Charles the Bald and the Golden Idol

One of the best things about working on relations between the Carolingians and Muslim Spain is that it offers an unusual opportunity to get an external perspective of the Franks. The Carolingian empire produced a vast amount of written material and we are usually dependent on that to get a grasp on the story. Al-Andalus, however, had its own tradition of writing history – albeit one with many complications that we’ll discuss later in this post. That means we occasionally get to see the Carolingians from the outside, in ways that tell us a lot about both the Franks and the people observing them.

Such an exercise is not without its challenges. A case in point is the story told by the Andalusi historian Ibn Hayyan (d.1075) of the death of Charles the Bald (r.840-877), known to him as Qarluh ibn Ludhriq. Ibn Hayyan writes that:

He is the one who produced an image of the Messiah, the son of Mary – God’s blessings upon them both – according to what he believed to be true about the latter’s qualities. He created his image from 300 raṭl of pure gold, adorning it with rubies and emeralds, seating it on a throne encased with the most precious adornments. All the inhabitants of his kingdom bowed before it. Then he sent it to the master of the golden church so that he may safeguard it for him. When he returned to his castle, God struck him with a headache that stayed and did not stop until he emitted his last breath.

             (trans. by König, p.194)

There are a lot of reasons to be dubious of this story. Ibn Hayyan wrote a long way from Francia, almost two centuries after Charles’ death. His reference to ‘the master of the golden church’ doesn’t inspire much confidence either. Most suspicious of all is the moral underpinning the narrative. Muslim writers of the time were prone to describing Christians as polytheistic idol-worshippers and their rulers as tyrants forcibly driving their subjects away from good religion. Ibn Hayyan’s account of an impious monarch, bedazzled by his own wealth, who was punished by God for setting up a golden idol, hits all of these beats perfectly.

It’s therefore somewhat surprising to consider how much of this story is basically accurate. We know from contemporary sources that Charles travelled to Italy in 877 to meet Pope John VIII (r.872-882). Upon taking his leave of John, the Annals of St-Bertin inform us that Charles gave the Pope:

an image of the Saviour fixed to the cross: it was made out of a large amount of gold and adorned with precious stones, and Charles now sent it to St Peter the Apostle.

Charles’ health was not good and, on his journey back he fell sick with a fever, before dying in the Alps on the 6th October. There are some discrepancies in the two accounts. Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims (d.882), who wrote the Annals of St-Bertin at this time, attributed Charles’ sickness to poison inexplicably administered by his Jewish physician, part of a running theme of antisemitism throughout the annals. Ibn Hayyan’s description of the image of Jesus doesn’t precisely match that of Hincmar, and his mention of a throne may be a garbled misunderstanding based on the throne Charles had given John two years earlier. Nonetheless, we have our monarch, our master of the golden church and our Messiah made of gold and precious stones.

Charles the Bald performs obeisance to Christ atop an impressively shiny gold cross, in this two-page illustration from Charles’ private prayerbook, Schatzkammer of the Munich Residenz, ResMü. Schk0004-WL, fol. 38v–39r.

This is interesting in a number of ways. It raises the question of where Ibn Hayyan was getting all this from. The Andalusi historian’s description of what Charles’ gift looked like is inaccurate, making it unlikely that he got the story from a traveller who had visited Rome and seen the cross and the throne. Instead, my suspicion is that this ultimately derives from records collected by Charles’ contemporary, the Umayyad Emir Muhammad I (r.852-886). Ibn Hayyan’s history is dependent on the tenth-century chronicle put together by the al-Razi family (father and son), who were court historians to the Umayyad Caliphs. They got their material from the archives in Córdoba. (The al-Razi history otherwise survives abbreviated in an early fourteenth-century Portuguese version, which in turn is only preserved in a garbled fifteenth-century Spanish translation, because we wouldn’t want to make things too easy for a scholar.)

There’s reasonable evidence that ninth-century Emirs kept tabs on Frankish politics. The Carolingians were their most powerful and aggressive neighbours, who had to be carefully managed. Raiding Frankish territory could provide plunder and political legitimacy, but was a dangerous sport that required good intelligence. A nice example can be found in 793, when several Frankish annals observe that Emir Hisham I timed his attack on the Spanish March to when he knew Charlemagne would be busy fighting the Avars in central Europe. Other expeditions took place when a Carolingian had recently died, or during civil wars. This suggests that Córdoba was reasonably well-informed about Carolingian military and political affairs.

The story of the golden idol takes us one step further. Charles’ movements and health were undoubtedly of interest for calculations about war and peace. That said, the frontier had been largely quiet since the diplomatic exchanges that culminated in the celebrated giving of camels in 864, of which I may have spoken about once or twice. The discussion of the presents Charles gave to the Pope goes beyond pragmatic observations of a potential foe. This account suggests that Córdoba was interested in gathering and preserving information about Carolingian rulers more generally.

Also of interest is the overarching narrative Ibn Hayyan presents. As mentioned above, it contains standard tropes of the tyranny of non-Muslim rulers and their tendencies toward idolatry. As such it could have been constructed by any of the Muslim links in the chain of transmission, most obviously the al-Razi family. But the death of Charles the Bald was not without controversy in Frankish circles. Hincmar of Rheims, who had fallen out with Charles, offers a particularly gruesome account of the emperor’s death of poison ‘in a wretched little hut.’ His reeking body had to be transported in a barrel. Later that year Hincmar circulated an account of a vision that one Bernold had of Charles in hell, his flesh devoured by worms, his one mission in his afterlife to beg someone to tell Hincmar that he was right in every way. (It’s humble and sensitive details like this that really bolster Hincmar’s case for the highly competitive ‘Biggest Tool of the Ninth Century’ Award.)

Charles was not accused of idolatry in these accounts, although in previous decades the propriety of depictions of Christ on the cross had been a subject of fierce debate, particularly during the reign of Charles’ father, Louis the Pious (r.814-840). Jonas of Orleans dedicated a defence of the making of such images to Charles in 842, shortly after the latter came to power. This seems to represent the last embers of the controversy, which then vanishes. Instead, Charles was portrayed by Hincmar as overproud, unwise and unwilling to listen to good advice (that is to say, Hincmar’s advice). 

