HIST 210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
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The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
HIST 210 - Lecture 19 - Charlemagne
Chapter 1: Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor Paul Freedman: Today, ladies and gentlemen, we move back to Northern Europe to the northern part of the former Roman Empire. And since you’ve done the reading, I won’t be giving anything away by saying that the culmination of what we’re talking about is Charlemagne and Charlemagne’s coronation in Rome at the hands of the Pope in the year 800 as emperor.
We’ll talk about what that title means, a title that had not been seen in 325 years in the West, at least not agreed upon by everyone in Western Europe.
Charlemagne, at this time, didn’t control quite everything in Western Europe. You have a map in the Wickham book of his empire, bequeathed to his successors in the year 843, the year that it is partitioned. This does not include the British Isles. It does not include most of Spain, which was in Islamic hands. But it is a pretty convincing effort at the restoration of the Roman Empire, even though its base– in other words, where Charlemagne and his ancestors’ lands were, where their wealth came from, where they lived, where their followers came from– was at what had been the borders of the Roman Empire, what’s now northeastern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, west northwestern Germany– a territory known at this time as Austrasia.
Charlemagne’s ancestors were great men, major nobles of the region of Austrasia– again, eastern France, western Germany, the Low Countries. They were nominal servants of the Merovingian rulers and rose to prominence with a title of maior. And Wickham preserves just the Latin, maior– major, larger, great man. The maior of the palace– “the mayor of the palace” is how this is usually translated. And of course, our word mayor applies to a municipal official. So mayor of the palace is a rather funny title. But it’s really a kind of prime minister or leader of the soldiers– prime minister and defense secretary or minister.
And this title tended to be hereditary. One of the problems of rulers in Merovingian world, in the Lombard world, in all of Western Europe, is controlling their mighty servants. Because these people were not just easy to fire, you couldn’t just cut their salaries or stop their paycheck, because they’re not getting a paycheck. They are the leaders of soldiers. They own castles, fortifications. But most of all, they own land. And as landowners and as established powers within the society, their power rivals– and in the case of Charlemagne’s ancestors– would exceed the power of the king. So these are not people who are easy to dislodge. And they are people who tend to want their power to be not appointive but hereditary– in other words, to bequeath titles like mayor of the palace to their sons.
I mention this now because next week we’ll see this is a problem that Charlemagne’s descendants would have. They would have the same problem. How do you make your officials that you’ve appointed listen to you, obey your orders, if you don’t have sufficient coercive power to remove them? And the reason you don’t have sufficient coercive power to remove them, again, is because they are military officials, they have their own followers, they are well-established in various territories, and so they’re hard to tame. They are becoming little kings themselves. And a key aspect of the ability to become a local ruler, even though officially you’re subject to the real king of a large realm, is because it’s become hereditary. It’s become a family property.
This tendency to decentralization, inheritance, and weakened royal power is often called “feudalism,” a word that you may as well write down– you’ve heard of it– but which we’re not going to use. And we’re not going to use it for a couple of reasons, one of which is nobody uses the term at the time. It carries a lot of other overtones that are not relevant to us, and really insofar as it has use, it describes a later period, a History 211 kind of reality, a post-year 1000 reality.
But what is to be recalled is that, once you no longer have an official state apparatus with an administrative structure or bureaucracy like Diocletian, like Constantine, like Justinian, or even like those Byzantine emperors we were talking about, or like the Abbasid Caliphate– all of those are complex structures of state bureaucracies funded by taxation. Here we have something that is not that sort of polity. It is more personal. It is more military. It depends more on plunder, on expansion, on charisma, that is, personal ability to get people to obey you. It has a very rudimentary structure. And the success of a state is judged on the basis of its ability to survive, even if the ruler doesn’t have charisma, even if the ruler’s not all that great. Because people obey the state, they obey its officials, they obey the idea of the state, and not the individual personality.
So we’re going to talk about Charlemagne’s ancestors and how they got into power, how they went from being mighty servants, but servants nonetheless, to kings of France and eventually, in 800, emperors.
Chapter 2: The Last Years of the Merovingians [00:07:41]
What happened to the Merovingians? Last time we checked, the Merovingians were certainly kicking people around Francia, warring with each other, occasionally regretting it and burning the tax rolls, but pretty quickly returning to the old plunder, and killing people, and having fun kind of barbarian economy.
