Sorry about the lack of posts last week – I was on my way to one conference in Cork having just attended one in Canterbury. I’m back home in Brussels now, though, so this little moment of respite from your drab, wretched lives can once more take up its customary position.
The Canterbury conference provided the opportunity to vent a rant which has been building up for several years now. The end of the Carolingian Empire is usually ascribed to the ‘dynastic crisis’ of 888, when the Carolingian family ran out of legitimate, adult males to be king, and a gourmet selection of new, non-Carolingian, kings emerged. Thing is (to put it as bluntly as possible): I don’t think there’s anything ‘dynastic’ about this dynastic crisis. Carolingian legitimism – the idea that the Carolingian family was specifically owed the crown by virtue of its being the royal family – was either non-existent or the view of fringe weirdos.
Let’s confine ourselves simply to two of the sources most often pointed to as evidence for the legitimacy problem which affected the new kings by virtue of their not being Carolingian. First, Regino of Prüm. Regino wrote his Chronicon in the early tenth century, and here’s how he describes the events of 888:
‘After the death [of Emperor Charles the Fat], the kingdoms which had been under his rule, as though they did not have a legitimate heir, dissolved into pieces, and did not wait for a natural lord, but created kings for themselves from their own entrails.’ [source]
‘Legitimate heir’, ‘natural lord’ – sounds like Carolingian legitimism here, right? Well, not so much. In 887, as Regino describes it, the leading men of Charles’ realm had overthrown him and made his illegitimate nephew Arnulf of Carinthia ruler in his stead. Regino is more-or-less a supporter of Arnulf, and the reason that he talks about natural lords and legitimate heirs is not because Arnulf is a Carolingian, but because he’s already been made king! There’s a ‘natural lord’ because a duly-designated king already exists – and it is noticeable that when the new kings proffer due submission to him as their overlord, Regino starts presenting them as legitimate. Their dynastic affiliation doesn’t change, but his presentation of them does – whatever’s going on here, it’s not dynastic.
The second source is a letter from Archbishop Fulk of Rheims seeking the aid of Arnulf in overthrowing the West Frankish king Odo on behalf of this blog’s favourite, Charles the Simple. Fulk refers to Odo as ‘not a member of the royal family’, and says that he ‘chose to have for his king he… who was from the royal bloodline [i.e. Charles the Simple]’. This is Carolingian legitimism here, but what’s interesting is that it appears to be fringe weirdness. Fulk’s professions of loyalty to Charles are somewhat disingenuous. In 888, he hadn’t supported Charles – or even Arnulf – but his own relative Guy of Spoleto, who became king of Italy, and whom Fulk had invited to become king in the West without any particular success. Fulk clearly indicates that his readers knew this, because he fills a good half the letter with rather weak justifications for why he did this, and it’s clear from context that what he refers to as the slanders and lies surrounding him at Arnulf’s court are in fact the well-justified scepticism of people whose memories stretch back longer than five years.
Fulk, it seems, disliked Odo intensely. He spent most of his reign in rebellion against him on any pretext, and it looks like his support for Charles was yet another one of these. (There’s more to his rebellion than personal dislike, of course, but it doesn’t detract from the main point.) It’s worth saying that his arguments don’t seem to have convinced many people – Arnulf didn’t join the war on Charles’ side, and Fulk’s party was consistently outmatched and defeated.
Carolingian legitimism, then, did exist, but its influence doesn’t seem to have been very great. Viewing 888 as this massive, seismic shift in the politics of Frankish Europe is somewhat misleading – in everything except which womb the king had come out of, the kingdom of Odo and that of the man reigning ten years before him, Louis the Stammerer, were basically similar. The imposition of later ideas about royal succession – and royal families – onto 888 has meant that historians have spent centuries seeing a gap where there isn’t one.