That said, I’m intrigued by the way that narratives of Charles suffering an unpleasant end because of divine wrath circulated in Francia immediately after his death. I wonder if in Ibn Hayyan’s story, we can hear an echo of some these controversies, transmuted over the centuries and multiple transmissions into a shape that made more sense in an Islamic view of history and God’s agency. If this account derives from the mood from those Frankish sources, it suggests that the Umayyads were not just gathering raw information, but also engaging with Frankish metanarratives as well. This would have fascinating implications for how interested they were in their northern neighbours and how capable they were of picking up on the anxieties and tensions that beset the Carolingian world.

More broadly, this depiction is a helpful demonstration of the way in which people outside the Frankish world could view events within the Carolingian empire and interpret them in light of their own religious and political beliefs. The Franks did not own a monopoly in telling their own story, even the material they generated was often influential in shaping interpretations of events beyond their borders.


The Road to Roncesvalles

Writing negative reviews is not a fun activity. The emotions that it generates (anger, frustration, tiredness) are rarely expiated by the catharsis of writing, and they tend to linger, poisoning my mood for days to come. There are lessons to be gleaned from understanding how scholarship goes wrong, and value to alerting those less familiar with the material that they should handle a work with care. Nonetheless, the intense feeling that comes from engaging with wasted potential is not an altogether healthy one. Which is why I’m tempted to say that Xabier Irujo’s Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees. The Battle of Rencesvals (Amsterdam, 2021) is a bad book, and leave it at that. Anyone who wants to know more can consult the review I wrote for Francia, in which I say almost everything I have to say about it.

(The observant among you will have noticed that no one was forcing me to mention the book at all in this blog and yet here we apparently are, so clearly I must have something still to say on the matter. To you I say, shut up and stop being so very clever.)

My time spent reading the book was not a total write-off, and I want to discuss something I found in Charlemagne’s Defeat that I did find interesting and thought could be usefully considered further. In chapter two of his book, Xabier Irujo discusses the route taken by Charlemagne and his armies in 778 during the ill-fated invasion of the Iberian Peninsula (pp. 48-52). In classic Carolingian fashion, the Frankish king divided his forces in two. One army, consisting of the men from Austrasia, Burgundy, Bavaria, Provence and Italy, took the eastern route. They marched through Septimania by the Mediterranean coast, reaching Barcelona, held by Charlemagne’s ally Sulayman al-ʿArabi, who had put this whole business in motion by inviting the Frankish king in. The army then turned west and headed to Zaragoza, where they met the other army.

It is with the journey of the other army that we are concerned today. It was personally led by Charlemagne, and presumably consisted of troops from Neustria and Aquitaine. It started at the royal villa of Cassiogilio/Cassinaghilo (spellings differ), where the king had spent the winter, and crossed into the Iberian Peninsula through the high mountain pass at Roncesvalles in the western Pyrenees that was shortly to become legendary. From there the route seems straightforward. Charlemagne occupied Pamplona before marching south to Zaragoza. The question is, what route did the army take before it reached Roncesvalles?

Xabier Irujo offers an intriguing suggestion, that we use the better-known routes taken by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela as our guide (p. 51). The development of the great Way of St James was a later phenomenon. St James seems to have been associated with Spain by at least the seventh century and his relics were discovered at Compostela by Bishop Theodemir of Iria (818-842). His cult was promoted by King Alfonso III of Asturias (r. 866-910) and Bishop Sisnando of Iria (880-920). Local pilgrims appear to have travelled to the shrine at Compostela from at least the ninth century, with travellers from France appearing in the tenth. Al-Mansur paid the site the ultimate compliment of sacking it in 997. Despite this, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela exploded in popularity. Any guides consulted on the matter will postdate the Roncesvalles campaign by centuries.

I still think this is a really useful idea. Pilgrimage trails tended to follow pre-existing routes, benefitting from the already developed infrastructure. While it’s not impossible for said routes to change, possibly due to alterations in commercial patterns or the landscape of the sacred, it really wouldn’t surprise me if the path taken by eleventh-century pilgrims to Roncesvalles was similar to that chosen by Charlemagne in the eighth century. Another excellent reason to investigate this line of thinking is that it allows us to consult the twelfth-century Codex Calistinus attributed to Aymeric Picaud, and its travellers’ guide for pilgrims to Compostela. What it lacks in solid reliability it more than makes up for in entertaining vituperation, mostly directed at the Navarrese. Speaking as a connoisseur (and occasional recipient) of verbal abuse, Aymeric’s line that Navarrese men are so girly they even have sex with their livestock in an effeminate manner is a strong take[1] and one that I’m sure made him very popular in the area.

Aymeric describes four routes, three of which run from France to Roncesvalles. Of these three, we can rule out the via Podiensis that begins in Le Puy-en-Velay, because it doesn’t pass through anywhere that might be Cassiogilio/Cassinaghilo. That leaves the via Turonensis,which starts in Paris and passes through Tours (hence the name), and the via Lemovicensis, running from Vézelay via Limoges. Both go near settlements that could conceivably be Cassiogilio. In the case of the former this is Chasseneuil-du-Poitou, just to the north of Poitiers, where the Clain river runs; for the latter, Chasseneuil-en-Berry, south of Châteauroux.

Irujo is tentatively inclined to favour the via Lemovicensis, whereas I think the via Turonensis is more likely. Part of his argument is that the annals don’t mention Charlemagne passing through Bordeaux, which lies on the via Turonensis (p. 51 n. 69). This would be more convincing if they named any place that the army travelled through between Cassiogilio and Roncesvalles. As they don’t, this silence means nothing. Given that Irujo argues that Charlemagne’s campaign was designed to break ‘Free Vasconia’, whatever that means, I’m a little surprised that he’s so keen to rule out the Frankish army spending more time in Gascon territory. (By contrast, I think Charlemagne was interested in conquering cities in Spain. You don’t need to go to Zaragoza to fight Basques.)

Now I really want to play Ticket to Ride (source)

A more promising avenue of investigation is the identity of the royal villa at Cassiogilio. It was a place of particular importance for Louis the Pious, because it was where he and his short-lived twin brother Lothar were born on the 16th April 778 while Charlemagne was on campaign. In his Life of Louis, the Astronomer mentions four royal palaces in Aquitaine, which are Doué, Angeac, Ebreuil and Cassinogilum, which means we can probably assume there was only one place of that name which acted as a Carolingian base.

There are a couple of hints that make me think that Chasseneuil near Poitiers is that royal palace. The exegete Claudius of Turin spent several years at Louis the Pious’ court in Aquitaine before it moved to Aachen in 814. In the subscription to his commentary on Genesis, written in 811, he notes that he finished this work, ‘in the palace of Casanolio, in the suburb of Poitiers, in the province of Aquitaine.’ That seems to place Louis’ court in Chasseneuil-du-Poitou. After becoming emperor, Louis made his son Pippin king of Aquitaine. A charter from 828 records Pippin making a judgment ‘in our palace and villa of Casanogilo in the country of Poitou beside the river Clain.’

