What Type of Elephant did Charlemagne Have?

[Editor’s note: this week, I’m excited to welcome a new writer on the blog. He’s going to be taking over roughly ever other week, so please give a big welcome to Sam!]

Hello everyone. The observant among you will notice that I’m not Fraser (the clue is the complete absence of charters in this post). My name is Sam Ottewill-Soulsby and I’m thrilled to be joining the blog. I’ve been a huge fan of what Fraser has been doing here since he began and I’m really excited to have the opportunity to share some of the things I’ve been working.

I’m a postdoctoral researcher for the ERC-funded ’Impact of the Ancient City’ project, which means that a lot of my work is concerned with the legacy of Roman ideas of the city on subsequent urbanism (more on which in future weeks). I’m also really interested in early medieval diplomacy and foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the Carolingian world. I’m also currently working on a book on Carolingian diplomacy with the Islamic world, provisionally entitled The Emperor and the Elephant: Christians and Muslims in the Age of Charlemagne, under contract with Princeton University Press.

This post comes from that side of my research. One of the biggest moments (in many ways) in these relations came when the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809) sent Charlemagne (r.768-814) an elephant. In his biography of Charlemagne, Einhard says that the Frankish monarch asked Harun for the elephant with his very first embassy to the Caliph in 797, demonstrating an impressive level of confidence. The elephant, Abu al-Abbas, arrived in Italy in 801, before travelling north to Aachen in 802, where he was a mammoth success, before eventually dying in Saxony in 810.

This charming early ninth-century elephant, from Physiologus Bernensis (Burgerbibliothek Bern Cod. 318 f.19r,) is probably based on a late antique model rather than Abu al-Abbas, but I will shoehorn him into any discussion of Charlemagne’s elephant

I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about elephants (some would say too much), and not just because elephants are cool (although elephants are cool). One of the things that has caught my attention is the question of what species of elephant Abu al-Abbas belonged to. As you know, elephants come in a number of flavours, including the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the two African species, the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). This matters because learning Abu al-Abbas’ species would give us a pretty strong clue about where he was from, telling us a lot specifically about where the Abbasids sourced their elephants and more generally about communications and logistics in the period. It might also have shaped the way people at the time thought and reacted to Abu al-Abbas based on the associations they had with his place of origin.

Unfortunately, none of the primary sources tell us his species directly. There is no reference to Harun sending Charlemagne an elephant in the Arabic sources at all, while the Latin Frankish sources don’t specify where he was from originally. We can rule out one candidate out from the beginning. According to Isidore of Seville (Etymologies 12.2.14), the North African elephant beloved by Hannibal was sadly already extinct by the late eighth century. Nonetheless, a case can be made for an African origin. Abu al-Abbas first appears in the sources when he and the envoys escorting him from Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne arrived in modern Tunisia, which could be taken as a sign of an African connection. Further evidence for an African origin comes from a splendid early ninth-century ivory plaque depicting the Virgin Mary, now in the Met in New York. Ivory was an important part of Carolingian art. Most of it was Roman ivory being reused in later centuries, but this plaque demonstrates that at least one piece of new African ivory was available in Aachen in the early ninth century. The plaque is too large to have come from one of the smaller Asian elephants and radio-carbon dating has demonstrated that this is not ancient ivory. Because it is so unusual to have new ivory in this period, it has been argued that this came from Abu al-Abbas after he died, and that therefore he must have been an African elephant.

The big problem with this, and the reason I think that Abu al-Abbas was an Asian elephant, is that all of the most contemporary sources from the Caliphate are convinced that that was the only type of elephant that could be even slightly domesticated. Writers like al-Jahiz (ninth century) and al-Ma’sudi (tenth century) said that although the best ivory came from Africa, living elephants had to be sourced from India. How true that is might be open to question. There certainly seems to be more evidence for the training of Asian elephants, although the rulers of Axum in Ethiopia possessed elephants, and the Belgians in the Congo appear to have had some success in training elephants there. What matters here is what Harun al-Rashid believed to be true and given that everyone around him assumed that only Asian elephants could be owned, it seems rather unlikely that he would have possessed or sent an African elephant.

A possible hint that Charlemagne’s elephant was an Asian elephant appears in one of the Latin sources, a geography compiled by an Irish monk named Dicuil in 825 (De mensura orbis terrae, 7.35). He mentions Abu al-Abbas while addressing the ancient and vexed question of whether elephants can lie down (more on which another time), placing this comment in a section otherwise about the geography of India.

Interestingly this means that Abu al-Abbas was almost certainly born in India. The Arabic sources are clear that people had tried and failed to breed elephants in Iraq. That Abu al-Abbas was probably from India and that this might have been known by Charlemagne and company has implications for how they thought about him to be explored another time. In the meantime, I’ll close with the thought that long before he began his journey to Charlemagne, Abu al-Abbas was already a very experienced traveller.

