Charlemagne’s reign quickly became encrusted by legend, which scholars, without denying its very real achievements, are still trying to detach from the reality. Charlemagne’s impact on the development of a French national consciousness was limited. He stimulated the growth of cultural and political institutions throughout his empire. But Charlemagne did not directly promote either a specific French or German identity; such terms had little meaning in his period. The name Francia—precursor of France—was used, but it referred to the entire Carolingian empire outside Italy (northern and central Italy fell under Charlemagne’s control after he defeated the Lombards in 773-774), not a more limited region within the empire.
The reign of Louis I from 814 to 840 has traditionally been viewed as the gateway to disintegration and decline of the empire. But scholars now point out that Louis was more effective than his father in making the administration work and did more to preserve the imperial idea. Louis’s chief problem was the endemic conflict among the magnates. Toward the end of Louis’s reign, this conflict became enmeshed in the struggle among his sons—Lothair, Louis, and Charles the Bald—over the division of the empire. In 842, two years after Louis’s death, two of his sons, Charles and Louis, allied against Lothair.
In 843 the three sons reached a fragile settlement over their respective inheritances in the Treaty of Verdun. According to this treaty, Charles was to rule a western kingdom, including Aquitaine; Louis was to rule a kingdom east of the Rhine; and Lothair was to rule a central kingdom, consisting of lands lying between the two other kingdoms plus Italy.
Lothair would receive the imperial title but would have no effective control over Charles and Louis or their lands. This treaty was less significant for the development of the French nation than is often supposed. It did help to set France’s ultimate boundaries, inasmuch as Charles acquired a claim over most of what would later become modern France. At the time, however, it achieved little in terms of national unification. The term Francia continued to refer to regions ruled by Charles and by his brothers. Charles’s inheritance was commonly called West Francia and Louis’s was called East Francia.
Only centuries later did Francia denote present-day France alone. Furthermore, the brothers continued to fight over the terms of the treaty.
Sandwiched between West and East Francia, Lothair’s portion (Lotharingia) proved extremely hard to consolidate, and imperial authority rapidly declined there. For a long time, West Francia followed a similar course. Brittany, which had been a Frankish dependency, began to move beyond royal control, while Aquitaine, a region that had been under Frankish rule for only a century, gradually reasserted its autonomy under Charles’s rule. This trend was reinforced by cultural and linguistic differences. In the north—the old Frankish homestead—Germanic law and an early version of the French language, the langue d’oïl (so called because of the pronunciation of the word for yes), prevailed. In the south, including Aquitaine, the predominant tongue was the langue d’oc, which was closer to classical Latin than was the langue d’oïl. Roman law also exercised a much greater influence in the south than in the north. Charles’s reign was further disturbed by the incursions of the Vikings, a marauding people from the north who plundered many regions of western Europe beginning in the late 8th century. Historians are now less impressed than they once were with the destructiveness of the Vikings, pointing out that conflicts among the magnates might well have caused just as much damage to lives and property. Still, the Vikings were at the very least a destabilizing force in Charles’s kingdom and dealt an unwelcome blow to an already shaky regime.
The most critical weakness of Charles’s regime—one that would continue for centuries—was the uncertain loyalty and independence of the powerful magnates, who clustered in two major factions, the Carolingians and the Robertians, so called because of their association with Robert the Strong, count of Neustria. Charles had less booty to offer his nobles than did Charlemagne and sought to gain political leverage by playing off one aristocratic faction against the other. In this effort, he received considerable assistance from the church, which Charles protected in return for the church’s spiritual and material support. Beginning in Charles’s reign, the church started routinely anointing Frankish kings as a part of royal ceremony. This ritual added luster and authority to the king’s title, but it also offered bishops of the church an invitation to intervene in state affairs in God’s name. Charles also tried to secure a stronger political base by turning eastward to secure the imperial title. In 875 he managed to obtain it and kept it until his death two years later. Despite Charles’s vigorous efforts to bolster his authority, his reign can only appear in retrospect as the prelude to one of the most disordered centuries of French history. Aristocratic factions had gained strength during the early and middle decades of the 9th century. These factions dominated the politics of West Francia for a long time, making the crown more a political football than the secure possession of any one dynasty. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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