16. Speaking Frankly

The Franks, Part I

280 to 480 CE

We welcome the Franks onto the stage of Europe, and look at their origins, early history, ferocious reputation, and the way modern politics work their way into the telling of history.

The floodgates have opened, and now the puns cannot be stopped. Kyrie eleison.

We have arrived at the last of the barbarian nations that will carry us through to the fatal date: The Franks. Out of all of the peoples we’ve talked about up to this point, the Franks would ultimately be the most successful, and of course it is because of them that we call France France and not Gaul.

And as before, I will start with origins, talk about their early history and relationship with the Romans, and introduce their particular way of making war. In addition, I have been thinking about historiography quite a bit lately, and the Franks give me an opportunity to squeeze some discussion of that thorny problem into the podcast. Because their very importance has led to some contentious and very long standing arguments about their place in the national consciousness of both France and Germany.  So my plan is to finish this episode with some discussion of that historiography. You’re welcome, or I’m sorry, delete as applicable.

I have been thinking about historiography quite a bit lately, and the Franks give me an opportunity to squeeze some discussion of that thorny problem into the podcast. Because their very importance has led to some contentious and very long standing arguments about their place in the national consciousness of both France and Germany.  So my plan is to finish this episode with some discussion of that historiography. You’re welcome, or I’m sorry, delete as applicable.

So, to business.

Long ago and far away, a great city labored under siege. The citizens endured the siege for ten years until eventually it fell to the attackers by deception. Many were killed in the aftermath, the proud city burned, its impenetrable walls were pulled down. But some survived and fled, led by a prince named Frigia and his sons, Priam and Antenor. Eventually they led their people to Pannonia, where they founded a city among the barbarians called Sicambria. Only a few years later they were well established enough to render aid to the Roman emperor Valentinian in his fight against the Alans, and in gratitude he bestowed on them a new name: Franks, from the Attic word for “fierce”. Ten years later Valentinian sent them tax collectors, which was a mistake. The Franks killed them, and the Romans sent the legions against them. Their senior Prince Priam was killed in the fighting, and the other Franks abandoned Pannonia and settled on the furthest banks of the Rhine, far from the interference of Rome. There they elected Priam’s grandson, named Faramund, as their new king, who would be the progenitor of a mighty line of rulers who would soon rule all of Gaul and give it their name: France, obviously. 

Wild story isn’t it?

It’s not true, of course, though some French school children would be memorizing regnal lists beginning with Priam into the 1700s.

The origin story I related at the open was written down by the anonymous author of a chronicle called the Liber Historiae Francorum, the book of the history of the Franks, in the eighth century.  He was improvising freely on his theme, apparently unconstrained by deep knowledge of Virgil or Homer. But he was not the first historian to tie the Franks to the Trojans. He was following the lead of earlier writers. The first to make the connection was a bishop named Fredegar in the seventh century.

Why do this? The trojans lost the war, after all. Well, because history has not always been the unbiased search for truth, statistics, and tenure that it is now – ahem. It was on the one hand, a literary exercise, with aristocratic authors straining to show off their mastery of the classics to each other, or increasingly, an exercise in myth making. It was well known – by just about everyone who could read, at least – that the Romans traced their ancestry from Romulus and Remus back to Prince Aeneas, nephew of Priam of Troy. It was all there in Virgil, and Virgil couldn’t be wrong. Placing their own kings in the same bloodline implied Frankish equality with the Romans. Indeed, in the eighth century it was proposed – rather oddly – that the Franks were superior to the Romans, because they were Christian:

“This is the people who rejected with force the heavy yoke that the Romans had imposed on them and, having received baptism, they covered with gold and precious stones the bodies of the holy martyrs whom the Romans had burnt or beheaded and hand torn apart by wild animals.”

Lex Salica

I imagine Theodosius the great would have had some words for this interpretation. It’s especially ironic since there seems to be some evidence that the Franks came to Christianity late compared to other Germanic tribes.

Clearly the Franks’ own historians were a bit confounded by their own origins, and by the general timeline of world history.  But we shouldn’t be too hard on them. Of all the people that have done time in this podcast, the Franks’ genesis story is the most obscure. Neither Tacitus or Pliny, our usual early Roman sources for information about the German tribes, mention them at all, and indeed they don’t appear in any Roman source until 289. The earliest and most important chronicler of Frankish history – Gregory of Tours – deals with their origins with a shrug and a “many people say” that they came from Pannonia, which is far from definitive. We will deal much more with Gregory in future episodes, I can tell you.