Charter a Week 39: Big Synods and Big Problems

Since we last checked in with William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine, things have not gone well for him. A bunch of his important allies – including the archbishop of Bourges – have died, and Charles the Simple and Robert of Neustria are breathing down his neck in the north. Meanwhile, Charles the Simple was consolidating his control of Lotharingia, Rudolf I of Transjurane Burgundy had died (in 912), and Hugh of Arles is looking pointedly at the Italian throne. This is the context for one of the most frustratingly fascinating sets of documents to have come out of the early tenth century. In 915, a murderer’s row of bishops set up a council at the church of Saint-Marcel-lès-Chalon, and transacted the following business:

Cartulaire de Saint-Vincent de Mâcon, no. 144 (915)

When in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ the venerable archbishop lord Auster was residing in the suburb of the city of Chalon, in the church of Saint-Marcel the martyr, with a college of archbishops and bishops (that is, with Ardrad, venerable bishop of the same town; Gerald of Mâcon; Archbishop Aimoin of Besançon; Archbishop Agius of Narbonne; Bishop Elisachar of Bellay; Odilard of Maurienne), that is, in the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 915, in the 3rd indiction, and they were canonically settling no few matters therein for the rights andconcerning the state and advantage of the church, a certain priest named Bererius approached their presence, making a complaint that a certain priest named Ivo had usurped a certain estate named Lente, in the parish of Saint-Clément which Bererius held, against ecclesiastical right. The pontiffs, looking with diligent inquiry into his complaint, decreed that the said estate of Lente should revert to its former holder, that is, to the mother church of Saint-Clément, i.e. from the public road which begins at the Saône, which flows to Fredeco’s Hate before it goes across to the road which goes to the spring at Le Bioux; concerning which matter the aforesaid bishops commanded this writing of testimony, which they call a ‘restoration document’, be made in this wise, such that in future the church of Saint-Clément should endure no calumny concerning its parish. And that it might be held more firmly, they undersigned it with their own names.

So far, so clear. Things get wonkier with the next one:

Sixteenth-century text, from Paradin’s book (source)

G. Paradin, Histoire de Lyon, II.xxvi (915)

“Raculf, count of Mâcon, wishing to take his part of the spoils,had occupied the goods of the church of Saint-Clément of Mâcon, assured of the favour of King Carloman [sic], on whose behalf he was an échevin in the duchy of Burgundy. And this belief was justified, knowing the service which his father Bernard had done for King Carloman in recovering the city of Mâcon, knowing King Boso, who had been chased out of it thanks to his said father. The bishop of Mâcon, named Gerald, seeing himself lesser in credit and favour, did not know what better thing he could do than to take himself to Auster, archbishop of Lyon, his metropolitan, to whom he complained of the wrong which Raculf, count of Mâcon, had done to him. Then Archbishop Auster brought up with the king the affair of the bishop; he, unwilling to sadden Raculf nor to favour him in his wrongdoing, ordained that the affair should be decided by a provincial council of bishops. They forthwith convened at the priory of Saint-Marcel, outside the town of Chalon, and present there were Auster, metropolitan archbishop of Lyon, who presided; Archbishop Aimoin of Besançon; Archbishop Agius of Narbonne; Bishop Elisachar of Bellay; Odilard of Maurienne; Ardrad of Chalon; and Gerald of Mâcon. It was demonstrated to them, through Auster’s own words, that those who in earlier times had stolen the goods of the Temple of God has been visibly punished with strange punishments, like Antiochus, Heliodorus, Nicanor, Shoshenq, and others; and that the kings were the protectors of churches, not meaning that lords should undertake to take them and enrich themselves from the goods which had been donated by their predecessors for the support of ministers of churches and of the poor. It was quite possible to recognise this from the benefactions of the great emperor Charlemagne, of Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer, father of the present kings; therefore he was of the opinion that Count Raculf should restore to the church of Mâcon everything which he had occupied there. After this remonstrance, the assembly of bishops made a decree by which the count was condemned to restore the goods he occupied, directly or indirectly, to the church of Mâcon. He did this, as much out of fear of the excommunication which was appended to the decree, as through that which he saw was not advised by the king in this detention…”

So, to start with there are problems of preservation here. The first charter is from the cartulary of Saint-Vincent de Mâcon, and is thus less problematic (although there has clearly been some corruption – the name given above as ‘Archbishop Agius of Narbonne’ is actually gibberish in the text itself). The second section of text here, as you can see in the image, is actually an Early Modern French paraphrase made by a Humanist named Guillaume Paradin in the late sixteenth century. It’s not clear precisely what he was basing it on, either, although odds are good it’s a synodal document of some sort.

His notes, though, were clearly not very good. For one thing, this document evidently does not come from the reign of Carloman II; and the count in question is equally evidently not Raculf of Mâcon. For one thing, the reference to Bernard is clearly to Bernard Plantevelue, who captured Mâcon from Boso of Provence back in 880. For another, Raculf was almost certainly dead by this point. What seems to be happening is that Paradin has mixed up his notes somewhere, and confused Charles the Simple for Carloman II and Raculf for William the Pious.

In terms of content, the first thing to notice is that this is a big, big synod. We have no fewer than three archbishops, and they come from no fewer than three kingdoms. This is the first way in which these documents are frustrating – a trans-regnal synod like this must have been a hub for politics across the Frankish world, but we don’t even know enough about the background to suggest what they might have been talking about. In an Aquitanian context, though, we can make some suggestions. For one thing, the presence of Agius of Narbonne is significant – Agius’ predecessor Arnulf had been murdered in 913, in a chain of events which remain murky but which William was bound up in. Notably, it was in the aftermath of Arnulf’s murder that Viscount Alberic of Narbonne fled to Mâcon – where he married Raculf’s daughter. Bishop Gerald of Mâcon – the beneficiary of the council’s decision in the second document – was not particularly close to William. We may therefore be seeing here an attempt to retrench William’s authority in Mâcon at a time when the duke was weak, putting Alberic in place and dealing with the fallout from events in Narbonne. In this case, perhaps Bishop Gerald was using his position in the region to leverage some advantage for his church off William. However, this document is so fragmentary and so frustrating – the role of the king makes sense in terms of the reign of Carloman II but not of Charles the Simple in the 910s – that we end up scratching our heads. If only Paradin had transcribed the original document!  

