Politics, Provence, and Proving Nothing

The COVID-19 pandemic has not generally, I get the impression, been good for research. Libraries have been shut, there’s been almost no chance of archive access, and lots of the usual venues for exchanging knowledge have either not happened or gone online which – even as someone who’s run a couple of online conferences myself – just isn’t the same. The pandemic has had the same impact on me – my ongoing research has been heavily disrupted for about a year, so I’ve been working on a couple of pandemic projects I can do with the resources at hand. The biggest, and the one into which I’ve put the most time, is writing an actual narrative history of tenth-century France. It seems to me that there’s a need for such a book. For one thing, if you want detailed narrative for the period then at the moment your normal recourse is to a series of about six studies all of which are over a century old, in which time our fundamental assumptions about tenth-century history have changed notably. What this means is that the current boom in work on the period is in the strange situation where very theoretically and critically advanced material is being put in the context of a narrative all of whose assumptions come from the historiography of belle epoque France. This isn’t to say that these books need replacing, necessarily – the scholars who wrote them were deeply immersed in the sources and the world, and their insights remain valuable – but it would be nice to have something a) more up-to-date and b) in fewer than half-a-dozen volumes. This isn’t just a question of synthesis – in basically every chapter, I have to argue for my story; and this is – as always – ever more the case when it comes to Provence.

Yes! Surprise – it’s another Provence post. This time, we’re going later than we usually do, to the late 940s and the reign of Conrad the Pacific. You may remember from previous posts about Provence that after the death of Louis the Blind there is a period of confusion where it’s not entirely clear who’s in charge. There is a long-standing historiographical tradition that this comes to an end in 933 when Rudolf II of Transjurane Burgundy makes a deal with Hugh of Arles that Rudolf gets to rule Provence in return for not trying to overthrow Hugh in Italy. I have argued before that this is more-or-less nonsense, and there is a solid and separate historiographical tradition which agrees with me. However, that tradition in turn would give a date of 942, when Otto the Great and Louis IV met at a place called Visé and made a pact. The argument is that we know Conrad the Pacific was in Otto the Great’s train in 942; in late 942 and early 943 we see Conrad for the first time in Provence; so it must have been the case that Louis, Otto, and Conrad made some kind of settlement over northern Provence. Given Flodoard says absolutely nothing about any of this, such an argument gets me muttering about correlation and causation (not that Flodoard’s silences are clinching proof, but they do get me suspicious); and there is a further historiographical tradition which is happy for Conrad’s assumption of power in Provence to have been a much more drawn-out affair.

To give you a really quick timeline: Louis IV comes to the throne in 936; Conrad in 937 but he gets quickly kidnapped by Otto the Great. We don’t have any charters from south of the Lyonnais which can be securely dated to this period in the name of either monarch but narrative sources seem to indicate that Louis had more punch in northern Provence than any other ruler. This changes by 943, when Conrad is in Vienne. There, he seems to have most of the region’s elite on side, despite some friction with Vienne’s count, Charles Constantine (son of Louis the Blind). By 946, Conrad looks like he’s firmly in charge of the north. Then, in 947, something important happens: Hugh of Arles, who has been king of Italy all this time, is deposed, and flees north to Arles itself, where he seeks help to regain his throne before quickly dying in April. Hugh’s death changes the picture, and I’m currently trying to work out how Conrad and Louis respond to it.

This is hampered by the fact that there’s already a great story that you can put together from work that’s already out there. Two very serious French scholars, Jean-Pierre Poly and Etienne Fournial, both working on rather different issues, have two arguments which complement one another wonderfully.

To start with, Poly points towards a letter from Rather of Verona, addressed to a series of Provençal bishops including Guy of Lyon and Sobbo of Vienne, refusing to come to a synod, in part at least because he was not properly under their jurisdiction. He infers from this that it was a synod arranged to judge Rather’s claims to the see of Verona against Archbishop Manasses of Arles, who also claimed the see. He then links this to the 947 Council of Tournus, where most of the same bishops were assembled, and argues based on a charter for Cluny that Manasses did show up, and was given the all-clear by them.

Fournial, meanwhile, is also looking at charters, in this case from the abbey of Savigny, and points out an interesting pattern: whilst most charters from the Lyonnais after 942 are dated by the reign of Conrad the Pacific, some are dated by the reign of the West Frankish kings, and nearly all of them come from the region of the western Lyonnais known as Forez. Fournial therefore argued that Forez was reserved to Louis by the Treaty of Visé.

A Late Medieval depiction of Feurs, the town after which Forez is named. (source, originally from Gallica)

Here’s where I come in. The earliest charters Fournial has are actually dated to 949*. Manasses of Arles’ charter is also dated by Louis. Now, Archbishop Odalric of Aix-en-Provence shows up at the Synod of Verdun in winter 947, and in autumn/winter 948 Louis was spending a lot of time making nice with the great magnates of southern Burgundy. Conrad, though, evidently also saw an opportunity because he seems to have been exerting his influence to get his men into important positions in southern Provence, notably in the case of the election of Bishop Honoratus of Marseille in 948. So, this presents us with a picture roughly as follows: after Hugh of Arles’ death, Manasses (the biggest cheese left in the region) comes north and negotiates with the area’s other leading prelates about what to do next. Conrad the Pacific sees opportunity, but so does Louis IV, and Manasses is a swing factor. In the end, Conrad does get southern Provence, Manasses goes back to Italy – but Louis is bought off with Forez. It’s an appropriate closing movement to the long and complicated history of Provence after Louis the Blind.

