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.

760: Pepin declares war

King Pepin of Francia had waged successful battles of conquest and intimidation ever since he had succeeded (along with his brother Carloman) to the leadership of the realm in 741. He had fought in Lombardy, Saxony, Aquitaine, Bavaria, and Burgundy. He had out-maneuvered family and allies and made himself king, with the help and blessing of the pope. The kingdom had expanded under his rule, the Arabs were in retreat, he was friendly with the Byzantines, his family had solidified their grip on power, and he had no reason to believe the future would hold anything different. His son Charles had already fulfilled delicate diplomatic missions, and no doubt showed great promise as a future leader. By the year 760 Pepin was in his mid-forties, at the height of his powers, and the kingdom was at peace.

In other words, it was time to “‘Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.”1.Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1. The dogs would be loosed on Aquitaine, the last of the great semi-independent kingdoms once ruled by the Merovingians. But even in the eighth century, a king couldn’t simply ride across the border, not a king devoted to Christendom. A casus belli had to be found. From the abduction of Helen in the dark ages of Greece, to Hitler’s invention of a violated radio post on the Polish border, rulers have always needed a reason to invade first.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1.

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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Charlemagne’s annus horribilis

In November of 1992 Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech in which she lamented the “annus horribilis” she had endured over the last eleven months. Recently a fire had devastated Windsor Castle, and prior to that her children and near relatives had been the subject of much tabloid gossip and exposure.

One person from whom she would have received no sympathy would be Charlemagne. Elizabeth had been forced to see pictures of Duchess Fergie’s toes being nuzzled by a bald American millionaire while her estranged husband Andrew was away performing his princely duties. Truly enough to make any monarch go weak. But twelve centuries before Elizabeth’s travails King Charlemagne had frantically wielded the strings of power over the span of just a few months while his kingdom almost broke apart. It is possible that he felt God Himself had abandoned him.

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Chapters of decrees

While written laws like the lex salica governed everyday life, the Carolingians also issued decrees from time to time, called capitularies. Capitularies are legal documents, so named because they are divided into chapters or articles called ‘capitula.’ Capitularies were issued by the king, and describe and explain legal obligations of the king’s subjects. It is through capitularies that the flavor of royal rule can be known. “While the decisive influence of Charlemagne on the institutions of the Frankish monarchy is well known, what is more obscure… is the manner in which Charlemagne wielded this influence. This was done chiefly through the capitularies… by which the Carolingian monarchs issued legislative and administrative provisions.”1.Ganshof, Carolingians, “The impact of Charlemagne on the institutions of the Frankish realm,” p.143.

There are about 100 capitularies that have come down to modern times. Of these, maybe twenty-five have been translated into English, primarily by King and Loyn & Percival. I find Loyn & Percival’s translations a little clearer to read, although King provides more background on each capitulary.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Ganshof, Carolingians, “The impact of Charlemagne on the institutions of the Frankish realm,” p.143.