Military History Charlemagne
by
John France
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0087

Introduction

Historians have always been fascinated by the life of Charlemagne and, in particular, deeply concerned to explain the enormous expansion of his dominions. In 768 he became joint ruler of the Frankish lands, but the death of his brother Carloman in 771 left him as sole ruler of the whole realm of his father Pepin III (b. 741–d. 768). By 774 he had made inroads into Saxony, conquered the old kingdom of the Lombards, and dominated the Italian peninsula. Campaigns in Spain later led to the establishment of a frontier zone against the Islamic power there, while a long and bitter conflict enabled him to annex the lands of the hostile Saxons and to enforce their conversion to Christianity. He even launched campaigns deep into Central Europe, destroying the Avar power in what we now call Hungary though without being able to conquer the area. However, the sources for his reign, and most especially for its military aspects, are very limited and often difficult to use (see Source Studies). These difficulties are enormously increased by the general tenor of writing on Charlemagne and certain specific controversies which bear upon his reign. Almost all studies of Charlemagne are admiring: the only real exception is that of The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne (Fichtenau 1957, cited under the Reign of Charlemagne). Indeed, the legend of Charlemagne, born from such admiration, enormously complicates our perception, and it remains powerful to this day. In addition, a whole new way of looking at the transition from the ancient to the medieval world has been inspired by The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (Brown 1971, cited under the Context of Charlemagne’s Reign), which posited a gradual and perhaps essentially peaceful transition from Roman to medieval. This matters for military history because an optimistic view of the survival of Roman institutions affects what one may think of the ability of Charlemagne to raise and sustain armies, and suggests also a continuity of discipline of the standing armies of Rome. In short, how the history of early medieval Europe is understood profoundly influences the understanding of Charlemagne’s inheritance from the past and most particularly his military institutions and resources.

Source Studies

At first sight, the historian of Charlemagne seems well provided with sources. The Royal Frankish Annals originated in court circles and were, therefore, a kind of official record covering 741–829. However, they are often very cryptic, and appear to gloss over events embarrassing to the regime. Some valuable detail was added by a reviser, who some think was working as late as 817, though the earlier date of 801 is strongly argued by McKitterick 2008 (pp. 1–56). The Annales Mettenses Priores present a history of the Frankish realms from c. 675 to c. 805, but, as Fouracre 2005 shows, they too originated in court circles under Charlemagne and are, therefore, suspect. There are two biographies of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker, but the latter is highly anecdotal and was composed only in 883–884, while the former, though the work of one who knew Charlemagne and certainly served his son Louis the Pious (reg. 814–840) until c. 830, is shown by Collins 1998 to be closely connected with the Royal Frankish Annals. A certain amount of record evidence has survived, much of which is available in the volumes of the great collection of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica with its series of Scriptores, Diplomata, Epistolae, Leges. Overall, however, the volume of material contemporary with and directly bearing upon Charlemagne’s reign is not great. The Capitularies are especially important because historians have tended to treat them as law codes, even as legislation. In fact, the biography of Charlemagne McKitterick 2008 casts considerable doubt upon this approach. As a result the historian is driven to look at all possible material, some earlier and some much later than Charlemagne’s reign. There has, for example, been much interest in the wars of Charles the Bald, whose life is summarized by Nelson 1992 (cited under Charlemagne, Legend, and Reality). There has been much exploration of the military institutions of Anglo-Saxon England to illuminate those of Charlemagne. While all of this can be useful, most of this material is later than Charlemagne, and, in the case of Anglo-Saxon England, bears upon a different country. The only specifically military work which we have is a late-4th-century Roman tract, De Re Militari, by Vegetius. It was epitomized by Rabanus Maurus (b. c. 780–d. 856) for King Lothar II of Lorraine (reg. 855–869) as De Procinctu Romaniae Militiae. This epitome was made long after Charlemagne, and while it may have been written with military purposes in mind, as argued by Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), pp. 131–133, the intention could equally have been to flatter Lothar by the association with the glory of Rome. Furthermore, we have no real evidence that it was popular under Charlemagne himself. The sources for the history of Charlemagne are a minefield for the incautious. This is nicely illustrated by the argument between Abels and Morillo 2005 on the one hand and Bachrach 2007 on the other.

  • Abels, Richard, and Stephen Morillo. “A Lying Legacy? A Preliminary Discussion of Images of History and Altered Reality in Medieval Military History.” Journal of Medieval Military History 3 (2005): 1–13.

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    This article explores the tendency of medieval writers who had learned their Latin from the classics of the Roman past to use ancient language to describe quite different things in order to parade their erudition. Thus any group of soldiers might be called legio, a word redolent of order, cohesion, and discipline which often seems to have been at odds with reality.

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  • Bachrach, Bernard S. “‘A Lying Legacy’ Revisited: The Abels-Morillo Defense of Discontinuity.” Journal of Medieval Military History 5 (2007): 153–193.

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    Rehearses many of his fundamental ideas and argues against the idea of a “Lying Legacy.”

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  • Collins, Roger. “The ‘Reviser’ Revisited: Another Look at the Alternative Version of the Annales Regni Francorum.” In After Rome’s Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History: Essays Presented to Walter Goffart. Edited by Alexander C. Murray, 191–213. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1998.

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    This is a scholarly exploration of the relationship between the versions of the Royal Frankish Annals and Einhard’s life of Charlemagne.

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  • Fouracre, Paul. “The Long Shadow of the Merovingians.” In Charlemagne: Empire and Society. Edited by Joanna Story, 5–19. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

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    A careful examination of the Annales Mettenses Priores (Earlier Annals of Metz), showing them to be largely Carolingian propaganda written about 806 aimed at disparaging the dynasty of the Merovingians, whom they had overthrown.

