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As the Roman Legions withdrew from western Europe, various Germanic peoples moved into the territory, fought wars, and established settlements. One of these groups, the Franks, conquered much of the Roman province of Gaul (now France) in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Although they were farmers, they also loved making war. Most free men went about armed, often with a special kind of throwing axe called a francisca. Both men and women were fond of jewellery, and both genders wore their hair long. Their name for themselves--"Frank"--meant free. "Franchise," the English word for the right to vote, comes from this Frankish word.


In many parts of Asia, Europeans are still called Franks. For example, the Thai call Europeans "Farang."


The Merovingian royal family ruled the Franks for almost three hundred years. The most successful ruler in the family, Clovis I, reigned from 481 to 511 C.E. He founded the country of France and made Paris its capital.

After the death of Clovis, the kingdom was divided among his children, who were not very capable leaders. Before long, this royal family became famous for its treachery and murderous infighting. Kings and queens often committed murders with their own hands, and many were killed by members of their own family. For the next two centuries, the Merovingian royal family was weakened by this constant infighting, and the kingdom fell into chaos.


Here we have two descriptions of the Franks. In one, Tacitus, a Roman historian of the first century, offers his opinion of the Germanic peoples, which included the Franks. Compare this with the other statement, in which the Franks describe themselves. In what ways do these statements agree? How do they differ? How does each reflect the speaker's point of view?


The materials ... come through war and foray. You will not so readily persuade them [the Germanic peoples] to plow the land or await the year's crop as to challenge the foe and earn wounds. Besides it seems [to them] limp and slack to gain with the sweating of your brow what you can win with blood.



[We are a] glorious people, wise in council, noble in body, radiant in health, excelling in beauty, daring, quick, hardened. ... This is the people that shook the cruel yoke of the Romans from its neck.

--Preface to the Frank Legal Code



As a Germanic people, the Franks had their own legal code, which differed greatly from Roman law. When these laws were written down and collected, they were called the Salic Code, after the Salian Franks, who had settled in France.

The Salic Code placed a monetary value on every piece of property and on every person. If property was stolen or a person injured or killed, a fine called wergild had to be paid to the owner of the property or the victim's family. In the case of murder, the family could refuse to accept the fine, and instead could demand the guilty person's death. If a relation of the victim took revenge by killing the murderer, the law did not hold him or her responsible.
wergild: man-money, that is, a person's value in money
Figure 1-10 Finely decorated jewellery such as this was often placed in the coffins of Merovingian nobles. Consequently, grave robbing was a common offence. Why do you think the Merovingians placed jewellery in their graves?
Crime and Punishment in the Salic Code

Some of the laws in the Salic Code seem strange to us today, but they made sense to the Franks. For instance, cutting a child's hair was a serious offence because the Franks believed that a person's strength could be measured by the length of his or her hair. Grave robbing was a common problem among the Franks because of the jewellery they placed in the caskets of wealthy people. After analyzing the data carefully, make three conclusions about Frank society. Note that the Franks fined people more for killing a boy than for killing a girl. Why did they do this? Do Canadian laws make similar distinctions? Why or why not?


Crime Punishment

Theft of a slave: 120-150 lashes

Arson: slavery in the mines, banishment, or

arson: intentionally setting fire to property
Theft: fine, torture, or death
Crime: Fines

Breaking a betrothal: 65 gold solidi betrothal: a promise to marry

Touching a woman's hand: 15 gold solidi

Cutting the hair

of a free boy or girl: 45 gold solidi

Grave robbing: 200 gold solidi

A Person's Value by Law (Wergild)

Fines for killing a free woman

of childbearing age: 600 gold solidi

pregnant woman: 700 gold solidi

boy under twelve: 600 gold solidi

girl under twelve: 200 gold solidi

Note: Solidi were gold coins worth $50-$100 in today's money.


Using Primary Sources


What is it? An excerpt from the ten-volume History of the Franks

Who wrote it? Gregory of Tours, a Frankish bishop and historian

When? Late sixth century

Why? To record the history of his people

Before the great plague ravaged Auvergne [a region in France], prodigies terrified the people of that region in the same way. On a number of occasions, three or four shining lights appeared round the sun. Once on the first day of October, the sun was in eclipse, so that less than a quarter of it continued to shine. ... Then a star, which some call a comet, appeared over the region for a whole year, with a tail like a sword, and the whole sky seemed to burn and many other portents were seen.

plague: a contagious disease that is out of control and kills many people prodigies, portents: omens, occurences that predict future events
Much of what we know about the Franks and their rulers, the Merovingians, comes from a book called the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, a mild-mannered person who was shocked by the bloodthirsty deeds of the Merovingian rulers.

