The birth of the idea of France


Here’s a terrific extract from Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire by Hywell Williams, Quercus, 2010.

Below Hywell discusses the 9th Century origins of the national states and boundaries of Western Europe. From a Touraine standpoint the sections on the need for these new states to prove their ‘historic’ provenance along with references to the Gregory of Tours’s Historiae and the “ancient” crown of Tours (the only reference I’ve seen to this) are most interesting:

“The kingdoms of western Europe as they emerged in the course of the ninth century were new creations and their boundaries corresponded to cultural identities which were clearer than they had been a century previously. It was now possible to distinguish between the civilizations of Scandinavia and those of the Germans who, in turn, were clearly different from their Frankish cousins to· the west, the French. Within the British Isles the cultures of England, Wales and Scotland were becoming almost as distinctively different as that of the island of Ire­land. Iberian and Italian civilization was divided into a profusion of autonomous polities, and the same is true of what would later be called ‘France’ and ‘Germany’. Language, that key denominator of national iden­tity, was playing an important role in all such European regions. Here again the mosaic was immensely varied but by the middle of the ninth century it is clear that Latin had ceased to be a spoken language and was now growing into the different Romance languages which are the ancestors of modern French, Spanish and Italian.
Because they were so new, west European kingdoms had to claim that they were old. The governments of kings were self-conscious about their novelty, especially when compared to the ancient Roman imperium which tended to be the standard by which they measured themselves. Ritual was helpful because it masked the reality of a recent arrival. The birth of nations was therefore attended by ceremonies which proclaimed them to be already venerable. Such an assertion of antiquity amounted to more than mere antiquarianism since it was used by the governing orders to try to persuade the governed that they shared a common iden­tity which was both ancient and vital, historic and contemporary. That was why Charles the Bald harked back to Charlemagne’s renovatio, a progressive programme which nonetheless claimed to be restoring an order which had been lost and now was found. Alfonso III, king of the Asturias, had a similar motive in mind when, a few years after Charles’s coronation, he tried to get hold of a crown which had been found in Tours and was rumoured to be somehow ‘imperial’ in its origins. The political uses of a recovered Christian antiquity had already been seen in the Asturias during the reign of Alfonso’s father: the discovery of the supposed tomb of St James the Apostle at Compostela meant that the kingdom was now the guardian of a major shrine, and the self-confi­dence which came with that new status helps to explain the Asturias’ territorial expansion.
Alfred provided an English example of the uses of tradition when in 886 he celebrated his conquest of London, previously a Mercian city, by issuing a coin which recalled the Londinium of Roman Britain and, in the vainglorious tone adopted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘all English­kind bowed to him The Chronicle’s authors are anonymous but their work was inspired, perhaps even directed, by the king himself, and the record that was transcribed was also an interpretation since it wished to emphasize the continuity of a national story and its culmination in the achievements of Alfred’s government. But it was the Franks# who enjoyed priority when it came to constructing a history which could be used by the political present, and those of their aristocrats who delighted in the ten books of Gregory of Tours’s Historiae in the late ninth cen­tury were being inspired by a work which was already three centuries old. The institutions of government in which these nobles served were infused with that Frankish sense of identity which had evolved by using the testimony of the past in order to symbolize the present. Charle­magne’s decision that the antiquissima carmina (most ancient songs) of the Franks be written down and recorded for posterity’s sake reveals his grasp of that powerful dynamic, one whose force shaped both his own destiny and that of his people. His legacy in this regard was not confined to his Carolingian successors who sat on the thrones of the Frankish kingdoms, since other western European rulers had been influenced so profoundly by Charlemagne’s achievements in the arts of government. He was the exemplar, and all who sought to emulate this king of the Franks were his heirs.”

# The Franks were a group of Germanic tribes who around the middle of the 3rd century AD, lived along the Rhine River. Soon after 250 they split into two main groups, the Salian and the Ripuarian. The Salian Franks lived along the lower Rhine, and the Ripuarian lived along the middle course of the river. During the early 5th century, when the Romans retired from the Rhine, the Salians established themselves in most of the territory north of the Loire River. Under the Salian king Clovis I (c. 466–511), the Frankish kingdom grew until its borders extended from the Pyrenees Mountains to Friesland and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Main River.

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About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
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