Gateway to the Classics: Our Little Frankish Cousin of Long Ago by Evaleen Stein
 
Our Little Frankish Cousin of Long Ago by  Evaleen Stein

A Bit of History

N OW, while the boys are in swimming, suppose we stop a minute and answer a few questions. If you children would like to know when this story begins, you will have to subtract something over eleven hundred years from this year and that will leave you just three figures; which means that it was enormously long ago. For if you have subtracted right you will find that the story begins in the year 800. And if you want to know where the old town of Aachen was, you will have to turn in your geographies to the map of Europe and look in the western part of Prussia; and there you will find that Aachen, which is very near to France, has also a French name, Aix-la-Chapelle, which means Aachen of the chapel, or church, because of the wonderful one which King Charlemagne built there.

But if anybody had told Rainolf or Aymon or the rest of those boys in swimming that the town was ever called Aix-la-Chapelle and that it was in Prussia, they would have stared and laughed; for the simple reason that there wasn't any Prussia then. Neither was there any Germany or France as they are bounded in your maps, nor Belgium nor Holland.

"Dear me!" you say, "why what in the world was  there?"

Well, there was just the same big country with its hills and valleys and mountains and rivers, only it wasn't all settled and divided up and named as it is now. It was all ruled by King Charlemagne, and, to be sure, some of it to the east of Aachen was vaguely called Germany, but nobody could have told exactly how far Germany went. While west and north and south of Aachen, where is now Belgium and Holland and France, was mostly called Gaul. In this great region many different kinds of people lived. Those in the southern part of Gaul were quite civilized, because once upon a time they had been conquered by the Romans who had taught them many things. Those up in the northern part of the kingdom were many of them still wild and savage; while those in the middle part were, as might have been expected betwixt and between; that is, civilized in many ways and in others very rude and ignorant.

A few hundred years before our story begins, when the whole country was peopled by wandering tribes generally fighting each other, one tribe, called the Franks, being stronger than the rest, managed to get possession of a large part of the land and a Frankish chief named Clovis became King. Clovis conquered many of the other tribes and added to his kingdom; and though he had been a heathen to start with, he ended by being baptized and becoming a Christian.

But Clovis seemed to be the only great chief of his family; for after he died his sons and grandsons and great- great- grandsons were all so stupid and good-for-nothing that the Frankish people did not know what to do with them. They did not like to take their crowns away from them, so they let them still be called Kings, but shut them up in their palaces or sometimes even carted them off to farmhouses in the country. And while each "Sluggard King," for so they were nick-named, thus dawdled away his life, the kingdom was really managed by a man called the Mayor of the Palace.

By and by there was a Mayor of the Palace named Pepin who was a very clever man and decided to make a change. He thought that as all the descendants of Clovis were too silly to rule and other people had to do all their work for them, it was high time to stop pretending they were Kings. By this time all the Frankish people had grown very tired of the foolish old royal family and quite agreed with Pepin. They said that as he had been such a good Mayor of the Palace he should be King instead of Childeric, who was the last of the family of Clovis and who was then shut up in a farmhouse where he did nothing but eat and drink and doze.

So the big Frankish warriors lifted Pepin up on their shields and showed him to everybody as their new King; and a very good one he made.

But it was Pepin's baby boy Charles who was destined to be the lasting glory of the Franks. When he grew up and inherited the kingdom, he soon earned the title of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, which is the same thing. He extended his dominions till his kingdom spread over all that is now France and Germany and most of Italy and much more besides and was one of the largest in the world; and not only was he a great warrior, but he was one of the very greatest and wisest rulers the world has ever seen. Indeed, he was so remarkable and so powerful that it is no wonder that for hundreds of years after his time people declared that he was at least ten feet tall, that in battle he could hew down dozens of his enemies at a single stroke, and that he was so wise that he knew instantly everything that went on in the farthest parts of his kingdom.

Yes, about Charlemagne and the Twelve Paladins, who were his bravest warriors, more wonderful stories have been told and more beautiful songs sung than about any other King that ever lived, excepting only King Arthur of Britain and the Knights of the Round Table; and, of course, you have heard of them.

Now, Charlemagne was indeed very wise; and among other things he saw that the Franks had much to learn in many ways. And this brings us back to the King's palace; for he knew one thing particularly his people had to be taught, and that was how to build beautiful houses such as he had seen in his wars in Italy and other far countries. So when he wanted to build the palace at his favorite Aachen he brought home with him not only Italian workmen to teach the Franks, but also quantities of fine marble columns and handsome mosaics and beautiful carvings.

And that was why the great palace there was one of the finest of the many belonging to Charlemagne. And that was why, too, the big swimming-pool was so well made; for the King had seen baths like it at Rome.

But really it is time Rainolf and all those other boys came out of it, for they have been swimming all the while we have been talking about the Frankish people! And, besides, Charlemagne himself has not yet come into the story, and surely you must want to see what such a wonderful King is like.

So splash! out come the boys and run off to put on their clothes, and—if you look sharp—you will see the mighty Charlemagne come into the very next chapter; though he will come quietly and not as if he were entering a captured city. When he did that people used to be terribly frightened; for marching before him would be such multitudes of soldiers with iron spears and coats of iron mail and iron leggings, and so many bold knights on horseback, wearing iron armor and iron helmets and iron breastplates and iron gauntlets and carrying iron battle-axes, and then the mighty Charlemagne himself clad in iron from head to toe, riding an iron gray horse, holding in one hand an enormous iron lance, and looking so—but let us wait till he comes into the story.


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