With this post we’ll reach roughly the middle point in the Middle Ages. At this point, therefore, it might help to take a look around, to have an overview. Where have we been? And how do the parts covered relate one to the others. With that in mind I will begin with a Timeline of the Middle Ages to the year 714. The inspiration for this timeline, by the way, indeed for the overview itself, comes from one Brigitta Theodora. She is a lady whose Celtic name puts her ahead of, and her middle name right into the middle of—the Middle Ages. Theodora, we note here, was the famed wife of Justinian I. My lady, however, is a very modern woman and co-regent of this household. Herewith the Timeline:
Most of the events graphed here have been covered or touched upon in earlier postings. This period is dominated by Germanic invasions of the old West Roman Empire. Note here the extensive reigns of what are entirely or predominantly Arian Christian tribes—Vandals, Goths, and Lombards. They dominate the valley of the Danube, the Balkans, Italy, North Africa, and Spain. One small reign, that of Clovis, will be covered in this post and represents the ultimate victory of the barbarians, the Franks, who were both the earliest settlers on Roman lands and the final winners.
To keep this schema relatively simple, I have, thus far, treated with benign neglect developments in England, Ireland, and Scotland—in part because they mirror, in miniature, the developments in mainland Europe: early invasions of proto-Roman and Celtic lands by Saxons and Angles from Scandinavia (beginning roughly after 410 after the last Roman troops depart), ultimate conquest by Normans from France (1056), and the formation of kingdoms all adhering to the Catholic faith. The Normans were descendants of Vikings, Merovingian Franks, and the original Roman Gallic populations.
Part of my plan has been, and continues to be, to show that beneath what might be called the secular (call it barbaric) level—but transcending and eventually influencing and nourishing it with values—has been the spread of Christianity, itself, to be sure, rent by tensions. These tension begins to divide Christianity into separate domains (Catholic and Arian at first, Orthodox and Coptic later). Of these Arianism passes with the disappearance of the Vandals and the conversion of the Visigoths. Well after the Middle Ages end (how very brief the times of unity), we have another split with the dawn of the Reformation.
Two dynasties achieved this consolidation. The Merovingian (457-752) was the first. Its founder was Childeric I, son of Merovech, hence the name. Childreric was the father of Clovis, the first major Frankish conqueror—and had it not been for him, the Merovingian name would not have been. The last titular Merovingian ruler was Childeric III. With his deposition by Pepin the Short begins the Carolingian dynasty (754-814), but we must underline here that the two dynasties actually somewhat overlap. The Carolingians begin with Charles Martel (688-741). Charles in Latin is Carolus, hence the name. Martel’s sons were Carloman and Pepin, and Pepin mustn’t have been very tall. Pepin’s son was Charlemagne, who was extraordinarily tall—and you might say that the Carolingians would also have been forgotten except for him.
The rise of the Carolingians, from Martel, who himself had been born out of wedlock, is illuminative of Frankish customs and the times. The Franks did not believe in primogeniture, thus the right of the firstborn (son, of course) to inherit his father’s total estate—or even the variant under which one son would inherit. Clovis, an outstanding statesman and military ruler—much like all Frankish kings before and after him—partitioned his realm between his sons. And in all such cases the total realm became weaker because of rivalries between the surviving brothers. The Frankish kings, however, much like all rulers with unquestioned power based on fighting skill, disliked the tedium of administration—which in turn, of course, caused havoc. Therefore a new institution developed. It was the appointment of a Mayor of the Palace, that is to say caretaker or administrator. That office, in turn, became hereditary. But because you couldn’t split the realm just because a mere administrator died, each Mayor of the Palace could only leave it to one son. Martel inherited his title from his father, Pepin of Herstal (also called Pepin the Middle). There was also a Pepin the Elder, who predates all three. And all of them, including Charles Martel, belonged to the Pippinids, a large family just one rank down from royalty. Forgive me for this paragraph, but it must continue a little longer. The Franks had discovered what we well know: great administrators are rare. Pepin the Middle, therefore, had managed to be appointed simultaneously Mayor of the Palace for three different French kingdoms (Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy—see the map shown later). He also called himself Duke and Prince of Francia—and, using that word, in a way foreshadowed things to come. Martel’s son Pepin the Short took the ultimate step. He went on from being Mayor of the Palace to king. And with him the Carolingian dynasty has its origins.
The map above shows the total expansion of Frankish power over 333 years. The two darkest greens represent the conquests of Clovis, the next lighter shade represents conquests by his sons, the fourth conquests by Charles Martel and Pipin, and the last by Charlemagne.
Pondering these endless wars—and on the surface anyway (bad news always leaves an imprint, little else does)—one wonders about a couple of things. The first is how were these wars justified. What was the underlying justification or rationale? And if present, was it conscious, framed in thought? The other is the leadership itself. What sort of men were these?
To hazard an answer to the first question, the underlying motivation seems to be a more or less basic drive to establish dominance by the strongest which, no doubt, in the male, is a biological imperative. Kings arose by way of personal valor. Once achieved it was hallowed by family lineage. Territoriality plays a role here—defense, counterattack, then holding on to new territory if victorious. Concepts like human rights are at most conspicuous by absence. In his City of God (410) Augustine had already framed the phrase “just wars,” basing that concept on self-defense—in the accomplishment of which “Thou shalt not kill” is temporarily suspended. But as demonstrated in Clovis’ own conversion, such once might say “elevated” thoughts were not very much to the front; his conversion was pragmatic and certainly did not involve reading Augustine, if he could even read. The socialization, never mind acculturation, of such people would take much more time and, arguably, would never really take hold of the war-leading elites.
As for the second question, all of these kings were warriors first—and very little beyond. Those who have left their name in history (e.g. Alaric, Theodoric) were gifted in various ways beyond barbaric valor. They were obviously very intelligent but with relatively short time horizons. They made useful and far ranging diplomatic arrangements, formed useful alliances and kept them alive by restraint. They were always, however, in a kind of motion, even once settled into realms; they did not leave new institutions behind that led to a permanent order. Among the Franks, the dominant context was the family—sons and their domains, without thought of the consequences of parceling out realms that, for the moment, a single personality held together.
In this context, therefore, it is intriguing to contemplate that family with its many Pepins, the Pippinids. Here, for the first time, we see the early manifestations of institutional thought, natural for administrators who experience the value of permanent arrangements—be it of communications or supplies. Here we have, for the first time, the projection of the concept of Francia, as a coherent realm—whereas the Goths all thought in terms of personality: How to become Augustus.
As for the last of the big Pippinid names, it was that of Charles I, Charlemagne, he who fathered the Holy Roman Empire. He was both a great barbarian warrior and a man who came from a long line of fine administrators. Never learned to read or write, however; there are always clerks who can do that for you if you are great enough. But, we are told, he always slept on a pillow placed over a bottle of ink and a pen. Nothing propinques like propinquity.
Picture credits: Map of Franks' origins: Wikipedia (link); map of Frankish conquests: Wikipedia (link); image of Saint Clotilde: Wikipedia (link); and Papal States: althistory.wikia.com (link).