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Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

From Roman Gaul to the Merovingian Kingdom of the Franks (450-511)

Islamic Expansion and Political Evolution, 632-1000

Clovis' Sons and Creeping Merovingian Anarchy (511-640)


Around the middle of the third century CE, a certain group among the many Barbarian tribes began to coalesce into a larger super-tribe along he east bank of the Upper Rhine River. They called themselves the Franks, meaning fierce or free. They did not raid Gaul substantially, since they were not able to develop any political unity and were led by several kinglets. With the beginning of the large-scale barbarian invasions of the fourth century, the Romans found them useful auxiliaries and foederati, allowing them to settle on the west side of the Rhine. These Franks that crossed over were called the Salic Franks, and located mostly to northeastern Belgium. Unlike other Barbarians, they began to cultivate the area heavily, as they were possessed of a substantial peasant element. They did not go through a process of Romanization akin to the Goths', and did not adopt Christianity. In 406, when Rhadagaesius led the great Barbarian contingent over the Rhine, the Franks, who were not able to hold them back, stayed where they were, lacking political unity or a taste for Roman civilization.

In the next fifty years, Gaul withered economically from its earlier status as a copy of Roman civilization to the south. After the Huns in the 450s, all the Barbarians settled through hospitalitas left the areas allotted to them and created kingdoms. Aegidius, the last Roman (though German) general in Northern Gaul, made himself the political leader of the area's Romans. Cut off from Italy by Burgundians, Visigoths, and others, he relied for warriors on indigenous Barbarians: the Franks. On two occasions he hired a Frankish chieftain named Childeric to help, once perhaps in a battle with the Visigoths at Orleans (463). During this period from the 450s to the 480s, the nature of Frankish activity in Gaul changed: a) different chiefs raided deeper into the political vacuum of Gaul, at the same time as they jockeyed with each other for popularity and preeminence based on an ability to attract armies looking for booty; and b) Frankish peasants crossed the Rhine in greater numbers, not returning after raiding, but settling, founding villages. The raids were lucrative, and certain petty kings were able to get the trappings of royalty. Childeric was able to build a palace in Tournai, decorated with stolen treasures. At his death in 481, Frankish domains straddled the Rhine, pushing into Gaul.

Childeric's son was Chlodovecus, or Clovis. Though his father's expansion had been unspectacular, he did inherit some wealth, a supposed lineage going back to Germanic gods, as well as Frankish warriors' expectations that he would continue his father's raiding success. The first opportunity came in 486. Aegidus' son Syagrius was in control of North-central France stretching to the Visigothic domains, and at the Battle of Soissons, Clovis defeated him, opening the area to settlement of thousands of Frankish peasants. This was the demographic basis of Frankish rule. He then spent the next decade in obscure campaigns eliminating rival Frankish leaders. Then in 596, he defeated the Alamanni in Eastern-Central Gaul, expanding his kingdom further.

Sometime between 496 and 507, Clovis converted to Catholic Christianity, after a brief Arian transition phase. His baptism by the bishop of Rheims was followed immediately by the conversion of 3000 of his troops, after which the rest of his people converted. This meant that while other Germans, including Theodoric's Goths in control of Italy, were Arian and viewed heretically by the Church, Clovis could present himself and his kingdom as the only legitimate Catholic ruler in the region. Gallo-Roman bishops cooperated with the Franks, and some, like Gregory of Tours, went on to present his conquests, starting with that of the Alamanni, as stemming from Catholic convictions. At this point, Clovis began pressuring the Visigoths in southwestern Gaul, whose leader Alaric II had been exiling Catholic bishops no longer willing to cooperate with the Arian ruler. Finally, in 507 he moved in force against the Visigoths. Gregory casts him as saying he could no longer tolerate Arian rule in southern Gaul. Crossing the Loire, he routed Alaric II's forces at the Battle of Vouille, sacked Visigothic cities, and forced them to flee to Spain. It is at this time that Theodoric the Ostrogoth expanded into Provence. In 508, Clovis went to Tours and assumed the Imperial Tunic in the form of an honorary consulship bestowed by Eastern Emperor Anastasia who was showing his disquietude with Theodoric's rule. Clovis then issued the Salic Laws, the first written code of Frankish law. Catholic bishops helped in its preparation, and it gave him the appearance of a proper ruler. By his death in 511, he had created a totally new political unit, Regium Francium. It included all of Roman Gaul and the old Germanic reservations with the exception of the Burgundian kingdom. Further, he had eliminated all other Frankish kingly families, leaving only his own. His conversion to Catholicism removed a bar to Frankish-Gallo-Roman intermarriage.


