I first began the examination of German history a few weeks ago with the post on the accession of Heinrich I The Fowler as King of East Francia. I’d like to continue to differentiate the the history of the Kingdom of the Franks and it’s transition to what became the Holy Roman Empire. Monarchy has always been an evolving concept and institution. This evolution also includes the development of Nation-states.
When viewing the past these transitions can often be overlooked or glossed over. This is a byproduct of historiography. Historiography is the study of the methods of historiansin developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. Historiography was more recently defined as “the study of the way history has been and is written – the history of historical writing”, which means that, “When you study ‘historiography’ you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians.”
Kingdom of the Franks
One aspect of historiography is to project onto the past terms and descriptions from a modern standpoint instead of what was contemporary for their times. One example of this is the Holy Roman Empire. It is often mentioned that Charlemagne is reckoned as the first Holy Roman Emperor when he was crowned on Christmas Day 800AD by Pope Leo III. Indeed, Charlemagne is reckoned Holy Roman Emperor Charles I despite the fact that at the time he was considered to have been restoring the old Roman Empire and that his state, the Carolingian Empire, (again, a more modern label) was actually a precursor of the Holy Roman Empire.
In this seven part series I will wade through the various transitions of German (and French) history as we observe the development of the Frankish Kingdom and it’s transition into the Holy Roman Empire. Today I will examine the Frankish people and the origin of the Kingdom of the Franks.
The Franks (Latin: Franci or gens Francorum) were a collection of Germanic peoples, whose name was first mentioned in 3rd century Roman sources, associated with tribes on the Lower and Middle Rhine, on the edge of the Roman Empire. Later the term was associated with later Romanized Germanic dynasties within the collapsing Roman Empire, who eventually commanded the whole region between the rivers Loire and Rhine.
The core Frankish territories inside the former Western Roman Empire were close to the Rhine and Maas rivers in the north. Frankish peoples inside Rome’s frontier on the Rhine river were the Salian Franks who from their first appearance were permitted to live in Roman territory, and the Ripuarian or Rhineland Franks who, after many attempts, eventually conquered the Roman frontier city of Cologne and took control of the left bank of the Rhine. Later, in a period of factional conflict in the 450s and 460s, Childeric I, a Frank, was one of several military leaders commanding Roman forces with various ethnic affiliations in Roman Gaul (roughly modern France). Childeric and his son Clovis I faced competition from the Roman Aegidius as competitor for the “kingship” of the Franks associated with the Roman Loire forces.
This new type of kingship represented the start of the Merovingian dynasty, which succeeded in conquering most of Gaul in the 6th century, as well as establishing its leadership over all the Frankish kingdoms on the Rhine frontier.
Clovis I, King of the Franks
The Merovingian dynasty was the ruling family of the Franks from the middle of the 5th century until 751. They first appear as “Kings of the Franks” in the Roman army of northern Gaul. By 509 they had united all the Franks and northern Gaulish Romans under their rule. They conquered most of Gaul, defeating the Visigoths (507) and the Burgundians (534), and also extended their rule into Raetia (537). In Germania, the Alemanni, Bavarii and Saxons accepted their lordship. The Merovingian realm was the largest and most powerful of the states of western Europe following the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The term “Merovingian” comes from medieval Latin Merovingi or Merohingi (“sons of Merovech”), an alteration of an unattested Frankish form, akin to their dynasty’s Old English name Merewīowing, with the final -ing being a typical Germanic patronymic suffix. The name derives from the possibly legendary King Merovech. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies, the Merovingians never claimed descent from a god, nor is there evidence that they were regarded as sacred.
The Merovingians’ long hair distinguished them among the Franks, who commonly cut their hair short.
Contemporaries sometimes referred to them as the “long-haired kings” (Latin reges criniti). A Merovingian whose hair was cut could not rule and a rival could be removed from the succession by being tonsured and sent to a monastery. The Merovingians also used a distinct name stock. One of their names, Clovis, evolved into Louis and remained common among French royalty down to the 19th century.
As mentioned previously the first known Merovingian king was Childeric I (died 481). His son Clovis I (died 511) converted to Christianity, united the Franks and conquered most of Gaul. The Merovingians treated their kingdom as single yet divisible. Clovis’s four sons divided the kingdom between them and it remained divided—with the exception of four short periods (558–61, 613–23, 629–34, 673–75)—down to 679. After that it was only divided again once (717–18). The main divisions of the kingdom were Austrasia, Neustria, Burgundy and Aquitaine.