All’s Fair in Love and Holy War: A Response to My Critic

One of the things that makes being an academic often seem slightly unreal is that you spend a lot of time feeling like you’re screaming into the void. You craft articles by conducting the research, honing the argument in conference papers, writing and re-writing variations of the same words over again until by some curious alchemy they are transmuted into something resembling coherence, before scurrying off to the library to get the last footnote just right. You benefit from/endure the advice of anonymous peer reviewers. You edit, and edit some more, and question your intelligence and sanity when at the very last minute you spot a ghastly spelling mistake that somehow escaped the ministrations of the past half year or more of work. At last, you finally place it into the journal’s online submission system, and away into the aether it goes. And then, if you’re anything like me, in the quiet moments in the middle of the night, you ask yourself whether there was in fact any point to the exercise, whether any of that work will make any difference, and if anyone, anywhere, will ever read your labour of love.

This is why my first emotional reaction to reading a chapter criticising my work was joy. In this piece, ‘Holy wars’? ‘Religious wars’?: The perception of religious motives of warfare against non-Christian enemies in ninth-century chronicles’, in the recent volume Early Medieval Militarisation[1], Professor Hans-Werner Goetz spends a couple of pages (pp. 214-216) discussing an article of mine (‘“Those same cursed Saracens”: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare’, Journal of Medieval History 42 (2016), pp. 405-428). I think it’s fair to say that he’s not a fan of it. Nonetheless, the excitement of opening the volume, seeing my name in print and realising that someone somewhere had read my work and thought it worth their time demolishing it was very real.

My attention was drawn to this chapter for a couple of reasons. These begin with the fact that Hans-Werner Goetz is a major scholar whose work on medieval frontiers and perceptions of other religions I have greatly benefited from. But also, this isn’t the first time that my article has attracted the attention of Professor Goetz in print, having featured previously in his ‘Glaubenskriege? Die Kriege der Christen gegen Andersgläubige in der früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Wahrnehmung’, Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 59 (2019), 67-114, specifically at pp. 99-102. Given this, I thought it might be useful for me to take some time to respond to Goetz’ concerns, not least because he raises some interesting questions about the relationship between war and religion in the early medieval period.

The argument in my original article, which you can read in full here, runs as follows:

1. Charlemagne’s wars in the Iberian Peninsula, which include both the disastrous invasion of 778 and the campaigns conducted by his son Louis the Pious as king of Aquitaine in the 790s and 800s, are normally understood as secular affairs, opportunistic wars of expansion. This is because the most important primary sources, particularly the Royal Frankish Annals, don’t depict them as religious conflicts.

2. This is quite striking when compared to wars against other non-Christian neighbours such as the Saxons, where Charlemagne deliberately targeted sites of worship such as the Irminsul and forced the population to convert to Christianity at the point of a sword, imposing multiple laws defining what it meant to be a Christian.

3. However, by looking at a wider range of sources that relate to Carolingian warfare in the Iberian Peninsula in this period, we can see a more complicated picture, where defending and even expanding the Christian faith are key motives for these campaigns. These sources are:

  • a. The Continuations of the Chronicle of Fredegar, compiled during the reign of Charlemagne’s father, which celebrate his ancestors in their wars against Muslims.
  • b. A letter of Pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne discussing the 778 expedition.
  • c. The liturgies of war contained within the Sacramentaries of Gellone, Angoulême and Arles.
  • d. Charters from Charlemagne, granting land to the Hispani on the Spanish March in about 780 and 801.
  • e. A letter of Alcuin from around 790 concerning Charlemagne’s expansion of the Christian world, including in the Iberian Peninsula.
  • f.  A poem by Theodulf from 796 calling upon Charlemagne to bring the Arabs to Christ.
  • g. A letter from Charlemagne to Bishop Elipandus of Toledo from around 794, saying that he had sought to liberate the Christians of al-Andalus from Saracen rule.
  • h. Ermold the Black’s praise poem of Louis the Pious (written 824-6), which has Louis declare that if the defenders of Barcelona in 801 were Christian, there would be no need for him to go to war against them.

