Father of a “Continent”?
[W]arfare accompanied him throughout almost every year of his life. The harshest war, and the one most fraught with complications, was the war against the Saxons, which lasted for more than twenty years, took the borders of Christendom to the banks of the Elbe, and incorporated the entire breadth of the German regions within the Frankish kingdom. Back in 772 Charles had already gathered his warriors and led them against the Pagans of the north to achieve a spectacular victory: they took the principle Saxon sanctuary, the Irminsul, where the sacred tree stood. The tree that according to the Saxons held up the heavens had been burned, and the Saxon idols destroyed. But these punitive expeditions had to be repeated every year, because the Saxons resisted with all their force a subjugation that implied both the loss of all their tribal independence and the abandonment of their ancestral beliefs.
[Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, by Alessandro Barbero, p. 44]
Alessandro Barbero’s deservedly acclaimed biography of Charlemagne is subtitled Father of a Continent. But how can a political figure from 1200 years ago be the “father of a continent”? Isn’t the formation of a continent a process governed by plate tectonics, not politics and human history, and doesn’t it take hundreds of millions of years?
Well, it turns out that there are continents and then there are continents. In this case the “Continent” that Charlemagne gave birth to isn’t really a “continent” at all, nor was it even “Europe” (whatever “Europe” might be). What Charlemagne gave birth to was what we today euphemistically refer to as “The West”, and this “West” is, in fact, a handful of powerful nation-states that came into existence in Charlemagne’s bloody wake and who, a thousand years later, found themselves ruling nearly the entire planet earth.
This same “West” is also the homeland for the two flavors of “western” Christianity: Catholicism and Protestantism. Prior to Charlemagne, Christianity was a distinctly eastern (and distinctly “Greek”) religion, and proud of it (see for example the early chapters of Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom, hereafter referred to as RWC). The strategic alliance of the Frankish barbarian king Charlemagne with the Bishop of Rome marks the true beginning of an independent western, “Latin” Christianity, and this eventually led to the Great Schism in which Latin Catholics and Greek Orthodox mutually excommunicated each other in 1054. And it was this distinctly western Christianity that gave us the Inquisition; the Witch-Hunts; the murderous religious wars also known as “the Reformation”; the theological justification for the African slave-trade; the cultural genocide that attempted, and largely succeeded, in annihilating every religious tradition on half of the planet (the western hemisphere); and European colonialism (which was always and everywhere carried out in the name of spreading the Gospel, and in which the Church was an eager and important participant).
Modern Christianity is overwhelmingly dominated by Catholicism and Protestantism, neither of which existed in the late 8th century AD when Charlemagne succeeded his father, King Pepin of the Franks. But even the vast majority of those Christians who are neither Catholic nor Protestant are European Christians who are members of the various Orthodox Churches of Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, etc. Charlemagne did not single handedly start, or bring to its culmination, the process by which Europe became Christian and Christianity became European. But his violent life and times are universally recognized as one of the key milestones along that road.
A Brief Prehistory of “The West”
The part of the earth in which the western nation-states (and western Christianity) eventually arose was on the furthest fringes of the great civilizations of the ancient world. What little cultural progress (measured in terms of things like writing, urbanization, engineering, science, trade and commerce) the peoples of western and northern Europe had made mostly (and quickly) disintegrated not long after the process of Christianization took root early in the fourth century (after Constantine’s dream or vision or whatever it was). Two of the most dramatic and telling markers of this decline were (1) the rapid depopulation of urban centers (the city of Rome herself lost 90% of it’s population in 100 years, going from 500,000 to 50,000 inhabitants from 450 to 550 AD [RWC, p. 21]), and (2) a comparable decline in the quantity and quality of the historical record (thus resulting directly in the great paucity of written sources documenting this time period).
Although the phrase Dark Ages is often misunderstood and sometimes misused, it nevertheless expresses a very real cultural collapse that begins (roughly speaking) with the sacking of Rome by Alaric and his (Christian) Visigoths in 410, and ends sometime between the year 800, when Charlemagne was crowned “Emperor”, and the year 1000, when the “High Middle Ages” officially begin. As with all periodization schemes, the beginning and ending points of this Dark Age are somewhat arbitrary, but the historical process of cultural, economic, technological and demographic decline followed by a pronounced and sustained recovery in all of those areas is an objective reality and not merely some dreamed-up “social construct”.