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  • McKitterick, Rosalind. Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    A broad scholarly and highly respected look at the reign of Charlemagne, which covers also valuable insights into the writing of history and records in the Carolingian world.

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The Context of Charlemagne’s Reign

These books discuss European history before, during, and after the reign of Charlemagne. They are important because writers on Charlemagne frequently make inferences from across the early medieval period. While these works are not directly concerned with military affairs, they do explore some of the general factors. Hodges and Whitehouse 1989 is particularly important for its clear evidence of economic decline in early medieval Europe, while Innes 2000 provides an intimate picture of a city in this period. Brown 1971 argues strongly for continuity between Rome and early medieval Europe, and the author has done more than any historian to create the context for the discussion of early medieval history. Overall, these studies examine the nature of the relationship between elites and their monarchs and discuss issues of royal administration which have a direct bearing upon military capacity. Collins 1991 is an excellent textbook, a fine introduction to a difficult period, as is McKitterick 2001. The achievements of the early Carolingians were deliberately distorted by their successors, and the works of Paul Fouracre (Fouracre 2000 and Fouracre 2008) provide very important correctives to history based upon such writings. McKitterick 1983 is a clear history of the Carolingian family as rulers. The New Cambridge Medieval History (McKitterick 2008) is a formidable collection of essays by eminent historians, but it lacks the consistency of standpoint of a single-author work.

  • Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad. London: Thames & Hudson, 1971.

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    His ideas about continuity between the Roman and medieval worlds have perhaps been taken too far by his admirers, the “Brownistas.” He inspired such groups as the “Late Antiquity Research Group” (LARG) of British-based professional archaeologists and “The California Consortium for the Study of Late Antiquity.” The notion of continuity has clear implications for our understanding of the Carolingian military.

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  • Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe 300–1000. London: Macmillan, 1991.

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    An excellent and well-informed survey, rather more skeptical than McKitterick about the existence and extent of an administration under Charlemagne. However, recognizes that by his alliance with the Church Charlemagne was trying to build a state.

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  • Early Medieval Europe. 1992–.

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    This journal is essential reading for anyone studying any topic in the early Middle Ages.

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  • Fouracre, Paul. The Age of Charles Martel. London: Pearson, 2000.

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    Essential for an understanding of the real founder of the power of the Carolingian dynasty, and especially useful for showing that “Francia had been dominated by a small lay and clerical elite” (pp. 176–177).

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  • Fouracre, Paul. “The Frankish Kingdoms to 814.” In New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 2. Edited by Rosamond McKitterick, 85–109. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    Dismantles the notion, propagated by the Annals of Metz and so often repeated, that Pippin II’s victory over the Neustrians at the battle of Tertry in 687 marked the inception of Carolingian rule. In reality, he argues, “in 687 Pippin did not so much overturn the Neustrian regime of the Merovingians as join it” (p. 105).

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  • Hodges, Richard, and David Whitehouse. Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis. London: Duckworth, 1989.

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    A vitally important work which uses written and archaeological evidence to argue for a sharp and sustained decline in economic activity in the period of the 5th–7th centuries. The authors suggest that at this time Europe was governed by “primitive political forces” (p. 170). Economic activity began to revive under Charlemagne, which is why Charlemagne interested himself in currency reform.

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  • Innes, Matthew. State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley 400–1000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511496349Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Some have argued that this scholarly book exaggerates the devastation caused by the withdrawal of Roman power in the 5th century, but this is a powerful corrective to the views of the followers of Peter Brown. Innes argues for a steep decline in European prosperity in the 5th and 6th centuries and a gradual rallying in the 7th and 8th centuries, a view now broadly accepted.

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  • McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians. London: Longman, 1983.

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    This work is much more specifically about the Carolingian period in general, though again there is relatively little on war. The author skillfully works out the implications of her comment on “the administration’s total dependence on the efficiency, loyalty and support of his subjects” (p. 77).

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  • McKitterick, Rosamond. The Early Middle Ages: Europe 400–1000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    This is a brilliant summary by a leading historian. There is only limited interest in warfare, but the discussion of the growing strength of the aristocracy and the nature of royal administration as against simply charismatic kingship is of vital importance.

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  • McKitterick, Rosamond. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 2, c. 700–c. 900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    Provides an immense amount of material, but while particular chapters are excellent it does not say very much about military history.

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Charlemagne, Legend, and Reality

Charlemagne became an important figure in European literature, notably in the famous Song of Roland. His postmortem career was born from the perceived contrast between the peace and order of his reign and the apparent chaos under his successors. Godman and Collins 1990 eroded this sharp contrast somewhat by their rehabilitation of Louis the Pious, which de Jong 2009 has recently reinforced. Nelson 1992 did much the same for Charles the Bald. As Heater 1992 shows, Charlemagne’s aura of glory continues to have influence on modern politics. It is no accident that a key step on the path to the creation of the European Union was signed in 1992 at Maastricht, an old Carolingian possession, and that the central institutions of the Union are planted in what were his family’s heartlands. Gabriele 2011 demonstrates how in retrospect Charlemagne was recruited as a crusader.

  • De Jong, Mayke. The Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814–840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    Louis the Pious’ acts of penance were long regarded as an example of his weakness, but de Jong shows how such practices were an important part of the discourse of politics at this time.

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  • Gabriele, Matthew. An Empire of Memory: The Legend of Charlemagne, the Franks, and Jerusalem before the First Crusade. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199591442.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows how Charlemagne was reborn as a champion of Christendom against Islam in the age of the Crusades.

