September 17 – Happy Birthday, Charles the Simple, King of Western France

Posted on September 17, 2014

Charles the Simple
To me, “Charles the Simple” sounds like an insult. Indeed, it may have been an insult—although I wouldn't expect the name for a king to be an insult!

But get this:

Charles the Simple (born on this date in 879) was the youngest child of Louis the Stammerer, King of Aquitaine and later King of West Francia.

His grandfather's name was Charles the Bald.

Charles the Simple was too young to rule when his older brother died, so the nobles of West Francia asked his cousin, Charles the Fat, to become king.

Charles the Fat
The Simple? The Stammerer? The Bald? The Fat? ...It sounds like a comedy meant to make fun of kings calling themselves so-and-so “the Great,” but this is reality, not parody!

I also read that the King of Germany, Louis the Child, died and that the nobles of one region of Germany, under the leadership of Reginar Longneck, declared Charles the Simple to be their king, too.

A few other kings include Louis the Quarreler, Charles the Mad, Philip the Amorous, Pepin the Short, and (finally! Some compliments!) Louis the Debonaire and Charles the Affable.

Maybe these names sound less laughable in French?

The birth of last names

In the Middle Ages, there was enough travel from town-to-town, enough trade between peoples, and large enough gatherings of people in towns to necessitate more than just one name. You can imagine something like this:

Who is going to move into the room above the bar?


John? I know three Johns—which one do you mean? John the Smith, John the Cooper, or John the Red Head?

(Note that a smith is someone who creates objects out of metal, and a cooper is someone who makes barrels.)
Actually, I mean John, son of Peter.
Oh! Right! Forgot about him!

John Smith, I presume?
During this time when people were trying to differentiate between people with the same first name, they referred to people's occupations, father's names, where they lived, and sometimes even their appearance or disposition. 

John the Smith became John Smith, and John the Cooper became John Cooper. John the Red Head might have become John Redd or John Redford, and John-son-of-Peter became John Peterson. 

I can imagine that John from London became John London, and John-of-the-Hill became John Hill – and so on and on. Last names had been invented and to some extent evolved, mostly in the direction of streamlining and simplifying.

Also on this date:

Constitution Day 

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