Tag Archives: History

At the Shrine of St. Lambert

Shrine of St. Lambert, imagesMaastricht, Liege

 Anno Domini 714 

Grimoald took off his helmet as he crossed the threshold of the candle-lit shrine of St. Lambert.  The young knight’s long, dark hair was matted and the dust of a hard ride covered his face.  He crossed himself, his movements constricted by the armored plates strapped to his arms, legs and chest and made his way to the altar.  There, he knelt, placed his helmet on the floor and drew his sword.  He held it aloft, kissed its blade and laid it before the altar with reverence, matching its placement to the arms of the cross.  Next, he prostrated himself before the altar, spreading his armored limbs so that they too matched the arms of the cross.  He began to pray.

“Veni Creator Spiritus, Mentes tuorum visita.”  Grimoald had ridden all night in hopes of receiving his father’s last blessing, only to find that he had arrived too late.  Pippin II had succumbed to dropsy just hours before Grimoald’s arrival.  Distraught, Grimoald had chosen to find solace in the chapel of his mentor, the murdered Saint Lambert, where he would pray for the soul of his father.

“Imple superna grati quae tu creasti pectora. Amen.”  It had been three years since the good saint had given Grimoald the gift of the Holy Ghost on the day he became a knight.  Following three days and nights of fasting and prayer, Lambert had touched Grimoald’s forehead with the palm of his hand and opened him to the light of God. From that day forward, his sword belonged to the Almighty.  He lay prostrate before Him now, in complete subjugation. He intended to remain prostrate all day.

He first dedicated his vigil to honor his mentor, the saint.  His prayers begged St. Lambert to intercede on behalf of his father.  But he also asked the saint to seek the Lord’s blessing and guidance for himself, because he, Grimoald, was about to become the most powerful man on the continent.

Dukes of every region swore allegiance to the king, but ultimately served his “mayors of the palace.”   These were the King’s premier military and government leaders.  As mayor of Austrasia, Grimoald’s father, Pippin of Herstal, had become the most powerful mayor of all time.  He had subdued neighboring Neustria and lorded over the two largest regions of the kingdom. A powerful warrior and statesmen, Pippin had laid the foundation for combining the commerce of the Neustrians with the grain and landed wealth of the Austrasians.  He next aligned their military might into one fighting force.  Together, they were now financially and militarily the strongest force on the continent.

As the eldest of Pippin’s sons, Grimoald was next in line.  “…in saeculorum saecula. Amen.” 

News of his father’s death was something that Grimoald had feared all his life. But his father had schooled him against grief.  Becoming Mayor was a moment for which one had best be prepared.  And Grimoald was. He had known for many years what he wished to do as Mayor.  He would become a warrior priest.  He would dispel paganism and bring glory to God and the Merovingian Kings.   And the Church, he believed, was the key to success.

The Roman Empire had failed because it had no higher calling.  The rule of law had been based solely on the might of those enforcing it.  And when the empire no longer had the might to enforce its rule from Rome, power had shifted to the landed estates and the empire cracked like ice covering the Seine. The vestiges of the empire remained in the houses ruling Gaul, but those who ruled were nothing more than warlords.  Each served his individual interests under the king.  Each served for the sake of power and succession alone.  This doomed them all to constant war and bloodshed.

“I will be different,” Grimoald thought, unintentionally interrupting his prayer.  “It will all be different.”

Grimoald regretted not having seen his father before he passed from this world.  He had loved and feared the man. Yet, his father had also been weak in many ways.  Grimoald had detested that Pippin consorted with a woman out of wedlock and fathered a bastard, an arrogant ruffian named Charles.  There was even talk that the woman’s family had murdered Saint Lambert when the holy man had criticized his father’s affair as “an affront to God.”

A priest and his acolyte genuflected near the altar. From his prone position, Grimoald could only see the hems of their robes as they straightened to approach the altar.  He heard the priest place the chalice on the altar and begin to pray aloud.

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirtus Sancti. Amen,” the priest said.  “Introibo ad altare Dei.”