Dudo of Saint-Quentin and the Earliest Norman Court

Recently, I’ve had cause to look at the Historia Normannorum of Dudo of Saint-Quentin again. As many of you will know, I have past form with this work, but this time I was looking at it as a source for the events of the 940s rather than the ideology of the 1000s. Now, if you’ve encountered Dudo’s work, you’ll know that that’s a rather dicey thing to do, and I really wouldn’t want to disagree with it. In fact, probably the best thing you can say about Dudo is that he’s not the most ludicrous thing you’ll encounter reading about the earliest Norman elite…

Anyway, what I was looking for was a simple question: who does Dudo say was in the following of the Norman rulers in c. 940? The short answer is not many people. Rather like his contemporary Richer of Rheims, Dudo is not a court chronicler in the strict sense. He’s not interested in nailing down who surrounds the Norman duke – the duke’s soldiers, advisors, and nobles appear as a faceless group to lend their presence to crowd scenes, but Dudo isn’t interested in them as individuals. In fact (minus speaking roles for two Breton counts which are significant for other reasons but whom I’m going to ignore now), Dudo only names four really important men other than the duke in the earliest days of Normandy: Botho of Bayeux, Bernard the Dane, Anslech, and (the legendary) Ralph Torta.

Of those four, only Ralph Torta shows up in other independent sources – specifically, a section of William of Jumièges’ Gesta Normannorum Ducum which appears to be based on oral tradition from the monastery of Jumièges.

The abbey of Jumièges as it stands today (source).

The rest are only known from Dudo’s work. So, what does he say about them? Botho is probably the most significant figure. He has two distinct personalities, one as an ‘outstanding count of the Normans’ strongly associated with Bayeux, and the others as the commander-in-chief of the Norman army. He then disappears from the work around the beginning of the reign of Richard the Fearless (c. 945). Bernard the Dane (Dacigena, ‘Dacian-born’) is described as one of William Longsword’s chief confidantes (the word used is secretarius, which as he is also called conscius secretorum – i.e. a secret keeper – can’t really be translated as ‘secretary’ or any other kind of household position), and one of the leading citizens (optimates) of Rouen. After William Longsword’s death and Botho’s disappearance, he steps into the role of ‘leader of the Norman army’ and plays a major role in keeping the young Richard the Fearless safe from the machinations of his Frankish enemies. He’s also the one whom Dudo gives us the best sense of a personality for – Bernard gets a lot of the best lines, and he comes across as a loyal but acid straight-talker not afraid to say ‘I told you so’. Notably, where Botho was called a ‘count’ Bernard is only ever called a knight (miles). In turn, he disappears from the narrative when Richard comes of age. Anslech is by far the least fleshed-out – like Bernard, he is called William Longsword’s confidante and a principal citizen of Rouen; but his role in the book is peripheral at best. Finally, Ralph Torta, who is another of the leading citizens of Rouen. In what in context is the late 940s he was able to claim the ‘entire honour of Normandy’ for himself, although Dudo doesn’t say how or on what grounds. (William of Jumièges adds that he was a royal appointee.) Dudo presents him as a tyrant whom Richard eventually overthrows, forcing Ralph to go and seek refuge with his son, the bishop of Paris. 

First question: how much of this might be true? Starting with Botho, it’s noticeable that despite Dudo’s insistence on his Norman background, he has a very Frankish name (= Bodo) with no real Old Norse equivalent. (In fact, of the four only Anslech has a visibly Old Norse name and Bernard’s name is Carolingian par excellence.) It’s also noticeable that he is called a count, since at the time Dudo was writing there wasn’t a count of Bayeux, and in fact there was never again a count of Bayeux whilst Normandy was under ducal rule. The timing of his disappearance is also noticeable, given that Botho vanishes from the text at what we know from Flodoard’s Annals was the same time that Bayeux was conquered by a Viking warlord named Harald. Bernard the Dane is more difficult – we are given few incidental details about his background, and although his personality is well-developed it’s also idealised. Vikings in Frankish sources are often presented as witty, albeit cruelly so; and Dudo’s combination of that trait with loyalty and resource is a model of the ideal Norman retainer, not a specific person. Finally, I am inclined to believe that Ralph Torta’s son was the bishop of Paris, because it’s such an odd and pointless bit of information that the most plausible reason it’s in there is that it was true. What makes this interesting is that this elite seems to have been deeply enmeshed in the Carolingian world. It’s possible that ‘Bernard’ is a baptismal name (‘William’ doesn’t seem to have been the name William Longsword was born with either), but Botho seems much more likely to have been actually Frankish, a Frankish count no less, bound to Rouen by ties of fictive kinship engendered by fostering. Similarly, Ralph Torta was able to persuade Louis IV to appoint him as ruler of Rouen in the mid-to-late 940s, and his son (probably Bishop Walter of Paris) was a major figure in the Church hierarchy outside Normandy. (In fact, given that the contemporary archbishop of Rouen, Hugh de Calvacamp, had been a monk at Saint-Denis, the rather arresting image is raised of a kind of bishop exchange programme…) Dudo, then, has taken this elite and recast it in a Norman image.

Such a recasting is unsurprising in terms of what we know about Dudo’s agenda; but can we use Dudo’s reimagining of the men to get negative information about them? I think so. Above all, I think it shows that these men had no descendants, if not biologically at least in terms of people who wanted to claim them as ancestors. In the case of Botho and Ralph Torta, this fits what we know about their careers as well. (Later genealogists have claimed a posterity for them – the house of Taisson for Botho, that of Harcourt and also Beaumont for Bernard the Dane, and Montfort for Anslech – but the earliest evidence for this comes from hundreds of years later and more contemporary sources don’t know it.*) It is of course possible that there were myths and stories circulating about these men, but if so Dudo either didn’t know them or didn’t want to use them – and his Norman patrons clearly agreed with him. This fits in with an argument I’ve made before: the tumultuous period between c. 940 and c. 960 represents a significant break with the early Rouen countship of Rollo and William Longsword, and part of that was a massive turnover amongst the elites, definitely in terms of their self-understanding and quite probably in terms of the actual people concerned. In short: the old elite were killed or forced out, and a new, heterogenous elite who owed their positions to Richard the Fearless came to the fore. This elite and their descendants, then, would be the people who built pre-Conquest Normandy.

