The base, craven, heretical Maurontus

One of the interesting bits that caught my eye while researching the post on Islam in Francia was the story of Duke Maurontus, and how he “invited” the Arabs of Narbonne to occupy his city of Avignon. That a duke of Christendom would voluntarily surrender his fortified city to the dread Saracens seemed incredible, so naturally I wanted to take a closer look.

Avignon is part of Provence, a region with long ties to the Mediterranean, and one that had an uneasy relationship with the Franks to the north. In the first few decades of the eighth century two great families dominated Provence: the first family was led by a bishop named Abbo, and they controlled the passes into Lombardy; the second family was led by Duke Maurontus, and they controlled the coast, including Avignon and the mouth of the Rhone river. Bishop Abbo allied himself with Charles Martel, which proved to be a deciding factor in the struggle for Provence, and a smart decision by Abbo.

Beginning in 734 Charles began to campaign in Burgundy, and soon moved south into Provence, supported by Abbo (it is possible they were even related to each other)1.Fouracre, Age of Charles Martel, p.97. Charles’ forces conquered Marseilles, which forced Maurontus into the fortress of Avignon. The city is located on rocky bluffs overlooking the Rhone. It was at this point that Maurontus made a fateful decision.

Maurontus sent word to the Wali of Narbonne, Jusuf ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahman, and offered some kind of political and military deal. While no details are available, the duke probably offered to share power or economic access in exchange for military protection. Things evidently did not work out exactly as Maurontus expected, as “the Moslems quickly attempted to push aside their erstwhile allies and occupy the region.”2.Geary, Before France and Germany, p.207. Fredegar’s Continuator describes the scene with far more style that I can muster: “Once more the mighty race of Ishmael, who are now known by the outlandish name of Saracens, rebelled and burst across the river Rhone. With the base, craven collaboration of the heretical Maurontus and his friends, the Saracens attacked in force the city of Avignon strongly fortified on her rock.”3.Continuations of Fredegar, ch.20, p.94.

Not only that, but it gave Charles the perfect excuse to bring the hammer. “Charles mobilized an immense expeditionary force of not only Franks but also Burgundians, and probably Alamanni and Bavarians.”4.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.34. A preliminary force, led by his half-brother Duke Childebrand, laid the preparations for a siege. Once Charles arrived on the scene the assault was launched, with battering rams and rope ladders. The Carolingians had a pretty well developed siege train by this point, and the fortress quickly fell.5.Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, p.105.

After that Charles rampaged his way along the coast, hitting Nimes, Agde, Beziers, and Narbonne, as well as a tremendous battle at the mouth of the river Berre, where many Muslims were said to drown. Remember, all this is still happening in 737. While it may seem incredible that armies could fight, conquer, and move on in the course of a single campaign, the distances traversed are not that large.

But then, through some geographic legerdemain which eludes me (and apparently everyone else, because no one explains it), the Arabs and Maurontus show up again in Avignon. “Despite these successes of Childebrand and Charles, a second expedition was needed that year to regain control of Provence, as the Arabs had returned.”6.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.97. Again, the Continuator will supply us with the necessary rhetorical flourish:

Later on in this happy year Charles dispatched an army under his above-named brother and many dukes and counts with orders to march on Provence. As they reached the city of Avignon Charles himself caught them up in haste; and he restored the whole country, down to the Mediterranean, to his rule. Duke Maurontus sought refuge in the impenetrable rocky fastnesses out to sea. When Prince Charles had added to himself all the countries round about, so that none rebelled against him, he came back victorious to Frankish territory.7.Continuations of Fredegar, ch.21, pp.95-96.

That is a happy year. Unless you’re Duke Maurontus, of course.

There’s an interesting bit of unverified historical trivia associated with this second attack. Paul the Deacon writes that “Charles sent messengers with gifts to king Liutprand and asked assistance from him against the Saracens and he without delay hastened with the whole army of the Langobards to his assistance. The nation of the Saracens when they learned this, presently fled away from those regions and Liutprand with his whole army returned to Italy.”8.Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, bk.VI, ch.LIV, pp.296-7. Did this actually happen? Very hard to say. While Charles and Liutprand were allies, there is absolutely no corroboration in the Carolingian or other sources. But there wouldn’t be, would there? No need to spread the butter too thin. Perhaps Charles sent a request early on, but the Lombards didn’t quite get to the battlefield on time, so decided to declare victory in any case.

With the victories in the field in hand it was time to reward loyal supporters. Abbo was named patricius, and was awarded lands from the conquered magnates of Provence. Thanks to Abbo’s will, which he composed in 739, we actually have the names of some of those who had allied themselves with Maurontus, and so suffered the consequences. “The other rebels were Riculf, Rodbald and Rodulf, who were members of the same family. In the case of Riculf’s lands… the will says that they were confiscated by the order of King Theuderic and Charles Martel because Riculf ‘associated himself with the people of the Saracens in infidelity against the kingdom of the Franks, and did many evil things with this pagan people.’ “9.Geary, Before France and Germany, p.207.

Abbo and family proved to be a good allies to have. Less than twenty years later alliances had shifted between the Franks and the Lombards, and in 755 King Pepin sent an army into Lombardy via the pass at Susa, mentioned above.

Abbo is actually known more for his will than his role in the campaign in Provence, and, indeed, we really don’t know if he was an active ally, or someone who simply opened the gate when Charles arrived on his doorstep. No more is heard of Duke Maurontus, last seen in his “impenetrable rocky fastnesses out to sea.” Charles had a habit of granting his defeated enemies some kind of respite, and perhaps Maurontus received something of the same. Charles, as was his wont, had already moved on to other things.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fouracre, Age of Charles Martel, p.97
2, 9. Geary, Before France and Germany, p.207.
3. Continuations of Fredegar, ch.20, p.94.
4. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.34.
5. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, p.105.
6. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.97.
7. Continuations of Fredegar, ch.21, pp.95-96.
8. Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, bk.VI, ch.LIV, pp.296-7.

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