Grimoald and the acolyte answered, taking up the familiar response.  “Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam.” Grimoald felt his body relax.  He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cool stone of the floor.

He did not hear the knife being drawn from its scabbard.  Grimoald only heard his voice joining that of the priest praying in the language of God’s holy mass.  “Qui fecit caelum et terram.”

Likewise, he did not hear, but rather felt the impact of the dagger as it was thrust under his ribs.  An explosion of air escaped his lungs through the newfound rent in his body.  Before he could move, the attacker knelt on his back and the knife struck again.  This time it sliced across the soft tissue at his throat, ensuring that Grimoald would remain prostrate throughout the day.

Grimoald’s murder sparked the civil war that marks the rise of the Carolingian Kings.  His mother, Plectrude, imprisoned the bastard Charles and named her eight-year old grandson Theudoald as Mayor.  Theudoald lasted a year.  Charles escaped, seized his father’s treasure and declared himself, mayor.  He spent the next ten years battling his father’s wife, allies and enemies, until the Neustrian opposition was broken.  

The ensuing 17 years were no less violent as Charles brought to heel every region of the Frankish Kingdom.  He shed the blood of the Alemans, the Burgunidans, the Saxons, the Sweves, the Bavarians and the Gascons of Aquitaine.  Charles is most famous for stopping the “Saracen” invasion at Poitiers in 732.  Since the Saracen were followers of Muhammad, historians have credited Charles with saving Christianity in the Western world from the Islamic expansion that had swept much of the Mediterranean and the African continent. It was at Poitiers that Charles earned his nickname “Martel” or “the Hammer.”  

Although an additional three Merovingian Kings were elevated during the reign of Charles Martel, only one held any real power.  The rest were considered “rois féants,”or “puppet kings.”  When the last of these, Theudoald IV, died in 737, Charles did not bother to elevate another.  At Charles’s death in 741, he ruled alone as mayor of the palace.  For four years, the Merovingian Kings had been relegated to being little more than a memory.  Charles lay claim to the allegiance of all the noble families from the Rhine to the Pyrenees and planned to leave the kingdom in the hands of his three sons, Carloman, Pippin III (the Younger) and Gripho.


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When the Bombs Stopped

“Seventh-century chroniclers and hagiographers had no love of the abstract; for them the purpose of political power was contained in one concrete and comprehensible word: peace.  Peace could be broken in two ways: from without…or from within.”

Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding,

 Late Merovingian France, History and Hagiography 640 – 720 

As much as we would like to think we’ve progressed since the seventh century, much about political power remains the same.  Peace comes at a price and we should honor those who shoulder that price for us.  On today, Veterans Day, I would like to thank all of those who maintain our peace through force of arms from dangers both domestic and abroad.


Given the nature of modern warfare and the consequences of recent attacks such as the bombing of the Boston Marathon I’d also like to acknowledge our first responders: the fire fighters, police and medical teams for the enhanced role they now play in keeping the peace.  Together with our veterans, they keep us safe and at liberty to pursue life and happiness every day of our lives.

Prior to World War II, we celebrated a different holiday on November 11th.  It was called “Armistice Day” and it grew out of the decision to cease of hostilities at the end of World War I (then known as the Great War).

In the fall of 1918, with its army reeling and its navy in mutiny, the Germans sued for peace based on a framework outlined in a speech given by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson called the “Fourteen Points.”  On November 10, 1918 the allied forces entered into an armistice with Germany in Compiègne, France that would provide a cessation of the war, until a new treaty could be ratified.  They signified that the shelling would stop on the 11th hour of the next day.

From that day forward, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, countries around the world would honor the 20 million who lost their lives during the war with a minute of silence.  A second minute of silence honored those who had survived them, their spouses, their children and their comrades.

The holiday changed after World War II when it became clear that “the War to End all Wars” would not live up to its nickname.  Since we honor those who died in combat on Memorial Day, Veterans Day was dedicated to the living.

While I support the change and honor those who have fought for our country, a part of me still appreciates the idea of a holiday honoring the moment the bombs stopped.

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J.C. & Me

To appreciate my fascination with the past, you have to understand how I was introduced to it.  It started with my older brother Jimmy in the fall of 1973.

