History of France

Prehistoric France

During the last ice age humans called Cro-Magnons lived in France. They dwelt in caves and they hunted animals such as mammoths and reindeer. They must have been resourceful people to survive in such a harsh climate and they also created art. The Cro-Magnons are known for the paintings they made on the walls of caves. They also carved figurines from ivory.After the end of the ice age the hunter-gatherer lifestyle came to an end in France. The agricultural revolution began in the Middle East but farming began in France about 6,000 BC. However the changed to farming from hunting and gathering food happened gradually. It took centuries. For a long time hunting was still an important source of food.Nevertheless by about 4,500 BC the stone age farmers had created a sophisticated society. They built impressive stone tombs and they also erected menhirs (standing stones).The early farmers in France used stone tools but about 2,000 BC bronze was introduced into France. Then about 900 BC a people called the Celts or Gauls migrated to France. They brought iron tools and weapons with them.Celtic society was divided into classes. At the top were the aristocrats. Below them were the farmers and craftsmen and at the bottom were slaves. Celtic craftsmen were very skilled workers in iron, bronze and gold.Furthermore trade flourished in Gaul and the Gauls built communities known as hill forts, which could be considered the first French towns. Then about 600 BC the Greeks founded Marseilles and Gaul increasingly came into contact with the Mediterranean world.However the Gauls were hopelessly disunited. They were divided into about 60 tribes and that made it easy for the Romans to conquer them. Roman FranceFirst, in 121 BC, the Romans took control of part of southern France. They called it the province (In Latin provinicia). Today it is called Provence. Then in 58 BC Julius Caesar began conquering the rest of Gaul. The Gauls failed to unite against him until 52 BC when a man called Vercingetorix led them. However the Gauls were crushed at the battle of Alesia and eventually they were forced to submit to Roman rule. Afterwards the Romans built a network of roads across Gaul to enable their army to march quickly from one area to another. Then in 43 BC they made Lugdunum (Lyon) the capital of Gaul and under the Emperor Augustus many more towns were built. Slowly the Gauls adopted the Roman way of life (at least to a certain extent). Latin became a common language. Moreover some Gauls were made Roman citizens. (Being a Roman citizen was a privilege and an advantage). Many Gauls came to fill government posts in Gaul and in 48 AD they were allowed to become Roman senators.Christianity arrived in Gaul as early as the first century. Christians suffered terrible persecution. In 250 AD a man named Denis was beheaded. He later became patron saint of France. However from the mid-3rd century the Roman Empire was in decline. There was raging inflation and epidemics struck. Worse Rome imposed crushing taxes. To escape them some peasants abandoned their farms and became outlaws. Meanwhile, in the late 3rd century some Germanic peoples raided Gaul. The Emperor Diocletian (284-305) tried to deal with the situation by completely reforming the administration in Gaul. As a result Roman Gaul lasted for another century. However in December 406 AD a group of Germanic tribes entered Gaul and settled there. The Romans were unable to stop them. Nevertheless at first the Germanic settlers accepted Roman rule. However as the Roman Empire broke down they gradually formed independent kingdoms.

The Franks

By about 500 AD a people called the Franks ruled northern France (they gave their name to France). From 481 to 511 a man called Clovis ruled them. Heconverted to Christianity and his people followed. Once they shared the same religion there was less difference between the Franks and the native Romano-Gallic people. Slowly the two intermarried and their cultures merged.Clovis also issued a body of laws called Salic law and in 507 AD he made the little town of Paris his capital. (Towns in Gaul shrank in the 5th century with thecollapse of Roman rule but they did not disappear entirely).Clovis also subdued parts of southern France. After his death in 511 at the age of 45 his descendants continued his work and by the mid-6th century the Franks ruled all of France.However the first dynasty of Frankish kings, known as the Merovingians had little power over the outlying parts of France. Provence and Burgundy kept some autonomy. So did Brittany. (Bretons migrated from southern England to Brittany in the 5th century).During the 7th century the Merovingian kings had less and less power. They became figureheads and were known as the do nothing kings. Increasingly it was a powerful family called the Carolingians who ruled France. They were a rich family who owned vast estates. They also held the hereditary post of ‘mayor of the palace’.Finally the Carolingians overthrew the Merovingian kings and in 751 the first Carolingian king, Pepin the short, took the throne.Pepin’s son Charles Martel halted the Islamic advance into Europe at the battle of Poitiers in 732. He also defeated the Bavarians and the Saxons. His son Charlemagne carried on his work and created a great European empire. He also forced pagan Germans to ‘convert’ to Christianity. Finally in 800 AD the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor. Thus Charlemagne claimed to be the successor of the old Roman Emperors.Charlemagne was keen to keep the church’s support so he founded many monasteries and he gave gifts of land to the church. Furthermore under Charlemagne there was a revival of art and learning called the Carolingian Renaissance.Charlemagne died in 814. His successor Louis the Pious announced that after his death the empire would be split among his sons. Louis died in 840 and after some fighting his sons made the treaty of Verdun in 843. This divided the Frankish realm into three. The western part was ruled by Charles the Bald from 838to 877. In time it evolved into France.However from the end of the 8th century Arabs from North Africa raided France. More serious were raids by Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries.The French kings were unable to stop them and they lost power to local magnates who offered protection to the local people. France began to fragment, especially in the south where the regions became steadily more independent. In the Northwest Brittany continued to be autonomous.Eventually in 911 Charles the Simple made a treaty with the Viking Chief, Rollo. He took Normandy in return for converting to Christianity and promising loyalty to Charles.
The Capetians That ended the Viking threat but by the time Hugh Capet became king in 987 (founding the Capetian dynasty) French kings had little power over most of France. Counts and Dukes were largely independent.The Capetian kings directly ruled only a small area around Paris. The situation became more complicated in 1066 when William Duke of Normandy conquered England. Under the feudal system he was subordinate to the French king. Yet as king of England he was the French king’s equal.Worse the mid-12th century Henry Count of Anjou married Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1154 he became king of England. Afterwards the kings of England controlled huge parts of France including, Anjou, Maine, Normandy and Touraine.However in 1204 the French king Philip II went to war with the English king John. By 1206 John had lost Anjou, Maine, Normandy and Touraine. By the time Philip died he had greatly increased the area over which the French kings directly ruled.The process was continued by his grandson Louis IX (1226-1270) and by the late 13th century the French kings had control of most of France. However the English still controlled Aquitaine and Brittany and Burgundy were still semi-independent.However Philip the Fair (1285-1314) gradually extended the French king’s control to the east by purchase and by marriage.Meanwhile the French economy boomed. Trade and commerce expanded and towns prospered. By the late 11th century Paris was booming.The arts – architecture, sculpture and literature flourished in France. Learning also flourished and many universities were founded, Paris in 1150, Toulouse in 1229, Montpellier in 1289, Avignon in 1303, Orleans in 1306 and Angers in 1337.