The Merovingian dynasty lasts to the mid-eighth century. But for its last hundred years, roughly 650 to 750, its rulers are ineffective. They have the title “kings.” They have great prestige. But they are weak. A lot of our understanding of their position really is simply a gloss, or an elaboration, of a few lines of Einhard, the biographer of Charlemagne, whom you’ve read.
“The family of the Merovingians,” he says on page 16 of this book, “From which the Franks used to make their kings, is thought to have lasted down to King Childeric whom Pope Stephen ordered deposed. His long hair was shorn, and he was forced into a monastery.” Remember, one of the symbols of Merovingian familial prestige was this long hair. But Carolingians had short hair and wore mustaches. They kind of broke with the Merovingian look. But of course, this is not just a male fashion statement.
“Although it might seem that the Merovingian family ended with him, it had in fact been without any vitality for a long time.” The Merovingians were just given a little shove, because they were already basically finished. “There was nothing of any worth in it, except for the empty name of king. For both the riches and power of the kingdom were in possession of the prefects of the palace,” this is how he’s translating it, “who were called the mayors of the palace, and to them fell the highest command. Nothing was left for the king to do except to sit on his throne with his hair long and his beard uncut, satisfied to hold the name of king only and pretending to rule. Except for the empty name of king and a meager living allowance, which the prefect of the court extended to him, he possessed nothing else of his own but one estate and a very small income.”
Now, so much depends on these words of Einhard, who then goes on to describe them going around in these ceremonial carts, people acclaiming them. But everybody knows that if they want anything done, the person to talk to is the mayor of the palace.
It’s to Einhard’s interest, or at least to the interests of the Carolingians for whom he’s writing, to make it appear as if the Merovingians were already finished. But nevertheless, it’s clear that they were much weaker than the people we’ve been reading about in Gregory of Tours. What happened to them? Well, one possibility that Einhard, in effect, sort of encourages is that something happened to the family. They were weak personalities; maybe they had some hereditary degeneration. Or, they ran out of money. They did not have lands to reward their followers anymore. Remember that in this economy, this is not something in which tax revenues are funding the state. Up to a point they are, because we saw that Fredegund and Childeric had tax revenues– at least, tax records– to burn. But as the inheritance of Rome– Roman administration, Roman literacy, Roman organization– frayed, as that inheritance became further and further degraded, the ability to tax the population– rural, dispersed– dwindled. So it’s not only a question of the administrative decline but of the economic decline, or at least the economic decentralization of the way people lived.
The Merovingians had depended an awful lot on war and on the plunder received from war. You’ll remember that when we were talking about Clotar, the son of Clovis, that his men rebelled when he didn’t want to fight the Saxons. That’s not just because they’re warlike savages, or insofar as they’re warlike savages, they’re also in it for treasure, plunder.
Beowulf is a plunder-driven world. The author of Beowulf is well aware that this is stupid, in a way. Right? The dragon has all this plunder. And what does he do with it? Dragons are not consumers. He lies on beds of gold coins and beautiful armor and all sorts of things that have been seized. He has absolutely no use for all of this stuff. And yet, stealing just a little tiny ring or a little bit of it enrages him. And so he starts his depredations out of anger at that.
The Merovingians, once they stop expanding, don’t have the opportunities to keep their economy going, their source of income going. And in particular, they lose the ability, so it would seem, to reward their followers. Their followers, their knights, to call them that anachronistically, their military entourage does not flourish by being paid because there’s very little in the way of coinage. There is very little in the way of revenues. They benefit from things like land, but as you are running out of plunder and giving away land, then sooner or later you, yourself, the giver of land, will not have any more to give. That’s another hypothesis about Merovingian decline.
In fact, there is an effort by a mayor of the palace of the late seventh century to depose the Merovingian king– a man named Grimoald, who is an ancestor of Charlemagne. But this is unsuccessful. He tries to depose a Merovingian ruler. And even though the Merovingians are weak, their other followers prevent Grimoald from succeeding. And indeed, he’s executed.
The prestige of the Merovingians was such that even if they were not effective, they were still the kings because the blood of Clovis flowed in their veins. And this was symbolized by their familial distinctiveness, which included the long hair, the uncut beard, the traveling around in carts.
