Peripheral Violence: Kalyvas and the Carolingians

There’s a reasonably large faction of early medieval historians who are somewhat suspicious of theory, a trait which is particularly pronounced at Cambridge. Given this background,my instinct is to be sceptical about applying elegant theoretical models to messy historical reality. On the other hand, I am also a historian specialising in a field that has a shortage of sources. Such a situation encourages omnivorous scholarship, fed by a diet of whatever evidence or ideas you can get your teeth into. As a consequence, early medievalists are magpies by nature, pilfering from archaeology, geography, anthropology and a whole range of other subjects for anything that looks useful/shiny. This post is about one particular shiny object I acquired some years ago which I still find valuable.

Subjects of the Carolingians took part on both sides of many of the conflicts that involved the Frankish empire in the ninth century. Given that civil war was a Carolingian pastime rivalled only by the growing of silly moustaches, this shouldn’t surprise us too much, but it also features regularly in conflicts with outside powers. Powerful Frankish figures from the frontier supported invasions from Muslim Spain on multiple occasions. When Prince Svatopluk I of the Moravians invaded Bavaria in 882, he was accompanied by Count Aribo, whose job it was to stop these sorts of things. Clearly leading Frankish aristocrats had choices to make about whose side they were on when war broke out.

In trying to understand what is going on here, I’ve found useful food for thought in the work of the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, and in particular his book, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006). Kalyvas is interested in modern civil wars, particularly the Greek Civil War of 1943-1949. He argues that the apparently mindless violence that often characterised such conflicts is actually highly (if monstrously) rational based on the logic of the situation combatants find themselves. There’s a lot going on in this book, which uses examples from a wide number of wars since the French Revolution. The theme of strategic uses of violence is explored in a number of different ways. The passages that most caught my attention were the ones which discussed the way local actors were drawn into the wider war on either side.

Soldiers from the Greek Civil War. Conclusions as to how Carolingian warfare would have changed had Charlemagne had an artillery battery will have to remain speculative until my time machine is ready.

For Kalyvas, one of the problems in the way that wars are studied is the assumption that central elites dictate politics and the local population on the peripheries more or less go along with it, fighting for the causes of different ideological movements or powerful factions as a monolith. In reality of course this is very far from the case, as Kalyvas observes ‘more often than not that populations (including ethnic groups) are internally divided into competing families, clans, localities, or other factions (p.11)’. He argues that these local divisions were often more salient for people than conflict on a state level. The outbreak of civil war is important for such groups because:

‘individuals and local communities involved in the war tend to take advantage of the prevailing situation to settle private and local conflicts whose relation to the grand causes of the war or the goals of the belligerents is often tenuous. (p.365)’

Local actors can use the disruption of the broader war to remove enemies and achieve power in their vicinity, provided they legitimise their violence by using the appropriate terminology which makes them combatants on one side of the national conflict. The groups being attacked in this way will then often ally with the other side of the civil war on the time and tested doctrine of ‘my enemy’s enemy’. These alliances allow actors at the centre to expand their power in the periphery by allying with local groups who are already present in those regions. In turn, actors in the locality get muscle and sanction from the centre.

Kalyvas’ case studies are all civil wars from the modern world, which should make us hesitant about applying his conclusions to wars involving external polities in the Carolingian era. Nonetheless, I find his ideas intriguing because they help me with thinking about some of the ninth-century conflicts I’m interested in. A surprising number of wars or almost-wars in the period were triggered by local conflicts which then expanded. The Umayyad invasion of 829 was invited by a number of frontier lords on the Spanish March who were frustrated at the accumulation of power and honours by Bernard of Septimania, led by Willemund, whose family’s position in the March had been undermined by Bernard’s. The Wilhelminer war I mentioned in a recent post on atrocities (because I like picking cheerful topics to write about), was kicked off when one family group attacked Count Aribo because they wanted his title. Aribo called in Svatopluk of Moravia to help him, the Wilhelminer turned to Arnulf of Carinthia, and before you know it everything starts looking a bit Europe 1914. Most notably, in both of these conflicts, key figures or families can be observed changing side shortly afterwards as their local circumstances changed. Bernard’s own son, William, would ally with al-Andalus in order to wage war on the March following the execution of his father by Charles the Bald. In 893, a member of the Wilhelminer family was executed for corresponding with Svatopluk.

