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Gaule from Caesar to Charlemagne

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 Celtic.

Following Rome’s 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 Bourgondes.

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 chose 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 near
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 Merovingean king
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 Carolingian armies.

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 early thirties.

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