Holy War and the Kingdom of Heaven: Pope Leo IV’s Letter to the Frankish Army (847/8?)

I’ve recently had cause to think about holy war in the Carolingian period again. One of the things that struck me is that this is a subject that suffers from being in the shadow of the Crusades. This is not just because the Crusades are the archetype for medieval Christian holy wars, by which all others are measured and understood. Much of the scholarship on holy war in the Carolingian age has been carried out by Crusades specialists trying to understand how a religion of peace whose earliest practitioners were suspicious of military affairs came to be the faith of people crying out ‘Deus le volt’ as they stormed Antioch and Jerusalem in the last years of the eleventh century. The result tends to be a whistlestop tour across a millennium, hitting a couple of perennial points such as Constantine’s conversion and Augustine’s formulation of just warfare, before racing onto the next stop a couple of centuries later.

One of the old chestnuts briefly paused at is the letter of Pope Leo IV (r.847-853) to a Frankish army in the middle of the ninth century. This letter is important as possibly the first place a Christian religious authority explicitly says that soldiers who die fighting a holy war automatically go to heaven. This is of great significance for historians of the Crusades, because the concept of a papal indulgence for those who participated in the campaign is at the heart of many definitions of a Crusade. But in most scholarly accounts the letter merits half a sentence and a footnote. This is a shame, because it’s a fascinating text. Because of this neglect, and because if people on the internet are going to argue about medieval holy war they should at least have access to decent sources and I don’t think the Fordham translation is particularly good, I thought it might be useful to offer one of my own.

Leo IV, Epistolae selectae, ed. A. Hirsch-Gereuth, MGH Epp 5 (Berlin, 1899), no. 28, 601.

To the army of the Franks

1. Put aside all fear and panic, and endeavour to act manfully against the enemies of the holy faith and the foes of all lands.

2. Likewise. Up until now your forebears have always proved to be victorious when they marched forth in military array, and no multitude of people could overcome them. For we have not heard that they ever returned without the fame of a victory.

3. Likewise. Beloved, we want all of you to know that whoever dies faithfully in this contest of war (which we say not wishing it comes to pass) will by no means be denied the kingdom of heaven. For the Almighty knows that if any of you die, he died for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul and the defence of the country of Christians, and therefore he will obtain the aforesaid prize [i.e. heaven] from Him.

An important thing to note about this letter is that it only survives in later legal collections. The full text is preserved in a manuscript known as the Collectio Britannica (BL Add MS 8873 f.167v) which contains a collection of canons probably assembled in France in 1108. The canonist Ivo of Chartres (d. 1114) included it in his Decretum (X.87) and in slightly shortened form in his Panormia (VIII.30). An abbreviated version of Leo’s letter, attributing it to the more celebrated Pope Nicholas I (r. 858-867) makes an appearance in Gratian’s Decretum (C. 23 q. 8 c. 9). The letter survived because it was used as a legal precedent, but this means we don’t have any sense of context for when it was written, who exactly Leo was addressing or how it circulated before the late-eleventh century (i.e. when the Crusades began), although the Collectio claims to be drawing the letters from Leo’s Papal Register. The conventional date of 853 assigned to the letter has no particular evidence behind it and is not to be trusted, particularly as there was no Frankish army near Rome in that year.

We can say a little more about the context of Leo’s pontificate. It was defined by an event that took place the year before he was elected, when in August 846 a Saracen raiding party sacked the part of Rome that lay outside the Aurelian walls, including the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and San Paolo fuori le Mura. As Pope, Leo responded to this disaster by repairing the basilicas, fixing the city walls and establishing a new set of fortifications, known as the Leonine Walls, which contain what is now the Vatican City. Knowing that the raiders might return, he also sought to mobilise aid from the Carolingian rulers of Italy, Emperor Lothar I (r. 817-855) and his son Louis II (r. 844-875), and from southern Italian cities such as Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi. This preparation paid off when a Christian naval coalition intercepted and defeated a Saracen fleet heading towards Rome at the Battle of Ostia in 849. Despite this success, the sack of 846 was an immensely traumatic moment, which sent shockwaves across Christian Europe and threw Rome into a state of emergency. Although we know that the Eternal City would remain safe from the Saracens from then on, Leo obviously didn’t. In 847 Saracen pirates took over Bari, establishing an Emirate that would raid into southern Italy for the next two-and-a-half decades. This atmosphere of crisis helps to explain the unusual contents of the letter.

Raphael’s depiction of The Battle of Ostia in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, painted in 1514-15. Note Leo IV on the left, bearing a strong resemblance to Pope Leo X (r.1513-1521).

Although Leo specifies that the Frankish army is fighting against enemies of the faith in c.1, the discussion of holy war is mostly confined to c.3, where it is pretty explicit. Franks who die righteously in this war will go to heaven. Leo lays stress on the causes they are defending – the truth of the faith, their souls, and the defence of Christendom. It’s hard to find much in the way of precedent for this statement. This is surprising given how many of the elements that made it were already available. Paul compared Christians to soldiers fighting for the cause. Christian martyrs had been dying for the faith from the very beginning, and they automatically won eternal life for doing so. As I have discussed elsewhere, Charlemagne waged wars that were meant to bring Christianity to new peoples such as the Saxons, or to rescue Christians believed to be suffering persecution in the Iberian Peninsula. Bringing together the ideas of fighting for the faith and going to heaven for dying for the faith seems like an obvious thing to do.

Pope Leo’s letter is perhaps not as isolated as it may appear. Many of the papal letters preserved in the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus on Charlemagne’s orders in 791 contain suggestions that going to war on behalf of the pope could ensure one’s path to heaven. A particularly striking example appears in a letter of 756 sent by Pope Stephen II (r. 752-757) to King Pippin III (r. 751-768) and his sons, which purports to be the words of St Peter addressing the Franks. Stephen wanted Frankish help against the Lombard king Aistulf (r. 749-756). St Peter lists the crimes of the Lombards to the Franks before stating that he was:

Offering you the rewards of eternal recompense and the unending joys of heaven – provided that you have very speedily defended my Roman city and my own people, your Roman brothers, from the hands of the evil Lombards.

(Translated in McKitterick, van Espelo, Pollard and Price.)

There are some obvious differences with Leo’s letter. Peter/Stephen doesn’t state that the Franks would have to perish while on this campaign to enjoy this heavenly perk. More surprising is the target of this campaign, the Lombards being Christian, albeit not behaving particularly so from a papal perspective.

Despite these differences, this letter and others in the same collection offer a Carolingian context for Pope Leo’s exhortation to the Frankish army. Something similar appears in material celebrating Gerold, the Prefect of Bavaria, who died fighting the Avars in 799. Heito’s Visio Wettini from 824 declared that Gerold deserved ‘everlasting life’ because he died ‘in defence of the holy church against the infidels’. Fraser recently drew my attention to a sermon of Abbo of Saint-Germain from the 880s, translated by Charles West, which calls upon the listener:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs.

I suspect that such ideas were not unknown elsewhere in the Carolingian world, but they might not have been commonly expressed. This is hinted by the fact that in 878 Pope John VIII (r. 872-882) had to reassure the bishops of the West Frankish kingdom that those who died fighting against pagans would go to heaven, suggesting that it wasn’t an idea that they regularly encountered. Likewise, the importance of Leo’s letter for the canonists was in large part the result of the absence of other authorities to draw upon. When Peter Comestor (d. 1179) sought to defend the point in a tract addressed to a Patriarch of Jerusalem, his only sources were Leo and Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099).

Looking at c.3 of the letter alone makes Leo IV look like a solitary prophet of the age of the Crusades. The rest of the text however very firmly places him in the Carolingian world. This is a letter written by Leo to stiffen the spine of a Frankish army, and the consolations of heaven to the fallen is the very last argument he uses to steady the troops. He begins by emphasising the evil of the enemy, who are both inimical to the faith and the peace of all people (c.1). Interestingly, Leo addresses the men in the context of the history of the Franks in c.2, recalling to them the example set by their ancestors. In doing so, the Pope was probably doing more than reminding them of the formidable achievements of Frankish arms over the previous century and a half. He also implicitly harked back to the relationship between the Carolingians and the Papacy that stretched back to the days of Pippin and Stephen, in which the Franks protected Rome against all threats. The sack of 846 was a shocking moment for the Carolingians as well as the Papacy, prompting Lothar and, particularly, Louis II to pay much more attention to southern Italy. The latter would define his reign by his capacity to protect Italy and the Pope from Saracen threats. That bond was acknowledged by Leo as he steeled the Franks of his own day by celebrating the deeds of those long past.  

This may give us a clue for dating the letter. Louis II arrived in southern Italy with a Frankish army in 847, and spent much of 848 campaigning against Muslim pirates while trying to end the civil war that had riven Benevento, leading to the formal division in 849 of the troubled principality. He returned south in 852 to campaign against Bari. This suggests 847-8 or 852 as the most likely contexts for the Leo’s address to a Frankish army. Although it could be either, I’m tempted to go with the earlier date, simply because praising the efforts of the ancestors of the Frankish army seems like a slightly odd move if there had already been an expedition five years earlier in which some of the army of 852 had probably participated. By contrast, before 847 there hadn’t been a Frankish army south of Rome since the days of Charlemagne, a full generation earlier.

Even if we can’t pinpoint the exact year of the letter, we can locate it in a Carolingian milieu. Leo’s comments on the souls of those fallen in holy war were unusual for his period. They would go onto be highly influential in the very different circumstances of the Crusades. But by reading the entire letter as it survives to us, we can see it as the product of the Carolingian world, written not to be an example for lawyers, but as a rallying cry for desperately scared and fiercely proud men in a time of crisis.

The Frisian Church and the Frisian Vikings

One of the themes of my research into viking political cultures is ‘cult’. This is admittedly a well-ploughed field, but it is nonetheless turning up new findings. Often these findings are so corroded as to be difficult or impossible to do anything with. It may be significant that we have references to pagan cult specialists from viking groups active in Ireland, Britain and Rus’; but given that most of these reference are ambiguous or late it may equally well, y’know, not be. Similarly when dealing with Abrahamic faiths, the conversion process in Ireland has been opaque to better scholars than me, and my hope of finding Jewish or Muslim viking groups has borne no fruit. However, I am starting to build up a picture in one of my regions which I think is both real and significant.

