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The Franks or Frankish people ( or gens Francorum) were a West Germanic tribal confederation first attested in the 3rd century as living north and east of the Lower Rhine River. From the third to fifth centuries some Franks raided Roman territory while other Franks joined the Roman troops in Gaul. Only the Salian Franks formed a kingdom on Roman-held soil that was acknowledged by the Romans after 357. In the climate of the collapse of imperial authority in the West, the Frankish tribes were united under the Merovingians and conquered all of Gaul save Septimania in the 6th century. The Salian political elite would be one of the most active forces in spreading Christianity over western Europe.
The Merovingian dynasty, descended from the Salians, founded one of the Germanic monarchies which replaced the Western Roman Empire from the 5th century. The Frankish state consolidated its hold over large parts of western Europe by the end of the eighth century, developing into the Carolingian Empire which dominated most of Western Europe. This empire would gradually evolve into France and the Holy Roman Empire.
Contemporary definitions of the ethnicity of the Franks vary by period and point of view. Many in the East used the term "Franks" to describe or refer to Western Europeans and Roman Catholic Christians in general. It is unclear, though, to what extent different Western European groups described or referred to themselves as the Franks. Within Francia, the Franks appear to have initially been a distinct group with their own culture but the Frankish identity gradually changed from an ethnic identity to a national identity, much as happened with the Roman identity during the course of their empire.
The ethnonym Frank has sometimes been traced to the Latin francisca (from the Germanic *frankon, akin to the Old English franca), meaning "javelin." While the throwing axe of the Franks is known as the francisca, the weapon conversely may have been named after the tribe. A. C. Murray says, "The etymology of Franci is uncertain ('the fierce ones' is the favourite explanation), but the name is undoubtedly of Germanic origin."
Like many Germanic peoples, the Franks developed an origin story to connect themselves with peoples of antiquity. In the case of the Franks, these peoples were the Sicambri and the Trojans. An anonymous work of 727 called Liber Historiae Francorum states that following the fall of Troy, 12,000 Trojans led by chiefs Priam and Antenor moved to the Tanais (Don) river, settled in Pannonia near the Sea of Azov and founded a city called "Sicambria". In just two generations (Priam and his son Marcomer) from the fall of Troy (by modern scholars dated in the late Bronze Age) they arrive in the late fourth century at the Rhine. An earlier variation of this story can be read in Fredegar. In Fredegar's version an early king named Francio serves as namegiver for the Franks, just as Romulus has lent his name to Rome.
The Franks enter recorded history around the year 50 due to an invasion across the Rhine into the Roman Empire. They are first mentioned on the Tabula Peutingeriana as the Chamavi qui est Pranci (meaning "Chamavi, who are Pranci", probably an error for Franci). Over the next century other Frankish tribes besides the Chamavi surface in the records. The major primary sources include Panegyrici Latini, Ammianus Marcellinus, Claudian, Zosimus, Sidonius Apollinaris and Gregory of Tours. As early as 357 a Frankish king from the Salians enters Roman-held soil to stay.
Modern scholars of the Migration Period are in agreement that the Frankish identity emerged at the first half of the 3rd century out of various earlier, smaller Germanic groups, including the Salii, Sicambri, Chamavi, Bructeri, Chatti, Chattuarii, Ampsivarii, Tencteri, Ubii and Batavi, who inhabited the lower Rhine valley between the Zuyder Zee and the river Lahn and extended eastwards as far as the Weser, but were the most densely settled around the IJssel and between the Lippe and the Sieg. The Frankish confederation probably began to coalesce in the 230s.
The Salian Franks invaded the Roman Empire and were accepted as Foederati by Julian the apostate in 358. By the end of the fifth century, the Salian Franks extended their footprint on Roman soil to a territory including the Netherlands south of the Rhine, Belgium and Northern Gaul, where they encountered other peoples also of the Frankish ethnicity. They gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty in the 5th century.