It’s clear from Roman sources that the Franks were yet another confederation of tribes which coalesced in response to population growth and the political chaos unleashed by the Marcomannic wars that I’ve mentioned before. Tribes like the Chauci, Salians, Chamavi, and Bructeri, are all mentioned at different times as Frankish tribes. Their territory was generally along the lower Rhine, from the North Sea Coast down to about the River Main – broadly, the modern Netherlands and parts of Germany.  South of that, another Germanic confederation, the Alamans, were dominant. 

Between the two of them, these West Germanic tribes were responsible for a fair portion of pain during the Roman Crisis of the third century, raiding deep into Gaul at around the same time the Goths were making themselves known in the East. 

Evidence of upheaval can be seen in coin hoards, where people under threat buried their precious metals to keep them out of the hands of attackers, and were unable to return to them for whatever reason. Across Gaul, more than 200 such hoards can be dated to the 270s. And it wasn’t just land raids across the Rhine either, Franks and their neighbors the Saxons took to the sea as well, launching seaborne raids along both sides of the channel and up the rivers. Writing about a hundred years later, the historian Aurelius Victor claimed that some Frankish bands reached Spain and took ships from there to establish bases in Africa, one of which they occupied for twelve years.

Just like the Goths, the Franks were far from a single political entity – if anything they seem more loosely associated than the Goths were. It may actually be more accurate to describe the Franks as a loose ethnic group than a political confederation. In my mind it seems possible that the term was applied by the Romans first and then adopted by the Franks themselves. That’s just idle speculation on my part though, and entirely unprovable. Tribes were perfectly happy to fight against fellow Franks on behalf of the Romans, if it seemed in their interest, and that same band might be attacking Roman towns the very next year. Some of these raids may have had purely mercenary motivations, others may have been part of a working out of inter-tribal rivalries.

Obviously those that served the Romans well would need to be rewarded, and so once again we find land being granted to outsiders to settle and to work.  The frankish troops thus settled are often referred to with a new word: Laeti. It’s not clear what it means exactly.  It never appears in the eastern half of the empire, and only shows up in the west in the third and fourth centuries.  Some scholars suggest that laeti were germanic POWs who were resettled on imperial lands, others that they were similar to the federate troops that we’re already familiar with, just by a different name. Archaeologists have identified several settlements in northern France, mostly in the basin of the Seine, that may be those of Frankish Laeti and their families.  There are cemeteries dating to Roman times where the men are buried with weapons. Romans were not generally buried with weapons, since ordinary citizens were forbidden from bearing arms and soldiers didn’t own their kit. So these might possibly perhaps be Frankish graves. More convincingly, the women’s graves contain clearly Germanic jewelry, especially a design specifically associated with Franks and Saxons called a tutulus brooch.

If you’ll allow me a digression on the subject of tutulus brooches… I can’t work out how they would have been comfortable.  I’ll put an image on the website and in the show notes, but to describe them: they’re conical brooches, or fibulae to use the more correct term, with the pin on the bottom of the cone. Two would be worn, one on each shoulder. They’re actually named after a roman hairstyle, funnily enough, where a woman’s hair would be pulled up into a high but loose bun, which gave the rest of her hair a conical shape. Some of these brooches are amazingly tall, which is where my confusion comes from. How does one wear such a thing on the shoulders without stabbing your ears every time you wobble your head? If anyone has any idea, I would love to hear it.

Tutulus Brooches

Anyway, conflicts continued, and more and more Franks found their way into Roman service, many of them under Constantine in the early 300s.  Like other German soldiers, some reached high office.  By the end of the century, Romanized Franks were deeply embedded in the Roman state hierarchy.  A frank named Bauto was magister militum in the west and made consul in 380, and his daughter married the emperor Arcadius and was the mother of Theodosius II and his remarkable sisters.  Centuries later, a Byzantine historian remarked that no emperor could marry a German, unless she was a Frank. But eventually it was all pushed too far. You might remember – but probably don’t – that at the battle of the Frigidus a young Alaric the Goth saw his people’s lives wasted in battle against a Frankish general named Arbogast. When Arbogast lost and Theodosius I became sole emperor, Frankish power inside the empire diminished.

Their political influence may have abated, but their settlements remained on both sides of the frontier.  I am henceforth going to refer to Franks on the German side of the Rhine as Riparian Franks, just to avoid as much confusion as possible. The fourth century seems to have seen fairly peaceful relations along the Rhine, all things being relative of course.  Around 358, after campaigning to recover some territory around Cologne, peace was made with the Salii, or Salian Franks, who settled down on the Roman side of the River and lived apparently peacefully.  A raiding party of Riparian Franks arrived around the time of Adrianople , crossed into Gaul and ravaged the countryside before being cornered by the Romans in the Silva Carbonaria and driven back into their homelands.  The two generals involved argued about whether to follow them, the one who did lost almost his whole army in the forests and mashlands on the German bank. The Rhine remained the edge of the Roman world, both physically and, maybe more important, psychologically.

