Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

Franks and Mohammedans

W HILE the descendants of Clovis were struggling with one another for his kingdom, and while the Church was gaining in wealth and in power, a danger was arising in the East that was to threaten both with ruin.

This danger was caused by the rise of a new religion among the Arabs. Arabia is a desert land for the most part; and the people gained their living by wandering with their camels and herds from oasis to oasis, or else by carrying on trade between India and the West, by means of caravans across the deserts. The people themselves were like grown-up children in many ways. They had poetic minds, and impulsive and generous hearts; but they were ignorant and superstitious, and often very cruel. Up to this time they had never been united under one government, nor had they all believed in the same religion. Some tribes worshiped the stars of heaven, others worshiped "fetiches" of sticks and stones and others believed in gods or demons called "genii." If you have read the story of Aladdin and his wonderful lamp, in the "Arabian Nights," you will know what the "genii" were like. Arabia is so near Palestine that it will not surprise you to hear that the Arabs had also learned something of the religion of the Jews, and of the Christians. But until the seventh century after Christ, the Arabs remained, in spite of this, a rude and idolatrous people, without any faith or government which all acknowledged.

In the seventh century came a change. The Arabs then became a united people, under one government, and with one religion. And under the influence of this religion they came out from their deserts and conquered vast empires to the East and to the West, until it seemed as though the whole of the known world was to pass into their hands.

The man who brought about this change was named Mohammed. He belonged to a powerful tribe among the Arabs, but his father and mother had died before he was six years of age. He was then taken care of by his uncle, who was so poor that Mohammed was obliged to hire out as a shepherd boy, and do work that was usually done by slaves. When he was thirteen years old his uncle took him with a caravan to Damascus and other towns of Syria; and there the boy caught his first glimpses of the outside world. When he grew up he became manager for a wealthy widow who had many camels and sent out many caravans; and at last he won her love and respect, and she became his wife. When Mohammed established his new religion she became his first convert, and to the day of her death she was his most faithful friend and follower.

Mohammed had a dreamy and imaginative nature, and when he had become a man he thought much about religion. Every year he would go alone into the mountains near his home, and spend a month in fasting and prayer. At times he fell into a trance, and when he was restored he would tell of wonderful visions that his soul had seen while his body lay motionless on the earth.

When Mohammed was forty years old, a vision came to him of a mighty figure that called him by name and held an open book before him, saying, "Read!" Mohammed believed that this was the angel Gabriel, who came to him that he might establish a new religion, whose watchword should be:

"There is but one God, and Mohammed is his Prophet!"

When he began to preach the new faith, Mohammed found few converts at first. At the end of three years he had only forty followers. His teachings angered those who had charge of the idols of the old religions, and Mohammed was obliged at last to flee from the holy city of Mecca. This was in the year 622 a.d., and to this day the followers of Mohammed count time from this date, as we do from the birth of Christ.

After this Mohammed gained followers more rapidly, and he began to preach that the new religion must be spread by the sword. Warriors now came flocking into his camp from all directions. Within ten years after the flight from Mecca, all the tribes of Arabia had become his followers, and the idols had everywhere been broken to pieces. Then the Mohammedans turned to other nations, and everywhere they demanded that the people should believe in Mohammed, or pay tribute. If these demands were refused, they were put to death.

Mohammed could neither read nor write, but his sayings were written down by his companions. In this way a whole chestful of the sayings of the Prophet was preserved, written on scraps of paper, or parchment, on dried palm leaves, and even on the broad, flat shoulder-bones of sheep. After Mohammed's death these sayings were gathered together and formed into a book; in this way arose the "Koran," which is the bible of the Mohammedans.

Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Jesus were all recognized as prophets in the Koran; but Mohammed is regarded as the latest and greatest of all. The Koran teaches that those who believe in Mohammed, and live just lives, shall enter Paradise when they die. They will there dwell in beautiful gardens, where they shall never be burned by the rays of the sun, nor chilled by wintry winds; and there under flowering trees they shall recline forever, clad in silks and brocades, and fed by delicious fruits, which beautiful black-eyed maidens bring to them. To win Paradise the Mohammedan must follow certain rules. Five times a day he must pray with his face turned in the direction of the holy city Mecca; he must not gamble or drink wine; and during the holy month, when Mohammed fasted, he too must fast and pray. But the surest way to gain Paradise and all its joys, was to die in battle fighting for the Mohammedan faith. This teaching helps to explain why the Christians found the Mohammedans such fierce and reckless fighters.

Within a hundred years after the death of Mohammed, his followers had won an empire which stretched from the Himalayan Mountains to the Red Sea, and from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. All of Southwestern Asia, and all of Northern Africa, were under their rule; and they were preparing to add Spain also, and perhaps all Europe, to the lands where the "call to prayer" was chanted.

In the year 711 a.d. , a Mohammedan general named Tarik led the first army of Moors and Arabs across from Africa to Spain. Near where he landed was a huge mountain of rock, on which he built a fortress or castle; and from this name it is still called "Gible-Tarik," or Gibraltar, the mountain of Tarik.

