Lies, Damn Lies, and Fanfiction

There’s a kind of source-critical fallacy that gets used a fair bit.  In its most boiled-down form, it goes something like this: “The author of Text X wouldn’t have been able to get away with saying ‘Y’ if it weren’t true, because its audience would have known they were lying!” This is, no two ways about it, wrong. I don’t think this is particularly controversial, but today I want to talk about a particular text I’ve found illustrating that this is wrong, because it does so in a particularly interesting way that reveals an intriguing aspect of both the writing and reception of medieval texts.

There are, of course, bad-faith efforts to propagate untrue stories. Political propaganda is an obvious reason (and Dudo of Saint-Quentin naturally springs to mind as a purveyor of alternative facts that anyone in the audience would have known were incorrect even if emotionally satisfying), as is forgery over legal disputes. There’s actually a whole literature on medieval forgery I’m not going to go into here, because I want to go in a different direction. Here’s a charter:

ARTEM no. 2077 (probably c. 1100)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, amen.

I, Odo [II, r. 995-1037], count palatine of the Franks, and my wife Ermengard, wish to make it known to both the present and the future that we, making use of sound advice and reinforced by the salubrious example of good men, beholding that the things which are of the present world never endure in the same state and setting our eyes on the things which are to come, to wit, which are unchangeable and eternal, for the redemption of our souls and the salvation of our successors, give a part of our goods pertaining to Château-Thierry, that is, the redecimation of grain and wine and other crops, to the canons of the holy mother of God Mary and St Seneric in the same place, to increase their provisions, to be possessed in perpetual right. But that this gift might stand more firmly and never be shattered by anyone, those who were present at this our gift confirmed what we had done with their assent and presence, and damned anyone who invades or perverts this deed, whosoever they may be, with a perpetual anathema; they were: Seguin, archbishop of Sens [r. 977-999] and Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims [r. 845-882], Fulbert, bishop of Chartres [r. 1006-1028], who all came to my court.

The witnesses to this matter are: the aforesaid archbishops and Bishop Fulbert; Thierry, dean of the church; Prior Haimeric, Cantor Erlebald, Saxwalo, my seneschal; Isembard, later count [of Rosnay, fl. 1030s], Viscount Odo, Hezelin the knight, Walcher of Le Boschet and Wibald the Rich and Hagano of Meaux.

Also I, Bishop Berald of Soissons [r. c. 1020-1052] praised and confirmed under an anathema those things written above.

I, Pope Alexander II [r. 1063-1071], at the petition of the glorious Count Odo, praise this same and confirm it with my seal, and by the authority of St Peter and Paul and Ourself, henceforth forbid anyone from presuming to steal the goods of the same church.

Notre-Dame de Château-Thierry is so obscure I can’t find a photo of it, so here’s the actual castle (source)

So, as you can see from the dates of the people in this charter, the problem here is obvious: none of them lived at the same time as one another. Moreover, if you know enough about Church history to be impressed by this assemblage, you would also have known that. Whatever this author is trying to do, therefore, is saying ‘Y’ safe in the knowledge that anyone who understands the text knows ‘Y’ is untrue. Their aim, clearly, is not to convince anyone that this is factually accurate.

Instead, this is fanfiction. Very high-brow, ecclesiastical, fanfiction; but fanfiction nonetheless. In fact, it’s specifically wish-fulfilment self-insert fanfiction, with the entire community of Notre-Dame de Château-Thierry as the Mary Sue. Fanfiction Studies has some overlap the world of medieval scholarship – I’ve read a reasonable case to see Dante’s Divine Comedy as self-insert fanfic – but (perhaps unsurprisingly?) it hasn’t had much to do with diplomatic. Moreover, I’m clearly not the right person to do a full deep-dive into this, although I’d really like it if someone else did. Moreover, what the bit of literature I’ve poked around in dealing with ‘Mary Sues’ tends to do is reinterpret the character archetype as expressing the resistance of oppressed groups such as women and queer people; this resistance evidently does not have a one-to-one correspondance with the interests of a twelfth-century male monastic community.

Still, there’s some overlap between the purposes of self-insert fanfic and this charter. We tend to think of charters as being aimed at outside audiences, but recent work has emphasised the importance of forgeries for the internal identity of institutions. It’s this context which we’re dealing with here, I think. Bonnstetter and Ott have argued (in a piece whose writing style is quite annoying but which is nonetheless useful to think with) that to write self-insert characters is to create a space where one’s self ‘is accepted and acknowledged, celebrated and loved, not by strangers but by people (media characters [or in this case famous Churchmen]) [one] respects and values’. (In the article, this is framed in terms of resistance to sexist societal expectations regarding female appearance. This, again, doesn’t apply to twelfth-century canons; but the wider point works.)

The fanfic analogy, moreover, explains why this is done in a fictional context. After all, the point of forgeries is generally to be plausible and this is self-evidently not. Yet in modern times, people find personal validation from gaining the approval of people who aren’t real. There’s no reason that people in the Middle Ages couldn’t have felt the same way. We don’t know much about Notre-Dame de Château-Thierry, not enough to work out what pressures were acting upon it around 1100, but the general outline is clear enough. Even if Hincmar of Rheims and Alexander II could never have met in real life, let alone have validated the abbey, the community’s identity could nonetheless be strengthened and expressed by the story that, once upon a dream, they did.     

Where There’s A Will There’s A Way 6: Archdeacon Ingelbert of Cahors

This is another in our series of Carolingian and post-Carolingian wills. It’s also likely to be the last one for a while. It’s unlikely to be the last one ever, because I’ve got about five or six scratch translations cluttering up the blog’s drafts folder. However, writing commentaries for these things is increasingly tricky, it’s pretty clear that I’m not going to get anything further out of these right now and I need to concentrate on doing things with more immediate results; and, frankly, given the geographical bias towards the Midi it’s becoming less interesting to work on them.

This will is, admittedly, also from the south of France; but a) a bit further north than we’ve been dealing with; and b) it has the novelty of being from a slightly different social class than the people we’ve seen thus far. This isn’t to say we’re looking at the peasantry or anything, today’s figure is still at the very top of society, he’s just not an archbishop or a count. Today’s testator is Archdeacon Ingelbert of the church of Cahors, who flourished in the early tenth century, and whose will goes as follows:

