Tag Archives: France

Europe, Distilled

Sent to me by a friend, we have here 1000 years of European history distilled into roughly 3 minutes. With epic music. It’s rather fun to watch the rise and fall of empires; keep an eye out for the height of the Habsburgs, Napoleon’s marches into Spain and Russian, the frequent butchering of Poland, the multiple conquests of Ireland, and the rise of Prussia.

Good job Harru no’ stæsj?.

(The username has a question mark in it, I’m not puzzled or being sarcastic, just to be clear).

(EDIT, roughly 10min after original posting)

After some brief research, it turns out this isn’t what I thought it was. Still very cool and everything, but it was made with this software, so most of the credit goes to these folks: The Centennia Historical Atlas. Credit where credit is due.

(EDIT, 27 May 2012)

It seems that the makers of the historical atlas have had the video pulled from YouTube. Pity, but it is their property. This one is not as good (apologies to the creator), it begins too late for my taste, but hey, what can you do?

A Very Merovingian Muddle.

Popular Nonsense.

A brief search of the word ‘Merovingian’ on the Internet will provide one with an amusing array of farcical nonsense, largely inspired by ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or ‘The Matrix’. Conspiracy theorists and neo-mystical spiritualists seem to love the Merovingians almost as much as the Celts. These kings of the Franks have suddenly become the descendants of the House of David, the lost bloodline of Christ, benefactors of the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Knights Templar, born of Atlantis, enemies of the papacy, and defenders of the common man. A truly astonishing feat. It’s almost unbelievable. Actually, no, it’s completely unbelievable.

Just the Facts.

The Merovingians are, more than likely, not the descendants of Christ, or any member of his family, friends, anyone who ever knew him personally, any of their friends, or probably anyone who was ever born in Israel. And by the phrase ‘more than likely’ I mean ‘almost incontrovertibly accepted by every serious scholar in the field, unless some new and previously unheard of fact comes to light (which, in fairness, could happen, however unlikely it may seem), and if anyone ever tells you otherwise, walk away slowly’.

Firstly, Atlantis? Really? Aren’t we over that? Wasn’t there a memo? If Bob Ballard hasn’t found it, no one will.

The majority of the fantasy circulating about the Merovingians appears to be due to their name. This great dynasty of the Franks was legendarily founded by a man named Merovech, hence Merovingian.  It has been proposed that the derivation of the name Merovech, or Merovius in Latin, means something like ‘from the sea’, which is clearly an invitation to suggest Atlantean origins. A more elaborate interpretation suggests it means ‘descended of the fish’, the fish being a symbol associated with Jesus. Very inventive. But that is all it is, invention. Since he would have been a Frank, his name would have been probably Frankish, not Latin, so the ‘mer-‘ part of his name may not mean ‘sea’ but ‘renown’ or ‘fame’. Some writers popularise the ‘sea’ aspect of the name to lend credence to their theories, but if they took a moment to check their sources they’d find evidence to the contrary. One of the earliest historians of the Merovingians, Gregory of Tours, writing in the 6th century, makes no mention of the fantastical origins of Merovech, beastly or messianic, which one would think would be something worthy of note. This little fabrication did not appear until much later in the 7th century, when the Merovingians were inventing a history to suit their political designs; it was to their benefit to be associated with the divine, it granted an other-worldly authority to their declining power. The earliest genealogies of the Merovingians include no gods, or their sons. The association with a pagan divinity appeared over two centuries after the death of Merovech, but we have to wait for over a millennium before the claim of Christ’s bloodline appears.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Wholly Crap.

The connection of the Merovingians to Christ appeared for the first time in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982, and gained popularity in 2003  (guess why), and is based on nothing other than the hypothesis of the authors that Merovech has some connection to ‘fish’, and the fish was an early symbol of Christ. Really. They just made it up. There is no reference in the annals of the Franks, the histories of the Franks, in the letters, documents, charters, or decrees of the Franks that their ruling dynasty was of the bloodline of the Messiah. Which you’d think would be something they’d trumpet from the rooftop of every palace and church, so they could install themselves as theocratic rulers of Christendom. Which they didn’t. Not one of them, for hundreds of years. So that theory sounds a bit fishy (see what I did there?). They also claim that the Merovingians were the enemies of the papacy, which is the villain of their tale, because the pope deposed them. Well, he didn’t. A man named Pippin, or Pepin, did. And he basically blackmailed the pope into agreeing with him.

