Merovingian Franks

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The Franks were one of the Germanic peoples who conquered parts of the Roman Empire during the Migration period (fifth century a.d.) and were united into a powerful kingdom covering most of Gaul under King Clovis (a.d. 481/82–511). "Merovingian" is the name of the dynasty he founded (taken from the name of his perhaps legendary ancestor Merovech), which reigned until a.d. 751 and traditionally has been regarded as the first dynasty of the kings of France. (The name France derives from this people.) Who were the Franks, and where did they come from?

The sixth-century bishop Gregory of Tours, the principal narrative source, thought they came from Pannonia (modern-day Hungary and parts of the former Yugoslavia). In the next century a theory emerged that they were descended from the Trojans. The following centuries saw many extravagant developments of these myths of national origin (including notions that the Franks came from Phrygia or from Scandinavia). In 1714 a scholar named Fréret advanced what Patrick Périn has called the "first really scientific theory" of their origin, that they were born of a league of Germanic peoples whose ancestors had fought Julius Caesar. The development of Merovingian archaeology coupled with criticism of the written sources since his day has made this the consensus view.

Julius Caesar, writing in the 50s b.c., and Roman writers of the first century a.d., such as Pliny and Tacitus, describe a number of Germanic peoples and discuss their customs; they make no reference to the Franks. The Franks seem to have emerged as a coalition of smaller peoples mentioned by these authors, such as the Chamavi, the Chattuari, and the Bructeri, living along the Lower Rhine and galvanized to join forces to attack the third-century Roman Empire, weakened by civil war. The new name, which comes from a root meaning "the bold," is cited in connection with a barbarian force defeated near Mainz by the future emperor Aurelian (r. a.d. 270–275), and Franks were exhibited in his triumph. Franks also are mentioned as dangerous pirates, whose depredations, like those of the Saxons named with them, led to the creation of a new system of military defenses along the English Channel. Still others appear at this early date as Roman allies, among them, King Gennobaudes, who concluded a pact (foedus) with Rome in a.d. 287–288. By the time the emperors Diocletian (r. a.d. 284–305) and Constantine I (r. a.d. 306–337) had restored the frontiers and the empire as a highly centralized and militarized state, the Franks were referred to often in their lower Rhenan homeland, divided into groups of varied and shifting allegiances.

Archaeologists have separated the early pre-Migration Germans into three geographic groupings, primarily on the basis of ceramic types: (1) a northern one, around the northern seacoasts; (2) an eastern one, extending from the Elbe into Bohemia; and (3) a western one, the "Rhine-Weser group." This seems to accord with the traditional division by linguists of northern, eastern, and western dialects of Old Germanic, although the evidence is based on post-Migration sources. The material culture does not itself suggest great differences in lifestyle among these groups. They tended to live in small villages with an economy that combined cereal agriculture with animal husbandry (as Tacitus noted, wealth was measured in cows).

A typical form of Germanic building to the north, well known from such excavations as Bielefeld-Sieker in Westphalia, was a long, rectangular, timber-frame, thatched-roof building shared by people and cattle. Various other timber-post constructions, including rectangular two-room houses and small buildings with dug-out areas underneath (causing them to be misleadingly labeled "sunken huts"), which were used as workshops and for storage, also are well documented. Much of the pottery was handmade; it was often plain but might be decorated with incised linear ornament or crude stamps. Women did the weaving, spinning, and textile production and, along with the slaves, were responsible for the agricultural work, according to Tacitus. Examples of textiles have been found on the "bog bodies," bodies thrown into the swamps or marshes so soft tissue, clothing, and so on have been preserved in this anaerobic environment. The men were responsible for ironworking, a craft of great prestige and technical complexity, largely carried out by local smiths working with small quantities of ore in small ovens. Their supreme product, a sword with a hard cutting edge and a core of softer steel for greater flexibility, proved its worth in battle with the Romans.

