Charlemagne: Defender of the West or Servant of the Jews?
by Karl Radl
THERE ARE few figures more famous in Western history than the Emperor Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, of the Carolingian dynasty of the Franks. Charlemagne was the grandson of the equally famous Frankish ruler Charles Martel and like him has the reputation of being a fervent foe of the enemies of the West.
Unlike his illustrious grandfather however Charlemagne is a character who is increasingly difficult to see as a ‘defender of the West’ the more you know about him. Yes he fought the forces of Islam to a point, but his main energies were directed not towards the enemies of the West, but rather toward the forcible Christianization of the Germanic and Slavic peoples in Central and Eastern Europe. (1)
Unless one views ‘defending the West’ in the context of a Christian triumphalist worldview (which I don’t) then it is difficult to see why a ‘defender of the West’ would spend the majority of his adult life and energies waging total war against fellow Germanics (as well as Slavs) and not the forces that threatened all the nations of the West (of whatever religious denomination) like those of Islam.
It is also notable that while Charlemagne is often conceived as a fervent Christian; he did not obey the Church, but rather believed the Church should obey him. We can see this in the fact that he viewed the Church as a tool of governance and not an ally against a common enemy. (2)
Charlemagne’s memory has long been hotly disputed territory in large part because he engaged in behaviour that was borderline psychotic and when the Saxon tribes killed twenty significant members of the Carolingian nobility (after the latter had invaded Saxon territory to rape, murder and pillage) he launched a fully fledged campaign of extermination against the Saxons in October 782 AD. (3)
This culminated in some 4,500 Saxons, often assumed to be nobles and leading figures, gathering at Verdun on the Aller to meet with Charlemagne for peace talks after their leader Widukind had fled to Denmark.
Charlemagne’s response is almost universally regarded by historians as the greatest of all stains on his reputation. (4)
Succinctly put Charlemagne beheaded all 4,500 Saxons, who had publicly put down their arms as a sign of their peaceful intentions, in a one day orgy of bloodshed that Barbero chalks up to Charlemagne’s looking to the Old Testament for precedents on how to deal with his ‘heathen’ enemies. (5) This act of butchery absolutely horrified both Charlemagne’s contemporaries and Christian commentators for several centuries afterwards. (6)
For some historical perspective we should note that several years after the massacre at Verdun the Byzantine Empire lost a full scale battle in its quest to regain control of the Italian peninsula. The Byzantines lost some 3,000 dead and buried in the process, which was considered a hideously high loss of life at the time. (7)
It is then easy to see how horrific Charlemagne’s massacre at Verdun would have seem to his contemporaries as it was another fifty percent again on top of the the comparative losses suffered by the Byzantine Empire a few years later.
Charlemagne’s actions have also long been regarded as so absolutely horrific by eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century historians that many of them have tried to excuse them or claim they did not in fact happen. These claims have long been debunked however with the most persistent of them being the idea that the scribe meant to write ‘decolare’ (to deport) and not ‘decollare’ (to behead). (8)
The current favourite is to claim that the 4,500 figures is an ‘exaggeration’, (9) but as Becher points out whatever the number (and, as Barbero notes, we have no actual reason to disbelieve the 4,500 assertion) (10) slaughtered by Charlemagne at Verdun: it was a horrific and deliberate act of mass murder. (11)
There is precedent for it in Charlemagne’s family however since his uncle, who later retired to a life of prayer and contemplation at a monastery, Carloman (the son of Charles Martel) had what can only be described as a psychotic episode and murdered hundreds, maybe even thousands, of unarmed Alamanni (i.e. those who would be Bavarian and Swiss people today) at Cannstadt in 747 AD. This was after promising them safe conduct so they can could negotiate with him and has become known as the Massacre of Cannstadt or alternatively the Bloody Court of Cannstadt. (12)
Charlemagne not only followed his uncle Carloman’s example, but added to it by unleashing his army in the winter of 733-734 AD on the Saxons to rampage ‘through the country, killing, burning and tearing down pagan shrines.’ (13)
Accompanying this came the imposition of one of the most brutal legal codes in history, the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae, which proclaimed that, essentially, the only punishment for any crime was death and many of said ‘crimes’ were purely religious in nature. For example if you ate meat in Lent for whatever reason you would be immediately put to death. (14)
This is especially awful since it was the Franks who provoked the Saxon wars when they deliberately cut down Irminsul in 772 AD, which led to Saxon revenge attacks on churches in Upper Hesse and Frankish counter-reprisals. (15)
That Charlemagne was doing this to fellow Westerners and would-be allies in the struggle against the forces of Islam informs us that he was no ‘defender of the West’ per se and also suggests that, à la Shakespeare, ‘something was rotten in the Frankish court’.
