Day 759 – Ken here (M)(10-10-2011)
(DEF III, v.5, Ch.49, pp.120-130)(pages read: 2160)
No, this is not Norsemen, raids in longboats day. Gibbon (I snuck a peek into the next 800 pages) never really attempts the history of Scandinavia (admittedly a tangent of a tangent to Roman history, except for Norman Sicily, etc, still…) – which is about what I expected. Who wants to remember that most of your island was overrun by random raiding Danes, and that even the vaunted Norman Invasion was just one last Norwegian Viking venture into your own weak and divided island? – no one, really – at least no one in 18th century England.
Today is a day of Charlemagne, and the “re-founding” of the Roman Empire in the West – ie what eventually became known as the Holy Roman Empire. And, really you have to say, (except for the lands held by Arabs – N.Africa, S.Italy, Spain), Charles the Great, aka Carolus the Frank aka Carolus, DID regain the West in a kind of political union, and initiated a kind of proto-renaissance in the gloaming and penumbra of classical civilization – which just coincidentally happened to be the barest dawning of Pre-Modern-Medieval (I could go on hyphenating for hours) Europe. He did those things. That is indisputable.
The point is, it looked like an empire – to everyone concerned. It just didn’t last. It wasn’t entirely Carol’s fault it started to fall apart as he lay on his deathbed. It wasn’t his fault his sons used their divided inheritance to rapidly destabilize whatever stability Carol had managed to cobble together (on top of a largely Ungrateful and rather Sulky Northern Europe, over 4 decades, through sheer Carolingian willpower alone). It wasn’t Carol’s fault that the last Great Scandinavian Invasions were starting at the end of his reign (the Vikings began their attacks on the fat. prosperous Carolingian ports in the 790’s, and wouldn’t stop entirely for 2 centuries or so).
What is fascinating is the INCREDIBLE POWER that a Northern-European-Centric (read: NON-Mediterranean-centric) empire headed by Charlemagne could harness, IF ONE UNITED the extraordinarily diverse, SEPARATE villages, manors, towns, cities, regions, peoples, etc of N. Europe into ONE unwieldy UNIT. And what is even more fascinating (at least to me), compare this UNIT to the efforts of its competing UNIT in the East, the still-fully-functioning Eastern Romans.
The Eastern Empire managed to make a little revenue and manpower go a long, long way via complicated and firmly entrenched societal values concerning bureaucracy, taxes, law, central administrations, diplomacy, etc. The Northern Europeans could throw hundreds of thousands of men at a problem (like the Franks dismantling the Lombard kingdom) and succeed because while they were enormously disorganized, they were (although they didn’t realize it yet) enormously wealthy now – wealthy in men, will, and resources – their decentralization was one of their strengths – small units reacting flexibly to great dislocations. Charlemagne (and the rest of N. Europe) saw the possibilities of Eastern Roman organization harnessed to N. European decentralized wealth – and realized great things could happen if the two co-habitated. But no one had the knack of decentralized-centralization yet, and so the Carolingian Renaissance faltered, sputtered and ground somewhat to a lurching, on-again, off-again halt.
But… all that is in the future for us – on to – Charlemagne and Rome…
Gibbon mentions briefly the canals that Carolus had built during his brief Renaissance, lamenting (as usual) the money spent on cathedrals and wondering aloud if it might have been more efficiently employed society-wise on internal improvements such as canals (of course, Gibbon was living in the beginning of the brief Renaissance of canal-building, which was to be prematurely cut off by its insidious, unstoppable competitor, the fledgling railroads – so a quick elegant expression of regret vis-a-vis the absence of devotion to canal building would have been leading-edge stuff for the late 1700’s).
But this from Gibbon on Carolingian canals:
After the reduction of Pannonia, the empire of Charlemagne was bounded only by the conflux of the Danube with the Teyss and the Save: the provinces of Istria, Liburnia, and Dalmatia, were an easy, though unprofitable, accession; and it was an effect of his moderation, that he left the maritime cities under the real or nominal sovereignty of the Greeks. But these distant possessions added more to the reputation than to the power of the Latin emperor; nor did he risk any ecclesiastical foundations to reclaim the Barbarians from their vagrant life and idolatrous worship.
Some canals of communication between the rivers, the Saone and the Meuse, the Rhine and the Danube, were faintly attempted. Their execution would have vivified the empire; and more cost and labor were often wasted in the structure of a cathedral.