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  • Godman, Peter, and Roger Collins, eds. Charlemagne’s Heir: New Perspectives on the Reign of Louis the Pious (814–840). Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

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    The legend of Charlemagne arose partly because of the contrast between Charlemagne’s success and the failure of his successors. However, this book takes a revisionist view of Louis the Pious, suggesting that he did not fare as badly as we used to think. See also Nelson 1992 for the same revisionism applied to Charles the Bald. This is important because it affects our view of the standing of Charlemagne, and perhaps also of the nature of his government.

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  • Heater, Derek B. The Idea of European Unity. Leicester, UK: Leicester University, 1992.

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    Traces the origins of the “European Project.” The powerful emotional appeal of the Charlemagne myth is a real challenge for historians, especially as modern people tend to assume that political power could only be sustained by administrative complexity.

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  • Nelson, Janet L. Charles the Bald. London: Longman, 1992.

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    A very important revisionist view of Charles as a successful monarch. The military activity in his reign is often used to illuminate that of Charlemagne.

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The Reign of Charlemagne

There are numerous biographies of Charlemagne, almost all of which are very admiring. This remarkable uniformity of attitude conditions those approaching the military achievements of the emperor to a remarkable extent. Broadly, the resulting glow about the person of the emperor discourages criticism and there is a marked tendency for biographies to repeat “accepted truths.” Certainly this is true of the biographies Becher 2003 and Barbero 2004, though these are very competent. The great exception is the study Fichtenau 1957, whose approach to the subject still excites by its criticism of the great man. McKitterick 2008 (cited under Source Studies) is something rather greater than simple biography, as its subtitles imply. It is little concerned with Charlemagne as a warrior, but has important things to say about the Capitularies and other administrative documents which have survived and which have been widely used to reconstruct the military. For example, in her discussion the author shows that virtually all the evidence for Charlemagne’s ability to raise a universal levy comes from late in the reign and she stresses that the Capitularies on this subject (like almost all others) were the product of particular circumstances and cannot be seen as general legislation. Innes 2005 is important because it suggests how Carolingian administration actually works. No event of Charlemagne’s reign has excited more attention than the imperial coronation of 800, which has often been seen as a consequence of his military conquests, and Mayr-Harting 1996 powerfully reinforces and refines this idea. However, Classen 1965, a highly influential study, suggests other forces at work.

  • Barbero, Alessandro. Charlemagne, Father of a Continent. Translated by Allan Cameron. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

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    English translation of Carlo Magno: Un padre dell’Europa first published in 2000. A scholarly and essentially consensus view of Charlemagne.

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  • Becher, Mattias. Charlemagne. Translated by David S. Bachrach. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

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    English translation of Karl der Grosse first published in 1999. This is a simple outline of the reign, admirably clear.

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  • Classen, Peter. “Karl der Grosse, das Papsttum und Byzanz: Die Begründen des karolingischen Kaisertums.” In Karl der Grosse: Lebenswerk und Nachleben. 5 vols. Vol. 1. Edited by Wolfgand Braunfels and Helmut Beumann, 537–608. Düsseldorf: Schwann, 1965.

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    Charlemagne’s coronation as Roman Emperor in 800 is often seen as a consequence of his impressive conquests, though not of these alone. Classen provides a powerful statement of the widespread belief among historians that the coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III (795–816) as Roman Emperor was the result of common political interests between Charlemagne and the papacy. Compare Mayr-Harting 1996.

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  • Fichtenau, Heinrich. The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne. Translated by Peter Munz. Oxford: Blackwell, 1957.

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    English translation of Das karolingische Imperium first published in 1949. It is the only really critical study of Charlemagne. Fichtenau, who was working very shortly after World War 2 when the idea of a strong man uniting Europe by conquest was perhaps less acceptable than at any period of modern times, dismissed Charlemagne as a warlord presiding over a ramshackle empire. McKitterick clearly contests this but the administration which she reveals was fairly limited and closely dependent on the king/emperor and his immediate circle.

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  • Innes, Matthew. “Charlemagne’s Government.” In Charlemagne: Empire and Society. Edited by Joanna Story, 71–89. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.

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    Innes is generally skeptical about Roman survival but suggests that Charlemagne recognized the limitations of his government and was trying to educate and persuade his aristocracy to embrace a sense of responsibility to the “state.”

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  • Mayr-Harting, Henry M. R. E. “Charlemagne, the Saxons and the Imperial Coronation of 800.” English Historical Review 111 (1996): 1113–1133.

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    This author suggests that the imperial coronation arose directly from the conquest of Saxony, because it was “the only conceptual framework within which he [Charlemagne] could validate and make acceptable his rule of the Saxon aristocracy after he had defeated them (p. 1121).”

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General Studies and Works of Reference on Military History

The classic works on military history of Delbrück 1982, Lot 1946, and Oman 1884 are included here. They all drew upon the ideas of Heinrich Brunner (see Brunner 1887, cited under Soldiers and Tactics: Cavalry and Infantry), though sometimes disagreeing in detail with them. They present what became the conventional explanation of Charlemagne’s success as depending upon superior technology and tactics especially with mounted warriors, a secure recruiting base, superior organization, and good logistics. This view was strengthened by Verbruggen 1997. Encyclopedias and handbooks of military history are popular, but most focus on modern warfare. Innes 2001 is very valuable, while the two-volume work Nicolle 1995–1996 is exceedingly well informed.

  • Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Translated by Michael Jones. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

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    English translation of La Guerre au moyen âge first published in 1980. This general textbook of medieval warfare deals only briefly with the early Middle Ages, but is very important because Contamine rejected the Brunner thesis (see Soldiers and Tactics: Cavalry and Infantry) and its obsession with the origins of the knight.

