The Franks

By: Patrick Fitzgerald and Brett Budzak

The Franks were a marvelous civilization and impacted the world through their major historical figures, culture, political system, and their military. Historical records cite the Franks were a barbarian group from notheast Europe, who contributed to the world through their major historical figures, culture, political system, and military. These assets made The Frankish empire long-lasting and puissant.

They established a kingdom that laid the foundations for modern France and Germany. (Medieval World, Volume 1) (53). The Roman Empire's northernmost territories were being overrun by various Germanic tribes called "barbarians" by Julius Ceasar. (Gelfand and Schlesinger) (24-25). France was known to the ancient Romans as Gaul. As the Roman empire was falling apart, the Franks invaded Gaul. (Stefoff) (11). They came from the forests, east of the Rhine river and took over the Roman frontier settlements as farmers and soldiers rather than invading warriors. (Gelfand and Schlesinger) (28).

The Franks became the most united group of tribes that set the stage for domination in Europe.
Map of Franks (Wikipedia)
Clovis (Wikipedia)

Major Historical Figures

The major historical figures of the Franks consisted of four men: Clovis I, Charles "The Hammer" Martel, Pepin, and Charlemagne.
Each of these men played important roles in the Frankish era.

Clovis I

Clovis I (466-511) was the first king of one of the successful Germanic tribes. Although he was very cruel and greedy, he was a very good general, as well as an ambitious and able king. Clovis was only fifteen years of age when he took leadership of the Salian Franks.(James A. Corrick) (42). He defeated the last Roman army in Gaul within the first 25 years of his reign. He also fended off another Germanic tribe called, The Allemanni. These two very important victories left the Franks in charge of Gaul. His two victories left the Franks in control as the rulers of most of Western Europe from the North Sea to the Pyrenees. In 509 Clovis declared himself king of all Franks and their territory. This made him the first of the Merovingian line of kings. Before Clovis took over as a king, he was a German barbarian. While Clovis was king, he converted to Christianity. He then joined the church of Rome which was questioned by some. Since Clovis practiced the same type of Christianity that the priests and bishops in Gaul did, he gained their respect. Even though Clovis ruled by himself over a large kingdom, he didn't leave the throne to one single person. During his reign, Clovis brought and used the French and Latin languages in his kingdom. He followed the German custom of making a schism of his throne and divided treasures amongst his four sons when he passed away. This custom was continued and remained fairly popular with many of the Frankish rulers throughout most of the Middle Ages.(43)

He united all the various tribes and settlements under the Franks. He had everyone speak the same language and practice the same religion. The Romans even praised him, since he wore purple robes and he used their Latin language. Latin became the basis of modern French today. (Greenblatt/Lemmo 277)

Charles "The Hammer" Martel

Charles Martel fighting the incoming Muslims. (Gale Virtual Reference).

Charles Martel was a powerful mayor who took over most of the king's responsibilities. He was most powerful when the mayors were taking over many of the king's duties. The main contribution he wanted to make was to reunite the Frankish nobles. As most Frankish kings did, before long he had the church on his side supporting him. His nickname, "The Hammer," came to him because of his excellent battle skills.

In 732, Charles led the Franks in The Battle of Tours. (Greenblatt\Lemmo) (278). The Battle of Tours was one of the biggest and most important battles in European history. The Franks won The Battle of Tours by defeating a group of Arabs and Berbers who had conquered Spain earlier in 711. The Arabs and Berbers were muslim tribes who were fighting in hopes to spread their religion of Islam around the world. When the Franks won The Battle of Tours, it allowed Christianity to stay alive in western Europe and kept much of Europe from Arab dominance.(Greenblatt/Lemmo 288) (Adams) (111). He also ruled Gaul from 719 to 741. He took over Burgandy and converted Germany to Christianity.(World Book, 373)

When Charles "The Hammer" Martel passed away, his son, Pepin became the new mayor of the palace. With the help of the Pope, Pepin managed to remove the king and start a whole new dynasty in Western Europe.(Greenblatt\Lemmo) (288).

Pepin (Wikipedia)
Pepin III
Annointing of King Pepin (Wikipedia)

Pepin III was the first ever Frankish king to be annointed. In return for being annointed, Pepin helped the Pope when he was being attacked and threatened by a group of Germans called, the Lombards. Pepin led an army into Italy, where he defeated the Lombards and gave the land that they had previously held in Central Italy to the Pope. This gift from Pepin pleased the Pope so much, he deemed Pepin the political ruler of almost the entire Italian Peninsula. (Greenblatt\Lemmo) (278).