Spain at this time was ruled by the West-Goths; but they were weakened by quarrels, and idleness, and were not able to resist the fierce Moors. Near a little river in Southern Spain the great battle was fought. For seven days the Christian Goths, under their King, Rodrigo, fought against the Mohammedan army; but still the battle was undecided. On the eighth day the Christians fled from the field, and Spain was left in the hands of the Mohammedans.

Long after that day an old Spanish poet sang of that battle in words like these:

"The hosts of Don Rodrigo were scattered in dismay,

When lost was the eight battle, nor heart nor hope had they;

He, when he saw that field was lost, and all his hope was flown,

He turned him from his flying host, and took his way alone.

"All stained and strewed with dust and blood, like to some smouldering brand

Plucked from the flame, Rodrigo showed; his sword was in his hand,

But it was hacked into a saw of dark and purple tint:

His jeweled mail had many a flaw, his helmet many a dint.

"He climbed into a hill-top, the highest he could see,

Thence all about of that wide rout his last long look took he;

He saw his royal banners, where they lay drenched and torn,

He heard the cry of victory, the Arab's shout of scorn.

"He looked for the brave captains that led the hosts of Spain,

But all were fled except the dead, and who could count the slain?

Where'er his eye could wander, all bloody was the plain,

And while thus he said, the tears he shed ran down his cheeks like rain:

" 'Last night I was the King of Spain—to-day no king am I;

Last night fair castles held my train—to-night where shall I lie?

Last night a hundred pages did serve me on the knee—

To-night not one I call my own—not one pertains to me.' "

This battle destroyed the power of the West-Goths. It also marks the beginning of the rule of the Moors in Spain, which was to last until the time of Queen Isabella and Columbus.

The ease with which the Moors conquered Spain made them think it would be an easy thing to conquer Gaul also. So within a few years we find their armies crossing the Pyrenees to carry war into that land. But here they met the Franks, and that people was not so easy to overcome as the Goths had been.

You have already seen how Clovis built up a strong kingdom in Gaul and Germany; and then how the power slipped away from the hands of his descendants, until they became mere "do-nothing" kings. The real power was now in the hands of the great nobles who acted as the King's ministers. The chief of these was called the "Mayor of the Palace"; and at the time when the Moors came into Spain this office was handed down from father to son in a powerful family, which possessed rich estates in the Rhine valley, and could command a multitude of warlike followers.

Three years after the Moors had crossed over into Spain, the old Mayor of the Palace died, and the office passed to his son Charles. This was a serious time for the kingdom of the Franks. Civil wars now broke out anew among the nobles; the Saxons from Germany broke into the kingdom from the North; and the Moors were pressing up from Spain into the very heart of France. The young Mayor of the Palace, however, proved equal to the occasion. The civil wars were brought to an end, and all the Frankish lands were brought under his rule. The heathen Saxons were driven back to their own country. Then, gathering an army from the whole kingdom, Charles marched, in the year 732, into Southern France to meet the Moors.

He found their army near the city of Tours, laden with the booty which they had taken. The Moors expected another victory as great as the one which had given them Spain; but they found their match in Charles and his Franks. All day long the battle raged. Twenty times the light-armed Moors, on their fleet horses, dashed into the ranks of the heavy-armed Franks; but each time Charles and his men stood firm, like a wall, and the enemy had to retreat. At last the Moors gave up the attempt; and when day dawned next morning the Franks found that they had slipped off in the night, leaving behind them their tents and all their rich booty.

This battle forever put an end to the conquests of the Moors in France. It was this battle also, perhaps, that gave Charles his second name, "Martel," or "the Hammer"; for, as an old writer tells us, "like a hammer breaks and dashes to pieces iron and steel, so Charles broke and dashed to pieces his enemies."

At all events, the fame which Charles Martel won by his actions, and the ability which he showed as a ruler, enabled him to leave his power to his two sons when he died. Again there was a war between the Mayors of the Palace and the nobles who ruled over portions of the kingdom, but again the Mayors of the Palace won. Then, when quiet was restored once more, the elder of the two sons of Charles gave over his power to his brother Pippin, and entered a monastery, in order that he might spend the rest of his years in the holy life of a monk.

This left Pippin as the sole Mayor of the Palace. There was still a Merovingian prince who sat on the throne, but he was a "do-nothing" king, as so many had been before him; and he only said the words that he was told, and did the things that were given him to do.

Of course this could not go on forever. Every one was getting tired of it; and at last Pippin felt that the time had come when he might safely take the title of king. First, messengers were sent to the Pope to ask his opinion. The Pope was now eager to get the aid of the Franks against the Lombards in Italy; so he answered in the way that he knew would please Pippin.

"It is better," he said, "to give the title King to the person who actually has the power."

Then the weak Merovingian King was put off the throne and shut out of sight in a monastery; and Pippin was anointed with the sacred oil, and crowned King in his place. As long as he lived he ruled as a strong and just king. When he died, the crown went to his children, and after them to his children's children. In this way the crown of the Franks continued in the family of Pippin for more than two hundred years.

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