views updated May 23 2018


A people of Germanic origin who played a decisive role in shaping western European history during four centuries extending from the late 5th to the late 10th century. During that period the term "Frank" assumed different meanings depending on the historical situation.

The Franks were mentioned for the first time in Roman written texts in the 3rd century in connection with Germanic raids across the Rhine frontier. The term, meaning "hardy" or "brave", referred not to a unified political and ethnic entity, that is, not to a gens or nation, but to loose, constantly shifting confederations involving various related tribes, each with its own name, living east of the lower Rhine. From time to time these tribes joined hands temporarily to raid Roman territory, to defend against other Germanic groups, or to fight other confederations. From the late 3rd century onward the Roman imperial government began to utilize members of what one modern authority called "this swarm of tribes" for a variety of purposes: settlement as war prisoners on abandoned farm land west of the Rhine; recruitment as auxiliaries in army units assigned throughout the Roman empire; acceptance as imperial allies (foederati ) granted lands in return for military service. Some tribes continued to raid Roman territory in search of booty to take back to their original lands east of the Rhine. This ambiguous relationship, continuing throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, resulted in the settlement of many Franks on Roman soil, especially along the northeast frontier. Archaeological evidence, chiefly from grave sites, demonstrates that these newcomers adapted many aspects of Gallo-Roman life without entirely abandoning their Germanic culture or their connections with the Germanic world east of the Rhine. Some individual Franks even rose to high status in the Roman world as generals and even consuls. But in the larger picture marking the decline and dissolution of the Roman Empire, the Franks remained an obscure, relatively insignificant force.

Tribal Migrations. As the 5th century progressed that picture began to change. On the larger scene entire Germanic "nations" led by well-established kings migrated en masse into the western part of the Roman Empire and eventually established independent kingdoms: visigoths, vandals, Burgundians, Ostrogoths, anglo-saxons. So complete was the dismemberment of the Empire that after 476 there ceased to be an emperor in the West. Roman Gaul was decisively affected by this process. The Burgundians occupied the Rhône valley, and the Visigoths took control of the lands south of the Loire River. The territory between the Loire and the Rhine, increasingly under control of military figures who claimed to represent the Roman government, provided the setting in which the Franks began to make their mark on history. Unlike the Germanic nations noted above, the Franks did not take possession of this area as a politically unified people. Rather, different groups from the "swarm of tribes" that together comprised the Franks slowly penetrated south and west from their original homeland on the right bank of the lower Rhine, a process that was often facilitated by the Roman imperial government. As the infiltration continued and the newcomers took up permanent residence, the tribal groups became more effectively organized under chiefs whose role was fundamentally military. Two such groupings became especially important. One involved Franks who moved south on both sides of the Rhine to establish an area of dominance centered around Cologne; this group would later be known as the Ripuarian Franks. The second group, called the Salian Franks, originally settled just south of the mouth of the Rhine in Batavia. From there the Salians expanded southward, eventually establishing control over old Roman cities such as Cambrai, Tournai, and Arras, and over the Gallo-Roman population that had long occupied that area. During that expansion the Salian Franks usually supported the authorities claiming to represent the Roman imperial government, especially in military operations such as those mounted to halt the intrusion of the Hunnic ruler Attila into Gaul or to block the Visigoth kingdom from expansion north of the Loire. For that effort the Salian leaders were well rewarded, as is illustrated by the rich contents of tomb of King Childeric (reigned 458481) found at Cambrai in 1653. Childeric's career also made it clear that the newcomers were slowly replacing the Romans as the effective rulers of northern Gaul.

The Merovingians. It was a Salian king, clovis (reigned 481 or 482511) and the dynasty he founded, the merovingians, who elevated the Franks to a central position in western part of the Roman Empire. One of Clovis' chief accomplishments was his unification of the "swarm of tribes" into a single political entity, an end Clovis achieved by the brutal murder of the leaders of rival tribes of Franks. He and his sons mounted a series of military campaigns that established Frankish rule over all of Gaul except small territories occupied by the Gascons, the Bretons, and the Visigoths in Septimania. While conquering Gaul the Merovingians also asserted their authority in varying degrees over Germanic peoples living east of the Rhine, including the Thuringians, the Alemanni, the Bavarians, and the Saxons. The might of the Franks was felt even in northern Italy as a result of their involvement in the sequence of events that witnessed the end of the Ostrogothic kingdom and the establishment of the Lombard kingdom. By the end of the Merovingian dynasty in 751 a succession of kings of Frankish descent had created Francia, a term used to describe a unified political entity that represented the most powerful and the most enduring of all the Germanic kingdoms established in the western part of the Roman Empire.