Pepin and his son, Charlemagne, led several campaigns into Aquitaine, in what is now, southwestern France. The Franks were victorious in these battles.(Greenblatt) (9).

Pepin did not live in any one capital city. It was easier to eat the food and use up the supplies in one place and then move on than it was to transport goods over bad roads. Also, it was useful for a ruler to be seen by as many of his subjects as possible. As a result of moving around, his eldest son, Charlemagne became familiar with the kingdom he would one day rule. (Greenblatt) (8).

King Charlemagne. (Gale Virtual Reference)

Charlemagne's real name was actually Charles, but he went by his French name because it meant, "Charles The Great."(Greenblatt/Lemmo 279) He was described by his biographer, Einhard, as 6 feet tall, with piercing eyes, fair hair, a thick neck, and a potbelly. He was strong, had an alert mind, and a forceful personality. (World Book 378) While he was king, his goal was to bring all of western Europe under his control. He also wanted all of the Germans to begin to follow the laws and rules of Christianity. In order to achieve these goals, Charlemagne started a series of wars.

Not long after Charlemagne held the Frankish throne, he went into Italy and again defeated the Lombards. Soon after that he went to defeat the Saxons. The Saxons were a big test and a key defeat because they had been raiding towns as well as monasteries inside of the Frankish border. (Greenblatt\Lemmo) (279) He then sent thousands of Saxons who had been captured in Frankish territory and moved most of the Franks onto Saxon land. This eventually made the Saxons accept Christianity.

After the defeat of the Saxons, Charlemagne led his armies in campaigns across the Pyrenees Mountains to fight the muslims in Spain. The mountain people, called Basques, did not want the Frankish armies in their territory. By 800, Charlemagne had created one of the biggest empires in all of western Europe. He made the non-Germanic people agree to respect his power and not fight against him so they had the ability to keep their own freedom. Charlemagne was the most successful of all the Frankish kings.

Charlemagne created a major revival of culture within the Frankish empire. After the Roman empire faded, culture faded with it. He established markets, coined silver money, and he discouraged excessive taxes. Charlemagne was devoted to justice. He sent royal inspectors to check over the empire. This helped him keep track of distant parts of the empire. He even established a school in Aachen. It was a great school. No, Socrates had been dead for about 1,000 years and wouldn't be able to go to the school to teach, but the school did attract many of the best teachers in Europe. It also attracted many students. He educated clergymen, which strengthened the church. It even trained teachers! The school kept some things in record that we still have today. They copied Roman manuscripts which would have been lost if they hadn't copied them. They made a new style of writing using smaller letters instead of all large letters, called Carolingian minsicule. This became the model for printing today. This revival made by Charlemagne is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance by some historiologists.(Donald A. Bullough)


The Frankish culture consisted of their religion, education, the impact on daily life, and the arts. Most barbarians wouldn't have much culture, but with Charlemagne, the Franks' lives were enriched with it for the Middle Ages.


Charlemagne loved religion, if people regarded the church badly, he took it as disloyalty towards himself. The major religious impact that influenced the way we live today was Christianty becoming the main religion of almost the entire western Europe. Charlemagne and the Pope wanted to form a new Christian Roman Empire in the land of western Europe. The church officials even kept historical records to help Charlemagne run the country. Once a year, Charlemagne called a meeting to see if there were any problems or troubling situations in the empire. They also met and talked over new laws for the empire, even though Charlemagne made the final judgment. Charlemagne peregrinated through the empire with his servants and advisors spreading the word of the laws. Charlemagne's conquest brought them closer to his goal of achieving a new Christian Roman Empire in the land of western Europe.

On Christmas Day in 800, Charlemagne was worshiping in a church in Rome, when the Pope placed a crown on the head of Charlemagne. This made Charlemagne the new Roman Emporer. Even though Charlemagne accepted the title, he wasn't pleased that it was a Pope who had crowned him, not a god. Wow! Charlemagne really respected religion! (Greenblatt\Lemmo) (281). In churches they worshiped on alters. This is a part of many religions' worships today.


