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The Rise of the Franks

One of the biggest and most well-known causes of Rome’s fall was invasion by various Germanic, or “Barbarian” tribes. Most of these tribes weren’t individually important, mainly due to their lack of cultural significance and failure to set up long-lasting kingdoms. However, the Franks were unique in this respect, as they managed to survive, thrive, and change the course of European, and World History in massive ways. How did the Franks get to such a point, and why was it possible? To answer this question, we need to look at the Franks’ history.

The Franks first appeared somewhere in the 200s A.D. as one of the tribes beyond the Roman Empire, having been settled in the area now called the Netherlands. However, their history from this period to around 460 A.D. is largely unknown, so we must skip to the eve of Rome’s fall. The one thing that we do know is that the Franks were not nomads, and, compared to every other Germanic tribe[1], they were permanent residents. This was an advantage to the Franks. Rather than “going where the wind blows”, the Franks made roots in the Benelux-Calais area, and consequently they were harder to pull out once settled. It is like trying to pull a few weeds out of the ground, and then trying to pull a tree out of the ground. The tree is nearly impossible to pull out and would exhaust almost anyone who tried, while pulling out weeds requires little effort.

This practice of staying in one area and expanding the Frankish domains little by little changed with the ascension of Clovis I as the Frankish King. Clovis set out on a policy of more rapid expansion, at first nearly plowing out anyone who stood in his way. Within five years Clovis had deposed and executed Syagrius, took his kingdom, which was essentially the last vestige of the once powerful Roman Empire, and probably vassalized Brittany. Clovis then waited for nearly two decades, sticking to the traditional Frankish strategy of slow growth, before conquering the Alemanni in 502 and driving the Visigoths out of Gaul in 507 A.D. (Except Septimania, a region on the Mediterranean coast of Gaul). Clovis’ new kingdom reached from the Pyrenees to beyond the Rhine, spanning an area about half the size of France today.

However, it wasn’t Clovis’ conquests that defined his rule, but rather his conversion to Catholicism that played a larger long-term impact on the Franks. The story itself of Clovis’ conversion will not be described here, but the conversion itself was a milestone for the Franks. Most of the other Germanic tribes were Arians, or Christians who denied Jesus’ perpetual existence and believed that Jesus was created by God, in effect denying the Trinity as well. The Catholics considered Arianism heresy, and when the Franks chose to convert from paganism to Catholicism, rather than to Arianism, the Papacy found a friend (of sorts) within the various Germanic tribes. Clovis had laid the first stone on the road to the Papal-Frankish Alliance, which would form centuries later.

After Clovis’ death in 511 A.D.[2], his kingdom was partitioned amongst his sons, who conquered more lands for the Franks. They conquered Thuringia in 531, Burgundy in 532, and Provence in 537. Bavaria was made a dependency in 539. Eventually all of Clovis’ sons died except for Clothar I, who briefly inherited the whole of Francia before he died too. For almost two centuries, no significant conquests were made and no improvements for the lives of the citizens were made, as the Merovingian kings squabbled amongst themselves, didn’t administrate effectively, if at all, and simply partitioned the lands of their dead siblings. By the late Seventh Century A.D., the kings were mere puppets, and administration was left to the palace officials.

Pepin II was the most important of these officials for one single reason; he made his position hereditary. With consent from the pope, of course, Pepin II was allowed to choose his own successor. Pepin II and his successors were all competent rulers. The next major successor[3], Charles Martel, also known as Charles “The Hammer”, was able to stop the Muslims at Tours in 732, in effect not only confining the Muslims to Spain, but also saving the rest of Europe from Islamic domination. Pepin III, or Pepin the Short, had usurped the throne, with the Pope’s support, and became the new Frankish King, ending the disgraceful Merovingian Dynasty and starting the new Carolingian Dynasty. As thanks to the Pope for allowing him to be king, Pepin III protected the Pope from the invading Lombards, conquered some of their land, and gave it to the pope. The Carolingians also expanded Francia and took land for themselves. This land became known as the Papal States, and was directly controlled by the Pope.

By this time, the Papacy began to favor the Franks over the Byzantines as their new ally. There were many reasons for this. For one, the Byzantine Emperors had replaced the Patriarch of Constantinople as the chief religious figure in the Empire. The Papacy worried that Byzantium would sweep in and ruin its position as well. In addition, the Byzantines were rather unreliable. Being a fairly large empire with many different neighbors meant that there were many wars that the Byzantines would be entangled in. When the Pope needed protection from an invading army, the Byzantines were often busy. The Carolingian usurpation of the throne also provided the Pope with a new protector that did not have hostile neighbors like the Byzantines did. The Papal-Frankish alliance had been made, and it would continue to be effective for many years to come.