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  • Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War within the Framework of Political History. Vol. 3, The Middle Ages. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

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    An English translation of Volume 3 of Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte. 6 vols. (Berlin: Stilke, 1920–1932). Delbrück was convinced that the secret of Charlemagne’s success was the development of feudalism based on fiefs given to knights so that they could afford the expensive equipment of the heavy cavalryman.

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  • Lot, Ferdinand. L’Art militaire et les armées au moyen âge en Europe et dans le proche orient. 2 vols. Paris: Payot, 1946.

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    Lot had a special interest in the transition from the Roman world, and regarded the new kingdoms of Europe as truly barbarian. Argues with particular force that medieval armies were very small.

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  • Nicolle, David. Medieval Warfare Source Book. 2 vols. London: Arms and Armour, 1995–1996.

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    This two-volume work is very well illustrated, and the section in Volume 1, “Early Medieval Europe 650–1100,” pp. 53–102, covers all aspects of European warfare. Volume 2, Christian Europe and Its Neighbours, has a good deal of information relevant to the eastern enemies of Charlemagne’s empire.

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  • Oman, Charles. The Art of War in the Middle Ages 378–1515. Oxford: Blackwell, 1884.

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    This is the classic English history of medieval warfare. Oman was convinced of the importance of feudal cavalry, and though skeptical of Brunner’s notion of Charles Martel inventing heavy cavalry, he saw it as the dominant force in medieval warfare.

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  • Verbruggen, Jan Frans. The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Translated by Sumner Willard and Mrs. Richard W. Southern. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1997.

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    English translation of De Krijgkunst in West-Europa in de Middeleeuwen IXe tot begin XIVe eeuw of 1954. In this book Verbruggen wrote very only briefly about the armies of Charlemagne. Most of his book is about the High Middle Ages. However, his brilliant analysis of knightly warfare reinforced the old view that Carolingian armies depended primarily on cavalry.

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Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne

The central controversies about the military history of Charlemagne’s reign are concerned with the size of armies and the question of the survival of the structures of Roman government and administration. They are intertwined because large armies need the support of competent logistics and administration. Historians’ views on these subjects are profoundly influenced by their general approach to early medieval history. This is why Bachrach 1972, which is about a much earlier period, is included along with Bachrach 2001, a study of Charlemagne’s predecessors. The author of Halsall 2003 has strikingly different views on both these subjects and applies them to military history in this very impressive work. Goetz 2008 exemplifies the limited approach to military history in this important series. The criticism of the later Capitularies by McKitterick 2008 (cited under Source Studies) has not yet been fully absorbed by historians. The Journal of Medieval Military History, the Journal of Military History and War in History publish only on medieval military history. Early Medieval Europe and Francia sometimes have very useful articles bearing on military matters.

The Recruitment of Armies

The basis of recruitment for Charlemagne’s armies is apparently laid out for us in a series of royal ordinances, known as Capitularies. They appear to assume that the king had the right to call all freemen to the host, for both defensive and offensive campaigns. Men had to come with their own military equipment, but this was graded according to wealth with the rich required to bring elaborate armor and horses while at the other end of the scale the poor brought only bows and a few arrows. In some of the Capitularies Charlemagne orders that poor men should club together to equip one of their number with a proper panoply of war. Only occasionally was there a call for all the freemen to rally for war, in the so-called lantweri. For most of the reign it was the task of the Comes, the local royal territorial officer, to gather these men. For Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), the persistence of the Roman administrative machine easily made this possible. However, military writers have not really come to terms with the strictures of McKitterick on the later Capitularies (see the Reign of Charlemagne) which loom so large in their evidence. The limited nature of the evidence on this subject has led historians to look at how other states operated, and this is why Brooks 1971 and Delogu 2008 are cited here. Goffart 2008 argues cautiously that Roman practice was the basis for the right of early medieval kings to call on their subjects for military service, and Werner 1980 accords with this, but Ganshof 1968 and Nelson 1996 suggest that such ideas need to be treated with caution.

  • Brooks, Nicholas. “The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth and Ninth Century England.” In England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources Presented to Dorothy Whitelock. Edited by Peter Clemoes and Kathleen Hughes, 69–84. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

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    Given the difficulty posed by our sources for Charlemagne’s military, Anglo-Saxon developments have been seen as a very useful parallel by many writers, and this is an important and widely accepted study of recruitment.

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  • Delogu, Paolo. “Lombard and Carolingian Italy.” In New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 2. Edited by Rosamond McKitterick, 290–319. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    Shows that under the laws promulgated by the Lombard king Liutprand (reg. 712–744), all freemen formed the basis of the army of the kingdom. However, he recognizes that these laws embody an ideal view which may have been different from reality.

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  • Ganshof, Francois-Louis. “Charlemagne’s Army.” In Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne. Translated by Bryce Lyon and Mary Lyon. By Francois-Louis Ganshof, 59–68, 151–161. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1968.

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    Chapter in an English translation of Charlemagne et les institutions de la monarchie franque of 1965. Produces clear evidence (pp. 159–160) that it was only under Louis the Pious (reg. 814–840) that the Missi were instructed to draw up lists of the men in the followings of the great magnates. The implication of this is that Charlemagne had been dependent upon the good faith of his elite men for contributions to his army.

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  • Goffart, Walter. “Frankish Military Duty and the Fate of Roman Taxation.” Early Medieval Europe 16 (2008): 166–190.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2008.00226.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this important article Goffart suggests that there was continuity in assessing the levy of military service from Roman times. How long this could have lasted is uncertain. But most writers believe that the kings of early medieval Europe did have some right to call a general levy, whatever its origins.

