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Article Published July 09, 1999

Life And Records In Pre-Medieval France
By Xenia Stanford

Although anything prior to the First Republic in 1792 is usually called the Ancient Regime, the pre-Medieval times are so different from the Medieval period these two should be distinguished from one another. As promised in the last issue, I plan to review the history of France as it pertains to record keeping and ancestor finding. This issue will deal with the pre-Medieval period.


Prior to the Roman conquest in the first century BC little is known of the territory the Romans referred to as Gaul. So unless you can trace descent from one of the other ancient realms, such as Egypt or Rome, you would be lucky to find evidence of any individual in what is now France before the Romans took over.

Even then Caesar in his 55-51 BC campaigns against the Gauls mentions the Frankish tribes as ferocious fighters but there is no documentation of individuals by name. Until the ancient Roman Empire was defeated even tracing royal lineage of those who populated the region now known as France is impossible. The only hope of going further back than that in your French lineage is the marriage of those ancestors into noble lines of other countries where documentation exists into the first century AD or sometimes earlier.

The earliest men who appeared in Western Europe made pictographs and symbols in caves and on rocks but even those which survive are useless for tying back to individuals or family lines. Even when writing spread from the Mesopotamian "cradle of civilisation" to other parts of the world, the people of the areas of Europe in which we are interested did not take up the practise of documenting people's exploits or lineage in permanent language forms.

Probably the various tribes that inherited these lands before and during Roman rule did have their ballads and legends but these were not recorded. It does appear that for some time before the downfall of ancient Rome each tribe had their own "royal lines". Each established tribe had a "king" or "chief" who seems to have inherited the position from a forefather since the progression of position by familial lineage seems to have been well-established by the time of the coronation of Clovis as the first King of the Franks in 486 AD.

These tribal chiefs faced the same problems encountered later in history. They could be unseated by a non-direct relative or a non-relative. In addition to the infighting or civil unrest, the tribes conducted war against their neighbouring groups. These tribes were not united even against the common enemy - Rome.

In 481 one of the tribal chiefs who ruled part of what is now Belgium united the Frank tribes of Gaul almost as far south as the Pyrenees. He then embarked on a campaign against the Romans who had already suffered losses in Constantinople and parts of the British Isles as early as 476 AD. In 486 the Battle of Soissons marked the end of the Roman regime and the beginning of the Merovingian line of rulers in France. This first tribal chief who had organised and led the front against the Romans was crowned Clovis I, King of the Franks, and shortly thereafter was baptised into the faith of his wife, a Christian.

The coronation marks the beginning of recording of royal lineage and exploits. The early acceptance of Christianity was significant too as it became a positive influence on record keeping. Later it was the Church who was instrumental in recording not just events or deeds of royalty but of commoners as well.

The ancestry of Clovis has been documented through manuscripts and tapestries back to Clodian, who ruled the Salian Frank tribes from about 428 to 448 AD. However, this documentation has not clearly defined Clovis as a blood descendant of Clodian. We only know that Clodian was a preceding ruler and the first documented chieftain of the tribe from which Clovis arose.

The records do show that Clovis was the grandson of Meroveus, the successor to Clodian. Meroveus was the second documented ruler of this tribe but his relationship to Clodian has not been established. Since Meroveus is the first documented ruler of this familial line of kings it has been named after him - i.e. the Merovingians.

Meroveus, was a "chief" of this tribe from 448 to 456 AD. At his death in 456 a son, Childeric I, took over and ruled until 481. Upon Childeric's death in 481, his son Clovis expanded his father's and grandfather's armies to include the other Frankish tribes and as stated above was responsible for the defeat of the Romans in Gaul. Thus Clovis was truly the first ruler of the area that included most of what is now France. As such he is considered the first French king.

Clovis ruled until his death in 511 AD. His four sons then divided the empire into the following parts: Paris under Childebert I, Austrasia (now Germany) under Thierry I, Orleans under Clodomir and Soissons under Clothaire I. Clodomir died in 524, Thierry in 534 and Childebert who was born in 495 died in 558. As his older brothers passed away Clothaire I (born in 497) assumed rule of their territories so that by 558 he was sole ruler.