Franks appear in Roman texts as both allies and enemies (laeti or dediticii). Around 250, one group of Franks, taking advantage of a weakened Roman Empire, penetrated as far as Tarragona in present-day Spain, plaguing this region for about a decade before Roman forces subdued them and expelled them from Roman territory. About seventy years later, the Franks had the region of the Scheldt river (present day west Flanders and southwest Netherlands) under control, and were raiding the Channel, disrupting transportation to Britain. Roman forces pacified the region, but did not expel the Franks , who continued to be feared as pirates along the shores at least until the time of Julian the Apostate (358), when Salian Franks were granted to settle as foederati in Toxandria, according to Ammianus Marcellinus.
In the 5th century, numerous small Frankish kingdoms existed, among them the ones in Cologne, Tournai, Le Mans and Cambrai. The kings of Tournai eventually came to subdue the other Frankish kings. This was probably enabled by their association with Aegidius, the magister militum of northern Gaul; King Childeric I fights on Aegidius' side in 463. It is assumed that Childeric and Clovis I, his son, were commanders of the Roman military in the Province of Belgica Secunda, and thus subordinate to the magister militum. Clovis later turned against the Roman military leaders and won a battle against Syagrius in 486/487. After this battle, Clovis had Chararic, another Frankish king, imprisoned; he was later executed. A few years later, Ragnachar, Frankish king of Cambrai, and his brothers were killed by Clovis. By the 490s, Clovis had conquered all the Frankish kingdoms to the west of the River Maas, leaving only the Ripuarian Franks.
Clovis divided his realm between his four sons in a manner which would become familiar, as his sons and grandsons in turn divided their kingdoms between their sons. Clovis' sons united to defeat Burgundy in 534, but internecine feuding came to the fore during the reigns of the brothers Sigebert I and Chilperic I and their sons and grandsons, largely fueled by the rivalry of the queens Fredegunda and Brunhilda. This period saw the emergence of three distinct regna (realms or subkingdoms): Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy. Each region developed in its own way and often sought to exert influence over the others. The rising star of the Arnulfing clan of Austrasia meant that the centre of political gravity in the kingdom gradually shifted eastwards from Paris and Tours to the Rhineland.
The Frankish realm was united again in 613 by Chlothar II, son of Chilperic. Chlothar granted the Edict of Paris to the nobles in an effort to cut down on corruption and unite his vast realm under his authority. After the militarily successful reign of his son and successor Dagobert I, royal authority rapidly declined under a series of kings traditionally known as rois fainéants. By 687, after the Battle of Tertry, the chronicler could say that the mayor of the palace, formerly the king's chief household official, "reigned." Finally, in 751, with the approval of the papacy and the nobility, the mayor Pepin the Short deposed the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, and had himself crowned, inaugurating a new dynasty, the Carolingians.
The unification of most of what is now western and central Europe under one chief ruler provided a fertile ground for the continuation of what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Despite the almost constant internecine warfare that beset the Carolingian Empire, the extension of Frankish rule and Roman Christianity over such a large area ensured a fundamental unity throughout the Empire. Each part of the Carolingian Empire developed differently; Frankish government and culture depended very much upon individual rulers and their aims. Those aims shifted as easily as the changing political alliances within the Frankish leading families. However, those families, the Carolingians included, all shared the same basic beliefs and ideas of government. These ideas and beliefs had their roots in a background that drew from both Roman and Germanic tradition, a tradition that began before the Carolingian ascent and continued to some extent even after the deaths of Louis the Pious and his sons.
The sons of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's grandsons, fought a civil war after Louis' death over their inheritance, which only ended in exhaustion. The Frankish lands were divided between them. Charles the Bald was given the western lands, "West Francia", that would later become France. Louis the German received the eastern lands, which would become Germany. Lothair I was given the lands between the two, "Middle Francia" which consisted of Lotharingia, Provence, and northern Italy. Middle Francia was not united in any way, and in the next generation disintegrated into smaller lordships, with West Francia and East Francia fighting for control over them. Arguably, France and Germany continued to fight over these lands up until World War II.
