If you are as fortunate as I am to have a course in European history or are fond of reading the history of the early Middle Ages, you may be aware of the identity of the Frankish people. You may read the history about the Salian Franks and their eventual conquest of areas around the Rhine River before taking control over the entire area that bears the name of their people–we call it France–among other areas. You may be aware of their language, one of the many dialects of the post-imperial vernacular of the Roman Empire that was originally only one of many spoken in the area where it is now the dominant language before spreading with French settlers and conquerors to areas like several islands of the Caribbean, large swaths of Northern and Western and Central Africa, Quebec, French Guiana, some islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and parts of the Middle East and parts of India and Southeast Asia, for example. For a long time, even among people who were by no means necessarily fond of the French, their language was the language of diplomacy between many peoples who had no other language in common and even today French retains a high degree of cultural importance. That is not even getting into the fact that centuries of Norman rule have led to the English language having a lot of influence from the Norman French brought over by William the Conqueror and his uncouth associates.
Yet if the history of the Franks and then the French nation under various dynasties and the spread and change of the French language were all that there was to the legacy of the Franks, it would scarcely be worth writing about at length, for there are a great many books that deal with the subject of the French language as well as the history of the French people, written by people who care far more and far more enamored of the French than I am. What interests me far more than the French themselves, a people about whom my feelings are characteristically complex and ambivalent, is the way that their legacy has proven to be important to the point where even someone such as myself has been viewed as a “Frank” by peoples who should know better but whose language and culture labels all people from the West by those people they happened to have met first, for some perverse region.
It is difficult for one who reads history or who eats and travels even remotely widely to be unfamiliar with the cultural legacy of the Franks. For example, in the aftermath of the contretemps between France and the United States concerning the Iraq War, there was a predictable if lamentable tendency to want to rename French fries (which were apparently invented in Wallonia, French-speaking Belgium) as Freedom fries as a way of tweaking the French for their offense to America’s amour propre. Yet it is easy to forget that this legacy extended far beyond those tasty if not very healthy fried potatoes. The German city of Frankfort (literally “Frank Fort”) and its food legacy, most notably the frankfurters who we may shorten as franks, are also at least an unintentional legacy of the French when it comes to the naming of food. If you have your hot dogs with fries you are doubly eating food name after France. That is not even considering those foods and drinks that are named after parts of France, like champagne or dijon mustard or french dressing or french dip sandwiches or many, many other foods.
It is one thing to enjoy the food of an area, whatever one’s feelings about its complex history and culture, but it is another to be labeled as belonging to it in some fashion. It was a source of great humor for me as a Northern-born young person growing up in rural Central Florida that Southerners who had immensely hostile feelings to Yankees were nonetheless thought of as yanquis when visiting South America and other nations whose feelings about the United States are ambivalent at best and often hostile. In a similar fashion, as a reasonably patriotic and somewhat nationalistic American, it is disconcerting to read histories of the Crusades to hear all Western Europeans viewed as Franks by the Muslim populations and even the Christian populations there, which would be as accurate as calling everyone from the Middle East an Arab or Turk when it comes to the cultural rivalries that still divide European nations and their settler colonies from each other. Linguistically, the farang of the Thai language are named after the French. So, in a strange and perhaps unintentional case, are the Ferengi of Star Trek fame, even if their personalities do not resemble our stereotypical views of the French nor their physical appearance.
And given that we view French as a cultured and sophisticated culture in the context of European peoples, it is remarkable and strange that to be frank is to be straightforward and honest, even to the point of being brusquely so. Given that the contemporary French have no particular reputation for honesty, it is striking that we should consider people who are open and honest to be frank. How was it that the Franks came to be associated with this trait and how did our view of the French change so dramatically without our coming up with a different word to discuss this praiseworthy quality? Legacies are complex and even many of us who have no interest in being caught up in them find ourselves to be influenced by them. Considering we may feel that way about the past, how do we let this influence the way that we reflect upon the way that our own individual or collective legacy on others is likely to be similarly complicated if equally impossible to avoid.