- A group of West Germanic peoples, the Franks became the most important of all the barbarians to establish a kingdom in the old Roman Empire. In two successive dynasties, the Merovingian and Carolingian, the Franks ruled large sections of Europe from the late fifth to the late tenth century and laid the foundation for medieval and modern France and Germany. They emerged along the Rhine River in two main groups: the Ripuarian Franks along the Middle Rhine, and the more important Salian Franks along the Lower Rhine. Their origins remain obscure, as demonstrated by the uncertain meaning of their name, which has been interpreted to mean "the brave," "the fierce," "the wild," and "the free." The last term may provide the key to the best understanding of their origins as small tribal groups of Germans living along the Rhine who had not been made subject to other barbarian peoples. Whatever their exact origins, the Franks went on to become the most important and influential of the successors of the Roman Empire and boasted a long line of illustrious kings and queens, including Clovis, Clothild, Brunhilde, Fredegund, Pippin the Short, Charlemagne, and Louis the Pious.The Franks themselves developed the legend that their origins could be traced back to the Trojans, thus giving them an origin as impressive as that claimed by the Romans. This tale was as legendary as that of Rome's Trojan origins, and the Franks appear in history for the first time in the third century, when they exploited the weakness of the Roman Empire and invaded Gaul. They ravaged throughout much of Gaul in the later 250s and even reached the borders of modern Spain. They seized much booty before being defeated by Roman armies. The Franks continued to cause problems for the empire throughout the third century, until the empire managed to settle its own internal crisis. At that point, under the great emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305), the Franks, and many other Germanic invaders, were defeated and settled. The Franks themselves concluded a treaty with the empire that allowed them to settle as foederati (federated allies) of the empire.During the fourth and fifth centuries the Franks maintained a mixed relationship with the Roman Empire. Many Franks served in the Roman armies and rose high in the military and civil ranks of the empire. They often supported the empire during invasions by other peoples and were instrumental in the defense of Gaul. Indeed, they joined with the Romans against the invasion of Attila the Hun and fought against the Huns in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plain in 451, a critical battle in the history of the empire. In the fifth century, however, the Franks also struck back against the empire. In 406, when the Rhine frontier collapsed, the Franks and many other Germanic peoples crossed into the empire to begin carving out territories for themselves. At the same time, a group of Salian Franks located at Tournai began to rise to power. And it was this group of the Salian Franks, under the leadership of the ancestors of the Merovingian dynasty, that rose to predominance; the greatest king of the Merovingian line, Clovis, then gradually established a great kingdom across much of northern Europe.The Merovingian dynasty lasted from the time of Clovis (r. 481-511) until the time of Childeric III (r. 743-751). The kingdom formed by the kings of this line extended from their traditional homeland across much of modern France. Their success was due, in part, to the conversion of their first king, Clovis, to Catholic Christianity rather than Arian Christianity, which most of the other barbarians chose and which differed from the Catholic Christianity of the Roman population. The dynasty was ultimately replaced by the Carolingian dynasty. The first Carolingian king, Pippin the Short, deposed the last of the Merovingian kings and assumed the throne in 751. He was succeeded by his son, Charlemagne, the greatest of the Carolingian line, who built a great empire, initiated a religious and cultural revival, and was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III on December 25, 800. The dynasty survived until 987.The Franks, unlike many of their barbarian contemporaries like the Huns, were not horsemen, and their military was comprised mainly of foot soldiers. But like their contemporaries they were nonliterate-literacy and all that accompanies it came only with contact with the Romans. They did have law, or at least custom, which was first codified under Clovis in the Salic law. They also seem to have traded with the Romans, at least in the fifth century, because of the Roman glassware found in many Frankish graves of that period. Grave goods, especially those found at the royal tomb of Tournai, tell us other important things about the early Franks, not the least of which is that they remained devoted to their traditional gods into the late fifth century. Christians buried their dead without material goods, but the Franks buried a variety of goods, including weapons (swords and battle axes), horse heads with their full harness, gold and silver coins, and gold buckles and jewelry. The gold jewelry was typical of Germanic metalwork. There were cloisonné brooches that were made of gold and inlaid with garnets and precious gems. One tomb contained a large number of brooches in the shape of cicadas, which were symbols of eternal life. The buckles and other jewelry were also decorated with designs, often elongated animal designs know as the "ribbon animal style."See alsoBrunhilde; Carolingian Dynasty; Charlemagne; Childeric III; Clotilda, St.; Clovis; Foederati; Fredegund; Jewelry and Gems; Gregory of Tours; Louis the Pious; Merovingian Dynasty; Pippin III, Called Pippin the Short; TournaiBibliography♦ Bachrach, Bernard S., trans. Liber historiae Francorum. Lawrence, KS: Coronado, 1973.♦ Fouracre, Paul, and Richard A. Gerberding. Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640-720. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press, 1996.♦ Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.♦ James, Edward. The Franks. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.♦ Lasko, Peter. The Kingdom of the Franks: North-West Europe before Charlemagne. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987. London: Longman, 1983.♦ Wallace-Hadrill. J. M. The Long-Haired Kings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.
Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.
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