Frankish travelogue: Brittany

Early medieval Brittany is a difficult place to explore. One scholar has noted “the complete absence of information about Brittany in the first half of the eighth century…”1.Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25. With one notable, almost startling exception, which I will get to below, there is almost nothing in the sources about what was going on in Brittany during the eighth century. But let’s see what we can dredge up.

Brittany, for the cartographically challenged, is the peninsula jutting into the Atlantic on France’s north-west coast. It is a region of some 13,000 square miles, a land dominated by the sea, rocky and sparse. The hills reach heights of 1200 feet within just five miles of the coast. There was no traditional physical boundary between Francia and Brittany, although the Vilaine river is definitely Brittany, and the later eighth century Breton March was east of the river. On the other hand, the town of Nantes, just north of the mouth of the river Loire, was also considered part of the region. Other major towns include Rennes, and Vienne, and the monastery of Redon, which was established in 832. These population hubs are all along the Vilaine valley. West of the Vilaine there were only a few minor population centers.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Smith, Julia M.H., The Sack of Vannes by Pippin III, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Number 11, Summer 1986, p.25.

763: Waifar’s last chance

After the utter devastation wrought by Pepin’s full-on assault the previous year, in 763 the king was ready to consolidate his gains, both in land and morale, and press home the final blows to break the last Aquitanian resistance.

He decided to hold the annual Frankish Mayfield in the border city of Nevers.1.RFA, 763, p.44. Just a few years ago Nevers had been a frontier town on the Burgundian side of the Loire, the last stop before crossing over to ‘enemy’ territory. Now the town was considered central enough and safe enough a place for the king to hold the Frankish annual assembly there. Waifar, wherever he was, must have gritted his teeth to see the insolence and confidence of Pepin. But that was nothing to what Pepin unleashed next.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. RFA, 763, p.44.

Battles of a troubled soul, part 1

Pepin le Bref was a man with a conflicted soul. He yearned for God, but was forced to do terrible things in the name of order. When he did retire from worldly concerns he thought he would be done with politics and combat, but before the end he was dragged back into the fray, betrayed by family, and died far from his spiritual home. His story is one of the great epics of the 8th century.

On the death of his father Pepin was one of three sons to inherit the Frankish kingdom. He was immediately faced with two things he had to get done, and one thing he really wanted to get done. He performed all three duties very well, and then, at the peak of power, he put his affairs in order, rejected the secular, and became a monk. How he went about achieving what he did illustrates the man, and opens a window on why he made that last decision.

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Aistulf plays the odds… and loses

In November of 753 Pope Stephen and King Aistulf met for last ditch face-to-face talks. The negotiations, which lasted for perhaps ten days, went nowhere, to no one’s surprise. When Stephen announced his intent to continue on to Francia to meet with Pepin, Aistulf did his best to dissuade Stephen, but when the pontiff insisted, Aistulf allowed he and the other ambassadors to proceed. This must have been another example of diplomatic form being observed.1.This must have galled Aistulf, forced by circumstance to allow papal envoys through his territory, knowing their intent, but not able to break protocol with the pope, which would put him in the wrong. One could, perhaps, speak of Lombard honor, but that claim is frankly belied by Aistulf’s record of treaty and oath-breaking.

One interesting, unknowable question about these final talks is whether or not Aistulf knew of the death of Grifo, Pepin’s half-brother, in a battle with Pepin’s men. The Carolingian chroniclers maintain that Grifo was going to Lombardy “to stir up trouble,” but there is no way to know Grifo’s real intent. The timing is also circumspect, as the sources don’t indicated when Grifo was killed, except that it was probably in the fall. It is fun (if feckless) to wonder if Aistulf knew of Grifo’s coming, or had even invited him. We shall see in a moment that Aistulf had yet another card to play in his efforts to dissuade the Franks, one that could be related to Grifo’s journey.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This must have galled Aistulf, forced by circumstance to allow papal envoys through his territory, knowing their intent, but not able to break protocol with the pope, which would put him in the wrong.

Half brother, all trouble, second half

When we last left Grifo, he had just gained his freedom after being imprisoned by his half-brother Pepin after the death of their father, Charles Martel. Pepin, in charge of the whole kingdom under the nominal rule of the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, had evidently decided to give his half-brother, now years wiser, a second chance. Perhaps Pepin had visited Grifo during his imprisonment, and in their talks together the younger man had convinced the older of his readiness to serve the man and the kingdom.

Pepin assigned Grifo twelve counties in western Neustria, with a capital at Le Mans. This was no mere sinecure, a backwater outpost of no value. Grifo’s lands would act as a bulwark to the Bretons to the west and the Aquitanians to the south. If need arose this duchy could be a springboard to invade either region. All in all a fine collection of lands, of strategic and political import, and the source of a lot of revenue.1.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.43. But as the Royal Frankish Annals note, “Grifo… did not want to be under the thumb of his brother Pepin, although he held an honorable place.”2.RFA, 747.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.43.
2. RFA, 747.