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.

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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1. Fouracre, Charles Martel, pp.83-84.

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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Muslim funerals – in France

We have spent some time looking at the Muslim presence in western Europe during the early medieval era, including a survey of the age, a review of Martel’s campaign in 727, as well as the ever-popular Battle of Poitiers. There are plenty of primary and secondary sources available for anyone who wants to know more. One point worth noting is that our information is almost exclusively textual, as the archaeological evidence is practically non-existent. Until now.

Excavations carried out in 2006 by the French rescue archaeology company INRAP1.Last seen excavating a well packed with bodies. in the city of Nimes revealed three Muslim burials. Recently eight of the investigators released a multi-disciplinary study in the journal PlosOne that opens a fresh chapter on the study of eighth century Muslims in France.

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1. Last seen excavating a well packed with bodies.

Franks and Byzantines, but not Charlemagne

After last week’s overview of the Byzantine empire, let’s now look at what the Byzantines meant to the Franks and the rest of western Europe. Strictly for the sake of convenience, we’ll take it up to 768, when Charlemagne ascended to the Frankish throne.

First, the obvious: this is the Dark Ages, and there’s not a lot of primary evidence. This is best exemplified by a scholar of the Carolingian economy: “Our information on goods imported through Venice or other Italian ports from the eastern Mediterranean into western Europe in the Carolingian period is nearly non-existent.”1.Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, p.107. Nice. But we do have some records to review.

Italy was the nexus between east and west, as it had been in the heyday of the Roman empire. Most of what we know is through the context of theology and relations between Rome and Constantinople. During the “Twenty Years of Anarchy” through which the eastern empire suffered in the first decade of the eighth century there was little of note going on between Greece and Italy. Once the empire stabilized, the papacy was alarmed to the see emerge the first dictates of the Iconoclast Controversy. Along with Charlemagne and the Battle of Poitiers, this is a subject about which even non-specialists may have heard.

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1. Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, p.107.