Truth, Lies and Charlemagne’s Invasion of Spain

It is proverbial that truth is the first casualty in war. The events of the past months have reminded us that participants in war seek to control information in order to convince onlookers of the justice of their cause and the strength of their arms. Although the medium changes, this was as evident in the medieval past as in the present. In addition to deliberate fabrications spread by contending parties, misleading statements coexisted with genuine misunderstandings or miscommunications, reinforced by the tendency of commentators to interpret the news they received in ways that confirmed their pre-existing worldviews. This cloud of misinformation offers a challenge to historians, as we attempt to see through it to understand cause and effect and the reality of the conflicts that took place. But the stories people tell about the struggles they lived through also offer us a glimpse at their opinions about the practice and justification of war. Doing so can shed new light even on conflicts we think we know well.

A case in point is Charlemagne’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 778, probably the most famous war he ever took part in. Unfortunately for the Frankish king’s military reputation, the campaign went south very quickly metaphorically as well as literally. Charlemagne was invited to invade in 777 by Sulayman b. Yaqzan al-ʿArabi, the independent Muslim lord of Barcelona. Sadly for the Franks, not all of Sulayman’s pals in the Peninsula were on board with this plan. As a result, when Charlemagne invaded the following year, he found himself stuck outside the formidable walls of Zaragoza, held by Sulayman’s ally Husayn al-Ansari, who was considerably less enthused by the prospect of Charlemagne as a houseguest. Going nowhere fast, and with word of trouble elsewhere in the realm (including a sudden and dramatic collapse in house prices in his new city in Saxony), the Frankish king decided to cut his losses and retreat across the Pyrenees, where his rear-guard was ambushed at Roncesvalles by Basques and a count from the Breton March named Roland earned his posthumous immortality.

The disaster of Roncesvalles was to loom over the rest of Charlemagne’s reign. But in May 778, before that desperate battle in a Pyrenean pass, Pope Hadrian I (r.772-795) sent Charlemagne a letter (Codex Epistolaris Carolinus no.61) that raises questions about the motivations behind the whole messy business. The Pope begins the missive by writing:

Your God-appointed royal rule has informed us through your letter that the Agarene people [Muslims][1] are, contrary to God, striving to invade your territory. When this became known to us, we immediately became very uneasy and concerned, but our Lord God and Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, will never allow such a thing to happen. But we, dearest son and greatest king, constantly pray for you with all our priests and pious monks, with all the clergy and with all our people, for the mercy of our Lord God to subdue this wicked people of the Agarenes and to force them to your feet, so that they can never gain the upper hand against you; just as the people of Pharaoh were sunk in the Red Sea because they did not believe in God, so in this case too our Lord God should put this into your hands through the intervention of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Believe in this and be persuaded that almighty God, if you believe in him, will give you the victory of your kingdom over your enemies and ours. And as, day and night, before the tomb of the Apostle of God [in Old St Peter’s Basilica], we constantly pray to the majesty of the Lord to enlarge your kingdom, let us always rejoice in your well-being and in the exaltation of your kingdom by God.

 

Pharaoh and his men (and unlucky horses) find themselves taking an unscheduled dip in the Red Sea in the Utrecht Psalter, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32 f.61v.

There’s a lot going on in this passage that we could talk about; divine aid for Christians fighting non-Christians; the liturgy of war; the typologising of Muslims as the followers of Pharaoh. What I’d like to focus on in this post is Hadrian’s apparent conviction, expressed in the first sentence of the letter, that Charlemagne was in imminent danger of being invaded and that this was the motivation for the forthcoming Iberian campaign. The Pope did not necessarily anticipate that the Franks would fight a defensive war, as his hope that Charlemagne would expand his kingdom in the final sentence indicates. But the passage suggests that Hadrian thought the Franks were mustering against a serious enemy that intended to attack them imminently.

The first thing to note is that factually this impression is nonsense. The north-east Iberian Peninsula was in the hands of a group of small-time warlords such as Sulayman in Barcelona and Husayn in Zaragoza. None posed a threat to Charlemagne. Further south, ʿAbd al-Rahman I (r.756-788), the Umayyad Emir based in Córdoba, was beginning to expand his reach in order to make his claim to rule all al-Andalus real. In 777 his armies took control of the Central Meseta. This development made him a potential danger to the lords of the north-east, and was what prompted Sulayman to seek help from Charlemagne. Despite this expansion, Córdoba was not an immediate problem the Franks. The first Umayyad attack on Carolingian territory would not take place until 793, under ʿAbd al-Rahman’s successor. Al-Andalus represented no danger to Charlemagne in the 770s.

So how did Hadrian come to the idea that Charlemagne was about to face an Andalusi invasion? It seems to me that there are three possibilities, listed here in chronological order:

1.   Sulayman misled Charlemagne in 777, making the latter think he was in danger to increase the chance of getting his support.