This is important because it means that you could not succeed by direct action against the Merovingians, at least not in 661, when Grimoald was killed.
In order to make this happen– in other words, even though he was killed, his successors remained as mayors of the palace. They were tightly enough ensconced or inserted into the structures of power and successful enough as a family that they were able to survive, but as mayors of the palace. Looked at from the long term– that is from the perspective of 751, the year when Pippin declared himself King of the Franks and deposed that last Merovingian ruler– looked at from that perspective, the strategy of the dynasty which we can call Carolingians, even though we’re not yet at Charlemagne, the strategy of the Carolingians was to come up with another rationale for why they should be kings and not the Merovingians, what we can call “legitimacy”.
Chapter 3: Establishing Carolingian Legitimacy [00:16:44]
Legitimacy in politics is the sense that the people who are ruling are ruling for good reason, that their rule is legitimate. This can be on the basis of an election: “I may not like the president, but he was elected in a fair election, therefore I accept the fact that he’s president.” It may be triumph in war: “This emperor came to power, deposed his predecessor, and got the Bulgars off our back, therefore his rule is legitimate.” It may be economic benefit: “This guy has made my life easier economically or I have the feeling that things are going right.” It may be dynasty: “This is the oldest son of the former king.” The British rulers just changed to end discrimination between men and women in the succession. Obviously, Britain has a queen rather than a king and has for the last sixty years, but the favored candidate would be a male child. The circumstances of Elizabeth’s succession don’t need to detain us, but she was not the logical eldest– obviously not the eldest male child.
So there are all sorts of ways of having legitimacy as a ruler. The challenge for the mayors of the palace was to create this legitimacy. And they did it by several different means. It’s not that there’s this project where they set out in year 662 and say, “Within ninety years we’re coming to power, and here’s how we’re going to do it.” It is historians who impose that rational strategy. But nevertheless, it is discernible.
In fact, they are mayors of the palace of several different pieces, because the Merovingian realm was not unified. It was in particular pieces. So these guys are the mayors of the palace of Austrasia. So their opponents include the other kingdoms, particularly Neustria which is more or less the region of Paris, the Seine, the central to northern part of modern France, but further west than Austrasia. So Austrasia is northeast; Neustria is more central and slightly south.
So there are lots of rivals. It’s a very dangerous situation. It’s a very violent world. But this is their plan. A lot of what they, that is the Carolingians, the ancestors of Charlemagne, accomplished was military. This is the bottom line of leadership in the period we’re dealing with. Without military prestige and military success, it’s very hard to craft a polity, let alone hand it down to your descendants.
What is more unusual than military leadership, however, is that the Carolingians allied themselves to the Church. Their legitimacy as rulers would be based very much on an alliance with the Church, and in particular, with the papacy.
The Bishop of Rome is someone whom we haven’t talked about very much. We mentioned Leo I back in the fifth century, who was responsible for negotiating with the Huns in the absence of the emperor and who also upheld doctrinal orthodoxy against Monophysitism. But the pope was not inevitably the sole ruler of the Church in the way he would become in the modern world within the Catholic Church.
The pope was the Bishop of Rome. He was the guardian of some of the chief relics of the Christian world, the relics of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the apostles. He was the inheritor of the aura of the city of Rome, the imperial city. He even had appropriated some titles from the Roman emperors, such as Pontifex Maximus, an old pagan title.
So the pope is the inheritor of a lot of Roman imperial prestige, but he is a beleaguered inheritor of that. In fact, the pope’s life in Rome was dangerous. He was often eclipsed by or threatened by the Lombards. The Lombards, a barbarian tribe who had invaded Italy– we talked about them last time. They invaded in 568. They took most of Italy from Justinian’s heirs. They were Arian for a longer time than other barbarian tribes. And even when they ceased to be Arian, they were eager to seize Rome. They weren’t overwhelmingly eager to seize Rome because they never did it, but they threatened the pope.
During the seventh century, the pope considered himself the ally of the Byzantine Empire. The emperors continued to intervene, to debate various doctrinal things. But as the Lombard threat grew, as the Byzantine emperors were iconoclast, the pope cast around for a new protector, beginning in really the 720s, 730s.
