A Visit That Changed a Life and Led to Sainthood

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What did those Irish missionaries say to Richarius that made him give up what he knew and devote his life to Christ?

As with many early medieval saints, information about the seventh century Frank also known as Riquier is scant and contradictory, but the stories are tantalizing. Whether they’re true is up to the reader.

Richarius was born in a village then known as Centula in today’s France. Either he was working class guy who pursued rustic occupations or he was a nobleman, depending on which source you consult. With the events that follow, I think he was an aristocrat. Whatever his background, the visit of the two Irish missionaries, Caidoc and Fricor, changed his life.

When the visitors arrived in Centula, they were mistreated by the locals. Except for Richarius, who offered his hospitality. After listening to their preaching, Richarius repented of his sins. So much that one story has him surviving only on barley bread strewn with ashes and water often mingled with his tears. Another has him offering protection to his guests so they could preach freely – something a nobleman could do.

Richarius later became a priest providing relief for the sick and poor and redeeming captives. He spent few years as a missionary in Britain, then returned to Centula, where he founded a monastery around 625 and served as its first abbot. Such an accomplishment would be easier for a nobleman, especially if he already owned the property to give to the Church.

 St. Riquier Abbey

A 17th century illustration of St. Riquier Abbey (public domain)

Apparently, Richarius remained close to Caidoc and Fricor. They joined him at Centula and spent the rest of their lives there.

As an abbot, Richarius would be in a position of influence. He had control over land, which was power in early medieval times, and could make alliances among fellow noblemen, both lay and clergy. In addition, the medieval populace believed that prayers from the monks could sway events here on earth, including who won the battles.

During a visit from Frankish King Dagobert, Richarius impressed the monarch by giving him good advice, especially not to listen to flatterers, and the king rewarded him with a generous gift.

Richarius could have kept his place as abbot for life. Or if illness prevented him from performing his duties, he could retire in relative comfort at the monastery. Instead when his health was failing, he traveled 15 miles away to a forest and lived in a hut with only one companion, Sigobart.

Shortly before his death, believed to be April 26, 643, he told Sigobart to make a coffin. His grieving companion felled an oak in whose trunk the body was placed. The monks at Centula must have guessed that Richarius would soon be declared a saint, a decision of local bishops at the time, and took his relics back to the monastery.

St. Riquier’s relics

St. Riquier’s relics in the abbey he founded (by Paul Hermans, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0)

About 150 years later, that monastery, named St. Riquier, became a center for learning with Angilbert as its abbot. His close friend, Charlemagne, provided a golden shrine for the founder’s relics.

I had to research the monastery for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, which has a few scenes taking place there 12 years before Angilbert becomes its abbot. During a trial, the characters swear on a piece of wood from a tree the monastery’s founder liked to rest under.

This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors on Oct. 19, 2014. Images are via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

Lives of the Saints, Omer Englebert

A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines: Naamanes-Zuntfredus Sir William Smith, Henry Wace

The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Alban Butler

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)

An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, from the First Introduction of Christianity among the Irish to the Beginning of the 13th Century, John Lanigan

Medieval Easter Was Not Joyous for Everyone

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What would Easter mean to an 8th century Saxon peasant who converted to Christianity with no education whatsoever? Especially if she was a slave in a foreign land and still learning the language? These are among the questions I explore in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar as my heroine, Leova, experiences the holy day for the first time.

Her children are the only thing she has left. During Charlemagne’s first war in Saxony the previous summer, she lost everything—her husband, her home, her faith, her freedom.

At this point in the story, Leova and her children have wound up in Nevers, where her master, Ragenard the merchant, lives. In that time, the folk spoke Roman, a form of Latin but not the language of the Church and very different from the Germanic Saxon language.

I chose to call the holiday Pasch for a couple of reasons. The word Easter is close to Eostre, a pagan goddess of spring. Pasch is similar to the French name for the holiday, and it comes to us from Anglo-French and Latin.

