The Three Orders and Adalbero of Laon

In 987, King Louis V fell off his horse and Hugh Capet became king. Soon after, Hugh made his son Robert the Pious co-king, and Robert went on to rule until 1031. For all that Hugh’s accession was the decisive break with Carolingian rule, it’s Robert’s reign that is perhaps the most interesting. A good chunk of the reason for this is that it is in texts from Robert’s reign that we start to get a sense about how varied – and polemical – ideas about kingship had become since the early tenth century. (I have a sneaking suspicion as to why these writings come disproportionately from the early eleventh century rather than the mid tenth, but that’s another story…)               

One of the most polemical authors of the period was Adalbero of Laon. We have discussed Adalbero before briefly on this blog, but the most relevant thing about him today is that he is usually considered a conservative thinker, a crotchety old man who didn’t like what he was seeing in the realm. At some point, possibly around the year 1003, roughly thirty years or half-way through his career, Bishop Adalbero wrote a lengthy and vituperative poem to Robert the Pious, excoriating what he perceived as a world turned upside-down and setting forth his vision for society as it should be ordered. The poem has attracted a lot of attention, for a couple of reasons: it is one of the most explicit and colourful reactions against monastic reform; and it sets out a vision of society known as the Three Orders, which would go on to have a very long life, and I mean a very long life – we still refer to the press as the ‘Fourth Estate’, and the other three ‘estates’ are the orders Adalbero lays out: oratores, bellatores, labores – those who pray (Churchmen), those who fight (nobles), and those who work (peasants).

A later medieval image of the Three Orders (source).

The poem has some wonderful imagery. Adalbero’s complaint is that the world is topsy-turvy, and no-one knows their assigned place any longer, and the main target of his bile is Abbot Odilo of Cluny. To emphasise how far he thinks Odilo has led monks from their proper role of cloistered contemplation, he images ‘King’ Odilo leading his warrior-monks to fight the Saracens in the south of France; but, of course, as monks, they are completely inept. “Ride two to a donkey! Ten to a camel!” “Upon your head, place a garland of flowers, and tie your helmet to your loins! Hold a sword in your teeth!” he exhorts his men. Unsurprisingly, they lose the battle.

The question of what exactly Adalbero is protesting here is open to more question than, to my mind, it has got. There are a couple of references to monks going to fight Saracens at around this period; but these don’t refer to an organised Cluniac proto-crusade but to a band of rag-tag monks from Provence forced into self-defence. Odilo himself, it’s worth saying, did not lead any military forces. Rather, what I think Adalbero is doing is parodying a work written by Odilo’s predecessor, Abbot Odo of Cluny, the biography of St. Gerald of Aurillac. In this work, Odo describes how Gerald, who was not a cleric, behaved in a particularly holy manner more befitting a monk than a layman. In particular, he tells of Gerald fighting a battle and ordering his men to fight with the butts of their spears and the flats of their swords. Odo is aware of how ridiculous this is, for the record; but he says that Gerald was so favoured by God that he won anyway. Of course, this kind of thing – making laymen behave like clerics – is exactly what Adalbero is complaining about, and his poem illustrates how little he thinks getting one type of person to do another type of person’s job would work in practice.

Odilo’s failure to defeat the Saracens lets Adalbero outline his own vision for society, and this is where his reputation for conservatism comes in. What Adalbero wants is, in content, very Carolingian, going back to the 829 Council of Paris. He wants the king to defend the Church, do justice, and crush the overmighty. He wants monks to be contemplative and cloistered, he wants bishops to pray for the community’s wellbeing and give learned advice to kings. However, it is also striking how Adalbero must find what are actually novel reasons for his conservative vision: new bottles for old wine, if you will. Old Carolingian justifications like royal ministerium are missing, and instead Adalbero justifies the royal duty of protecting the Church in terms of the schema of the Three Orders. The king’s duties come from his being a bellator, one of the order of those who fight.

Historians have pointed out that Adalbero’s scheme of the Three Orders was not a new invention. Two scholars in the ninth century named Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre described society as divided between ‘priests, soldiers and farmers’; this was possibly taken from the highly respected Church father Isidore of Seville. It may have been taken up in late tenth-century Rheims, and this may have been where Adalbero found it. However, it was not particularly common in either the ninth century or the tenth, and Adalbero’s use of it to justify what amounts to a caste system is completely new. Adalbero was not drawing on a common aspect of his time’s thought, but underpinning traditional conceptions of kingship with a new justification to make up for the fact that the old ones had gone. 

This scheme of the Three Orders was not conjured out of whole cloth. Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre has described something very similar in the ninth century, and versions of their formulation appeared in Alfredian England and mid-tenth century Italy. However, in Gaul it was not common in either the tenth century or the ninth, and it is noticeable that when in the eleventh century it gains two very high-profile spokesmen, Adalbero and Bishop Gerald I of Cambrai, both of whom were educated at Rheims in the late tenth century. This is notable because Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims (Adalbero of Laon’s uncle) renovated the cathedral school at this time. What I suspect we are seeing, therefore, is not a widespread intellectual idea, but a development in political thought specific to Rheims c. 970 which then found some long-lived and voluble advocates. In short, Adalbero’s nominal conservatism illustrates how little purchase Late Carolingian thought had in early Capetian political debates, and how fragmented the landscape of post-Carolingian political thought had become.

Christian Diplomacy: Charlemagne’s Letter to Nikephoros I (811)

One of the running problems in the study of international relations is the question of how universal its practice and theory is. On the one side we have the argument that all international relations in any place and period are fundamentally the pursuit of political advantage between state-like entities, engaged in by social elites who are all playing the same game with differing levels of skill, having been dealt better or worse hands. In such a reading, we can draw up universal laws for international relations that apply for any era and circumstances. On the other, we have a more anthropological approach, which stresses the need to take into account the material and ideological differences between people and places, arguing that both the practice and aims of international relations are shaped by the resources, means of communication, structures and general worldview of the individuals and societies involved.

Both approaches hold dangers for the medieval historian. The first risks distorting the medieval period by making it a slightly muddier version of modern international relations, losing what is distinctive and different about the period. The second can result in the Middle Ages being condescendingly hived off as a primitive time when no diplomacy of any sort took place because everyone was too culturally determined to be capable of strategy. The medieval historian thus has to walk a line between a pragmatic ‘realist’ reading of the game of international relations, and a sympathetic attention to what our sources actually say and the points of view they reveal.

With this in mind that I present the following letter, sent in early 811 by Charlemagne to the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I (r.802-811), not just because it provides us with an opportunity to read an early medieval emperor sounding like a lovesick teenager, but because it forces us to reckon with the sorts of questions I began this post with:

Charlemagne, Epistolae variorum, ed. E. Dümmler, MGH Epp 4 (Berlin, 1895), no.32, 546-548.

Since the help of God should be asked for at the beginning of all human affairs, greatly should the aid of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ be implored by all means in this business, which by God’s mediation is being carried out between us  so that we, who are marked by His name and are confident that we are redeemed from the eternal peril of death through the dispensation of His passion, may deserve to bring what we begin at his instigation to an honourable and useful end and conclusion.

In His name and in His honour, we have kindly and with honour received into Our court your envoy, Our brother, whom you sent to our son, King Pippin[1] of good memory, namely Arsafius, the famous imperial spatharios[2], along with the words and letters of your affection. And although he had not been sent to us, we have taken care of him as if he was sent to us, and we listened to him and, because we thought it prudent, talked with him about what he brought. This was not undeservedly, for such was the fullness of the desired and ever-desirable peace, not only in the letters he brought with him, but also in the words that reached our ears from his mouth, that his message was able to please us and all those who fear God greatly. Indeed, they were seasoned so heavily with the salt of goodwill and peace that they could taste of true sweetness on the palate of any of the faithful, and even a complete fool, to whom such things seem tasteless, could tell. Therefore, after we had received the news that he had arrived within the borders of ​​our kingdom, as if we had known in advance of his great and godly mission, we could not hold back, and bade him come to Our presence at an appropriate moment; especially because him to whom he had been sent, Our beloved son King Pippin, had been separated from human life by divine judgement, and we could not bear it that he return with empty hands and with such a great work as that he had been sent on incomplete.

