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

A Medieval Ritual of Rebirth


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Seven Noble Knights blog tourToday, I am glad to welcome my friend J. K. Knauss to Outtakes as she launches her epic story, Seven Noble Knights, now available for preorder. I got to see an earlier version of the novel and recommend it for anyone who enjoys a family saga of betrayal and revenge, with some romance. It’s set in medieval Spain, where three great religions sometimes coexisted, and sometimes conflicted, with each other. Here, Jessica explains a ritual I was curious about.—Kim

J. K. KnaussSeven Noble Knights takes place at the end of the 10th century, more than 1,000 years ago. The source materials are 600-700 years old and display a terseness that’s admirable, but leaves a bit to the imagination. I’ve written about developing characters in other places, and sometimes occurrences and customs also need fleshing out in order to make sense to modern readers.

One such need for imagination is the ritual by which Doña Sancha, the iconic mother, adopts Mudarra, the belated hero, as her son. It appears like this in the Crónica de 1344 (my translation):

The story tells that doña Sancha received Mudarra as her son according to Castilian law. She put him into a sleeve of a silk dress she was wearing, and pulled him out through the other, and don Mudarra from then on had the name Mudarra González.

I’ve heard of “rebirthing” ceremonies, and this adoption certainly brings those to mind. Mudarra is a grown man and bigger than the widest medieval sleeve. How terrified would even the greatest warrior have been to be pulled through a slim piece of silk without explanation?

The source’s mention of Castilian law is culturally important. In the 10th century, Castile was still establishing its sovereignty. Later writers wanted the historical people they wrote about to be seen strictly observing the law of the new nation, even if it required some uncomfortable observances.

Although Sancha’s husband has already recognized Mudarra, the source text only mentions law pertaining to the mother, and it appears that a woman must perform the ceremony. This is likely a holdover from Visigothic law and earlier Iberian matriarchal cultures. In spite of the preponderance of masculine characters in Seven Noble Knights, the overarching story is a feud between Doña Sancha and Doña Lambra, two women competing for men and power.

The unusual adoption ceremony takes place in Seven Noble Knights, Part II, Chapter 6, outside the cathedral in Burgos. Here’s my reimagination with a few practical details, and I hope, a lot more emotional impact.

Burgos cathedral

The Burgos cathedral, as it appears today (photo by J. K. Knauss)

“This way, dear boy.” Doña Sancha beckoned Mudarra inside a circle of women, each of them grinning. One of them handed Doña Sancha a folded piece of red fabric. A woman had come up behind Mudarra and begun undoing his belt, then lifted his tunic over his head. Another woman removed his leggings, but he felt naked enough and held the knots in his linen underpants, deflecting prying fingers. They gave up, and he had no time to register the cold or embarrassment because the red silk had already been unfolded. Doña Sancha accepted no help from anyone. Mudarra puzzled out that the fabric had been sewn such that it made a large sleeve, not because he had the time to inspect it, but because it tightly encased his head and shoulders and then the rest of his body. He dared not breathe in, but the long journey north and his last days in Madinat al-Zahra passed before his eyes as he waited helplessly, his arms pressed to his sides in the cocoon.

Gentle hands on the other side of the silk guided him to the cold ground, and then Doña Sancha rolled the sleeve away from his head. He could breathe again, and while Sancha worked the fabric over his shoulders, Don Gonzalo held his head off the ground, almost as if he were receiving Mudarra from Sancha.

He imagined the silk was meant to stand in for the birth canal. He was being reborn, with just as little intention on his part as the first time. He helpfully lifted his body from the ground by clenching different muscles and watched Doña Sancha pulling and tugging, past his chest and catching a little over the rings on his fingers. His knuckles retained them in their place and he let his arms flop to the ground when she delicately moved the fabric over the undergarment. He was glad the symbolic tube was made of silk, because if it had been wool, he might have suffocated inside a scratchy sleeve they would have had to cut him out of.

Doña Sancha swept the sleeve off his feet and folded it hastily into her dress.

“Now you are truly my son as well as Don Gonzalo’s. Now you may truly call yourself Mudarra González.”

Don Gonzalo said, “Now you must take revenge not only for my sake, but also for Doña Sancha’s. She is your mother by Castilian law.”

Mudarra wanted to say goodbye to his real mother, or thank Doña Sancha for accepting him, but he was pulled inside the church door as if he were a grain of sand in the great tidal winds.

knauss-cover-r4Born and raised in Northern California, J. K. Knauss has wandered all over the United States, Spain, and England. She has worked as a librarian and a Spanish teacher and earned a PhD in medieval Spanish literature before entering the publishing world as an editor. She is recovering from the devastating loss of her beloved husband, Stanley, to cancer. Her acclaimed novella, Tree/House, Kindle Scout–winning paranormal adventure Awash in Talent, and short story collection, Unpredictable Worlds, are currently available.

