ON THINGS FRENCH IN THE MIDDLE AGES
By Lady Isabelle de Foix
Not everyone is aware of the fact that France has a German name. The Germanic people who overran the Roman province of Gaul in the fifth century were called the Franks. This name came from the Old Germanic word for "free". These people had never been under Roman rule, and were renowned for their hatred of Roman rule and civilization.
There were originally two branches of the Frankish people. The branch that was to play the most important role in history were the Salian Franks. They originally came from an area that was east of the Rhine. In the fourth century, the Franks, wishing to get closer to the wealth of the Roman Empire, obtained from the Roman Emperor Julian the right to settle along the northern frontier of the Empire, in what is now Belgium. During the fifth century, while Roman power disintegrated, they moved southward into Gaul. It was probably during this period that one family began to dominate the Frankish political structure, and so became the Frankish royal family. This family, like other German dynasties, claimed descent from the Germanic gods. They claimed to be descended from a god named Merovech; thus their dynastic name, the Merovingians. The first of this line was Clovis, who converted to Christianity in 496. He allied himself with the Roman Catholic Church against another Christian faction called the "Arians", who were declared heretical by the papacy. The Visigoths, or "West Goths", another Germanic tribe who settled in southeastern Gaul, were Arian, and Clovis had no trouble extending his realm at their expense (507). He also conquered the Burgundians, another Germanic tribe, who had settled in southeastern Gaul. He then chose Paris as his capital, and a new Christian kingdom took form in the West. Clovis chose Paris as his capital because, like the rest of northern Gaul, it had been heavily colonized by Salian Franks, and partially because of religious traditions. Paris had connections with several saints, most notably St. Dionysus, or, as the French called him, St. Denis. Medieval Parisians confused St. Denis with St. Dionysus of Corinth, who had been one of Paul of Tarsus’ disciples. St. Denis had been the first bishop of Paris, where he had been martyred around 250 C.E. The area where he had been martyred was called Montmartre, the "mountain of the martyr". A shrine was erected here, and it became a popular destination for pilgrimages. So Paris became associated with St. Denis and this gave the city prestige in a strongly religious age.
The Merovingians were great conquerors; they proved to be inept rulers. They never ceased to be primitive Germanic chieftains; they never rose to the challenge of ruling as kings. They divided their property among their sons, and this led to fratricidal wars among Clovis’ successors, since this custom made them all claimants to the Frankish throne. At times during the sixth century, there were even two kings. The kingdom became so disorganized that the Crown was not able to collect taxes. Meanwhile the Frankish and Gallo-Roman aristocracies, who began to coalesce into one aristocracy, developed an intense hatred of the Crown. The Meroviginians tried to win the allegiance of some of the nobles by giving them offices, which carried grants of lands. These officials wasted no time making these offices and lands their private property. The title of duc (duke) originally belonged to the military representatives of the Frankish crown, and the title of conte (count) originally belonged to royal legal officials. The recipients of these offices transferred them to their heirs, and these families became the aristocracy of the Frankish realm within a few generations. In 751 the hapless Merovingians lost the throne to a dynasty known to history as the Carolingians. This dynasty was named after its most famous member, Charles, who was crowned King of the Franks in 771 and Holy Roman Emperor in 800. This monarch became known as Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great) in Latin and Charlemagne in modern French and English.