And not only because of that, but also because since that time in the first year of your reign when Your Belovedness sent the Metropolitan Michael, the eminent Abbot Peter and the famous candidatus Calistus[3] to establish with us a long-lasting peace in order to unite and bring together we two in the love of Christ, we have been in anxious suspense with long-lasting expectation, like someone stationed in a watchtower, while we waited to receive bearers, whether through a messenger or a letter, of friendly responses from you, our brother, to our important letters. As is the nature of the weakness of the human spirit, despair had already begun to dominate our heart instead of hope. And yet we have trusted in Him, who never forsakes those who trust in Him, because according to the apostle, our efforts with him will not be in vain[4], and our wish, which as we believe we have made at His urging, will be fulfilled according to the abundance of His mercy and sooner or later be effected. Therefore, we were extremely pleased at the news of the arrival of the already mentioned envoy from your esteemed person, the famous sword-bearer Arsafius, in the firm conviction that we would get from uncertain circumstances to the desired certainty and that we would receive a response to what we gave to your aforesaid envoys to pass on to you. And indeed it happened that way. We have observed on the one hand the favour of divine aid in the fulfilment of our prayers in what we desired and [on the other hand] noticed that we received no small part of the answer we longed for in the words and letters which were brought by the embassy of the aforesaid envoy, although they were written for our son.

We have therefore thanked the Almighty, not as much as we should have, but as much as we could, because He has deigned to instil in the heart of your esteemed person, where as the desire for peace for which we have asked and pleaded, and we pray like the apostle so that God, who has granted you the will to this peace, also grants that it may be brought to a conclusion.

Because of this, we have brooked no delay, but without hesitation and without any kind of delay we have prepared our ambassadors to send them to you, our brother, with friendly love.


Ed.: What is probably Arsaphius’ personal seal, which is cool! (from Dumbarton Oaks, source)

There is clearly quite a lot going on beneath the surface in this letter which, like so much diplomatic correspondence, drops us in media res. I’m going to provide only the briefest outlines of context for this whole affair, which got complicated very quickly, as befits any mess that involves Byzantium, Venice and questions of imperial status.

The first decade of the ninth century saw tension between the Carolingian empire and Byzantium for a couple of reasons. The first was Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor in Rome in 800 by the Pope. This rather vexed the rulers of Constantinople, who took the view that they were the only Roman Emperors around. The second was Venice and the neighbouring region of Dalmatia, theoretically under Byzantine authority, but in practice a collection of border territories with a penchant for playing Constantinople off against the Franks.

This second issue was primarily a problem for King Pippin of Italy, as Charlemagne allowed his son considerable autonomy within his realm. Nikephoros had sent an embassy to Charlemagne in 803 to announce his assumption of imperial authority, having overthrown the Empress Irene the previous year. In 805 the dukes of Venice and Zara had come to Charlemagne, with the emperor settling the affairs of Venice and Dalmatia. Nikephoros sent a fleet to retake Venice and Dalmatia, blockading the Adriatic. The war lasted from 806-810, culminating in Pippin dying from a disease acquired while besieging Venice in 810. Pippin left a teenage son, Bernard, as his heir, so Charlemagne felt the need/saw the opportunity to intervene. Doing so allowed him to revive the issue of his imperial status, something that Nikephoros seems to have been ignoring since 803 hence Charlemagne’s wistful sighs at the lack of any message from the Byzantine Emperor since then.

This is a very abbreviated account of the ins and outs of a very complicated diplomatic situation that I’m still not convinced I entirely understand yet. Neither of the big issues are directly mentioned in the letter. Charlemagne asserts equality of status with Nikephoros by referring to him as brother, and alludes to the need for peace, but otherwise we can assume that these were matters quietly addressed between Charlemagne and the envoy Arsafius.

I want to flag up a few points here. The first is to observe just how hard making peace could be. Truces had been attempted from 807 but kept collapsing. Charlemagne wanted Byzantine recognition of his imperial title. By 810 at the latest it was clear that Venice and Dalmatia weren’t going to just fall into the Carolingian sphere of influence as had seemed possible in 805 and the war had already cost Charlemagne too much, including his son. From Nikephoros’ perspective, Byzantine forces in the Adriatic were acting in response to Frankish aggression, so status quo ante bellum represented a win for him. In the meantime, Nikephoros had more urgent problems to deal with, most notably Krum, the Khan of the Bulgars, who had recently captured Serdica (modern Sofia) and was expanding rapidly in the Balkans.

All the incentives were there for peace, but the truces kept breaking down. The dukes of Venice seem to have been actively hindering the process, driving off a Byzantine commander with orders to enter talks with Pippin in early 809. The death of Pippin also wouldn’t help things, as early medieval diplomacy tended to take place between rulers as individuals and it was by no means guaranteed that existing agreements would continue when a monarch was replaced. This is part of the reason Charlemagne was at such pains to spell out his connection to Pippin in the letter, to strengthen the notion of continuity and his ability to make an agreement stick despite not being the person Arsafius was sent to talk to. But a final problem here with the peace process were simple logistics. There were no permanent ambassadors and no easy means of communication, with the result that messages needed to go back and forth slowly and it was easy for things to get misinterpreted, or for new developments on the ground to screw things up.

A second thing to observe is the explicitly Christian terms that Charlemagne used. In working for peace they were following a desire inspired by God, not just carrying out His wishes but acting in a way only possible because of divine blessing. A cynical reading of this would be that such language was largely meaningless bumf covering over the real business of realpolitik, allowing Charlemagne to skirt past the reality that the war was not going terribly well for the Franks. An alternative interpretation would look at Charlemagne’s very real piety and concern for Christians beyond his lands and take this as a serious insight into how the Frankish emperor structured his relations with his fellow Christian monarchs.

Both of these rhetorical strawmen are clearly flawed. Throughout his career Charlemagne demonstrated a ruthless pragmatism in his dealings with his Christian neighbours, as the king of the Lombards, the duke of the Bavarians and his own nephews could attest. Nonetheless, Charlemagne was deeply pious and it is really hard not to read his letters and other documents and not get the sense of a man desperately trying to understand and fulfil God’s purpose for him. Any interpretation of this letter to Nikephoros that does not try to hold both Charlemagnes in mind, and which doesn’t see the way in which they joined together to form a coherent whole, is doomed to fail.

One way forward here is to see the Christian framing in this letter as both sincere and carefully chosen to highlight uncontroversial things both Charlemagne and Nikephoros had in common, offering both of them shared language they could use to reach a compromise. It’s also worth thinking about the audience for this letter. That it survives in multiple western copies suggests that it was meant to be read by people in Charlemagne’s empire. But it was also meant to be read out loud in the court in Constantinople. It therefore needed to portray Charlemagne in a positive light, while also being persuasive for a Byzantine audience.

Another point to note is what this letter tells us about diplomats. Charlemagne is extremely complimentary about the Byzantine envoy, Arsafius. This might be partly to reassure Nikephoros that he hadn’t mistreated this envoy meant for Pippin, whom he had effectively hijacked. But it also suggests the type of things an effective envoy might do. Arsafius impressed Charlemagne in their private conversations. He also performed well in public, helping Charlemagne sell the prospect of peace even to the dimmer or more truculent members of his court by speaking with sincerity. Charlemagne connects this to the memory of Pippin, mostly to make it clear that these talks were indeed carrying out Arsafius’ mission. I wonder if there might also be a hint at Arsafius’ emotional intelligence, using their shared experience with Pippin to create a bond with the grieving emperor.

Nikephoros may never have read the letter. He went on campaign against the Bulgars and was killed in battle in July 811. His skull was later used a drinking cup by Krum. Yet many of Charlemagne’s objectives were achieved. Emperor Michael I (r.811-813), who usurped Nikephoros’ son, received the Frankish envoys. In 812 his own embassy, which included Arsafius and the Bishop Michael Charlemagne had also written warmly about, publicly acknowledged the Frankish ruler as Emperor in Aachen. Venice and Dalmatia were left in the Byzantine sphere. Embassies went back and forth over the next few years, but peace and positive relations were achieved. Whether we give the credit to Christ or to the diplomats shall have to be left for another day.

[1] Charlemagne’s son, King of Italy 781-810.

[2] Literally ‘sword-bearer’, a high-ranking Byzantine official.

[3] Envoys sent by Nikephoros to Charlemagne in 803.

