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 JessicaKnauss.com. 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.

Widukind: Murderer or Freedom Fighter?


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“Widukind? A freedom fighter?” my Frankish characters say. “Are you mad? He’s burned churches. His murderers killed indiscriminately.”

“Widukind is a hero,” my Saxon characters reply. “He will rid us of these foreign invaders who destroyed our sacred pillar and stole our territory. When we promise to follow their odd religion, they demand money.”

So, whose side is right? Both.

To eighth-century Saxons, the Westphalian nobleman was a freedom fighter. As a 21st century tolerant American, I cannot condone his burning of churches or slaughter of war captives. Nor can I condone the Franks’ destruction of a sacred monument, coerced baptism, or shaking down anyone for tithes.

Widukind Memorial

Widukind memorial in Herford, Germany (Photo by M. Kunz, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

When events are seen though medieval eyes, however, the reality becomes even more complicated. When a vanquished party swore an oath of loyalty, he invoked the divine. To a medieval Christian, there was only one true God to make the vow valid. Pagan deities were devils, and they would only need to point out the human sacrifices.

In the pagans’ minds, those sacrifices of war captives were a thanksgiving for victory. Instead of enslaving the captives, the victors offered them to the war god. And the churches they burned were symbols of foreign oppression.

Most factual information about Widukind comes from the Franks and their Christian allies. We have no way of knowing what eighth-century Continental Saxons thought. They did not have a written language as we know it. But we can glean a couple of insights:

  • The Saxon must have seen the Franks as oppressors. As his contemporaries complain of Saxons breaking their vows of loyalty to God and king, Alcuin of York, a scholar in Charlemagne’s court, writes letters pleading with fellow Christians to educate the Saxons before baptizing them and to stop demanding tithes—better to lose the money than the souls.
  • Widukind must have been charismatic. Between 777 and 785, Widukind repeatedly led Saxons to battle and inflicted damage. But then the Franks would come and chase away his forces, and Widukind would escape. Even after Charles ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxon men—revenge and justice for a disastrous Frankish defeat—Widukind was still an influence.

In late 784, Charles made the bold move to attack Saxony in winter at a time when most wars were fought in spring and summer. With unpredictable weather, no grass in the fields for the horses to graze, and no crops to raid for warriors’ food, the cold, dark months were bad for fighting. Charles spent Christmas at a villa in Saxony and eventually moved to Eresburg, captured almost 13 years before. He used the fortress as a base in the spring and summer then held an assembly in Paderborn.

That is when things changed. As Charles gained more territory, perhaps Widukind realized his enemy was relentless. Maybe he was losing support among his own people. Whatever the reason, he decided to negotiate.

The Franks see Widukind’s baptism in 785 as a victory, but it might be more accurate to see it as a bargain.

Widukind's Submission

19th century painting by Ary Scheffer (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before Widukind traveled to Attigny to go through the rite, he and Charles exchanged hostages, something two peers did to ensure their adversary behaved themselves. When Widukind made his vow, Charles was his godfather and presented him with gifts. In essence, Widukind had Charles’s protection against the monarch’s own Frankish subjects.

Perhaps the deal was for Widukind to convert to Christianity, pay tribute to Charles, and quit burning churches so that he could return to his land. The annals don’t mention Widukind after 785, but he may have founded a few abbeys, a typical penance for a nobleman.

Even after his conversion, Widukind was still revered by Saxons. A 10th century historian bears his name. That scholar, Widukind of Corvey, dedicated the history of his people to Matilda, a royal woman who claimed the eighth-century Westphalian leader as an ancestor.

This post was originally published April 14, 2014, at Unusual Historicals.

The Saxons’ Nine Heroic Herbs


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Whether it was originally a pagan poem with Christian elements or vice versa, the “Nine Herbs Charm” reveals clues about Saxon culture before Christianity, something a novelist needs when portraying the lost pagan religion of the eighth-century Continental Saxons conquered by Charlemagne.

I turned to Anglo-Saxon and other Teutonic cultures to get an approximation of my characters’ beliefs. The “Nine Herbs Charms” shows how the art of healing was closely tied to religion. Herbs have medicinal properties, but healers would also invoke the divine. Calling on supernatural forces would remain after Christianity was accepted, but the faithful would call it white magic and say it had nothing to do with paganism.



