Practical Peace-making: Charlemagne’s Letter to Michael I (813)

We tend to view Carolingian peace-making from a high vantage point. Unnamed envoys appear in our sources and are received by a monarch, a peace is agreed, and the legates are graciously permitted to depart. Sometimes our annalist generously deigns to inform us about the general terms of the peace just made. Other times we have to work it out from context, inference and a certain amount of educated guessing (the treaties themselves rarely survive). As a result, we are often presented with peace as an accomplished fact rather than a long process. One of the consequences of this is that we generally have only a very fuzzy idea about the actual practicalities of this procedure. I’m not talking here about the backroom bargaining, the loud shouting and the quiet whispers, the discrete incentives and not-so-discrete scandals. Barring screw-ups, these matters are opaque even in the modern age. Rather, what I’m interested in today is the process of making a treaty real and official.

Fortunately, every so often we get lucky, and something survives that gives us a bit of a hint about the nuts and bolts of finalising a treaty in the age of Charlemagne. What follows is a translation of a letter sent by Charlemagne to the Byzantine Emperor Michael I (r.811-813). In addition to serving as something of a sequel to my previous post translating a letter to Nikephoros I, it also provides an interesting glimpse into the practical issues of making peace happen in the early middle ages.

Charlemagne, Epistolae variorum, ed. E. Dümmler, MGH Epp 4 (Berlin, 1895), no.37, 555-556.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Charles, by the largess of divine grace, Emperor and Augustus, and also King of the Franks and of the Lombards, wishes his esteemed and venerable brother Michael, the glorious Emperor and Augustus, eternity with our Lord Jesus Christ.

We praise Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and we thank him wholeheartedly, as much as humanly possible and according to the ability of our intellect, because He has deigned, through the inexpressible gift of his grace, to grant us this reward: just as He has deigned in our days to establish the long-sought and always-desired peace between the western and eastern empire, thus He has also now deigned in our time to grant unity and peace to His holy and immaculate Catholic Church, which extends over the whole world, in accordance with its daily prayers (just as He deigns to always rule and protect it).

We therefore speak of it as if it had already been realized, because we have done everything that had to be done on our part, and we do not doubt that you intend to do your part as well; for we trust in Him who ordered this work that we have taken in hand, namely to make peace; for He is loyal and truthful and appears as a helper for every good endeavour; He will thus also bring to completion what we have started well, as we really believe.

Seized by the desire to complete it, we have sent our present ambassadors, the venerable Bishop Amalarius of Trier and the pious Abbot Peter of the venerable Monastery of the Holy Apostles (Nonantola), into our esteemed brother’s glorious presence, in order to – in accordance with what the faithful ambassadors of your esteemed brotherly person, the venerable Bishop Michael and the glorious First Sword Bearers Arsafius and Theognostus, did with us when they received the written version of the treaty, confirmed both by our own signature and those of our priests and leading men – in the same way our envoys should receive from a sacred altar by your outstretched hand the written version of the agreement, confirmed by the signatures of your priests, patricians and leading men; so that they bring them to us, if God supports their journey. For reason demands it, and the agreement between us and your ambassadors said that after their departure, at the first opportunity for sailing, we shall send our ambassadors before the glorious presence of your esteemed brotherly person, who will receive the above-mentioned written version of the contract or alliance when you give it to them, and bring it to us.

So we ask your esteemed and fraternal person that, if you like the version of the contract that we have drawn up and sent to you, you might deign to give the same – in Greek and strengthened in the way we said above – to our already mentioned envoys; and that after they have come to you and have been kindly received by you, as we expect from your affection, you dispatch them without any delay, so that we may enjoy their return and the answer of your esteemed brotherly person, if God stand by us; and that God, the giver of all good, may reimburse you with a worthy compensation for what you have expended to be a friend and promoter of this peace, which He has ordered should rule between us. Farewell.

Michael I confers with his courtiers, Madrid Skylitzes, Madrid Biblioteca Nacional de España, Graecus Vitr. 26-2, 11r.

There are a few things going on here. As discussed with the letter to Nikephoros, the Franks and the Byzantines had been at loggerheads over Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in 800 and Carolingian intervention in Venice and Dalmatia. Peace had become increasingly desirable to both sides as it became clear that the Franks weren’t going to take the disputed territories without putting in considerably more effort than Aachen was willing to. For its part, Constantinople had a growing Bulgar problem, as evidenced by Nikephoros’ death in battle against them and the use of his skull as a novelty drinking vessel by Khan Krum. As a consequence, Charlemagne’s new correspondent, Michael I, had his own incentives to seek peace. This spirit of détente had manifested itself in 812 in the form of the Byzantine embassy Charlemagne mentions in the fourth paragraph of the letter. These envoys acclaimed the Frankish monarch in the chapel at Aachen as Emperor and Basileus (the Greek title for emperor), recognising Charlemagne’s claim to imperial status. As the letter above notes, Bishop Michael, Arsafius and Theognostus also received a written copy of the agreed treaty, before going home via Rome where, interestingly, Pope Leo III presented them with another copy of the same treaty in St Peter’s Basilica. 