Testament d’Ingelbert, c. 925

I, Archdeacon Ingelbert, 

  1. Donate to Berald my nephew and godson, to the son of Rainard, my dominical house which is in the palace of Lemmar, which is in the territory of Pommeyriol; for borders, it has:
    1. on one side the land and vineyard which goes to the vineyard which he bought from Hildebert and goes up to Macefonte then goes up to Birdo and to Montebedisso and then goes to the land of Aunarius and to the land which he was seen to buy from Christian, and that goes to the public road which is called Roca and then goes to the land which he was seen to acquire from Leutar and then goes to the land of Saint-Caprais [de Mechmont] and goes to the land of Benjamin and Hildegard and their heirs, except another vineyard which is called […] 
  2. and my manses in Pommeyriol with lands and vineyards; for borders, it has:
    1. through the street which comes from Ussel and goes to Terre Rouge and the vineyard which […] was seen to buy with the farmland which goes to the estate which goes from the road which comes from Ussel and through the stream and through the valley and through this border until it comes to the land of Calsanus of Mechmont and his heirs and through Longavollo which goes to that border and comes to the fount of Boissoles; 
    2. I cede to you as much as is contained within these limits in lands or vineyards, lands, meadows, pastures, woods, garricks, waters and watercourses, everything entirely, what has been sought and what should be sought after, wholly and entirely, as it is my possession or judgement,
    3. On the condition that while Ingelbert lives he might hold it and after his death they should go to the aforesaid Berald and his father Rainald along with the rent, and after their deaths it should go to the church of Saint-Étienne the martyr [of Cahors]; and on the feast of St Stephen they should pay two shillings for the stipends of the brothers.
  3. And to Imbert, one mill and it is at Albospino.
  4. And I donate to my nephew Theocharis in the territory of that estate which is called La Roque lands and vineyards; which have as their borders:
    1. on two sides, the land of Berald, on on the other place Blandin’s land to which the street goes; on the fourth side, land of Saint-Étienne and of Berald;
    2. I cede and donate to you as much as I am seen to have and possess within these limits wholly and entirely, so that you may hold them as long as you live and after your death let them go to Saint-Étienne along with the rent; and let them pay on the feast of St Stephen twelve pennies into the stipends of the brothers;
    3. And I donate to Elias the priest a manse with vineyard in that estate; this manse and this vineyard which I am seen to have bought from Wirard, which has land of the donor on three sides and on the fourth side the public road;
    4. I cede to you as much as is contained within these limits wholly and entirely, along with the rent; let them pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen into the stipends of the brothers; and after his death let it go to Saint-Étienne;
  5. And I donate to my godson Winard my manse where he dwells, that half and another vineyard which is in Garonis and another vineyard which is called La Garnède, this vineyard is that which is below that which he bought from Dirard. You may hold these lands and said vineyards as long as you live along with a rent; he should pay six pennies on the feast of St Stephen and after his death let it go to Saint-Étienne for the stipends of the brothers;
  6. And I donate to Winard the priest my relative my vineyard which he holds from Aradeus the priest and I ceded it to you and his heirs totally and entirely along with a rent; let him pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen and after his death let it go to Saint-Étienne;
  7. And I donate to Benjamin and I donate to Stephen my manses which I was seen to buy off Vinscammus, the whole, which is called Illas Bordas; and I cede to you my vineyard which is in the territory of Cassonolas. It has borders on two parts of Berald’s land, on the third side of land of Benjamin himself; and on the fourth side the public road; and that whilst one of them lives it should remain with him, as long as they live they may hold it with a rent; let them pay on the feast of St Stephen (twelve) fifteen pennies into the stipends of the brothers; and after their death let it go to Saint-Étienne. 
  8. And I donate to Amalgar and his son Ragenfred the lands and vineyards which are in Bellonaco and in Campo Labedio and in Ventaillac and in Camp Mèges per illo rivvo curte, as much as ais beholden or seen to be beholden in these named places I cede entirely to you; may you hold it as long as you live along with a rent: he should pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen and after their death let it go to Saint-Étienne in the stipends of the brothers.
  9. And I donate to that Amalgar my allod which he bought from Rainald in Mediano entirely, which he bought from Blandin; and I cede in that named place in Daucio until it goes to the vineyard of Archembald the priest. You may hold it as long as you live along with a rent: they should pay on the feast of St Stephen twelve pennies into the stipends of the brothers; and after your death let it go to Saint-Étienne.
  10. And I donate to Archembald the priest whatever I was seen to buy from Fortbacana his mother and the inheritance which he had from him [sic] I donate to you; may you hold it as long as you live along with a rent: you should pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen and similarly let it go to Saint-Étienne.
  11. And I donate to Ansfred my son my manse which is in the estate of Montamel, with lands and vineyards,
    1. Which have borders on one side of Ismo’s land and that of Ingelald and Erdrubald, and the donor;
    2. And I cede to you one dinnirada of vines which he had from Guimard, and the vineyard which he bought from Amalgar;
    3. I cede these lands and the said vineyards entirely to you with a rent: they should pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen.
  12. Similarly I donate to my cantor Dodo (Dieudonne) my manse which is in Montamel, the lands and vineyards which he bought from Grimald and Quodbald entirely, with a rent: let them pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen. Similarly let it go to Saint-Étienne.
  13. And I donate to Armenrad the priest half of Gornaco except that vineyard which was Blandin’s; as much as is beholden or seen to be beholden to that estate, what has been found and what should be sought, I cede to you; you may hold it as long as you live with a rent on the feast of St Charity: you should pay twelve pennies into the stipends of the brothers; and after his death let it go to Saint-Charité [du Vigan].
  14. And to my godson Archdeacon Guimard I cede to you the other half of that estate similarly;
  15. And to my son Bonus I cede the vineyard at Orniac which I bought from Blandin, and the vineyard which is in Avita. Let him hold these vineyards entirely whilst he lives, and let him pay twelve pennies into the stipends of the brothers on the feast of St Charity; and after his death let it go to Saint-Charité.
  16. And I similarly donate to my son Erchambald the deacon my estate which is called Mas d’Apriac, half above and below; let him hold it whilst he lives, with a rent: let him pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Charity and after his death let it go to Saint-Charité.
  17. And I donate to Ramon, to the son of Allo, similarly the other half.
  18. And I donate to the venerable Archdeacon Benedict, which has limits on one side of land of Saint-Étienne, on the other side… and of Saint-Avit, on the third side, the stream called Déganhac, on the fourth side, the land of Saint-Vincent; whatever I am seen to have and possess within these limits I cede wholly and entirely to you with a rent: he should pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen and after his death let it go to Saint-Étienne into the stipends of the brothers.
  19. And I donate to Viscount Frothard of [of Cahors] and his wife Adalberga my church which is founded in honour of St Amantius, as much as I am seen to have by my right and in… and Curbito as much as is in that named place with my manses with lands, with vineyards, with woods, with garricks, with waters and watercourses, with all their appendages which have been found and should be sought after; let them hold it as long as they live, with a rent: let them pay two shillings on the feast of St Stephen; and after their deaths let it go to Saint-Étienne into the stipends of the brothers. 
  20. And I donate to my son Guimard Calvignac and Courbous and Roche de Liauzu, as much as I am seen to have and possess in these named places, I cede entirely to you with a rent: let him pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen and after his death let it go to Saint-Étienne into the stipends of the brothers;
  21. And I donate to Archdeacon Alcuin and my nephew Gauzfred the lands and vineyards which are in Cras and in the territory of Cras, as much as I am seen to have and possess therein in the estate and in its territory of that estate, what is sought and should be sought after, such that when one of them outlives the other it should go to that one, with a rent: let them pay twelve pennies on the feast of St Stephen, and after their death let it go to Saint-Étienne in the stipend of the brothers.
  22. And I donate to Adrald the priest the church which is founded in honour of St Peter, as much as I held from his uncle Adrald I cede to you entirely with a rent of eight pennies on the feast of St Stephen;
    1. Similarly let the mill of Dégagnac with Combe de Saint-Vincent go to him, and the lands of Parnac de Saint-Charité to him.

Sign of Archdeacon Ingelbert and Leotard and Theocar and Rainard and Guimard and Wifred.

24. And I cede to Everard and Elias my nephews the lands and vineyards which are from Golmar and Berald; I cede their inheritances to you to have;

25. And I donate to my follower Adalrand two estate centres in Arpiac with lands, with vineyards, and in Puy-l’Évêque and in Albas much as I am seen to have, I donate to you on the condition that as long as you live you should hold them; and he should pay six pennies on the feast of St Charity; after his death, let it go to Saint-Charité.  

The first thing to say here is that if this seems oddly stilted and badly written: yep, that’s accurate. This testament is written in very poor Latin: cases are used incorrectly, the document switches at random between first, second and third person; verbs sometimes aren’t declined correctly, making plural people out of single people; et (‘and’) is often replaced by est (‘it is’), and so on. It’s hard to tell where the problem lies here. This charter was recorded in the cartulary of the cathedral of Cahors, but is only known from an eighteenth-century copy, and so it’s unclear whether it was written badly or copied badly…

Anyway, the main thing to note here is just how small-scale all of this is. When medieval historians talk about ‘local elites’, this is the kind of person we’re thinking of. Ingelbert may actually be on the larger-scope side of these things due to his association with the cathedral, but it’s still not very big. (This is, of course, a relative statement: it’s not big in a West Frankish context but these properties are still scattered over an area only a little smaller than Bedfordshire.) I presume that Ingelbert’s properties reflect his office and his geographical powerbase, because as you can see from the map they’re pretty much all of the river Lot.

Finally, rather like in Gersindis’ will, we seem to have a relatively flat society, at least as far as lay power goes. There’s a reasonable amount of Church officeholders here, presumably Ingelbert’s colleagues/allies, but otherwise the main connections are family ties. This includes no fewer than four of Ingelbert’s sons, although the poor quality of the Latin does make me wonder here if we could be dealing with ‘godsons’ or similar instead of actual biological children. Either way, we have four sons and several nephews, suggesting Ingelbert was at the head of some kind of family network, which may also indicate how he was able to exercise local power…

Edge Cases: Linear Borders in Early Medieval Europe

In early July 2022 I had the pleasure of attending the Leeds International Medieval Congress. This is the great summer jamboree for medieval historians, the largest annual academic conference in Europe, featuring 613 sessions and over 2,000 people. It was also the first to be held in person since 2019 for obvious disease-related reasons. In addition to catching up with old friends for the first time in years and making my presence felt at the legendary Wednesday night disco with my characteristic grace and poise, I thought I might try to attend some of the papers given that I was in town.

The overall theme of the conference was ‘Borders’. Adhering too strongly to said theme is not necessarily in the true spirit of Leeds IMC, but I got to hear a number of excellent papers that addressed the subject. One thing that struck me though were the number of speakers, particularly in the keynotes, who decried the idea of the existence of linear borders between political entities in the earlier Middle Ages. To hear one paper of this view, such things were unheard of before the fourteenth century at the earliest. Instead of lines, kingdoms and other such polities were separated by ambiguous and shifting border zones, where the writ of central authority ran thin in difficult country far from the heartlands of their power.

Such an assessment is often correct. The frontier between the Carolingians and Umayyad al-Andalus, where I cut my teeth as a researcher, is a fine example. Somewhere on the road between Barcelona and Zaragoza, a ninth-century traveller crossed from one authority to another, but pinning down the exact spot would be a difficult and largely pointless exercise. This emphasis upon nodal points of communication and control is very far from unusual. Nonetheless, there was something about the confident declarations that medieval people did not think in terms of linear borders that troubled me.

Partly this is because I worry that we’re a little too fond of the complexity of ambiguous frontiers. Most of us come from states which come to an end at clearly delineated geographic points (something I have been reminded of all too regularly as a British person who routinely travels across Europe). There’s something immensely exciting and heroic about borderlands that blur into each other. In embracing them, historians in the present demonstrate their ability to engage with very different pasts in a way that shows off our subtlety and cleverness. It also marks us out as different from the Priti Patels, Donald Trumps and Marine Le Pens of the world. This can lead to us fantasising about the Middle Ages as a time when people didn’t care about borders as antidote to the present.

More substantially the concept of the borderless Middle Ages smacks a little too much of modernity constructing medieval otherness. The idea that linear borders only emerge in the fourteenth century feeds into narratives designed to separate the past from the present, allowing modern historians to treat the centuries before their period as an alien irrelevance. The dangers of such an approach can be seen in the literature on the history of international relations, where the idea that diplomacy emerged in the fifteenth century resulted in the considerable neglect of anything in between Thucydides and the Medici. I’m also concerned that assuming that all medieval borders were zones rather than lines lets us off the hook of investigating why this was the case. After all, if people from the Middle Ages resisted toeing the line, then we shouldn’t feel surprised that fluid territorial ambiguity is the ubiquitous order of the day.

I actually think we should be surprised if it turns out that medieval people never thought in terms of linear political boundaries. After all, borders and lines existed within their daily lives. A glance at the boundary clauses in charters often reveals a world where people had very firm and precise ideas about where their property stopped, and another person’s began. These are very common in Anglo-Saxon charters, with a nice example being the boundary clause in a charter from the start of the tenth century in which Edward the Elder confirms the sale of five hides of land at Water Eaton in Oxfordshire:

These are the land-boundaries of Eaton – first from beetle’s stream up along the streamlet till it comes to the coloured floor. Thence along the valley by the two little barrows till it comes to the spring at Wulfhun’s plantation. Then diagonally over the furlong to the thorn bushes westward where the large thorn tree used to stand, and so to bird pool. Then along the ditch till it comes to the muddy spring, and so along the water course till it comes to the Cherwell which forms the boundary from then on.

(trans. here, orig. here)

While some of the landmarks may strike us as rather eccentric, they would have been meaningful to the people on the ground who were the ones who most needed the information. Nor were these clauses confined to England. They can be found in charters from Catalonia and Brittany to Italy and Bavaria.

Should barrows and bird pools not suffice, boundary markers could also be employed. The Law of the Bavarians ordained that:

XII.1 If anyone dares to level boundary lines or remove fixed boundary markers, let him compensate, if he is a freeman, with six solidi for each sign or marker in the neighbourhood.

