1 pages essay


French History


In his concise book The History of France, Bertier de Sauvigny writes that like Ernest Hemingway's Paris, French history is a "moveable feast" that "waits to be tasted and consumed by all who wish to enjoy its pleasures." But for someone who wants to get beneath the surface of things, much remains to be discovered: "To hope to understand France and the French without knowledge of their history is an illusion, because for the French their history is very much a part of their present." (p. 20) What follows is a sampler with links to explore places, events, and personalities that fit the goals of an introductory course.

If you purchased Ross Steele's When in France, Do As the French Do, the pages on history provide additional reading.



Key terms and concepts: Celtics, Greeks, Gallo-Roman civilizations, Clovis I, Clotilda, Gallo-Roman monuments, Merovingians, Carolingians, Charlemagne, Viking invasions, Oaths of Strasbourg


Section 1:Early Settlements to the End of the Carolingian Empire: 600 B.C. - 911 A.D.

Table of Contents:

· 2000 B. C. - 5th Century A.D. : Celts, Eastern Mediterranean Outposts, Greek Settlements, Roman Gaul

· 5th-10th Century: Frankish Era

· Merovingians (5th - 7th Centuries)

· Carolingians and the Holy Roman Empire (8th - 10th Centuries)

· Carolus Magnus-Charlemagne (Charles the Great)

· Dissolution of the Carolingian Empire

· Viking Invasions

· Sources

Objectives for this section:

After completing the following readings, see if you are able to do these things:

· Compare the impact of Celtic, Greek, and Gallo-Roman civilizations on the development of France between 600 B.C. and 476 A.D.

· Identify Clovis I (486-511) and describe his role in establishing precedents for the future of his country with regard to land ownership and Christianity.

· Discuss briefly the importance of Charlemagne, the Carolingian empire, and the reasons for its dissolution (771-911).

2000 B. C. - 5th Century A.D. : Celts, Eastern Mediterranean Outposts, Greek Settlements, Roman Gaul

Between 2000 and 1500 B.C., Celtic peoples (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. from the mountains of central Europe spread across Western Europe and the British Isles. About 13 tribes were known to have inhabited the area we know today as France. The Celts were fierce warriors equipped with iron weapons, horses and chariots. They were builders of giant stone monuments, like those of Stonehenge in England and Carnac in France. These megaliths or giant stones are most numerous in Brittany, but can also be found in other French provinces. They are known by their Celtic names: men or rock + hir = menhir or standing or upright and dol + men =dolmen or flat, table rock.

Around 1000 B.C., people of advanced civilizations from the eastern Mediterranean landed on the coasts of France and Spain. These were Phœnician traders who established outposts and ports at such present-day sites as Monaco and Port-Vendres. They were interested in mining for copper and tin, which could be found in the Pyrenees, since these were the raw materials needed to make bronze. In around 600 B.C. the Greeks arrived and established a city named Massilia/Massalia (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. near the mouth of Rhone River. The mother city of this colony in Asia Minor was Phocaea (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. on the coast of Asia Minor in present-day Turkey. The Persians eventually seized Phocaea, causing many of its inhabitants to flee to Massalia, which became a thriving Mediterranean port, now known as Marseille, A Phocean City (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Other settlements grew up nearby. Today they bear names like Nice (Nike, victory), and Antibes (Antipolis, the city oppositeNice on the Bay of Angels).

While the Greeks remained along the southern coast, the Celts found their way into the interior. They advanced into Italy until they were beaten back by Imperial Roman troops beyond the Alps into the land which became known as Gallia. In that transalpine area they were known as the Gauls (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..  All of present-day France was settled mainly by the Gauls and related Celtic peoples except for the Basque population in the southwest. Gaul remained under Roman rule from the 1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. The early centuries were marked by the struggle of Christianity to establish a foothold, and during this time early Christian saints such as Saint Denis (born in Italy) fought and died for their faith.

Martyrdom of St-Denis (c. 258 A.D.)

La Maison Carrée, Roman Temple, Nîmes

 Pont du Gard

The Romans were great builders. The remnants of their civilization can be found in roads and aqueducts that dot the French landscape. Baths, amphitheaters, arenas and other monuments found in the Gallo-Roman cities of Nîmes, Arles, Orange, Lyon and Lutèce (Paris) (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. attest to the way of life enjoyed by people of that time.  


5th-10th Centuries: Frankish Era




Beginning in the fifth century, semi-nomadic tribes of Germanic peoples who were being pushed westward by the lightning raids of the Huns (Mongols) invaded and settled in Gaul. These events took place about 70 years before the collapse of the empire in Rome in 476,

Merovingians (5th-7th Centuries)

 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.Merovech, the leader of the Sicambri tribe of the eastern branch of Franks known as the Salians, conquered the Roman territory between the Loire and the Somme Rivers. During the intervening years, Attila (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. and his hordes of Huns continued their westward pillaging raids. In 451, they crossed the Rhine, devastated Belgium, and penetrated the Paris basin The Parisians prepared to flee but were dissuaded from abandoning their city by the plea of a woman who would later be canonized as St.  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. Geneviève (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (422-500) for saving Paris.

