Slavs and East Franks Love It So: Aribo’s Letter to King Arnulf (891)

Cod. Aug. Fr. 150 is not one of the prettiest manuscripts kept in the Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe. It’s a scrappy sheet of parchment, 135×205 mm in size and repeatedly folded. The brief message it contains is incomplete, written in a plain book minuscule in a bad Latin that complicates reading its otherwise simple vocabulary. So little was it valued that someone at the Abbey of Reichenau in the fifteenth century used it to rebind the famous eighth-century Reichenau Glossary (Cod. Aug. perg. 248), gluing it to the rear wooden cover, trimming the fragment by 2-3 cm on the right edge and by an unknown amount at the bottom in the process. Once there it was chiefly appreciated by the woodworms that chewed several holes in it until it was published by Alfred Holder in 1914.

You may not like it, but this is what peak manuscript performance looks like. Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Cod. Aug. Fr. 150

Why am I interested in this unprepossessing manuscript? Because the badly written fragment is one of the most precious clues we have about Carolingian diplomacy. One of the problems that scholars of medieval diplomacy face is that we lack the paper trail that modern scholars rely upon. We generally don’t have the informal letters, personal briefing reports and cryptic notes that are the bread-and-butter of diplomatic history. Instead, we have to work with brief references in sources that are primarily interested in other subjects, or with official material intended for public consumption. But in Cod. Aug. Fr. 150, we get lucky, because it’s a letter from Count Aribo to King Arnulf (r.887-899) reporting on progress made by a Frankish embassy to the Moravians, which I’ve translated below.

“Aribo’s Letter to King Arnulf” in H. Schwarzmaier, ‘Ein Brief des Markgrafen Aribo an König Arnulf über die Verhältnisse in Mähren,’ Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 6 (1972), 55-66, p. 57.

To the most pious king

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Life and health to Arnulf, by favour of divine clemency most serene of kings. Aribo, your humble count, sends faithful service.

Your Clemency should know that you have neither free nor serf amongst your followers who strives for you as strongly as I.

We make it known to your ears that our representatives came from the eastern regions last Sunday and told us that all the Moravians together had ordered the cattle into the kind of service owed by their own serfs, and they are all joined together in friendship and give themselves to your service with no lordship due to any of the nobles.

My lord, they received Bishop Wiching and your other messenger with joy and they denied what had been told of them.

And everything… they were in observation and every day they gather them for your service.

My most pious lord, when you left from our parts, I was captured by the enemy with my most important people and… to come into the eastern parts… it was improved until… to carry out your service, by which… these named individuals died…

This text isn’t entirely straightforward to follow, not helped by the fact that we’re missing a good chunk of the manuscript. In the letter, Count Aribo addresses King Arnulf, relaying news to him about the progress of an embassy to the Moravians, led by Bishop Wiching and another, unnamed, envoy. Things seem to be going well, because the envoys were well received. The Moravians deny rumours that they were about to break with the Franks. Instead, as instructed they are gathering cattle for Arnulf. At the more fragmentary bottom of the manuscript, Aribo refers to being captured by enemies with his men.

When this letter was written is a little unclear. Arnulf became king in late 887. That Aribo addresses him thus suggests that the letter is from before Arnulf was crowned emperor in February 896. Bishop Wiching was Arnulf’s chancellor from late 893, something we might expect Aribo to mention in the letter. Arnulf was at war with the Moravians for most of 892-3, something not reflected in the letter. This suggests we’re looking for a date before 892. Rather promisingly, the Annals of Fulda state that in 891 ‘the king sent his ambassadors to the Moravians to renew peace’. This seems close enough to the situation Aribo describes that Schwarzmaier assigns it to this year, which strikes me as plausible.

If the letter is from 891, it comes from a context of good relations between the Franks and the Moravians. The last major war between the Franks and the Moravians had ended in 874, when Svatopluk I (r.871-894) made peace with Arnulf’s grandfather, Louis the German (r.840-876). The following years weren’t entirely peaceful. In 882 Count Aribo was attacked by rivals within Bavaria who wanted his title and office. Svatopluk intervened on Aribo’s side, while Arnulf supported his enemies. Charles the Fat (r.876-887) came to region in 884 and settled the matter in Aribo’s favour, leaving Arnulf to make a separate peace with Svatopluk in 885.

After overthrowing Charles in 887, Arnulf received envoys from ‘the Slavs’ in 888 and 889, which may have included the Moravians. In 890 Arnulf and Svatopluk had a summit together, where they discussed a number of items, including difficulties faced by the Pope. The embassy sent the following year was meant to confirm unnamed arrangements made at that summit. Aribo’s letter suggests that things were proceeding as planned. Relations were to break down the following year leading to war. It’s possible that the rumours the Moravians denied to the envoys were a hint of the trouble to come, but Wiching and Aribo seem to have been content with the situation.

One of the most exciting things about this manuscript is that it’s not a copy. The opening address ‘To the most pious king’ is on the other side of the sheet, so it would be visible when folded as a letter. The script was either that of Aribo or a scribe of his.[1] Thus the Latin and the hand tell us a great deal about the literacy of a frontier count and his retinue. The formulaic opening suggests that Aribo routinely wrote reports to Arnulf like this, updating him about affairs on the frontier and in the Moravian world. The letter hints that Aribo was not a participant in the embassy, but was rather relaying information from the envoys. This implies that he expected Arnulf to want to hear the news faster than the embassy with their retinue could travel. It is also indicates that he was confident his messenger could find the king. Over the course of 891, Arnulf moved from Regensburg to Maastricht and Nijmegen in the west in order to battle Vikings before celebrating Christmas in Ulm. Aribo’s letter points to the state of communications in the East Frankish kingdom. We should probably picture Arnulf’s mobile court being met by a constant stream of messengers from all over the realm, keeping him informed.