Upon his death in 561 the sons and nephews of Clothaire subdivided the kingdom into many smaller divisions and once again France degenerated into almost tribal rule. Each tiny kingdom had its own administration and own records or lack thereof. Although ruled by relatives, the wars amongst the tiny kingdoms also meant many conquests and changes to administrations, hence record systems. Also the "official" records of kingdoms were often destroyed during the fighting or after the new ruler took over.

The Carolingians were a tribe of Franks who were appointed as administrators under the Merovingian kings and were largely in control of the records and most other things of value. They kept track of and collected any taxes or levies owing to the king and maintained land and other documentation.

Eventually the Carolingian administrators gained so much control the kings became their puppets. Eventually the Carolingians deposed the monarchs and took over as official rulers. The Carolingian kings began combining the lands until a descendant of one of them, Charles Martel, unified the Frankish domain once again. This time it was to defeat the Moors of Spain in 732 AD. This event ensured the survival of Christianity and the identity of France as a nation.

Charles's son, Pepin the Short, formed a strong alliance with the Roman Catholic Church and deposed all remaining Merovingian kings establishing a new French dynasty. Pepin the Short's son, Charlemagne, expanded the empire to include most of Europe. He was crowned King of the Roman Empire by Pope Leo II on Christmas Day 800 AD. This close link between church and state established the Holy Roman Empire, which was to influence the administration and record keeping for many centuries to follow. Also the impact of the French monarchy was extended to many lands beyond the current borders of France.

The significance of the Holy Roman Empire was the role the church assumed as a primary party in record keeping. The records initially kept were mainly those regarding the hierarchy of the church not of the commoners. Also donations of land and money were diligently noted to ensure all understood the possession by the Church was irrefutable.

The Church was more concerned with the keeping of records of land and monies granted to it than of the ancestry of its donors or parishioners. However, eventually as the donor base expanded and all good Christians were tithed or expected to do good deeds, such as giving gifts to the Church, keeping track of everyone to ensure each gave his due became part of the Church's assumed role.

Although some record keeping by church and state occurred during his reign, much of this effort was diminished when Charlemagne's three grandsons became his heirs and divided France, Germany and Italy among them. The grandson called Charles the Bald ruled France until his armies and citizens were weakened by the pillaging Normans and his descendants forfeited to the Capetians in 987 AD.


The Capetians established a strong centralised government allowing for a standard system of record keeping. Sometime during the 900s one of the Capetian kings, known as St-Louis started a royal court system in which litigious cases were presented to him. In addition he appointed clerks to negotiate agreements between consenting parties. The upper or king's court maintained records as did the clerks known first as notarius in Latin and later notaires in French. Thus the legal system became a prime source of documents regarding ancient French ancestors.

Most of the early records of the court system dealt with criminal acts (against the crown), such as treason, and seigneurial matters, such as land grants and succession.

The feudal system had its roots prior to this court system. It started with the knighting of brave warriors and granting both titles and lands for their loyalty to the king and achievements in battle. These nobles were then entitled to endow these valued possessions of title and land to their descendants. Thus many disputes over "legitimate" succession arose often after the nobleman died and these problems of "rightful inheritance" were documented in the court system. Those court documents that survive are an excellent way for us to see what "proof" of ancestral legitimacy was provided.

Since the establishment of the court system in France it is somewhat possible to trace the non-direct heirs to the throne as the siblings and half-siblings of the monarch were usually appeased with lands and titles of their own which were documented in the notarial system.

This is a prelude to the Medieval period in which record-keeping of both Church and State expanded to keep better track of both nobility and commoners. The next issue will detail the historical events of significance in finding our ancestors during Medieval times.


Since the last issue, I have found additional research indicating that Clodian was preceded by his father, Pharamond, as Chief of the Frank tribe from which the Merovingian rulers arose. Also this same source ("The Timechart History of the World", Third Millennium Press Limited, 1997) claims Merovius was the son-in-law of Clodian.

Thus if you can trace your line to the Merovingian rulers, you will be back to circa 400 AD. It would be nice if all of us could do so.

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