10 May 2016

My Characters Lived in Charlemagne's Empire

By Kim Rendfeld

In Charlemagne's day, the monarch's personal life and politics were intertwined, and too many heirs presented a problem. God had a hand in everything, but magic was still very much a part of life.

Such are the societal complexities and contradictions that have me hooked on eighth century Francia enough to write two novels and be working on a third. Whole books have been written about Carolingian Francia. In the limits of a blog post, I can provide only a flavor of it.

When Charlemagne died in 814, the empire comprised today's France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, and parts of Hungary and Italy. Much of the land was forested, and travel was slow—armies moved 12 to 15 miles a day.

With that reality, a count, bishop, abbot, or abbess were rulers of their own lands and acted independently. Charles could rule only if he secured alliances throughout his realm, and he rewarded loyal clerics by appointing them masters of church lands.

Marriage, Family, and Politics

Louis the Pious (Ludwik I Pobozny)
The need for political alliances affected whom Charles married. Ironically, a peasant family had more flexibility. Their first consideration might be whether the suitor would make a good husband and father, and the bride's sentiments might have made more of an impact.

For Charles, the stakes were higher, and politics trumped affection. His father picked out his first wife.  The queen had an important role beyond bearing sons. She managed her husband's household and controlled access to him. When houseguests were foreign emissaries, what they got for dinner had international implications. If her husband died, she could rule as regent until her son reached his majority.

Charles set aside two wives to free himself of other political marriages, but he would learn that spurning women had national and international consequences. After divorcing his second wife, he was literally at war in 773-74 with his ex-father-in-law, the king of the Lombards, over who would inherit the kingdom of Charles's late brother. Charles won, but after many months of holding siege. In 792, his first ex-wife or her family might have been involved with eldest son Pepin's rebellion.

Charles was a steadfast husband to his last three wives, but all of those marriages had political underpinnings. When he married Hildegard (spouse No. 3), he was from a powerful family, but his father had taken the crown in a coup. Hildegard was the one with the higher pedigree. As an Agilolfing, she was related to the rulers of Bavaria and came from one of the great and most established families in the realm.

Months after Hildegard died in 783, Charles married Fastrada to secure his alliances on the eastern part of the realm, which he needed during his ongoing wars with the Saxons. Their marriage lasted until her death in 794.

He married a fifth and final time in 794 or 796 to Luitgard, and he might have chosen her because he was fond of her and was certain she couldn't have children. Charles had three grown heirs already, and following Frankish custom, each one expected a kingdom. Charles's plan was that Young Charles would rule the bulk of Francia while Louis inherited Aquitaine and another son named Pepin got Italy. If Charles wanted his empire to stay intact, he would not want any more sons born in wedlock.

After Luitgard's death in 800, he had mistresses and begat more children, including boys. Having the concubines proved his virility, a sign of physical perfection and his worthiness to rule. Deformities and other physical imperfections were believed to be God's curse.

Christian Beliefs and Magic

Stuttgart Psalter
Charles and his Frankish subjects believed in the power of prayer. The siege in Lombardy ended after Charles traveled to Rome to visit the pope. Before the war with the Avars in 791, priests held three days of litanies and the faithful abstained from wine and meat.

Most of the laity did not understand the Latin prayers at Mass, but they believed in divine intervention in daily life. Although marriage was not a sacrament at the time, husband and wife often sought the blessing of a priest. The same God who determined victors in war also could decide whether a couple had children.

If the harvest was bad or someone became ill or disabled, they might believe God was punishing them for a sin and pray to a saint to intervene on their behalf or take it a step further and go on a pilgrimage. Or they might attribute the misfortune to sorcery.

Incantations, charms, and other magical means were ingrained in the society despite the Church's official stand against witchcraft. Desperate parents of a sick child might pray to a saint and give alms, then take the child to the peak of the roof, where herbs were cooked while a spell was recited. Even clerics might ask an expert to interpret their dreams, or a manuscript copied by monks might contain a square to predict the course of an illness with the letters of the patient’s name and the number of the day they got sick.

Eventually, the Church took a different tack and made creative substitutions. Want rain? Don't use an incantation. Say a prayer instead. If you need to recite something while gathering medicinal herbs, try the Pater and the Credo.

I could talk about how Charles try to convert pagans by force with limited success, how slavery was alive and well in this era, how horses and other farm animals were different, how literacy was limited to a select few, how every family likely lost a child before age five, and how art and literature survived despite constant war and disease. But as I said earlier, that would take more than a blog post.

I would never want to live in this time period—I happen to like human rights, instant communication, and modern medicine. But it is more multifaceted and intriguing than what I was taught in school, which is why it continues to fascinate me.


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

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Courts, Elites, and Gendered Power in the Early Middle Ages: Charlemagne and Others, Janet L. Nelson
Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, edited with an introduction by Peter Godman

Kim Rendfeld is the author of The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, which will soon be reissued. She is working on a third novel, Queen of the Darkest Hour.