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One of the noblest possessions of the Roman Empire was the province of ancient Gaul. Much blood and treasure had been expended in its conquest; infinite wisdom, moderation, and vigour had been displayed in the means taken to attach it to the dominion of the Caesars; and the passing of several centuries had strongly cemented the union, and incorporated the conquered with their conquerors. Unwieldy bulk, enfeebling luxury, intestine divisions, and universal corruption soon, however, began to draw down the impending destruction upon the head of the imperial city. Attack after attack, invasion following invasion, left her still weaker under each succeeding monarch; province after province was wrested from her sway, till at length Odoacer, chief of the Scyrri, raised his standard in Italy; Romulus Augustulus yielded the empty symbols of an authority he did not possess; and the Roman Empire was no more...
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Copyright © 2016 by George James
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FROM THE BIRTH OF CHARLEMAGNE TO HIS ACCESSION.
FROM THE ACCESSION OF CHARLEMAGNE AND HIS BROTHER, TO THE DEATH OF CARLOMAN AND THE REUNION OF THE KINGDOM.
FROM THE DEATH OF CARLOMAN TO THE CAPTURE OF PAVIA.
FROM THE CONQUEST OF LOMBARDY TO THE BEGINNING OF THE SPANISH WAR.
FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE SPANISH WAR, TO THE INCORPORATION OF SAXONY WITH THE FRENCH DOMINIONS.
FROM THE INCORPORATION OF SAXONY, TO THE HOMAGE OF THE DUKE OF BAVARIA.
FROM THE SUBMISSION OF THE DUKE OF BAVARIA TO THE BAPTISM OF WITIKIND, AND THE SUPPRESSION OF THE REVOLT OF BRITANNY.
FROM THE PACIFICATION OF SAXONY, TO THE DEFEAT OF ADALGISUS AND THE GREEKS IN ITALY.
FROM THE CONDEMNATION OF THE DUKE OF BAVARIA, TO THE DECREES OF THE COUNCIL OF FRANKFORT.
FROM THE CONSPIRACY OF PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, TO THE FINAL SUBJUGATION OF THE SAXONS.
FROM THE RENEWAL OF THE HUNGARIAN WAR, TO THE ELECTION OF LEO III
FROM THE RENEWAL OF HOSTILITIES IN THE SPANISH MARCH, TO THE DEATH OF THE QUEEN LUIDGARDE.
FROM CHARLEMAGNE’S LAST VISIT TO ROME TO HIS DEATH
ONE OF THE NOBLEST possessions of the Roman Empire was the province of ancient Gaul. Much blood and treasure had been expended in its conquest; infinite wisdom, moderation, and vigour had been displayed in the means taken to attach it to the dominion of the Caesars; and the passing of several centuries had strongly cemented the union, and incorporated the conquered with their conquerors. Unwieldy bulk, enfeebling luxury, intestine divisions, and universal corruption soon, however, began to draw down the impending destruction upon the head of the imperial city. Attack after attack, invasion following invasion, left her still weaker under each succeeding monarch; province after province was wrested from her sway, till at length Odoacer, chief of the Scyrri, raised his standard in Italy; Romulus Augustulus yielded the empty symbols of an authority he did not possess; and the Roman Empire was no more.
Previous to this period, however, Gaul had been in fact, though not in name, separated from the falling monarchy, and portioned out among a thousand barbarous tribes. The country between the Rhone and the Alps had long been possessed by the Burgundians; the Goths held the whole territories situated between the Loire and the Pyrenees; Brittany, or Armorica, was divided between fresh colonies of Saxons and the remains of the aborigines; great part of the east of Belgium was in the hands of the Franks; and the Roman legions that were still left to maintain the almost nominal possession of Gaul, cooped up in a narrow space, and threatened daily by active and warlike enemies, thought of nothing but casting off the control of their enfeebled country, and finding strength in independence.
In the meantime the larger cities were filled with a mixed population, consisting partly of the Roman colonists, partly of the ancient Gauls, partly of their savage conquerors. Some few, indeed, either by accident or courageous resistance, had escaped the fury of the invaders and remained free, while all around them had been subdued; some had been sacked and left desolate; and some, having been ceded by the falling emperors themselves to the Goths, or to any other of the tribes in temporary alliance with Rome, had passed more mildly under the sway of the barbarians, and enjoyed as much protection as could be afforded in times so disastrous.
Such was the general aspect of the province a little previous to the final overthrow of the Roman Empire. But those were days of change, when nothing was fixed; and the nation which ruled today, tomorrow had passed away, and was unknown; and all that continued with unaltered force was ravage, disorder, and destruction.
Each of the savage tribes of the north, in its passage to more fertile regions, had expended its first fury on the plains of Gaul, and had contributed to sweep away letters, and institutions, and arts.
“Innumerable nations of barbarians”, says St. Jerome, in his letter to Aggerunchia, “took possession of the whole of Gaul. The Quadi, the Vandals, the Sarmatians, the Alani, the Gepidae, the Herculi, Saxons, Burgundians, Germans, and Pannonians—horrible republic!—ravaged the whole country between the Alps, the Pyrenees, the ocean, and the Rhine. Assur was with them. Mayence, formerly a famous city, was taken and sacked, and thousands of its inhabitants massacred. Worms was ruined by a long siege; the people of the powerful cities of Rheims, Amiens, and Arras, the Morini, situated in the far parts of Belgium, and the inhabitants of Tournay, Spires, and Strasburg, were transported into Germany. Aquitaine, the Lyonaise, and the Narbonaise were entirely devastated, except some few of the towns; and these the steel smote without, while famine desolated them within”.
The Goths, the Vandals, and the Huns added, one after the other, a fresh load to the mountain of calamities piled up on unhappy Gaul; and often left scattered colonies behind, still to devour the land, and to carry on the work of barbarism so signally begun.
