Spain in the second half of the eighth century was a place of splintered kingdoms, divided loyalties, and conflicting religions. Charlemagne, dreaming of easy conquests and religious glory, stepped right into the steaming pile of it, and ended up leaving his boot behind when he tried to scrape it clean.
Before we get into the details, let’s do a little scene-setting. As you may remember, Islam spread out of the Arabian peninsula with amazing rapidity, arrived in Spain around 711, and by 732 the Arab armies rapped at the very gates of Western Christendom. Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel knocked them back across the Pyrenees, and his father Pepin had further cleansed the Narbonnaise, but to date the Franks had looked no further south. The Pippinids contented themselves with conquering Saxons and fellow Christians.
This balance of forces probably would have continued were it not for a coup in Syria around 750. The ruler of the Umayyad caliphate was murdered, and his family hunted down and killed. The new ruler, founder of the Abbasid caliphate, was determined to leave no root from which an Umayyad seedling might sprout. He got them all, but one. ‘Abd al-Rahman traveled first to Africa, then in 756 landed in Spain. Conditions were ripe for upheaval, as the ruler at that time was cruel, and a drought had caused much hardship.1.Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.169-170.
‘Abd al-Rahman spend the next twenty years putting down various revolts and establishing his rule. His first and greatest opponent was Yusuf ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahman, the Abbasid ruler. While Yusuf had ruled Muslim Narbonne and Provence from 735 onward, he must have, as we shall see, been known to the Franks in at least a respectful light. ‘Abd al-Rahman was, one might say, a firm opponent.
In 763 an ‘Abbasid expedition sent by the caliph Abu Ja’far (754-775) to challenge ‘Abd al-Rahman I, was easily defeated and its leaders executed. “In order the better to strike terror into his enemies, ‘Abd al-Rahman caused labels, inscribed with the names of the deceased to be suspended from their ears; their heads were then stored in sealed bags, together with the black banners of the house of ‘Abbas, and the whole given to a trusty merchant, who was directed to convey his cargo to Mecca, and to deposit it in a public place at a certain time.” The caliph, then on a pilgrimage to the holy city, there discovered the gruesome remains of his commanders, and exclaimed of ‘Abd al-Rahman: “God be praised for placing a sea between us!”2.Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.170-71. Collins’ quotes are from an Arab chronicler, Al-Makkari.
Al-Andalus is a big place, with many mountains, and despite his ferocity al-Rahman could not conquer everything at once. By 775, from his capital at Cordova, he was turning his attentions to the north, to the city of Zaragoza.
Zaragoza had always been a staunch supporter of Yusuf, and it is not surprising that al-Rahman would have taken his time before he attempted to take the region. The city sits almost exactly in the middle of the length of the Ebro river, and there are steep and forbidding hills to the south. But control of Zaragoza would enable further control downriver, to include Barcelona. In 776 or thereabouts3.The chronology of events in Spain during the eighth century is pretty rough. al-Rahman made an initial assault, which “proved a fiasco,”4.Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.177. but which did not cool al-Rahman’s desire for the conquest.
The paramount rulers in northern Spain were Sulayman ibn Yaqzan al-Arabi, wali (ruler) of Zaragoza, Abu Taher of Huesca, and Al-Husayn ibn Yahya al-Ansuri of Barcelona, all of whom no doubt knew that fresh assaults would be due in the near future. To strengthen their forces the Arabs sent a delegation to king Charles, and met him at the marchfield at Paderborn in the spring of 777. That’s when things get interesting.
At least three men showed up in Francia that spring. “To this same assembly came also Saracens from Spain, namely, Ibn al-Arabi and the son and son-in-law of Deiuzef [Yusuf], who is called Joseph in Latin.”5.King, Royal Frankish Annals, 777, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.79. The son and son-in-law, both of whom are otherwise unidentified or mentioned again, must have been sent because of the Franks’ prior relationship with Yusuf, mentioned above. Ibn al-Arabi would seem to be Sulayman ibn Yaqzan al-Arabi. King and other translators of the Royal Annals reach this conclusion. But Roger Collins argues that a proper translation of the names in the Annals reveal that it is the son of Sulayman who reached Paderborn, and I find what he says persuasive.6.Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.179. In addition to the translation issue, Collins points out that ibn-Arabi is later taken to Spain as a hostage, while his father is killed in Zaragoza.
