The Franks, C. 481-751 A.D.

[Excerpted from Dana Carleton Munro, The Middle Ages, 395-1272 (New York: The Century Company, 1921), pp. 69-79]

Gregory of Tours' History. The early history of the Franks is very obscure. In the latter half of the sixth century Bishop Gregory of Tours wrote a History of the Franks which until recently was accepted as trustworthy. Modern scholarship has shown that the good bishop's account of Clovis and his immediate successors cannot be accepted as soberly historical. The History, however, is full of interest and throws light upon many a dark point in the civilization of the age. Consequently, in the early portion of this chapter Gregory will be drawn upon f reely and his statements will be used to illustrate conditions among the Franks. It would be wasted effort, however, to attempt, from the meager legends, to reconstruct any of the history before the advent of Clovis.

Conquests of Clovis. When Clovis became king, about 481, he was about fifteen years old and ruled over only a portion of the Salian Franks, who dwelt in the valley of the upper Scheldt. His favorite residence was at Tournai. His people, who were still pagan and very backward in civilization, were noted for their treachery and perjury. They went into battle on foot, half-naked, armed with javelins, swords, and battle-axes The first extension of their territory was obtained by the conquest of the Roman lands to the south of their home. Syagrius "king of the Romans," was ruling the valley of the Seine and the country to the south as far as Orleans. This part of Gaul had never been conquered by the Germans and prided itself upon being Roman. But in 486 Clovis invaded it, quickly mafle himself master of the whole country as far as the Loire, and established his capital at Soissons. In this conquest Clovis had been aided by one of the other kings, who was a kinsman, but the latter received no share of the spoils; in fact, Clovis quarreled with him and slew him because he claimed a portion. A second kinsman, also a king of the Salian Franks, he killed for not aiding him. By treachery or battle he soon destroyed all of his other kinsmen who were, or might be, rulers. " Nevertheless," to quote Gregory, i' in a general assemblage he is said to have spoken concerning the kinsmen whom he had himself destroyed: ' Woe is me, who have remained like a pilgrim among foreigners, and have no kinsmen to aid me, if adversity befalls me.' But he said this not because he grieved at their death, but with the cunning thought that he might perhaps find one still alive whom he could kill." In 496 he subdued the Alamanni. He succeeded in obtaining possession of almost all the Gallic lands which the Visigoths had been occupying. In order to curb his power, Theodoric the Ostrogoth interfered and took the Narbonensis and Provence under his protection The last conquest made by Clovis was the kingdom of his Frankish kinsmen, the Ripuarians. He persuaded the son of an old ally to kill the latter and then slew the son to avenge the murder. Thus in a quarter of a century Clovis by his wars and treachery had become the ruler of almost all Gaul.

Conversion of Clovis. The most important event in the reign of this bloodthirsty barbarian was his conversion to Christianity. He had married a Burgundian princess, named Clotilda, who happened to be a Catholic, although most of the Burgundians were Arians. " Queen Clotilda did not cease to urge him to know the true God and leave his idols. But he could in no wise be moved to believe these things till at last he once on a time fell into a war against the Alamanni. When the two armies met, there was a fierce and bloody struggle, and the host of Clovis was on the point of being destroyed. Seeing this, he raised his eyes to heaven, his heart was touched, and with tearful eyes he said, ' Jesus Christ, Clotilda says that you are the son of the living God, and that you give help to those in trouble, and victory to those who put their hope in you: I pray you humbly for the honor of your aid. If you will now grant me victory over these my enemies, and if I thus experience that power which the people devoted to your name claims to have tested, I too will believe in you and be baptized in your name. For I have called on my own gods; but, as I find, they have forsaken me with their help. He won the victory and kept his promise; his sister and three thousand of his warriors were baptized at the same time. Clovis was the first, and is said to have been greeted by St. Remigius with the words, " Meekly bow thy neck, O Sigambrian; adore what thou hast burnt, burn what thou hast adored ! "