With such a picture before our eyes, it is scarcely possible to conceive the existence of anything like a state of society regulated, even in the slightest degree, by fixed principles. In what relationship, could man live with man, when all ties were broken, and when the discordant elements of the population offered a chaos of different nations, languages, manners, and ideas, precluding the possibility even of that simple form of government common among savage nations? In the fields and plains, then, it is probable that the whole was chaotic confusion, and that for a long time all rule was at an end, except that rule which it is the object of every law to correct,—the rule of the strong over the weak.
Within the larger cities, however, two or three principles of security still existed. In those towns which had resisted the barbarians, it seems that the institutions of Rome yet remained almost entire; and that, though the inhabitants were cut off from the source of their laws, the necessity of combination for the general defence maintained at least some internal regularity and order. The extent to which the Roman law was preserved during the middle ages is a question of great difficulty, and one on which I am not called to enter at large in this place, more especially as the subject has been argued ably elsewhere. That it was preserved in a considerable degree is evident from the continual reference made to it by all the barbarian codes; and the cause of the permanence of the municipal institutions of Rome, while all other principles of government were swept away, may probably be discovered in the popular and independent character of the civic constitution throughout the whole empire.
This independent civic constitution originated in Italy itself; but being extended more or less to all the provinces by the emperors, it was especially perfected in Gaul; and it is worthwhile to examine what was really the municipal government of a Gallic city under the sway of Rome, in order to form some opinion of the conservative influence which those institutions still exercised in the midst of the convulsions which rent the empire at its fall.
The model of each provincial city was Rome itself; and as the institutions of the great capital varied by the progress of time, so the forms of local administration changed. The general assemblies of the people were the original source of power; in them the laws were at first enacted, and a popular council or senate chosen, which gradually took the whole authority into its own hands. The name of this municipal council was, in the early days of the empire, Ordo Decurionum; but at length it was termed simply Curia; and its members were called decurions, or curiales. Sometimes, also, they received the name of senators, although this would seem to have been an appellation of courtesy.
The internal management of the affairs of the city, combining both the legislative and the executive authority, was the chief function of the Curia; but, in Italy itself, the magisterial jurisdiction was intrusted to an officer sometimes called duumvir, sometimes quatuorvir, or magistratus, who was chosen by the decurions from their own body, though the imperial governors, and often the retiring magistrate, exercised great influence in the election. In the provinces, however, no such magistrate existed, except in a few cases; and the presidency of the council was intrusted to the eldest decurion, while the magisterial functions were exercised by the whole as a body. Thus, at the time of the barbarian invasions, a popular power and an individual government was found in each of the cities, independent of the state. Its conservative influence was great while suffered to exist, and it was easily renewable when casually overturned by any passing torrent of barbarians.
These, in general, contented themselves with plunder and massacre, and neither strove for nor desired a lengthened possession of the places they captured. Even those cities which were taken by the Vandals and the Huns were generally abandoned by them as soon as they were pillaged; so that such of the inhabitants as had effected their escape to any place of refuge came back when the desolating force had passed by, and possibly resumed their habits as well as their dwellings.
Such was the case when the city of Rheims was besieged and taken by the barbarians. Satisfied with their plunder, and by no means disposed to remain stationary in any one spot, the body of Vandals by which it had been subdued speedily left the city, which afforded them no further object for their rapacity; and the inhabitants who had fled to the mountains returned, taking care to ascribe their deliverance from their cruel enemies to a miraculous interposition of Heaven.
There was another power also which acted to preserve the seeds of order in the cities, to bind at least a portion of the population together by strong and indissoluble ties, and to maintain one species of authority while every other authority was at an end,—I mean the Christian religion, and the power cast into the hands of the church by an influencing feeling totally apart from the frail and falling institutions of humanity whereby it was surrounded.
Christianity had then been long preached in Gaul; and, in spite of the barbarous ignorance which obscured it, and the dark superstitions with which it was mingled, its innate principles of union, benevolence, and peace were felt where every other good feeling was overwhelmed, and tended potently to preserve order in the midst of a thousand causes of disorganization. Perhaps even the very blind and enthusiastic superstition of the Christians of that age, the multitude of miracles which they supposed themselves capable of performing, and the many wonderful interpositions of Heaven which they reported in their own favour, was not without its use, both in commanding respect for the only chastening principle that yet remained, and in preparing the minds of the semi-barbarous Romans, and of the deeper savages with whom they were now mingled, for a religion the least superstitious in its own nature of any doctrine that ever was promulgated on earth.
Far is it from my object to countenance deceit, or even policy, in any matter of religion—a matter which neither requires nor admits of prop or guidance from mortal man. But still, it is the business of the historian not only to state events but to examine their causes, and to trace their effects; and it appears to me an indisputable fact, that the superstition with which the vivid imagination of a barbarous people clothed the simplest and purest of doctrines served to assimilate it to their own minds, and to ensure easier reception to principles calculated in the end to elevate, to purify, and to correct. In a worldly point of view it did much more: it added an imaginary dignity in the eyes of the people to the real dignity of devotion and a holy life; and by making the clergy respected and reverenced, it called those who were great and powerful, not only to embrace the faith, but, on interested motives, to solicit those stations in the church which added to their consideration with their countrymen, in an age when the multitude of followers and adherents was the only means of safety. Thus we find the various bishoprics of Gaul as strenuously solicited and intrigued for in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries as any mundane honour of our latter days, and the writers of those ages, in general, state ail the great dignitaries of their church to have sprung from families which they qualify as possessing senatorial rank, or great wealth and possessions.