Tacitus emphasizes the warrior values of early Germanic society, which was patriarchal in character, based on clan groupings (called Sippe), and socially divided into nobles, free warriors, and slaves. His evocation of tribal assemblies, where the free warriors clashed their weapons to voice assent to decisions, misled nineteenth-century scholars eager to find in them the roots of democratic institutions. Research emphasizes the emergence of war kingship and war bands as a dynamizing force at the time when the Franci and other new, aggressive confederations (Alemani) appear in the written sources. As Patrick Geary points out, the pre-Migration Germanic tribes were unstable groupings whose sense of unity was forged by myths of common ancestry and hence of pure blood. The thiudans, a man of noble lineage linked to divine ancestors, was a kind of religious king and a guarantor of law, social order, fertility, and peace. The figure Tacitus called a dux (general), chosen to lead the tribe in war and chief of his own band of eager young warriors (a comitatus), had become by the third century the forger of a new kind of kingship (suggested by the Celtic loanword reiks) and a new kind of cultural identity.

The archaeological signatures of this new identity are the warrior graves and, in particular, what have been called "chieftains' graves." The usual form of burial in the Rhine-Weser culture, and among the Germanic groups in general, had been of cremated remains, often placed in an urn, with few or no grave goods. In the late third century inhumation burials with a rich variety of grave goods begin to appear. In one of the earliest, from Leuna near the Saale River, a man was laid in a carefully constructed wooden chamber with a collection of fine Roman pottery, glassware and metalware, and three silver arrowheads. He also wore spurs; in a nearby pit was found the skull and lower-leg bones of a horse.

In the following century, graves deriving from and often embellishing upon this new funerary model spread through the Germanic regions within and without the Roman frontier along the Rhine, with many of them found in the Frankish territories. Its basic elements are inhumation; burial wearing everyday dress, as indicated by such items as belt buckles; and a funerary deposit consisting of pottery and perhaps glassware and metalware of Roman manufacture, distinctive brooches, and sometimes other personal ornaments in female graves and weapons in many male graves. These weapons might consist of a single spear or axe, but the richest graves might include a panoply (a group of weapons), including a sword and a shield. In about a.d. 350 such graves appear in significant numbers at Roman military sites, such as Krefeld-Gellep and Rhenen on the Rhine frontier, but they also turn up in a variety of funerary contexts across northern Gaul, far from places of Germanic settlement.

Hörst-Wolfgang Böhme, Périn, and other researchers have argued that that these new funerary customs reflect the militarization of the late Roman Empire, a process that drew heavily upon barbarian, and particularly German, manpower. Sometimes this "conscription" was done by force: Constantine settled defeated Frankish groups as a kind of half-free militia (laeti) on lands they could farm in return for hereditary military service. Other Franks freely enlisted; Frankish units are known in the Notitia Dignitatum, a muster roll of Roman forces from c. a.d. 400. By that time some Franks, such as Silvanus and Arbogast, held the highest commands: they have been called "imperial Germans." This military service surely encouraged a sense of complex identity: a funerary inscription in Pannonia proudly identifies its author as both a Frank and Roman soldier.

Valor in war always had been the supreme German virtue; the late Roman world provided many more opportunities to make it the route to high status and success. The grave of a military leader buried outside the town of Vermand, in northern Gaul, with his helmet, his display of weapons, and his fine tableware, vividly reflects the material success of one such soldier. It also hints at a double allegiance: to the Roman world he served and to the new military elite, Germanic by the choice of this funerary tradition, to which he belonged. Small cemeteries of barbarian graves from the Namur region (Haillot) to the Somme (Vron) reflect the settling of these Germanic groups within the empire and their defending it.

The complicated events of the fifth century, which led to the breakup of the Roman Empire in the west, served to consolidate this new sense of Frankish identity. Unlike such barbarian peoples as the Huns, sweeping in from the Asian steppes, or the Visigoths, fleeing and fighting and plundering over forty years from the Danube to Italy to end in southwest Gaul in a.d. 418, the Franks had no vast migration to make. Already well established in their homeland, straddling the Lower Rhine frontier and divided into competing groups, their leaders might have expanded their power opportunistically as circumstances permitted or might have had it fall into their hands. The small garrison occupying the fort of Vireux-Moulin, overlooking the Meuse, between about a.d. 370 and 450 is a symbol of this relative stability in a changing world. It is significant that they maintained the furnished burial traditions when these customs already had disappeared in the more Romanized regions south and west.

