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1 - Charlemagne’s Invasion of Spain in 778: The Anatomy of a Strategic Failure and its Impact

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2020

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Summary

RICHARD ABELS’ CAREER-long emphasis on the intelligence and planning undertaken by Anglo-Saxon military leaders, especially Alfred the Great, has played an important role in providing a strong basis for a proper depiction of early medieval history. In helping to undermine the once traditional view that warfare was dominated by irrational and ignorant barbarian warriors, as pictured in poetic fantasies, Abels has advanced our understanding that Anglo-Saxon England was a part of the Late Antique world and not a mere chapter in the once popular Germanic Dark Age. Although he and I have disagreed on various points concerning the role of imitatio imperii in regard to early medieval military leadership, we do agree that Alfred's efforts, like those of Charlemagne, required in-depth planning and high levels of organization. Moreover, despite his intellectual acuity and organizational ability, Alfred, like Charlemagne, was not always successful.

It is widely known by medievalists, as a result of frequent scholarly and popular discussions of the Song of Roland, that Charlemagne undertook a failed invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 778. It is important to emphasize, however, that the capture of the Carolingian baggage train and the annihilation of Charlemagne's rearguard by Basque forces on 15 August 778 at Roncevalles, the focus of the Song of Roland, was, from a military perspective, a relatively minor incident and had no bearing on Carolingian military operations in Spain or beyond. It is well-documented that, several weeks prior to the debacle at Roncevalles, Charlemagne had recognized that the campaign, which he had launched in the spring of 778 to take control of the region north of the Ebro River, had failed. The purpose of the present study is two-fold. Initially, I will examine why the campaign failed by identifying the weaknesses in Charlemagne's strategy. Secondly, I will explore the impact of the failure in 778 on future Carolingian planning regarding military operations in Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian peninsula.

Background

By the end of 776, Charlemagne had crushed a revolt in northern Italy and had secured the conquest of the Saxon region, as then understood. The latter effort was accompanied by the large-scale conversion to Christianity of the Saxon leadership, as well as of many inhabitants in the region.

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Military Cultures and Martial Enterprises in the Middle Ages
Essays in Honour of Richard P. Abels
, pp. 14 - 40
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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