It is with the Frankish assumption of dominion in Gaul that the Dark Ages reached this region. Not all have felt this way. In the beginnings of the twentieth century, a Belgian socio-economic historian named Henri Pirenne tried to revise the view that the Barbarian migrations spelled the doom of the Antique in Europe. According to him, as the Barbarians came to enjoy Roman society rather than destroy it, one had to look elsewhere, and later, for the decomposition of Mediterranean civilization based on long-distance commerce and high culture. For him, it was the Islamic expansion, which brought a war-like band of Arabs into domination of the trade routes. Not at all inclined towards trade, they strangled the Mediterranean basin, ushering in the impoverished early Middle Ages.

There are several problems with this perspective. First, everything we know about Islamic commercial relations from the 600s on suggests that they were quite positively predisposed towards cultivating both internal trade and long- distance, international commerce. Not only did trade provide them with commodities and funds they needed in an expanding civilization, it also provided Islamic rulers with finances in the form of customs revenue. Second, Pirenne, writing at a time of Western economic dominance over the Middle East, perhaps forgot that Muhammad himself had been a long-distance merchant in Arabia and Syria, and that the elites of early Islam all came from a similar background. We even are indebted to Muslims for such innovations as the check, as well as risk and profit-sharing mechanisms permitting the funding of inter-regional trade, called mudaraba in Arabic and commenda in Latin. These were used widely in the emerging Italian merchant cities from the tenth century onwards. Third, more recent historians have shown that where Eastern-origin commodities did start to disappear from European markets after the rise of Islam, it was often due to hording by European rulers, or monopolizing by governments. In other respects, such commodities had become scarce prior to Islam's emergence.

More directly relevant for us, though, is that the Pirenne Thesis tempts us to forget the sheer degradation resulting from the Frankish domination in Gaul, in terms of socio-economic order and political-legal technology. First, we must remember that the Franks were the last substantial German tribal group to enter into Gaul. They were Romanized in only the most superficial way, and should thus be seen as part of the second Barbarian wave of Germans migrating only to the Roman provinces directly adjoining their ancestral areas across the Rhine. Also, the sheer numbers of them that came, settling the land thickly as peasants and warriors, made it impracticable for them to shed any aspect of their Germanic identity. Contact with Ripuarian Franks on the pother side of the Rhine guaranteed maintenance of Germanic custom, just as it provided an inexhaustable source of Frankish manpower. This ultimately subdued totally any remaining aspects of Roman society in northern Gaul, which had been the least thoroughly integrated in the Roman political and cultural system to begin with. Even when the Salic Franks came over the Rhine in the fifth century, they had gone through only the most rudimentary process of political unification. Clovis was only one of many petty kinglets vying with each other in the quest for booty and the warrior retinues that raiding would attract. Luckily for him, his father had raided sufficiently successfully to attract growing numbers to Clovis' banner. There was no political acumen to Clovis' rise, just effective thuggery in the bogs and forests of Gaul.

All this had ramifications for the nature of the Merovingian polity unfolding under Clovis and his successors. In short, Roman institutions were replaced in almost their entirety by their much more primitive Frankish analogues. In the sphere of trade and commerce, there was no Frankish analogue. While an Frankish peasants provided an agricultural base, other commodities found their way into Frankish hands through requisition, imposition of new duties, or simply by plunder. Indeed, part of Clovis' success was that he was an open-handed raider, providing for his friends and protege in the manner of the comitatus from which the kingdom evolved. Indeed, unlike Roman political culture, the glue of the Merovingian dominions was the personal tie between war- leader-cum-king and warrior. This personal bond would evolve into feudalism in the future.

