Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the mid-fifth century AD, the Franks emerged as the dominant people of western Europe.
Under Julius Caesar, the Romans had conquered Gaul by 50 BC. Gaul thus became a province of the Roman Empire, and remained under Roman jurisdiction for just over five hundred years. In the years following Gaul's submission to Rome, its Celtic inhabitants were Romanised.
Meanwhile, to the north and east, the Franks (along with the Vandals, Visigoths, Burgundians and Ostrogoths) were considered barbarians by the Roman Empire.
In the winter of 406/407, however, the River Rhine froze, enabling these Germanic 'barbarians' to enter and contest Gaul. The Roman armies in Gaul, which by then were primarily composed of locals of mixed Celtic and Roman descent, attempted to stem the ever-increasing tide, but with little luck. Fighting ensued over the next hundred years, by the end of which the Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks had established permanent realms in Gaul.
Pharamond emerged in 409 as the chief of the Frankish tribes. He was succeeded in 428 by his son, Clodion, known as "the Hairy". Clodion was in turn succeeded in 447 by his son-in-law, Merovius. Merovius' son was Childeric, and his son was Clovis. Clovis assumed kingship of the Franks in 481. In 486, Clovis ended Roman dominion in Belgium and Gaul by overthrowing the provincial Roman governor. The first Frankish ruling family is referred to as the Merovingian dynasty in honour of Clovis' grandfather.
Within fifteen years of assuming rule, Clovis converted to Christianity, and was baptised on Christmas Day in 496, along with 3000 of his subjects. This act naturally enabled Clovis to gain additional support from the papacy. Because the Holy Roman Empire was revered by the substantial numbers of remaining Romanised Celts, Clovis' support by the pope ensured allegience from all of his countrymen, of Frankish, Celtic and Roman descent.
Clovis gained much of his physical dominion through warfare. During his reign, the Frankish realm included Aquitaine, northern Gaul and some areas east of the Rhine, and by 507, Clovis had succeeded in driving the Visgoths into Spain. The Merovingian dynasty gradually acquired Bavaria, Burgundy, Provence and Thuringia.
The Frankish custom upon the death of a single reigning Frankish monarch was to divide the entire dominion between his sons; either one of them or one of their descendents would eventually wrest control of the entire realm from his peers; upon his death the whole process would recommence. Clovis continued to rule until his death in 511. Following his death, his four sons divided his kingdom among themselves, according to their custom. In this way, the Merovingian dynasty was marked by the repetitive dismemberment and reunification of the various states, principalities and dukedoms, the greatest of which were Austrasia, Neustria, Burgundy and Aquitaine.
By 540 the Franks ruled most of Gaul, the area that eventually became known as France.
The Merovingian dynasty was replaced by the Carolingian dynasty in 751, when Pepin III (known as "the Short") became king. His son Charlemagne (also known as Charles the Great) was the second Carolingian ruler. Charlemagne was king from 768 to 814. During his reign the Frankish empire reached its peak, in terms of power and dominion. He conquered Italy in 774, northern Spain in 777, Saxony in 785 and Bavaria in 788
On Christmas Day in 800, 304 years after the Franks became nominally Christian, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor. He was thus recognised as Emperor of the West.
Charlemagne was a learned man, and under his guidance the Carolingian Renaissance thrived. Among his achievements in this area was the introduction of the Carolingian script as a mode of writing that made reading and writing more accessible.
Charlemagne died in 814. In 843, at the Treaty of Verdun, his realm was divided between his relatives into three kingdoms. The Frankish Empire declined in the years following Charlemagne's death, and by the mid 960s, had been consolidated into the homelands of the modern German and French nations.
Apart from giving birth to both France and Germany, the European feudal system derived from the Frankish way-of-life. Under this structure, the common people farmed land owned by the nobles. These peasants were also expected to bear arms for their lords in times of war.
After Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish Empire was known as the Holy Roman Empire. After his death, and the ensuing break up of the Empire, things eventually settled as France and the German Empire (the latter under Otto I in 962). At that point the German Empire had assumed the mantle of the Holy Roman Empire, which endured until 1806, when it was superceded by Austria-Hungary.