In 451 some Frankish forces helped Aetius halt the Hunnic invasion of Gaul; it is at about this time that the lineage of Childeric became established in the fortified town of Tournai (Belgium). After his death, his son Clovis defeated the last Roman commander in northern Gaul (a.d. 486), thus launching a career of successful aggression that would leave him, at his death in 511, master of three-fourths of Gaul, from the Pyrenees to the Rhine. Having wiped out the competing Frankish reiks lineages, he had become the founder of the Merovingian dynasty. Clovis took two other highly significant steps in the shaping of the Frankish identity. He converted to the Catholic faith, thus opening the way to an enduring alliance between the king and the Gallic church. He also made his capital in Paris, deep in the heart of Romanized Gaul and far from the original Frankish homelands.

Perhaps the most striking archaeological reflection of the reign of Clovis is the revival of the weapons- and ornament-furnished burial traditions and their spread into new regions. Only in the core Frankish regions between the Somme and Rhine did weapons burial continue in the fifth century, an indication that among the Franks it had taken hold as a marker of cultural identity. After the middle of the fifth century, it derived new life from "Danubian influences," such as the colorful gold-and-garnet jewelry style that appears in Pouan and Airan in Gaul. Childeric's grave, whose discovery in 1653 marks the beginning of Merovingian archaeology, was a spectacular restatement of the elite furnished burial.

The many chieftains' graves of the "Flonheim-Gültlingen" type of the late fifth century and early sixth century reflect a greater standardization of the elite burial model. This is particularly notable in the case of the weapons panoply: a long sword, a kind of harpoon called an angon, one or more lances, arrows, a shield, a curved throwing axe, and a short one-edged stabbing sword called a scramasax. The axe was given the name francisca and was described by the mid-sixth century Byzantine writer Agathias as a typical Frankish weapon. Bright polychrome gold cloisonné ornament, which might decorate sword hilts or scabbards, belt buckles or brooches, also are typical of this elite model. Such graves appear as the focal point of new burial groups in established cemeteries, such as Krefeld-Gellep and Rhenen along the Lower Rhine, or as the starting point of new cemeteries, such as Charleville-Mézières or Lavoye, which reflect expanding Merovingian power under Clovis and his sons.

The originality of this "Frankish funerary facies" is underlined by its spread throughout the sixth century. Early archaeologists, among them Édouard Salin, thought that funerary customs were inherited from the distant tribal past and assumed that the other barbarian peoples in Gaul, the Burgundians and the Visigoths, would have their own distinct rites and artifacts. Neither of these groups, however, developed an archaeologically recognizable set of funerary customs, at least before they had been absorbed into the Merovingian kingdom. Cemeteries such as Herpes and Biron in Aquitaine or Brèves and Charnay in Burgundy now are identified either with Frankish groups who had come to hold territory in the conquered areas or with local groups eager to adopt the customs of the victors.

The former case has been argued at Bâle-Bernerring, in Switzerland, where the leading figures were buried in elaborate funerary chambers under mounds, as it is now known that Childeric had been in Tournai. The latter interpretation has been proposed at Frénouville, in lower Normandy, a site that was excavated by the Centre de Recherches d'Archéologie Médiévale of the University of Caen in the 1960s and 1970s. There were distinct late Roman and Merovingian zones in this cemetery, marked by different grave orientations and funerary practices. Still a comprehensive anthropological analysis of the skeletal material, the most thorough and rigorous yet to be completed for any French site, indicates that it is the same population. This suggests that this sixth-century community in the remote Gallic northwest was adopting the vocabulary of new funerary custom to say, in a distorted echo of the Pannonian inscription cited earlier, we are Gallo-Romans and Merovingians, too.

The reign of Clovis also saw the rise of the socalled Salic Law, which, like the codes of the Burgundians and the Visigoths and the parallel codes of the latter groups for their Roman subjects, marks the crystallization of ethnic consciousness. Even after these areas, the Burgundian and Visigothic Kingdoms, roughly modern southeastern and southwestern France, were conquered by the Franks (Aquitaine in a.d. 507 and Burgundian kingdom [Burgondie] in a.d. 536) the principle of the "personality of law" was long maintained; indeed in the seventh century a new law code was promulgated for the Rhenish Franks around Cologne. Gregory of Tours, writing in the a.d. 570s and 580s, reflects a world where ethnic distinctions, though sometimes mentioned, matter little compared with social striving, political allegiance, and of course, religion.

