Early France: the Franks and the Merovingians

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A gold and garnet Merovingian fibula from early France

Early France: A Merovingian fibula (a pin to hold a cloak on) from the 500s-600s AD

Early France:  the Franks invade Gaul

Who were the Franks? 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.

(More about the fall of Rome)

Because the Franks had not been involved with Rome, they were still worshipping the old gods in the 400s AD, and had not yet converted to Christianity.

Clovis, King of the Franks

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. This is where late Gaul turns into early France. They probably wanted to reach southern France mainly because it is warmer there and easier to live.

A Frankish gold coin copying a Byzantine coin - who were the Franks?

Who were the Franks? A Frankish gold coin copying a Byzantine coin

But Clovis also hoped to reach the Mediterranean, and be able to sail to the Eastern Mediterranean and trade their furs and slaveswool and timber for Central Asian steel for their swords, medicinesspicessugar 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).

(More about the Visigoths)

Even Anastasius, the Roman Emperor, wrote to congratulate Clovis and do him honor.

Ivory carving of the baptism of Clovis

Early France: The baptism of Clovis

Who were the Merovingians?

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.

Brunhilde and other Merovingian women

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.

(How do we know all this? Read about Gregory of Tours)

Brunhilde 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 killed her. Weirdly, part of the long, cruel torture that killed Brunhilde involved making her ride on a camel.

The end of  the Merovingians

A coin of Childebert II, Brunhilde's son

Early France: A coin of Childebert II, Brunhilde’s son

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 700s AD their ministers pushed the last of the Merovingians aside and became kings by themselves: these are the Carolingians.

According to the story, in 747 AD the mayor of the palace Pepin the Short got tired of doing all the work while the Merovingian Childeric III called himself king. Pepin sent a letter to the Pope in Rome. The letter said, “Was it right that someone who had no power should be the king?” The Pope wanted to get the help of the Franks against the invading Lombards, and it was Pepin, not Childeric, who had the power to help him. So the Pope answered, “No, it was not right.”

Armed with this letter, Pepin overthrew the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, and sent him to a monastery. An assembly of rich, powerful men then elected Pepin king of France. He was the first of the Carolingian kings.

So who were the Franks?

So who were the Franks? Did you find out from this article? Let us know in the comments.

Learn by doing: a medieval tournament
More about the Carolingians

Bibliography and further reading about the Holy Roman Empire:

Visigoths
Vikings
Angles and Saxons (King Arthur’s Britain)
Vandals
Ostrogoths
Slavs
Medieval Europe
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By |2018-05-14T23:41:44+00:00August 2nd, 2017|History, Medieval|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Early France: the Franks and the Merovingians. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 2, 2017. Web. September 24, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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