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9: The Rise of the Franks, 330-751

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The Rise of the Franks, 330-751

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[The Mediterranean
world in 600 AD]

The Mediterranean World in 451

We have seen that the Roman empire did not "fall" to murderous hordes of savage barbarians. The invaders who toppled the empire in the West were relatively few in numbers, were Christians who had long contact with the Romans and had become sophisticated and partially Romanized by that contact. The Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, and Vandals actually tried to restore and preserve much of Roman imperial culture and its institutions. But Justinian's reconquest overthrew some of these kingdoms and weakened others. It was the least advanced and Romanized Germanic tribes that formed the foundation of medieval European society, and the most important of these were the Franks.

1. Early history of the Franks

The Franks inhabited the delta lands at the mouths of the Rhine and Scheldt rivers. In about 350, they became Roman federati and were allowed to occupy lands south of the Rhine, in what is now the southern Netherlands and northern Belgium. It would appear that sea level varies over time, and the higher or lower water level has a great effect upon low-lying lands such as those the Franks inhabited. At the height of the Roman empire, the sea-level was low and this particular region was rich in agricultural products and active in trade and commerce between the Romans and the Germanic tribes. As time passed, however, the sea began to encroach, and the area became a great marsh not unlike the bayou country of southwestern Louisiana. Like the Cajuns of that region, the Franks were hunters and trappers and supplied recruits for the Roman armies of the period.

They were not sophisticated or highly organized, like the Ostrogoths or Visigoths. They were still pagan, worshipping generally the same gods as many of the other Germanic tribes -- Thor, god of thunder; Wotan, the sky god; Tew, the warrior god, and so forth. They were grouped in tribes, each ruled by a chieftain selected from a family that claimed to be descended from Wotan. The kings were both rulers and priests, and were also the richest of their tribe. They surrounded themselves with large households, composed of slaves and free retainers.

As the empire weakened, the many small tribes that constituted the Frankish nation began to expand from the marshes that were their home. One group pushed southward along the Scheldt river in what is now northern France and the other reached the same are by expanding from the sea-coast. The latter group, called the "Salian Franks" (from "sal," "salt" or "sea"), eventually came to be regarded as the ancestors of the French nation, and their laws and customs of ("Salic law") were considered as the basis of French law (this will become and important matter later on). In about 430, Franks occupied the rich agricultural territory between Soissons and Cambrai. Soissons was an imperial arms factory manufacturing shields, swords, and spears. The Franks could now equip many more fighting men than previously, and were an important part of the army with which the Roman commander Aetius defeated the Huns at the battle of Chalons in 451. After the murder of Aetius by his enemies in the court at Ravenna in 453, however, the angry Franks threw off their federate status and renounced any allegiance to the empire. In 476, Odovacar, the Germanic commander of the Roman army in Italy, deposed the Western Roman emperor and declared the empire in the West at an end. The Franks were free to pursue their own aims.

2. Advent of Clovis

In 481, the 15-year old Clovis (the name is a form of "Louis," which became a favorite name of the French royal dynasty) became leader of his small tribe. Since, as we have noted, the chiefs of the Frankish tribes were chosen from a single extended family claiming descent from the god Wotan, Clovis began killing off the other members of his family and so reducing the number of people who could compete with him for authority. Consolidating the other tribes under his leadership in this fashion, in five years, he had united the Franks under his personal rule.

In 486, he attacked the lands of Syagrius, a Roman general holding out in hopes that the Western imperials government would be restored. He defeated Syagrius in a single battle, and moved his capital to the more central and strategic location of the town of Paris.

In 496, he prepared for battle against the Burgundians but found that they had been joined by allies from other German tribes. With the outcome of the battle in doubt, Clovis took an oath to become a Catholic Christian (that is, not an Arian as were the other German leaders) if he were victorious. He won the battle and became the first of the German kings to embrace the Catholic brand of Christianity to which the native Roman population belonged.

In 507, he was asked by the Eastern emperor to drive the Visigoths from Gaul. In the campaign of 507-508, he defeated the Visigoths and drove them from their capital at Toulouse into Spain. He seized control of southern France, although Theodoric, king of Italy, intervened to make sure that he did not gain control of any lands along the Mediterranean coast and so have access to the sea. Theodoric feared an alliance between the Catholic Franks and Eastern empire against his Arian regime.

