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What’s in a Name? Part II. The Story of the Franks

Last week’s story about how Paris got its name was very popular. I received a lot of messages from people saying that they enjoyed learning about the origin of the name Paris. However, I also received a lot of messages with the same follow up question. If the name Paris comes from the Parisii, where does the name France come from? Well, my dear readers, it’s time for What’s in a Name? Part II. And this week, I’m going to introduce you to the Franks.

We left off last week with Paris coming under Roman rule in the 1st century BCE. The Romans would retain control of the region for centuries, with Paris becoming the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the mid-4th century. During this time, the Romans were constantly occupied with invading Germanic tribes along the northeast borders of Gaul. As early as the 3rd century, these tribes were called Franks in Roman reports, and depending on the situation, they were referred to as both enemies and allies. But mostly enemies. In particular, the Franks kept the Romans occupied along the Rhine, where countless battles and skirmishes played out over the centuries.

Originally, the Franks were not a unified people. Instead, they were a loose confederation of tribes that were all ruled by different kings. But they had one thing in common. Their ferocious reputation. In fact, the name Franks comes from the old Germanic word, framea, meaning javelin. Historians have also pointed to similar words in Germanic languages that mean bold, fierce, or insolent, as proof of the Franks’ fearsome reputation.

When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476, it led to a power vacuum in the region, and the Franks wasted no time in filling it. At this point, there were still numerous Frankish kings, but there is one in particular who is very important to this story – Childeric I. He was an early leader of the Merovingian dynasty who died in 481. His son, Clovis, inherited his father’s position at the age of just 15, and immediately set out to cement his place in history. For the next several decades, Clovis conquered the neighbouring Frankish tribes one by one, eventually succeeding in uniting the Franks under his leadership by 509. He became known as the first King of the Franks, and historians today consider him to be the first King of France.

In addition to uniting the Franks, Clovis was also famous for bringing Christianity to the realm. He realized early on in his reign that he would need the support of the clergy if he wanted to hold on to power. At first, he sought their support by marrying a Catholic woman named Clotilde. However, his new wife eventually convinced him that it would be wise to become a Christian himself. In 496, Clovis converted to Catholicism in Reims, an event depicted in the painting above, and the Kingdom of the Franks officially became a Christian country. Clovis died in 511, but the Merovingian dynasty continued for several more centuries. More importantly, Clovis’ impact on France continues to this day, as it is still a predominately Catholic country.

The rule of Charlemagne at the turn of the 9th century marked a high point for the Frankish Empire. However, due to the laws of Frankish inheritance, his descendants were forced to divide his kingdom into Middle, East, and West Francia following the Treaty of Verdun in 843. West Francia lasted until 987, when the election of Hugh Capet as king marked the beginning of the Kingdom of France. However, the kings of this new kingdom still went by the title King of the Franks for several more centuries. It wasn’t until 1190 that Philip Auguste became the first King of France.

I’m sure it is obvious by now that the name France is a direct descendant of the Franks. Those unruly groups of Germanic barbarians (the Romans’ words, not mine!) gave this country its name over 1,500 years ago. Clovis was not just their first unified king. He was the first King of France, and his name would live on for centuries through the many, many French kings named Louis. Just like the Parisii before them, the Franks themselves may be long gone, but their name lives on, thereby ensuring that they too will never be forgotten.

A 19th century painting of Clovis, King of the Franks, being baptized in Reims in 496.

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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