The Merovingian Empire, and the dynasty that ruled it, was founded by a man, who was just a man. But not just any man, a man who was quite good at killing other men,Clovis and conquering places, a trait which many of his descendents inherited. This man was Clovis, since there is little evidence that Merovech existed. There is nothing mystical, magical, or messianic about the Merovingians. So if you ever meet anyone who says otherwise, just say “no, that is historical equivalent of a monkey flinging poo at you and pretending that it’s a sign of affection”.

On the Virtues of Beards.

Villainy or Liberty?

Today a bearded man is often the villain, a malevolent force in a Disney movie, a Machiavellian character in a TV show, the man quietly asked to step aside for a detailed search in an airport. Facial hair has become a relative oddity in most professions outside of education, and has almost become synonymous with a hedonistic student life, extreme religious ideologies, or fringe cultures in society. Yet this was not always the way…

The Mark of a Man.

The Ancient Egyptian elite wove gold into their beards, the Mesopotamians and Persians admired well-groomed facial hair, for the Indians it was a sign of wisdom, and for the Greeks it was a sign of virility and was almost sacrosanct. Alexander the Great demanded that his soldiers cut their facial hair as their opponents frequently seized it to better kill them. And even though Aristotle adopted this new fashion, a bearded man was generally accepted as being a philosopher. The Romans really enjoyed shaving, having little or no hair on their body, except for a neat haircut. For them beards became either a symbol of achieving manhood, mourning, or squalor. The Romans may have seen the beard as barbaric, since they were the rulers of the ‘civilised’ world, and many of their enemies wore beards, and grew their hair long.

The Long-haired Kings.

The so-called ‘Barbarian’ kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire were often ruled by dynasties which embrace facial hair. The Ostrogoths and Visigoths, which dominated Italy and Spain respectively, enjoyed long hair and moustaches. The Frankish royal family, the Merovingians, were commonly refered to as ‘the long-haired kings’. They even had strict rules about how long a man could wear his hair and beard depending on his social status. Indeed if a rebellious lord was captured, he was not killed, but made to shave his face and scalp, and cast into a monastery. Often such rebels would reappear several years later at the head of a new army, but only once their hair had grown back. The Carolingians maintained this hairy fashion, but their successors, the Capetians, had abandoned facial hair by the 12th century, and, with only a few exceptions, beards and moustaches were no longer grown by the monarchs of France. The Holy Roman Emperors also abandoned beards in the 12th century, by they were revived briefly in the 16th, but again went out of fashion. The rulers of the various Spanish kingdoms often wore beards, almost as often as they didn’t. In England, the Anglo-Saxons had a proud tradition of hairiness, which became a symbol of defiance when the short-haired Normans conquered the country, as it did in Scotland and Ireland. Even during the English Civil War, the shaven were godly puritan Parliamentarians, know as the Roundheads for their short hair, though they soon began to grow their hair long in defiance of the rulings of the Church of England. Peter the Great of Russia even tried to force the men of his empire, who have had an ancient and flamboyant love affair with facial hair, to become clean-shaven as a mark of civilisation, though many maintained a beard or moustache in defiance.

Catholicism and the Beard.

Why, you might wonder, was there a hiatus of facial hair between the 12th and 16th centuries, possibly the most religious period of European history? It may have been due to the fact that the Church began to threaten their wearers of beards with excommunication. Anselm of Canterbury encouraged the preaching of clean-shaveness and short hair throughout England, even though the king was fond of long curly hair, and punished Canterbury after the death of Anselm by allowing the see to remain vacant for several years. When the bearded Richard the Lionheart returned from the Crusades, he found his kingdom clean-shaven due to the influence of the clergy, which had filled the void of authority due to his absence. This clerical disgust of the beard is made deeply ironic by the fact that Jesus and his apostles are more often than not portrayed as being long of hair and beard, and that many popes followed this tradition.

The Modern Beard.

The beard appears to be fashionable, but not in fashion, in this era. The Presidents of the USA often wore beards, though none have done so since 1913. The beard vanished after 1914 due to the popularity of the clean-cut military look, a style which dominated the media of the English-speaking world until the 1960’s and the rise of counter-culture. This disdain for militarism brought on by the Vietnam War encouraged rebellion and civil disobedience, one aspect of which was a revival of long hair and beards. This trend has been maintained by students, musician, actors, and such, but the beard has yet to make a popular return to the Western world, probably due to its association with explosive anti-Western extremism.

The wearing of facial hair has become correspondent to immorality, and the clean-shaven has become the paradigm of virtue. In the past, facial hair has been a symbol of impiety, wisdom, defiance, and liberty, and as such it is to be embraced.

One cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion – G.K. Chesterton.

Issues of Investment

Who’s the Boss?

The Investiture Controversy, which had its roots in the 8th century and was unresolved until the 12th, was basically a fight between the Pope and various kings and emperors over who was more important. The Catholic Church reckoned, since the Pope was God’s representative on Earth, and they held the keys to salvation, that they were clearly more important than all the kings in the world put together. The kings, however, disagreed, as they had all the money, the power, and the women.

Who’s the vassal now?

The king of the Franks was king in name only; the kingdom was ruled by a man called Pippin, whose father had ruled the kingdom before him, but was also not a king. Pippin didn’t like having the responsibilities of a king without all the cool stuff that went with it, the robes, the crown, the authority to kill anyone, and so he asked the Pope if he could be king. The papacy feared the growing power of the Lombards in Italy, and the possibility that annihilation might be on the cards, so basically Pope Zachary switched teams. Previously, Rome had been a subject of the Byzantine Empire, but they weren’t doing a very good job of protecting the Eternal City from rampaging barbarians, so Pope Zack reckoned he owed no loyalty to Constantinople. The emerging power that was the united Frankish kingdom of Pippin-not-yet-a-king seemed like a better bet. Zack agreed that Pippin could be king if he came and beat the crap out of the Lombards. Zack died in 752, but the papacy was saved by the bell two years later, as Pippin, once he was anointed king, gave the Lombards a good thumping, and granted the papacy authority of a swathe of land from Ravenna to Rome. Pippin’s son, Charlemagne, confirmed the donation of land to the papacy, and the Pope made him an emperor to rival the one that sat in Constantinople. Here we find the cause of the controversy; had the Carolingians given the land to the papacy in trade to gain legitimacy, making the Pope and independent and sovereign ruler? Or had they seen it as investing a vassal with property, like they had done, and would continue to do, with the rulers of Brittany, Aquitaine, or, to a certain degree, Croatia? Or had the Pope appointed the Carolingians as his protector, an employee of his state, a bodyguard, without relinquishing his own authority? Who was in charge of whom?

King’s pawn to bishop…

The other part of the problem was the issue of the appointment of bishops. The new ‘barbarian’ kings of Europe frequently granted bishoprics and other important ecclesiastical lands and titles to members of their family, or loyal entourage, allowing them access to the vast wealth and manpower at the command of their local churches. The papacy wanted to maintain that power as its own, and assure its freedom to appoint whatever bishops it chose. The papacy could not advance too much in the pursuit of this cause as could not risk annoying the Holy Roman Emperor too much, since his army was much bigger than the Pope’s. Luckily for the papacy, the Emperor died, and a new one took his place, but being only six years old, the new Emperor Henry had very little authority. The papacy launched its programme of reform, appointing bishops as it thought it should. When the young Emperor Henry grew up, he also appointed his own bishops, as did the king of England, another king that the Pope thought of as a vassal. The Emperor renounced his support of the Pope, and the Pope excommunicated him. What followed was essentially a civil war; many of the lords and bishops of the Holy Roman Empire picked a side, and fought intermittently for 50 years. The rebel lords appointed their own king, and the Emperor created an Anti-pope in the first recorded particle accelerator. The Emperor lost the war in the end, as his son chose to rebel against him and support the papacy.

The road to secularism.

After fifty years of war over who had the right to invest whom, the kings of Europe were less keen on employing religious folk as ministers, attendants, legates, and courtiers, as they had done in the past. They turned instead to men educated outside the clerical system, a process which led eventually to the secular bureaucratic system which we have now. In the short-term it looked as if the papacy had won, but men seeking advancement realised that they could find employment without giving up sex, drugs, and troubadours, turned away from the priestly orders and made themselves servants of the state, not the Church. Ultimately this bit the papacy in the arse when in 1870 an Italian nationalist army succeeded in seizing what remained of the Papal States, and integrating them into the recently united state Italy.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam.

Beware Christians Bearing Arms.

Who Started What?

