Eternal Jerusalem

When medieval Europe was young, Jerusalem was already ancient. As laborers laid the first stones of the great pyramid of Giza, fifty generations of Jerusalemites had come and gone. After another twenty-five centuries a rustic carpenter’s son started throwing tables around at the Jewish temple located on the city’s high ground. Then another eight centuries or so went by, before a son was born to an usurper king in Europe, who would go on to found the empire that would bear his name.

Jerusalem occupied a special place in the minds and souls of eighth century Europeans. Constantinople was the other great eastern city known (if any would have been known), it was regarded more as the seat of the ‘other’ Christian empire, the palace that gave orders to popes. A rival power.

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Wandering, heretic priests, of course

The classic ‘wandering minstrel’ was not the only itinerant non-peasant to roam the roads of western Europe in the eighth century. Priests and other religious were also known to travel from town to village, preaching to the faithful. These wandering priests were not looked upon with favor by the authorities. They disrupted the ‘natural’ order of things, by drawing the common folk away from the established churches (and thereby interrupting the flow of tithes), as well as preaching a message different from what the church establishment preferred.

Charlemagne did not like people to wander. He wanted everyone to sit down, stay put, and get to work. Chapter three of the “General Admonition” capitulary of 769 expressly states, “fugitive clerics and peregrini [pilgrims] are not to be received or ordained by anyone without a letter of commendation, and authorisation, from their bishop or abbot.”1.King, Translated Sources, p.210.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. King, Translated Sources, p.210.

Tolerance of the Jews

We must never forget that the history of European Jewry culminates in the horrors of the mid-20th century. The precursors to the industrialized slaughter of the Holocaust can be seen in the vicious and unprovoked pogroms as far back as the first crusade. When in 1095 Urban II preached liberation of the Holy Land, many in Germany took the opportunity the very next year to launch attacks on the wealthy Jewish populations of the Rhine valley. Several thousand perished.

But attitudes were not always so antagonistic. Jews in the eighth century were certainly tolerated, if not embraced. The overarching policy was ‘live and let live.’ The proof is in the laws, some stories, and a few tantalizing hints of acceptance at the highest levels of society.

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Dorestad, crossroads of the north

Dorestad was the largest of what are (and were then) called emporia. An emporium was founded by a king or high ruler with the express purpose of facilitating the trade and production of high-status goods. Emporia were always located on large rivers or harbors, in order to enable wares from the interior to be exported, and provide an exceptional port for merchandise to come from abroad. They were very much working class towns, and in general the nobility and the religious avoided making the towns centers of non-economic activity.

Dorestad was located at the junction of the Rhine and Lek rivers, in what is today the Netherlands, and what was then called Frisia. In addition to the obvious advantages that a port on the Rhine provided, there was an old Roman fortress near the site that probably contributed some feeling of security. One disadvantage of Dorestad was that it was located very close to the undefined but fiercely contested border between Frisia and Austrasia. As a result the town changed rulers fairly frequently after its founding in the early seventh century.

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Charlemagne’s tail gets twisted… off

For when what could be done in Spain had been carried out and they were returning after a successful campaign a misfortune was met with and certain of the rear-guard of the royal column were killed in those same mountains. Since their names are widely known, I have neglected to give them.1.Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.

He had more than thirty years of wars ahead of him, but the ambush at Roncesvalle was the greatest defeat Charlemagne ever knew. It was, perhaps, a fitting end to an ill-fated enterprise.

The army that Charlemagne led north over the pass of Roncesvalles in August was hot, tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Don’t be fooled by the Astonomer’s characterization; Charles had been enticed out of Francia with the promise to reign in Spain2.Did you see what I did just there? north of the Ebro. The summer turned out to be an exercise in nothing more than physical endurance and political patience, while Charles’ erstwhile allies ended up killing one another.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.
2. Did you see what I did just there?