The earliest histories of many European nations are firmly rooted in the ancient periods of migrations – when all sorts of tribes traveled from their homes in search of new grounds for settlement. And the history of France, one of the nations of Europe with a very long and rich story behind it, began in a similar way.
A large number of the peoples of the ancient times are clouded in mystery, their names and cultures swallowed by the passing time. But those that were powerful, those that fought for their survival, their names are carved into the pages of history.
Today we are going to reflect on the Germanic tribes that managed to do exactly that. A tribe that gave France its name, fostered its importance, and a large portion of its identity – the Franks. We will touch upon all the biggest milestones of this proud and expansionist warrior tribe, from whose dynasties came the earliest French kings.
From Defeat to Triumph: the Early History of the Franks
In the valleys of the Rhine, that pulsating vein that flows through the very heart of Europe, Germanic tribes always flourished. One of these, a more prominent tribe, was known as the Franks. Not much is known about them before the 3rd century AD, after which they entered into the pages of history in a rather abrupt way.
Some of the earliest mentions of the ‘Franks’ were penned by notable Romans of that era – Ammianus Marcellinus, Claudian, but also Sidonius Apollinaris. From these sources we can gather that the Franks and similar Germanic tribes, which were considered utterly barbaric by the Romans, were quite a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire.
Gregory’s Historia Francorum, History of France, implies that the early Franks were a cavalry people. (BoH / Public Domain )
They lived on the borders of the empire, flourishing in the river valleys of Wesser, Rhine, and Moselle rivers, gradually expanding westwards and occupying the Scheldt river valley as well. This habitat took on rather large proportions, and the Franks were now classed into several designations based on their home. In the west, around the Scheldt, were the Salian Franks .
To the north, at the tip of the Rhine were the Riparian Franks, with the Mosan Franks to their south. And in the east, between the Rhine and the Wesser, were the Hessian Franks. The latter give their name to a modern region of Germany as well – Franconia – in the fertile valleys of Moselle and Rhine.
In their earliest stages, the Franks were considered much more barbaric than some of the closely related Germanic tribes like the Ostrogoths or the Visigoths. The Franks were still adhering to their pagan religion and lacked a more sophisticated organization. In fact, they still relied on the ancient system of numerous sub-tribal chieftains, which was quickly becoming weak and outdated.
When they begin appearing in the Roman histories, the Franks were under attack. The Roman emperor Maximian, upon his victories against insurgents in Gaul, shifted his focus on the Rhenish tribes which he considered to be the greatest threat.
Once Rome declared victory over the insurgents in Gaul they focused on attacking the Franks. (Dencey / Public Domain )
This campaigning in Germania, in 287 AD, was focused on the two crucial tribes of the time – the Burgundians and the Alemanni. In the following year, he turned his attention to their allies, the Franks, a tribe that wreaked havoc along the Rhine.
They were subsequently defeated and their leader swore allegiance to the Roman Empire , thus turning the Franks into foederatii – basically mercenaries. As foederatii, the Franks – mostly the Salian tribe – were allowed to settle permanently within the bounds of the Roman Empire. They were settled in the province of Germania Inferior, which today comprises of mostly Belgium and northern France.
From their submission to the Romans, the Franks entered an entirely new era in their history. In a sense, they had gotten assimilated rather quickly – or perhaps assimilated only in part – integrating into the Roman society with surprising ease and speed.
Not a century after their foederatii status was granted, the Franks adapted to the use of the Latin language, development of laws, and gradual conversion to Christianity. But in their early days of life as allies and mercenaries of Rome, it was their warlike nature that benefited them the most.
They were employed as generals of Rome and some were very extremely skilled in that role. After less than 50 years as allies the Franks had provided a notable general to the empire – Flavius Arbogastes. The first Frankish Roman consul was appointed in 351 and was followed with many more in the following years.
Flavius Arbogastes, a Frank, became a general in the Roman Empire. (frontispiece / Public Domain )
The Beginnings of the Frankish Merovingian Dynasty
But the warlike blood of the Germanic tribes was not easily controlled. Soon that would come to the forefront, as the Franks were allowed to create their own petty kingdoms within the empire. And once that happened, they grew in power, seizing opportunities where they were given.
In northern Gaul, in the Roman armies of that province, one king stood out – the king of all Franks. His name was Chlodio, father of Merowig, and possibly the first ruler in the famous Frankish Merovingian Dynasty .
In Chlodio’s time, the Western Roman Empire was in its last throws, and was soon to fall under the constant pressure from the Barbarian tribes. In fact, Chlodio the Longhaired seized his chance and expanded the Frankish territories through the northern Gaul, as the Roman forces were pressed fighting in the south.
His successors, most likely his grandson and those after him, would gradually conquer all the Frankish tribes in Rhineland and Gaul, establishing the Merovingian dynasty as the sole ruler over the united Franks. By 509 AD, all the Franks and those Gallo Romans that remained in the province, were under the rule of this dynasty.
Conquests of the Franks between 481 and 511. (Altaileopard / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
They sky rocketed into power and in just a few decades managed to conquer the Burgundians, the Visigoths, and established their rule over the Alamanni, the Saxons, and the Bavarians. Once the Western Roman Empire fell, it left in its wake a powerful kingdom that rose to lofty heights in a very short time, and also the largest state in western Europe – what we know today as the Frankish kingdom.