.Ste-Geneviève, Patron Saint of Paris


Attila went on to besiege Orleans, which allowed the Romans to organize the resistance of Paris by assembling an army of Roman legions and Frankish contingents who had settled in Gaul. One of the best Frankish leaders was Merovaeus' grandson Clovis (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (466-511). In 486, after the last emperor of Rome had been deposed, Clovis attacked and defeated the would-be successor to the military commander in Gaul, Syagrius. Paris opened its gates to Clovis, who took up residence in the ancient palace of the emperor Julian.

Two other barbarian peoples who had also settled in Gaul--the Visigoths (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. and the Burgundians (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.--had earlier adopted the Christian religion in its heretical form of Arianism (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., which was the form favored by the emperors of the Eastern Roman empire still in place at Constantinople.

In 496, Clovis married Clotilda (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (475-545) a Catholic princess and daughter of a Burgundian king.

By this marriage, Clovis--whose name means Louis--succeeded in uniting most of northern and central France under his rule.  As leader of the Franks, he was baptized at Reims by the bishop Rémi (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. along with 3,000 of his warriors in the Roman Catholic form of Christianity. This was very important for the future of his people, not only for his dynasty but for the political shape of things to come: Gallo-Roman large landowners and officials gained equal status with the ruling class of Frankish warriors, thereby laying the foundations for the society and institutions that were to follow.



 Reims (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. https://ilearn.laccd.edu/images/play_overlay.png  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.



Saracen Army outside Paris



 Pépin the Short, Son of Charles Martel

Carolingians and the Holy Roman Empire (8th-10th centuries)

Clovis died in 511, leaving his realm to repeated division. Charles Martel (686-741) the son of a Frankish statesman, ascended to power in 718 with the goals of unifying Gaul and addressing Islamic invasion. He is particularly remembered for his victory in the Battle of Poitiers (732) which halted the northward advance of Islam into France.

Clovis's Merovingian dynasty eventually was superseded by the Carolingians (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., who rose up from the ranks of mayors (house rulers) of the weak Merovingian king's palace. The first ruler in this line was  Pepin the Short (714-768), son of Charles Martel, who established Carolingian rule. Pepin was elected king at Soissons and anointed with the sacramental oil of Clovis by St. Boniface.



Carolus Magnus-Charlemagne (Charles the Great) (747-814)

The high point of Carolingian power was achieved by Pepin's son Charles (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Beginning in 771, he reunited the Frankish lands, then went on to conquer Lombardy and Bavaria (774-788). By the dawn of the new century, Charles had recaptured virtually all the areas of Western Europe that had been part of the Roman Empire. In 800, he went to Rome to help Pope Leo III repress aristocratic factions that threatened his security. It was during this visit that Charles was consecrated emperor "Charles Augustus" to be known to his loyal subjects as Charles the Great (Charlemagne) on Christmas night in St. Peter's Basilica.

After initially protesting, the emperor of Constantinople recognized Carolus Magnus as his "brother." Charlemagne was also recognized by the independent kings of Spain and Great Britain while the caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid sent an embassy to his court at Aix-La Chapelle and paid homage to him as protector of the Christian shrines in Jerusalem.

Charlemagne Being Crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope: Christmas 800 A.D


Harun al-Rashid Paying Homage to Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle


Surrounded by thinkers and writers, Charlemagne created an enlightened culture in his midst, making himself a fitting heir to the Holy Roman Empire.

Charlemagne at Court



Charlemagne’s Crown and Shield






Dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire

During the last years of Charlemagne's reign, the northern and western borders of the empire came under attack by Vikings (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. After his death in 814, a lack of political unity and internecine warfare undermined the empire from within. In 842, Charlemagne’s two grandsons Louis the German of East Francia and his half-brother Charles the Bald of West Francia signed oaths to provide support to each other’s regna, or subdivisions of the original empire,  against their older brother Lothair ruler of Middle Francia and bearer of the title Holy Roman Emperor

Their testimonial, known as the Oaths of Strasbourg ( Les Serments de Strasbourg (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. ), is regarded as the oldest document written in the vernacular languages of their respective kingdoms – Old High German and Gallo-Romance (ancestor of Old French) rather than in Latin.


Viking Invasions

Viking invasions escalated from seasonal raids to inland assaults from fortified bases close to the rivers' mouths


The dreaded Norsemen in their longboats would sail upriver, land by surprise, and improvise attacks on horseback with horses captured on the spot. They terrorized the populace, slaughtered clergy, burned churches, and, in 845, they ransacked Paris. Over time, the Carolingians tried limiting destruction by paying huge sums to appease their leaders, eventually entrusting the defense of the provinces to a single leader. Gradually, those who found their place in defending the estates began to enjoy the pleasures of sedentary life and were willing to assume responsibility for its protection.

 In 911, Charles the Simple (898-922) whose territory comprised much of the France of today conceded to the Viking, Rollo, a large area on either side of the Seine River, downstream from Paris. In exchange for the land Rollo agreed to end invasions and protect Frankish territories from further attack. Rollo became the first ruler of the Normandy region in northern France.



Rollo, 1st Duke of Normandy




Sauvigny, Bertier de and David H. Pinkney, History of France. Forum Press, 1983  Mermier, Guy R. France: Past and Present. Peter Lang, 2000.