While individually each would be a thin reed to base an entire argument, in accumulation they become increasingly convincing.

4. Based on these perspectives from within and without the court, Frankish wars in al-Andalus in the reign of Charlemagne can be characterised as holy wars, because they were presented as wars to protect and expand the Christian church in Francia and in the Iberian Peninsula. This does not mean those were the only motivations for those conflicts, but they were a major one, and the dominant explanation provided in contemporary or near contemporary sources.

5. I speculate that the reason the annals avoid much of this religious language is that with the exception of the capture of Barcelona in 801, the majority of the campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula did not go particularly well. While this was never desirable, it was particularly embarrassing if you had previously raised the stakes by making it a war of faith. Therefore, annalists linked to the court played down the religious fervour that surrounded the expeditions.

As mentioned above, Hans-Werner Goetz has disagreed with this article in two separate publications. Both resemble each other closely, often sentence-by-sentence and footnote-by-footnote, so unless specified I’m going to treat them as the same text. His broad argument is that the category of ‘holy war’ is not a meaningful one in the early medieval world, because all of culture and society was so imbued with religion that there was no other type of war. All conflicts were justified and legitimised by the faith so the idea of a war of religion is a modern anachronism. This is an idea I find extremely interesting and which I want to discuss later.

However, Professor Goetz has also disagreed with my article on more specific grounds and, with your indulgence reader, I would address them first, if only because anyone who read his pieces would fairly walk away under the impression that I am a poor scholar indeed. But let’s start with places where we both agree. Goetz begins by saying that my work ‘still pre-assumes (setzt voraus) that Charlemagne’s wars were religiously motivated’. Basing my work on assumptions would indeed be unfortunate. However, prior scholarship for several decades tended to assume the opposite, and it was this prior scholarship which the case that I made was responding to. The professor also notes that ‘the fact that the Saracens are recognised and judged as non-Christians’ is not proof that wars against them were holy wars. I agree! My argument was that the apparently ‘secular’ ethnic labels often used in the sources such as ‘Saracen’ or ‘Agarene’, were in fact imbued with Biblical significance, implying that they were non-Christian and antithetical to Christianity; but this was not meant to be evidence for holy war, but rather against standard arguments that the language of the annals is secular on the matter. In the longer German treatment, Goetz argues that we cannot use the religious motivations that the biography of Louis the Pious written by the anonymous author known as ‘the Astronomer’ attributes to Louis for his campaigns against al-Andalus, because they are too late. I agree and did not use it in my article for precisely that reason.

Turning to the pieces of evidence underpinning my argument listed under point 3 above, Goetz only mentions b, c, d and g; and I will deal with these in order. With regards to Hadrian’s letter to Charlemagne on the eve of the campaign of 778 (b), he argues that the Pope’s language comparing the Saracens to Pharaoh in the Bible says nothing about his motivations and was applied to every war. I disagree. The reference to Pharaoh is relevant because Hadrian notes that the reason he and the Egyptians drowned is because ‘they did not believe in God’. Charlemagne will triumph because he is Christian and the Saracens are not. Goetz’ argument is not strengthened by the examples of other wars he himself lists where similar comparisons were made. These include the statement in the Life of Bishop Athanasius of Naples c.7 that God helped the people of Naples defeat the Saracens and cast them down like Pharaoh. However, insofar as this language is also being used to describe non-Christian enemies this comparison would seem to support my case better than his. The other examples listed in fn.193 of the German article are all considerably later but also don’t strike me as entirely convincing in this context. Henry of Latvia describing the conversion of Baltic pagans as being akin to the casting down of Pharaoh does not scream secularity to me. I am not intimately familiar with Otto of Freising or William of Newburgh and so won’t comment on them. Nonetheless, I would argue that two of the four examples which Goetz chose to prove that comparisons to Pharaoh did not have connotations of holy war actually do look like precisely that. 