The History of the Franks is what historians call a "primary source." In other words, this document provides a first-hand account of historical events by a person who actually participated in them or was able to interview eyewitnesses. An account of Roberta Bondar's flight in space written by Bondar herself during the flight would be a good primary source to have. Documents such as charters, chronicles, historical paintings, and records of births and deaths are also considered primary sources. A "secondary source" is an account put together long after the events it describes. When historians research a particular period, they prefer to work with primary sources.

Even though Gregory's book is a primary source, modern historians have to interpret what Gregory wrote to decide how much of what he wrote actually occurred and how much was the result of superstition or wishful thinking.

1. The above extract tells us several things. First, Gregory was superstitious. Second, a disease killed many people in Auvergne. What did Gregory see that would interest an astronomer studying historical astronomical events?

2. Gregory called these astronomical events "portents," or omens. Do you think he was right? Explain.

3. Think of three modern-day beliefs that people a thousand years from now might think were silly or superstitions.


By reading Gregory's History of the Franks, we also learn about the everyday life of the Frankish people, and we find that some things never change. The Franks had social classes: some people were very rich and some were incredibly poor. The majority of people at this time (around 60 percent) were serfs, or peasants, people who worked the land on their lord's manor, or estate. Although they were considered free and not slaves, serfs were not allowed to move away from the manor. Because they were farmers, the serfs were at the mercy of the weather. Storms or drought could cause great hardship. The lords and rulers could steal serfs' crops at any time. Further, as Gregory of Tours complained, merchants often tried to profit from the misfortunes of ordinary people by raising prices when food was scarce.

social class: the group that one belongs to in a society. Class can be determined by money, role in society, or one's parentage.


HOW TO ... Make a Bar Graph

Sometimes we need help in grasping the significance of statistics. Graphs help us by providing a "picture" of the information. For example, a bar graph comparing the life expectancies of Frankish and Canadian women helps us see the extraordinary difference:

Every bar graph has two axes. The horizontal axis shows the categories (for example, year, city, gender), while the vertical axis shows the values (for example, degrees of temperature or distance in kilometres). The bars, always of equal width, show the value for each category by their height.

1. a) Following these instructions, make a bar graph comparing the life expectancies of Frankish and Canadian men.

· Draw and label two axes.

· Add categories on the horizontal axis and a scale on the vertical axis. To help choose your scale, look at the largest value you will show.

· Draw and shade one bar for each category, using the statistics in the table above.

· Give your bar graph a title.

b) Why do you think life expectancy for men and women in Frankish times was so much lower than life expectancies today? Why do you think Frankish women died so much earlier than men?
2. Now make a similar pair of graphs comparing the heights of Frankish and Canadian women and Frankish and Canadian men. Speculate on why Franks were shorter than Canadians are today.

Statistics: The Franks in 700 and Canadians in 1994/95

The Franks Canadians

Infant mortality rate 45% 0.6%

Population under twelve years 22% 16%

Population under twenty-five years 60% 34%

Average life expectancy for men 45 years 75 years

Average life expectancy for women 35 years 81 years

Age of marriage (for women) 12 years 30 years

Size of average family 2.9 persons 3.0 persons

Average height for men 165 cm (estimated) 180 cm (estimated)

Average height for women 150 cm (estimated) 165 cm (estimated)



Charlemagne came to power in western Europe in 768 C.E. His father, Pepin the Short, had made himself king by throwing out the last of the Merovingian rulers, who had come to be known as the "do-nothing" kings. The pope agreed to recognize Pepin as king because Pepin's father, Charles Martel, had defeated a Muslim army that had threatened to conquer Europe in 732.

Unlike many of the Germanic rulers who had come before him, Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was very interested in rebuilding civilization, and he had the intelligence and power to do so. Through his military successes he expanded the old Merovingian Empire in every direction. At the height of his power, on Christmas day in 800, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III. The Carolingian Empire gave much of western Europe a brief rest from the wars that had torn it apart since the fall of Rome.
Carolingian Empire: Charlemagne's empire, from about 770 to 814
Charlemagne governed his empire from his palace at Aachen in what is now Germany. Although he allowed local governments much freedom, he also sent out agents, called missi dominici (the lord's messengers), to make sure that people were treated properly. He created a single code of laws for the whole empire. Unlike those who came before him, Charlemagne tried to make things better for the serfs and tradespeople.