In general Germanic peoples on the borders are known to have served in the Roman army since the days of Julius Caesar. The tribes at the Rhine delta that later became Franks are no exception to that general rule. Despite the fact that from the 3rd century onward large quantities of Germanic peoples served in the Roman army, others kept on invading and raiding Roman soil. This caused confrontations between Franks and their neighbours on Roman soil as the Batavi and Menapii. When Roman administration collapsed in Gaul in 260 due to a joint invasion of Franks and Alamanni, The Germanic Batavian Postumus was forced to usurp power to restore order. From that moment on Germanic soldiers in the Roman army, most notably Franks, were visibly promoted from the ranks. A few decades later the Menapian Carausius (born in Batavia) created a Batavian-British rumpstate on Roman soil that was supported by Frankish soldiers and pirates. In the mid 4th century Frankish soldiers like Magnentius, Silvanus and Arbitio held a dominant position in the Roman army. From description of Ammianus Marcellinus it becomes clear that both Frankish and Alamannic armies were organised like Romans and fought comparably.
After the invasion of Chlodio the Roman armies at the Rhine-border became a Frankish "franchise", and Franks were known to levy Roman-like troops that were supported by a Roman-like armour-industry. This lasted at least till the days of Procopius, when the Roman Empire was gone for more than a century, because this historian reported that the former Rhine-army was still in operation and that legions kept on using the same standard and insignia as had their forefathers during Roman time.
Militarily, the Franks under the Merovingians melded Germanic custom with Roman organisation and several important innovations. Before the conquest of Gaul, the Franks fought primarily as a tribe unless they were part of a Roman military unit fighting in conjunction with other regiments.
The primary sources for Frankish military custom and armament are Ammianus Marcellinus, Agathias, and Procopius, the latter two Eastern Roman historians writing about Frankish intervention in the Gothic War.
Writing of 539, Procopius says:
At this time the Franks, hearing that both the Goths and Romans had suffered severely by the war . . . forgetting for the moment their oaths and treaties . . . (for this nation in matters of trust is the most treacherous in the world), they straightway gathered to the number of one hundred thousand under the leadership of Theudebert I and marched into Italy: they had a small body of cavalry about their leader, and these were the only ones armed with spears, while all the rest were foot soldiers having neither bows nor spears, but each man carried a sword and shield and one axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handles was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatters the shields of the enemy and kill the men.
His contemporary, Agathias, says:
The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is very simple. . . . They do not know the use of the coat of mail or greaves and the majority leave the head uncovered, only a few wear the helmet. They have their chests bare and backs naked to the loins, they cover their thighs with either leather or linen. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this. At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached. They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapons except the double edged axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long they can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin, and also in hand to hand combat.
While the above quotations have been used as a statement of the military practices of the Frankish armies in the sixth century and have even been extrapolated to the entire period preceding Charles Martel's reforms (early – mid eighth century), post-Second World War historiography has emphasised the inherited Roman characteristics of the Frankish military from the date of the beginning of the conquest of Gaul. The Byzantine authors present several contradictions and difficulties. Procopius denies the Franks the use of the spear while Agathias makes it one of their primary weapons. They agree that the Franks were primarily infantrymen, threw axes, and carried a sword and shield. Both writers also contradict the authority of Gallic authors of the same general time period (Sidonius Apollinaris and Gregory of Tours) and the archaeological evidence. Scramasaxes and arrowheads are numerous in Frankish graves even though the Byzantine historians do not assign them to the Franks.
The evidence of Gregory and of the Lex Salica implies that the early Franks were a cavalry people. In fact, some modern historians have hypothesised that the Franks possessed so numerous a body of horses that they could use them to plough fields and thus were agriculturally technologically advanced over their neighbours. Perhaps the Byzantine writers considered the Frankish horse to be insignificant relative to the Greek cavalry, which is probably accurate.
The Frankish military establishment incorporated many of the pre-existing Roman institutions in Gaul, especially during and after the conquests of Clovis I in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Frankish military strategy revolved around the holding and taking of fortified centres (castra) and in general these centres were held by garrisons of milites or laeti, that is, former Roman soldiers. Throughout Gaul the descendants of Roman soldiers continued to wear their uniforms and perform their ceremonial duties.
