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Fraxinetum

I came across another one of those historical footnotes which would in years past have prompted a Pyramid  article. With Pyramid still gone, here we go again:

Introduction

The early Middle Ages were dangerous and chaotic for much of western Europe. Vikings raided along coasts and river from the north and all the way around Europe's west coast and into the Mediterranean. Magyars attacked from the east. And Muslims (mostly but certainly not all North African Berbers) took over most of Spain and raided elsewhere along the Mediterranean coast.

But while many people know at least about the existence of Muslim Spain, fewer people are aware of Muslim France.  For a time in the 8th through 10th centuries, large stretches of the south coast of France were under Muslim rule, and parts of that were administered from one of the world's most glamorous vacation spots. This was Medieval Fraxinetum.

History

In 711 AD, things were going well for the expanding Muslim caliphate. An Arab-led Berber army crossed over from Morocco to invade Europe. By 714, the Muslims had defeated the unpopular Visigothic king Roderick and, faced with little resistance from a population which didn't care for their previous rulers at all, took over most of what's now Spain and Portugal, save for a modest strip along the north cost of Iberia. Despite growing internal problems, the invasion rolled past the Pyrenees and into southern France. In 732, Charles Martel defeated a Muslim army at Tours, marking the end of Muslim expansion into the French heartland, but that didn't immediately expel the Muslims from the country. They managed to hold on to the province of Septimania (the southwestern corner of France, notably including the city of Carcassonne) until they were pushed out by the rising Carolingians in 759.

But the Carolingians wouldn't be ascendant forever. The empire started to decline after Charlemagne, split between multiple heirs. In 888, after multiple internal wars and succession conflicts, the empire essentially ceased to exist with the death of Charles the Fat. It shattered into multiple kingdoms, themselves none too well governed at the time.

It was in the context of the chaos surrounding the Carolingian collapse that a party of adventurers chose to strike. In 887, a group of 20 Muslim warriors set out by galley from Al-Andalus. They landed on the central coast of southern France, at modern St. Tropez. Heading a few miles inland, they seized control of a small town and occupied the old Roman fortress overlooking it. This fortress, known by its old Roman name Fraxinetum, became the center of a small Muslim power in France which would last for decades. There's some question as to the ethnic character of the initial invaders. In at least one case, they were described with a word meaning people who spoke both Arabic and Latin, so they may have been natives of Iberia who had recently converted. And, of course, they may very well have been a diverse group of Africans, Arabs, and Europeans.

Taking Fraxinetum proved so easy that the Andalusis occupying it invited others to join them. Perhaps another hundred warriors joined them, and they set about subduing the Provencal countryside. By within a decade or two, they were getting tribute from across the region (though they appeared content to collect money and not interfere with the administration or religious preferences of the towns under their control) and their fortress and nearby harbor served as a base for profitable raiding. This proved attractive enough to keep their numbers up. By 910, they were launching raids into western Italy, and in 939, they made a spectacularly successful run into the Alps, sacking a pair of monasteries in Switzerland.

While the towns of Provence couldn't stop the raiders of Fraxinetum, their far-ranging attacks raised the ire of other forces. In 941, King Hugh of Arles launched a joint naval and ground assault on the fortress. But just as the situation looked darkest for the Andalusi adventurers, Hugh broke off the attack and concluded an alliance with them against a rival, Berengar of Ivrea. The truce allowed the Andalusis to occupy passes in the Alps, which protected Hugh by keeping Berengar from bringing reinforcements from allies in Saxony and enriched the Andalusis by providing them with revenues from tolls.

During this period, the Andalusis became more involved in international politics, hosting a few political exiles from other kingdoms and establishing more fortresses in the Alps to solidify their position. They even ranged into the Rhine valley and had a confrontation with a rival group of Magyar raiders, which ended when a larger German force drove off both parties with heavy casualties.