Frisia, roughly the northern and western parts of the modern-day Netherlands, had not been Christian for very long, relatively speaking, in the ninth century. The missionary process which had taken place over the eighth century and before had produced a lot of hagiographical literature but was still an ongoing concern in the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. New parish churches were still being founded – at north-eastern Frisia, in Oostergo, a church at Leeuwarden was founded as late as 850 – and the latest research indicates that many of them were situated so far away from population centres that reasonably large chunks of the population would not have been able to access them. Major ecclesiastical players included the bishoprics at Münster and Utrecht, and abbeys, particularly that founded at Echternach by Willibrord, a man whose career was largely dedicated to evangelising Frisia.

One might therefore expect fragility to be the order of the day when the vikings showed up. Frisia was target number one for Danish pirates, up to and including the Danish king Godefrid who invaded in 810. Further attacks continued throughout the ninth century and as late as the eleventh. Indeed, recent research into parish formation in Frisia has concluded that the viking period was a time of devastation and administrative collapse: ‘There is no doubt that the temporary reign of the Vikings Rorik and Godfrey – who, between c. 850 and 885, received a large part of West Frisia from the king in fief in order to defend it against other Vikings – led to a dislocation of the ecclesiastical infrastructure during which churches were destroyed and church land was lost.’

Yet on closer inspection, the evidence for this is remarkably exiguous. The authors of the aforementioned study point the curious reader towards Kohl’s volume on Münster in the Germania Sacra series (where material losses are simply asserted without further evidence) and van Vliet’s work on Utrecht, whose conclusions are a lot more cautious than you would work out from the way they’re cited. In fact, it would be prima facie surprising if viking attacks on Frisia did cause severe structural damage. Frisia’s connections with Denmark were very close, not least because geographically speaking they are almost next door to one another. Similarly, pirate raids were a feature of life in the region for a very long time – famously, there are references in Beowulf and other Old English poetry to Danish raids on Frisia in the immediately post-Roman period and we’ve already mentioned raids in the eleventh century. Annalistic evidence gives the impression that the Frisians were unusually good at fighting off pirate raids on their communities: Frisia was clearly not a defeated and demoralised region. By a process of analogy, although individual raids caused damage and trauma, we might well be better served expecting church structures in Frisia to be robust and adaptable rather than delicate and easily broken. (Archaeological evidence from places like Zutphen and Deventer suggests that even when viking raids did massive damage places that were not already moribund for other reasons were able to rebuild quite quickly.)

This is where I come in. One of the questions I’m trying to ask is whether or not viking rulers outside of Scandinavia patronised pre-existing cult structures. Evidence for this generally is not abundant. There are two questions here: first, was there, generally speaking, continuity between the earlier and later ninth centuries? After all, you can’t patronise the Church if the Church doesn’t exist. Second, if there was continuity in Frisia, did viking rulers actually patronise the Church?

In regard to the first question, there is some evidence for discontinuity, largely relating to the bishopric of Utrecht. In 858, King Lothar II issued a diploma for Bishop Hunger saying that because Utrecht itself had been nearly destroyed by the Northmen, he had fled to Sint Odiliënberg. The bishops would not come back full-time to Utrecht until well into the tenth century, and from the end of the ninth century their main centre was actually Deventer. Otherwise, the Vita Adalberti refers to the church at Egmond suffering from Viking attacks, and a twelfth-century letter suggests that Echternach lost most of its property on Walcheren during the viking period in Frisia. This is not a lot of explicit evidence, and some of it – like the Echternach letter – is late enough that references to viking depredations are more likely an ecclesiastical trope than a reflection of a real ninth-century state of affairs. The biggest question-mark hangs over the role of Utrecht. At first sight, the evidence for disruption here seems pretty damning; but there are some hints that not all is as it seems. Hunger of Utrecht was an opponent of Lothar II’s divorce and had strong links to Lothar’s aggressive uncle Louis the German. I suspect, therefore, the move to Sint Odiliënberg might be a kind of very gilded arrest using the vikings as an excuse. Certainly, there are hints in the letters of Hincmar of Rheims that Hunger was back by the 860s. There is a case for taking a more granular approach, distinguishing between the period of Roric’s rule in Frisia (and the decades beforehand) and the significant, but brief, disruption caused by the massive raids around 880. More research is needed here.

On the other hand, what we have in the way of archival material from the major churches does suggest administrative, and occasionally actual, continuity. For a region supposedly devastated by Scandinavian attacks, we have estate surveys surviving from almost all the major players in the region (Münster and Echternach being the biggest exceptions) from c. 900 and all of them indicate some continuation of Church infrastructure. A list of the goods possessed by the see of Utrecht, dating from c. 900, says little explicitly about continuity, but it does say that the church it owned on the island of Texel had kept going until the reign of Bishop Odilbald (so after the time of Roric and Hunger, up to about the time of those devastating 880s attacks I mentioned earlier). Estate surveys from Prüm and Werden indicate that their goods in the region included functioning churches and responsive officials – some of the material in the Werden Urbar came directly from local representatives of the abbey.

I’d also like to make special mention of the Vita Adalberti. This source, written around the end of the tenth century, goes into surprising detail about Egmond’s existence before it was turned into a monastic foundation by the Counts of Frisia. It does say that Egmond was damaged by viking raids – but it also says that it was restored afterwards. Interestingly, it also says it was patronised not only by Christians but by pagans.

Egmond Abbey in the seventeenth century (source)

This brings us to the second question: if some, and probably most, Church infrastructure was battered but not destroyed by viking attacks, did the viking rulers of Frisia patronise churches? To start with, let’s look at the religious backgrounds of these rulers. The longest-reigning ruler, Roric of Dorestad, only became a Christian in c.860, having ruled in the area for well over a decade beforehand. However, his predecessor Harald Klak and successor Guthfrith were baptised before being given any land in Frisia. (We can debate the ‘sincerity’ of this conversion if you like; but it’s asinine question, and in any case the example of Rollo – whose own conversion was ambiguous enough he was remembered in some quarters as having ordered human sacrifices on his deathbed – shows that even if one wasn’t necessarily a die-hard zealot it was still politic to patronise the Church.) Formal profession of Christianity, though, is only part of the story. We have several stories of unbaptised people patronising churches across Europe during the ninth century – as we’ve seen with the Vita Adalberti. It’s well-known that the Christian God could be assimilated into polytheistic cult practise. Famously, King Raedwald of East Anglia had a Christian altar set up in his personal temple alongside non-Christian shrines. What this means is that people whom a Christian cleric might not perceive as Christians could very well patronise churches, both out of political calculation and also quite sincerely as a religious person.

So, with that out of the way, is there any evidence that they actually did patronise the Church? Some. We’ve already covered pagan patronage of Egmond, but the Vita Adalberti also specifically mentions that Roric of Dorestad specifically restored it. I’m inclined to take this report seriously: Roric had no descendants to care about his memory, and power in the area was in the hands of a quite different group of people. The simplest reason for this story to be here is that the community at Egmond actually did remember Roric restoring their church. There is another piece of evidence that Roric patronised church-building, more contemporary but more gnomic. A poem from Sedulius Scotus refers to an alter being dedicated by Bishop Ratbald in the time of King Roric. Roric is evidently our man; Bishop Ratbald is completely unknown. It’s also not clear where this altar was. Roric did have a brief career as king in Denmark, so it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that this altar was in Scandinavia. However, I find it less likely that Sedulius would commemorate this in a poem than an altar within the Frankish kingdom. The dating by Roric’s reign, further, suggests that a) it was in an area under his control, therefore Frisia; and b) that he patronised it in some fashion.

As far as explicit evidence goes, that’s it. It’s not a lot, but it’s more than is usually brought to the table. Those who argue for extensive disruption caused by viking attacks would likely argue (like the eleventh-century reformer Mayeul of Cluny) that Northmen were breakers not builders of churches. However, I suspect it’s probably more likely to be that Frisia did not possess any major monasteries. Records of monastic landholding represent a disproportionate amount of what we know about Carolingian-era patronage of the Church, and the much smaller churches of Frisia did not preserve their archives into the modern period (if they ever had them). Roric’s power-base in Frisia lay in Dorestad and Kennemerland (around Haarlem). Dorestad’s churches have vanished in the modern day, and there were no significant abbeys in Kennemerland to patronise. For this reason, I think this is absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. Viking leaders in Frisia probably did patronise the Church, albeit on a limited scale, and certainly in ways which don’t show up very clearly in our evidence because of the nature of the churches that were the subjects of such generosity.

Source Translation: 936 Ain’t Over Yet

This post was a mistake. Not a serious mistake, to be clear: this was going to be the Charter A Week for 937 and I got the whole way through translating it before I realised that, duh, it’s from 936. Still, no need to waste a diploma, and this one genuinely is quite important and interesting. I keep talking about Hugh the Great’s pretentions to overwhelmingly high status after Louis IV’s accession; and I’ve mentioned that there was tension in the air – but so far you haven’t seen the worst of it. Today’s source gets us up close and personal with that discontent:

D L4 no. 4 (25th December 936, Compiègne)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Louis, by the preordaining clemency of the Highest King king of the Franks.

If We come to help and concede any gift of honour and restoration to the holy church of God  and also extend the hands of Our Highness and Piety to those who should dwell Catholically in it and devotedly seek the gift of His clemency for the state of this realm and of Christianity, through the deliverance of the King on High Jesus Christ and the most clement intercession of His saints such that they might not be illegally and unjustly oppressed by violence from anyone, We hold most firmly that it will benefit Us temporally and eternally in the augmentation of Our honour.