The Riparian Franks seem to have sat out the great invasion by Vandals, Alans, and Sueves between 406 and 408, and the Salians may have fought against the invaders as Roman auxiliaries.  We’ve been over all that a few times, so I’ll sum it up with a quote from Edward James, whose book on the Franks has been my companion this last week or two: “Various Roman usurpers used different groups of barbarians against legitimate authorities and those fighting for the legitimate authorities also used barbarian support. At times it must have been as difficult for the barbarians involved to have known whether they were fighting for or against the Empire as it is for modern historians.”

Like an ex-lover who we know is no good for us but there’s just something about them, we return again to Flavius Aetius. Among all the fighting in Gaul for which he was responsible, he may have campaigned against Frankish raiders around 440, and then made deals with them, especially with the Salians who seem to have effectively taken over defense of the lower Rhine. The move of the imperial center from Trier to Arles may be part of the same arrangements, but this period of Frankish history is even more tangled and confused than anything that’s come before. Aetius fought the Salians at Arras for reasons unknown, and then they fought with him against Attila the very next year at the Catalaunian Fields.  I can only assume Aetius had devised some kind of system, maybe he kept a color-coded list of every barbarian leader he knew, so that he could keep track of who he was friends with on any given Sunday.

We also meet again, with slightly more enthusiasm, another friend, Sidonius Appolinaris, who finally finally gives us a physical description of the Franks:

“Their eyes are faint and pale, with a glimmer of grayish blue.  Their faces are shaven all round, and instead of beards they have thin mustaches which they run through with a comb. Close-fitting garments confine the long limbs of the men; they are drawn up high to expose the knees, and a broad belt supports their narrow waist.  It is their sport to send axes hurtling through the vast void, and know beforehand where the blow will fall, to whirl their shields, to outstrip with leaps and bounds the spears they have hurled, and reach the enemy first.  Even in boyhood’s years the love of fighting is full-grown.”

– Sidonius Apolinaris, Carmina V. 219-229

The throwing axes Sidonius mentioned were seen as the Franks’ signature weapon, certainly in the Roman period.  Named the franciska in their honor, these would have been utterly terrifying to come across in battle.  Single-handed and relatively short, they were deeply curved on the underside of the blade and balanced specifically as a missile weapon.  These would be deployed at great skill and close range just before close-combat was joined. 

Now, on my birthday a few years ago I was taken to an ax bar in Milwaukee.  This is not a bar that offers foul smelling body-spray for men, it is a bar where you can drink and throw axes at boards with targets on them.  I am, it turns out, not bad at this activity, especially the first part. On the evening we were there, a few lanes over there was a well-built young man who was clearly very enamored of his physical power, who hurled the ax so hard that it overcame any need for actual skill, except for when it didn’t, and the thing came bouncing back at him and his friends. They were largely unfazed by this. When I imagine a Frankish warrior and his franciska then, I imagine that meathead’s power, combined with the skill of someone who actually knew what they were doing, and I shudder to think of what it would have been like to be on the receiving end of such a bombardment.

The Frankish warrior could probably have drunk both of us under the table, too.

The franciskas were paired with a long-pointed javelin descended from the Roman pilum and used to try and neutralize enemy shields, and for the more aristocratic fighter, a longsword patterned on the Roman spatha and called by the franks a loguns. The sidearm of most Frankish fighters though would have been the eighteen inch, single-edged scramasax, a blade of machete-like sturdiness and utility, along with a shield, which were commonly oval or rectangular.  The early franks fought on foot, and in later engagements the franciska proved powerful enough of an advantage to defeat mounted Visigothic lancers.

The impression is of a fairly wild people, overall less Romanized than their east german cousins, or to put it more accurately, more inclined to cling to their germanic customs while also absorbing roman influence at the same time. Many Franks were still pagans, especially as you moved further into the german interior, though there were Arian christian Franks as well.  It’s not too surprising that the west Germans were a little less roman than the other Germans we’ve talked about, in spite of their long, direct contact with Rome. The frankish and allamanic tribes had been settled where they were for many generations and so could afford to be attached to their traditions, as opposed to the nomadic lifestyle that was forced on the Visigoths and Vandals, which I can only assume must have been a life of compromises.