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  • Nelson, Janet. “Translating Images of Authority: The Christian Roman Emperors in the Carolingian World.” In The Frankish World, 750–900. By Janet Nelson, 89–98. London: Hambledon, 1996.

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    Shows that Charles the Bald (reg. 840–877) tried to revive late Roman legislation that all freemen owed a duty to perform military service, which suggests that the ability to raise troops was more a function of royal prestige and personality than an accepted law, and that this must have, a fortiori, been true of Charlemagne.

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  • Werner, Karl F. “Missus-Marchio-Comes: Entre l’administration centrale et l’administration locale de l’Empire carolingien.” In Histoire comparée de l’administration (ive-xviie siècles). Edited by Werner Paravicini and Karl F. Werner, 191–239. Munich: Artemis, 1980.

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    Werner argues convincingly that by the late reign of Charlemagne the raising and supplying of armies was increasingly systematized as the task of the Missi, and this seems to have continued under Charlemagne’s successors. Overall he has a maximal view of military organization under Charlemagne which accords very well with that of Bachrach.

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Organization and Logistics

Feeding an army is always difficult, and it is very hard to see how very large gatherings of men could have been sustained in early medieval Europe. Under Charlemagne there were clearly occasional areas of dense population, but for the most part Europe was a thinly peopled continent in which towns and cities were few and small. Indeed, Van Creveld 1977 has revealed the problematic nature of logistics even in early modern Europe. Naturally, the bigger the army the more difficult is the problem of supply. The sources show that Charlemagne was greatly concerned with issues of supply, and it is probable, given the success of his armies in hostile terrain, that there was some organization to supply them, though its nature is in considerable doubt. A letter of 806 to Abbot Fulrad requires him to provide well-equipped troops carrying three months’ rations, though we do not know how typical this letter was or how easily these sorts of provisions could be enforced on other great magnates. Toward 800, in his capitulary on the royal estates, De Villis, Charlemagne ordered that on all his estates carts and supplies should be made available for the army. In 802–803 the Capitulary of Aachen made similar provisions, even including catapults and stones for them. But how effective was all this when the opening sentence of De Villis expresses the wish that the king should receive the products of his own properties? However, it is impressive that, as Bowlus 1995 shows, Charlemagne campaigned in distant lands and sometimes in winter and managed to feed his men. Even more impressively was his project, discussed by Hoffman 1967, to build a canal to support his attack on the Avars. The International Medieval Logistics Project brings together a network of scholars in an ambitious attempt to understand the way in which armies in the Middle Ages were supported.

  • Bowlus, Charles R. “Die Reitervoelker im Osten Abendlandes im frühen Mittelalter: Oekologisch-militaerische Gruende für ihr Versagen.” Ungarn Jahrbuch 22 (1995): 1–26.

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    Bowlus shows the armies of Charlemagne and his successors fighting on far frontiers in Central Europe, not only in this work but also in Franks, Moravians and Magyars: The Struggle for the Middle Danube, 788–907 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995) and in “Die militärische Organisation des karolingischen Suedostens 791–907,” Fruehmittelalterliche Studien 31 (1997): 46–69. Was this a sign of an organization or of the strength of personality and prestige of Charlemagne and some of his successors?

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  • Hoffman, H. H. “Fossa Carolina: Versuch einer Zusammenschau.” In Karl der Grosse: Lebenswerk und Nachleben. Vol. 1, Persönlichkeit und Geschichte. Edited by Wolfgang Braunfels and Helmut Beumann, 437–453. Düsseldorf: Schwann, 1967.

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    In this chapter, Hoffman examines Charlemagne’s ambitious project to link the Rhine and Danube in order to facilitate logistics for his attack on the Avars land of Central Europe. (Title translation: The Fossa Carolina: An attempt to bring together the evidence.)

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  • International Medieval Logistics Project.

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    This network of historians has as its co-director Professor John Haldon of Princeton University. It is associated with a major research project, Medieval Warfare on the Grid, at the University of Birmingham led by Professor Vince Gaffney and Dr. Georgios Theodoropoulos of the University of Birmingham.

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  • Van Creveld, Martin. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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    Although this work is concerned with logistics in modern Europe, Van Creveld’s analysis of the problems of pre-19th-century armies had much to teach the medievalist.

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The Size of Armies

This has become a much-debated subject. It was long assumed that early medieval armies were quite small, and this was intensified as historians began to see how important the military retinues of great men were to Dark Age armies. However, this consensus was broken by the important conference paper Werner 1968, which argued that Charlemagne could raise very big armies which far outnumbered those of his enemies. In the discussion which followed the paper presentation, a distinguished historian of the Carolingians, Francois-Louis Ganshof, who believed that all armies were quite small (see Ganshof 1968, cited under the Recruitment of Armies), pointed out that in all states there is an enormous discrepancy between paper figures and the real number of troops raised. This was a strong point because it is generally regarded as remarkable that in the US Civil War the South, with a much greater administrative capacity than the Carolingians, mobilized 70% of its available manpower (compared to 17.5% for the North). Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne) enthusiastically embraced Werner’s figures because they fitted well with his view of Charlemagne as the apex of a hierarchic system of command, while others regard him as the uncertain master of powerful warlords. Out of the discussion of size has evolved discussion of the nature of armies, largely as a result of the ideas of Timothy Reuter (see Reuter 1985), who doubted Werner’s ideas of size and suggested that armies could only rarely have exceeded 10,000. Halsall 2003 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne) is a fine general survey of warfare in the early medieval period. In a careful discussion of this difficult subject, the author also doubted whether any single army could have exceeded 10,000. He notes that on occasion Charlemagne put more than one army into the field: four forces attacked the Saxons in 774, three subdued Bavaria in 787, and the same number assaulted the Avars in 791 and 796. These were exceptional efforts, but some of these armies may have been very large. France 2002 and Halsall 2003 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), in contrast to Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), tend to see Charlemagne as the uncertain master of powerful warlords whose strength was a brake on the exercise of authority. Innes 2005 (cited under Reign of Charlemagne), as noted, tends to see military retinues in the context of public authority. Coupland 2008 provides a fine discussion of the size of Viking armies, and as already noted such evidence is widely used to fill in gaps of our knowledge on the reign of Charlemagne. Haldon 1999 wrote about the Byzantine Empire, which is usually thought of as having an administration and resources far beyond anything possible in Europe, yet suggests that its armies were quite small.

