France in the Middle Ages

History of France

The name of France is derived from a medieval tribe called the Franks.  A 15 year old boy with the name of Clovis became leader of his small Frankish tribe in 481. He began killing the other members of his family to reduce the number of competitors for the authority. He then proceeded to unite and consolidate other tribes, and within 5 years, he united the Franks under his own personal rule.

The Franks were not a very sophisticated or highly organized tribe. They were hunters and trappers, like the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, and they supplied recruits for Roman armies. With his death in 511, the Frankish kingdom was divided into four where Clovis’ four sons became the rulers of each of the four tribes. The royal descendants from Clovis became the Merovingian dynasty, derived from Clovis’ grandfather, Merovech.

Medieval key points

Medieval France is represented by the area we know today as France. It started with the death of King Louis the Pious in 840 AD to the middle of the fifteenth century. Key points marking France in the Middle Ages are

  • The Viking invasions of west Francia, 843 to 987, and the piecemeal dismantling of the Carolingian Empire when the local powers rebelled.
  • The feudal system of rights and obligations existing between lords and vassals became more apparent
  • The seigneural economic system advanced
  • The region controlled by the House of Capet (987 – 1328) growth and the struggles they had with Norman and Angevin regions
  • Artistic and literary revolution
  • The Hundred year war giving rise to the House of Valois in 1328 to 1589
  • The Black Death epidemic in 1348
  • French nation expanding, Paris becoming the capital of France and French people claiming their sense of identity.

Charlemagne Empire

Charlemagne or Charles the Great changed the face of France by introducing a law that made school compulsory for every child. He wanted them to be educated and to be good Christians.
Near the end of the rule of Charlemagne, Vikings tried to invade the northern and western perimeters of his kingdom, but were unsuccessful.

After his death however in 814, his throne successors failed in keeping political unity and stability. The great Charlemagne Empire started to crumble. Viking advances increased and invasions into France were made capable through waterways leading inland, such as the Seine and Loire rivers.

The Viking era

In 843, the Vikings succeeded in murdering the Bishop of Nantes and shortly after that burned down the Church of Saint-Martin at Tours. This inspired the Vikings to demolish Paris in 845.

While Charles the Simple (898-922) ruled in France, he was forced to hand over a part of land near Paris to the Vikings which today is known as Normandy.

Carolingian Empire and the Capetians

The Carolingian Empire established the accession of Hugh Capet between the Duke of France and Count of Paris. The Capetian dynasty came into power and ruled for more than 800 years.

With the Carolingian era allowed for institutions to form which would later influence the development of France for centuries to come. This included their acceptance of the ruling empire to have administrative authority of the kingdoms’ noblemen and territories in return for their loyalty and military support. This trade was visible throughout the reign of the Capetians.

Due to the new order, the new dynasty was left with little immediate control of the areas beyond the middle Seine and adjacent territories, while powerful territorial lords as 10th and 11th-century counts, had large land and domains of their own which they acquired through marriage and through private arrangements with lesser nobles for protection and support.

The Normandy Empire

Scandinavian invaders captured the area around lower Seine as the Duke and Duchess of Normandy in 911 acted in suspicion when Duke William took possession of the kingdom of England and declared himself and his heirs as equals to the king outside of France, even though he was still subject to the crown.

After her divorce from France’s king, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine married Duke William. Before the marriage, Duke William become successor to the disputed English throne of Henry II, at that stage he was also the count of Anjou and duke of Normandy. With his marriage to ex-queen Eleanor, Duke William gained even more control of south-west France.

The Hundred Years’ War and regain of French control

The hundred Years’ War followed which eventually dethroned the Normandy kingdom and brought Normandy back under French control and their victory at Bouvines in 1214.

In the 13th century, the crown gained more power towards the south of France, where a papal royal crusade was under way against the regions’ Cathar heretics. This crusade led to the incorporation into the royal domain of Lower in 1229 and Upper Languedoc in 1271.

Learn more about France in the Middle Ages.

In 1300, Phillippe the IV failed to seize Flanders. This battle lasted two years and ended in the “battle of the spurs” near Courtrai.

Religion and France

Faith was very important in France during the Middle Ages and influenced the development of France greatly. Religious Crusades was in the order of the day. Pope Urban II was the preacher for the first crusade in Claremont in 1095. Claremont subsequently played a leading role in following crusades.

Between the 12th and 13th centuries, many major cathedrals were erected in France, including the most famous one, Notre-dame in Paris which construction started in the 1100s.

France also delivered great medieval heroines, such as Joan D’Arc. She was a peasant who claimed that she had visions and in 1429, followed the directions of those visions to conquer the English and crown Charles VII as rightful king. She led troops and in the Battle of Orleans she was victorious, but failed to capture Paris. In 1430 she was captured by Burgundians who in turn sold her to the English. She was burned at the stake two years later in Rouen.

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