It was very unfortunate that most people in Charlemagne's empire could neither read, nor write. However, Charlemagn
Education was very important. (Baltimore Webpage)
e did highly appreciate learning. Charlemagne wasn't like other Frankish rulers who didn't believe in education. He was very proud of his own ability to read Latin. Charlemagne even kept a slate and copy book next to his bed so he would be able to practice writing. He had many churches and monasteries start schools. One scholar, named Alcuin, started a school in one of the palaces to train children of government officials to serve in the church or in the royal household. Scholars came from all over Europe to learn and teach. This education revival was important, especially when they invented a new form of writing. Charlemagne didn't like how long it took to write things, so he invented a smaller version of the large, all capital, letters they used. This became the model for lower-case print letters today. (Greenblatt/Lemmo 281) Most schools in the empire were monastic schools. These were limited to only members of the clergy. Students learned to read the Bible and do simple arithmetic. Some students became scribes and copied writings in ancient Rome, which kept the revival of learning alive. (Greenblatt 46)

Daily Life

Most of the traditions of the Frankish empire still come into play today.

When the ruler, Clovis, died, the Frankish began to struggle to reunite the at the moment divided Frankish kingdom. These struggles caused problems for the decsendants of Clovis. This caused them to plot and counter plot against one another. This crisis got so bad it even ended up stooping to the forms treachery that even included assassination. The wife of Clovis's grandson even used murder and torture in an attempt to make herself a queen. After Clovis's grandson's wife had her own stepson assassinated she even turned on her own daughter, Rigunth, who had now become one of her rivals. One day, Fregunth, who was Clovis's grandson's wife, tried to kill her own daughter by closing a chest on her neck, but guards came in and took away her daughter before Fregunth could have her perished.

Once the chaos was over and Charlemagne took the throne, daily life became rather simple. Lords were the most important people in a village. They were descendants of Frankish warriors. They made money from their estates. Each estate was independant. They had many people living on the estate to work for them. There were shoemakers, carpenters, and blacksmiths on each estate. Artisans also lived there making weapons, utensils, and jewelry. The lords lived in stone farmhouses. It consisted of a banquet hall, sleeping quarters, cellars, stables, storage places, and a small chapel. All of these were fenced inside one estate! There were small villages near the estates. There, most citizens were farmers. Those farmers worked the fields, the vineyards, orchards, and the forests. They only worked 3 days a week. Some only worked on small pieces of land given by a lord to them. (Greenblatt/Lemmo 283+285)

The Franks used a 3 section farming routine. They divided their plots into 3 sections. One was unplanted completely, one was Barley.jpgplanted in the fall, and one was planted in the spring. They grew wheat, rye, barley and oats. They rotated which section they grew in. Since they fertilized the section that was always unplanted, it grew larger plants when they grew things in it next rotation. This made all 3 sections very fertile.

Another ilk in the Frankish life was nobles. Farmers had to give nobles animals and food. Some worked for nobles. Those who didn't, had other jobs. Men would repair buildings, cut down trees, carry loads, and gather fruits. Women would work just as hard as the men. They looked after children, and small animals, they wove cloth and sewed clothing for the village. They copied the Roman styles for clothes. Farmers started doing much more for nobles, instead of doing things for themselves. These people became serfs. They stayed on the nobles' land and obeyed every order, no matter what.

A final aspect of daily life we do today is festivals. Although, the Franks were very united under Charlemagne, not many had time to learn to read or write since they worked all the time, and although they accepted Christianity, they didn't really practice it. But, on days of festivals, it didn't matter. All came together, the rich or the poor. They sang and danced. There were extravagent feasts. Many enjoyed this, since there weren't many festivals. Minstrels and musicians came to these festivals. They sang songs and played instruments. They would travel from place to place and sing praises to Charlemagne and his empire.

The Arts

The arts were very important to Charlemagne and they flourished under him because he made so many works that were meant to adorn and benefit his kingdom. During his reign he did manage to complete most of them as well. The most deserving of notice was the Basilica of the Holy Mother of God, at Aix-la-Chapelle. It was built in the most admirable way. There was a bridge over the Rhine at Mayence, which was half a mile long! The widest point of the river was also at this point.

Charlemagne had valuable works from Italy brought back to his kingdom so that people would once again appreciate sculptures and different varieties of paintings. The one art that Charlemagne especially loved was music. For example, to make sure that old folk songs that celebrated the deeds of ancient kings wouldn't be lost, he had them transcribed for prosperity. In 744, Charlemagne begged Pope Hadnian I, to send monks from Rome to train his choir. He wanted to ensure that church music and all chants were performed properly and with dignity. After Charlemagne sent choir members to Rome to learn, he decided that he needed the monks to come to Aachen themselves. Additionally, Charlemagne even founded music schools. The monks also preserved the manuscripts on which they were originally written.