(trans. Rivers, p.150)

This is followed by a full section on the subject. Cities and towns were criss-crossed with lines, whether those relate to property, parishes or different legal zones. Anglo-Saxon law codes refer to the beating of the bounds, which still happen in parts of Britain and New England to this day, in which priests lead their flocks around the boundaries of their parish, to fix them in memory and practice. (Young boys were often beaten at strategic points in order to secure their recollection of this geography, part of a rich English pedagogical tradition which explains so many of the neuroses of my beloved patria.) There was a long and fine intellectual tradition running behind such boundaries, as demonstrated by the continued use of Roman texts about surveying such as the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum.

Drawing lines in the sand in the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel Codex Guelfferbytanus 36.23 Augusteus 2 f.19r.

The presence of linear boundaries in a domestic context doesn’t mean they existed on the frontier, but it should at least suggest that such a thing was not inconceivable to medieval minds. And sure enough, if we go looking, we find a range of suggestive borders. Some of these are present on natural features. Rivers might have been great connectors for communications and commerce in the medieval world, but they also offered a natural line of demarcation, albeit one that was prone to moving. Einhard claimed that the Vistula and the Ebro marked the limits of Charlemagne’s empire, and while he was clearly overoptimistic in the case of the latter, it at least indicates that fluvial boundaries were an idea that made sense to him. Elsewhere we find linear earthworks such as the Danevirke between the Danes and the Franks and Offa’s Dyke between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms. These may not have marked the precise border, but by acting as places to manage the flow of people, they effectively created a line where one moved from one zone of control to another. Nor was this concept confined to the Christian world. Muslim writers commented on the Iron Gates raised by Alexander the Great to mark the border between the civilised world and the Tartar hordes of Gog and Magog.

Treaties sometimes also indicate that people were thinking in terms of lines. A nice example is the treaty that ended the Beneventan civil war in 849, by partitioning the principality between Radelchis I in Benevento and Sikenolf in Salerno, which states that:

10. Between Benevento and Capua the border goes from Sant’Angelo to Cerro, passing through the edge of Monte Vergine to the place called Fenestella. Between Benevento and Salerno the border lies in the place, which is called ‘Ad Peregrinos’, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side. Between Benevento and Conza the border lies right at the border stone in Frigento, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side.

(translated by Benham here, with useful context here)

Better known in Anglophone world is the agreement made around 880 between Alfred the Great and Guthrum, which declares that the boundaries of their realms shall run ‘up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, and then up the Ouse to Watling Street.’ Centuries of scholars have tried to map the resulting partition with many different interpretations. We may suspect that in reality the result was more fluid, but the treaty nonetheless conveys an understanding of the frontier that is created by a fixed linear legal boundary.

Different frontiers took different forms. The Carolingian empire was bounded by a mix of client kingdoms, such as the Abodrites, organised marches, like my beloved Spanish March, and fortified defensive lines, an example of which can be found along the Elbe. A classic case study of Carolingian rulers thinking in terms of lines appears in the negotiations between Louis the Pious and the Bulgars in the 820s. In 825 the emperor received envoys from Khan Omurtag in order to determine their ‘borders and limits (terminis ac finibus)’. Omurtag was keen to sort this out, sending a further embassy in 826 in response to Louis’ reply, ‘that the borders (terminorum) be determined without delay.’

These talks were complicated by antagonism between the Bulgars and pre-existing Frankish clients such as the Praedenecenti, but the aim was to fix a line between the two powers. What I particularly like about this example is that it demonstrates the way the nature of these boundaries could shift. After a sustained attempt to draw up a clear line, a breakdown in relations between the Franks and the Bulgars led to war, when the latter invaded Upper Pannonia in 827. The development of intermittent conflict, and activities of other peoples in the region like the Timociani who didn’t fancy being Bulgar clients, created a deep frontier zone. This was not an inevitable consequence of medieval people being unable to conceive of linear borders, but rather a dynamic result of political circumstances and decisions, which could change quickly.

It is not my intention in this screed rant post to deny that the borders between medieval polities were often porous or poorly defined. Nor is it to doubt the existence of ambiguous frontier zones that acted as liminal spaces where people got on with their own business without too much concern about which ruler they were theoretically subject to. Instead, what I hope I’ve suggested is that linear borders could indeed exist in the medieval world, and that were we do find edges that shade into each other, we ought to ask why that is, rather than assuming that this was a universal feature. Rather than drawing a line under the matter, we need further investigation in order to more clearly delineate the subject.

Charter A Week 71: Posturing Over Lotharingia

In 946, Otto the Great came to help Louis IV. He brought an army bigger than any force Western Europe had seen in a long time, and… well, it didn’t do that much. The main achievement – which is not a small one – was to retake Laon for the king, but attempts to take Senlis, Laon, and Rouen failed, in the latter case embarrassingly. Still, despite that, it was a game-changer. Hugh the Great was forced completely on to the back foot, and Louis IV was forced into a dependent relationship with the East Frankish ruler. This wasn’t expressed in terms of direct subordination (as with Otto’s relationship with King Berengar II of Italy, at least as he himself saw it), but in terms of subtle ritual and ceremonial reminders that Otto was the bigger dog. Reminders such as:

D O1, no. 88 (18th April 947, Aachen)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. 

Otto, by help of divine clemency king.

Let all Our followers present and future know that We, for the remedy of Our soul and also that of Our most beloved spouse of blessed memory Edith, conceded certain goods of Our property to the stipends of the brothers worthily soldiering for God in the place of Chèvremont as property: that is, two holdings sited in the estate of Hermalle and 1 church with all its appendages justly and legally beholden there; besides which, We gave to them 1 church built in the estate of Reng in the district of Hainaut, and another built in the estate of Vilvoorde; and again in the estate of Budel with all tithes and all commodities justly and legally pertaining to the aforesaid churches. 

And We commanded this present gift to be written thereof, through which We wish and firmly order that they should obtain this donation of Our gift firmly and securely without the obstacle of any contradiction, having confirmed it with Our own hand and strengthened it with Our signet.

Sign of lord Otto, the invincible king.

Chancellor Bruno [of Lorsch/Cologne] witnessed on behalf of Archchaplain Robert [archbishop of Trier].

Given on the 14th kalends of May, in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 947, in the 6th indiction, in the 11th year of the reign of the pious king Otto.

Enacted at Aachen.

Happily in the Lord, amen.

The big threat Louis IV posed to Otto was in Lotharingia. The West Frankish kings had only held Lotharingia entirely during the reign of Charles the Simple, but they had proven difficult and tenacious competitors for a much longer period, and Louis himself back in 939 had been chosen as king by the area’s noblemen. This diploma was issued in Easter 947, when Louis was visiting Otto at Aachen, and was one of several diplomas issued at various places in Lotharingia for Lotharingian recipients where Louis was present to really rub in that Otto was, and by right ought to be, king of Lotharingia. (One of these diplomas, issued at Douzy in August, had Bishop Gozlin of Toul, Charles the Simple’s old notary, as an intercessor, which really does add insult to injury.) This week’s diploma, then, is not tremendously complicated, but it is important: it’s a sign of growing Ottonian hegemony across Europe.

One of the reasons for that is also in this diploma (and Simon MacLean has written about it at various points): the death of Queen Edith, Otto’s wife, in 946. Edith was Louis’ aunt, and her death represented a shift from a network of alliances centred around English women to one centred around the Ottonians. With Edith’s death and the side-lining of Louis’ mother Eadgifu, Queen Gerberga was able to rise to prominence, and her mediation played a key role in drawing Otto in to his in-law’s problems in the West.

Courtesy of the Magdeburg Cathedral Museum, it’s Otto and Edith mugs!

On the Origins of Viscounts

Recently Months ago, friend of the blog Jonathan Jarrett posted some reflections on Carolingian viscounts over on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. At the time, I was visiting my wife in Georgia, but it’s a topic on which I have a lot of thoughts, so I wrote up some ideas offline during a car ride between Vardzia and Tbilisi. Since then, it has sat in a drafts folder waiting to be posted. Today, I decided to clear out said drafts folder and revisited it. Turns out, it’s pages long, which is too long for a comment – but, as it happens, I have this place I can put short-form written content and so you guys now get the dubious benefits of being able to read it, so enjoy…

Jonathan’s musings were prompted by having read an edited volume by Hélène Débax on Vicomtes et vicomtés, viscounts and viscounties. Débax and her fellow authors, who were mostly but not entirely focussed on southern France, basically saw viscounts as the product of comital weakness, ‘taking over unattended jurisdictions’ and acting as their own little lords of the manor. Jonathan, by contrast, was used to a Catalan historiography which sees viscounts as ultimately comital delegates, i.e. public officials there to represent the counts in places the counts cannot be. Jonathan doesn’t like this argument in a Catalan context because viscounts don’t emerge at a time when there’s any special reason for counts to need delegates and because when we seem them in charter evidence from the Spanish March, they don’t often behave like counts except maybe in presiding over courts. For Jonathan, the vicecomital title puts its holder in relation with a count and thus with public power. Its emergence is thus best seen as a way of getting ‘powerful independents’ to engage with comital power by offering them certain kinds of authority which only public officials could wield in return for their own acknowledgement of their subordinate status. He then emphasises the sheer amount of variety we see in a Catalan context, but concludes that “if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases”.

This might work for Catalonia, but I think in the rest of the West Frankish kingdom, the delegation theory holds up better – albeit perhaps amended with some ideas of this sort. Comital weakness, by contrast, I think we can dismiss. Even if I wasn’t inherently opposed to the idea of ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ as analytical terms, most viscounts north of the Dordogne show up at a time when authority in their regions is getting more intensive and (less demonstrably but still there) having its connections to a royal centre strengthened.

We have to distinguish here between viscounts and vice-counts. ‘Viscounts’, in this context, are more institutionalised figures, whose status isn’t contextual and/or temporary. To give you an example, royal legislation from the reign of Charles the Bald sets up a meeting between the king and vicecomites from Paris and Sens in the immediate future. Here, I think we are dealing with ‘duly appointed comital deputies’ nominated for this specific task rather than permanent officials – like advocates at St Gallen vs advocates at Saint-Martin – because otherwise viscounts don’t show up in our sources for these areas until much later.