And so the alliance between Carolingians and popes is natural, in the sense that they both want something out of the other. The Carolingians, the mayors of the palace, want legitimacy. They want to be sacred figures within the Christian world, to trump the pre-Christian aura of the Merovingians. And the pope, out of the Carolingians, wants protection from the Lombards and a sense of rule over most of Europe that will favor the Church and allow the Church to advance its work.
The means of cementing this alliance, however, are interestingly enough monks. The people who are the shock troops of the Christianization of Europe, the expansion of Europe, of the Church, and the furtherance of its mission are monks, many of them from Ireland and Britain, who would try to convert the countryside, either those places that were minimally Christian or, beginning in the late seventh and early eighth centuries, extend Christianity to places like Holland or central Germany that were not parts of the Roman Empire and had never been Christian.
So these monastic settlements not only converted the countryside, but they served as foci for economic and social development. There was an alliance between the mayors of the palace and monks such as the English monk, Saint Boniface, Apostle to the Germans. Saint Boniface, in the eighth century, would convert a lot of the Germans in and east of the Rhine. He would receive support from the mayors of the palace of Austrasia, because this is east of where they are, and they’re interested in expanding and settling there. And he received support from the pope who is interested in the conversion of Christians. And so it’s through intermediaries like Saint Boniface and other monks that the countryside gets converted and that the Carolingians and the pope approach each other.
Why monks? Who are these guys? When we looked at the Benedictine world, it seemed as if monks were supposed to be enclosed in their monasteries and not wander around? These are somewhat special monks. These are wandering monks. The Irish tradition was different from the Benedictine tradition and encouraged wandering as a form of penance. If you wanted to do penance or to experience the power of God and randomness in the world, which would you rather do– pray seven times a day in the same place for decades, or just kind of like wander around, try to convert people, and see if you could get martyred?
Certainly, the latter is dangerous. The latter is truly dangerous. But these are very enterprising guys. We just have this idea. Oh yeah, monks pray or they copy manuscripts or they wander around and convert people– all of which are insanely difficult things to do. You really have to admire these guys.
So many of them are from Ireland, or from recently-converted Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon England combines a Benedictine structure with some of this inheritance of Irish wandering.
But it is these monasteries that are founded in the countryside of Germany, of the Netherlands, and the alliances between the mayors of the palace and the papacy that are key in creating the Carolingian dynasty.
Chapter 4: Charles Martel and Pepin the Short [00:27:23]
The mayors of the palace of Austrasia come to preeminence in the Merovingian realms in the early eighth century. One of the key events here is one that we’ve looked at from several sides now and that will be, I hope, familiar to you. And that is the Battle of Poitiers in 733, also known as the Battle of Tours.
This is the battle in which the Arabs were defeated in northern France, and eventually retreated to Spain. 733 marks the high water point of Arab incursions into Europe and is, in a sense, a parallel to 717, the defeat of the Siege of Constantinople.
The victor at Poitiers was the mayor of the palace of Austrasia, a man named Charles Martel, “the Hammer.” He doesn’t have a last name. It’s sort of a [clarification: a sobriquet]– Charles Martel. And he gained tremendous prestige from this. That legitimation that we said comes from military leadership certainly was his. The Merovingian king was nowhere to be seen at that battle. It was led by the mayor of the palace.
Charles’ son, Pepin the Short, started really to put together these aspects of rule. Pepin the Short, 741 to 768. Now there’s something going on here that I don’t have an explanation for. If he really was short– yet we know from digging up his body that Charlemagne was on the order of 6’ 7”. Charlemagne is really tall for pre-modern people. He’s really, really tall. And Einhard describes him as tall. Einhard says his voice was kind of squeaky and high, given just how huge he was. I don’t know how that works. Many of you are more advanced in science and genetics than me. But my pet theory, since Pepin’s body hasn’t been found, is that actually he was really tall too and that he’s called Pepin the Short as a kind of joke; you know like guys nicknamed Tiny are often 350 pounders. I’m just saying.
Pepin the Short is the person who crystallizes this potential alliance among papacy, missionaries, and mayors of the palace. And in doing so, he transforms Europe. He favored the Church. He could mobilize his new power and legitimacy through this alliance with the Church. He encouraged various kinds of monastic reforms urged by Saint Boniface, which meant better discipline over priests, more councils of bishops, the restoration of lands to the Church, and a role for the king as the guardian and protector of the Church.