It is true, that to counterbalance in the eyes of the worldly any advantages which the higher stations of the church might possess, there were to be thrown into the opposite scale frequent persecutions, tortures, and even martyrdom; but it must be remembered that such a fate rarely fell on any but the more zealous, who made themselves prominent by their enthusiasm, and like elevated points in a thunder-storm, drew down the fire upon themselves by their very pre-eminence. To these, however, their zeal was a sufficient support. They coveted the name of martyr; and it is probable that the heroic constancy with which they bore the most excruciating suffering did more to strengthen and confirm the faithful, and to convert all who possessed that nobler fire of the mind which is so easily exalted into enthusiasm, than the prospect even of honours, dignity, and power did to attract the worldly and interested.
Thus spread the Christian religion through a great part of Gaul; and the power given by it to the bishops, the remains of the municipal senates established by the Romans, together with the few and simple laws of the barbarians, formed the whole guarantee of order, of property, and of life, in that day,—a frail tenure by which to hold both existence and tranquillity, it is true; but still it was some check upon man’s unruly passions—some barrier in the way of absolute anarchy.
The laws of the barbarians just mentioned were of course very different, according to the habits and degree of civilization of the various nations which had formed them. In most cases they were simply traditionary, and frequently depended in all points on the will of the chief by whom the tribe was led. An exception, however, to this want of regular written institutions is to be found in the case of the Burgundians, who seem to have been influenced by more settled habits than the rest of the invaders of Gaul. They first set the example of establishing written laws. This undertaking—one of the greatest steps in the progress of civilization—was begun, if not completed, by Gondebald, King of Burgundy, who, somewhere about the year 500, caused to be published part of the loi Gombette, as it is now called, about a century after the compilation of the Theodosian, and about thirty years prior to the Justinian code.
Remarkable in itself as the first of the barbarous codes of law, this composition is still more so in two other points of view. In the first place, the very cause of its institution, as stated by Gregory of Tours, shows, in a melancholy degree, to what a pitch of degradation the great overthrower of all dynasties had already reduced the mighty Romans,—the conquerors and oppressors of the world.
“Gondibert”, says the historian, “having recovered his dominion over all that part of the country now called Burgundy, he therein instituted milder laws, that the Romans might not be oppressed!”. Two centuries before, who had dared to oppress a Roman? In the second place, this code is not a little curious as fixing the origin of judicial combats; for here do we find, for the first time, that barbarous and unjust mode of judgment authorized as a law. Among a people whose manners, wishes, arts, and knowledge were all referable in some way to the idea of attack and defence, whose acquisitions had been made by the sword, and by the sword alone could be maintained, it was not wonderful that strength and courage should have been ranked as virtues, and weakness and cowardice should have been in themselves looked upon as crimes; but when to this was added a firm belief in the immediate and apparent interposition of Heaven in all human affairs, the trial by battle was the natural result both of national feelings and religious impressions.
Long before the fall of the western empire, as I have already stated, the doctrines of Christianity had been promulgated in Gaul, and had obtained many and powerful followers in each of the large cities. Nevertheless, over the face of the country in general, religious opinions were as various as the various nations who possessed the soil. The grand division was of course between the idolaters and the Christians; but even among the Christians themselves existed a vast and distressing schism, which neutralized the efforts of zeal, and wasted the powers which should have been applied solely to promote the great objects of Christianity, in profane contests, and most unchristian persecutions.
It is not my purpose here to examine, even cursorily, the tenets of Arius, or to trace the extension of his doctrine. Suffice it, that, though condemned by the ecumenical council of Nice, and attacked by the whole powers of the Roman church, the followers of the Arian heresy in Gaul were far superior in numbers, if not in zeal and talent, to those who adhered to the Nicene Creed. The Goths, possessing the country from the Loire to the Pyrenees, and the Burgundians, on the other side of the Rhone, were almost universally Arians, while the rest of the population of France was divided between Catholics of the Roman church, the remains of the ancient tribes of heathen Gaul, and the various nations of idolatrous Franks, who were now rapidly extending their dominions in the northern and eastern parts of Flanders.
In the choice between those who differed with them on certain doctrinal points, and those who rejected their religion altogether, the followers of the council of Nice, of course, hesitated not a moment. The universal weakness of human nature on such subjects made them look with an infinitely more favourable eye upon heathens than they did upon heretics; and consequently the progress of the Franks was hailed with gladness by all the Catholic clergy of Gaul. Cabals and intrigues of every kind were carried on to facilitate their conquests; and their coming was anticipated with joy, even in the very dominions of the Goths.
As it is to be my task, henceforward, to trace the course of the Franks, I must be permitted for a moment to look back upon their prior history as far as I find it clear and uninvolved, without, however, entering upon any of those long and laborious discussions concerning the origin of nations, which rarely do aught but exercise the writer’s imagination, without proving either pleasing or instructive to the reader.
The nation of the Franks was evidently composed of many distinct tribes, and originally inhabited some district of Germany, probably not far from the Rhine. Their first settlements in Gaul took place during the military government of the Emperor Julian; but in that age they presented themselves on the Roman territory, not so much as conquerors or aggressors, as refugees, driven from their native land by a more powerful tribe.
The vigorous mind of Julian was at that time occupied in endeavouring, by every earthly means, to uphold the vast but decaying fabric of the Roman Empire, to restore to it its pristine lustre, and to renew its ancient force. The advantages of mingling with the corrupted legionaries of Rome fresh troops, whose savage strength and wild courage had not yet been in the least degree affected by the enfeebling power of luxury, did not escape him; and he permitted the tribe of Franks who had been compelled to seek refuge in the Roman territory, to settle quietly in Brabant. More prudent, however, than his successors, he took care that the barbarians whom he admitted should be too few in number to prove dangerous; and thus, though he received that tribe called the Salii, who had been driven across the Rhine by their enemies—though he attacked and slaughtered the Quadi, who pursued them —though he assigned the emigrants lands, and granted them every hospitable privilege—, he drove back the Chamavi, another tribe of the same nation, who followed, expelled the rest of the savage hordes who had already passed the Rhine, and closed the boundaries of the Roman empire against any further influx of barbarians.
