481 - Germanic Society and Military

By: Emma Ripley

The Frankish people ruled the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. They were a confederation of Germanic tribes. It was a mix of groups between the Rhine and the Weser Rivers. The origin of the name ‘Franks’ has been debated. Some have claimed it to be related to the English word “frank” which means “truthful”. But other disagree claimed that the more realistic creation is “Franca” or “frakka”. Both of these words come from the Germanic word for the javelin. The Germanic people were very invested in war and battles. The rulers were strong and had a dominant style of rule.

Clovis I came to rule the Franks in 481 CE. He was the son of Childeric and Clovis take over his father’s position as king. Childeric who would soon found the Merovingian Dynasty. At the age of 15, Clovis was selected to become the king. His powerful ruling style helped him take advantage of the dying Roman Order. Clovis managed to push the boundaries of the Frankish kingdom as early as 486 CE. Clovis expanded the kingdom to central France in the Loire and connected its power by capturing Gaul. He also unified it under the rule of his Merovingian Dynasty. Clovis’s descendants would rule much of Gaul for the next 200 years.

Mentioned before, Germanic people were very fierce during battle which created a strong military for them. They had a love of battle which was tied to their religious beliefs and practices. Two of their most important gods, Wodan and his son, Thor, were both believed to be the gods of war. The Franks were pagans, which is different from other tribes in Roman territories during this time. Others followed Arian Christianity and in Childeric’s rule, the Frankish people were still pagans. Later in 1653 CE, at the tomb of Childeric, evidence was found. This evidence suggests the practice of pagan rituals in the form of traces of horse sacrifices. Gregory of Tours claims that the Franks converted to Catholic Christianity during the reign of Clovis I. Clovis was converted after he married the Burgundian princess Clotild.

The germanic idea of warfare was quite different from the pitched battles fought by Rome and Greece. The Germanic tribes focused on raids to capture resources and secure prestige. Their warriors were strong in battle and had great fighting abilities, this made the tribes almost unbeatable. Men began training at a young age and given a shield and spear upon manhood. This defines the importance of combat in Germanic life. The loss of the shield or spear resulted in the loss of honor. Their intense devotion to one’s tribe and their chieftain led to many important military victories. A chieftain was the leader of clans, which were divided into groups by family ties. Chieftains were elected by earlier Germans but then became hereditary.

A chieftain’s jobs were to keep peace in the clans. To create peace, warriors were kept together and united. This relationship between a chieftain and his followers became the basis for the more complicated feudal system that developed in medieval Europe. The Franks create a strong military which helped them dominate the Western Roman Empire. Along with their connection to the chieftain, they were very powerful through expansion and in their society.