Clovis, Champion of the Catholic Faith. The consequences of this conversion were far-reaching. Clovis was the first German king to become a Catholic, as all the other German rulers who had adopted Christianity were Arians. Consequently, to the Catholics under Arian domination, he seemed their natural champion. The bishops of Rome soon entered into relations with the Franks, and their association was destined to become closer in later years. The Roman subjects of Clovis were the more ready to obey him, and even to look upon him as the agent of God, because he was an orthodox Christian. The good bishop of Tours, who wrote the account of Clovis' conversion, sums up his career as follows: " The Lord cast his enemies under his power day after day, and increased his kingdom, because he walked with a right heart before Him, and did that which was pleasing in His sight." Such is the language used by a conscientious and upright bishop concerning a king whose hands were red with the blood of his kinsmen, treacherously slain. The words of Gregory show how the orthodoxy of Clovis induced his subjects to overlook his evil deeds. Probably, if he had not been orthodox, the Greek emperor would not have sent ambassadors to confer upon him the titles of consul and of patrician, and thus make his rule more legitimate in the eyes of his Roman subjects. Moreover, Clovis found in his new faith a convenient pretext for war against any of his neighbors. " I cannot endure that those Arians should possess any part of Gaul. With God's aid we will go against them and conquer their lands."

Sons Of Clovis. After the death of Clovis in 511, four sons succeeded him as rulers of the Frankish kingdom. Their shares were very unequal and were not separated from one another by any natural boundaries; brotherly love was entirely lacking and each one sought to aggrandize himself by treachery or force; all were unscrupulous and cruel. Yet, in spite of their wars among themselves, they and their immediate successors greatly increased the extent of the kingdom by conquering southern Thuringia, Burgundy, Provence, and Bavaria. Their intestine wars and the murder of kinsmen were too frequent to be recorded in detail. Chlotar or Lothair, the youngest son of Clovis, had received a smaller share than any of his brothers, but by 558 he had secured the whole kingdom. He was noted, even among the Merovingians, for his cruelty; he had with his own hands cut the throats of two of his young nephews; he punished his own rebellious son by strangling him and burning his wife and sons alive. The Franks felt it to be a judgment of heaven when Chlotar died the year after he had killed his son. This was in 56I, just fifty years after his father's death.

Austrasia Neustria, and Burgundy. The kingdom was again parceled out among his four sons, and again without any regard to natural boundaries. One son died within a few years and his territory was divided among his brothers. From this time the names Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy were commonly used. In the first, the eastern portion over which Sigibert ruled, the inhabitants were mainly of Teutonic stock. Neustria, " the newest," i. e., the most recently conquered, was held by Chilperich, and its population was mainly of Gallo-Roman blood. The southern and southwestern parts of Gaul were ruled by Sigibert, although they were separated from Austrasia by the whole extent of Burgundy. Finally Guntram's kingdom of Burgundy was an ill-defined territorv, and included the valley of the upper Loire and most of the vailey of the Rhone. The city of Paris did not belong to any division, but was neutral property into which no one of the brothers could enter without the consent of the other two. Of such a method of division, civil wars were the natural outcome.