Goetz also dismisses the sacramentaries (c), writing that ‘people prayed to God for assistance before every war’. This is true, but not every sacramentary contains a mass specifically for wars against non-Christians, in the case of that of Gellone against ‘the infidel people’, in that of Angoulême ‘the pagans’. These are highly unusual masses, and in the case of the Sacramentary of Arles, the relevant mass had to be added to the manuscript at a later date than the other liturgical texts. All three of these sacramentaries are to be located in Aquitaine or Septimania, where the most likely non-Christians to be encountered were Muslims. That of Gellone may have belonged to Count William of Toulouse, who spent much of his career battling al-Andalus.

Nor is Goetz impressed by the charters (d), stating that ‘the granting of charters and donations to individual followers is a completely normal procedure’. In this case, though, what is significant is the unusual content of these documents. Charlemagne explains that he is giving the land because the recipients have had to flee the oppression of the Saracens in their homes in al-Andalus. The reason they are oppressed is that they are Christian, and the Saracens are ‘the enemies of the Christians’. The reason that Charlemagne is helping them is because they are his fellow Christians and they take part ‘in the unity of the faith’. In turn, they would perform military service, fighting with Charlemagne against their shared enemy the Saracens, who were their enemy because the Saracens hate Christians. This is strengthened by a charter from the 790s which rewards a soldier named John with land because he had killed ‘the heretic or infidel Saracens’. In fn. 49 (fn. 197 of the German article), Goetz claims that I explain the presence of Arab or Berber sounding names among the charter beneficiaries as ‘a misconception of the scribes’. However, my argument was somewhat different: I suggest that this points to the possibilities for nuance and complexity, where grandiose rhetoric and ideology meet reality. I don’t think even the most hardcore scholar of holy war would doubt that there were places where lines blurred at the edges, as any historian of the crusades could tell us.

In the longer German treatment, Goetz states that Charlemagne was more concerned with heretics than with non-Christians. This refers to Charlemagne’s letter to Elipandus (g), where the Frankish king informs the Adoptionist bishop of Toledo that whereas before he had striven to save them ‘from worldly bondage’, that is, being ruled by Saracens, but now that he knows they are heretics, he will leave them to their fate. Moreover, in this letter Charlemagne claims that his motivation for his earlier wars against al-Andalus, including the invasion of 778, was to save the Christian population, his co-religionists, who were being oppressed because of their religion. If that’s not a religious war, I don’t know what is. Further, Charlemagne’s statement that he felt less inclined to wage war on the Saracens now that he knew he wouldn’t be saving his fellow catholic Christians again seems to me to fall on my side of the ledger.

Goetz finally observes that in 778 Charlemagne treated the Muslims of Zaragoza gently, while sacking the Christian Basque city of Pamplona. The reason Zaragoza got off lightly is that Charlemagne didn’t conquer it. It was never in Carolingian hands. The ruler, Husayn al-Ansari, refused to let the Franks in and they were balked by the mighty Roman walls of the city. Pamplona may have been sacked because it was perceived to be in rebellion, something Charlemagne was never gentle in his dealings with. In any case, as the ignominious example of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates, religious military campaigns can be vulnerable to mission creep.

Roland duels the giant Ferragut in an illustrated Grandes Chroniques de France (source)

Having said all that, Hans-Werner Goetz does raise an interesting point. Religion suffused medieval society to the point that it was the air that it breathed. Kings begged for divine aid in their endeavours and sought the help of their advisors who were learned in such matters. Spin doctors legitimised conflicts as being pleasing to God, encouraging people to believe that their cause was just and that they would triumph. Those engaged in battle beseeched the heavens for survival. He also notes that unlike the idea of a ‘just war’, there is no clear category of ‘religious war’ in the sources.

To take the second point first, while avoiding anachronism is an important part of comprehending the past, historians apply categories and ideas familiar to us but unfamiliar to the period all the time when it helps us to analyse and understand the past in ways that the people who wrote our sources were not consciously able to. A nice example here is economic history, which uses methods and concepts developed by modern economists in order to build up a sense of how resources, labour and exchange interacted to underpin the medieval world in ways that would not have been articulated at the time, but which reveal something real about the period that we can use. This applies to other topics related to the world of ideas and identities. Studying subjects such as gender and sexuality requires that we both understand the way they were categorised in the past and relate them to our own concepts in the present. Sticking purely to the intellectual constructions we find in our sources traps us in the worldview of the sorts of people wrote those sources. Those include few women, poor people or slaves. To get their history, our history, the history of the vast majority of human beings alive at the time, we need to be able to read our sources against the grain, and to ask questions which cut across the purpose and mindset of their writers.

