Christian Europe

You have just finished reviewing four millennia of Western history and a synopses of the three most dominant world religions. If you are still with us, congratulations. Rest assured, it will be worth it. The rest of this story will make a lot more sense.

We are now in Europe in the ninth century, the Middle Ages. The continent, which had been unified by the Romans, has divided into smaller kingdoms. By the end of the next two hundred years, Norway, France, Genoa, Venice, Portugal, Castile, Aragon, and England will become their own identities. By 900 CE, Europeans will send their first fleets into the Atlantic in search of new lands to the west, south, and north. They still called the Atlantic the Ocean Sea or the North Sea. In this article, we will set the stage for the following:

  1. Christian Vikings searching for new lands in North America.
  2. Marco Polo traveling to the Far East, confirming the eastern boundaries of the ecumene, and learning about the Spice Islands, Cipangu [Japan], and Giava [Java] beyond China.
  3. Westerners traveling east in the name of Christianity and for trade.
  4. The Genoese and Portuguese looking for Utopian islands in the Atlantic.
  5. The Portuguese searching for the Christian Kingdom of Prester John.
  6. Westerners searching for a passage under Africa to India.

All these efforts lead to Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, the Corte-Real Brothers, and Fernão Cabral finding mainland west of the Atlantic.


When the Romans overran today’s France, there were three types of people living there. Anthropologists have differentiated them by their languages: the Gauls [descendants of the Celts], the Aquitani, and the Balgae. We have told you about the Gauls, which were by far the largest group.

The Aquitani lived in the southwest corner of the country, which the Romans called Aquitania, and was later called Gascony. [The name Gascony comes from the same root word as Basque, Vasconia, and Wasconia.] Their language was related to that of the Basque people who shared the seacoast on the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains in today’s Spain. Some of the Aquitani absorbed the Latin language and culture, but most, as well as the Basque, kept the early language. Many still speak a form of it today.

The Belgai lived to the north, between the English Channel and the Rhine River, in the area now known as Belgium.

During the occupation by northern people, Francs moved in from Germany, hence the name of the country, France.

From the middle of the fifth century to the middle of the eighth century [nearly 300 years], the Merovingian Dynasty ruled the Francs. They headquartered in Paris. The dynasty was named after the Frank warrior Merovech who had defeated Attila the Hun. However, it was Merovech’s son, Childeric I (c457 - 481 CE), who actually founded the dynasty. Childeric’s son, Clovis I(481 – 511 CE), united the Gauls into one kingdom. He adopted Christianity for the Francs in 496 and annexed Aquitania to the country in 507.

Merovingian rule ended in 751 CE, when a warrior from another Frankish tribe, Pepin the Short [aka Pepin the Younger] dethroned the Merovingian king Childeric III and took his place. Pepin was the son of the warrior Charles Martel we met in the earlier article about the Rise of Islam. Martel had lead an united army of Franks and Gauls to beat away the Muslims when they marched over the Pyrenees from Iberia and tried to take possession of Gaul. The dynasty that descended from Charles Martel is known as the Carolingian Dynasty. [Charles is Carl in French and Karl in German].

You have probably heard of Charles Martel’s grandson who was also named Charles. He is more commonly referred to by the French version of his name, Charlemagne. Charlemagne gets credit for adding northern Italy, Bavaria, some of northwest Spain, and Saxony to the Carolingian Empire [the dark pink areas in the map below].

On December 25, 800 CE, when Charlemagne was between fifty-two and fifty-eight years old – no one knows his real birthday – Pope Leo X crowned him Emperor of Western Rome. The ceremony took place in Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Hence, the day we now celebrate as Christmas was originally a celebration for Charlemagne, not Jesus.

One of Charlemagne’s personal assistants, Einhard, wrote this description of him:

“[Charlemagne] was heavily built, sturdy, and of considerable stature, although not exceptionally so, since his height was seven times the length of his own foot. He had a round head, large and lively eyes, a slightly larger nose than usual, white but still attractive hair, a bright and cheerful expression, a short and fat neck, and he enjoyed good health, except for the fevers that affected him in the last few years of his life. Toward the end, he dragged one leg. Even then, he stubbornly did what he wanted and refused to listen to doctors, indeed he detested them, because they wanted to persuade him to stop eating roast meat, as was his wont, and to be content with boiled meat.(1)

Emperor Charlemagne established his imperial capital in Aachen, which is now part of Germany. [Both the German and French monarchies claim their descent from Charlemagne.] Pope Leo gave him authority over both church and state. Trying to improve his subjects’ piety [respect for Christianity] and morals, Charlemagne used this power to create strict laws and rules, causing many changes and reforms in the Catholic Church. For example, he wanted to help the common man understand the sermons, so he ordered his priests to preach in the local French and German dialects, rather than in Latin.

One of Charlemagne’s most important legacies is that he ordered hundreds of church texts re-written since they were getting old and falling apart. This was still over 600 years before the invention of printing. Scribes [learned men who could read in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin] and copisti [men who copied without understanding what they were writing] copied the texts by hand with quill and ink.

In order to save space and time, and use less parchment, scribes developed a new, smaller style of writing known as Carolingian minuscules [minuscule meant small]. Until that time, the Latin letterforms were all uppercase. Letterforms were known by how tall they were, uncials and demi-uncials. An uncial was a Roman inch. A demi-uncial was half a Roman inch. Carolingian minuscules led to the development of upper- and lowercase letterforms.

Uncials on the left and Carolingian minuscules on the right.

Charlemagne died in 814 CE after a thirteen-year reign. He was between sixty-five and seventy-one years old. His empire lasted only one more generation under his son, Louis the Pious because Vikings from today’s Norway and Denmark raided France.

