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Article Published August 12, 1999

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

Other reasons scholars and historians referred to the Pre-Medieval period (from about 400 - 800 AD) as the "Dark Ages" were the lack of writing and a code of law. If these were part of the criteria used, then "dark" certainly does not apply to the Franks of this period.


Before the Romans invaded Gaul in the first century BC, the inhabitants spoke Celtic. By the time the Romans were ousted by Clovis, the primary language of what is now France was a colloquial version of Latin. The vulgar (common) form of the language brought by the Roman conquerors was not the formal Latin of ancient and later scholars, i.e. it is not the version we know today. Furthermore, the local tribes mixed this common Latin with their Celtic vernacular causing the language to evolve differently in this area of Europe than the Italian tongue spoken by the populace in Rome.

The Celtic tribes were not the only ones who occupied the area later taken over by Clovis. Before the Roman occupation, Germanic tribes called Goths started moving south from their Scandinavian homes to spread across Europe. One branch, called the Visigoths gradually moved into what is now western France and into Spain. The Ostrogoths settled in Italy. The forms of the Germanic language spoken by the two different branches influenced the areas in which they settled. This further separated the growth of the French and Italian languages. The mixture of Celtic, Latin and the Visigothic form of the Germanic tongue gave rise to the French language.

The Visigoths had been forced out of what is now Germany by the Huns in the forth century AD and then in the sixth century were pushed into Spain by the Frankish armies of Clovis. However, they left a stronger form of the Germanic tongue in the eastern part of the Kingdom of the Franks. In fact one of their scribes, Ulfilas, translated parts of the Bible into the Gothic language and in the process invented the German alphabet.

The speech of this portion of the Frankish empire was different from that to the west where the common Latin maintained more influence. This was to become a divisive factor later causing the separation of the Kingdom of the Franks into two main sections. Under the grandsons and great grandsons of Clovis, the western part of the empire became Neustra, which now forms most of modern France, and the eastern or more Germanic portion was called Austrasia, which later became Germany.

In spite of the alphabet and writing of Ulfilas, the written language continued to be formal Latin until the last part of this pre-Medieval period. Scholarly Latin was the language of the Church and most of the writing was undertaken by bishops or other educated clergy. Much of the training of church clerics was as scribes so they could read the scriptures and document the lives of the saints. Thus they were among the most literate of the population and some were appointed as administrators and scribes to the King.

However, even when Latin was being used to document the events and laws of the Frankish empire, it was now being written from the viewpoint of those inside the Kingdom rather than the outsiders from Rome. This certainly gave a less prejudicial and perhaps more accurate view of the Franks since the Romans had not held them in high regard. Those who came from Rome considered the Franks to barbaric and ignorant just as many looking back from modern times call these ancient Franks "dark" for the same reasons.


Gradually toward the end of this period (i.e. the ninth century) more documents began to be written in Old French - the language that had evolved from the mixture of the vulgar Latin, some of the original Celtic tongue and the Germanic language of the Visigoths. Although the language of the church remained scholarly Latin until the twentieth century, the documentation began to be more and more in the language of the people.

Also the literature in pre-Medieval France was becoming more prolific though most of it was still either legal text or religious writing. However, these documents contained more than the rules and regulations as decreed by the King. The history and genealogy of the rulers was also being recorded.

During the time literature and learning was being fostered in the English abbeys of Whitby and Glastonbury in early seventh century AD, similar libraries and literary endeavours were being undertaken by the bishops and other clerics in the Frankish states. Certainly by the time Clovis had established his capital at Paris in 510 AD, his baptism and that of his loyal warriors had been recorded as well as his exploits and bravery on the battlefields.


The most famous early Latin text written by the Franks was created when Clovis removed the Roman rules and imposed a new code of law. The church scribes copied down his "Pactus Legis Salicae" (Salian Code of Law) or Lex Salica (Salian Law). (Salians were the Belgian tribe of Franks from which Clovis arose.) The recording of this legal code produced 87 manuscripts though originally there may have been far fewer. It is believed the texts were recopied with the amendments and additions of his successors. Nevertheless, by the dawn of the Middle Ages the texts numbered thus and were written in the hand of many different scribes.