Brunhild and Fredegund. The half century which ensued before the kingdom of the Franks was again united under a single ruler is noted chiefly for the strife between Brunhild and Fredegund. The former was the wife of Sigibert and daughter of the Visigothic king of Spain. The latter was the concubine and later the queen of Chilperich. Both were beautiful and able women, with great influence over their husbands. When Sigibert married Brunhild he received a magnificent dowry with her; the wedding was celebrated with great pomp and luxury, and Brunhild's beautv and charm aroused general admiration. Chilperich, animated by jealousy, sought and obtained the hand of Brunhild's sister. He celebrated his wedding even more luxuriously than his brother had done, and on the morning after his marriage presented to his bride five cities. But Fredegund, who had been temporarily discarded. soon regained her sway over Chilperich, who openly brought her back to the palace as his mistress. The queen was incensed at this and threatened to return to her father. Chilperich did not wish to lose her dowry, and, in order to prevent the possibility of being obliged to restore it, had her murdered. From that time, Brunhild's chief aim in life was to avenge her sister's death. Impelled by his wife, Sigibert made war upon Chilperich. The latter was driven from his kingdom, and, in order to regain his power, had to hand over to Brunhild the five cities which he had formerly given to her sister. A few years later Sigibert was assassinated by agents of Fredegund and Brunhild was seized and thrown into prison. There by her beauty and charm she captivated the son of Chilperich and they were married. When Chilperich learned this, he attempted to seize his son, but the latter had himself killed rather than fall into his father's hands. The bishop who had performed the marriage ceremony was put to death by Fredegund. Chilperich in turn was assassinated. Murder followed murder, until finally in 6I3 Brunhild was betrayed and delivered to Lothair, son of Fredegund. She was accused of having caused the death of ten Frankish kings, and, after having been tortured, she was paraded about in mockery on a camel, and then bound to the tail of a wild horse and thus perished wretchedly." Fredegund had died peaceably in 597.

Character of Gregory of Tours. The bare outline of the horrors connected with these two queens illustrates the state of civilization among the Merovingians, but this is still better illustrated by the character and opinions of Gregory of Tours. He was the most important bishop m the Merovingian realm, and it is from his pages that most of the history of the times is gleaned. He was especially able to write an account of the events, as in many he had had an important part. His education was very faulty, but he had excellent sense and a highly moral character. He protected the poor and the helpless; he never shunned danger in the accomplishment of any duty; " between martyrdom and disobedience to the laws of God and the church, he would not have hesitated one moment." As one studies his life the sterling qualities of Gregory command admiration, but his feelings had become so blunted by familiarity with the conditions about him that he told of the most outrageous deeds of cruelty without any apparent revulsion or condemnation. His judgment of Clovis has already been cited. Brunhild, in spite of her crimes, is praised by him, as well as bv Gregory the Great; this may be because she favored the orthodox Catholics. It is interesting, and full of significance for the understanding of the times, to contrast with Gregory's attitude the statement of the biographer of St. Columban, whom Brunhild persecuted, that she was " a second Jezebel." Gregory's special favorite among the WIerovingian rulers was the " good king Guntram," as he styles him; yet he tells repeatedly of Guntram's cruelty and perjury. Clovis, Brunhild, and Guntram were orthodox and revered the church; in the eyes of Gregory such qualities seem to have atoned for evil life.

Administration. The Merovingians of the sixth century were despotic rulers. The old assembly of free men no longer met, possibly because the kingdom had become too large. The government was administered by the antrustions, counts, and dukes. The first were members of the royal household and accompanied the king on his iourneys from one royal estate to another, or in warfare. The most important of them was the major domus, or mayor of the palace, who was the chief of the household officials and acted as the king's deputy in case of need. The other chief officials were the marshal or constable, who had charge of the king's stable; the count of the palace, who was the king's legal adviser; the treasurer; and the secretaries, who were usually Gallo-Romans. The kingdom was divided into districts, over each of which a count or duke ruled. In Gaul the unit was the former civitas; in Germany, the former territory of a tribe; in each unit the count had legal, financial, and military power as the king's representative, and also had the right to condemn offenders to death. On the frontiers large territories were placed under the command of dukes, who had powers similar to those of the counts, but outranked the latter. Neither counts nor dukes received any salary, but they were al lowed a portion of the fines which they levied. This system gave rise to many exactions, as there was practically no check upon the power of the king's deputy in exploiting the subjects under his rule. The union of so much authority in the person of one official made it possible for him to achieve practical independence under a weak king.

