The Franks, as they are known today, were a Germanic tribe who eventually became the French. They came to inhabit the former wealthy Roman provinces of Gaul and became the most powerful of the Germanic tribes. It was the Franks who created the strongest and most stable barbarian kingdom in the days after the Western Roman Empire had collapsed.
The name "Frank" is closely related to the word that means "fierce" or "free" in the Frankish language. From a linguistic point of view, the most direct descendants of the Franks are the Dutch and the Flemish-speakers of Belgium. The early Franks were a loose confederation of tribes who shared a similar culture. Tribal loyalty came before loyalty to the confederation and because of this the confederation was extremely weak.
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The concept of the Franks as a people was first realized under the reign of the Merovingian dynasty. The Merovingians took their name from the chief of the tribe, Merovech (Merowen), who was one of the leaders (reguli) of the Salian Franks. Merovich and his successor, Childeric, (d. 481), extended Frankish dominion as far south as the Somme River.
Childeric was the father of Clovis (481-511), the first ruler of the Merovingian dynasty. Clovis was a ruthless warrior and he and his immediate successors destroyed all resistance within their empire. He drove the Gallic Visigoths into Spain and absorbed much of the Burgundian kingdom as well as much of the territory of the Alemanni into his kingdom. In addition, Clovis also converted to Orthodox Christianity, an act which made him king of the Franks in the eyes of the pope.
After AD 700, the Merovingians gradually lost control of the Frankish kingdom to the Carolingians, a family of ambitious landowners who served as court advisors to the Merovingians. Frankish troops secured the fate of Christian Europe in the Battle of Tours, in which the Muslim forces were defeated by the Carolingian general Charles Martel (Charles the Hammer).
Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel, became king with the votes of the Frankish nobles and papal approval. In return for this ecclesiastic recognition, Pepin crushed the Lombards of Italy and gave the newly conquered lands to the pope. These territories later became the Papal states and this agreement is known as the Donation of Pepin.
However, the most notable of all the Frankish rulers was Charlemagne (Charles the Great). He built up a capable bureaucracy, a fair judicial system, and revived the arts. he was also the ruler of a vast domain that was gained by his military exploits. Charlemagne followed up his victories in these areas by converting most of the people to Christianity and he was justly honored for his military and religious activities. On Christmas day of the year AD 800, Pope Leo III (795-816) crowned Charlemagne "Charles Augustus, Emperor of the Romans," and made him the first Holy Roman Emperor.
The end of the Carolingian era began in 843 when Charlemagne's grandsons divided the empire into three parts, and thus hastened the splintering of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms.
Simons, Gerald. Barbarian Europe ((New York, NY; Time Life Books, 1971)
Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans (Norman, OK; University of Oklahoma, 1983)
James, Edward. The Franks (New York, NY; Basil Blackwell, 1988)
Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.