Last week, we looked at Louis the Stammerer and the powers and responsibilities he held in the last years of Charles the Bald’s reign through the lens of Louis the German’s invasion of the West Frankish kingdom in 875. This time, we’re going to look at Louis the Stammerer and succession. To recap, historians have generally seen the relationship between Charles and Louis as being a particularly rancid example of a Carolingian father-son bond, with Louis resentful and incompetent and Charles suspicious and disdainful. One of the ways this perception of their relationship plays out in analysis of our source material is the perception that Charles was actively trying to cut Louis out of the succession, and this latter perception culminates in an apocalyptic (for Louis’ chances of becoming king, anyway) reading of the 877 Capitulary of Quierzy.
It has to be said right at the start that part of the reasons historians think that Charles was looking to replace Louis is that, at points in his reign, he absolutely was looking to upgrade his heir. The introductory address to the ordo to crown Charles’ first wife Ermentrude as queen in 866 explicitly says as much: his sons have died or disappointed him (or been disqualified by being made part of the clergy) and he’d like the assembled bishops to beseech God to give him some extras just so he can be sure his successors will actually be good. This, though, is a document of 866: both of Charles’ eldest sons, including Louis, had recently rebelled, and Charles’ attempts to assert his patriarchal authority had been a bit damp. The crucial thing is that this is a document of 866, and by a few years later father-son trust had actually been rebuilt. Charles, from our evidence, certainly continued to want more sons, but this was decoupled from any animus against Louis: it stemmed from a generic desire to have more sons for the security of his descent-line and as a display of divinely blessed kingship than from a specific desire to screw Louis out of his inheritance (erm, so to speak).
This brings us to the Capitulary of Quierzy. Issued in 877 when Charles the Bald was on the threshold of going to Italy, it sets out his provisions for the government of his northern realms whilst he was away, including making a statement on the succession. That statement is that the West Frankish grandees explicitly designate and accept Louis as Charles’ successor; that Louis is to prepare to go to Rome on Charles’ return for a royal coronation there; but that if, in future, Charles has more sons, they will be entitled to a share (to be determined) in the inheritance, and that Charles’ nepotes may also (to be determined) have a share of the realm.
Historians have seized on the latter part of this much more than the former. I don’t think anyone has put the argument this bluntly, but the general interpretation of the Capitulary can be summed up as: by refusing to declare Louis sole heir once and for all to the whole of his realm, Charles was looking to marginalise him in favour of hypothetical future heirs or even – so desperate was he to find any alternative to his son – his nephews, the sons of Louis the German (this latter being one meaning of the word nepotes).
A priori, I don’t think this is right. One thing that isn’t pointed out is that Charles couldn’t exactly refuse to disinherit his hypothetical sons by Richildis either. (Actually, he could in theory put them in the Church, but given that he already didn’t have a spare heir that was a dangerous manoeuvre). Within that framework, Charles had evidently and very explicitly had Louis affirmed as his successor. Moreover, he was working to put a special gloss on Louis’ authority. A coronation in Rome – not as emperor but certainly with imperial overtones – wasn’t handed out on the street corner, and indeed Charles’ plans to give Louis authority in Italy gave him what contemporaries perceived as a legitimate claim into the period of his sole reign. Moreover, Louis was probably given a major role in determining the future shape of the realm. The part about Charles’ nepotes, it seems to me, is unlikely to refer to his nephews – they do show up as nepotes elsewhere in the Capitulary but only in the context of their being a constant, lurking menace, the combatting of which is one of Louis’ prime delegated responsibilities. I cannot imagine Charles saying ‘fight them on the beaches, fight them on the landing grounds, fight them in the fields and in the streets – but if one of them proves worthy they can be my heir’! Instead, I think that Charles’ nepotes are Louis’ sons, his grandsons. The clause says that if they prove worthy, then a division of the realm will be made secundum quod nobis tunc et cui placuerit. I have found three renderings of this clause into modern languages (two in English, one in French) and as far as I can tell every single one of them leaves out the et cui. The phrase translates straightforwardly, as ‘in accordance with what is at that time pleasing to me and to him’. However, although syntactically it’s not entirely clear whom the cui refers back to (it could be the nepos in question, it could be God), it’s most likely – I think, having talked it over with my current boss who reached the same conclusion independently – to refer to Louis himself. What Charles is actually saying, in essence, is ‘if either of my grandsons prove worthy of getting a sub-kingdom, their father – my son – and I will discuss what to give them and act accordingly.’ In short, I don’t think this document is a prelude to cutting Louis out of the succession: it’s a prelude to making him the senior figure amongst what Charles hopes will be a larger group of son-kings.
