Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

Rise of the Franks

T HE 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. After that the Franks, too, set out to build up a power of their own within the Roman territory, and gradually 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 had been 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. 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.

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!"

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.

When Clovis died, he left four sons. The Germans followed the practice of dividing the property of the father equally among his male children. The Franks now applied this rule to the kingdom which Clovis left, and divided it just as though it were ordinary property. Each son received a portion of the kingdom, and each was independent of the others. This plan turned out very badly and caused a great deal of misery. None of the kings was ever satisfied with his own portion; but each wished to secure for himself the whole kingdom which Clovis had ruled.

So murders and civil wars became very common among these "Merovingian" princes, as they were called. Almost all of the descendants of Clovis died a violent death; or else their long hair,—which was their pride and the mark of their kingship,—was cut and they were forced into monasteries. When one of the sons of Clovis died, his two brothers sent a message to their mother Clotilda saying:

"Send us our brother's children, that we may place them on the throne."

When the children were sent, a messenger came back to the grandmother, bearing a sword and a pair of shears, and telling her to choose whether the boys should be shorn or slain. In despair the old queen cried out:

"I would rather know that they were dead than shorn!"

Probably she did not mean this; but the pitiless uncles took her at her word. Two of the boys were cruelly slain; the third escaped from their hands, and to save his life he cut off his own hair and became a priest.

After a time the land of the Franks was divided into two divisions, and the people were called respectively East Franks and West Franks. Each land had a separate government. About a hundred years after the time of Clovis, two terrible women were queens in these lands. Their names were Fredegonda and Brunhilda; and their jealousy and hatred of each other caused them to commit many murders and stir up many wars. It is hard to say which of the two was the worse, but we feel some pity for Brunhilda because of her terrible end. She had murdered her grandchildren in order that she might keep the power in her own hands, and she was charged with causing the death of ten kings of Frankish race. But at last she fell into the hands of her enemies; and although she was an old woman of eighty years, she was put to death by being dragged at the heels of a wild horse. Her terrible rival had died some years before.

In many respects the laws of the Franks, and indeed of all the Germans, seem very strange to us. One of their strangest customs was that of the "feud," as it was called, and the "wergeld." Both of these had to do with such struggles as the one between Brunhilda and Fredegonda. In our day, and also among the Romans, if any one injured a man or killed him, the man or his family could go to law about it, and have the person who did the injury punished. But among the old Germans the courts of law had very little power, and many preferred to right their own wrongs. When a man was killed, his relatives would try to kill the slayer. Then the relatives of the slayer would try to protect him; and in this way a little war would arise between the two families. This was called a "feud"; and the struggle would go on until the number killed on each side equaled the number killed on the other. By and by men began to see that this was a poor way of settling their grievances. Then it became the practice for the man who did the injury to pay a sum of money to the one who was injured; and the families helped in this, just as they had in the feud. When the payment was given for the slaying of a person it was styled "wergeld" or "man-money."

After this the feud was only used when the offender could not or would not pay the wergeld. Every man,—indeed every part of the body from a joint of the little finger up to the whole man,—came to have its price; and the wergeld of a Frank or of a Goth was about twice that of a Roman.

Another interesting thing about the old Germanic law was the way the trials were carried on. Let us suppose that a man is accused of stealing. We should at once try to find out whether any one had seen him commit the theft; that is, we should examine witnesses, and try to find out all the facts in the case. That was also the Roman way of doing things; but it was not the German way. The Germans had several ways of trying cases, the most curious of which was the "ordeal." If they used this, they might force the man who was accused to plunge his hand into a pot of boiling water and pick up some small object from the bottom. Then the man's hand was wrapped up and sealed; and if in three days there was no mark of scalding, the man was declared innocent. In this way they left the decision of the case to God; for they thought that he would not permit an innocent man to suffer. Besides this form of the ordeal, there were also others. In one of these the person accused had to carry a piece of red-hot iron in his hand for a certain distance. In another he was thrown, with hands and feet tied, into a running stream. If he floated, he was considered guilty; but if he sank, he was innocent, and must at once be pulled out. All of these forms of trial seem very absurd to us, but to men of the early Middle Ages they seemed perfectly natural; and they continued to be used until the thirteenth century.

In spite of the wickedness of the descendants of Clovis, and in spite of the divisions of the kingdom, the power of the Franks continued to increase. For about one hundred and seventy years the Merovingian kings were powerful rulers; then for about one hundred years they gradually lost power until they became so unimportant that they are called "do-nothing" kings. The rich estates which Clovis had left to his descendants were not wasted, through the reckless grants which the kings had made to their nobles. So poor were the kings that they could boast of but small estates and a scanty income; and when they wished to go from place to place they were forced to travel in an ox-cart, after the manner of the peasants. Now they had few followers, where before their warbands had numbered hundreds. All this made the kings so weak that the nobles no longer obeyed them. The government was left more and more to the charge of the kings' ministers; while the kings themselves were content to wear their long flowing hair, and sit upon the throne as figureheads. The time had come when, indeed, the kings "did nothing." They reigned, but they did not rule.

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