Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday Thought: Never forget - between Tours and Poitiers

We need to set, in merest summary, a very complicated scene before Charles enters upon it. I have not time for the details of the three hundred year lineage lying between Clovis (slayer of Alaric, the Visigoth conqueror of Rome), of the Merovingian line, and the ascencion to royalty of the Arnulfing family in the person of Charlemagne; nor for the generations of depravity and dissipation characteristic of the Merovingian kings, which ought to have denied them title to what in fact they were - a dynasty - interrupted on occasion by outbursts of true courage and nobility; nor for the numberless battles amongst themselves (the Franks), and between them and many other barbarian tribes. But when that nobility did emerge, it was unmistakable in its character, and thus we ought at least to know this much:

Ere the long, slow agony which I have called the death of Rome was completed, the world was startled by that outbreak of fierce Semitic monotheism which is associated with the name of Mohammed. In 622, rather more than two centuries after Alaric's capture of Rome, Mohammed escaped from Mecca to Medina, and in this retreat of his the followers of his faith in succeeding ages have rightly seen the beginning of his career of spiritual conquest, wherefore they date all their events from the midnight journey of a fugitive, even as the other great Oriental faith has taken for its landmark the birth of a little child in a stable. Before Mohammed's death in 632 the career of Saracen conquest had begun. Ere the close of the seventh century Syria, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, were torn from the Empire of the Caesars and obeyed the rule of the Caliph. In 711 Europe saw the first breach made in its defences when the great Iberian peninsula (all save a few mountain glens in the remote north) was conquered by the Moors, and Mecca took the place of Jerusalem or Rome as the spiritual center of gravity for Spain. The turbaned invaders crossed the Pyrenees; in 725 they penetrated as far as Autun, only 150 miles from Paris...[and there] the Moors remained encamped on the soil of that which we now call France.

Charles was not himself Merovingian, but was descended from the nobility of the Arnulfing family line, whose members periodically served in that somewhat obscure [in origin] tradition of the major domus, the mayors of the palace. He was, in fact, the direct issue of the great Pippin, who first united the Frankish kingdom under a single rule, but without ever taking for his own the title of king. Pippin was known simply as Dux or Princeps Francorum; and when Charles - following some unfortunate intrigue provoked by Pippin's poor choice of successor, and after "destroying...with smashing blows the petty tyrannies that followed upon the death of his father" - recreated that father's deeds, neither did he wrest the crown from the Merovingian fainéant king. A previous Arnulfing had already given it a try and met with a terrible fate, for though the royal line was enervated, wilted, dissipated by vice, the name still meant something to the people and the nobles, even as they often strove against it.

But in my reading of it, Charles seems not to have needed any title. His vision was larger than that, apprehending the true danger of the historical moment, against which a royal title was worthless if it were to be made extinct. That prospect was, quite literally, on the horizon:

It was in 711, three years before Pippin's death, that the Visigothic monarchy of Spain fell before the Moslem invader. In 716 the Moors seem to have first entered Gaul in detached squadrons. In 720...they invaded Gaul in force, took Narbonne and established themselves in the old Visigothic province of Septimania, from which they were not finally dislodged for nearly forty years. They besieged Toulouse with many great engines of war, and their retreat from this place, compelled by the appearance of the Duke Eudo with an army, may be noted as the first sign of ebb in the tide of Moslem conquest in Western Europe.

It was, however, twelve years before the Musselman's hope of adding Gaul to the Empire of the Caliph received its death-stroke. In 725 they penetrated as far as Autun, in the very heart of Burgundy, demolished the city and carried off the treasures of the Church to Spain. The vigilance of Eudo of Aquitaine seems to have relaxed, and he was now no longer, as in 720, the great champion of Gaulish Christendom against the invader. On the contrary he entered into friendly relations with at least one Mussulman warrior, bestowing his daughter Lampegia on Munuza, a Berber chieftan, who seems to have been striving to establish a Moorish kingdom in Spain independent of the Caliphs. It was perhaps owing to this new combination that Eudo broke through the treaty which he had made with Charles in 720. There were thus two princes, a Christian and a Moor, Eudo and Munuza, each rebelling against the state to which they nominally owed allegiance.

But, the account goes on, both princes were to fail in the end - Eudo in battle at the hands of Charles, and Munuza also in battle at the hands of the Caliph's man, Abderrahman, who pursued the latter into the Pyrenees and hunted him down. "Pierced with many wounds," Munuza perished, and his wife, Eudo's daughter Lampegia, was taken captive and shipped eastward "to end her days in the Caliph's harem."

