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Modern France can trace its origins to the Merovingian Franks, a group of Germanic tribes who managed to seize control of what was then Roman Gaul, and like many of Rome's new Germanic neighbours, converted to Christianity and continued to preserve late Roman culture and traditions, and eventually built a vast empire called "Francia" stretching from the Pyrenees all the way to Eastern Europe only to fall apart later. From that point on, the western third of the empire would be called "West Francia" and eventually retained its name as "France".
For most of the Middle Ages, France continued to remain a nation torn apart by the petty squabbles of the nobility and even religion during the 13th century during the era of the Albigensian heresies. While kings like Phillipe II Auguste would fight long and hard to quell the power of the petty feudal lords, the seeds for unification as a single nation, culminating in the centralising influences of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire, were not sown by the French themselves, but by the English.
Birth of a Nation
The modern polity we know as France today has its origins from Celtic tribes in present-day French territory who came into conflict with the Romans, and managed to sack Rome in 390 BCE. However, Rome managed to contain them as their warlike society often put them at odds with each other as much as they did with Rome. Eventually Imperial Rome conquered the area inhabited by the Gauls through the Gallic Wars (58 BCE to 41 BCE) and incorporated them into Roman provinces. In 48 CE, the Roman Emperor Claudius began admitting Gallic nobles into the Roman senate. He encouraged the Gauls into Emperor-worship, and in turn incorporated Celtic pagan beliefs into Roman religion.
By the 1st century CE, a new religion had arrived on the scene — Christianity. First considered as a subversive cult, the appeal of Christianity however proved that it would become something greater than that, and by the 4th century CE, Christianity would evntually overcome the pagan polytheist believes of past centuries, and would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Those who conquered former Roman lands would also soon be converted themselves and would determine the political fate of the polity and peoples that were to succeed Roman Gaul.
The Dark Ages
By the end of the 5th century, a new wave of Germanic tribes including the Vandals, Visigoths, Alamani, Burgundians and the Franks wrested control of Gaul from the Romans. One of the Frankish tribes, the Merovingians, however managed to unify the Franks and eventually conquered most of Gaul. This established what is now known as the Merovingian dynasty. After the adoption of Christianity, the Frankish Empire reached its zenith under the rule of Charlemagne (768–814). He established the Carolingian dynasty and formed what was called the Holy Roman Empire, after wars with the Saxons to the East, Saracens to the south across the sea, and the Moors in southern Spain.
Unfortunately, Charlemagne's strong and wise rule, which saw the invention of lower-case letters to increase literacy, and the beginning of a jury system and responsible government did not last. His feuding descendants eventually broke the Empire apart, and so by the middle of the 9th century the Holy Roman Empire was divided into several kingdoms; most notable were that of Western Francia and the various German Duchies of Eastern Francia. This was the birth of modern France. The new nation, however, still remained fairly fracticious, with multiple languages spoken throughout the entire realm — French, Flemish, Gascon, Basque, Catalan and Occitan, to name but a few. All these languages had their own cultures, sometimes in rebellion against French rule: the Flemish and Gascons traditionally sided with the English, whereas the Occitans were often practicing heretical religions (the most notable being the Cathar faith) rather than being good Christians. Their cultural identity went against the plans of the king, but sometimes sacrifices had to be made to maintain the state, and so an Estates General was created where the clerics, noblemen and burghers could advise their lord. However, its power was only noticeable during wartime, when they would sometimes veto further taxes.
Through the Middle Ages, France participated in the numerous Christian Crusades (from 1096 to 1291) against the Islamic empires in the Middle East. The French gave serious support during every Crusade – so much so, that the Muslims habitually referred to the Crusaders as ‘Franks’. It also saw the establishment of the order of the Templar Knights in 1119. While these enterprises failed in the goal of taking control of the Holy lands from the Muslims, they did achieve a sense of worldliness in the minds of the European kingdoms.
French court culture was defining for the period, with many other courts mimicking or copying French royal customs. Literature flourished and so did art, often in combination: the manuscript collection of the National Library of France serves as a testament to that. Architecture was refined, with symbolism and the most complicated techniques intertwining to create outstanding structures, standing to this very day. But where French culture became defining, for a period the French royal line collapsed into mediocrity and suffered a string of serious setbacks against the English.
The Forge of War: Disunion and Unification
Despite all these feats, however, France remained a disunited nation well into the 17th century. Although Charlemagne attempted to create a single unified trans-European imperium, geographic and economic concerns would doom that vision, and by the onset of the 10th century AD, Western Francia was as good as separate from the rest of the Empire, which would remain a going concern dubbed the so-called "Holy Roman Empire". Western Francia in turn was not united, her nobles having their own projects. With vast amounts of arable land and Frankish feudal customs, the military aristocracy was highly independent and were not merely content to remain vassals of their kings, and some of these warlords even founded their own dynasties in other nations. The lords of Anjou, Normandy, and Burgundy were responsible for the conquest and creation of new nations and kingdoms stretching from Ireland and Iberia all the way to Greece and the Middle East.
For many centuries, the king of France had to compete for power with the lords of Normandy and Anjou (by the mid-12th century, Anjou could claim to rule more land than Paris did, comprising of present-day England, Ireland and western France), and Although Phillipe II Auguste would reduce English prossessions in France and foil Imperial designs on his demesnes in the 13th century, it would not be until the close of Hundred Years' War of 1337–1453 that a French national identity could be established. As in Russia, the narrative of mediaeval and early modern French history revolved around the creation of a politically united nation ruled over by a single overlord against the wishes of a fracticious nobility. In the late Mediaeval period, France became embroiled in a series of regional and dynastic conflicts with England. French forces were met with sounding defeats at the hands of the English at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, cementing English control over the north and west, then again at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. English claims to the French throne looked all but assured.
Yet, in these dark moments, there were two events that were going to change it all — France was inspired by the patriotism of a certain Jeanne, nicknamed "La Pucelle" but better known to the English-speaking world as Joan of Arc. Despite being a woman, Jeanne lead the Dauphin and his army through a series of rapid victories, before being betrayed by jealous nobles to the English and sent to burn at the stake at Rouen in 1431. The battle of Chastillon was the last battle fought on French soil in the war and the first major conflict involving widespread use of gunpowder artillery, and resulted in the French crown retaking almost all of the territories lost to the English. The then Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of all France. This has instilled a sense of intense patriotism in France against foreign incursions since then, and in subsequent centuries would lay down the cornerstones of France's national identity and aspirations.
- One Dead Angel, Rise of Nations: France — A Guide, Rise of Nations Heaven.