[4] 1 Cor 15.58 ‘Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’

Charter A Week 46: Mothers and Sons

For several weeks now, we’ve been focussing on Charles the Simple and royal politics, but plenty of things were happening elsewhere in the realm, not least in Burgundy. In 921, Richard the Justiciar died, probably after ailing for at least half a decade (a 916 charter has his eldest son Ralph of Burgundy signing on his behalf). There are signs that Richard’s position in the last years of his life was not a secure as once it had been. Steven Robbie, whose thesis I love but who has a bad habit of overstating his case (even by my standards) in this regard, has a really cool picture of badly deteriorating relations between Richard’s family and the so-called Manassids, the family of Richard’s right-hand man Count Manasses the Old of Dijon. There is some evidence for this (such as a 918 charter where Bishop Walo of Autun condemns Manasses for seizing an estate of Autun’s church which Richard restored), but not as much as I would like. Meanwhile, the family was getting involved in conflicts outside its heartland: at some point around 920, Ralph teamed up with Robert of Neustria to snatch the city of Bourges away from William the Younger of Aquitaine.

So when, in 921, Richard died, Burgundy was ripe for a change. We have hints that not all was well amongst Richard’s sons, hints such as:

ARTEM 609 (c. 922)

Since worthy witness ought to be given to all just largesse, if only to protect from the fluctuations of worldly fortune, it is necessary that a largess of full devotion should be confirmed by the witness of writings such that the truth of reason is able to understand when it is brought before the gaze of the inquiring. On which account I, Adelaide, by disposition of heavenly piety formerly a countess and now by the gracious favour of the same mercy a handmaid of the Heavenly Emperor (and by a shining family of most brilliant sons enduring in the dignity of the earlier appellation), thinking of these and many other gifts of God’s benefactions granted to me, and with some of my time well-spent, desiring and believing to gain the prize of eternal repayment, decided at the advice and consent – indeed by the exhortation – of my beloved son the illustrious Count Hugh [the Black] – and moreover thinking the worthy thought that such a thing would most certainly benefit us in the gain of eternal rest – thought of the estate of Boyer, which is sited in the district of Chaunois, on the river Natouze, once legitimately given to the late martyr of Christ Vincent and to the uses of the canons by the largess of their own bishop the blessed Lupus, which was seen to be their patrimony by our forefathers, but which by the cunning of the malignant and blind cupidity is known to have been [taken] by lovers of this fallen world from ancient days, although the investiture of the nones and tithes remained.

Therefore I thought it worthy, at the counsel of my aforesaid son Hugh, that I should return the aforesaid estate of Boyer, which I obtained through a precept of royal majesty, with churches and manses, and bondsmen, and everything pertaining to it within and without, sought and to be sought, all adjacencies everywhere, to the stipends of the servants of God soldiering for God and St Vincent in the aforesaid mother church, for the remedy of the soul of my most beloved lord the duke and margrave Richard [the Justiciar], and also mine, and those of my sons, so that the intercession of the said soldier of Christ Vincent and the frequent prayers of his servants might beat at the ears of the Highest Piety in our aid, for which reason we might deserve to obtain eternal life happily by the grace of the Remunerator of All. Whence We commanded this charter of Our largess to be made. Solemnly we avert any bishop, or any person of whatever order or sex, from presuming to subtract it from the table of the same canons; but let the aforesaid brothers enjoy its stipends inviolably, with no impediment.

I also wish that from this estate, three of the better manses with their appendages and acreage and all the serfs’ renders, should constantly serve in looking after the wretched and the hospital of the same church, with their bondsmen, on the condition that in my lifetime they should hold the estate for my uses. For the moment, in vestiture, let the canons always receive the church of that jurisdiction, which is in honour of St Victor, with everything granted to it, and pay the renders in its alms.

If any prince or bishop, therefore, or any person, might presume to subtract or alienate or diminish this offering of Our devotion from the table or stipends of the aforesaid canons, for their presumption and to vindicate this charter of our restoration on the day of Judgement, we commended them to the terror and anathema of unspeakable revenge. In addition, I command and humbly pray my heirs that they might as far as they can support the aforesaid canons regard this my largess, for true life and the remedy of their souls. If the aforesaid brothers are unable to expel the wrongdoers, let my heirs receive it for their uses until they can restore it to the aforesaid congregation in line with my devotion.

And that this charter of our largess might in God’s name obtain a more secure firmness, I fully confirmed it with my own hand, and We commanded it to be strengthened under the hands of my sons and our followers, such that after my death the aforesaid brothers might and hold have this charter of our largess in its entirety.

Cathédrale de Chalon

Chalon cathedral as it looks today (source).

Hugh the Black was Ralph’s brother, and this isn’t the only charter of Adelaide immediately after Richard’s death feting him – another was issued for the church of Autun in 922, ‘at the exhortation of my beloved son the illustrious Hugh’, where Hugh signs before Ralph (and their other brother Boso) in the witness list. It is possible that what we are seeing here is a struggle for power within the family. Ralph had been pushed forward by Richard during his lifetime; but Hugh was backed by their mother, and Adelaide was making no secret of her favour for Hugh following Richard’s death. I don’t think that this was a violent struggle, but it may explain how the Bosonid family reacted to the ongoing West Frankish civil war.

Ralph of Burgundy – who was, by this point, Robert of Neustria’s son-in-law – went to negotiate with Robert, but nothing seems to have come of it, and Ralph did not lend active support to Robert’s campaign. By contrast, Hugh the Black did lead an army against Charles. He did not achieve very impressive results – he attacked a small raiding party and killed three of them – but he was nonetheless there with armed men at Robert’s side. I wonder if they might have been trying to secure their local position by Robert’s intervention. If so, Hugh gained Robert’s support in the short term, but it left him dangerously exposed if Robert’s position were to crumble. As for how that went – we will see next week…

Karlesburg: Probably the Best Carolingian City Burned Down in Saxony

In the year 778, an army of Saxons rose up in rebellion against Charlemagne. In a demonstration of baffling ingratitude towards the Frankish king for having gone to the trouble of conquering them and destroying the sacred Irminsul, they took advantage of him being otherwise occupied by Basque ambushes in the Pyrenees to revolt. The Saxon rebels crossed the Rhine, sacking towns and burning to the ground a settlement that had been built by the Franks two years earlier in 776 on the River Lippe.

It is this short-lived new development that I’m interested in today. Opinions in the contemporary annals as to what the settlement was that the Saxons demolished differ. Some call it a castellum (fort).  The Royal Frankish Annals, which is the most extensive and closest to Charlemagne’s court, calls it a castrum (castle).  Other sources disagree and call it a city. The Annals of Moselle report that in 776 Charlemagne ‘built a city on the river Lippe, called Karlesburg’.  The Annals of Petau agree, stating that ‘the Franks built in the country of the Saxons a city called Urbs Karoli’.  The Annales Maximiniani refers to it as the ‘urbs Karoli et francorum (the city of Charles and the Franks)’.

The difference here is important. Losing a fort wasn’t exactly desirable, but to a certain extent it was an expected possible outcome. One doesn’t put up forts in safe country and the torching of the odd castellum was probably one of the costs of doing business, and a relatively small cost at that. A city, on the other hand, is a rather bigger investment. As well as implying a certain scale and commitment of resources larger than the average military installation, founding a city is a statement of confidence that the future shall be like the present. It suggests security and power. Having a city that you founded be burned down within two years of being set up is embarrassing. This is all the more so if you put your name on it (Karlesburg, Urbs Karoli) and linked it with the fortunes of your people (urbs Karoli et francorum).

An exciting urban regeneration project from the Utrecht Psalter, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32.6r (source).

If Charlemagne had really decided to found a city in Saxony in 776, it would be an important statement about the permanence and stability of Carolingian rule in the region (think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003). Such a city would put Charlemagne within a long tradition of Roman and late antique urban foundations stretching back to Romulus, and including luminaries such as Constantine, Theodoric and Justinian. If such a city was then levelled to the ground within two years it would be deeply embarrassing (again, think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003).

On the whole, I’m inclined to suspect that this was really meant to be a city. The Royal Frankish Annals has form in reinterpreting and suppressing past events to make them seem less embarrassing for Charlemagne. Its description of the Frankish king’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula, which took place in the same year as the Saxon revolt, is spectacularly misleading. What actually happened was that the Frankish army was stymied by the walls of Zaragoza, had to return to Francia having achieved nothing and its rear-guard was surprised and destroyed by Basques in the Pyrenees. In the Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne is described as marching into Spain, receiving the submission of all he met, before going home. Absent in that account are the words ‘ambush’, ‘Roland’ and ‘screw-up’.

The end of the campaign was not something that could easily hushed up. A later Reviser added a full account of the ambush, observing that it ‘shadowed the king’s view of his success in Spain’. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard spoke of the frustration felt by the Franks that this defeat could not be avenged. The anonymous Astronomer who composed a biography of Louis the Pious said that the names of the fallen at Roncesvalles were still remembered and mourned in his day. This was a big deal that inspired strong emotional reactions across the Frankish world. That the Royal Frankish Annals were willing to omit it points to a general tendency its authors had to present Charlemagne in the best possible light.

