The Merovingian and Carolingian Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Development of France from Roman Gaul

The present-day nation of France evolved from Roman Gaul, an area of towns and settlements north and west of the Italian peninsula. As the Roman Empire collapsed, a variety of tribes competed for this region. The Franks achieved political supremacy and gave their name to France.

The Franks were a Germanic tribe that achieved conquest over a mix of peoples, including the Gauls, the Bretons, the Belges, and the Gascons. The Franks were a numerical minority in the region, which is probably the reason that many of the most readily identifiable cultural traits of France are not Germanic. The Roman Empire left its cultural mark on France. Early Merovingian coins are stamped with Roman motifs and Latin captions, the French language is closely based on Latin, and the culture was wine-drinking rather than beer-drinking. Over the centuries, the Franks intermarried with the other local tribes, and, in the end, the mix of barbarian peoples produced a homogenous French culture.

The Frankish tribes included the Salians, the tribe of the Merovingian family that became France’s first ruling dynasty. The Bretons came across the Eng-ish Channel into northern France, and the Gascons from the Pyrenees into southwestern France; these two groups had a high degree of cultural influence in the regions where they settled. At the same time, the Belges were crossing the Channel in the other direction, thus creating something of an exchange of peoples and culture between Britain and France.

The Merovingian Dynasty

The Merovingian dynasty was not a central government like those of ancient Egypt or ancient Rome. It was a number of sizeable kingdoms with a suggestion of cultural and linguistic affiliation.

The system of government was based on an exchange of favors. Warriors swore loyalty and service to King Clovis in exchange for room and board and a share of whatever booty they captured. In time, this system evolved into the feudal system that characterized medieval Europe: the king’s vassals would offer military service in exchange for sizeable tracts of land where they would build their own estates. In their turn, the vassals would acquire their own retinues of loyal men, who would take up arms for the lord in exchange for housing and a share of the loot. The land grants given by the king might or might not be permanent. Generally, they were not permanent; the king preferred to retain the ability to revoke them as a check on the power of the vassals. Under careless or lazy kings, of course, the land grants might be permanent in fact.

The Merovingians are an example of the typical level of civilization reached by Europeans during this era. They were descended from nomadic warriors, and their idea of domination and success was not to build cities and learn to read and write but rather to plunder and pillage from other tribes. In time, of course, this violent barbarian culture gave way to literate and highly sophisticated civilizations.

The original power base of the Merovingians was in northern France; Clovis named Paris as his capital city in the year 511. By the end of the sixth century, the Merovingians had expanded south and east, taking over three kingdoms: Aquitaine in the southwest, Burgundy in the southeast, and Austrasia in the northeast.

There are very few written records of Slavic history from this period; the case is somewhat different in France. The History of Gaul by Gregory of Tours is an eyewitness account of Merovingian rule, written about 593 to 594. This is the only source for much valuable information about early France, such as the biography of Clothilde of Burgundy.

The Salians gave their name to the Salic Law, the Merovingian legal code that was based on Roman law and originally written in Latin. The Salic Law barred women from ruling France, but it did give them some rights. As in Rome and Byzantium, educated women from powerful families could wield significant influence. In addition, the Church offered a respectable alternative to marriage; women could enter the scholarly world of the cloister and potentially rise as high as the position of abbess in its power structure. Some of these nuns were among the best-educated people of their time.

Burgundian princess Clothilde married Clovis in 492 and persuaded him to convert to Christianity; she was later canonized. From that date onward, France was a Christian nation. As in the Byzantine Empire, church and state worked together as two arms of the same authority. In one example of their close connection, the same internal borders divided France into units of political administration by the state and diocesan administration by the Church.

The Merovingian rulers were eventually overcome because they failed to consolidate France into a centrally controlled state. This would change when the Arnulfing family first rose to power. Their dynasty is called Carolingian because so many Arnulfing men were named Charles (Carolus in Latin).

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