Eternal Jerusalem

When medieval Europe was young, Jerusalem was already ancient. As laborers laid the first stones of the great pyramid of Giza, fifty generations of Jerusalemites had come and gone. After another twenty-five centuries a rustic carpenter’s son started throwing tables around at the Jewish temple located on the city’s high ground. Then another eight centuries or so went by, before a son was born to an usurper king in Europe, who would go on to found the empire that would bear his name.

Jerusalem occupied a special place in the minds and souls of eighth century Europeans. Constantinople was the other great eastern city known (if any would have been known), it was regarded more as the seat of the ‘other’ Christian empire, the palace that gave orders to popes. A rival power.

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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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We’re on the map!

After more than TWO YEARS of futzing around, I have finally put together a first cut of a map of Francia.

Many thanks for Dr. Laura Morreale of Fordham University, who turned me onto the application called Carto.1.Also many thanks to Dr. Scott Bruce, who organized the symposium that brought Dr. Morreale to Boulder. Dr. Morreale is using Carto to map locations and times when French was the language of record in Italy, as part of a wider series of projects that apply digital methodologies to the study of medieval history. As a career telecom guy who dabbles in medieval history, it is great to see those musty historians dipping their toes in the digital world.

Carto is web-based mapping platform that has a pretty robust set of features, and is available in a limited, non-commercial form without cost. It is intuitive and simple – I had a map up and running in an hour. By comparison, I worked with ArcGIS for a couple of months, and was never able to get a grip on the vast array of features and functionality it offers. While Carto is more limited, a layman like me can get moving pretty quickly. And if I can do it, so can you.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Also many thanks to Dr. Scott Bruce, who organized the symposium that brought Dr. Morreale to Boulder.

Frankish travelogue: Brittany

Early medieval Brittany is a difficult place to explore. One scholar has noted “the complete absence of information about Brittany in the first half of the eighth century…”1.Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25. With one notable, almost startling exception, which I will get to below, there is almost nothing in the sources about what was going on in Brittany during the eighth century. But let’s see what we can dredge up.

Brittany, for the cartographically challenged, is the peninsula jutting into the Atlantic on France’s north-west coast. It is a region of some 13,000 square miles, a land dominated by the sea, rocky and sparse. The hills reach heights of 1200 feet within just five miles of the coast. There was no traditional physical boundary between Francia and Brittany, although the Vilaine river is definitely Brittany, and the later eighth century Breton March was east of the river. On the other hand, the town of Nantes, just north of the mouth of the river Loire, was also considered part of the region. Other major towns include Rennes, and Vienne, and the monastery of Redon, which was established in 832. These population hubs are all along the Vilaine valley. West of the Vilaine there were only a few minor population centers.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25.

Aquitaine tries to rebuild

The Aquitanian defeat in 732 was a crushing blow to the region’s ambitions to true independence. As recently as 718 Duke Odo had challenged Charles Martel directly, with a naked offer of assistance to Martel’s opponents in the Frankish civil war. Martel’s seemingly effortless swatting away of the Duke’s defiance should be seen for what it was: the realization by two unequal opponents just how unequal they are. The final denouement of this confrontation took another forty years to unfold, but the beginnings are clear to see.

Before we attempt to discern too much about what happened in Aquitaine prior to 760, let us bear in mind what Paul Fouracre noted, that “we can find out very little about Aquitaine in the period 675 – 750. Remarkably few charters have survived, and narrative material from the region is equally scarce.”1.Fouracre, Charles Martel, pp.83-84. But we can try.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fouracre, Charles Martel, pp.83-84.