The Royal Frankish Annals also provide another clue that the settlement founded on the Lippe in 776 was meant to be really important. The entry for 776 reports that the Saxons were summoned to the site ‘with wives and children, a countless number, and were baptized and gave as many hostages as the Lord King [Charlemagne] demanded’. A huge public gathering like this suggests that the settlement on the Lippe was intended to be a centre of power.

Charlemagne regained control of Saxony in the end, but if the Karlesburg was meant to be a city, it proved to be a dead end, to such an extent that it is now not clear exactly where it was. It may have been where Paderborn now stands. If so, that would be very interesting because Paderborn became one of the most important palaces in Charlemagne’s later reign. The settlement Charlemagne is most associated with, Aachen, is sometimes described as a city, but more often as a palace. One of the ideas I’m playing around with currently is that after 778 Charlemagne decided that founding cities was too much a hostage to fortune. The city of Charles became a palace, still imbued with power and significance, but less fundamentally important if it got sacked. The result was a series of palace-cities that had many of the characteristics of cities, but which were not consistently presented as them.

Even if this line of thought doesn’t go anywhere, I find Karlesburg fascinating as a hint of something that was potentially really important. The city in Saxony would have consumed considerable material resources and been invested with major political and cultural capital. Had it worked, would have radically changed the way modern historians think about Charlemagne. The Carolingian empire is still generally perceived of us a rural one (see this excellent magistraetmater post on the subject). Charlemagne might have been remembered as a city-founder. Instead the project was burned, Charlemagne rebranded, and we get the image of the Franks as country palace dwellers instead. (I have other thoughts on the importance of cities for the Carolingians for another time). Looked at from a distance, by any reasonable measure, Charlemagne’s reign was incredibly successful. Thinking about failed endeavours like Karlesburg reminds us not just how different it might have looked, but also the number of fiascos that had to be negotiated and tastefully buried as bad news.

Charter A Week 45: Memory, Family, and Favourites

921 was a key year for Charles the Simple’s fortunes. Having brokered a compromise with Robert of Neustria the year before, the two men were engaged in sorting out their positions. One of the threads of this year, in my reading, is how hard either found it to get any kind of unequivocal support on side. Duke William the Younger of Aquitaine was hostile to both; Richard the Justiciar of Burgundy had recently died and his sons seem to have had very different political orientations (Hugh the Black, pro-Robert; Boso of Vitry, pro-Charles; Ralph of Burgundy, on the fence). Meanwhile, Charles began lavishing favour on men from his north-eastern heartlands, above all our old friend (?) Hagano.

In Easter 921, Charles issued this diploma for the abbey of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés:

D CtS no. 108 = ARTEM no. 2050 = D.Kar 6.XIII (22nd April 921, Compiègne)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Charles, by gracious favour of divine clemency king of the Franks.

We believe without doubt that the good and useful things which We carry out, at the suggestion of Our followers, for love of divine worship profit the realm of Our rule in its greatest increase, and that it benefits the blessing of Our salvation.

Therefore, let it be held known by the followers of the holy Church of God and Us, present and future, that the most reverend bishop Abbo [of Soissons] along with the venerable Count Hagano, and the reverend Abbot Rumald [of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés] endeavoured to make it known to Our Serenity how the abbey of Fossés, which is sited in the district of the Parisis, on the river Marne; and which is built in honour of the holy mother of God Mary and the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, where the aforesaid Abbot Rumald now presides, having previously been destroyed, was restored by kinsmen from the side of Our mother Adelaide, building it again, with a full restoration under the monastic order; and that they strengthened through the precepts of the kings Our predecessors – from Our great-grandfather Louis [the Pious] and Our grandfather Charles [the Bald], and other kings – whatever had been bestowed upon the same monastery in any increase of goods; and that Abbot Rumald, together with his congregation, asked that they wanted the same monastery to be held by Us in the same manner as prior kings by a renewal from Our precept. Whence they brought before our gaze the authority of Our lord and great-grandfather the augustus Louis, in which is contained how Bego, the great-grandfather of Our mother, had restored the monastery (which was nearly destroyed) to its original state under the norm of religion; and how he came and commended the abbey under that emperor’s tutelage and defence, with the abbot and monks and goods pertaining to it; and that this authority was reinforced by Our grandfather Charles and by their other successors.

Hence, We wish that the said abbot and the monks established under him, with all the goods beholden to the same monastery, should fully persist under the defence of Our immunity. Besides which, the monastery of Saint-Maur [of Glanfeuil] sited in the district on Anjou, on the river Loire, which was subjected to the abbey of Fossés by Our late brother Carloman [II] through a precept of his command that they should be one and governed under one abbot, We in like manner commend to persist.

Commanding, therefore, We order that no judge nor any judicial power should presume to require anything through distraint in any of the goods of the same monasteries from which anything is seen to be able to be exacted; rather, let everything which Our fisc can exact therefrom go to alms for the poor and stipends for the monks, and let both of the said abbeys, under one abbot, have the liberty of Our royal defence, without the military service from which We absolve the same places in every way.

Finally, when the aforesaid Abbot Rumald, by the command of divine calling, goes forth from this light, let the monks of these monasteries have license to elect an abbot from amongst themselves, unless it should so happen that there can be found therein one living in accordance with the Rule from amongst the kin of Our mother, who should always carry out the office of abbot therein.

We decree, then, by the word of Our authority and the writing of these letters, that everything written above should persist fixed and stable for all time, so that the aforesaid monks might be able without disturbance to exhort God’s clemency for Our salvation for all time – but especially, whilst We live, on the 5th kalends of February [28th January], on which day We were anointed as king, let them carry out Our memorial in their prayers; and after Our death, let them change these prayers to the anniversary day of Our death. Furthermore, let them mark the anniversary of Our former wife Frederuna on the 3rd ides of February [11th February], always adding to them as well the memory of Our kinsmen who built their place; and in addition, with all of Our offspring, let them have a continuous perseverance in prayer for Count Hagano, who is very faithful to Us.

That this authority might obtain firmness forever by industry of this sort, We command it be sealed with Our signet, confirming it with Our own hand.

Sign of the glorious king Charles.

Gozlin the notary of this royal edict witnessed and subscribed on behalf of Archbishop Roger [of Trier].

Given on the 10th kalends of May [22nd April], in the 8th indiction, in the 29th year of the reign of the glorious king Charles, in the 24th of his restoration of unity to the kingdom and the 10th of his acquisition of a larger inheritance.

Enacted, truly, in the palace of the royal seat of Compiègne.

Faithfully. Amen.

caw 43 921

The original of Charles’ diploma, from the Diplomata Karolinorum linked above.

In this act, issued at the height of Easter time, Charles is doing a number of things. Above all, he is establishing Fossés as a monastery dedicated to the memory of his kinsmen, and specifically his female kinsmen, in particular his mother Adelaide and wife Frederuna. By this point, the initial splurge of dedications memorialising Frederuna has abated, so this demand for a memorial service is targeted and calculated. He places both Fossés and the Loire valley abbey of Glanfeuil (which had been united for about forty years at this point) under his mother’s kin. He also, in a quasi-adoptive act, places Hagano’s memory alongside that of his own family.

Equally noticeable in this act are the intercessors, above all Bishop Abbo of Soissons. Abbo shows up a few times at the end of Charles’ reign as someone high in his confidence, but when it came down to it he sided with Charles’ enemies. It is interesting to wonder whether we are dealing with Charles trying to bribe someone of uncertain loyalties, or whether Abbo’s betrayal was unexpected…

It is also interesting to note that the abbeys Charles is dealing with are in Paris and Anjou. Anjou was a core area of Robert of Neustria’s support, and Paris was an increasingly important liminal area between Charles’ sphere of direct influence and Robert’s. It may be that this diploma was part of a set of provocations in this area, because the final blow-up was also set in this area: Charles confiscated the abbey of Chelles from Rothilde, the mother-in-law of Robert’s son Hugh the Great, and gave it to Hagano. By 922, Robert and Charles were in open war.

A King in Nappies?

Whilst making revisions to an article, I’ve had to revisit a question which has been circulating, one way or another, since the nineteenth century: did Louis IV create a sub-kingdom in Burgundy for his son Charles in 953? As far as I know, this was first proposed by Auguste Bernard before being refuted by Ferdinand Lot; Lot’s view then held the field for decades until it was counterattacked by Carlrichard Brühl, and now historians are going in both directions.