No doubt the embassy asked for Charlemagne’s assistance in the soon-to-occur assault on northern Spain. But what did they offer in return? The Royal Annals say that al-Arabi “surrendered himself and the cities which the rex of the Saracens had placed under his command.”7.King, Revised Royal Frankish Annals, 777, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.113. The Petau annals (of the ‘minor annals’, according to King) say something similar, “…they subjected themselves with all whom they ruled to the dominion of the lord king Charles.”8.Ibid, p.151. While we will never know, I don’t believe that these emissaries simply offered complete overlordship to Charles, and if they did, they were over-promising to clinch the deal.
There are several clues as to what else Charlemagne may have been thinking. The biographer known as ‘The Astronomer’, in his life of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, says that Charlemagne went to Spain to “bring succour to the church suffering under the most harsh yoke of the Saracens.”9.Ibid, p.168. In an exchange of letters between Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian in 778, Hadrian noted that “the people of the Hagarenes are intent on invading your territories to make war,” apparently a restatement of an argument Charles was making.10.Ibid, p.288. We don’t have Charles’ letter, only Hadrian’s. ‘Hagarenes’ was a term used by Christian writers to describe the Arabs of the early Islamic conquests. Hagar was one of Abraham’s wives or concubines, and the mother of Ishmael.
So it appears that three different motivations may have motivated Charlemagne in that spring of 777: easy conquest, religious revival and rescue, and self-defense (what we might call a pre-emptive invasion). Personally I don’t give much credence to the idea of self-defense. There is no reason to think that the Muslims of Spain posed any threat to the Frankish lands. The idea of Christian liberation rings somewhat louder, but not conclusively. McKitterick notes that “Although religion was used as an excuse for attacking the Avars, it appears not to have been a consideration in the various dealings Charlemagne had with the peoples of Spain, whether in Muslim Al-Andalus, the Christian Visigothic kingdoms of northern Spain, or the mixed population of the area brought loosely under Carolingian control known as Septimania.”11.McKitterick, Charlemagne, p.133. The temptation of free land makes the most sense.
“The hope of an easy conquest was undoubtedly the principal reason for the campaign.”12.Barbero, Charlemagne, p.57. Charlemagne was a ruler who depended on the goodwill of his leading men to support him in his kingship. Remember that he was only a second-generation king, his father Pepin having overthrown the last of the Merovingian line and then had himself proclaimed rex in 754. The best way to gain and keep the loyalty of the magnates was plunder and land that could be handed out to their own followers, and thus increase their power. When the Arab party arrived at Paderborn and literally handed over a swath of territory just over the border, it was too good to pass up.
Charlemagne immediately began planning the operation, with such zeal that he actually forgot or ignored a prior appointment with the pope! In in of those letters from 778 Hadrian laments that Charles had not appeared at Easter as promised by one of his missi, when the pope had planned to stand as godfather at the baptism of a newly born son.13.King, Caroline code, letter 17, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.286. It was to this letter than Charlemagne responded by pointing out the ‘threat’ from the south, as noted above.
We don’t have any real detail on the preparations for the expedition, but they must have substantial. Next time we’ll look at the army, the expedition, and what happened during that Spanish summer of 778.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.169-170.|
|2.||↑||Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.170-71. Collins’ quotes are from an Arab chronicler, Al-Makkari.|
|3.||↑||The chronology of events in Spain during the eighth century is pretty rough.|
|4.||↑||Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.177.|
|5.||↑||King, Royal Frankish Annals, 777, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.79.|
|6.||↑||Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.179. In addition to the translation issue, Collins points out that ibn-Arabi is later taken to Spain as a hostage, while his father is killed in Zaragoza.|
|7.||↑||King, Revised Royal Frankish Annals, 777, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.113.|
|10.||↑||Ibid, p.288. We don’t have Charles’ letter, only Hadrian’s. ‘Hagarenes’ was a term used by Christian writers to describe the Arabs of the early Islamic conquests. Hagar was one of Abraham’s wives or concubines, and the mother of Ishmael.|
|11.||↑||McKitterick, Charlemagne, p.133.|
|12.||↑||Barbero, Charlemagne, p.57.|
|13.||↑||King, Caroline code, letter 17, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.286.|