Fiscally speaking, the Frankish approach was exceedingly retrogressive. While Clovis did not abolish traditional Roman land taxes, his Frankish warriors and peasants would not pay, considering a tax on mere land-use to be subversive. Franks were therefore exempt, with indigenous Gallo-Romans still having to pay it. As their population declined, though, so did the revenues. Also, Frankish kings often gave gifts to local elites, one of which was an exemption from land taxes, and when there was an urban disturbance, Frankish leaders would burn tax registers (as well as homes) to gain allies. As fixed taxes ebbed away, indirect taxes such as tolls remained. The problem here was ensuring that local royal agents actually transferred the funds to the palace treasury. Over time, too, the coinage system declined. In the early sixth century, Franks stopped minting the Roman bronze coins, preferring gold. With no small change for daily transactions, a monetary trade system reverted t commodity barter.

The closest thing to a royal bureaucracy was the King's camp-turned-house- turned-palace. It was quite basic, similar to pre-migration chieftains' residences, only now, rulers' trusted associates bore Roman-sounding titles with marginal resemblance to actual functions. The treasury was often a huge chest under the king's bed, for example. Beyond that, royal officers had extremely tenuous links to the local level, based either on familial bonds or extortion. Thus, the king's closest warrior associates provided the rudimentary administration of the kingdom. Based upon the declining urban units called civitates, counts, or comes, would be appointed to various regions, based upon their pre-existing residence there, or participation in its plundering/conquest. They had three tasks: A) To administer the royal lands. These were lands which had belonged to the Roman government, and which Clovis had requisitioned to himself upon conquest. The count was to collect the indirect duties and send them to the king. Here, of course, was much room for individual power cultivation. Personal ties could weaken if the sovereign was not a dominant individual, and the lack of technology or coercive resources meant that over time, revenues could remain with the counts. Of course, the mere fact that kingship in Germanic society was a relativistic, tenuous institution implied that all counts, given the slightest chance, would try to increase their powers at the expense of the king and other counts. B) The count was also to provide a local court for Frankish law. Called the mallus, it contained elders as advisers--rachinburgii. The court was a non-compulsory service for Franks, and rather than impersonal justice based on precedent, etc., as in Roman times, traditional Germanic justice was pursued, based on wergeld, blood money, so as to avoid blood- feuds. Thus, practices such as oath-taking in order to exonerate oneself-- compurgation--were accompanied by ordeals of physical suffering for individuals whose character was deemed less trust-worthy. In time, as more and more of the roman tradition receded, the indigenous Gallo-Roman population would accept this kind of justice as well. C) Every spring the count was to bring his armed retinue to wherever the king was camping out. After gathering together a retinue-based army, the royal host would conduct wars incorporating plunder, discipline of wayward notables, and raiding on the frontiers in hopes of expanding the borders. In this scheme, there was no concept of continuous policing of counties by their leaders. Administration of the countryside, or provision of rural security, was not a concern of either kings or most counts. As well, there was no relatively regular army on Frankish frontiers, as there had been in roman times. Aside from campaigns of conquest, borders were left undefended and thus vulnerable. Of course, that military organization was localized meant that aspiring counts, as well as disappointed royal relatives, could usurp a fair amount of power.

By the mid-seventh century, something kindly referred to as a fusion of Gallo- Romans and Franks was occurring. Based on the decay of Roman forms not maintained by a weakened demographic base and an unconcerned Frankish component, it was evidenced in shared attitudes to principles of law, kingship, and social bonds. Beyond this, the Frankish choice of Catholicism from the beginning, as opposed to heretical Arianism, smoothed the process of growing together. Borders to intermarriage and common spiritual expression were removed, though the Christian patina in Gaul remained superficial at best into the 700s. Still, Merovingians often did patronize the Church, allowing some entry of culture into early medieval Western Europe.

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