The healer would grind the herbs into a powder, then make a paste with soap, apple juice or apple pulp, and ashes and use it as a salve on a wound while reciting the charm.

The herbs – mugwort, plantain (called way-broad in poem), hairy bittercress (stune in the poem), attorlothe (fumitory), chamomile (which may or may not be the chamomile we know), nettle (stinging or dead white), crab apple, chervil, and fennel – might have some medicinal qualities.

Hairy bittercress

Hairy bittercress

Mugwort, which smells like sage, it can be used to repel insects. Plantain leaves are supposed to be good to treat bee stings and poison ivy. Chamomile extracts might be anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, and anti-infective for minor illnesses. (Author’s disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, not even close. Nor have I tried any of these. If these herbs at all tempt you, please consult an expert.)

But when you read the poem, you get the feeling that the belief is based on the characteristics of the plants. The herbs have their own personalities and are addressed as “you” and “she.” Mugwort, “the oldest of herbs,” is strong. Plantain, the “mother of herbs,” has withstood trampling. Lamb’s cress or hairy bittercress grows from rock. Nettle is harsh, as anyone who has been stung by one will attest. The plants will use these traits to fight poison and infection.

Stinging nettle

Stinging nettle

You almost get the feeling these herbs are warriors about to do battle.

Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons.


Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context, Karen Louise Jolly

Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Malcolm Laurence Cameron

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, Greg Delanty and Michael Matto

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

This post was originally published Dec. 22, 2014, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

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How Loving Your Husband Makes All the Difference


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When I chose a family of pagan Saxon peasants as my main characters for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I also needed to decide on the relationship, my heroine, Leova, had with her husband. Leova is fictional, so she and Derwine could have any relationship I wanted—abusive, apathetic, comfortable, or loving.

Meister des Codex Manesse

From the 14th century Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Medieval marriages were arranged, and among aristocrats, they were a means to build alliances. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were considered marriageable, and parents often betrothed both sons and daughters at even younger ages. If the bride was a 15- or 16-year-old Christian, the Church required her consent. However, in an epoch that didn’t recognize child abuse and considered wife-beating a right, consent could be beaten or starved from a girl. It’s easy to say that girls were pawns. An alternative perspective is that they were important partners for their families when having the right in-laws could prevent feuds or wars.

Whether the couple was Christian or pagan, social considerations always came first. Heck, the couple didn’t even need to like each other. So if your husband didn’t leave you bruised and bloody and didn’t get so drunk he couldn’t work the farm, you’d consider yourself lucky. And a man would think himself fortunate if he could trust his wife not to stray and to take care of his children and the household.

In Leova’s case, her older brother married her off to his good friend to appease his wife, who was jealous of the siblings’ bond. At first, I thought Leova and Derwine were going to have a comfortable relationship like I just described but not much more than that. My characters decided otherwise, that they would love each other.

A happy medieval marriage is not as unusual as you might think. Some historic marriages were loving, even if the reason to wed was political. When authors of the Royal Frankish Annals typically did not trouble themselves with how a couple felt about their reunion after months apart, the 787 entry says King Charles (Charlemagne) and Queen Fastrada “rejoiced over each other and were happy together and praised God’s mercy.” In a letter from Charles to Fastrada, composed before he went to war with the Avars in 791, he greets her as “our beloved and most loving wife,” and when you read the letter, you get the feeling this is not an empty platitude.

Leova and Derwine’s deep love for each other improves the story. It makes Leova’s losses all the more devastating, heightens her guilt when she gets involves with another man, and makes her decision on what to do about Hugh, the Frankish friend who killed her husband, all the more difficult. In other words, love raises the stakes.


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

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

P.D. King’s Charlemagne: Translated Sources

This post was originally published Sept. 17, 2014, on author Samantha Holt’s blog.

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The Battlefield and Beyond: The Destruction of the Irminsul


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Destruction of the Irminsul

Fresco at the Gothic Aachen Rathaus, photo by HOWI (Willy Horsch) (CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Franks and Continental Saxons had been battling each other for a long, long time, but the war of 772 was different. It was a fight both for territory and for souls.

It was also Charlemagne’s first war in Saxony. He was merely King Charles then and relatively new to the throne. He and his brother, Carloman, each inherited half the kingdom four years earlier, when his dying father split the realm. After Carloman’s death in December 771, Charles seized his late brother’s lands, assuming sole rule of Francia.