The problem is that it’s definitely wrong.

Let’s start with Poly’s claims, because they are peculiarly baffling. There’s not much literature about the Council of Tournus, but in what there is it is clear that German and French scholars have not been reading each other’s work. German scholars not being familiar with Poly’s work I can understand – they tend to be Carolingian-focussed Church historians and it’s not immediately obvious that a history of feudalism in the central Middle Ages is relevant to that – but Poly is apparently unaware of basic things, like the ‘modern’ edition of Rather’s letters (‘modern’ in quotation marks because whilst it is a product of modern scholarship in a way which the much older edition Poly cites is not, it’s also from the 1940s), or the extensive German-language historiography on Rather’s career. This is relevant because that scholarship is universally agreed that the letter in question dates from the mid-to-late 930s, and whilst I’m not 100% convinced of the reasoning there, at the very least Rather was back in Verona in mid-late 946 so is unlikely to have had anything to do with the Council of Tournus. Equally, there’s no evidence linking Manasses to that council either – he was certainly in Provence in September 948 but that’s over a year later!

Equally, Fournial’s argument has been respectfully demolished by Pierre Ganivet. The thing with Fournial’s argument is that there are a lot (like, a lot) of charters from Forez dated by Conrad’s reign, and it’s far from clear what factors affected the drafting. Ganivet points out that one of the most likely factors seems to be scribal preference, which if the scribe wasn’t from Forez might not be very helpful. In any case, we definitely don’t have a picture of West Frankish control over Forez, as opposed to a few weird outliers.

(Even the date of 948 for the election of Honoratus of Marseille is probably wrong: it’s dependent on a charter dated by ‘the twelfth year of Conrad’, but we have another charter from the same monastery dated to his thirteenth year, and that also gives an AD date of 955…)

So, is there anything left? …Honestly, not really. I’ve looked at the evidence from every conceivable angle trying to find something, because we definitely have traces of something interesting happening in these years, but there’s no ‘there’ there. Now, on one hand, Conrad’s expansion into the south of Provence is well-documented, and his consolidation of power in the north is also well-known even if not often commented upon. How this interacted with the West Frankish kingdom, though, is unknown, if hinted very obliquely in our sources. For one thing, there are a lot of West Frankish bishops at the Council of Tournus, including the suffragans of the archbishop of Lyon but also Godeschalk of Puy, who wasn’t (but, on the other hand, Godeschalk has lots of ties with Transjurane Burgundy and Provence…). Then, there’s the presence of Bishop Odalric of Aix-en-Provence at the Synod of Verdun in late 947 (but he was running the see of Rheims for years and the evidence he ever went back south after the 920s is very dubious…).

Then, we have Manasses of Arles visiting Cluny in September 948, along with Countess Bertha of Arles and the bishop of Avignon. This is probably the least controvertible piece of evidence we have that something is going on, because that certainly looks like a delegation to me. The charter in Manasses’ name through which we know any of this is dated in the name of Louis IV, which could be significant except that the charter itself deals with lands near Chalon, was issued at Cluny, and was written by a scribe who from what I can tell only worked at Cluny, so it’s – again – probably just scribal preference. The significance of this is that it’s a reasonable leap to say that Manasses is there to talk to Hugh the Black (who in addition to ruling southern Burgundy is also in charge around Lyon and Besançon) and Count Leotald of Mâcon (and Besançon), and probably Bishop Maimbod of Mâcon too – all of them have clout in northern Provence. At precisely the same time, Louis IV is also spending a lot of time talking to precisely these people. But there’s no route through them from Louis to Manasses, and no trace of any kind of deal between Louis and either Manasses or Conrad. Ultimately, this is one of those cases where it’s best not to push the evidence too far…

*OK, not really, but that’s the best interpretation. They’re actually dated to ‘the twentieth year of the reign of Louis, king of the Franks’, who didn’t reign for twenty years. The editor proposed, I think reasonably, that they were dating from the death of Charles the Simple in 929. It must be said, there are also a number of other options, including but not limited to a) they mean ‘Conrad’ not ‘Louis’ and there’s been a scribal error (I’ve seen ‘Charles’ and ‘Lothar’ get mixed up before); or b) ‘twenty years’ is being used as a vague, rounding shorthand by the cartulary compilator.

3 thoughts on “Politics, Provence, and Proving Nothing

  1. I’m also really excited at the prospect of a proper narrative history of tenth century France – you’ll be doing us all a huge service. One of the biggest revelations in doing my masters thesis on political culture in Richer of Rheims’ histories earlier this year is that such a thing does not yet exist, one which had no small impact in shaping the end result. Indeed, more scholarship on West Francia as a kingdom and on West Frankish kingship between Charles the Fat (888) and Louis the Fat (1108) would be welcome, and that’s something I have aspirations of making my own contributions to should things work out for me (supposing that I manage to get on to a PhD programme sometime in the next few years) in the meantime.


  2. And I think the conclusion of this very interesting post really does evoke the classic lament of political historians of the areas between the Rhine, the Pyrenees and the English Channel in the long tenth century (c.880 – 1030 lets’ say) – with the source base we have to make do with, how does one prove anything while in the meantime everything looks messy and fiendishly complicated. But at the same time, that’s also one of its perks and charms.


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