The Franks and Merovingians - Frankish Empire
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Franks and Merovingians

The Franks had been living for some time in northern Germany when the weakness of the Roman Empire tempted them to move south in the 400s AD. Compared to the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, and even the Vandals, the Franks were relatively late arrivals on the Roman scene.
Because they had not been involved with Rome, they were still worshipping the old gods in the 400s AD, and had not yet converted to Christianity.

At first the Franks stayed in northern France and Belgium, but around 490 AD, under a new, young, and ambitious king named Clovis, the Franks converted to Catholicism and began to fight their way further south. They probably wanted to reach southern France mainly because it is warmer there and easier to live. But they also hoped to reach the Mediterranean, and be able to sail to the Eastern Mediterranean and trade their furs and slaves, wool and timber for Central Asian steel for their swords, spices, sugar and silk. Maybe Clovis even thought of reaching Rome and becoming Emperor.
The Franks fought the Visigoths at the battle of Vouille in 509 AD and won, killing the Visigothic king Alaric II. The Visigoths pretty much gave up and moved to Spain, and the Franks under Clovis took over all of France (except Burgundy). Even Anastasius, the Roman Emperor, wrote to congratulate Clovis and do him honor.

Clovis died in the Roman fort at Paris in 511 AD. The Frankish sons and successors of Clovis became known as the Merovingians (merr-oh-VINGE-yans). They ruled France for the next almost 200 years, giving their name - Franks - to the country - France.

Often the daughters of Merovingian kings married Visigothic princes, and the other way around too. One Visigothic princess, Brunhilde, married the Merovingian king Sigebert I in 567, when she was about 24 years old. After Sigebert died, Brunhilde ruled for seven years as regent for her son. She repaired the old Roman roads, built churches and castles, and reorganized the money and the army. A few years later, by now in her late 50s, Brunhilde again seized power in the name of her grandson, and in her 70s, she ruled through her great-grandson - but in 613 her enemies had her killed.

The early Merovingian kings were pretty strong, like Brunhilde and Childebert, who built the Romanesque abbey of St. Germain des Pres. But like the Visigothic kings, the Merovingian kings weakened themselves by giving away their land to reward their supporters. Eventually they became weaker than their own ministers, and finally in the late 700s AD their ministers pushed the last of the Merovingians aside and became kings by themselves: these are the Carolingians.

Learn by doing: a medieval tournament
More about the Carolingians

Bibliography and further reading about the Holy Roman Empire:

Angles and Saxons (King Arthur's Britain)
Medieval Europe home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 24 April, 2017