Franks, group of Germanic tribes. By the 3d cent. AD, they were settled along the lower and middle Rhine. The two major divisions were the Salian Franks in the north and the Ripuarian Franks in the south. The two groups expanded independently, although they sometimes united against a common enemy. The Salian Franks became allies of the Roman Empire late in the 4th cent. In the following century they moved southward into Gaul, and under their leader Clovis I they overthrew (486) the Romans. Clovis permanently united the Salian and Ripuarian Franks, accepted Roman Catholicism, and founded the Frankish empire. By the conquest of the First Kingdom of Burgundy, of Bavaria, of the territories of the Alemanni, the Thuringians, and the Saxons, and of the kingdom of the Lombards, the Frankish empire grew (6th–9th cent.) to include most of France, the Low Countries, Germany W of the Elbe, Austria, Switzerland, and N and central Italy. Under its first dynasty, the Merovingians, the empire was, for most of the time, divided into several kingdoms, notably Neustria in the west, Austrasia in the east, and Burgundy in the south. Internal warfare among the kingdoms was almost constant. In contrast to the high degree of political organization, commerce, and culture under the Romans, the Merovingians represented a barbaric civilization. Only the Church kept alive the remnants of Gallo-Roman culture. The height of Frankish development and power occurred under the Carolingians, who first ruled as mayors of the palace, and then, from 751, as kings of the reunited Frankish domains. Charlemagne was the greatest Frankish ruler. His empire was partitioned in 843 (see Verdun, Treaty of) and again in 870 by the Treaty of Mersen. From these partitions developed the kingdom of the West Franks, who merged with the far more numerous Gallo-Roman population of Gaul and became France; and the kingdom of the East Franks, who retained their Germanic speech and became Germany. Both France and the region of Franconia in Germany derive their names from the Franks. Throughout the Middle Ages the word Frank was identified with the word free (Fr. franc).
See study by P. Lasko (1971).