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.

The Frisians were minting a large number of coins at Dorestad in the middle of the seventh century. The Franks had once controlled the area, and Pippin, the mayor of the palace, decided to move against the Frisians once the time was ripe, sometime around 695. “Pippin and that pagan Radbod, duke of the Frisians, went to war and had a battle at the stronghold of Duurstede. Pippin, the victor, returned with much spoil and booty, while Duke Radbod fled the field…”1.Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.6, p.86. Dominion over the emporia was financially rewarding. “Control of the emporium at Durstede brought with it access to the lucrative taxes and tolls collected there.”2.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.13. The customs duty has been estimated at 10% of the value of all the goods at the site,3.Stephane Lebecq, Routes of change: production and distribution in the west, pp.75-76, in Transformation of the Roman World. which would be considerable. Dorestad became a big town.

The town changed hands a couple of times in the early eighth century. Radbod recaptured it from the Franks sometime before 716, and then Charles Martel grabbed it for good in 717. Radbod died soon after.4.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.20-21. The town prospered and grew for the next 120 years, until it was viewed as a fat, ripe plum by the Northmen. In 834 they struck. “Meanwhile a fleet of Danes came to Frisia and laid waste a part of it. From there, they came by way of Utrecht to the emporium called Dorestad and destroyed everything. They slaughtered some people, took others away captive, and burned the surrounding region.”5.Annals of St. Bertin, year 834, p.30. Evidently “destroyed everything” was a bit of hyperbole, because the same source records the Vikings raiding Dorestad every year for the next four years. The wording for 837 is odd, “The Northmen at this time fell on Frisia with their usual surprise attack.”6.Ibid, p.37.

Dorestad was indeed a prize worth the risk. At its greatest extent the harbor and town covered about 150 acres, with a population of several thousand. The basic form was a series of long wharves jutting into the Rhine, topped with wooden walkways that extended back onto the shore. Longhouses, for storage, industry, and living, lined the walkways. You can see from this illustration that the wharves extended a considerable distance along the river. Over the decades this branch of the Rhine shifted, as river deltas often do, and the wharves were extended to maintain contact with the water. No obvious town center has been found, and although there was at least one small church, Dorestad was never a bishopric. The business of Dorestad was business.

[I]nhabitants included peasants, but also a wide range of artisans: wood-workers (including for houses, streets, and ships), boneworkers, weavers, leatherworkers, and smiths. It is unclear whether such artisanal production was primarily intended for fellow residents or was exported; what is clear, however, is that although this activity was substantial, it was dwarfed by the large quantities of imports on the site. Eighty per cent of the ceramics were imports, mostly from the Rhineland… There were also basalt querns from the Eifel, wine in barrels from the middle Rhine (the barrels were reused as wells), glass, metalwork, weapons, and amber (some of which was worked on site).7.Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp.683-684.

Trade was extensive. “From the mid-seventh until the later eighth century the North Sea basic was largely isolated from the Mediterranean world.”8.Hodges, Dark Age Economics, p.39. Because of this isolation from the traditional (classical) trade of the Mare Nostrum, northern Europe developed their own trading patterns. “From northern Europe came amber, furs, honey, soapstone vessels, and beeswax. From the Rhineland to the south and west came glassware, grindstones hewn from basalt, ornate metal jewelry, pottery, and wine. Textiles came from the lands around the mouth of the Rhine.”9.Wells, Barbarians to Angels, p.129. And what did the lands over the seas provide? “…the Franks must have been importing something from England and Denmark, but this was not, probably, manufactured goods. Slaves, fish, and raw materials such as amber and maybe wool and metal are the best bets…”10.Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p.687.

You can begin to get a picture of the workmanlike nature of Dorestad. It was not a religious center, nor a political one. Plenty of forges and workshops, lots of activity, but no real ceremony. Just traders, artisans, and sailors. Lots of sailors, and lots of ships. During later campaigns against the Frisians, it was important to Charles to control “the emporium of Durstede, where many scores of not hundreds of ships of the type Charles needed likely could have been found at any time during the sailing season.”11.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.252.

If towns like Poitiers were the spiritual heart of the realm, and Aachen the political center, Dorestad was one of the economic hubs of the empire. And if it was anything like port cities the world over, probably one of the most fun places to visit as well.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Chronicle of Fredegar, Continuations, ch.6, p.86.
2. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.13.
3. Stephane Lebecq, Routes of change: production and distribution in the west, pp.75-76, in Transformation of the Roman World.
4. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.20-21.
5. Annals of St. Bertin, year 834, p.30.
6. Ibid, p.37.
7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp.683-684.
8. Hodges, Dark Age Economics, p.39.
9. Wells, Barbarians to Angels, p.129.
10. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p.687.
11. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.252.

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.

Frankish Travelogue – Gascony

Gascony is the area bordered by the Pyrenees to the south, the Atlantic to the west, the Garonne river to the north, and a less defined boundary to the east. It has never included Toulouse. Those distinctions have stayed pretty firm over the centuries, except when the border of the “Duchy of Vasconia” extended as far south as Pamplona in the seventh century.

The early medieval histories of Aquitaine and Gascony are inextricably linked, in the same way the histories of Aquitaine and Francia are linked. The fortunes of one inevitably affected the fortunes of the other. The early history of Gascony is particularly hazy, even by ‘Dark Age’ standards.

In 670 or so a Duke Lupus came to power over Aquitaine and Gascony. The scholar Pierre Riche says, “Victorious over the Basques, Duke Lupus exploited the struggles between Ebroin and the Austrasians to carve out a new princedom for himself south of the Garonne.”1.Riche, Carolingians: Family Who Forged Europe, p.29. This was during a period of retrenchment in Francia, and the outlying areas found themselves able to purse greater independence. In 675 Lupus organized a church synod in Bordeaux, a sign of a rule both enlightened and powerful enough to pull it off. But that is the last we hear of Duke Lupus, despite his terrific name.

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Footnotes   [ + ]