The center of gravity of the Greco-Roman world had always been in the East and the South. Culturally the city of Alexandria ruled supreme. This was where Euclid wrote his Elements, where Ptolemy wrote his Almagest and Geographia, and where Eratoshthenes calculated the circumference of the earth. It was also where Callimachus wrote his Hymns, where Apollonius wrote his Argonautica, and where Aristarchus produced his critical editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Alexandria was also an economic powerhouse, as one of the most important exporters of grain in the ancient world, and it was also among the most populous cities on earth (probably the second or third largest city in the world).
As all students of “Byzantine” history know, the eastern Roman Empire was far more resilient than Roman Italy and the western provinces. In fact, Byzantium continued on until the middle of the 15th century! By then it had been much reduced in power and glory for many centuries already, but culturally and intellectually it remained a truly great power until the bitter end. And in the final years before the Ottomans finally took Constantinople, many Byzantine scholars, seeing the writing clearly written on that city’s ancient and once inviolable walls, set themselves to spreading their learning in the West, and many went so far as to resettle among the Latin barbarians. The Italian Renaissance was largely a result of this migration both of knowledge and the custodians of that knowledge, from the Greek East to Latin West.
So the Dark Ages were a distinctly “western” phenomenon. As already alluded to, and in sharp contrast to Byzantium, Roman political, military and economic power in the west eroded alarmingly (although perhaps “vanished” is the right word) during the 5th-7th centuries. Weak successor states (some of them admittedly less weak than others) arose where Roman provinces had previously been. Christianity remained as the official state religion in most places that had been under Roman rule, but it was increasingly difficult or even impossible to impose credal uniformity even among the Church hierarchy, let alone among the laity (both high and low born). Lombards, Saxons, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Avars, etc, (and perhaps even the Franks, although these were the most Christian of them all) remained, at least in part, Pagan, and even when they converted they usually could not be counted on to be orthodox. When the Lombards ended up in Italy some had become Christian and some hadn’t, and those that had converted tended to be Arian, or at least tended to be hostile to the Pope in Rome politically, militarily and theologically. When Saxons moved into Britain they brought their Germanic Paganism with them and for a time Christianity declined on the very island where Constantine had first been proclaimed Augustus in 306 (in York).
Where do “peoples” come from?
But who exactly were these barbarian peoples with the funky names? There are two very different answers to that question:
Essentialist approach: Saxons, Lombards, Goths, etc., were already ancient, or at least well established and well defined, “peoples” when they entered the historical record. In particular each of these groups (and subgroups like the Ostrogoths and Visigoths) had their own distinctive “culture”, including religious traditions, concepts of kingship, social and family structure, etc. These groups were also ethnically/genetically distinct from each other.
Ethnogenesis approach: Saxons, Lombards, Goths, etc., are, to a great extent arbitrary designations (“cultural constructs”) for extremely fluid groups of people who were not at all well defined either in terms of “ethnicity” or “culture” or in any other way either prior to their appearance in the historical record, or subsequently. Instead these labels refer to groups that enter the historical record while still in the process of “ethnogenesis”, a process that creates the idea of ethnically (that is, racially or even genetically) well defined groups — but which does not, in fact, create the objective referent of that idea, although it can be part of the process of creating powerful political entities.
There are some very serious problems with both approaches, but the “ethnogenesis” approach has the advantage of hindsight, by virtue of being the more recently articulated theory, and, therefore, it does address the most obvious shortcomings of previous “essentialist” approaches. One of the most serious problems with the ethnogenesis approach is that it tends to be over-utilized as a blunt instrument in the service of faddish ideological polemics. Postmodernist types especially adore the theory of “ethnogenesis” because it provides them yet more opportunities to say “cultural construct” over and over again. But Christian apologists also are attracted to the theory because it allows them to give the impression that Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, etc Pagans had no real religions of their own prior to their contact with Christianity (thus exonerating them of the responsibility for suppressing the religions of those peoples, since they had none).
Patrick Geary’s book The Myth of Nations well illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-essentialist ethnogenesis approach. Geary is relentles, but only ocassionally tiresome, in his earnest polemical deconstructionism. Geary intends this book for a wide audience, and, therefore, subtlety is often just not part of his agenda. But his painting, broad strokes and all, is often accurate and is quite helpful in understanding recent trends in the black art of historiography, and it gives a very nice view from 30,000 feet of how we got from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Europe. A less ideological, but also less accessible and more narrowly focussed, application of the anti-essentialist approach is to be found in Herwig Wolfram’s The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples. Another important (and even more narrowly focussed) work on Dark Age ethnogenesis is Patrick Amory’s People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554.