One of the interesting features about the Crusades was that they weren’t organised very well in some respects. Some of them weren’t really organised at all, they just kind of happened. There were plans and schemes and such but they were not orchestrated by one single authority. All that bound them together was Jerusalem, or the idea of Jerusalem as most of the participants had never before left their own villages let alone their own kingdoms. Who came up with the idea of ‘Crusade’? Well, in reality that notion did not appear until much later, almost 200 years after they had begun. The first crusaders referred to themselves as armed pilgrims, which doesn’t really sound much less intimidating. They were going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as people had been doing for centuries, they just took swords, shields, spears, bows, arrows, plate-mail, chain-mail, war-horses, catapults and siege towers instead of the usual nothing-but-food-and-water ethos that other pilgrims adhered to. And also, unlike normal pilgrims who ran away when faced with unhappy foreigners, these new-age pilgrims met them with a considerable amount of aggression. This notion of armed pilgrimage came about before Pope Urban II,Pope Urban II but he was the one who got it going. Important people had been thinking that the Holy Land should be freed from Islam for quite some time. Urban, and several of his successors, reckoned the Muslims didn’t really need it (or Spain, or Sicily), and besides, the long walk would do the pilgrims a world of good and then they could get their sins remitted and go to heaven. That was actually one of the reasons for crusading, overwhelming guilt. Everyone in Western Europe lived under the burden of crushing, heart-attack inducing, oppressive guilt, especially knights and the like whose job it was to kill, and endemic warfare, mostly due to the massive amount of killings perpetrated by those same knights. The popes came up with a great solution, export the problem somewhere else and let someone else deal with these armour-clad sociopaths. And wouldn’t it be handy if they did something useful, like, I dunno, conquer a holy city or something…?


The Seljuk Turks had recently seized Anatolia, modern Turkey, from the Byzantine Empire, the greatest empire in the West at that time, which really wasn’t saying much. There were some other places that were far more enlightened, like Muslim Spain, but Byzantium was the richest. The emperor’s robes dripped with precious stones and gold and weighed more than he did. The Byzantine army however wasn’t really up to the same level. The Emperor relied on foreign mercenaries to defend his walls, including men from all over Western Europe. When the Seljuks invaded Anatolia the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes led an army out to fight them. The two forces met near the town of Manzikert. The army of the empire was defeated, thrown into confusion, chased from the field of battle, and the emperor was captured and blinded. You could imagine that the Seljuks were pretty happy with themselves having won new lands for themselves and thought themselves pretty safe now that they had beat the socks off the Byzantines. Safe and secure with loads of land to graze their horses on, practice their archery skills, play in the meadows, smoke pipes and figure out what to do next. Maybe raise a family, buy a dog, get some rugs of the Persians next door… And then all of a sudden thirty thousand Europeans appear and start barging their way through your land. Dirty, smelly, unruly, armour-clad men wandering around Seljuk land like a drunk looking for chips. They smashed their way through Anatolia, gained an amazing victory at Antioch by defeating a much larger army, and then seized Jerusalem. In the space of roughly two years these so-called pilgrims had clobbered their way through the lands the Seljuks had only themselves recently conquered. This army came from out of nowhere and brought two hundred years of war with them. Why? Because, in part, of Manzikert. The leaders of the West were very suddenly made to realise that those Seljuks meant business and Byzantium wasn’t up to the task anymore. Alexios I Komnenos, Emperor of what was left of Rome, had asked for help from Christian kings and the Pope for any troops they could spare as he and his predecessors had done many times before. Knights from every kingdom had fought under his banner. Something was different this time though. This time the Pope had notions of his own and the knights of Europe were hungry for land. This time Alexios didn’t get the usual handful of knights, this time he got a Crusade.

Don’t Trust Hermits Called Peter

Before the French went looking for a fight the Germans, not to be out-done, decided to have a go at it first.Peter the Hermit Preaching First CrusadeLed by Peter the Hermit, a man who had whipped the German peasantry and lower nobility into a religious frenzy, this first of the First Crusades was undisciplined and very un-German as armies go. Most of the army was illiterate and probably had no idea where Jerusalem was, let alone how far away it was. They started fighting and plundering before they had even left their own lands, attacking the Jews of Germany. They fought with the Christian Hungarians for food on the way to Constantinople and then fought with the Byzantine army which was commanded by the man who was essentially their employer. This would be like getting up for work, beating up a housemate for cereal, starting a fight with someone on the street for a Twix, and then once you get to work attacking other members of staff for muffins. Alexios managed to get his unruly employees across the Bosporus and pointed them in the direction of the enemy, like a drunken guided missile. This did not go very well. The ‘army’, such as it was, broke up and started to pillage and plunder, ignoring the fact that they were in the lands of people who really did not want them there. Sure the Hungarians and Byzantines didn’t want them either, but at least they were somewhat friendly. The army of the hermit was like that annoying family member you tolerate even though they drink all your wine and eat all your food and entrench themselves in front of your tv because you know they have to go home sometime and they are family after all. What if that relative went into a complete stranger’s house, what would happen then? They probably would not be forced to drink their own urine or the blood of animals when cut off from water and later to be absolutely annihilated by the Turks. Which is what happened to Peter’s army. Of the 40,000 who left Germany only a few thousand survived, saved by the Byzantines. Including Peter. Lucky him.

