Contributed by Henri Epstein, M.D.
The boundaries of Gaule were described as being the
Channel on the north, the Atlantic to the west, the Pyrenees
to the south and the Rhine and Alpes to the east. Its three
main divisions were Belgica, Gaule and Lyonaise Gaule. The
latter was also known as Burgundy. The language of Gaule was
conquest of Gaule,
the Gaulois came to accept Roman law.
To secure their borders,
the Roman emperors allowed the
Salique Franks, a
Germanic tribe, to settle within Gaule as Roman allies.
Similar concessions were made to the Visigoths and the
During Rome’s decline,
the Salique Franks displaced the Gallo-Romans, banishing them
to an area south of the Loire River. They also pushed the
Allemans, another Germanic tribe, to the Roman Empire’s
eastern most frontier. By the collapse of the Roman Empire,
the Salique Francs’ eastern border stretched to the Meuse
River and included Belgica.
With the coming of Christianity, and the decline of the
Western Roman Empire, Rome’s military power was supplanted by
that of the Franc kings. The Roman civil administration was
usurped by the Catholic Bishops.
The strongest of the Franc kings was
Clovis I. Backed by the
Church and the Bishops, Clovis expelled the Visigoths and the
Bourgonds from Gaule. Thereupon, he set upon the other Franc
chieftains and eliminated them. He also saved Rome by forcing
the Huns, under Attila, to retreat. With the backing of the
Pope, Clovis was elected king at a General Council gathered at
Orléans. He founded the
Merovingean dynasty and
Paris as his capital.
At his death, his domain was apportioned among his four sons.
Clovis had been a
hands-on ruler. By contrast, later
Merovingean kings seemed to have ruled from afar. They delegated their royal
duties to those, of their attendants, who had held the
previously ceremonious office of Mayor of the Palace. These
kings were consequently referred to as ‘Les rois fainéants’,
the ‘lazy kings’. Ultimately, their attendants became more
powerful than the kings themselves.
One Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel [the grandfather of
Charlemagne], raised an army and fought the invading Arabs
Poitier where he
defeated them. His son, who inherited his position,
Pépin III d’Herital was
also known as Pépin le Bref. Because of his small size, he was
known to the Arabs as ‘Pépin zeib el ard’.
Mostly due to his father’s influence, Pépin was able to obtain
the support of the Pope and the bishops to depose the
Childéric III, thus
becaming the first of the
Carolingian kings. He
built up a strong military machine and enhanced his father’s
alliance with the Catholic church.
The Pope and bishops had been searching for someone to fill
the power vacuum. They wanted someone who would extend
Catholicism into pagan central Europe to counter the
encroachments by the Byzantine Christian emperor from
Constantinople. Consequently, the Church backed the selection
of Pépin’s son,
Charlemagne, as the
Holy Roman Emperor. On Christmas day, in the year 800,
Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leon III. As emperor,
Charlemagne ruled the lands from Brittany to
Paris to Bavaria to
northern Italy from his capital at Aix-la-Chapelle [Aachen].
Charlemagne dealt with
a variety of his neighbors in the expansion of his empire.
His lands ranged from the North Sea, including some English
Islands, to Germany along the Elbe River. They included
Bohemia, along the Ebre river. They also ran west to the
Atlantic and as far south as the Pyrénées.
Click here to view a map of Charlemagne's Empire.
Merovingeans, that preceded
Charlemagne, did not venture into Germania. These were the
lands of the Saxons that were beyond the lower Rhine. It
took Charlemagne 30 years of continuous warfare before
subduing these people and converting them to Christianity.
Although he conquered them, he allowed them to keep their
traditional laws and social hierarchy.
Aquitaine, south of the Loire
River, was considered a world apart by the Franks. They were
suspicious of its inhabitants. The region had long been
dominated by the Goths and, subsequently, by the Arabs.
Furthermore, the inhabitants of the Pyrénées, the
Gascons, were still pagans and had
long resisted the
Charlemagne fought the Avars who, since the
7th century had settled along the Danube and had absorbed
the Huns and the Sythians. From 773 through 774 he fought,
and was victorious, against the Lombards who were menacing
Rome and the Pope. In 801, he attacked the Arabs at
Barcelona to protect the Christians in northern Spain. He
also moved against the Saxons, known as Normanni, that were
of Scandinavian origin.