(*If you’ve found this blog post because you’re following that particular rabbit hole, then let’s be clear: this is all nonsense, there’s no evidence for this, and ridiculous claims like Bernard the Dane being “of the blood-royal of Saxony” are bad Victorian inferences.)

Welcome Back

Hello everyone. <wipes down a surface> Dusty in here, isn’t it? Well, I suppose I haven’t been here for a few years. 2019, 2020 and now 2021 have all been professionally challenging and writing two blog posts a week on top of everything else burned me out – so I stopped. This has had its ups and downs. I’ve certainly managed to press on with research and – above all – with writing in the way I’ve needed to; but there was a reason I liked blogging as a research tool, and without the impetus to get new material on the blog on at least a semi-regular level things haven’t felt as fresh as they used to back when I used to update every week. Given the circumstances, it seems like a good time to start up again.

So what’s been happening with me? Well, most importantly, as of May 2021, my research fellowship came to an end. I’m not, quite, unemployed – I still have a visiting research fellowship at Leeds and I’m doing some work for the Sylloge of Coinage of the British Isles, which is keeping the money coming in – but being without a position is exactly as fun as any junior scholar will tell you, and I’m currently applying for jobs both within and without the university sector. What this means is that restarting the blog, to ensure I don’t lose touch with thinking about the tenth century even if I’m doing something else, started to look ever more appealing.

There’ll be Vikings, and kings, and charters, oh my! (source)

Given that the last time I tried to do that it lasted for all of two posts, it’s worth reassuring you, the audience, that lessons have been learned. This short post is just to announce the blog’s relaunch: after that we have two months of regular content written and scheduled already. Roughly speaking – this will be subject to a little bit of flux – we’ll be running research-based content every Thursday at 12:30 UTC, and translation-based content (the now misnamed but nonetheless continuing Charter A Week, mostly) every other Tuesday at the same time.

Part of the reason I’ve been able to put this together is something you might have found out already if you’ve been keeping an eye on our ‘About’ page; and indeed our new ‘Meet The Team’ page: this blog is no longer a one-man show! I’m very pleased to announce that my friend and colleague Sam Ottewill-Soulsby will be joining us as a staff writer, and you can expect posts from him every other week. As site editor, I’ve gotten to read these posts in advance, and let me tell you all, you’re in for a treat. As far as the immediate schedule goes, our first regular post will be on Thursday, talking about the earliest Norman court and whether we know anything about it. Then, next week, it’ll be Charter A Week on Tuesday, looking at a fascinating document from Provence where a bishop describes his own enthronement; and then on Thursday, it’ll be Sam’s first post on the ever-popular topic of Charlemagne’s elephant. After that, regular service will resume – hopefully we will see you there!

Name in Print VI

As a nice cap to my frantic end-September deadline drive (ends this evening, hurrah!), today I found this in my office pigeonhole:


This, as you can see, is the new volume of The Mediaeval Journal, and I am in it. You may remember that a while back, I came runner-up in their essay competition, and now the article has seen the light of day as ‘Kingship and Consent in the Reign of Charles the Simple: The Case of Sint-Servaas (919)’, The Mediaeval Journal 7.2 (2019), pp. 1-22. I’m proud of this one – anyone who’s met me (or indeed read this blog) will know that I am an unashamed Charles the Simple fanboy, and whereas my last article about him unavoidably focussed on his failures, this one aims to put down one particular historiographical myth, that of Charles’ absolutism. In wider terms, it’s about the shades of royal ideology and the use of charters to convey ideology, so if any of this strikes your fancy, please do have a look!

It is unfortunately not freely available online, but if you can’t get hold of the journal I have a PDF I’d be happy to send you – if you don’t have my contact details, you can find them under the ‘About’ page on the right-hand side of the blog.

The gritty details: My word, do you know it’s been five years since this thing first saw the light of day?! That was as a conference paper back in 2014, which then became my IMC paper in 2015. It then got written up for the Mediaeval Journal Essay Prize when I moved to Brussels in 2016, the results of which you know already. This came with a cash prize (and I’d already been asked if I wanted to publish a previous entry with them which was only short-listed) so I waited to hear about publication, given they’d already given me some money for it*. I then waited some more, until several months later I asked if they wanted to publish it, to which the answer was thankfully ‘yes’. Reviewer reports wanted a few minor revisions, which I submitted by year-end 2017. Then it was another waiting game, in large part because the previous issue of the journal was taken up with a special issue, but final proofs were off by year-end 2018 and now, nine months later, it’s out!

*For non-academics, this is unusual and only because this was a prize – we don’t get paid for articles.

I Aten’t Dead

Hey all. I know, I know, it’s been a while. I have to be honest, it’s likely to be a little longer until normal service is resumed, although normal service will be resumed at some point. Still, I thought I should explain to you where I’ve been and what’s coming up on the agenda.

