Charlemagne’s tail gets twisted… off

For when what could be done in Spain had been carried out and they were returning after a successful campaign a misfortune was met with and certain of the rear-guard of the royal column were killed in those same mountains. Since their names are widely known, I have neglected to give them.1.Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.

He had more than thirty years of wars ahead of him, but the ambush at Roncesvalle was the greatest defeat Charlemagne ever knew. It was, perhaps, a fitting end to an ill-fated enterprise.

The army that Charlemagne led north over the pass of Roncesvalles in August was hot, tired, frustrated, and disappointed. Don’t be fooled by the Astonomer’s characterization; Charles had been enticed out of Francia with the promise to reign in Spain2.Did you see what I did just there? north of the Ebro. The summer turned out to be an exercise in nothing more than physical endurance and political patience, while Charles’ erstwhile allies ended up killing one another.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Astronomer, Life of Louis, ch.2, in King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p.168.
2. Did you see what I did just there?

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.

Tonight’s entertainment, Roland

The Song of Roland is a chanson de geste, a “song of deeds.” The chanson de gestes were a form of popular entertainment that have come down to us as long written poems. These poems started as oral story telling, in a tradition that is as old as language itself. At some point music was probably added, in the Greek tradition.

As the stories evolved, grew, and spread, the audiences probably began to ask for specific incidents in the story. “Tell us about when Roland blew his horn!”1.Tolkien copied the scene from Roland for the death of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings. “During dinner the duke wants you to sing of Ganelon’s trial for treason, to see who sweats.” The reason I mention this is because the stories that have come down to us are too long for a single evening or meal, and can be somewhat repetitive. When they were written down the scribe probably included every version he could find, which results in a story that is, while very much a coherent whole, could use some editing.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Tolkien copied the scene from Roland for the death of Boromir in the Lord of the Rings.