The Franks were a group of Germanic tribes that played a key role in the history of Europe during the Middle Ages. After the Roman Empire disintegrated, Frankish dynasties gradually gained control of most of Europe. In fact, the name "France" is derived from this tribal name. The Franks consolidated their power through alliances, military conquests and cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church.

Growth in Territory of the Franks

Historians describe the Franks as a group of Germanic tribes, united by culture and language, who had settled near the Rhine River by the end of the third century. As the Roman Empire began to disintegrate, the Franks gradually expanded their territory westward into the Roman province of Gaul. By the time the Roman Empire fell in the year 476, the Franks were in control of an area that corresponds to present-day Belgium and northeastern France.

Clovis and the Merovingian Dynasty

The first great King of the Franks was Clovis, who was their leader between 481 and 511. Clovis's family, referred to as the Merovingian dynasty, continued to expand its territory. The Frankish expansion was bolstered by the conversion of Clovis and his followers to Christianity -- because Christians living in former Roman lands wanted to be liberated from the barbarians who had gained control of large areas. This marked the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial alliance between the Franks and the Roman Catholic Church -- which was also growing in power in the Middle Ages.

Charlemagne and the Carolingian Dynasty

The Franks continued to expand their territory through Western and Central Europe until their influence reached its height under Charles the Great. Also known as Charlemagne, he was King of the Franks between 768 and 814 and a member of the Carolingian dynasty. Charlemagne's alliance with the Roman Catholic Church was formalized in the year 800, when he was crowned Emperor by the pope. By the time of his death, Charlemagne's empire encompassed present-day France, Germany and northern Italy. However, after the empire was divided among his sons, the power and influence of the Franks gradually declined. By the year 987, the Carolingian dynasty -- and the dominant position of the Franks in European affairs -- had come to an end.

Significance of the Franks

The Franks helped to bring stability to Europe in the Middle Ages. The Franks unified and Christianized most of Europe. In fact, the territories would not be united again in such an encompassing fashion until the time of Napoleon. The consolidation of authority in Europe under Charlemagne and his alliance with the Roman Catholic Church set the stage for the Holy Roman Empire.