“In 731, the great monastery founded by Columbanus at Luxeuil was raided by Arab horsemen. Those monks who could not escape were put to the sword.”
So writes Tom Holland in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It is part of a section on the great ‘Clash of Civilisations’, the Christian Europeans vs the Muslim Arabs in the eighth century – the end of the Merovingian world. We have been here before in 2019, of course: such talk can be dangerous stuff that stokes real conflict, and it often has more to do with legend and storytelling than it has to do with history. The battle that Charles Martel won against an Arab force in 732, somewhere between Poitiers and Tours, is the most famous example from the eighth century – an event that may have been little more than a small skirmish, for centuries transformed in the minds of ‘great historians’ into one of the Great Turning Points in History (That Didn’t Turn). But in mentioning the destruction of Luxeuil, Holland potentially brings renewed attention to a problematic ancillary legend too. It is, after all, a fact that is widely found in books from the seventeenth century onwards and repeated across the internet, but rarely found discussed in history books anymore for some reason.
What do we know about the destruction of Luxeuil? Surprisingly, basically nothing. Luxeuil was one of the pre-eminent centres of monasticism and learning in the Merovingian world. Yet, somehow, its ‘destruction’ was remarked upon by precisely nobody. David Ganz noted in an essay on the famous Luxeuil script in 2002 that he had never found an actual source for the story – just references in early modern histories back to the late seventeenth century.
Is it likely that Luxeuil was attacked by Arabs? Who knows. Spain had been conquered swiftly starting in 711. In 721 Eudo of Aquitaine claimed to have massacred 375,000 Arabs attempting to invade Aquitaine, a blatant exaggeration that would have made those monastic chroniclers who inflated viking numbers blush a century later. Another Arab force tried their luck further east in 725, and Bede mentions another one in 729 (although some people think he might have confused that attack with one of the earlier ones or the Battle of Poitiers). Ado of Vienne, in the ninth century, gives a lively account of Arabs destroying Burgundy and Provence, particularly coastal regions, around this time. But beware! a) Luxeuil is, at 600km from the coast and 350km from Vienne, not exactly close to the action (and isn’t mentioned anyway), and b) Ado is exactly the kind of polemicist who would make stuff up – and indeed he was even called out for doing precisely that kind of thing by some contemporaries with his martyrology. And anyway: no amount of scene-setting means it actually happened.
There are some ‘sources’ but these are problematic too. A now-lost catalogue of Luxeuil’s abbots, cited by Adso of Montier-en-Der in the tenth century, apparently noted that the monastery ceased to thrive in the time of Abbot Mellinus, although we have no dates for him, and Adso says nothing about the circumstances of its crisis. All we know from him is that it predated Charlemagne’s death. A later revision to the catalogue, also now lost, is cited by some early modern writers (notably Charles le Cointe in 1670 and Jean Mabillon in 1704), but with the additional problem that it claims the attackers were ‘Vandals or Hungarians’ rather than Arabs – although most later readers interpreted them as Arabs. Had the author confused the event with other crises? By possibly zero coincidence, the nearby monastery of Lure was claimed in the tenth-century Life of Deicolus to have been destroyed by actual Hungarians (Magyars) earlier that century. And the text’s first editor Pierre-Francois Chifflet (d. 1682) found the manuscript he used at Luxeuil. (Chifflet also sent a copy of the catalogue to the Gallia Christiana team, by the way, helpfully adding that the Hungarians were ‘Comani’).
Also, by zero coincidence, there is a twelfth-century forged charter from Luxeuil that is followed by a story quoting from the Life of Deicolus on the Hungarian attack. But the author made Luxeuil the monastery that was destroyed. And redated the attack to the time of Charlemagne (768 to 814).
So to recap: the earliest unambiguous reference to the destruction of Luxeuil by a marauding band of baddies is a naked forgery from the twelfth century that seems to have been produced in competition with a nearby monastery over who was destroyed by Magyars first. This is not good.
What about the date then? Isn’t the existence of a date suspicious? The precise date of 731 actually seems to come from the twelfth-century chronicle of John of Bèze, as John recorded the destruction of Bèze – c. 120km away – that year, with no mention of Luxeuil.
Occasionally, modern writers place the event in 732 instead. Indeed, I first ever read about the destruction of Luxeuil, dated to 732, in Rosamond McKitterick’s classic essay on Merovingian scriptoria from 1981. Oddly she didn’t give a source. But, likely indirectly from at least Bischoff, I think we can find a source for the ‘slip’: in 1704, Jean Mabillon, wrote a lengthy excursus in his Annales of the Benedictine order under the year 732, about the whole of the early history of Arab-Frankish tensions. It didn’t necessarily mean he thought it happened in 732, and indeed his friends and acquaintances writing around the same time all seem to have maintained the date of 731. Other writers did give 732. But given that I doubt it happened anyway, I’m not sure it qualifies as an ‘error’.
Mabillon, by the way, also spent time at Luxeuil doing research. Might he not have been concerned at the fragile historical basis for this event? Maybe politics gave him the final push: the whole account he gives of the destruction of Burgundy is pitched by him as the sufferings of ‘our’ monasteries of the Benedictine Order. As it is for Holland, it was compelling because it fitted the story he wanted to tell his readers.
‘What a pedant!’, you might think. Does it matter if Luxeuil was destroyed in 731 or not? This is 2019! Sure. But if we are going to read stories about the past that are supposed to speak to our present, we need to be careful not to let the fictions in – especially ones with the potential to poison how we view cultural interactions. Old lies do not become harmless truths.
Nb featured image = the aftermath of the Battle of Poitiers of 732 by Puvis, as depicted at the Hotel de Ville in Poitiers.