European Weather Extremes in the Lifetime of Charlemagne (c.742–814 CE)
By Conor Kostick and Francis Ludlow
Paper given at the First Annual Virtual Symposium on Pre-Modern Studies, Athabaska University (2013)
Introduction: Charlemagne (c.742 – 814 CE) had such a successful political and military career that for the entire subsequent medieval period his reign was portrayed as a model one for all European rulers to aspire to. But for all his achievements in expanding and governing a realm that stretched from the north coast of France down to northern Spain, across Italy and up through modern day Austria and Germany to Denmark, the Frankish king experienced a number of difficulties, including hazards created by extreme weather conditions.
One of Charlemagne’s greatest undertakings took place during the entire autumn of 793 CE, when, with a massive mobilisation of manpower, he attempted to build a canal between the Danube and the Main at Graben near Treuchtlingen. If he had succeeded, he would have created a waterway connecting the North Sea, via the Rhine delta (at modern day Rotterdam in the Netherlands) and the Danube Delta in eastern Romania, to the Black Sea. The main purpose of this effort was to allow Charlemagne’s war fleet to campaign along the Danube, but perhaps also, it was a test of his powers to levy labour upon a recently conquered people
The surviving archaeology shows that the projected canal would have been 2.5m deep with 6m bounding banks. The shape of the canal was that of a flattened V, whose base was 9m wide, with a width across the top of 60m. In this ambition Charlemagne was ahead of his time as a canal linking the Main and Danube was not completed until 1846.
The contemporaries of Charlemagne who wrote about their lord wished in the main to record only his successes. The archaeological evidence of his canal workings would thus have been a mystery for modern scholars if not for two more critical works. The Chronicle of Moissac is named after the abbey it was found in, at Moissac (in the Pyrenees region of France), but from its focus on Catalonian events, the chronicle is thought to have in fact been compiled at Ripoll in Catalonia and was thus some distance from the centre of Charlemagne’s power.
Although the Chronicle of Moissac follows the Royal Frankish Annals closely in its entry for 793, its late-tenth-century editor saw fit to insert an additional notice, that after King Charles celebrated Easter near Regensburg, ‘he wished to go with the navy to Francia, so he ordered a massive ditch to be built between two rivers, the Alimonia and the Ratanza, and he was held up in that place a long time.’