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Travel Guide 2   >   Europe   >   France   >   History


French History

France has been inhabited by humans for a very long time. The earliest traces of human-life in the country date back to approximately 1.8 million years ago.

The earliest humans in France were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Among the traces left by these people in France are many decorated cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic (the period from approximately 50,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE), including, perhaps most famously, the paintings in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France, which date from approximately 18,000 BCE (the Lascaux Caves, along with other prehistoric sites in the Vézère valley have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979).

After about 7,000 BCE, the inhabitants of western Europe, including France, gradually began to adopt a sedentary lifestyle based around agriculture. Metallurgy appeared towards the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. Additionally many megalithic sites, including perhaps most famously the Carnac stones site (near the village of Carnac in Brittany) were built around this time.

In the 6th century BCE, Ionian Greeks established a colony on the south coast of France, at the site of the present day city of Marseille, which they called Massalia (Greek: Μασσαλια). Meanwhile, tribes of Celts gradually migrated to, and began to occupy the rest of France.

Gradually the concept of Gaul (a territory roughly corresponding to modern day France) began to emerge. The land was largely inhabited by Celts, although southern parts were strongly subject to Greek and Roman influences.

One particularly notable Gallic cheftian, Brennus, even led his troops across the Alps into Italy in 390 BCE. Once there, he defeated the Romans at the Battle of Allia, and went on to sack the city of Rome.

The Romans and Gauls reached a formal peace in 345 BCE, but conflicted continued intermittently for the next several centuries. In 125 BCE, the Romans conquered southern Gaul, and made into a Roman Province (Latin: "Provincia Romana"), and it is from this that the French region of Provence gets its name.

The rest of Gaul was conquered by Julius Caesar between 58 BCE and 50 BCE. These wars are described in his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), which not only describe the battles and intrigues of the war, but also are best known written description of Gaul in this time period.

Gaul remained under Roman control until well into the 5th century AD, but with the collapse of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Suebi, Alans, and Visigoths crossed the Rhine, sacked Gallo-Roman cities, and in some cases settled in Gaul. One particular tribe, the Franks, settled in Northern Gaul, and its is from their name that the word "France" is derived.

In 498, King Clovis I of the Franks converted to Christianity. Clovis I was the first of the Germanic barbarian leaders to convert to Catholicism rather than the Arian variant of Christianity. As a result of this, France was given the title "eldest daughter of the Church" (French: la fille aîl;née de l'Église), and French kings were known as "the Most Christian Kings of France") (Rex Christianissimus).

Clovis is baptised:
Clovis is baptised

In the 8th century, the Franks went on to defeat an attempted Islamic invasion of France at the Battle of Tours, and then to establish the Carolingian Empire. The greatest of the Frankish leaders, Charlemagne (742 to 814), was proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor (an attempt to revive elements of the fallen Western Roman Empire) by Pope Leo III. After his death, Charlemagne's empire was divided into West Francia, Middle Francia, and East Francia - with these subdivisions often being regarded as precursors of the modern countries of France (West Francia) and Germany (East Francia).

In the 9th and 10th centuries, feudalism was established in France, and there was a gradual loss of royal power. Viking invasions resulted in further decentralization, and some of the king's vassals greatly grew in terms of their own power. One in particular, William Duke of Normandy, went on to conquer in England in 1066, and thus became both a vassal to the King of France (by being Duke of Normandy), and an equal (as King of England).

Nevertheless French Kings gradually united and established title to rule the whole of modern continental France. However after the death of King Charles IV in 1328 without an heir, both Philip of Valois (a cousin of Charles IV), and Edward III of England (a nephew of Charles IV) claimed the throne of France. It was as a result of this dispute that the Hundred Years' War (actually a series of wars, lasting somewhat over 100 years) arose between England and France. After many setbacks, the French eventually won the wars, regaining control over the whole of France.

