Charter a Week 12: The “End of the Carolingian Empire”

We’re here! That legendary year 888, the all-caps Fall of the Carolingian Empire, a year of the succession crisis which SHOOK Frankish Europe to its very CORE and had mostly SHORT-TERM CONSEQUENCES with LITTLE IMPACT ON POLITICS OR POLITICAL CULTURE!

Yeah, I said it. Come at me, bro.

Background: things might have been looking relatively placid from our West Frankish perspective lately, but in the wider world, things weren’t so hot. Charles the Fat had systematically failed to produce a legitimate son – not a world-shattering problem in 880, when he was one of five living male Carolingians; but by 888, after a decade of unforeseen deaths in his family, he was the last one left, and had no obvious heir – or, rather, no obvious heir he wanted to recognise.

Of the four potential options, no-one seems to have considered the future Charles the Simple, a young child being fostered in Aquitaine. The emperor tried to have his own illegitimate son, named Bernard, acknowledged as heir by the pope, which didn’t work. He also may have adopted Louis the Blind as his heir – he certainly adopted him in some sense, and although it’s not clear what was intended, a very weird text known as the Vision of Charles the Fat suggests that Louis was being pushed by some people at least as an heir for the whole empire. (Most historians, it must be said, think that the vision dates from Louis’ coronation in 890 rather than from before 888. I don’t think this fits well into the circumstances of 890 and that there is at least a case that it should be dated earlier.)

In any case, the most obvious candidate was Charles the Fat’s illegitimate nephew Arnulf of Carinthia. Arnulf was an adult, a successful warrior, and had support amongst the aristocracy, particularly in his heartland of Bavaria. Yet Charles didn’t want to acknowledge him as heir, in great part because Arnulf had ended up rebelling against him in a series of events known as the Wilheminer War. Notker the Stammerer’s Life of Charlemagne, which is probably the most entertaining work of pseudo-history from the entire Carolingian era, was written not least to try and persuade Charles to stop ignoring Arnulf.

By November 887, two things had come together. First, one of Charles’ schemes to displace Arnulf looked like it would have some degree of success; and second, the emperor was very, very ill. At an assembly in Frankfurt, a group of East Frankish nobles launched a sudden coup to replace Charles with Arnulf. Charles was pensioned off to an estate where he died shortly thereafter – he was very, very ill – and Arnulf…

Arnulf hightailed it back to his powerbase, first to Bavaria then to Pannonia, not coming back west until May 888. In the meantime, things got very muddy very quickly. Arnulf had only been made king by the East Frankish nobility, and Charles the Fat actually hadn’t been deposed. When Charles died, and Arnulf tarried, it must have seemed unclear that Arnulf was even going to try to be king outside the eastern kingdom.

And so, over winter 887 and spring 888, a group of other kings sprang up. This, I think, was fundamentally compelled by necessity. The Franks needed kings, not least to lead their defence – at this time, the north of the West Frankish kingdom was subject to serious Viking attacks not least from the fallout of the 886 siege of Paris – and I think there was also an element of getting in there first – if your guy wasn’t crowned, then your rival’s might be. Hence the confusion over exactly how many kings there were going to be, and where they would rule. In the West, Odo of Paris faced off against both Ramnulf of Aquitaine (who didn’t make any claims to kingship stick) and Guy of Spoleto (who lost and went to Italy). In Italy, Guy fought against Berengar of Friuli. In the Middle Kingdom, Rudolph of Transjurane Burgundy had himself crowned king, largely it appears as a challenge to Arnulf. It’s clear from the degree of confusion that this was an unexpected scenario, and there was a lot of improvising going on, although I’ll be posting more about the fallout from this on Wednesday.

But, speaking of the now-king Rudolph, his kingdom is probably the one genuinely new development of 888. There are strong implications that Transjurane Burgundy was a defined unit before 888, but it had never been the centre of a kingdom. So let’s take a look at this new kingdom’s new king’s first diploma.

DD Burg no. 3 (10th June 888, Walperswil) = ARTEM no. 1796 = DK 9.xviii

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Rudolph, by favour of divine clemency king.

Since it behooves royal eminence that it should proffer beneficent attention towards its subjects and bring their just petitions to effect, it is above all befitting that it should clemently share its liberality with those who exert the promptest devotion in its service.

And through this let the skill of all those faithful to the holy Church of God both present, that is, and future know that there came before the clemency of Our Magnitude Our sweetest and most beloved sister Adelaide, seeking and supplicating that We might through a precept of Our royal dignity concede to her for her lifetime the abbey of Romainmôtier, which was constructed in honour of the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, and is sited in the county of Vaud; and that after her death she might have power to leave it to whichever of her heirs she wishes.

We received this petition with the deepest sincerity and through the authority which We have We bestow upon the same woman the said principal abbey of Romainmôtier for as long as she lives. When, moreover, God deigns to summon her from her body, let her have permission and by all means relinquish it to whomsoever of her heirs she might elect.

And that this Our largess might be held more firmly and be conserved undisturbedly for all time, We confirmed it below with Our hand and We order it be sealed with the impression of Our signet.

Sign of Rudolph, most pious of kings.

Berengar the notary witnessed on behalf of Archbishop and Chancellor Theodoric [of Besançon].

Given on the 4th ides of June [10th June], in the first year, with Christ propitious, of Rudolph, most pious of kings, in the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 888, in the 6th indiction.

Enacted at Walperswil(*).

Happily in the name of God, amen.

(*) The MGH editor is very firmly against Uabre villa being Walperswil and insists we simply don’t know where it is. Some modern scholars do still go with Walperswil so I’ve included it, but it shouldn’t be taken as a reliable identification.

cw 12 888
Rudolph’s diploma, taken from the Diplomata Karolinorum linked above.

This is very much improvised. The editor notes that the scribe appears to have come from the abbey of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune, where Rudolph was lay abbot and which lay at the centre of his power. The scribe clearly knew what royal diplomas looked like, and was trying to do it properly, but did not himself have any experience in writing the things, hence why the script looks a little off by the standards of regular royal acts. This is probably to be expected – none of the kings of 888 except Arnulf himself expected to be kings a year earlier, so it’s not as though they could have clerics practising for their inevitable moment of triumph.

This also makes sense in the context of Rudolph’s reign, because it’s not immediately clear where he was trying to be king of: he appears to have been made king once in Transjurane Burgundy and then again at Toul, before Arnulf came and attacked him, which suggests that he was trying for the whole of Lotharingia. This is a controversial point, but I lean towards thinking that, like Boso, Rudolph was in fact going for as much as he could get away with. Political geography was fairly fluid at this point, and no-one knew what the surviving kingdoms would eventually shake down as – in the west, for instance, Odo ending up as ruler of Aquitaine as well as the north was at the least not completely certain, thanks to Count Ramnulf; had things gone really badly for Rudolph, Transjurane Burgundy could have been a similar blip.

Consequently, it’s very interesting that the diploma is for Rudolph’s sister Adelaide. Adelaide had probably been married to Richard the Justiciar since the early 880s, and Richard’s connections were quite far-spread: his family had interests in Lotharingia which his son Boso of Vitry would pick up, Richard himself had ties in various places in Burgundy, and – as we’ll be seeing in a few weeks – he was very intimately involved in the early days of Louis the Blind’s regime. We’ve seen before that in this region, things can be very fluid and cross-border activity is the norm rather than the exception. What this diploma looks like, then, is trying to bring Adelaide on side, and through her all her marital family’s links, in order to try and build a wide-ranging network of support for Rudolph’s kingship bid.

This is particularly interesting if Uabre villa is, as several historians have suggested, near Toul – in that case, it becomes particularly intimately tied to Lotharingian politics in a way which, although it didn’t work out in the long term, suggests that Rudolph was making a very serious try to push his kingdom’s boundaries north.

4 thoughts on “Charter a Week 12: The “End of the Carolingian Empire”

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