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A confederation of Germanic tribes, which first appeared on the stage of history in the last quarter of the second century of our era. It was formed in place of the earlier league of the Cherusci (q.v.), and comprised the Sigambri, the Chamavi, Ampsivarii, Bructeri, Chatti, Salii, etc., along the Middle and Lower Rhine. As the Franks are first mentioned during the reign of Antoninus (A.D. 240), Mannert concludes that their confederation was not the result of aggression from Rome, but of internal wars; and these wars he conceives to have been chiefly of self-defence against the Saxon confederation, which, occupying the north of Germany, sought to extend itself westward to the Rhine. The Germans lying between the Saxons and that river found it necessary to unite in order to resist their northern invaders, and did so successfully under their new name of Franks. Various etymologies have been assigned to this appellation; but it probably comes from the German term frank, meaning “free,” and indicating a race of freemen; and is the source of the name France, which first came into use in the ninth century A.D. The Franks soon became powerful enough to act on the offensive, and, crossing the Rhine to meet other foes, they spread their devastations from the banks of that river to the foot of the Pyrenees; nor were they stopped by these mountains. Spain, in turn, was overrun; and when the exhausted country no longer supplied a variety of plunder, the Franks seized on some vessels and transported themselves into Mauritania. They were afterwards driven out of Gaul by the Roman arms, and from the reign of Probus (A.D. 277) to that of Honorius seem to have contented themselves with occasional irruptions. They obtained a permanent footing in Gaul during the last years or the reign of Honorius. About the year 496, Clovis, or Chlodowig (his proper Teutonic name), by reducing the several Frankish principalities under his own sceptre and conquering the last remnant of the Western Roman Empire in Gaul, is held to have founded the French monarchy (481-511). His Frankish kingdom was, nevertheless, by no means commensurate with modern France, consisting merely of the northern German provinces on probably both banks of the Rhine, of the present kingdom of the Netherlands, and of so much of France as lies north of the Loire, with the exception of Brittany, where large bodies of Britons, expelled from their insular home by the Saxons, had established themselves and long maintained their independence. Of the southern half of France, the larger part, situated to the west of the Rhone, was included in the Visigothic kingdom of Spain; while the provinces to the east of that river were held, together with Savoy and Switzerland, by the Burgundians. Chlodowig attacked both. Against the Burgundians he effected little or nothing, but he was more successful against their western neighbours. Assisted by the hatred which the Catholic natives entertained towards their Arian master, he, before his death, reduced the Visigothic dominions in Gaul to the single province of Languedoc, incorporating all the rest in his Frankish realm. His sons and grandsons, in time, not only subdued Burgundy, but brought many German nations, as the Thuringians, Allemanni, and Bavarians, into complete feudal subjection. There were two great divisions of the Franks—the Salian Franks and the Ripuarian Franks—with separate laws, afterwards collected into two codes, the Lex Salica and the Lex Ripuariorum. See Gallia.

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