But I would also suggest that there are points where we can in fact see people from the early middle ages categorising a particular war as specifically religious. When Pope Leo IV exhorted a Frankish army in 852 going to war against the Saracens, he famously promised them ‘that the kingdom of heaven will be given as a reward to those who shall be killed in this war’. This was because they were ‘fighting for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul, and the defence of the country of the Christians’. The Pope draws an implied distinction between this type of war and other types of wars. Unlike other campaigns the Franks might find themselves on, this one would see them win the ultimate prize because they were fighting for a holy cause. The same point was made by Pope John VIII in 878 in a reply to the bishops of West Francia who had asked for clarification on this. John wrote ‘those who, out of love to the Christian religion, shall die in battle fighting bravely against pagans or unbelievers, shall receive eternal life’. The Pope emphasises that this is because of the nature of the cause and of the enemy being fought. Again, this distinguishes between a religious war and other sorts of conflict.

The statements made by Leo and John are old chestnuts in scholarly circles because it is unusual to have anyone be this explicit on the matter in the early medieval world. But we might also be able to identify holy wars by the behaviour of those who undertook it. There were any number of possible reasons that Charlemagne might want to conquer the Saxons that would not involve religious motivations, ranging from a desire for a more secure frontier, military glory or expanded resources. None of those explanations would require the Frankish king to destroy Saxon cultic sites or forcibly convert the population to Christianity. Such a policy was if anything more likely to inspire resistance and rebellion. His father, Pippin the Short, had not felt the need to do such things when he invaded Saxony in 747 and 758. The way Charlemagne prosecuted the war against the Saxons was specifically shaped by his motivations. This was a holy war in a way that Pippin’s had not been, and his behaviour and that of his men and his opponents was different because of it.

This is where I think the concept of ‘holy war’ comes in useful, because by identifying it as a meaningful category, we can use it to draw up hypotheses and make predictions about people in the past. This is not to say that all religiously driven warfare was the same, or that all people involved in it had no other motivations. The past is complicated. People are complicated. But, by having ‘holy war’ in our tool box, we can understand and interpret patterns of behaviour that would be otherwise baffling if we didn’t have it.

I want to close this post by expressing my gratitude to Hans-Werner Goetz. If he had not taken the time to seriously consider and respond to my work, I might not have been motivated to think about this topic in this way, and clarify in my own mind why ‘holy war’ strikes me as an interesting and meaningful topic. Scholarship makes better progress through friction. So thank you, Professor Goetz, for making me feel less like a voice screaming into the void.

[1] Edited by Ellora Bennett, Guido M. Berndt, Stefan Esders and Laury Sarti (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).

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.

So You’re at War with the Carolingians: A Survival Guide

Picture it in your mind’s eye. You are the ruler of a medium sized polity in eighth- or ninth-century Europe, cheerfully going about your business extracting economic surplus from your people, when one of your advisors comes up to you with a worried expression on his face. He has just received bad news from your informants at the court of the Franks. Your mighty Carolingian neighbour is starting to muster his armies and you are the target. Maybe your idiot son has launched one too many raids into his territory. Maybe too many of his nobles have been talking quietly to his idiot son about the need for fresh blood in Frankish politics. Maybe his favourite exotic animal has just died and he’s in a bad mood. As the Byzantines say, ‘If a Frank is your friend, he is not your neighbour,’ and unfortunately this Frank is right next door to you. You’re in trouble. Thankfully, help is at hand. In this post we’re going to consider some of the options you have when the Carolingian war machine is at the gates. These are by no means foolproof, but they will give you the best chance you have to survive.

This is Fine. Everything is Fine. (The Golden Psalter, St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 22, fo. 141).

