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Middle Ages

The Longobards

Iron crown of the Lombards

In the spring of 568, a people from the north crossed the Alps led by King Alboin, conquering northern Italy and establishing a kingdom that was to last for two centuries.
That vast group of more than 100,000 people were the Lombards, a barbarian population who shared the same mythical origin as reported in the "Origo gentis Langobardorum", which says they originated in Scandinavia. The Scandinavian origin has however been questioned, but although it is not possible to know with certainty whether this was their real origin, there are certain Longobard testimonies in northern Germany. Before arriving in Italy, the Lombards wandered for a long time, as barbarian peoples used to do, as they were semi-nomadic and moved en masse to other lands. The Lombards began their migration towards Eastern Europe, passing through Bohemia, Slovakia and Croatia, until they reached Pannonia (today's Hungary). In Pannonia, the Lombards had to fight against the Gepids and the Avars and it was because of the pressure from the Avars that the Lombards had to move towards Italy.

The Longobard Society

Lombard Monarchy
We have already mentioned that the Lombards had a king, but their monarchical system had some peculiar features. The title of king was not hereditary, the king was in fact voted by an assembly of free men called gairethinx and could be deposed if his actions were not considered up to scratch. The figure of the king was above all linked to the military sphere (as was the case with the entire Lombard social organisation), he was first and foremost a military leader who acted as the superior leader of the various groups.

The Duces
In fact, the Lombards were not a single united people, but were a collection of different groups who were governed by individual duces (a word borrowed from the Byzantines), i.e. those who were in charge of groups of soldiers and an area in the territory.

The fare
The main witness of the Lombard kingdom is Paul Deacon who explains how their society was divided into Fare. It is not entirely clear exactly what these were, the fares probably being military organisations whose members were, however, members of the same family (the Sippe in the Germanic world).

Caste division
Like the Celts and the Saxons, with whom they coexisted in 5th century Germany, the Lombards were also organised into strict castes. The free men were the exercitales or Arimanni (from heer, 'army' and mann, 'man'), i.e. those who performed military service. The servants, on the other hand, who were destined for work in the fields and sheep farming, were clearly divided and had no rights, being treated like slaves. There was also a third class, the Aldi (or Haldii) who were similar to the servants, but with greater economic freedom.

The Longobards in Italy

The Lombards made their entrance into Italy by crossing the Julian Alps and starting from Forum Iulii (Cividale del Friuli) conquered in turn the whole of the north, Tuscany, the Duchy of Spoleto and that of Benevento. It is not clear why the Byzantines did not seem to put too much effort into hindering their advance, probably they had underestimated their potential and were more engaged on other fronts. The capital of the kingdom was Pavia, conquered in 572, the same year that King Alboin was assassinated in a conspiracy organised by his own wife, Rosmunda.

It seems that the episode that triggered Rosmunda's resentment towards her husband was when Alboin forced her to drink from the skull of her father Cunimondo, who had been defeated by Alboin before his arrival in Italy.

cavas of Pietro della Vecchia: Rosmunda drinks from the skull of her father Cunimondo

After the death of Alboin, there was a short reign of Clephis until 574 and after him the kingdom was left without a ruler for ten years that saw the duces fighting among themselves. In view of the pressure from the Byzantines, a new military reorganisation was needed and to this end, the Lombards elected Autari as their king in 584, who married Theodolinda, daughter of the Duke of Bavaria. When he died in 590, he was succeeded by Agilulfo who married his widow. It was thanks to Queen Theodolinda that a process of conversion of the kingdom to the Catholic religion began. This was one of the steps that brought the Lombards closer to Latin culture, and during their stay their culture began to mix with the local one.

Evidence of this mixture came in 643 with the drafting of the Edict of Rotari, a long series of laws regulating the life of the Lombard subjects, written in Latin. Rotari's edict gave great importance to the management of family wealth, but also established laws to prevent private feuds between families through compensation (guidrigli) for each injured part of the body and for murders.

Fall of the Lombard kingdom

From the middle of the 8th century, the Frankish kingdom and the Papacy formed an alliance which soon led to the decline of the Lombard kingdom. The last king of the Lombards was Desiderius, whose daughter married Charlemagne, son of Pepin the Short, king of the Franks. But when Charlemagne became king of the Franks, he repudiated his Lombard wife and in 774 he conquered the capital Pavia and had King Desiderius arrested and imprisoned in a monastery. The Lombard kingdom then came under Frankish rule, but retained its structure and special status. Only the Duchy of Benevento resisted Charlemagne's incursion and lasted until the 11th century.

We do not know the real name of the daughter of King Desiderius who married Charlemagne, but she was named Ermengarda by Alessandro Manzoni in the tragedy "Adelchi".

Adelchi, Manzoni
By Stefano Vivaldini
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