A King in Nappies?

Whilst making revisions to an article, I’ve had to revisit a question which has been circulating, one way or another, since the nineteenth century: did Louis IV create a sub-kingdom in Burgundy for his son Charles in 953? As far as I know, this was first proposed by Auguste Bernard before being refuted by Ferdinand Lot; Lot’s view then held the field for decades until it was counterattacked by Carlrichard Brühl, and now historians are going in both directions.

So, first things first: why does this matter? Well, Brühl and Hlawitschka’s debate was over whether or not there was a ‘tenth-century principle of indivisibility’, which I find a rather abstract constitutionalist question. My interest is more direct: if Louis did try and endow Charles with a kingdom in Burgundy, this suggests that he was punching hard in the region, and it also explains why he made some really significant concessions to Hugh the Great in early 953. In fact, it suggests a paradigm shift in West Frankish politics which would have taken place in the mid-950s had matters not been scuppered by Louis’ early death.

The cases for and against are easy to lay out, not lease because the evidence consists entirely of two charters and their dating clauses:

CC 1.857: “I, Bernard, wrote and gave [this charter] on Thursday, in the month of October, in the first year of the reign of King Charles.”  

CC 1.875: “…Cluny, over which lord abbot Aimard (r. from 942, †965) presides… Rothard, levite and monk, wrote this on the 2nd March, a Thursday, at Cluny in public, in the reign of King Charles.”

When do these date from? The second is pretty clear: it must be between 942 and 965; based on the years where the 2nd March was a Thursday, 954 makes good sense. The first one needs a bit more context: it is a charter from one Engelard to his betrothed Neuthild, the contents of which were repeated, evidently at a later date, in another charter dated to “1st November, a Friday, in anno septanta of King Conrad [the Pacific of Transjurane Burgundy]”. Anno septanta, taken literally, should mean ‘in the seventieth year’, which is palpably ridiculous. If it means ‘in the seventh year’, then we’re dealing with some time in the late 940s (although we can’t be more exact than that); if ‘the seventeenth year’ then sometime in the mid-950s. (For what it’s worth, the 1st November was a Friday in 950 and then not again until 961; both Bernard and Brühl proposed emending it to a date that better suited their argument but there’s no reason to make this emendation.)

CC 1.875 in the original, with the dating clause underlined. Modified from source.

Of these two charters, the second is by far the most important, because 1) it still survives in the original, so we can probably rule out copyist error (which we can’t necessarily with the second, not least because it’s so loosely drafted anyway) and 2) because it can be fairly securely dated. So, we have a fairly unambiguous bit of evidence that a scribe in the Mâconnais in spring 954 thought that there was a ‘King Charles’ in the vicinity. For Brühl, this is enough to have Louis’ son Charles made into a full-fledged king over a Burgundian sub-kingdom.

So, what are the problems with this view? There are two main issues: one, the absence of evidence; and two, the inherent implausibility of the scenario. Let’s start with the second one, because it’s the weaker of the two (improbable things happen often), but it is still worth noting. Louis’ son Charles (the future Charles of Lotharingia) was born in summer 953, meaning that if he was a king, he was a king as an actual infant. Some sub-kings were constituted at very, very young ages, admittedly – Louis the Pious was all of three years old – but a literal baby seems a bit much.

The absence of evidence is a bit more substantial, enough to constitute evidence of absence. We have a substantial chronicler (Flodoard) and a couple of others (the Annals of Sainte-Colombe, the Annals of Fleury, the Annals of Nevers) who cover Burgundian affairs, and none of them give any kind of king-making ceremony the slightest bit of attention. Even more crucially, we have a whole load of other charters from 953 and 954, all of which are still dated by Louis’ reign – including, crucially, the notice of a court held by Count Leotald of Mâcon in October 953. We know from both Flodoard and diploma evidence that Leotald was one of Louis’ most consistent allies in southern Burgundy. Given, therefore, that he would have been both one of the people whom Louis most needed to bring on board to support any kind of subkingship and one of the most likely to support the king, the lack of any reference to Charles is significant.

So, then, we have one unambiguous bit of clearly contemporary evidence, but it’s tinny in the face of a deafening silence. Ultimately, I’m with Lot, not Brühl: it might still be possible that baby Charles got his brief kingdom, but Occam’s Razor says that Rothard is the outlier, not everyone else. Charles’ brief kingdom would have to wait several decades to fail… but that’s another story.

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4 thoughts on “A King in Nappies?

    1. Good question! For most of its existence, no. By the mid-late tenth century, some sources use words meaning ‘the Charles family’ to refer to the dynasty, or to people from the West Frankish kingdom (evenwhen under Capetian rule). By the central Middle Ages, the former meaning predominates.

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      1. Thanks. I mainly wanted to ask if the underlined words could be a reference to the West Frankish Kingdom instead of a reference to a King Charles. I have no clue of Latin, of course. Just was thinking what else the words could indicate.

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      2. That’s a really interesting idea! Two things suggest not, though: first, the Latin is very literally referring to ‘King Charles’; and second, usages such as ‘kingdom of the Charles-men’ are almost entirely East Frankish… I did wonder if it might be a simple mistake (I’ve seen annalists refer to _Lotharius_ (Lothar) where _Karolus_ (Charles) was definitely meant), but the scribe seems competent enough, so I don’t want to impute anything to him…

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