Friday, October 26, 2012

Charles the Hammer

Kings cannot run every administrative detail of their household themselves, so they appoint people to do it for them. Chamberlain, seneschal, castellan, steward, concierge, major domo—these are all terms to describe the person fulfilling that role. The Frankish kings of the 7th and 8th centuries referred to their major domo (Latin for "superior of the house") as the "Mayor of the Palace."

In the case of the Franks, the Mayor of the Palace was a hereditary position, descended from an invaluable Merovingian advisor, Arnulf of Metz. His son married the daughter of Pepin of Landen, and from them came a line of Mayors of the Palace who would ultimately change the Frankish world.

In yesterday's post on le rois fainéants, I mentioned that, after Theuderic's death in 737, the throne remained vacant for seven years. Clearly, the country did not disintegrate, and so someone must have maintained its proper functioning. That someone was the Mayor of the Palace, Charles, called "Martel," "the Hammer." He was called "the Hammer" because of his brilliant military victories, especially at the Battle of Tours in 732. Details of the battle—its location, the numbers on both sides—cannot be determined with the scant records available to us, but what is known is that he halted the progress of Islam into Western Europe and in the process cemented Frankish authority over the southern part of Gaul/France.

His nickname, illustrated
He is also credited as a champion of Christianity. In 739, two years after Theuderic's death, Pope Gregory III offered Charles the office of Consul in Rome: one of the two highest elected offices. Charles declined. Of course, at that time he was the de facto ruler of most of what we now call France; why give that up? He had been calling himself princeps et dux Francorum (prince and duke of the Franks), and was apparently not interested in the title of "king." But let us be clear: this apparent modesty does not mean he was a "nice" man. Charles kept Theuderic in custody during the last years of his life, first at an abbey, and later at a castle in a town called Otmus.* Charles was not about to let Theuderic's incompetence threaten the stability of the nation.

We hardly hear about Charles Martel today, even though his name was given to an age: the Carolingian Age. When he died, his son, Pepin the Short, asked Pope Stephen II "Who should be king? He who has the title, or he who wields the power?" By that time, the pope depended on Frankish armies for many purposes; he crowned Pepin "King of the Franks." It was Pepin's son, however, the grandson of Charles the Hammer, who would truly unite that part of the world and take it to administrative, academic, and cultural heights not imagined since the glory of Rome: Charles the Great, known everywhere today as Charlemagne.


*During his captivity, the town took on the name Castrum Theodorici ("Camp/Castle of Theuderic"). The name stuck, and now en Français is called Château-Thierry.

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