Frankish State

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Frankish State


the first important political unit in early medieval Europe. The Frankish state existed from the late fifth to the mid-ninth century, and at its height it encompassed all of Western and part of Central Europe.

The formation of the Frankish state began with the conquest in 486 of the last Roman possessions in Gaul by the Salian Franks, headed by Clovis I of the Merovingian dynasty, who ruled from 481 to 511. In the course of long wars the Franks under Clovis also conquered a large part of the Alamanni holdings on the Rhine (496), the lands of the Visigoths in Aquitaine (507), and the territory along the middle Rhine that was inhabited by other Frankish tribes. In 534, Clovis’ sons defeated Gundomar, king of the Burgundians, and annexed his kingdom. Two years later the Ostrogothic king Vitiges yielded Provence to the Franks. Between 530 and 540 the Alamanni possessions in the Alpine region were conquered, as well as the lands of the Thuringians between the Weser and the Elbe. From 550 to 560, the Franks extended their rule over the lands of the Bavarians on the Danube.

The Merovingian state was an ephemeral political formation. Economically and ethnically diverse, it lacked even political and juridical-administrative unity. Immediately after Clovis’ death, his four sons had divided the state among themselves, uniting only for the purpose of conducting joint aggressive campaigns. Neither did the various parts of the state have the same social structure. In the northern regions, populated chiefly by Germanic tribes, communal relations predominated in the sixth and seventh centuries. In the area between the Seine and the Somme feudalism was developing through a synthesis of communal and late classical institutions, which were giving way to large private seignorial landownership and social division into feudal classes. Meanwhile, in the southern part of the state the essential elements of late classical relations persisted, notably the exploitation of slaves and coloni.

The differences in social structure were reflected in state institutions. In the south, the late Roman municipal curiae were preserved, as well as the Roman tax, customs, and monetary system. The basic administrative unit continued to be the urban district. North of the Loire the Roman system of local government hung on chiefly in the cities. Elsewhere, the administrative system changed under the influence of Frankish institutions, and the main territorial unit became the rural district, comprising several hundreds. In the districts and hundreds, assemblies of free Franks continued to exercise certain judicial and administrative rights. In the late sixth century and throughout the seventh century, the prerogatives of counts appointed by the king steadily increased. Many judicial matters were turned over to the counts, as well as fiscal functions and the command of the local militia. The political role of the annual Frankish military review-assemblies, known as the March fields, declined. Higher legislative, military, and executive authority was gradually concentrated in the hands of hereditary kings, who ruled with the help of the royal court. Each of the main parts of the Frankish state—Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy—was ruled by a king. In the sixth and seventh centuries incessant warfare among the Frankish kings decimated the feuding families.

In the seventh century the Frankish aristocracy grew more powerful. In addition to descendants of the Germanic elite, it included many representatives of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy. The aristocracy owned the remnants of the late Roman estates together with the slaves and coloni who worked the land. (Slavery had not been abolished.) Seeking to enlist the support of the aristocrats, the Merovingian kings awarded them important military-administrative posts and land grants. Under Clovis’ great-grandson Clotaire II, who ruled over the entire Frankish state from 613 to 629, the aristocracy succeeded in gaining legal sanction for a number of its privileges, notably control over local government. After the death of Clotaire IPs son Dagobert I (ruled 629–639), who had temporarily curbed the aristocracy’s power, royal authority totally collapsed. State affairs were handled by majordomos (mayors of the palace), appointed by the ruler of each kingdom from among members of the most prominent families. The various parts of the Frankish state—Neustria, Austrasia, Burgundy, and Aquitaine—became increasingly isolated from each other.

In the first half of the eighth century, the political unity of the Frankish state was restored under the domination of a group of nobles that included the most powerful aristocrats in all the Frankish kingdoms. The nobles were headed by the Austrasian majordomos, who also won the loyalty of the prosperous group of common freemen that had emerged as a result of social differentiation. The first attempt at restoring the Frankish state was made by the Austrasian majordomo Pepin of Heristal (died 714), who managed to become majordomo of Neustria and Burgundy as well. His son Charles Martel, who held the office of majordomo in the three kingdoms from 715 to 741, reconquered Thuringia, Alamannia, and Bavaria, which had fallen away during the weakening of the power of the Merovingians, and he regained control over Aquitaine and Provence. His victory over the Arabs at Poitiers in 732 halted Arab expansion in Western Europe. Charles Martel’s authority and power enabled him to dispense with the crowning of Merovingian puppet kings. The benefice reform, which established the conditional nature of land grants awarded for service, strengthened his rule.

