Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Italy has always preserved its name, notwithstanding the pretended establishment of Æneas, which should have left some traces of the language, characters, and manners of Phrygia, if he ever came with Achates and so many others, into the province of Rome, then almost a desert. The Goths, Lombards, Franks, Allemani or Germans, who have by turns invaded Italy, have at least left it its name.

The Tyrians, Africans, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, and Saracens, have, one after the other, been masters of Spain, yet the name of Spain exists. Germany has also always preserved its own name; it has merely joined that of Allemagne to it, which appellation it did not receive from any conqueror.

The Gauls are almost the only people in the west who have lost their name. This name was originally Walch or Welsh; the Romans always substituted a G for the W, which is barbarous: of “Welsh” they made Galli, Gallia. They distinguished the Celtic, the Belgic, and the Aquitanic Gaul, each of which spoke a different jargon.

Who were, and whence came these Franks, who in such small numbers and little time possessed themselves of all the Gauls, which in ten years Cæsar could not entirely reduce? I am reading an author who commences by these words: “The Franks from whom we descend.” . . . . Ha! my friend, who has told you that you descend in a right line from a Frank? Clovodic, whom we call Clovis, probably had not more than twenty thousand men, badly clothed and armed, when he subjugated about eight or ten millions of Welsh or Gauls, held in servitude by three or four Roman legions. We have not a single family in France which can furnish, I do not say the least proof, but the least probability, that it had its origin from a Frank.

When the pirates of the Baltic Sea came, to the number of seven or eight thousand, to give Normandy in fief, and Brittany in arrière fief, did they leave any archives by which it may be seen whether they were the fathers of all the Normans of the present day?

It has been a long time believed that the Franks came from the Trojans. Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived in the fourth century, says: “According to several ancient writers, troops of fugitive Trojans established themselves on the borders of the Rhine, then a desert.” As to Æneas, he might easily have sought an asylum at the extremity of the Mediterranean, but Francus, the son of Hector, had too far to travel to go towards Düsseldorf, Worms, Solm, Ehrenbreitstein.

Fredegarius doubts not that the Franks at first retired into Macedonia, and carried arms under Alexander, after having fought under Priam; on which alleged facts the monk Otfried compliments the emperor, Louis the German.

The geographer of Ravenna, less fabulous, assigns the first habitation of the horde of Franks among the Cimbrians, beyond the Elbe, towards the Baltic Sea. These Franks might well be some remains of these barbarian Cimbri defeated by Marius; and the learned Leibnitz is of this opinion.

It is very certain that, in the time of Constantine, beyond the Rhine, there were hordes of Franks or Sicambri, who lived by pillage. They assembled under bandit captains, chiefs whom historians have had the folly to call kings. Constantine himself pursued them to their haunts, caused several to be hanged, and others to be delivered to wild beasts, in the amphitheatre of Trier, for his amusement. Two of their pretended kings perished in this manner, at which the panegyrists of Constantine are in ecstasies.

The Salic law, written, it is said, by these barbarians, is one of the absurd chimeras with which we have always been pestered. It would be very strange if the Franks had written such a considerable code in their marshes, and the French had not any written usages until the close of the reign of Charles VII. It might as well be said that the Algonquins and Chicachas had written laws. Men are never governed by authentic laws, consigned to public records, until they have been assembled into cities, and have a regular police, archives, and all that characterizes a civilized nation. When you find a code in a nation which was barbarous at the time it was written, who lived upon rapine and pillage, and which had not a walled town, you may be sure that this code is a pretended one, which has been made in much later times. Fallacies and suppositions never obliterate this truth from the minds of the wise.

What is more ridiculous still, this Salic law has been given to us in Latin; as if savages, wandering beyond the Rhine, had learnt the Latin language. It is supposed to have been first digested by Clovis, and it ran thus: “While the illustrious nation of the Franks was still considered barbarous, the heads of this nation dictated the Salic law. They chose among themselves four chiefs, Visogast, Bodogast, Sologast, Vindogast”— taking, according to La Fontaine’s fable, the names of places for those of men:

Notre magot prit pour ce coup

Le nom d’un port pour un nom d’homme.

These names are those of some Frank cantons in the province of Worms. Whatever may be the epoch in which the customs denominated the Salic law were constructed on an ancient tradition, it is very clear that the Franks were not great legislators.

What is the original meaning of the word “Frank?” That is a question of which we know nothing, and which above a hundred authors have endeavored to find out. What is the meaning of Hun, Alan, Goth, Welsh, Picard? And what do these words signify?

