The Road to Roncesvalles

Writing negative reviews is not a fun activity. The emotions that it generates (anger, frustration, tiredness) are rarely expiated by the catharsis of writing, and they tend to linger, poisoning my mood for days to come. There are lessons to be gleaned from understanding how scholarship goes wrong, and value to alerting those less familiar with the material that they should handle a work with care. Nonetheless, the intense feeling that comes from engaging with wasted potential is not an altogether healthy one. Which is why I’m tempted to say that Xabier Irujo’s Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees. The Battle of Rencesvals (Amsterdam, 2021) is a bad book, and leave it at that. Anyone who wants to know more can consult the review I wrote for Francia, in which I say almost everything I have to say about it.

(The observant among you will have noticed that no one was forcing me to mention the book at all in this blog and yet here we apparently are, so clearly I must have something still to say on the matter. To you I say, shut up and stop being so very clever.)

My time spent reading the book was not a total write-off, and I want to discuss something I found in Charlemagne’s Defeat that I did find interesting and thought could be usefully considered further. In chapter two of his book, Xabier Irujo discusses the route taken by Charlemagne and his armies in 778 during the ill-fated invasion of the Iberian Peninsula (pp. 48-52). In classic Carolingian fashion, the Frankish king divided his forces in two. One army, consisting of the men from Austrasia, Burgundy, Bavaria, Provence and Italy, took the eastern route. They marched through Septimania by the Mediterranean coast, reaching Barcelona, held by Charlemagne’s ally Sulayman al-ʿArabi, who had put this whole business in motion by inviting the Frankish king in. The army then turned west and headed to Zaragoza, where they met the other army.

It is with the journey of the other army that we are concerned today. It was personally led by Charlemagne, and presumably consisted of troops from Neustria and Aquitaine. It started at the royal villa of Cassiogilio/Cassinaghilo (spellings differ), where the king had spent the winter, and crossed into the Iberian Peninsula through the high mountain pass at Roncesvalles in the western Pyrenees that was shortly to become legendary. From there the route seems straightforward. Charlemagne occupied Pamplona before marching south to Zaragoza. The question is, what route did the army take before it reached Roncesvalles?

Xabier Irujo offers an intriguing suggestion, that we use the better-known routes taken by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela as our guide (p. 51). The development of the great Way of St James was a later phenomenon. St James seems to have been associated with Spain by at least the seventh century and his relics were discovered at Compostela by Bishop Theodemir of Iria (818-842). His cult was promoted by King Alfonso III of Asturias (r. 866-910) and Bishop Sisnando of Iria (880-920). Local pilgrims appear to have travelled to the shrine at Compostela from at least the ninth century, with travellers from France appearing in the tenth. Al-Mansur paid the site the ultimate compliment of sacking it in 997. Despite this, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela exploded in popularity. Any guides consulted on the matter will postdate the Roncesvalles campaign by centuries.

I still think this is a really useful idea. Pilgrimage trails tended to follow pre-existing routes, benefitting from the already developed infrastructure. While it’s not impossible for said routes to change, possibly due to alterations in commercial patterns or the landscape of the sacred, it really wouldn’t surprise me if the path taken by eleventh-century pilgrims to Roncesvalles was similar to that chosen by Charlemagne in the eighth century. Another excellent reason to investigate this line of thinking is that it allows us to consult the twelfth-century Codex Calistinus attributed to Aymeric Picaud, and its travellers’ guide for pilgrims to Compostela. What it lacks in solid reliability it more than makes up for in entertaining vituperation, mostly directed at the Navarrese. Speaking as a connoisseur (and occasional recipient) of verbal abuse, Aymeric’s line that Navarrese men are so girly they even have sex with their livestock in an effeminate manner is a strong take[1] and one that I’m sure made him very popular in the area.

Aymeric describes four routes, three of which run from France to Roncesvalles. Of these three, we can rule out the via Podiensis that begins in Le Puy-en-Velay, because it doesn’t pass through anywhere that might be Cassiogilio/Cassinaghilo. That leaves the via Turonensis,which starts in Paris and passes through Tours (hence the name), and the via Lemovicensis, running from Vézelay via Limoges. Both go near settlements that could conceivably be Cassiogilio. In the case of the former this is Chasseneuil-du-Poitou, just to the north of Poitiers, where the Clain river runs; for the latter, Chasseneuil-en-Berry, south of Châteauroux.