Thus, let the skill of those both present and future discover that the brothers of the abbey of Compiègne, when We first came there, made a complaint before the summit of Our Highness concerning Bishop Rothard of Meaux, previously prior of the same place, regarding their own land, which ought to pertain to their allowance of food, and clothing, and which had been conceded by Our progenitors to the nourishing mother of God and undefiled virgin Mary and the most precious martyrs Cornelius and Cyprian, for the work of the brothers serving therein; to wit, concerning the estate which is called Chauny and also concerning Gury and concerning Mareuil-la-Motte and Marest-sur-Matz and Manseau and concerning Margny-sur-Matz and concerning Elincourt and concerning the churches sited in them, that is, Notre-Dame, Saint-Denis, Saint-Médard, Sainte-Marguerite, and concerning their tithes and concerning the other side of the river Aronde and the mill which is called Frost and concerning the land which lies besides the same river, on this side of the aforesaid river and on the far side, and also concerning the space next to the aforesaid river on which he had strengthened a residence, which space, that is, is named Coudun; all of which, when in fact he should have been a servant of the said place, he kept hold of and usurped for himself, purportedly for rent, which he also never paid any of.

We, then, hearing this and enjoying the common consent of Our followers, to wit, of Hugh [the Great], Our most beloved and the duke of the Franks, who is second to Us in all Our realms; and Our most faithful pontiff Walbert [of Noyon], and also with the counsel of the most prudent man Bernard [of Beauvais], tremendously great in Our fidelity, and Ermenfred [of Amiens], restore to them, to the common portion of the brothers serving the Lord therein, all the said land with all the aforesaid things, in order that from this day forth they might hold and possess that land and all the aforesaid things for their allowance of food, and clothing in times to come without the trouble of any contradiction.

In addition, moreover, We concede to the said brothers that they should have free power to distribute prebends and that they should have all the service given for them for their own uses, just as Our most glorious father King Charles [the Simple] conceded to them in a precept of renewal.

Let them have the same power over the appointed ministers of the place as well, except the prior and dean, treasurer and cantor; and in these cases, with the counsel of the senior brothers and the election of the other clerics.

Let them have the same, too, over houses given between them or over land within and without the castle pertaining to the same brothers.

We concede to them, furthermore, in regard to the castle and its ramparts and concerning the outside area inside the walls and defensive ditch, that none who is an outsider to the same place should accept command on the pretext of overseeing the castle; and that no-one should claim rights of hospitality there.

Next, We concede to them in regard to the cultivated land which they have for outward uses that no-one should presume to enter their residences; and the toll from the ovens which have been or will be built there and from the wine-taverns within the castle and without the castle which customarily came to the part of Our predecessors.

From the confluence of waters next to the estate of Clairoix up to the bridge of Venette, We concede to them the river with both banks, and fishing-rights, and ship-passage and wherever nets ought to be dragged out of the river, whether going upriver or downriver, and from there up to Magnicurtis; also that no-one should presume to fish or hunt there without permission from the brothers; and if any fleeing wild animal comes there without being pursued by hunters, let it be brought to the brothers’ table. And similarly We concede to them whatever might be found from the confluence of waters next to Clairoix up to Magnicurtis.

We also concede permission that if any fiscal servant wishes to sell or give anything from his allod to that holy place or to the canons of that place, they may have free power to do it and the deed may endure perpetually, as Our father King Charles [the Simple] once established and conceded there through a precept.

If, though, anyone might presume to violate this statute and that which Our father established and Pope John of the holy Roman see conceded in his privilege and excommunicated and cursed those who might try to violate it, let them have portion with Judas, the betrayer of the Lord, and be anathema maranatha, and be excluded from the company of the faithful and be burned forever in the punishments of Hell.

But that this precept of Our authority might endure firm and inviolable eternally without fear, confirming it below with Our own hand We mandated it be signed with the signet of Our royal dignity.

Sign of the most glorious king Louis.

Gerard the notary witnessed on behalf of Artald, Archbishop and High Chancellor.

Enacted at the royal palace of Compiègne, on the day of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the 10th indiction, in the 1st year of the reign of the most glorious King Louis.


The closest surviving thing we have to part of the Carolingian palace, and it ain’t that close (source)

Christmas at Compiègne was by itself a sign that something new was in the air. Under Ralph of Burgundy, Compiègne was not a significant royal palace. In fact, it seems to have been something of a neutral zone – there are a couple of times when Ralph and his squabbling brothers-in-law met there seemingly because it was a liminal location where they could get together on a roughly even footing. Compiègne was Charles the Simple’s place, and it’s appropriate that Louis IV issued his rehabilitative diploma for ‘the glorious king Charles’ quoting at length from one of Charles’ own diplomas for the abbey. Louis also pulled in Count Ermenfred of Amiens, whom we’ve met before as a prop of Charles’ late period regime. Hugh’s own father Robert of Neustria had been rehabilitated in the early 930s – but, of course, rehabilitating Charles was more fraught, given Hugh’s personal role in his overthrow.

This isn’t to say that Hugh was opposed to this. In fact, one wonders if it was the bone he threw Louis, because otherwise the diploma shows off Hugh’s power over the king. Note the presence of Bernard of Beauvais, with a remarkably exalted epithet.  Bernard had been Hugh’s right-hand man during the Burgundy campaign, and his presence – and elaborate praise – here gives an insight into how cloying Hugh’s oversight of the king may have been. Bernard was also the cousin of Heribert II of Vermandois, who had led Charles to imprisonment at Saint-Quentin, and thus his presence was at best ironic. Too, Ansegis of Troyes has been replaced as archchancellor by Archbishop Artald of Rheims. Given later developments, it can be hard to remember this, but in 936 Artald was Hugh’s ally, the man to whom he owed his position. Most important of all, though, is the description of Hugh himself. Hugh’s new title, ‘duke of the Franks’, was ambiguous, and it seems that he may have been pushing for a clarification. The act spells it out, and it is startling. Raymond Pons was right: Hugh was a menace to the ambitions of every other aristocrat in the kingdom. He is placed as greater than all the realm’s other magnates, not simply in the north of Gaul but in Aquitaine and Burgundy as well. Even Robert of Neustria at the peak of his power had never had his status exalted in such concrete terms.

Perhaps the most appropriate presence was Bishop Walbert of Noyon. This diploma was the last thing he ever did: he died on Boxing Day 936. Hugh and Louis’ alliance would follow suit soon after.

The New Diplomatic History and the Middle Ages

Writing Diplomatically

People have been writing the history of diplomacy for as long as they’ve been writing history. The terse Spring and Autumn annals of the Chinese state of Lu find space for embassies in their brief account of the passing of the years. Many of the most memorable set-pieces in Greek historical writing centre on diplomatic encounters, whether it is the Persian envoys demanding earth and water from the Greek states in Herodotus (Hdt. 6.48) or the dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in Thucydides (Thuc. 5.84). In the European tradition, the heyday of the writing of diplomatic history probably came in the nineteenth century. In this we can partly see the influence of Ranke on the practice of history. His dependence upon the Venetian archives, and the reports from ambassadors that they held, shaped his perspective of the past. Ranke’s theory of the Primat der Außenpolitik, the primacy of foreign policy, in which the domestic politics of a state was subordinated to the needs of its foreign relations in order to ensure its survival, also privileged diplomatic history.

In addition to the role played by Ranke, this sort of history was perceived to be useful to the state, with analysis of foreign policy offering useful lessons for the statesmen of their age and training for their successors in the future. The result was a diplomatic history that focussed on relations between European states. While some attention was paid to monarchs or to idealised ministers whose genius was to be outlined for the edification of the nation, it was a largely depersonalised history, in which countries or capital cities made decisions on the basis of a rational understanding of their material interests.

This approach is not particularly useful for writing the history of medieval diplomacy. Unlike the classical world, which can be made to fit into such a model provided you’re willing to abuse Thucydides enough (he suffers what he must), the medieval past resists the imposition of straightforward ideas of the state and rational diplomacy (as extended arguments about whether we can even talk about the medieval state demonstrate). Instead, to these observers, medieval Europe resembled a complicated mess of entities and individuals doing things that failed to conform to the sort of sound diplomatic principles that makes sense to nineteenth-century statesmen/twentieth-century military academies.

This has a number of consequences. For a start, it means that mainstream diplomatic history doesn’t normally discuss the medieval period. In the second half of the twentieth century, the study of the history of premodern diplomacy in the English-speaking world was dominated by Garrett Mattingly’s Renaissance Diplomacy (1955) and Donald Queller’s The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages (1967). They argued that diplomacy as we understand it developed in Italy in the fifteenth century, with the rise of permanent ambassadors. While this depends on a very particular definition of diplomacy that most medieval historians would reject, it remains alarmingly popular among modern historians. Also important in the narrative of the rise of ‘proper’ diplomacy was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, at which point the system of modern states which traditional diplomatic history was based on was deemed to have fully arrived. It also means that medieval historians who do study diplomacy tend to do so without reference to the ideas and methods developed by their modernist colleagues, or by people working in the wider field of International Relations.

As someone who has been thinking about medieval diplomacy for a decade, this conceptual distance has long frustrated me. This is why I’ve become increasingly interested in a new development in the study of diplomacy, the descriptively named New Diplomatic History. As with many historiographical movements, identifying its precise genesis is a murky and perhaps unhelpful business. An important moment of crystallisation took place with a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies in 2008 entitled ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History’. In his introduction to the issue, the editor of the issue, John Watkins, called for this New Diplomatic History, and his description of it is one of the canonical texts of the movement. By 2011 a network for the New Diplomatic History was established, based in Leiden. That perhaps overstates its institutionalisation as a school, and there is a much wider range of scholars who cite the New Diplomatic History without being fully attached to the Leiden circle. 

Watkins identified the beginning of the New Diplomatic History in Italian universities in the 1990s, with works such as Daniela Frigo’s Principe, Ambasciatori e “Jus Gentium”: L’amministrazione della Politica Estera nel Piemonte del Settecento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1991). Given the focus of earlier diplomatic history on the Venetian archives for their source base, and on Italy as the birthplace of modern diplomacy, Italy loomed large in the old diplomatic history. The work of Frigo and her later collaborators served to explode many of these myths, as they argued that early modern Italian diplomacy was driven by personalities rather than offices, and that those institutions that did exist were evolutions from medieval precedent.