Were the armies of Clovis all composed of Franks? It does not appear so. Childeric the Frank had made inroads as far as Tournay. It is said that Clovis was the son of Childeric, and Queen Bazine, the wife of King Bazin. Now Bazin and Bazine are assuredly not German names, and we have never seen the least proof that Clovis was their son. All the German cantons elected their chiefs, and the province of Franks had no doubt elected Clovis as they had done his father. He made his expedition against the Gauls, as all the other barbarians had undertaken theirs against the Roman Empire.

Do you really and truly believe that the Herulian Odo, surnamed Acer by the Romans, and known to us by the name of Odoacer, had only Herulians in his train, and that Genseric conducted Vandals alone into Africa? All the wretches without talent or profession, who have nothing to lose, do they not always join the first captain of robbers who raises the standard of destruction?

As soon as Clovis had the least success, his troops were no doubt joined by all the Belgians who panted for booty; and this army is nevertheless called the army of Franks. The expedition is very easy. The Visigoths had already invaded one-third of Gaul, and the Burgundians another. The rest submitted to Clovis. The Franks divided the land of the vanquished, and the Welsh cultivated it.

The word “Frank” originally signified a free possessor, while the others were slaves. Hence come the words “franchise,” and “to enfranchise”—“I make you a Frank,” “I render you a free man.” Hence, francalenus, holding freely; frank aleu, frank dad, frank chamen, and so many other terms half Latin and half barbarian, which have so long composed the miserable patois spoken in France.

Hence, also, a franc in gold or silver to express the money of the king of the Franks, which did not appear until a long time after, but which reminds us of the origin of the monarchy. We still say twenty francs, twenty livres, which signifies nothing in itself; it gives no idea of the weight or value of the money, being only a vague expression, by which ignorant people have been continually deceived, not knowing really how much they receive or how much they pay.

Charlemagne did not consider himself as a Frank; he was born in Austrasia, and spoke the German language. He was of the family of Arnold, bishop of Metz, preceptor to Dagobert. Now it is not probable that a man chosen for a preceptor was a Frank. He made the greatest glory of the most profound ignorance, and was acquainted only with the profession of arms. But what gives most weight to the opinion that Charlemagne regarded the Franks as strangers to him is the fourth article of one of his capitularies on his farms. “If the Franks,” said he, “commit any ravages on our possessions, let them be judged according to their laws.”

The Carlovingian race always passed for German: Pope Adrian IV., in his letter to the archbishops of Mentz, Cologne, and Trier, expresses himself in these remarkable terms: “The emperor was transferred from the Greeks to the Germans. Their king was not emperor until after he had been crowned by the pope . . . . all that the emperor possessed he held from us. And as Zacharius gave the Greek Empire to the Germans, we can give that of the Germans to the Greeks.”

However, France having been divided into eastern and western, and the eastern being Austrasia, this name of France prevailed so far, that even in the time of the Saxon emperors, the court of Constantinople always called them pretended Frank emperors, as may be seen in the letters of Bishop Luitprand, sent from Rome to Constantinople.

Of the French Nation.

When the Franks established themselves in the country of the first Welsh, which the Romans called Gallia, the nation was composed of ancient Celts or Gauls, subjugated by Cæsar, Roman families who were established there, Germans who had already emigrated there, and finally of the Franks, who had rendered themselves masters of the country under their chief Clovis. While the monarchy existed, which united Gaul and Germany, all the people, from the source of the Weser to the seas of Gaul, bore the name of Franks. But when at the congress of Verdun, in 843, under Charles the Bald, Germany and Gaul were separated, the name of Franks remained to the people of western France, which alone retained the name of France.

The name of French was scarcely known until towards the tenth century. The foundation of the nation is of Gallic families, and traces of the character of the ancient Gauls have always existed.

Indeed, every people has its character, as well as every man; and this character is generally formed of all the resemblances caused by nature and custom among the inhabitants of the varieties which distinguish them. Thus French character, genius, and wit, result from that which has been common to the different provinces in the kingdom. The people of Guienne and those of Normandy differ much; there is, however, found in them the French genius, which forms a nation of these different provinces, and distinguishes them from the Indians and Germans. Climate and soil evidently imprint unchangeable marks on men, as well as on animals and plants. Those which depend on government, religion, and education are different. That is the knot which explains how people have lost one part of their ancient character and preserved the other. A people who formerly conquered half the world are no longer recognized under sacerdotal government, but the seeds of their ancient greatness of soul still exist, though hidden beneath weakness.

In the same manner the barbarous government of the Turks has enervated the Egyptians and the Greeks, without having been able to destroy the original character or temper of their minds.

The present character of the French is the same as Cæsar ascribed to the Gauls — prompt to resolve, ardent to combat, impetuous in attack, and easily discouraged. Cæsar, Agatius, and others say, that of all the barbarians the Gauls were the most polished. They are still in the most civilized times the model of politeness to all their neighbors, though they occasionally discover the remains of their levity, petulance, and barbarity.

