Digging Ditches in Early Medieval Europe

Digging Ditches in Early Medieval Europe

By Paolo Squatriti

Past and Present, Vol.176:1 (2002)

Introduction: In the Royal Frankish Annals the year 793 is an odd one. In the first place, it marks the point at which a major change in the chronicle’s composition begins, the place where one author left off and another took over. Moreover, the events of that year are unprecedented in the narrative. They include the attempt by Charlemagne to construct a canal between the Danube and the Main (and hence the Rhine) rivers. This unique effort is described laconically, with the sole details offered being that the construction site became an unlikely diplomatic rendezvous as Roman and Saxon messages reached the king there.

Fortunately, there is more information in the so-called Einhard Annals, a major revision of the Royal Frankish Annals datable to around AD 817. The reviser’s text normally takes very sanguine views of Charles’s deeds, but it presents the canal’s construction as a total fiasco. Evidently, the Frankish king allowed himself to be persuaded by a shadowy gang (‘certain people who claimed to know such things’), and suddenly led his retinue to a site where the Rezat and the Altmu¨ hl, tributaries of the greater rivers, almost meet in northern Bavaria. There he unleashed ‘a great multitude of men’ on the task of excavating a bed for the new channel. Alas, the canal was quite literally rained out. The diggers found that the autumn precipitation waterlogged the soil, so that everything dug up by day seeped back into the soft ground by night. Discouraged by this Sisyphean situation, and also ‘moved’ by bad news from several military fronts which the original Royal Frankish Annals also registered, Charlemagne abandoned the site by boat, as godless peoples rose against his Frankish realm helped by traitors within it. He sailed off to celebrate the Christian holidays along the banks of Francia’s more docile rivers in the Carolingian homeland. Charlemagne never returned to this project.

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