A reconstruction of a sword, its scabbard and warrior’s belt of a Merovingian nobleman. Note the common Nordic elements with the cultures of Anglo-Saxon Britain and early Vendel Scandinavia.
By Periklis Deligiannis
Wikipedia Commons is the source of all the maps in this article.
The early Franks were not a single tribe but a tribal union (or ‘loose’ federation or confederation) of smaller Germanic tribes emerging in the beginning of the 3rd century AD in the regions north and east of the Rhine. The first members of the Frankish confederation included the Sugambri (or Sicambri), Chamavi, Salii, Chattuarii (Chasuarii), Tubantes (Tuihantii), Ampsivarii, and probably the Bructeri. In the 20th century historiography the Salii (Salians) were believed to have been originally a confederation of Frankish tribes living near the sea (this is the meaning of ‘Salian’), mostly in modern Netherlands. This was definitely the case for the later Salii, being one of the two lesser tribal unions within the greater Frankish union. The other one was the Ripuarii (Ripuarian) Franks, meaning the tribes living by the river, i.e. the Rhine, in the Frankish hinterland, mostly in modern Germany. But the earlier Salii were rather not a confederation but a compact tribe which became the core people for the formation of the Salian Frankish confederation. Their cradle was possibly the region of Salland or Salaland in modern Eastern Netherlands.
Hamaland (map on the left) and Salland (on the right) in modern Netherlands were the cradles of two founding members of the Frankish federation, the Chamavi and the Salii respectively. Betuwe in the map on the left, was the northern region of the land of the Batavi tribe, another member of the Frankish federation, added to it later. It seems that the Batavi of Betuwe were already incorporated to the Chamavi when the federation was founded, while the rest of the tribe were a part of the Roman province Germania Inferior, south of the Rhine (see map below). In the 4th century, these ‘Roman’ Batavi (renowned auxiliaries of Rome) too were incorporated to the Frankish confederation.
It seems that Eastern Netherlands were the cradle of some other founding members of the Salian confederation, such as the Tubantes (living around modern Twente), the Chamavi (in modern Hamaland) and a little later the remaining Batavi (around Nijmegen). The Sugambri, Chattuarii, Ampsivarii and Bructeri used to live in the northwestern corner of modern Germany. The Frisii of modern Northern Netherlands and NW Germany remained stubbornly outside the Frankish federation until the 8th century when they were conquered by the Carolingians. But even then, they were not absorbed by their Frankish and Saxon neighbors.
During the earlier expansion of the Frankish confederation in the 3rd century, it absorbed officially or unofficially an additional number of Germanic or even some semi-Romanized Belgic (Belgae) tribes such as the Chatti, the Marsi, the Batavi, the Toxandri, the Tungrian tribal group, the Cugerni, probably the remaining Usipetes and Tencteri, some clans and subtribes of the Chauci and the Cherusci, the semi-Romanized Germanic Ubii and others. It is speculated that all the aforementioned tribes originally spoke a range of related Istaevonic dialects of the West Germanic branch of Proto-Germanic. Just a few of them spoke Latin (because of their Romanization) or even Belgic Celtic dialects. The tribes which for some centuries were living in the Roman provinces of Belgica I, Belgica II and Germania Inferior and were partially Romanized (Ubii, Tungri, Batavi, Cugerni and others), were probably re-Germanized when they became members of the Frankish communities.
Location maps of some tribes of the Frankish confederation.
The Salian Franks evolved mostly in the area of modern Netherlands and the Ripuarians mainly in the region of modern NW Germany. The Salian group seem to have been the founding one of the Frankish federation while the Ripuarian group was added gradually and subsequently but not much later (except the Chatti and some other much later additions). The Sugambri seem to have been the leading tribe of the Ripuarian Franks but the medieval chronicles and many modern scholars relate them mostly to the Salians. This important tribe was possibly a leading component for both the Salians and the Ripuarians. The Franks were united as a single tribal federation under Salian leadership around the early 6th century AD. Politically, the Ripuarian Franks existed as a separate group only until about 507 AD. After that they were subsumed under the Salians.
In the 3rd century the Franks crossed the Rhine settling in Toxandria, Southern Netherlands (the Salians) and deeper into the German Rhineland (the Ripuarians). In the 4th century and in modern geographical terms, the core Frankish territories were expanded and included the rest of southern Netherlands, modern Belgian and French Flanders and the adjoining area in Germany centred on Cologne.
Map above: Expansion of the Salians and the Ripuarians (noted as rhenans in this French map) in the Roman territory, 5th century AD.