Irujo is tentatively inclined to favour the via Lemovicensis, whereas I think the via Turonensis is more likely. Part of his argument is that the annals don’t mention Charlemagne passing through Bordeaux, which lies on the via Turonensis (p. 51 n. 69). This would be more convincing if they named any place that the army travelled through between Cassiogilio and Roncesvalles. As they don’t, this silence means nothing. Given that Irujo argues that Charlemagne’s campaign was designed to break ‘Free Vasconia’, whatever that means, I’m a little surprised that he’s so keen to rule out the Frankish army spending more time in Gascon territory. (By contrast, I think Charlemagne was interested in conquering cities in Spain. You don’t need to go to Zaragoza to fight Basques.)

Now I really want to play Ticket to Ride (source)

A more promising avenue of investigation is the identity of the royal villa at Cassiogilio. It was a place of particular importance for Louis the Pious, because it was where he and his short-lived twin brother Lothar were born on the 16th April 778 while Charlemagne was on campaign. In his Life of Louis, the Astronomer mentions four royal palaces in Aquitaine, which are Doué, Angeac, Ebreuil and Cassinogilum, which means we can probably assume there was only one place of that name which acted as a Carolingian base.

There are a couple of hints that make me think that Chasseneuil near Poitiers is that royal palace. The exegete Claudius of Turin spent several years at Louis the Pious’ court in Aquitaine before it moved to Aachen in 814. In the subscription to his commentary on Genesis, written in 811, he notes that he finished this work, ‘in the palace of Casanolio, in the suburb of Poitiers, in the province of Aquitaine.’ That seems to place Louis’ court in Chasseneuil-du-Poitou. After becoming emperor, Louis made his son Pippin king of Aquitaine. A charter from 828 records Pippin making a judgment ‘in our palace and villa of Casanogilo in the country of Poitou beside the river Clain.’

Possibly also relevant to this discussion is the story told by the Astronomer that Louis invited his father to visit him in Chasseneuil while the emperor was in Rouen. Charlemagne refused, but suggested that they meet in Tours instead, which they did. There isn’t much difference in the distance between the two Chasseneuils and Tours (Chasseneuil-du-Poitou to Tours is about 93 km while from Chasseneuil-en-Berry it’s about 112 km.) However, the latter route takes you through the wetlands and woodlands of La Brenne, while the former is a straight shot up the via Turonensis. Putting too much weight on this would be unwise, but I suspect that Tours makes more sense as a meeting point for someone coming from Chasseneuil-du-Poitou.

On balance then, I think that Charlemagne followed a very similar route to the via Turonensis. Why does this matter? It suggests that the palace of Chasseneuil was an integral part of the organisation of the kingdom of Aquitaine right from the beginning, acting as the meeting point for a major offensive into the Iberian Peninsula. It also points to the importance of Aquitaine for Carolingian interests in Spain. While being some distance from the region, Poitou and the Loire valley provided essential support and manpower in the projection of Frankish power south, and in connecting Septimania and the Spanish March to the wider empire. More dubiously, the route taken runs straight through Gascony, which may provide some context for the ambush at Roncesvalles, if it alerted/antagonised the Basques. I’m a little sceptical about this. I’m not sure the Basques at Roncesvalles were connected to the Gascons, and suspect that the sack of Pamplona would have done more to aggravate the people of the western Pyrenees.

But I think the big point to take away from this post would be that even bad books can contain interesting information, even if they must be handled with care. I suffered greatly while reading Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees (as did everyone in earshot of me). But it had not occurred to me to consider later pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to think about Charlemagne’s route to al-Andalus. For that reason, I am very grateful to Xabier Irujo for this point.

[1] ‘Men also lustfully kiss the vulva of their wives and their mules.