We learn from Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard, that Charlemagne could also be hardhearted and merciless. After a long war with the Saxons in northwest Germany, Charlemagne defeated them and insisted that they convert to Christianity. When the Saxon leaders refused, Charlemagne ordered his soldiers to kill about 4000 Saxons in a single day.

Figure 1-11 This map shows the extent of Charlemagne's kingdom. Check in an atlas to discover what modern countries lie in this region. Which mountain ranges formed natural borders?

Describing Charlemagne

Einhard, Charlemagne's secretary, wrote a biography of Charlemagne, the first biography of a medieval person who was not a saint or otherwise connected with the Roman Catholic Church. Are there any indications of exaggeration in the account at right?


Charles [Charlemagne] was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall. ... In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, accomplishments in which scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practised swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aachen, and lived there constantly during his later years until his death.

the chase: the hunt

exhalations: vapours
Charlemagne's Renaissance

Improving education throughout the empire was a special concern of Charlemagne. He established new schools in monasteries and encouraged the learning of the Latin classics. Charles insisted that his sons and daughters be educated.

Charles was an energetic and thoughtful ruler. He took a keen interest in reviving the practice of architecture and had many stone churches and palaces built in France and Germany. He was interested in science and literature, and he loved talking with interesting people. Because Charlemagne succeeded in bringing about a rebirth of learning and the arts, historians today often refer to his time as the Carolingian

Renaissance. He died at the age of seventy-two, after ruling for forty-seven years. The peace and security Charles had worked for fell apart because of feuds among his descendants, and their weakness in the face of Viking invasions.
renaissance: a rebirth or revival, especially of the arts

Charlemagne learned to read, though he never quite succeeded in teaching himself to write. He kept a writing slate under his pillow and practised his letters before going to sleep but finally gave up, saying he was too old.

Figure 1-12 A carving from the outside of Charlemagne's coffin, showing Charlemagne dressed in bishop's clothing and seated between two saints. What impression do you think Charlemagne wanted to leave?



1. Who were the Franks? What did they think of themselves? Write a description of Canadians to go in the Canadian Constitution. You may wish to consider ethnic origins, culture, and commonly held principles, ideals, and goals. Compare your description of the Canadian people with the Franks' description of themselves.

2. a) Calculate the worth of the fines listed on page 22. Under Canadian law, murder, arson, and theft would all be punished with a prison term. How did the Franks punish people guilty of these crimes? Why do you think the Franks never punished with prison terms?

b) What punishments did the Franks use that Canadians do not use? How can you account for these differences?

c) Under Canadian law, breaking an engagement or touching a person's hand usually would not be considered a serious crime. How did the Franks punish these actions? How can you account for these differences?

3. Describe the role played by the serf in Frankish society. Identify three threats to a serf's wellbeing.

4. Look at the statistics on page 24.

a) At what age did young Frankish women get married? Identify three effects an early marriage might have on a girl's life. Consider her relationship with her parents, the age at which she would begin bearing children, and her relationship with a much older husband.

b) The infant mortality rate shows that almost half of all Frankish babies died in infancy. What might account for this?

c) Make up three questions of your own about this chart. With a partner, speculate on answers for each question.

5. In a small group, discuss if Charlemagne deserves the title "the Great." Give evidence to support your view.

6. As one of Charlemagne's advisors, you have been asked to advertise for people to help rebuild civilization at Charles's capital at Aachen. Prepare an advertisement for Charles's approval. Your advertisement should demonstrate your knowledge of the world of the Franks.


While the Franks settled in France after the fall of Rome, Britain was invaded by a different group. When the Roman soldiers left Britain in the fifth century, warriors from the area now known as Germany--the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes--moved in, driving out the native Celtic peoples. Soon large numbers of these Germanic invaders began to settle in Britain and pushed the Celts into Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland, and across the sea to Ireland. The Celts had once been a powerful people, inhabiting much of Europe, from Spain all the way to southern Russia. Now, in Britain, the Celtic language and culture disappeared from the seven kingdoms (see page 29) established by the invaders, who became known as the Anglo-Saxons, or English.

Celtic peoples: (pronounced Keltic), a western European culture. The Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons are all Celts.

