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The story has a surprisingly familiar ring to it: A widower marries a woman half his age, and she bears him a son. That’s a problem because the husband has already written his will and divided all his property among his three sons from his prior marriage. And one heir balks when asked to give up a portion of his property to accommodate his youngest brother.

Today, if the family is wealthy enough and/or weird enough, this story would be fodder for the tabloids. For a royal family in the Middle Ages, the consequences were much more dire.

The widower in this story is Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious (778-840). The inheritance is the Frankish empire, and each son born in wedlock expects a kingdom.

Louis was trying to avoid sin when he remarried rather than do what his own widowed father did. At the death of his fourth wife, King Charles had three legitimate sons, all young adults. He likely did not want any more heirs. He married a fifth time, but the woman had been his concubine for two years and had not conceived. After she died, he had mistresses, whose sons would not be heirs to the throne. Although considered a sin, that decision keep Charles’s empire together.

The Franks would have been better off if Louis had been less pious. His decision to remarry led to civil wars, first between him and one of his sons, then among the brothers.

The Middle Ages is fun to write about because the personal and the political merged. As a 21st century American, however, I would not want to live in a society where a family squabble leads to people’s deaths and am grateful the founders of my country decided government was by election, not inheritance.

Of course, our government has plenty of faults, and too much power is concentrated in the hands of wealthy individuals. But I am also glad to live in a society where I can freely complain about this and work to change it.