  • Coupland, Simon. “The Vikings in Francia and Anglo-Saxon England.” In The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 2. Edited by Rosamond McKitterick, 190–201. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    Because our sources say little about actual numbers, historians have sought comparators for Carolingian armies. Viking forces, which had such enormous success in the 9th and 10th centuries, are often used for this purpose. Coupland argues that Viking armies “numbered in thousands, but not tens of thousands” (p. 94). The danger of using this comparison is that it is not exactly contemporary and conditions had changed.

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  • France, John. “The Composition and Raising of the Armies of Charlemagne.” Journal of Medieval Military History 1 (2002): 61–82.

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    Points to evidence, especially from the Saxon campaigns, that Charlemagne was often desperately short of troops, and suggests that this was because he could not always convince the magnates to join him. Thus, the key to Carolingian success lay not in the king’s right to raise big armies, but in his relations with the magnates whose consent would have been needed for any general levy. This paper leans toward forces barely greater than 5,000 at most, except for special efforts.

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  • Haldon, John. Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565–1204. London: UCL Press, 1999.

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    The Byzantine Empire in the 9th and 10th centuries had a nominal troop strength of about 120,000. Actual armies were very much smaller: 4,000 seems to represent a sizeable force, and 12,000 an exceptional effort, though as many as 37,000 may have been mobilized in all for the unsuccessful assault on Crete in 911. It has to be remembered that in addition, Constantinople and the maritime themes maintained substantial war-fleets.

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  • Reuter, Timothy. “Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 35 (1985): 75–94.

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    Reuter here produced the most dynamic ideas on Carolingian military history for a generation, based on his close knowledge of European social and political development. He argued that Charlemagne’s armies of conquest were small, based on his own entourage and the military followings of his great men. After 800, standing on the defensive, Charlemagne needed bigger armies levied from the general population. Reuter later elaborated his ideas in a number of articles including “The End of Carolingian Military Expansion,” in Charlemagne’s Heir: New Perspectives on the Reign of Louis the Pious (814–40). Edited by P. Goodman and Roger Collins, 391–405 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990) and “Carolingian and Ottonian Warfare,” in Medieval Warfare: A History. Edited by Maurice Keen, 13–35 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

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  • Werner, Karl F. “Heeresorganiisation und Kriegführung im deutchen Königeich de 10 und 11 Jahrhunderts.” Settimane de Studi de Centro Italiano sull’alto Medioevo 15 (1968): 791–843.

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    Werner examined the resources of Charlemagne’s empire and concluded he could have mobilized as many as 35,000 heavily equipped soldiers which formed the strike force of an army which totaled perhaps 100,000.

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Soldiers and Tactics: Cavalry and Infantry

Our vision of the military history of the medieval past has been heavily colored by a belief in the supremacy of the medieval heavy cavalryman, the knight, and the search for his origins. This is the importance of the ideas of Heinrich Brunner (see Brunner 1887), which have proved to be immensely durable. Brunner’s ideas were not entirely original, but he argued that “shock cavalry” composed of heavily armored knights originated under Charles Martel (718–741) and formed the strike force of the armies with which Charlemagne conquered Europe. This “Brunner Thesis” was strongly reinforced by the works of Jan Frans Verbruggen (Verbruggen 1997, cited under General Studies and Works of Reference on Military History, and Verbruggen 1965, cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), whose study of 12th-century and later cavalry brilliantly illuminated the military history of that period. White 1962 argued that the adoption of the stirrup, providing stability for the horseman, was the real reason for the growing importance of cavalry. However, this also essentially supported the Brunner thesis, the first real assault upon which came in articles by Bachrach and Bullough in 1970 (see Bachrach 1970 and Bullough 1970). However, it was only with the widespread popularity of the textbook Contamine 1984 (cited under General Studies and Works of Reference on Military History) that the Brunner thesis was really discredited. Charlemagne was very conscious that substantial iron production and general use of iron weapons and armor represented a real advantage over many of his enemies, for he forbade their export. Coupland 1990 is an important study of weapons of offense and defense. However, our knowledge of how a Carolingian army actually fought is very limited. Mounted men were summoned to the host and expected to bring a great deal of equipment including hauberks and all the paraphernalia of close-quarter fighting, but also bows and arrows which were the characteristic weapons of the poorest troops; but Nicolle and McBride 2004 see them as an elite group within Charlemagne’s armies. In projecting such distant campaigns as that against the Avars Charlemagne must have had knowledge of the terrain and a good idea of how to attack, and he certainly was concerned to provide them with horses, equipment, and food, but their role is obscure. Bachrach 1983 is skeptical of their real value in warfare, and Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), pp. 191–200, has produced a coherent view of the battle of the Süntel when in 782 the Saxons defeated a Carolingian cavalry force. This was, however, a rare battle and possibly an untypical one. France 1979 asserted the importance of infantry, but Verbruggen 1979 responded in the same issue of the journal with an assertion of the importance of cavalry. Siege warfare was perhaps even more important, and this is certainly an area where more research is needed. Lavelle 2010, a brilliant analysis of Alfred’s wars, provides information from a later age which could be valuable in filling the gaps in our knowledge.

