Two Halves Of a Kingdom – Austrasia

Let’s take a look at the basic political geography of the Franks.martel_map

Two kingdoms made up the core of the Frankish lands, Neustria in the west and Austrasia in the east. They can be very roughly compared to France and Germany, with many caveats. We’ll start with Austrasia, traditionally the larger, stronger of the two, and the homeland of both the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties.

Austrasia occupied the drainage area of the lower Rhine, including the Main and the Meuse rivers. The Franks did not, however, control the mouths of the Rhine and the Meuse, rather leaving those under control of the Frisians. They did control the coast south of the Meuse, down to approximately the Franco-German border today. When you think of Austrasia, think of Belgium, Luxembourg, the eastward part of the Netherlands, and north-western Germany. The countryside tends to open and flat. The German army took this path in the opening blow of the First World War in their march on Paris (the infamous “right wing”).

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To Depose a King, part one

Father of Merovech
Father of Merovech

Pepin and his father Charles both were born and lived under the Merovingian dynasty. The line dated back to the reign of Childeric, who became king of the Salian Franks around 457. His father, Merovech, was said to be born of the union between his mother and a sea monster known as a quinotaur, in one of the dark ages’ most intriguing legends.

The Merovingians ruled the Franks for the next three hundred years. By the late 7th century, however, the palace office holder known as “the mayor of the palace”* came to hold more and more power. After Martel emerged victorious from a civil war in 718, he appointed Chilperic II as king. When Chilperic died Charles enthroned Theuderic IV. This was the era of the rois faineants, the do-nothing kings.

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Fight, moon!

Spheres
Aristotelian spheres

Our recent lunar eclipse was nothing that the Franks hadn’t seen before. The learned and literate believed in the Aristotelian egocentric “concentric spheres” model of the cosmos, which held sway until the 16th century. While we chuckle at the spheres, the model does put the moon in orbit around the earth, and thus does explain that eclipses are caused by the intersection of the earth, moon, and sun.

The understanding of a lunar eclipse by the common people was far more lively.

The common folk believed that the moon was under attack by some malevolent spirit or demon. Before you chuckle at that, consider the evidence: the moon, on the night it is full, so powerfully bright and white,  is suddenly and unexpectedly turning an ominous red. This mystifying transition happens slowly, yet inexorably, turning the moon, normally a festive friend, the only real light after sundown, into a shadow of its former self.

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The Royal Frankish Annals

Ah, the Annals. Really the starting point for figuring out Pepin and Charles, when working from the primary sources. Punchy, pithy, and without (much) guile, the Annals are a readable, and even enjoyable, year-by-year chronicle of the doings of the great and the good and the not so good in the Frankish kingdom.

The Annals begin in 741, with, “Charles, mayor of the palace, died,” and that’s it. Which is perhaps the soul of brevity. However there are two versions of the Annals: the original, terser version, and the one called “Revised” by the scholars. The Revised version for 741 goes on to include news about Charles’ three sons, and the beginnings of a fantastic family drama, worthy of Tolstoy, that played out over the next few years. The translations I’ve seen show the original version, and then any emendations by “the Revisor.” The multiple authors of the Annals are unknown, but putting forth candidates and shooting them down seems to be great sport in academia.

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This would have meant nothing to Charlemagne

There you are in the year 774, court astronomer to Charles, son of Pepin, and you have some exciting news. You burst in and tell him, “Terra ingenti impetu gamma radios ictus est, duo facit atros concursu!”1.I have no idea how accurate Google Translate is with a sentence like this – they only added Latin a year or two ago, and of course modern scientific terms and concepts don’t always come across in ancient languages. Although I remember a column in the NY Times, decades ago, describing the use of Latin for terms like space shuttle. Which, in finding it now, makes me realize that I embarrassed myself not long after the article came out. He would have looked at you blankly, and, depending on the king’s mood, either laughed at you or had you tossed into the rain to make your way back across the Channel to your cold Irish monastery.

What else could he do? You had just informed him that the Earth had been hit by a tremendous gamma ray burst, caused by the collision of two black holes. It hardly makes sense today.

Scientific American has the scoop, although the news was carried fairly widely. Not completely relevant to anything here, but interesting nonetheless.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I have no idea how accurate Google Translate is with a sentence like this – they only added Latin a year or two ago, and of course modern scientific terms and concepts don’t always come across in ancient languages. Although I remember a column in the NY Times, decades ago, describing the use of Latin for terms like space shuttle. Which, in finding it now, makes me realize that I embarrassed myself not long after the article came out.