King Pepin III (also Pippin III, Pépin le Bref) of the Franks

This will continue the story about the end of the Merovingian dynasty.  Charles Martel died on 22 October A.D. 741 in the present-day Picardy section of France.  His remains are buried at Saint Denis Basilica in Paris.  He divided his lands among his adult sons a year earlier.  To his son Carloman, he bequeathed Austrasia, Alemannia, and Thuringia.  To his son Pepin (also known as “the Younger”), he gave Neustria, Burgundy, Provence, Metz, and Trier (in the duchy of Mosel).  To his youngest son, Grifo, he gave several lands throughout the kingdom but was awarded later before his death.

Remember that in his early life, Charles (Martel) fought for what he believed was his entitlement as the son of Pepin of Herstal.  And fight he did.  He did whatever it took to become successful in a dangerous world.  Everyone was an enemy.  Everyone was capable of perfidy.  Later in his life, the dynamics of rulership in Francia changed, and there was no further need for a king.  The Mayor of the Palace was the supreme authority.  Historians argue that Charles Martel laid the foundation for the rise of his sons to the Frankish throne and his grandson’s imperial acclamation in A.D. 800.  Charles was, up until that time, the most powerful military leader in Francia — it’s just that he died before his mission was completed.

Charles Martel married twice.  Rotrude of Treves was either the daughter of Lambert II, Count Hesbaye, or Leudwinus, Count of Treves.  There is no way to tell for sure.  Charles and Rotrude had the following children: Hiltrud, Carloman, Landrade, Auda, and Pepin.  His second wife was Swanhild, and their son was named Grifo.  When not sleeping in his marital bed, Charles slept with Ruodhaid, with whom he had Bernhard, Hieronymus, and Remigius (who later became an archbishop of Rouen.

Charles Martel was a warrior of note, a true fighter, and a military genius.  He also cleverly used church property, which worked out to Martel’s long-term advantage.  He has his critics, of course, but he also has some historians singing his praises.  Was he the savior of Christianity?  Edward Gibbon thinks so.  Were it not for Charles Martel, European children might speak Arabic today.  Well, more than they do already, thanks to modern European politicians born with undescended testicles.

After Charles died in A.D. 741, Carloman (A.D. 706 – 754) and Pepin (A.D. 714 – 768) succeeded their father in his legal positions.  Carloman served as Mayor of the Palace, Duke of the Franks (also majordomo) of Austrasia, Alemannia, and Thuringia.  Pepin became Mayor of the Palace in Neustria, Burgundy, and Provence.  The brothers actively suppressed Bavarians, Aquitanians, Saxons, and Alemanni revolts.

In A.D. 743, Carloman and Pepin agreed to end the Frankish interregnum by choosing Childeric III as monarch.  Childeric would become the last Merovingian figurehead king.  Shown right is one rendition of Pepin the Short.

The problem child of the family was Grifo, Charles’ third son.  Feeling cheated by his father, Grifo led a series of revolts against his brothers.  Several times, Carloman and Pepin had Grifo imprisoned.  In A.D. 753, Grifo was killed (some say assassinated) while passing through the Alpine forests enroute to join the Lombards against the Papacy.

Grifo wasn’t the only problem.  Numerous other rebellions broke out.  In A.D. 742, the men of Aquitaine and Alemannia revolted.  In A.D. 743, Odilo, Duke of Bavaria, led his men into battle against Carloman and Pepin.  In A.D. 744, the Saxons rebelled.  In the following year, the Aquitaine; in A.D. 746, the Alemannia.  One rebellion after another eventually forced Pepin to mount punishing campaigns against unruly territories in what had become Francia.

In A.D. 747, Carloman, a pious man, abandoned the secular life and entered monastic life in Rome.  With Carloman’s exit, Pepin became the sole ruler as majordomo.  Like his father, Pepin was ambitious, courageous, and focused.  He had no intention of governing as Mayor of the Palace.  In A.D. 750, Pepin sent two envoys to Pope Zacharias.  He inquired: Is it wise to have kings who hold no power?

When Zacharias ascended the throne as Pope (Bishop of Rome), conditions in Rome were severe.  Luitprand, King of the Lombards, prepared an invasion of Rome.  Duke Trasamund of Spoleto, whom Pope Gregory III had allied against Luitprand, failed to keep his promise.  This led Zacharias to abandon the alliance with Trasamund and seek to protect the interests of Rome.

Zacharias personally petitioned the Lombard king, who gave him every respect.  The truce was to last for twenty years, and to mark the occasion, a chapel was built in the name of Luitprand.  What made this a significant event was that Zacharias acted as a secular ruler of Rome.  When Luitprand prepared to invade Ravenna the following year, the bishop there appealed to Zacharias to save them.  Luitprand died before the invasion occurred, and his successor, Hildebrand, was overthrown.  Ratchis became king of the Lombards — and he was a friend of Zacharias.    

When Zacharias received Pepin’s letter, he imagined he might have a powerful ally to help protect Rome and the Papacy from the Lombards.  Accordingly, Zacharias answered, It is better to have a king who is able to govern.  By apostolic authority, I bid that you be crowned King of the Franks.  On this authority directly issued by the Vicar of Christ, Pepin deposed Childeric III and sent him to live the balance of his life in a monastery.  Soon after, the Vicar of Christ anointed Pepin, King of the Franks.  There was no disputing that.

Zacharias died in A.D. 752, replaced by Pope Stephen II.  Realizing the importance of King Pepin III to the safety of the Papacy and of Rome, In November of A.D. 753, Stephen II traveled through the stormy mountain passes into Frankish territory (remaining there until the summer of A.D. 754).  While in Francia, Pope Stephen II re-anointed Pepin (and his sons, Charles and Carloman) as kings and heirs of the crown.  When Pope Stephen returned to Rome, King Pepin III, and a sizeable army accompanied him.  As the procession was midway through the Alps, the Lombards assaulted Pepin — a battle that was a disaster for the Lombards.  After the battle, Pepin permitted his army to pillage and plunder the land around Pavia until the Lombard commander, Aistulf, promised to restore papal possession of Ravenna and all Roman properties claimed by the Pope.

But Aistulf was a silly man and broke his word.  Pope Stephen wrote to King Pepin III about his ongoing difficulties.  In A.D. 756, Pepin entered Italy again, and Aistulf was constrained to make promises.  Interestingly, however, Aistulf mysteriously died in A.D. 757.  Desiderius replaced Aistulf.  And then Pope Stephen died that year, and Paul I was elected Pope.  By this time, King Pepin III was indispensable to the Papacy.

With all the problems in Francia, Pepin was constantly in the field.  He had to put down revolts in Saxony (A.D. 748 and 753), an uprising in Bavaria in A.D. 749, and at constant odds with Aquitaine.  King Pepin III died on the way home from one of his Aquitaine expeditions in A.D. 768.

Pepin’s Legacy 

We remember Pepin III for several reasons.  He was the first Carolingian king, establishing a precedent in supporting the Catholic Church.  Without King Pepin III, there would have been no papal estates.  Christian monks educated Carloman and Pepin as children, so both men were well-disposed toward the Church and Papacy.  As king, his letters demonstrate an interest in creating archbishoprics in Francia, promoting synods of clergy and lay folk, and teaching an ongoing interest in theology.

When King Pepin died, he was just 54 years old.  He was buried in the Basilica of St. Denis (Paris).  His wife, Bertrada, was also buried there in A.D. 783.  His son Charles rebuilt the Basilica in honor of his parents and placed markers at the entrance.

Following Salic law, King Pepin III’s land was divided between his two sons, Charles and Carloman.  Charles, the eldest son (born A.D. 747), shared the kingdom of the Franks with his younger brother, Carloman (born A.D. 751).  The sons and their father was anointed as heirs to the realm of the Franks by Pope Stephen II.  When Carloman died (A.D. 771), Charles became sole ruler until he died in A.D. 814.  Charles continued his father’s policy of protecting the Papacy and acting as a defender of the faith.  Charles was instrumental in removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy and converting the Saxons to Christianity (upon penalty of death).

King Pepin III was my 37th great-grandfather.


The Vascones

Mithridátēs is the name given to the kings of several kingdoms in the ancient world.  It does get confusing when you run across people named Mithridátēs I of Pontus, who was also Mithridátēs III of Cius, whose descendants included both Mithridátēs II and Mithridátēs III of Pontus.  The first of these men from Pontus (ancient Persia) reigned between 281 – 266 B.C.

The Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian Strabo (64 B.C. – A.D. 24) was born in the region of Pontus, now located in the historic region of Cappadocia, central Turkey, at a time when Rome transitioned from a Republic into an Empire.  His family was politically affluent during the reign of Mithridátēs VI (during the so-called Mithridatic Wars), with his grandfather having had the distinction of turning several fortresses over to the Romans.  As a reward for his treachery, the family received a grant of Roman citizenship and, I presume, a nice apartment under an assumed name on the south side of the City of Seven Hills.  

Strabo was one of the first educated men to write of Northern Spain, the section encompassing the Spanish Basque, in the old kingdom of Navarre, and from there westward through the massively beautiful cities of Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Ponferrada, and Santiago.

Of course, by the time Greeks and Romans began to speak of these people, the Basque, they had already occupied their region of Spain and France under other names: Vascones, Calagurriis, Berones, and Celtiberians.  The Romans labeled these areas as Vasconum Agrum (the agricultural regions of Northern Spain) and Vasconum Saltus (the Bay of Biscay).

Historians label the third and fourth centuries A.D. as the “Late Basquisation,” — a period of political unrest and instability caused by the Germanic invasions.  Written records about this period and territory are scarce, so we know very little about the Vascones during the time of Rome’s expansion in Gaul and Hispania.  It is certain that the Romans gave these people a wide birth except to keep open main roads through the Pyrenees Mountains — and may have found it cheaper to pay these ancients a toll rather than to tie up several legions in wars that couldn’t be won.  From later stories written by John of Biclaro (A.D. 540 – 621), we understand that the Vascones (Basques) would not be trifled with by anyone, no matter who they were.  Gregory of Tours (A.D. 538 – 594) also notes the presence of “Wascones” in Aquitaine in A.D. 587.  Historians surmise that today’s Basque, the descendants of the earlier Vascones people, moved into the Pyrenees from both Pamplona and Aquitaine, where they could better defend one another from foreign encroachments.

Until the seventh century, the Basques governed themselves through loose confederations, which in all likelihood drove their willingness to come to an arrangement with the Romans after the second century — something on par with “don’t mess with us, and we won’t mess with you.”  After the seventh century, the Basques established their first political structure under the Merovingian Franks — calling it the Duchy of Vasconia.  Eventually, this duchy became Gascony.

During Charlemagne’s effort to re-incorporate Vasconia into Francia, he found that the Basques were more than obdurate — they were outright dangerous.  When the Carolingians failed to take Zaragoza, Charlemagne made the fateful decision to punish the Basques by sacking Pamplona.  As the Carolingian Army made its way home over the mountains adjacent to Roncesvalles, the Basques attacked and destroyed half of it.  The Franks, of course, referred to this encounter as Vascones perfidy — but it wasn’t the Basque who sacked Charlemagne’s capital city.

The Battle of Roncesvalles was recounted orally until the eleventh century when it was written down as The Song of Roland.  Note: Le chanson de geste is the oldest surviving major work of French literature.  Click here to listen to a modern professor sing the first lines of The Song of Roland in Old French.  If you prefer hearing the song in English, click here for Michael Kelly’s rendition. Let me add here that I have walked this path twice and it is not an area in which I would want to fight for my life.

The lands of the Vascones remained turbulent into the ninth century as first Saracens and then Carolingians fought to control the mountain passes.  A Second Battle of Roncesvalles occurred in A.D. 824 when a combined Basque-Saracen army defeated the Carolingian Army under the Holy Roman Emperor Lothar I.  The result of this battle was the creation of the Kingdom of Pamplona under a Basque king.  Note, the various spellings for the same location are: Roncevaux (French), Roncesvalles (Spanish), and Orreaga (Basque).

El Cid

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar died 924 years ago.  He was not Basque, but he might have been.  It was only an accident of birth — a condition that plagues us all.  There are only a few men to continue to live in the hearts and minds of modern people — Sr. de Vivar is one of them.  I have been to his burial site.  In physical stature, he was not a large man — but he was substantial in courage, determination, and in his refusal to knuckle under to those who sought to conquer and subjugate what would become España.  And he may be the only man to lead a charge into battle after he was already dead.  We know him today as El Cid (1043 – 1099).  He opposed all interlopers, whether Christian or Muslims — and earned the respect of every foe.

In Arabic, he was Al-Sīd (the Lord).  To the early Spanish, he was El Campeador (The Valiant), born in Vivar, a small village near the city of Burgos — where he is buried in La Catedral de Santa María de Burgos — one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain.  As head of his loyal knights, Rodrigo Diaz dominated the Levant, a name used to refer to the eastern region of the Iberian Peninsula, on the Spanish Mediterranean coast.  It was El Cid who reclaimed the Taifa (kingdom or principality) of Valencia from Arab control during the Reconquista period.  After his death, El Cid’s wife, Jimena Diaz, ruled until the Moors reconquered the city in 1102.

In his life of only 56 years, Rodrigo Diaz served as a knight-commander in both Christian and Muslim armies — respected and revered by both because of his personal strength, his valor, his sense of justice, and his pious nature.  Today, the Spanish people recall El Cid in an epic poem titled El Cantar de Mio Cid.  He was the ideal knight.