Of course, if we could find evidence that Charles actually was attempting to disinherit Louis, then all the preceding discussion would be moot; and this brings us to today’s translated source. Brigitte Kasten has argued that a draft capitulary text usually attributed to Alcuin was not, in fact, from the realm of Charlemagne, but in fact half a century later from the reign of Charles the Bald. Furthermore, the chapters in question make radical suggestions regarding the possibility of disinheriting sons from an inheritance on the grounds of rebellion or mental disability. In such a figure, Kasten sees Louis the Stammerer.
Kasten’s grounds for re-dating the text are essentially derived from an analysis of its content, rather than on any kind of codicological or text-critical grounds. I won’t summarise the whole thing here, but her key point is that there’s no reason for Charlemagne to have asked for advice on how to deal with sons with mental illness whereas for Charles the Bald there was. I don’t find Kasten’s re-dating entirely convincing, I have to say; but for the sake of argument we can assume it.
So, with that in mind, why does Kasten think this text is relevant to Louis? Kasten argues that Louis was ‘mentally deficient’ (Geistesschwäche) based on a passage in Regino of Prüm, where he describes Louis as:
called “the Stammerer”, because speech came to him more slowly and with greater difficulty… this prince was a straightforward and mild man, a lover of peace, justice and religion…
Regino, Chronicon, s.a. 878
Now, the Latin I’ve translated as ‘straightforward man’ is vir simplex, which can mean ‘simple’ as in ‘stupid’ but usually doesn’t. Normally, a vir simplex is one who is – as the Bible says – ‘simple like the dove’, manifesting a given set of theological virtues. There is some debate whether or not these particular virtues were perceived as being good ones for kings to have by Carolingian writers, but they’re definitely not a sign of stupidity. But! argues Kasten. But! He also had a stutter!
If I were being strictly fair, Regino says not only that Louis the Stammerer had a stutter and that he found talking to be slow and difficult. Besides the fact that Talking is Hard is a pretty damn amazing power-pop album, all that we need to say here is a bad stammer does not make one congenitally unable to manage one’s own affairs, and there’s no other indication that Louis had any kind of mental illness (either congenital or acquired).
By contrast, if we continue to accept for argument’s sake that this draft capitulary is from Charles the Bald’s reign, then there’s a much more obvious target that I am surprised Kasten, who literally wrote the book on kings’ sons, missed. Charles’ second son Charles the Child, who rebelled with Louis the Stammerer in 862 but whose reconciliation took longer and was much more begrudging, was badly wounded in 864. The severe head wound he sustained did in fact cause ongoing trauma – Hincmar of Rheims calls it both epilepsy (epelemtica passione) and, in language notably reminiscent of the capitulary text, ‘disturbed in the head’ (cerebro commoto) – and two years later he died from it. We are thus are certainly dealing with a son whom contemporaries saw, unquestionably, as both rebellious and mentally ill. Thus, if we are dealing with a mid-ninth century text here, the target of any attempt at disinheritance was surely Charles the Child and not Louis the Stammerer.
