A Brief History of France

As much as I love studying history, I tend to enjoy it more when peppered with humor, or in the context of literature. In this 2-hour marathon of French history that I am currently suffering through, neither humor nor literature play a significant role. No offense to my professor, but his occasional “blagues” (jokes) are not enough to sustain my attention span for two hours. Lucky for me, the internet is readily available, which provides the same information – in English. In an effort to help you all understand what I get to enjoy every Wednesday, I’ve provided a little tour through France’s long and fashionable history.

2500 B.C. Celtic Settlement

The Celts arrive in Gaul from Central Europe, and settle in “The Hexagon”. A group of iron workers, the Celts would dominate Gaul until 125 B.C., when the Roman Empire took over. The Celts were drawn to Gaul for its abundance of cheeses, its attractive women, and the low prices of flights on RyanAir.

58-51 B.C. The Gallic Wars

Julius Caesar was particularly fond of skirts, capes, and generally looking kick-ass.


Julius Caesar leads the Romans into Gauls, beginning a long period of Roman domination. Augustus’ reign would usher in two centuries of peace, known as the “Pax Romana”. This period had many other highlights, including:

  • The beginning of Christianity in Gaul
  • The construction of Lutetia, which would later become Paris, in 52 B.C.
  • The naming of Lugdunum (Lyon) as the capital of the Gauls in 43 A.D.
  • Julius Caesar’s debut of the pret-a-porter toga line, which would later include perfume and accessories

Fourth Century A.D. – Beginning of the Middle Ages

Barbarian invaders from the East threaten the people of Gaul, who begin aligning themselves with local lords in exchange for protection. Feudal society emerges, and Christianity is reinvigorated when Clovis, king of the Franks, converts to Christianity. His reign helps stabilize France, but he also divides up the territory and gives it away to people in order to stop them from going on strike.

742-814 – Rule of Charlemagne

Charlemagne, the great king of the Franks, expands the Frankish kingdom. His death begins a scandal among his three sons, two of whom picked out the best lands for themselves, leaving their third brother with the messy ones in the middle. Their family feud is documented in an episode of MTV’s “True Life”.

13th Century – the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor did all women a favor, and took over ruling for her husband.


Eleanor of Aquitaine – or in French, Alienor d’Aquitaine – changed court life completely. Formerly a place where French women were simply servants, she ushered in an era of art and culture, of feminine beauty and relative power. The most powerful French queen ever, Eleanor was married to Louis VII, and later handed over to Henry II along with much of France.

1095 – 13th century – The Crusades

Millions of men die for their religion, and finally give women an opportunity to flex their political muscles. During this time, Eleanor of Aquitaine practically ruled France while her husband was away fighting.

1120 – the Birth of Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture makes its debut with the St. Denis Cathedral, and is followed shortly by Notre Dame. What most people don’t know is that they were both built purely for aesthetic purposes – no one ever actually prayed in them, they just took pictures and bought overpriced rosary beads.

Notre Dame, a fine example of gothic architecture and annoying tourism at its finest.

1337 – the Hundred Years’ War

Edward III of England claims the French throne after the death of Charles IV, beginning the Hundred Years’ War. One of France’s other most famous women, Joan of Arc, helps Charles VIII win the war, sending the English back to Calais and out of France’s hair. This may or may not be where the French earned their reputation of being stubborn. Joan was later burned at the stake for her boldness.

One small step for France, one giant leap for womankind.

1464 – Birth of the French Postal System

The French King established the postal system in 1464, knowing that it would probably take about 600 years for the French to master the bureaucratic skills it takes to efficiently run such a system. As it turns out, they never really got it right.

1519 – Death of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci died in the arms of Francois the I, the King of France, having contributed not only art, but great inventions to the world. Today, da Vinci’s great masterpiece “la Jaconde” (the Mona Lisa), can be seen at the Louvre….if you’re willing to elbow your way through a thousand tourists with expensive cameras and screaming children.

1562 – 1598 – The Wars of Religion

At the same time that a Renaissance was bringing such cultural gems to France as Leonardo da Vinci, the increase in Huguenots (Protestants) in France led to wars between the Catholics and the Protestants. In 1572, another famous female, Catherine de Medici, ordered the massacre of hundreds of Protestants in Paris, in what would come to be known as the St. Batholomew’s Day Massacre. The wars ended in 1589, when Henry IV became the first Bourbon king, and converted to Catholicism.

1617 Louis XIII Crowned King at the Age of 17

At the age of 17, Louis XIII is crowned King of France, and he, along with Cardinal Richelieu, turns France into an absolute monarchy. Despite his insane amount of power, primary sources tell us that Louis was just another rebellious teenager who listened to horrible rock music and checked out the hot ladies-in-waiting when they weren’t looking.

Like all 17 year-old boys, Louis XIII rocked the unkempt look with long hair and a 'stache.