“You have to take History 54.”  He was insistent.

“I can’t take that class.  I’m a freshman.  I’m supposed to take History 5 with Shewmaker.”

“Adams is going to retire this year.  And he’s only teaching two more classes.  One this fall; the other this winter. You should take both of them.”

“I’ll fail both of them.”

“It would be better than not taking them.”

So, I signed up for “History of the World Since 1919,” bought the single assigned textbook (of the same name) and trudged to Reed Hall to take a seat among the fifty-or-so upper classmen who deserved to be in the room.  I arrived early, which was lucky, as more than 100 people were crowding into the auditorium.  I remember thinking that maybe I had misread the course guide.

I had been fortunate to have good history teachers in high school: Doc. Farrell, Doc. Pruitt, and Ms. Koob.  Each employed a different approach to studying the past, but all were inquisitive, engaging and most of all entertaining.  Now that I was in college, I wondered how they would compare.


The room grew quiet as the first of Baker’s bells signaled the start of class. I heard the door open at the back of the room and turned to find an elderly man shuffling down the aisle with a tripod cane.  His hair was white and stood straight up from his head in what, at the time, was called a “crew cut” (a worrisome sign in 1973).  He wore a grey suit, with a black shirt tied to the top button.  What drew my attention, however, were the largest and blackest pair of sunglasses I had ever seen.  They wrapped around his face so that light was blocked on all sides.  (I would learn later that these were designed for cataract patients).

My brother is hazing me, I thought.  There was no way I could relate to this ancient relic.  Adams slowly made his way to the front of the class and sat down at a small desk.  He’s sitting down! I screamed in my head. He’s going to teach the class from a chair.  I wanted to strangle Jimmy.  I wondered whether or not I still could transfer out of the class, and readied myself for an hour and ten-minute snooze.

Once seated, Adams pulled out a stack of yellowed 3 X 5 index cards and placed them carefully on the desk.  Next came a huge magnifying glass, the rectangle kind my grandmother used for reading the paper.  He’s going to read them to us?  I groaned aloud.

Adams lifted the first index card off his carefully arranged stack, drew it before his huge magnifying glass and, lifted his head.  I had the distinct impression he wasn’t looking at the card.

And then, he opened his mouth to speak.

He had a voice that made James Earl Jones sound like Mickey Mouse.  It boomed across the room with such resonance and authority that it swept all of us into its embrace and transported us across time and space until we found ourselves in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris in 1919.  We watched a pale and nervous Herman Müller, the German Foreign Minister, blink into the blinding light of the mirrored hall before picking up the pen to sign what was called by his countrymen back home, the “Diktat.”  The treaty acknowledged German “guilt” for World War I and promised “reparations” for the damages inflicted on the allied nations during the war. The terms “guilt” and “reparations” took on an ominous tone coming from Adams’s mouth, as if they foreshadowed the dawning of the Apocalypse.  I would learn weeks later how much they did.

J. C. Adams taught history at Dartmouth College for 34 years. A 1970 Esquire cover story named him one the 10 best college professors in the country.  An expert in Balkan and Russian history, Adams was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received his M.A. & Ph.D. in modern European diplomatic history from Duke. He spent a year in 1937 doing post-doctoral work in pre-war Europe and served with U.S. Army military intelligence during WWII.  He received the Bronze Star and one battle star before being discharged as a major in 1945.

“John made history come alive,” eulogized fellow history professor Charles T. Wood, when Adams died in 1986, “and his courses were always filled.”  Revered by his students, Adams also was renowned for his tough grades.   So tough that, Woods said, “His was a course that the seniors took in the spring after they had been admitted into law school.” (Italics added).

Exactly and hour and ten minutes after he had begun, the Baker bells began to chime again and Adams put down his last index card.  I, and my 100-plus classmates returned from our trip into the past to our classroom in Reed Hall, in Hanover, New Hampshire during the fall of 1973.

“Until Wednesday,” Adams’s voice promised.  I couldn’t wait.  Next: The Gathering Storm.

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