Consequently, our analysis of the Capitulary of Quierzy given above stands, and we can place it in tandem with last week’s analysis of the events of 875 to argue that Louis has been given an historiographically raw deal. He and Charles the Bald certainly had their moments of profound tension, but they patched up their political relationship quite effectively. Charles entrusted Louis with important missions, and Louis carried them out successfully. There was no attempt to disinherit Louis on Charles’ part – in fact, if all had gone according to Charles’ plan, the end result would have been a senior, Rome-crowned, member of a family of kings presiding over much younger half-brothers and the sons whose fate he had collaborated with his father to decide.
(Psuedo?-)Alcuin, Epistola, no. 132 (MGH Epp. vol. 4)
Chapters which it is Appropriate to Bring to Mind at Such a Time
Cap. I: ‘A testament is of force after men are dead’, as the apostle testifies. And so, after the death of the testator it obtains complete firmness. But also, the consensus of everyone confirmed it before death. And thus what could not be previously condemned cannot be afterwards infringed.
Cap. II: Let whoever is found to be ungrateful to a testator also become contumelious. He himself is his own witness that he is not worthy of the testament. For example: Canaan was made a slave by the grave dishonouring of his father; Esau lost his firstborn’s portion out of a lack of self-control; Reuben was put aside in favour of his younger brothers for abusing his father. And finally, ‘let he who curses his father’, etc.
Cap. III: It is natural for a son to inherit his father’s blessings. However, they fight against Nature’s laws who are abusive or disobedient to their parents. Therefore, a legitimate heir is one who keeps to the aforesaid regulations regarding parents.
Cap. IV: It is one thing to be mercifully admittedly when unworthy; and another to be properly put in writing as one’s due. Nor can what was conceded to be gained entirely unworthily be claimed as one’s due. Indeed, different merits require different rewards.
Cap. V: That he who is well-born and legitimately heir to an inheritance, and is not found to spurn laws old or new nor to be wounded against his father nor injured against the people, may have great expectations, by the Lord’s mercy, of an inheritance.
Cap. VI: It is clear that anyone subject to a broken head is ill, since the health of the whole body comes from firmness of mind; nor can subordinate limbs rejoice in the health which the head evidently does not have.
Cap. VII: If truth is sought, this is not unknown; if reason, it is not ambiguous; if authority, it is not uncertain. For indeed authority stands out, and reason is well-known, and truth cannot be concealed.
Cap. VIII: All this seems to be contained in a threefold division: to wit, of those who take care, and those who cause injury, and those who waver between the two so that they might continuously associate themselves with those whom they perceive will receive. Therefore, those who take care should be usefully helped; those who resist, on the other hand, manfully opposed; and the dubious either reasonably drawn in or circumspectly ignored; and it should be demonstrated to everyone that authority cannot be corrupted, nor reason defeated, nor can truth be at all overcome.
Cap. IX: The people should be led in accordance with divine law, not followed; and honourable people should rather be chosen to witness. Nor should those who say ‘the voice of the people are the voice of God’ be listened to, since the turbulence of the common folk is always the closest thing to madness.
Cap. X: There is a proverb amongst the common folk: ‘from hardness, something survives; from weakness, nothing remains’. And indeed wisdom ought to attend constancy; and constancy complete wisdom, such that wisdom may be constant and constancy wise.
Cap. XI: Thus the preaching of peace should be carried out carried out such that a false assertion might not be introduced under the name of piety. For just as it is a dreadful thing to break the peace it is a blasphemous thing to deny the truth. In the end, truthful unity and peaceful truth are in harmony with each other.
Cap. XII: I think things of this sort should be taught to simple folk, because ignorance of truth causes a lot of people to err. Then, once truth has been made manifest, the contrary might be confounded, friends will be strengthened, and everyone equally will be left without excuses.
Diligently and worthily, I beseech you, consider these things. For indeed, the immensity of your trust renders my smallness impatient on your behalf, and makes me dare beyond my powers. But one cannot lose trust if one never had it… May He in Whose hands are kings and the rights of kingdoms multiply, protect and defend your crowns.