Western Europe at the dawn of the 6th century was a pitiful backwater on the verge of annihilation. The collapse of the Roman empire had left it a disconnected scattering of tribal landholdings clinging to a fading Roman culture that they no longer understood. Although one of the most fertile agrarian areas in the known world, its economic system was rudimentary … and its political systems were even worse. Almost everyone in the region had accepted Christianity, but they were lukewarm about it. The Church which we think of as being such an all-consuming and powerful entity in the Middle Ages was, at this point, unorganized and disconnected without much uniformity in practice from region to region. To top it all off, the mighty Muslim empire, the Moors, had conquered Spain and had their eyes on the rest of Western Europe.
On paper it looked like the end for Western Europe. And yet, if you look around today what do you see? We’re not all speaking a variation of Arabic, we’re not all worshiping in mosques, and Western models of law, learning, culture, and commerce prevail and Christianity is the predominant religion.
So what happened?
The Carolingians happened.
Back to the dawn of the 6th century. Western Europe was a backwater. The barbarian invasions of previous centuries had settled down into struggling kingdoms ruled by kings with a very small reach. The Anglo-Saxons in Britain couldn’t get things together and were dealing with Viking invasions. The Lombards in Northern Italy were hostile to the Pope in Rome. The Germanic tribes of the east were little more than clans. The only kingdom and people that had any sort of real power were the Franks.
The Franks were a mixture of the Gauls of the Roman era and the Germanic people they had integrated with them. They had the advantage of remnants of Roman culture mingled with Germanic warrior strength. Their kingdom spread through much of the area that is now France and a big portion of the Rhine valley. But the big problem of the Frankish kingdom was that their hereditary line of kings was quite literally weak. Many of them died while they were still young.
The salvation of the Franks came from what probably started in a totally pedestrian position: Mayor of the Palace. It is thought that the position of Mayor of the Palace was probably nothing more than the manor steward at first. (My character Simon from The Faithful Heart would be so proud) Various members of the Carolingian family had held this position off and on for centuries. But because the Frankish kings were so weak, the position of Mayor of the Palace became a very powerful one indeed. Whoever held the position was the king’s chief advisor. All policy and decisions came through and were issued from the Mayor. The position can be likened to the modern Prime Minister. It wasn’t necessarily an inherited position. In fact, it was more often a prize given as spoils of war between battling regional lords.
Charles Martel was raised to the position of Mayor of the Palace in 717. The world he faced was one of disorganization, infighting amongst the Frankish lords, and serious threats to the very existence of the Franks and the whole European way of life in the form of the Moors. His first order of business was to take care of things at home. In the years after 717 he subdued the rebellious leaders of the Germanic tribes and lands to the east and north of Paris (which was the center of the Frankish kingdom even back then). He was incredibly successful at bringing them to heel by force and then holding them through religious persuasion and by making them swear fealty to him. Hint: this was the beginning of the feudal system.
Then, in 721, the Moors attacked the Duchy of Aquitaine in the southwest. Aquitaine’s ruler, Duke Odo defeated them at Toulouse, but that was not the end of things. The threat was constantly there. And Odo was not best buddies with Charles. In fact, Charles had to turn the attention of his armies to Aquitaine to fight more than just the Moors.
So if Odo, Duke of Aquitaine defeated the Moors at Toulouse in 721 and Charles had to turn his attention to the region to keep Odo in check, how come we didn’t end up with a grand line of European kings named Odo? Well, Charles was smarter. He studied the situation with Odo and with the Moors and realized he needed to do something truly radical to face the challenge. In those days soldiers were only available when they weren’t needed back home for planting or harvesting. War was a seasonal thing and armies were temporary at best. Charles saw that this wasn’t going to work. He needed a full-time, year-round army that could be trained and train new recruits in turn. And to have a full-time army he needed to pay them. He took a huge risk in seizing money from the Church to pay for his army. The Church was furious. The good relationship they had had fell apart to the point where Charles was almost excommunicated.
And then the Moors invaded again in 732. They were twice as strong and this time they fully intended to capture all of Europe. They sacked Bordeaux and good old Odo fled in a panic to seek Charles’ help. Charles was more than happy to bring his full-time, trained army to the rescue. Then he did something that none of his contemporaries expected. He enlisted Odo and his men to help fight the battle. See, in those days it was unheard of for a ruler to include his enemy in his army. It was seen as suicidal. But Odo was in trouble, the Moors were serious, and Charles was thinking way, way ahead. In exchange for coming to Odo’s defense he made him swear fealty and more or less give Aquitaine to the Frankish crown on a level it hadn’t been pledged before. Odo agreed.
Charles met the forces of the invading Moors at the Battle of Tours in October of 732. The Moors had vastly underestimated Charles’ strength. The Franks crushed them. They crushed them so badly that Charles was given the moniker “Martel” which means “The Hammer”. The Muslim Moors were pushed through Aquitaine and back over the Pyrenees into Spain. They would attempt a few more invasions in the next handful of years but they were easily defeated by then.
Charles Martel had stopped the spread of Islam into Europe. Up until that point it was a real possibility that the Moors could have taken over, converted Europe, and Christianity could have been squelched as an also-ran religion. The foresight and creative thinking of Charles, not to mention his highly trained army, put a stop to that. But Charles’s victory meant much, much more than that. In defeating the Moors he had rallied most of the duchies, territories, and minor kingdoms within the kingdom of the Franks under one banner. He had required that the lords swear fealty in a whole new system that would set the benchmark for centuries to come. He also began reforms within the Church that set the wheels in motion to create one organization that could unite all of the diverse kingdoms and peoples of Europe whose cultures were so different that nothing else could have given them a sense of unity.
There is a whole other element to the might of the Carolingians. If Charles Martel had done all of this and then died without leaving a strong legacy things might have fallen apart. But his son, Pippin, was just as strong and dedicated to the cause as he was. And his grandson was so powerful and shared the vision with such clarity, and carried so many of his changes and improvements to their completion, that he became known as Charles the Great, aka Charlemagne.
But more about Pippin and Charlemagne next week.