Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

The Gauls and the Franks

The great and famous land of France takes its name from a powerful tribe of Northmen, the Franks, who began to overrun the country about three hundred years after the birth of Christ. Before the day of the Franks the land was known as Gaul, and its people, the Gauls, were a Celtic race of the same blood as the ancient Britons. Like the Britons, they, too, were compelled to bow their necks to the yoke of Rome, and to submit to the great Roman General, Julius Caesar. It was from Gaul that Caesar sailed to attack Britain, and it was of Gaul and its conquest that he wrote in his famous work which is still read by all who study the Latin tongue.

The Gauls had lived in the land for many centuries before they were attacked by Rome. In early days they had been a very wild, fierce people, clad in skins, living by the chase, and divided into tribes which were always at war with each other.

As time went on they learned to grow crops, to work metals, to build houses, to wear clothes and ornaments, and to gather wealth. In religion they worshipped many gods who were supposed to dwell in the hearth-fire, in glades, rocks, and rivers. Their priests were called Druids, and had great authority, not only in religious matters, but in the affairs of everyday life. The Druids were the priests, the judges, the doctors, and the poets of the race. Few dared dispute the decree of the Druids. One who did so was at once cut off from his fellow-tribesmen. The Druids ordered that no one should help him or befriend him in any way, not even speak to him. This terrible punishment soon broke down the disobedience of the most stubborn.

The Gauls were men of great size, with long, yellow hair, and fierce blue eyes and powerful limbs. In battle they were famous for the fury of their onset, but, if once beaten back, they rarely made a second assault with equal power. A Roman soldier who fought against them says; "All the Gauls are of very high stature. They are white, golden-haired, terrible in the fierceness of their eyes, greedy of quarrels, bragging, and insolent. A band of strangers could not resist one of them in a brawl, assisted by his strong, blue-eyed wife, especially when she begins—gnashing her teeth, her neck swollen, brandishing her vast and snowy arms, and kicking with her heels at the same time—to deliver her fisticuffs, like bolts from the twisted strings of a catapult. The voices of many are threatening and formidable. They are quick to anger, but quickly appeased. All are clean in their persons; nor among them is ever seen any man or woman, as elsewhere, squalid in ragged garments. At all ages they are apt for military service. The old man goes forth to the fight with equal strength of breast, with limbs as hardened by cold and constant labour, and as careless of all dangers, as the young. Not one of them—as in Italy is often the case—was ever known to cut off his thumbs to avoid becoming a soldier."


A Gallic village

For three hundred years the Gauls lived under Roman rule, and during this time they made many changes in their manners, their dress, their speech, and their dwellings. They gave up their old wild ways of life, and learned much from their new masters. They adopted the Roman dress and the Roman speech; they built fine houses, made good roads, set up schools and colleges, and advanced a long way in many peaceful pursuits. They gave up the worship of their old heathen gods and became Christians, and each large city had its Bishop, and its temples were changed to churches.

But as time went on a great danger threatened Gaul from the North. Great hordes of savage warriors swept from the vast forests of Germany, and came into Gaul to plunder the land and destroy the people. These fierce tribes did not fear the Roman legions, for the power of Rome was fast dying, and the Gauls had to depend upon themselves to beat off these terrible enemies.

It was about A.D. 300 when these Northmen marched from their fastnesses beyond the Rhine, and began to assail Gaul in search of booty. There were many tribes of them, bearing many names, but all were Teutons, and all had, in a large degree, the same mode of life, the same customs, and the same religion. They were men of the woods and the fields, not lovers of towns—hardy, bold, fierce, and still holding to an ancient pagan faith. They loved battle, and their favourite gods and heroes were all famous for great deeds of prowess.

Their chief deity was Odin, the God of War. Next to Odin came Thor, the God of the Air, who launched the thunder, and whose darts were the flashes of lightning. Their heaven was Valhalla, and to this place none was admitted save the valiant warrior who fell in battle. He who died a peaceful death went to Niflheim, the place of punishment. The maidens who attended upon the God of War were held in high honour by the wild Northmen. These were the famous Valkyrie, whose duty it was to ride the air when battle threatened, and urge the warriors to fiercer and yet fiercer deeds of valour and bloodshed. When the fight was over captives were often offered up in sacrifice, and human blood stained the altars of Odin.

The Gauls fought hard to resist the onset of these terrible warriors, but they fought in vain. Little by little their land fell into the hands of the Northmen, and the country was seized by three great tribes—the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Goths—and from the Franks came the name of France. The Franks settled in the north-eastern part of Gaul; the Burgundians in the south-east; the Goths in the south-west, whence they spread into Spain.

The first great Frankish King was Clovis, who reigned from 481 to 511. He destroyed the last remains of Roman power in Gaul, and beat the Burgundians and the Goths, so that he came to be looked upon as the true founder of the Frankish kingdom.

When Clovis came to the throne he was a heathen, but his wife was a Christian, and strove her utmost to convert her husband. But Clovis still clung to the old faith, until there came a day of fierce battle with a German army, and the Franks were being beaten and driven back. Then Clovis called out to the God of the Christians for help, and vowed that he, too, would become a Christian if victory were given to his men. And in a wonderful way the tide of battle suddenly turned, and the Franks won a great victory. Clovis called his followers together and told them that he meant to become a Christian. They agreed to follow him, and all were baptized at Rheims. For this reason Rheims was looked upon as a sacred city for many centuries, and the Kings of France were crowned there and anointed with oil at a magnificent ceremony called the "Consecration of the King."

Although Clovis became a Christian, he remained at heart the wild, fierce Frank he had always been. He was a man who knew not pity, and he slew both friend and enemy, relation and stranger, if he thought that these stood in his way or were likely to do him harm. In the latter years of his reign he took up his abode at a spot which was to see the rise of one of the most famous cities of the world. It was a little walled town on an island in the River Seine. The Romans had built the town, and, as it lay in the midst of swamps, marshes, and mud-flats, they called it Lutetia, the City of Mud. Then it was inhabited by a tribe called the Parisii, and from them the little town took the name of Paris, and by that name it is known to this day.

When Clovis went to Paris it was already a Christian town. It had been converted by a missionary from Rome named Dionysius, who became the first Bishop of Paris, and was known as Denis. But times of persecution broke out, and the Bishop was seized and beheaded upon a hill about six miles from the city. Above the grave of the martyr a splendid church was built in later days, and consecrated in the name of St. Denis. The church became the burial-place of the Kings of France, and the name of the martyr was the rallying cry of French chivalry. "Montjoye, Saint Denis!" was the shout which rang from French lips over many a battle-field, and no war-cry has ever been more famous.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  |  Next: The Merovings and Carlovings
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.