There is a general belief about his family, although it remains uncertain because of a lack of written records.  He is believed to be the grandfather of Garcia Ramirez de Pamplona, a king of Navarre, the first-born son of Rodrigo’s daughter, Cristina Rodriguez of Pamplona.  In one of the few documents that record his history, a Latin text bearing his signature read, “I Rodrigo, together with my wife, affirm that which was written above.”

In his life, Spanish authorities recognized Sr. Diaz as Campeador (which carries two meanings: Teacher in the Field and Master of the Battlefield).  Arabic writing acknowledges similar honorifics (Al-Qanbitur), noting also that Diaz was not the first knight to earn the title El Cid (The Lord).  It was a respectful title earned through service to the king or high prince of the Taifa of Zaragoza between 1081 – 1086.  Some historians argue that he did not earn the title until after his conquest of Valencia in 1094 and, as a title, does not appear in writing until 1147.

As with many Spanish heroes, Rodrigo Diaz was born to a family of minor nobility.  As such, he was brought up at the court of Ferdinand the Great (Also Ferdinand I of León) (1015 – 1065) where he served Ferdinand’s son Sancho II of León and Castile.  During his service, he became commander and royal standard bearer when Sancho became king in 1065.  Rodrigo Diaz led the military campaigns against Sancho’s brothers, Alfonso VI of León, and Garcia II of Galicia, as well as the Muslim princes of Al-Andalus.  Rodrigo was notable for his military prowess whose expertise expanded the Crown of Castile.

When assassins murdered Sancho in 1072, Rodrigo suddenly found himself in a difficult situation.  Since Sancho was childless, the throne passed to his brother Alfonso VI, whom El Cid had helped remove from power.  Accordingly, he was demoted, kept under scrutiny, and finally exiled in 1081.  With loss of rank and prestige, Diaz sold his talents to whomever could afford them, which in early Spain, meant the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza, whom Diaz defended from their traditional enemy, the rulers of Aragon.

Men serving in exile have time to think about their future, plan for it, and act on it.  In exile, Rodrigo regained his martial reputation as a strategist and combat leader.  Employed against Saracens and their Christian allies, El Cid was always successful in battle — including his forays against King Sancho Ramirez of Aragon.  When an army of Almoravids (Berber Muslims) inflicted devastating losses on Alfonso, the king reconsidered the worthiness of the finest field commander in Al-Andalusia and made peace with him.

El Cid was soon fighting for Alfonso, but not exclusively.  Rodrigo Diaz had set his sights on Valencia, and while in Alfonso’s employ, he maintained political relations with the Hudid Dynasty of Zaragoza and other Muslim princes who opposed the Almoravids.

Gradually, El Cid increased his control over Valencia, even to the extent of subjugating The Islamist Yahya al Qadir, who paid him tribute.  When the Almoravids instigated an uprising that resulted in the death of al Qadir, Diego laid siege to the city.  When Valencia collapsed in 1094, El Cid established an independent principality on the Mediterranean coast of Iberia.  As a ruling prince, Diego was popular with both Christians and Muslims alike. 

His final years were spent fighting against the Almoravid, defeating them in 1094 and continued warring with them until his death in 1099.  His only son and heir died fighting the Almoravids in 1097, so when he died his wife Jimena Diaz succeeded him as ruler of Valencia.  She was forced to surrender to the Almoravids in 1102.

The Posthumous Victory

After Diego’s death, but still during the troubling times imposed upon Valencia by the Almoravids, Jimena ordered his body exhumed, wrapped in linen, fitted with armor, and set upon his horse for one last charge.  It was Jimena’s ploy to bolster the flagging morale of his troops.  There are several variations of this story, as one might imagine.

In one of these, El Cid led his knights in a thundering charge against the Almoravids.  The war was already lost, but a final battle won.  Christians and Islamists told the tale for hundreds of years — which is probably the reason we know of it today.  Historians believe the Jimena began telling this story after she vacated Valencia for the protection of Alfonso in Burgos.  What prompted the telling was that when Jimena entered Burgos, her dead husband was still strapped to his horse riding next to her.

The resting place of El Cid and his wife is in the center of the Cathedral of our Lady of Burgos, in Castilla y Leon — photograph shown at upper right.  Burgos is located along the Path of St. James, which I have walked twice.  It extends from St. Jean Pied de Port to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, Galicia.  My 32nd great-grandfather is buried in the Cathedral de Santiago.  His name was William X of Aquitaine.  His daughter was named Eleanor.  William isn’t the most important person buried in the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, however.

James the Great

He is known today as James, son of Zebedee, also, Saint James the Great, Saint James the Greater, Saint James the Elder, Saint Jacob, and Santiago.  We believe he was born in Galilee.  He was one of the first of the apostles of Jesus of Nazareth and the first martyred for his Christian beliefs.  Santiago is the patron saint of Spain.  His sarcophagus is made of solid gold.

James is styled “the Great” to distinguish him from James the Younger.  He was the brother of John the Apostle.  According to the New Testament, James was working with his brother John near the seashore when Jesus called the brothers to follow him.  He was put to death by King Herod Agrippa in A.D. 44.

Today, Santiago is part of a Catholic tradition.  People believe what they choose.  I can only say that being in near proximity to Santiago’s burial site was a tremendous experience for me, personally.  A symbol adopted by those making the pilgrimage is a scallop shell, known as the Shell of St. James.  It is a metaphor, indicating that there are many pathways to Santiago de Compostela.

In 2016, at a small ruin outside Puenta La Reina, I met an archeologist, who showed me what remained of an Abby.  Inside were the remains of a Church; scientists were investigating the areas beneath the flooring to discover the presence of human remains.  He said there were several suspects and the excavation team were awaiting the arrival of a team of technicians from Madrid with ground radar equipment.  I was fascinated.

Along one wall, behind what had been wall-to-ceiling shelving, was a crude painting, which the archeologist explained as follows:  The faded light blue coloring depicted the environment in which people live.  Stick figures painted in yellow also faded over time and approached a doorway, through which they passed into another world, becoming seashells.  The archeologist said that the Abbey was likely from the 11th century, a time when most people were ignorant and certainly illiterate.  He hypothesized that the Christians who ran the Abby used the wall painting to explain the concept of life after death.  This event was only one of several amazing experiences on the Camino de Santiago.  I treasure my seashell as a symbol of two most-remarkable journeys — which would never have begun were it not for Paul Webb Chapman, my dearest friend.


The Merovingian Dynasty


So far, we’ve spoken about the Celts, which take us back several hundred years before the common era, the Roman period in Gaul, the development of post-Roman Franks, and the migrations of the Visigoths into the Iberian Peninsula. Now we’ll have a conversation about the further development of the Franks from a northern Germanic group surrounded by enemies into controlling Gallo-Roman dynasties.

Our story continues with the dynasty derived from a Salian Frank named Merovech (shown right). Earlier, the reader learned that, unlike other Frankish people, the Salians first appeared living inside the Roman Empire, within the Rhine River Delta, in the present-day Netherlands. Our information about Merovech is limited to two sources: (1) The Chronicle of Fredegar and (2) the writings of the bishop/historian known as Gregory of Tours.

The Chronicle of Fredegar is a title given to this work in the 16th Century, even though historians believe it is a product of the 7th Century — whose author remains a mystery. This story has several versions, one “history” ending in A.D. 642 and another in A.D. 768. It is light on history and heavy on myth — full of fantastical stories that try to increase the relevance of its subjects. Bishop Gregory’s account is amazingly brief — he mentions Merovech once and only to identify him as the father of Childeric I, a king of the Franks.

Linguists tell us that the Chronicle of Fredegar (in modern French, Frédégaire) was written in a genuine Frankish vulgar Latin, typical of Gaul — but beyond that, there is no factual basis for or corroboration of its stories of Merovech or his father, Chlodio.

Merovech (in French, Mérovée) (A.D. 411 – 458) was the King of the Salian Franks and the genesis of the Merovingian line of kings. He may have been one of several barbarian warlords who joined the Romans under General Aetius against Attila the Hun. If true, it was a wise decision. Merovech’s son was Childeric, who maintained good relations with the Romans. Whenever the Romans called upon Childeric for military assistance, he ensured his soldiers distinguished themselves in combat. His courage and coolness in battle were noted at Orleans and Loire and gave him favor with the Romans. As Merovech laid this foundation for Childeric, he did the same for his son, whom he named Clovis.

The Kingdom

It was Clovis who founded the Merovingian kingdom — which he may not have been able to do were it not for the favor the Merovingians maintained with the Romans. Note: the term Merovingian simply means the descendants of Mérovée.  Recall that Bishop Gregory of Tours remains the primary source of our knowledge about Merovech and Childeric.

Clovis, I (shown right) reigned from A.D. 481 to 511.  Thirty years was a long time in the Middle Ages. Still, within that time, he expanded Merovingian power throughout most of post-Roman Gaul, from the Silva Carbonaria in Belgium to the Somme, north of Paris.

Merovingian men distinguished themselves from other male Franks by wearing long hair — which became an easily recognized symbol of their right to rule all other Franks. Any Merovingian male who failed to distinguish himself in battle was taken from the ranks, his hair cut short and sent to a monastery. Such men were deemed unfit to rule over others.

Another demonstration of the legitimacy of power was hoisting a new king onto a battle shield by men whom he would lead into battle. The act symbolized the people’s confidence in their new King and may have been influenced by a Greek tradition in Plutarch’s day: Come back with your shield, or on it. Over many years, even as their power had begun to fade, the Franks continued to support Merovingian rule — they would accept no other family as their rulers.

When Clovis died, his kingdom was partitioned into equal parts among his four sons. This became a common practice among the Gauls that did not work to their long-term benefit. By dividing his land among male heirs, the Merovingian King set his sons upon one another, resulting in an almost constant state of civil war.

The Mayor of the Palace

Pippin II of Herstal

Being a king, even in a backwater like Gaul, was difficult. Someone had to take responsibility for recommending appointments to court positions, and then once made, someone had to supervise those people. Someone had to appoint counts, dukes, and commandants. The King performed these functions early in the Merovingian dynasty, but when royal authority was left to an infant, an adult needed to assume these duties. Such tasks fell to a regent. A viceroy took over such duties whenever a king became ill, injured, or otherwise felt disinclined to perform them.

To help the sovereign with the day-to-day tasks, Merovingian kings began to employ an official whose duty was to oversee the running of the King’s household. It was a long-held Roman tradition called major domus (supervisor of the household). The Merovingians incorporated this official as Major Palatii (supervisor of the Palace). Such mundane duties were one less worry for the monarch. (Pictured right, Pippin II of Herstal).

Over time, however, the Major Palatii took on additional duties and responsibilities, such as supervision of all court personnel, principal advisor to the King, and the individual who played a crucial role in granting nobility and land ownership. The Mayor of the Palace also commanded the King’s guard, supervised the King’s wards, and (in time) commanded the entire army in time.

The more involved the Mayor became in the day-to-day administration of the kingdom, the more obvious it was that no one was better placed to assume regency on behalf of the dead King’s infant heir. He was already performing these duties “in the name of the King.” After the 6th Century, the Mayor often made all critical decisions. The Mayor of the Palace gained the support of the landed aristocracy because they understood where their bread was buttered. Similarly, the clergy supported the Mayor of the Palace because he had the King’s ear on matters relating to the Church. Though forceful, when necessary, the Mayor of the Palace was seldom a dictator. He was a consummate politician.

A Notable Mayor

The man I am writing about now was my 39th great-grandfather. He was an illegitimate son of Pippin II of Herstal (sometimes written as Pepin), the Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia — the traditional homeland of the Franks, a territory forming the north-eastern section of Gaul centered on Meuse, Middle Rhine, and Moselle rivers. In Latin, he answered to Carolus Martellus (A.D. 688 – 741) (pictured right).

By this time, the Merovingian kings were rulers in name only; the burden of governance fell upon the Mayors of the Palace — men who governed Austrasia and Neustria. In A.D. 687, Pippin annexed Neustria, which set into motion a necessity for armed conflict. Pippin successfully united the two kingdoms, but it remained a source of irritation to the Neustrians for a long time.

Pippin appointed his son Drogo as Mayor of Burgundy and his other son, Grimoald, in Neustria to facilitate his control over the combined Frankish kingdoms. Around A.D. 670, Pippin married Plectrude, who had inherited substantial estates in the Moselle region. She was the mother of Drogo and Grimoald — neither of whom outlived their father.  Pippin also had a mistress or (perhaps) a second wife. Her name was Alpaida, and she bore him two more sons: Charles and Childebrand.

Before Pippin died, Plectrude convinced him to disinherit the two illegitimate children in favor of his grandson, Theudoald (the son of Grimoald) — who, at the time of Pippin’s death in A.D. 714, was an infant — as were two other grandsons. Plectrude intended to rule as the Mayor’s regent on behalf of Theudoald. In effect, Carolus (Charles) was wholly neglected in Pippin’s will and stood no chance of finding himself in charge of anything. Plectrude failed to consider that the 26-year-old Charles was strong, intelligent, and focused.

Gaul was a male-dominated society. Few male landowners were keen on having a woman govern — no matter whose name she ruled under. From the instant of Pippin’s death, Plectrude faced a rebellion. King Chilperic II was under the direct power of the Mayor of the Palace in Neustria — still smarting by Pippin’s forced unification. It did not take long for the Neustrians to join forces with Frisians in Holland to eliminate Plectrude, her three grandsons, and Carolus.

