A bunch of rowdy German football hooligans decided to move to Paris one day. Thus began the history of France. Previously it had been known as ‘Gaul’ and was ruled by the Romans, who never did anything for anyone except provide sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, public health, and peace. A bunch of people called the Salian Franks, who were jealous of all the things Rome hadn’t done for anyone, decided to move into Gaul and rename it Francia, and hope no-one noticed because, in fairness, it was the done thing at the time. The Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths were all having a go at ruling someone else’s empire, so the Franks thought it was only fair that they should too. At first, under a fella by the name of Childeric I (not that he called himself that, he couldn’t have known that another Childeric would come along two hundred years later) the Salian Franks were somewhat under the rule of Rome, and fought the Visigoths alongside Roman armies. But then Odoacer put an end to the Empire, so the Franks were basically free to do whatever they wanted. Which is exactly what Clovis did.
What did Clovis do next? He kicked arse. The French have a long and proud history of kicking arse and not giving a damn, and it was probably Clovis who started this. Assuming the throne after his father died, he started fighting with pretty much everyone he could. Under Frankish law the king was only entitled to an equal share in the booty of conquest as his men were. Being king, Clovis thought he deserved more, and said as much at Soissons after a certain battle when he desired a ewer of singular craftsmanship. A soldier stood up and said every man should have a share, and smashed it to bits. Clovis did nothing at the time, but later, at a mustering of the men, singled out the offending soldier for inspection. He seized the man’s axe, and threw it to the ground, declaring it to be dirty. As the man knelt to retrieve the weapon Clovis drew his, and clove the man’s head in two. After that no-one dared debate the concept of ‘fair share’ with Clovis, even as he went about taking other people’s lands and kingdoms. He killed kings and their relatives, sometimes by his own hand, until he had conquered the majority of Gaul. He even killed much of his own family to avoid rebellion and claimants to the throne. Near the end of his life he held a great assembly, and cried out how terrible it was to be old, alone, and have no relatives, not because he wanted to welcome them in a warm embrace of familial affection, but introduce them to the cold embrace of death by axe. Having built himself a nice empire his family spent the next few hundred years tearing it apart, going insane and being far too young to run things. This allowed for many families to rise, and fall, rapidly in a short time, as was the case of the next great dynasty of what was now called Francia, or Frankland.
Rise of the Carolingians
Charlemagne was the crowning glory of a generation or more of one family’s attempts to become the rulers of Francia. This family, known as the Carolingians, were the Mayors of the Palace, essentially the Prime Ministers, of the Merovingian kings. Charles, the Hammer, Martel, one of France’s earliest recorded rappers, went about conquering people, and demanding tribute from them, under the authority of the king. His greatest victory was when he defeated an invading Muslim army at Tours, driving them back behind the Pyrenees, where they stayed until the Spanish decided they wanted to have Spain back. The Franks tended to prefer the idea of a warrior-king as opposed to a sit-at-home-and-send-others-to-die king. Though he ruled as king for a time he was never actually called a king, possibly because the Merovingian name still held a certain amount of power. His son, Pippin the Short, did not care for the fact that he had to answer to a man who had no real power, only prestige. He sent a letter to the Pope, and then called an election. Pippin was thus elected king, the first of the very successful Carolingian dynasty to rule Francia, not just in practice but in name. He finished driving the Saracens out of Gaul, annexed Aquitaine, made the Lombards do what the Pope told them to, and then died. He left two sons as heirs. One wasn’t king for long and didn’t really do much. This was Carloman I. The other was one of the most celebrated kings of the Middle Ages, if not all time, who ruled over most of Europe, and wielded a level of power unseen since the Roman emperors, inspired an explosion of learning and gave us the writing system we use today. This was the aptly named Imperatur Augustus Charles I The Great, Charlemagne.
Charlemagne had several sons, but only one was appointed to succeed him, Louis the Pious, which was handy. Louis had lots of sons and this created many problems for him later in life. Louis decided that his eldest son, Lothar, would become emperor and that his other two sons, Peppin and Louis (the German) would become kings of bits of France and Germany, under the overall rule of their brother. They would not be allowed to go to war or organise family picnics without the consent of Lothar. Then Louis (the Pious) went and had another son and made a mess of the whole deal. The lands and privileges of the first 3 sons were diminished in favour of Charles, the new young prince. Soon they were all at war. Louis was emperor, then Lothar, then Louis again. Then Louis died, so Lothar, the other Louis, and Charles divided the land between them, leaving Peppin to twiddle his thumbs. Lothar felt he should be in charge and attacked Charles, but lost, and then Louis attacked Charles, but lost. New lines were drawn, dividing the empire in three parts, which had repercussions which still affect the world today. The Empire was cut up permanently for the first time in four generations, since Charles Martel took power. This created the kingdoms of France, Germany and Italy. While there had been kingdoms of Italy before, ‘France’ and ‘Germany’ were totally new ideas which would be fought over for the next thousand years. It all began with three brothers who couldn’t agree where to draw the lines between their kingdoms.
Monks, Fonts, and Music
The Carolingians, while killing and conquering everything they could, and fighting amongst themselves, also stimulated intellectual culture in Europe. Latin was standardised so that people from all over the empire, while speaking different languages, could all understand one another. Writing was also standardised in Europe. Before then every monastery, school, palace, and town had their style of writing, with contractions and symbols that were often incomprehensible to anyone else. Not unlike text-speak written in Chinglish. Charles the Great decided he was sick of all that and made everyone write the same way; everyone made all the letters the same way (which was a strange concept at the time!), joined them the same way, had spaces between words, everything became neat and tidy. And what did all this look like? This. You are reading it. Seriously. The way we write today, the shape of the letters, the spacing, punctuation, was all made up back then. It’s changed and developed since then, but basically, you write how the Carolingians did. They even invented musical notation, all those lines and dots that describe sounds. So, what did the Carolingians do? They created the way we write, the way we write music, deeply influenced Western Christian doctrine, invented France and Germany, and were one of the very few empires to rule and unite vast swathes of Europe for more than 20 minutes.