The chief or principe of the Viking raiders was nick-named Rollo. Rollo is the Latinized version of the Old Norse name Hrólfr, which meant ‘renowned wolf’ and today translates to Rolf. Rollo was born to a noble Viking warrior family somewhere in Scandinavia – either Norway or Denmark - about 846. He will live to be eighty-six years ond in 932.

Rollo had already been busy visiting Scotland, Ireland, England, and Flanders on pirating expeditions. He entered France between 900 and 905 and raided Frank and Gaul towns along the Seine River. Charles the Simple, the Carolingian King of West Francia [a great-great-grandson of Charlemagne], tried to bargain with Rollo. King Charles offered Rollo and his Norsemen [later called Normans,] the valley of the lower Seine and what is now the city of Rouen if they would stop their brigandage [gangs of men ambushing and robbing men in forests and mountains]. Rollo agreed. Hence the early Norman chieftains were called the Counts of Rouen, which literally meant came from Rouen.

Over time, the Norse Vikings converted from Norse paganism to Christianity and married Christian women. The French population who emerged from the interbreeding of the Norsemen and the already-mixed Francs, Gauls, and Romans became known as the Normans and lent their name to Normandy, where descendants of Rollo served as dukes. Huge Capet reigned as the first Norman king from 940 to 996 CE.

The Cluniacs

As the Normans took control of France to the west, a conservative form of Christianity began to congeal in mid-eastern France. Leaders of this version of Christianity, who will insist on religious dogma over rational science for the sake of power and money, will ultimately become responsible for the bloody Crusades and Inquisition.

In the year 910, the Count of Auvergne established an abbey in the town of Cluny between the Loire and Saône Rivers. The monks of Cluny, known as Cluniacs, professed rigorous monastic rule [living with no personal luxuries, a minimum of food, and praying many times a day]. They strictly adhered to the liturgy, which meant they took the writings in the Bible literally, such as statements that implied the world was flat. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, there was more religious fervor in Cluny than in Rome. The Cluniacs organized the knights and princes of Europe to fight together against the infidels [Moors and Jews] for the Crusades in Jerusalem and for the Reconquista in Iberia.

Cluniacs encouraged pilgrimages to all religious sites. Since before the Byzantine Empress Helena encouraged Christians to visit Jerusalem, pilgrim roads led to sacred sites all over Europe. One of the most important roads led from Cluny to a sacred site in Iberia [Spain] known as Santiago de Compostela. We will tell you about that in the next article when we finally introduce the main characters of this drama, the Portuguese.


After the Romans left the island they called Britannia in the 500s, a variety of Germanic people from northern Europe moved in and mingled with the resident Celts [Britons]. There were at least three tribes of Germanic people:

  1. Jutes from today’s Denmark, who moved to the Isle of Wight and nearby Hampshire in southern England.
  2. Angles from today’s southern Denmark and northern Germany, who moved into northern England and the midlands. [Angles contributed to the name England.].
  3. Saxons from today’s northern Germany, who moved into southern England and established the early kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex [West Saxony].

The new cultures incorporated the existing Celtic and Latin cultures and vernaculars that eventually developed into today’s Britain.

The Christian religion took hold in Anglo-Saxon England during the 600s. The first king to undergo the Christian sacrament of baptism was the Anglo Saxon Æthelberht of Kent. He lived in today’s southern England around 601 CE. A Saxon named Deusdedit became the first Bishop of Canterbury in 655. By that time, most of England was Christianized except the kingdoms of Sussex and the Isle of Wight, which remained openly pagan [and had been settled by the Jutes].

As mentioned above, the Vikings from Norway and Denmark raided the British Isles during the 800s CE. Norsemen were pagan. They took over much of what we now know as Yorkshire, married the local residents, and added their genes to the gene pool in that area. They tried to move south and west but were halted by the Anglo Saxon King Alfred the Great. [Note that Scotland and Ireland were not invaded so heavily, so their Celtic gene pool remained more homogeneous.]

In 1066, a combined Christian army of Normans, Bretons(2), and Francs from Normandy [today’s France], invaded England under the leadership of the Duke of Normandy, William II, otherwise referred to as William the Conqueror. [William was the great-great-grandson of Rollo and the great-great-great-grandson of King Robert I of France, who was himself the great-great-great-grandson of Charlemagne.]

William’s army killed the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. William’s Norman Dynasty ruled England from France for the next eighty-eight years, while England remained a county or province. Then an ambitious warrior named Henry Plantagenet claimed the throne for the House of Plantagenet. [Henry was the great-grandson [through his mother and Henry I] of William the Conqueror.]

The House of Plantagenet started with Henry’s father, land-rich Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, who became the Duke of Normandy in 1144. Geoffrey got the nickname Plantagenet from the yellow broom flower [planta genista] he wore in his hat during battle as a good luck charm.

Henry II did well for his family by marrying Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine in 1152. Eleanor was the most powerful and wealthiest woman in Europe. She had been married as a child bride to King Louis VII of France. [This couple will feature in our article about the Crusades.] But when Eleanor failed to bear Louis sons, she was able to annul her marriage and get her lands back. [Louis kept custody of their daughters, however.] Eleanor married Henry eight weeks after her annulment. They were third cousins, and he was nine years younger than she. Henry added her lands to the Plantagenet empire. He was crowned king two years later.

Henry II’s House of Plantagenet transformed England into an independent country. The House of Plantagenet ruled England for nearly three and a half centuries, until 1485, the year Christopher Columbus tried to talk King João [John] of Portugal into sponsoring a western voyage in search of the East Indies.


  1. Source: Wikipedia.
  2. Bretons were actually Celtic Britons who had migrated from England to today’s Brittany, France.

Next article: The County of Portugal