The Franks

The Franks

Amid the chaos of the late 400s C.E., a Germanic tribe known as the Franks, a people ruled by a dynasty of kings founded by the war chief-tain Chlodovocar (ca. 466–511), conquered the old Roman province of Gaul. Known as Clovis, Chlodovocar defeated Syagrius (430–486 or 487), the last Roman offi cial in northern Gaul, at the Battle of Soissons in 486 C.E. and seized the former Roman province. Suddenly the ruler of a sprawling kingdom peopled by Romans, Romanized Gauls, and Germanic Franks, Clovis made a momentous decision that would alter the history of Germany.

On the heels of a hard-won victory over the Alemanni, Clovis con-verted to Roman Catholicism on the urging of his wife, the Burgundian princess Clotilda (475–545), who was already an adherent of the Latin faith. An account of the famous baptism of Clovis at Rheims in 496 C.E. is preserved in The Chronicle of St. Denis. The Chronicle presents the Frankish king’s conversion from “idolatry” as a holy miracle, accom-plished through divine intervention in order to facilitate the conversion of his subjects to Christianity.

While this account, written by a pious Catholic monk, suggests that divine inspiration and the faith of Clovis’s devoted wife swayed the Frankish king, he no doubt also had more worldly motivations. By converting to Latin Christianity, and forcing his Frankish subjects to abandon pagan religiosity as well, Clovis united Romans and Germans under his leadership. This gave the Frankish kingdom its cohesion and vitality, something lacking in the other Germanic kingdoms where the Roman population saw their pagan, or heretical, Arian Christian overlords as foreign tyrants.

In any case, Clovis became an effective champion of the Catholic faith. In a series of successful campaigns, he gradually subdued neighboring Germanic tribes, including the Thuringians, who dwelt near the Harz Mountains in central Germany, and the Alemanni, whose lands were located near the shores of Lake Constance in southern Germany and Switzerland, facilitating their sub-sequent conversion to Christianity.

Clovis founded a dynasty known as the Merovingians, after their mythical progenitor, Merovech. During the fi fth and sixth centuries, the Merovingian kings conquered several other Germanic tribes, gradually absorbing these conquered peoples into a growing Frankish kingdom that sprawled across central Europe.

Ardent champions of Latin Christianity, the Merovingians compelled conquered Germanic tribes, many of whom still clung to pagan or heterodox religious tradi-tions, to convert to the Roman Catholic faith. Thus, the Merovingians conquered the Alemanni in 496, transforming their homeland in south-western Germany into a duchy of their growing empire and bastion of Catholic religiosity.

By the reign of the Merovingian king Chlothar I (ca. 497–561), who succeeded his father Clovis in 511, the Franks held sway over most of the territory that constitutes modern Germany and had begun incursions into the territory of the pagan Germanic tribe known as the Saxons, whose homeland was in northern Germany near modern Holstein.

In building their kingdom in central Europe, the Merovingians waged constant wars of conquest against other Germanic peoples. Powerful deputies known as mayors of the palace led these campaigns for the Merovingian kings, gradually amassing their own military and political clout. By the 700s C.E., this position had become the hereditary possession of a dynasty founded by the able military commander Charles Martel (ca. 688–741), who invaded the lands of the Saxons and fought Muslim enemies in the Pyrenees in the name of the Merovingians.

In 751, his son, Pépin III (Pépin the Short) (714–768), serving as mayor of the palace under the Merovingians, usurped the Frankish throne with the blessing of the bishop of Rome, Pope Zacharius (d. 752). This bold move established the Carolingian dynasty and forged a symbiotic rela-tionship between these rulers and the papacy, with the new Frankish kings offering protection to the church in exchange for ecclesiastical legitimation.