The Merovingian and Carolingian Dynasty (page 2)
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).
The Carolingian Dynasty
By the end of the eighth century, the Carolingian rulers had united all the Franks under one central government. They expanded the Merovingian holdings into a Carolingian empire, conquering the Italian peninsula and expanding as far west as the Elbe River in the north and the Danube River in the south.
On Christmas Day 800, the Pope crowned the French king Charlemagne emperor in an elaborate public ceremony in Rome. He was considered the new hope of a new Roman Empire and a rival to the Byzantine Emperor in the East. Charlemagne is a highly important figure in the early history of Christianity. He spearheaded the Carolingian Renaissance, an artistic and literary flowering that was motivated entirely by the desire to spread Christianity and to better understand its history. He also encouraged the study of Christian texts in Latin and set monasteries full of monks to copy and illuminate manuscripts and devotional works. The Carolingian Renaissance instituted high educational standards for monks and priests throughout France and the standardization of worship services in all parishes. This was not a Classical renaissance but a Christian one.
In 843, the Treaty of Verdun divided Charlemagne’s empire among three grandsons. West Francia became the greater part of the modern nation of France, while in East Francia the Germanic culture would dominate; East Fran- cia was eventually absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire (see “The Foundation of the Holy Roman Empire” later in this chapter), which in 1871 would become the nation of Germany. Lotharingia, the central and smallest division, sometimes allied with West Francia and sometimes with East Francia: later, when it developed into the region of Lorraine, it would continue this pattern, serving as a bone of contention between France and Germany for at least four hundred years. This is historically important because it shows that the French and the Germans have a common ethnic, cultural, and historical origin—a fact that both sides acknowledged in the twentieth century, when they put aside centuries of enmity to found the European Union.
By the seventh century, a money economy had already replaced the barter system; there were an astonishing number of mints in Merovingian France. However, the region had slumped economically under Merovingian rule; this was due not to incompetent administration so much as to a variety of other factors (military invasions, bad weather, and a fall-off in international trade). Under the Carolingians, France underwent economic recovery and was poised to play a central role in the bustling mercantile economy that would include all Europe after the year 1000.
By the end of the ninth century, the system of delegating royal authority to the vassals (now called counts, hence the noble title count and the administrative division county) was breaking down. Those counts who had acquired extensive lands began calling themselves dukes and assuming a greater degree of royal authority than they had ever been granted. With their own armed retinues of vassals, who were much more loyal to the local lord than to the faraway monarch, these dukes were very difficult to control. The kingdom became built up with heavily fortified castles, whose purpose was to protect the duke and his followers not only from foreign invasion but also from regional and local rivals.
Cultural and local divisions deepened; Frankish culture remained strong in the north, while southern France was more culturally Roman. Viking tribes had been sweeping into France at irregular intervals since the 700s. One group had settled Normandy, on the shores of the English Channel, and soon became known as Normans. In 911, after unsuccessfully attacking Chartres and then Paris, the Viking leader Rollo converted his tribe to Christianity and swore loyalty to France, in exchange for permission to settle permanently in the kingdom.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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