Initially, Plectrude imprisoned Charles and attempted to govern in her own right. A resourceful Carolus managed to escape his confinement and set about raising an army of his own. With that army, in several battles lasting several years, Charles defeated the Neustrians, Frisians, and Austrasians, establishing himself as the new Mayor of the Palace of a re-united Frankish kingdom. During this time, Charles became known as the Hammer — Charles Martel.

In A.D. 720, Charles Martel began a campaign to eliminate his potential enemies: Bavarians, Lombards, and Alemannians. These battles brought all of present-day Southern Germany under Frankish control.

After defeating the Saxons in A.D. 730, Charles turned his attention to Aquitaine. These conflicts would prove more demanding since Duke Odo of Aquitaine (also called Eudes I) would not yield to Charles, even after he successfully sacked Aquitaine’s largest cities. Concurrently, Duke Odo was fighting Muslim Saracens from Al-Andalusa (the former territory of the Visigoths).

Charles, fully aware that a large army under Abd al-Raḥmân al-Ghafiqi was heading toward Aquitaine, determined to arrive before the Muslims — thereby choosing the ground upon which he would fight.

Charles Martel relied heavily on freedmen as his primary soldiery, but the increasing pace of military operations compelled him to create a strong cavalry of professional fighting men. The expense of horses and accouterments and well-armed cavalry was significant. Charles appropriated church land to defray these expenses, which did not please churchmen in Burgundy (principally), but as we all realize, necessity is the mother of invention.

Despite these unpopular decisions, Charles Martel remained popular among the churchmen and general landed aristocracy. Later, under Charles’ sons Pepin and Carolman, the Merovingians regulated land use and tenure by granting the warrior class tenure for life. They could use the land, but the Church retained permanent ownership.

Unending War

By A.D. 732, Charles Martel had united the Franks under a single banner. The biggest thorn in his side was the Saxons, but he punished them so unmercifully that they began looking for other places to live — choosing what became known as England’s Saxon Shore.

He was determined to punish the Saxons, who had invaded Austrasia — and punish them he did. Late in A.D. 718, he laid waste to their country to the rivers Weser, Lippe, and Ruhr and defeated them in the Teutoburg Forest, which secured the border of the Franks under Chlotaire.  When the leader of Frisia died in A.D. 719, Charles seized West Frisia with no local resistance, even though they had earlier rebelled when Charles’ father Pippin died. Charles’ appointment of local kings ensured him the loyalty and support of those he (supposedly) served as Mayor. In truth, these kings were mere figureheads, which is what Charles intended. In time, Charles would cease appointing kings and claim the land in his own right.

For twenty years, beginning in A.D. 711, Muslim armies of the Umayyad Caliphate had assaulted European kingdoms and territories, progressing through Hispania with some ease due to the relative incompetence of the Visigoth kings. They approached the Frankish territory known as Gaul. The Umayyads reached into Aquitaine and Burgundy, destroying and sacking Bordeaux. (At right, Duke Odo I of Aquitaine).

As a result, Duke Odo called upon Martel for his assistance. He responded with an estimated 30,000 combat-experienced ground troops — with (possibly) an additional 5,000 mounted cavalry. He would face around 80,000 Umayyad light and heavy cavalry.

Lacking sophisticated logistical systems, field armies lived off the land by necessity. In late September, the Saracen leader Abd al-Raḥmân al-Ghafiqi headed north with a substantial army and, after a few successful skirmishes, approached the wealthy city of Tours. History remembers this battle as the Battle of Tours and Poitiers because the actual fighting occurred between those two cities.   This is where al-Raḥmân ran into Charles the Hammer.

Abd al-Raḥmân was under some pressure — from several quarters at once. The Saracen army was mounted, and his soldiers were dressed in summer-weight uniforms with winter approaching. Thousands of horses demanded forage and adequate food for as many men. In contrast, Martel’s army was well-clothed, ready for winter, and prepared to confront the infidels.

Al-Raḥmân’s cavalry faced Martel’s infantry — al-Raḥmân was confident that his heavy and medium horsemen would chase the Franks away. Martel knew better. By the time Al-Raḥmân approached the battle area, Charles the Hammer had already claimed the best terrain. A thick forest concealed the Franks, denying al-Raḥmân a reasonable estimate of how many Franks awaited battle. Charles was a fierce fighter but patient and disciplined. He would fight his enemy but on his terms. For seven days, Charles Martel kept his men behind a shield wall. For those seven days, al-Raḥmân fretted about Martel’s army.

Some historians claim that Charles Martel had been contemplating a confrontation with the Umayyads for a decade. Whether true, Martel was ready for the encounter in October A.D. 732. Historians claim that Abd al-Raḥmân was stunned to find Martel waiting for him. Martel’s decision not to attack was wise — he would kill more of the enemy as they attacked Frank’s impenetrable shield wall, which was positioned on the tops of steep hills and inside thickly forested land. By the time Muslims reached the Martel’s phalanx, they would already be tired.

For seven days, al-Raḥmân waited for the arrival of the main body of his mounted army. At that time, he sent out sorties to harass the Franks. Few of these skirmishers survived their assault. Over those seven days, the Saracens became frustrated because they could not penetrate the Frankish line. On the other hand, Martel was running rampant inside al-Raḥmân’s head. He was not worried about the Saracen cavalry, but al-Raḥmân was very worried about Martel’s infantry — as he should have been. At a time when few kingdoms could afford a standing army, Martel’s men were seasoned, battle-hardened, and backed up by militia who served them as logisticians — bringing food and forage and helping to harass the enemy.

On the day of the battle, al-Raḥmân trusted in the tactical superiority of his cavalry and had them charge Martel’s shield wall repeatedly throughout the day. Despite these assaults, Martel’s shield wall did not break. The highly disciplined Franks withstood the Saracen attacks, though Arab sources claim that the Saracen cavalry broke through several times. The well-trained Franks accomplished what was impossible: infantry withstanding a heavy cavalry charge.

Arab historians naturally praise al-Raḥmân as a first-rate commander and an able administrator. They claim that he was the best governor of Al-Andalus. Evidence of his irreplaceability as a ruler was demonstrated upon his death at the Battle of Tours. With his death, the Saracen army collapsed. Al-Raḥmân’s son attempted another invasion of Gaul in A.D. 736 — this time, by sea. The expedition landed in Narbonne and moved to reinforce the Saracens in Arles for an inward march. With the assistance of the Lombards, Charles Martel descended on the Islamists at Montfrin, Avignon, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Nimes, Agde, and Béziers.  Martel crushed one Saracen army at Arles as it rushed out to meet him, and then he seized the city and burned it to the ground. He then moved to defeat the Moslems at Narbonne but could not destroy the city because he lacked siege engines.

The Mayor Becomes a King

In A.D. 737, the Merovingian King Theuderic IV died. Charles, titling himself Major Domus et. Princeps et dux Francorum decided against appointing a new king — and nobody demanded one. The King’s throne remained empty until Charles’ death. Except for one conflict with the Saxons in A.D. 738, the kingdom remained (relatively) peaceful.

Charles used this peace to integrate outlying realms into the Church. He constructed dioceses in Bavaria, Salzburg, Regensburg, and Freising. He appointed Boniface as archbishop of all Germania east of the Rhine. In A.D. 739, Pope Gregory III petitioned Charles for his military assistance against the Lombards, but Charles refused out of loyalty to his past Lombard ally.


Charles Martel passed away on 22 October A.D. 741 in present-day Picardy. He is buried at Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. Before his death, Charles divided his property among his three sons and laid the foundation for his son, Pepin, to become King in A.D. 751 and, later, his grandson, whom we all know as Charlemagne.

Next week, a visit with the Vascones (Basque)


The Visigoths


Visigoth describes a group of Germanic people who eventually settled in the southern and western sections of Gaul and Hispania.  The term Germanic refers to historical groups of people that once occupied Central Europe and Scandinavia from antiquity to the early Middle Ages and, specifically, to those who spoke Germanic Languages.  There is no universal agreement about these people or who we might relate them to today.  We refer to these people as Germanic because that is what the Romans named them.  Another word for Germanic was Gothic.

Anthropologists accept that there were two main branches of Goths: those who originated north of the Danube River in the East (Ostrogoth) and those who may have developed in Scandinavia in Western Europe (Visigoth).  The word Goth may once have been Gutones.

No one called them Visigoths or Ostrogoths in their day.  They were simply Goths until the Roman historian Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus referred to Visigoth to make a distinction from Ostrogoth.  The first time we hear of the word Visigoth is when Cassiodorus wrote of their defeat by Clovis I in A.D. 507.

Human Migration

People today often wonder why our planet has seen so much conflict.  The answer is that people (generally) do not get along.  If nations aren’t squabbling, then neighbors are.  We designed our law enforcement mechanism to keep humans from bashing one another with a mace or broad sword.  Human discord is simply an unhappy fact of life and something all of us must work to improve.  With that thought, what happens when large numbers of people move from one area to another?

The problem of human migration, apparent in Europe and North America, is that whenever large numbers of people migrate to other areas, they collide with human groups who already live there.  This means that people begin competing for access to limited (and essential) resources to survive: water and food sources.  The result of such collisions is lethal conflict.  Landowners, suddenly faced with foreigners encroaching upon their traditional lands and desperate to protect their rights, tend to seek out alliances with others to form defensive armies.  Human migration has always been one cause of human conflict.

Conflict with Rome

In A.D. 376, people known as Goths, led by a man named Alavivus, asked the Romans for their permission to settle in the Eastern Roman Empire.  They asked permission because they had been pushed out of their traditional lands (north of the Danube River) into present-day Bulgaria by the Huns.  Rome’s emperor Valentinian, thinking that these people would be useful to Rome as farmers and soldiers (when needed), permitted them to settle as allies (a client state).  Once the Goths crossed the Danube, however, Roman double-dealing caused the Goths to revolt against Rome.  Defying Rome was no light undertaking.  It was a desperate situation that motivated the Visigoths to defeat the legions of the Eastern Empire.  Eventually, the Romans did manage to push the Goths back across the Danube.  Still, the situation with the Huns had not changed, and the Goths would not forget Roman dishonesty, which made further conflict inevitable.

The Battle of Adrianople in 378 was an important moment in time because not only did the barbarians slaughter the Romans as if they were just out of boot camp, but they also killed the emperor Valens.  In Rome’s long history, emperors were a dime a dozen, but when Valens died, many of Rome’s most accomplished fighting men perished with him.  It was not only a blow to Rome’s prestige but also to the confidence of the Roman Army.  This unheard-of defeat was also a shock to the citizens of Rome.

Yet, despite their victory over Rome, the Visigoths remained confined to a small, impoverished province of the empire, and Rome scurried to form yet another army to march against them.  Battles raged for three years without a substantial victory by either side.  Finally, in A.D. 382, the Romans and Visigoths negotiated a treaty that made the Visigoths the first “client state” allowed to settle within the empire’s borders.  But the treaty also required that the Visigoths raise troops for the Roman army in exchange for arable land and freedom, as citizens, within Rome’s legal structure.  The Roman-Visigoth settlement had far-reaching consequences: the end of Rome within three generations.  In the mind of Roman historian and soldier Ammianus Marcellinus, Rome ended with the Battle of Adrianople — it is when he ended his history of the Roman Empire.

Alaric I

Rome’s new emperor, Theodosius I, made peace with the Visigoths — an arrangement that Rome maintained until the death of Theodosius in A.D. 395.  In that year, the Visigoths’ famous king, Alaric, signaled his interest in becoming an emperor of Rome.  A crisis over the question of Imperial control soon developed.

Stilicho was a prominent military commander who would become (for a time) the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire.  Although part Vandal, he was raised in Rome and trained to become a high-ranking Roman general.  To help him along the way, he married the niece of Theodosius, Serena.

As heirs to Rome, Theodosius left two sons.  In the East, a mentally incompetent lad named Arcadius (who survived to the age of 31 years), and in the West, the underaged Honorius (died aged 37).  In Rome, the Senate appointed Stilicho as Regent on behalf of the underage Honorius.  By this time, most of Rome’s generals were former barbarians who viewed political events as opportunities for themselves.  Their loyalty regularly shifted to whomever they thought would advance their position within the empire.

In A.D. 397, Arcadius named Alaric military commander of the Illyrian prefecture in the Eastern Empire.  For fifteen years, the two empires maintained a tenuous peace occasionally interrupted by conflicts between Alaric and the powerful Germanic generals who commanded Rome’s armies (both east and west).  Despite his extraordinary record in combat, Stilicho’s personality was harsh and unrelenting — and much resented by the young Honorius.  In A.D. 408, Honorius had Stilicho executed and ordered the slaughter of thousands of barbarian soldiers.  These were men who historians assure us were desperately trying to assimilate Roman culture.  It is also likely that they were executed because they were untrustworthy.  Whatever the reason, Honorius’ actions provided Alaric with an excuse to march on Rome.

After two failures to achieve military victory in Northern Italy, Alaric conducted a siege of Rome — one that initially ended in negotiations.  Unfortunately, the negotiation failed to produce a desirable result, which led Alaric to the decision to sack Rome — which he did on 24 August A.D. 410.  While the sacking did take place, it did not have a long-term effect.  By then, Rome was no longer the de facto capital of Rome.  From A.D. 370 – 402, the capital of Rome was Milan.  And, in A.D. 402, Rome’s capital was again moved to Ravenna.

Emperor Honorius visited Rome often, and after he died in A.D. 423, Roman emperors tended to reside there — but the ability of a barbarian/Roman commander to sack the city at will severely shook the empire’s confidence.  In any case, loaded with booty, the Visigoths decided to vacate Rome and relocate elsewhere.  Alaric died before the move took place; his wife’s brother, Athaulf (A.D. 370 – 415), replaced him.

