Franks: AS Context

The Franks The Anglo-Saxon Context

Hlafdige Arastorm aka Tchipakkan mka Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor ©2015


To understand Anglo-Saxons we need to understand the people with whom they interacted, what came before and after. This series of workshops looks at the surrounding cultures through the lens of their interaction with the Anglo-Saxons. This workshop focuses on the Merovingian, Carolingian, Holy Roman Empire, and other Frankish kingdoms, and how that interaction impacted the Anglo-Saxons.


The Franks were a Germanic tribe that moved into Roman Gaul in the third century. They became the rulers of the several kingdoms (see map) that make up modern France and Germany. The histories usually start with Clovis, as the first Christian King of the Merovingian dynasty, as he was able to style himself “King of all Franks” in 509 ce..He was able to dominate Burgundy and drive the Visigoths from Toulouse (Aquitaine). Clovis I’s capital was Paris, Neustria. The major Kingdoms under his sway included Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy. In the sixth century there was also a major migration of Britains across the channel to create Brittany, which maintained strong contacts with their Celtic homeland.

The Merovingian Kingdoms were a transitional period between the Roman and medieval cultures. Even the laws often specified different codes for the different areas- in the South- Aquitaine and Visigothic areas there was a great deal of continuity of old Roman law and cuture. At the same time, tribal Germanic law gradually was integrated with the Roman laws and Christian codes. Germanic polygamy gradually gave way to Christian monogamy, and compensation weregeld replaced bloodfeud. 6 c france

Early writers divided the Franks into Ripuarian Franks (north of the Rhine), and Salian Franks,(south of the Rhine); the Merovingians were from Salian Franks. One significant characteristic of the Franks was Salic Law- under which they tended to split inheritance across all their children, as opposed to primogeniture. This tended to lead to the children of landed nobles to fight over the portions, as these were much smaller than what their father had. Powerful warrior kings like Clothair II and Dagobert united all the smaller kingdoms. In the 7th c. there was a series of rulers known as les rois fainéants, the “Do-nothing kings”. During this period, the real power was in the Mayor of the Palace. These expanded their roles from administration to include advising the crown (developing policy), educating the princes, and commanding the army. Another event that weakened the Monarchy was the Edict of Paris 614 ce under Clothair II; this edict, like the Magna Carta in England, gave a lot of power to the nobles, and the Church. The first major palatii to control all three kingdoms was Pepin II (687), whose bastard grandson Charles the Hammer came to power (727-741). Charles Martel fought the Northern “Barbarians”: Frisians, Saxons and Bavarians, he also stopped Islamic invasion 732. They pushed beyond the Pyrenees in 711, and started taking territory, but Martel stops them at the battle of Tours (or Poitiers). In 743 his son, Pepin the Short, deposed the king Childeric III, and founded new Dynasty (first getting approval of the Pope.)

The foremost of the Carolingians (descendents of Charles Martel) was Charles the Great, (768-814) who expanded his holdings north to Germany and east to northern Italy (Lombard Kingdoms). At Christmas, 800 ce he was proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, and kept expanding. His son Louis (814-840) at the Treaty of Verdun 843 divided the huge kingdom again East, Middle and West Francia between Louis, Lothair and Charles. Charlemagne fought the Arabs, Saxons (for 30 years, trying to convert them), Westphalians, Engria, Nordabingia (Jutland peninsula) and Eastphalia, Lombardy, Bohemia, Moravia, Austria, Croatia, Bavaria, the Avar Confederation, and Slavs (probably more).

Aside from fighting, he promoted scholarship, and the arts in the “Carolingian Renaissance”, at his capital at Aachen under the direction of the Englishman Alcuin of York. One of their accomplishments was creating lower case letters (Carolingian Uncial) that made reading easier. He had diplomatic ties with England (Offa) and even Haroun al Rashed in Bagdad. The empire lasted whole until his son Louis the Pious died.Frankish_empire

The 10th century was hard on France due to Vikings coming up the rivers and attacking cities, as well as the coast. In 987 ce Hugh Capet was crowned “King of the Franks”. Nobility grew more powerful, creating the feudal system, with local lords protecing their own demesnes. In 1190, Philip Augustus unified France again.

Arabs referred to all crusaders as Ferengi, meaning Franks, and Frangistan for Christian Europe. The phrase lingua franca is because it was the common tongue of crusader states.



Bullough, Donald A. The Age of Charlemagne, 1965

Costambeys, Marios, The Carolingian World (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks) Cambridge U Press, 2011

Fouracre, Paul, Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography (Manchester Medieval Sources Series)

Garnett, George, The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2010

Garver, Valerie L., Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World, Cornell University Press; 2012

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Digireads 2010

James, Edward, the Franks, Blackwell, 1988

Mckitterick, Rosamond, The Frankish Kingdoms Under the Carolingians 751-987, Routledge 1983

Wemple, Suzanne Fonay, Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500 to 900, University of Penn Press, 1985










Map image from


Image: Christopher Lee as Charlemagne in his album Omens of Death. Because I like Christopher Lee’s portrayal.

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