By contrast, the first significant institutional viscounts I know of from the West Frankish kingdom north of the Dordogne, which are also the ones I know best, are on the Neustrian March. Men such as Viscount Atto I of Tours begin to emerge in the 870s, and this looks like genuine change rather than just the revelation of things that have been there all along, not least because normative formulae change at the same time as specific vicecomital individuals appear. Even more, this does look like delegation. Men such as Atto, and then later Fulk the Red and Theobald the Elder in Angers and Tours respectively, appear when the supra-local authority of the Neustrian marchiones makes actual on-the-spot rule logistically impractical, and our evidence suggests that these viscounts are in fact holding things together for the March’s rulers. Now, this is admittedly mostly holding courts in the charters we have – but that’s also most of what the charter evidence reveals the marchiones doing as well!

Similar patterns can be seen in Aquitaine. This is straightforward, I think, in Poitou and its environs. Greater Poitou is doing much the same thing in political-cultural terms as Neustria, and its viscounts are pretty well controlled by the counts for the tenth century and beyond; pace Delhoume and Remy, the first viscounts of Limoges don’t seem to be associated with the counts of Toulouse, but with Ebalus Manzer of Poitiers, who is also able to assert his jurisdiction over them pretty effectively. In Auvergne and its environs, viscounts show up at the very end of the ninth century, and (as Lauranson-Rosaz says in the Débax volume) appear to be appointments of William the Pious at exactly the time when his personal hegemony stretches over a massive chunk of central Aquitaine. The role of specifically royal authority here might be questioned, but it is I think relevant that William’s subordinates are called ‘viscounts’ rather than anything else, tying them into Late Carolingian regional hierarchies. William himself was trying to capitalise on his Königsnahe at basically the same time, and these phenomena might be connected.

Notably, in generally weird Burgundy, viscounts are mostly absent, and the earliest example I can think of is Ragenard of Auxerre, who is based precisely in one of the key centres of Richard the Justiciar’s power. Based on our analogies above, I’d say Richard’s wobbly personal hegemony, which did not have the benefit of royal approbation for much of its existence, didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – use the language of legitimate Carolingian hierarchy. Equally, viscounts tend to be absent in the north-east, which is much more politically fragmented, and it looks to me rather like comital jurisdictions there are sufficiently small not to need deputies.

Could we consider this in political culture terms? Yes, certainly, but not primarily I think as a means of getting ‘powerful independents’ to participate in the system. Insofar as we can see viscounts in these regions, they tend to be nobodies. Fulk the Red of Angers, for example, has been the focus of a long-running debate about whether or not he was a novus homo because of his family’s onomastic connections to the important Widonid family; but what tends to go overlooked is that whether or not he had famous relatives he himself started his career not as a big Neustrian cheese but as a very minor member of the retinue of the count of Paris. His Tourangeau counterpart Theobald the Elder seems to have been a complete no-name. What I think vice-comital office offers is a means of legitimising counter-weights to the powerful independents. There was no way that, say, Fulk the Red could face off against a genuine powerful independent in Neustria like the Rorgonid Gauzfred, whose family had been there since dot and whose authority in the area doesn’t seem to have depended at all on his intermittent possession of a comital title, without the might of Carolingian royal authority behind him. I’ve spoken before about the calcification of Neustrian hierarchies, and the delegated authority of the vice-comital office is a part of that.

Now, can these guys pull out of comital orbits? Yes, certainly, but it only really works when areas of jurisdiction become simultaneously areas of conflict over spheres of influence – like the way that the viscounts of Thouars become much more independent than the other Poitevin viscounts because they end up caught between Poitiers and the counts of Angers.

The walls of Thouars (source)

A final point I’d like to consider here is that, despite the centuries-long history that the vicecomital office would go on to have in France, their genesis looks like a very specifically Carolingian phenomenon. In most of the regions we’ve been considering, viscounts have a straight line of descent from a Carolingian inheritance. Even in the Limousin, ‘the land of viscounts’, the proliferation of viscounts is fundamentally owed to the prominence (and fecundity) of the viscounts initially appointed by Ebalus Manzer. When the counts of Flanders’ domain got big enough in the tenth century that they started appointing their own delegates, these men were castellans, not viscounts. The vicecomital moment had passed, and new ways of conceptualising comital subordinates were on the rise.

Charter A Week 70/2: Restoration

Last time, things were going badly for Louis IV. He was being kept in prison by Hugh the Great, whilst the duke of the Franks decided what to do with him. It’s probable that Hugh wasn’t trying to depose the king, although not certain; but what seems likely is that Hugh was trying to work out just how tightly he could put the screws on. And so, by July 1st, two weeks after Hugh’s charter for Chartres, Louis was released. The price? The price was Laon, which had been held by Louis’ wife Queen Gerberga. Laon was the most powerful and important fortress of the north-east, and by holding both it and Rheims, Hugh could make a reasonable claim to have won the war which he, his late brother-in-law Heribert II of Vermandois, and various kings had been fighting since the late 920s about control in the region.

In return, Louis got to be king again, having his status and honour fully restored to him. This was marked by a ceremony at Chevregny, just south of Laon. No fewer than three diplomas to Cluny were issued on this occasion, but all three are textually similar so – in an experiment with the format – I’ve translated them all side-by-side, so that you can see where they are similar and different.

D L4 no. 27

D L4 no. 28

D L4 no. 29

In the name of Lord God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.


by ordination of divine providence,

by propitiation of divine clemency,

king. (no. 29: king of the Franks).

If We indeed proffer assent to the prayers of servants of God


and as well

their advantage, We far from doubt conserve (no. 27: exercise) royal dignity (no. 28: in all things) and We decree (no. 27: wish) that it should endure in future with the firmest (no. 29 and inviolable) right (no. 28: inviolably).

Therefore, let the industry of all the followers of the holy Church of God and Us, to wit, present and future, know that


most illustrious

most celebrated

princes of Our realm, that is, Hugh [the Great], duke of the Franks, and another Hugh [the Black], (no. 27: to wit,) duke of the Burgundians, and Count Leotald [of Mâcon], approached


the excellence of

Our Royal Serenity, deprecating that We might concede through a royal precept to the monastery of Cluny, consecrated in honour of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul,

certain goods, that is, a church dedicated in honour of St Jon sited in the suburbs of Mâcon, with all the goods pertaining to the same church, and also the estate of Vésines and Ozan, and the woods and estate of Senozan,



a certain little estate, from the rule of the viscount of Lyon. This estate is sited in the same district of Lyon, on the river Saône, which We donate with all the goods pertaining to it, to wit, vineyards and fields,

a certain monastery consecrated in honour of St Stephen, which is named Charlieu, and the cell of Rigny pertaining to it, dedicated in veneration of St Martin; also a church pertaining to the rule of the blessed Martin of Tours, sited in the suburbs of Mâcon. We concede these places named above, sited in the district of Mâconnais, with all the goods pertaining to it, that is, churches, estates, bondsmen of both sexes, vineyards, fields, meadows, woods, waters and watercourses, in their entirety.

with lands, meadows, woods, (no. 28: waters and) great water(no. 28:course)s and little streams, parks, ditches and the port

of the abovesaid Ozan, and other ports


With (no. 27: pastures,) incomes and renders, (no. 28: with pastures) and all adjacencies, and all fisheries (no. 28: and fishers, and all male and female serfs and colonis with their children and their whole kin-group,) sought and to be sought after,

and with Arnulf and his wife and their sons and daughters and all the male and female serfs and children beholden to the aforesaid goods, and their allods within and without, wherever they are, except a third part of Osan which pertains to Saint-Vincent [of Mâcon], and also Sigebert of Davayé with his wife, sons and daughters, with all their allods and goods, and everything which he holds in the said county.

I cede and transfer wholly and entirely

(nos 27, 29: We did this freely both) for love of (no. 28: God) (no. 29: the divine) and of the (no. 28: His) blessed apostles (nos 27, 29: and for Ourself, and also) for the state (no. 28: and stability) of Our realm, and at the same time the salvation of Our princes and all the (no. 27: Christian) faithful (nos 28, 29: of Christ) (no. 28: to wit, the living and the dead.) (nos 27, 29: and We freely assented to their pious and devoted petition.)

Commanding, therefore, We order that hereafter the aforesaid witnesses of Christ (no. 28: judges of the age, that is) the blessed Peter and Paul, and their abbot (no. 28: the abbots and rulers of their aforesaid abbey) and (no. 28: also) the monks serving the same apostles of Christ should hold and possess (no. 29: the aforesaid goods) with the firmest right through


this Our authority,

this authority of Our sublimity,

and whatever they wish to do or judge concerning it, they may enjoy (no. 28: use) free judgement in everything to do (no. 28: and ordain) whatever they choose.

And that this

Our authority

authority of Our Highness

authority of Our Sublimity

might be held more firmly and conserved better through future (no. 28: coming) times, We commanded it be sealed below with Our signet.

Sign of King Louis.

Chancellor Roric witnessed on behalf of [Bishop] Achard [of Langres].

Enacted at the estate of Chevregny, on the 1st July, in the 11th year of the reign of King Louis, when he also recovered Francia.

So everything’s hunky dory now, right? Not quite. You’ll note these acts all have the same intercessors: not just Hugh the Great, but Hugh the Black and Leotald of Mâcon. Hugh the Great – finally – got to be re-acknowledged, for the first time since 936, as dux Francorum in a royal diploma, but this had to be balanced out. Hugh the Black is called dux Burgundionum, a title he had not previously claimed in any of his own acts or any royal diplomas, and which he would not claim in the future. It seems that he, too, agreed with Raymond Pons’ analysis of the problem posed by Hugh the Great: ‘duke of the Burgundians’ meant that he remained Hugh the Black’s equal and not his superior. Equally, the presence of Leotald of Mâcon is interesting. Cluny was of course in the Mâconnais, but there’s more to it than that. Leotald’s presence reminded Hugh the Great that the Burgundians mattered, that they were watching and – bluntly – that they outnumbered them.