Apart from not being pure civil wars, these conflicts differ from the ones Kalyvas describes in that the local violence happens before, and causes, the bigger violence between state actors. The Carolingians wanted none of these wars, and I suspect that Svatopluk wasn’t entirely happy to get pulled into the mess either. That said, in both cases we can see the same pattern of local actors using their alliances with central governments to acquire the military strength and the legitimacy they need to prosecute their own feuds in the periphery. Those alliances existed because the Carolingians and their neighbours wanted to project influence in those border regions because they were worried about the potential for war with each other and needed to ensure that the frontier could be easily defended/invaded according to preference. They did this by cultivating leading figures in the area by giving them official titles or offering them protection. As a result, wider tensions between the Franks and the Umayyads or the Moravians created the conditions for the likes of Willemund or the Wilhelminer to settle scores.

Things I like about this approach:

1.     It gets us thinking about the impact of local politics on state-level conflict. Kalyvas tells us that if we want to understand the success or failure of the national cause, we need to pay attention to pre-existing tensions on a smaller scale. People had their own concerns, which mattered to them as much as the fates of kings. These spheres of politics are motivated by different things, but are nonetheless inherently linked, so that both operate under the influence of the other.

2.     It also helps explain how apparently very distant causes could motivate and mobilise support far away from the centre of the action (you should totally risk your life and limb over whether my brother-in-law’s best friend gets to be king may or may not be the easiest sell otherwise).

3.     I find the awkward coalition of different groups needing each other’s support for purposes that aren’t the same but can be aligned a compelling model for understanding the otherwise very confusing conflicts I encounter in the sources.

Things that I don’t like:

1.     There’s a risk that actors at the centre start coming across as either total rubes who haven’t understood why they get the support they do or as cynics willing to go along with any crime so long as there is something in it for them. Coalition-building was at the core of most medieval politics. Monarchs and ministers who didn’t know exactly who their constituency was weren’t going to last very long. Nor were such rulers necessarily relaxed about the wholesale slaughter of their subjects. Part of the point of having a king was that they can act as an arbiter in conflicts, making sure that justice happened. Allowing one’s allies to settle scores certainly happened, but it had to be done carefully.

2.     The bigger problem here is that it makes it seem like local elites were never interested in state politics and had no political ideas beyond getting stuff and removing enemies. In this reading, only people at the royal court get to have actual values or a capacity to think on multiple levels. As work on the Crusades has shown, medieval elites generally genuinely believed the things they said and were willing to take part in causes that transcended their own immediate interests in the name of faith, nation, justice or loyalty. The Carolingian era is particularly interesting for the number of secular counts on the edge of the empire who seem to have been genuinely committed to the imperial project of reform, corresponding with intellectuals, collecting books and founding religious houses. The civil wars of the ninth century caused real emotional strain for Frankish nobles who believed in a united empire.

These possible problems indicate that we have to be cautious when using this model. Despite this, I think that there is a valuable insight here for how conflicts could spread from the centre to the periphery and vice versa via chains of alliances by linking up apparently unconnected disputes, which is why I have kept it in my collection of shiny items.


8 thoughts on “Peripheral Violence: Kalyvas and the Carolingians

  1. This is a really stimulating post and I enjoyed reading it, thank you so much Sam. I can certainly see how Kalyvas’ approach can be applied to other medieval civil wars – for the West Frankish civil wars of the mid-tenth century it would work quite well (Fraser will no doubt have many sensible and insightful things to say about this), and it has some applicability to fifteenth century England, though the Wars of the Roses was definitely a lot more than just an extension of private feuds as the work of people like A.J Pollard, Christine Carpenter and John Watts have shown. Also, the way in which you’ve touched on how external powers intervened in ninth century Carolingian internal conflicts has parallels elsewhere – I myself have explored them a bit in a blogpost I did back in January about Edward the Confessor’s foreign policy

    At the same time, I agree with your criticisms about the applicability of Kalyvas’ theory to the Carolingian era. Point two in particular resonates with me – I really don’t like those kind of pessimist/ minimalist approaches which suggest that the Carolingian elite was driven only by materialistic concerns/ tough realpolitik, and that the only thing that held the empire together was the pulling power of the royal court and its stream of patronage. Indeed, might it be possible to argue that in many ways Carolingian civil wars actually reflect just how much the elite brought into the Carolingian imperial project and wanted it to work, but were at odds as to how it should do so best (with one royal court or many)?


