Visual History of the World




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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 13th—14th century in the Gothic style;
the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



The Kingdom of the Franks



Under Clovis I of the House of the Merovingians, the Franks gained supremacy in Western Europe. After his death, a dispute that would characterize the social and political history of the Middle Ages—that between a central monarch and local princes—began. The nobility had to be pacified with concessions before they would recognize the king. Frequent divisions of the kingdom under the legitimate heirs so weakened the Merovingians that they were ultimately forced to relinquish their power to the Carolingians, the former mayors of the palace. After a series of successful Carolinyians came Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Merovingians' Frankish Empire

Beginning with a small region south of the Rhine estuary, the Merovingians created the largest empire of the Germans of the early Middle Ages.

1 The Frankish Empire in the age of the Merovingians and Carolingians

The expansion of the 1 Franks 3 brought them into conflict with Syagrius, the last Roman governor of the region, who was defeated 4 by the Merovingian Clovis I in 486.


3 Frankish warrior armed for battle, wood engraving, 19th century

4 Victory of Clovis I over Syagrius in
the Battle of Soissons, embroidered tapestry,
15th century

Clovis enlarged his domain considerably and, by the time of his death in 511, he ruled an area encompassing present-day France, Belgium, the Rhineland, and southwestern Germany.

Clovis was baptized a Christian 5 by Bishop Remigius of Reims, facilitated the merging of the Franks with the indigenous Gallo-Romans, and also allied the rulers of the Frankish kingdom, and later those of the Holy Roman Empire, with the papacy.

5 The baptism of Clovis I by Bishop Remigius,
painting, 19th century

In his legal code, the Lex Salica, Clovis excluded female accession to the throne. This established the continuity of the Merovingian line and that of their successors— the Carolingians and Capetians— into the 19th century, but also led to major conflicts such as the Hundred Years' War between France and England in the 14th century.

Despite this new regulation of succession, after his death, Clovis's empire was parceled out among his four sons according to the old Frankish custom of drawing lots.

The Education of the Children of Clovis


The baptism of the legendary first king of France, Clovis I


Statue depicting the baptism of Clovis by Saint Remigius.


Battle between Clovis and the Visigoths


Battle of Tolbiac


Three new kingdoms thus came into being—Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy—whose respective rulers attempted to 2 destroy each other.

Chlotarll managed reunification a century later, but at great political cost. In order to gain the support of the nobility, he was forced to agree to the Edictum Chlotharii of 614, which stipulated that the royal officials—the counts—were to be chosen from among the property owners of the counties, strengthening the local nobility at the expense of central authority. Furthermore, the three kingdoms were each to have a "mayor of the palace," who would represent the king and hold great authority. The last Merovingian to reign over a unified empire, from 629 to 639, was DagobertI.

Discord within the dynasty made possible the ascent of the Carolingians.

2 The death of Queen Brunhild in 613
following family intrigues,
wood engraving, 19th century

6 King Dagobert I builds the church
of Saint-Denis, manuscript, 14th century

Dagobert's tomb at Saint-Denis,
remade in the thirteenth century


The death of Queen Brunhild

The death of Queen Brunhild


see also text

"The Poetic Edda"




queen of Austrasia
also spelled Brunhilda, Brunhilde, or Brunechildis, French Brunehaut

born c. 534
died 613, Renève, Burgundy [now in France]

queen of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia, daughter of the Visigothic king Athanagild, and one of the most forceful figures of the Merovingian Age.

In 567 Brunhild married Sigebert I, king of Austrasia, changing her religion from Arianism to Roman Catholicism. In the same year, her sister Galswintha married Sigebert’s half brother Chilperic I, king of the western part of the Frankish territory, but in 567 or 568, at the instigation of his concubine Fredegund, Chilperic had Galswintha murdered. Prompted by Brunhild, Sigebert then exacted Galswintha’s marriage settlement (Bordeaux, Limoges, Quercy, Béarn, and Bigorre) as retribution from Chilperic. When Chilperic tried to recover this territory, war broke out between him and Sigebert (573). At first it ran in Sigebert’s favour, but in 575 he was assassinated and Brunhild was imprisoned at Rouen. There, however, Merovech, one of Chilperic’s sons, went through a form of marriage with her (576). Chilperic soon had this union dissolved, but Brunhild was allowed to go to Metz in Austrasia, where her young son Childebert II had been proclaimed king. There she was to assert herself against the Austrasian magnates for the next 30 years.

