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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Footnotes   [ + ]

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

762: Total war

In 762 Pepin broke the back of the Aquitanian resistance. While the war continued for another six or seven years, after 762 it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the final Frankish victory. The campaigns waged by each side during this pivotal year clearly illustrate both the strategy followed by the Franks, as well as the fatal flaw in the Aquitanian leadership.

The previous year Waifar, or more precisely, a couple of his dukes, had launched an unopposed assault into Burgundy, and returned with much plunder. But then king Pepin marched into eastern Aquitaine and burned several major fortresses. Clearly this was not an equation of exchange which would work out for Waifar in the long run. Waifar must have been pondering his options, none of them good, when Pepin came over the river in force, with a major siege train, heading for the de facto capital of northern Aquitaine.

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Francia travelogue – Septimania

Today the French Mediterranean coast is known for soft sandy beaches and elegant resorts. Thirteen centuries ago the region was on the brink of years of battle and bloodshed.

Septimania was a vaguely rectangular region that ran from the French southwest Mediterranean coast to the northeast for perhaps 150 miles, and from the sea to about fifty miles inland. It was bounded by the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean, and the river Rhone to the east. First named for the Roman seventh legion who settled there, the region included one of the first Roman roads in Gaul, the Via Domitia, that ran from Italy to Spain. The Via Aquitania split off from that and ran to Bordeaux. The towns of Narbonne and Agde were ports and trading sites in Roman times, and salt was extracted from around Narbonne. The province remained more Roman than Rome as the barbarians closed around the mother city in the fourth and fifth centuries. Finally in 462 the Romans handed it to the Visigoths.

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