That something is quite clear when we look at how Charlemagne treated other unbelievers and note that he wasn’t quite the fanatical Christian that you might think. The most obvious presence of unbelievers in the Frankish kingdom were the Jews who owned the trade in luxury items from the East via Muslim Spain and lived in the cities along the river Rhone. (16)
Indeed Barbero summarizes the scale of Jewish influence at Charlemagne’s court as follows:
‘Jewish merchants prospered under Charlemagne and even more under Louis the Pious, by supplying the court with wine, spices, and textiles, and they enjoyed wide-ranging privileges. These included the right to be tried only in accordance with their own law, to have Christian employees, and to practice their religion even within the Imperial palace.’ (17)
In other words Charlemagne, and his son Louis the Pious, allowed themselves to be bribed by Jewish merchants with luxury goods such as wine, spices and textiles in order to grant the later special rights and privileges (just as had occurred in the Roman Empire of Julius Caesar and Augustus).
These included effective legal immunity from prosecution (as they would be tried based on Halakhah [Jewish religious law] which takes an extremely dim view of gentiles [for example non-Jewish witnesses don’t count for much in it]) (18) not by secular or Church law as well as endangering the faith of the Christian flock by putting Jews in positions of direct authority over them where they could force/lure them into Judaising (an old and persistent worry of the Christian clergy). (19) This was in addition to allowing the practice of a religion that regards Jesus Christ as, well, whore-scum in his own palace. (20)
Not only did Charlemagne allow the Jews free reign over his kingdom and people, but he actively worked to increase Jewish influence and wealth. Barbero describes Charlemagne’s behaviour in this regard as follows:
‘The protection of subjects involved in international trade was one of the sovereign specific duties. In negotiations with King Offa of Mercia, Charlemagne requested favourable conditions for “our merchants” when operating in England. Later Louis the Pious granted the merchants who supplied the palace exemption from all taxes collected within the empire, with the exception of customs duties in Quentovic and other parts of the border.’ (21)
In other words Charlemagne requested that King Offa of Mercia allow his merchants favourable trading conditions and we have already seen that a significant amount of said merchants were Jews (who were also directly associated as being Jewish by the English). (22) Louis the Pious made this even worse by allowing the merchants who supplied the Imperial palace, who we have already seen were primarily Jewish, to be free of all but a tiny amount of taxation (i.e. giving significant trading advantages to primarily Jewish merchants, which directly disadvantaged most Frankish merchants).
These privileges for Jews moreover were granted despite the open protest of the Frankish church, which had long been attempting to circumscribe Jewish power. (23) This power included Jewish merchants interfering in the politics of the Frankish church less than two centuries before Charlemagne in order to get the candidate they wished elected using their money to bribe the dissenting clergy in a case of blatant and open simony. (24)
In Charlemagne’s time the anti-Jewish crusade was led by the Bishop of Lyons: Agobard.
He was not an ignorant man either: he was a man of letters and well-regarded theologian. (25) He was also ironically a young protege of Charlemagne, (26) but one whom his master evidently chose to ignore on the subject of the chosen people. Agobard could do little other than to desperately try to enlighten his sovereign’s mind on the subject of the Jewish assault on both Charlemagne’s people and the Frankish church itself.
Agobard was no coward and wrote at least three fervent anti-Jewish missives that we know of (two of which I have translated) (27) as well as openly standing up to Charlemagne’s son and successor Louis the Pious on the subject of his assuming the throne. (28)
One thing that is suggestive is that Agobard demanded that Charlemagne do something about the Jewish merchants who had forced the Christians of Lyons to change the day on which they held their market from a Saturday (i.e. the Jewish Sabbath) to another day. (29)
That these Jewish merchants were able and empowered by Charlemagne enough to force through such a change in spite of local custom and the explicit wishes of the Frankish church necessarily suggests that they wielded a significantly greater amount of influence over the Emperor than the Christian church did.