The letter to Emperor Michael has a number of fascinating features. Themes from the earlier letter reappear. Once again Charlemagne presents peaceful diplomacy between Aachen and Constantinople as the workings of divine will, making it seem both desirable and inevitable. We have the pleasure of renewing our acquaintance with Arsafius the skilled diplomat. The information about Charlemagne’s ambassadors is also useful, although we also have a fascinating account of the embassy written by Amalarius, the Versus Marini. Intriguingly, the letter refers to western and eastern empires, creating equivalence between the Carolingians and Byzantium while very carefully avoiding the word Roman. The shared institutions of the church are called upon to cement them in common purpose. 

Perhaps most interesting though is the passage where Charlemagne spells out the physical, legal and spiritual acts that he believes are necessary for the completion of the treaty, acts that he indicates he has already performed and which he (rather too intently and repeatedly to be entirely convincing) believes are a necessary formality that Michael will easily discharge. Specifically, Michael is to hand over personally a Greek version of the treaty, with the subscriptions of Michael’s chief followers, from on top of an altar.

This rather cumbersome set up, involving multiple journeys and the assembly of large chunks of the political communities of two empires, combines both written (the signed treaty) and oral testimony (the assembled witnesses) in an effort to make the deal stick. By swearing on the altar, both Charlemagne and Michael staked their relationship with God and their hopes of salvation on keeping their word. The public involvement of the leading figures of their realms raised the stakes of defecting further while also committing the Franks and the Byzantines as a whole to peace.

The really big question for me is how representative this all is. If, as Charlemagne is strongly trying to imply throughout this letter, this procedure is routine, then that would be fabulous. We could say that we know how peace between warring empires was made in the age of Charlemagne and could move on with our lives. There are a couple of hints that this might be the case. Similar features characterised the tenth-century treaties between Constantinople and the Rus’, preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle, which feature a complex combination of multiple written parchments and oaths sworn on relics and other items of religious significance. Byzantium was not unfamiliar with securing political deals by placing documents on the altar. In 776 Leo IV (r.775-780) had agreed to the demands of his generals that he make his infant son (Constantine VI r.780-797) co-emperor, but only if written oaths of loyalty sworn by the leading men of the empire on relics were placed on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. The procedure also bears a remarkable resemblance to what we know of ceremonies associated with the granting of land and property through charters (he writes, confident in the knowledge that his editor is amongst the most qualified people in the world to correct him).

On the other hand, there are a couple of other signs that something a bit weird is up here. When political operators get fixated on a detail that is apparently no big deal but nonetheless a really important thing to do, it’s a hint that something is afoot. Peace between the Carolingians and other polities was achieved with much less grief. The same year that Charlemagne wrote to Michael, he successfully concluded peace with the Danes following negotiations that had begun in late-812 with a ceremony that makes no mention of written treaties. In 812 he had made peace with the Umayyads of al-Andalus and Grimoald III of Benevento. The protracted pattern of multiple embassies over several years to nail down one peace treaty is unusual (although regular readers may remember something similar happening in last week’s Charter a Week – as noted above, it makes sense that the acts required to make a treaty valid would rely on the same mechanisms as other important agreements!), and should perhaps suggest that the specification of the need for all of the elements of written documents, oaths on relics and the participation of the entire political community in combination with each other is not necessarily standard procedure. Elements of these were probably in play with all peacemaking of this period, but this looks like something a bit special.

So what gives? I suspect that part of what is happening here is that Byzantium simply had a specific style of making peace which looked different to the normal practice of, for example, the Danes, one which placed emphasis on the written word (in Greek). But I also wonder if a bigger part is the nature of what Charlemagne wanted, which was recognition of his imperial title. He needed to know that Michael, his successors and their courts would take his position and those of his heirs as emperor seriously, and he needed to be able to communicate that recognition within his own empire. That made him care a lot more about the ceremony and the proof of complete acceptance than he might have in other cases.

One also gets a strong sense of urgency from Charlemagne’s letter. This may be a consequence of his own advancing years, for he turned 65 in April 813. It also probably reflects Byzantine political instability. Michael might fall quickly and be replaced by someone less sympathetic. Alternatively, should he defeat the Bulgars, his strengthened regime might decide to renegotiate. Getting this done now, while Michael needed Frankish neutrality, was a good idea.

If this was what lay behind Charlemagne’s thinking, then he was not wrong to desire haste. Michael’s campaign against Krum was more of a success than that of Nikephoros but only because he didn’t end up with his skull as part of the Khan’s kitchenware. The Byzantine army was defeated, Michael abdicated in favour of Leo V (r.813-820) and his sons were castrated. Michael himself spent the next thirty years living quietly as a monk. Amalarius and Peter arrived in Constantinople to find a Bulgar army outside. Upon their return to Francia in 814, they discovered that Charlemagne had passed away in their absence on the 28th January.

Within a year of the letter being composed, neither of the emperors was still in power. Despite this, Charlemagne’s purposes were fulfilled. Leo V ratified the treaty as the Frankish ruler had requested, sending more envoys to bear the document of the treaty. Louis the Pious and Leo engaged in an amicable relationship, confirming their friendship with further treaties in 814-815. Dealings between the Franks and the Byzantines may have been unusually complicated, but Charlemagne’s letter gives us an unusual glimpse at some of the legal heavy lifting behind the bland words of the annals.

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