Immediately beneath the Frankish king in the military hierarchy were the leudes, sworn followers of the king, generally "old soldiers" in service away from court. They could be Gallo-Romans or Franks, laymen or clergy. Some historians have gone to the length of relating their oath-making to the later development of feudalism. The king also had an elite bodyguard called the truste (trustis). Members of the truste, antrustiones, often served in centannae, garrison settlements of Franks (or others) established for military and police purposes throughout the realm. The actual day-to-day bodyguard of the king was made up antrustiones (senior soldiers who were aristocrats in military service) and pueri (junior soldiers and not aristocrats, who in time would be promoted to antrustiones). All high-ranking men had pueri.
The Frankish military was not composed solely of Franks and Gallo-Romans, but also contained Saxons, Alans, Taifals, and Alemanni. After the conquest of Burgundy (534) the well-organised military institutions of that kingdom were integrated into the Frankish realm. Chief among these was the standing army under the command of the Patrician of Burgundy.
In the late sixth century, during the wars instigated by Fredegund and Brunhilda, the Merovingian monarchs introduced a new element into their militaries: the local levy. A levy consisted in all the able-bodied men of a district who at the call had to report for military service. The local levy applied only to a city and its environs. Initially only in certain cities in western Gaul, in Neustria and Aquitaine, did the kings possess the right or power to call up the levy. The commanders of the local levies were always different from the commanders of the urban garrisons. Often the former were commanded by the counts of the districts. A much rarer occurrence was the general levy, which applied to the entire kingdom and included peasants (pauperes and inferiores). General levies could also be made within the still-pagan trans-Rhenish stem duchies at the bequest of a monarch. The Saxons, Alemanni, and Thuringii all had the levy and it could be depended upon by the Frankish monarchs until the mid-seventh century, when the stem dukes began to sever their ties to the monarchy. Radulf of Thuringia called up the levy for a war against Sigebert III in 640.
Soon the local levy spread to Austrasia and the less Romanised regions of Gaul. On an intermediate level, the kings began calling up territorial levies from the regions of Austrasia (which did not have major cities of Roman origin). However, all the forms of the levy gradually disappeared in the course of the seventh century after the reign of Dagobert I. Under the so-called rois fainéants, the levies disappeared by mid-century in Austrasia and later in Burgundy and Neustria. Only in Aquitaine, which was fast becoming independent of the central Frankish monarchy, did complex military institutions persist into the eighth century. In the final half of the seventh century and first half of the eighth in Merovingian Gaul, the chief military actors became the lay and ecclesiastical magnates with their bands of armed followers called retainers. The other aspects of the Merovingian military, mostly Roman in origin or innovations of powerful kings, disappeared from the scene by the eighth century.
The equipment of the Merovingian armies was as varied as the composition. Magnates were known to provide their retainers with coats of mail, helmets, shields, lances, swords, bows and arrows, and war horses. The magnates' private armies resembled in armament those of the Gallo-Roman potentiatores of the late Empire. The descendants of Roman soldiers continued to use their service weapons. There was a strong element of Alanic cavalry settled in Armorica which influenced the fighting style of the Bretons down into the twelfth century. Local urban levies could be reasonably well-armed and even mounted, but the more general levies were composed of pauperes and inferiores who were mostly farmers by trade and carried into battle whatever weapons they had at hand, often tools or farming implements which made them militarily ineffective and thus rarely called upon. The peoples east of the Rhine — Franks, Saxons, and even Wends — who were sometimes called upon to serve wore less and more rudimentary armour and carried more primitive weaponry, including spears and axes. Few of these men were mounted and they were not affected very much by Roman traditions and technologies.
Merovingian strategy was wound up in the militarised nature of the entire society. The Franks, unlike their Germanic neighbours to a great extent in this respect, were disposed to call annual meetings each 1 March (the so-called Marchfeld, because assemblies so large had to meet in open fields) whereat the nobles in the presence of the king determined the military target or targets for the coming season of campaigning. This also served as a "show of strength" on behalf of the monarch, and a way for the monarch to retain the loyalty of common troops. In their civil wars with one another, the Merovingian kings concentrated on the holding of fortified places and cities (castra) and siege warfare was a primary aspect in all their endeavours. Siege engines of Roman type were used extensively and the greatest emphasis on tactics was tied to sieges. In offensive wars waged against external foes, the objective was typically the acquisition of booty or the enforcement of tribute. Only in the lands beyond the Rhine did the Merovingians seek to extend their political control over their neighbours.