Eventually, the Andalusis were victims of their own success. Their raids caught the attention of Otto I, the new Holy Roman Emperor, who encouraged more coordinated defenses against them. The pushback started to erode their territory, driving them out of the Alps and destroying their fleet. An alliance of noblemen from Septimania to Italy eventually defeated the Andalusis in 972, and any surviving Muslims were driven out. Fraxinetum had formed the core of a Muslim outpost in France for nearly a hundred years, but they would not return for a long time.

The Location

The fortress of Fraxinetum sits atop a high hill (elevation a little over 400 meters) about six miles inland from the Mediterranean, northwest of modern St. Tropez. It overlooks a small town immediately to its east with a stream running through it. It's part of a long line of forested hills stretching along the coast, though there's a small open plain about a mile farther northwest. (Satellite images are useful for visualizing the landscape here.)

Fraxinetum was notoriously difficult for enemy armies to reach. The immediate surroundings were densely forested, which made it difficult for large bodies of troops to approach from most directions, and the site lay near the sea, so supporting forces could reach there easily. And the fortress itself was small but formidably situated. It sits atop a steep hill, with a single viable path to it winding up the slope. The path runs along the hillside to the south, then wraps up and around counterclockwise, passing under the walls of the fortress for several hundred yards, until it enters the fortress to the west. For most of its length, its only possible to pass along it in single file.

Fraxinetum didn't survive by raiding alone. The heavily forested region was noted as a source of wood for a variety of uses and the source of a fine pine tar (very useful for sealing the hulls of ships), and the region was home to a number of mines. Metalwork and pottery appear to have been local industries, likely fueled by abundant lumber which could be turned into charcoal. It is possible that the Andalusis introduced cork trees and buckwheat into the region.



The fort as presented in the map here (based on partly exposed foundations; this is not a full or academic reconstruction) is an odd hybrid. It's foundations were Roman, with distinctly Andalusi features added. It's less a castle in the western European style, which at this time is still evolving anyway, and more a fortified camp. It's a solid defensive position (the southern half of the peak is sufficiently steep that it isn't protected by walls) containing a number of independent buildings rather than a single large keep. It contains a circular watchtower which, at well under 20 feet in diameter, is just large enough to have a stairway or ladder leading to the top but little or no useful internal space. On the map, the brown contour lines indicate intervals of about five feet. The inside of fortress has been terraced somewhat, so the contours tend to align with earthen walls supporting the next level.

Gaming with Fraxinetum

The remarkable success of a handful of warriors indicates the extreme instability and fragmentation of southern France during this period. It also suggests serious campaign possibilities. Tenth century Europe certainly had regions of stability, but Provence clearly wasn't one of them. And while it got its act together enough to drive off Vikings, Magyars, and Andalusi ghazi, it did take a while. Certainly, the lifespan of Muslim Franxinetum is more than enough for a solid campaign.

The basics are fairly simple: determined adventurers enter a politically chaotic region, take over a vulnerable location, gather allies from home, and gradually improve their position. This could work just as well with Vikings in the British Isles (indeed, it worked out better for them than it did for the Andalusis), Magyars in the right parts of central Europe, steppe nomads on parts of the Silk Road, and so on; an ambitious GM might plausibly set up a three-way raider battle. The Andalusis fought Magyars on one occasions, and Vikings raided into Italy and North Africa during the ninth century. And of course, there's always the fantasy version thereof. There's the tactical challenge of taking over one territory after another, and then there's the strategic and political challenge of not taking on the wrong enemies. For example, Provence during this period was vulnerable, but had the Andalusis pressed north towards Paris and the much better organized Frankish heartland, they'd soon find out that they'd bitten off more than they could chew, and for all its defensibility, Fraxinetum probably couldn't withstand truly determined enemies for long. After all, the Andalusis nearly got themselves wiped out by King Hugh before the situation changed to one where they could be useful.

Naturally, this kind of game wants warrior types of any description. The number of people necessary to kick off such a campaign is more than could feasibly fit around a gaming table. However, it could work quite well with a normal-sized party of PCs and a batch of Allies. Ally Group is probably adequate for a larger batch of warriors.

Comments

A David Merritt said…
A very interesting post. I was unaware of this post Charlemagne Muslim outpost in France.

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