Feeding into the development of the New Diplomatic History in the 1990s and 2000s were changes in the field of International Relations. One of these was the increasing challenge to old ideas about Westphalia, which came to a head in 1998 at the 350th anniversary of the Peace. If 1648 did not inaugurate a system of state sovereignty, then new approaches to diplomacy both before and after it were going to be required. Likewise these decades saw growing interest in non-state actors. The diplomatic importance of international bodies such as the European Union, terrorist organisations such as FARC, or major companies such as Amazon, encouraged scholars in International Relations to move away from a focus on diplomacy as a thing that happened between states.

Don’t you hate it when you show up at a peace treaty and realise someone is wearing the same outfit as you? The Ratification of the Spanish-Dutch Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648.

So, what is the New Diplomatic History?

In many ways the New Diplomatic History represents a deliberate repudiation of older diplomatic models. For a start, it rejects the state as the chief actor in diplomacy. One of the ways that manifests is by being ‘actor-centred’. Diplomacy is conducted by individuals, rather than faceless metonyms. Decisions made within governments or institutions are ultimately made by people, with their own personalities, experiences and agendas, operating within a particular political and cultural context.  Daniela Frigo’s work pointed to the importance of individuals in ways that often overrode the technical roles of the offices they held. In this way we can move away from bland and misleading statements that Germany did this, or London decided that. This ‘actor-centred’ diplomacy has also led to a new emphasis on ambassadors, their personalities, skills and motivations. Rather than being a method of delivering a letter, they become key parts of the process by which diplomacy took place.

This focus on people has gone hand-in-hand with a greater attention to the practicalities of diplomacy. How diplomats got from place to place, how they were received by and communicated with their hosts and how they remained in touch with their employers back home. This emphasis on practicality can also shift focus away from diplomats themselves, to their families, retinues and support staffs, as well as to the spies and informants who provided information, and the allies and friends who offered help or sought to use the ambassadors for their own purposes. This expands the scope of diplomatic history, embedding it in the context in which it happened and helping us understand the practicalities involved. But it also allows us to think about how people who weren’t elite men such as commoners, women and children were involved in diplomacy.

Another way this rejection of the modern European state as the primary actor in diplomacy emerges is in a greater emphasis on non-European diplomacy. By taking the politics and institutions of non-European powers seriously and on their own terms, the scope for diplomatic history has expanded considerably. Work on the Ottoman empire has pointed to the importance of community leaders, such as the heads of Christian minority groups under the millet system, in communicating with the representatives of foreign powers. European empires such as Britain worked through agents such as consuls, successful merchants based in places like Smyrna and Alexandria who combined their commercial activities and prominence among the local foreign community with diplomatic missions.

One of the important things about people like consuls and missionaries is that although they might deal with governments on behalf of a foreign polity, they also frequently did so for their own purposes, or as representatives of non-state actors such as religious groups, ethnic minorities or commercial interests. Such groups frequently wielded considerable power, and here we might want to think about the Hanseatic League negotiating with English and Russian monarchs, or the Jesuit order in the Rio Grande de Sol region bargaining with Spanish and Portuguese kings and the leaders of groups such as the Tupi. Moving away from the state allows us to see the other actors in diplomatic history, who represented groups and blocs who mattered, even if they fit untidily in more traditional historiography.

If philosophically, the New Diplomatic History is based on rejecting the model of modern European states interacting with each other, methodologically it seeks to break out of the box that traditional diplomatic history frequently placed itself in. One of ways its practitioners seek to do so is by thinking about the connections between domestic politics and foreign relations. Rather than being a separate sphere, the two blurred and fed into each other. Specialists in diplomacy need to take internal politics seriously in order to understand the motivations and restraints in which these relations were conducted.

The New Diplomatic History also embraces greater interdisciplinarity in the study of diplomacy. This point appears in the opening line of John Watkins’ call for a New Diplomatic History. Watkins’ own preferred focus is with literary studies, thinking about the impact of diplomatic careers on writers such as Petrarch, Chaucer and Montaigne, or examining the importance of literary culture in shaping diplomatic correspondence and spaces such as salons. Embracing cultural and social history more broadly has allowed other scholars to think about how diplomats participated in the lives of the spaces that hosted them, while also considering the ideas and mentalities they bore and the environments that shaped them. Likewise, scholars thinking about gender and race have offered provocative new ideas about the role of their fields in thinking about diplomacy. Of especial interest has been the role of women in acting as go-betweens, setting cultural norms and fostering environments where informal diplomacy could take place. New research on material culture has been particularly important. Diplomatic gifts have acquired a fresh importance with greater attention paid to their meaning and provenance. But the material turn has gone much further than that, paying attention to clothes worn by diplomats, their purchases and the means with which they lived their lives and the significance this had for their work.

The New Diplomatic Middle Ages?

This is all very well, but what does it actually do for us as medievalists? After all, you’ll have noticed that most of the examples I’ve used to illustrate points thus far have been early modern. This reflects the state of the field. Where medieval scholars have been involved, it has generally been specialists in the very late period. Medievalists also face unusual challenges that complicate some of the mainstays of the New Diplomatic History. Most obviously our source base is usually much, much thinner. There are also dangers involved in a naïve use of the New Diplomatic History. While much of that scholarship aims to break free of traditional models of diplomacy by looking at non-European powers, the fact remains that the Ottomans, Comanche and their like existed within the modern world, with implications for their technology and communications that shaped their diplomacy. The people and places we are interested in are distant to us in time, adding a layer of complexity. In drawing too direct a connection between medieval and non-European modern diplomacy we risk diminishing both, reducing them to a caricature of generic primitiveness and missing what is distinctive about them.

Nonetheless, I think the New Diplomatic History offers a great deal for the study of the medieval past. This is in part because their vision of what diplomacy is fits the realities of the medieval world much more closely than older interpretations. A political landscape where states were frequently weak or non-existent and where power depended greatly on individual actors, with limited separation between public and private is one that the New Diplomatic History is much better able to navigate than previous models. Ideas about the role played by non-state actors, or by diplomats who don’t look like permanent, professional ambassadors can be usefully applied to the medieval world. On a grander scale, being able to step away from a Westphalian model of sovereign states aggressively competing with each other offers alternative ways for thinking about how medieval entities related to each other, such as hegemony or collaborative world orders.  The value the New Diplomatic History places on interdisciplinarity also offers a chance to widen the source base medieval historians work with, encouraging us for example to think about the wider cultural horizons in which medieval diplomacy took place.

The New Diplomatic History can be particularly useful for providing medieval historians with a context and terminology for what we already do. As I may have mentioned, in 2019 I published an article on the camels that Charles the Bald received from the Umayyad Emir Muhammad I in 865. Writing that piece a couple of years earlier was a strange and slightly isolating experience, as I buried myself both in the logistics of sourcing and transporting the camels and in the cultural meanings that both polities had concerning camels in order to understand their significance. My subsequent encounter with the New Diplomatic History was extremely helpful for comprehending what I had been doing by instinct.

Perhaps most striking for me is that modernists in the New Diplomatic History actually seem to want to talk to medievalists. John Watkins made his call for this new approach in a Journal for medieval as well as early modern historians. I think most medievalists know the experience of being hived off from the rest of the historical profession for being too weird. Having a bunch of modern scholars who are genuinely interested in hearing what we have to say is useful as well as refreshing. In my time in Cambridge, I benefited from collaborating with modern diplomatic historians in informal sessions, teaching environments and lectures, acquiring ideas and perspectives that I have found provocative and helpful to my work. Any movement that makes it easier for us to have those conversations immediately has my sympathy.

Charter A Week 64: Hugh the Black, Briefly

Last week, we took a break from high politics for 939. This was not an unimportant year to pass over. That year, a huge rebellion amongst the magnates of Lotharingia asked Louis IV to become their king. He did – although, sadly, no diplomas survive from his abortive reign there – but not for very long. At the Second Battle of Andernach, the two main East Frankish rebels, Eberhard and Gislebert of Lotharingia, were killed and the whole thing collapsed. Louis was forced back on the man who, after he had torn himself away from Hugh the Great, had become his most important supporter: his predecessor’s brother, Hugh the Black.

D L4, no. 12 (14th February 940, Gurziaicus) = ARTEM no. 799 = D. Kar 8.v

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Louis, by grace of God king.

If We lend Our ears to the fitting petitions of Our followers, We maintain the customs of Our predecessors as king and We render them rather more familiar to Our Highness.

Wherefore let it be known to all Our followers, both present and future, that the famous Count Hugh approached Our presence and beseeched that We might give certain abbeys, sited in the district of Porthois, to one of Our followers, named Adelard, and his wife Adele and their heirs. One of these monasteries is called Faverney, named in honour of St Mary; the other is called Enfonvelle, and it is named in honour of the holy martyr Leodegar.

And thus, most freely favouring the prayers of the aforesaid glorious Count Hugh, We concede to the same Adelard and his wife Adele the aforesaid abbeys in their entirety, that is, Faverney in its entirety, with its appendages, that is, with churches, estates, bondsmen of both sexes, fields, meadows, woods, waters and watercourses, mills, incomes and renders, visited and unvisited; and Saint-Léger similarly wholly and entirely with everything pertaining to it; only on the condition that by this precept of Our Highness which We commanded to be made and given to the same couple, as long as Adelard and his said wife and their heirs live, they might hold and possess the abovewritten abbeys, and after their deaths (whenever they are), let the same abbeys revert without diminution or deterioration to that state they are known to have been in until now.

And that this Our statute might endure more firmly, We commanded this precept be made concerning it and be signed with Our signet.

Sign of the lord and most glorious king Louis.

Odilo the notary witnessed on behalf of Heiric [of Langres], bishop and high chancellor.

Given on the 16th kalends of March [14th February], in the 3rd year of the reign of the most glorious King Louis, in the 13th indiction.

Enacted at the estate of Gurziaicus on the river Marne.

The diploma in the original (source above)

If Louis 936 Christmas diploma shows the regime Hugh the Great forced upon him, this act shows him using patronage to develop his support in Burgundy. Hugh the Black is, obviously, the main event; but Hugh’s old rival Bishop Heiric of Langres shows up as archchancellor. Hugh the Black evidently knows how to relate to Louis better than Hugh the Great did: there are no extravagant titles here, but rather a simple ‘famous count’. Nonetheless, Hugh the Black clearly did have demands: Adelard and Adele get two plum monasteries for their own uses.

