Frankish travelogue: Brittany

Early medieval Brittany is a difficult place to explore. One scholar has noted “the complete absence of information about Brittany in the first half of the eighth century…”1.Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25. With one notable, almost startling exception, which I will get to below, there is almost nothing in the sources about what was going on in Brittany during the eighth century. But let’s see what we can dredge up.

Brittany, for the cartographically challenged, is the peninsula jutting into the Atlantic on France’s north-west coast. It is a region of some 13,000 square miles, a land dominated by the sea, rocky and sparse. The hills reach heights of 1200 feet within just five miles of the coast. There was no traditional physical boundary between Francia and Brittany, although the Vilaine river is definitely Brittany, and the later eighth century Breton March was east of the river. On the other hand, the town of Nantes, just north of the mouth of the river Loire, was also considered part of the region. Other major towns include Rennes, and Vienne, and the monastery of Redon, which was established in 832. These population hubs are all along the Vilaine valley. West of the Vilaine there were only a few minor population centers.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25.

Gregory II: the schism begins

The pontificate of pope Gregory II marked the beginning of the end of the old “Byzantine papacy,” and the start of a new, western-facing papacy. Gregory opposed the Byzantine emperor on new taxes, inaugurated a muscular regional policy to oppose Lombard expansionism, and implacably fought the eastern empire’s policy of Iconoclasm. The popes that succeeded Gregory continued his policies, eventually culminating the coronation of Pepin the Short and the establishment of the ‘Papal States’ that continued until the 20th century. Let’s take a look.

Gregory II (his original name is not known) was born to a noble Roman family in 669. After holding a number of ecclesiastical posts he was elected pope on 19 May 715, and held the papacy until his death on 11 February 731. He is first notable to history for his work with Boniface, the English monk who proselytized among the Germans. During this period the papacy became increasingly concerned with converting German lands.1.Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32. Boniface, then named Wynfrith, first worked among the Frisians, then traveled to Rome in 717. Wynfrith impressed Gregory, who renamed him Boniface and sent him to Germany.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32.

Santa Maria Antiqua, reborn

Once literally, now figuratively buried in the architectural mass of the Palatine Hill in Rome, lies a little church that is a gem of eighth century artistic expression. Buried in an earthquake in 847, it was rediscovered in 1900 with its frescoes more or less intact. The ensuing century has not been necessarily kind to the structure, with many of the ailments common to historic structures and artworks manifesting themselves. However, the church is a World Heritage Site, and conservators have been at work for decades to restore and protect the paintings. Best of all, particularly for my legions of Italian readers, the church is open now until 11 September, 2016, after undergoing decades of restoration.

Interior of the church

The Palatine Hill is one of the famous seven hills of Rome, and the one where several of the emperors made their residence. During the years of late antiquity, as the empire disintegrated, the Huns approached, and Christianity rose, a small church was created from a former guardroom, out of the walls and foundations of the west slope of the hill.1.Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, p.24.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, p.24.