As a peek behind the scenes, I write these blog posts on one big word document, which is something like 200,000 words long at this point. The last words I wrote on it, however, were back in May, when I was sitting in Dublin airport waiting to go to the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. In the past, a few people have expressed surprise at the blog’s rate of posting; what it turns out is that when things start ramping up, this is the first and easiest thing to cut. So what ramped up? A few things. It’s been an unpleasant year personally, in ways which aren’t blog-appropriate – I’m fine, thank you, but it did slow me down somewhat. More concretely, I got given a bit more teaching than I was expecting, and preparation and delivery for that took up a lot of time. Next year I’m teaching the same course again, so hopefully having all the groundwork prepared will save a lot of time… Then, I ended up presenting at a lot of conferences thanks partly to invitations and partly because doing that helped me write my thesis so I also hoped it would help me write my book. Spoilers, that didn’t happen, but several of them were useful, as you might tell from the below. Most excitingly for you, however, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and I’d like to spend the rest of this post telling you about it. This has some similarities to the post I did when I came back to the UK from Germany (and never has that decision seemed less prescient than recently), and uses some similar categories, so let’s get started with:

Released and forthcoming

Lots of activity here. Since I wrote that old post, both ‘Flemish Succession’ and ‘Voice of Dissent’ came about, both of which I duly mentioned to you. I have also now seen proof versions for ‘Kingship and Consent’ in The Mediaeval Journal, as well as Nisi Rex in The Medieval Low Countries, so hopefully both will be on their way to you shortly. I have also, quite recently, sent off corrections to ‘Lehnwesen’, and the editors tell me they hope to have the volume out by the end of the year – it’ll be in German, and the translation is quite distressing, insofar as it’s a visible improvement over my English prose… Ah well, the road to getting better stretches ever onwards. Otherwise, there should be a couple of book reviews coming out soon as well.

In Progress

Again, plenty of activity – as mentioned above, my docket has been very full. First, articles, in rough order of completeness. A fully-written up version of my work on advocates got submitted to Early Medieval Europe in January, and initial reviews were basically positive but wanted some structural changes. Here, I hope to have these finished by week’s end, and I’ll keep you posted what happens next. Then, more excitingly, the now-legendary Norman sex paper was given at the Battle Conference this very year, and needs to be submitted to Anglo-Norman Studies by the end of September. Because this was originally a competition entry, though, the text currently exists in complete form – reading it out loud multiple times means that there are some bits of polishing I want to do, but this is a couple of hours’ work away from being done-done.

Then, there are no fewer than five articles in the process of being written. First, ‘Flemish Reform’: having presented at the Ecclesiastical History Society conference for several years, I decided this would be the year I’d try and get into Studies in Church History. This one is actually pretty much done bar some footnotes, and is with beta readers as I type. Second, a conference I went to in Luxembourg yeeeears ago got in touch recently to say that they were preparing the proceedings and could we please send texts by end of September. It’s a prestigious conference and a prestigious serious, so I’m thrilled to be involved with it; but unfortunately when I was invited I wasn’t sure that I would still be employed by the time it ran, and so the paper I delivered was a chapter of my thesis – and, naturally, it’s the chapter than has been made most obsolete by my subsequent research… Still, there’s a point in there, and I’ve been meaning to write about the Neustrian succession for a while, so I am in the midst of retrofitting it into something useful. Third, a worked-up version of my post about the Kriegsfahne of Queen Gerberga is mostly-done – because it doesn’t have a deadline, finishing the draft has got pushed further back, but it’s not very long so once the deadlines are dispatched it’ll be done directly. I’d like to submit it to an art history journal, but don’t know which one – suggestions in the comments!

Then there are two more a little further back on the road. ‘Church of Sens’ just needs a week or two of dedicated effort, because it’s so nearly done, but that’s been the case since last winter. ‘Earliest Cluny’ is even closer. The problem with that is that for the longest time it was, honestly, a case study in search of a point; but I gave a paper at the M6 Symposium in Liverpool which was sufficiently short that it could only be point. That was really useful, and all I need to do now is edit the top-and-tail to bring out the argument more, and then it’ll be ready for beta-reading.


This section has got a lot smaller since the version of this post I wrote back in May. The only entry here is ‘Social and Political Selection’, about which everything I know comes from offhand mentions on the Power Of The Bishop conference Twitter feed – that one’ll be done when it’s done. We haven’t got the peer review back yet, and given that a friend of mine was waiting four or five years for the last volume, I’m not expecting anything soon.


Of the papers I was talking about last year, ‘Archchancellors’, ‘Princely Churches’, ‘Moot Point’, and ‘Dudo’s Time’ are waiting for me to have the time and energy to deal with them. Frankly, they’ll probably not get done until the book is. Also, ‘Princely Churches’ at least is probably dead (or it’ll end up even bigger, which means it’ll end up probably as one of those little Palgrave-Pivot type volumes). Finally, and sadly, ‘Provençal Pact’ is off the docket for the moment – I presented a version of it at the IMC this year as part of the Louis The Blind Fun-Time Variety Hour, and as I wrote it up I realised that the answer I now had to the antiquarian question I initially asked was raising all kinds of much harder and more conceptual questions to which I had no good answer…

On the docket

What’s further ahead? Another four things, two with deadlines attached. I’ve been approached to write some undergrad-friendly pieces, one on the origins of Aquitaine for The History Compass and one on regionalism and late-Carolingian rule for a Routledge Companion to French history. Both of these have April deadlines but hopefully I can get ‘em done around the New Year. I got asked about Aquitaine at Kalamazoo this year, after giving ‘Stephen of Clermont’ as a paper. Given that ol’ Steve is actually on my probation list, he definitely needs writing up, and again that needs to be done before next spring. Finally, I was invited to talk at a really good conference in Poitiers back in June and gave a paper on ‘Failed Counts’ – the response was sufficiently good (and the argument sufficiently solid) that I’ve put it in to be written up. It needs a few more presentations, and a bit of East Frankish stuff would come in handy, so it won’t be done for a while, but it is on the list.