Johannes Gehrts' 1901

Johannes Gehrts’ 1901 “Ostara,” another name for Eostre (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

With all this in mind, here is my imagining of how a new Christian and foreigner would perceive the Feast of the Resurrection:

The Christian rites continued to puzzle her. The week before a holy day called Pasch, which Sunwynn explained was the day Jesu rose from the dead, chanting monks and priests led a procession through the city and received long, thin leaves. Leova and her children followed with the rest of the faithful holding yew and willow twigs.

Two days later, a priest visited the house, and for the next few mornings, Ragenard managed to dress and come to the hall. Yet it seemed as if even that small effort exhausted him. He spoke only a few pleasantries to Leova before returning to bed.

Will he ever show fondness for me again?

On the feast day, Ragenard attended Mass along with everyone else in the city, and the crowd overflowed down the steps. As the priests gave altar bread and wine to the faithful, Ragenard seemed barely able to stand. Another procession with priests holding crosses, censers, and several golden jeweled boxes followed. Ragenard looked like he would collapse.

In the procession, the Roman buzz of gossip deepened Leova’s loneliness. On the temperate days like this in Eresburg, she and other wives had talked about their husbands and children and the upcoming Feast of Erda. The return of spring was empty here without the goddess. Leova longed for Derwine. He would have comforted her. Even if she and Ragenard were speaking to each other, Ragenard would not have understood.

Saint Christopher: A Tough Guy Protecting Medieval Travelers

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Travel in medieval times was often slow, unpleasant, and dangerous. At any time, someone could break a wheel, a person or animal could get sick, a storm could arrive suddenly, or brigands or demons could attack. You needed all the protection you could get and who better than Saint Christopher, a giant of a man so tough that only God was a worthy master?

Belief in Christopher was so strong that just seeing his image assured the viewers that they would not die that day (or at least not faint or fall). He was popular everywhere, but churches in medieval England had the most murals with his image.

Yet the one certainty about Christopher is that he was a martyr in Asia Minor, probably in the third century. The image in my mind is of a huge man who goes by a name that means Christ-bearer in Greek and decides that he will not stop preaching. He would rather die and go to heaven than renounce his faith and condemn his soul to hell. (Reports that the Church ruled in 1969 that he didn’t exist are wrong. Christopher is still a saint, but his feast was reduced to local cult rather than universal.)

Saint Christopher

Saint Christopher, from the Westminster Psalter, circa 1250 (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Like many early saints, most of what we know about Christopher comes from legend. Originally named Offerus, he was a big guy and vowed to serve only a master who feared nothing. First, he served a king, but the king was afraid the devil. Then Offerus served the devil until the devil admitted he frightened by the cross.

Offerus decided Christ was the master for him and met a hermit who instructed and baptized him. Renamed Christopher, he decided to serve God by carrying people to safety across a raging stream.

One day, a child asked to be carried. No big deal, right? Well, the kid got heavy, so heavy Christopher feared he would drown. On the other side, Christopher asked the child why it felt like the world was on his shoulders, and the child revealed he was Christ and yes, he was carrying the whole world. To prove it, he told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground, and the next morning, it was a tree bearing flowers and dates.

Christopher then decided to travel and preach and perform miracles, winning a lot of converts. But that’s when he got into trouble. The authorities were unhappy and had him tortured and executed.

Over the centuries, the story has variations. As early as the fifth century, a church was dedicated to him, and in the eighth century, his legend was written in Greek and Latin. Its final form appears in the 13th-century Golden Legend.

You could argue that Christopher’s story is an allegory of what it means to bear Christ in your heart and endure the trials of following the faith. But I suspect Christopher’s legend was true in the minds of medieval folk. Although Christopher wasn’t a knight and dragon-slayer like Saint George, he was a brave and strong man, one who helped ordinary people in the travails of travel. Perhaps that is why he captured the medieval imagination and is so beloved.

Sources

St. Christopher” by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 1908

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, by David Farmer

The Life of Christopher,” The Golden Legend, from the Medieval Sourcebook

Butler’s Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler

St. Christopher was demoted but remains a saint,” by Ellen Creager of Knight Ridder Newspapers, Abilene Reporter-News, June 6, 1998

EWTN, Fr. John Echert answering a question about St. Christopher

This post was originally published at English Historical Fiction Authors on Aug. 5, 2014.

Medieval Misconception: They Didn’t Bathe

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When I decided to write a novel based on one of the Roland legends, I knew very little about the Middle Ages, but I was certain of one thing: medieval people didn’t bathe. I recall being told by teachers that the folk thought it was unhealthy. As an author, all I needed to decide was whether the characters would notice how bad they smelled.

So imagine my surprise to find a section about bathing in Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. Carolingian princes took baths and changed their clothes once a week. OK, so that’s not as often as Americans who can’t live without their daily showers, but it’s a lot more frequent than what I was led to believe.

Commoners would have bathed less often than aristocrats because of the time and labor it took to fill a tub, but they would have bathed as often as they could.

Medieval Bathing

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

So how did the misconception of medieval filthiness come into being? We can blame the plague for that, or rather belief about how the plague was spread in the 15th century—bad air that entered the body through the pores. Medical treatises of the time advised against frequent bathing, among other things, in order to keep the pores closed.

Go back to the Carolingians of the eighth and ninth centuries, and you’ll find a different attitude. Baths were a requirement for palaces, and bathhouses contained hot and cold pools. The bathhouse at the Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French) was spring fed and could accommodate up to 100 bathers.

Abbeys also had baths for the residents, guests, and the sick. Yes, you read that last part right, the sick, who were allowed baths on a mostly regular basis. So much for bathing being bad for health. Frequent hair-washing in the winter was to be avoided, but that’s not exactly a surprise when you consider how cold it was indoors.

Some medieval people didn’t bathe, but the reason had nothing to do with health. Abstaining from the bath was a form of penance, just like giving up wine or meat or something else you enjoy.

Between baths, people of all classes would wash using basins of cold water. Just like most of us, medieval people wanted to be clean.

Sources

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riche, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Daily Life in Medieval Times, Frances and Joseph Gies

This post was originally published on Jan. 23, 2013, on Unusual Historicals.

Willibrord: A Saint Enmeshed in Politics

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Around 716, Saint Willibrord, the Northumbrian-born bishop of Frisia, faced a difficult choice as Francia was embroiled in civil war: whose side should he choose in this high-stakes family fight over an inheritance?

Should he support Plectrude, widow of Mayor of the Palace Pepin II? Willibrord owed his monastery in Echternach to Plectrude’s mother, Irmina, who had given him the property 10 years before. Later, Plectrude and Pepin donated more land to the abbey on the condition that Willibrord’s successors remain loyal to Pepin’s sons by Plectrude and their descendants. (At this time, power rested with the mayor of the palace, who raised and led armies.)

Or should Willibrord get behind 30-year-old Charles, Pepin’s son by the concubine Alpais? Later nicknamed “Martel” or “The Hammer,” Charles was winning on the battlefield against Ragenfred, a Neustrian rebel, and more important to Willibrord, the rebel’s ally, Radbod, a pagan Frisian chieftain. (To make matters even more complicated, Radbod was the father-in-law of one of Pepin and Plectrude’s deceased sons.)

Hostile to Christianity, Radbod had driven Willibrord out of Frisia, burned churches, and killed many missionaries.  At the time, Willibrord was about 58, an old man by medieval standards. Although he had been dedicated to the Church as a young child and tonsured at age 15, perhaps his fate in the afterlife weighed more heavily on his mind. Would God hold him accountable for the souls lost in Frisia?

Willibrord

Willibrord in a 10th century manuscript (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Willibrord had been a missionary on the Continent since 690, following a 12-year stint in Ireland, where he might have been influenced by Ecgbert, who wanted to evangelize the pagan Saxons but was prevented from doing so, and Ecgbert’s companion Wichtberct, who had tried preaching to the Frisians for two years without success.

He decided to seek Pepin’s protection soon after arriving at Utrecht. Pepin was successful on the battlefield, having won Utrecht and Vechten from Radbod.

Pepin and Willibrord’s relationship was mutually beneficial. For a medieval ruler, God’s favor was essential for victory. Another reason for a Frankish aristocrat to care about the Frisians’ religion has as much to do with politics as saving souls. Pepin had pagan enemies in the Danes and the Saxons to the north and east. If the Frisians were Christian, they would be more likely to ally themselves with the Franks.

To that end, Pepin wanted Willibrord to have the pope’s blessing for the mission in Frisia and sent Willibrord to Rome in 692. Willibrord returned to Rome three years later, was consecrated a bishop, and received a pallium, a vestment for high-ranking clergymen specially honored by the pope.

Willibrord’s mission took him into northern Francia, Frisia, and Denmark, the last of which he gave up on except for 30 boys he instructed and had baptized. He suffered a setback when the aging and ailing Pepin died on Dec. 16, 714. Francia was torn apart as Ragenfred (allied with Radbod), Plectrude, and Charles fought for control. Willibrord retreated to Echternach.

Charles Martel

Charles Martel (image released to public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sources don’t say if Willibrord agonized over his decision between Plectrude and Charles or prayed about it, but he decided to support Charles, despite his past with Plectrude. Perhaps he reasoned that the only way for him or his successors to get back to the mission of saving souls in Frisia was for Charles to defeat Radbod.

Apparently, Willibrord, later known as the Apostle of the Frisians, made the right decision. In 718, Charles had a decisive victory against Radbod, who died a year later of unknown causes, anything from illness to complications from his wounds to assassination by his own people. With this Frankish victory, Willibrord was again in Frisia, perhaps taking on secular responsibilities as administrator of Frisian lands in addition to spiritual duties.

His decision would have a larger impact than he originally realized. For three years, his assistant in Frisia was the much younger Boniface, later a saint called the Apostle of Germany.

This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors on March 24, 2014.

Sources

Saint Willibrord website

Alcuin’s The Life of Saint Willibrord

St. Willibrord” by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 15

The Carolingians: A Family who Forged Europe, Pierre Riché, translated by Michael Idomir Allen

Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Bernard S. Bachrach

Heaven’s Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity, Isabel Moreira

Charlemagne: Hero or Villain?

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Did Charlemagne unite his country when he seized his dead brother’s kingdom from his toddling nephews? Did he save Rome from the invading Lombards? Did he destroy the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Continental Saxon peoples? Did he have his daughters educated along with sons? Did he cut his eldest son from the succession?

All of the above. Whether those actions make him a hero or a monster depends on whose side you’re on. Or in in the case of a historical novelist, which character’s point of view.

Alda, a Frankish aristocrat and heroine of The Cross and the Dragon, sees him as a hero. She follows the gossip about tensions between Charles and his younger brother, Carloman, each of whom inherited a kingdom when their father died. After Carloman’s death from an illness, she is relieved a strong leader takes over the entire realm, even though it means the king divorces a Lombard princess and marries a girl from an important family in Carloman’s former kingdom. Alda has little sympathy for Charles’s ex-father-in-law, Lombard King Desiderius, and supports the Franks’ invasion to save Rome from him.

Charlemagne and Widukind

Charlemagne reçoit la soumission de Widukind à Paderborn (1840), by Ary Scheffer (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Leova, a pagan, peasant Saxon and the heroine of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, has a very different take. In her eyes, Charles is a monster. His 772 invasion of Eresburg and the burning of the Irminsul ruin the good life she had. She has lost everything – her husband, her home, her faith, even her freedom. All she has left are her children, Deorlaf and Sunwynn. The only Frank she loathes more than Charles is Pinabel, a count who could have preserved the Saxon family’s freedom but bought them as slaves instead.

Fastrada, the heroine of my work in progress Queen of the Darkest Hour, has yet another perspective. As Charles’s fourth wife, she sees him as a husband and father. Pepin, Charles’s son from his first marriage, is angry with his dad because he feels cheated out of his inheritance.

So who was this guy we today call Charlemagne? It depends on whom you ask.

This post was originally published Sept. 1, 2014, at So Many Books, So Little Time.

Saint Ursula: A Story of Courage

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Most of what we know about Saint Ursula is from legend. Actually, legends, plural, with many fantastic elements. But I suspect there is truth buried within this story of courage. Virgins were martyred in Cologne, Germany, and they might have come from Britain.

The oldest version, a fifth-century Latin inscription in a Cologne church bearing Saint Ursula’s name, provides only a hint: “Often admonished by divine visions and by the consideration of the majesty of the martyrdom of the holy virgins who appeared to him, Clematius, a nobleman of the East, according to vow, thoroughly restored this basilica on his own estate and at his own expense (translation from Golden Hours by J. Jackson Wray).” A ninth-century addendum gives a dire warning: “But if anyone, notwithstanding the majesty of the place where the holy virgins shed their blood for the name of Christ, should dare to bury any person here, let him know that he shall be punished by the eternal fire of hell.”

The century of the virgins’ martyrdom is unclear; it could be third, fourth, or fifth.

In earlier versions of the story, who is leading the group changes, but later versions settle on Ursula. And the number of Ursula’s companions was closer to 10 than 11,000, the latter number appearing by the ninth century.

Nicolo di Pietro's

Nicolo di Pietro’s St. Ursula, circa 1410

The legend is more fleshed out in the 11th century. Ursula and the pagan Aetherius are betrothed. Having pledged herself to Christ, Ursula seeks to delay the marriage by going on pilgrimage. She takes 10 attendants, and each woman has 1,000 companions. They sail on the Rhine and stop at Cologne, where an angel tells Ursula they will be martyred on their return visit to the city.

Undeterred, Ursula and her companions continue their journey. At Basel, they pick up the local bishop and go all the way to Rome. There, the remaining pagans, including Aetherius, are baptized. Moved by a vision of an army of martyrs, the British-born Pope Cyriacus abdicates, so that he can share their martyrdom. (Conspiracy theorists explain you can’t find any mention of this pope in the records because the powers in Rome were so mad they erased his name.)

The group returns to Cologne, where they are indeed slaughtered with arrows by Huns in hatred of the faith. Then the army of martyrs drives the Huns away.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictionalized history of Britain, Ursula is the daughter of Dianotus, king of Cornwell, and she and her companions are being sent to Armorica (Brittany) to provide conquering soldiers with wives. After being shipwrecked, the women are slaughtered by – you guessed it – the Huns, angry at being rebuffed by the beautiful ladies. No mention of vows of chastity or dying for Christ.

Hans Holbein the Younger's

Hans Holbein the Younger’s St. Ursula, circa 1523

Regardless of what is accurate about the legend, the martyrs existed and their story of courage has inspired generations of believers.

About 1,000 years after the virgins’ death, their story was included in The Golden Legend, a book read to St. Angela de Merici when she was a child. Ursula’s legend must have stayed with her throughout her life. In 1535, the 61-year-old Angela founded an order under the patronage of Saint Ursula. The Ursulines are best known for educating girls, founding communities and schools throughout the world.

Images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

Golden Hours, J. Jackson Wray

“St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins,” Albert Poncelet. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15.

St. Angela Merici,” Michael Ott. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1.

The British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth

St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe, Scott B. Montogomery

Sisters of the Irish Ursuline Union

This post was originally published Jan. 16, 2014, at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Ganelon: the Villain of ‘The Song of Roland’

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What would be so despicable that the only justice is to tie the offender’s hands and feet to four stallions, have a mare nearby, and let them tear him apart? On top of that, 30 of his kinsmen are hanged—death by slow strangulation—and a buddy is slain in a duel.

Such is the fate of Ganelon, the villain of The Song of Roland, forever branded a traitor.

First a little context. Believed to have been written in the latter part of the 11th century, The Song of Roland is a medieval form of historical fiction, light on the historical and heavy on the fiction. The anonymous Old French epic says a lot about taking a stand against overwhelming odds, but it departs from the actual events that inspired it.

In reality, the retreating Franks were ambushed in 778 by Christian Basques at the Pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees, a defeat so traumatic that no one wrote about it while King Charles (Charlemagne) was alive.

Fast forward three centuries near the time of the first Crusades, and suddenly, the Muslim Saracens are the enemy. The war has lasted seven years instead of a few months. And now we have a traitor to blame for the defeat, Ganelon. The author might have been inspired to name his villain after Guenelon (also spelled Vénilon), a ninth-century bishop of Sens who crowned Charlemagne’s grandson Charles and later changed his allegiance.

Of course, a love-to-hate villain is great for storytelling, but I wonder if the author was trying to convey another message. French forces were superior, so good that only a betrayal would defeat them. Perhaps, the author was drawing a parallel to Jesus, who died because of Judas’s betrayal.

A 14th century depiction of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass

A 14th century depiction of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, as portrayed in The Song of Roland, which took many creative liberties (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

In the poem, our hero, Roland, volunteers his stepfather, Ganelon, to convey the terms of Charlemagne’s treaty with Saracen King Marsil, who has just made an offer for peace. Ganelon is angry—two others guys who tried this were beheaded.

After relaying his emperor’s terms to Marsil, Ganelon reveals how the Saracen can defeat Charlemagne: get rid of Roland. Ganelon instructs Marsil to give Charlemagne gifts and hostages and wait until Charlemagne’s army withdraws, leaving the rearguard behind. Marsil then can attack with overwhelming numbers. Ganelon swears fealty to Marsil and gets treasures.

Roland is appointed to the rear guard at Ganelon’s behest, and sure enough, the Saracens ambush the Frankish rear guard. Roland and his companions fight valiantly, and perhaps the redeeming message of the poem is how the heroes face their certain deaths. After stubbornly refusing to call for help, Roland blows his horn and dies, along with everyone else in the rear guard.

Hearing the call, Ganelon tries to convince Charlemagne that it wasn’t Roland’s horn and that there is no battle. But Charlemagne knows otherwise, and the Franks take revenge. In the meantime, Ganelon is chained and beaten by the kitchen staff and his beard is torn.

And then Ganelon’s story takes an interesting turn. Ganelon doesn’t deny what he did. Instead he shows up in Charlemagne’s presence with 30 of his kinsmen and says that he’s not guilty because he was taking revenge, not committing treason.

Inexplicably, the noblemen at the court are buying this, but not everyone. And so for even more drama, we have a trial by duel between the warrior Thierry and Ganelon’s champion and buddy, Pinabel. Now why would Ganelon, a warrior who has named his sword and rides a charger, need a champion? Was the poet trying to show what a wimp Ganelon was for not fighting his own battles? Given what happened to him after Pinabel is killed in the duel, Ganelon would have been better off taking his chances in a duel.

19th century illustration of the Inferno by Gustave Dure

A 19th century illustration of the Inferno by Gustave Dure (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ganelon’s reputation as traitor follows him through time, as author Tinney Sue Heath explained in an earlier post. In the 14th century, Dante envisioned Ganelon in the lowest frozen parts of Hell, not that far away from where Satan gnaws on the traitors Brutus, Cassius, and Judas.

Ganelon is the villain of The Cross and the Dragon, but I portray him differently. Hruodland (Roland) and Ganelon come from two feuding families and are rivals for the heroine, Lady Alda. In my version of events, Ganelon is not a traitor, but don’t worry, there is still plenty to hate about him.

A version of this post was originally published at Unusual Historicals on April 22, 2013.

 

The Muslim Who Persuaded Charlemagne to Invade Spain

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Charlemagne’s 778 invasion of Spain, commemorated inaccurately in The Song of Roland, is often portrayed as a type of Crusade. In fact, it was a Muslim who convinced the Frankish king to cross the Pyrenees.

A year earlier, Sulaiman Yaqzan ibn al-Arabi, a Saracen emir; his son Yusuf, and his son-in-law trekked along the steep, narrow passes of the Pyrenees and journeyed all the way to Saxony, seeking an alliance with the Frankish king and close friend of the pope.

Why would a Muslim ask for the assistance of a devout Christian?

Abd al-Rahman

Abd ar-Rahman

Ibn al-Arabi, wali (governor) of Barcelona, was part of the Abbasid cause to overthrow Abd ar-Rahman, the emir of Córdoba and the last of the Umayyads. The Abbasid caliph, Al-Mansur, had tried to defeat ar-Rahman in 763 and failed. In the 770s, the Abbasids and Berbers from Africa were planning to unite their forces and try again. Ibn al-Arabi must have thought they would need help and decided on a king with a reputation as a conqueror.

At this time, Charles had never lost a war during his nine years on the throne. He had subdued Aquitaine and Lombardy and so secure was he in his belief he had pacified the Saxons—beaten them in submission—that he held an assembly in his brand new palace in Paderborn, east of the Rhine. Ibn al-Arabi put his territories under King Charles’s protection.

What ibn al-Arabi told Charles is a matter of speculation, which I have included in The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. However, judging by a 778 letter from Pope Hadrian, he might have told the Frankish king that Abd ar-Rahman wanted to extend his realm north into Francia:

“Your royal and God-constituted power has sent us word through your letter that, God opposing them, the people of the Hagarenes are intent on invading your territories to make war. This news has caused us to become greatly troubled and distressed; may our Lord God not permit such things to occur, nor also Saint Peter, prince of the apostles!”

Charlemagne and his knights

1910 illustration by Charles Copeland in Page, Esquire, and Knight: A Book of Chivalry by Marion Florence Lansing

A Truce

Charles invaded Spain with a huge army from all over his realm, but things did not go so well. At Pamplona, the fiercely independent Basques (also called the Gascons) apparently did not want a foreign king, even if he was a fellow Christian. In response, the Franks destroyed the city. When they reached Zaragoza, ibn al-Arabi tried to turn the city over to Charles. But the Muslim populace did not want Charles as king, either.

So Abd ar-Rahman and Charles reached a deal: the Umayyad would give Charles gold and hostages if the Frankish king went home. Apparently, the alliance with the Abbasid had fallen apart because ibn al-Arabi gave hostages, too.

A hostage in this era, usually the son of a nobleman, was a form of insurance. If Abd ar-Rahman and ibn al-Arabi behaved themselves, the hostages were treated as guests. If the Muslims broke the treaty, Charles could do whatever he wanted to the hostages, including execution.

This allowed Charles to claim victory. He got booty and assurance that Abd ar-Rahman would not invade.

A 14th century depiction of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass

A 14th century depiction of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, as portrayed in The Song of Roland, which took many creative liberties.

Aftermath

But disaster struck on the journey home. Perhaps in retaliation for the destruction of Pamplona, the Basques ambushed the rear guard at the Pass of Roncevaux, killing high court officials and Hruodland (Roland) of the March of Brittany. The blow to Charles was so great that the events were not recorded until after his death.

On top of that, Charles found out the Saxons were not pacified after all. Back in Francia, he learned they had revolted, killing and burning indiscriminately. One of the casualties was the palace in Paderborn.

Charles was able to recover and conquer more lands. Crowned emperor in 800, he reigned until his death at age 65 in 814.

Ibn al-Arabi was not as fortunate as Charles. One annal has him being taken to Francia in chains. But I am inclined to believe the grimmer fate described in the footnotes of Carolingian Chronicles: ar-Rahman, the Umayyad, recaptured Zaragoza, and ibn al-Arabi was killed as a traitor to the Muslim cause.

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Bernhard Walter Scholtz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow and Edwin H. Zeydel

This was originally published Aug. 20, 2012, on author Jessica Knauss’s blog. Her latest release, Seven Noble Knights, takes place in medieval Spain a couple of centuries after my book. If you enjoy tales of family, betrayal, revenge, and honor, read this novel.

An Everyday Hero in the Dark Ages

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9th century manuscript page from Salzburg
This 9th century manuscript page from Salzburg is a gem. It provides one of the rare glimpses of life of a common person—someone who wasn’t a royal, aristocrat, or saint.

We see what a peasant wore, a few of the implements he used, and what he did on the land throughout the year. The month-by-month tasks are specific to Salzburg. The Carolingian realm was vast, encompassing Utrecht in the north and Avignon in the south, stretching from beyond the Enns River in the east to the Atlantic in the west. The soil might be workable in Arles but still frozen in Cologne.

Still, a 21st century viewer gets to see everyday concerns from long ago, outside religion and war.

The unnamed character in this manuscript doesn’t fit the classic definition of a hero, a warrior killing the enemy. Nor is he a martyr, a self-sacrificing hero for the Church.

But he and countless others like him are heroes. They were the ones who got the earth to yield crops to feed families, cut hay so animals could eat through winter, tended vines and made wine, and slaughtered livestock as the ground froze.

Even though many of us don’t make our livelihood from today’s high-tech agriculture, one thing remains the same: we depend on farmers’ handiwork for our survival.