The Franks were a group of Germanic peoples who lived in western and central Europe during the Early Middle Ages. Their name survives in today's France, the German region Franconia (Franken), the EU's financial hub Frankfurt, and several other places.
The Roman Empire described the Franks since at least the 3rd century AD. Many Franks served in the Roman Army. The etymology of "Franks" is not entirely clear but it was most likely a self-applied descriptor - perhaps first used by a military alliance - which can mean things like "bold, rude, free". The words "frank" in English and related words in other Germanic languages are cognates.
In the Migration period of the 4th century, the Franks largely remained in their homeland, in contrast to other tribes who crossed most of Europe. In the chaos following the 5th century fall of Rome, the Franks formed kingdoms, parallel to other Germanic peoples in western and central Europe such as the Saxons and Thuringians, with namesake states in present-day Germany, and the Alamanni, remembered as Allemagne, the French name of Germany. The term Franks has at times been used as a collective term for all those. During the Crusades every Catholic Christian in Outremer who didn't speak a Romance language (and sometimes also Romance speakers) was called "Frank".
The Merovingian dynasty, known since the 5th century, whose empire came to rule most of today's France, Benelux and Central Europe in the 8th century. Perhaps the most notable Merovingian king was Clovis (an early form of the name Louis) who defeated Syagrus, the last person in France claiming to be the local representative of the Roman Empire and converting to Catholic Christianity when most Germanic chieftains had either been heathens or Arian Christians. However, a Frankish custom to divide the realm among all eligible sons upon the death of the king led to a gradual decline and ultimately the "majordomo" (manager of the king's household) of the Carolingian family became the true "power behind the throne" before the last Merovingian king was stripped of even nominal power and exiled to a cloister.
During the 8th century, the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate conquered Iberia, and ventured into Gaul (today's France). The advance force reached almost to the Loire Valley; however, the Frankish army dealt it a heavy defeat between Poitiers and Tours. This halted the caliphate's expansion and ensured its European territories were confined to south of the Pyrenees. The leader of that army was Charles Martel ("the hammer"), a majordomo and it was his son, Pepin, who took the title of "king" for himself and his family including his son Charlemagne.
They were succeeded 8th-9th century Carolingian Empire (so named because of the propensity to name their sons "Karl") founded by Charlemagne, who annexed northern Italy and had himself crowned as the first western Roman Emperor since the fall of Western Rome. His reign is remembered as the Carolingian Renaissance, famous for art, architecture, literature, and coinage.
The Carolingian empire was divided in the late 9th century into three kingdoms ruled by Charlemagne's grandsons Charles, Lothar and Louis. This instability opened way for the Nordic Vikings to raid coastal settlements, and settle in regions such as Normandy.
The post-Carolingian kingdoms consolidated in the 11th century, heralding the High Middle Ages, a period known for urbanization, and the establishment of castles, cathedrals and universities, styled in Romanesque and Gothic architecture. They came to form the Kingdom of France, the Netherlands and Germany respectively; the political division, as well as the language barrier between Romance and Germanic languages, made the collective term Frank obsolete.
The Holy Roman Empire was an entity founded in AD 962, with a claim to succeed Charlemagne, styling their leader as Emperor of Rome. The Empire nominally included much of Central Europe, but it was for much of its existence a ceremonial construct, described by scholars such as Voltaire as "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire". The Roman Empire had however survived in Constantinople, known as the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when it fell to the Ottoman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was dismantled in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars.
Preserved buildings from before AD 800 are few and small. Carolingian architecture from the 9th and 10th centuries was inspired by the Romans, and represent Western Europe's first palaces, castles and cathedrals, which became more common among the Franks' successors in the High Middle Ages.
- 1 Aachen (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany). The residence of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who ordered the Palatine Chapel to be built. This was to become the first part of the UNESCO-listed Aachen cathedral, which is also the emperor's final resting place.
- 2 Arles (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France). Capital of an independent Frankish kingdom from 855.
- 3 Poitiers (Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France). On 10 October 732 the Battle of Poitiers or Battle of Tours was fought between the Franks and the Umayyad Caliphate. The Franks were victorious, the Umayyad commander Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi was killed in battle, and it marked the highpoint of the spread of Islamic civilisation in Western Europe.
- 4 Tours (Centre-Val de Loire, France). The city of Saint Martin and Gregory. The former's shrine, now a basilica, became one of the Franks' most sacred sites, and may have been why a place well south of Tours was chosen to repel the Muslims. The latter wrote Historia Francorum (History of the Franks) in the 6th century. By the 9th century, Tours was at the heart of the Carolingian Renaissance.
- 5 Reims (Grand Est, France). The Frankish king Clovis I converted to Christianity and was baptised at Reims Cathedral in 496 AD, allegedly with oil brought from Heaven by a dove, which was taken as a sign of divine right to rule by Clovis and his descendants. This started traditions of Frankish, and later French, kings being crowned at Reims, and also of French and German kings taking the regnal name Louis or Ludwig.
- 1 Kloster Lorsch (Lorsch, Hesse, Germany). This abbey and cloister is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a prime example of Carolingian architecture.
- 6 Val Müstair (Graubünden, Switzerland). The Benedictine Convent of St. John at Müstair.
- 7 Ingelheim (Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany). Charlemagne had Ingelheim Imperial Palace (Ingelheimer Kaiserpfalz) built here for synods and Imperial diets.