Those of you with eagle eyes will have noted one thing I haven’t talked about yet, and that is the book. Well, it got hit hard by the piling-on of stuff in Spring – I was supposed to have sample chapters to the press by the end of May, and that definitely didn’t happen. Thankfully, I was able to speak to my contact at the press in person at Kalamazoo, and they were very understanding. So, what’s happening is this: all the chapters they want currently exist in draft form. (One of the reasons I’ve been getting on with other articles is in fact because they’re all in the beta-reading stage and I can’t do much until they get back to me.) I’ve set myself a hard deadline of end of August for submission, which is just time enough to give them a bit of a polish. Otherwise, the proposed title is Kingdom and Principality in Tenth-Century France; and I’m very pleased with most of what I’ve written so far. As usual, I’ll keep you posted…

work from home
Meanwhile, I will get back to beavering away!

So what does this mean for the blog? Short version, I’ll get back to it when my deadlines have passed. I’d like to build up a bit of a backlog before I start releasing posts into the wild again, so that’ll add a couple of weeks to the ETA, but basically we’re talking, say, late October. So I will see you all then, enjoy your summers, and don’t forget to submit your papers to the strand on Non-Royal Rulership I’m putting together for IMC 2020!

Charter A Week 38: Paganism and Response in Normandy

Huh, I guess we’re getting to Normandy earlier than I’d anticipated. Anyway, we saw a few weeks ago that one of the criticisms levelled at the early Normans was that they were disloyal to their new Christian faith. This wasn’t just polemic (although it was definitely also polemic). Archbishop Guy of Rheims – probably the only bishop left in post in early tenth-century Normandy – was also having problems. He apparently wrote a panicked letter to his neighbour Archbishop Heriveus of Rheims, who in turn wrote to Pope John X, who, in his turn, wrote back:

PU no. 38 (914) = JL no. 3553

Bishop John, servant of the servants of God, to Our most reverend confrere Heriveus, archbishop of Rheims.

Very freely receiving the honey-sweet letters of Your Fraternity and Your Reverend Sanctity and very diligently considering them, We became both very sad and fiercely joyful. To explain: We grieved over such calamities and such pressures and difficulties as have befallen your region (as the statement of your letters made plain), not only from pagans, but also from Christians. We rejoiced, though, over the race of the Northmen, which has been converted, by the inspiration of divine clemency, to the faith. Once it delighted to prowl in search of human blood, but now, by your exhortations, with the Lord’s co-operation, it rejoices that it is redeemed and to have drunk of the divine blood of Christ. For this, We give tremendous and profuse thanks to Him from whom all which is good comes forth, submissively entreating that He might confirm them in the firmness of true faith and cause them to know the glory of the eternal Trinity and lead them in to the unspeakable joy of His visage.

Now, concerning what should be done about those things which Your Fraternity has made known to Us – that is, what should be done with those who are baptised and re-baptised, and live like pagans after baptism, killing Christians, butchering priests and sacrificing to idols and eating to the sacrifices after the pagan custom – those who are not novices in the faith should be tried by the full force of canonical judgement.

As for those who are unwrought in the faith, We commit them entirely to the scales of your judgement to be tried. You have this people near your borders, and you are better placed than anyone to diligently attend to and recognize both their habits and acts and way of life. This, though, should be done gently. Your Industry knows full well what the sacred canons judge decree for them. But it should not come to pass that the unaccustomed burdens which they carry should seem, God forbid, unbearable to them. They will fall back to the former man of their old life, whom they had improved, owing to the plots of the Ancient Enemy. If some, however, are found amongst them who prefer to soften themselves in accordance with the canonical statutes and expiate such sins as they have committed by worthy laments, do not hesitate to judge these people canonically; being in this way being vigilant towards them in everything, so that when you come before the tribunal of the Eternal Judge with the manifold fruit of souls, you may deserve to gain eternal joy with the blessed Remigius.

On another note, We received the gift which Your Sanctity deigned to send to Us, with that love and affection with which you sent it. May Divine Majesty grant you and all who are subject to you such a life in this world as, by the intercession of the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, might loose the chains of all your sins and lead you to the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven without any offence.

We bid Your Sanctity farewell, and to intercede for Us with pious supplications before the most pious of Lords.

This image, which is a Swedish tapestry from the c12th, may or may not have much to do with what c10th vikings believed; but as I upload this I’m in a rush and it’s a pretty picture. (source

The conversion of the Northmen to Christianity was a long-term project, and from the mid-910s we have not only John’s letter to Heriveus but also Heriveus’ letter to Archbishop Guy of Rouen, giving him advice and excerpts from the canons about various disciplinary issues. Lying behind much of this is Gregory the Great, and especially his letter to St Augustine of Canterbury giving similar advice about newly-converted pagans; and both Heriveus and John advise a tread-lightly approach.

One thing which I don’t think scholars have previously picked up on: I don’t think this letter is entirely about converts. At the beginning of the letter, John refers to disturbances in northern Neustria wreaked by Christians as well as pagans, and although there is something of a trope about this, we know it happened. If you remember Bernard of Gothia, one of the three Bernards, his brother Imino was accused of plundering the area around Évreux in a Viking-like fashion by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims.

In this light, I don’t think John is simply drawing a distinction between more- and less-experienced converts to Christianity. It seems to me that he’s giving Guy and Heriveus carte blanche to deal with ‘those who are not novices in the faith’ – which could mean long-time converts but could also mean those who were born to it – as they would with anyone who raided or despoiled Church property. It is even possible that there was some ‘conversion’ the other way, from Christianity to paganism; or, at the very least, that northern Neustrian Christians didn’t object to eating meat which had been sacrificed to pagan gods, and that this was also a problem for the two archbishops. (In the ninth century, Pippin II of Aquitaine had been accused of living like a Northman and it is clear that this was a major problem in the Frankish world.)

