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My favorite source when reconstructing the Carolingian era, the period for The Cross and the Dragon, is the letters that are with us today.

Too many of us learned history in high school as an exercise in memorization. Remember who did what on what date long enough to write it down on a test. Then you can promptly forget it.

Too often, our classes were deprived of the actual human beings who made history. People who celebrated victories, mourned their loved one, fell in love, got angry. And that is why I wonder what a history class would be like if students read letters from long ago, from all levels of society.

The letter writers have a definite point of view. They don’t know everything that is going on. Nor do they know how events are going to turn out. But that’s the point! Letters show what the writer was thinking at the time.

One example is a 770 missive from Pope Stephen III, responding to rumors that the daughter of his enemy, the Lombard king, will marry one of the Frankish kings. This is addressed to both Charles (today called Charlemagne) and Carloman. (Warning: Medieval people were not politically correct.)

Pope Stephen III

Pope Stephen III, represented in an icon inside the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Stephen writes: “For what sort of madness—which is the very least it may be properly called—is this, most eminent sons, great kings, that your illustrious people of the Franks, which shines forth above all peoples, and the lineage of your royal power, of such splendor and high nobility, should be defiled—perish the thought!—by the perfidious and most foully stinking people of the Lombards, one in no wise reckoned within the number of peoples, a race from which a stock of lepers is known for certain to have sprung!”

What we see is a real human being, one who is very upset, trying to influence the events as they are happening. If high school students saw something like this, they’d be more interested in what happened in the past. The reason this is important is that knowing where we’ve come from guides us to where we’re going.

To anyone else who has researched history, what gems have you found in letters?