Joan of Arc:
Joan of Arc

Between the late 15th and early 17th century, France went through the French Renaissance. Many artistic and cultural developments occurred during this period, including the in the fields of art, architecture, music, literature and science. Additionally, the French language was standardized, and French explorers explored parts of North America (these parts, then being known as "New France"), and created the first French colonial empire (including parts of the Amerias, parts of Africa, and parts of India).

Although not without problems (such as religious wars), by the time of Louis XIV (1638 to 1715, King of France from 1643 to 1715), France was the most populous and powerful country in Europe. As a result, French became the principal language of diplomacy, literature, and science - a status it would retain until the 20th century.

Following the storming of the Bastille (a medieval fortress and prison in Paris on July 14th 1789, France became a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute monarchy. In September 1792, however, a republic was declared, and the King, Louis XVI, was convicted of treason and executed by guillotine in 1793. A period of chaos then followed - a Reign of Terror including many executions in Paris led by radicals, and civil war in other parts of the country. This war in turn, put to an end when the radicals were overthrown by more conservative revolutionaries ("the Thermidorian Reaction").

Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the French Republic in 1799, becoming initially First Consul, and later Emperor. Napoleon fought a series of wars against various European coalitions, and conquered most of mainland Europe (ideas such as the Metric system, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Napoleonic Code, were introduced to other European countries as a result). However, after a catastrophic attempt to invade Russia in 1812, Napoleon's power began to wane, and he was eventually defeated and replaced by a restored Bourbon monarchy in 1814. Napoleon made a brief return to power in 1815, before being again defeated (at the Battle of Waterloo), and again replaced by a restored monarchy.

Napoleon Bonaparte:
Napoleon Bonaparte

In 1830, King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch was overthrown (the July Revolution), and replaced by his cousin Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Louis Philippe I was himself overthrown in 1848, and a second republic established. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected President of the new republic in 1848, and later declared himself President for Life, and then Emperor. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte ruled as Emperor Napoleon III until captured by the Prussians in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War (at which point the Third Republic was declared).

Although the 19th century was a period of great changes in France, the country was still a great power. France established a new colonial empire (much of the first French colonial empire had been lost to Britain in the 18th century), beginning with Algeria (conquered in 1830), and later including many other territories in Africa and Asia. By the early 20th century, France had in fact the second largest colonial empire (after Britain), which encompassed more than 12 million square kilometers and 110 million inhabitants (including France itself).

When World War I broke out, France was, along with Britain and Russia, part of the Triple Entente. Although, only a small part of France's territory was occupied during the war, and although France did emerge on the victorious side in the war, the country suffered grevious losses - 1.4 million dead.

In World War II, France was on the Allied side, however she was defeated by Germany in a lightning campaign in 1944. After this period, a collaborationist French regime was established at Vichy, whereas other French servicemen chose to fight on as the "Free French" led by Charles De Gaulle. Following the D-Day landings, France was eventually liberated from German occupation in 1944.

Charles De Gaulle:
Charles De Gaulle

After World War II, France has became a founding member and leading advocate of the European Union. French colonies were also gradually granted independence in a sometimes painful process - including wars in Indochina and Algeria.

Below are some books about the history of France.

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Books about French History

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France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror

By Jonathan Fenby

St Martin s Press
Released: 2016-11-08
Hardcover (576 pages)

France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror
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With the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, the next two centuries for France would be tumultuous. Critically acclaimed historian and political commentator Jonathan Fenby provides an expert and riveting journey through this period as he recounts and analyzes the extraordinary sequence of events of this period from the end of the First Revolution through two others, a return of Empire, three catastrophic wars with Germany, periods of stability and hope interspersed with years of uncertainty and high tensions.

As her cross-channel neighbor Great Britain would equally suffer, France was to undergo the wrenching loss of colonies in the post-Second World War era as the new modern world we know today took shape. Her attempts to become the leader of the European union was a constant struggle, as was her lack of support for America in the two Gulf Wars of the past twenty years. Alongside this came huge social changes and cultural landmarks, but also fundamental questioning of what this nation, which considers itself exceptional, really stood―and stands―for. That saga and those questions permeate the France of today, now with an implacable enemy to face in the form of Islamic extremism which so bloodily announced itself this year in Paris. Fenby will detail every event, every struggle, and every outcome across this expanse of 200 years. It will prove to be the definitive guide to understanding France.