The Visigoth Kingdom

The Visigoth Kingdom (5th – 8th Century) was a Western European power first created in Gaul when Rome lost control of its western territories and later relocated to Hispania until A.D. 711.  For a brief period, the Visigoths were the strongest kingdom in Western Europe.  From A.D. 408 – 410, Athaulf caused so much damage to Rome that it lost ten percent of its economic output.  So effective were the Visigoths in helping Honorius defeat barbarian enemies that in A.D. 418, the emperor granted to King Sigeric (Athaulf’s successor) all the land in Aquitania as a reward for expelling the Vandals.  The reward allowed the Visigoths to expand further into Hispania.

This period was turbulent for the Visigoth hierarchy, however.  In quick succession, assassins murdered Athaulf.  His replacement, Sigeric, murdered Athaulf’s children by his first wife and debased Athaulf’s second wife and her children.  In turn, Sigeric was murdered within a few days, replaced by Wallha.  After a three-year reign, Wallha was, in turn, replaced as king by Alaric’s son-in-law, Theodoric I (r. A.D. 418 – 451).

The Visigoth’s second “great” king was Euric (A.D. 420 – 484), the second son of Theodoric I, who ruled after murdering his brother, Theodoric II, in A.D. 466.  Euric unified quarreling factions and concluded a treaty with Rome’s last emperor, Julius Nepos.  This treaty (disputed by some) finally recognized the Visigoth Kingdom of Euric as an independent nation.  While diplomats were busy making their arrangements, Euric’s capture of southern Gaul gave him access to the Mediterranean Sea.  It may have been this feat that made him, in the eyes of some historians, the greatest king since Alaric.  At Euric’s death, the Visigoths were at the height of their power and influence in Europe.  His son, Alaric II, adopted Roman administrative and bureaucratic structures, including tax codes and legal systems.

By A.D. 500, the Visigoths were the dominant power in Hispania, whose capital was Toulouse, with control of Aquitania and Gallia (apart from the Basque regions in present-day northern Spain).  The Visigoths’ influence was significant to lead one to the conclusion that the future of Europe depended on the Visigoths.  Clovis I of the Franks changed that perception, seizing Aquitaine and killing Alaric II.  The situation might have been worse had it not been for the Ostrogoth king in Italy, Theodoric, who pushed Clovis out of Visigoth territory.

In any case, the de facto king of southern Europe was Theodoric the Great — a man sufficiently diplomatic to cause the Visigoths to imagine they were still in charge of their destiny.  Theodoric the Great had no interest in being loved; he had designs on Gaul for himself, and the Visigoths were wise to withdraw their capital to Barcelona (and then later to Toledo).  Theodoric controlled the Visigoths from A.D. 511 – 526.  Only Theodoric’s death in A.D. 526 allowed the Visigoths to restore their royal line through Amalaric, Alaric II’s son and the grandson of Theodoric.  Amalaric ruled independently for five years until assassinated in A.D. 531.  Another Ostrogoth named Theudis ruled the Visigoths for seventeen years.

For the next 180 years, the kingdom of Visigoths stumbled from one monarchy to another.  They continued to maintain ties with Rome — which is to say, the Eastern Roman Empire, but this kingdom, as with many before it and since, began to unravel with time.  It began to collapse much quicker in A.D. 710 when King Witiza died, leaving his two young sons as his heirs.  A faction of Visigoth nobles opposed to the Witizans drove the dead king’s widow and her children out of Toledo, electing in their place a man named Roderick, who served as a duke and military commander of one of Hispania’s provinces.

Roderick wasn’t in office long when the Basques revolted, refusing to acknowledge his authority in Hispania.  Meanwhile, those supporting Witiza’s heirs contacted North African Muslims, and they dispatched a raiding party to investigate possibilities in Hispania.  The arrival of Muslims under Tariq ibn Ziyad prompted Roderick to lead a military force south to meet these raiders and chastise them.  At the Guadalete River near Arcos de la Frontera (near Jerez) on 23 July A.D. 711, Tariq destroyed Roderick’s force, killed King Roderick, and marched toward Toledo.  As a result, most Hispania capitulated, and the cherry on that glob of ice cream was that Roderick’s widow, Egilo, ended up marrying the son of an Arab military commander.

Less than a century after the invention of Islam as a significant religious contender, an army of Arabs and Imazighen (Berbers) serving the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus landed in the Iberian Peninsula.  Within seven years, most of Hispania was under Muslim rule — so much of it that the Muslims re-named it Al-Andalus.  One of its military leaders was an Emir named Abd al-Rahman al-Ghafiqi.

Abd al-Rahman was an Arab from the Ghafiq tribe who relocated to Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania.  There, he became acquainted with Musa ibn Nasayr, a governor of Al-Andalus.

He participated with them in the Battle of Toulouse, where King Odo of Aquitaine defeated them.  Afterward, Umayyad officials appointed him to command Eastern Al-Andalus and later as overall military commander (wali) governing Al-Andalus.

In A.D. 730, Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik learned of a rebellion, where Uthman ibn Naissa, the governor of Catalunya, had concluded a secret alliance with King Odo and sent al-Rahman to arrest him.  The uprising ended when Ibn-Naissa suddenly stopped breathing.  Subsequently, al-Rahman assembled an army at Pamplona intending to chastise King Odo of Aquitaine and destroy and pillage the riches in Gaul — which is precisely what al-Rahman did.  Odo, with his army destroyed and few nobles remaining alive fled to Charles Martel of the Franks for his assistance.


After A.D. 711, the complexion of Hispania would change forever.  Islamist armies destroyed the Visigoth Kingdom, killed its King, whom no one gave much support, and put to the sword many of the Visigoth nobles (presumably) for their refusal to surrender to the will of Allah.  From that point forward, for the next 781 years, the Visigoths were bred out of existence to form a new category of people: part Arab, part Celt, and part German.  The mix became more complex after A.D. 1492.

Next week, the Merovingians evolve —

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The Franks

We previously learned that Indo-European people, known as Celts, occupied widespread areas of Central Europe, eventually expanding into areas of present-day Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Northern Italy, Switzerland, lower Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  These people occupied most of present-day France during Julius Caesar’s effort to conquer Gaul.  The Celts were not a single group of people.  Over time, they evolved into many tribal groups.  In Britain, the primary tribes were Caledones, Taexali, Carvetii, and Venicones, while in Western Europe, they included Boii, Iberians, Gaels, Gauls, Gallaeci, Galatians, and Leopontii.

Part of what makes their story interesting is that despite speaking similar languages, no one today quite understands their cultural relationships.  Some experts contend that while we may call them Celts, they do not all belong to a central ethnic group — but other ethnologists disagree.  The Celts, they say, may have split off into various tribal segments, but they were uniquely similar and so widespread that around eighty percent of European people today came from Celtic stock.  It may also be true that we tend to focus on Celts simply because we do not know much about the people predating them.

What we do know is that Rome battled these people over many years so that, eventually, they could be suitably civilized and admitted into the Empire.  Eventually, they were admitted, and to one degree or another, they contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.

One interesting aspect of human interaction is acculturation — a social, psychological, and cultural change that stems from balancing two cultures while adapting to the prevalent society.  Acculturation is a condition within which individuals acquire, adopt, and adjust to new cultural environments, either voluntarily or as may be imposed upon them by a dominant culture.  We can see the effects of acculturation throughout history, notably in changes in language, religion, attitudes, values, and traditions.  Rome existed for more than 1,100 years.  Within that time, millions of people adopted Roman culture as their own.  By the time Rome collapsed in A.D. 476, Roman culture was deeply engrained throughout Western Europe.

Another interesting interaction between Romans and Celts, true in Gaul and the British Isles, was that Romans mixed with them.  The extent of the effect of a Gallo-Roman mix is uncertain, but even with intermarriage, the dominant gene continues to be the Celtic connection.  In Western Europe, we speak primarily about the Germanii, Alemanii, Teutonii, and Goetii people.  Modern geneticists conclude that there are very few differences in most European people (including Austrians, Croatians, Hungarians, and Ukrainians).

The basic framework of Celtic society was composed of extended families and clans based within a particular territorial confine and governed by strong codes of personal honor.  While it is true that Celtic tribes were eventually Latinized and later incorporated into Gallo-Roman culture, the Celts never stopped fighting for their independence.  In effect, Celtic adoption of the Roman language, morals, and folkways provides modern historians a model by which to compare (or contrast) human development in the region once known as Gaul and other less-studied Roman provinces.

The Franks of Myth

Every culture has mythical stories because such stories help people understand who they are or what they think they are.  From these early stories, one would think the Franks came from Pannonia, crossed the Rhine, and marched through Thuringia, setting up counties and minor kingdoms.  Other stories have them originating in Troy with claims to kinship with Virgil, the poet.  But none of these stories were written until the sixth and seventh centuries A.D.

The Franks (also Franci, Francorum, Francs, and French) were a recent addition to numerous Celtic tribal groups in Gaul.  Princeton historian P. J. Geary argues that the two mythical stories are similar in revealing that none of the early Franks knew much about their history or origins.  Not knowing their roots produced an inferiority complex absent in other Celtic groups of the period.  In the Liber Historiae Francorum, 12,000 Trojans sailed from Troy to the River Don in Russia and then went on to Pannonia, which sits on the river Danube, set near the Sea of Azov.  There, they established the city Sicambria (the most well-known tribal group in the Frankish homeland in the time of the Early Roman Empire (44 B.C.), which was soon defeated and dispersed by Rome’s legions.

The Franks in History

We first read about the Franks in Augustan History, a collection of biographies of the Roman emperors.  None of these sources offer a complete list of Frankish tribes, but there are references to the Franks as associated with the Chamavi (A.D. 289), the Bructeri (A.D. 307), and Amsivarii (A.D. 364-375).

Roman authors described the Franks as allies and enemies — which appears consistent with Julius Caesar’s descriptions of the Gallo in Commentarii de Bello Gallico.   In A.D. 260, a group of Franks penetrated as far as Tarragona (Spain) and plagued the region for around ten years before the Romans expelled them with much prejudice.  Later, after A.D. 288, the emperor Maximian defeated Salian Franks (and others) and moved them to Germania Inferior to work as laborers and prevent the settlement of other Germanii tribes.

One thing we know for sure about the Franks is that they never gave up breaking Rome’s rules about having a good relationship with others.  Frankish incursions were so frequent that the Romans finally decided to settle Franks along the border regions to control them better and use them against other Frankish groups trying to sneak into Roman territories.  In A.D. 328, the Sixth Legion captured Frankish raiders near Mainz and ended up executing around 700 and selling 300 into slavery.

The Franks are also mentioned in Tabula Peutingeriana (an Atlas of Roman roads).  Historians identify this atlas as a 13th century copy of a 4th or 5th century document that reflects information from the 3rd century.  In it, the word Francia appears as one of several locations with notations of tribal groups called Cherusci and Chamavi as Frankish groups.

The Salians Franks

We know of the Salians Franks from Ammianus Marcellinus, whose writing described how the Roman Emperor Julian (shown right) defeated “the first Franks of all,” the Salians, in A.D. 358.  The Salians were a northwestern subgroup of the early Franks who lived along the lower Rhine in Roman territory (present-day Netherlands and Belgium). 

Unlike the other Frankish groups, the Salians were (more or less) pushed into Roman territory by other warring Franks.  In time, these people would become Saxons, and some of those would later invade the British Isles.  There is some question about how these Franks became Saxons — but (maybe) we’ll unravel that mystery in time.

The first mention of the Salian people occurred in A.D. 286 during the reign of Emperor Probus; the soldier Carausius wrote of his efforts to defend the Straits of Dover against Saxon pirates.  These people were not the first associated with seafaring; Julius Caesar had to deal with them, as well.  Our understanding, while elementary, is that the Salians used riverboats to skirt around other Frankish groups to play havoc with Roman settlements in the Roman river delta.  In time, the Salians were brought to heel and joined the Roman system.

In the fifth century, Salian Franks under Chlodio pushed into Roman land above the Charcoal Forest, the northern boundary of what Julius Caesar called Belgium.  Chlodio began a campaign to conquer Toumai, Artois, and Cambrai to the Somme River.  Some historians regard Chlodio as the ancestor of the Merovingian dynasty, which was begun under Childeric I.  This is only important for understanding how Childeric I and his descendants established the Frankish kingdom of Neustria, the foundation for medieval France.  Childeric’s son, Clovis I, seized the “independent kingdoms” east of Silva Carbonaria and Belgica.  These locations, in turn, became the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia.

The Ripuarian Franks

Franks living in the Rhineland (Mainz to Duisburg) (present-day Cologne) were called Ripuarian Franks.  The term Ripuarians may mean “river people.” the Romans refer to them as raiders and as a source for Roman military service in the third century.  The earliest legal code of the Merovingian kingdom was called Lex Ribuaria.  In any case, the territory on both sides of the Rhine became a central part of Merovingian Austrasia, which included Roman Germania Inferior and incorporated both Ripuarian and Salians lands.

The Merovingian Dynasty Begins

The Merovingian Dynasty was the ruling family of the Franks from A.D. 481 when Clovis I ascended the throne of the Salian Franks until 751 when Childeric III was deposed and replaced by the Carolingian Dynasty as Kings of Francia.  Before then, the Merovingians established the largest and most powerful realm in Western Europe, solidifying the dominance of the Franks.

The name of the dynasty is derived from one of its forebears named Merovech, a semi-mythical Salian Frank who was said to have fought alongside the Romans.  Merovech’s grandson was Clovis I (reign from A.D. 481 to 511) — the man responsible for expanding Merovingian power into most of Gaul.