Come on Siggy! Syria’s Lovely This Time of Year: The Perils of Being a Carolingian Envoy to the Caliphate

In the year 797 a ship set out from Venice for the Holy Land. Among the merchants and pilgrims that made up the majority of the passengers were two unusual parties that had been travelling together from Treviso. The first was a group of clerics employed by the Count of Treviso to collect the relics of Saints Genesius and Eugenius from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The second group had been on the road much longer and had further still to go. Led by Counts Sigimund and Lantfrid and guided by a Jewish man named Isaac, they had been sent by Charlemagne, king of the Franks (r.768-814), with a message to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809), the most powerful man west of China, asking for an elephant. After meeting the Patriarch, the two parties split up. The men from Treviso remained in Jerusalem, while the embassy made their way inland to the court of the Caliph in Raqqa. This was the last time that anyone from the Frankish world saw Lantfrid and Sigimund alive. The relic hunters waited some time for their companions, before eventually despairing and returning home.

Four years later, in June 801, while travelling between Vercelli and Ivrea, the now-Emperor Charlemagne received an embassy from Harun with good news. Isaac was in North Africa, accompanied by the elephant that Charlemagne had requested. The only fly in the ointment was Isaac’s lack of accompaniment. Sigimund and Lantfrid had both died while on the embassy. They were the first Frankish ambassadors to the Caliphate to perish, but not the last. When the second embassy sent by Charlemagne to Harun al-Rashid got back in 806, running a Byzantine naval blockade in the process, they did so with similar news: the leader of their party, Radbert, was no more.

In 807/8, the Emperor sent Counts Agamus and Roculf to Jerusalem. Whether they also went on to Harun al-Rashid is unclear. If so, they were lucky outliers because they survived to return home, albeit in a bad odour: Pope Leo III thought it necessary to beg Charlemagne to show them mercy for unspecified reasons. Three years later Roculf is found as a witness to Charlemagne’s will, so Leo’s intervention may have helped. If Agamus and Roculf only went to Jerusalem, then every single formal legate dispatched by Charlemagne to the ‘Abbasid court perished during the mission.

This is not normal. Carolingian diplomats faced multiple dangers, ranging from paranoid monarchs and pirate attacks to the threat of being sued while away and unable to defend oneself. Death was a risk, but not a common one. Nor does it seem to have routinely affected the ‘Abbasid envoys, although (incredibly) we know even less about them than we do about Charlemagne’s ambassadors. The embassy of 806 was led by one ‘Abd Allah, who was still alive when the Franks put him on a boat back home in 807. Nearly eighty years later, Notker the Stammerer boasted that:

Because of the most vigorous efforts of Charlemagne, the messengers of Harun, whether youths, boys or old men, passed easily from Parthia into Germany and returned from Germany to Parthia and it was not only possible but easy for them to come and go.

(Gesta Karoli Magni II.9)

Although the ‘Abbasid envoys faced challenges of their own, there is no evidence that they suffered a particularly high mortality rate.

So what’s going on? We can probably rule out shenanigans by Harun al-Rashid. For obvious reasons of practicality, the safety of envoys was a universally respected convention. In his Life of Muhammad, Ibn Hisham (d.833) recounts a story of the Prophet getting annoyed by ambassadors sent by his rival Maslama in 631/2. Muhammad upbraided the envoys, ‘By God, were it not that heralds are not to be killed I would behead the pair of you.’ The Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk (d.1092) commented that:

Whatever treatment is given to an ambassador, whether good or bad, it is as if it were done to the very king who sent him; and kings have always shown the greatest respect to one another and treated envoys well.

(Siyasatnameh, XXI.1)

While things could go horribly wrong, there’s no obvious sign that any problems had arisen. Charlemagne took the protection of envoys seriously, issuing laws that made them untouchable. Merovingian precedent also suggested a strong response to the poor treatment of diplomats. King Childebert II (r.575-596) demanded justice from Emperor Maurice (r.582-602) when his envoys were murdered in Byzantine Carthage in 589. Theuderic I (r.511–534) motivated his subjects to wage war on the Thuringians in 531 by telling them about the crimes the latter had committed against Frankish legates. Had Lantfrid, Sigimund and Radbert been the victims of skulduggery, it seems very unlikely that relations between Aachen and Raqqa would have remained as cordial as they were.

Travelling in the early medieval world had its perils. Pirates or bandits could lie in wait, eager to separate people from their goods, and possibly hold their victims to ransom or sell them into slavery. Nor were the only dangers human, as the elements could conspire against travellers as well. Such was the experience of Archbishop Amalarius of Trier (r.812-813), who was sent by Charlemagne as his envoy to Byzantium in 813. On his return from Constantinople, Amalarius’ ship was attacked by pirates, and they were only saved by a miraculous storm that helped them escape.