But the Frankish leaders of the Merovingian dynasty had achieved more. Despite the violence and brutality that characterized their rule, the Merovingian kings played a key role in creating a milieu in which the Frankish newcomers and the established Gallo-Roman elite gradually intermixed to create an aristocracy whose members considered themselves Franks, increasingly defined as freemen of any ethnic origin who accepted the overlordship of a Frankish king. The melding of Germans and Gallo-Romans was encouraged by the Merovingian system of government, which vested authority in a king as a war leader and his personal followers who were rewarded for serving the king loyally. By dispersing their wealth gained from seizure of the Roman public lands, from booty acquired through military victories, and from property confiscated from their political enemies, the kings were able to draw to their court both Frankish and Gallo-Roman aristocrats eager for wealth and status. Through family ties and friendship bonds those who had the king's trust drew an ever widening circle toward identification with the cause of the king. Religion provided another matrix linking the two populations. One of the highlights of Clovis' reign was his conversion to orthodox Christianity; in contrast with other Germanic kings who were Arians, Clovis thereby became the champion of the religion accepted by the bulk of the population in the West. Clovis' Frankish companions soon followed the example of their leader, thereby becoming Christians who shared a common ground with the Gallo-Roman aristocrats. The Frankish warriors who often received grants of land in return for their loyalty to their king found it sensible to adopt the prevailing agricultural system based on large estates tilled by a dependent population; this accommodation provided another common ground to share with their Gallo-Roman counterparts. All of these factors combined to erode slowly the distinctions between Franks and Gallo-Romans, forming in the process a homogeneous elite, which increasingly conceived themselves as Franks, that is, free men living under the overlordship of a Frankish ruler. The end product was the formation of the last of the Germanic gentes who shared in the dismemberment of the Roman Empire, the "Frankish nation", a nation formed after the great migrations through a process of assimilation and accommodation that provided elements of strength which permitted the Franks to play a decisive role in the development of the post-Roman western Europe world.

The Carolingian Dynasty. During the course of the 7th and early 8th centuries the Merovingian kings were increasingly stripped of their power and wealth by the very same aristocratic families that had long supported them in their rise to power. Finally, in 751 one of those factions brought the Merovingian dynasty's rule over the kingdom of the Franks to an end. That faction was led by a member of a powerful aristocratic family of Frankish origins, later known as the carolingians. In many ways the new rulers sought to continue the Frankish ways of their Merovingian predecessors. They titled themselves "kings of the Franks". They continued to be successful warrior kings, greatly expanding their political sway by subduing the Frisians, the Saxons, the lombards in Italy, the Avars in the Danube valley, Muslims in northeastern Spain, and the Aquitainians. These conquests allowed the kings to continue rewarding their followers, thus sustaining the aristocracy whose members counted themselves Franks. The Carolingian rulers retained the basic structures of government that had emerged under Merovingian rule in a fashion that prolonged the Frankish flavor of their rule; one of their chief concerns as rulers was to make more effective the political mechanisms which allowed the central government to restrain the ambitions of aristocratic families. They lent their efforts to strengthening the Christian establishment by putting the weight of royal authority behind a religious reform movement and a vigorous missionary undertaking. The kings played a key role in nurturing a cultural renaissance which gave new vigor to a concern that had long been significant in Gallo-Roman society, that is, the preservation of the Roman cultural heritage and the religious tradition of the patristic age. To the extent that Carolingian rule could be equated with the Franks, it could fairly be said that during the first half of the 9th century the Franks had achieved a position that allowed them to share center stage among the major powers in the Mediterranean world. Their political sway over the western European portion of the old Roman empire was unchallenged. They stood as equals to Roman emperors in Constantinople and the Muslim caliphs in Baghdad and Cordoba. They were widely recognized as the guardians of the Christian establishment in the West, a role symbolized by their protectorate over the papacy and the Papal States. Intellectual leaders from all over the WestItaly, Spain, Ireland, Anglo-Saxon Englandwere drawn to the Frankish court and to Frankish monasteries to share in shaping the carolingian renaissance.

However, the Carolingian regime fostered developments that began to efface its Frankish characteristics. From the moment that he took power, pepin iii, the first Carolingian king, modified the role of blood ties rooted in a Germanic past as the basis of royal authority in favor of religious sanction bestowed by the ecclesiastical establishment, including the Roman Pope. The concept of king as ruling by the grace of God, nourished by the revival of learning and given shape by the experience gained from governing an increasingly diverse population and from royal leadership in reforming religious life, eventually convinced Charlemagne, his religious and intellectual counselors, and the Pope that the title "emperor of the Romans" better suited reality than did "king of the Franks". The priestly function implied in the Carolingian concept of the imperial office radically redefined the responsibilities of the ruler and of his subjects in ways that effaced the old Frankish idea of the warrior king and his warrior followers to the point where that ethos survived only in a mythology that provided the substance of great epic poems compiled later in the Middle Ages. The bonds that linked the warrior king to his followers for the purpose of gathering the fruits of war were slowly transformed during the Carolingian period into bonds involving a lordvassal relationship based on personal allegiance of a vassal to a lord in return for a benefice, usually a grant of land, made by a lord to his vassal in order to permit the vassal to perform specified personal services. This transformation laid the basis for the feudal order in which the royal office, civic responsibility, and the public welfare had an entirely different meaning than did the original Frankish monarchy. The Carolingian reform created a religious establishment carrying a Roman stamp that set it a considerable distance apart from that which had taken shape under the rule of the Merovingian Franks. And the Carolingian cultural renaissance produced an intellectual, literary, and artistic milieu that had little association with anything Frankish. In short, although the Carolingian regime did not consciously disassociate itself from its Frankish roots, it blurred to some degree the Germanic elements that had played an important role in giving original shape to post-Roman world in western Europe.