Next week, a word about the Visigoths.


The Celts

When most Americans think of Celts, they think of basketball players in Boston. Everyone else in the world knows that the Celts were an early tribal people who dominated the British Isles before the arrival of the Romans. Several hundred years later, the descendants of those Celts migrated to America from Scotland and Ireland in large numbers.  Anthropologists estimate that around twenty percent of the American people today can trace their ancestral roots to Scots-Irish Celts, but adding in Celtic people from other places in Europe, the number of Americans with Celtic ancestors jumps to well over two- hundred million.


But where did the Celts come from?  In the modern sense, they came from Spain, France, Northern Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Belgium — and Great Britain, of course.

The Celts were not the earliest human group to settle in Europe.  That honor goes to the Sumerian people whose empire dominated the landmass beginning around 6,000 B.C.  Both Sumerians and Celts emerged from the earlier human groups dating to around 10,000 B.C., following the last major ice age.

We refer to these post-ice age cultures as megalithic.  Note that the term Megalithic refers to cultures using prehistoric monuments of large stone or rock; Mesolithic refers to people that emerged during the middle part of the stone age between the Paleolithic (old stone) and Neolithic (new stone) periods.

Megalithic cultures stretched from Ireland (note the oldest stone structures at Newgrange (3,200 to 3,500 years B.C.) to southern England (Stonehenge (2,500 years B.C.), to Egypt — the land of the pyramids (2,700 years B.C.) — and across South Central Europe where we find Celts dominating Hungary, eastern Austria, and the Balkans.

In search of fertile land by which to feed themselves, these early people migrated over lands now covered by the Aegean and Black Sea (which back then were small freshwater bodies of water) to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.  Some of these made their way into the southeast, where they flourished and created a city they named Sumer (present-day Iraq).

What prompted this migration was the melting of large glaciers that flooded the headwaters of the present-day Danube (Austria).  Somewhere around 7,300 B.C., sea levels rose 150 feet.  Two-thousand years later, sea levels had increased to the point where they flooded over the Dardanelles, depositing salt water into the Black Sea.

The natural occurrences separated Europe from the southern human groups and isolated the northern people, allowing them to develop independently.  They formed new cultures and languages, including Greek and Etruscan-Roman, around the Mediterranean Sea and as Celts in the rest of Europe.  By the time the Sumerian Empire broke down (4,000 years ago), the Minoans were creating their unique empire (3,000 years ago).  What makes the Minoans significant was that they were the seagoing people who created settlements in the islands and coastal areas of the Mediterranean.  Note: Sicilian-Maltese cultures may have pre-dated the Minoan by 2,000 years.

There are some who may credit Christopher Columbus with discovering America in 1492, but scientists now conclude the Minoans were mining copper along the shores of Lake Superior in North America around 3,000 B.C. — and may have also contributed to the megalithic settlements in Ireland.  In time, these Minoans became Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Trojans.

Natural phenomena created these early cultures — and destroyed them, as well.  The Minoans came to an end with a gargantuan volcanic explosion around 1,400 years B.C., which, given the size of its tsunami, may have killed millions of people living along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the subsequent period, Mycenean Greeks shared a root language with European Celts for a period of around 1,000.  When the Celts brought Iron Age culture to Ireland and Scotland around 1,000 years B.C., the monuments already existed in Ireland and England, so one theory holds that the Celts inherited them from earlier cultures.

Interestingly, there is a split in language between the Mediterranean countries and the Celts in the rest of Europe.  The country mostly in the middle of these two worlds is western and northwestern Spain, where Celtic languages are still spoken. 

Urnfield Celts

The first group with a culture and language identifiable as Celtic appeared in Switzerland, Austria, southern Germany, western Hungary, Croatia, and southeastern France around 2,000 years B.C.  They were preceded by the megalithic culture (already discussed), which buried their dead in mound tombs.  They are called the Urnfield Culture because they cremated their dead and buried remains in urns in flat graves.  Given the period, this behavior was quite sophisticated. 

The Hallstatt Celts

Anthropologists differentiate the Hallstatt people from the Urnfield by the content of their graves.  Academics believe these latter people buried their notable citizens in mound tombs, often timbered and reminiscent of those found in Viking settlements.  The artifacts reflect a common culture and a (likely) common language, as well.  Note: These people were salt miners.  The ancient word for salt is “hall.”

The La Tene Celts

We love the ancient Greeks because they left us with their keen insight into things that, up until then, no one gave much thought to.  Around 550 B.C., Greek historians considered these people whom they called “Celtoi.”  The Greeks thought they were related to Thracians but more war-like owing to the sophistication of their weapons.  The Celtoi were thought to have overcome the people living in present-day Austria — and modern archeologists say there is a basis for thinking so.  Researchers call them La Tene Celts because, by around 400 B.C., most of Europe north of the Mediterranean coast dominated everyone else.  They were fierce warriors and boat-builders — and these were the people who terrorized the British Isles and sacked Rome at every opportunity.

By the time of the Punic Wars, Hallstatt-Iberian Celts had adopted the La Tene culture.  In what is now Northwest Spain, Celts constructed tall, round stone towers on their city walls.  They called themselves Castello’s (makers of castles), which gave them an exceptional defensive advantage over their attackers and made the conquest of Galicia Rome’s most difficult campaign.

When the Romans finally defeated Carthage and moved on to conquer most of the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain), some Celts in Galicia went to the British Isles.  Most, however, remained in Galicia because the Romans never quite succeeded in dominating them.  Today, the dominant language in Galicia (and Portugal) is the Celtic-Galician tongue.  In A.D. 410, Celts from Galicia (known as Visigoths) sacked Rome — sending a signal that Rome’s time had come to an end.

The Germanii

Celts, also known as Germanii, continued to dominate Central Europe until the arrival of the Huns — but even they could not exterminate the Celts in the Danube basin and eastern Austria.  What they succeeded in doing, however, was inter-marry with them and absorb them into their armies, and used them in attacking Rome.  When the king of the Huns, Attila, died, he left his kingdom to his four moronic sons, whose squabbling effectively destroyed Attila’s empire.  Within a short time, Celt/Goth warlords reemerged and ran most of the remaining Huns out of Gaul.

The Slavs were a mixture of Celtic, Sarmatians, Scythians, Cimmerians, and Indo-Iranian peoples.  They passed through but were not permitted to settle in most of Hungary and ended up settling in the Balkans.  The primary settlers in Hungary, eastern Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and France were the Celts.  After the fall of Rome, Europe (nearly) became Celtic again — a pathway destroyed by the Franks — another Germanii Celtic group that adopted Roman culture — including Christianity.

Next — The Franks


Biblical Math and Other Impossibilities

What makes studying antiquity difficult is that two thousand years ago, people used different calendars.  Not only that, but Jewish calendars were different from those of the Romans.  There are four types of calendars: solar, lunisolar, lunar, and seasonal.  We also separate calendars into regional (ethnic) or historical groupings: Jewish, Hijri, Sikh, Mayan, Aztecan, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, Hindu, Buddhist, pre-Columbian, Meso-American, Hellenic, Julian, Gregorian.  Most pre-modern calendars are lunisolar.  Islamic and some Buddhist calendars are lunar, while most modern calendars are solar and based on the Julian or Gregorian calendars.  Seasonal calendars rely on environmental changes (such as the wet or dry seasons).

An epoch or reference epoch is an instant in time chosen as the origin of a particular calendar era.  The “epoch” serves as a reference point from which we measure time.  Some calendars are like the Gregorian calendar (except for substituting regional month names or using a different calendar epoch).  For example, the Thai solar calendar introduced in 1888 was the Gregorian calendar using a different epoch and different names for the months — that is, Thai names based on zodiac signs.

There is plenty of discussion room for answering the question, “When did Jesus die?” There is plenty of space because scholars point to the fact that biblical math is complicated — and some will say impossible.  There are several theories about this, but the leading contenders are 7 April A.D. 30 and 3 April A.D. 33.

At that time, the Jewish calendar was lunar.  This means that the crescent moon’s light determined the first date of each month as it became visible in the holy city of Jerusalem.  The setting sun meant the end of one day, and the new moon meant the beginning of the next.  Daylight hours were measured from sunrise, so the first hour was 6 a.m., making the third hour 9 a.m., the sixth hour noon, and the ninth hour 3 p.m.

According to the gospels of Luke (23: 44-46): “It was now about the sixth hour [noon] and darkness came over the entire land until the ninth hour [3 p.m.] because the sun stopped shining, and the veil of the temple was torn in two.  Jesus said, “Father, I commit my spirit into your hands.  When he had said this, he breathed his last.”

The gospels agree on a basic chronology of events ending with Jesus’ crucifixion on a Friday.  On Thursday evening, Jesus of Nazareth shared a meal (which we today refer to as “The Last Supper.” His arrest took place later that night.

Pontius Pilate tried Jesus on Friday morning; he was executed Friday afternoon and buried just before sunset on Friday evening.  It was the beginning of Shabbat — the Jewish Sabbath.

About Crucifixion

Based on Roman literature and descriptions in the provinces, crucifixion was an established routine.  A centurion led special military teams, and in the provinces, the soldiers were selected from the local auxiliaries (natives who had joined the Roman Army).  The victim was stripped and then lashed (scourged).  As part of the public humiliation (the Romans crucified both men and women), the victim was led through the streets and remained naked.  Christian art portrays Jesus with a decent loincloth on the cross, but he would have been naked to create public humiliation.  There was a public plaque (titulus) indicating the crime.  The shedding of blood and the concept of corpse contamination meant that the executions took place outside the city walls.  The most popular spot was along one of the main roads leading into the city.  This also served as propaganda to demonstrate Roman law’s severity and the expectation for order.

These killing fields contained permanent, upright poles.  The victim did not carry the whole cross, but only the crossbeam.  The combined pole and crossbeam weighed between 300 to 400 pounds.  After scourging (the trauma and the loss of blood), there was a risk that the victim could die before arriving at the site of execution.  The necessity of keeping the victim alive led to the practice of the legions commandeering someone from the crowd to help carry the beam when the victim succumbed.  This is the role of Simon of Cyrene in the gospels.

Upon arrival, the victim was tied or nailed to the crossbeam, hoisted up, and connected to the vertical pole (with ladders and pulleys).  Evidence of the use of metal nails originates from several sources.  These were five to seven inches long tapered iron spikes.  The application of the nails varied.  Seneca reported that some victims were hung upside down (as was Peter) or with arms stretched out on either side.  The historian Josephus reported seeing crucifixion victims at the siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), where the soldiers thought it was amusing to position them in various poses.  Some people collected the nails as magical amulets.

Despite the iconography of later Renaissance art, Romans did not place spikes in the palms.  In the Gospel of John, when doubting, Thomas did not believe that Jesus was resurrected and wanted to see his “hands,” this was not literally accurate because Greek for “hand” meant anything from the tip of the fingers to the elbow, but in art the literal description became standard.

Several years ago, historians and scientists began experimenting on cadavers to fully understand how a crucifixion victim died.  It quickly became apparent that nailing through the palm would result in the body’s weight immediately tearing through.  Instead, the spike was inserted at the wrist, at the juncture of the ulna and radius.  These experiments on cadavers have resulted in the understanding that the cause of death for a victim was a combination of bodily trauma, loss of blood, and asphyxiation, as it became harder and harder to lift the body’s weight to breathe.

Seneca also reported that some victims were impaled in their private parts.  This may refer to what was known as a horn, or a pointed fixture halfway down, as a ‘seat’ for the victim.  This may have been a way to help support the body, although if pointed, it was excruciatingly painful.

There were variations for nailing the feet, sometimes crossed over, but the nails were often inserted into the side of the pole.  We know this from one of the rare skeletons of a crucifixion victim in Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D.  In the tomb of a wealthy family, one of the ossuaries (bone boxes for collecting bones) included the skeleton of someone named Jehohanan, who may have died by crucifixion.  When it was time to take him down, the nail through the side of the foot had bent; someone had simply cut his feet off.  We now have a fossilized lump that includes the nail, the heel fragment, and a bit of olive wood.

The gospel versions of the crucifixion of Jesus include many of the standard elements.  It demonstrates that the writers were familiar with the process.  It is possible but unlikely that any of the apostles witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  Mark wrote the first gospel — forty years later.

One of the purposes of crucifixion was to keep the victim alive as long as possible so that everyone could appreciate the result of rebelling against Rome.  Support for the victim also included “the vinegar mixed with gall,” also reported in the gospels.  This was the equivalent of using a type of smelling salt as a means of revival when the victim began to flag.  Crucifixion victims were expected to survive for several days — and most did, making it exceedingly painful.  It is problematic in the gospels that Jesus died within three hours unless, by the wound to his side, he bled to death.

We were looking for a Friday.

But in what year?  We can begin to narrow the possibilities by relying on what we know about certain historical characters — the source of which is the Jewish historian Josephus.  Tiberius Caesar, the Roman Emperor (A.D. 14 to A.D. 37); Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judaea (A.D. 26 to A.D. 36), Caiaphas, High Priest in Jerusalem (A.D. 18 to A.D. 36).

The gospels agree that Jesus was killed on Friday, at some time during the Passover; researchers want to know if it was on Passover itself or the day before.

The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the Passover on Friday.  So if that’s true, then Jesus was killed on Passover.  But in John, Passover falls on a Saturday, meaning that the Romans put Jesus to death the day before Passover.