The Carolingian family retained many of the traditional
pagan Germanic clan characteristics. ‘Friede leibe’, which
can be translated as ‘free love’, was followed. The week
attempts, by the Catholic bishops, to enforce a religious
set of rules governing sexual relations, were resisted. The
people considered intimate relationships, between the sexes,
of little consequence. Therefore, unions of limited duration
were without transfer of tutelage or of dowry. In lieu of
such formalities, men would make a ‘morning gift’, according
to their position and wealth, when a free woman was
involved. And, both free women and slave girls, who lived in
the man’s domain, were courted.
The societal organization of the day was paternalistic, with
the woman being considered to be of very little value. If a
man should steal away a female slave he would be condemned
to pay thirty solidi. Should he steal away a free woman, who
was engaged to be married to another free man, he would be
fined 63 solidi. However, if she were consenting, then the
fine would only amount to 35 solidi. Should a free man have
a sexual relationship with a female slave, belonging to
another free man, he would have to pay him 15 solidi. Should
the free man enter into a permanent relationship with a
female slave, his status would change to that of a slave.
Should a free woman willingly go off with a slave, she would
herself become a slave.
Prostitutes maintained houses near both pilgrimage villages
and the royal palaces. The story is told that, when
Louis the Pious became emperor,
and settled at Aix-la-Chapelle, he had to chase away the
‘evil men and women who were living together’. Such couples
outnumbered the ‘legitimate’ couples belonging to his court.
The principle of primo genesis became well settled, in Salic
law [la loi salique], over a period of four centuries. Upon
the death of the head of the family [or the clan], the first
born male son would inherit the father’s position and
properties. This not-with-standing,
Charlemagne ignored this law of
inheritance and divided his empire between the three sons of
his first marriage.
During Charlemagne’s time, as it is today, birth control was
forbidden by the Catholic church. There was a prohibition
against both coitus interraptus and abortive portions. The
punishment, specified by Cannon law, was to fast for a year
if the abortion took place within 40 days of conception, and
for 3 years if the abortion took place subsequently.
However, Carolingian society accepted the German traditions
that basically conferred unfettered sexual license
Both the nobility and
the layman engaged in ‘free love’. Both sought ways of
avoiding pregnancies. Their methods included the use of
herbs, potions and ointments that were written about by the
Romans and Byzantines. These included fern roots, willow
leaves, rue and a mixture of Aloes, Gillyflower seeds,
ginger, pepper and saffron.
The Alamnni laws were known for their mildness: A man was
fined four sous for pulling off a girl’s head dress, six
sous should he pull her dress above the knees and twelve
sous should he disrobe her. The fine was doubled when the
woman was married.
The Lombard law was somewhat harsher. The penalty was death
for denuding a woman.
The penitential list,
from the Cannon law, for illicit sexual activity dealt with
intimate relations between brother and sister, mothers and
sons, woman and woman, laymen and nuns, monks and laywomen,
monks and nuns and adultery among married couples. These
penalties, although mild, were to be assessed according to
the seriousness of the offence. As an illustration, should a
prostitute be found in a man’s home, he should be made to
carry her, on his shoulders, to the market place where she
would be whipped. Should he refuse to carry her, then he was
to be whipped with her.
In general, the Church considered sexual relations to be
impure. It went so far as to ban sexual relations among
spouses during periods surrounding important feast days.
Relations were prohibited for the forty days preceding
Christmas and Easter, for the eight days after Pentecost and
on the eve of other feast days.
During the Middle Ages, the mortality rate was exceedingly
high among the newborn and infants. Rachilda, the wife of
Charles the Bold [a son of
Charlemagne], had a stillborn child one year and the next
year a child she delivered lived only six months. Although
Charlemagne lived to be 72 years old, Charles the Bold only
lived to be 54. All of Charlemagne’s sons died before him.
In general, most people died in their late twenties and
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