This leaves the question of how this letter ended up in Reichenau. Arnulf spent Christmas 891 in Ulm, a little over 70 miles from the monastery. An interpolated charter attributed to Arnulf purporting to date from 21 January 892 places him in Zusmarshausen in Bavaria renewing Reichenau’s privileges. If there is any truth to this charter whatsoever it suggests that Arnulf was in the area and dealing with people from Reichenau, which might help explain how the letter ended up there, although the exact chain of transmission remains mysterious.

Aribo was highly qualified to comment on Moravian affairs. In addition to being based on the frontier, he close ties to Svatopluk, who had saved his life in 882. Aribo seems to have been equally comfortable in the Moravian world as the Frankish, and was suspected of being involved in the civil war that broke out in Moravia after Svatopluk’s death in 894. His son, Isanrich, was a hostage of Svatopluk’s who later became a leading figure in Moravian politics.

There are strong parallels between Wiching and Aribo. Originally from Alemannia, Wiching spent much of the 870s in Moravia, being appointed Bishop of Nitra in 879, becoming the leading representative of Latin Christianity in the empire and chief rival to the Byzantine Methodius. He seems to have been a close adviser to Svatopluk, who sent him as his representative to the Pope in 880. From 886 he was the only bishop in Moravia. Like Aribo, Wiching had friends and experience in both camps, which made him a valuable diplomat for Arnulf. Although his later stint as the king’s chancellor drew him back into Frankish affairs, his subsequent appointment in 899 as Bishop of Passau on the frontier suggests that he remained connected to the region.

A number of interesting questions do emerge from this letter. These include the mysterious absence of Svatopluk. Given the brevity of the missive it is likely that Aribo assumed that Arnulf would understand the Moravian monarch to be involved without mentioning him, but it is odd. I’m tempted to wonder if there’s a connection to Aribo’s curious reference to the Moravian people serving Arnulf before any of their own nobles. The Moravian empire would experience a nasty civil war after Svatopluk’s death. Perhaps some of those tensions were present as early as 891. That said, I suspect there was nothing too serious going on, given that Svatopluk seems to have capably led the Moravians in the war with Arnulf in 892-3.

Another interesting question relates to the cattle the Moravians are gathering for Arnulf. I was tempted to translate the word pecora as a generic word for tribute, but cattle seems like a more natural rendering. Cattle do seem to have been a large part of the Moravian economy, with cow bones appearing in a lot of archaeological sites. The cattle might have been a regular tribute. Svatopluk had made peace with Louis the German in 874 on terms that he would pay annual tribute, and the summit of 890 might have led to a revival of that arrangement with Arnulf.

Alternatively, this might have been a one-off deal, negotiated for a special purpose. Inspired by this recent excellent post by Jonathan Jarrett, Fraser suggested to me that they might be intended for a military baggage train. Arnulf was definitely in need of one in 891. The first army he sent to battle the Vikings plaguing the west of his realm was ambushed in the woods near Aachen. Regino of Prüm notes that the Vikings ‘captured many wagons and carts in which provisions were being carried to the army.’ The only problem is that its not clear what Arnulf’s purpose would have been in assembling this baggage train. The Vikings were a surprise when they invaded at the start of 891. The king had already ruled out an invasion of Italy the previous year.

The mysterious and fragmentary closing lines suggest that Aribo was facing difficulties. Given that things seem to be going well with the Moravians, it seems unlikely that they were the enemies who had captured him. Aribo had had difficulties with the Bavarians in the past, what with the whole having to flee to Svatopluk in 882 to escape the Wilhelminer business. In 893 the Bavarians ambushed and killed the newly appointed marchio Engelschalk, himself one of the Wilhelminer. Given the rough and volatile state of local politics, I wonder if Aribo had been captured by enemies within Bavaria at some point after Arnulf left the region to fight the Vikings. If so, his ability to get out of trouble speaks to his diplomatic skills. It might also explain quite how keen Aribo is to emphasise his usefulness to Arnulf in the letter to keep the king on his side against local rivals.

A letter like this one raises unanswerable questions. Even were it intact, it is a short missive commenting on an ongoing situation for a reader who was already aware of the background. But at least the questions it allows us to ask are new questions. We don’t know why the Moravians were gathering cattle for Arnulf, but we know that they were. We don’t know who took Aribo prisoner in 891, but we know that he was. Being able to define the shape of our ignorance is a precious thing in medieval studies. By this point I have spent more time thinking about this letter than Aribo spent composing it or Arnulf did reading it. It is the very transience and disposability of this document that makes it so valuable today.

[1] As a consequence of this, I’ve resolved to become more careful about what I call Aribo. He goes by a number of different names in the sources and scholarship and in the past I’ve referred to him as Arbo. But in this letter, which is the only place we can hear him in his own words, he wishes to be known as Aribo. That matters, so Aribo he shall be. If that means me hearing an annoying jingle and developing a craving for sweets whenever I think about him, that is a me problem rather than a him problem.

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2 thoughts on “Slavs and East Franks Love It So: Aribo’s Letter to King Arnulf (891)

  1. it is such an interesting text! Something that sticks out to me is the long history Arnulf and Aribo have, dating back probably to the 870s. I strongly suspect that when Arnulf became king in 887 he tried to limit Aribo’s influence on the frontier but never sought to actually remove him. There are a constellation of charters that Arnulf grants in 888 and 889 that would seem to indicate his desire to build up alternatives to Aribo on the frontier.

    Liked by 1 person

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