In 510, Clovis attacked and defeated the allemanni, who lived along the northern Rhine and added parts of Germany to his lands. He died in 511, and the Frankish kingdom was divided among his four sons. (The royal descendants of Clovis are known as the Merovingian dynasty, named after Clovis' grandfather, Merovech).

[Map of the
Mediterranean world in 600 AD]

Map of the Mediterranean world in 600 AD

3. Gavelkind and Civil War

The only governmental institution was the chieftainship or kingship, and the Merovingians based their power upon lands -- towns and villages -- that they considered to be their own personal property. They and their followers lived on the produce of these lands, and the royal household travelled from royal estate to royal estate since no single estate produced enough to supply the royal household for more than a few days and nights. The staff who provided for the household also had to manage the estates that supplied them with food, clothing, horses, and other necessities. These household servants -- the mayor of the palace (who directed all household operations), seneschal, tallator, pincerna, mareschal, condestable, botellarius, etc. -- thus became ministers of the realm (note that the word "minister" means, among other things, "servant"). In time, the posts of many of these servants grew into the functions of important French royal officials. The rest of the Merovingian's kingdom was left under local strong men (or women) paying tribute and military aid when the king required them to do so, and later by counts and dukes appointed by the king.

Law was customary and based upon kinship and feuds. There was no concept of the responsibilities of the state.

It is important to remember that the power of the Frankish kings was based largely upon the estates that were their personal possession. Consequently, the Merovingian kings passed them on in accordance with traditional customs of inheritance. Gavelkind, or the division of property equally among the children of the deceased property owner, was the traditional principle of inheritance among the Franks, and so the royal lands, as well as the royal title -- which was also considered a personal possession, were divided among the sons of a dead ruler. There was competition among the heirs to gain a greater share of the patrimony, and a rivalry arose between Neustria, Austrasia, and Aquitaine -- the three regions into which the realm was often split to be passed on to the heirs. There were constant civil wars and shifting alliances, but the Merovingian dynasty ruled for about three hundred years, and the Franks remained the strongest power in western Europe for much longer. How was this possible?.

4. Bases of Frankish strength

A. The Franks expanded, rather than migrating, into the empire. Their numbers were constantly increased by men and women from the old heartland of Frankish lands. They advanced relatively slowly and were never in a position to be threatened, as the Vandals and other tribes had been, by the great numbers of their Roman subjects.

B. They were protected by geography from the Muslims and eastern Romans. Neither the Muslims nor the Byzantines attempted to extend their power to the Frankish homeland far to the north.

C. Their opponents were generally weak or distracted. Neither Syagrius nor the Allemanni were particularly powerful, and the Visigoths and Burgundians were troubled by the unrest of their subjects, who welcome the Catholic Franks and worked against their Arian masters.

D. Their government was primitive

1. They did not try to preserve Roman institutions or the Roman system of taxation. One of the major reasons for the "fall" of the Roman empire in the West had been the general unwillingness to support a government that levied heavy and unfair taxes, and whose institutions were mostly corrupt and ineffective. The Roman empire was being rejected, and the Vandals, Ostrogoths, and others were weakened by trying to maintain unpopular Roman institutions. The Franks avoided this.

2. They allowed a form of local autonomy to any place where it worked. There are time when decentralization is more effective than centralization, and this was one of those times. The Franks allowed responsible and responsive governments to exercise authority at the local level. This also provided a way for talented and effective local rulers to join the ranks of the Frankish "aristocracy."

3. They were pragmatic about things. Rather than chasing vague ambitions of imperial power, the Frankish kings were generally content to enjoy the fruits of their own estates and levy tribute upon others. Their governmental institutions were too crude to be repressive.

E. They enjoyed the support of the Church.

1. They were not divided from the local population by religious differences. The mass of their subjects were less concerned with whether their rulers were good Christians than with whether they were the right variety of Christian.

2. The Church provided them with the skilled personnel they needed. The Franks could call upon the clergy for administrative services whenever they needed and, when they began to expand into non-Christian lands, church missionaries worked with the Frankish kings in pacifying and educating these new subjects.


By the 600's, the Church had seen the disappearance of the Roman governmental structure of which it had been a part. The Church then began entering into a similar relationship with the Franks. The Frankish state was in fact an alliance among many different elements, and the Church was one of the most important of these.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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