So, first things first: why does this matter? Well, Brühl and Hlawitschka’s debate was over whether or not there was a ‘tenth-century principle of indivisibility’, which I find a rather abstract constitutionalist question. My interest is more direct: if Louis did try and endow Charles with a kingdom in Burgundy, this suggests that he was punching hard in the region, and it also explains why he made some really significant concessions to Hugh the Great in early 953. In fact, it suggests a paradigm shift in West Frankish politics which would have taken place in the mid-950s had matters not been scuppered by Louis’ early death.

The cases for and against are easy to lay out, not lease because the evidence consists entirely of two charters and their dating clauses:

CC 1.857: “I, Bernard, wrote and gave [this charter] on Thursday, in the month of October, in the first year of the reign of King Charles.”  

CC 1.875: “…Cluny, over which lord abbot Aimard (r. from 942, †965) presides… Rothard, levite and monk, wrote this on the 2nd March, a Thursday, at Cluny in public, in the reign of King Charles.”

When do these date from? The second is pretty clear: it must be between 942 and 965; based on the years where the 2nd March was a Thursday, 954 makes good sense. The first one needs a bit more context: it is a charter from one Engelard to his betrothed Neuthild, the contents of which were repeated, evidently at a later date, in another charter dated to “1st November, a Friday, in anno septanta of King Conrad [the Pacific of Transjurane Burgundy]”. Anno septanta, taken literally, should mean ‘in the seventieth year’, which is palpably ridiculous. If it means ‘in the seventh year’, then we’re dealing with some time in the late 940s (although we can’t be more exact than that); if ‘the seventeenth year’ then sometime in the mid-950s. (For what it’s worth, the 1st November was a Friday in 950 and then not again until 961; both Bernard and Brühl proposed emending it to a date that better suited their argument but there’s no reason to make this emendation.)

CC 1.875 in the original, with the dating clause underlined. Modified from source.

Of these two charters, the second is by far the most important, because 1) it still survives in the original, so we can probably rule out copyist error (which we can’t necessarily with the second, not least because it’s so loosely drafted anyway) and 2) because it can be fairly securely dated. So, we have a fairly unambiguous bit of evidence that a scribe in the Mâconnais in spring 954 thought that there was a ‘King Charles’ in the vicinity. For Brühl, this is enough to have Louis’ son Charles made into a full-fledged king over a Burgundian sub-kingdom.

So, what are the problems with this view? There are two main issues: one, the absence of evidence; and two, the inherent implausibility of the scenario. Let’s start with the second one, because it’s the weaker of the two (improbable things happen often), but it is still worth noting. Louis’ son Charles (the future Charles of Lotharingia) was born in summer 953, meaning that if he was a king, he was a king as an actual infant. Some sub-kings were constituted at very, very young ages, admittedly – Louis the Pious was all of three years old – but a literal baby seems a bit much.

The absence of evidence is a bit more substantial, enough to constitute evidence of absence. We have a substantial chronicler (Flodoard) and a couple of others (the Annals of Sainte-Colombe, the Annals of Fleury, the Annals of Nevers) who cover Burgundian affairs, and none of them give any kind of king-making ceremony the slightest bit of attention. Even more crucially, we have a whole load of other charters from 953 and 954, all of which are still dated by Louis’ reign – including, crucially, the notice of a court held by Count Leotald of Mâcon in October 953. We know from both Flodoard and diploma evidence that Leotald was one of Louis’ most consistent allies in southern Burgundy. Given, therefore, that he would have been both one of the people whom Louis most needed to bring on board to support any kind of subkingship and one of the most likely to support the king, the lack of any reference to Charles is significant.

So, then, we have one unambiguous bit of clearly contemporary evidence, but it’s tinny in the face of a deafening silence. Ultimately, I’m with Lot, not Brühl: it might still be possible that baby Charles got his brief kingdom, but Occam’s Razor says that Rothard is the outlier, not everyone else. Charles’ brief kingdom would have to wait several decades to fail… but that’s another story.

Coins, Bullion and Legitimacy in Viking Realms

For reasons that will become clear down the line, I’ve been starting to think about coinages in the ninth-century Viking world, particularly in places where incoming rulers had to establish themselves. There’s lots and lots of people looking at Viking coinage, of course – you won’t struggle to find people comparing York’s coinage with Thor’s hammer with the St Edmund coinage of East Anglia memorialising not just any saint, but one the region’s Viking rulers had martyred just a few decades earlier. However, I want to a) take a bit of a broader perspective and b) bring in bullion too. Let me spit-ball some ideas at you to give you a sense of what I mean.

The ideological content of Viking coinages are, as I’ve said, oft-discussed; but these coinages are remarkably tightly bounded geographically: they’re in parts of Britain, and (sort of) on the Gaulish coast. They’re not, for instance, found in Ireland or Rus’. Part of this might be absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. For instance, we know that Rus’ neighbour the Khazar Khaganate minted coinage with an ideological message on it after its elite converted to Judaism; but we know this from a meagre handful of coins. If there had been a small issue of coins in some Viking polity in the eastern Baltic in c. 860, we might very well not know about it. Still, we should consider the ideological role of bullion, not least because its use seems to have persisted even in Britain. Most scholarship I can find on the role of bullion is purely economic – one historian actually contrasted coins (as something which could have ideological uses) against bullion (which couldn’t).

Yet this doesn’t explain why we don’t see more minting earlier. Viking rulers were well-familiar with coinage, and with its use as an ideological tool – the raiders who came back from Gaul with bags of silver deniers marked BY GOD’S GRACE CHARLES IS KING could hardly fail to get the picture, even if there hadn’t been bands based in Frisia (who also played an active role in Scandinavian politics) actively overseeing minting themselves. And indeed in Rouen, East Anglia, and elsewhere Viking rulers were quick to use making coins to say things about their rule. (You may be wondering, especially if you’ve read what I’ve written on this blog before: do William Longsword’s coins of c. 930 count as those of a ‘Viking’ ruler? Surely it’s more comparable to ‘feudal’ coinages? The short answer there is that I suspect the dynamics behind the minting practices of, say, the Northumbrian Viking ruler Cnut and William the Pious trend in similar directions…) So why not do so in Dublin or Kiev?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the vast majority of coins I’ve encountered so far are imitative – Carolingian-style in Normandy and Frisia, West Saxon in East Anglia, and so on. Minting seems to come with a displacement of ideas about rule, a gravitational pull towards pre-existing habits of kingship in the region. Understanding coins requires a certain amount of political and cultural literacy. To illustrate the point, I’ve just gone into my desk and pulled out (appropriately enough) a Norwegian 1-Krone coin, and even with coins from a relatively close country I don’t know why it’s got a hole in the middle and I don’t understand the picture of a bird on the reverse.

Mysterious! (OK, not that mysterious because I had to look up the meaning of the design to find out which side was the reverse; but still. Modified from source.)

This means that starting minting requires a certain amount of indoctrination to start with: in the case of William Longsword’s Temple-type coinage, for instance, you have to know that the ‘W’ on the obverse means ‘William, count of Rouen’; you have to know that the design is supposed to be a temple; you may well have to know that it’s a deliberate imitation of a coin which hadn’t been in common circulation for about seventy years. It’s a lot of work.

In addition, incoming elites were already plugged into an existing ideology of precious metals disconnected from coinage. Flicking through the skaldic poetry preserved in the kings’ sagas, it’s noticeable that ‘gold-breaker’ is such a common circumlocution for ‘generous man’. Similarly, Thjodolf of Hvinir describes how ‘the glorious ruler gave his champions red gold and many rings, bright mail-shirts and keen blades, shining and richly-decorated shields’. Good, i.e. generous, kingship is here tied tightly to a non-monetarised economy. This isn’t to say that a Scandinavian chief of the mid-ninth century would have turned down a bag full of coins, but he might not have drawn a distinction between them and a bag full of hack-silver; and probably wasn’t worth the effort to make him try.

Of course, even if this baseless speculation is right, that still raises the question of what motivated coin production and coin design across the Viking world. That’s one of the questions I’ll be looking at in future, so keep an eye out. This post was very much The Historian’s Sketchpad at its sketch-padiest. This time next year, hopefully I will be able to present you with thought-out conclusions based on evidence. In the meantime, with an at-best vague knowledge of the sources and the literature, I’m happy to have got something down to orientate future research.