That the age of the Franks had passed was made especially clear by political developments of the last half of the 9th century. What had once represented a united Francia, the realm of the Franks, now became a collection of independent kingdoms whose Frankish rulers of the Carolingian dynasty were eventually replaced by other ruling families with little or no connection to the Franks. For a brief span two of these kingdoms were known as the kingdom of the East Franks and the kingdom of the West Franks. However, in time each of these kingdoms fragmented into local lordships whose populations were linked by ties that had little to do with ethnic origins. Occasionally a late Carolingian king called attention to his Frankish heritage or was criticized for forgetting it. Eventually, the term "Franks" virtually disappeared from the vocabulary of the West, except for a territory known as Franconia. The Muslims often referred to the crusaders as Franks, and of course one of the major national states that emerged from the Middle Ages was called France. But these names had little to do with the remarkable people who from an obscure existence along the lower Rhine frontier came to dominate the history of western Europe for four centuries and to create the foundations upon which western Europe's remarkable history eventually was built.

See Also: arianism; carolingian reform; feudalism.

Bibliography: o. bertolini and c. violante, I Germani. Migrazionie regni nell'Occidente già romano: I Franci (Milan 1965). e. zÖllner, Geschichte der Franken bis zur Mitte des sechsten Jahrhunderts (Munich 1970). r. folz, a. guillou, l. musset, and d. sourdel, De l'antiquité au monde médiéval (Paris 1972). e. james, The Origins of France: From Clovis to the Capetians (London and Basingstoke 1982). k. f. werner, Les origines (avant l'an mil) (Paris 1984) 207496. h. h. anton, j. fleckenstein, r. schieffer, r. verhulst, and a. patschovsky, "Franken; Frankenreich", in Lexikon des Mittelalters 4/1 (Munich and Zurich 1987) cols. 689728. p. perrin and l.-c. feffer, Les Francs, 2 v. (Paris 1987). e. james, The Franks (London and New York 1988). r. schneider, Das Frankenreich, (2nd ed. Munich 1990). r. collins, Early Medieval Europe, 3001000 (New York 1991). r. kaiser Die Franken: Roms Erben und Wegbereiter Europas? (Idstein 1997); extensive bibliogaphy.

[r. e. sullivan]


views updated May 18 2018


FRANKS , English family, with an important branch in America. benjamin franks (c. 1649–c. 1716), son of an Ashkenazi merchant from Bavaria, was born in London but moved to the West Indies in the last decade of the 17th century. His checkered career took him to New York and Bombay where he made a deposition which was used in the piracy trial of Captain Kidd. He returned to London in 1698 and seems to have stayed there until his death. abraham (naphtali hart)

franks (d. 1708–09) was a founder of the London Ashkenazi community admitted to the Royal Exchange in 1697. His son aaron (1685 or 1692–1777) attained great wealth as a jeweler, and was said to have distributed £5,000 yearly in charity without distinction of race or creed. At his country house in Isleworth near London he gave musical receptions and entertained members of the aristocracy. Like other members of the family, he was closely associated with the affairs of the Great Synagogue. He took the lead in 1745 in the attempt to secure the intervention of the English court on behalf of the Jews expelled from Prague. His brother jacob *franks (1688–1769) was head of the American branch of the family, some members of which in due course returned to England and played a part in communal and public life. (See the chart, "Franks Family.")


C. Roth, The Great Synagogue, 1690–1940 (1950), passim; Oppenheim, in: ajhsp, 31 (1928), 229–34; L. Hershkowitz and I.S. Meyer (eds.), Letters of the Franks Family, 1733–48 (1968). add. bibliography: T. Endelman, Jews in Georgian England, index; Katz, England, 220–23, index.

[Cecil Roth]


views updated Jun 08 2018

Franks Germanic people who settled in the region of the River Rhine in the 3rd century. In the late 5th century, under Clovis I, they overthrew the remnants of Roman rule in Gaul and established the Merovingian Empire. This was divided into the kingdoms of Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy, but was reunited by the Carolingians, notably by Charlemagne. The partition of his empire into the East and West Frankish kingdoms is the origin of Germany and France.