After this period, we continually find the Salii serving in the Roman infantry, and remarkable for their activity as foot soldiers. Everything, indeed, leads us to suppose, that as long as the Empire existed, they were distinguished by the Romans from the other tribes of Franks, with whom the imperial generals waged a continual and devastating warfare on the confines of Gaul and Germany. It is certain, also, that on their settlement at Tessander Lo, in Brabant, the tribe of the Salii were assigned certain districts; and, as we afterward find them fighting conspicuously among the forces of the empire, it is more than probable that these lands were granted on the condition of military service,—by no means an uncommon practice among the Romans. Called upon himself to bring a certain number of men into the field, the Duke, as he is named, or chief of the Salii, to whom the territory was granted, of course portioned it out among his followers on the same condition; and the proprietor of every estate thus acquired was obliged to appear in arms at the call of his leader. Women, not being able to fulfil the warlike duties of such a tenure, were cut off from possession of the soil in the country of the Salii; and hence, probably, the motive and the origin of that part of the Salique law which declares that, on Salique ground, no part of the land can descend in heritage to a woman,—a law which, though apparently unjust, was only the natural consequence of the terms on which the territories were originally granted.
For many years this law, now confined in its application to royal successions, was extended nominally to all noble feoffs. Its rigour, however, was moderated; and on the occasion of lands falling by inheritance to a woman, the heiress was obliged to marry, at the will of her feudal lord, such a person as could fulfil the duties of her feoff. In the case of minors, the spirit also of the law was adhered to, and the guardian was required to serve in place of his ward, becoming, at the same time, absolute lord of the estate till such a period as the heir was able to accomplish its feudal duties in person. These modifications did not take place for many centuries after the period of which I speak; and it seems certain, that the strict terms of the Salique law, though then but a traditionary custom, were enforced in all the lands either originally granted to the Franks by the mere bounty of the emperors, or afterward wrung from the Romans as their power hurried onwards in its decline.
By what accidental difference in national character, or what superior wisdom in their institutions, it is difficult to say, but it appears that, while the greater part of the invaders of the Roman Empire contented themselves with hasty inroads, and transitory conquests, the Franks, animated by a more regular and persevering spirit, pursued slowly, but steadily, that system of territorial aggrandizement which in the end rendered them masters of all Gaul. In the year 453, we find a large body of Franks assisting the consul Aetius against Attila, at the famous Battle of Mauriacum, or Mery sur Seine, in which that great Roman completely triumphed over the Huns. The Franks here, however, appeared no longer in the inferior station of foreign auxiliaries, fighting under a Roman chief, but as great and powerful allies, led by their own king; and we find that Aetius was obliged, though strong in his own genius and the attachment of the troops he commanded, to have recourse to stratagem for the purpose of delivering himself from the presence of friends who might have become more dangerous than the enemies whom he had just defeated.
Orderic Vital, in his history of Normandy, is, I believe, the first who mentions a race of monarchs somewhat antecedent to the period of Aetius, and deduces them from Francus Duke of Sens, proceeding with Ferramond, or Pharramond, Clodius, Meroveus, and Childeric: but nothing certain is to be learned concerning any of the chiefs or kings except the two last; and it is much better to leave what is obscure in its original state of doubt, than, by recording what careless writers have invented on the subject, to perpetuate fables where truth cannot be obtained.
We are too likely, in following even the written history of remote times, to be led into error by the follies and the prejudices of the historians, especially if they themselves lived in ages of darkness and ignorance; for where we have reason to complain once of the scantiness of the facts transmitted to us, we have cause a thousand times to regret the additions that imagination has made to reality, and the distortion with which human weakness, passion, and superstition have represented events, that we have now no means of ascertaining.
Of Childeric, however, we possess at least such knowledge as can be obtained from the writings of an author who lived scarcely a century and a half after his reign; and as upon his conquests was based all that vast extension of power gained by the Franks during the succeeding reign, it may not be amiss to pause an instant upon his history.
Like most men of a very enterprising turn of mind, concerning whose lives we have an early record, he seems to have been animated by strong passions and vehement desires. These, in the ungoverned days of youth, led him into errors and debaucheries, which, by irritating and disgusting even his barbarous subjects, caused his expulsion from the throne, and had very nearly cost him his life. He fled, however, for safety to the kingdom of Thuringia; and, foreseeing that, as anger subsided, as death laid his hand upon his enemies, and as time obliterated the first sharp memory of his faults, a period might come when his people would regret him, he divided a piece of gold with a faithful attendant whom he left behind, bidding him watch the changes of popular feeling during his absence, and when the Francs should desire his return, to send him as a sure token, the half of the broken coin.
After his departure, Aegidius the Roman Master-general of Gaul, was elected by the Franks for their king; and reigned for eight years over them, during which time the western empire hurried rapidly on towards its fall. At length, from what cause it does not appear, whether from the oppression of Aegidius, or from the intrigues of Childeric, the Franks became discontented with the government which they had established, the half of the piece of gold was transmitted to the exiled monarch, the Roman was in his turn dethroned, and Childeric once more entered into peaceable possession of his kingdom.
In the meanwhile, Aegidius retired to Soissons, where he fixed the seat of his government, and appears to have exercised an authority almost independent of Rome. But our accounts of Gaul in that day are so obscure, that it is impossible to discover with precision how far any tie still existed between the imperial general and his declining country. Certain it is, that while, indignant at the assassination of Majorian, Aegidius resisted the tyrannical authority of Ricimer, the barbarian who then commanded Italy, he acknowledged his own dependence on his country, and only rejected the fetters by which it was enthralled. But the precise degree of connexion which still remained between Rome and Gaul, and in whose name, or in what manner the master-general continued to govern the Gallic province, will probably ever be hidden from research. Nor is it more possible to ascertain, what part Childeric played in the various struggles which took place between the Romans of Gaul and the various barbarian tribes which surrounded them. Sometimes we find him joined with their friends, sometimes with their enemies, but always fighting on the victorious side, establishing his power and increasing his dominions.