Rule number one of fighting the Carolingians is don’t. This is the family that conquered most of western Europe, including Aquitaine, Saxony, Lombard Italy, Bavaria, the Avars and the Spanish March. They carved out the biggest empire west of Byzantium and they did not do that by being bad at war. You should at the very least be exploring options for avoiding conflict with them. Offering tribute and becoming a client is an entirely viable move, particularly if it buys you time to regain your autonomy at a later date (see Benevento in 788). If you’re not already a Christian, consider converting. Not only will that endear you to your Carolingian neighbours, but the process of baptism also comes with free shiny new clothes and a pen-pal who lives in Rome. (Christianity also comes in Greek, which is less immediately useful in the circumstances but in the longer run may allow you to play the Franks off against Constantinople).

As Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria (r.748-788) could confirm, becoming a client of the Carolingians is not without risk and you may find yourself in front of a kangaroo court on dubious grounds, particularly if you have enemies at home eager to replace you (and who doesn’t?). Even if you’re willing to risk that, peace is not always an option. Sometimes the Carolingians are out to get you specifically. In the unhappy event that war is unavoidable, you are best served by avoiding a straight fight. People as far away as Baghdad know that Frankish swords are the best, and the wealth of the empire means that their armies are well-equipped with chainmail and horses. Most importantly, you will almost certainly be outnumbered. Whichever colourfully named Charles or Louis you’re facing can raise large forces made up of contingents from different peoples across the empire. They will probably place multiple armies in the field, something that Charlemagne (r.768-814) did against the Saxons in 774, al-Andalus in 778, the Bavarians in 787 and the Avars in 791 and 796, and that Louis the German (r.840-876) would still be doing against the Moravians in the 870s. Their aim here is to limit your room to manoeuvre and force you into a pitched battle, playing to their strengths in numbers and soldiers on horseback.

(The one potential exception here for avoiding a major battle is if your Carolingian opponent is Charles the Bald (r.840-877). Charles did not have a great record at winning battles, if his defeats at the hands of the Bretons at Ballon in 845 and Jengland in 851 and by his nephews at Andernach in 876 mean anything. He was a very successful ruler but not particularly lucky on the battlefield, with a tendency to try to be a bit too clever for his own good in his military tactics. High risk, cunning schemes like attacking Brittany in the middle of winter with a small army or attempting to manoeuvre his army at night often blew up in his face, so you could try to bring him to battle and hope he outsmarts himself.)

A core concept here is time. If you can’t go toe-to-toe with the Carolingians, your aim is to make the process of conquering you too long, difficult and unpleasant to be worth the continual effort (think Russia in 1812, or Geoffrey Boycott). Keep it going long enough and a crisis is going to happen somewhere else in the Carolingian world to distract attention, like the Saxon uprising that forced Charlemagne to leave the Iberian Peninsula in 778. Internal Frankish conflict in particular is your friend. As the Bretons in 830 can attest, Louis the Pious (r.814-840) can’t invade your lands if no one wants to show up to join his army. Playing for time is easier said than done and you may need to survive several years of being repeatedly invaded. It helps if, like Benevento, you are far away from the Carolingian heartlands between the Seine and the Rhine and getting to you is a bit difficult. Sometimes you’re just going to get unlucky and become someone’s pet project they keep returning to over the decades, as with Charlemagne and the Saxons.

Other powers will take advantage of the Carolingians being focussed elsewhere, such as Emir Hisham I of al-Andalus, who raided Francia in 793 at the height of the Avar Wars. It may be worth formalising such alignments of interest by allying with your neighbours. The Bohemians were quite big on this, allying with the Moravians in 871 in the face of Frankish aggression, and in 880 with the Daleminzi and Sorbs. On a larger scale, Prince Arichis II of Benevento entered into negotiations for Byzantine support in 787. Admittedly, none of these enterprises were particularly successful; but with that said, keeping your neighbours on side will help stymie another classic Carolingian strategy of allying with them against you, as demonstrated by Charlemagne’s deal with the Abodrites, targeted against the Saxons.

