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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1. Collins, Early Medieval Spain, p.169-170.

769: Charlemagne’s first battle

Seldom can it be truly said that a new year heralded a new era, but it is true of the year 769. Charles, son Pepin, known to history as Charles the Great, Charlemagne, had taken the throne only a few months before. Europe would never be the same.1.At that point in time, it is true, he shared rule of Francia with his brother Carloman, but that didn’t last long.

As noted previously Pepin had allocated the kingdom between his two sons. In a nutshell, Pepin got Neustria, and Charles got Austrasia. In a curious move, the old king divided Aquitaine between the two of them. Unfortunately we don’t know if he gave them more guidance regarding the recently conquered province other than “figure it out.”

Fate gave the brothers an immediate opportunity to do just that, as Aquitaine gave up one last death rattle. The Royal Annals report some kind of an insurrection “since Hunald was intent on rousing the whole of Gascony as well as Aquitaine to rebellion.”2.RFA, year 769, p.74. Charles showed the initiative which was to mark the next thirty years of his life. “Of all the wars which Charlemagne waged, the first which he ever undertook was one against Aquitaine, which had been begun by his father but not brought to a proper conclusion.”3.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, bk.5, p.59.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. At that point in time, it is true, he shared rule of Francia with his brother Carloman, but that didn’t last long.
2. RFA, year 769, p.74.
3. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, bk.5, p.59.

A pox on all our houses

Life in the 8th century was hard. Endless labor, the constant threat of famine after too much or too little rain, the occasional Viking or Saxon raid, and of course, disease, which became ever more prevalent after malnutrition. We of the last few generations tend to forget that for virtually the entirety of human existence death came much earlier than it does today, and disease played a very large part in that. Famines did occur, and of course war, but it was disease that struck us down in droves, whether in plagues so virulent even the isolated annalists recorded them, or mere families succumbing to a stray germ. For anyone who got sick there were no antibiotics, no real understanding of anatomy, nothing but a couple of herbal books from the Greeks, and a 7th century encyclopedia to consult. And that only if you were lucky enough to find someone who could read, and possessed those volumes.

That encyclopedia is the Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville, who wrote it sometime before 636, when he died. Book IV is a surprisingly comprehensive and rational discussion of medicine and disease. He includes descriptions of acute and chronic illnesses, and a separate chapter for “Illnesses that appear on the surface of the body.” All told Isidore gives a reasonable description of more than eighty different maladies, before discussing various remedies, scents, and oils, and “The instruments of physicians.” It is a fascinating read, particularly to imagine oneself at the bedside of some failing soul, scouring your Isidore for some clue. Of course, you could also say that virtually all of human medical knowledge was contained within six pages of text, but let’s not quibble.1.Isidore, Etymologies, pp.109-15.

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1. Isidore, Etymologies, pp.109-15.

Uncertain birth of a king

Charlemagne’s death, funeral, tomb and will are described in great detail by Einhard. A couple of posts ago I talked about the bones in Charlemagne’s tomb, and how almost thirty years of study had finally come to the conclusion that the bones belonged, in fact, to the great man himself. The death of an emperor was an event of great import. Obviously the birth of the first son of a king, the grandson of a king-maker, was documented in as much detail, right?

Wrong. Even the date of Charlemagne’s birth was an unanswerable question in his own lifetime. “I believe it would be improper [for me] to write about Charles’s birth and infancy, or even his childhood, since nothing [about those periods of his life] was ever written down and there is no one still alive who claims to have knowledge of these things.”1.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.4, in Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courier, p.4.

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1. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, ch.4, in Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courier, p.4.

Dem bones are his bones

Last Thursday,
A bone thief,
Entered my home,
Came to my room,
And stole my arm’s bone…1.Mr. R’s World of Math and Science, Bone Poem.

In case you were worried that a variation on a classic joke would stump you, it has been confirmed that Charlemagne is buried in Charlemagne’s tomb.

Scientists led by Dr. Frank Ruhli of the University of Zurich announced that the bones found in Charlemagne’s tomb are almost certainly those of the Emperor. “Thanks to the results from 1988 up until today, we can say with great likelihood that we are dealing with the skeleton of Charlemagne.”2.The Local de, Charlemagne’s bones are (probably) real, 31 January 2014.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway) this news was carried widely. A quick Google search shows reports in CNN, Fox News, USA Today, and (not as surprisingly) in many European outlets.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Mr. R’s World of Math and Science, Bone Poem.
2. The Local de, Charlemagne’s bones are (probably) real, 31 January 2014.