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography

By Graham Robb

Robb, Graham
Paperback (496 pages)

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography
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"A witty, engaging narrative style…[Robb's] approach is particularly engrossing." ―New York Times Book Review

A narrative of exploration―full of strange landscapes and even stranger inhabitants―that explains the enduring fascination of France. While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.

Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He recounts the epic journeys of mapmakers, scientists, soldiers, administrators, and intrepid tourists, of itinerant workers, pilgrims, and herdsmen with their millions of migratory domestic animals. We learn how France was explored, charted, and colonized, and how the imperial influence of Paris was gradually extended throughout a kingdom of isolated towns and villages.

The Discovery of France explains how the modern nation came to be and how poorly understood that nation still is today. Above all, it shows how much of France―past and present―remains to be discovered.

A New York Times Notable Book, Publishers Weekly Best Book, Slate Best Book, and Booklist Editor's Choice.

16 pages of illustrations

The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (Cambridge Illustrated Histories)

By Colin Jones

Cambridge University Press
Multicolor Paperback (352 pages)

The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (Cambridge Illustrated Histories)
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In a tour de force, Colin Jones gives a gripping, superbly and intelligently illustrated account of the political, social and cultural history of France, placing an innovatory emphasis on the impact of regionalism, class, gender and race in French heritage. Ranging from prehistoric menhirs to the Pompidou Centre, from Louis XIV's Versailles to twentieth-century highrises, from Marie Antoinette to Marie Claire, The Cambridge Illustrated History of France is host to lively and penetrating new insights that take us through the shaping of France from the earliest times to the brink of a new millennium. Combining superb illustration with outstanding scholarship, the diversity of the French heritage--scientific and artistic, national and regional--is explored with an engrossing and accessible style. Special features on places, people and events, a glossary, and a further reading section enhance this engaging book that will appeal to history buffs and students of French history and culture. Colin Jones is also the author of the Longman Companion to the French Revolution and The Cultural Atlas of France.

France: A History: from Gaul to de Gaulle

By John Julius Norwich (author)

John Murray Publishers Ltd

France: A History: from Gaul to de Gaulle
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A Concise History of France (Cambridge Concise Histories)

By Roger Price

Cambridge University Press
Released: 2014-02-06
Paperback (528 pages)

A Concise History of France (Cambridge Concise Histories)
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This is the most up-to-date and comprehensive study of French history available ranging from the early middle ages to the present. Amongst its central themes are the relationships between state and society, the impact of war, competition for power, and the ways in which power has been used. Whilst taking full account of major figures such as Philip Augustus, Henri IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon and de Gaulle, it sets their activities within the broader context of changing economic and social structures and beliefs, and offers rich insights into the lives of ordinary men and women. This third edition has been substantially revised and includes a new chapter on contemporary France - a society and political system in crisis as a result of globalisation, rising unemployment, a failing educational system, growing social and racial tensions, corruption, the rise of the extreme right, and a widespread loss of confidence in political leaders.

A Brief History of France, Revised and Updated (Brief Histories)

By Cecil Jenkins

Released: 2017-09-19
Paperback (352 pages)

A Brief History of France, Revised and Updated (Brief Histories)
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When we think of France, we tend think of fine food and wine, the elegant boulevards of Paris or the chic beaches of St Tropez. Yet, as the largest country in Europe, France is home to extraordinary diversity.

The idea of 'Frenchness' emerged through 2,000 years of history and it is this riveting story, from the Roman conquest of Gaul to the present day, that Cecil Jenkins tells: of the forging of this great nation through its significant people and events and and its fascinating culture.

As he unfolds this narrative, Jenkins shows why the French began to see themselves as so different from the rest of Europe, but also why, today, the French face the same problems with regard to identity as so many other European nations.


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