Below: Medieval Frankish territories in modern Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and the German Rhineland.
Already from the beginnings of the Frankish tribal federation there was pressure in its northeastern frontiers by the aggressive Saxons. The Weser River marked the original northeastern borders of the federation but the Saxon pressure and the evacuation of the original homeland due to the colonization of the new lands captured from the Romans south and west of the Rhine, moved them by the 5th century to the west of the Ems. Thereby in the 5th century, most of the original Frankish people came to live more southwesterly, roughly between modern Dortmund (Germany), Zwolle (Netherlands) and the Somme in France. Large areas of the Frankish homelands were evacuated and occupied by the Saxons. The Westphali tribe of the Saxon confederacy was formed in those areas.
By the 6th century, the Frankish communities had expanded to modern Lorraine, the Palatinate and Hesse (being the land of the Chatti). Their ongoing expansion since the 3rd century brought about the formation of further Frankish ethnic varieties such as the Meusean and the Hessian Franks. The Meusean Franks came from a tribal intermixture of Salians and Ripuarians as well as local Gallo-Romans (mainly of local Belgae origins). They were established in the area between the Meuse (Maas) and the Rhine (roughly modern SE Netherlands, Wallonia, Luxembourg and Lorraine) being the new Frankish heartlands after the movement of the Frankish ethno-political centre to the Southwest. At the same period, the Salian Franks proper were established in the rest of Southern Netherlands, mainly in Toxandria, in the Belgian and French Flanders, and of course in Neustria (North France) living among the much more numerous Gallo-Roman population. Most of the Salians were eventually Latinized linguistically. The Ripuarian Franks proper went on living in the Rhineland region, while the Hessian Franks were in fact mainly the large tribe of the Chatti, a later addition in the Frankish confederation. Later the Hessian Franks also included some Frankisized Suebi/Alemanni (Swabi) and Thuringians. The Hessians were not bonded so strictly politically to the other Franks.
Map above: Gaul in 481 AD. The Salian Frankish kingdom of the Merovingians is noted in the North, as well as the locations of the Salians and the Ripuarians. Tournai and Cambrai were now the two main power centres of the Salians.
Below: Frankish expansion 481-814 AD. Austrasia and Neustria are also noted.
But the main new political division among the Franks was their division in Neustrians and Austrasians, especially after the 5th century, due to their political division in the Merovingian kingdoms of Neustria (“New kingdom” in Germanic, being the Western Kingdom) and Austrasia (“Eastern kingdom”, being the Old kingdom of the Frankish heartlands). The bulk of the old Salian Franks formed the Neustrians, while the Austrasian Franks included mainly the Meuseans, Ripuarians and Hessians. The Meusean Franks were the leading population of the Austrasians. The Carolingian dynasty/family, from whom Charles Martel and Charlemagne originated, was a Meusean Frankish noble family originating from the region around the modern three-sided borders between the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium (modern Maastricht-Liege-Aachen region). The aversion between the Neustrian and Austrasian nobility sometimes resulted in open enmity, ending in a number of internal wars.
Taking into account a number of quotations in the early medieval chronicles, the Merovingian dynasty who in the 5th century managed to unite all the Frankish tribes, was of Sugambrian origins. The chronicles often mention the Merovingians and sometimes generally the Salian Franks as ‘Sugambri’ and it is obvious in my point of view that there is no ‘literary license’ in these quotations of ethnic address for reasons that I cannot analyze in this limited article. Ian Wood in his study on the Merovingian kingdoms proposes that the Merovingians were originally from Thuringia because of their close relations with this region but I cannot understand why he ignores or rejects the more evident relation of that dynasty with the Sugambri.
A Frankish warrior of the 6th century AD. A variety of his arms, armour and equipment is shown. Note especially his decorated spangenhelm. The alternative helmet is also of Northern Iranian Asiatic origins, adopted by the Germanics, the Huns and the Romans. Painting by Angus McBride (copyright: Osprey publishing, Warrior series)
The Old Salian Frankish dialects evolved into the modern Dutch, Flemish and Afrikaan dialects, while the Old Ripuarian Frankish dialects evolved into the modern German Franconian dialects of the middle Rhine and Main valleys.
In future articles, I will deal in detail with the ethnic expansion and linguistic evolution of the Franks of the Middle and Late periods of their history (5th-10th centuries) and their possible physical survival in some modern populations (bio-genetic studies). I will also deal with the alleged and much debated “nationality” of Charles the Great, mostly known as Charlemagne.