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France in the Middle Ages


Merovingians : Clovis
Merovingians : Clovis

By the end of the 5th century, Gaul was rapidly becoming a land of Germanic tribes, who mixed with the much larger number of native Gallo-Romans. Of these tribes, Franks dominated in the north, Burgundians in the east, and Goths in the southwest. But many other peoples lived in the area as well, including Jews, Greeks, and Syrians. They made post-Roman Gallic society highly cosmopolitan. The nature of the interchange between the Germanic tribes and the Gallo-Romans is not well understood, but apparently no violent shock of opposing cultures occurred. First, some of the Germanic tribes, including the Franks, had lived for centuries on the outskirts of Roman civilization. They had become partly Romanized before they settled within the limits of the old Roman Empire. They were familiar enough with Latin to use it when they drafted the first written Germanic law codes. Second, the incoming Germans seemed inclined to settle on previously unoccupied land, generally allowing the Gallo-Romans to keep theirs. Finally, intermarriage was common; hence, most tribal distinctions disappeared by the 8th century.

The coming of the Germanic tribes marked the onset of a period known as the Middle Ages (roughly 350-1450). During the early Middle Ages, from about 350 to 1050, trade, literacy, and law and order declined among the Gallo-Romans. Historians once painted this period in the black terms of barbarism, but today they are much less willing to do so.

Historians of traditionally marginalized groups, such as women and Jews, point out that in certain respects the condition of these groups improved after ad 500. Women acquired more control over property as the result of Germanic laws. Jews, whose civil status had declined when the Roman Empire was Christianized, generally faced less persecution under the Germanic kings. Paradoxically, the condition of both women and Jews worsened once again in the 11th century, when a more orderly society was reestablished.

Clovis


The Franks conquered almost all of what had been Roman Gaul and gave the region a semblance of political unity. Under their leader, Clovis, of the Merovingian dynasty, the Franks conquered the lands of the Alemanni to the east, including much of present-day Germany, and those of the Goths in present-day southwestern France. Only Brittany, in present-day western France, and the Mediterranean coast remained outside Frankish control.

Merovingians
Merovingians

Clovis, who ruled from 481 to 511, was a capable, occasionally ruthless military leader, but he understood the importance of symbols and ideology in strengthening his rule. He converted to an orthodox form of Christianity, that is, a form of Christianity approved by the Roman Catholic Church.

At that time most Germanic kings followed a form of Christianity, called Arianism, that the Catholic Church condemned as heretical. Clovis’s adoption of Catholic orthodoxy placed him in a special relation to the pope, the bishop of Rome who was the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It also made Clovis more appealing to the growing number of orthodox Roman Christians he had conquered. These included the bishops, who wielded considerable influence in their localities. In addition, bishops were closely connected to powerful local magnates, strongmen who commanded enough retainers and war supplies to exert power over a region. From this point on, rulers in the west relied heavily on the use of Roman Catholic imagery and associations to expand their influence and eventually to build nations.

Although the arrival of the Franks was only minimally disruptive to the Gallo-Roman peoples, Merovingian rule did cause some changes in power relations. First, the center of power shifted to northern Gaul, whereas under the Romans, the center of power had rested in southern regions closer to Rome. Northern domination of the south continued into modern times with the rise of Paris as the capital of the nation. Second, as the economy weakened, cities declined, allowing power to slip to the countryside. Third, political rule became more personalized.

The retreat of the Roman armies had left in place a variety of local magnates. The magnates exerted power over their localities through clients who owed some form of loyalty to them. The Merovingians allowed many local magnates to stay in power, and they established close ties to at least some of these magnates, most of whom owed them considerable loyalty and tribute. These personal ties did not prevent the development of rivalry and even military conflict among the magnates. Ordinary people turned increasingly to the local magnates for protection, submitting themselves to their rule. The Merovingians considered their kingdom a personal possession. Following Germanic practice, Clovis deeded his kingdom to his four surviving sons, who divided it among themselves at his death. Although in later years the kingdom was temporarily unified, the Merovingians never developed effective means of imposing centralized control. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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