Oh! the iron!

Then came in sight that man of iron, Charlemagne, topped with his iron helm, his fists in iron gloves, his iron chest and his Platonic shoulders clad in an iron cuirass… All those who rode before him, those who kept him company on either flank, those who followed after, wore the same armour, and their gear was as close a copy of his own as it is possible to imagine. Iron filled the fields and all the open spaces. … This race of men harder than iron did homage to the very hardness of iron. … ‘Oh! the iron! alas for the iron!’

Thus did the late ninth century monk Notker the Stammerer relate the reaction of the Lombard king Desiderius as Charles and his army came into view, waiting in a tower in Pavia for the storm to break. Soon after, according to Notker, one witness literally fainted at the sight of the mighty horde.1.Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, bk.II, s.17, pp.163-164.

Where did all this iron come from? Of¬†the many miracles related in dozens of saint’s lives from this period, none mention swords falling from the sky. All of the weapons, armor, and, for that matter tools, farm implements, and horseshoes had to be crafted by hand, using iron ore taken from the earth, and then smelted in villages, manors, and abbeys all through the realm. Let’s take a look at this industry, “of the utmost importance in the Carolingian Empire”.2.Butt, Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, p.89.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, bk.II, s.17, pp.163-164.
2. Butt, Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, p.89.

Eadfrith’s gospel book

In the closing years of the seventh century, behind the walls of the priory of Lindisfarne, a monk named Eadfrith created a masterpiece. He wrote and ‘painted’ a gospel book (a book of the four gospels of the new testament, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John). Such books had been produced before, and would be produced again. But nothing like Eadfrith’s gospel book has ever been seen.

Lindisfarne is a tidal island on the eastern shore of England, just south of the Scottish border. Saint Aiden, an Irish monk, founded a priory there sometime in the first third of the seventh century. No doubt he was taken by the remote aspect of the island, which is approachable only during low tide. The Venerable Bede describes the island’s church as built “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds after the Irish manner. … But Eadbert, a later Bishop of Lindisfarne, removed the thatch, and covered both roof and walls with sheets of lead.”1.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.¬†Eadbert was bishop while Eadfrith was a monk, and so it is doubtful if Eadfrith toiled under any roof grander than thatch. No doubt it was damp, cold, and dark.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.