Notably, this is not the first time we’ve met Notre-Dame de Faverney. Last time, it was the focus of an exchange of property between its holder, Guy of Spoleto, later king of Italy and would-be king of the West Frankish kingdom, and Archdeacon Otbert of Langres. I find it interesting that Louis, in the diploma, is kind of shifty about Faverney’s current state. Given Guy’s withdrawal to Italy after the turn of the tenth century, I see two main possibilities as to what happened to it. First, it’s possible that Hugh the Black took it over as the predominant regional magnates and felt he either needed or wanted Louis’ consent to justify the transfer of monastic property to two laypeople. Second, and I think this is more likely, I suspect Otbert of Langres kept Faverney. In this scenario, Louis’ involvement becomes more crucial, as he is in effect using the legitimacy provided by his royal position and his ties to Bishop Heiric to justify using something which is – sort of – Langres’ property to reward Hugh’s followers.

Whatever the reality, Hugh the Black was not going to hang around in Louis’ following too much longer, although in his defence, that’s not really his fault. Louis’ presence in Burgundy was in part because his support of the Lotharingian rebels had provoked a rebellion of his own in the north, a rebellion which his angry rival, the East Frankish king Otto the Great, was supporting. Shortly after this diploma was issued, Otto headed south and – in essence – absolutely merked Hugh. There was fighting around Troyes, and Otto forced Hugh to give him hostages and an oath not to harm the northern rebels. Hugh’s humiliation was capped when he was made to give Otto his own golden brooch (later donated to the abbey of Corvey). With Hugh’s absence, Louis lost his most powerful support. What would he do next?

Where was the Rus’ Khaganate?

Having established in a previous post that there was a Rus’ khaganate, at least to my own satisfaction, the question must be asked: where was it? There’s a lot of literature about this – a staggeringly large amount, in fact, relative to the paucity of the sources. This is what happens when – unlike, say, England or Frisia – the Vikings are either the origins of your national history or very definitely not… Anyway, I haven’t got through it all, but I have noticed a certain degree of consensus emerging. 

Originally, scholarship tended to place the Rus’ khagan (if the scholar in question thought it existed) in Kiev. Kiev was – as the name suggests – the hub of the later Kievan Rus’. The first real history of Russia, the Primary Chronicle, dates Rus’ control of Kiev from the latter part of the ninth century, too late for it to be the home-base of the khagan of 839, but the Primary Chronicle is a highly legendary source. However, we also have a letter from the Jewish community of Kiev, datable to the early part of the tenth century, which was signed off on by an official using the Khazar language, which would seem to imply that the city was under Khazar control at this time. 

Instead, more recent historians’ eyes have turned north. The best-known ninth-century Scandinavian settlement in Russia is at Staraya Ladoga, on the river Volkhov just south of Lake Ladoga and a bit east of modern-day St Petersburg. Archaeological finds show that it was inhabited by people using a Scandinavian-derived material culture from the eighth century. With that said, it doesn’t show many signs of social stratification or fortification until at least the latter ninth century, so some historians have questioned whether it could be called the centre of any kind of well-organised or especially hierarchical polity. Others point towards the centre of Rurikovo Gorodishche, on the outskirts of modern-day Novgorod, which does have this kind of fortified and hierarchical settlement structure: to paraphrase Shepard and Franklin, its location seems to have been chosen for purposes of domination as much as trade. However, it has been questioned whether the dating fits. The site’s beginnings seem to date back to the middle of the ninth century at the earliest – rather too late for a polity that was seemingly a going concern by 839. 

Personally, these arguments seem to be straying a bit closely towards ‘pots = peoples’ territory for my liking. The unspoken assumption is that the Rus’ khagan, evidently being Old Norse speaking and from a Scandinavian background, must necessarily have had a Scandinavian material culture; ergo, where we can’t find Scandinavian material culture we can presume we haven’t found the khagan. However, the most significant thing we know about the khagan is that he came from a political culture which had been very heavily influenced by Turkic-speaking steppe groups. I don’t want to push this point too far – in the early tenth-century, Ibn Fadlan’s account of Rus’ on the Volga described a group with both evidently Khazar-influenced political culture and no few elements of Scandinavian material culture – but it does seem to me that a particularly adaptive group of Northmen might well be archaeologically invisible. 

So what about our written sources? One obvious place to put the Rus’ khagan would be Scandinavia. This suggestion is less nutty than it sounds – given the Annales Bertiniani’s Rus’ identification as Swedes, and the material-culture similarities between eastern European settlements and the major Swedish emporium of Birka, Birka has actually been proposed as the khagan’s home-base. However, we have a very good Frankish source on Sweden for these years – Rimbert’s Life of St Anskar – which refers to a couple of Swedish kings, all of whom are called rex without being glossed as ‘khagan’. Presumably, if a Swedish ruler did have this unusual title, it would have merited some note from Rimbert, who visited Scandinavia often himself.

The Kälversten runestone, commemorating a man who died (with characteristic vagueness) ‘in the East’ (source)

Our other sources are notably vaguer. Probably the most precise geographical information – and I use the word precise loosely – comes from Ibn Rustah, writing at the very start of the tenth century. Ibn Rustah puts the Rus’ in the general proximity of the lands of the saqaliba (there is some debate as to whether this should be understood as ‘Slavs’ or more generically as ‘Northerners’; in this case, the former aspect is clearer). However, he has a very wide idea of where the Slavs/saqaliba are: he puts them in the sixth and seventh ‘climes’ (i.e. zones of the world), which depending on how you read it could go from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the very north of modern-day Russia. Elsewhere, he names the Slavs’ ruler as Sviatopluk, evidently the Moravian ruler, which could put them as far west as modern-day Poland or the Czech Republic. Ibn Rustah does say they live on a large island or peninsula, which has been used as support for Staraya Ladoga; but the precision of his information has also, I think reasonably, been questioned. Other Arabic authors are even vaguer: Ibn Khurdadbeh and his followers put their origins at the furthest point of the northlands, and Ibn Faḍlān simply says that they have territory but doesn’t say where it is. This is echoed by our Byzantine sources: Patriarch Photius of Constantinople refers to the Rus’ as coming from the unheard-of reaches of the far North as well.

That’s all pretty unclear, especially since it could refer to Scandinavia rather than their more proximate origins (think of how William the Conqueror was still being called a ‘North-man’ despite coming from France). So what can we do? There are two things which give us clues. The first is that there are a whole knot of sources emphasising the wide-spread nature of their trade routes. Ibn Khurdadbeh describes the route of the Rus’ to Constantinople and the Caspian Sea – some of them went as far (allegedly) as Seville, China and Baghdad. In the very early tenth century, the document known as the Raffelstetten Toll Inquest describes Rus’ coming to trade on the Middle Danube, on the Bavarian border. (In fact, it describes ‘the Slavs who come from the Rus’, which is interesting in terms of how far south we think Slavic groups are at this point.)

The second is that we have many sources, notably in Arabic and Latin, emphasising the Rus’ association with the Khazars and Volga Bulghars. Ibn Rustah is one of them, as are Ibn Khurdadbeh and Ibn Faḍlān. We already know one of them, the source known as the Bavarian Geographer, from this very blog – that author seems to put the Rus’ between the Khazars and a people called the Uuizunbeire, who have often been argued to be the Bulghars. Moreover, the Tactica of Emperor Leo VI refers to the Rus’ in a very general fashion, as ‘Northern Scythians’, and emphasises their military similarities to the Magyars and the peoples of the northern steppe. Ibn Faḍlān describes the Rus’ ruler spending his time on an enormous golden throne which has striking similarities to Menander Protector’s description of the sixth-century Western Goktürk ruler Istämi. Photius’ sermons on the Rus’ note they are nomadic. The letter of Louis II implies the Rus’ are lumped in with steppe or immediately steppe-adjacent peoples such as the Khazars, Avars, and Bulgars (in this case probably the ones in the Balkans).

I recently read Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, and one of its most interesting points that I keep thinking about is that the deep-rooted assumption that different polities won’t share overlapping territories is a modern assumption. I wonder, then, if the Rus’ khaganate wasn’t anywhere in particular; or, rather, if it was diffused at least partially through the same physical space as the Khazars and their neighbours. This would explain why archaeological traces of Scandinavian presence do not, quite, match up to written sources describing where the Rus’ were. It also implies that the big growth in Scandinavian artefacts found in eastern Europe at the start of the tenth century may have been a cultural change amongst pre-existing populations with some kind of tie to Scandinavia rather than evidence for migration or population spread. Of course, the tenth century is also when references to the Rus’ khagan quite quickly peter out – perhaps the first Kieven Rus’ princes were living in the recently dismembered corpse of this shadowy ninth-century khaganate? 

Storm-Raisers and Blood-Drinkers: The Many Sides of Agobard of Lyon

Someone forgot to pay off the storm-raisers (source)

People from the past, particularly the very distant past, often appear to lack the complexity of their modern counterparts. That is of course when we can see those people at all. The names of the vast majority of the human beings who inhabited the medieval past are entirely unknown to us, and their lives are visible only in the aggregate. Even among those people we can identify by name, most are just that, names in memorial books or witness lists. But looking at the tiny minority we actually know something about as individuals – a category dominated by high aristocrats and religious specialists – most of them come across as straightforward types or characters, such as the wicked queen, the pious nobleman or the stubborn cleric, to list a few possibilities.

This is of course generally an artefact of the aforementioned lack of material. There’s a limit to how complex someone can be when their historical record can be summarised on a sheet of A4. It also reflects the nature of those sources. Even apparently private letters were often intended for large audiences, and therefore don’t include the more intimate reminiscences that can allow us to catch the human soul at war with itself. Medieval writing genres encouraged a tendency to present their subjects within the mould of previous models, so that princes and prelates often resemble their celebrated forebears. For this reason, I always get interested when I seem to stumble across the contradictions and complexities in a medieval person’s behaviour that seem to give us more of a hint at their personality. This is even more the case when it means that I get to talk about sky-pirates, as is the case today.