Possibly also relevant to this discussion is the story told by the Astronomer that Louis invited his father to visit him in Chasseneuil while the emperor was in Rouen. Charlemagne refused, but suggested that they meet in Tours instead, which they did. There isn’t much difference in the distance between the two Chasseneuils and Tours (Chasseneuil-du-Poitou to Tours is about 93 km while from Chasseneuil-en-Berry it’s about 112 km.) However, the latter route takes you through the wetlands and woodlands of La Brenne, while the former is a straight shot up the via Turonensis. Putting too much weight on this would be unwise, but I suspect that Tours makes more sense as a meeting point for someone coming from Chasseneuil-du-Poitou.

On balance then, I think that Charlemagne followed a very similar route to the via Turonensis. Why does this matter? It suggests that the palace of Chasseneuil was an integral part of the organisation of the kingdom of Aquitaine right from the beginning, acting as the meeting point for a major offensive into the Iberian Peninsula. It also points to the importance of Aquitaine for Carolingian interests in Spain. While being some distance from the region, Poitou and the Loire valley provided essential support and manpower in the projection of Frankish power south, and in connecting Septimania and the Spanish March to the wider empire. More dubiously, the route taken runs straight through Gascony, which may provide some context for the ambush at Roncesvalles, if it alerted/antagonised the Basques. I’m a little sceptical about this. I’m not sure the Basques at Roncesvalles were connected to the Gascons, and suspect that the sack of Pamplona would have done more to aggravate the people of the western Pyrenees.

But I think the big point to take away from this post would be that even bad books can contain interesting information, even if they must be handled with care. I suffered greatly while reading Charlemagne’s Defeat in the Pyrenees (as did everyone in earshot of me). But it had not occurred to me to consider later pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to think about Charlemagne’s route to al-Andalus. For that reason, I am very grateful to Xabier Irujo for this point.

[1] ‘Men also lustfully kiss the vulva of their wives and their mules.

What’s Medieval about the Medieval Frontier?

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, in early July I had the genuine pleasure of attending Leeds International Medieval Congress. Good academic conferences are identified not just by the questions they answer, but by the questions they don’t; that is to say, the problems they raise in your mind that you realise you don’t have the solution to. It was on the evening of the first day of the IMC that I crossed paths with one such problem. I was lucky enough to be taking part in a roundtable on ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier’ organised by the ever-wonderful Jonathan Jarrett (of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe fame). It was a productive discussion, much of which was concerned with the geography of the medieval frontier, with an unexpectedly large dollop of Islamic cartography thrown in for good measure.

It was only as the session was wrapping up in anticipation of much needed sustenance that the question of periodisation suddenly came to my mind. We had been talking about medieval frontiers. What exactly was medieval about them? What characteristics could we use to identify a medieval frontier, beyond the raw fact of chronology? Sadly, we were heading out the door at this point, so I didn’t have the opportunity to throw this possibly pedantic puzzler to the room. But the question stayed with me.

On one level, this might be a slightly pointless problem. We could say that a medieval frontier is defined by being a frontier that existed in the medieval period. They form part of the medieval historian’s beat because they are accessed through our familiarity with the context, languages, sources, previous scholarship and allied disciplines. In that way and to that extent they can be ‘medieval’ without having to be otherwise distinguished. Further, insisting that everything from the era be in some essential way distinctive betrays a naïve understanding of the vagaries of our periodisation, that they reflect some deep property rather than being terms of art employed for convenience. This is particularly the case with scholarship of the medieval frontier, which has always drawn heavily on case studies from different eras, deriving ideas and insights from the Roman limes, Chinese frontiers and, most famously, the American West.

On another level however, I think it might be genuinely helpful to at least try to consider what might be distinctive about frontiers in the Middle Ages in order to inject a little more reflexivity in thinking about the subject. Partly I would like to have a means of sanity checking comparisons we may want to draw from reading about, say, European interactions with the peoples of the Americas or Qing relations with steppe nomads, by having a set of models about medieval frontiers. Doing this will also aid medieval scholars of the frontier in talking to each other. It is hard for any one historian alone to understand them in aggregate. But all too frequently, when medievalists gather together to discuss frontiers what we get is a ‘show-and-tell’ session where everyone shares their favourite frontier and nothing more coherent than a book with a collection of disparate case studies emerges. Having some sort of model of what makes a medieval frontier medieval might actually give us a means of holding more meaningful conversations.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a model of the medieval frontier, at least not today, and I suspect that if such a model can be made it will have to be by others. What instead I want to do now is propose a couple of hypotheses that I think can be used to distinguish medieval frontiers in Western Eurasia from those that came before and after. These will not be exhaustive and I’d welcome suggestions of other distinguishing marks. I would also call them tendencies rather than features. My sense is that all of the categories I’m about to discuss appear in all of the periods, but that they do so to a greater or lesser extent, and that variation in significance and strength is what I think is distinctive. 

Frontiers of Faith

The first tendency that comes to my mind is one that I think separates the medieval from the earlier Hellenistic/Greco-Roman world, which is the role of faith in the making of the frontier. Roman borders were infused by the numinous and divine. Lares and other deities patrolled and protected boundaries both private and public. The city of Rome itself was defined by its sacred pomerium. Fustel de Coulanges famously argued that the classical city was constituted by its civic cults. Political authorities legislated on matters of piety and morality.

Nonetheless, the classical Roman world had a much more flexible relationship with the divine than in many later eras. Provided you followed the law, paid homage to the imperial cult and didn’t offend public decency, you were more or less left alone. It wasn’t perfect toleration, but it enabled religions from across the empire to spread and build a following. Gods from outside the Roman pantheon could be assimilated. Punic Melqart, Egyptian Amun and Celtic Sulis were discovered to be Hercules, Jupiter and Minerva in disguise. New cults were adopted at the imperial centre. There were limits to this freedom, such as the suppression of the druids in Gaul or the oppression of Christians who refused to acknowledge the imperial cult. The overall picture however is of a fluid world, where religion was not a particularly important dividing characteristic on the frontier.

