Charlemagne’s tail gets twisted… off

For when what could be done in Spain had been carried out and they were returning after a successful campaign a misfortune was met with and certain of the rear-guard of the royal column were killed in those same mountains. Since their names are widely known, I have neglected to give them.1.Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.

He had more than thirty years of wars ahead of him, but the ambush at Roncesvalle was the greatest defeat Charlemagne ever knew. It was, perhaps, a fitting end to an ill-fated enterprise.

The army that Charlemagne led north over the pass of Roncesvalles in August was hot, tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Don’t be fooled by the Astonomer’s characterization; Charles had been enticed out of Francia with the promise to reign in Spain2.Did you see what I did just there? north of the Ebro. The summer turned out to be an exercise in nothing more than physical endurance and political patience, while Charles’ erstwhile allies ended up killing one another.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.
2. Did you see what I did just there?

Charlemagne gets played

In the spring of 777 a group of Arab emissaries from northern Spain arrived at Paderborn, Germany to meet with the Frankish King Charles. They had traveled more than a thousand miles, but it was worth it, for they had a proposal of continental scope to put forth. If Charles would raise his armies and march to Spain, he would be granted dominion over all of the lands from the Pyrenees to the Ebro river, if he could defend them against the depredations of the last of the Umayyad emirs, the merciless ‘Abd al-Rahman of Cordova. For a variety of reasons, thoughts of an easy conquest uppermost, Charles agreed. The word went forth throughout the realm to prepare for war.1.All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.

No details reach us concerning the specific preparations that were undertaken for this particular expedition. The groundwork must have been immense, for the Spanish expedition was one of the larger armies Charles organized. “How big was it?” is, of course, the obvious question, and one to which much thought has been given. To no satisfactory result, it must be said. The sources give ridiculous numbers, in the hundreds of thousands, and must be taken as the rhetorical equivalent of “larger than you can imagine.”

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. All of this is detailed more fully in my previous post.

Charlemagne gets suckered

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.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.169-170.

Pepin donates Aistulf’s toys

“Concerning all the cities received, he [Pepin] issued a donation in writing for their possession by St Peter, the holy Roman church and all the apostolic see’s pontiffs forever; it is kept safe even till now in our holy church’s archive.”1.Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.46, p.72. Thus did the eighth century church issue yet another claim to a spiritual authority so powerful and unique in the western world, that the greatest king of the age forgo his Lombard conquests, but rather donated the lands to the budding Papal States.

As we saw in last week’s post, this idea of granting land to the papacy was not a new one. The Lombard king Liutprand had done so several times earlier in the century (if you can call giving back land you conquered and then were paid dozens of pounds of gold to return a ‘donation’). Pepin’s donation was the culmination of decades of conflict between the Lombards, the weakening presence of the Byzantine empire in Italy, and the popes. The Lombards would launch various territorial incursions to grab what lands they could. The pope would then beg and plead and bribe to get some of it back, and the Byzantines, generally otherwise embroiled in the Iconoclast controversy far to the east, would not do much. But the general trend was of a gradual separation of the papacy from the eastern emperor, while the Lombards continued to expand their territorial holdings. To the north and across the Alps, the Franks looked on Italian affairs with a benign neglect, while wrestling with Muslim incursions, secession issues, and other family matters.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Book of the Popes, bk.94, ch.46, p.72.

Donations that don’t fit in the Pope’s donation box

In the course of the eighth century the Roman Catholic church received several ‘donations’ of land in Italy. These donations expanded not just the landholdings of the nascent Papal States, but the very conception of the pope as a secular ruler.¬†As the eighth century opened there were three great political factions, whose dealings and interactions formed the foundation of our concerns.

The Byzantine emperor, who was in Constantinople, controlled smallish areas of Italian land, primarily along the Adriatic and Mediterranean coastlines. The capital of the emperor’s holdings was at Ravenna, and his representative there was called the exarch. The pope, a nominal subject of the emperor, ruled over Rome and some associated lands. The lands of the emperor and pope formed a bloc that started near Venice, included the cities of the Pentapolis and Revenna, a land bridge across the Apennines mountains, and Rome and its ports. Byzantine territory also included the heel and toe of the Italian boot, as well as Sicily. But the bulk of Italy was in the hands of the Lombards, who controlled most of the valley of the Po river, including the major cities of Milan and Pavia, the Lombard capital. To the east of the Byzantine lands (across the Byzantine ‘bridge’ between Rome and Ravenna), lay the duchy of Spoleto, while southeast of Spoleto and Rome was the duchy of Benevento. Those two duchies, while Lombard, exercised almost complete independence from the king in Pavia.

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