Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Rise of the Franks

The West-Goths, the Burgundians, the Vandals, the East-Goths, and the Lombards, all helped in their own way to make Europe what it is to-day; yet none of them succeeded in founding a power that was to last as a separate state. Their work was largely to break down the rule of the Western Empire. The building up of a new state to take its place was to be the work of another people, the FRANKS.

The Franks were the earliest of all the Germanic invaders to fix themselves in the Roman province of Gaul, but they were the last to establish a power of their own in that land.

Gaul, in the five hundred years that had passed since its conquest by Julius Caesar, had become more Roman even than Italy itself. In its long rule by foreigners, however, it had decayed in strength. The spirit of patriotism had died out; the people in the latter days of the Empire had been ground down by oppressive taxation; so it no more than the other provinces was able to offer resistance to the barbarians.

A hundred years before the West-Goths crossed the Danube, bands of the Franks had been allowed to cross the Rhine, from their homes on the right bank of that river, and to establish themselves as the allies or subjects of Rome on the western bank. There they had dwelt, gaining in numbers and in power, until news came of the deeds of Alaric. When the Vandals, Burgundians, and other Germanic tribes sought to cross the Rhine, the Franks on the left bank resisted them, but their resistance had been overcome.

Franks crossing the Rhine


Then the Franks also set out to build up a power of their own within the Roman territory. Gradually they occupied what is now northern France, together with Belgium and Holland. When the Huns swept into Gaul, the Franks had fought against them, side by side with the Romans and West-Goths. And when Attila was defeated and had retired, the Franks were allowed to take possession of certain cities in the valley of the Rhine which the Huns had won from the Romans.

So, by the time that Odoacer overthrew the last of the Roman Emperors of the West, the Franks had succeeded in getting a good footing in the Empire. But they were yet far from strong as a people. They were still heathen, and they had not yet learned, like the Goths, to wear armor or fight on horseback. They still went to war half-naked, armed only with a barbed javelin, a sword, and an ax or tomahawk. They were not united, but were divided into a large number of small tribes, each ruled over by its own petty king.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


Besides all this, they had many rivals, even in Gaul itself. In the southern part of that land, reaching across the Pyrenees and taking in nearly the whole of Spain was the kingdom of the West-Goths. In the southeastern part was the kingdom of the Burgundians. In the central part, the region that included the river Seine, a Roman officer named Syagrius still ruled, though the last of the Emperors of the West had fallen. And to the East of Gaul, were tribes who still remained on German soil—the Thuringians, some tribes of the Saxons, and the Allemanians.

It was mainly due to one man that the Frankish power was not overcome, but instead was able to overcome all its enemies. This man was Clovis, the King of one of the little bands of the Franks. Five years after the fall of Rome, he had succeeded his father as King of his tribe. Though he was only sixteen years of age at that time, he soon proved himself to be one of the ablest, but alas, one of the craftiest and cruelest leaders of this crafty and cruel people. In the thirty years that he ruled, he united all the Franks under his own rule; he greatly improved the arms and organization of the army; he extended their territory to the South, East, and West; and he caused his people to be baptized as Christians.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


One of the first deeds of Clovis was to make war on Syagrius, the Roman ruler. In this war the Franks were completely successful. Syagrius was defeated, and put to death; and the district over which he ruled became subject to Clovis. A story is told of this war which shows the rude and independent spirit of the Franks. When the booty was being divided by lot after the battle, Clovis wished to obtain a beautiful vase that had been taken from one of the churches, that he might return it to the priests. But one of his Franks cried out:

"Thou shalt have only what the lot gives thee!" And saying this he broke the vase with his battle-ax.

Clovis could do nothing then to resent this insult. But the next year he detected this soldier in a fault, and slew him in the presence of the army, saying:

"It shall be done to thee as thou didst to the vase!"

After the overthrow of Syagrius, Clovis turned to the conquest of other neighbors. One by one he set to work to get rid of the other kings of the Franks. Some he conquered by force; others he overcame by treachery. He persuaded the son of one king to kill his father; then he had the son put to death for the crime, and persuaded the people to take him as their king. Another king and his son were slain because they had failed to help Clovis in his wars; and he took their kingdom also. A third king was slain by Clovis's own hand, after he had been betrayed into his power. Still others of his rivals and relatives were got rid of in the same way. Then, when all were gone, he assembled the people and said:

"Alas! I have now no relatives to lend me aid in time of need."