It may be at Boniface’s instigation that Pepin wrote to the pope, Zacharias at this time, asking, “Is it right for the man who holds the power not to wear the crown, while the person who wears the crown does not hold the power?” He asks this as if it were a hypothetical question. “Oh, you know, we were just discussing this last night and wondered what you think.” But of course, the pope is quite aware of what’s at stake and says it is wrong for the person who holds the power not to hold the crown; whereupon in 751, Pepin had himself elected king of the Franks, deposed and put in a monastery the last Merovingian king, and by his being put in the monastery, he was tonsured, that is to say much of his hair was cut off, desacrilizing him. And unlike Grimoald’s failed coup d’etat, this was totally, peacefully, no problem, greeted by everybody, successful.
In 753, two years later, the new pope, Stephen, made an unprecedented– literally unprecedented– journey across the Alps. No pope had ever been in northern Europe until this year. And he crowned Pepin. He was desperate over the situation with the Lombards. And in return, Pepin led an expedition that, although not the definitive invasion of Italy that Charlemagne would undertake, at least gave the pope some breathing room and defeated the Lombards.
At Pepin’s death in 768, he was succeeded by his son, Charles, and his other son Carloman. Charles– the future Charles the Great, Charlemagne. Carloman died in 771, maybe naturally, maybe not, leaving Charlemagne as the sole ruler. Charlemagne at this point is king of the Franks, inheritor of the title and accomplishments of his father. He was the beneficiary, then, of well over a hundred years of Carolingian ascent. And let’s just review the factors that had aided his predecessors– the weakness of the Merovingians; their position as mayors of the palace; the activity of monks, missionaries to Germany and the eastern part of the Frankish world; Byzantine weakness and the Lombard threat; and, of course, Byzantine flirting with heresies like Iconoclasm.
The result is then a kind of geopolitical shift of the papacy towards the North. Another chapter in that long book of the end of Mediterranean hegemony. Instead of looking to the eastern Mediterranean for protection and for the ruler who was his natural ally, the pope now looks to a northern transalpine ruler.
Chapter 5: Charlemagne [00:34:51]
Charlemagne you’ve read about. And you’ve read Einhard’s biography of him. It is, in some sense, at least a seemingly artless biography. He obviously likes him, admires him, but he describes him as a real person. We learn that he liked baths and roast meat, that he had a high voice, that he loved having his daughters around him but probably kind of mistreated them by not allowing them to marry. And then Einhard is scandalized that since they couldn’t marry, they had all sorts of guys hanging around.
We get a sense of Charlemagne’s personality. Charlemagne is a man very much at home in his time. He is comfortable with being a warrior. He would lead campaigns year after year after year. At the same time, he is a person of learning, or at least a person who believes learning is important. Einhard tells us that he never quite really learned to read and write, that he tried, that he slept with Augustine’s City of God by his side, which is an impressive thing to do as bedtime reading. And we also know that he is pious. His piety does not interfere with his enjoyment of life or with his harsh prosecution of military campaigns. He’s not a sensitive person. He’s not a self-examining kind of character.
But very important is that his notion of leadership combines what might be thought three available forms of legitimacy of this era. One, and the most important, is military prestige and power, war leadership. And he conquered lots of peoples. It was not just a question of war leadership with no results. He had tremendous results.
He conquered the Lombards in Italy in 774. He conquered the Avars in the 790s. So much treasure did he seize from them– remember we saw the Avars as besiegers of Constantinople? By this time, they’re in more-or-less modern Hungary. He seized so much treasure that the entire economy of his empire basically was financed on the basis of this plunder until his death in 814, so for nearly twenty years.
He conquered the Bavarians. He conquered the Saxons in northern, eastern Germany, a very, very difficult series of campaigns from 774 to 806 that involved large numbers of civilian casualties, virtual exterminations of peoples, and forced conversion. It was the first real, sustained campaign of forced conversion to Christianity in European history. Brutal, but successful, opening up really the definition of modern Germany.
Much of what the modern German state is, in its central and eastern parts, in the north, is Saxon. There is a part called Saxony still, a province of the former East Germany. But in fact, a province, or a land as they’re called, of the former West Germany is called, Nieder-Sachsen, Lower-Saxony. So the Saxons are spread throughout northern Germany. And by Charlemagne’s death, Germany or the eastern Frankish realm starts to look like something familiar.