Political System

The Franks were very sophisticated and had a unique political system.


The Franks, like almost every other civilized country in the world, had laws they had to follow. They were much more strict and were fined for small things like incorrect grammar. The empire was divided into tribes. Each tribe had different laws. These laws were protected by Rachimburgs. Rachimburgs are officials who are hired to remember and pass on laws. One law, was the last Merovingian law, the Edict of Paris. Issued by Chlothar II in 614, it tried to end corruption. This was before Charlem
Laws were important. (Justice.Gov)
agne's rule. He had missi, his officials, establish justice. They enforced respect for royal rights and controlled laws.(Richard E. Sullivan). Charlemagne spent considerable time issuing new laws. He set laws for some of the most interesting topics, like, choral singing in church all the way to road tolls and murder. One time, since so many men had become priests to avoid serving in the army, he set a law that stated, no one could become a priest without his approval. He also made you pay a large tax if you weren't in the army.

Charlemagne had his subjects and servants provide food and lodging for any group of incoming pilgrims. To go along with that, he didn't let anyone take advantage of orphans, widows, or foreigners. One of the most unusual things about Charlemagne's laws was the fact that they were set down in writing. This made them more precise than oral rules. This was yet another good tool for governing an area.

To help enforce his laws, Charlemagne employed a system of royal emissaries who were sent out in pairs to read the laws outloud. They also held court to make sure the laws were being obeyed, as well as to hear appeals from the people. They checked the financial records of land-owning nobles and bishops. They even looked into what the monks, priests, and nuns were doing. Once they were all done searching, they reported back to Charlemagne on the state of his kingdom. To make sure his people didn't like another lord and plot against him, Charlemagne constantly moved his kingdom. Charlemagne issued one-hundred thirteen laws, and sixty-five of them are still surviving today! (Greenblatt, Charlemagne and the Early Middle Ages, 25)
The Franks had taxes, as well as everyone else. Everyone was at a set rate. Most peasants bartered to "pay in kind" or pay a cow, a pig, or grain what you owed instead of money. Taxation changed the term "citizen" over time with rights riding along with it. This was because both peasants and lords paid taxes and although they were not seen as equal, both had the same rights and both paid the same fees, lords were just wealthier than peasants.(Richard E. Sullivan)


The system they followed was the foundation for many future civilizations, called Feudalism. Charles Martel was key to making Feudalism. He faced many attacks from muslims. Since he wasn't wealthy enough to defend the empire, he had to find a new solution. He made a contract between himself and the upper class. It was based on the Roman and Germanic tribes' ideas. It was the main idea of weaker and lower classes swearing loyalty to stronger and higher classes. Nobles swore loyalty to Martel. He gave the nobles the land he received from the Christian empire. This later became the bigger idea of Feudalism such that people like Martel, are lords, the people who swear loyalty are vassalds and the land given is fiefs.(Sara A. McGill) This technically was the church with the government. Charlemagne had church officials help him. They kept records and stored them in the church, informed Charlemagne, and hired bishops.

The church code became the law. Any act of disregard to the church became disloyalty to the empire.(Greenblatt/Lemmo 281) The lords had the most power during Charlemagne's empire. The lords were descendants of Frankish warriors and Roman land-owners. Most of the money that the lords had was from the crops grown on their own land. Since there was little trade under Charlemagne's rule, each estate took care of their own lands. There were also carpenters as well as other workers on an estate. As Charlemagne aged, he became less harsh when it came to dealing with some of his arch enemies. For example, he pardoned Tassilo, who was the former ruler of Bavaria. When Pepin conspired to overthrow him, he imprisoned the prince in a monastery, instead of executing him for treason. When the Saxons revolted yet again, Charlemagne allowed them to return to their old laws as well as their old traditions.


They had many practices within their society and some would still be socially-acceptable today. Charlemagne sought out opinions from his subjects regarding their social lives. He wanted his people to be happy.