Tactically, the Merovingians borrowed heavily from the Romans, especially regarding siege warfare. However, they were not bereft of innovation and there seems to be little remnant of tribal custom in their battle tactics, which were highly flexible and designed to meet the specific circumstances under which battle was being given. Subterfuge, as a tactic, was endlessly employed. Cavalry formed a large segment of the Merovingian military, but mounted troops readily dismounted when appropriate to fight on foot with the infantry. The Merovingians were capable of raising naval forces when necessary. The most significant naval campaign was waged against the Danes by Theuderic I in 515 and involved ocean-worthy ships. More regular was the use of rivercraft on the Loire, Rhone, and Rhine.
The language spoken by the early Franks is known as Old Frankish and is only attested in a few words in the Lex Salica and in personal names, and is mostly reconstructed from Old Low Franconian and loanwords in Old French and Latin. In the Low Countries it evolved into Old Dutch.
Though it lent its name to a number of widely spoken dialects in modern Germany (Ripuarian, Moselle-Franconian, Rhine-Franconian, East-Franconian, South-Franconian), France (Lorrainian) and Luxemburg (Luxembourgish) these languages are not directly related to the ancient language of the Franks.
Early in their history the Salians adopted Latin as a second language, as in the case of the Ubii. South of the language border, in what became France, Frankish was replaced by Old French from the 8th century on. Thereafter the language border between the French and Dutch languages slowly moved north to its current location.
There is no surviving work of literature in the Frankish language and perhaps no such works ever existed. Latin was the written language of Gaul before and during the Frankish period. Of the Gallic works which survive, there are a few chronicles, many hagiographies and saints' lives, and a small corpus of poems.
The word Frank has the meaning of "free" (e.g. English frank, frankly, franklin, or the Dutch expression "Frank en Vrij": Frank and Free). This arose because, after the conquest of Gaul, only Franks were free of taxation.
It was highly ritualistic and many daily activities centred around the multiple deities, chiefest of which may have been the Quinotaur, a water-god from whom the Merovingians were reputed to have derived their ancestry. Most of the pagan gods were associated with local cult centres and their sacred character and power were associated with specific regions, outside of which they were neither worshipped nor feared. Most of the gods were "worldly", possessing form and having concrete relation to earthly objects, in contradistinction to the transcedent God of Christianity.
Archaeologically, Frankish paganism has been observed in the burial site of Childeric I, where the king's body was found covered in a cloth decorated with numerous bees or flies. The symbolism of these insects is unknown.
Though a sizeable portion of the Frankish aristocracy quickly followed Clovis in converting to Christianity, the conversion of the whole of the people under Frankish rule required a considerable amount of time and effort - in some places two centuries or more. Early efforts towards organized resistance were quickly squelched: the Chronicle of St. Denis relates that, following Clovis' conversion, a number of devout pagans, unhappy with this turn of events, rallied around Ragnachairus (or Ragnachar), a powerful figure who had played an important role in Clovis' initial rise to power. Though the text remains unclear as to the precise pretext, Clovis soon had Ragnachairus thrown in chains and then executed. As for the remaining pockets of resistance, they were overcome region by region - primarily due to the work of the quickly expanding network of monasteries.
The Frankish church of the Merovingians was shaped by a number of internal and external forces: it had to come to terms with an established Gallo-Roman Christian hierarchy entrenched in a culturally resistant aristocracy; it had to Christianize pagan Frankish sensibilities and effectively suppress their expression; it had to provide a new theological basis for Merovingian forms of kingship, which were deeply rooted in pagan Germanic tradition; it had to accommodate Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionary activities on the one hand and papal requirements on the other. The Carolingian reformation of monastic life and teaching and church-state relations can be seen both as the culmination of the Frankish church and a transformation of it.
The increasing personal wealth of the Merovingian elite allowed the endowment of many monasteries, such as those of the Irish missionary Saint Columbanus. The fifth, sixth and seventh centuries saw two major waves of hermitism in the Frankish world, a movement which was eventually reorganised by legislation requiring that all monks and hermits follow the Rule of St Benedict.