Her epic of medieval Spain, Seven Noble Knights, will be published by Bagwyn Books on Kindle on Dec. 15, 2016. A softcover edition will follow on Jan. 16, 2017. Find out more about the Seven Noble Knights Grand Book Launch Blog Tour and Facebook party (and win prizes) at Feel free to sign up for her mailing list for castles, stories, and magic.

Throw your name into the Goodreads hat to win one of three first edition softcovers of Seven Noble Knights. Giveaway ends Dec. 14.

Why the Saxons Kept Breaking Their Vows


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Alcuin of York wanted the Christian mission in pagan Saxony to succeed, but in the 790s, he was deeply troubled by how it was carried out.

Letters from the Northumbrian scholar who led Charlemagne’s Palace School might be as close as we get to the Continental Saxons’ side of the decades of bitter wars. The Saxons themselves had no written language as we know it, and the Church, aided by King Charles (Charlemagne), did whatever it could to obliterate a religion it equated with devil worship.

Neither side is innocent. The Saxons burned churches and killed indiscriminately, the latter perhaps as a thanksgiving to the war god. As for the Franks, in 782, Charles issued a capitulary that among other things called for the death of anyone who didn’t convert to Christianity.

In 789, Alcuin was optimistic about the spread of Christianity and for good reason. The Saxon war leader Widukind had accepted baptism four years before, and the peace thus far held. Alcuin asked a friend how the Saxons took his preaching, and a few months later, he praised Charles for pressuring the Saxons to convert whether it was with rewards or threats.

Three years later, Charles’s wars with the Saxons had restarted. Other contemporary sources complain that the Saxons broke their oaths. The entry in the Lorsch annals invokes Proverbs and compares the Saxons’ reverting to paganism, burning churches, and killing priests “as a dog returns to its vomit.”

Alcuin took a more nuanced approached in 796. Writing to Arno, a former student and bishop of Salzburg, Alcuin advised, “And be a preacher of compassion, not an exactor of tithes … It is tithes, men say, that have destroyed the faith of the Saxons.”

Saxon baptism

1883 illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The year before, emissaries of an Avarian governor came to Saxony, where the Franks were at war again, and promised to submit to Charles and accept baptism. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that Charles and his magnates talked about spreading Christianity to the Avars, whom the Franks had fought off and on since 788. Perhaps, Arno was already a candidate to lead the spiritual mission.

In 796, the Franks had a major victory over the Avars. With Avarian leaders killed in internecine conflict, the Franks broke into a stronghold and took its riches, probably centuries of plunder. The Avarian governor, identified only as the tudun, and his companions accepted baptism.

Was Alcuin trying to prevent repeating the mistakes made with the Saxons in addition to changing the Christian mission there? Again and again that year, Alcuin pleaded for a different, gentler approach to spreading Christianity, even taking his message to King Charles. He pointed out the apostles did not exact tithes from the newly converted and said it was better to lose the wealth than the soul.

In a letter to Meginfrid the chamberlain (although the real audience is King Charles), Alcuin outlined how the process should work: teach first, then baptize, then expound on the Gospel. “And if any one of these three is lacking, the listener’s soul cannot enjoy salvation. Moreover, faith, as St. Augustine says, is a matter of will, not of compulsion. A person can be drawn to faith but cannot forced to it.”

Charlemagne's court,

1830 painting of Charlemagne’s court, with Alcuin presenting manuscripts (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alcuin himself was well educated. Born around 735, he had directed the school at York for 15 years before joining Charles’s court.

“If the light and sweet burden of Christ were to be preached to the obstinate people of the Saxons with as much determination as the payment of tithes has been exacted and the force of the legal decree applied for faults of the most trifling sort imaginable, perhaps they would not be averse to their baptismal vows,” he wrote to Meginfrid, adding that missionaries should be learned men, “preachers, not predators.”

Arno was, in fact, assigned mission territory in Avaria and later appointed archbishop. Perhaps another letter to him from Alcuin is as much a warning as a lament: “It is because the wretched people of the Saxons has never had the faith in its heart that it has so often abandoned the baptismal oath.”


Charlemagne: Translated Sources by P.D. King

Alcuin” by James Burns, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907). Retrieved from New Advent.

Salzburg” by Cölestin Wolfsgrüber, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912). Retrieved from New Advent.

Charlemagne by Roger Collins

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

This post was originally published Sept. 23, 2014, at English Historical Fiction Authors.