Is it necessary because the day of his execution will determine which years the crucifixion could have happened.  So artificial intelligence will help to narrow down dates between A.D. 26 – A.D. 36 … on a Friday or a Saturday.

According to Dr. Helen Bond at the University of Edinburg, we then end up with these dates:  (a) 11 April A.D. 27 (Matthew, Mark, Luke) on Passover, (b) 7 April A.D. 30 (John, the day before Passover, and (c) 3 April A.D. 33 (John, the day before Passover).

Dr. Bond thinks that A.D. 27 is too early because John the Baptist began preaching in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (A.D. 28).  The New Testament tells us that Jesus began his ministry after John, so A.D. 28 is the earliest possible starting date.  By elimination, biblical scholars end up with two finalist dates for Jesus’ crucifixion: (a) 7 April, A.D. 30, and (b) 3 April A.D. 33.  Bond argues that most historians agree with the 7 April date because Jesus’ mission was short.  But a smaller group remains just as certain about 3 April because the mission was started closer to A.D. 30.  They also argue that A.D. 30 coincided with a lunar eclipse that Pontius Pilate referred to in a letter to the emperor Tiberius.

And there’s still no shortage of possibilities.  Dr. Bond thinks that all the dates previously discussed are incorrect.  In John 19:14, Jesus is crucified at noon on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, when preparers slaughtered the paschal lambs for the ritual Passover meal.  According to Dr. Hunt, “John chose to time the crucifixion with the Day of Preparation for religious reasons.  The whole point for John is that Jesus is the new Passover lamb.  He’s going to die on the cross as the new Passover sacrifice.”

Mark’s gospel had a religious argument, too.  According to Dr. Bond, Mark’s Last Supper takes place at the same time as the other Jews are celebrating the Passover meal.  Mark wants to say that the institution of the Last Supper replaces the Passover meal.  Dr. Bond believes that it is far more likely that Jesus was arrested and killed several days or even a week before Passover.  It makes sense that the Jewish authorities and Pilate would have wanted to finish with the troublemaker before the holiday began.  But if Jesus’ followers knew that he was crucified around Passover or at Passover time, the juxtaposition of Jesus’ death and Passover would have grown increasingly significant — in a very short period.

By the time the gospels were written (decades after the events they describe), “Passover would have had this magnetic pull so that everything ends up happening on the Passover instead of ‘around the time’ of Passover.  Historically, both dates in John and Mark are probably wrong.  But they represent that Jesus’ death and resurrection warranted important early reflections. A Friday crucifixion is the leading candidate in this debate.  Still, some scholars argue for Wednesday because it would allow Jesus to be buried for three full days and nights, as the biblical accounts say, although knowing what we now know about the Jewish calendar of the time, a part of a day would be included in a day count.  So, a Friday-to-Sunday death, burial, and subsequent resurrection would count as three full days in the Jewish calendar.

In any case, it’s Easter — give thanks.



Five hundred years ago, most people died within twenty-five miles of their birthplace.  In those days, men and women awakened with the dawn and retired with the dusk.  At night they slept and made babies.  In the daytime, they pursued whatever made them productive to their society.  We know what we know of these people because they bothered to write it down — or they left behind them evidence of their lives.

In the year 1350, fifteen-million people lived in France.  For five full years beginning in A.D. 1347, bubonic plague killed half the number of people living in Europe.  Human life in medieval times was living in the slow lane.  It must have seemed that way when people were dying by the thousands from a disease they could not escape.  Seven hundred years later, more than sixty-million people lived in Franc — and very few of them today know how it was to live among their grandparents thirty-one generations ago.



A dowry consists of money, material goods, and property that a bride’s family gifts to a groom when the two are married.  There are three reasons for such a tradition: first, it supplies the bride and groom with money and goods they will need to begin a new household.  Second, the prospect of losing a dowry was enough to keep a bride’s husband from becoming abusive toward her.  Moreover, if the groom were not careful, he could lose his entire dowry and life.  Since there have always been more females than males, large dowries made a daughter more marriageable.

A dowry’s opposite is a “brides’ price” — the money a groom pays to the bride’s family to secure her hand in marriage.

Dowries go back a long way in time — at least 4,000 (or more) years.  Hammurabi decreed that a bride’s father has no claim to his daughter’s dowry if she dies after she is married and has given birth to a son.  The groom must repay his wife’s father if the woman dies before delivering a son.

Dowries were also commonplace in Ancient Greece and Rome.  This was because weddings in the ancient world were more like business arrangements.  The inclusion of jewelry was a medium of exchange to facilitate a profitable merger.  The rules and procedures for dowries were quite similar, whether practiced in China, the Middle East, or during the early modern period.

Some dowries included castles, large (or several) estates, titles, jewels, gold, and silver.  If the bride’s parents were very wealthy and titled, scribes, priests, and the groom’s family may have noted the dowry carefully.  When King Louis VII married my 32nd Great-grandmother, her dowry included Aquitaine.  When Louis and Eleanor divorced, she took Aquitaine back again and presented it to her second husband, Henry II of England.

The Knots

There were simple marriages and complex affairs.  What decided whether a wedding was simple or complicated was social class.  Nobility always had their due because protocol demanded it; minor nobility mimicked the upper rank for as much as they could afford it.  Weddings among the peasants were hardly much of an affair at all.

In modern times, people think of weddings as joyous demonstrations of devotion, love, and commitment — except that our divorce rates suggest a different story.  Do we exaggerate the worthiness of wedding ceremonies?  I think not — but it is true that such observances have dark traditions.

Tradition holds that the purpose of a marriage veil is to ward off evil spirits.  It was not the purpose of a bouquet to present a sweet picture of a virginal bride; they instead masked the odor of an unwashed body.  It was true that a man carried his bride over the threshold of their new home, but it symbolized a woman who did not wish to go.  Women were the property of men; anthropologists tell us that wedding rings date back to the Roman Republic, when wives wore rings with keys attached, showing that they were the property of their husbands.  In this regard, the marriage ceremonies did not stipulate the worthiness of women until around 1477, when the Archduke Maximillian of Austria first commissioned a diamond ring for his bride.

Another tradition from ancient Rome involves dressing brides and bridesmaids in similar garments.  This was a trick to confuse evil spirits and keep them from interrupting a marriage ceremony.  One modern lecturer argues that this tradition had more to do with keeping the ladies from competing for the same fellow.

Centuries ago, bride-knapping was a real problem in Europe.  A groom who did not have a father’s permission to marry his daughter simply kidnapped her.  Under these circumstances, the role of the best man was to defend the groom — with his life if necessary.  A bride’s father might retaliate because marriages were often vital to the success of the family’s business.

June weddings became popular for one reason: May was the month when everyone took their annual bath.  As an aside, one of the most powerful women on earth in her own time was Queen Isabella of Spain.  This woman took six baths in her entire life: one on the eve of her wedding and one following the birth of each child.

Within the foregoing, we are mostly talking about marriages in high society.  Marriage within the peasantry was an entirely different matter.  Among Christians, getting married was incredibly simple.  All that was necessary was for each person to declare, “I will.”

It was easier to get married than prove that you were married.  This is why people began reciting the marriage banns (reading three times their intention to marry) and declaring those vows in front of witnesses.  Witnesses to marriage rites were proof of matrimony.

The Weddings

There was no formal requirement for a church marriage in medieval times because becoming wed was something people could do anywhere — from the pub to somewhere between the sheets.  It was only a matter of saying, “I choose thee.” The fixed requirement for marriage was puberty; no one needed the permission of their parents, or a ceremony conducted by a priest or shaman.  They may have to notify the lord of the manor or the sheriff for reasons beyond permission.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, human society entered a transitional stage from pagan skeptic to Christian believer — where most people were somewhere in the middle.  People liked the idea that God looked favorably upon their union.  But even those who remained unconvinced felt better about having a marriage ceremony in or near a religious sanctuary because it gave the rite greater weight.  Six hundred years later, Christian churches did try to gain some control over marriage rites, but this was less about giving structure to the ceremonies than it was about asserting the authority of God over community households.

The wedding needed one thing: the consent of those getting married — but given the number of marriages fathers arranged on behalf of their children, consent was not a fixed rule.

Oh, Romeo!

In 1597, the English playwright William Shakespeare wrote a play titled Romeo and Juliet.  It is the story of two feuding families in Verona, Italy.  Revenge, love, and a secret marriage force the teenage couple to end their lives rather than live apart.  Given what we know today about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, one wonders why most school systems force this play down the throats of young teens.  What remarkably good decision has any teenager ever made involving the opposite sex?

But the 1500s was a perfect world for the likes of Romeo and Juliet; people could marry as soon as they’d reached puberty — even without their parent’s permission.  The overlying principle was that there was only ONE acceptable basis for sexual intercourse — marriage.  There were many consequences of making decisions without input from one’s parents, and not all of these were “good outcomes.”

As for puberty, not everyone reaches that gate at the same time in their lives.  In Shakespeare’s time, females reached puberty with the onset of their menstruation period (between eleven and thirteen years).  For males, puberty begins between ages nine and fourteen.  This may seem too young, but perhaps not after considering that the average life span of a human being in the 1500s was around 45 years.

Exchanging Gifts

Once more, a marriage only needed the couple’s mutual acknowledgment — “I will.” But a couple might exchange a gift.  It could be something as simple as giving a bride a bouquet of heather to symbolize good luck, adoration, and a promise to protect.  A bride might give her groom a ring made from straw or grass.  In old English, the word for such gifts was “wed.” The exchange of marriage gifts became “a wedding.” If they didn’t want to exchange words or gifts, a couple could become married by engaging in sexual intercourse — the sex act was what made marriages legally binding.

The Protocols

We have already discussed the issue of mutual consent and have seen a fallacy in its proposition.  If a man took a woman sexually, he’d married her.  There was no “consent.” Scholars argue that parental consent was never a condition of marriage — but this claim is unconvincing.  Parents were essential safeguards to ensure genetic separation.  Traditionally, until a young woman was married, her father was her protector — a job most fathers take seriously.  A young lad would be unimaginably stupid to defy a young woman’s father.

Families and social networks influenced marital decisions, including the ceremony itself.  If the family wanted the church involved, the church would be involved.  Additionally, the lord of the manor may have something to say about the marriage.

One controversial provision in Latin exists, called Jus Prima Nocta (right of the first night).  This “right” gave the lord of the manor the right to bed any female subject, regardless of her social rank, on her wedding night.  We know of this because of a mention in Gilgamesh and the works of Herodotus (although not in Latin).  We also believe there was a revolt in Volsinii (Italy) for such abuses against newly wedded females by the Etruscans.

There is no evidence of Jus Prima Nocta in medieval records, but there are notations in history of a marriage fine or merchet.  A bride’s father paid the fine to his lord to compensate him for the young woman leaving his land.  This lord may have been a count, an alderman, or a reeve.  A shire reeve (sheriff) kept track of such things as population counts, marriages, and deaths.  Some historians suggest that the merchet was one way for the girl’s father to avoid Jus Prima Nocta.  A father paid similar indulgences to the Church.

There was no middle class in medieval times, so there were only two classifications according to relative wealth: rich and poor.  Most people were “poor.” Among the poor, or working class, life was simple out of necessity.  When the poor married, they said the magic words and remained together “unto death.” There was nothing egalitarian about medieval times — poor people married other poor people, and wealthy people married other wealthy people.

The Arrangements

The University of Nottingham (England) assures us that people from land-owning families did not usually marry for love; their parents or guardians arranged their marriages.  Nor is this a “thing of the past.” Many societies today continue to arrange marriages.  Land was an important aspect of the negotiating process of arranged marriages.  If women did not bring land to the altar, they brought cash.  The family of the groom routinely matched whatever the bride’s family offered.  Shown at right is a copy of an agreement in a marriage made before the union of Philip Boteler and Isabel Willoughby (1436, in old English).

At times, it may be necessary to cancel an arranged marriage — notably in case of a downturn in family fortunes.  But if the arrangement were possible, both families would work to ensure that it became successful.  In medieval times, many marriages became matters of State, such as forming foreign alliances.  Whenever monarchs were involved, wedding hosts invited “everyone who was anyone.” To have such a wedding, the hosts accepted an obligation to satisfy social protocols, observing the rights of nobility and rank.

Marriage contracts not only arranged marriages but also outlined how to care for the offspring of such arrangements.  Early death was an unpleasant fact in medieval times, so in the case of a husband’s death, or that of his wife, there might be an understanding about the right of inheritance or to whom the widow might next marry.  When Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon, she was already the widow of Henry’s older brother Arthur.  This issue later came to bear when King Henry decided to divorce Catherine.

Every culture has its ways of conducting rites and ceremonies, and some are a bit stranger than others.  And, of course, there are misunderstandings in every human interaction — or at least the potential for them.  This potential for mistake increases when people from different cultures wed, but there are plenty of “issues” within homogeneous societies, too.  For example, the use of precious metals in constructing wedding rings came about because some boys were known to “play jokes” on young girls by offering them grass rings. 

In 1217, the church included a warning about this very thing: “No man should place a ring of reeds or another material, vile or precious, on a young woman’s hands in jest, so that he might more easily fornicate with them, lest, while he thinks himself to be joking, he pledges himself to the burdens of matrimony.” It was also in the twelfth century that marriage became a holy sacrament — the union of a man and a woman in marriage and sex stood for the union of Christ and the church, and this was hardly a symbol taken lightly.  Protestantism in England evolved because of its King’s wicked and corrupted heart.


  1. McSheffrey, S.  Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 
  2. Pounds, G. & Roome, C.C.  Population Density in Fifteenth Century France and the Low Countries, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1971.

