Paul the Deacon – History Of The Lombards

The dark Middle Ages found their first renaissance in the eight century at the court of Charlemagne who gathered scholars from all over Europe to share knowledge. One of those scholars was Paul the Deacon. As most scholars he was a man of the church although that did not completely hide his barbaric origins. Paul the Deacon was of Lombard (or Langobard) origin whose people had settled in the northern half of Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the early 6th century and who had been finally conquered by Charlemagne when they made a serious threat against the Pope. As a reward Charlemagne was eventually crowned Emperor.

At the court of Charlemagne Paul the Deacon was inspired to write a history of his own people which later on was title History Of The Lombards (799). Paul the Deacon based his history on a number of sources he had available at the time and wherever there was any mention of the Lombards. The quality of those sources varied greatly. Some parts were passed on mythological tales, others hearsay while others held some eyewitness accounts. As a result the sources did not provide coherent material to cover the events in which the Lombards were mentioned. In some cases only the focus was solely on a single region of the Lombardic kingdom. In others the focus seems to lie in neighbouring nations, like the Frankish kingdoms and the Eastern Roman Empire. The events actually focus on these and they are told because there is a small Lombardic elements that can be put forward. Paul the Deacon also shows little regard for editing or correcting his material. He simple tried to order the material in a way that seemed to fit. The mythological history forms an interesting sequence. It is doubtful if any of it is real. To me it was partially familiar as he seemed to have used The Gothic Wars by Procopius (recently reviewed by me) as a source. The quality of his sources is in some cases also in doubt as certain events seem to occur again some decades later. Names can be rendered differently if the authors are from different nations.

It is not easy to read the History Of The Lombards. The prose is not bad and reasonably readable although at some points it can get repetitive. The problem lies in the varying quality and the lack of a coherent narrative as the focus shifts randomly and there is no timeline to hold onto. One has little idea of the time that passes except from mentions of the time kings and dukes have ruled when they die. The prose does maintain a steady level despite the varying quality of the sources so that is probably where the hand of the author can be seen. Paul the Deacon adds little of his own. There is an interesting chapter in which he recounts his own family history. It shows that even oral history can quickly become poor. Much of the narrative holds little credibility. Despite being a man of the church Paul the Deacon does not seem to doubt somewhat unnatural occurrences or perhaps the church in these days still held many pagan influences as it had not grown to the power or would later become. The Pope was still in competition with the Patriarch of Constantinople and his influence very limited as the Eastern Roman Empire held great influence in Italy. One reason why this work is interesting because the Pope in those days was trying to become independent and his later alliance with Charlemagne would be the starting point of the rise of the power of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately we do not get to see this last stage in Christian history. Paul the Deacon died while he had only written to the times of his youth. We don’t get a first person account of Lombardic history until the conquest of Charlemagne. The history ends in about 744 CE. I have to add this is not uncommon among early historians whose works are often incomplete due to their death, even though they sometimes lived until high age.

The History Of The Lombards is an interesting works as it fills in certain gaps in the history of Europe in the Early Middles Ages between 550 and 750 CE. Paul the Deacon makes use of certain sources that are now lost but also of still existing sources. The history might not be very coherent or orderly but it does provide a collection of episodes and events that gives insight into the society of Southern Europe in those times.


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