It was only in the mid-700s A.D. that the greatest of the Frankish Kings arrived. Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, ascended to the throne in 768 A.D. after Pepin III died. In terms of his foreign policy, Charlemagne maintained the Papal-Frankish alliance, sought to maintain good relations with the Byzantines, and expanded elsewhere in Northern Italy and the land that was to be known as Germany. However, on Christmas Day in 800, the Pope caused a serious problem. On that morning in 800 A.D., Charlemagne went to mass (Church), and the Pope crowned him as the “Emperor of the Romans”. Charlemagne himself probably did not want this to happen, since he saw himself as a barbarian and never able to equal the Romans, and also because crowning Charlemagne as Emperor would upset the Byzantines. He may have wanted to put the crown on his own head as well, which symbolized his authority over the Pope, rather than the Pope’s authority over him.

When Charlemagne was crowned Emperor, the Byzantines reacted exactly as Charlemagne would have predicted. They were enraged that the Pope could, would, and did give the title of Emperor to a non-Roman barbarian, rather than accepting the still Roman Byzantine Emperor. However, to say that Pope Leo III made this decision from a whim would be ludicrous. In fact, there was much reasoning behind his decision. For one, Charlemagne played a large role in Leo III’s departure from exile, which allowed him to actually be Pope again. As a sign of gratitude, Leo III crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans”. In addition, Leo III thought that it would be a good idea to restore the Roman Empire in the West under a civilized leader with good intentions. Charlemagne was the only individual to fit the bill. Eventually the two sides (Charlemagne and the Byzantines) reconciled and came up with a compromise, but this was a single scar of many that would lead to the Great Schism of 1054.

Charlemagne still took as much advantage over his situation as he could. He used his new title in imperial propaganda, which compared him to Biblical and Roman rulers such as King David, Augustus, and Constantine. He also appointed bishops and abbots as government officials in order to downplay the nobles and to rid of local autonomy. He also gave the churchmen lands; however, he expected frequent gifts in return.

However, Charlemagne’s political influence is only half of his legacy. Unlike most Frankish leaders, Charlemagne was hugely interested in the cultural well-being of his Empire. He promoted the retranslation and copying of books such as the Biblical New Testament and some Latin Classics. Since he wanted more people to become literate and to be able to read those books, he had all of the cathedrals set up schools for clergymen and ordinary citizens so that way they could become literate. To make this easier, he created the uppercase-lowercase letter system we use today, as well as a grammar and punctuation system, which allowed for easier reading and faster writing. Charlemagne had also set up a palace school at Aachen, his sitting capital, for exceptionally bright students of all classes. There students learned humanities-related topics such as poetry and even basic science. Charlemagne promoted the vision of his Empire being the new Rome with a Christian Emphasis, which he did a good job at fulfilling. Charlemagne had pulled Western Europe out of a centuries-long Dark Age and into a new and brighter future.

Charlemagne’s reign as the ruler of the Franks lasted forty-six years before he died in 814, and in that time he accomplished a lot. His successor, Louis (Latinization of Clovis) the Pious, who, unlike Charlemagne, put the crown on his own head, continued the policies of Charlemagne and made sure that Charlemagne’s new brighter future was permanent, and that the dark ages were gone for good. However, after Louis’ death, Charlemagne’s empire fell apart and was split. The many partitions and treaties after Louis’ death eventually led to the nations of France and Germany, who would play some of the largest roles in history.

In conclusion, the Franks were a people who started on the banks of the Rhine and moved into what is now the area of Benelux and Nord-Pas-de-Calais and settled there. For much of their history the Franks remained in this settled state until Clovis ascended the throne in 481 A.D. and conquered as far south as the Pyrenees Mountains. The Merovingian Kings after his death (particularly after Clothar I, who died in 561 A.D.) had little interest in the lives and well-being of the people, and the later ones didn’t even administrate, but instead were mere figureheads. Slowly the Carolingians gained control until the Pope and Pepin III “The Short” managed to dethrone the Merovingian King and replace him with Pepin. With Pepin III’s defense of Italy came the Papal-Frankish alliance in which the Franks replaced the Byzantines as the protectors of the Pope. The greatest of these new Carolingian Kings was Charlemagne, who was able to bring Western Europe out of the Dark Ages and into a renaissance, the Carolingian Renaissance. This saw the rise of Cathedral Schools for the average person and the clergyman to learn reading and writing, as well as the preservation of texts from the Classical era. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, continued this renaissance and made sure that the Dark Ages in Europe were gone for good. Despite the Empire being partitioned after Louis’ death, the Franks were the fathers of what would become France and Germany, two of today’s great powers.

[1] Save the Angles, Saxons (Anglo-Saxons), and Jutes, who migrated to England and stayed there.

[2] Some historians think he actually died in 513 A.D.

[3] Charles Martel was an illegitimate son of Pepin II, and had deposed the original successor to his father.



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