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 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.)
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.
 ‘Men also lustfully kiss the vulva of their wives and their mules.