Supported by Pope Zachary, Charles Martel’s son Pepin the Short proclaimed himself king of the Frankish state, thereby founding a new dynasty, the Carolingians. Subsequently, at the request of Pope Stephen II, Pepin attacked the Lombards, compelling them to recognize the supremacy of the Frankish state and transferring the cities of the Ravenna Exarchate and the area around Rome to the papacy. During Pepin’s reign, Septimania was reconquered from the Arabs in 759, and firm control was established over Bavaria, Alamannia, and Aquitaine.

The Frankish state reached its zenith under Pepin’s son Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 to 814. Defeating the Lombards a second time, Charlemagne annexed their possessions in Italy in 774. He conquered the lands of the Saxons (772–804) and won back from the Arabs the region between the Pyrenees and the Ebro River (785–811). Continuing the policy of alliance with the papacy, Charlemagne had himself crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 in an effort to restore the Western Roman Empire and to strengthen his power over the many tribes of the Frankish state.

The successes of the first Carolingians may largely be explained by the fact that they entered the political arena at a time when the nobility required political consolidation for the subjugation of the free population. In the eighth and early ninth centuries a “revolution in agrarian relations” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19, p. 495) took place in the Frankish state, primarily in the area between the Rhine and the Loire. Most of the free alodial peasants and their land fell under the control of the nobles, and the main type of holding became the large patrimony with a domain. Moreover, the system of vassalage spread through the ruling class. These developments led to the triumph of feudalism in the region bounded by the Rhine and the Loire in the eighth and ninth centuries. Meanwhile, in other parts of the Frankish state, feudal relations grew markedly stronger.

During feudalization the vestiges of communal institutions in the political system disappeared. The Frankish military assemblies were finally replaced by annual reviews of feudal cavalry troops, called the fields of May. The legal status of all strata of the population was established by royal capitularies. In the provinces, only the possessions of the seigniors, who had immunity, were excluded from the authority of counts and margraves. General judicial assemblies in the districts and hundreds were replaced by court hearings conducted by “judgment-finders,” who were appointed from above. Moreover, restrictions were placed on the participation of common freemen in the militia. All these changes marked the further expansion of the socioeconomic and political power of the nobility. In the ninth century the nobles succeeded in having their landholdings and offices made hereditary. Their striving for political independence revived, and internecine warfare intensified. Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, who reigned from 814 to 840, was unable to maintain the unity of the empire. By the Treaty of Verdun (843) the empire was divided into three kingdoms, whose borders anticipated the future states of France, Germany, and Italy. (Italy was initially joined to the lands along the Rhône and Rhine.)

Despite the political instability of Charlemagne’s empire, the sharp acceleration of feudalization within its borders had a beneficial economic and cultural effect. The development of farming and handicrafts revived to some extent, new lands were brought under cultivation, and foreign trade expanded. Among the members of the ruling class there arose an interest in education, literature, and secular learning (seeCAROLINGIAN RENAISSANCE).


Engels, F. “Frankskii period.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19.
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. Ibid., vol. 21.
Neusykhin, A. I. Vozniknovenie zavisimogo krest’ianstva kak klassa rannefeodal’nogo obshchestva v Zapadnoi Evrope VI-VIII vv. Moscow, 1956.
Korsunskii, A. R. Obrazovanie rannefeodal’nogo gosudarstva v Zapadnoi Evrope. Moscow, 1963.
Istoriia Frantsii, vol. 1, ch. 1. Moscow, 1972.
Müller-Mertens, E. Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme und die Freien. Berlin, 1963.
Tessier, G. La Baptême de Clovis. Paris, 1964.
Folz, R. Le Couronnement impérial de Charlemagne. Paris, 1964.
Karl der Grosse, vols. 1–4. Edited by W. Braunfels. Düsseldorf, 1965–67.
Epperlein, S. Karl der Grosse. Berlin, 1975.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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