  • Bachrach, Bernard S. “Charles Martel, Shock Combat, the Stirrup and Feudalism.” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 7 (1970): 47–75.

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    This was a sharp and lucid attack on all the evidence adduced by Brunner in support of his theory of the evolution of the heavy cavalryman. For example, at the battle of the Dyle in 986 the cavalry dismounted to attack Vikings and advanced in a manner to which they were unused—pedemptim. Bachrach showed that this meant slowly and carefully, not simply “on foot.” This careful and scholarly examination by a distinguished specialist, taken together with Bullough’s comments of the same year, really dismantled the whole Brunner thesis.

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  • Bachrach, Bernard S. “Charlemagne’s Cavalry: Myth and Reality.” Military Affairs 47 (1983): 181–187.

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    In this article Bachrach carefully examined all the evidence we have about battles under Charlemagne and concluded that “not a single significant battle has been cited in which the cavalry can be shown to have played the deciding tactical role.” The preoccupation with cavalry, Bachrach suggested, arose from historians’ “highly romanticized search for the origins of knighthood” (pp. 181–182). Reprinted in Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1993, No. 14).

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  • Brunner, Heinrich. “Der Reiterdienst und die Anfänge des Lehnwesens.” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Germanistische Abteilung 8 (1887): 1–38.

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    Brunner believed that Charles Martel, in response to Muslim attack, created armies of knights who fought as heavy cavalry whose charge delivered a “shock effect” which broke the enemies of the Carolingians and enabled Charlemagne to conquer Europe. There is an excellent summary of the Brunner thesis and the attacks upon it in Kelly DeVries, Medieval Military Technology (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1992, 95–110.) (Title translation: Knightly service and the origins of feudalism.)

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  • Bullough, Donald A. “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and His Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship.” English Historical Review 85 (1970): 84–90.

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    This is a very wide-ranging piece of work that has profoundly influenced thinking about the Carolingian world in a number of spheres. He attacked Brunner, showing that there was little evidence that Arab armies at the time of Charles Martel were mounted, and discussed the Stuttgart Psalter of the early 9th century in which a famous picture of cavalry fighting reveals no stirrups.

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  • Coupland, Simon. “Carolingian Arms and Armour in the Ninth Century.” Viator 21 (1990): 29–50.

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    Coupland’s study provides a clear picture of the equipment of Carolingian soldiers, which clearly varied according to status. However, they were certainly better equipped than those of most of their enemies. Particularly important in this respect were the steel swords and iron hauberks of the elite troops. However, the poorer foot had little more than bows and arrows.

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  • France, John. “La guerre dans la France féodale à la fin du ix et au x siècle.” Revue Belge d’Histoire Militaire 23 (1979): 177–198.

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    In this article, and another in the same journal (“The Military History of the Carolingian Period” 26 (1985): 81–99), France asserted the importance of infantry in all early medieval armies, attacking the notion that Carolingian success depended largely on cavalry, and emphasized the role of organized and well-supplied infantry forces.

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  • Lavelle, Ryan. Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2010.

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    This exceptional study provides vitally important information for any researcher seeking parallels with the Carolingian experience.

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  • Nicolle, David, and Angus McBride. “The Carolingian Army.” In Age of Charlemagne. By David Nicolle and Angus McBride, 59–70. Oxford: Osprey, 2004.

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    The word scara appears occasionally in Merovingian sources and much more frequently in those of the Carolingian age. In itself this is a fairly colorless term meaning “detachment” or “unit.” Under Charlemagne they seem to be fast-moving troops and this implies mounted men—the force defeated at the Süntel were certainly cavalry. Nicolle and McBride suggest that the scara were young warriors living near to Charlemagne, and may have been divided into three ranks according to seniority: scholares, schola, and milites aulae regiae. However, these titles have a classicizing aura so there is room for skepticism such an elaborate schema. As to the role of infantry, David Nicolle remarks that “the role of Carolingian infantry is even more obscure.”

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  • Verbruggen, Jan Frans. “L’art militaire dans l’empire carolingien, 714–1000.” Revue Belge d’Histoire Militaire 23 (1979): 289–310 and 393–411.

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    This appeared in the same issue of the same journal as France 1979 and reasserts the importance of cavalry. However, Verbruggen’s article also supported the notion that armies were far better organized, supplied, and directed than had usually been believed.

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  • White, Lyn. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

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    White argued that by about 700 the stirrup had become known in Europe. This, he suggested, gave the cavalryman a firmer seat and enabled him to use “shock tactics,” charging home against his enemies secure in the saddle. The stirrup was important, but White probably exaggerated its value.

