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.

Brothers, kings – and enemies

In December of 771 a Frankish king died, Carloman, second son of King Pepin. He was not yet twenty-one. His brother Charles, who would become known to us a Charlemagne, probably did not grieve. The two brothers had been in conflict and contention for years, and tensions had been so high that they had almost come to war just a year or two earlier. Their mother Bertrada, widow of the late king, at some point decided that her older son was the greater man, and threw her considerable diplomatic talents behind Charles. While no one has ever suggested foul play in the death of Carloman, his demise was a great convenience for Charles and his mother. Let’s see if we can untangle this twisted family tale.

At some point in the mid-740’s Pepin and his consort Bertrada had a son, whom they named Charles, after his grandfather Charles Martel. The date of this birth is a subject of some dispute, but we’ll settle on the year 747 for the purposes of this post. While to modern eyes this uncertain state of marriage between the parents would automatically render Charles illegitimate, Germanic concepts of marriage were more fluid in early medieval times. Charles was just as legitimate as Pepin and the nobles of the land wanted him to be. At any rate Pepin and Bertrada tied the knot in a formal public ceremony a few years after his birth. Then in 751 they had a second son, Carloman, named after his uncle, Pepin’s brother. Perhaps the choice of name was unfortunate, for the elder Carloman had led a troubled life, and died in somewhat mysterious circumstances.

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768: Death of a king, end of a kingdom

A screenwriter would be hard pressed to sell a story ending more cliched than what actually happened in 768. After eight years of almost continuous war King Pepin mops up the last of the Aquitanian resistance, tidying up loose ends in the hinterlands. His forces capture Remistanius, the double-betrayer, and the man’s own former allies hang him in the town square. Then the king organizes a four-column sweep through the countryside to capture lord Waifar, but then receives word that Waifar’s own people have killed him! And then, with Aquitaine crushed and under control, with his wife queen Bertrada at his side, and the world at his feet, he catches a slight fever. His fever continues to worsen as he travels toward home. At the great and beloved monastery of Saint Denis in Paris, he divides the kingdom between his two sons, and breathes his last.

What an ending! I can almost hear the violins. Let’s unpack this eventful and dramatic year piece by piece.

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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.

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.