You can also try cutting deals with rebels within the empire. The Umayyads of Córdoba repeatedly destabilised the Spanish March by allying with the losers in internal conflicts in the region, such as Aizo and Willemund in 827, and William of Septimania in 847. By dividing the frontier regions, you make it harder for them to be used as springboards against you, while also gaining sources of intelligence about Frankish movements. The Moravians did similar things with the counts of the Bavarian frontier, suborning multiple figures such as Ratpod in 854 and Gundachar in 869. The Carolingians were not always good at keeping their family conflicts in-house, and frustrated sons resisting the authority of their fathers can also make useful friends. Salomon of Brittany (r.857-874) sent troops to support Louis the Stammerer against his father Charles the Bald in 862, while Rastislav of Moravia (r.846-870) allied with multiple rebellious sons of Louis the German. This is a high-stakes move. By interfering in Carolingian politics you are placing a target on your back for retribution, so make sure you’re not exposed if/when the scapegrace princes decide to reconcile with their family.

One of the best means of getting the time you need to survive is by building fortifications. High walls are not invulnerable to Carolingian armies, but they can slow them down nicely (making derogatory comments about the species and odour of the besiegers’ parents from the top of the walls is traditional). Something like the extensions to the Danevirke finished in 808 by King Godfrid of the Danes (r.804-810) serves as a deterrent and statement of intent, while getting your subjects facing in the right direction and united in a shared project. The Moravians frequently managed to hold off East Frankish armies from their fortified cities. As I can attest from personal experience, trying to climb up to Devín castle in what is now Slovakia when the people on top don’t want you to makes for a challenging day out. The Vikings were masters of setting up shop on a strategically located island in a river and refusing to move unless they were paid to go. Perhaps the gold standard here are the fortified cities of the Upper March in al-Andalus, where the Carolingians spent several decades banging their heads against the walls of Zaragoza, Tortosa and Tarragona to limited effect.

This turtling strategy is not without risk. The Franks can be patient if the rewards are high enough. Concentrating all of your resources and political capital in one place is tempting, but leaves you vulnerable to being taken out with the fall of one city. Charlemagne was willing to overwinter and spend eight months besieging King Desiderius of the Lombards (r.757-774) in Pavia because seizing it got him most of northern Italy in one fell swoop.  Likewise, Emperor Louis II of Italy (r.855-875) kept laying siege to Bari until it finally fell in 871 because doing so destroyed the emirate that was based there. Allowing the Carolingians to get too comfy outside your walls is also a problem. Barcelona fell to Louis the Pious in 801 because Louis knew he didn’t have to worry about reinforcements coming from Córdoba and could besiege at his leisure.

But the biggest problem with hunkering down in your fortress is that it leaves your land and people vulnerable to the occupying army. The Franks will loot and pillage the surrounding countryside, partly to get booty, but mostly to put pressure on you to come out and fight. Not only is your resource base being stolen before your eyes, but a king who won’t protect his people is going to get very unpopular very quickly. Being on the defensive all the time is draining, and morale may collapse quite quickly. A case in point is the plight of Duke Liudewit of Lower Pannonia, whose fortification strategy against the armies of Louis the Pious, while not without success, eventually exhausted the patience of his allies, leading to his death in 823 at their hands.

All this suggests that fortifications may be useful, but they need to form part of a wider strategy. If you can’t take on the entire Carolingian host in one go, then you can at least attempt some aggressive countermeasures. Raids and ambushes will go a long way to restoring your morale and reducing theirs. The Basques and Bretons acquired a particular reputation for this sort of irregular warfare, practiced most famously when the former ambushed Charlemagne’s rear-guard at Roncesvalles in 778, leading to the death of Roland. The key to this sort of warfare is mobility, which allows you to pick your fights when and where you want them. No one did this better than the Vikings, who could use their ships to move unexpectedly along the rivers, but were also surprisingly good at moving over land by commandeering horses.

A certain audacity can sometimes be useful: see the example of the Saxons who snuck into a Frankish camp in 775 by pretending to be foragers, causing chaos among the half-asleep soldiers. Dirty tricks may also be necessary. In 871, having promised to bring the rebellious Moravians under East Frankish controls, upon arriving at the Moravian capital, Svatopluk I (r.871-894) changed sides and took by surprise the Bavarian army that had accompanied him.  Be aware that the Franks are by no means novices at irregular warfare themselves, as the unlucky Moravians ambushed by them later the same year learned to their cost. 

