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.

The Summons

Much like a corporate all-hands meeting at the beginning of the first quarter, or the sports team gathering before the start of training camp, so the Carolingians wanted everyone notable to assemble as the campaign season began. What were these assemblies, who attended, what function did they serve, and when did they occur? Who knows?

Fortunately one historian did a lot of work describing Frankish governmental institutions. Francois Louis Ganshof was a Belgian historian who died in 1980. Several of his most influential works have been translated into English, and those are my principal sources for what follows. He called the yearly assembly “one of the central institutions of the monarchy.”1.Ganshof, Frankish Institutions Under Charlemagne, p.21.

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