I’m inclined to suspect that such an attack on the road was probably not the cause of death for the Carolingian ambassadors. The ‘Abbasid postal and communications system was pretty good, with 930 postal stations where supplies could be acquired. There was also a network of hostels that travellers could stay in. Isaac and his party most likely returned to the Frankish world by following the North African coastline to minimise the amount of time they had to keep a nervous elephant on board a ship, crossing to Italy from modern Tunisia. Both this embassy and the one upon which Radbert died came back with vast wealth, including a magnificent curtained tent and a marvellous mechanical clock. Given the safe transmission of these valuable items, they probably weren’t ambushed by pirates or sunk by a gale. Charlemagne seems to have been entirely confident about sending gold and cloth back to the Caliphate in 807.

A more plausible cause of death might be misadventure. Travelling in the Caliphate could be unpredictable. In the eleventh century, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi advised travellers to perform istikhara (prayer for guidance) in order to receive predictions in their dreams about their forthcoming trip. It was inauspicious to start a journey on a Friday, and better to begin on Monday or Thursday. Lantfrid and Sigimund were probably in the Caliphate for multiple years, more than enough time for a stupid and unlucky accident to happen. The odds of both of them and Radbert dying in such a way may be low, but ludicrous coincidences happen all the time. February 2022 saw the tragic deaths of the Serbian ambassador to Portugal and of the Italian ambassador to Australia, both by accidentally falling from a great height. It’s not impossible to imagine some sort of innocent accident on the road or while being entertained by the Caliph.

My favoured cause of death, however, is disease. People in the early medieval Caliphate were well aware that travel could be bad for your health. Building on ancient Greek precedent and particularly the work of Galen, medical knowledge of the time taught that people’s bodies were accustomed to the climate and food of their native lands, which explained why so many became sick when they travelled through different countries. In response to this, the ninth century saw the production of a large number of medical treatises for staying healthy while travelling, often based on Greek medical knowledge.

Among the most celebrated was that of Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Christian doctor originally from Syria who wrote a Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca. In addition to information specific to the hajj, this work contained:

1.   ‘Knowledge of the regimen to resting, eating, drinking, sleeping and sexual intercourse.’

2.   ‘Knowledge of the different kinds of fatigue and their cure.’

3.   ‘Knowledge of the diseases which are caused by the blowing of the different winds and their treatment.’

4.   ‘Knowledge of the prophylaxis against vermin and of the treatment of the injuries caused by them.’

(Trans. Bos, Qusṭā Ibn Lūqā’s Medical Regime, 19.)

 This thirteenth-century image of travellers undertaking the hajj is absolutely essential and definitely not an excuse to have pictures of camels.

Other medical texts, such as that of Razi in the tenth century, advised that people carry a piece of clay from their homeland with which to purify waters in foreign lands that might be less conducive to their constitutions. This is not to say that the Caliphate was a less healthy place than the Carolingian empire (although some places, like Egypt, had a bad reputation for sickness). Rather, the journey to the court of Harun al-Rashid was probably the longest and most stressful that any Frankish diplomat ever had to make. It was one undertaken in a strange climate with unfamiliar food. In such circumstances, I would find it unsurprising if Sigimund, Lantfrid and Radbert were ultimately the victims of disease.

We will probably never know the exact causes of the deaths of Charlemagne’s envoys to Harun al-Rashid, but considering the possible reasons gives us a decent sense of the challenges and dangers involved in conducting pre-modern diplomacy. I suspect that it also gives us a hint at the factors that lay behind the short lifespan of Carolingian-‘Abbasid diplomacy.  Although Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) received an embassy from Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) in 831, to the best of our knowledge he never sent one back. Nor did any of his successors. While there were many reasons for this silence, I can’t help thinking that the toll on Frankish diplomats may have contributed to this. If someone can be trusted to helm an embassy to the Caliphate, they’re probably not the sort of person you can afford to lose to attrition. Given the track record it must have been a really, really unpopular job, so finding volunteers was probably also difficult. While this wouldn’t have stopped a vital military alliance or an essential economic agreement, if the Carolingians saw contact with the ‘Abbasids as more of a prestigious photo-op to impress a domestic audience, they may have calculated that the human wastage was just too high.