Mayors of the Palace. After the long strife between Brunhild and Fredegund, the whole realm again, in 6I3, passed under the rule of a single king, Lothair II, because all the other male heirs had been killed. But the king had little real power and kept his position only by making concessions to his nobles. He was obliged to permit the mayor of the palace to hold office for life and not be removable at his pleasure. His successors gradually became weaker and weaker and are known as the fai~leant or "do-nothing" kings. The X actual power passed into the hands of the mayors of the palace Under Lothair the chief men in Austrasia had been Arnulf, bishop of Metz, and Duke Pippin. The latter was mayor of the palace and his daughter became the wife of Arnulf's son. The descend ants of this marriage, sometimes called the Arnulfings, were the real leaders in Austrasia and finally became the kings of the Caro lingian line. But nearly a century and a half was to intervene after 6I3 before the Merovingians were finally dispossessed. During the first part of this period the kings still were compara tively able, although the mayors were gaining greater power and were sometimes unruly. One actually kidnaped the royal heir in Austrasia and had his own son proclaimed king, but this action was premature and he was tortured to death by the king of Neustria. Much of the power then passed into the hands of Ebroin, mayor of both Neustria and Burgundy, whose authority was so great that he was able to put down all revolts, until he was murdered in 68I. The Austrasians then seized the oppor tunity to rally around Pippin the younger, grandson of Pippin the elder. After hard fighting Pippin finally defeated the mayor of Neustria in 687, and practically ruled over the whole kinvdom.

Pippin and the Church. Pippin, before his death in 7I4, had reconquered some of the lands on the frontiers which had become nearly independent dur ing the long struggle between the rival mayors. His success gave the leadership in the Frankish realm to the eastern portion, which was predominantly German, while the western, as we have seen, was mainly inhabited by the Gallo-Romans. He also aided the church in its missionary labors among the Germans. The Merovingian rulers had been Catholics, but had not been ardent in ahurch proselyting except by the sword in the hands of Clovis. The Arnulfings were now to become the great patrons of the missionaries; they aided the Roman Church and in turn were aided by it. Pippin laid the foundation for the close alliance which was to bind together the papacy and the Carolingians and to be so important to both parties. The need was urgent from Pippin's standpoint. He had subdued the Frisians, who had been troubling his lands by piratical raids, but he felt that his conquests would never be secure until the Frisians had become Christians and had abandoned their pagan practices. Consequently, he encouraged the labors of the Irish missionaries, who up to this time had had a practical monopoly of the field. He also sent to England for other missionaries, of whom St. Willibrord is the best known.

Charles Martel. Pippin's work was continued by his son Charles, later known as Martel, or "the Hammer." But, as Charles was an illegitimate son, Pippin had willed the succession to his grandson, who was only eight years old. In order to secure the succession for the child, Charles, who was twenty-five years old and already noted for his ability, had been imprisoned. The nobles of Neustria at once took advantage of the opportunity which was offered to them, by the rule of the child, of regaining their independence. They were successful at first; but Charles escaped from prison and soon subjected both Neustria and Austrasia. After a decislve battle in 7I7, he was recognized as mayor, and thenceforth neither the Merovingian kinglets nor the nobles of Neustria attempted to dispute the supremacy of the Austrasian mayors. In the following year the faineant Austrasian king died. Charles then recognized as king of the Franks the Neustrian king, whom he had previously driven into exile.

Ths Last Merovingian Kings. After this, the authority of the Merovingian kings was even less. Einhard, the secretary of Charles the Great, has left a wellknown description of them which depicts their position as it was viewed by the Franks of a later generation: " There was nothing left the king to do but to be content with his name of king, his flowing hair, and long beard; to sit on the throne and play the ruler; to give ear to the ambassadors that came from all quarters, and to dismiss them, as if on his own responsibility, in words that were, in fact, suggested to him or even imposed upon him. He had nothing that he could call his own beyond this vain title of king and the precarious support allowed by the mayor of the palace in his discretion, except a single country-seat, that brought him but a very small income. There was a dwellinghouse upon this, and a very small number of servants attached to it, sufficient to perform the necessary offices. When he had to go abroad, he used to ride in a cart, drawn by a yoke of oxen, driven, peasant-fashion, by a plowman, he rode in this way to the palace and to the general assembly of the people, that met once a year for the welfare of the kingdom, and he returned home in like manner. The mayor of the palace took charge of the government, and of everything that had to be planned or executed at home or abroad."