Charlemagne was a great conqueror; he conquered territories as far east as the modern Czech Republic and Slovenia. He followed Frankish tradition by dividing his empire between his three sons, and in effect tore up his empire upon his death in 814. By 911 the western part of Charlemagne’s empire was an independent kingdom, and its king was known in Latin, the language of medieval governments, as "Rex Francorum", or "king of the Franks". His kingdom consisted of most of modern France. By this time the name "Francia" had actually taken on two different meanings. T he first kings of the house of Capet (ruled 987—1328) only had direct control over a small area around Paris, where they had been dukes before they became kings. This area was known as the "Ile de France", or "isle of the Franks" because it is virtually surrounded by tributaries of the Seine and because it had always been the center of Frankish rule. Although the name "Francia" was used as the name of the realm, only those natives of the Ile de France referred to themselves as natives of France. Someone from Picardy, just north of the Ile de France, was called a Picard, not a Frank. The same was true of natives of Normandy, Brittany, and other parts of the realm which were politically dominated by powerful nobles. This continued to be the case throughout the Middle Ages. In 1405 Christine de Pizan, a writer who was a resident of Paris, claimed that a particularly obnoxious custom was "even worse in Picardy and Brittany than in France". Many of the dukes and the counts who held land in these regions had more power over them then the kings of France did. Since the king claimed sovereignty over these lands, these lands, along with the Ile de France, were collectively called "Francia", much to the confusion of historians.
This kingdom was very diverse culturally and linguistically. The ancient Gauls had spoken a Celtic language but this was superseded by Latin under Roman rule. The people spoke "Vulgar" or "common" Latin, the language of the people as opposed to the literary Latin of the writers. Roman settlements had been much denser in southern Gaul than they had been in northern Gaul. Consequently the Vulgar Latin of the north was heavily influences by the German tongue of the Franks, while that of south Gaul was not. These languages got their names from their words for "yes". In the north, the word for yes was oil, which became the modern French oui. This language was called "langue d’oil". In the South, the word for yes was oc, and their language became known as the "langue d’oc", which became a place name, Languedoc. This language was also referred to as "Occitan" and the eastern dialect of it was called "Provencal". It is interesting to note that the scholars of the period considered both of these languages to be merely highly corrupted forms of Latin rather than languages in their own right. Additionally, there were very different dialects of both the langue d’oil and the langue d’oc. The word question came to England with the Norman invaders, who spoke a dialect of the langue d’oil. The Parisians pronounced this word "kes-ti-on"; the Normans pronounced it "kwes-tion", just as we still do. The Parisian dialect eventually prevailed as the language of the entire realm because of the prestige of Paris, its political and cultural capital. The langue d’oc was banned in 1539 but continued to be spoken in remote areas of the Pyrenees as late as the nineteenth century.
The most famous users of the langue d’oc were the troubadours. The word "troubadour" is a modern French word derived from the Provencal word "trobar", which meant "to invent". The poets of politically and socially turbulent northern France wrote of battles and blood-and-guts machismo in poems like "The Song of Roland", believed to have been written in the early twelfth century. By contrast, the polished and better-educated aristocrats of southern France invented a new genre of poetry, which was set to music and performed by singers and players. The first troubadour was Duke Guillaum of Aquitaine (1071—1127), the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine. The theme of troubadour lyrics was love, particularly unrequited love, for a noble lady. Although many troubadours were of noble birth, some were not. Bernart de Ventadorn, who was active at Eleanor’s court in the twelfth century, was the son of a kitchen servant. This love was unrequited because the ladies were married to men of their social status. This love took on a quasi-religious tone when their love became veneration, elevating these ladies to near-divine status. Invariably these ladies were of noble birth. This was revolutionary, because women in general were held in low esteem in aristocratic medieval society. This gave rise to the tradition of "courtly love", a complicated set of rules which dictated proper behavior between noble ladies and their lovers, who practically became their servants. There were even female troubadours. By contrast, there was only one woman in the entire "Song of Roland". This was Roland’s fiancée, Alde "the Beautiful", who died when she was told of Roland’s death. The poets of northern France began to imitate the troubadours. These poets were called "trouveres". The troubadours also became popular in northern Italy, and influenced the greatest of medieval poets, Dante. The impact of these artists on the Middle Ages was immense, even if the genre itself showed its inevitable mortality.
Primary source: Christine de Pizan, Mirror of Honor: The Treasury of the City of Ladies, 1406
Hallam, Elizabeth, Capetian France, 987—1328, Longman Group Limited, 1980
McCrum, Robert, Cran, William, MacNeil, Robert, The Story of English, Elizabeth Sifton Books, 1986
I’d also like to thank my college French professors for answering my silly questions!