In around 815 or 816, probably in the vicinity of Lyon, Bishop Agobard (d. 840) encountered a curious sight. He found four captives in chains, three men and a woman, who were about to be stoned by an angry crowd. These prisoners stood accused of an unusual crime. According to the crowd, they were cloud-sailors from the distant land of Magonia, who sailed their ships in the sky, using flight to steal crops from the fields. They were enabled by storm-raisers, people who could make high winds and create hail and thunder. The cloud-sailors would pay the storm-raisers to help them carry off the grain via a mechanism that remains somewhat obscure to me but was presumably clear to Agobard and the furious mob. The unlucky individuals in chains had apparently fallen off their ships and were now fair game for the angered crowd. The bishop had to intervene to rescue them from their fate.

Agobard doesn’t specify precisely what he said in order to rescue these captives. But elsewhere in the same text where he talks about this incident, he gives us some sense of the type of reasoning he used to argue against belief in storm-raisers. This text is a curious work snappily entitled A Book against the Stupid Belief of the Common People on Hail and Thunder. Who the audience for this material was is a little unclear, although I like the idea that it was originally a sermon subsequently punched up to be read in more intellectual circles.

As Agobard is our only source for the events he describes, we have to be a little careful about assuming how much of this actually took place. Another reason for caution here is that Agobard may also have been motivated by seeing off competition as much as by saving souls. He complains in On Hail and Thunder that people have been giving the storm-raisers tithes that should have been going to the church. That said, I’m more interested in how he constructed his arguments than whether the confrontation actually happened or whether this was ultimately a battle over tithes (proof of the existence of cloud-sailors on the other hand would be very much appreciated).

So how did Agobard seek to disprove the existence of storm-raisers? As we might expect, there’s a fair amount of appealing to authority going on. Belief in storm-raising, he says, ‘should be verified by the authority of Holy Scripture’. Such an approach in Agobard’s mind was not irrational, indeed he writes:

‘Because this error, which in this area possesses the minds of almost everyone, ought to be judged by reason, let us offer up the witness of Scripture through which the matter can be judged.’

[Translated by Dutton].

Agobard makes reference to the story of Job, which makes clear that the weather is only under the control of God, and inaccessible to human weather-workers.

But Agobard also had other means of arguing his case. The first of these was personal experience, or the lack thereof. He observed that despite all the stories he had been told of storm-raisers ‘we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things.’ Sorting through all the stories of the ‘my mate’s oldest cousin’s girlfriend who lives in Canada’ variety, Agobard actually tracked down and interviewed someone he was told had seen storm-raising in person. Possibly intimidated by the bishop, this man ‘declared that what he said was indeed true and he named the person, the time and the place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at that time.’

The absence of witnesses was for Agobard a damning point against stories of storm-raisers. The bishop also sought to apply logic to the subject. If the farmers were willing to pay storm-raisers to protect their crops from storms, why didn’t they also ask them to bring rain in times of drought? Such a task should be straightforward to any manipulator of the weather. For Agobard, the fact that ‘you do not do that, nor did you ever see or hear of anyone doing it’ was an indication that not only did the storm-raisers have no real power, but that everyone really knew it.

Agobard is probably at his most sympathetic when he describes a nasty conspiracy theory that swept through Lyon in 810. A cattle murrain was afflicting the Carolingian world at the time, and people blamed Prince Grimoald IV of Benevento (r.806-817) because of his hostility to Charlemagne. It was said that the prince ‘had sent people with a dust which they were to spread on the fields, mountains, meadows, and wells and that it was because of the dust they spread that the cattle died.’ The consequences for anyone suspected of being a Beneventan agent, presumably mostly foreigners and other outsiders, were dire. Agobard describes people being captured and thrown into rivers to drown with plaques listing their crime around their necks. Most baffling to the bishop were the number of the accused who broke down and confessed to deeds they couldn’t possibly have committed, an all-too-common phenomenon of the twentieth century that he attributed to the Devil.

 The bishop challenged this conspiracy theory by attacking its logistical implications. He wrote that those who believed the story:

‘did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust.’

In his search for the truth, Agobard combined analysis of relevant written authorities, personal testimony (or lack thereof) from witnesses and logical argument. In doing so he was drawing upon the skillset necessary of a bishop who would be called to sit in judgement in court cases. In other works, Agobard took aim at trials by ordeal, challenging their use in criminal justice as irrational.

Thus far, Agobard has played the role of the voice of wisdom. But what I find intriguing about this whole affair is the apparent contrast with the other Agobard we find elsewhere in his works. This Agobard is an altogether more unsettling figure, defined by his views on Jews and the campaign he waged against them in the 820s. In an age where Jews were largely tolerated in the Frankish world, the fact that Agobard wrote at least five tracts attacking Jews in the space of about five years marks him out as unusual in his own time. It put him on the wrong side of Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) and his officials, who passed legislation protecting Jews.

This Agobard comes across as very different to the rational rescuer of unlucky cloud-sailors. The archbishop repeatedly names Jews ‘children of the devil’. His claim that local officials in Lyon were so in hoc to Jewish interests that they had moved the market day from Saturday to Sunday in order to respect their Sabbath looks frankly ludicrous, as does his belief that Jews sold Christians adulterated goods such as wine mixed with dirt. Agobard is also quick to share questionable stories about Christian children being kidnapped by Jews and sold as slaves to the Muslims of al-Andalus.

It’s very tempting for me at this point to call it a day, having demonstrated the diversity that could exist within one medieval mind. But the more one reads Agobard, the more one sees the conspiracy debunker and the anti-Semite as part of a coherent whole. In reality, Agobard drew upon the same rhetorical tricks and forensic techniques for the latter campaign that he did for the former. He read widely, quoting earlier authorities such as Jerome and previous law. His work suggests some familiarity with material resembling the Toledoth Jeshu and the Sefer Yetzirah, hinting that he had either read texts from a Jewish milieu or had spoken with those who had. Agobard’s writings generally indicate that he had either talked to Jews or to former members of the community, and the stories he tells of Jewish doctors drinking blood looks like a misconstrued interpretation of the practice of smelling menstrual blood for symptoms of ill-health. This is not to say that his animus against Jews was in any way rational. Rather it is to observe that the weapons by which Agobard protected the afflicted outsiders accused of being cloud-sailors and dust-spreaders were the same ones he used to attempt to persecute another vulnerable minority.

The apparent contrast between the two Agobards is a product of a perspective grounded in the present day. By his own standards, there was nothing incoherent about his positions on cloud-sailors and Jews. Both emerged from his concern for the promotion of a Christian society, untrammelled by superstition and with non-Christian minorities very firmly in their place. Placed together, the two sides reveal an Agobard who was brilliantly intelligent and determined to use that intelligence to improve the world, and was frequently frustrated when the world refused to recognise his cleverness, fall into line and treat him with the respect he felt he deserved. Stubborn, proud, passionate, and possessed of little patience for fools, the Agobard who we encounter in these texts is a fascinating man, who wanted to save the little people, but who did not necessarily feel much affection or respect for them.

Examining the apparent contrast between Agobard the enlightened defender of the victims of mob superstition and Agobard the anti-Semite serves as a useful reminder that if we want to understand people from the medieval past, we need to do it (1) holistically, and (2) on their own terms. Any portrait of Agobard that doesn’t capture both of these facets of his thought is liable to misunderstand him. When we understand him on his own terms, we can see that what initially looks like contradiction actually makes sense as a thematic whole. We have to remember Agobard protecting the innocent from the crowd and spreading lies about Jews all at the same time, because they emerged from the same place in his personality and training.

Agobard was in many ways an unusual man. Certainly, his campaigns against Jews marked him out in his context. Although we can say that the way he argued and many of the concerns that motivated his writing emerged from his education, others from his background worked in very different ways and for very different causes. Drawing conclusions on the way people in ninth-century Europe thought based solely on his writing would be a misleading thing to do. Nonetheless, although he did not define his age, he was defined by it, and if we want to trace the contours of his mind, we must understand him as an inhabitant of the ninth century.

One Year of the New Historians’ Sketchpad!

Holy moly, it’s been a whole year! Admittedly, sometimes it feels like longer just because of how much has changed since June 2021 – if you asked me how long the blog’s been back up, my honest answer would be ‘since about the mid-‘80s?’ – but still, we’ve got a whole new year of producing cutting-edge Earlier Medieval content which has given both Sam and I a space to develop new ideas, entertain and inform our readership, publicise our work and – occasionally – indulge our worst tendencies towards camel obsession and charter-based pedantry respectively.

Still, I’m really proud of the work we’ve put in and I think the growth we’ve seen in audience numbers reflects that. As such, I thought we’d have a look over the highlights of the last year in blogging. Both of us have picked our favourite and/or most noteworthy posts from the last year, so without further ado, here they are in no particular order:

Divide and Fail to Conquer (30th December 2021)

Sam and I, I think its fair to say, have slightly different approaches both as historians and as bloggers. If in doubt, then to use Crusader Kings III jargon, he will play wide and I will play tall. That is, he will expand his scope and I will focus on the details. Obviously, this isn’t to stereotype either of us: our records on this blog and in our publications show that Sam is just as capable as drilling down into the nitty-gritty as I am at taking in several hundred years and thousands of miles. However, my first academic love is always taking evidence in detail and building relatively small-scale pictures out of that; and then bigger pictures from that. Not seeing the wood for the trees is, of course, a bad habit; but the flip side is that when I present you with a wood, I know every tree in it, and the work I tend to be proudest of is the work where I can plunge into the details and come up with something wider, beyond a purely local study.

There’s a lot of that sort of thing on this blog. Last year, I was writing a book about the history of the tenth-century West Frankish kingdom, looking at the narrative of it in more detail than anyone has for a century. The blog saw a number of posts based on that. I could have put my dissection of the early history of the county of Boulogne here; or my hypothesis regarding West Frankish involvement in the earliest strata of the history of the March of Valenciennes, but instead I’ve chosen my analysis of the brief reign of Louis V as sub-king in Aquitaine. I went with this one because a) it’s an attempt to correct a thousand-year-old slander of a teenager (admittedly a king, so it would be appropriate to break out the tiny violins) but more importantly because b) I think that after a millennium it moves analysis of this episode on from the account given by Richer of Rheims to something more accurate and more useful. This, ultimately, is why it’s here over something more experimental like my Roman Roads post (which, for the record, barely missed the cut).