After Childebert’s death (595 or 596), Brunhild failed to set herself up as guardian over Childebert’s elder son, Theodebert II of Austrasia, and thus stirred up against him his brother Theodoric II, who had succeeded to Burgundy. Theodebert was finally overthrown in 612, but Theodoric died soon afterward (613), whereupon Brunhild tried to make the latter’s eldest son, the 12-year-old Sigebert II, king of Austrasia. The Austrasian magnates, reluctant to endure her tyrannous regency, appealed to Chlotar II of Neustria against her. Brunhild tried in vain to enlist the help of the tribes east of the Rhine, then fled to Burgundy, but was handed over to Chlotar at Renève (northeast of Dijon). She was tortured for three days, bound on to a camel and exposed to the mockery of the army, and finally dragged to death at a horse’s tail (autumn 613).

Encyclopaedia Britannica


The Rise of the Carolingians

The Carolingian mayors of the palace seized power in the Frankish kingdom

In Dagobert I's Austrasia, the office of mayor of the palace was held by Pepin I, who founded the Carolingian 9 line.

9 Pepin and Bega, first of the Carolingian line,
painting by Rubens, 17th century

While the Merovingians remained on the throne as puppet rulers, his grandson Pepin II acquired effective power throughout the Frankish kingdom after he defeated the mayor of the palace of Neustria at Tertry in 687.

When Pepin II died in 714, his son, 7 Charles Martel ("the Hammer"), came to power, though he also never laid claim to the crown.

7 Charles Martel slays an Arab,
bronze casting, 19th century

He defeated Germanic tribes such as the Thuringians, bound the Bavarians to the kingdom, and promoted the mission of St. Boniface 10 in Germany.

10 Bonifatius baptizes Teutons and then dies a martyr, book painting, 10th century

Most famously, he halted the advance of the Arabs into Western Europe, for which he was later celebrated as the "Savior of the West."

In 732, Charles defeated an Arab army in battle 8 at Tours, near Poitiers; seven years later, the Arabs were also driven out of Provence.

Charles assembled a heavily armed mounted army—a military innovation that laid the foundation for the European feudal system and chivalry. To pay for their armor, the cavalry were allotted fiefs and had to swear an oath to serve their king when called upon.

In 747 Charles Martel's son, Pepin III, took over the post of mayor of the palace in Austrasia from his brother Carloman, who, after a bloody fight against the Alemanni, retired to a monastery. In 751, Pepin III ended the nominal rule of the Merovingians by exiling the last king to a monastery. He assumed the title of king, the first of the Carolingian dynasty, and three years later he had himself confirmed by Pope Stephen II.

8 Charles Martel is primarily famous for his victory at the Battle of Tours,
his stopping the Umayyad invasions of Europe during the Muslim Expansion Era,
and his laying the foundation for the Carolingian Empire.
Painted by Charles de Steuben


Pepin III returned the favor by defending Rome 11 against the Lombard princes and offering their captured territories to the pope as the "Donation of Pepin"; These territories later became the basis of the Papal States.

Shortly before his death in 768, following the example of the Merovingians, Pepin divided the Frankish kingdom between his sons, Charlemagne and Carloman.

11 Pepin III and Pope Stephan II defeat the Lombards, copper engraving, 17th ñ


The Saracen Army outside Paris, 730-32 AD



The Mayors of the Palace

The mayor of the palace was initially responsible only for the running of the royal household. However, once they began to take on military tasks their political influence increased. The mayors of the palace were not only governors in their respective areas of the kingdom, but under weak kings became the true rulers of these territories. In the end, the Merovingian kings had a merely symbolic function until the Carolingian mayors of the palace finally took the throne for themselves, in name as well as in practice.

King Clovis III, a minor, with the mayor of the palace,
Pippin II, wood engraving, 19th century




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