The tribes of Franks who now possessed apart of Gaul were no longer confined to the Salii. Fresh bodies had poured in from Germany as the Roman power declined; and, though maintaining a strict alliance with each other, they seem to have been governed by different monarchs, till after the reign of Childeric, who was probably King of the Sicambri. Each tribe must necessarily have been but scanty in numbers, and the domains apportioned to each but small; for we find the chief town of Childeric to have been Tournay, while Cambray, Cologne, and Terouane had distinct hordes and chiefs; and it is probable that many others may have escaped my notice.
No one of these tribes, however, could have supplied a sufficient body of men to have aided the Romans in so signal a manner at the battle of Mauriacum, or to have gained such victories as we find recorded, over large bodies of Goths, Huns, and Saxons; and thence I would deduce that some general principle of union existed between them; and that the command over the whole was deferred to the king of one particular branch : which branch—as well from Meroveus having commanded on the victory over Attila, as from the continual mention of Childeric, without any notice of the other Prankish kings—I should certainly conclude to have been, by accident, if not by custom, the tribe of Sicambri.
Misfortune does not always teach wisdom; but in the case of Childeric, either adversity or years appear to have cured his follies; and from the time of his reinstatement, he seems to have turned the current of a quick and impetuous spirit to the purposes of ambition, if not of virtue. In Childeric we find the real architect of the power of the Franks in Gaul; and though it was another who united all the separated parts into the one great fabric of the French kingdom, he led the way and laid the foundation-stone.
After a reign of twenty-four years, Childeric died at Tournay. His rival, Aegidius, had preceded him to the tomb several years, leaving a son, named Syagrius, to occupy the anomalous post which by his death became vacant,—a substitute without a principal—a viceroy deputed by no king. Gregory of Tours, indeed, calls this Syagrius King of the Romans; and as the good bishop is himself very curious in the investigation of what titles were bestowed upon the first chiefs of the Franks, it is more than probable that, in this instance, he made use of an honorary epithet that the Roman himself had assumed, when the western empire was absolutely at an end.
Childeric also left a son to succeed to his power; but, before proceeding with the following reign, which saw the conversion of the Franks to Christianity, and produced many changes in their national customs, it may be as well to state, in as few words as possible, all that is known of their religion and manners at the period of which I write.
Idolaters, like all the rest of the northern nations, the worship of the Franks was of that simple class which first presents itself to the mind of man, when finding, by the sense of his own feebleness and dependance, the necessity of adoring some object, he sees the Godhead in everything that contributes to his comfort, or supports his existence, mistaking the gifts which maintain life and happiness for the power that bestows. The forests that gave them shelter—the waters that fertilized their land—the savage beasts, the object of their chase—together with the more glorious parts of the wonderful creation, the sun, the moon, and the stars,—were all subjects for their worship, and the prototypes of their idols. Of their forms of adoration and religious ceremonies we know little, except that they offered sacrifices. Various of the customs of the Druids and the ancient Gauls have been attributed to them also; but whether correctly or not, I do not know, as I have personally met with the assertion alone, in the works of authors who wrote long after the manners of the Franks had become little more than matter for conjecture.
In regard to the degree of perfection to which they had brought various arts and manufactures, we have reason to believe that the Franks themselves, previous to their establishment in Gaul, had not proceeded farther in this branch of civilization than in any other. That, with all the tribes of the north, they were skilful and ardent huntsmen, cannot be doubted; and in the Salique law we find the protection of the chase as strictly attended to as the descent of lands, or any other case in which man is brought in relationship with man. They had also, it appears, made great progress, at an early period, in the domestication of all those useful animals whose subjection by any nation is generally considered as marking a considerable advance in civilization. The horse was in common use among them, and that no small trouble and skill was expended in rearing dogs for the field, we learn from the fact, that the penalty decreed, by the above-cited law, against any person stealing a dog which had been trained, was infinitely higher than that attached to the theft under other circumstances.
Stags, also, were domesticated among them, and were specially named in the laws for the protection of property. It is probable that, in regard to the other useful sciences, the most prominent inventions which the Romans had introduced into Gaul were eagerly adopted by the nations that followed them, though their refinements and more elegant arts were lost; and thus we find, that the Franks,—who, in all likelihood, had not proceeded farther themselves than the application of the hand-mill for grinding their corn, or, at farthest, the mill turned by some animal of draught—, immediately upon their conquest of the Gallic territory multiplied regulations for the preservation of the water-mills with which the country was plentifully supplied. Nevertheless, it may be necessary to remark, that, even previous to their having crossed the Rhine, they had advanced so wonderfully in agriculture, that Claudian declares it was not possible to distinguish, by the aspect of the land, which was the Roman, which the barbarian bank of that river. The only circumstance which could lead us to suppose that, at a period previous to the fall of the Roman Empire, the Franks had made any considerable progress in other arts, was the discovery of a tomb at Tournay, in the year 1653, which various circumstances indicated as the burial-place of Childeric, of whose history we have given a slight sketch. Besides a quantity of the bones of horses—probably sacrificed on the death of the king—a great many ornaments of gold were found, together with various medals, a style, the figure of a bull’s head, and several other things manufactured in gold, as well as a number of rings, on some of which appeared the effigy of Childeric, with the inscription, in Latin: Childericus Rex. The remains also of a tunic, a sword, and part of an axe were discovered, as well as some tablets, on which, I believe, no writing was to be traced. The most curious, however, of the objects contained in this tomb were a multitude of bees, wrought in gold, some with eyes, and some without,—a symbol of empire which Childeric had probably derived from the Romans. To the same source also is to be attributed that degree of progress in several manufactures which was exhibited in the various objects discovered.