The embrace of more exclusive faiths by imperial authorities such as Sasanian Zoroastrianism, Christianity in the Roman empire and its successor kingdoms and of course Islam and the Caliphate changes this. We can start seeing ‘religious’ frontiers. Sometimes these were spaces of conflict, where the pious would travel to serve the divine with the sword such as the rabats of ninth-century Cilicia, or thirteenth-century Prussia on the border of Lithuania. At other moments such frontiers could be spaces where people from different religions could meet and talk. Faith could become a marker of difference and you might know whether you had crossed a Christian-Muslim frontier by whether you heard the ringing of bells or the call of the muezzin.

While any student of the Middle Ages could tell you that inter-faith relations were complex, that almost all medieval polities had a mix of religions within their borders, and that people communicated, conducted business, allied and otherwise connected with the religious other, I think this does matter, albeit in complicated ways. Religion could harden the frontier, making the people on the other side more alien, less comprehensible and less moral, while creating reasons for conflict. It could also create contact across the frontier, through pilgrims travelling to holy sites or missionaries come to spread the truth of their faith. Elsewhere these faiths might undermine political boundaries by encouraging people to see themselves as members of a wider ummah or Christendom.

Technological Termini

Modernity inherited much of the medieval world’s relationship with religion. A more interesting distinction that separates it from the medieval world to my mind is the absence of technology as a force for creating types of frontiers. To give you an example, the rise of effective gunpowder siege artillery in the middle of the fifteenth century created a period of about a century where European frontiers became very fluid very quickly, as demonstrated by Mehmed II blasting his way into Constantinople in 1453 or Charles VIII tearing into Italy in 1494. A number of frontier empires appear at this point, such as the Habsburgs and Ottomans dividing up Hungary between them in 1526, or the rapid expansion of Muscovy.

For another example, this time from outside of Europe, the arrival of horses and firearms in the eighteenth century dramatically changed the Great Plains, turning a population of sedentary agriculturalists into highly mobile peoples who depended upon buffalo for subsistence. The result was a much more fluid frontier, where Indigenous groups such as the Comanche and the Lakota built empires that depended upon the exploitation of agriculturalists and interaction with European traders and settlers for goods and markets.

These are distinctive frontier zones that emerged rapidly with the widespread adoption of a set of technologies which allowed people to interact with their environment or existing power structures in a different way in a manner perceptible over the course of a lifetime. I struggle to think of a good medieval analogy. The Vikings, with their shipborne mobility that allowed them to arrive in and connect new spaces may be a possibility, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a new technology. The use of castles to control frontier zones comes close, particularly something like Edward I’s Ring of Iron across northern Wales in the late thirteenth century, but even here I’m not certain that this represented a dramatic escalation of pre-existing practices of fortification, or was particularly distinct from the use of castles elsewhere away from the frontier.*

Rhuddlan Castle, erected by Edward I in 1277 as part of the last serious infrastructure spending in Wales by a government based in England.

I suspect that there are a couple of reasons for the change. Medieval Eurasia more or less encountered technological change at a similar pace, with ideas and innovations diffusing slowly across the continent. That means that you’re very unlikely to be hit by an entirely new technological package all at once, and your society and political organisation had time to adapt to it. By contrast, improvements in communication meant that people like the Apache and the Comanche might encounter a whole range of new technologies very quickly, with dramatic consequences, as they adapted to a world where they could get horses from the Spanish and guns from the British and create entirely new types of empires on the Plains.

A second factor is that everything counts in large amounts. One large cannon may have an impact, until it explodes or you run out of ammunition for it. But the likes of Mehmed II and Charles VIII could mobilise siege trains of artillery, with multiple big guns and the capacity to build more. This is long before the Industrial Revolution, but the combination of increasingly sophisticated manufacturing meeting states with growing resources allows technology to become more revolutionary because it was appearing on a much larger scale than before.  Factors like these enabled technology to shape the frontier in the modern world in a way that it doesn’t in the medieval world.

State Limits

This third and final tendency is the one I’ve hesitated most over, primarily because it involves piling into a whole range of historiographical landmines I’d prefer not to, but here we go. By the standards of the present, the Roman state and states in early modern Europe were adorably, laughably feeble. Even after Diocletian increased administration, the former was run on a tiny staff of which the emperor and his personal household were not a small percentage. The latter were often ramshackle affairs dependent upon independent contractors and private companies to project power. These states had limited information about their subjects and had to work with local elites on the ground to get anywhere at all.

I suspect that in terms of formal state organisation both of these examples comfortably outclass the administrations of most of western Europe until the thirteenth century. Over the course of the early medieval period, the capacity of states in western Europe to raise tax revenue waned. This had knock-on effects on their ability to maintain a standing army or fortifications. As I’ve specified, this is a process most pronounced in western Europe, but we also see analogous developments in Byzantium and the Caliphate on a slower timescale. It should be noted that there is nothing intrinsically bad about this. Strong states are not inherently good, nor are weak states inherently bad. Even from the perspective of a state, the good state is one that works and acclimatises to the resources and demands of the time. Just as a species of fish that has started inhabiting a lightless cave may lose its eyesight, so a state adapting to new realities may lose traits that were previously adaptive.

The relevance of all this for our purposes is the way this changes the frontier. A frontier staffed by a permanent standing army of professionals whose wages, food, accommodation and supplies are paid for and shipped in by taxes and which is run by career officers who may have served on other frontiers is going to look very different to one run by a military aristocrat whose legitimacy may come from royal appointment, but whose power is based on being the head of a family that has dominated the locality for generations, and who is supporting a retinue on the basis of their own land and grants of land to key subordinates.

The business of supplying the former is going to do exciting things for the economy as it redirects communication and commerce towards the frontier zone. The latter are much more likely to be embedded in the local landscape, unlike the deracinated professional forces. The military aristocrat probably has considerably more autonomy and less oversight. This might lead to them seizing opportunities to expand or plunder over the border. It might instead encourage them to identify with the people on the other side of the frontier with whom they have more in common. There is obviously huge variance here, and exactly how that cashes out I’m not sure, but I would be surprised if this wasn’t a factor.


Frontiers are where easy answers and neat categories go to die. The tendencies I’ve proposed here in this post are not exhaustive. They may not even be accurate. At the moment they represent the best answer I’ve got for this problem. This question came to me as a result of speaking with others and I suspect that that will be where any real answers ultimately emerge. Any attempt to define the medieval frontier will demand a deep understanding of frontiers across an enormous geography and chronology, one that can only be achieved through collaboration with other scholars. Nonetheless, I hope that this represents a contribution to the conversation, even if it only puts the same annoying question that has been buzzing around my head into those of others.

