If we survey the map of the Carolingian Europe around AD 800, the evidence of Charles’s magnificence is plain to see. The Empire of the Franks extends from the Spanish Mark, north of the Ebro River, to the Channel at Calais, although the Bretagne could never be truly claimed; from the Gascogne and Aquitaine at the Atlantic Ocean eastward to the lands of the Saxons and the Bavarians and even to Pannonia, the plains of today’s Hungary; and from the Frisian Islands in the North Sea south through Thuringia, Alemannia and today’s Austria, the Alps up to Lower Italy. But, behold, from Ferrara in the delta of the PoRiver to Ancona on the western piedmont of the Apennines, and on the eastern side of the mountains, between the Duchies of Tuscia in the north and Spoleto and Beneventum in the south, embracing Rome, a new entity presents itself, the result of Charles’s pious donation: the Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, by which the bishop of Rome became a prince in his own profane right.
The “Donation of Constantine” which bestowed these lands on the pope, was a forged document, allegedly composed on behalf of Emperor Constantine, awarding Latium in the east and the Emilia in the west, plus neighbouring areas, to the pope as eternal secular possessions. It appeared out of thin air, mysteriously, around AD 750. The problem was to explain why the document had been found only 450 years later. Pope Hadrian I came up with some good excuses, and then petitioned Charlemagne to effect the donation, which the king did. The Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State, existed well into the nineteenth century. [Article in the Britannica] [Latin Text from the Bibliotheca Augustana, Augsburg] The Holy See had thus ample reason for gratefulness to the King of the Franks – in this context one may also consider how much of a role such thankfulness played in Pope Leo III proclaiming Charlemagne Emperor, as a counterbalance to the reign of the self-appointed Irene of Athens at Constantinople.
Yet some designs do not survive the architect for long, and such was the case with Charlemagne’s pride: on June 25, AD 841, twenty-seven years after the emperor’s death, his three grandsons and their respective armies met at a battlefield near Fontenoy, one hundred fifty miles south-east of Paris. One may argue, with caution, that the day of this battle may serve as the beginning of a history of the future “Germans”, although neither the name nor the country were to appear for centuries to come.
The day of Fontenoy saw Emperor Lothar, the eldest of the siblings, fight his brothers Ludwig, King of Bavaria, and Karl, King of what used to be called Neustria, western Franconia. Myth has it that 100,000 men perished on the field, although a figure of some 20,000 to 30,000 appears more realistic. The outcome of the melee was a strategic stalemate; no clear winner could be established.
Yet its consequences were enormous, a few years down the line : Charles’s empire broke apart, irreparably, the grandsons proceeding to divide the realm among themselves (which was not truly a surprise, for their fathers had done so as well) (Treaty of Verdun, 843, see Map above, Lothar receiving the Kingdom of Italy; Louis the German the Kingdom of Bavaria; and Charles the Bald the Kingdom of Aquitaine).
Ludwig held on the eastern parts of the Franks’ dominions, which soon became known as the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, the precursor of what much later would be called “Germany”. Technically, one might argue that the establishment of the kingdom was the first step in the direction of a “German” state, little though its people were aware of it. In this respect, the German ethnogenesis followed an inverted path. On most occasions, people form communities which slowly widen in scope, from the village of the clan to the town of the tribe to the capital of the nation; from counties to duchies to kingdoms. In the case of “Germany”, however, the political entity, the Kingdom of Eastern Franconia, existed first, while the notion of belonging to it as a fixed body politic evolved much later. Ludwig’s subjects would have been perplexed, or might have strongly objected if one were to call them “Germans”: they thought of themselves as Franks [“Free Men”, ¶], Alemans [“All Men”, ¶], or Bavarians [“Bohemian Men”, ¶].
The word “Deutsch” for “German”, as in “Deutschland”, did only slowly emerge as a linguistic classification, in a process that required centuries. Its root, “theodiscus”, Latinized from the Frankish “theoda”, for “volk”, i.e. “people”, was used to refer to any other language than Latin, the language of the church, the court and of diplomacy. “Theodiscus” was used to denote any vernacular language, Frankish, Thuringian, Bavarian, or even Normannic.
After a few decades of reposing in the bosom of the Eastern Franconian polity, the various tribes began to notice that they had, at least, one thing in common: the royal court, which was initially, as mentioned above, a moving affair. The court not only served as the primary legal institution, creating and employing, in due time, an Imperial, as opposed to Frankish or Saxonian, bureaucracy, it also was the centre of society and the arts; factors in creating the consciousness of belonging to a common culture. The second barrier-permeating institution of medieval life, in particular under Frankish hegemony, was the Catholic Church, which acted beyond the confines of tribal identities.
These first steps into the direction of a tentative communality were humbled, for a long time, by the absence of a common tongue. Many people had to learn a few words of Frankish to get by, which is the reason why we still call a trade language like, for example English in non-Anglophone countries, or Swahili in Eastern Africa, a “lingua franca”. The beginnings of what would one day become the “German” language, and its dialects (Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian), were chaotic. It was only when basic communication was secured that the Germanic people realized that they had some things in common which differentiated them from, say, the Slays in the East or the far more Romanized people of the lands west of the Rhine, and from a common tongue a common cultural identity developed, albeit slowly.
Shortly after the Battle of Fontenoy, in the year AD 850 or so, about 3,5 million souls lived in the assortment of territories which was commonly referred to as the kingdom of Eastern Franconia; between and around the three great German rivers Elbe, Danube, and Father Rhine. Three quarters of the land were still forest or swamp, or swampy forest, and only a single road, a leftover from Roman times, led from the mid-Rhine to northern Germany only to lose itself after a few dozen miles. Life was short and brutish; improved by the civilizing influence of agriculture only in the former Roman areas of Bavaria and Swabia and along the western bank of the Rhine. These were the only places where roads, chapels, shops or schools existed.
King Ludwig found himself the head of a state, but not of a nation; “Germany” did not yet exist. In geographic terms, his realm was an artificial construct without any natural borders, home to a variety of tribes who could not really understand each other’s language. Leftovers of the great battles that had raged between the legions and the natives in the first and second centuries AD, the tribes who had fought Germanicus and emperor Marcus Aurelius, had migrated through the woods and swamps for decades and at length coalesced into new tribal entities: Franks, Frisians, Saxons, Alemans, Hessians, Thuringians, and Bavarians.
It was, without doubt, Ludwig’s greatest achievement that the newborn state, a strange concoction of fiercely independent clans, did not disintegrate at the first opportunity. The lands east respectively west of the Rhine developed differently: in the West, Roman customs and language at length overpowered the Germanic element, while in the East, where Roman leverage had always been moderate, the Germanic element dominated and survived.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)