Pope Leo III writing to Charlemagne on North African Affairs

This is a letter written by Pope Leo III (795-816) to Charlemagne (768-814) on 11 November 813. The message was prompted by a missive the Pope had received from the patrician Gregory, who was the Byzantine governor of Sicily. Gregory had asked Leo to forward the letter on to Charlemagne, which the Pope did, although not without including his own thoughts and news gleaned from his own man on the scene in Sicily.

Leo III, Epistolae, ed. K. Hampe, MGH Epp 5 (Berlin, 1899), no. 7, pp. 97-99.

To the most serene and pious lord, victorious and triumphant, a son and lover of God and our lord Jesus Christ, the august Charles, Bishop Leo, servant of the servants of God.

We received on the third ides of November the letter of Gregory, patrician of Sicily, to wit, a response to the letter of Your Serenity, which We sent to him through Our man. He did not, for reasons We know not, send the letter – which had your name on it – to you. The letter which he sent to us – which he asked us to send Your Imperial Power either a copy of; or after We had read it, the letter itself signed with Our seal – We have, in order to satisfy you, neither opened to read it nor do We know what is contained in it, except what the envoy sent to Us told Us in words. It is about Saracen envoys, with whom this Patrician [Gregory] has confirmed a pact for ten years.

He said to the aforesaid Saracen envoys ‘What kind of treaty do you want to make with us, when eighty-five years ago you made a treaty with us and did not keep it? Yes, and Patrician Constantine, who was here before me, he made a pact with you to last ten years until the eighth future indiction (Sept 814); but you held firm to neither pact. Now, the value of us making a pact with you is unclear’.

To this the Saracen envoys responded, saying: ‘The father of this Amiralmumin, who now is seen to reign over us, died, and left this one a child. And he that was the slave was made free; and he who was free was a lord; and none gave thought to the king. But now, after everything his father had has been made subject to his unshaken will, we ask for a pact with each other. For Spain we can make no guarantee because they are not under the dominion of our kingdom. But insofar as we can overcome them, we promise to fight against them at sea like you do, although we cannot do so alone. We on our part, and you on yours, will keep them away from the coasts of the Christians.’

After this it was agreed; and they confirmed in writing between them a pact for ten years. And he [Gregory] sent them an envoy named Theophistus the Notary. And he restored those they had captured from the Saracens, so that the Christians who had been taken from our shores would be returned.

And after they had concluded the pact between them and our envoy had departed with the Patrician’s leave, he came across a man in Catania who was hurrying with all speed to the Patrician to report that seven Moorish ships had been plundering a town in Reggio and that two ships of theirs sent after them had returned to shore empty-handed.

That envoy of ours also told us that he had heard from the envoy of the Saracen men that in June 813 they had intended to go to Sardinia with a hundred other ships; and when they had nearly reached Sardinia the sea suddenly opened up and swallowed those hundred ships; and in consequence, in great dread, they had shortly afterwards returned home and told the people in Africa what had happened and reported the news to the households of those who had been drowned; and there had been such grief as had never been known before. After hearing this, our envoy asked the notary who was looking after him whether what he had heard from the Saracens was true. And the notary told him that it was and that he had personally read out to the Patrician a letter which a Christian friend of his had sent him from Africa and which mentioned the submersion of the aforesaid hundred ships. And this happened in the month of June, when many saw a fiery sign in the sky, like a torch.

Those envoys of the Saracens came in Beneventian ships which, while travelling, burned two ships coming from Spain with fire.

This is what we have heard from our man, which is what we have taken care to make known to your serenity…

The (alleged?) tomb of Idris I at Moulay Idris (source)

I find this passage fascinating for a wide variety of reasons. For a start, it indicates Charlemagne’s interest in North African affairs. Leo was uncertain why Gregory was getting in touch with the Carolingian Emperor and its possible that the governor’s letter extended to other matters, but clearly both Leo and Gregory thought Charlemagne would want to know this information. The most obvious explanation for this interest in North Africa was piracy. Both the governor of Sicily and the Pope in Rome were obviously frustrated and worried by it and with reason. One of or both of Corsica and Sardinia were raided in 806, 807, 809, 810, 811 and 812, while the Italian mainland was hit in 808 and 813. Interestingly, 813 marks the end of this period of piracy, although how much that can be attributed to Gregory’s pact is unclear (it probably also owes something to events in al-Andalus).

Gregory himself is mostly known through papal letters like this one. His correspondence with Charlemagne is intriguing. Later in the letter Pope Leo assumes that his actions must be sanctioned by the new Byzantine Emperor Leo V (813-820), but Charlemagne had form in plotting with governors of Sicily. In 799 he had received envoys from Michael, the then governor, and in Constantinople in 800 there were concerns that the Frankish ruler was going to invade Sicily. This letter indicates that Charlemagne still had importance in Sicilian affairs.

Pope Leo emerges as someone keen to burnish his value as an information broker. In a postscript to the letter he notes that ‘Gregory the Patrician said to our envoy, that the Emperor Michael was made into a monk with his wife and children.’ This reference to the former Emperor Michael I (811-813), who had been overthrown by Leo V in July, perhaps suggests the slowness with which news of affairs in Constantinople circulated.

The story of the unlucky pirates/lucky Sardinians reminds us that a majority of the North Africans in this period were Christian, and that they provided an important point of contact and information for their fellow-believers across the sea. Einhard tells us that Charlemagne was concerned for their wellbeing and sent them alms, providing another reason for him to be interested in North Africa.

As someone interested in Christian-Muslim diplomacy, the description of Gregory’s negotiation is fascinating. The fundamental problem that the Byzantine governor faced of whether agreeing to a bargain would actually mean anything was common throughout the period, resembling some of the difficulties other Christian leaders would have with trying to make Danish rulers curb Viking attacks. Pirates and other non-state actors could provide a convenient and plausibly deniable cover for acts of opportunistic aggression. Alternatively, rulers who were in a weak position risked being blamed for the activities of people they couldn’t control, who were often opposed to them. (Those of us who grew up interested in foreign policy in the age of the War on Terror may also recognise this dynamic).

Caution about the value of pacts made was entirely justified. The Umayyads of the Iberian Peninsula seem to have cheerfully broken such agreements quite regularly. The speed with which Charlemagne’s grandsons would turn on each other after signing treaties suggests this behaviour was not confined to Muslims. Al-Tabari complains about the Byzantines breaking a truce with the Abbasids in 785.

The identity of the Saracen envoy’s master is unclear, but the most likely candidate is Idris II (791-828). His father, Idris I (788-791) had conquered most of what is now Morocco, before being assassinated. Idris II was born two months after his father’s death and much of Morocco splintered back into numerous lordships which Idris had to slowly reconquer. This seems to fit the envoy’s account of a child ruler who had struggled to control pirate activity, but by 813 was in a much stronger position to do so. The following year saw Idris take the important city of Tlemcen. This might explain why Gregory was willing to believe the envoy and sign the pact. The reference to tension with Umayyad al-Andalus would make sense given that Idris later settled vanquished Andalusi rebels in Fes. The eleventh-century Andalusi historian Ibn Hayyan makes a garbled reference to Charlemagne and Idris I which may reflect contact between the Carolingians and the Idrisids.

The biggest flaw with such an identification is the reference to the Saracen ruler as Amir al-Mu’minin, ‘Commander of the Believers’, a title normally used in the period by Caliphs. To the best of my knowledge the Idrisids did not claim this title. This is a problem I’m going to have to think about.

The reference to treaties lasting ten years is also interesting. Muslim jurists of the time specify that ten years was the maximum time a member of the faithful could make peace with non-Muslims. The information from this letter suggests that this was not just a theoretical notion, but had some purchase on real practice.

Finally, the reference to the Muslim envoys travelling on a Venetian ship points to their ubiquity even at this early stage in the Middle Ages, and the way in which Christians and Muslims used each other’s transport infrastructure. Christian pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land often used ships captained by Muslims, sometimes containing a cargo of Christian slaves. What the envoys made of the torching of the two pirate ships is unclear, but given that they were from al-Andalus, they may not have been too concerned.

This relatively short passage thus gives us a huge amount of information, which can be very profitably contextualised. Most of all, it reveals an early ninth-century western Mediterranean crowded with pirates, diplomats and merchants, in which rulers from as far away as Fes, Aachen and Constantinople attempted to gather information through contacts and nodes.