* [Ed.: I don’t usually comment on Sam’s posts, but reading this it occurred to me: if we separate thinking about frontiers from thinking about regnal borders, isn’t this pretty much incastallemento? That is, the model whereby in a few decades around the year 1000 a profusion of castle-building across Frankish Europe transforms the nature of sub-royal polities to create units of power such as, say, the counts of Grignon, dependent on fortresses divorced from Carolingian administrative units. This isn’t to endorse incastellemento as an accurate model of eleventh-century politics – but it’s interesting to think with in this regard…] 

Talking about Not Talking: Reflections of a Stuttering Scholar

A hand is holding my throat. Not tightly, I can still breathe, but the words summoned by my brain are being choked before they can escape my mouth. My throat is being held rigid, and all that can emerge from such a tense body is croaked and cut. I am restored to infancy, with all its inarticulacy and impotence. But not by any foreign power. Rather, I am beset by a domestic crisis. My body has mutinied, and seized the means of communication.

This is one of the more dramatic ways my stutter can manifest. More common is a low-level repetition of words and opening syllables that I often don’t notice until I have to hear a recording of my voice. On the whole my stutter is pretty mild. I’ve been dealing with it since I was a child, and it has become considerably more manageable over the years. It’s annoying rather than debilitating, ruining the punchlines of jokes rather than rendering me fully voiceless. Nonetheless, inspired by the coming of International Stuttering Awareness Day on the 22nd October, I thought I might put down a few thoughts I’ve had about my experiences as an academic with a stutter.

Notker the Stammerer, my favourite medieval fellow sufferer, on what looks like a bad day. From a tenth-century St Gall manuscript.

This post is not going to be one of dejection and woe. My life as an academic tends to involve a lot of talking, whether through teaching in large or small groups, giving papers at seminars or conferences, participating in meetings or undertaking pastoral care. Despite this, my stutter doesn’t tend to cause too many difficulties for my job. In my experience scholars and students tend to be a civilised crew, and better than most people at paying attention to the content of my words rather than the smoothness of their delivery. Given the amount of eccentricity cherished/tolerated in most departments, a mild stutter mostly barely registers.

The academic environment also attracts people with large vocabularies and a fondness for playing games with verbal registers. This makes it easier for me to bypass particular sounds that may be causing difficulty on a given day by offering me a wider range of alternative words. The convention in History of giving papers at conferences or lectures to large groups of students using written scripts is immensely helpful, because I don’t stutter when reading. (I have thoughts about the art of presenting a written lecture which I may talk about another time.) It doesn’t hurt that universities are where I’m at my most relaxed and feel most natural, which helps reduce the stutter. On the whole, I would say that academia has been good for my stammer.

All that said, I tend to find ways of explicitly telling new people that I have a stutter, whether they’re students, conference attendees or colleagues at a new workplace. This is a habit that others have remarked upon, and more than one good friend has informed me that it is unnecessary. I’m conscious that drawing attention to my stutter makes it more obvious and, in the short-term at least, can reinforce it in my own voice. Nonetheless, I intend to carry on doing so for two reasons.

The first is that it helps people understand what I’m saying. Many of the colleagues I work with speak English as a second language, and while they do so with brilliant fluency, it is useful for them to know that in addition to dealing with my fairly strong English accent, they should also factor in my stammer when following my words. More importantly, I want students, who may be nervous or intimidated, to feel comfortable asking for clarification. By acknowledging my stutter, I make it easier for people to ask me to repeat my words without worrying about causing offence.

The second is a little less noble. Everyone stutters. While for some people it’s a regular affliction, albeit one that can be heightened by tension, most people stammer when they’re stressed or uncertain. In these cases, an unexpected stutter may be an indication that the speaker is unhappy or not sure about what they’re saying. If I notice a student who doesn’t normally stutter in class doing so, I may take that as a hint to go back over the material we’re covering to make sure everyone feels comfortable with it, or to gently check in after the lesson if I suspect there may be more pastoral issues at play. Likewise, I know from bitter and uncomfortable experience that a stutter may be perceived as a sign that someone is lying, or that they are a bit stupid (call this the Claudius effect, although watching Joe Biden take grief from all sides of the political spectrum for his stutter has been a dispiriting reminder that such views are not confined to the ancient past).

Given this use of a stammer as a diagnostic tool, when I talk about my stutter, I am also laying claim to my right to be taken seriously as a scholar by an unfamiliar audience. It allows me to communicate to them that if I stutter, it is not because I don’t know what I’m talking about, or because I was too lazy to properly prepare beforehand, or because I’m attempting to mislead them. It is because my body has been waging guerrilla warfare on me for the majority of my life. In a curious way, I find defining the stutter makes it less likely to define my life, by separating myself from the stutter and by making it clear to people what they’re hearing. In this way, my stutter can choke me, but it can’t stop me or silence me.

Years of therapy lessened my stammer but did not remove it. If offered the choice, I’d lose it in a heartbeat. When you stutter, well-meaning people often tell you stories about the famous and the successful who made a virtue of the affliction. Churchill is a common example here, quoting his claim that ‘a slight and not unpleasing stammer or impediment has been of some assistance in securing the attention of the audience.’ In practice, given the misery I know his stutter caused him, contributing to his ‘black dog’, I’m inclined to call this nonsense. In my experience a stutter is as likely to inspire impatience as sympathy in a listener.

But if there is an upside to having a stutter, it is that it teaches you the value of the spoken word. No one has ever loved words more than the person who has to fight for every single one that leaves their lips, or treasures them more than the person who risks ridicule for speaking them but who nonetheless chooses to spend them wildly and recklessly. I cannot pretend that it isn’t sometimes hard for me to speak my words. Nor can I find any life worth living that does not involve them. Words, written and spoken, are how I make my living. All I can do is make sure they are the right words, even if not always delivered at the right speed.

Sam’s Career News, Or No Way Like Norway

I have a soft spot for any city that can swing between idyllic sunshine and grim noir in the space of a minute.

If you consult the photo above which I took a few days ago, the observant among you would make a couple deductions. The first is that I’m no longer in Tübingen, a city that punches above its weight in many ways, but, being most definitely inland, is regrettably lacking in maritime harbours. The second, judging from the distinctively iceberg-shaped opera house towards the back of the picture, is that I am in Oslo. Nor is this a flying visit to the city of Ibsen and Munch. The capital of Norway is going to be my home for the next couple of years thanks to a post-doctoral position I have just started at the University of Oslo, more on which below.