The content of the diplomas is also carefully balanced in this regard. The first deals with property in Mâcon itself.  The second, however, deals with land pertaining to the viscounts of Lyon, in the kingdom of Conrad the Pacific, where Hugh the Black was count.  This, though, was counterbalanced by the gift of a church in Mâcon under the rule of the abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours, over which Hugh the Great ruled. That is, we have three different acts speaking to the interests of the three different magnates, rather than having Hugh the Great clearly dictating terms. For all that Hugh the Great might have had his title recognised, after almost a decade of hard fighting, he had not been able to overawe the kingdom’s other leading magnates, and these tense acts were the result.

This makes Louis’ ‘recovering Francia’ somewhat ironic. Hugh’s stripping him of key fortresses meant that the Chevregny acts didn’t convince everyone. For all Flodoard says that he had the royal name and power restored, East Frankish sources were more cynical: Adalbert of Magdeburg said that Louis was ‘expelled from the kingdom’. The reason that Adalbert knew this was that Queen Gerberga spent a big chunk of 946 in her brother Otto the Great’s kingdom trying to call for his help. Next week, we’ll see how that went.

Fantasy Writing and the Early Middle Ages

A long legacy of fantasy, as Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir in this twelfth-century carving from Hylestad Stave Church.

Places and people from the past become inextricably linked to particular genres of writing in the present. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story set in Regency England will be in want of a costume romance. The spectre of the Gothic looms over any tale located in Transylvania before the twentieth century. And any fiction set in Los Angeles in the 1940s is going to let you know they’re trouble when they walk into your office with legs that go all the way down to the ground. In the case of the Early Middle Ages, that genre is fantasy. The association stretches back to the Middle Ages themselves. Well before Tolkien began crafting a world for his languages, jongleurs carried songs of Arthur, Attila and Charlemagne through the courts of Europe, while farmers and merchants in Iceland passed long lightless winters listening to sagas about years gone by. That the writer who did more than anyone else to codify modern fantasy was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies with a special interest in Beowulf certainly didn’t hurt either.

The bibliography on the influence of the early medieval world on Tolkien’s fantasy writing is enormous and I have no intention of attempting to add to it. But as a professional specialising in the Early Middle Ages with a deep fondness for fantasy as a genre, it struck me that it might be interesting to think about the ways in which fantasy writers since Tolkien have engaged with the period in their writing. In doing so, I’d like to consider what it is about the early medieval world that they find useful and interesting, what that says about popular perceptions of the period, and what ideas, if any, historians can take from them. My method in selecting examples is highly scientific – I raided the contents of my book shelves and my kindle in no particular order. For this reason, it is by no means exhaustive, being anglophone, with a heavy emphasis on the 2000s (aka my teenage years when I had pocket money and a lot of free time) and reflective of my (very) peculiar tastes. Nonetheless, upon reflection I think certain trends emerge which are potentially revealing.

Filing the Serial Numbers Off: Guy Gavriel Kay

Few fantasy writers have made the inspiration they drew from the Early Middle Ages more obvious than Guy Gavriel Kay, whose literary career began when he worked as Christopher Tolkien’s assistant in editing his father’s unpublished works. The majority of Kay’s books are set in fictionalised versions of real-world settings, many of which are from the early medieval period. These include The Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998, 2000, based on Byzantium in the age of Justinian), The Last Light of the Sun (2004, Alfred the Great and the Vikings), and, my personal favourites, The Lions of al-Rassan (1995, eleventh-century Spain) and Under Heaven (2010, eighth-century China).

Although Kay clearly does considerable research for each book, the setting is ultimately there to serve the story and he very reasonably compresses timelines and characters for narrative economy. The early medieval world provides Kay with epic backdrops, settings filled with colour and scale, and dramatic events kickstarting the conflicts that drive the plot. Generally the broad sweep of the history remains the same, with the big exception being The Sarantine Mosaic which throws a couple of fairly large counterfactuals into the mix. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Kay’s use of the Early Middle Ages, and one of my favourite things about his books in general, is how beautiful his settings are. As we shall see, when the early medieval period is used to provide a fantasy background, it’s normally for a rather grim state of affairs. Kay’s early medieval worlds are culturally rich, filled with art and poetry and song. Despite widespread prejudice, they are also spaces where people of different faiths and races can meet and try to understand each other. Unlike many other works that draw on the period, the tragedy in Kay’s stories is not that the Early Middle Ages are here, but that they are going and with them their beauty and their tolerance. His best writing evokes these fragile middle grounds, creating quiet moments of grace that take place just before the wrecking storm. These spaces are doomed, but that makes them all the more precious. Kay’s ability to see the wonder in the Early Middle Ages helps explain his popularity among medievalists more generally, and is the reason The Lions of al-Rassan is a book I return to every year.

Widukind and Friends: Kate Elliott

As we shall see throughout this post, some early medieval settings are more attractive than others. Arthur and the end of Roman Britain will always attract a crowd. Similarly, anything with Vikings in it does well, particularly when we throw in the compulsory trip to Constantinople. Fantasy depictions of tenth-century Germany on the other hand are rather more unusual. Hesitant though I am to say it, I fear that the Ottonians lack the raw sex appeal of other inhabitants of the Early Middle Ages (Saxon-appeal on the other hand…). Fantasy books that cite Widukind are rare birds indeed.

Rare, but not unheard of thanks to Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series (1997-2006), which is set in an unusually convincing fantasy world based on Ottonian Germany. Fantasy it most certainly is, being stuffed full with magic, monsters, rock-creatures for Vikings, and interdimensional elves which come in Roman and Aztec flavours. These elements are grounded by a thoroughly researched human society based on tenth-century itinerant kingship. (It probably helps that the author’s sister is a professor specialising in medieval German literature.) Elliott adds weight and believability to her world through her close attention to material culture and day to day logistics. A hundred warriors are a considerable army in this setting, and one that needs to be fed. Elliott is skilled enough that such realities add to the plot rather than slowing it down. Even the magic acquires a certain verisimilitude from her use of early medieval scholarship (and a healthy dose of Macrobius).

Perhaps my favourite element is the handling of religion. Modern fantasy writers tend to struggle with the role of religion in their early medieval analogues, if they don’t drop it altogether, often reverting to faith as a cynical con perpetrated by a corrupt church. Crown of Stars certainly features plenty of ecclesiastical shenanigans. But Elliott constructs an interesting religious world based on the teachings of Bardaisan of Edessa, where faith imbues every part of society. Although all the characters have different relationships to it, religion matters practically, spiritually and culturally for our protagonists. The result is a vivid depiction of an early medieval world.

Stories of Arthur: Philip Reeve

In discussing the Early Middle Ages as an inspiration for fantasy writing, Arthur is the 1000-pound bear in the room. There is no possible way anyone can briefly summarise the influence of Camelot and company. Generally, when people write stories about Arthur, they follow one of two routes. Either they embrace the weirdness of the medieval source material with plenty of magic and very little attention to historical context, or they go full ‘Dark Age Arthur’, cutting the mythology out in favour of a gritty allegedly realistic setting. As a rule, I tend to prefer the first approach (which is how you get the superb The Green Knight film from 2021) to the second (which is how you get a horribly miscast and inexplicably Pelagian Clive Owen fighting the Saxons on Hadrian’s Wall). But because this post is about using the early medieval past for fantasy narratives, the latter strand is more directly relevant for us today.

In these sorts of stories, the early medieval past is used to strip out Arthurian weirdness and replace it with something more grounded. Done straight, ‘Dark Age Arthur’ can be very good indeed, with Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (1995-1997) being a fine example. But something about the contempt with which a lot of these narratives cannibalise the mythology rubs me the wrong way. For this reason, the book I’d like to mention in this section is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2007). Despite being written for a YA audience, Reeve’s Arthurian world is a dark place indeed. His Arthur is one armed thug with a retinue among many fighting over the carcass of western Britain, distinguished only by his violence and by his patronage of Myrddin. The latter, who is a bard, wizard and spin-doctor extraordinaire, is determined to unite Britain against the Saxons by turning Arthur into a heroic legend. Our main character, Gwyna, becomes Myrddin’s assistant in this endeavour.

Reeve has a lot of fun with Myrddin’s cunning schemes, as he stage-manages a number of familiar literary episodes. But what I particularly like about this book is his willingness to embrace some of the weirder elements of Arthuriana and medieval culture. His handling of gender and sexuality in the Early Middle Ages is particularly bold for 2007 and serves as a nice nod to the complexity that medieval gender studies have been revealing for decades. Reeve’s Age of Arthur is a fluid world, defined by the stories that people tell, and all the more fascinating for it.

In the Far Future there is only the Dark Ages: Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie

One recent trend in fantasy writing is to use the Early Middle Ages as the blueprint for a postapocalyptic world. This is something employed by Mark Lawrence in his The Broken Empire trilogy (2011-2013, followed by The Red Queen’s War, 2014-2016 set in the same world) and by Joe Abercrombie in his Shattered Sea trilogy (2014-2015). Both feature elite young male protagonists relying upon their intelligence and ruthlessness to survive and thrive in a Hobbesian war against all. Both are also incredibly dark narratives, in which our main characters do appalling things. Because of these parallels, I’m talking about them together.

Much of the action in The Broken Empire takes place in a setting that draws heavily on traditional views of France in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Our teenage protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, reads like a cross between Fulk Nerra and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We encounter him leading a merry band of droogs on a brutal rampage across a war-torn northern France. The Shattered Sea treads slightly more familiar ground, set in a postapocalyptic Baltic with a strong Viking flavour (our protagonists even travel to Miklagard in the second book). Born into a royal family with a crippled hand, Yarvi was meant to enter the church but unexpectedly becomes a king. Betrayed and sold as a slave, Yarvi seeks his revenge, giving the plot a pleasing hint of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The first thing that raises eyebrows is of course the idea that the Early Middle Ages is what naturally happens when civilisation collapses. I’ve talked about my problems with the idea of the Dark Ages before. This sort of thing undermines our ability to see the period on its own terms, and understand both its beauty and the unique factors that shaped it. There is nothing natural about the Middle Ages, and treating it as a short hand for the state of nature short-changes it. That said, Lawrence and Abercrombie do make good use of the concept. The visual image of a dark age warlord hunkered down in a fortified office block rereading his treasured copy of Plutarch, or of a band of Vikings exploring the irradiated ruins of modern Stockholm, is a striking one, which adds to the atmosphere of the narrative. I particularly like the way radiation and other postapocalyptic standbys are interpreted via medieval stories of magic and the Monstrous Races, giving a fresh feel to both sets of concepts.

I think as a medieval historian I should probably object to the depiction of the Early Middle Ages as a period of constant warfare characterised by political instability and treachery. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I can. I think it’s safe to say that both Lawrence and Abercrombie struggle with the role of faith and ideology in politics. The idea that people might actually believe in things beyond survival, self-advancement and loyalty to one’s intimates doesn’t really make much of an appearance. That said, I can’t think of many successful well-sourced early medieval rulers who didn’t have an awful lot of blood on their hands. Frankly, the Early Middle Ages could be extremely violent and unstable, although not all the time or at a constant level, and not mindlessly.

Both The Broken Empire and the Shattered Sea take a stab at thinking about how people’s environments and the structure of their societies turn them into bloodstained villains. Where I think they differ is on what they lead into. Lawrence hints that the game can be won, that a Leviathan can emerge to create peace, but that it may require a monster to do so. (Whether a good person can break the wheel is a question he ducks in one of the more disappointing moments in the series). Abercrombie is more sceptical, viewing these events as an escalating cycle, in which efforts to create order through violence lead to more chaos as acts of cruelty beget further cruelty. Trying to read too coherent a philosophy of politics and history into books that are meant to be entertaining may be missing the point. Ultimately both series succeed at their basic ambition of being enjoyable reads if your taste runs to dark fantasy.

Magic and the Waning of the Early Middle Ages: Naomi Mitchison

Travel Light (1952) is probably the weirdest book I want to talk about today. It’s certainly the shortest, clocking in at 135 pages in my copy. Into that relatively brief length, Mitchison crams a huge amount. The book begins as a fairytale for children, a charming and funny story about how a girl named Halla is raised by bears and dragons in the wilds of Scandinavia, with strong nods to Norse mythology. The tone very quickly acquires a tragic air, eventually becoming a surprisingly dark political thriller in which Halla must navigate literally Byzantine court intrigue in Miklagard. But this is merely the second act, leaving a final act that is sad, ambiguous and hauntingly beautiful.

Naomi Mitchison refuses to make things easy for us as the reader. Every time we think we know what genre of story we’re reading and what kind of endgame we’re leading towards, she upends our expectations. Even as she changes, Halla ultimately chooses to remain free and authentic to herself, even when those choices impose costs upon her. Having experienced human civilisation, she sides with the world of magic and dragons, even when its clear both that that world is doomed, and that her own humanity makes it impossible for her ever to truly be a part of it. Halla walks her own path, and not even the Allfather, or the love of her life, can stop her.

In terms of its depiction of the early medieval world, what I find interesting about Travel Light is that it shows the onset of the Early Middle Ages as a tragedy not because it represents an anarchic breakdown of order, but because it is too civilised. The colonisation of the wildernesses of the north marks the end of freedom and magic. Whether it is the corrupt inequality of Byzantium, or the patriarchal brutality of the Russias, the world of men (and it is very much men) does not come across well in this story. Throughout the narrative there are nods to an ancient world were humans were more in touch with nature and power came through personal sacrifice rather than through coercion and violence.

Mitchison also walks the line between medieval literature and history in a way unusual in more recent fantasy. The former provides the basis for the disappearing older world of magic. We’re invited to sympathise with the likes of the Grendels (family friends of Halla) and with Fafnir. In this she resembles Tolkien with whom Mitchison had a long correspondence (she also proofread The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). The result is a story that brings back some of the alienness of the Middle Ages, which I very much enjoyed.

Concluding Thoughts

A lot of fantasy writing that draws inspiration from the Early Middle Ages leans hard on the image of the period as a Dark Age. If you want to tell a story about a poor, violent world, with low levels of technology and stability and high levels of mud, popular perceptions of the early medieval period will give you plenty to work with. Further, the idea of the early medieval world as postlapsarian place, a world in decline in the dying afterglow of Rome, allows for some really compelling stories, which you can also apply to postapocalyptic settings. I don’t really have a problem with this, so long as the stories that we get are entertaining, but it’s worth noting that it reflects a particular interpretation.

It’s also not the only way that you can depict the period. It’s possible to give a much more positive interpretation, as in the case of Guy Gavriel Kay. Other writers, such as Kate Elliott, lean much harder into the primary sources, using her understanding of the Early Middle Ages to ground more fantastical elements. One interesting trend is a move away from medieval literature to history. While they knew a huge amount about history, I suspect that the formative encounter for older writers like Tolkien and Mitchison was with Old English and Norse literature, and that shapes the feel and texture of their writings. By contrast, my sense is that more recent fantasy writing draws much more upon history, which informs their plots and settings but perhaps not the actual language they employ, resulting in books that feel much more modern and less alien. (Kay may be a transitional figure, still active today, but imbued in the older tradition).

As I mentioned above, this is a very brief survey of a somewhat random selection of books. It is by no means exhaustive. I should also say that for all my occasional criticisms, this is a genre I genuinely like. I am already compiling a list of promising sounding authors for the next moment I have some time to read for pleasure (summer of 2057 is going to be amazing). At the moment I have Saladin Ahmed, Poul Anderson and Katherine Kurtz on my radar, but I’d invite readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

Charter a Week 70/1: Meetings About an Imprisoned King

In 945, everything went wrong for Louis IV. The background to this is something we haven’t really discussed, because there’s more-or-less no charter evidence relating to it, but we have seen in other contexts: the assassination of William Longsword, count of Rouen, by Arnulf the Great of Flanders in 943. William had no obvious heir – he had one illegitimate son who was a small boy – and so his quite substantial lands and offices were up for grabs. Louis and Hugh the Great spent several years arguing with each other and several viking chieftains about who got what. In the end, the vikings won: Harald, ruler of Bayeux, whose own position was probably recent and somewhat precarious, ambushed Louis and captured him. He was then sold down the river Seine to Hugh the Great (in exchange for hostages, one of whom – as we’ve previously discussed – was Bishop Guy of Soissons). Hugh then proceeded to keep him in prison for the rest of the year.

However, international and domestic pressure was mounting. King Edmund of England send angry embassies on behalf of his nephew. He was then murdered at Pucklechurch, but he wasn’t the big problem anyway. The big problem was Louis’ brother-in-law, who was generally somewhat cool towards him but whose sister Queen Gerberga now launched frantic embassies to seek his assistance: Otto the Great. Otto, who had faced multiple serious rebellions in his ten-year reign, was in no mood to see a king treated badly by successful rebels. It was with these storm clouds gathering that Flodoard described Hugh hold public assemblies to decide what to do with the king. And, as it happens, a charter from one of these meetings survives.

Cartulaire de Notre-Dame de Chartres no. 7 (19th June 946)

In the name of the highest and eternal Saviour, our lord Jesus Christ.

Hugh, most excellent margrave and duke of the Franks.

Since, in this doubtful and inconsistent life, each mortal is, by gift of the Highest Benefactor, ennobled with the happiness of worldly advantage and nourished by an abundance of temporal goods, each of the faithful should take the greatest care that celestial goods should be acquired through that which they possess in this world, and that, by a happy exchange, the invisible is bought by the visible and the incorruptible by the corruptible. Indeed, anyone will more easily deserve to obtain the rights of an enduring heavenly inheritance if (amongst other efforts to pious action) they faithfully cede their worldly and transient goods to the Bestower of All Goods and strive to honour and elevate the most holy Church, that is, His house, with gifts of perishable things.

Let, therefore, the prudent sagacity of all the faithful of the holy Church of God, present and future, and of Our successors, know that – reinforced by the admonition of this holy exhortation and taught by the inspiration of divine grace – along with the consent and will of Our relatives and followers, We concede and donate to the mother church of Notre-Dame de Chartres a certain fisc of Ours, named Ingré, which We have until now possessed freely and by hereditary right, which is in the district of Orléannais, in the vicariate of Les Muids, with all its appendages, which have these names: Champoigny, Grand Muid, Petit Muid up to Alleville and up to the estate which is called Cercottes, Cultura, Boignaux, Montpatour, Brogilus, Villaris, Chiregius, Coust, Changelin, Sorberes, Pataliacus, Les Masures, Montabusard, Sucrogilas, Buiras, Le Buisson, and certain land which lies in the estate which is called Ormes, and other adjacencies lying both within and also without the town, whatever is seen to be beholden there at present; and the rulers of the estate will have the ability to reclaim whatever has been taken away at any time; and We transfer it from Our dominion and place under its rule, with lands cultivated and uncultivated, pastures, meadows, woods, and bondsmen of both sexes and a church there named and built in honour of St Lupus.

And thus, conceding this gift of Our right, We established through deliberation that it should be delegated to the feeding of the brothers of the said church, and assigned to their stipends and usages, from whence they might every day have food and nourishment and more freely pay attention to divine worship and spiritual exercises, and constantly pour out unceasing prayers to the Lord for us and our wife and as well all our offspring, so that He, by the merits of his mother Mary, for whose love We gave a little gift of this sort, and by the plea of all the saints, might rule and govern Us in the height of temporal dignity and sublimity, by which in the land of the living We might at some time merit to see and gain its good things and possess the freedom of a heavenly inheritance.

If, though, any of Our relatives, heirs or proheirs or any calumniating person should try hereafter to violate the authority of this gift, let them incur the wrath of the Three-In-One Deity and Mary Mother of God on whom they committed this fraud, knowing that she will never be their helper; and let them be unable to vindicate what they have claimed, and withdraw in confusion from this presumption, and let the present writing persist undisturbed and undefiled through times to come, relying on this guarantee.

But so that this page might obtain the strength of stronger firmness, We and Our son Otto [of Burgundy] undersigned it with Our own hands, and We determined it be strengthened by the hands of Our nephews and followers.

Sign of Hugh, duke of the Franks, who made and affirmed the authority of this writing. Sign of Hugh [Capet], his son. Sign of Otto, his son. Sign of Heribert [the Elder], his nephew. Sign of Odo. Sign of Robert. Sign of Theobald. Sign of Fulk. Sign of Bernard. Sign of Godfrey. Sign of Aimo. Sign of Ivo. Sign of Warin. Sign of Gauzbert. Sign of Godfrey. Sign of Frotmund [of Sens]. Sign of Adelelm. Sign of Isembard. Sign of Ansculf. Sign of Walter. Sign of another Walter. Sign of Gauzbert. Sign of Cadelo. Sign of Robert. Sign of another Robert. Sign of Landric. Sign of Hugh. Sign of Heriveus. Sign of Suger. Sign of Gislebert. Sign of Odo. Sign of Ralph.

Given on the 13th kalends of July [19th June], in the 11th year of the reign of King Louis.

Obviously, the big interest here is the witness list. We have a veritable Who’s Who of Robertian allies. We’ve got a bunch of relations and clients of the late Count Heribert II of Vermandois, including his sons Heribert the Elder, Robert of Troyes and probably Odo of Amiens, as well as Bernard of Beauvais. We’ve got Hugh’s Neustrian subordinates, including Theobald the Trickster and Fulk the Good; the ‘Ivo’ is perhaps the ancestor of the Bellême on the southern border of the future Normandy, and I’d be inclined to put the ‘Aimo’ there too. We’ve got various Burgundian figures, most obviously Frotmund of Sens but I’d lay decent odds that the ‘Landric’ in the list is the ancestor of the later count of Nevers. In short, these are Hugh the Great’s fideles – but no-one else. That’s far from a negligible base of support, and its certainly enough to be a threat to anyone else in the West Frankish kingdom – but it likely does indicate that he’s having problems winning over anyone else.

We also have Hugh’s sons, Hugh Capet and Otto of Burgundy, both making their first public appearances at the age of about six to eight (their father and mother married in 937, so they can’t be much older). It’s interesting that Otto is the one who confirms this charter, and not Hugh Capet. It’s often assumed that Hugh was the oldest son, but that may well not be the case: this isn’t the only time that Otto shows up first in tenth-century sources… In fact, if Otto were the eldest and Hugh the Great intended for him to get Neustria (as his presence here implies), that might explain developments of a couple of decades later which we’ll get to in time…

Was Hugh the Great planning to depose Louis? It’s a picture that has tempted many historians, and I’ve softened on the idea over time; but ultimately I think he wasn’t. This charter provides one key clue: the dating clause. If Hugh were really planning to kick Louis off the throne, why would this charter be dated by Louis’ regnal years? A subtle clue such as anno Domini dating would be key evidence here; the fact that no such thing exists indicates that whatever Hugh’s goals were, outright deposition is unlikely to have been one of them.

So what did he do instead? That, I’m pleased to say, is a question for a different day, specifically this time next week. Tune in to find out!

Charter A Week 69: That Stephen of Clermont Charter in Full

Sometimes in Charter A Week, there’s a document which I think is so important that it has to be translated, but precisely because it’s so important, I’ve already discussed it at length. Such a one is this week’s act, and so this week’s post will be concomitantly shorter than usual. Without further ado, here’s the text:

Grand Cartulaire de Brioude no. 434 (7th October 945, Saint-Germain-Lembron)

In the name of the holy and individual Trinity.

Stephen, by assent of divine mercy, extraordinary bishop of the church of Clermont, most worthy in life and customs.

I wish to make it known to all those administering the cares of the holy Church of God, that is, present and future, and all the famous of the Earth, that, I, Bishop Stephen, most humble servant of the servants of God, considering the disaster of human fragility, in order that the pious and merciful Lord might deign to loosen something of the frightfulness of my crimes, both for me and for my lord King Louis and his wife and their offspring, and for the souls of my father Robert and his wife Aldegard and my mother Adalgard who is dead and my uncles, to wit, Eustorgius, Matfred and Guy, and my cousin Stephen, and my brothers Eustorgius and Robert, and my uncle Armand and his son Amblard and Eustorgius son of Eustorgius, and also Abbot Robert [of Mozat] and his brothers, and all Our kinsmen and faithful men, and all Our friends and enemies, I render to my Creator, the Lord, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and I bestow upon the blessed Julian of the church of Brioude, who did not decline to endure a death sentence for Christ, the place and estate which is named Saint-Germain-Lembron, with manses, fields, meadows, vineyards, woodlands, and three churches, of which one is dedicated in honour of Saint Germanus, the other in honour of Saint John the Baptist, and the third in honour of Saint Clement, martyr of Christ, with male and female slaves who live now and might be born or beogtten therein later, with mills and all the tithes pertaining to the same churches, and as much as, by gift of God, I have there in the present day, or which in posterity, I, Bishop Stephen, and Abbot Robert, might be able to justly acquire, I render to the Lord, Creator of All, in its entirety, so that it might be under the domination and power of the blessed Julian and his canons, and I give and transfer them from my power into their domination, so that they might have, hold and possess them such that it might be seen to be subject from the present day under the tutelage of the blessed Julian just like the monastery which is called Chanteuges, which is constructed in honour of the blessed Marcellinus and the blessed Julian and the blessed Saturninus; thus let the estate of Saint-Germain-Lembron, with churches and all its appendages, after my death, be in the tutelage and domination of the church of the blessed Julian.

I, Bishop Stephen, although unworthy, desire, if the Lord gives me the space of life, to construct a little monastery in the aforesaid place, and, by disposition of divine grace, I desire to establish there in the aforesaid little place, in honour of the Eternal King and the twelve apostles, twelve monks, so that they monks might, for all the days of their life, serve God, fear the Lord, love the Lord, and to observe the precept of the blessed Benedict and their abbot according to their men and possibility, for that they might constantly exhort the Lord for me and the statue of the holy Church of God day and night.

Thus, I, the aforesaid Stephen, wish to hold the aforesaid things for the days of my life, under my power and tutelage, and each year, in census, at the time of the vine harvest, I should have ten pecks gathered into the cellar of the blessed Julian, until such time as, by disposition of God, I might establish twelve monks in the aforesaid place; after twelve monks have been established there, let them pay no census, except, on appropriate days, let them say a prayer after Matins, and rise from the earth, and let each, prostrate, sing two psalms, of which the first should be Beati omnes qui timent Dominum, for the salvation of the living, and the other Lauda anima mea Dominum for the rest of the dead, at Primes, at Terce, at Sext, at Nones, and similarly at Vespers, let both them and their successors do this.

After my death, I wish to add that no king nor count nor bishop nor abbot nor father nor brother nor uncle nor any kinsman might presume to arise with rash daring against this page and against those monks who, by disposition of God, have come into that place, or presume to go, act or disturb it with any calumny, unless they come to their senses and to emendation, let them incur the wrath of God Almighty and the offence of the saints, and be immersed in the deepest inferno with Dathan and Abiron, Ananias and Saphira, and with Judas, betrayer of the Lord, and in addition let they who presumed to do it be compelled to pay twenty pounds of the purest gold, and not vindicate what they seek. And it pleased me that, after my death, it should remain in the hand and domination of Abbot Robert, son of Gozbert, so that for the days of his life, for the love of God and the remedy of my soul and all the Christian faithful, he might rule, build and govern the aforesaid place, so that in future he might merit to hear that desirable voice which the Lord says to His faithful: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things; I will make thee ruler over many things, enter thou into the joy of thy lord’.

But that this charter might be firm and true through time to come, I, Bishop Stephen, of my own free will, asked it be written and confirmed, and I asked it be confirmed by the hands of noble men. If it should happen, which I little believe, that any son of Belial should arise who might with rash daring wish to twist this render to God Almighty and donation to the blessed martyr Julian from the power of God and the tutelage of the blessed Julian into their uses, and they are such a strong person that no-one is able to resist them, let all their presumption be frustrated in a vacuum, and in addition let these things revert to my relatives through their succession.

Sign of Bishop Stephen. Sign of Robert, father of the lord bishop, who conceded this and confirmed it with his own hand. Sign of Aldegard. Sign of Eustorgius, uncle of the lord bishop. Sign of Robert. Sign of Eustorgius. Sign of Desiderius. Sign of Armand.

This cession given on the seventh of October, at the estate of Saint-Germain-Lembron, in the 10th year the reign of King Louis, ruling France and Aquitaine.

As I say, I’ve discussed this in detail elsewhere, so I’ll quickly summarise and then if you like you can read the fuller treatments. In 944, Louis IV had gone to Aquitaine again, a visit probably occasioned by the impending demise of Raymond Pons of Toulouse. During that visit, he settled several questions, and that probably included appointing Stephen as bishop of Clermont. This charter is what Koziol calls an ‘accession act’, staking Stephen and his faction’s claim to be the most important group in the old Guillelmid sphere of influence.

As such, it’s quite important that Louis IV heads up the list of people for whom the canons of Brioude are to pray. Stephen’s authority as a regional potentate was closely tied to royal authority, and we can see that in this charter. This is significant, because as we’ve had cause to note before, the West Frankish kings are not usually supposed by historians to have much impact on Aquitanian politics at all. This charter, then, acts as a useful counter to the standard narrative, and gives us a look into the political and ideological world of a bishop and regional magnate.

Disability, Disinheritance, Disdain? (Louis the Stammerer ii, with bonus Source Translation)

Last week, we looked at Louis the Stammerer and the powers and responsibilities he held in the last years of Charles the Bald’s reign through the lens of Louis the German’s invasion of the West Frankish kingdom in 875. This time, we’re going to look at Louis the Stammerer and succession. To recap, historians have generally seen the relationship between Charles and Louis as being a particularly rancid example of a Carolingian father-son bond, with Louis resentful and incompetent and Charles suspicious and disdainful. One of the ways this perception of their relationship plays out in analysis of our source material is the perception that Charles was actively trying to cut Louis out of the succession, and this latter perception culminates in an apocalyptic (for Louis’ chances of becoming king, anyway) reading of the 877 Capitulary of Quierzy.

It has to be said right at the start that part of the reasons historians think that Charles was looking to replace Louis is that, at points in his reign, he absolutely was looking to upgrade his heir. The introductory address to the ordo to crown Charles’ first wife Ermentrude as queen in 866 explicitly says as much: his sons have died or disappointed him (or been disqualified by being made part of the clergy) and he’d like the assembled bishops to beseech God to give him some extras just so he can be sure his successors will actually be good. This, though, is a document of 866: both of Charles’ eldest sons, including Louis, had recently rebelled, and Charles’ attempts to assert his patriarchal authority had been a bit damp. The crucial thing is that this is a document of 866, and by a few years later father-son trust had actually been rebuilt. Charles, from our evidence, certainly continued to want more sons, but this was decoupled from any animus against Louis: it stemmed from a generic desire to have more sons for the security of his descent-line and as a display of divinely blessed kingship than from a specific desire to screw Louis out of his inheritance (erm, so to speak).

This brings us to the Capitulary of Quierzy. Issued in 877 when Charles the Bald was on the threshold of going to Italy, it sets out his provisions for the government of his northern realms whilst he was away, including making a statement on the succession. That statement is that the West Frankish grandees explicitly designate and accept Louis as Charles’ successor; that Louis is to prepare to go to Rome on Charles’ return for a royal coronation there; but that if, in future, Charles has more sons, they will be entitled to a share (to be determined) in the inheritance, and that Charles’ nepotes may also (to be determined) have a share of the realm.

Historians have seized on the latter part of this much more than the former. I don’t think anyone has put the argument this bluntly, but the general interpretation of the Capitulary can be summed up as: by refusing to declare Louis sole heir once and for all to the whole of his realm, Charles was looking to marginalise him in favour of hypothetical future heirs or even – so desperate was he to find any alternative to his son – his nephews, the sons of Louis the German (this latter being one meaning of the word nepotes).

A priori, I don’t think this is right. One thing that isn’t pointed out is that Charles couldn’t exactly refuse to disinherit his hypothetical sons by Richildis either. (Actually, he could in theory put them in the Church, but given that he already didn’t have a spare heir that was a dangerous manoeuvre). Within that framework, Charles had evidently and very explicitly had Louis affirmed as his successor. Moreover, he was working to put a special gloss on Louis’ authority. A coronation in Rome – not as emperor but certainly with imperial overtones – wasn’t handed out on the street corner, and indeed Charles’ plans to give Louis authority in Italy gave him what contemporaries perceived as a legitimate claim into the period of his sole reign. Moreover, Louis was probably given a major role in determining the future shape of the realm. The part about Charles’ nepotes, it seems to me, is unlikely to refer to his nephews – they do show up as nepotes elsewhere in the Capitulary but only in the context of their being a constant, lurking menace, the combatting of which is one of Louis’ prime delegated responsibilities. I cannot imagine Charles saying ‘fight them on the beaches, fight them on the landing grounds, fight them in the fields and in the streets – but if one of them proves worthy they can be my heir’! Instead, I think that Charles’ nepotes are Louis’ sons, his grandsons. The clause says that if they prove worthy, then a division of the realm will be made secundum quod nobis tunc et cui placuerit. I have found three renderings of this clause into modern languages (two in English, one in French) and as far as I can tell every single one of them leaves out the et cui. The phrase translates straightforwardly, as ‘in accordance with what is at that time pleasing to me and to him’. However, although syntactically it’s not entirely clear whom the cui refers back to (it could be the nepos in question, it could be God), it’s most likely – I think, having talked it over with my current boss who reached the same conclusion independently – to refer to Louis himself. What Charles is actually saying, in essence, is ‘if either of my grandsons prove worthy of getting a sub-kingdom, their father – my son – and I will discuss what to give them and act accordingly.’ In short, I don’t think this document is a prelude to cutting Louis out of the succession: it’s a prelude to making him the senior figure amongst what Charles hopes will be a larger group of son-kings.

Of course, if we could find evidence that Charles actually was attempting to disinherit Louis, then all the preceding discussion would be moot; and this brings us to today’s translated source. Brigitte Kasten has argued that a draft capitulary text usually attributed to Alcuin was not, in fact, from the realm of Charlemagne, but in fact half a century later from the reign of Charles the Bald. Furthermore, the chapters in question make radical suggestions regarding the possibility of disinheriting sons from an inheritance on the grounds of rebellion or mental disability. In such a figure, Kasten sees Louis the Stammerer.

Kasten’s grounds for re-dating the text are essentially derived from an analysis of its content, rather than on any kind of codicological or text-critical grounds. I won’t summarise the whole thing here, but her key point is that there’s no reason for Charlemagne to have asked for advice on how to deal with sons with mental illness whereas for Charles the Bald there was. I don’t find Kasten’s re-dating entirely convincing, I have to say; but for the sake of argument we can assume it.

So, with that in mind, why does Kasten think this text is relevant to Louis? Kasten argues that Louis was ‘mentally deficient’ (Geistesschwäche) based on a passage in Regino of Prüm, where he describes Louis as:

called “the Stammerer”, because speech came to him more slowly and with greater difficulty… this prince was a straightforward and mild man, a lover of peace, justice and religion…

Regino, Chronicon, s.a. 878

Now, the Latin I’ve translated as ‘straightforward man’ is vir simplex, which can mean ‘simple’ as in ‘stupid’ but usually doesn’t. Normally, a vir simplex is one who is – as the Bible says – ‘simple like the dove’, manifesting a given set of theological virtues. There is some debate whether or not these particular virtues were perceived as being good ones for kings to have by Carolingian writers, but they’re definitely not a sign of stupidity. But! argues Kasten. But! He also had a stutter!

If I were being strictly fair, Regino says not only that Louis the Stammerer had a stutter and that he found talking to be slow and difficult. Besides the fact that Talking is Hard is a pretty damn amazing power-pop album, all that we need to say here is a bad stammer does not make one congenitally unable to manage one’s own affairs, and there’s no other indication that Louis had any kind of mental illness (either congenital or acquired).

By contrast, if we continue to accept for argument’s sake that this draft capitulary is from Charles the Bald’s reign, then there’s a much more obvious target that I am surprised Kasten, who literally wrote the book on kings’ sons, missed. Charles’ second son Charles the Child, who rebelled with Louis the Stammerer in 862 but whose reconciliation took longer and was much more begrudging, was badly wounded in 864. The severe head wound he sustained did in fact cause ongoing trauma – Hincmar of Rheims calls it both epilepsy (epelemtica passione) and, in language notably reminiscent of the capitulary text, ‘disturbed in the head’ (cerebro commoto) – and two years later he died from it. We are thus are certainly dealing with a son whom contemporaries saw, unquestionably, as both rebellious and mentally ill. Thus, if we are dealing with a mid-ninth century text here, the target of any attempt at disinheritance was surely Charles the Child and not Louis the Stammerer.

Consequently, our analysis of the Capitulary of Quierzy given above stands, and we can place it in tandem with last week’s analysis of the events of 875 to argue that Louis has been given an historiographically raw deal. He and Charles the Bald certainly had their moments of profound tension, but they patched up their political relationship quite effectively. Charles entrusted Louis with important missions, and Louis carried them out successfully. There was no attempt to disinherit Louis on Charles’ part – in fact, if all had gone according to Charles’ plan, the end result would have been a senior, Rome-crowned, member of a family of kings presiding over much younger half-brothers and the sons whose fate he had collaborated with his father to decide.

(Psuedo?-)Alcuin, Epistola, no. 132 (MGH Epp. vol. 4)

Chapters which it is Appropriate to Bring to Mind at Such a Time

Cap. I: ‘A testament is of force after men are dead’, as the apostle testifies. And so, after the death of the testator it obtains complete firmness. But also, the consensus of everyone confirmed it before death. And thus what could not be previously condemned cannot be afterwards infringed.

Cap. II: Let whoever is found to be ungrateful to a testator also become contumelious. He himself is his own witness that he is not worthy of the testament. For example: Canaan was made a slave by the grave dishonouring of his father; Esau lost his firstborn’s portion out of a lack of self-control; Reuben was put aside in favour of his younger brothers for abusing his father. And finally, ‘let he who curses his father’, etc.

Cap. III: It is natural for a son to inherit his father’s blessings. However, they fight against Nature’s laws who are abusive or disobedient to their parents. Therefore, a legitimate heir is one who keeps to the aforesaid regulations regarding parents.

Cap. IV: It is one thing to be mercifully admittedly when unworthy; and another to be properly put in writing as one’s due. Nor can what was conceded to be gained entirely unworthily be claimed as one’s due. Indeed, different merits require different rewards.

Cap. V: That he who is well-born and legitimately heir to an inheritance, and is not found to spurn laws old or new nor to be wounded against his father nor injured against the people, may have great expectations, by the Lord’s mercy, of an inheritance.

Cap. VI: It is clear that anyone subject to a broken head is ill, since the health of the whole body comes from firmness of mind; nor can subordinate limbs rejoice in the health which the head evidently does not have.

Cap. VII: If truth is sought, this is not unknown; if reason, it is not ambiguous; if authority, it is not uncertain. For indeed authority stands out, and reason is well-known, and truth cannot be concealed.

Cap. VIII: All this seems to be contained in a threefold division: to wit, of those who take care, and those who cause injury, and those who waver between the two so that they might continuously associate themselves with those whom they perceive will receive. Therefore, those who take care should be usefully helped; those who resist, on the other hand, manfully opposed; and the dubious either reasonably drawn in or circumspectly ignored; and it should be demonstrated to everyone that authority cannot be corrupted, nor reason defeated, nor can truth be at all overcome.

Cap. IX: The people should be led in accordance with divine law, not followed; and honourable people should rather be chosen to witness. Nor should those who say ‘the voice of the people are the voice of God’ be listened to, since the turbulence of the common folk is always the closest thing to madness.

Cap. X: There is a proverb amongst the common folk: ‘from hardness, something survives; from weakness, nothing remains’. And indeed wisdom ought to attend constancy; and constancy complete wisdom, such that wisdom may be constant and constancy wise.

Cap. XI: Thus the preaching of peace should be carried out carried out such that a false assertion might not be introduced under the name of piety. For just as it is a dreadful thing to break the peace it is a blasphemous thing to deny the truth. In the end, truthful unity and peaceful truth are in harmony with each other.

Cap. XII: I think things of this sort should be taught to simple folk, because ignorance of truth causes a lot of people to err. Then, once truth has been made manifest, the contrary might be confounded, friends will be strengthened, and everyone equally will be left without excuses.

Diligently and worthily, I beseech you, consider these things. For indeed, the immensity of your trust renders my smallness impatient on your behalf, and makes me dare beyond my powers. But one cannot lose trust if one never had it… May He in Whose hands are kings and the rights of kingdoms multiply, protect and defend your crowns.