In short, this letter does not only testify to the canny, long-term conversion strategies of those in charge of winning the Neustrian Norse for Christianity. It also testifies to the problems besetting the future Normandy at this point – even if the king could dispose of property there, there were evidently major disruptions.

Charles the Bald: Overdrive

I noticed something weird lately, and it’s made me think that Charles the Bald came very close to utterly ruining the late-Carolingian political system. But let’s start at the beginning. One of the things which is supposed to be a big black mark on the record of tenth-century kings is their limited reach. This doesn’t sit right with me on either end, and I’ve written here before about you can see the tenth-century Carolingians in all kinds of places traditional historiography says you shouldn’t find them. But it’s also the case that there are big swathes of ninth- and even eighth-century Gaul which don’t have much to do with royal power. Martin Gravel uses the phrase ‘non-communicating elites’, and I haven’t got far enough through his book to find out how badly I’m misusing his words (suspicion: badly), but I like talking about these people in those terms. Whereas the movers and shakers of the Loire valley, say, or the bishops of southern Burgundy will have plenty of contact with the court, the bishops of what will become Rouen or the leading men of Quercy don’t seem ever to have had much contact with the Carolingian rulers, not in the ninth century and not in the tenth.

Here, indeed, is a contemporary picture of some of those Neustrian movers-and-shakers: this is Charles the Bald receiving a delegation of Neustrian monks in the 840s (source).

Given that the amount of documentation for the later tenth and eleventh century in these regions increases dramatically, what I think we then see is something of an optical illusion. The combination of ‘more stuff’ and ‘no kings’ makes historians think that the ‘no kings’ is a new development, whereas it’s more likely that if we had more stuff from earlier, we’d see kings as very distant figures then as well. (The original charters of the cathedral of Rodez, where we do have more stuff from earlier, seem to bear this out.)

A good way to look at this are the witness lists of Church councils. These are good because they essentially eliminate preservation bias as a factor – their preservation is so widely-distributed that if we see patterns in who does and does not attend, it’s unlikely to be because the archbishops of Trier (or whoever) were left out deliberately by dozens of scribes over dozens of institutions. And as it happens if we look at the witness lists of big, realm-wide Church councils under the Carolingians, we do see some consistent absences, a major one being the bishops of Cahors, who don’t show up at any Church councils that I’ve been able to find, not under Charles the Bald, not under Louis the Pious, and not under Charlemagne. This seems pretty good evidence that these bishops were never more than tenuously associated with Carolingian governance.

But, there is one exception to this rule. The Council of Ponthion in 876, called by Charles the Bald as part of his grand imperial dreams of the last few years of his life, had a ludicrously-large number of bishops taking part, including Cahors. Now, Cahors is just one example of this, but one thing I think we can see in the last part of Charles’ reign is the presence of more and more people around the king-emperor, including many more of these ‘non-communicating’ elites. At the same time, though, Charles’ inner circle was being more and more reduced (sometimes to the relief of the later historian – it’s during this period that the number of important Bernards around Charles goes from about five to one).

Now, it doesn’t help that both Charles and his son Louis the Stammerer die fairly shortly after one another, but I’m not sure its coincidence that the years around 880 see a serious factional crisis in the West Frankish kingdom. I’m starting to think that Charles, by demanding increased participation and cutting off the flow of reward, ran his kingdom into overdrive. Earlier medieval government doesn’t do well with density, and the years from 875 to 877 see a lot of actors in very little space – the subsequent explosion may well have something to do with this…

Charter A Week 37: Princely Power at Cluny

Another week, another trial. This time, we’re back in William the Pious’ Aquitaine, where the abbey of Cluny – by now up and running as such – is having trouble with one of its estates.

CC no. 1.192 (30th October 913, Ennezat)

A notice of how and in what manner Count William, by the law’s favour, acquired a certain estate named Ainé from Anscher.

Therefore, let everyone who will hear or read this know that the aforesaid duke, within the timeframe prescribed by the law, laid a case against the same Anscher, to wit, because he held the estate of Ainé contrary to right either civil or public. Neither inflicting any force nor (although he was a prince) exercising any power, he conceded to him a time and place so that he could legally defend himself, if he could.

When the case had been discussed thoroughly for a long time, and in the end brought in an orderly manner to a conclusion, since the same Anscher could show in his defence neither a testament nor proof of inheritance, he made restoration, and during a great assembly in the estate of Ennezat, on the 4th kalends of November [29th October], with everyone looking on, he returned the same estate and restored it to its legal possessor, that is, Count William.

Then he presently endeavoured to restore it to Cluny, which had previously owned it and to which it pertained through the testament which Abbess Ava made concerning the same to Cluny, and to Abbot Berno and the monks of Cluny, and he had them receive it to be possessed in perpetuity for the honour of God and the holy apostles Peter and Paul.

Count Roger [Rather of Nevers?], Wigo, Wichard, Humfred, Bego, Franco, Bernard, Geoffrey, Herbert, Madalbert, Acbert, Ginuis, Gerlico.

Enacted publicly at Ennezat, on the 3rd kalends of November [30th October].

I, Ado, wrote this on behalf of the chancellor, in the 16th year of the reign of King Charles [the Simple].

There are three small things I want to pick out here. First, this is one of the few documents from our period which indicate that there was such a thing as separately conceived princely power. With that said, and with all due respect to Karl-Ferdinand Werner, the principalis potestas envisioned here is not evidently some kind of sub-royal legal jurisdiction. The implication seems to be that William could, if he wanted, exercise untrammelled force in his own interests and there’s not really anything anyone could do about it. This is fair enough – it is more or less what we saw Hugh of Arles doing last week – but it’s not some special jurisdictional privilege.