From Clovis to Charlemagne
Without getting bogged down in speculative (and as often as not ideologically driven) theoretical postures about where “peoples” come from, we do have to get into at least some of the nitty gritty of this period which is not only called the Dark Ages but is also called the Age of Migration, or even “The Barbarian Invasion of Europe”, or alternatively, “The Barbarian Conversion”. In order to simplify and focus the discussion in the remainder of this post, I will concentrate now on the developments that eventually led to Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor on Christmans Day, 800 AD. First let’s go all the way back to King Clovis. Here is Peter Brown, from his Rise of Western Christendom:
After the 460’s, northern Gaul resembled Britain. It was a land without an empire. It’s leading inhabitants had begun to accept this fact. This is shown by a significant change in local burial customs. Romani and barbarians alike, whether Christian or pagan, came to be buried bearing arms ….
In this increasingly militarized world, the Franks were by no means newcomers. Many had served in the high command of the imperial armies in the fourth century. To take one example: Bauto, a Frankish chieftain in imperial service became consul in 385 …. Franks such as Bauto were already honorary Romans. They claimed to be descended, like the Romans, from the Trojans. Priam had been their first king. They had only recently — so Franks close to the Rhine frontier — come to Germany from ancient Troy!
Not every Frank was like Bauto. The Franks who were led by king Childeric, in the 470’s, were wilder men. Childeric was a Merovingian. Later legends made the Merovingians the descendants of a Frankish queen who had coupled with a sea monster when swimming in the North Sea, the legendary home of heroes….
Childeric’s son, Clovis — Hlodovech, “glorious warrior” — inhereted the many strands of his father’s authority in Gaul. He was a pagan; yet he received a letter from Remigius, the Catholic bishop of Rheims: “May justice proceed from your mouth.” From the very beginning, Clovis wished to be king of the Franks in a new, more forceful style….
The Lex Salica, the Laws of the Salian Franks [issued by Clovis, possibly around 486 AD], took the paganism of the Frankish inhabitants of the Rhine estuary for granted. It protected with special penalties the great gelded boars who have been set apart for sacrificial banquets: for boars were the bristling, magical guarantors of the waving growth of the cornfields. The law was particularly concerned to regulate the legal status of humble Frankish farmers over against the neighboring Romani. As Franci (perhaps from Frekkr, “the fierce ones”), weapon-bearing Franks, even the poorest, could still stand high in Gaul. But they were told all this in a Latin text, issued by a king who used Latin advisers. Clovis intended to rule Romans and Franks alike as firmly as had any Romanus.
As Clovis’ long reign continued on into the early sixth century, the Visigoths ruling southern Gaul developed an increasingly cozy relationship with the Orthodox (Nicene) Church, despite the fact that the Visigoths themselves were Arian heretics. Clovis viewed this pan-Christian alliance as a potential threat. In 506, the Visigoth king Alaric II issued his own abbreviated version of the Theodosian Code, with the strong approval of Orthodox bishops. Then Alaric summoned a Council of Bishops, the first ever in Gaul, and in return the bishops openly prayed for the expansion of Alaric’s kingdom.
Clovis’ response to the threat from south was to visit the Orthodox Christian shrine of Saint Martin of Tours, in search of a sign. As Clovis entered the church he heard these words being chanted aloud: “For thou hast girded me with strength unto battle; thou has subdued under me those who rose up against me.” (That is from Psalms 18:39, which is one of those “prayers of imprecation” one sometimes hears about.)
Clovis (still not a Christian) praised God and invaded southern Gaul. By the summer of 507 he was the victorious ruler of all of Gaul. A year and a half later Clovis was baptized, along with 3,000 of his soldiers, by the Orthodox bishop of Rheims. (For more details see RWC pp. 136-138 and references therein.)
After Clovis’ death his rule devolved to his sons and then to his grandsons, each of whom was a “king”. The Frankish realms were once again united under a single ruler under Clothar II, whose reign, along with that of his heir, Dagobert I, from 584 to 639 AD (combined), was “the most peaceful, prosperous and significant period of Frankish history since the reign of Clovis,” according to Patrick Geary in his Before France and Germany: The Creation and the Transformation of the Merovingian World (p. 51).
But Dagobert I was the last strong “Merovingian” ruler. In 751, Pepin the Short once again united the Frankish realms. His son was Charlemagne. Together Pepin and Charlemagne ruled from 751 – 814.
[To be continued …..]
See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones