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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

What Charlemagne’s Clothes Say about Him


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Everything Charlemagne (748-814) did was political, right down to his choice of clothes. In The Life of Charlemagne, former courtier Einhard nicely has chapter called “Dress” and opens with, “He wore the national dress of the Franks.”

Einhard then provides this gem to historians and novelists everywhere:

“The trunk of his body was covered with a linen shirt, his thighs with linen pants. Over these, he put on a tunic trimmed in silk. The legs from the knee downward were wound with leggings, fastened around the calves with laces, and on his feet, he wore boots.  In winter, he protected his shoulders and chest with a vest made of otter skins or marten fur, and over that, he wrapped a blue cloak. He always carried a sword strapped to his side, and the hilt and the belt thereof were made of either silver or gold.”

The king also had a gold broach and a diadem. For special occasion or visits from foreign dignitaries, he had a jeweled sword. And during high festivals, he could wear golden cloth and jeweled boots.

“He disliked foreign clothes no matter how beautiful they were and would never allow himself to be dressed in them,” Einhard says.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

From the ninth century Sacramentary of Charles the Bald (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Charlemagne was sending a message by this choice: that he was a proud, patriotic Frank who submitted to no one but God.

In fact, he used fashion as a political weapon.  In 788, one of his conditions for freeing a hostage, the son of the late duke of Benevento, was that the southern Italian agree to shave his beard in the Frankish fashion. This was an apparently response to the rival Byzantine desire for a similar show of loyalty from the old duke.

Only twice did Charlemagne ever wear anything other than the Frankish costume, and it took two succeeding popes to convince him. They asked him to wear a long tunic, chlamys, and Roman shoes—the garb of an emperor. He later used that image on his coins, complete with a laurel wreath.


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

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Originally published July 24, 2012, at Unusual Historicals.

A Medieval Massacre That Became Crusades Propaganda


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What happened at the Pass of Roncevaux in 778 was so traumatic no one wrote about it for decades, not while Emperor Charlemagne was alive. Yet a heavily altered version of the event became the basis of a poem to inspire Crusaders.

First, a little backstory: Three Saracen emirs from Hispania (Spain) visited King Charles, as he was known at the time, during his assembly in 777 at Paderborn to ask for his aid is overthrowing the Muslim ruler of Cordova. Perhaps the emirs told Charles Christian cities would welcome a Christian king. Perhaps they said the emir of Cordova would encroach on Frankish territory, as evidenced by a letter from Pope Hadrian referring to Charles’s fear of invasion. Saracens had invaded Francia in the past.

The original Royal Frankish Annals, Charles’s official record, say everything was hunky-dory. Charles marched into Hispania with a vast army, got hostages at Zaragoza, destroyed Pamplona (a Basque Christian city), subjugated the Basques (also called the Gascons), and returned home.

No mention at all of the Pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees.

Roland at Roncesvalles

Roland at Roncesvalles, Odilon Redon, c.1869 (public domain image via Wikipaintings)

What was so awful that Charles wanted it omitted? The earliest account of the battle, written in the Revised Royal Frankish Annals between 814 (the year Charles died) and 817, provides clues. The Reviser writes about the Basque ambushing the rear guard from the heights of the Pyrenees. Many high-ranking court officials died, the baggage train was plundered, and the enemy scattered in all directions. “To have suffered this wound shadowed the king’s view of his success in Spain,” the Reviser writes.

However, Einhard, writing a biography of Charles about 830-33, more than 50 years after the event, gives the most detailed description of the attack, which took place as the sky was darkening: “In a densely wooded area well suited for ambush, the Basques had prepared to attack the army from the highest mountain. As the [Frankish] troops were proceeding in a long column through the narrow mountain passes, the Basques descended on the baggage train and the protecting rear guard and forced them into the valley. In the ensuing battle, the Basques slaughtered them to a man.”

Einhard also provides three names: Anselm, the count of the palace, Eggihard, the seneschal, and Hruodland (Roland), prefect of the March of Brittany. Einhard’s work is the only historical reference to Hruodland, the hero of my first novel, The Cross and the Dragon.

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).

Fast forward to the 11th century, and you get a different take in The Song of Roland. A very different take. The poem says a lot about courage in the face of overwhelming odds and betrayal. But don’t look to it for historical accuracy. The most notable change is the enemy, Muslim Saracens, just like the Crusaders were fighting. The poem makes no mention of the Basques or of the Franks destroying a Christian city.

It was propaganda before the term existed.

This post was orginally published May 22, 2012, at Unusual Historicals.

Sturm: One of Charlemagne’s Lieutenants in Spiritual Warfare


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When Charlemagne decided to invade Saxony in 772, he took spiritual warriors in addition to those guys with the spears and swords. Whether St. Sturm, the abbot of Fulda, was with Charles during those battles is not clear, but the king of the Franks put him in charge of the Christian mission in a large part of the conquered territory.

Charles’s wars against Saxony were different than those his ancestors had fought. It was the first time religion was part of the conflict. Perhaps, Charles wanted to protect Church interests. Perhaps he thought Saxons were more likely to keep their oaths if they put their souls on the line. Treaties were secured with vows that invoked deities. To Charles, only one was valid.

Whatever his reasons, Charles put his trust in Sturm, who had been a priest for about 40 years. He had grown up near Saxon territory in the monastery at Fritzlar, where he was an eager student. With the exception of a trip to Rome and two years in exile, he had lived in the region most of his life and had advised Charles on his relationship with the king’s first cousin Tassilo, the duke of Sturm’s native Bavaria.

The most influential person in Sturm’s life was St. Boniface, who had also tried to covert pagan peoples. At Boniface’s urging, Sturm and two companions spent nine years in forested wilderness seeking a suitable spot to start a new monastery. Medieval folk depended on the forest for survival, but it was also the home of predators, both beasts and evil spirits.

Boniface, then the archbishop of Mainz, had rejected their first choice, which Sturm’s hagiographer, Eigil, described as “a wild and uninhabited spot and [they] could see nothing except earth and sky and enormous trees.” The reason, ironically, was it was too close to pagan Saxons to be safe.

So Sturm tried again, and he finally found the right place on the Fulda River. His contemporaries probably saw it as the middle of nowhere. However, Boniface believed God had picked the place and successfully appealed to Frankish Mayor of the Palace Carloman to donate the land. Boniface later visited the site to give it his blessing.

The year was 744, when the Franks, under the rule of Carloman and his brother Pepin, were at war with the Saxons. Again. Despite the battles in Saxony, some of which involved Carloman and Pepin’s troublesome half-brother Grifo, the monastery at Fulda thrived, and Sturm visited Rome to better learned the Benedictine way of life.

Saint Boniface

An 11th century image of St. Boniface baptizing converts and being martyred.

Tangling over Relics

In 754, Boniface was martyred while trying to convert pagans in Frisia, and his body was taken back to Francia. That was the beginning of Sturm’s political troubles.

When the relics reached Mainz, its archbishop, St. Lull, also a disciple of Boniface, wanted the martyr’s body to remain in his city. Sturm insisted that Boniface be taken to Fulda, a wish his mentor had expressed while still alive. Martyr’s relics were treasured in the Middle Ages, and they were attributed with miraculous powers. Pilgrims would flock to those relics, which meant alms for the church housing them.

According to Eigil, Boniface himself weighed in by appearing to a deacon in a dream and asking why he wasn’t being taken to Fulda. Lull was not convinced until the deacon swore at the altar. The relics went to Fulda, but Lull retaliated in a distinctly medieval way.

Lull accused Sturm of disloyalty to Pepin, now king and sole ruler of Francia. Sturm made no effort to defend himself and placed his trust in God. Believing the accusers, Pepin sent Sturm and some companions to the Abbey of Jumièges, where they were treated well.

In the meantime, Lull had managed to get Fulda placed under his jurisdiction and appointed a new abbot, but the monks at Fulda refused to accept the bishop’s puppet. So Lull caved and let them elect one of their own. They choose a monk whom Sturm had mentored and, along with nuns in convents and the faithful at other churches, prayed for Sturm to be restored to Fulda.

The prayers worked. Pepin sent for Sturm and in a chapel told him he had forgotten what they were quarreling over. Sturm replied he wasn’t perfect but has never committed any crime against Pepin. To signify the reconciliation, the king pulled a thread from his own cloak and let it fall to the floor.

So Sturm went back to Fulda, and the monastery would claim Pepin as its sole protector, making it independent of Mainz.

St. Boniface Crypt, Fulda Cathedral

Saint Boniface’s Crypt, Fulda Cathedral, Germany (image released to public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A New King and New Missions

When Pepin died in 768, he split the kingdom between sons Charles and Carloman (the Franks were fond of recycling names). Seeking divine favor and earthly alliances, Charles gave donations to Fulda. He also made Sturm an emissary between him and the duke of Bavaria.

Eigil says Sturm established friendly relations between the royal cousins for several years. Well, not exactly. In fairness to Sturm, even the most gifted diplomat would have difficulty with those two. Relations might have been good while Charles was married to a Lombard princess, the sister of Tassilo’s influential wife. When he assumed sole rule of Francia, Charles divorced the Lombard after only a year and then overthrew his ex-father-in-law. The duchess of Bavaria never forgave the Frankish king.

Sturm had other affairs to deal with when Charles invaded Saxony four years into his reign and destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples, the same way Boniface had felled a tree sacred to pagans. The message: My God is stronger than those devils you worship.

Destruction of the Irminsul

1882 illustration by Heinrich Leutemann (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sturm embraced his new mission. He preached to the Saxon converts and exhorted them to destroy pagan groves and temples and build churches instead.

But as soon as Charles was occupied elsewhere, pagan Saxons attacked Christian sites. Then Charles would send Frankish warriors to put down the rebellion. This cycle would repeat itself for decades.

While Charles was in Spain in 778, the Saxons devastated Christian holdings and killed indiscriminately all the way to the Rhine. When Charles got word, he sent soldiers to put down the rebellion, and the Saxons retreated. But the monks at Fulda feared an attack and fled with Boniface’s relics. They spent three days in tents in the forest until they learned that the locals had fended the Saxons off.

Charles still wanted Sturm to lead the Christian mission, but the aged man was ill. The king assigned the royal physician to attend to him. One day, the physician gave Sturm a potion to make him feel better, but the patient got worse and realized he was going to die. He asked his brothers for forgiveness and in turn forgave those who wronged him, including Lull.

Sturm died Dec. 17, 779. The monks had no doubt that Sturm was going to heaven and would have a special relationship with God.

This post was orginally published Nov. 12, 2014, at Historical Fiction Research.


Eigil’s Life of Sturm

Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Pierre Riché’s The Carolingians: The Family Who Forged Europe, translated by Michael Idomir Allen