1682 – Versailles

Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, moves the royal court to Versailles, strengthening his power through centralizing it. Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors allows him to constantly fix his hair and outfits, distracting him from his political responsibilities and eventually contributing to the French Revolution.

1789 – The Beginning of the French Revolution

Louis XVI realizes what a huge “uh-oh” he made by supporting the American Revolution after the French people storm the Bastille on July 14, thus beginning the French Revolution and the end of the French monarchy. Four years later, he and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, are beheaded in Paris. Robespierre is overthrown in 1794, ending the Reign of Terror, when people get sick of watching other people’s heads being chopped off.

1799 – the End of the Revolution, the Beginning of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte crowns himself emperor in 1804 in Paris. Challenging the authority of the church by placing the crown on his own head, Napoleon centralized power and expanded the French empire. Napoleon’s fifteen minutes end in 1815 at Waterloo, and he is replaced by Louis XVII, who was then replaced by Charles X. This is where French history gets boring and confusing, proving that efficient administration is not exactly France’s forte.

1853 – Baron Haussman Re-designs Paris

Napoleon III, proclaimed Emperor of Paris in 1852, commissions Baron Haussman to re-design the city of Paris. Haussman completely re-organizes the city, creating a structured and beautiful city in which all buildings must adhere to a certain standard and style. Haussmanization ushers in the period of Impressionism as a reaction to Paris’ new status a place to see and be seen. Haussmanization begins France’s fetish with all things rigid and structured, which can be seen in their obsession with graph paper and fixed-price menus.

From the air, the structural characteristics of Paris become more obvious, like the star that emanates from the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the Champs-Elysees.

1870 – the Franco-Prussian War

The Germans capture Paris and claim Alsace and Lorraine as their own, beginning the long and never-ending tension between France and Germany that is pertinent even today. Napoleon III is exiled, and the Third Republic emerges, indicating the end of the monarchy. This period is marked by incredible culture, such as the Impressionists and novelists like Flaubert, as well as the construction of the Eiffel Tower, a huge, iron sculpture that reflects Parisians’ obsession with all things structured and dreary-looking.

My grandfather likes to remind me that one of the architects of the Eiffel Tower was a "Carlson". Distant relative, perhaps?

1898-1906 – The Dreyfus Affair

A landmark scandal in French history that you will never hear the end of if you come to France, the Dreyfus Affair emerges out of anti-semitic sentiments in the French army and government. General Dreyfus is falsely accused of spying for Germany, and sent to prison somewhere called Devil’s Island. Emile Zola emerges as a powerful literary force with the publication of “J’accuse!” (I Accuse!), a letter to the French president calling him out on the anti-semitic attitude dominating French government, and on his false accusation of General Dreyfus. Zola thus begins a long tradition of feisty writers who like to go against the government.

1914 – 1918 – World War I

The First World War breaks out in northeast France, and the war is characterized by trench warfare and awful, depressing literature. France and the U.S. end up defeating Germany, and team up to steal all of Germany’s money with the Versailles Treaty. The Germans get pretty pissed off, helping to spark WWII, and further  hatred of the French.

1919 – 1940 – the Entre Guerres Period

France flourishes artistically, attracting artists from around the world and beginning the avant garde movement, which produced dark, sordid films that helped restore France’s reputation as being a sparkling place of optimism and lightheartedness.

1940 – 1944  – World War II and one GIANT greve

The Germans finally get their revenge in 1940, when they invade Paris. The country, which was under the control of the Vichy puppet government, then organized the largest greve in the history of France, led by General Charles de Gaulle. When the Allied Forces invaded Normandy in 1944, de Gaulle entered Paris and became the head of the Fourth Republic. This is about the time that France’s many failed attempts at democracy start to work…kind of. Also, although France was on the losing side of the war, they continued to insist that they had won. Could have something to do with that stereotypical French stubborness previously mentioned.

Charles de Gaulle led France into the Fifth Republic, the country's finally successful attempt at democracy.

1950’s and 1960’s – Colonial Break-Up

The break-up of France’s colonies – particularly in Africa and Indochina – cause major wars, and France finally parts way with its precious lands overseas. France did what anyone being broken-up with does, and ate a lot of chocolate and had a hot fling of a rebouond.

May 2007 – Presidency of Sarkozy

In May of 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy is elected President of the Fifth Republic, and continues the French stereotype of having a hot, younger wife who is way hotter than he is. Sarkozy angers much of the world by passing a law banning Muslim women from wearing full burkas, a reinforcement of France’s secular laws, and by kicking out thousands of Roma from the country. But hey, he’s still got a hot wife.

A picture of loveliness...except for that guy on the left. Who is that?

Fall of 2010

Lots and lots of greves that piss off anyone dependent on mail or transportation. So, basically, the entire country.

Well, that just about brings us up to date!

Source: http://www.uncg.edu/rom/courses/dafein/civ/timeline.htm


2 thoughts on “A Brief History of France

  1. just stumbled on this blog; love this post! if only i had found this while cramming for my own french history exams, it seems much easier to digest 😉

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