Life in the time of…Charlemagne!
By Cathie Dunn
I’m delighted to be here today to talk about a time that is often overlooked in historical fiction. The era of Charlemagne – the late 8th / early 9th century.
Restored fortifications of Carcassonne, © Cathie Dunn
After the ‘dark ages’ (who says they were ‘dark’?), King Charles of the Franks’ reign saw wide areas of the continent of the European continent conquered. Also known as Pater Europae (Father of Europe), he ruled over a vast area covering much of western and southern Europe. Often, forceful submission was followed by adherence to new laws created by the Franks.
|hrone of Charlemagne, ~790 AD, Wikipedia.|
In the late 770s – the start of my upcoming novel Love Lost in Time – Charlemagne was still ‘only’ king of the Franks, not Roman Emperor, but his vision of expansion was swiftly becoming reality. His conquests were brutal, to the point of cruel (a mass executions of 4,500 ‘rebels’, such as in Saxony in 782, for example), but he also brought peace and the rule of law to many war-torn areas.
However, we’re not at Charlemagne’s palace in Aix-la-Chapelle nor on his campaign trails, but instead we are exploring a hitherto neglected region: Septimania.
Situated along the western Mediterranean and into the Pyrenees, Septimania was an area that had already seen much fighting by the time it was taken over by the Franks in 759. Originally part of the Roman empire as Gallia Narbonnensis, the area stretching from Provence in the east (divided by the Rhône river) to the Garonne river in the south-west, was later held by Visigoth kings. When the Salian Franks began to expand their territory, fighting ensued to retain the fertile region. In 508, the Salians failed to take the fortified site at Carcassonne, and Septimania was henceforth ruled between the Visigoths and Ostrogoths.
|Sarcophagus – Caption: 4th century Visigoth sarcophagus © Cathie Dunn.|
However, over two hundred years later, with the Umayyad Saracens pushing north from the Iberian peninsula, and the Franks pushing southwards, Septimania and neighbouring Vasconia (Gascony) never really stayed calm. By 732, Septimania was part of the Umayyad Empire of Al-Andalus which, for a long time, countered attacks by the Franks into their northern territories.
A wali, ruling out of the city of Narbonne, governed the outlying area. Despite the Saracen occupation, much of Septimania remained under ancient Roman and Gothic law, with Visigoths holding important posts. People were free to practice their own religion, mostly a form of Arian Christianity (a freedom that stopped under the Franks) and life continued almost unchanged.
|Map of Septimania, 537 AD, Wikipedia.|
In 759, Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, finally conquered Septimania, and many inhabitants, content with their lot under the Umayyad rulers, fled south into the Pyrenees or to Toledo. Many of the Arian population simply did not want to be ruled or converted by the Catholic Franks.
In such circumstances, myths are created (often much later, as in this case), and one such myth concerns Dame Carcas, a Saracen princess and widow, who, after years of being besieged by Charlemagne at her fortress, had the idea of feeding a pig with a bag of wheat, then throwing it over the battlements. On seeing that the defenders still appeared to have ample provisions, Charlemagne retreated. When the ingenious lady had all bells rung in celebration, the Franks exclaimed: “Carcas sonne!” (Carcas sounds) – thereby creating the fortress’s name. Alas, as inspiring as the tale is, there is no historical evidence of her, or of Charlemagne being at a siege in Carcassonne, which was taken in 759.
|Dame Carcas, Carcassonne, © Adobe Stock.|
It is noted that Charlemagne, on recognising the deserted land, began to grant fiefs to Visigoths and descendants of the Romans. At the same time, he appointed fellow Franks to hold strategic seats: Bordeaux and Toulouse were vital in the defence against the ever-rebellious Vasconians in the Pyrenees. Eventually, he established the ‘Spanish marches’ – a defensive buffer line against the caliphate to the south.
He made good use of many of the fortified sites that already existed north of the Pyrenees. Carcassonne was one such, although with the establishment of the march in the mountains, its importance waned a little. At the time of Charlemagne, a Visigoth named Bellon became the first Count of Carcassonne. As we don’t know for certain who appointed him, at a time of many local appointments by Charlemagne, I took the liberty to combine the two events to connect Bellon to Charlemagne. But as a result, Bellon became a Catholic, a fate many shared (often reluctantly) following the annexation of Septimania. He held the fortress in the name of the Franks, an important post for such a (now) little known man of Visigoth origins.
|Restored tower at Carcassonne, © Cathie Dunn.|
Charlemagne also founded and supported many religious houses in the area, to establish centres of learning and teaching, thereby actively pushing the Catholic agenda. It is not surprising that many Arians either submitted or fled. They found their freedoms much curtailed under the Franks.
Daily life was harsh in a region of long hot summers, bringing droughts, and chilly winters, with winds howling along the plain between the Pyrenees and the outlying areas of what is now the Massif Central. The Romans had begun to grow vines, and the summer sunshine was vital for their growth.
With the Franks arrived Salian law, which Charlemagne reformed, slowly replacing the ancient traditional Roman and Visigoth laws of the land unless they were incorporated.
The area of Septimania and the Pyrenees hold several languages. People in Carcassonne would have likely spoken a Romance language, which later evolved into the Langue d’Oc (the language of Occitania) which is still spoken here today.
A defensive region for many decades, there was no long-lasting peace in Septimania following the arrival of the Franks. The constant threat of warfare still hung over the beautiful hills and plains and would do so for many more centuries.
To this day, the rugged ruins of these ancient fortresses make for fascinating excursions into the distant past, with many dating back to Roman, Visigoth and Carolingian days.
|Carcassonne – the citadel in 2019, © Carcassonne Photography Tours.|
Love Lost in Time
By Cathie Dunn
Languedoc, south-west France
Madeleine Winters must live in her late mother’s old stone house in south-west France for one year before she can claim her inheritance – and sell it! Reluctantly leaving her life in England, she begins to renovate the house. But she’s not prepared for all the discoveries…
Is it her imagination when she hears a woman’s voice? Or when the ground shakes?
When ancient human bones belonging to a female are found beneath the kitchen floor, the mystery deepens. How did the woman end up buried, without a sarcophagus and all alone, in that particular spot in the Cabardès hills?
And why were her bones broken?
Septimania, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea
17-year-old Nanthild attends Charlemagne’s court with her father, where she is introduced to Bellon of Carcassonne. Unimpressed by the blustering young warrior, Nanthild is shocked when Charlemagne and her father arrange their wedding as a gesture of ensuring Bellon’s support in the king’s conquest of the volatile southern region of Septimania.
Despite his Visigoth origins, Bellon is installed as Count of Carcassonne, and he soon has to face challenges to Frankish rule that often keep him away from home – and his family.
Bellon’s absences make it easy for Nanthild to keep her calling as a healer and wise woman from him, and she continues to visit those in need of her help.
But dangers lurk on her journey…
Pick up your copy of
Love Lost In Time
Cathie writes historical fiction & romance.
On and off, she’s been writing for over twenty years. In 2008/09, she took courses online in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, with a focus on novel writing, which she now teaches in south-west France. She loves researching for her stories, delving into history books and visiting castles and historic sites.
Cathie is currently working on two novels: the sequel to Dark Deceit; and the first case in the Loup de Foix Mysteries, a series of historical murder mysteries set in the early 13th century around Carcassonne in south-west France. Her books have garnered praise from reviewers and readers for their authentic description of the past.
After many years in Scotland, Cathie now lives in south-west France with her husband, two cats and a dog.