Second, we have (as Barbara Rosenwein has pointed out) at least four overlapping claims to this land: Anscher’s, which on this occasion goes unrecognised although he definitely had land here; William, who is the ‘legal possessor’, and Cluny, who used to own (unde dudum fuerat) it and to whom it ‘pertained’, has two different kinds of claim. How this works out in practice I don’t know, but those of you who are interested in land tenure might find it interesting. That William possesses the land suggests that, despite Cluny’s famous foundation charter completely giving up any claims from William’s family to rule the place, it was being used as a kind of land-bank. (I have work on this coming down the pipeline fairly shortly, I hope.)

Third and finally, note that Ava gave Aine to Cluny through a testament. This is particularly interesting because Cluny’s foundation charter from 910 was explicitly issued after Ava’s death and in memory of her. In fact, William the Pious probably didn’t found Cluny. There appears to have been a small church there beforehand, and it was probably this foundation of which Ava was abbot. Despite William’s foundation charter setting itself up as the Year Zero of Cluniac history, then, this act does appear to show that Cluny’s institutional prehistory did have some effect.

Yet More On the Origins of the Peace of God

Recently I was talking to one of my colleagues and expressed the opinion that pretty much everything written on the Peace of God is mad, including my own stuff. I think this is the fault of the material rather than the historians, but it does mean that doing anything involving the Peace can lead you to some very strange places. I say this by way of introduction for more-or-less the region you might imagine: I’ve come up with a theory of the proto-Peace of God’s origins, and it’s not what you might expect.

I’ve written on this blog before that we can’t really think of the actions of Stephen II in Auvergne and Guy of Puy in the Velay in the mid-to-late-tenth century as being ‘the Peace of God’ – that’s far too reified. Nonetheless, I’ve argued that Stephen of Clermont in particular assembled an interlocking suite of claims linking assemblies, oaths, and a discourse surrounding the word pax, peace. Where precisely Stephen got this idea from left me stumped – but something new has turned up.

So let’s turn out attention waaaay to the east, to Lotharingia in the 950s. We’ve recently become familiar with Lotharingia under Charles the Simple, possibly one of the most stable decades of its late- and post-Carolingian history. Most of the rest of the time, Lotharingia is a basket case. Otto the Great, after he came to power in 936, had to face a series of powerful dukes. He got lucky here: the most powerful, Gislebert, drowned after losing a battle in 939; but even after that Otto’s own appointee, Conrad, teamed up with Otto’s son Liudolf in a rebellion in the early 950s. After Liudolf and Conrad had been defeated, Otto appointed his own brother, Archbishop Bruno of Cologne, as duke of Lotharingia.

A twelfth-century Ottonian genealogical table. Bruno is in the top row on the right. (source)

Bruno’s reign went… okay. There were a few more rebellions, the most noticeable being that of Reginar III in the late 950s which is often although incorrectly adduced as the context for Gerberga’s Kriegsfahne which we’ve spoken about here before. However, for the most part Bruno was able to handle the situation in Lotharingia reasonably well. Bruno’s combination of secular and religious authority had a distinctly viceregal tint: Bruno’s biographer has Otto the Great tell the archbishop and newly-appointed archduke that ‘both priestly religion and royal power swell in thee’, and Bruno does seem to have had a direct share in royal power. It is not therefore terribly surprising to find that Bruno’s first actions when he got to Lotharingia were to summon the magnates of the region to Aachen, and tell them regie maiestati et sue ipsorum fidei pollicitationes nullas preponerent – i.e., that they should not abandon their oaths to him and his brother. If they did violate the ‘peace of the Church’, he would deal with them most severely.

Our source for this is the Vita Brunonis, written by a cleric from Cologne named Ruotger. Ruotger seems to have known Bruno, and certainly to have admired him – part of the text’s mission appears to have been to defend Bruno from the people who thought that his wielding of worldly power was distinctly dubious. He wrote shortly after Bruno’s death, apparently under the patronage of his successor Folcmar, who had also been closely connected with the dead archbishop; and Henry Mayr-Harting has characterised the text as aiming at ‘some kind of official status’.  It is therefore striking that the closest work we have to Bruno’s circles, we have assemblies, oaths, and (a theme which occurs throughout the Vita, not just in the bit I’ve quoted above) a discourse of peace.

There’s no reason historians would have picked up a link between Bruno and the Peace of God. Bruno’s activity looks like (one type of) Ottonian governance in action, and the Peace is so very far away. But the fact that this was all taking place in the late 950s is important, because if ever Stephen of Clermont were going to encounter Bruno of Cologne, it would have been at exactly this point. First, Stephen and Bruno almost certainly met at the coronation of King Lothar, very shortly after the events described above. We know Bruno was there, and it’s very probable Stephen was because he appears to have interceded for a charter which was confirmed at a placitum in 955. Second, there were also ongoing links between the western Ottonians and the Auvergne during this very period. I have never been happier for hyperlinks than in the following sentence, but we have already seen both Bruno and other major Church figures with ties to the Ottonian court such as Amblard of Lyon playing a major role in negotiating peace in the Auvergne in the latter part of the 950s.

What I think is happening here, then, is that as regional supremo in his own patch, Stephen is taking Bruno as a model to be imitated. Absent the Ottonian royal context, this is a lot weirder-looking, and the Vita Amabilis implies that Stephen was as if not more controversial than Bruno in seeking to claim worldly authority. But it does mean we can, perhaps, put the proto-Peace into what we already know about tenth-century governance rather than have it spring fully-formed out of the forehead of one brilliant bishop.