The only European country facing both the North Sea and the Mediterranean, France has been subject to a particulary rich variety of cultural influences. Though famous for the rootedness of its peasant population, it has also been a European melting pot, even before the arrival of the Celtic Gauls in the centuries before Christ, through to the Mediterranean immigrations of the 20th century. Roman conquest by Julius Caesar had an enduring impact, but from the 4th and 5th centuries AD, waves of Barbarbian invaders destroyed much of the Roman legacy. The Germanic Franks provided political leadership in the following centuries, but when their line died out in the late 10th century, France was socially and politically fragmented.
|THE FORMATION OF FRANCE
|THE MONASTIC REALM
THE HUNDRED YEARS' WAR
The Capetian dynasty gradually pieced France together over the Middle Ages, a period of great economic prosperity and cultural vitality. The Black Death and the Hundred Years' War brought setbacks, and the dynasty's power was seriously threatened by the rival Burgundian dukes. France recovered, however, and flourished during the Renaissance, followed by the grandeur of Louis XIV's reign. During the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, French culture and institutions were the envy of Europe. The Revolution of 1789 ended the absolute monarchy and introduced major social and institutional reforms, many of which were endorsed and consolidated by Napoleon. Yet the Revolution also inaugurated the instability which has remained a hallmark of Franch politics: since 1789, France has known five republics, two empires and three brands of royal power, plus the Vichy government during World War II. Modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries proved a slow process. Railways, the military service and redical educational reforms were crucial in forming a sense of French identity among the citizens. Rivalry with Germany dominated French politics for most of the late 19th and 20th century. The population losses in World War I were traumatic for France, while during 1940-44 the country was occupied by Germany. Yet since 1945, the two countries have proved the backbone of the developing European Union.
The earliest traces of human life in France date back to around 2 million BC. From around 40,000 BC, Homo sapiens lived an itinerant existence as hunters and gatherers. Around 6000 BC, following the end of Ice Age, a major shift in lifestyle occured as people settled down to herd animals and cultivate crops. The advent of metal-working allowed more effective tools and weapons to be developed. The Iron Age is associated particulary with the Celts, who arrived from the east during the first millennium BC. A more complex social hierarchy developed, consisting of warriors, farmers, artisans and druids (Celtic priests).
The Romans conquered and annexed the southern fringe of France by 125-121 BC. Julius Caesar brought the rest of Gaul under Roman control during the Gallic Wars (58-51 BC). The province of Gaul prospered: it developed good communications, a network of cities crammed with public buildings and leisure facilities such as baths and amphitheaters, while in the countryside large villas were established. By the 3rd century AD, however, barbarian raids from Germany were causing increasing havoc. From the 5th century barbarians began to settle throughout Gaul.
The collapse of the Roman Empire led to a period of instability and invasions. Both the Frankish Merovingian dynasty (486-751) and the Carolingians (751-987) were unable to bring more than spasmodic periods of political calm. Throughout this turbulent period, the Church provided an element of continuity. As centres for Christian scholars and artists, the monasteries helped to restore the values of the ancient world. They also developed farming and viticulture and some became extremly powerful, dominating the country economically as well as spiritually.
The Gothic style, epitomized by soaring cathedrals emerged in the 12th century at a time of growing prosperity and scholarship, crusades and an increasingly dominant monarchy. The rival Franch and Burgundian courts became models of fashion and etiquette for all of Europe. Chansons des gestes (epic poems) performed by troubadours celebrated the code of chivalry.
The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), pitting England against France for control of French land, had devastating effects. The damage of warfare was amplified by frequent famines and the ravages of bubonic plague in the wake of the Black Death in 1348. France came close to being permanently partitioned by the king of England and the duke of Burgundy. In 1429-30 the young Joan of Arc helped rally France's fortunes and within a generation the English had been driven out of France.
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