Charter a Week 44: Late Carolingian Absolutism

…so, I might be cheating again this week. For the second instalment in a row, we’re covering a charter I’m already in honest-to-goodness peer-reviewed print about; this time in the Journal of the Medieval Low Countries. This time, though, I’ve spoken less about it on the blog, so let’s start from the beginning.

Last week, we saw Charles and the prominent noble Gislebert of Lotharingia have a spectacular falling out. Gislebert raised the standards of rebellion, and one of the things he did at this time was to try and install a friendly bishop at Liège. The recently deceased bishop Stephen had been one of Charles’ most consistent supporters, and so there was a zero-sum game involved here. As for what happened, we have a remarkable and almost unique round letter from Charles explaining the events which have taken place, and why they are so bad:

MGH Conc. 6.1, no. 2 (920)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. The illustrious man Charles, by gracious favour of divine clemency king of the Franks, to all archbishops and bishops established in the realm committed to Us by God, peace and health from the same God eternal.

Cap I: Because We cannot possible enumerate the benefits of divine favour which We have known from Him from the cradle, therefore ‘shall my mouth speak the praise of the Lord and bless His holy name for ever and ever’ [Psalm 145:21]. Concerning the which, because (receiving Our just desserts) We have endured many adversities, We believe that this has been permitted to Us not to earn Our damnation but for the sake of reconciliation with Him, so that having been taught a lesson by His scourges We might learn to beware the perverse and obey His will in everything. As you know from many sources, some of Our followers deviated from the loyalty due to Us and tried to snatch from Us life and realm. They went to Our enemies and befriended them, and desired that they should give them the goods and bishoprics of Our realm. Leaving, therefore, many things unmentioned, We will make manifest to Your Sanctity of one of these men who poured into Our guts a serpent’s venom; that is, Hilduin, who acted against royal power and against the words of the Apostle, where it is said ‘Fear God, honour the king’ [1 Peter 2:17] and ‘whoever resists the authority resists against what God has instituted’ [Romans 13:2], ‘for there is no power except from God’ [Romans 13:1]; and against the words of David the harpist, who said to the Lord ‘You have set men over our heads’ [Psalm 66:12]. He crossed the Rhine to Our enemies, paying little heed to the oaths he had sworn to Us. Casting them over his shoulder, he asked for the bishopric of the church of Tongres [i.e. Liège] from Our enemy Henry [the Fowler, the East Frankish king], and usurped it to his own damnation against every statute both of the holy Fathers and of the kings, that is, Our ancestors. This is what the book of royal capitularies says concerning such matters: ‘If anyone should presume to a dignity he does not merit from a prince or just lord, he has committed sacrilege’. The blessed Gregory says ‘Just as he who refuses the invitation and flees the summons should be brought to the sacred altars, he who seeks office voluntarily and ruthlessly thrusts themselves forward should certainly be repelled. For what will he who struggles to reach a higher position do except diminish it by his gain? Why does he not consider that this blessing will become a curse for him who is promoted in such a way that he becomes a heretic?’

Cap. 2: When certain pestiferous men, as We said above, strayed from Our fidelity, We assembled 16 bishops and archbishops of Our realm, and no small number of magnates, margraves, counts and grandees, so that by their counsel, authority and virtue, We might resist such madness. It was found that new cankers should be severed and healed with new cures: by episcopal authority and the ordinance of the sacred canons, they should be driven from the company and consort of Christians. Hilduin united himself with their presumption and abominable tyranny, and gave Henry and his magnates many pounds of gold and silver. He not only knowingly joined in with them, but also, using the treasures of the church of Liège which he, instinct with the Devil, had snatched away and plundered, acted with threats and terrors to have himself consecrated as bishop by Hermann, archbishop of the city of Cologne, through the violence of Henry and his followers. Indeed, if Hermann had refused – as the venerable archbishop told Us later in the presence of many people – he would have taken his life and the goods of his church, butchered all its dependents and laid waste their goods. And so he consecrated him without the authority of legitimate precedents, as he himself has hitherto testified, but only because he was compelled by great terrors and dire cruelties. Concerning this, it is found in the Council of Nicaea: ‘If any clergyman is discovered to have communicated with an excommunicate, let him be deprived of communion like a rule-breaker. This is widely known from many councils and royal capitularies concerning excommunicates.

Cap. 3: Hilduin also invaded, pillaged and stole the goods of the aforesaid bishopric in Our realm at will, against the statue of Pope Anacletus, in which it is said: ‘St. Anacletus, who was ordained a priest by Peter the apostle, and was later made his successor as bishop of the see of Rome, with all the world’s priests, judged: “Whoever steals anything from their father or mother has committed murder. Our father is certainly God; our mother is the Church, who renews us in baptism. Therefore, whoever snatches away, steals, or defrauds the properties of Christ and the Church is a murderer, and will be regarded as a murderer in the sight of the Just Judge. He who snatches away the property of his neighbour is iniquitous; he who steals the property or goods of the Church has committed sacrilege, and should be judged as a sacrilege”’. 

Cap. 4: Finally, with insatiable greed, Hilduin carried off the treasures of the church of Liège and the palace of Aachen, which had been placed in a strong-box next to the body of the blessed martyr Lambert – he stole them from the Church and gave them to Our enemies, that is, his accomplices. Concerning this, the sacred canons decree that: ‘If anyone is found to have sold or stolen anything from the ministers of the Church, he has committed sacrilege. Let him not be kept in an ecclesiastical order.’ ‘Further concerning this matter, the blessed Augustine says in his 37th homily on the Gospel of John: “Behold, Judas is among the saints; behold, Judas is a thief; and lest you think little of this, this thief has committed sacrilege, for he has not stolen from just anywhere but from the Lord’s sacred treasures”. And a little later: “Whosoever should rob or defraud the Church of anything, let him be compared to Judas the traitor”.’  

Cap. 5: He gave these treasures of the Church to bishops and counts and accomplices for his ordination, not having before him the statutes of the Council of Africa, in which it is orders that no-one should be ordained for money, saying: ‘If any bishop pays money to obtain the dignity, let him be deposed and totally expelled, just as Simon Magus was expelled by Peter’; and in the Council of Chalcedon: ‘If any bishop, priest or deacon should to obtain the grace of the Holy Spirit for money, he will be in peril of losing his rank. Let this ordination or promotion, made for money, profit him naught, but let him be anathematized.

Cap. 6: The said Hilduin, to cap his damnation, came before the venerable Herman and swore an abominable oath on sacred relics: that I, Charles, gave him the bishopric of Liège; and he compelled some clerics and laymen to swear it as well. Various testimonies of holy writings prove that this is absurd and detestable.  

Cap. 7: Although called three times to a synod by lord bishop Hermann, so that he might, if he had just cause, respond to these things of which he was accused; or if he could not, be struck with the barb of the canons. Hilduin, because he put off coming, incurred the sentence of Pope Boniface, who said this: ‘He who does not want to come to refute what is said against him proves it to be true. And lest anyone doubt that the guilty flee judgement in this way, an innocent man seeks how he can be absolved.’ And a little later: ‘Whoever thinks themselves able to avoid judgement through delay confesses to everything’. Also: ‘If he wishes to be present in person, let him respond to the charges, if he is sure. If he neglects to be present, let him not win postponement of his sentence through his absence’.  

Cap. 8: All the clerics and laymen of the aforesaid church approached Our Sublimity, making it known to Us in mournful voices that Hilduin and his robbers had laid waste their property and taken away all their supplies and household goods. Nothing remained to them, even so much as to live off. They added in their prayers that this, by your counsel, lest they be exposed to further looting and plundering, it might be done that We should give them Richer to be ordained as pontiff, whom they had all elected. We beseech you pontiffs concerning everything which has been written in these chapters: for God and the due fidelity which you promised to Us, help as much as your strength allows in preventing Our honour from decreasing further in this matter and stabilising the state of the holy Church of God.


Image: the seal of Henry the Fowler (source)

The first thing to note about this letter is the emergence of a new figure in our cast of characters. In 918, the East Frankish king Conrad I had died. Conrad was a beleaguered figure who had already been beaten by Charles in their war over Lotharingia, and it seems that the threat he posed to Charles after that was minimal. Conrad’s successor Henry, though, was a different question: his position was more secure, and he appears to have been looking for ways to aggrandise himself at West Frankish expense. We will see him, and his descendants, ultimately achieve that over the course of the next sixty or so years.