Some two centuries later, the Merovingian dynasty was exhausting its power and was quickly losing influence. This was until the rise of a very important person, a ruthless leader who came to power out of the struggle of lesser Merovingian nobles. His name was Charles Martel and he became the de facto ruler of Francia, also known as the Frankish Empire.
Under his rule, the Frankish Empire was the most prominent military force in Europe and would stand as the shield against a powerful invading force. This defense is one of the most important events in both the biography of Charles Martel and Frankish history – the Battle of Tours.
Charles Martel, Frankish statesman and military leader, at Battle of Tours. (Levan Ramishvili / Public Domain )
The Turning Point for Europe: the Battle of Tours
The Umayyad Caliphate was a sprawling Muslim realm that was quickly conquering large swaths of land across Europe. After their blindingly fast subjugation of the Iberian Peninsula, the Umayyads continued into mainland Europe and into the region of Francia.
This ruthless and powerful force had little issue with conquering many towns in the south – these were largely undefended or had weak garrisons. Béziers, Nîmes, Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone, and Alet-les-Bains quickly fell, and the governor of Umayyad Iberia, Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, set up his new capital in the town of Narbonne in today’s southern France.
It was only in 732 AD that their advances into the heart of Francia were stopped – they were completely defeated in the Battle of Tours by the forces of Charles Martel. After this defeat the Umayyad forces retreated across the Pyrenees and back into Iberia. They would return to Francia three years later under the new leadership of Uqba ibn Al-Hajjaj.
The second invasion would prove to be even more dangerous, as the Muslims managed to penetrate deep, loot, and burn Arles, capture Avignon, and raid Lyons, Piedmont, and Burgundy. Only after two attacks from the forces of Charles Martel, and the collapse of the internal chain of command, did the threat of the Umayyads finally pass from Francia.
The reign of Charles Martel and his victory over the Umayyad Caliphate was one of the turning points in the modern history of Europe, and if the outcome had been any different , we would all probably be writing in a different language now. After his death, the Merovingian dynasty was replaced by the new, Carolingian dynasty , which would rule for roughly the next four centuries.
Charlemagne and the New Frankish Era
The golden era for the Frankish realm would come in the age of Charles’ grandson – also named Charles. Charles would manage to expand his realm significantly after campaigning against the Saxons and the Lombards and would be dubbed as Charles the Great – Karolus Magnus – or as we know him today as Charlemagne.
His greatly expanded realm was proclaimed as the Carolingian Empire, or the empire of the Romans and the Franks, after Charlemagne was crowned as emperor of the Romans, by Pope Leo III. The significance of Charlemagne as the successor of what was once the Western Roman Empire, lies in the fact that he managed to unite almost the entirety of western Europe into a single empire – leading to his epithet of ‘Pater Europae’ – father of Europe.
The coronation of Charlemagne, he ruled the empire of the Romans and Franks. (Yann / Public Domain )
His empire would later on be known as the Holy Roman Empire and would last for a 1000 years – until 1806 when it would be dissolved by Napoleon, after his victory at Austerlitz in the Napoleonic Wars. From the time of Charlemagne, the Frankish realm would expand to its largest form and the most evolved one.
For an entire millennia they were the central figure in the political tapestry of Europe, and the world, and were crucial for the development of major affairs. Without them, the history of all of Europe would be totally different. During this time the language and the culture of the Franks evolved, and the French language was eventually born, as well as the French identity.
Due to the many nations and wholly different languages and cultures that became a part of the Frankish kingdoms over time, such as the Gauls and their language, the Gallo Romans with Latin, the Occitans with Occitan language, and many more, the French language was born as a very eclectic mix of all these and the West Germanic Frankish language.
And when we understand this rich history that lies behind the modern French nation, the amount of diverse peoples that helped build the foundations of an empire, we can only then truly appreciate the beauty of a nation that is so diverse and so old, its culture rich beyond measure. One interesting fact that relates all Europeans with the Franks, is the use of the term ‘Frank’ in many predominantly Asian languages around the world – to denote modern Europeans.
A depiction of different Franks from 400 to 600 AD. (CSvBibra / Public Domain )
The Frankish name and their reputation traveled widely across the world, firstly from the contact with the Umayyad’s, and later through trading routes. From Greek Frangos, to Arabic al-Faranj, all the way to Asia and Firang in Urdu, Folangji in Chinese, and Farang in Thai. In the latter culture Farang denoted any Europeans. Some scholars claim that the word Frank traveled even so far as to reach the distant Samoans, who call the Europeans Palagi.
The Lasting Influence of the Franks
Most people today would never truly associate modern France with a thoroughly Germanic heritage. But the truth is that this powerful European nation, even though its culture and language are very much romantic in nature, found its earliest roots in an ambitious and warlike Germanic tribe. Their West Germanic language, Frankish, was lost over the centuries of co-existence alongside the more numerous peoples in their realm.
But even so, the heritage of the Germanic Franks cannot be overlooked. And to help us remember, we have the likes of Childeric, Pepin, Charles Martel, and Charlemagne, the heroes whose feats constantly remind us of the story of the rise of Franks.
Top image: Victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Tours marked the furthest Muslim advance and enabled Frankish domination of Europe for the next century. Source: Bender235 / Public Domain .