The Migration Period
By 400 A.D., the Roman Empire had been split into pieces. Rome was no longer the heart of the Empire, as the seat of power had been moved to Byzantium in the east. The Romans had begun to adopt Greek customs and language as well as Christianity, which had become the official state religion. Control of the provinces in the west had waned, and Rome itself was militarily weakened.
About this time, there was a period of intensified human migration throughout Europe, called the Migration Period, or the Völkerwanderung (“migration of peoples” in German). Many of the groups involved were Germanic tribes, whose expansion had previously been held in check by the Romans.
To some degree, the earlier Germanic tribes of the Migration Period, notably the Goths and Vandals, were being pushed west and south by invasions from the Middle East and Central Asia. The Huns swept across eastern Europe, followed by the Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Alans. These successive attacks may have been a factor in several waves of population displacement and resettlement.
Seven large German-speaking tribes—the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards, Saxons and Franks—began pressing aggressively west into the Roman provinces and, in 410, the Visigoths attacked and sacked Rome. The western part of the Roman Empire was rapidly overrun as the invaders swept in, eventually dividing the remainder of the Roman provinces into new, Germanic kingdoms.
The Frankish Kingdom
The Franks conquered northern Gaul in 486 A.D. and established an empire under the Merovingian kings, subjugating many of the other Germanic tribes. Over the course of almost four centuries, a succession of Frankish kings, including Clovis, Clothar, Pepin and Charlemagne, led campaigns that greatly expanded Frankish control over Western Europe.
Charlemagne's kingdom covered almost all of France, most of today's Germany, Austria and northern Italy. On Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the Romans.” This upset the Byzantine emperor, who saw himself as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, but by 812, he was forced to accept Charlemagne as co-emperor.
In 843, Charlemagne's grandsons divided the Frankish empire into three parts—one for each of them. Charles the Bald received the western portion, which later became France. Lothair received the central portion of the empire, called Middle Francia, which stretched from the North Sea to northern Italy. It included parts of eastern France, western Germany and the Low Countries. Louis the German received the eastern portion, which eventually became the high medieval Kingdom of Germany, the largest component of the Holy Roman Empire.
Additional Cultures of Note
In addition to the Basque in the area of the Pyrenees in southern France, there are a number of other cultures with unique ethnic or linguistic identities in Western Europe. Among them are the Normans of northern France. Descended from Viking settlers who arrived sometime during the rule of the Frankish kings, the Normans controlled a powerful region known as Normandy. Their territories were subject to the French crown, which countenanced them in exchange for protecting the northern coast against other Viking raids.
Just to the west of Normandy was Brittany, named after the Celtic Britons who arrived there from the British Isles in the 5th century. Some scholars believe that the migration may have been due to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Brittany resisted the Frankish kings and remained independent until 1532. It is one of the few places where Celtic languages are still spoken.