Sam: What Type of Elephant did Charlemagne Have? (10th June 2021)

When Fraser and I first started talking about having me contribute to the blog, I knew that I wanted to start with this post. People who know me will be familiar with my obsession with Charlemagne’s elephant, and I need no excuse to start talking about the adventures of Abu al-Abbas. He is going to feature prominently in the title of my forthcoming book on Carolingian diplomacy with the Islamic world. I’m therefore thrilled that this post has been so well received by people. I’ve long been convinced that Abu al-Abbas was an Asian rather than an African elephant and this seemed to be the place to make that case in writing. But in doing so I hoped that I could make a much broader case about the early medieval world. Writing the post also provided me with an opportunity to discuss some of the most important themes that run through my work. These include diplomacy, interaction between Christians and Muslims and logistics across the early medieval world.

But it also speaks to my wider approach to diplomacy between the Carolingians and the Caliphate, which is that by drawing upon the rich and deep sources that come from the Arabic world, we can better understand the otherwise thin material available for these relations. Sources like al-Jahiz on elephants provide a vital context that allow us to see Charlemagne’s dealings with Harun al-Rashid through the latter’s eyes. By exploring Abu al-Abbas’s Indian origins, I wanted to remind us that the Caliph operated in a much bigger world beyond his relations with Charlemagne, and hint at the multitude of events and people that lay behind the brief sentences that otherwise tell us about their contact.

Fraser: A Sad, Angry Gesture of Defiance (30th November 2021)

There had to be a Charter A Week here. As I said above, I’m proud of everything we’ve done on this blog, but our translation work is probably our best claim to be important: as someone familiar with other examples, The Historians’ Sketchpad is one of the biggest single repositories of free-to-use original translations of Carolingian material out there. I have heard from colleagues that they’re using it in class, I’ve seen it cited on Wikipedia pages: having accessible source material – as Sam says below – is something that matters.

But with that said, this one, whilst it’s my choice, isn’t my story. This is the story of Duke Acfred II of Aquitaine, and as it appears here, it’s that story as interpreted by Geoffrey Koziol. I read Koziol’s book at an impressionable stage in my PhD, and Acfred’s charter for Sauxillanges was one of the ones which really inspired and stuck with me. For that reason, it’s my selection: I love this story, and it’s one of the shining beacons of why tenth-century history can matter on a human level. Even though all I’ve done is English the Latin, the powerful tale underlying it is my pick for a translated text.

Sam: Pope Leo III writing to Charlemagne on North African Affairs (17th August 2021)

Whereas I had an idea that the post about Charlemagne’s elephant might draw people, this one blowing up caught me by surprise. Fraser had quite rightly insisted that translations needed to be at the heart of what we did. Our self-indulgent musings about our work might occasionally be of interest to the odd reader, but sources put in modern accessible translation would actually be useful to people who wanted to get to grips with the past, within or without the Academy. Unfortunately, translations are also hard, and doing them in public risks both ridicule or accidentally misleading people if one stuffs them up. I’m therefore very grateful to Fraser for gently prompting me to nonetheless take the plunge.

The right source opens up a multitude of different worlds, and this letter from Leo III to Charlemagne most certainly does that. The headline, that both Pope and Emperor were interested in affairs in North Africa, and had means of acquiring information about them, is fascinating enough, and something I intend to talk about more in my long-promised book. But the letter also draws up into Byzantine Italy and Idrisid Morocco, forcing us to think about how the particular politics of these places linked into a much wider early medieval world. It also provides us with a new perspective of the pirates in the period, and their immensely divisive activities across the sea. Much like the Mediterranean, this letter joins all of these people and places together, expanding our understanding of Charlemagne’s perspective in the process.

Fraser: Translating Between Vernaculars in the (Long) Tenth Century (20th January 2022)

And then there’s this. The blog’s biggest post this year, by pure numbers, was my review of The Invention of Power, which is not a post I like very much. This is partially because ‘medieval history is written off the basis of sources not of data’ is not a particularly original or insightful point; but mostly for the simple fact that I don’t like being that negative. This blog is supposed to be about writing down snippets of my historical research that are (hopefully) interesting and enjoyable, not giving other work a kicking. Nonetheless, when that post started getting a significant readership, it made sense, given the book was at the heart of the The Discourse at the time.

This post, though, was a surprise. I’d be lying if I said I had a profound thesis in the post, or for choosing it as a highlight. I have real warm feelings for this post, and the response to it, simply because it’s a little peek into this fascinating world I’ve spent so much time working in that I find interesting, and other people did too. Appropriately enough for a post on language, it prompted discussion and that’s pretty nice.

Sam: Kathleen Wood-Legh and the Cambridge Refugee Committee (30th September 2021)

One of my rules when I started writing for this blog was that no individual post could take me more than one day per fortnight from start to finish. Academia is a career path that attracts perfectionists, and I was well aware that if I let myself, the blog could very easily take over all my spare time. Contributing to the blog has also been a very useful exercise in the discipline of writing quickly, something I still need practice with.

I broke that rule with this post. The extraordinary life and career of Kathleen Wood-Legh loomed larger and larger in my imagination the more I learned about her. I realised that I wanted to do her justice. More than that, I felt a deep debt to her, one that could only be discharged with the very best I was capable of. The result is a post as full and as lyrical as my brain could manage, and a more personal one than I anticipated when I started, as the small ways in which my history intersected with hers became more apparent to me. Above all, this post is important to me because Kathleen Wood-Legh is the sort of person who doesn’t always make the history books, but who mattered, who made the world an infinitely richer place for the work she did and was at the heart of so many people’s stories. Finding herself in a world that was on fire, she rescued the innocent from the flames and raised new buildings from the wreckage afterwards. It seemed to me that that deserved to be remembered.

 Finding Troy (5th August 2021)

Academic writing has its conventions. Books and articles have been bred over their long genealogies to particular sizes, bearing an impressive plumage of references and quotations. While the writer’s personality may come through, and not even academic journals disavow all humour in scholarship, a certain solemnity and weight is expected. One of the joys of contributing to a blog is that much of that goes out the window. While I try to offer reliable scholarship in my posts, I won’t deny that I am occasionally guilty of indulging in a certain amount of whimsy in the process.

That is part of what makes Finding Troy one of my favourite posts. Inspired by a very strange book that makes the unusual choice of locating Troy in the vicinity of Cambridge, this post thinks about the stories people tell about their homes and the way they connect them to the ancient past and to distant places, both real and mythical. In doing so I draw upon a number of ideas developed as part of my research with the Impact of the Ancient City project. But I also wanted this post to act as a love letter to Cambridge, the place I have lived longest in my life, and which did so much to make me as a scholar and as a human being (make of that what you will). I spent the decade or so resident there fascinated by the stories and legends that surround the place. But I also ventured out into the flat yet fascinating countryside in which it lies (full disclosure, I may have accidentally guided the devil out of the Fens. I’m very sorry). This post tries to talk about the power of place and the connections between people and the landscape by discussing a landscape that I have loved intensely for the last ten years.

[Ed: For the record, this post happens to be my favourite thing Sam has written for the blog thus far.]

Fraser: Was there a Rus’ Khaganate? (14th April 2022)

In a lot of ways, my new project at Tübingen was a very cynical move. The current fad in new hires is global history; and material culture never hurts. My tenth-century Frankish research has, despite my occasional proximity to numismatics, been very textual, but you can’t do viking research and ignore archaeology or limit yourself to the West. The end result of this is that I can make some kind of case for being able to teach the history of both medieval Canada and medieval Tajikistan; but there’s something more important at play here. I’ve got background in viking history, and this blog post came out of the moment where I realised: this is a very fun, very exciting, very interesting project, and even in places I’ve not been previously familiar with, I can add something! ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is not something I suffer from too badly, but this post comes out of a moment where I overcame that with new research.

Moreover, on a research level, most of what we can see about Northman polities outside of Scandinavia comes from a Latin Christian milieu, whether that’s Dublin or Frisia. Establishing that a viking realm in the Turkic world isn’t a figment of historiographical imagination – no matter how shadowy it is – is an important part of doing comparative history, because now I can start thinking about processes. With a case outside its orbit, I feel less worried that the proximity of the western realms to an institution as powerful, and as literate, as the Christian Church (the proverbial lead weight on the trampoline) is having unmeasurable effects on their development which render them all strange cases in a global sense…  

And there you have it: a year’s worth of blog highlights. Hopefully we’ll be able to reconvene here next year for another dose. In the meantime, we’ve got material lined up until the end of July and some plans for things beyond that, so settle in and we hope you enjoy what’s coming!

Charter A Week 63: An Unknown Document from Chinon

More synergy! For the last time, mind, if only because I think this is the chronologically latest document I cite in that article… In any case, this is also another special document, because it’s also (drumroll please) unpublished! In fact, other than my article, I think it’s also unmentioned in the scholarly literature; or, at least, I’ve never seen any references to it. So without further ado, here we go:

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Collection Touraine-Anjou 1, no. 167 (May 939, Tours)

It befits everyone to whom pastoral care is at any time committed to solicitously investigate how they might remove any excuse in regard to the allods under their dominion*, lest anyone be able to inflict any molestation on priests or other ministers of the Church attending* to the cells of the saints out of worldly greed.

Wherefore I, Theotolo, although unworthy humble archbishop of the see of Tours, heard that a certain priest of Saint-Mexme, named Elias, and the place of St Maximus, where he rests in body, had been very frequently dishonoured by Our archdeacon Robert and molested by a serious incursion using the excuse of his ministry and Our service against ecclesiastical right deriving from the institutes of the canons. And thus, desiring to completely banish the most savage intention of him and his successors from that place of Saint-Mexme, We made the fixed decision, with the counsel of Our followers of both orders, that for love of God Almighty and out of veneration of His confessor the blessed Maximus We should entirely remit circuit-fees and synod-fees from that place, so that the body of the saint might be more devotedly venerated by priests and by other ministers of the holy Church of God, and be dealt with more securely. Furthermore, chiefly so that no assessment of renders might be carried out there, it was equally worthy that the same place should endure immune from every render of synod- or circuit-fee and also as well from any molestation from archdeacons or lords. Even more than that, I, Archbishop Theotolo, along with the counsel of Our followers, as We said above, and through the sequence of this writing, establish, and in establishing confirm, that the said Elias the priest and his successors should henceforth pay neither Us nor Our successors any synod-fee nor circuit-fee on behalf of that place of Saint-Mexme. Rather, let these go to lighting and food stipends for the same church in alms for Us and Our successors, and for the prize of eternal repayment.