University of Nottingham (U.K., China, Malaysia): “Marriage Arrangements.” Section: Manuscripts and Special Collections, online. 


Project Blue Book and other Fairy Tales — Part 2

The Robertson Panel

In July 1952, after hundreds of sightings over the previous few months, a series of radar detections coincident with visual sightings were observed near the National Airport in Washington, D.C. Following much publicity, the Central Intelligence Agency created a panel of scientists headed by Dr. H. P. Robertson, a California Institute of Technology physicist.  The panel included physicists, meteorologists, and engineers.  Their first meeting was on 14 January 1953.

Captain Ruppelt, Dr. Hynek, and others presented the best evidence that Blue Book had collected, including movie footage.  After spending 12 hours reviewing six years of data, the Robertson Panel concluded that most U.F.O. reports had straightforward explanations.  In the panel’s final report, members stressed that low-grade, unverifiable U.F.O. reports were overloading intelligence channels, with the risk of overlooking a genuine conventional threat to U.S. national security.

The panel recommended, with C.I.A. approval, that the U.S.A.F. de-emphasize the subject of U.F.O.’s and begin a debunking campaign to lessen the public interest.  They wanted the cooperation of national media, including Walt Disney Productions, and employing psychologists, astronomers, and celebrities to ridicule the notion of extraterrestrials so that the public would eventually think the idea was silly.

Robertson recommended a government program to control public opinion through official propaganda and spying.  Robertson also shaped official U.S. Air Force policy regarding U.F.O. studies — an impact that continues today.  Step One: controlling the leaks.  In December 1953, DoD Regulations made it a crime for military personnel to discuss U.F.O. reports with unauthorized personnel.  Violators faced two years in prison and a $10,000.00 fine.

U.F.O. Reporting

In his book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt described the demoralization of the BLUE BOOK staff after the Robertson Panel/Air Force stripped them of their investigative authority.  The consequence of the Robertson Panel was Air Force Regulation 200-2, which authorized U.S.A.F. officers to discuss U.F.O. incidents only if judged to have been resolved and to classify (with a high classification) all unsolved cases as a way of keeping them out of the public conversation.

In February 1953, responsibility for U.F.O. investigation was handed off to the 4602nd Air Intelligence Squadron, Air Defense Command — but only the “most important” cases.  These were cases deemed those with national security implications.  All of the least important cases remained with BLUE BOOK.

In 1954, General Twining was Air Force Chief of Staff.  He ordered an update to AFR 200-2 directing the 4602nd to consider any airborne object that, by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type and cannot be positively identified as a familiar object.  Again, the Air Force directed that the investigation of the U.F.O.’s was for national security and reiterated that Blue Book could only discuss U.F.O. cases with the media if they had a conventional explanation.  If they were unidentified, the press was to be told only that the situation was under investigation, and to ensure this worked out to the Air Force’s advantage, the hierarchy ordered BLUE BOOK to reduce the number of unidentified objects to a minimum.

All this work was secret.  The public face of BLUE BOOK continued to be the official Air Force investigation of U.F.O.’s, but the reality was that beyond its public relations value, it was an empty office.  By the end of 1956, the number of cases listed as unsolved had dipped to 0.4 percent.  After Ruppelt’s resignation, the Air Force replaced him with a low-ranking noncommissioned officer.  Later, when an officer resumed the leadership of BLUE BOOK, they invariably exhibited apathy or hostility to the subject of U.F.O.’s.  Why?  Because it was a dead-end job — a career-ender.

The Mouseketeers (1954 – 1964)

Captain Charles Hardin assumed command of BLUE BOOK in March 1954.  He was bored with U.F.O.’s and anyone interested in them.  By the time Hardin was due for reassignment, the number of U.F.O. cases had dropped to 1% of the former.

Captain George T. Gregory took over as BLUE BOOK director in 1956.  If Hardin was anti-U.F.O., Gregory was out in the left field.  Responsibility for U.F.O. investigations was reassigned to the 1066th Air Intelligence Service Squadron, where no studies occurred.  If a witness came forward to report an observation of an unusual balloon-like object, BLUE BOOK usually classified it as a balloon — with no research or qualification.  These became standing procedures for BLUE BOOK.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Friend took over BLUE BOOK in 1958.  He tried to reverse the project’s direction, but the Air Force reduced BLUE BOOK’s budget to the point where the office couldn’t order typing paper.  Dr. Hynek was heartened by Friend’s efforts and suggested that the Air Force reconsider its files, but the Air Force gave none of his suggestions or efforts its approval.  Friend even suggested that BLUE BOOK be assigned to another Air Force agency.  That didn’t work, either.  The Secretary of the Air Force wanted this U.F.O. business to “go away.”

In 1960, Congress conducted hearings on U.F.O.’s.  Since the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (N.I.C.A.P.) was one of the loudest voices calling into question Air Force corruption and an Air Force coverup of U.F.O. evidence — Congress subpoenaed the agency to testify.[1]  At the time, N.I.C.A.P. probably had the most visibility of any American non-military U.F.O. group and, arguably, had the most mainstream respectability.  The presence of several prominent military officials as members of N.I.C.A.P. brought a further measure of respectability for many observers.[2]

N.I.C.A.P. demanded a transparent scientific investigation of U.F.O. phenomena — but at the same time, they maintained skepticism of those reporting contact with aliens.  Until the mid-1960s, N.I.C.A.P. gave little attention to the so-called close encounters of the third kind (defined as animated beings sighted in connection to a U.F.O.).  However, longtime N.I.C.A.P. member Richard H. Hall claimed that the organization’s position was more about how to handle the question of U.F.O.’s and alien contact than a strategy of embracing outlandish claims and possibilities.[3]

Due to congressional interest in alien research, the Air Force added three staff members to BLUE BOOK operations and increased its budget.  This mollified some critics, but it was only a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.  When Colonel Friend was transferred in 1963, he believed the BLUE BOOK was useless.  Indeed it was — which is why the criticism continued.

Major Hector Quintanilla replaced Colonel Friend as the BLUE BOOK director.  Under his leadership, public criticism increased — some said the project had no credibility with anyone.  Dr. James E. McDonald of the University of Arizona was one of Major Quintanilla’s fiercest critics — claiming that the officer was incompetent as an investigator and a scientist.  McDonald added that it wasn’t Quintanilla’s fault: the Air Force chose him for that reason.[4]

And then, the Air Force treated the American public to its conclusions from the famous Portage County U.F.O. chase in April 1966.  The chase began at around 5:00 a.m. near Ravenna, Ohio.  Police officers Dale Spaur and Wilbur Neff observed what they described as a disc-shaped, silvery object with a bright light emanating from its underside traveling at about 1000 feet in altitude.  They followed the object, along with police units from several jurisdictions — the chase ending around thirty minutes later, eighty-five miles distant.

The chase made national news that ran the story for several days.  Meanwhile, police officials submitted detailed reports to the Air Force.  Five days later, BLUE BOOK interviewed one police officer (but no ground witnesses).  A few days after that, Major Quintanilla announced his conclusions that the police officers (trained as observers, one of whom was a former Air Force gunner during the Korean War) were mistakenly following a communications satellite and then shifted their attention to the planet Venus. 

But Robert Riser, the Oklahoma Science and Art Foundation director, reached a point where he could no longer abide BLUE BOOK’s incompetence and publicly rebuked the Air Force’s U.F.O. effort.  The problem, as he and others pointed out, was that the Air Force’s absurd pronouncements only made the issue of the Air Force’s competence worse.  Even the barely informed public knew that radar doesn’t have anything to do with the position of planets and stars and that communications satellites don’t travel at such low altitudes.

Despite Quintanilla’s incompetence, the Air Force promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel.  He was kind enough to document his perspectives about the Blue Book Project in his manuscript, U.F.O.’s: An Air Force Dilemma.  Quintanilla wrote the manuscript in 1975, but it was not published until after he died in 1998.

The Sightings Continue

In 1966, a string of sightings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire provoked Congressional Hearings by the House Committee on the Armed Forces.  In the first round, the Air force testified that the sightings were part of an area training exercise. N.I.C.A.P. contradicted that testimony, submitting proof that no planes were flying at the time of the sightings.  Raymond Fowler told of his investigation and interviews with local citizens.  According to their testimony, Air Force officers confiscated newspapers carrying the story of U.F.O.’s and ordered them not to report what they’d seen.

Two police officers, Eugene Bertrand, and David Hunt, communicated with Quintanilla — and they were not pleased.  Air Force Secretary Harold Brown explained that BLUE BOOK consisted of three steps — investigation, analysis, and the distribution of information.  With Brown’s permission, the Chairman invited press members into the hearing.  Brown stated, for the record, “I know of no one of scientific standing or executive standing with a detailed knowledge of this in our organization who believes that they came from extraterrestrial sources.”

Dr. Hynek, the Project Blue Book scientific advisor, stated that he had not seen any confirmation of the existence of extraterrestrials, knew of any scientist that had, or knew of any scientist that believed in the existence of any extraterrestrial intelligence. 

Criticism of BLUE BOOK continued through the 1960s as N.I.C.A.P.’s membership ballooned.  These were people who loudly accused the Air Force of corruption.  Following Congressional hearings, the Air Force funded a committee of its own through the University of Colorado U.F.O. Project (1966 – 1968). Its director was Edward Condon — it became known as the Condon Committee, whose work he published as the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects (1968).

After examining hundreds of U.F.O. files from BLUE BOOK, N.I.C.A.P., and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (A.P.R.O.), the committee determined that studies of U.F.O.’s were unlikely to produce any significant scientific discoveries. Still, the findings received a mixed reception from scientific and academic journals — and to some extent, explain the relatively low-interest level in U.F.O. activity in the academic world. One wonders at this point how much money the Air Force spent reaching this “obvious” conclusion.

The U. S. Space Force

The U.S. government released its report on U.F.O.’s in 2021.  For many, it was anti-climactic — because the government could not explain 143 out of 144 “sightings” of unidentified flying objects.  In the one explained case, the government determined that the object was a large deflating balloon.  The public wondered, “Where are the aliens?”

It wasn’t the Air Force who released that information; it was the Director of National Intelligence — without any details.  The question was if there was any analysis, what it was, and who conducted the study.  After all, it had only been 75 years.  Surely someone knows something after 75 years of investigation.

That’s when the Director of National Intelligence introduced Dr. Travis Wayne Taylor (1968 – ).  Dr. Taylor’s educational credentials are brilliant.  He holds a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering (B.E.E.), two Masters of Science, a Master of Science in Engineering, and two post-honorary degrees.  He is an employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (N.A.S.A.) within the U.S. Department of Defense.  He is also a science fiction writer, authored two science textbooks, a reality television personality (When Alien’s Attack), and lead investigator in the History Channel’s The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.

The revelation of Dr. Taylor as the United States’ lead investigator of the Director of National Intelligence’s effort to analyze 75 years of U.F.O. data did nothing to warm the hearts of people who are interested in the existence of alien life forms — particularly since Dr. Taylor had made some extraordinary claims. He’s said, for the record, that he’s seen more U.F.O.’s than he can count.

Real-life astronomers can only shake their heads because appointing a clown to guide the nation’s space assessment program is a kick in the teeth for all the hard work they’ve put into such activities as the S.E.T.I. operations.  Worse, it calls into question the credibility and validity of advanced degrees awarded by the country’s prestigious universities — causing some to wonder whether this is just another aspect of the affirmative action program in the United States.

Many people fear that the government’s decision to hire a science fiction writer as N.A.S.A.’s chief analyst is simply one more silly effort to discredit any serious attempt to evaluate the likelihood of extraterrestrial life forms.  They wonder if the U.S. Air Force or Space Force is leading the American people down the path of accepting “reality television” as the nation’s best effort toward understanding deep space — and of all the platforms available to the Director of National Intelligence, the History Channel — which also produces the fictional (zero-credibility) Ancient Aliens program.

The government’s revelation tells us something else: if you are a pilot, if you observe a U.F.O., if you wish to remain in flight status, if you want to retain your credibility as an airman, you’ll keep your mouth shut.  That is unless you want a reality television program of your own. There’s more money in that than there is working at S.E.T.I.

Or, we could add the U.S. Air Force and Space Force to our growing list of government agencies, departments, and institutions with no credibility with the American people.

(End of Series)


  1. Blum, H.  Out There: The Government’s Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials.  Simon & Schuster, 1990.V
  2. Ruppelt, E. J.  Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  Doubleday, 1960.
  3. Swords, M. D.  UFOs, the Military, and the Early Cold War Era.  Kansas University Press, 2000.
  4. Valle, J.  Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds.  Contemporary Books, 1993.


[1] NICAP was a non-profit organization facing financial collapse on several occasions — mostly due to the ineptitude of its directors. 

[2] Major Donald E. Keyhoe, USMC; Rear Admiral Delmer S. Fahrney, U.S.N., former Chief, Navy Guided Missile Program. 

[3] There were more than a few “outlandish” claims, beginning in the mid-1940s.  One of these claims originated with George Adamski (1891 – 1965), who insisted that he had established friendships with his “space brothers” and made several space flights with aliens.  Another strange character was Truman Bethurun, who beginning in 1953, offered accounts of eleven separate contacts with alien humanoid-type beings — people who spoke colloquial English and came from the planet Clarion.