I will miss Tübingen greatly. It’s a beautiful city in a gorgeous landscape with a fascinating history. I’ve been surrounded by wonderful people, both in the department and beyond, and have made friends that I am in no hurry to forget. Everyone at the ‘Migration and Mobility in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages’ centre has been lovely, and I’ve benefitted greatly from the time and resources the project provided me and the stimulating company of scholars from across the world. Not the least of the joys has been being able to spend time with my editor, whose absence I’m already feeling (even if it does make it harder for him to hunt me down when my posts are late). Regular followers of the blog will have already encountered some of the fruits of the research I’ve been able to carry out over the last nine months. Rest assured; more is to follow.

But I’m also immensely excited for what lies ahead. I’m looking forward to exploring Oslo and getting to know a whole new country I’ve never lived in before. Most of all, I’m excited about the new project I’ll be taking part in. I’m now a Senior Researcher with the NFR Researcher Project ‘Voices on the Edge’ at the University of Oslo, working under the leadership of Professor Ildar Garipzanov in collaboration with the ERC-funded ‘Minuscule Texts: Marginalized Voices in Early Medieval Latin Culture (c. 700–c. 1000)’ project. The focus of our work are the thousands of short texts (minitexts) that were added to the blank spaces, margins and fly-leaves of early medieval manuscripts.

Much like us today, people in the Middle Ages had a tendency to write things down in blank spaces. They also jotted notes, doodled, tested pens and filled in awkward gaps with extraneous text for aesthetic purposes. Thus far, the history of the period has generally been written by focusing on the major works in manuscripts. We are looking at the heterogenous smaller texts that appear in the margins, avoiding annotations that comment on or interact with the main text in favour of entirely independent notices that serendipitously survive on the edges. My role with the project will be to visit archives across Europe, checking manuscripts for these notes, while helping to develop the future database that will make them accessible for scholars in the future.

To give you a sense of what that means and why it’s interesting, here’s an example. The manuscript entitled Autun Bibliothèque municipale, S 129 (107) is a treasure trove of minitexts from a variety of different places and points in time. I intend to work much more closely with it over the next few months so you will hear more about this fascinating manuscript in due course. It arrived in the municipal library of Autun from the Grand Séminaire of Autun in 1909, having previously resided in the chapter library of the cathedral of Autun until 1819. Exactly when it arrived at the cathedral is unclear, although there are clues in the manuscript to be examined on another day.

If this marks the end of the story of this manuscript, it’s beginning lies somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula, in the sixth or seventh century. There it was produced to contain Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms, specifically Psalms 141 to 149. The main text was the work of one scribe, who wrote in the clear half-uncial you can see illustrated below. This main text, with its neat letters, is not what I’m interested in today. I’m interested in the glorious mess in the left-hand margin of f.129v. At some point in the eighth century this manuscript ended up in Gaul where someone wrote these short texts in a Merovingian cursive minuscule, complete with characteristic extended length and squashed features.

Sadly my theory that all Merovingian scribes were overcaffeinated spiders has yet to be substantiated, Autun Bibliothèque municipale, S 129 (107), f.129v.

The first text in the margin comes from Psalm 91.1-2 qui habetat in adieturio/ altisseme in prodicci/one ‘He that dwelleth in the aid of the most High, under the protection.’ More intriguing to me is the note that appears underneath it in the same hand, which reads:

anno noue iorne bone, kalen/das marcias, qui odiaeorum/ faciat bene deus, donalia gra/cilas anno noue iorne bone filia/. (h/n?)elida quia odierum fa/cit bene deus dat liuida.

Which I tentatively translate as:

‘A good day in the new year, on the kalends of March, may God make these days good. [H/N]elida, because today is a good day, God gives as He wants.’

This delightfully odd text is interesting for several reasons. The first is that it appears to be an otherwise entirely unknown prayer or song to be performed on New Year’s Day. The kalends of March are 1 March, which in some forms of the Roman calendar was the first day of the New Year. This suggests that this remained the case in at least one part of Merovingian Gaul. Exactly which part is something I’m unsure about. I read Helida as a reference to an otherwise unknown local saint associated with a festival on New Year’s Day. If they could be identified, that might help us to locate the celebration and work out where the manuscript was when this note was added.

Also of interest are the strong hints of how Latin was evolving in educated circles in eighth-century Gaul. Diurne or day appears to have developed into iorne, while ambiguities in the pronunciation of b/v and t/d have turned libita into liuida. In an article of 1939, Rodney Potter Robinson ingeniously suggested that odiaeorum and odierum should be read as hodie dierum ‘these days.’ Perhaps this was a term that became increasingly unrecognizable as the word for day changed but survived as part of a chant. This might indicate that this is an older text that had mutated over generations.

There’s plenty more for me to work on with this manuscript and I will have more to say about it in the future, particularly the Visigothic hands we also find in the margins. But I’ll close by saying that I think this minitext exemplifies what I love about the project I’m now part of. Its contents provide a glimpse of a celebration we would not otherwise have. The way it’s written provides information about changing uses of language. By placing the manuscript in Gaul at some point in the eighth century the minitext helps us with the story of the physical object it’s contained within. But most excitingly, by identifying it, and placing it within the future database, we will make it that much more visible, allowing other people to offer their insights about the mysteries raised by this fascinating text.

Other scholars will have much more to add to my quick observations. And that’s the point. Because hopefully we’re going much easier for them to be able to do so by enabling them to track down these texts and use them in their work. It’s going to get much bigger, as the number of manuscripts we look at creep into the thousands, and the number of minitexts expand as well. This is a project that is going to lead to so many bigger things, giving me a much bigger scan of the early medieval world as a whole in the process, and that’s why I’m so excited that this is how I’m going to be spending the next two years.

In Memory of Dealings Past: The Treaty of St-Quentin (1 March 857)

The Carolingian world after the death of Lothar I in 855, with the kingdom of Charles the Bald in brown, Lothar II in orange, Charles of Provence in purple, Louis II in red and Louis the German in blue.