There was cultural bleedthrough, though, as there was everywhere else. I’ve talked before about Germanic dress, such as wool trousers, which had become so ubiquitous in the army that German clothes and military clothes were almost synonymous. A Germanic style of jewelry worked its way into northern Gaul, as gold and garnet fibulae became popular and again, nearly ubiquitous among army officers. These jewels are really lovely, by the way, and from these early beginnings their design would become a nearly pan-european style for several centuries, with local variations of course, again, I’ll find some good pictures. Roman coins found their way across the borders too, as trade was carried on constantly. Some of those coins were then worked into jewelry in styles that wouldn’t look out of place on etsy today.

The best demonstration of this mixing of Germanic and gallo-roman culture, and of the skill of the craftsmen of the time, is the treasure of Childeric. I will talk about the lives of Childeric and his more famous son Clovis in the next episode, but he was a Frankish king who died in 481 or 482, and his grave was found at Tournai in 1653. It remains the only Frankish grave that can be precisely dated and matched to events in written history. 1653 was early days for antiquarianism, of course, and so the find wasn’t recorded with the kind of rigor that we might like, but it was recorded and published. The discovery was made by a deaf stonemason named Adrien Quinquin, and recorded by Jacques Chifflet, a physician and antiquarian employed by the Hapsburg Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, in whose territory Tournai was at the time.

The find was essentially a collection of objects by the time Chifflet got there, and he had to depend on Quinquin’s description of the site for context. Some of the items were almost certainly gathered from other nearby gravesites to make the haul larger, and some other items probably were pocketed before it was all turned over to the authorities, but the treasure was both impressive and revealing nonetheless. Chifflet published his description, along with engravings of many of the pieces, two years later in 1655.

Among other things, the grave contained a franciska, gold fittings for both a scramasax and a sword (the iron and wood parts having corroded away), a gold cloak pin/badge of a kind worn by Roman military officers, gold arm bands, many gold-and-garnet buckles and belt fittings, a ring, and famously, around 300 gold-and-garnet insects that are most often interpreted as bees, but might also be flies or cicadas.  The bees were taken by Napoleon as symbols of ancient French royalty, and he adopted them as his own badge to replace the fleur-de-lis, as did Napoleon III later in the 19th century. The grave contained several coins as well, including one minted by Alexander the Great. The most important part of the find though, was probably the ring. It was a signet ring, which implied the use of written documents in the administration of Childeric’s lands, and it was inscribed with the words CHILDERICI REGIS, “this belongs to king Childeric”, which in the absence of a headstone is about the best archaeological evidence you could get for the identity of the grave’s occupant. It depicts a long-haired, clearly Germanic king, though wearing roman dress, and bearing a spear. It blends seamlessly the tribal authority of the Frankish leader and the administrative and military might of the Roman leader in one object.

The sharp-eared among you will have noticed that I’m talking about this remarkable treasure in the past tense. Indeed I am, alas.  It was initially shipped to the Hapsburg court in Vienna, then later given as a gift to Louis XIV, who was not impressed.  I wonder if it was the treasure itself or his feelings about the Hapsburgs general that led him to turn up his nose. Either way, he shipped it off to be stored in the royal library. It survived the revolution, but in november of 1831, someone broke into what was now the national library of france and stole the treasure, along with a number of other gold objects.  Most of it was melted down.  Some belt and scabbard fittings and two of the bees were dredged up from the Seine, and a plaster cast of the ring had been made which allowed for its reconstruction, but the rest was lost. What remains is still kept at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, but I regret to say I was unable to find out whether they are on public display. There are plenty of images online, though,  and I will post links.

Mentioning Napoleon gives me an excuse to segue back over to the discussion of the historiography of the Franks, and so let me now so seg. And let me begin with an apology to my French listeners, both of you. This is a bit of a complicated issue and I am going to be generalizing wildly, and as with all generalizations, there will be nuances left out I am sure. If I say something deeply offensive or just plain wrong, do not hesitate to get in touch, I would love to hear from you. I also apologize for my french pronunciations, i do try my best.

The relationship between the Franks and the French has been, shall we say, fraught. But, surely, you say as you drive along, the French are Franks, and that’s that! But the question of how the Franks became French is a more contentious one than you might think. It surprised me, anyway. There is the puzzle of language, for starters. French is most directly descended from Latin, as I’m sure most of us know. Frankish, meanwhile, is obviously a Germanic language, and while there are frankish words to be found in modern French, the bulk of the language is resolutely Romance. This fact rather flies in the face of the old idea that the Franks simply exterminated all the Romans they found in their territories and replaced them … but then went ahead and learned the romans language anyway. As early as the ninth century there were historians who tried to solve the problem by ignoring it, Richer of Rheims refers to Clovis as the first christian king of the gauls.

