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.

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.

Eadfrith’s gospel book

In the closing years of the seventh century, behind the walls of the priory of Lindisfarne, a monk named Eadfrith created a masterpiece. He wrote and ‘painted’ a gospel book (a book of the four gospels of the new testament, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John). Such books had been produced before, and would be produced again. But nothing like Eadfrith’s gospel book has ever been seen.

Lindisfarne is a tidal island on the eastern shore of England, just south of the Scottish border. Saint Aiden, an Irish monk, founded a priory there sometime in the first third of the seventh century. No doubt he was taken by the remote aspect of the island, which is approachable only during low tide. The Venerable Bede describes the island’s church as built “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds after the Irish manner. … But Eadbert, a later Bishop of Lindisfarne, removed the thatch, and covered both roof and walls with sheets of lead.”1.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.¬†Eadbert was bishop while Eadfrith was a monk, and so it is doubtful if Eadfrith toiled under any roof grander than thatch. No doubt it was damp, cold, and dark.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.

The biggest, fakest donation ever

O Constantine, what evil did you sire,
not by your conversion, but by the dower
that the first wealthy Father got from you!1.Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.

Such was Dante’s lament as he surveyed the ditch of the Simonists, head down in flaming pits. He believed that the corruption and greed of the 14th century church could be laid at the feet of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who, in a grand gesture of piety in 335, donated (there’s that word again) all of Italy to the church and the popes that would lead her. That wealth, Dante believed, created a culture of ecclesiastical greed that had infected and weakened the church in his own time.

The pledge in question is called the Donation of Constantine, for that emperor who converted to Christianity in 317 AD. He later moved the capital of the empire to the ancient city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. The Donation is a document of some 4700 words, in twenty chapters, and it is written in the first person, allegedly by Constantine himself. In the first eleven chapters the author lays out the foundations of Christian theology, and relates the miraculous healing of “a mighty and foul leprosy” that led to his conversion. Pope Sylvester, the man who led him through his experience, is addressed frequently, as are “all his successors, the pontiffs who are about to sit upon the chair of Saint Peter until the end of time…”2.Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.
2. Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.