It is not likely, however small was the portion of energy which remained with the Romans of Gaul, that Aegidius should have reigned as king for nearly eight years over the Franks, without endeavouring to communicate to them,—if but in ostentation—, the arts and inventions of his native country; nor is it more probable that the Franks should remain, for many generations, in near alliance and continual contact with a polished nation like the Romans, without acquiring some knowledge of their more necessary manufactures; though their mental improvements they neglected, and their refined arts they despised. Thus, it would seem that when the Franks first came in contact with the Romans, they were mere barbarians, living by the chase, dwelling in huts, and governed by a military chief; but, gradually, the proximity of luxurious civilization, the service of some of their tribes in the Roman armies, the alliances, and even the wars, of some others with the empire, changed their manners and improved their arts. They grew dwellers in cities, their kings became hereditary, customs were fixed into laws, and, without losing their warlike and enterprising spirit, they received all such of the Roman inventions and manufactures as were consistent with the character of a young, conquering, and yet unsettled people.
Such was the state of the Frankish nation at the death of Childeric, in the year 481. To him succeeded his son Clovis, at the age of fifteen, endowed with all those qualities of mind and body necessary to the leader of a warlike nation, in a barbarous age,—strong, bold, hardy, determined, with an ambitious spirit calculated to rise in times of change am conquest, and at that precise period of life when the fire of enterprise burns most brightly in the human breast.
Chief of a tribe of Franks probably superior to the others in power, and distinguished by its monarchs having led the whole confederacy with success for many years, Clovis was further assured of support from his fellow-kings—at least inasmuch as the ties of kindred could assure it among barbarians—from the circumstance of each of the other chiefs being related to himself in a nearer or more remote degree. The first five years of his reign he seems to have spent in tranquillity, consolidating his power, habituating himself to dominion, and strengthening and securing his own possessions before he attacked those of others. At the end of that period his active life commenced, and he prepared for the series of conquests which rendered him the master of the whole of Gaul.
Whether hereditary enmity prompted him, or the more politic consideration of destroying at once a foreign power in the heart of dominions which, beyond all doubt, he designed, from a very early period, to annex to his own, we have no means of ascertaining; but the first aggression of the young monarch of the Franks was directed against Syagrius and the Romans.
That he originally contemplated the conquest of the whole of Gaul is not at all what I wish to advance; for with him, as well as with every other man, it is probable that his views extended with the extension of his power, and that those things which at first were too vast for even ambition to grasp, soon appeared to court his endeavours, as victory took one great step after the other on the road to general dominion. Nevertheless, that the spirit and intention of conquest was in his heart, there can be no doubt; and even if he proposed to bound his acquisition of territory to the banks of the Meuse, the Seine, and the shores of the ocean, the remnant of the Roman power was the first obstacle that in policy he was bound to overcome.
Aided, then, by the principal tribes of Franks, he marched directly upon Soissons. Syagrius was prepared to meet him; but, after a severe conflict, the Romans were routed, and their unhappy leader, flying from the field of battle, took refuge with Alaric, king of the Visigoths. Daring in his own nature, and elated with his victory, Clovis instantly sent messengers to the Gothic king, demanding that Syagrius should be given up to him, and boldly threatening war in case of refusal.
Alaric had lately succeeded Euric or Evaric in the kingdom of the Goths; and, on what motive it is hard to say, he stained the first years of his reign by violating all the duties of hospitality in regard to the unhappy Roman, and by yielding him to the demand of his barbarous enemy.
His after-life showed that Alaric neither wanted courage, nor firmness, nor activity; and yet, by one of those strange contradictions which are sometimes found in the human character, he began his career with an action which can be accounted for on no other principle than the basest timidity.
With Syagrius in his hands, Clovis soon made himself master of all that remained of the Roman possessions in Gaul; and then, with the same barbarous spirit which he evinced in many an after-circumstance, he caused his captive to be butchered in prison. Such an action, however, was quite in harmony with the feelings of the age; and the often-repeated anecdote of the silver vase, the circumstances of which occurred at this period, is chiefly valuable as a proof of the uncivilized state of the Franks even then; showing how little, except in number, their armies still differed from a horde of plundering savages. The facts, as related by Flodoard and Gregory of Tours, are as follows: The cities of the Romans which fell into the hands of the Franks after the death of Syagrius were all more or less subjected to pillage; and even if Clovis, from political motives, extended a share of protection to the great body of his new subjects, he does not seem in any degree to have respected the Christian churches, which were stripped of all the rich plate and ornaments that had decorated them under the imperial government. The sacred buildings of Rheims, one of the first cities that had embraced Christianity in Gaul, were not exempt; and, among other articles of value carried off was a silver vase, of immense size and exceedingly curious workmanship.
At that time, the fame of St. Remi, the most eloquent and talented churchman of the day, was spreading far and near through Gaul; and even the idolatrous monarch of the Franks either felt or affected no small veneration for the virtues of the Christian prelate. As bishop of Rheims, St. Remi, either from some particular idea of sanctity attached to that vase, or from its great value, sent messengers to Clovis to complain of the violence which had been committed, and to beg the restitution of that particular urn at least, which he described. “Follow me to Soissons”, replied the king to the messengers; “there the booty is to be divided, and, if it be in my power, the prelate’s desire shall be gratified”.
On their arrival at Soissons, the troops were assembled; and the whole mass of plunder being displayed before the army, the king, pointing to the urn, which lay conspicuous on the glittering heap, turned to the soldiers whom he had led so often to battle and to victory, and, before proceeding to determine by lot, as was customary, the part which each man was to have in the spoil, he begged that the vase might be assigned to him.
Many of the soldiers instantly expressed their consent; but one, either jealous of the invasion of established customs, or coveting the splendid prize himself, raised his axe, and, dashing it down upon the vase, exclaimed, in answer to the king’s demand, “Thou shalt have nothing here but that which fortune shall give to thee by lot”.
