A thatched roof over one’s head

Uncovering the lives of the common folk throughout history is never easy. While we may never know what the common man and woman was thinking in the eighth century, we do have some little information about how they lived. We’ve looked at food and drink, and now let’s look at their home sweet homes.

First let’s get the obvious out of the way – they built with what was available, which meant wood, and wood doesn’t last long unless it is preserved under unusual natural circumstances. Add that fact to the lamentable dearth of documentation that refers, in any way, to the life of the masses, and you’re going to come up short of everything you might want to know. But there is enough to catch a glimpse of an early medieval village through the fog of a dark age…

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For want of a nail…

Horses have been an integral component of civilization’s progress for at least five thousand years, and it is only in our modern, Western, industrial and post-industrial age that the horse has become an object solely of sport and play. In the eighth century the horse was an essential element of agriculture, war, and social status. Let’s start our survey with a look at what the law codes had to say about horses.

The Salic Law contains four chapters specific to horses. These include “On Mounting a Horse Without the Consent of Its Owner,” which called for a massive fine of 30 solidi. There was also “Concerning the Theft of Horses and Mares,” “On Skinning a Dead Horse Without the Consent of Its Owner,” and “Concerning Stolen Horses.” Other chapters mention horses in the context of other offenses against animals.1.Laws of the Salian Franks, pp.85, 99, 125, and 205.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Laws of the Salian Franks, pp.85, 99, 125, and 205.

Wandering, heretic priests, of course

The classic ‘wandering minstrel’ was not the only itinerant non-peasant to roam the roads of western Europe in the eighth century. Priests and other religious were also known to travel from town to village, preaching to the faithful. These wandering priests were not looked upon with favor by the authorities. They disrupted the ‘natural’ order of things, by drawing the common folk away from the established churches (and thereby interrupting the flow of tithes), as well as preaching a message different from what the church establishment preferred.

Charlemagne did not like people to wander. He wanted everyone to sit down, stay put, and get to work. Chapter three of the “General Admonition” capitulary of 769 expressly states, “fugitive clerics and peregrini [pilgrims] are not to be received or ordained by anyone without a letter of commendation, and authorisation, from their bishop or abbot.”1.King, Translated Sources, p.210.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. King, Translated Sources, p.210.

Tolerance of the Jews

We must never forget that the history of European Jewry culminates in the horrors of the mid-20th century. The precursors to the industrialized slaughter of the Holocaust can be seen in the vicious and unprovoked pogroms as far back as the first crusade. When in 1095 Urban II preached liberation of the Holy Land, many in Germany took the opportunity the very next year to launch attacks on the wealthy Jewish populations of the Rhine valley. Several thousand perished.

But attitudes were not always so antagonistic. Jews in the eighth century were certainly tolerated, if not embraced. The overarching policy was ‘live and let live.’ The proof is in the laws, some stories, and a few tantalizing hints of acceptance at the highest levels of society.

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Dorestad, crossroads of the north

Dorestad was the largest of what are (and were then) called emporia. An emporium was founded by a king or high ruler with the express purpose of facilitating the trade and production of high-status goods. Emporia were always located on large rivers or harbors, in order to enable wares from the interior to be exported, and provide an exceptional port for merchandise to come from abroad. They were very much working class towns, and in general the nobility and the religious avoided making the towns centers of non-economic activity.

Dorestad was located at the junction of the Rhine and Lek rivers, in what is today the Netherlands, and what was then called Frisia. In addition to the obvious advantages that a port on the Rhine provided, there was an old Roman fortress near the site that probably contributed some feeling of security. One disadvantage of Dorestad was that it was located very close to the undefined but fiercely contested border between Frisia and Austrasia. As a result the town changed rulers fairly frequently after its founding in the early seventh century.

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