The contraction of literacy while the Franks ruled compounds the problem: they produced few contemporary written records. In essence however, two dynasties of leaders succeeded each other, first the Merovingians and then the Carolingians.
The word frank meant “free” in the Frankish language. Freedom did not extend to women or to the population of slaves that moved with the free Franks. Initially two main subdivisions existed within the Franks: the Salian (“salty”) and the Ripuarian (“river”) Franks. By the 9th century, if not earlier, this division had in practice become virtually non-existent, but continued for some time to have implications for the legal system under which a person could go on trial.
The earliest Frankish history remains relatively unclear. Our main source, the Gallo-Roman chronicler Gregory of Tours, whose Historia Francorum (History of the Franks) covers the period up to 594, quotes from otherwise lost sources like Sulpicius Alexander and Frigeridus and profits from personal contact with many Frankish notables known to Gregory personally. Apart from Gregory’s History there exist some earlier Roman sources, such as Ammianus and Sidonius Apollinaris
Modern scholars of the period of the migrations have suggested that the Frankish people emerged from the unification of various earlier, smaller Germanic groups inhabiting the Rhine valley and lands immediately to the east, a social development perhaps related to the increasing disorder and upheaval experienced in the area as a result of the war between Rome and the Marcomanni, which began in 166 C.E., and subsequent conflicts of the late 2nd century and the 3rd century C.E. For his part, Gregory states that the Franks originally lived in Pannonia, but later settled on the banks of the Rhine. A region in the northeast of the modern-day Netherlands — north of the erstwhile Roman border — bears the name Salland, and may have received that name from the Salians.
Around 250 CE a group of Franks, taking advantage of a weakened Roman Empire, penetrated as far as Tarragona in present-day Spain, plaguing this region for about a decade before Roman forces subdued them and expelled them from Roman territory. About forty years later, the Franks had the Scheldt region under control and interfered with the waterways to Britain; Roman forces pacified the region, but did not expel the Franks.
In 355 – 358 the later Emperor Julian once again found the shipping lanes on the Rhine under control of the Franks and again pacified them. Rome granted a considerable part of Belgica to the Franks. From this time on they become foederati of the Roman Empire. A region roughly corresponding to present-day Flanders and the Netherlands south of the rivers remains a Germanic-speaking region to this day. (The West Germanic language known as Dutch predominates there now.) The Franks thus became the first Germanic people who permanently settled within Roman territory.
From their heartland the Franks gradually conquered most of Roman Gaul north of the Loire valley and east of Visigothic Aquitaine. At first they helped defend the border as allies; for example, when a major invasion of mostly East Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine 406, the Franks fought against these invaders. The major thrust of the invasion passed south of the Loire river. (In the region of Paris, Roman control persisted until 486, i.e. a decade after the fall of the emperors of Ravenna, in part due to alliances with the Franks.)
The reigns of earlier Frankish chieftains — Pharamond (about 419 until about 427) and Chlodio (about 427 until about 447) — seem to owe more to myth than fact, and their relationship to the Merovingian line remains uncertain.
Gregory mentions Chlodio as the first king who started the conquest of Gaul by taking Camaracum (today’s Cambrai) and expanding the border down to the Somme. This probably took some time; Sidonius relates that Aetius surprised the Franks and drove them back (probably around 431). This period marks the beginning of a situation that would endure for many centuries: the Germanic Franks became rulers over an increasing number of Gallo-Roman subjects.
In 451 Aetius called upon his Germanic allies on Roman soil to help fight off an invasion by the Huns. The Salian Franks answered the call, the Ripuarians fought on both sides as some of them lived outside the Empire. At this time Merovech reigned as king of the Franks. Gregory’s (oral) sources tentatively identify Merovech as a possible son of Chlodio.
Clovis the Merovingian Clovis engaged in a campaign of consolidating the various Frankish kingdoms in Gaul and the Rhineland, which included defeating Syagrius in 486. This victory ended Roman control in the Paris region.
In the Battle of Vouillé (507), Clovis, with the help of Burgundy, defeated the Visigoths, expanding his realm eastwards up to the Pyrenees mountains.
The conversion of Clovis to Roman Christianity, after his marriage to the Catholic Burgundian princess Clothilde in 493, may have helped to increase his standing in the eyes of the Pope and the other orthodox Christian rulers. Clovis’ conversion signalled the conversion of the rest of the Franks. Because they were able to worship with their Catholic neighbors, the newly-Christianized Franks found much easier acceptance from the local Gallo-Roman population than did the Arian Visigoths, Vandals or Burgundians. The Merovingians thus built what eventually proved the most stable of the successor-kingdoms in the west.
Stability, however, did not feature day-to-day in the Merovingian era. While casual violence existed to a degree in late Roman times, the introduction of the Germanic practice of the blood-feud to obtain personal justice led to a perception of increased lawlessness. Disruptions to trade occurred, and civic life became increasingly difficult, which led to an increasingly localized and fragmented society based on self-sufficient villas. Literacy practically disappeared outside of churches and monasteries.
The Merovingian chieftains adhered to the Germanic practice of dividing their lands among their sons, and the frequent division, reunification and redivision of territories often resulted in murder and warfare within the leading families. So on Clovis’s death in 511, his four sons divided his realm between themselves, and over the next two centuries his descendants shared the kingship.
The Frankish area expanded further under Clovis’ sons, eventually covering most of present-day France, but including areas east of the Rhine river as well, such as Alamannia (today’s southwestern Germany) and Thuringia (from 531). Saxony, however, remained outside the Frankish realm until conquered by Charlemagne centuries later.
After a temporary reunification of the separate kingdoms under Clotaire I, the Frankish lands split once again in 561 into Neustria, Austrasia, and Burgundy.