Therefore it is little wonder that by 806 AD it had reached Charlemagne’s ears that Jewish merchants were boasting that they could buy anything they wanted in his kingdom. (30)
What did Charlemagne do about these erstwhile ‘enemies of the faith’ openly flaunting their power over him?
He warned his bishops and abbots to keep a close eye on the valuables of the Church lest they be purloined by the roving Jewish merchants that he had raised above the law of the land and who had now apparently declared open season on the inhabitants of Charlemagne’s empire.
Evidently Charlemagne didn’t care about what the Jews did to his people as long as he got to murder more unarmed pagan Saxons.
Some Christian fanatic Charlemagne turns out to be in that he conducts systematic mass murder against the pagan Saxons who fought him fair and square, but then allows the explicit enemies of his faith (remember the Gospel of John) to rampage through his dominions abusing his subjects without fear or hindrance, while ignoring the outrage of the very church he allegedly so fervently believed in.
The only question really is how much did the Jews influence Charlemagne’s decisions to conduct mass murder against the pagan Saxons; given that what the Jews would have advised the Emperor, had he asked, is that ‘if someone intends to kill you, get in first and kill him’ (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a) as ‘self-defense’ is not ‘murder’ in Judaism. (31)
In other words the Jews might well have told Charlemagne: Since the Saxon idolaters attacked you after your people cut down Irminsul in 772 AD, they are intending to kill you, so the law of God dictates that you exterminate them before they can kill you.
There is therefore little doubt that Charlemagne wasn’t a defender of the West, but more likely was a servant of the Jews.
(1) Alessandro Barbero, Allan Cameron (Trans.), 2004, ‘Charlemagne: Father of a Continent’, 1st Edition, University of California Press: Berkeley, p. 69
(2) Matthias Becher, 2003, ‘Charlemagne’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, p. 68; Christopher Dyer, 2002, ‘Making A Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, p. 53
(3) Derek Wilson, 2005, ‘Charlemagne: The Great Adventure’, 1st Edition, Hutchinson: London, pp. 45-47
(4) Barbero, Op. Cit., p. 46
(5) Ibid, p. 47
(6) Russell Chamberlain, 2004, , ‘The Emperor Charlemagne’, 1st Edition, Sutton: Stroud, p. 135
(7) Ibid, p. 136
(8) Ibid; Barbero, Op. Cit., p. 46; Becher, Op. Cit., p. 67
(9) Wilson, Op. Cit., p. 47
(10) Barbero, Op. Cit., p. 46
(11) Becher, Op. Cit., p. 67
(12) Chamberlain, Op. Cit., p. 37
(13) Wilson, Op. Cit., p. 47
(14) Chamberlain, Op. Cit., p. 137
(15) Becher, Op.Cit., p. 61
(16) Barbero, Op. Cit., p. 290
(18) For example see the following discussion: http://www.semiticcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/critical-look-at-jewish-law-legal.html
(19) Cf. Anna Foa, Andrea Grover (Trans.), 2000, ‘The Jews in Europe after the Black Death’, 1st Edition, University of California Press: Berkeley
(20) Cf. Peter Schaefer, 2009, ‘Jesus in the Talmud’, 1st Edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton
(21) Barbero, Op. Cit., p. 291
(22) Jacques le Goff, 1990, ‘Medieval Man’, p. 21 in Jacques le Goff (Ed.), 1997, , ‘The Medieval World’, 1st Edition, Parkgate: London
(23) Ian Wood, 1994, ‘The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751’, 1st Edition, Longman: New York, p. 73
(24) Ibid, pp. 81-83
(25) Barbero, Op. Cit., p. 216
(26) Ibid, p. 247
(27) See http://www.semiticcontroversies.blogspot.com/2013/04/an-english-translation-of-agobard-of.html and http://www.semiticcontroversies.blogspot.com/2013/03/an-english-translation-of-agobard-of.html
(28) F. Ganshof, 1971, ‘The Carolingian and the Frankish Monarchy’, 1st Edition, Longman: London, pp. 274-275
(29) Barbero, Op. Cit., p. 290
(31) Louis Jacobs, 1995, ‘The Jewish Religion: A Companion’, 1st Edition, Oxford University Press: New York, p. 583
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Source: Semitic Controversies