The conversion of the Frankish elites, at least in a perfunctory sense, advanced rapidly, although this was not understood by archaeologists such as Salin, who tended to interpret furnished burial as a "pagan" rite. The spectacular grave goods that accompanied a woman and a young boy, doubtless of royal rank, who were buried within a funerary chapel in front of Cologne cathedral c. a.d. 530/40 prove the contrary. This is not to deny that some rural magnates might have resisted the new religion for a time; it is plausible that the sixth-century cremation burial under a small tumulus at Hordain, near Douai, represents one such. As Michael Müller-Wille points out, however, the royal example, no doubt enhanced by the prestige of holy men and of ranking churchmen (the two need not coincide), of martyr graves and ad sanctos burial (next to or near a martyr or a saint-confessor) encouraged the emerging magnate class to shift to more Christian burial styles. Thus one finds numerous richly furnished elite burials in family chapels: one was built near the older tumulus at Hordain. The ornament might include clearly Christian motifs, such as the cross on the silver locket worn by a girl buried around a.d. 600 in a chapel in Arlon (Luxembourg).

By this time "Frank" referred to those subject to Frankish law, and the connotation of the term had shifted from "the bold" to "the free," that is, free of the tax obligations that the kings tried to impose on their "Roman" subjects. Even as writers, such as Pseudo-Fredegar in the seventh century, were developing myths of Frankish origins, real ethnic distinctions blurred: Roman names appeared in Frankish families and vice versa, and funerary custom was more likely to reflect social distinctions or regional identity or the new association of burial with piety. In practice, Franks had come to signify the elite and free families of the Merovingian kingdoms, particularly of Neustria and Austrasia.

See alsoMerovingian France (vol. 2, part 7); Tomb of Childeric (vol. 2, part 7).


Böhme, Hörst-Wolfgang. Germanische Grabfunde des 4. Bis5. Jahrhunderts zwischen unterer Elbe und Loire. 2 vols. Munich: Müncher Beiträge zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte, 1974.

Die Franken: Wegbereiter Europas. 2 vols. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1996. (Catalog from the Reiss-Museum, Mannheim, of the largest exhibition of Frankish archaeology, with many fundamental articles by leading scholars.)

Geary, Patrick J. Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1974. (The principal narrative source, written by a Gallo-Roman bishop of Tours during the late sixth century.)

Heinzelmann, Martin. Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century. Translated by Christopher Carroll. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (Authoritative study of the principal historian of the Franks.)

James, Edward. The Franks. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

Müller-Wille, Michael. "Königtum und Adel im Spiegel der Grabkunde." In Die Franken: Wegbereiter Europas. Vol. 1, pp. 206–221. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1996.

Musset, Lucien. The Germanic Invasions: The Making of Europe,a.d. 400–600. Translated by Edward James and Columba James. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. (A still-pertinent overview of the period, with an excellent bibliography to 1975.)

Périn, Patrick, and Laure-Charlotte Feffer. Les Francs. Vol. 1, A la conquête de la Gaule. Vol. 2, A l'origine de la France. Paris: Armand Colin, 1997. (Well-illustrated, accessible overview with archaeological emphasis.)

Reichmann, Christoph. "Frühe Franken in Germanien." In Die Franken: Wegbereiter Europas. Vol. 1, pp. 55–65. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1996.

Riché, Pierre, and Patrick Périn. Dictionnaire des Francs: Les temps Mérovingiens. Paris: Bartillat, 1996.

Salin, Édouard. La civilisation mérovingienne d'après les sépultures, les textes et le laboratoire. 4 vols. Paris: Picard, 1950–1959. (Although dated and much criticized, this is still a fundamental work by the pioneer of twentieth-century Merovingian archaeology in France.)

Todd, Malcolm. The Early Germans. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. (Archaeological background.)

Zöllner, Erich. Geschichte der Franken bis zur Mittel des sechsten Jahrhunderts. Munich: Beck, 1970.

Bailey K. Young