Frankish Travelogue – Gascony

Gascony is the area bordered by the Pyrenees to the south, the Atlantic to the west, the Garonne river to the north, and a less defined boundary to the east. It has never included Toulouse. Those distinctions have stayed pretty firm over the centuries, except when the border of the “Duchy of Vasconia” extended as far south as Pamplona in the seventh century.

The early medieval histories of Aquitaine and Gascony are inextricably linked, in the same way the histories of Aquitaine and Francia are linked. The fortunes of one inevitably affected the fortunes of the other. The early history of Gascony is particularly hazy, even by ‘Dark Age’ standards.

In 670 or so a Duke Lupus came to power over Aquitaine and Gascony. The scholar Pierre Riche says, “Victorious over the Basques, Duke Lupus exploited the struggles between Ebroin and the Austrasians to carve out a new princedom for himself south of the Garonne.”1.Riche, Carolingians: Family Who Forged Europe, p.29. This was during a period of retrenchment in Francia, and the outlying areas found themselves able to purse greater independence. In 675 Lupus organized a church synod in Bordeaux, a sign of a rule both enlightened and powerful enough to pull it off. But that is the last we hear of Duke Lupus, despite his terrific name.

The next ruler was Odo, but there is no way to know when he came to power. Some say it was by 710, some say by 700, and some say earlier. Let’s just keep it simple, and talk about the eighth century opening with Duke Odo in power. Even then the record is sparse. We can say that by 715 Odo was in as powerful a position as he would ever occupy. While the Arabs had taken Pamplona in 714, so far they showed no serious inclination to come further north, and the mountain Basques resisted their incursions. Odo had probably been strengthened by the many refugees that must have streamed over the mountains into his realm, in the face of the ongoing Muslim conquest. To the north the Franks were locked in a brutal civil war, with the outcome far from certain. Odo declared his independence in 715, throwing off the nominal yoke of Frankish suzerainty.

Odo doubled down in 718, actively taking sides in the civil war across the Loire, when he and brought an army that included a contingent of Basques across the Loire, where he received and gave shelter to the Neustrian king Chilperic II. Perhaps it was all a bluff, because as soon as Charles, the eventual winner of the war, came with his own army, Odo handed over the king and took his Basques back south. Had the gambit worked, of course, Odo would have had a pliant and grateful king as a neighbor. Instead he got the mercurial and ferocious Charles.

The next fifty years are a tale of gradually diminishing Aquitainian power under the dual onslaughts of Franks and Muslims, until the final subjugation by Pepin le Bref in 768. During this time the Basques and Vascones continued to ally themselves with Odo and his successors.

It can be difficult to discern Basque, Gascon, and Aquitainian, however, as often they are lumped together, particularly in Fredegar, the most important source for this time period. In 742, Fredegar notes that, “the Gascons of Aquitaine rose in rebellion under Duke Chunoald, son of the late Eudo.”2.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.25, p.98. Three years later Carloman and Pepin again crossed the Loire, for “the Gascons were provoking them.”3.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.28, p.100. Was it only the Gascons who rebelled? Did Hunald use only the Gascon/Basque fighters in his rebellions? Very hard to decipher.

When Fredegar gets into Pepin’s war on Aquitaine from 758 – 768, however, he tends to be more precise in his usage. “…Fredegar’s Continuator appears to mention these southerners when they took part in military action.”4.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.209. There is not much doubt that the fighting skills of the Basques were much in demand, and that duke Waifar kept the Gascons as independent units, rather than incorporating them into the larger Aquitainian army. Bachrach, as ever, sums up the situation nicely.

By the early eighth century, a Gascon regional levy was a significant part of the military organization of the Aquitainian duke. The regional levy served far beyond the front of Gascony and even beyond the borders of Aquitaine. In fact… this force was engaged in military operations under the command of the Aquitainian duke north of the Loire river. In terms of its regional organization and its capacity to engage in lengthy campaigns, it may perhaps be compared to the regional levy of Champagne, which the Merovingian kings organized during the sixth century and which served as far from its home base as northern Italy.5.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.211.

Eventually, of course, the Carolingians succeeded in crushing both Aquitainian and Gascon resistance. In a supreme irony, Odo’s successor’s successor, Waifar, was turned over to Pepin by his own allies in the final act of the war, much as Odo had done with Chilperic. In 781 Charlemagne created the (theoretically separate) kingdom of Aquitaine, ruled by his young son Louis, who had been born in Aquitaine in 778. As Riche says, “the Gascon dukes rallied behind the Carolingians, but remained distinct.” When “king Louis” appeared before Charlemagne at Paderborn in 785, “he wore Gascon dress: a rounded cape, flowing sleeves, puffy trousers, and boots with spurs.”6.Riche, Carolingians: Family Who Forged Europe, p.131.

The military reputation of the Gascons continued for centuries. Alexandre Dumas, in creating one of the great heroes of literature for his masterpiece The Three Musketeers, made Gascony the home of the brave and resourceful d’Artagnan. To this day, do not mess with the Basques.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Riche, Carolingians: Family Who Forged Europe, p.29.
2. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.25, p.98.
3. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.28, p.100.
4. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.209.
5. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.211.
6. Riche, Carolingians: Family Who Forged Europe, p.131.

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