The Franks

None of the German peoples of whom we have so far spoken, except the Franks, ever succeeded in establishing a permanent kingdom. Their states were overthrown in turn by some other German nation, by the Eastern Empire, or, in the case of the West-Gothic kingdom in Spain, by the Mohammedans. The Franks, to whom we must now turn, were destined not only to conquer most of the other German tribes but even to extend their boundaries into districts inhabited by the Slavs.


When the Franks are first heard of in history they were settled along the lower Rhine, from Cologne to the North Sea. Their method of getting a foothold in the Empire was essentially different from that which the Goths, Lombards, and Vandals had adopted. Instead of severing their connection with Germany and becoming an island in the sea of the Empire, they conquered by degrees the territory about them. However far they might extend their control, they remained in constant touch with the barbarian reserves behind them. In this way they retained the warlike vigor that was lost by the races who were completely surrounded by the enervating influences of Roman civilization.

In the early part of the fifth century they had occupied the district which constitutes to-day the kingdom of Belgium, as well as the regions east of it. In 486, seven years before Theodoric founded his Italian kingdom, they went forth under their great king, Clovis (a name that later grew into Louis), and defeated the Roman general who opposed them. They extended their control over Gaul as far south as the Loire, which at that time
formed the northern boundary of the kingdom of the West Goths. Clovis then enlarged his empire on the east by the conquest of the Alemanni, a German people living in the region of the Black Forest.


The battle in which the Alemanni were defeated (496) is in one respect important above all the other battles of Clovis. Although still a pagan himself, his wife was an orthodox Christian convert. In the midst of the conflict, as he saw his line giving way, he called upon Jesus Christ and pledged himself to be baptized in His name if He would help the Franks to victory over their enemies. He kept his word and was baptized together with three thousand of his warriors. His conversion had the most momentous consequences for Europe. All the other German peoples within the Empire were Christians, but they were all Arian heretics; and to the orthodox Christians about them they seemed worse than heathen. This religious difference had prevented the Germans and Romans from inter-marrying and had retarded their fusion in other ways. But with the conversion of Clovis, there was at least one barbarian leader with whom the Bishop of Rome could negotiate as with a faithful son of the Church. It is from the orthodox Gregory of Tours that most of our knowledge of Clovis and his successors is derived. In Gregory’s famous History of the Franks, the cruel and unscrupulous king appears as God’s chosen instrument for the extension of the Catholic faith. Certainly Clovis quickly learned to combine his own interests with those of the Church, and the alliance between the pope and the Frankish kings was destined to have a great influence upon the history of western Europe.

To the south of Clovis’ new acquisitions in Gaul lay the kingdom of the Arian West Goths, to the southeast that of another heretical German people, the Burgundians. Gregory of Tours reports him as saying: “I cannot bear that these Arians should be in possession of a part of Gaul. Let us advance upon them with the aid of God; after we have conquered them let us bring their realms into our power.” So zealous was the newly converted king that he speedily extended his power to the Pyrenees, and forced the West Goths to confine themselves to the Spanish portion of their realm. The Burgundians became a tributary nation and soon fell completely under the rule of the Franks. Then Clovis, by a series of murders, brought portions of the Frankish nation itself, which had previously been independent of him, under his scepter.

When Clovis died in 511 at Paris, which he had made his residence, his four sons divided his possessions among them. Wars between rival brothers, interspersed with the most horrible murders, fill the annals of the Frankish kingdom for over a hundred years after the death of Clovis. Yet the nation continued to develop in spite of the unscrupulous deeds of its rulers. It had no enemies strong enough to assail it, and a certain unity was preserved in spite of the ever-shifting distribution of territory among the members of the royal house.


The Frankish kings succeeded in extending their power over pretty nearly all the territory that is included to-day in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as over a goodly portion of western Germany. By 555, when Bavaria had become tributary to the Frankish rulers, their dominions extended from the Bay of Biscay to a point east of Salzburg. Considerable districts that the Romans had never succeeded in conquering
had been brought into the developing civilization of western Europe.

As a result of the divisions of the Frankish lands, fifty years after the death of Clovis three Frankish kingdoms appear on the map. Neustria, the western kingdom, with its center at Paris or Soissons, was inhabited mainly by the older Romanized people among whom the Franks had settled. To the east was Austrasia, with Metz and Aix-la-Chapelle as its chief cities. This region was completely German in its population. In these two there was the prophecy of the future France and Germany. Lastly, there was the old Burgundian realm. Of the Merovingian kings, as the line descended from Clovis was called, the last to rule as well as reign was Dagobert (d. 638), who united the whole Frankish territory once more under his scepter.

Among the positions held by the nobility none was reputed more honorable than those near the king’s person. Of these offices the most influential was that of the Major Domus, or Mayor of the Palace, who was a species of prime minister. After Dagobert’s death these mayors practically ruled in the place of the Merovingian monarchs, who became mere “do-nothing kings,”–rois fainéants, as the French call them. The Austrasian Mayor of the Palace, Pippin of Heristal, the great-grandfather of Charlemagne, succeeded in getting, in addition to Austrasia, both Neustria and Burgundy under his control. In this way he laid the foundation of his family’s renown. Upon his death, in 714, his task of consolidating and defending the vast territories of the Franks devolved upon his more distinguished son, Charles Martel, i.e., the Hammer.


(Source: “An Introduction to the History of Western Europe” by James Harvery Robinson)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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