The period of Frankish rule saw the gradual replacement, always pushed for by Rome, of the Gallican rite of the Gallo-Roman church with the Roman rite; this does not seem to have stirred passions outside the clergy.
The Church seems to have had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the Merovingian kings, whose claim to rule depended on a mystique of royal descent that the Church had not yet come to terms with, and who tended to revert to the polygamy of their pagan ancestors. When the mayors took over, the Church was supportive, and an Emperor crowned by the Pope was much more to their liking.
Very little is preserved in the way of Frankish architecture of the Merovingian period. The works of Gregory of Tours praise the churches of his day, which mostly seem to have been timber-built, with larger examples using the basilica plan, but the most completely surviving example of Merovingian architecture is a baptistery dedicated to Saint John in Poitiers. It is a small building with three apses, now much rebuilt, essentially continuing Gallo-Roman style. In the South of France a number of small baptistries have survived, as separate baptistries fell permanently out of fashion in later periods, so they were not updated as the main churches have been.
What is preserved of the visual and plastic arts largely consists of archaeological finds of jewellery (such as brooches), weapons (such as swords with decorative hilts), and apparel (such as capes and sandals) found in grave sites, such as the famous grave of the queen Aregund, discovered in 1959, or the Treasure of Gourdon, deposited soon after 524. Not many illuminated manuscripts survive from the Merovingian period, though the few that do, like the Gelasian Sacramentary, contain a great deal of zoomorphic representations. Compared to the similar hybrid works of Insular art from the British Isles, Frankish works in all these media show more continuing use of late Antique style and motifs, and a lesser degree of skill and sophistication in design and manufacture. The numbers surviving are so small, however, that the best quality of work may not be represented.
The main surviving monument of Carolingian architecture is the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, which is an impressive and confident adaptation of San Vitale, Ravenna, from where some of the pillars were brought. Many other important buildings can be largely reconstructed, such as the monasteries of Centula or St Gall, or the old Cologne Cathedral, now rebuilt. These were now large structures and complexes with a distinctive and sophisticated style, including an emphasis on the vertical and the frequent use of towers.
Carolingian illuminated manuscripts and ivory plaques survive in reasonable numbers, and now approach those of Constantinople in quality, as was certainly the intention.
Like other Germanic peoples, the legal models of the Franks were originally housed only in the memory of designated specialists, rachimburgs, parallel to Scandinavian lawspeakers. By the time codes began to be written down in the sixth century, there persisted two basic legal subdivisions within the Frankish nation: Salian Franks were subject to Salic law, Ripuarian Franks to Ripuarian law. Gallo-Romans south of the Loire River and the clergy remained subject to traditional Roman law. Germanic law was overwhelmingly concerned with private law, which protects individuals, over public law, which protects the interest of the state. According to Michel Rouche, "Frankish judges devoted as much care to a case involving the theft of a dog as Roman judges did to cases involving the fiscal responsibility of curiales, or municipal councilors."
Because the Frankish kingdom dominated Western Europe for centuries, terms derived from "Frank" were used by many in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and beyond as a synonym for Roman Christians (e.g., al-Faranj in Arabic, farangi in Persian, Frenk in Turkish, Feringhi in Hindustani, and Frangos in Greek). See also Thai ฝรั่ง Farang. During the crusades, which were at first led mostly by nobles from northern France who claimed descent from Charlemagne, both Muslims and Christians used these terms as ethnonyms to describe the Crusaders. This usage is often followed by modern historians, who call Western Europeans in the eastern Mediterranean "Franks" regardless of their country of origin. Compare with Rhomaios, Rûmi ("Roman"), used for Orthodox Christians. Catholics on various islands in Greece are still referred to as Φραγκοι, "Frangoi" (Franks). Examples include the naming of a Catholic from the Island of Syros as "Frangosyrianos" (Φραγκοσυριανος). The term Frangistan was used by Muslims to refer to the land where the Crusaders came from, i.e. Christian Europe. Mediterranean Lingua Franca ("Frankish language") was a pidgin talked among "Franks" and Muslims in the Mediterranean ports.
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