The final gift of conquest to the western European aristocracy was a name. For it was in the process of the dramatic expansionary enterprises of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries that a shorthand term was popularized that had the connotation of ‘aggressive westerner’. That term was ‘Frank’.
[Bartlett gives examples of the use of the term to cover various groups — German, Flemish, Norman, etc. — from “the De expugnatione Lyxbonensi, a rousing account of the capture of Lisbon in 1147 by a crusading army of seamen and pirates from north-west Europe,” and a text by Affonso I of Portugal, who referred to “the agreement between me and the Franks.”]
Thus there are two closely related circumstances in which the general label ‘Frank’ was convenient. One was when a member of a body composed of various ethnic groups from western Europe wished to employ a label for the whole of this body; another when someone who conceived of himself as outside of that body […] wanted to give a group name to the foreigners. Thus both as self-appellation and as designation by others, ‘Frank’ was associated with the ‘Frank away from home’. […]
The classic enterprise which stimulated the use of this term was the crusade, the ‘Deeds of the Franks’ as its earliest chronicler called it, and it seems to have been the First Crusade that gave the term a general currency. Prior to that period, of course, it already had a long history, first as an ethnic designation, later in association with a particular polity, the ‘realm of the Franks’ (regnum Francorum). The generalization of the name to cover all westerners was a fairly natural result of the virtual equivalence of the Carolingian empire and the Christian West in the ninth century and, also logically enough, seems to have been used in this way first by non-westerners. The Muslims denominated the inhabitants of western Europe Faranǧa or Ifranǧa. […]
It seems to be the case that the vast and polyglot armies of the First Crusade picked up the term ‘Frank’ as a self-appellation from the non-westerners who already employed it in this general way. Eleventh-century Byzantine writers customarily referred to Norman mercenaries as ‘Franks’, and there was a natural case for applying the name to the western knights, including Normans, who arrived in Constantinople in 1096. The Muslims used the term so generally that Sigurd I of Norway, who came to the Holy Land in 1110, could be described as ‘a Frankish king’. […]
The Celtic world also felt the impact of the Franks. Welsh chroniclers refer to the incursions of Franci or Freinc from the late eleventh to the early thirteenth centuries, and the Anglo-Norman enterprise in Ireland was, as we have seen, termed ‘the coming of the Franks’ (adventus Francorum).
For the rulers of the Celtic lands the Franks were not only rivals to be confronted but also models to be emulated. The O’Briens of Munster expressed their claim to dynastic supremacy by calling themselves ‘the Franks of Ireland’. In Scotland the name had a similar resonance. […] ‘The more recent kings of the Scots,’ observed one early-thirteenth-century chronicler, ‘regard themselves as Franks (Franci) in stock, manners, language and style, they have pushed the Scots down into slavery and admit only Franks into their household and service.’ In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to be a Frank implied modernity and power.
The term can be found at every edge of Latin Christendom. The trans-Pyrenean settlers who came into the Iberian peninsula in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries were Franks and enjoyed ‘the law of Franks’. […] In eastern Europe immigrant settlements in Silesia, Little Poland and Moravia were endowed with ‘Frankish law’ or might use field measurements ‘of the Frankish type’.
The term ‘Frank’ thus referred to westerners as settlers or on aggressive expeditions far from home. It is hence entirely appropriate that when the Portuguese and Spaniards arrived off the Chinese coasts in the sixteenth century, the local population called them Fo-lang-ki, a name adapted from the Arabic traders’ Faranǧa. Even in eighteenth-century Canton the western barbarian carried the name of his marauding ancestors.
Long ago — before Languagehat, maybe before the turn of the century — I ran across a wonderful list (on a history listserv?) of all the various permutations of this term, right down to the Ferengi of Star Trek, but I’ve never found it since.