In each Frankish kingdom the Mayor of the Palace served as the chief officer of state. From about the turn of the eighth century, the Austrasian Mayors tended to wield the real power in the kingdom, laying the foundation for a new dynasty: their descendants the Carolingians.
The Carolingian kingship traditionally begins with the deposition of the last Merovingian king and the accession in 751 of Pippin the Short, father of Charlemagne. Pippin had succeeded his own father, Charles Martel, as Mayor of the Palace of a reunited and re-erected Frankish kingdom comprised of the formerly independent parts.
Pippin reigned as an elected king. Although such elections happened infrequently, a general rule in Germanic law stated that the king relied on the support of his leading men. These men reserved the right to choose a new leader if they felt that the old one could not lead them in profitable battle. While in later France the kingdom became hereditary, the kings of the later Holy Roman Empire proved unable to abolish the elective tradition and continued as elected rulers until the Empire’s formal end in 1806.
Pippin solidified his position in 754 by entering into an alliance with Pope Stephen III against the Lombards; this papal support proved crucial to silencing any objections to his new position. Pippin donated the re-conquered areas around Rome to the Pope, laying the foundation for the Papal States, of which only the Vatican City remains today, and in turn received the title patricius Romanorum (protector of the Romans).
Charlemagne the Carolingian EmperorUpon Pippin’s death in 768, his sons, Charles and Carloman, once again divided the kingdom between themselves. However, Carloman withdrew to a monastery and died shortly thereafter, leaving sole rule to his brother, who would later become known as Charlemagne and become an almost mythical figure for the later history of both France and Germany.
From 772 onwards, Charles conquered and eventually defeated the Saxons to incorporate their realm into the Frankish kingdom. This campaign expanded the practice of non-Roman Christian rulers undertaking the conversion of their neighbors by armed force; Frankish Catholic missionaries, along with others from Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, had entered Saxon lands since the mid-8th century, resulting in increasing conflict with the Saxons, who resisted the missionary efforts and parallel military incursions.
Charles’ main Saxon opponent, Widukind, accepted baptism in 785 as part of a peace agreement, but other Saxon leaders continued to fight. Upon his victory in 787 at Verden, Charles ordered the wholesale killing of thousands of pagan Saxon prisoners. After several more uprisings, the Saxons suffered definitive defeat in 804.
This expanded the Frankish kingdom eastwards as far as the Elbe river, something the Roman empire had only attempted once, and at which it failed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD). In order to more effectively christianize the Saxons, Charles founded several bishoprics, among them Bremen, Münster, Paderborn, and Osnabrück.
At the same time (773-774), Charles conquered the Lombards and thus could include northern Italy in his sphere of influence. He renewed the Vatican donation and the promise to the papacy of continued Frankish protection.
In 788, Tassilo, dux (duke) of Bavaria rebelled against Charles. After the quashing of the rebellion Bavaria became incorporated into Charles’ kingdom. This not only added to the royal fisc, but also drastically reduced the power and influence of the Agilolfings (Tassilo’s family), another leading family among the Franks and potential rivals. Until 796, Charles continued to expand the kingdom even farther southeast, into today’s Austria and parts of Croatia.
Charles thus created a realm that spanned from the Pyrenees in the southwest (actually, including an area in Northern Spain after 795) over almost all of today’s France (except Brittany, which the Franks never conquered) eastwards to most of today’s Germany, including northern Italy and today’s Austria.
On December 23 and 24, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charles as Emperor in Rome a ceremony that formally acknowledged the Frankish Empire as the successor of the (Western) Roman one. The coronation gave the Empire the backing of the church, and gave permanent legitimacy to Carolingian primacy among the Franks. The Ottonians later resurrected this connection in A.D. 962. In 812 the Byzantine Emperor Michael I Rhangabes acknowledged Charlemagne’s position as Emperor.
Upon Charlemagne’s death on January 28, 814 in Aachen, he was buried in his own Palace Chapel at Aachen.
Charlemagne had several sons, but only one survived him. This son, Louis the Pious, followed his father as the ruler of a united Empire. But sole inheritance remained a matter of chance, rather than intent. When Louis died in 840, the Carolingians adhered to the custom of partible inheritance, and the Treaty of Verdun in 843 divided the Empire in three:
Louis’ eldest surviving son Lothair became Emperor and ruler of the Central Franks. His three sons in turn divided this kingdom between them into Lotharingia, Burgundy and (Northern) Italy. These areas would later vanish as separate kingdoms.
Although an historical accident, the unification of most of what is now western and central Europe under one chief ruler provided a fertile ground for the continuation of what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Despite the almost constant internecine warfare the Carolingian Empire endured, the extension of Frankish rule and Roman Christianity over such a large area ensured a fundamental unity throughout the Empire.
Each part of the Carolingian Empire developed differently; Frankish government and culture depended very much upon individual rulers and their aims. Those aims shifted as easily as the changing political alliances within the Frankish leading families. However, those families, the Carolingians included, all shared the same basic beliefs and ideas of government.
These ideas and beliefs had their roots in a background that drew from both Roman and Germanic tradition, a tradition that began before the Carolingian ascent and continued to some extent even after the deaths of Louis the Pious and his sons.
When modern historians (from the late 18th century on) hearken back to an example of a unified Europe, they turn to the Carolingian Empire, not to the Roman Empire. Whether the Carolingian Empire lasted (or, one could argue, ever really existed as an Empire per se) in a geographical or political sense has no material bearing on this view. The model of several individual kingdoms (or regna, to give them their proper names) under one rule clearly resonates today.
One might argue that the divisions of Verdun still provide the general borders of Germany, France, and Italy, but one can scarcely suppose that they provide any clear cultural divide. They cannot divide the Germanic-Roman Christian legacy begun by the Carolingians.
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