The original code as set down by the scribes of Clovis preceded, by approximately one hundred years, the first known English code of law drawn up by Ethelbert about 600 AD. In addition to the code, one of the most significant advances in France during the Pre-Medieval period was Marculf's "Formulary". Nothing like it has been found earlier in other parts of Europe. It shows that the French were keeping records long before the medieval period began. Just because these records cannot be found today does not mean they did not exist at the time. Evidence of the pre-existence or need for documentation of various transactions is shown by the forms created by Marculf to standardize the recording of legal acts.

Marculf, a monk in his seventies, was asked by Bishop Landeric of Paris to compose a set of form letters or legal documents that could just be filled in and signed. Among these forms was a marriage contract showing what reciprocal promises and exchanges of property were agreed to prior to the marriage. It has been assumed marriage contracts were a more recent development. However, the "Formulary" covered practices already in place. Therefore marriage contracts, for which the French are famous, were established much earlier than circa 700 AD when this monk, who complained of his failing eyesight and brainpower, presented his work. It is just unfortunate that few, if any, of the completed contracts have survived.


Ancient Romans had used wills but the church under the Franks encouraged and advanced this system. Since in most cases the person left donations to the Church, the Bishops actively facilitated the preparation of wills, especially among the more wealthy parishioners. From the "Formulary", it is evident that wills were to be written by a notary, sealed and the day after death opened and, once executed, placed in the town's archives.

Knowing that an equivalent archives to the modern French "mairies" or town halls existed is exciting. This was an advancement not well known or practiced outside of France at the time. It also demonstrates that notaries or legal scribes preceded the court system as established in the tenth century by King Saint Louis. Again, unfortunately, the contents of these archives are mostly lost to us.

It is also interesting that the Carolingian rulers who arose as the assistants to the Merovingian kings in administrative matters were known as "mayors", the chief of which was the "Mayor of the Palace". These mayors kept the documentation for the kings and lords in their "mairies" or mayoral offices. Eventually this line of record-keepers ousted the Merovingians, who had evolved into puppets under the more educated and astute administrators. Knowledge became power and the educated for a time overtook the merely more ferocious.


Other legal texts also provided historical sources of information on rulers as well as the laws. Written by Church scribes, the "Praeceptio Chlotharii" (Precepts of Clothar) documents the genealogy of Clothar, who reigned from 511-561 AD, and others of his time by recording vital events and deeds of generosity towards the Church.

The most famous of all writers during the rule of the Merovingian kings was said to be Fredegar, often called the Father of Frank History. However, it has been found that he and other later chroniclers of this era summarized or drew extensively upon the works of one of the earliest of Frank authors. This was Georgius Florentius who is better known as Gregory of Tours or Gregory, the Bishop of Tours. His earliest books were stories of the miracles of the patron saint of his see, St. Martin of Tours. However, the work of most magnitude, most historical and best genealogical value was his "Ten Books of Histories" or "History of the Franks".

These books written mainly in Latin with a sprinkling of the Germanic vernacular were about the lives of the Frankish kings. It is from these we learn many of the dates and events in the lives of the Merovingians.

"The Life of St. Genevieve" was another text written by Church scribes detailing the times of a saint. It included not only her deeds but also the actions by the rulers and influential people that affected her life. In the eighth century another book "Liber Historiae Francorum" (Book of Frank History) gives us historical and genealogical details as well as serving as literature of the times.


Tax assessments and census records were also common. Introduced by the Romans, these types of documents are often assumed to have died out after the decline of the Roman Empire. However, from the formula proposed by Marculf, they seem to have become even more detailed and mandatory under the Franks.

Marculf's texts show that dukes were required to submit taxes to the king and, to demonstrate that the correct amount had been remitted, they had to document the possessions and income of each property owner. This system introduced to England by William the Conqueror through his "Domesday Book" had its roots in much earlier France.

Unfortunately this does not assist the French genealogist in unearthing the names and fortunes of forebears since almost none of these assessments can be found. In fact, Gregory of Tours claimed some assessments were deliberately destroyed by Queen Fredegund and King Chilperic in 579 when they thought their royal greed had caused the severe illness of their two sons.


From all evidence being uncovered through ancient texts formerly lost and continuing archaeological discoveries, it appears this age (in France at least) was not so dark. Historians are now seeing increasing proof that the Franks were fairly advanced people and not as unenlightened as previously thought. Though it was not a perfect society or as knowledgeable as those of later times, it was definitely not a backward step in the evolution of the French people.

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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