Early medieval treaties sometimes seem scarcely worth the parchment they were written on. Despite the solemnity of the language used and the severity of the oaths sworn, they were frequently broken, and sometimes rather quickly at that (see here the Perpetual Peace of 532 between Rome and Iran, which lasted all of eight years, or the Fifty-Year Peace of 562, which managed a slightly more respectable ten years). This is notoriously the case of the treaties between the warring Carolingians of the middle of the ninth century, some of which I have been translating for this blog. But while the shelf-life of a treaty from the 850s sometimes resembled that of a mayfly, that did not mean that they were forgotten or irrelevant for subsequent negotiations. Rather, they formed part of the shared context by which future diplomacy could be interpreted. Not only could the terms of past agreements be referred to and repeated again, but treaties from years gone by were preserved and reread in order to be useful for defining the political landscape to come. That takes us to today’s translation, which is of the Treaty of St-Quentin of 857, made between Charles the Bald and Lothar II.

Karoli II et Hlotarii II conventus apud Sanctum Quintinum, in MGH Capit. II, no. 268, pp. 293-5.

The proclamation of Charles and his nephew Lothar at Saint-Quentin in March in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 857.

Charles’ Proclamation.

1.     We want you to know about the meeting which we held. After God called our father from this world, I have always received such advice from my beloved brother Louis as it was necessary for me and I sought from him and befit him to give; and by his encouragement and intervention it came to pass, thanks be to God, there was such unanimity between me and my brother Lothar [I] of good memory, just as should have been amongst brothers. And on account of such causes for complaint as lay between us, we found with our common followers that it was necessary that an assurance be made between us in accordance with God’s will concerning our common progress and assistance, and the salvation of our sons and kingdom and of our followers, in such a manner as we knew well from Our common followers who were present; and in his lifetime he preserved this towards us, and thanks be to God, we preserved it towards him; and by God’s help, as far as we know and we can, we seek to preserve towards his sons (our nephews), and they seek to do this towards us.

2.     After his death, as you have heard, partly because of my infirmity, partly because of the coming of the pagans, and because of the other things which occurred in our kingdom, until now there has not been an opportune point for me and my most beloved nephew to talk together and demonstrate to each another our present wishes that each of us keeps towards the other in our hearts.

3.     However, a suitable point emerged, because my dearest nephew talked with my most beloved brother Louis and found in him such agreement and council as was necessary for the one and befitting for the other to show him; which is fully pleasing to me. And now, when he talked to me, he told me that in regard to the assurances which I made with his father, my brother of good memory, and my reception of him into my protection, he wanted to persevere with that reception and that he wished, with the Lord’s aid, to observe entirely the assurance which his father, my brother, made with me.

4.     And we found with our common followers, that in order to address such needful matters as you know and see happening in this kingdom, we should confirm in turn, just as we have done, that we must safeguard and aid each other in turn for the honour of the holy church of God, and the common progress and salvation of our faithful, and to secure our kingdom against whosoever is necessary for us, just as an uncle should rightly seek to save and help his nephew and a nephew his uncle.

5.     And our followers who were present and gave this advice to us told us that they were prepared to assist us, with the help of the Lord, in all things, so that we each might be able to respect this assurance. And for this reason we wish to hear your consent and wishes from you, if this seems good to you, and if henceforth you wish to offer us help in order that we can observe this with God’s help and yours.

Lothar’s Proclamation.

Just as my uncle tells you, inasmuch as God has bestowed to the knowledge and power, and I wish to preserve that assurance he made with my father, by which he received me under his protection, and which my father made with him, I wish to firmly observe, with God’s help, that which I have made with him.

A further proclamation of King Charles.

We want you to know that on account of these robberies and plundering which have increased in our kingdom, partly because the pagans have come upon us, partly because of certain incidents which have happened in our kingdom, we have summoned and assembled a synod of bishops and a number of our faithful men, so that throughout our kingdom both bishops and our missi and our counts should hold assemblies in each diocese and county, and every man who ought to attend the assembly and dwells in these counties, should attend this assembly without exception or apology. And let the bishops demonstrate to all how grievous this sin is, and what kind of penitence it requires, and what kind of damnation one will gain unless penance does occur. And Our missi shall lay out our capitularies of the law and those of our ancestors on this matter to everyone, and banish so great a suffering. And let all know that whoever presumes to carry out such acts thereafter will receive canonical and royal punishment, as both our bishops and our missi will report more fully at that time.

A further announcement of Lothar

1.     Know also that we have decided that when  any criminal comes from one of our kingdoms to another, the bishop or missus or count from whose ministry they have fled in order that they might not give just compensation  or receive an appropriate punishment, should let the missi into whose missaticum in another realm they had fled know, and they should distrain him in such a manner that he should return to where he has committed the evil either to give compensation or to face punishment.

2.     And you may know that, as God [word missing: ‘has conceded’ or similar] through his mercy and through the goodness of my uncles, and through the help of my father and my followers, I have succeeded my father in the kingdom; thus, I wish, with the help of God and the counsel of my uncles and your help to endure in all goodness and in observation of those chapters which my father agreed and confirmed with his brothers, my uncles, at Meerssen concerning the will of God and the honour of the holy church and the stability of the kingdom and the salvation of the holy church and the followers of the kingdom.

Charles’ Third Announcement

May Almighty God grant us that we can earn your fidelity and your help, which you have always demonstrated towards us, along with every baron, just as our ancestors deserved in goodness from your ancestors, and we wish to merit together from you with all kindness.

Those of you who read previous treaty translations here and here will remember that one of the motivations driving the diplomatic activity was Emperor Lothar I’s desire to secure the succession of his sons after his death. That when the long-awaited event happened on 29th September 855 it didn’t immediately cause an all-out war probably had relatively little to do with the treaties Lothar had made with Charles the Bald. As Charles observed in the Treaty of St-Quentin (Charles.1.2, Charles.2), it had been a busy few years. Pippin II disputed Charles’ rule of Aquitaine, while disease and Vikings appear to have been ubiquitous in the West Frankish kingdom. Louis the German spent much of these years battling Moravians, Sorbs and Bohemians on his eastern frontier. This limited Charles and Louis’ capacity to intervene in affairs. The nobles of Lothar I’s Frankish territories also seem to have upheld the old emperor’s succession plan. Lothar II, who inherited the territory that would be known as Lotharingia, was prevented from tonsuring his younger brother, Charles, who became King of Provence. Their older brother, Emperor Louis II, was unhappy to only be ruling Italy but had to lump it.