Once More, With Feeling…

The second First Crusade was organised by men of war, not a man who lived in a cave, and as such was substantially better organised. It was led by men like Stephen Count of Blois, Godfrey of Boullion, and Raymond Count of Toulouse. These were seriously powerful men who ruled vast swathes of France and Germany. These were men of faith and courage who commanded lords and knights, not a peasant rabble. They marched their massive armies across Europe to Byzantium where the met the Emperor Alexios. They were joined there by a Norman army led by Bohemund. This was probably the most professional of the crusading armies, battle-hardened from Sicilian campaigns against the Moors, and its leader was seeking to carve out a kingdom for himself. Many of the leaders swore an oath of fealty to Alexios and promised that everything they fought for would be his, except for Raymond of Toulouse, who dared to negotiate with the Emperor on equal terms. You have to remember, Constantinople was the most important city in the Western World at the time, and Byzantium the greatest empire. It was Rome, or rather all that was left of Rome, and that gave it a certain air of awesome. That and the fact that it was one of the richest cities in the world. In any event, the Crusaders left Constantinople full of hope and courage. They too marched into Anatolia and were harried and harassed by Turkish armies and eventually found their way to Jerusalem after an amazing victory at Antioch which had confirmed in their minds that God was on their side.

Man on Fire

While at Antioch a certain monk called Peter found the Holy Lance which had pierced Christ at the Crucifixion. Except that while at Constantinople the crusaders had all gone on tours of the holy shrines and seen something very similar… How very odd it must have been to find another exact same unique relic. They hadn’t learned the lesson of hermits called Peter. Maybe the fact that he was a monk confused them. To prove his piety and honesty he decided to undergo trial by fire. A long narrow corridor of wood, as wide and tall as a man, was constructed and set alight. Peter then walked down the corridor of flame. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. At the end of it he was met by his adoring fans who nearly trampled him to death. Imagine that, surviving a slice of hell only to be congratulated to near-death. As he survived some people said that he was protected by God and had spoken the truth. Others said that he had been burned and trampled and died a few days later so how could you argue that God really liked this guy? Ah but he was kept alive for a short time, maybe God did protect him but then punished Peter for making him save him. One of the leaders of the Crusade took the Lance, rode out with the whole army and beat the Seljuk army and the Lance and poor Peter were largely forgotten to history. And conspiracy novels. So, don’t trust religious Peters and keep them away from naked flames, they may be flammable…

The Mislaid Crusade

The Fourth Crusade was announced not long after the Third, which had ended in a tie and Jerusalem in Muslim hands. The Pope, Innocent III, wanted Jerusalem back in Christian hands. An army was called to meet a Venice. For a change the Crusade would not go overland, through Byzantium and then through Anatolia; it had taken them a while to notice that plan usually ended in armies being torn apart before getting to their destination. This time they would take the direct route. So the armies would arrive at Venice, hop on some ships that were being built there in advance and then sail to the Holy Land in style. On getting to Venice, the Venetians asked the crusaders to pay for all the new fancy ships, but the crusaders didn’t have enough money. So the Venetians said ‘If you help us capture Zara we can split the spoils and then we’ll see about the payment.’ The crusaders said ‘fair enough’ and off they went and captured the city. The city wasn’t as rich as it was supposed to be, so they were hungry, in debt, and were excommunicated by the Pope for attacking Christians, which really wasn’t what crusading was supposed to be about. The leaders of the crusade didn’t stop there. It appears that they lied to the troops, told them that they were un-ex-communicated, and now the Emperor of Byzantium would help them. But first they would have to make him emperor. The wrong Alexios was in power. Alexios III had deposed Issac whose son, Alexios IV, was now with the crusaders and looking to get back in power. The crusaders went and captured Constantinople, a Christian city, installed Alexios IV as emperor. Alexios IV was deposed and killed a few months later by Alexios V. When the crusaders went looking to get paid Alexios V told them he wouldn’t pay because he wasn’t the one who made the deal, but they didn’t care, one Alexios was as good as another. Again they attacked the city, appointed one of their own as Emperor and sacked the city for three days, promptly forgetting about the crusade. This new Latin Empire of Constantinople lasted 60 years. If you lived as long as the Latin Empire you wouldn’t see retirement, so it wasn’t terribly successful as empires go, just as the Fourth Crusade wasn’t the most successful of crusades…