When he decided to invade Saxony, Charles was no stranger to war. He was age 24 and had ruled some Frankish territory for less than a year.

The reason for the attack on Eresburg is open to speculation. Perhaps, the Saxons had stopped paying yearly tribute won from the previous war 14 years ago, while Pepin and then Charles were distracted with the wars in Aquitaine. Charles might have thought to let such insolence go unanswered would weaken him. Perhaps, Charles was trying to protect Church interests in pagan lands, or he saw the Saxons as a threat with the fortress of Eresburg so close to the Frankish border.

The Frankish annals don’t give us a play by play of the battles, and the Continental Saxons didn’t have a written language as we know it. However, Charles’s army marched to Eresburg after an assembly at Worms and captured a hilltop fortress in a strategic location. Then the Frankish king ordered the destruction of the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples.

We don’t know the Irminsul’s location, what it was made of, and even if there was only one. But one thing is certain: Charles was trying to prove something, just as Saints Boniface and Willibrord did decades ago when they violated pagan sites. The message to the pagans: Our God is stronger than those devils you worship.

The Royal Frankish Annals report that the Christians got divine assistance in demolishing the pillar. Because of a drought, the army did not have enough water to stay an extra day or two and complete their work. Suddenly around noon, a stream appeared and the men could finish the destruction and take the shrine’s gold and silver.

With that part of the mission accomplished, Charles’s army advanced to the Weser River, where they parleyed with the Saxons and got 12 hostages, sons from important families and a medieval form of insurance. If the vanquished behaved themselves, the hostages were guests. If they reneged on their promises, the hostages could be killed or sold into slavery.

But maybe Charles wanted another type of insurance, one with higher stakes than the hostages’ lives. When two parties made an agreement, they swore oaths and invoked the divine, but to Charles, only one deity was valid. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a Saxon leader was baptized and then made his vow, putting his soul on the line.

Threats to body and soul did not keep the peace. The 772 war was only the beginning of what would be a decades-long, bitter struggle with burned churches, forced conversions, mass murder, mass executions, deportation, and other brutality on both sides.


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

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Charlemagne, Roger Collins

This post was originally published Oct. 28, 2014, at Unusual Historicals.

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What Was the Real Pillar of Heaven?


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The title for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is derived from the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Continental Saxon peoples, including my heroine, Leova. The one thing we know with certainty: Charlemagne ordered its destruction in 772 and took the gold and silver in its temple.

Destruction of the Irminsul

The destruction of the Irminsul by Heinrich Leutemann (1824-1904) (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The nature and location of the Irminsul is uncertain—as is whether it was the only one. Some sources say it was a stone pillar, others say wooden pillar, and still others say it was a tree. It’s been described as having an idol of the war god atop it. Because of the presence of a carving, some have placed it at the Externsteine, north of the Saxon fortress Eresburg.

We can’t turn to the pagan Saxons for any clarity. They did not have a written language as we know it, and the Church did everything it could to obliterate a religion it considered devil worship.

So what’s a historical novelist to do with so many contradictions? Choose the most plausible version that best fits her story and confess her liberties in an author’s note. Or a blog post.

My first liberty is to call the Irminsul the Pillar of Heaven. Irminsul is often translated as “universal pillar.” I chose Pillar of Heaven in my novel because frankly it sounds better. And Wodan, the war god whose idol might have surmounted the pillar, was a sky god, so the Pillar of Heaven is not too much of a stretch.

Next was the location. Leova lives in a village just outside the fortress of Eresburg. Having it nearby allowed her to smell the smoke when it burned and see the charred blotch it left behind. It made the loss more real and more devastating.

Flames are a dramatic form of destruction, which is why I decided the pillar should be made of wood. To the Continental Saxons, the Irminsul’s destruction was the equivalent of burning a cathedral. Did the Saxons believe anyone who desecrated their sacred monument would face the gods’ wrath? Again, there is no text to verify it. But this was age that believed in divine favor and retribution, so that idea passes the plausibility test.

From a storyteller’s point of view, actual facts about the Irminsul are not as important as its impact on the characters. And in this case, Leova’s faith is shaken.

This was first published on Sept. 18, 2014, at Jester Harley’s Manuscript Page.

If you’d like to read The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, you can get it at:

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