands immediately west of the middle Rhine River,

and edged into what is now northeastern France.(Cottingham 29) The firm

establishment of the Franks in northeastern Gaul by the year 480 meant that

both the former Roman province of Germania and part of the two former

Belgic provinces were lost to Roman rule. The small Gallo-Roman

population therefore became submerged among the German immigrants,

and Latin ceased to be the language of everyday speech.(McManus 46)

The extreme limit of Frankish settlement at this time is marked by the

linguistic frontier that still divides the Romance-speaking peoples of France

and southern Belgium from the Germanic-speaking peoples of northern

Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany.(McNeill 76)

Under the Salian king Clovis I, the power and extent of the Frankish

kingdom grew considerably. In 481-482, Clovis succeeded his father

Childeric, as the ruler of the Salian Franks of Tournai. In 486 Clovis

overthrew Syagrius, the last Roman governor in Gaul, and in the following

years, compelled the other Salian and Ripuarian tribes to submit to his

authority.(Cottingham 31) This marked the first time the Franks had stood

united. Clovis then took advantage of the depleted Roman defenses and

led the united Franks in a series of campaigns that brought all of northern

Gaul under his rule by 494. He stemmed the Alemannic migrations into

Gaul from east of the Rhine, and in 507 he drove southward, subduing the

Visigoths who had established themselves in southern Gaul. A unified

Frankish kingdom was thus established and secured. Clovis converted to

Catholicism, and the massive adoption of orthodox Christianity by the

Franks only helped to further unite them.(McNeill 77)

Clovis belonged to the Merovingian dynasty, so named for his

grandfather Merovich.(Latouche 215) After the death of Clovis, the kingdom

was divided among his four sons, and for the following century it went

through several divisions and reunifications until finally consolidated by

Clotaire II in 613. Shortly after his death, however, the kings ceased to

exercise any influence, and authority passed into the hands of the great

officers of the state, mostly notably, the mayor of the palace(major domus).

In the eastern part, Austrasia, however, a powerful family, the Carolingian,

arose which retained exclusive possession of the palace morality for more

than 100 years.(Winston 77) In 687 Pepin of Herstal, the Austrasian mayor

of the palace, overthrew the forces of Neustria(the western part) and

Bourgogne, setting himself up as major domus of a united Frankish

kingdom. His son, Charles Martel, extended the frontiers of the kingdom in

the east and in 732 repelled the Moors in a decisive battle fought at a site

between Tours and Poitiers. Frankish power attained great development

under Charles Martel s grandson, Charlemagne, who in his time was the

most powerful monarch of Europe. On December 25, 800, he was crowned

Carolus Augustus, emperor of the Romans, by Pop Leo III. Charlemagne s

imperial title was later borne by the Holy Roman emperors until the early

19th century. His Frankish lands developed into the kingdom of France,

which is named for the Franks.(Ibid)

The Carolingian decline after Charlemagne, followed the same pattern

as the Merovingians after Clovis. The same type of partition of lands

resulted in the area roughly equivalent to medieval France being assigned to

the Frankish emperor Charles II. He and his descendants held an

ever-weakening grip over the kingdom against invading Vikings and

predatory lords. Over the shrunken French state, the Capetian dynasty

would achieve kingship by 987, and within the state the feudal system would

flower.(McManus 48)

Successive Barbarian incursions marked the last phase of the

Western Roman Empire. Among these Barbarian groups were the

Goths(Visigoths and Ostrogoths), the Alans, the Suebi, the Vandals, and the

Franks. Only one of these, however, was able to establish a great and

prosperous kingdom after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Dominating present-day northern France, Belgium, and Western Germany,

the Franks established the most powerful Christian kingdom of early

medieval Europe.

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