[4] Most U.F.O. reports mostly claim incidents after sunset — so one common theme is a multicolored flashing light and aerial vehicles shaped like eggs or diamonds.  The Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported that air control specialists at Tinker A.F.B. tracked four U.F.O.s simultaneously with erratic behavior and altitudinal changes from 22,000 feet to 4,000 feet in mere seconds.  Kansas meteorologist John Shockley reported tracking several aerial objects traveling at a high rate of speed at around 6,000 to 9,000 feet.  In both cases (as well as others), BLUE BOOK staff concluded that witnesses mistook planets for stars or some other lame explanation.


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Project Blue Book and other Fairy Tales — Part 1

The Sightings

On 19 September 1961, Barney and Betty Hill returned to their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when they encountered an alien spaceship.  The couple was not the first to sight, report, or claim contact with beings from outer space. It’s been going on for a while — the claims, I mean.

The first claim, which supposedly dates back to 1440 B.C., is that Thutmose III reported “fiery disks” floating in the sky over Lower Egypt.  The claim was rendered fake by the Condon Committee, a group of academics associated with the University of Colorado, who received grants from the U.S. Air Force to study U.F.O. phenomena under the direction of physicist Edward Condon between 1966 – 1968.

The basis for the Egyptian claim was the so-called Tulli Papyrus, which wasn’t revealed to anyone until 1953 in an article published in the Fortean Society magazine Doubt by Tiffany Thayer.[1]  The Fortean Society, created to promote the ideas of Charles Hoy Fort (1874 – 1932), was a writer/researcher specializing in strange phenomena.  Several of Fort’s books influenced later science fiction writers, both in their skepticism and their ideas.  One of the Fortean Society’s early members was the journalist H. L. Mencken.  Mr. Menchken opined that Fort’s head was full of mush.  As proof, theorist Erich von Daniken included the Tulli Papyrus as part of his “ancient aliens” discoveries.

There were also “sightings” in 218 B.C. recorded by Livy, in 76 B.C., noted by Pliny, the Elder, and in 65 A.D. by Flavius Josephus during the First Romano-Jewish War.  Sightings of aerial flights by chariots and other strange instruments repeated in 1562, Nuremberg, 1883, Zacatecas, Mexico, and 1897, Aurora, Texas.

More about the Hills

Barney Hill (1918 – 1969) was a U.S. Postal employee.  Eunice (Betty) Hill (1919 – 2004) was a social worker, a church activist, and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.).  The Hills were an interracial couple at a time when interracial marriages were rare.

According to the Hills, they were driving home from a vacation at Niagara Falls and Montreal.  Just south of Lancaster, New Hampshire, Betty observed a bright point of light in the sky and moved from below the moon upward to the west.  Barney, at the time driving on U.S. Route 3, focused his attention on highway safety.  Initially, Betty thought she was seeing a falling star — except that it was moving upward, but then because it was moving erratically and growing bigger by the second, the Hills stopped the car so that they both could get a better view.

The Hills later claimed that while they had no direct memory of their abduction, they began experiencing odd sensations, impulses, and dreams.  The watches they were wearing that night stopped working and never worked again.  There was press coverage, of course — and a book, with rumors of a film (which never materialized).  Inevitably, the Hills lost their credibility.

Unidentified Flying Object (U.F.O.) expert Robert Shaeffer described the Hills as the poster children for not driving when sleep deprived.  He wrote, “I was present at the National U.F.O. Conference in New York City in 1980, where Betty[Hill] presented some of the U.F.O. photos she had taken.  She showed what must have been far more than 200 slides, mostly of blips, blurs, and blobs against a dark background.  These were supposed to be U.F.O.s coming in close, chasing her car, landing, etc.  After her talk had exceeded about twice its allotted time, Betty was jeered off the stage by what had been, at first, a sympathetic audience.  This incident, witnessed by many ufology leaders and top activists, removed any lingering doubts about Betty’s credibility — she had none.  In 1995, Betty Hill wrote a self-published book, A Common Sense Approach to U.F.O.s, filled with delusional stories, such as seeing entire squadrons of U.F.O.s in flight and a truck levitating above the freeway.”

Before Hill

Concerns about extraterrestrials pre-dated the Hill episode by fifteen years.  On 27 June 1947, the national press picked up a story about civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold seeing what became known as “flying saucers.” Within a short time, there were over 800 copycat stories.  Ten days later, rancher Mac Brazel (unaware of the flying saucer bruhaha reported debris scattered across his ranch to the sheriff in Roswell.  The sheriff notified the U.S. Army Air Field, who sent Major Jesse Marcel to investigate.  On 8 July, Marcel took the debris to his Commanding Officer, Colonel William Blanchard.  Later that day, the public affairs office issued a press release stating that Air Corps personnel had recovered a “flying disk,” which had landed on a ranch near Roswell.

The Air Force began slicing its wrist shortly after it retracted its initial claim to replace it with a story about weather balloons.  The national press liked the first announcement best because it was more sensational — so, of course, that was the headliner. Neither story was true. Today, we know this as the Roswell Incident. The debris discovered by Brazel was part of a top-secret Air Corps effort to spy on the Soviet Union with high-altitude balloons.  The Americans came up with this idea from the Japanese, who, during World War II, attempted to send incendiary weapons against the U.S. west coast using high-altitude balloons.  The so-called Fu-Go balloons didn’t work well then, either.[2]

Oddly enough, the Air Corps (soon to be U.S. Air Force) turned to a civilian industry to help develop a high-altitude balloon program.  General Mills Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota — known for manufacturing breakfast cereals- was a significant innovator in aerospace technology, particularly in scientific balloons.

Established in 1946, the Aeronautical Research Division fell under the leadership of the recent German émigré Otto Winzen. Winzen determined that the latex balloons weren’t cut out for high-altitude missions, whereas polyethylene materials were up to the tasks assigned to such operations. General Mills worked closely with the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research.

The codename for the first of these balloons was Skyhook — launched in September 1947.  They proved tremendously successful in carrying a wide range of scientific payloads.  They were exactly what the Air Force needed for reconnaissance overflights — codenamed MOGUL.  Earlier, in 1944, a geophysicist named Maurice Ewing realized that at a certain depth below the ocean, pressure and temperature combine to create a zone of water in which the speed of sound is at a minimum — so that any sound produced in this zone will bounce off the layers of water above and below allowing it to propagate over long distances.[3]

From Ewing’s work, the Navy created a device known as the SOFAR bomb, which allowed downed Navy pilots to communicate their position at sea.  After the war, scientists realized that a similar sound channel exists in the upper atmosphere.  The sounds of distant enemy nuclear tests and missile launches were detectable by flying balloons equipped with instruments into this channel.  To this end, technicians fitted MOGUL balloons with ultra-sensitive microphones, telemetry systems for transmitting recorded data to ground stations — and automatic systems for maintaining the balloons’ altitude.

To disguise the project’s true nature during the testing phase of MOGUL, unclassified weather balloons contained sensitive military equipment designed and launched by a research team from the University of New York.  As it happened, MOGUL flight No.4 launched on 4 June 1947 — and this equipment fell into the ranch abutting Roswell, New Mexico.

To allow the monitoring teams to track these balloons, researchers fitted them with a chain of kite-shaped radar reflectors consisting of lightweight balsa wood frames covered in metal foil.  According to Charles Moore, working at the time as a General Mills engineer attached to Project MOGUL, the foil was fixed to the frames using metallic tape purchased from a New York City toy factory.  The packing tape was stamped with decorative patterns, which included the kinds of designs that appealed most to children — hearts, flowers, sea shells, and so forth.  During the Air Force’s investigation of the material collected from Bezel’s ranch, U.F.O. experts identified these designs as extraterrestrial hieroglyphics.  There was no other possible explanation.

The Air Force Takes Charge

The first Air Force U.F.O. study fell under Project SIGN.  The project began in 1948 under the direction of Air Force General Nathan Farragut Twining, who commanded the Air Technical Services Command.  Earlier, Project SIGN was called Project SAUCER. Twining’s task was to collect, evaluate, and distribute (within the government) all information relating to U.F.O. sightings — on the premise that they might represent a national security concern.[4]

In late April 1947, the Air Force released a paper prepared by the Intelligence Division of the Air Material Command (Wright-Patterson A.F.B.).  The report was anti-climactic, stating that while some U.F.O.s appeared to represent actual aircraft, the Air Force didn’t have enough data to determine their origin.  And recommended a continuation of the investigation of all sightings.  According to Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, U.S.A.F., later director of Project BLUE BOOK, Project SIGN produced an “Estimate of the Situation,” which endorsed an interplanetary explanation for U.F.O.’s.  General Hoyt Vandenberg, U.S.A.F. Chief of Staff, shut down Project SIGN for “lack of proof.” There is no verification of Ruppelt’s claim remains unverified.

Project GRUDGE followed Project SIGN.  The GRUDGE staff concluded that a foreign power could exploit U.F.O. reports to induce panic among the population and be useful to foreign secret services.  Accordingly, Project GRUDGE publicly disparaged all U.F.O. reports as (a) misidentification of conventional objects, (b) a form of mass hysteria and post-war nervousness, (c) hoaxers and liars, and (d) psychotic persons.

The Caldwell Investigation

In 1949, Air Force officials received information from a shareholder of an aeronautical company advising them that his company was developing aircraft fashioned after the saucers spoken about in the press.  This followed revelations of Kenneth Arnold of seeing U.F.O.’s over Mount Rainier and the Roswell Incident (already discussed).[5]  The reason for this letter was that the Air Force had asked for reports of flying saucers, and the shareholder believed that his company’s efforts might explain them.

With the help of Maryland State Police, Air Force investigators discovered the remains of the inventor John Caldwell’s flying machine in a barn just outside Baltimore.  In as much as these prototypes never gained airworthiness, there was no way Caldwell’s invention could have been mistaken for U.F.O.’s.  But in response to the Air Force’s request for information, letters and telegrams flooded in from all across the country — along with an inexhaustible number of photographs of the Caldwell machine described as wreckage from alien spacecraft.

The Ruppelt Period

Captain Ruppelt referred to the GRUDGE period as the “dark ages” of the Air Force U.F.O. effort.  Of course, the GRUDGE standard line was that spacecraft were natural phenomena and nothing to see — while admitting that there was no acceptable explanation for a quarter of all reports.  By the end of 1951, several Air Force generals were so dissatisfied with the service’s handling of U.F.O. investigations that they dismantled GRUDGE and replaced it with BLUE BOOK in 1952.  Two of those unhappy generals were Charles Cabell and William Garland.  Having claimed to have witnessed a U.F.O., Garland thought the question of U.F.O.’s deserved serious consideration.

The term BLUE BOOK refers to the booklets used at some colleges and universities for final exams.  According to Captain Ruppelt, the name was inspired by the attention of high-ranking officers to the project — which led to the creation of the Air Force Aerial Phenomenon Department.

Ruppelt was the first to head the project.  He was a decorated airman from World War II with a degree in aeronautics — and it is said that it was Ruppelt who first coined the term “Unidentified Flying Object.” To him, it was better than a flying saucer or flying disk.  Some years later, Ruppelt resigned from the Air Force and wrote a book entitled The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  In this book, he described the study of U.F.O.s by the Air Force from 1947 to 1955.  One scientist opined that Captain Ruppelt led the last serious effort to analyze U.F.O.s.

During his tenure at BLUE BOOK, Ruppelt scream lined the process of U.F.O. reporting in the hopes of alleviating the ridicule of the U.F.O. project.  Not everyone in America believed in such things.  But he developed a questionnaire for witnesses to standardize the information to be analyzed.  These efforts led to qualitative statistical analysis and computerized storage of data.

Ruppelt wanted to avoid the factionalism that existed under Project SIGN.  He took his job seriously, and he expected his staff to do so as well.  Early in his post, he fired three of his staff because they couldn’t be objective.  Through his commander, Ruppelt tasked each U.S. Air Force Base to collect U.F.O. reports and forward them to his desk.  To accomplish his task, Ruppelt was authorized to interview all military personnel who witnessed U.F.O.s irrespective of the chain of command.  It was an unprecedented authority that illustrated the seriousness of BLUE BOOK.

Under Ruppelt’s direction, BLUE BOOK investigated several high-profile cases.  They were high-profile because they were featured in the national press.  Dr. J. Allen Hynek (1910 – 1986), an astronomer, served as the project’s scientific consultant.  It was Hynek that established the categories known today as Close Encounters.  Dr. Hynek regarded himself as a wavering skeptic.  In 1953, Ruppelt returned to his office after a short period of temporary duty and found that his superiors had dismissed most of his staff.  Frustrated, Ruppelt recommended that BLUE BOOK turn over U.F.O. investigations to the Air Defense Command.  He then resigned.  He died from a heart attack in 1960 — aged 37.


  1. Blum, H.  Out There: The Government’s Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials.  Simon & Schuster, 1990.V
  2. Ruppelt, E. J.  Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  Doubleday, 1960.
  3. Swords, M. D.  UFOs, the Military, and the Early Cold War Era.  Kansas University Press, 2000.
  4. Valle, J.  Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds.  Contemporary Books, 1993.


[1] Tiffany Elworth Thayer (1902 – 1959) was an American actor, writer, and one of the founding members of the Fortean Society (1931). 

[2] Five people enjoying a picnic on 5 May 1945 were killed near Bly, Oregon, where a Japanese balloon fell on them.

[3] Today, we know that whales and other marine creatures use this zone, which Ewing called the Sound Fixing and Ranging channel (SOFAR), to communicate across entire oceans.

[4] Nathan Twining (later to become Chairman of the JCS, was the elder brother of Merrill C. Twining and the nephew of Rear Admiral Nathan C. Twining.  

[5] Arnold was a private pilot, a businessman, and a politician.

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