Things That Went Bump in Charlemagne's Night
Things That Went Bump in Charlemagne’s Night
Every age has its bugaboos, and the Carolingian era is no different. But what frightened people in the 8th century weren's monsters from outer space or hard disk crashes or global warming or even tainted catfood. Eighth century fears were more basic. What scared Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 A.D., in Rome) and his people were the products of Mother Nature–natural catastrophes: the Forest; Night; Winter; and Plagues.
The Forest. Ermold the Black, an 8th century chronicler, described the forest as “wooded haunts of savage beasts and swampy wastes.” Forests were dense, deep, dark places of mystery where otherworldly spirits dwelt and getting lost could cost you your life. Oaks, beeches, maples, birches, ash, chestnut etc. formed an impenetrable tree-webbed place full of imagined trolls, forest folk, dragons, enchanted springs, etc. as well as actual savage animals (bears, ferocious wild boar, ravenous wolves). So threatening were hungry wolves in the winter of 813 that Charlemagne dispatched hunters to track down cubs and poison them and hunt their full-grown parents using dogs, traps, and pits.
Winter’s Discontents. Winter’s freezing weather stopped most activities, including military campaigns (except for a few notable instances when soldiers or refugees crossed over a river that was frozen solid. Traveling during winter was rare. Enemies often attacked; the Normans, for instance, attacked Paris during the winter of 861. Floods washed away crops and houses and stone walls.
An unusually cold winter signaled a scanty harvest, and that meant starvation. Famine killed thousands in some years. In Burgundy in 868, not enough men were left in one area to bury the dead. In 874, one-third of the population of Gaul and Germania (roughly the areas of France and Germany) died of hunger. Starving people in Gaul ate earth mixed with flour shaped like loaves of bread; horses; and occasionally each other.
Night. Charlemagne feared little, but darkness terrified the Carolingians, their emperor included. Thieves and bandits roamed at night; malevolent forces were set free; spirits of the dead disturbed the living. Even people who were rich enough to have rushlights to dispel the darkness risked death from accidentally set fires. Night was when terrifying dreams were taken as omens, and witches brewed their magic potions.
Plagues. In the days before antibiotics, before bacteria and germs were “discovered,” when home or folk remedies could be more superstitious misinformation than effective symptom relievers, a plague which settled on an unsuspecting populace was thought of as a scourge of God. Its mysterious source went unidentified; people sickened and died by the thousands and churches filled with the prayerful survivors.
Smallpox, typhoid, cholera, to say nothing of bubonic plague and malaria were not the only killers; a warrior with an infected wound could die of septicemia (blood poisoning) or gangrene or a clumsy un-anaesthetized limb amputation with a crude, unsterilized saw. Infections, even small ones, could be life-threatening despite a “wise woman’s” application of clotted cobwebs or moss or bathing with nettle-leaf infusions or cauterization with a hot iron.
Add to this the natural process of childbirth, which (because of malnutrition, overwork, etc.) often went awry, and home-made birth control methods (banned by the Church) and herbal potions that were often fatal to both mother and fetus and you have a picture of 8th century life: dangerous; scary; unforgiving.
Charlemagne, however, lived a long and happy life with no illness; he died at age 72.
Primary source: Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (U. of Pennsylvania Press)