Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Die Franken The Franks

As it was custom during our fairy tale exchange, I prepared a counter lecture on German history for Nakamura-san. He first wanted an overview of German history until the German Empire. So I started at the beginning, where instead of a country we had many clans, one of them was called

Die Franken The Francs


from ancient Germanic frankon (= javelin). Germanic tribes were often called by their weapon of choice. Compare to Saxons who were using a weapon called seax (= long dagger). The francisca (throwing axe) is another weapon called after the franks, since they used this weapon too.

a seax

Origins & Mythology

the religion of the franks was Germanic Polytheism. When the Roman empire started to intrude in Germanic territory, the pantheon was supplemented by the Roman Gods. Also once the franks learned Roman lore, they found themselves ancestors in the Sicambri and Trojans.

Liber Historiae Francorum

This was written down in the history book ``Liber Historiae Francorum'' (history book of the Franks), where 12.000 Trojans led by Priam and Antenor moved to the Don river (Donau), settled in Pannonia and founded a city called Sicambria.


Unification Of The Tribes

Scholars think the Franks developed as a multi tribe entity out of many smaller earlier tribes.

Earliest written records are to be found 260 due to the first Roman invasion into Frankish territory.

100 years later in 356 the first Frankish king (Salian Dynasty) enters Roman territory stays there and is acknowledged king by the Romans.

By the end of the 5th century the Franks greatly expanded their territory now including the Netherlands south of the Rhine, Belgium and northern France. All the people living in these territories were merged into the Frankish tribe. This development gave rise to the Merovingian Dynasty.

outline of the Frankish empire from 481 to 814
(click to enlarge)

Merovingian Dynasty (481–751)

In 509 Clovis was the first to call himself King of the Franks (lat. rex francorum). Clovis' empire covered most of northern central Europe (Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands). However he divided his empire into four parts and passed them on to his four sons and successors. These sons again divided their part and passed it on to their sons splitting the empire into smaller and smaller regions.

The successors of the sons however would sooner or later wage war against each other and try to conquer territories of the other. In this period three distinct powers emerged: Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy.

In 613 Clothar II was able to reunite the whole empire and bound the power to his person by cutting corruption and power among the nobles of the empire. His son and successor Dagobert I was still militarily successful but after him the royal authority of the Merovingian Dyntasy started to diminish.

Finally in 751 Pipin the Short with the approval of the pope in Rome disposed of the last Merovingian king Childeric III, had himself crowned instead and thus started the Carolingian Dynasty.

Carolingian Dynasty (751–843)

The Carolingian kings started to unite central and western Europe under what was knows as the Carolingian Renaissance. Despite all the wars and different ethnics, Frankish rule and Christianity proved a good mean to control such a large area. The culture in the Frankish empire developed quite differently depending on the region and their rulers and their aims. Although these aims were often different the same basic belief system and loyalty bound all of them to the Carolingian Dynasty. These ideas and culture were basically a mixture of ancient Germanic and Roman ideas.


Germanic people are known to have served in Roman armies since the days of Julius Caesar. However the Franks also kept invading Rome, which lead to confrontations of having Franks on both sides. After a successful invasion, it was only due to a tribe of Franks loyal to the Romans, that power could be restored. From that day own Franks in the Roman army were promoted to high ranks.

Therefore Frankish at this time and later were organized just like the renown Roman army, while merging in German customs and bringing some innovations. Also serving in the Roman army showed the Franks that in order to gain power they must stop fighting as one tribe, and start fighting as one conglomerate of many tribes with equal rights but under their rule.

Early Days

Roman Procopius wrote about the Franks in 539:

At this time the Franks, hearing that both the Goths and Romans had suffered severely by the war . . . forgetting for the moment their oaths and treaties . . . (for this nation in matters of trust is the most treacherous in the world), they straightway gathered to the number of one hundred thousand under the leadership of Theudebert and marched into Italy: they had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot soldiers having neither bows nor spears, but each man carried a sword and shield and one axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handles was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatters the shields of the enemy and kill the men.
and his contemporary Agathias wrote:
The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is very simple. . . . They do not know the use of the coat of mail or greaves and the majority leave the head uncovered, only a few wear the helmet. They have their chests bare and backs naked to the loins, they cover their thighs with either leather or linen. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this. At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached. They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapons except the double edged axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long they can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin, and also in hand to hand combat.
Merovingian Dynasty

Under the Merovingian Dynasty the Franks strongly adapted Roman organization and ideas of military and warfare. They even started/continued to wear Roman coats of arms and symbols. This is especially significant since it lead the army to not only consist out of Franks, but of many tribes like the Saxons, Alans, Taifals, Alemanni and later Burgundy.

Under the king were the leudes, sworn followers of the king. The king had an elite bodyguard called truste (trusties). For day-to-day business he also had a normal bodyguard the puen. Later a new unit called levy was introduced. A levy consisted of men able to fight from a district and were a kind of early military service to the king (Origin of the English expression ``To levy troops'').

Carolingian Dynasty

Frankish military outfit in the later Carolingian dynasty


the language of the Franks was Old Frankish. But not many words of this language are still known. It evolved into Old Dutch in the low countries and was later replaced by Old German and Old French.



Frankish paganism was most probably very similar to German paganism showing many rituals and daily activities around the multiple deities. Their gods were worldly and had relations to things in this world, unlike the transcending Christianity.


The first conversions to Christianity were in the late 5th century with Clovis I in 496 being the first king to do so after marrying a woman from Burgundy. Along with him probably around 3000 of his soldiers converted. Also with the Frankish lacking aristocracy and gaining in power this development made them a good friend of the church and the pope in Rome.

Although many of Clovis' successors also converted to Christianity it took as much as 200 years for the Franks to convert as a whole. Resisting pagans true to their faith were persecuted and executed.

Baptism Of Clovis I

Art & Architecture


very little is preserved of the Merovingian Dynasty regarding architecture and art. But there are some small baptisteries in South France, which are still standing.

Apart from architecture some few pieces of art like jewelry or ornate weapons were found as burial gifts to the Merovingian kings.

Merovingian Goblet


with the Carolingian Renaissance came a great boost in art and architecture. One reason was that Charlemagne encouraged the arts and even imported foreign artists to promote the art of his empire.

One example for the peak of Carolingian architecture is the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany.

Palatine Chapel

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