If anyone (God forbid!), roused up by the prick of greed, should henceforth wish to reclaim from the rulers of Saint-Mexme this which We remitted above or inflict any molestation by any evil trick, let them know themselves liable to the wrath of our most pious Lord and aforesaid patron Maximus, unless they quickly come to their senses. In addition, We pray the intention of Our successors in holy pastorality that, just as they would wish their statutes which they have enacted for love of God Almighty and veneration of His saints to be conserved, thus they should permit this thing done by Our Smallness to be violated by no-one. In order that it might be better known and might be presumed to be infringed nor made viler by anyone, We strengthened the current writing with the strength of Our pontificate and established it be confirmed by the hands of Our followers of both orders in Our general synodal convent.

☧ Theotolo. ☧ Dean Badilo. Aimo the precentor. Robert. Gozbert. Ricbert. Arnulf. Iter. Robert. Robert. Bodald. Hildegar. Otbert. Otgar. Adalulf. Mainard. Girard. Odo. Folcuin. Godalbert. Girard. Armand. Girard. Robert. Gogobrand. Gozwin. Otgar. James. Waldo. Berengar. Warengaud. Ingelbald. Benedict. Erchembald. Adalmar. Isembert. Elias. Henry.

Given in the month of May, in the city of Tours, in the third year of the reign of King Louis, son of King Charles.


Image dans Infobox.

So I do have photos from when I went, but I went on a grey and overcast day so Wiki’s is actually nicer… (source)

On a basic level, this document reveals one of the problems with the way they train medievalists. When I did my initial training at Master’s level, I was given a full background in medieval palaeography – only for it then to turn out that I’d be spending most of my manuscript-reading career dealing with Early Modern script. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except that this means rather than dealing with the careful, simple Caroline Minuscule in which most actual tenth-century manuscripts were written, I have to deal with whatever a hungover seventeenth-century notary splurged onto a page that day. This example isn’t that bad, but some of the readings underlying the above are questionable, and I’ve marked them with an asterisk:

  • Alodis sibi dominissis. This feels like it wants to be ‘dominical allods’, but then I don’t know what to do with the sibi and the clause wants a participle in there…
  • in cellulis sanctorum ministrantium. This, by contrast, looks like a ministrantibus (going with ‘priests and other ministers’) has been put in the genitive by accident, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense as ‘cells of the ministering saints’.

There are probably more – and if you spot any which mean the translation is wrong let me know and I’ll fix it – but at the very least, the gist of this is pretty clear.

This is another example of clergy in the archdiocese of Tours getting on each other’s nerves. In this case, it’s Tours archdeacon Robert and a priest of Saint-Mexme in Chinon. (I have actually been to Saint-Mexme, which is quite a pretty church; but its archives no longer exist – I’ve seen this and a late eleventh-century charter of Archbishop Bartholomew of Tours.)

But what makes this charter more than just another clerical complaint, though, is the type of clerical complaint it is. Archbishop Theotolo of Tours was, alongside Odo of Cluny, one of the hardcore faction in Saint-Martin (where he had served as dean). It is therefore striking that the theology of attacks on Church property here has similarities with Odo’s (obviously, in the masses of surviving Odonian evidence, much more developed) views. It is also not too dissimilar to some Saint-Martin charters we’ve seen before. In the article, I argued this similarity was genetic, that there was a fundamentally Martinian background to these ideas that evolved out of how the Neustrian March dealt with itself. Of course, if you want to find out more, you’ll have to read the article…

Translating Latin Texts: Le mot juste

Recently, I was doing some peer review on a translation. I thought it was a good translation, and recommended it be published with only a few tweaks, but it was one of several things I’ve seen recently that raised a question which might be interesting to discuss. We do a lot of translation on this website, and if you’ve read them you’ll know that we tend to render every word in English. The translation I was reviewing, and it’s not the only one I’ve seen, kept several words in Latin. I’ll say up front that there’s a case for either approach and I don’t think either is objectively worse, depending on your perspective and goals; but it may be worth writing down why I go for the former option.

First, let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. Here’s a passage from the Bachrach and Fanning translation of Flodoard of Rheims’ Annals (chosen because it’s the easiest example of this in print for me to get – as I write this, which is several weeks before it will go up, I’m in isolation with COVID so my resources are a bit more limited than they otherwise would be):

…King Louis gave the castrum of Amiens to Erluinus. Heribert’s sons took the munitio of Clastres, in the pagus of Vermandois, due to the treachery of Raoul, one of King Louis’s fideles. This Raoul secretly slipped out of the stronghold when Heribert’s sons entered it and plundered the treasures before abandoning the deserted municipium.

B.S. Bachrach & S. Fanning (trans), The Annals of Flodoard of Rheims (Toronto: 2011), p. 39.

As you can see, in these two sentences, five words are untranslated: castrum, munitio, pagus, fideles and municipium. Were I translating the same passage, I would have rendered them as ‘citadel’, ‘fortress’, ‘district’, ‘followers’ and ‘fortress’ again. So what arguments could justify either approach?

I wish my translation work was this well remunerated… (source)

The main argument for leaving some words in Latin is that the word is ‘untranslatable’. In some cases, English can’t convey any of the nuance. Take Vergil’s Aenid, which repeatedly refers to its main character as pius Aeneas. That seems like it should be ‘pious Aeneas’, but a Classically-trained friend of mine once spent a good fifteen minutes explaining to me that this is a very flat translation: pius doesn’t mean that Aeneas is religious, necessarily (although it does include that meaning with its ambit) but that he is dutifully loyal in appropriate ways, especially towards his family. In other cases, English can’t convey wordplay or puns. Gregory the Great’s famous pun that beautiful English slave-boys looked like non Angli sed angeli (‘not Angles but angels’) does work in English, but his follow-up puns don’t – they were from the kingdom of Deira (modern Yorkshire), and Gregory responded bene Deiri, de ira eruti (‘Deira is a good name for it – they will be snatched from God’s wrath’). Or – my favourite – the description of Dominicans as domini canes, ‘the dogs of the Lord’, which also doesn’t really work in English (‘Dominicanines’?). Finally, there are technical terms which some translators deem more appropriate to keep in Latin, in much the same way that people who work on eighteenth-century France tend to keep the French word gabelle rather than putting it into English as ‘salt-tax’. I see these most often in the case of titles (dux is probably the most significant, but marchio also gets this treatment) and fortifications (some well-known medievalists have argued that the endless different Latin words for ‘fortified place’ – arx, castrum, oppidium – and so on all have different technical meanings and so leave them untranslated). I personally find this last point the least sympathetic, not least because at least a few of the arguments that X or Y is a technical term are tendentious and not translating them smells too much of stacking the deck. That is, by leaving these terms untranslated, an artificial sense of a coherent technical terminology is created which might be as if not more misleading than just putting the word in English. Nonetheless, there are certainly ambiguities. Dux is a case in point: I don’t think anyone would object too strenuously to translating dux Normannorum applied to the Viking leader Ragnar in 845 (as indeed it is) as something like ‘Viking chief’ or ‘Scandinavian warlord’; or to translating the same phrase applied to William the Conqueror as ‘duke of Normandy’ in 1066 – but what about when applied to Richard the Fearless c. 970?

All these points are valid, but to leave words untranslated because of them seems to me like an abdication of responsibility. This is a personal point of view – another person may very well see it as due caution – but let me try and explain. To start with, I don’t think translation is the process of transparently rendering a Latin text into an English one; it is (in an academic context, at least) a work of mediation and explanation, a tool to help with understanding the original version. This is so far from being a controversial opinion that it might be almost a commonplace – to go back to the example from Flodoard at the top of this post, the word ‘stronghold’ in the translation isn’t in the Latin but has been added by the translators, making the structure of the sentence smoother in English but also providing a gloss on munitio and municipium – but I think an approach which says that some words are translatable and others aren’t runs the risk of implying it. To take the Bachrach/Fanning translation as an example again, they choose to leave dux in the Latin but render comes as ‘count’, which implies that a comes is straightforwardly comprehensible to English speakers in a way that a dux isn’t – and I am on record on this very blog as not thinking that’s true.

What that means is that not translating Latin words hamstrings a translation’s value as a tool to aid understanding. An important part of translating a text is deciding what the words mean, and refusing to do that in (say) 3% of cases means that the translation is only 97% useful as a tool. It certainly means you as a translator have to make interpretative judgements; but the whole translation is an interpretative judgement, making refusal in particular cases somewhat arbitrary. Sometimes, choosing one rendition of a word or phrase is tricky – but this is exactly the sort of thing that scholarly apparatus exists to discuss: nuance, wordplay and technicalities find their home in footnotes. This does mean that translations are not very useful for doing detailed linguistic analysis of sources. On the other hand, that’s not their job: a translation isn’t a source, it’s a translation of a source, and anything which rests on particularities of the language needs to be related back to the original text. For this reason, I think my comments apply even to translations aimed at an audience of academics, who might have more grounding in the source languages than interested non-academics – anyone who is going to be doing serious research based on an historical text will need to have a copy of the original to hand anyway if the language matters, because by their nature translations are useful but not dependable for this: trust, but verify, as the saying goes.

As I’ve said several times, I think leaving words untranslated is a legitimate choice, and I don’t find it reprehensible or unjustifiable. However, I do think that translating all the words, even the difficult ones, is more helpful, and that’s why I do it.

(Oh, and it almost goes without saying that calling this a post about ‘translation philosophy’ is a little pretentious – there is a large literature which is actually about translation philosophy, to which my only exposure is a couple of comments at the front of Penguin Classics. Consequently, these are only the little musings of a rough-and-ready practitioner and may seem rather naive to anyone who’s actually well-versed in these ideas!)