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Siege Warfare

The approach to Carolingian military history embodied in the Brunner thesis (see Brunner 1887, cited under Soldiers and Tactics: Cavalry and Infantry) was entirely based upon field warfare, despite the obvious fact that battles were quite rare. In reality, sieges were common and much turned on the holding of fortifications. It was for this reason that France 1979 (cited under Soldiers and Tactics: Cavalry and Infantry) argued that infantry were vital to Charlemagne’s armies. Bachrach 2013 has produced a narrative study of the early years of the reign, but its strength is his clear perception of the importance of sieges. Archaeological investigation has recently played a major part in our recognition of the importance of fortresses, and Schlesinger 1976 provides a valuable example. Loveluck 2013 has a much wider remit, but is included here to emphasize the growing value attached to archaeology as a source of information. The fortified bridges of Charles the Bald have long been known to historians, but Coupland 1991 demonstrates the value of knowing the ground as well as the written sources. Baker and Brookes 2013 also made use of this archaeology as well as written material in a brilliant study of Anglo-Saxon England in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Holy War

All authorities are convinced that Charlemagne believed very deeply that he was charged with the spiritual as well as the secular welfare of his people. This went along with his concern to dominate the Church, which could provide vast resources for the monarch and literate servants who could offset the power of the magnates and implant a sense of Christian service to the community at large. But the obvious clash between the business of war and the Christian love-ethic has fascinated historians who have tried to examine mentalities and implications of consecrating warfare. The considerable implications for the conduct of war are, for example, explored by Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne), pp. 147–159. McCormick 1984 examined the religious practices and celebrations of armies, especially under the Carolingians. Erdmann 1977 produced what is still the most important study of the interaction between war and Christianity, showing how churchmen came to place a positive value on warfare. However, only a small part is devoted to the Carolingian experience. Bachrach 2003 provides a more modern general study of the same subject without the same emphasis on the Crusades. Recent work, such as Alberi 2010 and France 2003, demonstrates how deeply Charlemagne and his people were imbued with a spirit of “holy war” even to the extent of forced conversion of the pagan peoples of Saxony. But how far was Charlemagne consciously fighting holy wars? The author of Hen 2006 produces a resounding yes to this question, but not all scholars would be as positive. Bullough 2003 discusses clerical opposition to the process of conquest based on traditional Christian attitudes to violence. The importance of peace in the Christian gospel meant that there was a moral imperative for a Christian king like Charlemagne to be a bringer of peace, and Kershaw 2011 explores this to great effect.

  • Alberi, Mary. “‘Like the Army of God’s Camp’: Political Theology and Apocalyptic Warfare at Charlemagne’s Court.” Viator 41 (2010): 1–20.

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    Alberi suggests that ecclesiastical courtiers portrayed the army as a castra Dei pitted against the evils and threats of the world, demanding spiritual as well as physical discipline, somewhat in the spirit of the later crusades.

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  • Bachrach, David S. Religion and the Conduct of War c. 300–c. 1215. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2003.

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    Demonstrates at length Charlemagne’s concern to seek divine approval especially for wars against pagans, and his anxiety to assure soldiers of their place in the Christian community. However, Bachrach does not characterize this as holy war.

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  • Bullough, Donald A. “Was There a Carolingian Anti-war Movement?” Early Medieval Europe 12 (2003): 1–12.

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    This article shows that there were a few ecclesiastics who resisted the evils of Carolingian warfare, especially forced conversion to Christianity, visited upon the Saxons and others. However, their numbers and influence were limited.

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  • Erdmann, Carl. The Origin of the Idea of Crusade. Translated by Marshall W. Baldwin and Walter Goffart. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

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    English translation of Die Entstehung des Kreuzzugsgedankens, first published in 1935. This remains the most important single work on the evolution of Christian ideas about war and violence. Erdmann was aware of the spiritual dimension of war under Charlemagne, but decided, “all this, however, fits the category of holy war only to a limited extent” (p. 24).

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  • France, John. “Holy War and Holy Men: Erdmann and the Lives of the Saints.” In The Experience of Crusading: Essays in Honour of J. Riley-Smith. Vol. 1, Western Approaches. 2 vols. Edited by Marcus Bull and Norman Housley, 193–208. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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    This article cites the example of St. Lebuin, active in the 770s, who is alleged to have threatened recalcitrant Saxons with force if they did not convert. There is an unpublished MA thesis on the subject of forced conversion by Alexander Scott Dessens, “Res Voluntaria, Non Necessaria: The Conquest and Forced Conversion of the Saxons under Charlemagne,” unpublished MA thesis, Louisiana State University, 29 May 2013.

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  • Hen, Yitzhak. “Charlemagne’s Jihad.” Viator 37.1 (2006): 33–51.

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    The assertion of a Carolingian jihad in Saxony is interesting and stimulating. In this excellent article, Hen suggests that the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae was not connected with Charlemagne’s Saxon campaigns of 782–785, as is usually thought, but with his final campaign against the Saxons c. 795.

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  • Kershaw, Paul. Peaceful Kings: Peace, Power, and the Early Medieval Political Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198208709.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This book argues that making peace was a vital aspect of a ruler because of the Christian inheritance, and states (p. 271) that “when medieval men and women thought and wrote about power in the early Middle Ages—what it was, what it should be, what it had been—peace was never far from their thoughts.”

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  • McCormick, Michael. “The Liturgy of War in the Early Middle Ages: Crisis, Litanies, and the Carolingian Monarchy.” Viator 15 (1984): 1–24.

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    In this article McCormick shows Charlemagne (though not solely Charlemagne) calling for ecclesiastical demonstrations intended to reveal God’s support in moments of trial and crisis.

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Maritime Warfare

The emphasis in almost all studies of Charlemagne’s military is on land warfare. Bachrach 2001 (cited under Warfare and the Military under Charlemagne) has a rather dismissive appendix on the subject of maritime warfare (pp. 247–257). Haywood 1991 goes some way to correcting the neglect of maritime matters, pointing out that Charlemagne faced seaborne enemies and had to provide for defense against them. There was evidently a regular system of coastal guards. In 820, under his son Louis the Pious, The Royal Frankish Annals report that they played a notable part in repelling Viking attacks in Frisia and elsewhere. Hutchinson 1994 provides a very general study of the mechanics of medieval shipping, while Unger 1980 sets shipping in the context of the medieval economy.

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