In this case, though, he’s starting small, by helping Gislebert get his man in to Liège. Precisely what happened in these events has been confused because Hilduin claimed – and he was backed up by the usually reliable historian Flodoard – that Charles actually did appoint him before changing his mind. Now, Hilduin has an obvious motive for lying here; and, as it happens, so does Flodoard, who really doesn’t like Charles. Given this, I’d normally be inclined to dismiss the claim completely, except for the fact that Charles’ denial here is so weak. If he had a better case, I’d expect it to come with more force; maybe that’s just from dealing with Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims recently, who never met a weak case that prolixity couldn’t buttress. On balance, I still think the source tend towards Hilduin rather than Charles being the liar, but it’s not an open-and-shut case.

Whatever the actualities, we can see Charles responding to this particular problem in his time-honoured manner: calling an assembly and getting the appearance of consensus. In this case, though, that is paired with a remarkable emphasis on the inviolable nature of his royal authority. In fact, Charles’ stress on his own authority is not the most extreme version of this stance we have from this dispute: letters from the pope of the time are even more forthcoming about his absolute right to appoint a bishop. (Something, incidentally, noticed hundreds of years later during the Investiture Controversy when a writer from Liège used this example in his tract against papal power.) It’s a sign of how royal power had changed from the mid-ninth century by the time of Charles the Simple: the balance of authority had slowly changed in favour of kings, both relative to bishops and to aristocrats. However, all this garnish comes in a letter which is about how all these ostensible norms have been broken. There’s a kind of dissonance – Charles’ position is crystallised in the troubles, but it’s a position which might make solving the troubles themselves difficult. Charles’ royal authority might have been strong, but it was also brittle.  

Finding Troy

In the dying days of May 2021 I walked from Cambridge to Troy. It was a long and hard journey, taking me two hours under a hot sun, as I crossed the river Scamander and climbed the hill once graced by the high-walled city. There, where Priam himself had stood to survey his realm, I gazed north, beyond the dykes that had protected the Troad, to the great mound where the Tomb of Ilus once lay.

At least, that was where I was according to Iman Wilkens in his Where Troy Once Stood (London, 1990), in which he imaginatively relocates Troy to the Wandlebury Ring, an iron age-hillfort that stands in the Gog Magog Hills, south-east of Cambridge. Wilkens is unconvinced by the conventional placing of the site of Homer’s epic at Hisarlik in modern Turkey. The book as a whole stands as a case study for how not to do historical enquiry, as dubious etymologies and forced readings of texts and archaeology lead one along a chain of associations worthy of Black Dynamite. Particular highlights include the idea that the siege of Troy must have involved Northern Europeans rather than ‘the more peaceful Greeks of the classical era’ (p.15, something that would be news to Thucydides, Xenophon and the state of Sparta), and that the references to rain suggested ‘that the climate of the Troad is more like that of England’ (p.39). As a result of some spectacular onomastics, the River Cam becomes the Scamander and Ely Cathedral the Tomb of Ilus.

It is safe to say that despite the chapter in which Odysseus and company get lost in the Caribbean on their way back to Ithaca/Cadiz, Wilkens’ book has not achieved wide academic acceptance. Nor is it immediately obvious that the landscape he places Troy in is in urgent need of historical embellishment. In addition to the Ring itself and the remains of a mansion built for James II within it, Wandlebury is flanked by the remains of two further hill forts at Cherry Hinton and Copley Hill. Below it runs a network of roads built by the Romans, including Wool Street, which linked their military bases in Cambridgeshire to Colchester, and the Icknield Way running from Suffolk to Berkshire. Walk half an hour north-east from the Ring and you’ll hit Fleam Dyke, one of four great earthworks raised in the area in the post-Roman period that cut across the Icknield Way. The great island of Ely has more than enough stories of desperate battles and sieges to fill another Iliad. The remains of Ilus would rest with those of Byrhtnoth, and his spirit with that of Hereward. In short, this is a corner of the earth with no shortage of human past.

Where Priam put the Trojan Horse? The stables of Wandlebury House, all that remains of the seventeenth-century hall built in Wandlebury Ring (photo by author).

And yet Wilkens is hardly the first to feel that this area could be improved by the glamour of distant lands. In the centre of Cambridge you will find Jerusalem, or at least a Church of the Holy Sepulchre, better known as the Round Church, built in the early twelfth century after the First Crusade, inspired by that in the Holy Land. Follow the Icknield Way south and you reach Baghdad, or Baldock, named thus according to local legend by the Knights Templar after the great city in the east. Local institutions also acquired deeper histories. Should one consult Dyer’s The Privileges of the University of Cambridge (London, 1824), you will find record of the charter granted to the university by King Arthur on 7th April 531, sparing it from all secular duties and taxation. The king was busy in London at the time, possibly deep in domestic drama, so this privilege was delivered by Gawain, of Green Knight fame. That the charter was entirely invented in the fifteenth century, in competition with Oxford’s claim to be founded by Alfred, is a bit of a blow for Cambridge’s Arthurian heritage but I have every confidence in Fraser’s ability to use it to reconstruct the history of the sixth century.* [Hey! – Ed.]  Some of these stories would cross the Channel, and Gervase of Tilbury, writing in the thirteenth century, would amuse Emperor Otto IV with stories of nocturnal duels against supernatural knights within Wandlebury Ring (Otia Imperialia III.59, possibly Hector come again?).

Nor indeed is Wilkens the first to link Britain with Troy. Most famously Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136), tells of how the island was named after Brutus, the banished great-grandson of Aeneas, who first settled the land and founded London, or New Troy. Among the native giants slain in this process was one named Gogmagog. Geoffrey places this event in Totnes but given his notorious unreliability we can be forgiven for locating it in Cambridgeshire instead. Such an ancestry does not place Britons in a very exclusive club, alas, as other descendants of Troy include the Romans, Franks, Normans and basically nearly everyone else in Europe. Indeed, given the multitude that claim Trojan origins, it’s something of a wonder that the Greeks ever prevailed against them in the first place.

There were many reasons that people might seek to link a place to a distant past or a faraway land. Some are fairly obvious and easy to understand (the necessity of one-upping Oxford, for example). An ancient origin, particularly one that linked you to Troy and therefore Rome because of the myth of Aeneas, gave you a pedigree and therefore a dignity and status. This is something I thought about a lot as part of my role with the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project. You learn a lot about the stories that people love and the histories that they value from examining the pasts that they seek to integrate themselves and their pasts into. Founding churches in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre gave your city a link not just to the beginnings of Christianity but also to the Crusades and the wider involvement of Western Europe in the east. Being patronised by Arthur meant that you were an institution at the very heart of the Matter of Britain, esteemed by the noblest and most celebrated king in the country’s history. And if you could claim descent from Troy, then you acquired a history and a place among the ranks of nations that was easy to fit into pre-existing stories about the world and put you on the right side.

Such efforts happened across Europe. A link to the Iliad was important for the status of a city in ancient Greece. In the second century AD, Pausanias expressed his doubts about whether the settlement of Panopeus qualified as a city because of its lack of physical infrastructure (Description of Greece 10.4.1-2). Panopeus’ case for city status was reinforced by its mention in the Iliad, as Schedius, king of the Phocians, who ‘dwelt in a house in famous Panopeus’, was slain by Hector in the battle for the body of Patroclus (Il.17.1307). Sometimes efforts to link a city to a well-known past could be charmingly ludicrous. My favourite is the Libro Fiesolano, a late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century history of Florence, which sought to develop an alternative Roman past for the city by saying it was founded by the son of Catilina, magnificently, and utterly plausibly, named Hubert Caesar.

It’s very easy to be sarcastic about all of this (as I’ve demonstrated throughout this post, never let it be said that I climbed the high road when the easy slide into a ditch was available). But it seems to me that any history of a landscape that only included what actually happened misses a great deal of importance. What I love about Cambridgeshire is that it is a land that has been created by human labour, sometimes literally in the case of the draining of the Fens. It is the result of centuries of human occupation and work, a place that generation after generation of people have built on, fought for and been buried in. We can see their hopes and their fears and their loves written into the countryside. When we write the history of this space, we are translating those passions from earth to paper. Such a transcription must include Iron Age forts and Roman roads, Anglo-Saxon dykes and medieval cathedrals. But it should also trace the contours of the human imagination, so that spectral knights, distant Jerusalem, open-handed Arthur and, most recently, Troy take their place in the examination of the ways in which people have understood this landscape.

* For more on this, see A. Putter, ‘King Arthur at Oxbridge: Nicholas Cantelupe, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Cambridge’s Arthurian Foundation Myth’, Medium Aevum 72 (2003), pp. 63-81.