فصل 21

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فصل 21

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Reading these stories may make you think it’s easy to conquer the world or found a great empire, since it happens so often in the history of the world. And in fact it wasn’t very difficult in earlier times. Why was that? Imagine what it must have been like to have no newspapers and no post. Most people didn’t even know what was happening in places just a few days’ journey from where they lived. They stayed in their valleys and forests and tilled the land, and their knowledge of the world ended where the neighbouring tribes began. Towards these they were generally unfriendly, if not openly hostile. Each tribe harmed the other in whatever way it could, raiding cattle and setting fire to farmsteads. There was a constant tit-for-tat of stealing, feuding and fighting.

All they heard of a world beyond their own small realm were rumours and hearsay. If an army of several thousand men happened to turn up in a valley or clearing, there was little anyone could do. The neighbours thought themselves lucky if their enemies were slaughtered, and it didn’t occur to them that their turn might be next. And if they weren’t killed, but were merely forced to join that army and attack their nearest neighbours, they were grateful enough. In this way, armies grew bigger and a tribe on its own would find it more and more difficult to resist, no matter how bravely it fought. The Arabs often went about their conquests like this, and so did Charlemagne, the famous king of the Franks, whose story you are about to hear.

If conquest was easier than it is today, ruling was much harder. Messengers had to be sent to distant and inaccessible places, warring peoples and tribes had to be pacified and reconciled, and made to look beyond their old enmities and blood-feuds. If you wanted to be a good ruler you had to help the peasants in their misery, and you had to see that people learned something, and that the thoughts and writings of the past weren’t lost and forgotten. All in all, a good ruler in those days had to be a sort of father to the vast family of his subjects, and make all their decisions for them.

This was the sort of ruler that Charlemagne was, and it is why he is rightly called ‘the Great’ (the Latin word magnus means ‘great’). He was a grandson of Charles Martel, the commander who drove the Arabs out of the Merovingian kingdom of the Franks. The Merovingian kings were not much good at ruling. They had flowing hair and long beards and they did nothing but sit on the throne and parrot the words their advisers had taught them. They moved around in ox-carts, like peasants, not on horseback, and that was how they attended tribal gatherings. The actual governing was done by an able family to which Charles Martel belonged, as did Pepin, the father of Charlemagne. But Pepin wasn’t satisfied with being a mere adviser, whispering instructions into his king’s ear. He had the power of kingship and he wanted the title as well. So he overthrew the Merovingian king and proclaimed himself king of the Franks. His kingdom covered roughly the western half of what is now Germany, and the eastern part of France.

But you mustn’t imagine that this was a settled and well-organised kingdom, a proper state with officials and some sort of police force, or indeed that it was in any way similar to the Roman empire. For at this time the population wasn’t united as it had been in the days of the Romans. Instead there were a number of tribes, all speaking different dialects and with different customs, who tolerated each other about as much, or as little, as the Dorians and Ionians of ancient Greece.

The tribal chieftains were known as dukes, from the Latin word ducere, to lead, because they marched into battle at the head of their troops. Their lands were known as their duchies. There were a number of these tribal duchies in Germany: the Bavarians, the Swabians and the Alemanni, among others. But the most powerful of all was the duchy of the Franks. It drew its power from the allegiance it was owed by other tribes who had to fight on the side of the Franks in time of war. This supremacy was established in Pepin’s time. And like his father, Charlemagne would use it when, in 768, he became king in his turn.

First he conquered all of France. Then he marched over the Alps to Italy where, as you remember, the Lombards had settled at the end of the Migrations. He drove out the king of the Lombards and gave control of those lands to the Pope, whose protector he would be throughout his life. Then he marched on to Spain, where he fought the Arabs, but he didn’t stay there long.

Having extended his kingdom to the south and west, Charlemagne turned his attention to the east. New hordes of mounted Asiatic warriors called Avars, similar to the Huns but without a great leader like Attila, had invaded the region where Austria is today. Their camps were always well dug in and protected by rings of dykes which made them hard to capture. Charlemagne and his armies fought the Avars for eight years before defeating them so thoroughly that not a trace of them remains. However, their invasion, like that of the Huns before them, had forced out other tribes. These were the Slavs who had founded a sort of kingdom, albeit one even less stable and more disorderly than that of the Franks. Charlemagne attacked them too, forcing some to join his army and others to pay him annual tribute. Yet in all his campaigns he never lost sight of his goal: to bring all these various Germanic tribes and duchies together under his rule, and forge them into a single people.

Now at that time hardly any of the eastern half of Germany belonged to the kingdom of the Franks. The Saxons lived there, and they were as wild and warlike as the Germanic tribes had been in Roman times. In addition, they were still heathens and would have nothing to do with Christianity. But Charlemagne saw himself as the leader of all Christians and in this he was not unlike the Muslims who thought you could force people to believe. So he fought with the Saxon chieftain, Widukind, for many years. Each time the Saxons surrendered, they would be up in arms again the next day. Charlemagne would then return and lay waste to their land. But he had only to turn his back for the Saxons to free themselves again. They would follow Charlemagne obediently into battle and then turn and attack his troops. In the end they paid a terrible price for their resistance: Charlemagne had more than four thousand of them put to death. The remaining Saxons allowed themselves to be baptised without protest, but it must have been a long time before they were able to feel any affection for the religion of loving kindness.

