The Problem of the Three Bernards

Whew. This year has been exhausting. How about something more fun? Let’s head back over a century to mid-ninth century Aquitaine, and deal with one of the most entertaining antiquarian problems in Carolingian history: how many people called Bernard were there?

It’s called the ‘Three Bernards’ problem because of a line in Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims’ Annals of Saint-Bertin where he refers in 868 to ‘the margraves, Bernard of Toulouse and Bernard of Gothia and another different Bernard’. However, nobody thinks there are three Bernards in play. The most generous number I’ve seen is actually about seven, and personally I think there are either four or five.

So who are they? Let’s start with the first two above. Bernard of Gothia is by far the least controversial: he is the brother of a man named Emeno, he was dispossessed in the 870s and he died in rebellion. So far, so easy. Bernard of Toulouse is also fairly easy to deal with: he is the son of a man named Count Raymond of Toulouse and his family have been in charge there for a couple of decades by this point. However, here we run into the first problem. In 872, Hincmar refers to a man named Bernard the Calf dying. Is this Bernard of Toulouse? Janet Nelson argues no: because Charles the Bald received the news in Burgundy, Bernard the Calf should belong in Burgundy and thus Nelson identifies him as perhaps a brother of Count Heccard of Mâcon. This seems like a weak basis for an argument to me. Bouchard points out that the evidence for Bernard of Toulouse’s death being in around 872 is very good, if circumstantial, and the lands and offices held by the Aquitanian magnates of the later 870s makes better sense if Bernard of Toulouse and Bernard the Calf are the same man. So I am therefore quite happy to go along with this identification. (For those of you keeping score: number of actual Bernards: 2; number of potential Bernards: 3.)

Bernard Bernard Bernard Bernard mushroom mushroom…

This brings us to the other different Bernard, and this is where things get tricky. Let’s stay with Bouchard for a minute. Bouchard argues that ‘the other different Bernard’ is the same man as one named in Hincmar’s Annals as ‘Bernard son of Bernard’. So let’s start with, who is Bernard son of Bernard?

Most historians would happily identify him as the son of an earlier ninth-century magnate named Bernard of Septimania, most famous for being accused of sleeping with Charles the Bald’s mother and eventually being executed for treason. However, a historian named Mathieu has argued that Bernard son of Bernard is not son of Bernard, but the son of Bernard.

(Feel free to pause for refreshment here.)

Specifically, he argues that ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ is not the son of Bernard of Septimania, but of a man named Count Bernard I of Auvergne. The reasoning for this has to do with Bernard son of Bernard’s career in Lotharingia looking after King Lothar II’s bastard son Hugh, a position Mathieu sees as too responsible for a rebel, too important for someone without much of a patrimony, and too dangerous in terms of Lothar’s relationship with Charles the Bald. This is not a very substantial objection: by analogy with Baldwin Iron-Arm of Flanders, we know that Carolingian kings were quite happy to attach their sons to people who might be described as adventurers, and Hincmar’s description of Bernard as ‘son of the tyrant Bernard’, as he does a few times, fits neatly with a son of Bernard of Septimania. Bernard I of Auvergne certainly existed, and may have been Bernard son of Bernard’s father-in-law, but is unlikely to have been his father.

One thing we can all agree on is that ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ is the same person Hincmar at one point calls ‘Bernard Plantevelue [Hairypaws]’, so that’s nice.

Was Bernard Plantevelue the ‘other different Bernard’ of the 868 annal, though? Bouchard’s argument that he was rests on the assumption that Hincmar is explicit about only meaning three Bernards. However, I don’t think he does. The description of Bernard as ‘another different Bernard’ seems to mark him out from not only Bernard of Gothia and Bernard the Calf, but also Bernard Plantevelue. Bernard Plantevelue, as mentioned above, seems to have spent 868 and 869 in Lotharingia, and Hincmar looks to be distinguishing between him and, well, another, different, Bernard. (The Lotharingian adventure also provides a good contextual reason why Bernard Plantevelue wasn’t hanging around in Aquitaine at the same time.)

So who was the other different Bernard? Nelson proposes that he was Count Bernard I of the Auvergne, and this does just about work. However, the problem is that the most natural reading of the charter evidence from the abbey of Brioude is that Bernard I of Auvergne died by September 868, which is just about possible, but requires him to get home from the meeting reported in the 868 annal and die immediately. It also requires Charles the Bald not to find out about it for a year or so, because he was apparently expecting to meet this Bernard in 869. (He didn’t, and there may be a reason why, but it’s an odd lapse in information gathering at best.)

The alternative is that ‘the other different Bernard’ is another, different Bernard. The Latin of Hincmar’s passage can be construed as drawing a distinction between Bernard the Calf and Bernard of Gothia, who are margraves, and the third who isn’t; in which case the third need not be a layman at all. If not, my guess would be Abbot Bernard of Solignac, who was an important churchman with close ties to Charles the Bald’s court.

So where does this leave us? With four or perhaps five Bernards: Bernard of Toulouse, who is Bernard the Calf; Bernard of Gothia; Bernard Plantevelue, who is also ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ and the son of Bernard of Septimania; Bernard I of Auvergne, who might be the ‘other different Bernard’; and Bernard of Solignac who is another reasonable candidate for the other different Bernard.

If you’ve read this far, then congratulations! If you see me at a conference, use the code word ‘vanadium’ and I’ll buy you a drink. But more seriously, you might be wondering why any of this matters. The short answer is that who we think is doing things can change the picture dramatically. To take only one example: if Bernard son of Bernard isn’t the other different Bernard, his support of Lothar II’s son Hugh is a regional problem at best. If he is, it’s an international conspiracy and this has important effects on how we tell the story of the politics of this decade. The Three Bernards problem, then, might be dry, or even comically absurd, but it is worthy of attention.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of the Three Bernards

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