Forgery and Continuity at Saint-Amand

Working with forged charters is interesting, but it’s often difficult to do because of how difficult it is to work out when they were forged. (And yes, some documents are quite easy to place, but it does involve being really interested in Abbo of Fleury.) But whilst recently browsing through the Diplomata Belgica, I found some Merovingian diplomas for the abbey of Saint-Amand, or Elnon, which can be fairly neatly placed in the late ninth century, and that got my ears pricked up. For, you see, I already knew the ‘pancarte’ of Charles the Simple which, so the diplomas’ editor notes, these documents were probably produced in advance of, and I’d already marked it as being unusually historically-minded. So putting it in the context of these forged diplomas is interesting.

But first, a digression about charters and their purposes. One of the big questions we have about charters is ‘who decides what goes into one’? (This is distinct from ‘who decides who gets one’, which is an even bigger debate…) The thing with a charter’s content is basically three-fold: 1) most charters, even royal diplomas, were written by the people for whom they were issued not the people by whom they were issued; 2) in the case of laymen, there is some question about how much Latin they understood*; but 3) some historians have argued, to my mind quite convincingly, that in some royal diplomas we can see the personal concerns of the kings in whose names they were issued coming through.

My opinion? My opinion is that it’s a false distinction. These documents are still speaking for their issuer, after all. I mean, a royal charter will open with “I, Charles, by grace of God king of the Franks” (for all the kings of the Franks are called Charles) not “I, Squitgar the monk, on behalf of King Charles”, so whatever the document says is being presented as the words of the king. This means that even if the contents of the diploma aren’t coming directly out of a pony-stickered diary with a lock and a note saying ‘Mum and Dad Keep Out’, they’re still a part of the public figure of the monarch: it’s irrelevant whether they’re personal, because they’re still a persona.

Moreover, not any randomer gets charters. To get a diploma, you need connections and influence; and that probably means that you’re in a good position at court anyway. Timothy Reuter had a great line about any given king being an historian’s shorthand for the king-plus-coterie-of-advisors-friends-and-chief-nobles, but if we unpack this in terms of diploma content, it means that most of the recipients are part of this ‘king’ figure anyway. What this means in practice  – well, there are a few things it means in practice, and maybe I should talk about the diplomas of Robert the Pious sometime in the next few weeks to illustrate one of the more important arguments I’ll be making in the book now that there’s a plan for starting to write that – but in this case what it means in practice is that we should be expecting the contents of charters to fit the ideological needs of both issuer and recipient; and here we return to Saint-Amand, because this is a particularly nice example.

The first forged diploma I found was one of King Childeric II and his mother Queen Chimnechild to the saintly bishop Amand. My first thought was that this was really on the nose, actually: what, the newly-establish regime of Charles the Simple, backed by his mother Queen Adelaide and surrogate father-figure Archbishop Fulk of Rheims is repeating the alleged actions of another young-king-queen-mother-holy-bishop trio? You don’t say… But as it turns out, Saint-Amand a) did in fact probably have a genuine diploma of Childeric II which Chimnechild was likely in; and b) forged a few more diplomas at the same time that are rather less applicable to the 899 context; so the actual reasoning looks to be a bit less direct.

So, Saint-Amand did have these old Merovingian diplomas, and these were still there in the mid-ninth century; but they were probably destroyed by Viking attack in the late ninth century. The rights the forged diplomas confer don’t appear to be particularly controversial – that of Childeric II, for instance, granted the cell of Barisis-aux-Bois near Laon, which had been being regularly confirmed for hundreds of years and whose relationship to Saint-Amand doesn’t look to have been doubted. So it looks more like the monks were engaging in so-called ‘pious fraud’, forging documents to show what everyone already knew to be true.

Which brings us to Charles’ pancarte. On the 17th March 899, just before Passiontide, Charles was approached by Fulk of Rheims, who was also abbot of Saint-Amand, who asked him to confirm the abbey’s properties, which he did**, making special note of those which had been confirmed by his predecessors as king – like I said, it’s a very historically-minded document. What this means is that Charles’ diploma is there to please everyone: Charles (who was fairly historically-minded anyway) was placed in a line of kings going back to the seventh century, and Fulk and Saint-Amand were placed in a relationship with kings that went back as far as well, despite the loss of their genuine diplomas and replacement by forgeries. Asking questions about beneficiary vs. actor here is simply pointless: this is a diploma issued by Charles’ regime, which props up all parts of it.

*Although being a student of Rosamond McKitterick, I would naturally tend to downplay this. Even otherwise, we know that people translated into vernacular languages; and honestly, this should have been fairly easy.

** There is one question I have about this act, actually, in relation to the forgeries. Charles’ act says that he needed to confirm the property because some older documents had been destroyed. Yet he also cites the forged diplomas of Childeric and King Dagobert. This seems a quite uneasy relationship to the forgeries, no? Hmmm… maybe if the rights in the Merovingian diplomas were so uncontroversial, these ‘forged’ acta weren’t even seen as forgeries at all – they weren’t supposed to fool anyone, simply replace older documents which everyone knew existed and accepted as legitimate. In this case, Charles’ statement becomes more ‘We all know these are ersatz, but don’t worry, they’re still good…’

2 thoughts on “Forgery and Continuity at Saint-Amand

  1. In answer to **, if Theo Kölzer is right, Ottonian diplomas refer to purported grants for St Maximin which no longer existed, but were a part of local oral memory (Urkundenfälschungen, 69–72). Could that be the case here; and if so, might be forgeries actually be designed to provide the back-story for claims already in the pancarte? (Note, however, that Nightingale doesn’t buy Kölzer’s argument; and without a root-and-branch reappraisal of the St Maximin dossier, I’m not in a position to judge the matter.)

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    1. Something like that, yes, I think, but more so. Kölzer argues, I reckon fairly convincingly, that the Merovingian diplomas as we now have them are based on previously-extant documents Saint-Amand had possessed well within living memory as of 899 (not least because someone apparently quotes them in around 875), which could be either genuine diplomas or at least rather more venerable forgeries. These then got burned by Vikings in the 880s, hence the need to replace them… As for the back-story, what’s interesting is that, certainly in the case of Childeric’s act, the monks probably don’t /need/ to forge it, because they appear to still have a couple of Carolingian diplomas confirming the same property. So it may well be that these are forged not so much for the property claims, but so that Charles and Fulk can have this historically-minded bit of glad-handing.

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