2.   Charlemagne misled Hadrian in his letter to put the war in a better light.

3.   Hadrian has got the wrong end of the stick/is misinterpreting the whole business for his own.

Option one is perhaps the most interesting because it would alter our understanding of events the most. I’ve generally viewed the invasion of 778 as a fairly straightforward attempt at conquest, with Charlemagne taking the opportunity offered by Sulayman to repeat his successful defeat of the Lombard kingdom in 774. That al-Andalus was ruled by non-Christians made it possible to justify the invasion as a holy war (something I’ve written about elsewhere). If Charlemagne legitimately thought he was facing an imminent threat and was looking for WMDs getting in his retaliation first, that changes the picture. That the Frankish king was genuinely concerned is suggested by grants of land he made to Christian settlers from al-Andalus in 781 that they might work together to defend the realm.

That said, this is the possibility I’m most comfortable rejecting. The Roncesvalles campaign was a fiasco that permanently stained Charlemagne’s reputation. A scapegoat, particularly a non-Frankish, non-Christian one, would be very welcome in those circumstances. Yet, there isn’t much effort made to present Sulayman as a malicious actor. The Annals of Lorsch say that Charlemagne took Sulayman prisoner in 778, but this conflicts with what we know about the (brief) rest of his career and is not mentioned in either the Royal Frankish Annals or the Chronicle of Moissac. If Sulayman had misled Charlemagne, I’d expect someone like Einhard to be cursing his name for his treachery. It’s still by no means impossible that Sulayman told Charlemagne that ʿAbd al-Rahman was coming for him, but I think it’s the least likely of the options available.

Option two is more plausible to my mind. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne was good at finding suitable casus belli to wage wars on his neighbours, as Duke Tassilo of Bavaria could confirm. The Carolingians as the defenders of the church and the Christian people against the Saracen menace was a theme that had appeared in writings connected to Charles Martel and Pippin III. That he might have misrepresented the situation to the Pope is not impossible. The preservation of Hadrian’s letter may be evidence in favour of this. The missive survives in the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus, a collection of 99 letters from Popes mostly to Carolingians. They were gathered together in one manuscript in 791 on royal orders so that they be consulted for future use. Given that he deliberately chose to preserve the letter, we can probably assume that Charlemagne was happy with the way Hadrian characterised the situation in early 778. This might be because he was the one who had presented it that way to the Pope.

I do wonder how necessary such a subterfuge would be. Hadrian was pretty dependent on Charlemagne’s support in Italy (more on which below). Further, it’s not like the Muslims of al-Andalus were the most sympathetic victims from a papal perspective. In the 780s Hadrian became increasingly interested in the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula. The letter of 778 suggests he was pretty relaxed about the idea of Charlemagne waging expansionist wars in the region.

Option three shifts the focus to Rome and comes in two flavours. The first of these observes that misunderstanding the situation allows Hadrian to rhetorically boost his own importance to Charlemagne. The devotions of the Pope and assembled faithful of Rome to St Peter on the Frankish king’s behalf look a lot more valuable if the heathen is massing at the border. Charlemagne valued these prayers. Hadrian had performed litanies for his victory over the Lombards in 774 and the Frankish king would request them in 791. Emphasising the protection that St Peter was offering meant emphasising the role of the Prince of the Apostles as Charlemagne’s patron.

As it happened, Hadrian, and therefore St Peter, needed a favour. Most of the rest of the letter is concerned with the Pope’s difficulties with Prince Arichis II of Benevento (r.754-787). Hadrian complains that Arichis is trying ‘to unlawfully free the inhabitants of Campania from the power and rule of St. Peter and ours and to put them under the [Byzantine] Patrician of Sicily’. He asks that Charlemagne intervene, and order Arichis to desist in such behaviour. This would not be the last time Hadrian would worry about the Beneventans plotting with Byzantium. Playing up how necessary the aid of the Pope and the blessing of St Peter were for Charlemagne’s success couldn’t hurt Hadrian’s case. A further bit of context might be important. Two years earlier Hadrian had been accused of participating in the sale of Christians as slaves to Muslim traders. He had denied the allegations, but he might have felt that a noisy declaration of a ‘tough on Saracens’ policy would be useful to distance himself from the rumours.

This is the more rational version of option three. The other variant is that Hadrian just straight up misunderstood the message. Although he was a shrewd politician who forged a successful alliance with Charlemagne, there were gaps to his knowledge. In a letter of 781 Hadrian sought to counsel the Frankish king on ʿAbbasid campaigns against Byzantium. In addition to being several years behind recent developments, the Pope completely garbled his information, inventing a civil war in the Caliphate that hadn’t happened. A hint that Hadrian might have been concerned that he didn’t have the full story comes in the letter, where he mentions that he sent the diplomats bearing this letter to Charlemagne ‘to clarify the matter’ of the forthcoming Saracen invasion.

I’m not sure which of these options is correct (although two and three strike me as the most plausible). It may never be possible to be certain. In the meantime, we shall have to content ourselves with weighing the meagre evidence trying to balance likelihoods. Nonetheless, we can say a couple of things for certain. In the eighth century, no less than in the twenty-first, people struggled to understand the causes of wars, hampered by poor communication systems, deliberate falsifications and the magnification of half-truths and misunderstandings. Despite these difficulties, they made the attempt. The reasons for conflict mattered, sufficient to lie and sufficient to try to pierce through the lies.

[1] -Ish. Early medieval Christian understanding of Islam and Muslims could be a little vague. Indicating that someone was a descendant of the Biblical Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Abraham, Agarene had both religious and racial connotations and while it could be used neutrally, it had strong pejorative overtones.

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