    1. Thanks for the kind words. I think the commitment of Frankish grandees to the Carolingian project absolutely could fuel conflict as people competed for office rather than retiring to their local power bases. I suspect that the febrile, rhetorically-heightened political atmosphere created by the Carolingian ideological programme of an empire as ecclesia could also crank up the impact of setbacks by making failure a manifestation of a lack of commitment to the cause. It wouldn’t surprise me if this raises the pressure (there are probably interesting parallels to be drawn between the reigns of Louis the Pious and Æthelred the Unready with regards to recourse to penitential kingship when bad news keeps coming despite you attempting to reform everything you can reform).


      1. Jonathan Jarrett and I were discussing similar stuff to this on A Corner of Tenth Century Europe a few weeks ago, and basically we agree that the Carolingians, in order to legitimise themselves and consolidate their authority over the Frankish aristocracy, put the kingly office on a very high pedestal by stressing his unique responsibilities towards the maintenance of public order, justice and the moral and spiritual welfare and collective salvation of his people. While this “industry standard” undoubtedly helped Pepin the Short and Charlemagne, and indeed Louis the Pious up to about 830, it also meant the higher the pedestal the harder the fall. Thus when the gap between what was expected of kings and what they could realistically deliver grew too big, the political community could feel justified in taking action against them and trying to replace them with a worthier candidate which, until 879 at least, had to be a Carolingian. This is what separates the Carolingian civil wars from those of the late Merovingian period, and there are a lot of parallels to that with other medieval dynasties – the West Saxon kings post-Edgar (as you mentioned), the Salians in Germany and the Angevins and Lancastrians in England.


  2. As the bedouin saying goes (more or less): “I am against my brother, my brother and I are against my cousin, my cousin and I are against the stranger”. I found it to be quite precise (ie: Willemund and Bernard)


  3. Having just found this via a pingback on a pingback, I wanted to say, firstly, yes, interesting! and useful! I may also have to steal this shiny thing. But secondly, on this:

    There’s a risk that actors at the centre start coming across as either total rubes who haven’t understood why they get the support they do

    An example of this being argued, of which you may already know, is Thomas Lienhard, ‘Les combattants francs et slaves face à la paix : Crise et nouvelle définitions d’une élite dans l’espace oriental carolingien au début du IXe siècle’, in Les élites au haut moyen âge : crises et renouvellements, ed. by François Bougard, Laurent Feller, and Régine Le Jan, Haut Moyen Âge, 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), pp. 253–66. Here Lienhard ends up arguing that Borna Prince of the Croats effectively gets Carolingian backing by claiming that he rules one group when he actually rules another one far away from the current zone of contention, and thus gets a license to attack Liudewit of Pannonia, contemporaneous Carolingian Slavic bugbear. I see how the fog of war might well have obscured frontier situations for the Carolingians, but my problem with this as argued here is that the only evidence in play is the em>Royal Frankish Annals, which obviously don’t tell us everything the Carolingian court knew about what they report; but on their basis and with no other information, Lienhard is prepared to tell us what he knows that the Carolingians didn’t… So I agree with you that this is a problem, because I’ve met it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this example! Lienhard’s case is…impressively convoluted. I’m put in mind of Fraser’s recent post ( about Fried’s argument that the Franks were simply incapable of understanding the Danes. There are a surprising number of people who seem convinced that despite becoming the dominant power of Western Europe, the Carolingians were incapable of any kind of diplomatic shrewdness.

      I wonder if a part of the problem is that our sources are too Frankish, so we see the interior view of noble, straightforward Franks forced to suffer the irrational and unjust nuisances of less enlightened peoples. The outside view might highlight the skillful cunning a little more clearly. I might also speculate about the impact of American blunders in foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq shaping people’s expectations in the early 2000s.

      That said, I am also put in mind of the Dreadnought hoax of 1910, so perhaps there’s something in it…


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