The inhabitants of the coasts of France were always good seamen; the people of Guienne always compose the best infantry; “those who inhabit the provinces of Blois and Tours are not,” says Tasso, “robust and indefatigable, but bland and gentle, like the land which they inhabit.”

. . . . Gente robusta, e faticosa,

La terra molle, e lieta, e dilettosa

Simili a se gli abitator, produce.

But how can we reconcile the character of the Parisians of our day with that which the Emperor Julian, the first of princes and men after Marcus Aurelius, gave to the Parisians of his time? —“I love this people,” says he in his “Misopogon,” “because they are serious and severe like myself.” This seriousness, which seems at present banished from an immense city become the centre of pleasure, then reigned in a little town destitute of amusements: in this respect the spirit of the Parisians has changed notwithstanding the climate.

The affluence, opulence, and idleness of the people who may occupy themselves with pleasures and the arts, and not with the government, have given a new turn of mind to a whole nation.

Further, how is it to be explained by what degrees this people have passed from the fierceness which characterized them in the time of King John, Charles VI., Charles IX., Henry III., and Henry IV., to the soft facility of manners for which they are now the admiration of Europe? It is that the storms of government and religion forced constitutional vivacity into paroxysms of faction and fanaticism; and that this same vivacity, which always will exist, has at present no object but the pleasures of society. The Parisian is impetuous in his pleasures as he formerly was in his fierceness. The original character which is caused by the climate is always the same. If at present he cultivates the arts, of which he was so long deprived, it is not that he has another mind, since he has not other organs; but it is that he has more relief, and this relief has not been created by himself, as by the Greeks and Florentines, among whom the arts flourished like the natural fruits of their soil. The Frenchman has only received them, but having happily cultivated and adopted these exotics, he has almost perfected them.

The French government was originally that of all the northern nations — of all those whose policy was regulated in general assemblies of the nation. Kings were the chief of these assemblies; and this was almost the only administration of the French in the first two generations, before Charles the Simple.

When the monarchy was dismembered, in the decline of the Carlovingian race, when the kingdom of Arles arose, and the provinces were occupied by vassals little dependent on the crown, the name of French was more restricted. Under Hugh Capet, Henry, and Philip, the people on this side the Loire only, were called French. There was then seen a great diversity of manners and of laws in the provinces held from the crown of France. The particular lords who became the masters of these provinces introduced new customs into their new states. A Breton and a Fleming have at present some conformity, notwithstanding the difference of their character, which they hold from the sun and the climate, but originally there was not the least similitude between them.

It is only since the time of Francis I. that there has been any uniformity in manners and customs. The court, at this time, first began to serve for a model to the United Provinces; but in general, impetuosity in war, and a lax discipline, always formed the predominant character of the nation.

Gallantry and politeness began to distinguish the French under Francis I. Manners became odious after the death of Francis II. However, in the midst of their horrors, there was always a politeness at court which the Germans and English endeavored to imitate. The rest of Europe, in aiming to resemble the French, were already jealous of them. A character in one of Shakespeare’s comedies says that it is difficult to be polite without having been at the court of France.

Though the nation has been taxed with frivolity by Cæsar, and by all neighboring nations, yet this kingdom, so long dismembered, and so often ready to sink, is united and sustained principally by the wisdom of its negotiations, address, and patience; but above all, by the divisions of Germany and England. Brittany alone has been united to the kingdom by a marriage; Burgundy by right of fee, and by the ability of Louis XI.; Dauphiny by a donation, which was the fruit of policy; the county of Toulouse by a grant, maintained by an army; Provence by money. One treaty of peace has given Alsace, another Lorraine. The English have been driven from France, notwithstanding the most signal victories, because the kings of France have known how to temporize, and profit on all favorable occasions; — all which proves, that if the French youth are frivolous, the men of riper age, who govern it, have always been wise. Even at present the magistracy are severe in manners, as in the time of the Emperor Julian. If the first successes in Italy, in the time of Charles VIII., were owing to the warlike impetuosity of the nation, the disgraces which followed them were caused by the blindness of a court which was composed of young men alone. Francis I. was only unfortunate in his youth, when all was governed by favorites of his own age, and he rendered his kingdom more flourishing at a more advanced age.

The French have always used the same arms as their neighbors, and have nearly the same discipline in war, but were the first who discarded the lance and pike. The battle of Ivry discouraged the use of lances, which were soon abolished, and under Louis XIV. pikes were also discontinued. They wore tunics and robes until the sixteenth century. Under Louis the Young they left off the custom of letting the beards grow, and retook to it under Francis I. Only under Louis XIV. did they begin to shave the entire face. Their dress is continually changing, and at the end of each century the French might take the portraits of their grandfathers for those of foreigners.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01