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Article Published July 27, 1999

Were The Dark Ages Really Dark? Part I
By Xenia Stanford

The Pre-Medieval period, that is from the collapse of Rome in the fifth century AD to about 800 AD has been called the "Dark Ages". Now scholars are discovering new evidence and are less inclined to categorically assume that this age was as steeped in ignorance and barbary as once thought. Certainly the Frankish empire now appears to be one of the least mired in murkiness during those four centuries.


Although the name Frank means fierce or bold or brave, the people of Gaul (also known as Gallia and later Francia or the Kingdom of the Franks) had developed a social structure and government that was more advanced than many of their time and was in many respects as enlightened as their predecessors during the Golden Age. In fact, the roots of chivalry and feudalism had been established in the Kingdom of the Franks by the time of Charlemagne and the Middle Ages.

By the end of Roman rule, the Franks had acquired from their former conquerors a system of legislation, government, calendar, written language, taxes and cultural changes, such as wine-making. Throughout the Roman rule though, they had maintained their structure of family groups or clans each with its own head or "chief". Further these chiefdoms were collected into tribes with a "supreme chief" or "king".

Already the tribal council had a similar makeup to that found in the Medieval or Middle Ages. The clan chiefs or "lords" sat at a "round table" with the supreme or tribal chief in the centre. Behind each lord stood his shieldman, who was necessary at these gatherings to hold his liege's protective shield and present it when needed. This apparently happened often as the meetings would erupt into battles when various lords tried to claim higher status. Their equivalent to throwing down the gauntlet was, when served with a banquet at the table, for the boldest of the lot to grab the choicest piece of meat, usually the thigh. This challenge was then met by those who dared to question his right to the best.

In another circle the spearmen, obviously of higher rank than the shieldbearers, sat in a configuration similar to that of their lords and are assumed to have acquired their status from that of their liege. They too would leap to the aid of their superior when the battle arose.

Clovis as "king" of the Frankish tribe in Belgium used this structure to advantage as he challenged one tribal chief after another until he gained supremacy over all. Once he had enforced his supremacy over the tribes of Gaul, he organized them into the first Gallic fighting force strong enough to defeat the Romans.

Again the assumption that the culture of the Franks was fairly primitive because they did not live in towns has been disputed by the results of archaeological digs. Clovis made Paris his capital and was crowned at Reims. In addition to these towns and others documented at the time, excavations have revealed other unknown and unnamed towns, such as the one at Juvincourt-et-Damary near Soissons.

Even though most of the Franks did live in agricultural areas, it was not simply through barbaric battles that they obtained and maintained possession of the land. Early law codes reveal that property was to be divided equally among legitimate sons and daughters of the owner at his death. In fact, this was more enlightened than the laws of the Middle Ages in which women were excluded from such inheritance.

Also land when sold or awarded was to be documented through a written and witnessed property deed. If this was not possible due to the lack of a qualified scribe, an elaborate ceremony was necessary where the buyer went to the property and in the presence of witnesses handed over the payment. Instead of a handshake, the purchaser was then to box and twist the ears of the witnesses to indicate they must be prepared to give testimony should it be required.

From other documents we learn slave ownership and trading was well-established in the Merovingian period of France. However, this was no less backward than the practices of the more ancient empires nor than of the early modern world in what are considered culturally foremost societies.


The religion of the Gauls is believed to have arisen from the Norse, who had similar beliefs to the Romans just different names for the gods. Thus most Gauls found it an easy transition to adopt the ways of their Roman conquerors.

However, after the defeat of the Romans, Clovis married Clothide, a Burgundian princess. She was a Christian and persuaded her husband that the Roman religion was corrupt with its incestuous and lustful gods. When Clovis and his loyal subjects were baptized, the Church became a significant influence in the community.

Although many bishops themselves were corrupt, this religion did have an enlightening effect on the populace. The church educated young men especially in the Latin tongue and writing. Debauchery and many of the former barbaric ways were frowned upon.


An interesting note was that the religion of the Franks even before Christianity was one in which the burial of the dead was unusually advanced for the times. They have been nicknamed the "Row-Grave People" since they laid out the burial plots in neat rows. The interment was obviously significant as objects including items giving the person's name and depicting his or her life were buried along with the deceased. With the introduction of the new religion this careful burial and chronicling continued and became a primary source of early records.

Although the baptism of Clovis and his loyal warriors was celebrated and recorded, "sepulture" or burial seemed to be a more significant event to the early French. Until the seventh century the ceremony included gifts to be buried with the deceased. Later the gifts were given on behalf of the dead to the Church to ensure prayers for the soul. The Church began to record these gifts, the names of the donors and details about the deceased.


From the description of the Romans and from artifacts found in the graves and other archaeological digs, it appears that the Franks were advanced goldsmiths. They are described as fond of gold ornamentation and dyed clothes sprinkled with gold. Other descriptions of the finery in dress of the rulers and their queens shows haute couture was not just a modern French development.

Other surviving works of art, such as the jewelled cross crafted for the church of St-Denis by Eligius and a disc-brooch circa 600 displayed in the shrine of Trier, show the talents of the artisans of the time. Findings of many types of glassware and pottery demonstrate that jewellery was not the only aesthetic product of this culture.

It is said though that the swords of the Franks were their real artistic feat. Based on the swords of the Romans and Celts, those of Francia far surpassed any at the time. The technique of "pattern welding" in which a number of bars of iron and steel are hammered and twisted together during the welding process produced swirling patterns beautiful to behold. In addition the hilts and scabbards were decorated with intricate gold cloisonne. This artistry was learned from other cultures but perfected by the Franks who incorporated garnets and other gems.

However, the durability, suppleness and exceptional quality of the instrument was what gave the swords made by the Franks their legendary status. They were said to be able to bend to touch tip to pommel only to snap back without breaking and so sharp that a human hair gently drifting across its blade would be severed. The swords were a popular exported item and perhaps the origin of the famed sword of King Arthur.

END OF PART I OF II - The next issue will continue exploring whether pre-medieval France was as "dark" or unenlightened as previous scholars have claimed. In PART II the language, literature and legal system will be outlined demonstrating that we could know so much more about our French roots, if only the documents shown to have existed in ancient France were still available.

Missing texts and documents means this Kingdom of the Franks is still dark in terms of finding our ancestors that far back. However, as the history of ancient France unfolds, light is shed on early roots of which its descendants can be proud.

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