Civil Strife. At first, however, Charles Martel had to fight hard to maintain his power. During the years of civil strife after his father's death, many parts of the old Frankish realm had attempted to become independent. In rapid succession Charles had to put down a rebellion in Neustria, to subdue Swabia, Bavaria, and Aquitaine. His most striking military achievement, the defeat of the Saracens at Poitiers, which will be discussed later, did much to consolidate his power over his German subjects. But Charles realized that he must follow his father's policy of Christianizing his subjects, if he wished to establish his rule firmly, and Willibrord, who had been made bishop of Utrecht, was aided by Charles in his efforts to convert the Frisians.

Boniface. The greatest of the missionaries, and the one with whom the Carolingian rulers were to be the most intimately associated, was Boniface. Winfrith, as he was originallv called, was an Englishman and had been educated in his native land. He first went to Frisia in 7I6, when he was forty years old, but found conditions so unfavorable for his work that he returned to England the following year. A year later Boniface went to Rome, and was sent to Thuringia and Hessia. Later he returned to Frisia, where the conditions were now very much improved, as Charles Martel had conquered the Frisians and was ready to support the missionaries in their work of evangelization. After success both among the Frisians and the Hessians Boniface was summoned to Rome and was consecrated as bishop. This visit made of him an enthusiastic champion of the Roman supremacy, and he took an oath to obey the Roman Church in everything and to have no communion with priests who did not recognize the absolute authority of the pope. The latter gave him a letter to Charles Martel which secured for him full protection and assistance. Later Boniface wrote: " Without the aid of the prince of the Franks I should not be able to rule my church nor to defend the lives of my priests and nuns, nor to keep my converts from lapsing into pagan rites and observances." Secure in the protection of Charles, Boniface cut down Odin's oak near Fritzlar and used the logs from it to build a chapel. His success in Hesse and Thuringia was so great that in 732 he was made an archbishop. A few years later he made another journey to Rome in order to arrange for the organization of the church in Germany. On his return he established bishoprics in Bavaria and eastern Austrasia, over which he placed his own disciples.

Fulda. The Irish monks who had done so much to Christianize the land were driven out, or converted, by Boniface, because they did not conform to the Roman usages. In place of those who were expelled Benedictine monks were installed. As the number of the latter increased, new homes were found for them, of which Fulda became the most important. This was founded in 744 by Sturmi, a Bavarian of noble birth whose parents had given him to Boniface to be educated as a monk. After the boy had been carefully prepared and had grown to manhood he was sent out to establish a new monastery. At first he settled where Hersfeld now is, but Boniface ordered him to go farther into the wilderness, as he was too near the " wild Saxons." Accordingly, Sturmi set out with two companions in a boat to examine the river Fulda. After a fruitless search he returned to report to Boniface, but the latter commanded him to start out again by land. As soon as he was rested Sturmi saddled his donkey, took the necessary food, and set out alone through the wilderness, to spy out the land. With psalms ever on his tongue he examined the hills and valleys, the springs and streams. When darkness overtook him he stopped and cut logs to build a circular enclosure for his donkey, as he feared that the wild beasts, which were numerous, might devour the animal; then he himself went quietly to sleep, making the sign of the cross in the name of God. Only twice did he see any human beings: once he came upon some Slavs bathing, and his donkey was frightened; once he chanced upon a friendly wanderer, who passed the night with him; the only other signs of life were the wild beasts and birds. Finally he found " the place which had been prepared by God long before." He returned and described its advantages to Boniface, who was delighted. Sturmi settled there with his monks, and the mayor of the palace made them a grant of land eight thousand paces square. Fulda soon had four thousand monks and was made an exempt monastery by the pope. [ An exempt monastery was withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the bishop of the diocese and placed directly under the authority of the pope.]

