Centuries earlier, the family had brought an end to the chaotic condition of Gaul, which arose when the Romans withdrew from the region, leaving a power vacuum in their wake. The Merovingians were Franks, meaning they came originally from Franconia, an area in what is now northern Bavaria.
After the collapse of the Roman domestic administration, and after realizing that the native inhabitants of Gaul were unable to institute a functioning government, a number of Frankish noble families migrated westward into to the area and created an internal structure for the region.
Gaul would eventually be renamed ‘France’ because the Franks had built the civilization there.
Childeric I officially became king of this territory around 457 A.D., and his son Clovis I succeeded him on the throne in 481. Thus began the Merovingian dynasty.
In addition to stabilizing a governmental structure, the Merovingians had a powerful cultural influence. By introducing the ideas of Jesus, they brought an end in the region to the practice of human sacrifice. They began minting the territory’s own coins, rather than relying on a mixture of coins from neighboring or defunct governments. They codified and organized the legal system.
Many of the ordinary inhabitants spoke a native Gaulish or Celtic dialect, or a version of Roman Latin. The nobility and educated classes spoke Frankish.
How, then, did this Merovingian dynasty, which began so auspiciously, collapse three centuries later?
As the throne was handed down from generation to generation, the Merovingian kings began to rely more and more on the major domo, the “mayor of the palace” or the highest official of the household, to coordinate the routine operations of the kingdom.
The major domo was the chief steward and managed the kingdom for the king. As generations passed, this individual did practically all the work of the kings; the Merovingian monarchs did less and less, until they became the idle rich and did nearly nothing. While they held the office of the king, another family, the Carolingians, occupied the role of major domo generation after generation.
Eventually, the Carolingians ruled the region and controlled the Frankish kingdom. They did everything except possess the title of king.
So those who were called kings did none of the real work of a king, while those who were not called kings did all the work of a king.
This situation came to its extreme in the case of Charles the Hammer.
In 711 A.D., Islamic armies invaded and occupied Spain. They destroyed, equally, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches. The Spanish women were raped, the children sold into slavery, and many of the men executed. The Spaniards who remained in the region under the rule of the occupying Muslim armies were subjected to strict and humiliating rules.
On the other side of the Pyrenees, the mountain range which separates Spain from France, the inhabitants of the Frankish kingdom heard reports of how the Islamic armies ruthlessly subjugated Spain. It was, then, with terror that the Franks learned that a massive army of Muslims was marching over the Pyrenees with the intent of invading and occupying France.
True to form, the Merovingian rulers were useless, and could organize no defense of Gaul. The major domo at that time was, however, a man known as Charles “the Hammer” Martel. The year was 732 A.D.
Charles Martel organized Frankish troops. With brilliant tactics, he was able to repel the Islamic invasion force, even though it outnumbered by the Franks by several thousand. Charles the Hammer became the hero not only of Gaul, but of all of central Europe and the British isles.
What had already been known was now more obvious: the Merovingians did nothing to merit retaining the title of king, and the Carolingians were, and had for some time been, the actual kings, even if they lacked that title.
Charles the Hammer had a son named Pepin the Short. After Charles died 741 A.D., Pepin began to agitate for the Carolingians to be recognized as the actual dynasty of the Franks. Historian Thomas Woods writes:
The Carolingians had profited from the decline of the Merovingians. They held what eventually became the hereditary position of mayor of the palace, similar to the role of prime minister. Far more skilled and sophisticated than the kings themselves, the Carolingian mayors of the palace performed more and more of the day-to-day governance of the kingdom of the Franks. By the mid-eighth century, the Carolingians, increasingly in possession of the power exercised by kings, sought to acquire the title of king. Pepin the Short, the mayor of the palace in 751, wrote to Pope Zachary I to inquire whether it was good that a man with no power was called king, while a man with power was deprived of that title. The pope, understanding full well what Pepin was driving at, replied that that was not a good situation, and that the names of things should correspond to reality. Thus did the pope, on the basis of his acknowledged spiritual authority, give his blessing to a change of dynasty in the kingdom of the Franks. The last Merovingian king quietly retired to a monastery.
An examination of the events surrounding the Merovingians and the Carolingians brings linguistic trends to light. The leaders spoke in Frankish, but rarely wrote in that language. The Gauls spoke in either Celtic or the decayed Latin which would become French, but also wrote little in that language. Much, even most, of the writing was done in Latin, which was also still sometimes spoken, but which was also beginning to give way to the vernacular.
The name Clovis, for example, is a Latinized rendering of the Frankish name Chlodowig or Chlodowech. This Frankish name, in turn, is rendered into French and English as Louis (or Lewis), and also became Ludwig in modern German.
Charles the Hammer was known in Latin as Carolus and in Frankish as Karl; his grandson, Charles the Great, is often known by his Latinized name, Charlemagne, and during his own lifetime was known as Karl der Große.
These names show us the historical development of nations: modern-day France still bears the name of the Germanic Franks who stepped in to preserve civilization in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse.