Source Translation: The Election of Louis the Blind

MGH Capit. II, no. 281 (August 890)

In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 890, in the 8th indiction, the religious and full venerable Archbishop Bernoin of the holy see of Vienne visited the apostolic see to consult with the apostolic lord (under whose purview lies the care of and duty towards all churches) about certain needs of his church and the general needs of the whole realm. By his worthy report, he related the disturbance in this realm: how, after the death of the most glorious emperor Charles [the Fat] it had been for a long time without a king and prince, and was badly afflicted everywhere not only by its own inhabitants, who were checked by no rod of dominion; but also by pagans, for on one side the Northmen pressed in, devastating nearly everything; and on the other, the Saracens plundered Provence, returning the land to wilderness. After he had heard these reasons, and others of the same kind, the reverend apostolic lord Stephen [V], moved to tears, advised by his most holy exhortation, both in words and in writings directed generally to all the cisalpine Gauls, both archbishops and other venerable bishops, that everyone should unanimously and concordantly give their consent to Louis, grandson of the late Louis [II], most glorious of emperors, and establish him as king over the people of God.

When, therefore, we had diligently discovered that the assent of our holy, catholic and apostolic mother Church favoured this election, we – to wit, lord Aurelian, archbishop of the see of Lyon, and also lord Rostagnus, archbishop of the town of Arles, and the venerable Arnald, archbishop of Embrun, and lord Bernoin, archbishop of Vienne, himself, by whose report we reverently accepted the will of the apostolic lord; with many others of our fellow bishops – all gathered together in the city of Valence, we investigated, discussed and inquired in accordance with God’s will whether we should worthily and reasonably establish him as king over us in accordance with the admonishments of the apostolic lord, whose writings we had to hand.

And so, everyone agreed about him that no-one would make a better king than he, who came from an imperial bloodline and who had already grown into a lad of good character. Although his age seemed insufficient to curb the barbarians’ savagery, it could nonetheless be crushed by the counsel and strength, by God’s assistance, of the noble princes of this realm, whose number is not small. Supported above all by the assistance of Richard [the Justiciar], the most famous of dukes and an extraordinary prince, and moreover of lady Ermengard, the most glorious of queens, whose deeply profound and razor-sharp prudence was given to her by God, to which was joined the worthy exhortation of the aforesaid bishops and the counsel of the whole realm’s magnates, the realm’s advantage will be managed very worthily, in a God-fearing way.

Finally, supported and encouraged by such confidence, as we believe through God’s will, we elected the aforesaid Louis, son of the most excellent of kings Boso and decreed he be anointed as king, judging worthy for the role him to whom Charles [the Fat], the most all-surpassing of emperors, had already conceded the royal dignity; and of whose realm Arnulf [of Carinthia], who became his successor, was proven to be a protector and supporter in everything, through his sceptre and through his wisest legates, that is, Bishop Riculf [of Soissons](*) and Count Berthold [from Alemannia]. Supported by such and so great a permission of authority, everyone came into the same city, and by common consent we decreed that this royal record should be made and, preferring that it remain valid and fruitfully thriving for all time, we strengthened it with our own hands and we each subscribed.

(*) It’s also been proposed that this is Bishop Theodulf of Chur. Riculf of Soissons seems like a better bet, though – Fulk of Rheims was closely tied to Arnulf of Carinthia’s court, to the extent of being a papal legate to sort out various problems in the East Frankish church, and it’s quite possible that one of his suffragans would be sent on an errand, particularly in light of the Rheims archdiocese’s previous support of Louis.

Here’s a cool thing. You remember we’ve talked before about how you don’t have to be count of anywhere, and there are cases of people who weren’t bishops of anywhere? Well, here we have a case where we have a king who is not king of anywhere, or at least not of anyone. You see right at the end there, where they note that Charles the Fat had already – key word, already­ – conceded the royal dignity to Louis? That means Louis was king, just one with no subjects. On Monday, of course, Louis wasn’t being called king at all, but as this document acknowledges he kind of was.

The ambiguity doesn’t end here. The picture of kingship in the first paragraph is fairly typical: kings are supposed to repress the wicked and defend against the pagan. It all sounds like the king-making liturgies we spent a good chunk of last year looking at. But then paragraph three says that he’s too young to do any of this – it’s actually Richard the Justiciar who’s doing most of the fighting. One imagines the scribe wincing as he writes this: because Louis’ claim to kingship isn’t straightforwardly hereditary, and he’s manifestly inappropriate to perform any of the functions of kingship, his erstwhile backers have had to keep a lot of the framework of the Carolingian discourse about kingship even as it groans under the strain of a situation it’s not really set up to handle.

Or do we? There’s an article by Ross Samson called ‘Carolingian Palaces and the Poverty of Ideology’ which every now and then I read and worry about. Basically, Samson argues that despite the efforts of contemporary (meaning early-to-mid ‘90s) archaeologists to argue that Carolingian palace architecture was an expression of ideology, in fact there wasn’t anything coherent about their architectural elements at all: they were a thrown-together mess of historical and cultural references meant to go ‘hey, isn’t the king impressive?’ rather than anything more sophisticated.

Specifically, he’s talking about the palace complex at Ingelheim, taken here from fig. 6 in Webster, ‘Charlemagne’.

This is usually cited as ‘for another perspective see…’, which means he’s probably wrong in his wider point (one thing which has happened since the article was published in 1994 is that it has become very clear that huge chunks of the Carolingian elite were highly-educated and thoughtful, even if not terribly profound, which makes his claim at the end that ‘gosh, Aachen is big’ is a better representation of one of Charlemagne’s count’s thought processes than ‘reformatio et correctio’ very old-fashioned), but despite this, he’s put his finger on something which bothers us in the time between turning off the light and going to sleep.

That being: what if these people don’t care about consistency? Doesn’t this description look as though the bishops of Provence are trying to legitimise a fait accompli by throwing everything which makes a good king (The pope’s backing! Election! Character! Approval from a more legitimate king! Heredity! Justice and warfare!) at it despite the fact that some of these ideas don’t work with each other and some don’t work well with the eight-year-old they’ve now made their ruler.

Phrased like that, some of you might be nodding and going, ‘well, duh – these are powerful people, they’re probably all about that hardcore Machiavellianism.’ But cynical Realpolitik doesn’t really fit either – again, Louis is eight. Child kings are problematic, for pretty much the reasons this document outlines – they can’t lead armies, and they can’t really do much in the way of decision-making or law enforcement. This is why Charles the Simple doesn’t seem to have gotten a crack at kingship in 884 or 888. So choosing Louis as king implies a commitment to Louis specifically which goes beyond the simple demands of political exigency – if you want a king who won’t bother you, Arnulf and Odo are far away and already crowned; if you want a king who was related to Boso but who is effective, Richard the Justiciar’s around; and so on. So we seem to be left with a situation in which a group of magnates are making a king based on a principled choice, but then justifying it with a different set of principles which don’t fit. Presumably this isn’t actually what’s happening – one just has to stand in the right place so that everything which looks out of alignment lines up. If that happens, I’ll let you know…

3 thoughts on “Source Translation: The Election of Louis the Blind

  1. Does it have to be Louis specifically, or is the loyalties he combines as heir to both Carolingian and Bosonid bloodlines and the fact he was crowned by the emperor? Making Richard king would cause trouble; everyone in this situation knows how that went last time, and anyway he will be just as effective without a crown. Making a non-Carolingian king generally has caused trouble at every point in the last thirty years, in fact, Arnulf possibly excepted but also, as you say, far away abd busy . But now there are few Carolingians left, this one is no-one else’s and (assuming he survives) perhaps he will therefore put your interests first down the line, as well as being more or less unobjectionable to all camps. In so far as I’ve thought about Louis the Blind beyond context for Raffelstetten and as part of the tenth-century Carolingian reprise which Regino doesn’t like to admit (why not? by the time he describes 888 half the thrones of Europe have some kind of Carolingian back on them or at least in contention for them and half of his reguli‘s thrones have collapsed. Anyway…), that’s roughly how I’ve thought about him. Any use?


    1. I think my issue with this text isn’t really the politics which lie behind it, which are I think pretty straightforward. What we saw on Monday of the guys who are behind Louis’ election are for the most part either the same people (Rostagnus of Arles, Aurelian of Lyon, Richard the Justiciar, Queen Ermengard) who elected Boso as king, or their successors (Ardrad of Chalon, Bernoin of Vienne); and Ermengard’s regime has a fairly broad base of support and looks like it’s the de facto power in the region anyway. So I actually do think this is more-or-less ‘Provençal kingdom, take 2’, in a distinctly Innes-ian sense of wanting locally-accessible kingship, and is entirely justifiable in contemporary terms by reference to descent and selection.

      What bothers me is more that the principles by which they frame their decision don’t precisely overlap with those by which the decision appears to have been made. What the account seems to say is roughly as follows:

      BERNOIN: “Oi, pope!”
      STEPHEN V: “‘Sup?”
      BERNOIN: “We’ve got no king!”
      STEPHEN V: “And?”
      BERNOIN: “So no-one’s there to stop crime or fight off baddies!”
      STEPHEN V: “Hmmm, that’s a bugger. How about this eight-year-old?”
      BERNOIN: “Ace!”
      READER: “Does he… like, fit your requirements?”

      I admit, on re-reading the source, that the blog post does somewhat overstate how much of a disjunction there is between the text’s rationale for the election and the presumable actual rationale. It does talk about Louis in precisely the terms of descent and selection you’d expect. But there’s also this other bit that doesn’t really fit Louis’ situation, insofar as the bit of the source describing it is more-or-less explicitly self-contradictory, and the issue for me is working out why it’s in there…


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