Town Life

Until Charlemagne's revival, there were no real "towns." There were just fortified markets around churches or villages near government buildings. Lots of the "towns" had descended from Roman cities. Trade was not common, but they did have some exchanges, with the Greeks and the Syrians, and eventually with the Vikings and Italians. Other than that, the only break-through in that time was the new and improved heavy plow being designed and made.( Richard E. Sullivan)

People of Society

People's rank in society was based from the highest point in the entire empire to the lowest point in the empire. Kings were the most powerful, but it was only in certain cases that they were good kings like Clovis and Charlemagne. If they were bad, the empire became corrupt and taken over by mayors, like the way Charles Martel became king after a brief period of chaos after Clovis died. Lords were the second most important followed by nobles. Lords and nobles were in nicer houses than peasants. Finally, peasants were the least important and were just followers of all the other ranks.(Greenblatt/Lemmo 281)


The Frankish military was a powerful, aggressive military that either won big or lost badly. Although they started as
A Frankish Horsemen (Belmont Campus)
"barbarian" warriors, they did advance with their weapons, strategies, and horsemenship. The Frankish kings always expected men to fight their various battles when called upon and needed.

Significant Battles

Charlemagne started toward the muslim city of Saragossa, where he was supposed to join forces with a muslim rebel army, but this army never appeared because of the assassination of their general. Charlemagne heard that the Witi-kind had returned to Saxony and were preparing a plan to fight Frankland. Charlemagne gave his order to the troops that they needed to withdraw and head back across the Pyrenees Mountains. The Frankish army made its way through a narrow pass called the Roncesvalles and descended into Frankland. Behind the army were carriages that transported all of the supplies of the army. The carriages were guarded by a few smaller rear guards. Suddenly, a boulder crashed down from a cliff and hit one of the carriages. As the baggage train halted, a large number of Basque fighters fell on the rear guard killing each and every Frank in the carriage.(Greenblatt) (16). The Basques then gathered all of the supplies from the carriages and disappeared into the mountains. This was Charlemagne's first defeat, though it was only a minor setback. It still became immortalized through the most popular epic of the Middle Ages. There was even a legendary story about it called, Song of Roland. This song fired up people's imaginations and got them to think in a more positive manner after their leader had just been defeated for the first time. (17)

Dispite this failure, Charlemagne plunged into even more wars. Success in war was key for a medieval king such as Charlemagne. Conquering territory did not only make him rich, but it also ensured the respect and loyalty of his followers. Charlemagne's biggest struggle was with the Saxons. The Saxons were Charlemagne's old enemy because Charlemagne had beaten them in wars multiple times. In 782, the Witi-kind yet again revolted. This started the battle of Suntel Mountain. The Saxons succeded in wiping out more than half of the Frankish army that had been sent to oppose them. Charlemagne was immediately at the scene, only to find, as usual, that the Saxons and all of his Witi-kind followers had disappeared into the population around them. This made Charlemagne absolutely furious because it seemed as if every time his army got attacked when he got there to fight back, they were already gone and out of his reach. Charlemagne rounded up all of the poeple in the area and had them all beheaded in a single day, the crowd consisted of almost 4,500 people. This incident became widely known as the Verden Massacre. Charlemagne must have been pretty mad to kill every person around him.(19).


Unfortunately, the Franks' political system was the reason for their decline. Over time, Charlemagne became almost too religious. He spent nearly all of his time writing sermons to be read to the empire. He even went all the way as to work on the fifth book for the Gospel and stepping down to become a monk. He called his only son to Aachen. He told his son, Louis, that he would be co-emporer. One thing that really weakened the empire was when Charlemagne divided his e
Viking Raids Caused The Frank Decline (Myths And Legends)
mpire for his three sons, in the hope that they would prosper by cooperation. The Saxons rebelled, and there was even a famine. Thousands roamed the land begging for money and looting houses. To top it all off, the Vikings of Scandanavia appeared in their territory. They terrorized the land with their dragon-shaped ships and raided many Frankish settlements. The Franks decided to build a navy, even though they had no experience in sea fights. Then, a plague struck the empire, killing thousands including one of Charlemagne's three sons. The plague was followed by an outbreak of cattle and horse deaths and they needed them for food and transportation of military supplies. Then in 814, Charlemagne fell ill. He tried to cure himself by fasting. In the end, he died at age 72 from a lung inflammation. Historians called him, "The Father of Europe." Not long after his death the Vikings invaded the empire. The Franks were killed off and the era of the Frankish empire declined into a new era of a new civilization, the age of the Vikings (Greenblatt 46)

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