For a moment all were dumb with astonishment; but at length, the general voice having assigned the vase to Clovis, he returned it to the messengers of the bishop, in the state that the axe had left it.
The passions that swelled in the heart of a barbarous monarch at such an outrage as had been offered to him on this occasion may be easily conceived. He smothered them, however, for a time, although both his power and his popularity might have supported him had he given way to his resentment and possibly in this very instance of the strong command he possessed over himself is to be traced the source of that great influence he acquired over others.
It must not be thought that his anger was forgotten, though it slept; and, after lying dormant for a whole year, it suddenly awoke, the instant that a pretence of justice was afforded to his wrath, by the misconduct of him who had been so severely exact in his allowance to the king. At the general assembly of the people, called the Champ de Mars, when, by old custom, all the warriors of the nation presented themselves before the monarch, to show that their arms and equipments were kept bright and in good condition, the young soldier who had struck the vase appeared, with evident signs of negligence in the state of his weapons. The king paused before him with a frowning brow, remarked the slothful carelessness evinced in his rusted arms; and catching his battle-axe from his hand, cast it down upon the ground disdainfully, exclaiming, “None show themselves here with such ill-ordered arms as thine. Thy lance, thy sword, thy battle-axe, are all disgraceful to a soldier”.
The young man stooped in silence to pick up his axe, but, as he did so, Clovis, with a blow of his weapon (called a francisque), smote him to the ground never to rise again, crying, “So didst thou strike the vase at Soissons!”. The true motive of the blow spoke out in the words that accompanied it; but, as he had refrained when the offence was given, and retaliated not till justice was joined with vengeance, his followers admired rather than murmured, and saw nothing in their barbarous leader but a chief who knew equally well when to bear and when to punish. A modern people would have looked deeper; but the separation of motives from actions is the art of a much more refined nation than that of which I write.
Pursuing steadily his ambitious purposes, Clovis went on from conquest to conquest. At first, the dominions which he had won from the Romans seemed to have bounded his designs towards the south; and we find the scene of all his wars, for the first fifteen years of his reign, in the northern and western parts of Gaul, on the banks of the Wahl and the Rhine. Even passing those rivers, he subdued part of the country beyond; and, in the midst of such continual struggles for increase of territory, his marriage took place with Clotilda, niece of Gondibert King of Burgundy, a circumstance which affected his fortunes more than any of his victories. Not that Clotilda brought him any fresh possessions for she seems to have had no dower but her beauty and her virtue. She was a Christian, however; and with the zeal of love and conviction, she endeavoured incessantly to inspire her own faith into the bosom of her husband. For long the monarch resisted al her entreaties, and there were indeed many obstacle to his conversion. The people he commanded were fervent idolaters, and it might be dangerous and difficult to stand among them alone in a new religion. Under his nation’s gods, he had fought and conquered; and we must not, in our own imaginations, endow Clovis with a spirit so much superior to his age, as not to be affected by superstitions then common to all men of all creeds.
The very manner of his conversion was superstitious, and, if I may make use of the term, heathen. After resisting for years the solicitations of Clotilda, the monarch, on seeing his army giving way in every direction before the Germans at the battle of Tolbaic,—now Zulpich, near Cologne—, suddenly addressed a prayer to his wife’s God, vowing to abandon all other gods, if he would yield him the victory.
As he spoke the Franks rallied, the Germans were defeated; and Clovis, beholding a miracle in his rapid change of fortune, determined to adhere to the vow he had made in the time of danger. On considering this event, I was inclined at first to suppose, that Clovis, perceiving the great influence of the Catholic clergy, and how much they might aid him in the schemes of conquest that he meditated, had embraced their faith upon political motives; and that the superstitious historians of the day had decorated his conversion with a miracle. This hypothesis, though specious, and yielded, I own, with reluctance, will not bear closer observation; for if we take care to avoid the common error of looking at events characterized by the spirit of a different age through the medium of modern feelings and manners, we shall find that, unless we attribute to Clovis extended views and schemes of policy far beyond any recorded of those times, the motives for his conversion to the Christian faith must remain as they are stated by the historians,—the solicitations of his wife, acting upon superstitious feelings common to the age, and enforced by an extraordinary coincidence, at a moment of danger and excitement.
Nevertheless, the act of embracing the Christian religion at a time when his whole people were heathens, when all the independent tribes of his own nation, and the kings that governed them, were in the daily habit of destroying the temples and persecuting the ministers of that doctrine which he was about to receive, was a bold and a great measure; and, joined with the success that accompanied it, showed a mind, however uncivilized, powerful in itself, and confident in its own powers.
It was not without some examination that Clovis professed the faith, nor without precaution in regard to his people. After having listened attentively to the eloquent predication of St. Remi, he declared himself satisfied, and ready to receive baptism; but, at the same time, he assembled his army, and communicated to them his design.
It is more than probable that the troops were already aware of the intentions of the king, and that means had been used to induce them to follow his example, for three thousand of the most illustrious persons of his army instantly avowed their willingness to abandon the idols of their forefathers, and to embrace the doctrine of salvation.
This number was sufficient, though the greater part of the army still remained obstinately heathens. The first stone was laid—the conversion of his people begun—and Clovis trusted for the rest to time, and his own powers of mind.
Easter being near when this occurrence took place, that festival was appointed for the ceremony of baptizing the newly converted monarch and his followers; and a strange and interesting sight it must have been, to see the splendid barbarians, who conquered, not only the Romans, but the conquerors of Rome, present themselves at the altar of God, to solicit pardon in the name of the divine teacher of peace and good-will.
The account of the baptism of Clovis, as given by Flodoard, and confirmed by the still earlier account of Gregory of Tours, is curious in various points of view. In the first place, it shows the high pitch of power, of boldness, and of wealth to which the Church of Rome had, even then, arrived; and it puts in strong contrast therewith the barbarous simplicity of the Frankish king.
