Was Aeneas Charlemagne’s ancestor?

“Let us set out the beginnings of the kings of the Franks and their origin and also the origins of the people and its deeds.”1.Liber Historiae Francorum, ch. 1.

Thus opens the Liber Historiae Francorum, one of the early medieval sources that relate an origin tale about how the people to be recounted came to their place in the world, and who their original ancestors were. I have found a half-dozen sources from the early medieval era that describe such origin stories. These stories come in two flavors: the first is a straight forward telling that usually starts with some sort of biblical, old testament epitome, continues with the Roman Empire, and then fits in the particular tribe or people.

This first model includes Gregory of Tours, who wrote in the sixth century. The first book of his History of the Franks is all distant history, beginning with the creation of the world. He paraphrases much of the genealogy of the Old Testament, then moves smoothly to the Roman emperors.2.Gregory of Tours, bk. 1. Gregory is usually a “just the facts” kind of writer; he doesn’t even include that fascinating story that Merovech, first king of the Merovingians, was fathered by a sea monster! So disappointing. Although he does include some other juicy tidbits.

Read more

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Liber Historiae Francorum, ch. 1.
2. Gregory of Tours, bk. 1.

The matter of Britain

The Carolingian kings and dukes did not operate in an international vacuum. While the concept of the ‘state’ as we moderns understand the concept would need another half-dozen centuries or so to germinate, the idea of international relations was as sound as it had been in the classical era. There were a few different ways that Francia and Britain interacted in the eighth century. Rulers interacted with other rulers, traded moved across borders, and scholars spread the faith.

In the sixth century the Frankish princess Bertha was married to king Ethelbert of Kent.1.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk1, ch25. Charlemagne and king Offa of Kent got into a spat in 790 when Charlemagne wanted to marry his eldest son, also Charles, to Offa’s daughter. Offa would only agree to this if his son would marry Charlemagne’s daughter.2.Ganshof, The Carolingians, p169-70. Charlemagne regarded his relations with Offa as either important enough, or touchy enough, to appoint only one ambassador to him, Abbot Gervold of St Wandrille. Charlemagne regarded this as a great insult, but he was always a little touchy about his daughters.3.Einhard even mentions this in chapter 19 of the vita, saying, “it is strange to have to report that he never wanted to give any of them away in marriage to anyone, whether it be to a Frankish noble or a foreigner.”

Read more

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk1, ch25.
2. Ganshof, The Carolingians, p169-70. Charlemagne regarded his relations with Offa as either important enough, or touchy enough, to appoint only one ambassador to him, Abbot Gervold of St Wandrille.
3. Einhard even mentions this in chapter 19 of the vita, saying, “it is strange to have to report that he never wanted to give any of them away in marriage to anyone, whether it be to a Frankish noble or a foreigner.”

Early medieval primary source types

If you want to learn about any historical period you have to dig into the primary sources. It can be daunting at first, but getting a handle of what you’re dealing with helps. To start with, I count ten about different kinds of primary sources for the early middle ages:

Annals are the most straightforward source available. A strict chronological list, with a bare bones outline of
the major events of the year. I have noted some exceptions to that. The Royal Frankish Annals and its revisions are the best known example, but there are others. Many of them are simply excerpts and summaries of the RFA, but they do offer local tidbits.

Chronicles are also a chronological record, but they tend to meander a little more, and retrospectively cover stories in whole. Some years may not get mentioned at all, and often the stories don’t mention on what date an event occurs. Examples include the Chronicles of Fredegar, the Chronicle of 754, and the Liber Historiae Francorum.

Read more

God wants us to kill Saxons

The hand of God appears with remarkable frequency in the Royal Frankish Annals. In battle after battle the annalist notes that a battle was won “by the hand of God,” or “by God’s help.” (Oddly, these invocations don’t begin until Charlemagne assumes the throne. Didn’t God smile upon his father Pepin?). But the Saxon wars seem to have inspired God with particularly manifest miracles of aid.

The streams had all dried up during the hot summer in 772, when Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul. But the job of destruction was not yet completed. What to do?

And there was a great drought, so that no water was to be had in the above-said place where the Irminsul stood. And while the aforesaid glorious king wanted to stay there for two or three days in order to destroy the sanctuary completely, but his men had no water, suddenly, by the bounty of divine grace, there poured forth along a particular watercourse – this was at midday, while the whole army was resting; no one knew what was happening – such an abundance of water that the whole army had sufficient.1.RFA, 772.

Read more

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. RFA, 772.