As Europe passed the poignant milestone of November 11, it could have escaped no one’s attention what inspired the project to unite the continent. A week after the centenary of the Armistice, the beleaguered French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the German Parliament, saying that Europe “must be stronger … and win more sovereignty.”
British newspapers reported Macron’s speech as calling for “more Europe”. But what, exactly, does “Europe” mean in this case? Twenty-five years since the treaty that created the European Union, is the EU an “empire”, as French finance minister Bruno Le Maire suggested recently?
Is it a collection of sovereign states, as the English and Scandinavians would prefer? Or if it is sovereign itself, then on whose behalf does its sovereignty rest, since it is an empire without an emperor, and a democracy without a demos (people)?
It is largely forgotten that the architects of this new Europe were almost all Catholics, and most were from the multilingual borderlands where the French and German languages meet: the Rhinelanders Walter Hallstein and Konrad Adenauer, the Luxembourgians Joseph Bech and Robert Schuman and the Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak.
It was from this part of the continent where our idea of “Europe” first sprang, with one Germanic tribe in particular, the Franks. Their Latin name, Franci, comes from Frekkr, “the fierce ones”, or perhaps “brave” or “free”, and they had emerged as courageous allies (and occasionally enemies) of the Romans in the 3rd century. But as the empire collapsed the Franks came to Gaul in larger numbers, and in the 5th century their king took over the city of Lutetia, now Paris. His name was Hlodovech, “Pillaging Warrior”, but in Latin it was simplified to Clovis.
Clovis had married Clotilda, who hailed from the Burgundian tribe, originally from the Baltic but now settled in the region that bears their name. She was Catholic, and while the new queen tried her utmost to convert her pagan husband, he remained attached to his old gods until 496, when he was on the point of losing a battle to the rival Alemanni. He cried out to God and was rewarded with victory, and so on Christmas Day 496, Clovis and 3,000 of his men were baptised at the Cathedral of Reims. This event changed the course of European history, joining in intimate alliance the west’s most dynamic tribe and the papacy. France would become the “eldest daughter of the Church” (though in recent centuries it has been a strained relationship).
Clovis’s dynasty became known as the Merovingians, but as time went on they increasingly became figureheads. Real power shifted to a “Mayor of the Palace”, who by the 8th century was a man known to history as Charles “Martel”, or the Hammer.
Charles had been born around 689 at the castle of Herstal, today on the border of Belgium’s French- and German-speaking regions. As leader, he spent three and a half decades continuously fighting neighbouring tribes, although his most influential legacy was a victory against a far greater foe.
In 711, the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and swiftly overrun Iberia. Now in control of a million square kilometres and much of western Eurasia’s most developed and populated regions, the caliphate was far more advanced than anything to the north. For the next three centuries, Islamic Cordoba would be 10 times as large as the biggest Catholic city. So when in 732 the Arabs headed across the Pyrenees to conquer Francia their commander al-Rahman was justifiably confident. After defeating the Latin-speakers of Aquitaine near Bordeaux, the 50,000-strong Muslim army came to the city of Poitiers, close to the Loire river that marked the entrance to northern Europe. The odds must have favoured the invaders, who were most likely larger in number, more experienced and used to beating the northern barbarians. But as it was, the Frankish cavalry and disciplined infantry turned the tide, and on the crucial day of October 10, 732, the invaders were scattered.
Describing this great battle in the Latin-language Chronicle of 754, an anonymous Christian in Spain coined a new word to describe the multi-national victors: “Europeans”. Out of the ruins of the Roman world there emerged a new civilisation, mixing Germanic and Latin cultures united by a common Catholic faith.
In 814, Agobard, Archbishop of Lyon, described a new identity emerging, paraphrasing St Paul: “There is now neither Gentile nor Jew, Scythian nor Aquitanian, nor Lombard, nor Burgundian, nor Alaman, nor bond, nor free. All are one in Christ.”
Whether the Arabs could have occupied Francia or whether they were a mere raiding party has remained a source of dispute. But there is little doubt that their defeat helped lay the foundations of Frankish domination of Europe for centuries to come. By 1300, all but three Catholic European kings were of Frankish origin, ruling from Ireland to Lithuania. Indeed, a thousand years after Martel local people in Vietnam would refer to American soldiers as firangi. A century earlier, the British in India were called firangi and the Portuguese were known as the folangji in China.
Charles’s son Pepin would overthrow the Merovingians and his son, Charles the Great or Charlemagne, would win military victories that outshone even his grandfather’s, conquering northern Italy and so becoming the first man since Rome fell to unite the west.
Yet the west and east Franks begin to diverge, the former intermarrying with the Gallo-Romans and coming to adopt their Latin dialect, Français, while those on the east came to speak the Diets, “people’s language” (Deutsch).
In 842 Charlemagne’s two grandsons signed the Treaty of Verdun dividing his empire. Charles of West Francia swore his oath in the Romance dialect and Louis of East Francia made his in Germanic. At the turn of the millennium, Hugh Capet was the first Frankish monarch to need an interpreter when he crossed the Rhine – just as his distant successor, Emmanuel Macron, did addressing the German parliament this year.
Charlemagne had sparked a renaissance, forging a new culture almost entirely defined by its Catholic Christianity. Around this time the Anglo-Saxons developed a new word to describe the civilisation to which they now belonged: Kristintumr, or Christendom.
Charlemagne’s empire, though divided for another 1,000 years, still remains the economic powerhouse of the continent. But the region also retains its political dominance, especially with the revival of a new Carolingian empire ruled not far from Charles Martel’s ancestral home. Indeed, the Charlemagne Prize is the name of an annual award for the individual who has most helped promote European unity. It is given out in the city Charlemagne made his home, Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle. This year’s winner, of course, was Macron, a man who certainly loves “Europe”. And yet if this Europe isn’t Christendom, then what is it?
Unless this question can be answered then this fledgling state will likely remain a great oxymoron, as was once said of the Holy Roman Empire, a European Union that is neither European nor united.
Ed West’s The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, the Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe is available on Kindle for 99p/$1.25