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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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.

All the pope’s men

The papal bureaucracy of the eighth century was the most advanced and ‘modern’ government in all Europe. Unlike the hereditary kingdoms that surrounded the papal lands, the papacy was (and, for that matter, still is) ruled by an elected absolute monarch, albeit via a somewhat constricted electorate.

But no man is an island, and the pope required just as much help to run his kingdom as any other king or duke. He needed able men to assist in the performance of the papal duties, both secular and spiritual, and those men in turn required administrative staff to carry out the papal will. There were seven positions that were considered key in the papal government. Let’s take a look at the seven men who supported the pope.

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