I would also suggest launching raids across the border if the Franks have retreated for the end of the campaigning season. Having spent much of 855 being besieged by Louis the German, Rastislav of Moravia tailed the Frankish army when it returned home for winter and began raiding the countryside. While this may feel akin to lobbing pinecones at a bear while it’s walking away, it helps place pressure on the Carolingians to come to the negotiating table. You want to make being at war with you an uncomfortable experience that has wider ramifications. Keep offering them a reasonable face-saving out while making it clear that the alternative is unpleasant. Salomon of Brittany was able to use attacks on Frankish territory to force Charles the Bald to recognise him as King of Brittany in 867. Raids like this also help solidify your position at home, not just by acquiring booty, but by giving your warriors something to feel good about, and helping your wider political community understand that you have a plan for how to win this war that goes beyond letting yourself be punched in the face until the other guy’s hand starts hurting.

While I have strongly counselled against taking the main Carolingian army in the field, smaller detachments are another matter. A classic example of divide and conquer can be observed in 849. The Bohemians, under pressure from a large Frankish army under the command of Ernest, dux of the Bavarian frontier, sent envoys offering peace to one of the army’s captains, Thachulf, dux of the Sorbian March. Thachulf’s arrogance in accepting their terms without consulting the rest of the army annoyed a large chunk of the Franks, who pressed ahead without the others and were defeated by the Bohemians. The military organisation of Carolingian forces into units based on kingdom of origin can be used in your favour, as when a campaign against the Moravians in 872 collapsed because the Thuringians and the Saxons taking part kept feuding with each other.

When it does come to battle, try to pick ground that suits you, and force the Carolingians to fight on your terms. Einhard observed that the Basques at Roncesvalles in 778 were helped by the lightness of their gear and their familiarity with the uneven mountain terrain. Charles the Bald was lured into a marsh at Ballon in 845, allowing the Bretons to exploit their superior knowledge of the ground. At Jengland in 851, the Bretons refused to close with Charles’s men, using their lightly armoured horsemen to harass the Carolingian army with javelins and feinting to draw them out of formation. In 891, King Arnulf (r.888-899) hesitated before engaging and defeating the Vikings at the Battle of the Dyle because his army would be hemmed in by marsh and river and have to fight on foot.  

There are no sure-fire ways of defending yourself against the Carolingians, but following these rules of thumb will give you as much a chance as anyone has.

[The above is an extremely artificial exercise and there are obvious problems with what I’ve just written. Not only have I flattened more than a century of Carolingian history, ignoring dramatic changes in the political structure of the empire, I’ve also homogenised the various peoples and polities unlucky enough to be stuck next to them. This is particularly egregious in the case of the Vikings, who operated very differently to the other examples I discuss.

My central conceit of addressing an early medieval prince also led me to encourage certain types of solutions, suggesting that the political community best equipped to resist the Carolingians is:

1.   Far away

2.   Sufficiently centralised to raise the resources to build and man extensive fortifications, and to remain united under considerable pressure.

While point 1 stands in any circumstances, strictly speaking point 2 can be challenged. Fracturing into small, hard to manage communities and thereby becoming ungovernable will also give the Carolingians a real headache, as Louis II’s misadventures in southern Italy attest. I just couldn’t see this being the sort of option that would appeal to a prince.

The main reason I wrote this post is because I wanted to put myself into the head of someone who was an enemy of the Carolingians. Most of our sources come from the Carolingian world, which shapes our perspective of their wars. Not only do we understand things from their logic, it leads us to sympathise with them. One of my research priorities is to centre these apparently peripheral polities. I want to underline how scary a prospect the Carolingians were in this period (Reuter’s adage that ‘for most of Europe in the eighth and ninth century it was the Franks who were the Vikings’). But I also want to think about their leaders as undertaking strategies and responding to the problems caused by their giant neighbour. This represents one way of thinking about that.]