Charles the Great
By Thomas Hodgkin, D.C.L.
1908In the north-east of Gaul dwelt, in the latter part of the fifth century after Christ, a confederacy of German tribes called the Salian Franks, occupying the districts known in later days as Flanders, Artois, and Picardy. Farther south was the strong and warlike tribe of the Ripuarian Franks, whose territory stretched along the banks of the Rhine from Mainz to Kohv and along the Moselle from Koblenz to Metz. Salians and Riparians recognised a loose tie of kinship between them, but there was no strong feeling of unity even in the subdivisions of the two nations. Both Salians and Ripuarians had many petty kings, and there were frequent civil wars between them.
In this state of things one of these petty kings, Clovis, the Salian Frank, began to reign at Tournai in 481, being then fifteen years of age. When he died, in the year 611, after forty-five years of life and thirty of sovereignty, he had mode himself sole master of all Frankish men, and had subdued to his dominion three-fourths of France and a great block of territory in south-western Germany. Let us briefly recapitulate these conquests, omitting the wars in which the other Frankish princes, whether Salian or Ripuarian, went down before him. In 486 he overthrew the Roman governor Syagrius, who had set up some sort of independent kingship at Soissons. This conquest gave Clovis the provinces afterwards known as Champagne and Lorraine. In 496 he defeated the Alamanni in a great battle, the ultimate result of which was the annexation of the wide district on the right lank of the Rhine known in the Middle Ages as Swabia, comprising in terms of modern geography Alsace, Baden, Württemberg, the western part of Bavaria, and the northern part of Switzerland. The well-timed conversion to Christianity, and to the Catholic form of Christianity which followed this victory, facilitated the next great conquest of Clovis. In the year 507 he went forth to war against Alaric, King of the Visigoths, defeated and slew him, and thus added Aquitaine, that large and fertile region which lies between the Loire and the Pyrenees, to his dominions. Four years after this he died, but in the next generation, between 624 and 534, his sons conquered Burgundy, and thus added to their father's kingdom the whole valley of the Shone from its source to its mouth, except the narrow but rich land of Provence, which was retained by the Ostrogothic kings of Italy for a few years longer, but in 5S6 this also became Frankish. Contemporaneously with the conquest of Burgundy proceeded the conquest of Thuringia, the fair region in the heart of Germany which still bears that name, and the establishment of the over-lordship of the Franks over the nation of the Bavarians, whose country stretched from the Danube across the Alps, into the valley of the Adige and up to the very gates of Italy. The date of this last addition to the Frankish dominions cannot be precisely ascertained, but may be stated approximately at the year 635.
It will be seen from this brief summary how rapidly the tide of Frankish conquest rose almost to the same high-water mark which it maintained at the time of the birth of Charlemagne. In fifty years from the first appearance of Clovis as a warrior, the Franks have subdued the whole of modern France (except a little strip of Languedoc), the Low Countries, Switzerland, and all Germany as far as the Elbe, and the mountains of Bohemia, except Hanover and a part of Westphalia which is occupied by the untamed and still heathen Saxons. Such a monarchy even now would be the greatest power in Europe. In the sixth century, with Spain weakened by the estrangement between Arians and Catholics, with Italy torn by strife between the Empire and its barbarian occupants, with Britain still in utter chaos, nibbled at but not devoured by her Anglo-Saxon invaders, the kingdom of the Franks, when united and at peace within itself, was the strongest power in Europe, with the two doubtful exceptions of the kingdom of the savage Avars and the tottering fabric of the Roman Empire.
But the years in which the Frankish kingdom was thus united and at peace with itself were few. It had been built up by the ferocious energy of one man and his sons; it was hardly in any true sense of the word national, and he and his descendants treated it as an estate rather than as a country, partitioned and repartitioned it in a way which wasted its strength and ruined its chances of attaining to political unity. The comparison may seem a strange one, but in the personal, non-national character of his policy the first Frankish king reminds one of the latest French conqueror ; the career of Clovis may be illustrated by that of Napoleon Both men emphatically "fought for their own hands"; both were more intent on massing great countries under their sway than on really assimilating the possessions which they had already acquired; both in different ways made, or tried to make, the Catholic Church an instrument of their ambition; and both seem to have looked upon Europe, or so much of it as they could acquire, as a big estate to be divided among their children or relations.
There is no need here to dwell upon the perplexing details of the division of the kingdom of Clovis among his sons and grandsons. We perceive a tendency to regard the north-eastern portion of the realm, especially that conquered from Syagrius, as the true kernel of the kingdom; and therefore, widely as the dominions of the brothers stretch asunder, their capitals, Mets, Orleans, Soissons, Paris, all lie comparatively near to one another, all probably within the ring-fence of the Syagrian kingdom. But there is also a tendency to fall asunder into four great divisions. Burgundy and Aquitaine, though they do not formally resume their independence, are often seen as separate kingdoms under a Frankish king. But the more important division, the more fateful rivalry separates the two northern kingdoms, which eventually receive the names of Neustria and Austrasia. In Neustria, which contained the regions of Flanders, Normandy, Champagne, and Central France as far as the Loire, there was doubtless a very large Gallo-Roman population, though its numbers may not have so enormously preponderated over those of tile Teutonic immigrants as in Aquitaine and Burgundy. The Roman language and some remains of Roman culture survived here in Neustria, and were preparing the ground for the formation of the mediaeval kingdom of France. Austrasia, on the other hand, the territory of the Rhine and the Moselle, seems to have remained essentially German. The Latin speech in this country must have been confined to ecclesiastics and a few of the more cultivated courtiers; it can never have been the speech of the people. And though here we must speak rather by conjecture than by proof, it is probable that the old Germanic institutions of the hundred[НВ1] and the gau[НВ2] survived here in greater vigour than on the alien soil of the Romanised Gaul. It was also through the rulers of Austrasia that the connection, frail and precarious as it often might be, was kept up between the Frankish monarchy and the great semi-independent duchies of the Thuringians, tho Alamanni, and the Bavarians.
Thus already in the fissure between the western and eastern portions of the Merovingian kingdom we see the rift, premonitory of that mighty chasm which now separates the great states of France and Germany.
In the German-speaking lands east of the Rhine, the Gau formed the unit of administration of the Carolingian empire during the 9th and 10th centuries. Similar to many shires in England, during the Middle Ages, many such gaus came to be known as counties orGrafschaften, the territory of a Graf or count within the Holy Roman Empire. Such a count or graf would originally have been an appointedgovernor, but the position generally became an hereditary vassal princedom, or fief in most of continental Europe.