Figure 1-13 The craftsperson who made this piece of jewellery inscribed (or carved) on the work, in Anglo-Saxon, the words, "Alfred had me made." Originally, the ornament probably held a stick of ivory or wood for pointing at a manuscript when reading. For what else could this ornament have been used?



Although they thought of themselves as warriors, the Anglo-Saxons, like the Franks, were farmers. They lived in small villages, and men and women shared the hard work of agriculture between them. Some trade and business took place, but even the largest towns, such as London, would seem very small by today's standards. Like other Germanic peoples, the Anglo-Saxons had skilled metal workers. Many examples of their highly elaborate sculpture and jewellery have survived. The Anglo-Saxons were also great storytellers who created wonderful epics, such as Beowulf.

epic: a long poem telling about heroic deeds and events
Beginning in the ninth century, Anglo-Saxon England, like Carolingian France, suffered from devastating Viking raids. Alfred the Great, an early ruler of Anglo-Saxon England, lost many battles with the Vikings before he learned how to beat them. At his death, Alfred left western and southern England united and properous. England as a whole, however, would suffer from a deadly combination of weak kings and Viking invaders until the time of William the Conqueror.
prosperous: thriving
Beowulf and the Monster Grendel

The Anglo-Saxon, Old English poem Beowulf is an ancient epic that would have been told around the fire on long winter evenings. It tells the story of a Swedish hero's battles with three monsters: a troll named Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a fire-breathing dragon guarding a golden treasure. Beowulf slays all three monsters but dies himself after being burned and bitten by the dragon. This story helps us understand the fear in which many people lived in the early Middle Ages: fear of wild animals (which still populated Europe), fear of enemies, and fear of the unknown.

Only one copy of the poem has survived from the Middle Ages. The segment shown at the top right describes the dark night when the monster Grendel and Beowulf engage in battle. The Old English words are given above, along with a translation. Can you pick out the Old English words that resemble modern English?

The evil monster Grendel came out of the misty wild lands with evil on his mind. Under stormy skies, the monster saw a beautiful golden palace. The evildoer planned to attack the hall and capture some people. It was not the first time he had attacked Hrothgar's home.



Tha com of more under misthleothum

Then came off [the] moor under mist-hills

Grendel gongan, Goddes yrre baer;

Grendel going, God's ire [he] bore;

mynte se manscatha manna cynnes

thought the evildoer of mankind

sumne besyrwan in sele tham hean.

some to entrap in that high hall.

Wod under wolcnum to thaes the he winreced,

Went under clouds until he [the] wine-building,

goldsele gumena, gearwost wisse

gold-hall best, clearly saw

faettum fahne. Ne waes thaet forma sith

with gold plates decorated. Nor was that [the] first time

thaet he Hrothgares ham gesohte.

that he Hrothgar's home had sought.


Using a Translation as a Primary Source

In the feature on page 28, you saw the monster Grendel make his way to Hrothgar's Hall, which he intends to attack. Here are two translations of the line describing the thoughts going through Grendel's mind after he breaks into the hall and sees a room full of sleeping warriors.

translation: writing changed from one language into another
For each translation, decide if the monster intends to eat the warriors or not. How can two translations of the same line disagree on such an important point?

It is true that translators sometimes make mistakes. More often they disagree about what particular words or phrases mean. Sometimes they are writing for different audiences. Next time you read a primary source document in translation, keep in mind that a translation is never as accurate as the original.


What is it? Two translations of one line from the ancient poem Beowulf

Who translated it? Two scholars of Old English

When? Twentieth century

Why? To allow more people to understand the poem

Then his heart laughed;

evil monster, he thought he would take

the life from each body, eat them all

before day came.

And his heart laughed, he relished the sight,

Intended to tear the life from those bodies

By morning.

Figure 1-14 England in the time of Alfred the Great. The Anglo-Saxons drove the Celtic peoples into Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall and divided England into seven kingdoms. Pick these out. Why do you think Alfred allowed the Vikings to live in the Danelaw?
Key to map:

ir Ireland

du Dublin

ck Cork

sc Scotland

no Northumbria

lin Lindisfame

yk York

mer Mercia

wa Wales

cw Cornwall

we Wessex

es Essex

lo London

est East Anglia

ken Kent

ct Canterbury

nm Normandy

ns North Sea

ench English Channel

is Irish Sea

su Sussex

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