On the morning appointed for the ceremony, we read, that “The streets, from the dwelling of the monarch to the cathedral, were decorated, and hung with fine linen and rich carpets; tapestry and white veils were suspended from the portals of the church; a thousand perfumed tapers filled the temple with both odour and light; and the people, in an atmosphere of balm, imagined that they breathed already the air of Paradise”. At the hour determined, the procession set out from the palace, commenced by the clergy, bearing in pomp the holy evangelists, with banners and crosses, and singing the hymns and canticles of the church. Next appeared St. Remi, leading the royal convert by the hand, accompanied by the queen and the monarch’s sister, with an immense multitude of the most distinguished Franks, eager to follow the example of their chief.
As they proceeded onwards towards the cathedral, Clovis, struck with the splendid ceremonial of the Roman church, which had been displayed in all its full magnificence to honour his baptism, turned to the prelate, and betrayed the state of his religious knowledge by asking, if what he saw were the kingdom of God which had been promised to him. “No”, replied St. Remi; “it is but the beginning of the road which conducts thither”. The king then entered the church, and approached the baptismal font, when the bishop, with a burst of that impassioned eloquence for which he was celebrated, exclaimed, with a loud voice: “Bend thy head humbly, Sicamber, before thy God! Destroy that which thou hast adored! Adore that which thou hast destroyed!”. After this bold address, he took the monarch’s profession of faith, gave him baptism, and received him into the Christian church, baptizing at the same time the warriors who followed the king to the font, as well as an immense number of women and children.
His conversion to the Christian religion had, as I have already said, an immense influence upon the fate of Clovis. The clergy of the Roman church, thickly spread over every part of Gaul, without excepting the dominions of Aquitaine and Burgundy, had already courted the Franks, even when governed by a heathen monarch; but now that he professed the same faith with themselves, they spared neither exertions nor intrigues to facilitate the progress of his conquests.
It does not enter into the plan of this Introduction, which necessarily must be as brief as is consistent with perspicuity, to follow the reign even of the founder of the French monarchy through all its circumstances; suffice it, that in a short time the event of several wars left the Franks masters of the whole of that part of Gaul situated within the Rhone, the Rhine, the ocean, and the Loire.
In Burgundy their warfare had been successful, but not advantageous. They had gained battles, but acquired no territory; and though their policy had been conducted with much barbarous art, it had proved as fruitless as their victories. Clovis then turned his designs against Aquitaine, and, after several years of preparation befitting so great an enterprise as the conquest of that vast tract of country lying between the Loire and Pyrenees, he put himself at the head of his army, and marched directly towards Poitiers. In the neighbourhood of that city, Alaric, King of the Visigoths, who had collected an immense army in Spain, and crossed the Pyrenees with as hostile intentions towards Clovis as those which Clovis entertained towards him, had paused in his advance, to wait the arrival of Theodoric the Great, and the Goths of Italy.
With such a powerful ally, joined to his own overwhelming forces, it is probable that Alaric doubted as little of success as the monarch of the Franks. The stake for which they played was great,—no less than the empire of the whole of Gaul. Each had much to lose, and each had much to win; and each cast his whole power upon the chance.
But though the troops of the Franks are said to have been inferior in number, they possessed, in other respects, great advantages over the Goths. A long series of wars, with scarcely an interval of peace, had rendered them firm, hardy, and skilful and a long series of victories, without a check, had given them confidence in themselves, and in their leader.
If we are to believe the Catholic historians, no miracles were wanting that might encourage Clovis on his march. But having purposely abstained hitherto from citing any of the puerile superstitions with which the clergy of that day either deceived themselves or others, I shall not pause to do so on the present occasion. It is nevertheless difficult to abstain from saying something on the subject, when these pretended miracles, however distinct in object and in nature from the great and glorious manifestations of power that accompanied the divine Author of our religion, or even from those which vouched the inspiration of the prophets of old, have been too often confounded therewith by the weak, the malicious, and the vain of latter days, for the purpose of sneering at the one while they ridiculed the other.
Alaric remained inactive, while Clovis advanced with rapidity; and thus the Goths lost and the Franks gained the great advantage of being the attacking party. The two armies met on the plains of Vouglé, within a few miles of Poitiers, and in a very short space of time the empire of Gaul was decided. The Goths gave way on every side; and, though Alaric made the most immense exertions to conquer fortune, and win the great stake for which he strove, the route of his troops was soon complete. Both monarchs fought in person, like common soldiers; and it is said that they met hand to hand in the battle, when Alaric fell beneath the sword of his rival.
The death of their king rendered the confusion of the Goths irremediable. They fled from the field in every direction. The fallen monarch’s son, with what forces he could collect, retired into Spain, where he succeeded to the throne of that country; while Clovis, with his victorious army, marched on through the territories which the Goths had possessed in Gaul, and subjected the whole land to the sway of the Franks. The Pyrenees became now the southern boundary of Clovis’s dominion, and the kingdom of France may be said to have begun.
The Frankish king had yet rivals to subdue in the heart of his kingdom. I have already mentioned the various tribes of the nation which inhabited the north of France, and pointed out, that though they seemed, by prescription, to consider the chief of the Sicambri as the head of the confederate nation, yet each was governed by its own monarch, and probably by its own laws, of which we have instances in the Salique law, and the Loi ripuaire.
It was not, however, to be supposed that an ambitious warrior like Clovis, who had conquered all that opposed him, and extended his dominions in such an immense proportion, would leave the petty chieftains of his race—over whom he had risen so high by victory and genius—in tranquil possession of the territories which they held parcelled out through his kingdom. To seize upon their lands was an injustice; but it was an injustice so common in the age, that it followed as a matter of course; and the only choice seemed to be in the manner of performing it. Clovis, following the bent of his natural disposition, selected, in all instances, the most sure means of obtaining his object, without at all considering whether it was cruel, or whether it was base.
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