An interesting aspect of history is the opportunities it provides to observe the development of the meaning of words. Of words that represent something solid like a geographic area, or something as complex as a culture or a nation.

Take the word France, Frankreich or Francia. It is the word  for the country of France in three different languages.

France started to be called by that word in the fifth or sixth century AD and it stood initially for a confederation of German tribes in the present border area of Germany and the Low Countries. That confederation was called Franks, which stands for “the free people”.

The name received some international renown as the result of the conquests of king Chlodvig, the first of a number of French Louis’ and German Ludwigs, that ruled over France and Germany during the Middle Ages and in modern days.

Chlodvig or Clovis and his descendants, the Merovingians, ruled over an area that covered the old tribal heartland of the Franks and a part of present France. The second ruling house of the Franks, the Carolingians, ruled over a much wider area, coinciding approximately with the present EU in its original form of ‘The Six’. That larger Carolingian empire was broken up a couple of generations after the death of its founder. Initially it was divided in three and subsequently in two parts: North East and South West Francia.

The Franks who lived in the South Western part of the realm became soon part of the local population and took over Latin as their language. Not the original Latin of Caesar and Cicero but the local Latin as it was spoken in this former Roman  province. The Northeast continued to speak its own language, which they called “the peoples language” or Dietsch. The bastard Latin developed into French and Dietsch is now called Deutsch or German. Dutch is what the English called the Low German language spoken in the Low Countries.

One of the earlier Carolingian kings was one of those remarkable individuals that arrive on the world scene once every few hundred years and that single-handedly appear to change the course of history. Charlemagne conquered a large part of the present Western Europe and left it with a new destiny, very different from the way he found it. He acquired the title of Roman Emperor in the process.

Roman Emperor had been the title of the sovereign of the Roman civilization that covered a huge area around the Mediterranean Sea for more than a thousand years. To become emperor meant to receive recognition as the leader of that civilization. That was more than even Charlemagne could claim. It was the Roman pope that crowned him as emperor for his own purposes. But the real Roman Emperor was the sovereign of Byzantium, the ruler of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Pope had been the most influential of Christian bishops, due to the fact that he was the bishop of Rome, the ancient capital of the Roman Empire. The emperor Constantine the Great had moved the seat of government to the east, to Byzantium or Constantinople at the Bosporus. The Pope as a consequence lost much of his influence. By appointing an emperor of his own in addition to the one of the East, he stood to regain some of that influence or at least to reduce his dependence on Byzantium.

For Byzantium, as the town was called at the time, this was not a major setback. Western Europe was far away and an underdeveloped part of the world. However, with its newfound destiny it became in time a force to be reckoned with. The name of Rome still held sufficient magic to transform the position of what was in effect  a tribal chief into one of the players in the Mediterranean world. Nobody however, except for the Pope and the Franks themselves, recognized Charlemagne as the Roman Emperor. That title belonged for the civilized peoples to the ruler of  Byzantium, who reigned over a much larger and an infinitely more cultured part of the world. Western Europe received recognition as Francia by Byzantium and the Arab Caliphs, the two powers of the day.

The southwestern Part of Francia had the contacts with Byzantium and the major Muslim Centers in the Mediterranean: Andalusia, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. That part of the Carolingian world in due time came to consider itself Francia and the Eastern part called itself das Heilige Roemische Reich Deutscher Nation or the Holy Roman Empire in Germany.

In the medieval world people from Western Europe were called Franks, regardless if they came from present France, from Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe. They were Franks as long as they were Latin Christians that recognized the Pope as their spiritual, and the (German) emperor as their nominal secular leader. Franks they are still called in the lands of the Islam and the Greek Orthodoxy and it means much the same as Europeans.


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