Tag Archives: Volkerwanderung

Vive la Franks

Regime Change

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.

Clovis, King of Franks

What did Clovis do next? He kicked arse.Clovis 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.Charlemagne 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.

Three Kings

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. Carolingian minisculeAnd 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.

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Wandering People Are Dangerous

The Fall of Rome and of Barbarians

This title is somewhat misleading as historians still debate whether the Empire of Rome actually fell or if it just went on a weight-loss program, or if it just even changed its name to hide from people it owed money to. What really didn’t help was the fact that a bunch of Germans wanted to get into the Empire because it had super cool things like civilisation and toilets. Except they weren’t called Germans yet, they had much more fun names like Vandals and Visigoths, and the Romans didn’t really want them around. Modern Germans refer to the way these people entered the Empire as ‘Völkerwanderung‘,Volkerwanderung which means ‘the wandering of people’, which sounds very pleasant and friendly. Like having interesting new neighbours move in next door. Everyone else calls it ‘the Barbarian Invasions’. Which sounds like neighbours moving in next door who own loudly barking dogs, frequently steal the washing off your clothes-line and invite all their friends over for a party and let them sleep anywhere they want, even in your house. And then kill you and wear your head as a hat. To be nice though, most historians now call it ‘the Migration Period’ which makes it sound like it is some natural process. Like herds of zebra peacefully running around the Serengeti and building aqueducts. Which are then savagely attacked by vicious smelly dirty lions.

Vandering Vandals Und Visigoths

So these wandering folk quite literally wandered around the Empire for quite some time. The Vandals started off by traipsing through France before settling down in Spain and North Africa and then being a nuisance to Rome by invading every now and then. The Visigoths followed the Vandals around for a bit, decided Spain was far too nice for them and took it. Sadly, or happily depending on whose side you are on, the Vandals had more bad luck when they were wiped out by the Romans who had changed their name to avoid debt, the Byzantines. The Visigoths used to be part of the people known as the Goths but wanted to see more of the world and so left home at an early age. The rest of the Goths became known as the Ostrogoths. Very imaginative names, East and West Goths.Visigoth Kingdom The Visigoths were very happy in Spain and ignored everyone else for centuries because, in all fairness, they were only rivalled by the Irish for their high level of learning, culture and saintliness. They were even fond of making up their own versions of Christianity, just like the Irish. But they never had laws about bees and are thus less awesome than the Irish. They too were attacked by sneaky name-changing Romans, and the consistently aggressive Franks, before being wiped out by the Umayyad Caliphate. The other Goths fared a little better…

Goth-erdammerung

… Well, no they didn’t really. They had one phenomenal, and aptly named, leader, Theodoric the Great.Theodoric The Roman Empire which hadn’t changed its name hadn’t really been ruled by Romans in a while, but nobody really knew about that until Odoacer, a Hun, killed the last emperor and proclaimed himself king. Theodoric thought he could do a better job. He invited Odoacer to dinner and killed him. With his bare hands. Nobody really argued with him after that. Theodoric then basically re-established the Roman Empire to a certain degree, made treaties with everyone who was worth making treaties with and became top dog of Western Europe. For about twenty minutes. The Ostrogoths had basically been very annoying tenants in the Byzantine Empire who were told to go live somewhere else. When they did go and find somewhere else to live they were expected to be subservient to the Byzantine Emperor. This would be like buying a new house and still having to pay rent to your former landlord. Actually it would be more like your landlord telling you to kill his neighbour and take his house and then paying him to keep quiet about the whole thing because you want your neighbours to think you are actually very nice and that they should all listen to you because your sitting-room has a tv with the best shows. Of course here ‘sitting-room’ and ‘tv’ are metaphors for ‘Rome’ and ‘the hypothetical centre of the western Christian Church’. He built himself a fairly decent empire and then died as it all started falling apart, which is handy because the old landlord came looking for rent. The Byzantines went about taking half of everything the Ostrogoths had, and then realising that half of everything wasn’t actually that much took the rest.

These unfortunate barbarians had cousins. Ones who were very good at keeping what they had killed for. It helped that they were relatively far away from the heirs of Rome, the Byzantines, who kept asking for rent from people who occupied what used to be their empire. These peoples could happily ignore the Eastern Empire as they went about killing the locals and setting themselves up as kings. These would be the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks.

Reality Check:

While some ‘barbarians’ did arrive into the Empire in arms, a substantial amount were probably refugees from conflict, plague or famine. ‘Barbarian’ was a pejorative term used by the ‘civilised’ Romans to distinguish what they were from what they were not. These ‘barbarian’ people had a rich and vibrant culture of their own that had simply developed in a manner different to that of the Mediterranean cultures.