History of Europe

Of unflattering names, crumbling empires and hairy Catalans

Last updated:2022-07-25

The 9th century was a strange time. Europe was once again in upheaval. The legendary Frankish empire of Charlemagne was nearing its end. Vikings roamed the seas. But what is almost more striking than the political upheavals of the time is how stupid the rulers were actually named at the time. At that time, people obviously didn't have that kind of PR effect. So let's dive into a world of bald, stammering, fat, hairy and just plain simpletons. Along the way, we'll also learn how Catalonia gained independence for the first time in its history and maybe - just maybe - even learn something about the world today. But before we get to Catalonia and Wilfried the Hairy:How was it in Europe back then?

The year 843 - when the dream of the Roman Empire finally died. Like 476, 480, 1453...

As I said, the 9th century was a time of upheaval. At the turn of the century, things still looked promising for Europe. Charlemagne was able to unite large parts of the former Roman Empire under his rule, a great dream of the time, especially among the ecclesiastical elite. In 800, Charles was even crowned the first European emperor since the fall of Rome! The tragic history of the Roman decline seemed to have finally come to a positive end. Well, unfortunately I was happy too soon.

After the death of Charlemagne and his son at the latest, the proud structure of the Frankish Empire began to crumble again. In 843, the state was then divided between three brothers in the Treaty of Verdun, which left its mark on Europe, shall we say. The western part went to the youngest of the brothers, Charles II. This would later become France. The middle brother, Ludwig II, called the German, received the East. You can guess from the name what became of it. Everything in between eventually fell to the elder, Lothar I. That wasn't even that little land. After all, its territory stretched from what is now the Netherlands to Rome! Unfortunately, it wasn't very conveniently located (with the Alps in the middle, etc.), which is why this elongated structure, which was also jokingly referred to as a bowling alley, could not last long. But at least in the name of the Lorraine region, Lothar was able to leave his legacy. All quiche lovers will thank him.

However, a division of the empire like that of Verdun has some disadvantages. The most obvious of these:the empire is being divided. The second:this division should not remain quite so peaceful over time. Or who still knows the town of Verdun primarily because of the treaty of 843? Nevertheless, such a division of the empire can also bring advantages, even if not necessarily for the three brothers themselves. It was rather on the fringes of the Frankish empire that rulers skilfully took advantage of the situation.

Among the bald, the hairy is king

Especially in the western part of the old Frankish kingdom, things didn't go so well after the separation. You still hear about such problems after a divorce, but by then it's unfortunately too late. In any case, the kingdom of West Francia quickly fell into stormy times. On the one hand, from the middle of the 9th century, the Vikings were increasingly knocking on the door. They had appeared in England again and again since the last century and really only caused problems there... In 845 they suddenly appeared in front of Paris and Charles II did what any proud king would do. He paid them so they took off again. Well-mannered as the Vikings were, they immediately took this agreement seriously. For eleven whole years before they really invaded Paris, plundered, burned and did what Vikings do.

But even the rule itself was difficult in the West Frankish kingdom. King Charles II, better known as Charles the Bald, was the ablest of the early kings despite his miscalculation with the Vikings. His son Ludwig der Stammler (a truly awesome name) then survived a full two years of his reign. This in turn passed on to his two sons, who both died within a very short time. It even got to the point that the East Franconian ruler Charles the Fat (yes... I know) took over the helm in the west as well. And as if that wasn't enough, Ludwig's third son, Charles the Simple, came to power.

The smaller rulers on the fringes of the empire were now able to use this chaos in the center for themselves. One who was particularly successful in doing this was Wilfried I of Barcelona, ​​better known as Wilfried the Hairy. But well, better hairy than bald I would say. And not being one of the fat, stammering, or simpletons at the time was a success in itself. Nor was he incompetent. With tactics and a pinch of luck, Wilfried soon managed to create an independent Catalonia for the first time in history!

Wilfried the Hairy and the first independent Catalonia in history

Wilfried started at the bottom. Well, as low as you can start as a nobleman. In 870, Charles the Bald made him count of two small lands in northern Catalonia, beginning Wilfried's meteoric career. Eight years later, several holdings were added in the so-called Spanish March, an area that served as a military frontier against the Muslims of the Cordoba Emirate. Not a very popular piece of land, one might imagine. After all, military skirmishes were constantly taking place there and the population had long since fled en masse. So ruling this landscape was really more of a punishment than a reward. But at least the city of Barcelona was in this March, even then an important port. You can build on that, thought Wilfried and took action.

And indeed:with all the problems in the empire, the Frankish kings soon granted Wilfried the right to inherit his rulership. The countries no longer had to be transferred from the Franks, they only had to agree to the inheritance in the future. From this dynastic core around the county of Barcelona, ​​the first state of Catalonia was to grow over time. Three centuries later, the successors of this line finally united with the House of Aragon, and in the 15th century the personal union with Castile followed, and with it the founding of Spain.

In Catalonia, its first ruler Wilfried left countless traces. For example, he founded the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll, which over the centuries was to develop into the cultural center of Catalonia. The yellow and red Catalan flag is also attributed to Wilfried. Supposedly, after a campaign, Charles the Bald visited him at his bedside, dipped his fingers in Wilfried's wound (err...uncomfortable?) and drew four lines with his fingers on a yellow sign. And tada:the Catalan flag! Whoever believes it will be saved. But it's always a good story.

Then why is Catalonia now part of Spain?

It is a long story that there is no independent state of Catalonia today, despite the wily, hairy Wilfried. It starts with the fact that, although Wilfried is definitely regarded as the founder of the state in Catalonia, that's not entirely correct. Throughout his life (and this also applies to his successors) he was actually Count of Barcelona and Prince of most of the Catalan provinces. However, they were not closely linked politically. Only the dynastic union with Aragon in the 12th century changed that. In this new entity there was actually a coherent principality of Catalonia for the first time. Even the union of Aragon with Castile to form the state of Spain did not fundamentally change this situation. Catalonia continued to exist as a principality and was largely governed separately for a long time.

The reason for the current form of government in Spain and the current tendencies towards Catalan independence can only be found in the 18th century and the War of the Spanish Succession, as a result of which Catalonia constantly lost its importance and independence. Add in a civil war and you can see how we got to where we are today. History is ruthless at times.

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