This idea that the Gauls were the real ancestors of the French nation was summed up simply by the phrase “nos ancetres, les gaulois”, first used in the 16th century.  The idea contained an implication that the frankish influence on society and politics was that of an alien invader, an overlay that never assimilated and had no legitimate right to overlordship of the people of Gaul.  There was the theory that the Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties were foreign usurpers, and that the correct Gallic line of succession was restored by Hugh Capet in 987, to continue on until the final fall of the French monarchy in 1848. By the 17th century, a time of massive religious and political conflict in Europe, including but not limited to the 30 years war, it was also noticed with some horror by french scholars that the Franks were actually Germans! Sacre bleu!

Like many historical debates (1619 project), the debate around the role of the franks in French history had more to do with contemporary politics than any search for historical truth. From the late 16th century onwards, the Franks were pulled into discussions of the constitutional makeup of the state. Some argued that in replacing Roman rule, the franks had introduced something freer and more participatory, which was then snatched away by the increasingly authoritarian capetians, valois, and bourbons. On the other, more royalist side, the Franks were seen as the aristocratic element of society, who gave the French their martial prowess and nobility. That was certainly the view of the Bourbons. This was not just scholarly tittle tattle, by the way, Nicholas Freret argued in 1714 that the Franks were not descended from the Trojans, but were just another bunch of German barbarians, and wound up in the Bastille for several months. 

Some revolutionaries took up this identification of the Franks with the nobility, but spun it the opposite way, that these were foreign overlays on the noble Gallo-Roman society of earlier ages.  The Abbe de Sieyes wrote that those “who persisted in the foolhardy pretense of being descended from the race of the conquerors ought to be sent back to the German forests.” Not a fan, then. This all had the unattractive potential to turn the french revolution into a race war. “The Gauls are driving out the Franks’ ‘, wrote Catherine the great. 

Things didn’t get any better in the nineteenth century, as the “science” of race became more and more prominent on both sides of the Rhine. I hope you could hear the big, chunky, my-first-air-quotes from playskool around the word science in that sentence. Linguists posited the idea of the Aryan race, and we all know where that eventually led in Germany.  It was not a purely German phenomenon though, as many would like to think. Skull shape became an issue, as the long-skulled franks could now be seen to be definitively different from the round-skulled gauls. The debate raged with increasing bitterness after the Frano-Prussian war about which of these were the true descendents of the superior Aryan race. That same war intensified the desire to distance France from the Germanic Franks, and glorify Celtic civilization of Gaul. So you will find statues of Vercingetorix all over France, but few of Clovis. And the issue can still be provocative to this day.

I’ve spent so much time on this because it’s a discussion that can be applied to just about all the tribes and peoples that I’ve talked about on this podcast and will talk about.  Plenty of modern nations trace their origins back to the fifth and sixth century migrations, and discussions of that history can lead in some surprisingly vitriolic directions.  A lot of it has to do with nationalist impulses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as countries sought to establish their identities as social and cultural units, rather than chunks of feudal territory.  So some French argue about Gauls vs Franks, some Germans insist on the unity and liberty of the Germanic tribes, some Hungarians claim Attila as their ancestor. In later episodes, the English will claim parliamentary patrimony from the Anglo-Saxons, and Russians and Bulgarians will argue about the true heritage of the slavs. Nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalism makes the study of the early middle ages an exercise in the clearing away of all kinds of baggage.

In reality, it’s all way more complicated than any of that, as I hope I’ve made clear.  New groups migrated and settled, but certainly never in massive waves that could hope to completely replace existing populations.  Instead, in most places a process of acculturation took place, as populations intermarried, as the new arrivals demonstrated their ability to provide for the needs of the locals better than the old Roman overlords. That is not to say that there wasn’t violence, or that the new arrivals were accepted by some kind of democratic consent; as often as not, for the common people the new rulers’ authority was enforced in the same way as that of the old; at the point of a sword or in the loop of the noose. But the notion of genocidal waves of newcomers is dead in the water, and it makes studying the period all the more interesting in my view.

Obviously I did not manage to get this episode out quite as quickly as I promised, apologies for that.  I’m always reading about the importance of consistency of posting, and so tend to beat myself up when I miss these self imposed deadlines, but life intervenes.  I will try to keep the gap between episodes to a maximum of two weeks, though. I think experience tells us that I shouldn’t commit myself to anything more specific than that.  Next time we will continue talking about the Franks and get into some specifics about Childeric, his son Clovis, their relationship to the Empire, and their relationship with crockery.

Childeric’s Ring at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Childeric’s Bees

Sword and Scabbard Decoration from Childeric’s Treasure


Title Music:
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Title Music:
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

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