(DEF III, vol.5, ch.49, p.130)
and this from WIKI on the Fossa Carolina – the (short) (and apparently executed) canal project by Charlemagne connecting two tributaries of the Rhine and of the Danube:
The Fossa Carolina (or Karlsgraben in German) was a navigable channel connecting the Swabian Rezat river to the Altmühl river (the Rhine basin to the Danube basin). It was created during the Middle Ages long before the Ludwig Canal and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. This Channel was the first to link the Rhine basin to the Danube basin.
In 793 Charlemagne gave orders to dig a 3 kilometers long channel from Treuchtlingen to Weißenburg in Bayern. It seems that the goal of this work was to improve the transportation of goods between Rhineland and Bavaria. Another theory (less credible) tells that the main purpose was to bring back Charlemagne’s war vessels from the Danube to the Rhine. According to some contemporary chroniclers, the channel was unfinished due to heavy rains and geological problems. But other sources let think that it was completed and fully operational. This channel worked with several ponds, dikes and dams.
Today only a 500 meters long part of the Channel still exists.
(from Fossa Carolina WIKI)
WOW! 500 meters of a 1300 year old canal still existing! Anyways… I think it’s interesting.
In the midst of all this criticism of Gibbon, in which I freely admit I indulge myself considerably from time to time, often to excess, it’s important (for me) (and for you) to pause and remember WHY Gibbon is IMPORTANT.
Gibbon is one of the first comprehensive historians to try and systematically reference his opinions with footnotes specifically pinpointing the original source from which he draws his broader conclusions. This is important. It wasn’t always like this, in history – and after having read his last chapter (the Great Footnote-Less Chapter 48 – 60 emperors, 600 years, 50 pages) I really, really am grateful to be firmly into chapter 49, where 1/3 to 1/2 the page is often footnotes, and most of his very opinionated historical narrative rests securely on a multitude of ancient and 18th cent histories.
He also is very aware of bias.
Sometimes, not so aware of his own bias, but usually he is unafraid of flouting public opinion and stating an unpopular view of history, realizing the bias of his own times is against him, and he is probably doing himself a disservice. But he goes ahead and does it anyway – and for that we love him.
Charlemagne is a very political topic for historical discussion and here, Gibbon looks at Charlemagne’s coronation. Was it premeditated (Charlemagne says no)? Was it accidental (or a highly political act?) All these considerations were much more dangerous to discuss before in the Europe before 1789 (before the French Revolution) when most of the crowned heads of Europe held their offices directly or indirectly from the Act of Coronation. Gibbon, typically, takes it head-on:
On the festival of Christmas, the last year of the eighth century, Charlemagne appeared in the church of St. Peter; and, to gratify the vanity of Rome, he had exchanged the simple dress of his country for the habit of a patrician. After the celebration of the holy mysteries, Leo suddenly placed a precious crown on his head, and the dome resounded with the acclamations of the people, “Long life and victory to Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God the great and pacific emperor of the Romans!” The head and body of Charlemagne were consecrated by the royal unction: after the example of the Caesars, he was saluted or adored by the pontiff: his coronation oath represents a promise to maintain the faith and privileges of the church; and the first-fruits were paid in his rich offerings to the shrine of his apostle.
In his familiar conversation, the emperor protested the ignorance of the intentions of Leo, which he would have disappointed by his absence on that memorable day. But the preparations of the ceremony must have disclosed the secret; and the journey of Charlemagne reveals his knowledge and expectation: he had acknowledged that the Imperial title was the object of his ambition, and a Roman synod had pronounced, that it was the only adequate reward of his merit and services 
This great event of the translation or restoration of the empire is related and discussed by Natalis Alexander, (secul. ix. dissert. i. p. 390 – 397,) Pagi, (tom. iii. p. 418,) Muratori, (Annali d’Italia, tom. vi. p. 339 – 352,) Sigonius, (de Regno Italiae, l. iv. Opp. tom. ii. p. 247 – 251,) Spanheim, (de ficta Translatione Imperii,) Giannone, (tom. i. p. 395 – 405,) St. Marc, (Abrege Chronologique, tom. i. p. 438 – 450,) Gaillard, (Hist. de Charlemagne, tom. ii. p. 386 – 446.) Almost all these moderns have some religious or national bias.]
I know, I know – a lot of “Last Words” for just a little bit of text “Almost all these moderns have some religious or national bias” – but you don’t know (or maybe you do) how WELCOME and HEARTRENDING it is to read a significant historian, writing a major work, (not to mention after slaving, yourself, in the historical salt mines for years) and come across the tiniest hint of humility and admission of prejudice in historical writing. It brings tears to the eyes.