Charlemagne’s power was by now very great indeed. But, as I said, he was not only good at conquering: he knew how to govern and take care of his people too. Schools were especially important to him, and he himself went on learning all his life. He spoke Latin as well as he did German, and he understood Greek. He was an eloquent and ready speaker with a firm clear voice. He was interested in all the arts and sciences of antiquity, taking lessons in rhetoric and astronomy from learned monks from Italy and England. It is said, however, that he found writing diffficult because his hand was more used to grasping a sword than tracing rows of beautifully curved letters with a delicate quill pen.

He loved hunting and swimming. He generally dressed simply. Under a striped silk tunic, he wore a plain linen shirt and long breeches held by gaiters below the knee, and, in winter, a fur doublet over which he flung a blue cloak. A silver- or gold-hilted sword always hung at his belt. Only on special occasions did he wear goldembroidered robes, shoes decorated with gems, a great gold clasp on his cloak and a gold crown set with precious stones. Try to imagine that towering and imposing figure in all his finery, receiving ambassadors at his favourite palace at Aachen. They came from everywhere: from his own kingdom ­ that is, from France, Italy and Germany ­ and from the lands of the Slavs and Austria as well.

Charlemagne kept himself informed about everything that went on in his kingdom and made sure his instructions were faithfully carried out. He appointed judges and had the laws collected and written down. He nominated bishops and even fixed the price of foodstuffs. But what concerned him most was uniting all the Germans. He didn’t simply want to rule a handful of tribal duchies. His aim was to weld them all into a single, strong kingdom. Any duke who objected was deposed. And it’s worth noting that, from now on, whenever anyone referred to the language spoken by the Germanic tribes, they no longer said Frankish or Bavarian or Alemannish or Saxon. They simply said ‘thiudisk’, meaning German.

Because Charlemagne was interested in all things German, he made people write down all the ancient songs about heroes, tales which probably came from the time of the wars of the Migrations. These songs were about Theodoric (later called Dietrich of Berne), and Attila, or Etzel, King of the Huns, and Siegfried the DragonSlayer who was stabbed by the treacherous Hagen. But they have almost all been lost and we only know them from versions noted down some four hundred years later.

Charlemagne saw himself not only as king of the Germanic peoples and lord of the kingdom of the Franks, but as the defender of all Christians. And it seems that the pope in Rome, who had often enjoyed Charlemagne’s protection against the Lombards, agreed with him. On Christmas Eve, in the year 800, when Charlemagne was kneeling in prayer in the great church of St Peter’s in Rome, the pope suddenly stepped forward and placed a crown upon his head. Then the pope and all the people fell on their knees before him and proclaimed Charlemagne the new Roman emperor, chosen by God to preserve the peace of the empire. Charlemagne must have been very surprised as it appears that he had no inkling of what was in store for him. But now he wore the crown and was the first German emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, as it later was known.

Charlemagne’s mission was to restore the might and grandeur of the old Roman empire. Only this time, instead of heathen Romans, the rulers would be Christian Germans, who would become the leaders of all Christendom. This was Charlemagne’s aim and ambition, and it would long be that of German emperors who came after him. But none came as close to achieving it as he did. Envoys from all over the world came to his court to pay him homage. The mighty emperor of the Roman Empire of the East in Constantinople was not the only one anxious to be on good terms with him. So was the great Arab prince, Caliph Harun al-Rashid, in far-off Mesopotamia. From his fabulous palace in Baghdad, near ancient Nineveh, he sent precious gifts to Charlemagne: sumptuous robes, rare spices and an elephant, and a water clock with the most amazing mechanism, unlike anything seen before in the kingdom of the Franks. For Charlemagne’s sake, Harun al-Rashid even let Christian pilgrims visit Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem, unhindered and unmolested. For Jerusalem was at that time under Arab rule.

All this was due to the intelligence, energy and undoubted superiority of the new emperor, as rapidly became clear after his death in 814 when, sadly, it all fell apart. Soon the empire was shared out among Charlemagne’s three grandsons in the form of three separate kingdoms: Germany, France and Italy.

In the lands that had once belonged to the Roman empire, Romance languages continued to be spoken ­ that is, French and Italian. The three kingdoms would never again be united. Even the German tribal duchies rebelled and won back their independence. On Charlemagne’s death, the Slavs proclaimed themselves free, and founded a powerful kingdom under their first great king, Svatopluk. The schools Charlemagne had founded disappeared, and the art of reading and writing was soon lost to all but a handful of far-flung monasteries. Intrepid Germanic tribes from the north, the Danes and the Normans, mercilessly pillaged and plundered coastal cities in their Viking ships. They were almost invincible. They founded kingdoms in the east, among the Slavs, and in the west on the coast of what is now France, where Normandy still bears their name.

Before the century was out, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Charlemagne’s great achievement, was no more. Not even the name remained.

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