Councils. Another feature in the organization of the church was the holding of councils, where nobles and bishops assembled together under ] Boniface as presiding officer. At the council of 748 the German s bishops swore entire submission to Rome. ri We have declared s and decreed that we would maintain and protect, until the end of s our lives, the Catholic faith and unity, and submission to the Roman Church, St. Peter and his vicar; that we would meet together each year in a council; that the metropolitan should apply to the Roman See for the pallium; and that we would canonically follow all the precepts of St. Peter, in order that we might be numbered among his sheep. We have all consented and subscribed our names to this oath, and have sent it to be deposited on the tomb of St. Peter, prince of the apostles."

Death of Boniface. When the Roman supremacy had been accepted, Boniface's; greatest work had been practically completed. He returned to the scene of his early labors, courting martyrdom, and found the death which he had longed for; he and a band of followers were killed by pagan Frisians in 754 or 755. In accordance with his wishes he was laid at rest in Fulda.

Church and State. His work had been fully as important for the state as for the church. The councils or assemblies summoned by the mayor and presided over by Boniface, had brought together bishops and nobles who had taken common and united action for the welfare of the whole kingdom. Charles Martel and his successors had supported Boniface in all his undertakings; he in turn had done everything in his power to strengthen the authority of the mayors of the palace. Together, they had striven earnestly to reform abuses in the church, and to compel the members of the clergy to lead moral lives. The constant aid which Charles and his sons gave to the work of Boniface led the church to resign itself without any very active opposition to the use of its property by Charles Martel for secular purposes. For, in order to raise a force of cavalry sufficient to cope with the Saracens, Charles had used lands belonging to the church: these lands were to be held by his followers as precaria from the church, so that their income might enable them to equip themselves as horsemen. By this means Charles had raised the army which won the battle of Poitiers. Later his sons followed a like policy when they needed more soldiers, and the church submitted, under protest, because it needed the aid of the mayors. In 739 the pope sought support from Charles in his struggle against the Lombards. At this time Charles did not send any aid; but the pope's position was so dangerous that he was anxious to bind the Franks more closely to his cause.

Pippin and Carloman. When Charles Martel died, in 74I, he was succeeded by two Sons, Pippin and Carloman. A third son felt himself slighted and attempted a rebellion. He was captured and imprisoned; but the revolts against the brothers were so serious that they felt it necessary to put in a Merovingian king, although for some years before his death Charles had allowed the throne to remain vacant, and they had been following the same policy. Now they determined to crown the heir of the Merovingian line, who was an insignificant man, but whose name gave a shadow of legitimate authority to the real rulers; and after three years of continuous fighting Pippin and Carloman crushed all rebellion.

Pippin Becomes King. When their position had been firmly established, Carloman withdrew to a monastery. Einhard says: "The causes no man knew, but it would seem that he was truly moved by a desire for the life of contemplation and for the love of God." It is significant of the man's character that he waited until order had been established before carrying out his desires. On Carloman's retirement the third brother again attempted to revolt, but Pippin put this down and " the whole land had peace for two years." Secure, because of this unusual peace, Pippin now determined to make himself king. But, as he was desirous of legal sanction for his position, he sent an embassy to the pope to ask who ought to be king, the Merovingian or himself. The pope replied, " It is better that the man who has the real power should also have the title of king, rather than the man who has the mere title and no real power." Accordingly, a council or assembly was summoned, in 75I; with the consent of the nobles the Merovingian king " was deposed, shaved, and thrust into a cloister," and Pippin the Carolingian became king of the Franks.