But he did this, as an old writer says, not because he was made sad by their death, but craftily, that he might discover whether there remained any one else to kill.

In this way Clovis made himself sole King of the Franks. Already he had begun to extend his rule over other branches of the German people. The Allemanians, who dwelt to the eastward of the Franks, were beaten in a war which lasted several years, and were forced to take the King of the Franks as their overlord. After this the Franks began to settle in the valley of the river Main, where the Allemanians had dwelt; and in course of time this district came to be called Franconia, from their name.

Several wars too were waged between Clovis and the Burgundians; and here also the power of the Franks was increased. Most important of all were the conquests made from the West-Goths, who held Southern Gaul and Spain. Again and again Clovis led his Franks against this people. At one time Theodoric, the king of the East-Goths came to their aid and defeated Clovis with terrible slaughter. But in the end the Franks were victorious, and most of Southern Gaul was added to the Frankish territory.

Thus Clovis won for the Franks a kingdom which reached from the River Rhine on the North and East, almost to the Pyrenees Mountains on the South. To all this land, which before had borne the name Gaul, the name "Francia" was gradually applied, from the race that conquered it; and under the name of France it is still one of the most powerful states of Europe.

When Clovis first became King, the Franks worshiped the old gods, Woden and Thor. Before he died, however, he and most of his people had been baptized and become Christians. His conversion came about in this way. While he was fighting against the Allemanians, he saw his Franks one day driven from the field by the enemy. He prayed to the old gods to turn the defeat into victory; but still his troops gave way. Then he bethought him that his wife Clotilda had long been urging him to give up his old gods and become a Christian. He determined now to try the God of his wife; so he cried out:

"O Christ Jesus, I beseech thee for aid! If thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name!"

Baptism of Clovis


With this he renewed the battle, and at last won a great victory. As a result, Clovis became a Christian, and more than half of his warriors decided to follow his example. When the news was brought to the priests, they were filled with joy, and at once preparations were made for the baptism. Painted awnings were hung over the streets. The churches were draped in white, and clouds of sweet smelling smoke arose from the censers in which incense was burning. The King was baptized first, and as he approached the basin the bishop cried out:

"Bow thy head, O King, and adore that which thou hast burned, and burn that which thou hast adored!"

After this, Clovis was, in name, a Christian; but his conversion was only half a conversion. He changed his beliefs, but not his conduct. When the story was told him of the way Jesus suffered death on the cross, he grasped his battle-ax fiercely and exclaimed:

"If I had been there with my Franks I would have revenged his wrongs!"

So, in spite of his conversion, Clovis remained a rude warrior, a cruel and unscrupulous ruler. Nevertheless, his conversion was of very great importance. The Goths, Vandals, and Burgundians, had all been Christians at the time they invaded the Empire, but their Christianity was not of the kind the Romans of the West accepted. They were Arian Christians, and, as we have seen, there was great hatred between the Arians and the Roman or Athanasian Christians. In Africa, Spain, and Italy, therefore, the people hated their Arian masters. But it was different with the Franks. Because they believed as the Roman Christians did, their Roman subjects in Gaul accepted and supported their rule, and the Pope showed himself friendly to them.

This is one of the two chief reasons why the Frankish power was permanent. The other reason was that the Franks did not wholly leave their old home, as the other Germans did when they set out on their conquest. The Franks kept what they already had, while adding to it the neighboring lands which they had conquered. So their increase in power was a growth, as well as a conquest; and this made it more lasting.

When the barbarians conquered portions of the Roman Empire they did not kill or drive out the people who already lived there. Usually they contented themselves with taking some of the lands for themselves, and making the people pay to them the taxes which they had before paid to the Roman emperors. So it was with the Franks. The people of Gaul were allowed to remain, and to keep most of their lands; but the Franks, although they were not nearly so numerous as the Romans, ruled over the state. The old inhabitants were highly civilized while the Franks were just taking the first steps in civilization.

"We make fun of them," wrote one of these Romans, "we despise them,—but we fear them also."

As the years went by, the differences between the conquerors and the conquered became less. The Romans found that times were changed and they had to adopt the habits of the Franks in some respects. The Franks had already adopted the religion of their subjects; they began also to adopt their language and some of their customs. In this way, the two peoples at last became as one; but it was not until long after the time of Clovis that this end was fully reached.