Thus then were all the side issues disposed of, and the ground was cleared for the great, the real issue between the Mohammedan power reaching from Damascus to the Pyrenees, and the Christian power which was embodied in the Frankish monarchy, but whose central point was now to be found in the home of the great major domus by the Rhine. Abderrahman, a brave and capable warrior...when he led the beaten host back from Toulouse, prepared a great armament for the conquest of Gaul, and in the spring of 732 started from Pampelona on an expedition, as full of meaning for the future history of the human race as was that armament of Xerxes which found his doom at Salamis. The overflowing flood of the Islamites soon spread beyond the limits of Gascony. In Perigord Eudo met them, Eudo now cured of all desire to coalesce with the Mussulman and probably longing to revenge Lampegia's wrongs on her captor, Abderrahman. He was, however, utterly defeated by the banks of the river Vienne and lost the greater part of his army. The Moorish host pushed on towards the Loire; and now, had the Frankish monarchy been in the same condition as seventeen years before...the Moorish invasion must to all appearances have carried everything before it. But when Abderrahman had reached Poitiers, and burnt the Church of St. Hilary, the tide of his success was stayed. Eudo, a fugitive and despairing, had sought the help of his late adversary Charles, and the great major domus with a host of stout-hearted Austrasians [as were called the denizens of the western portion of the Frankish kingdom] was posted between the rivers Clain and Vienne, blocking the old Roman road from Poitiers to Tours. For seven days the armies stood watching one another, while Abderrahman was probably trying to turn the Frankish position. Then at last, on a certain Saturday in October, finding that only the sword could open up the road, he sent the masses of his turbaned followers against the Frankish position.

But that position, like a wall, "or as if frozen to their places by the rigorous breath of winter," would not move, the Frankish army "hewing down the Arabs with their swords." Those are the words of yet another chronicler, writing a mere 60 years after the events in question. And if we do not remember, then we should re-learn the events of that day, October 10th, 732, when Charles' army "laid multitudes of the enemy low...the Franks brandishing their swords on high in scorn of the enemy." Aberrahman was found, and put to death, no doubt to Eudo's high satisfaction, a satisfaction much tempered by the despair of knowing that his daughter, Lampegia, would never be retrieved from the Caliph's harem, a foul fate for a Christian woman. In the end, "...the Ishmaelites had fled away silently under cover of the night, seeking their own country...the Europeans, after dividing the spoils and the captives in orderly manner among themselves, returned with gladness to their homes."

Thus does our historian remind us of "that great day, which decided that not the Koran but the Gospel was to be the guide of the conscience of Europe. To Charles and his stalwart Austrasians struggling through that terrible Saturday in October, is it due that the muezzin is not at noon today calling the faithful to prayer from some high minaret by the Seine."

That Charles of whom we speak you know as Martel, or the Hammer, and the grandfather of Charlemagne.

Though the Moslem would not be utterly disgorged from the heart of Europe for many centuries, he would go no further. Charles went on to recapture Avignon, but at his death Narbonne was still in the invader's hands.

On another front, we are futher reminded that

Though the descendant of the sainted Arnulf, though the champion of Christendom against the Saracens, and the strong protector of the "apostles" who, relying on the sharpness of the Frankish battle axe, went forth to convert the heathen Frisians and Saxons, Charles Martel was looked upon with no favor by the ecclesiastics of his time.

For Charles began a practice, the portent of which for future generations he could not have known: that of "conferring prelacies and abbacies on trusty who were without any pretensions to the spiritual character, but upon whom he might rely to use the Church's wealth on the right side." It was a wealth which, through the endowments of the fainéant kings and "honorable women", had enriched the Church to the enfeeblement of the kingdom. And so a pastoral letter, says Gibbon, "signed by the bishops of the provinces of Rheims and Rouen," at one point even artfully rhymes its judgement upon him, one that

Doomed him to the Zealot's ready hell,
Which pleads the Church's claims so eloquently well."

Ah, the ingratitude of the liberated. Today we see a Europe somewhat similarly situated, languishing in its freedom, and once again, like Eudo, deluding itself into thinking it might make common cause with the Moslem in its midst. It is a freedom secular in its vision, worse possibly, than paganism, having no gods to bow down to. It was not the vision of Charles, that warrior from the Dark Ages who yet knew enough of the light to see what darkness might descend should it be extinguished. Whether in battle against Saracen, Arian, or utter heathen, it was a vision from which he never wavered.

quoted passages from Charlemagne, by Thomas Hodgkin, A.L. Burt Company, New York, copyright 1902

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