He conquers a bit in Spain against the Muslims. His forces would seize Barcelona in the year 801. But he does not get as far as he had hoped. In particular, he had hoped to take Saragossa. His army was defeated by, actually, Basques. But their defeat leads to the literary triumph known as the Song of Roland, one of the great works of the Middle Ages in which the enemy are Muslims. And the Song of Roland is a great sort of Crusade ideology text which shows, in its own words, that Christians are right, pagans are wrong. Of course, they call the Muslims pagans. They depict them as worshipping Apollo, and Termagent, and other gods. They know that the Muslims are not literally pagans. But it has higher rhetorical value.
Charlemagne is tremendously successful as a war leader then. His second form of power and legitimacy is as a Christian ruler. He is a man with a vision of a Christian polity, of alliance with the Church, and as seeing himself as responsible for the spiritual health of his people. This is important, this latter responsibility, because it has a lot to do with the program of education that we’ll be talking about next week, the intellectual air of his court.
He believes himself, therefore, to be not just somebody who is supposed to convert the Saxons forcibly, but is supposed to educate his population into becoming Christians of a real sort. This also means that he is allied with the pope and believes that the pope is capable of aiding him in more than merely symbolic ways.
The third aspect of power and legitimacy is the legacy of Rome. It is the thing that unifies this entire course. Charlemagne, according to Einhard, went to Rome to rescue the pope yet again, not this time from the Lombards in 800, but from the Roman factions. Pope Leo III was rescued by Charlemagne, put back in Rome. Charlemagne, Einhard tells us, went to Saint Peter’s on Christmas Day to pray. And lo and behold, the pope jumped out from behind a pillar and put the crown on his head and he was acclaimed Roman emperor. And Charlemagne said later, he wouldn’t have gone– even though it was Christmas– he wouldn’t have gone to church at all if he’d known this was going to happen.
We can be cynical about the surprise aspect of this, or about Charlemagne’s uncharacteristic modesty. Nevertheless, we have to think about the implications of the pope crowning the emperor. Constantine wasn’t crowned by a pope. The problem with having someone crown you is that it could be implied that he is the one who bestows the crown and could decide not to crown someone in the future. It looks as if he’s the more powerful one. He’s standing; he’s putting the crown on you; and you’re kneeling.
Indeed, as an evocation of this, almost exactly 1,000 years later in 1804, when Napoleon had himself crowned by the pope, Napoleon seized the crown from the pope’s hands and put in on himself, put it on his own head, in a direct reference to Charlemagne.
So Roman, Christian, and military leadership. Of these, the Roman is the most impressive and the most sort of historically dramatic, but probably the least significant at the time. Charlemagne did not consider his empire to be exactly the same thing as the Roman Empire. He would divide it. The fact that he handed it over to one son is that he only ended up having one surviving son. But he had plans to divide it. It’s not clear if he regarded the imperial title as anything that would really survive. Nevertheless, he was an emperor; and an emperor meaning that he ruled over many peoples. He was more than just the king of the Franks because he now ruled over Barbarians, Avars, Visigoths, Lombards.
He had made a good stab at restoring the Roman Empire in the West. But it’s a different Roman Empire. Its base is not really in Rome nor even in Milan or Ravenna, the late Roman imperial capitals of the fifth century. It is in Aachen, a city in Austrasia where remains of his palace chapel still stand. His lands, influence, cronies, family, political base, economic base, military recruiting base, are all in northern Europe. Charlemagne is, then in some sense, the reviver of the Roman Empire. But he is also the founder of Europe as something not just a geographical expression but a cultural expression.
Whether it is a socio-political expression, time will tell. When the European Union, the Euro, and all these things that are sort of semi-unraveling now were cemented in their current form in the early 1990s, the treaties that established that were deliberately made in the territories that are neither French nor German entirely, but are really part of the old Carolingian patrimony. The treaties in places like Maastricht, the location of Brussels as the capitol of the European Union, all of this is really evocative of the empire of Charlemagne. These are the lands of the Carolingians and this is, in the next thousand years, in certain respects the center of Europe. We’ll talk more about the Carolingians next week.
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