Ruling a small but immensely rich and politically significant kingdom sandwiched between two larger ones left Lothar II vulnerable. He began his reign aligned with Louis the German, being crowned in Frankfurt in his uncle’s presence. In February 857 Lothar travelled to Koblenz to have another meeting with Louis. But by then Lothar was probably already contemplating a change of direction, and that is what the treaty we’re interested in today represents. On 1 March Lothar agreed to an alliance with Charles the Bald at St-Quentin. Although none of the terms of the treaty are directed against Louis the German, they represent a shift of alignment, one which the East Frankish king responded to by coming to a parallel arrangement with his namesake nephew Louis II. For his part, Charles could do with all the goodwill and help he could get, particularly given recent East Frankish invasions.

In the treaty, both Charles and Lothar consciously hark back to the recent diplomatic past. Charles begins with an idealised summary of said past, referring to the treaty between him and his brothers at Meerssen in 851, presenting an image of cooperation and amity in the years that followed that bares only the vaguest resemblance to reality (Charles.1.1). While he alludes to Lothar II’s dealings with Louis, it’s as part of a necessary desire for concord (Charles.1.2) rather than out of shared interests. Lothar also mentions Meerssen (Lothar.2.2), expressing his commitment to its spirit, but he also makes repeated references to Charles’ recent agreements with Lothar’s father (Lothar.1, Lothar.2.2). The effect is to suggest that rather than switching between uncles for short term political gain, Lothar II was actually inheriting a long-standing affinity. These past relations solidified and stabilised what might otherwise be a very uncertain agreement.

The text also echoes past treaties. Lothar’s emphasis on criminals fleeing to another kingdom (Lothar.2.1) closely resembles his father’s concerns in the Treaty of Valenciennes of 853, as does Charles’ discussion of his domestic agenda. The result is to paint a general picture of inter-Carolingian harmony and good feelings over the past six years as well as a specific image of a particularly close alliance between Charles and Lothar I. One way in which this treaty is very different from that of Valenciennes is the palpable sense of crisis in Charles’ sections of the treaty. Vikings were clearly a major problem for him, one that demanded a great moral and spiritual response as well as a martial one, with much penitence and the restoration of law throughout the kingdom.

The treaty seems to have been reasonably successful. Lothar and Charles remained on good terms over the next couple of years. Lothar fended off the blandishments of Louis the German, failing to show up to a meeting with him in May 858 because of his alliance with Charles. In August 858, Lothar participated in Charles’ failed siege of a Viking army on the island of Oissel in the Seine. The relationship was not without its wobbles. Following Louis’ invasion of the West Frankish kingdom that same August, Lothar met with Louis at Attigny and they came to an agreement. Lothar was being pragmatic here. Forced to retreat to Burgundy, Charles looked utterly defeated at this point. The moment Charles recovered, Lothar renewed their alliance in February 859 and from there until the end of the war with Louis in June 860 they worked closely together. Lothar and Charles of Provence attended a synod hosted by Charles the Bald in June 859, bringing bishops and abbots from their kingdoms with them to join the deliberations.

The Treaty of St-Quentin was signed out of necessity. There was no sentimentality behind it and in 860 the relationship between Charles and Lothar broke down for good. Nonetheless, the memory of past agreements, particularly those between Lothar’s father and Charles, provided a context in which the treaty could be understood and presented to the assembled great and good of the Carolingian world. In doing so it demonstrates to us the way in which treaties were preserved, reread and reused in new contexts in the early medieval world.

Edge Cases: Linear Borders in Early Medieval Europe

In early July 2022 I had the pleasure of attending the Leeds International Medieval Congress. This is the great summer jamboree for medieval historians, the largest annual academic conference in Europe, featuring 613 sessions and over 2,000 people. It was also the first to be held in person since 2019 for obvious disease-related reasons. In addition to catching up with old friends for the first time in years and making my presence felt at the legendary Wednesday night disco with my characteristic grace and poise, I thought I might try to attend some of the papers given that I was in town.

The overall theme of the conference was ‘Borders’. Adhering too strongly to said theme is not necessarily in the true spirit of Leeds IMC, but I got to hear a number of excellent papers that addressed the subject. One thing that struck me though were the number of speakers, particularly in the keynotes, who decried the idea of the existence of linear borders between political entities in the earlier Middle Ages. To hear one paper of this view, such things were unheard of before the fourteenth century at the earliest. Instead of lines, kingdoms and other such polities were separated by ambiguous and shifting border zones, where the writ of central authority ran thin in difficult country far from the heartlands of their power.

Such an assessment is often correct. The frontier between the Carolingians and Umayyad al-Andalus, where I cut my teeth as a researcher, is a fine example. Somewhere on the road between Barcelona and Zaragoza, a ninth-century traveller crossed from one authority to another, but pinning down the exact spot would be a difficult and largely pointless exercise. This emphasis upon nodal points of communication and control is very far from unusual. Nonetheless, there was something about the confident declarations that medieval people did not think in terms of linear borders that troubled me.

Partly this is because I worry that we’re a little too fond of the complexity of ambiguous frontiers. Most of us come from states which come to an end at clearly delineated geographic points (something I have been reminded of all too regularly as a British person who routinely travels across Europe). There’s something immensely exciting and heroic about borderlands that blur into each other. In embracing them, historians in the present demonstrate their ability to engage with very different pasts in a way that shows off our subtlety and cleverness. It also marks us out as different from the Priti Patels, Donald Trumps and Marine Le Pens of the world. This can lead to us fantasising about the Middle Ages as a time when people didn’t care about borders as antidote to the present.

More substantially the concept of the borderless Middle Ages smacks a little too much of modernity constructing medieval otherness. The idea that linear borders only emerge in the fourteenth century feeds into narratives designed to separate the past from the present, allowing modern historians to treat the centuries before their period as an alien irrelevance. The dangers of such an approach can be seen in the literature on the history of international relations, where the idea that diplomacy emerged in the fifteenth century resulted in the considerable neglect of anything in between Thucydides and the Medici. I’m also concerned that assuming that all medieval borders were zones rather than lines lets us off the hook of investigating why this was the case. After all, if people from the Middle Ages resisted toeing the line, then we shouldn’t feel surprised that fluid territorial ambiguity is the ubiquitous order of the day.

I actually think we should be surprised if it turns out that medieval people never thought in terms of linear political boundaries. After all, borders and lines existed within their daily lives. A glance at the boundary clauses in charters often reveals a world where people had very firm and precise ideas about where their property stopped, and another person’s began. These are very common in Anglo-Saxon charters, with a nice example being the boundary clause in a charter from the start of the tenth century in which Edward the Elder confirms the sale of five hides of land at Water Eaton in Oxfordshire:

These are the land-boundaries of Eaton – first from beetle’s stream up along the streamlet till it comes to the coloured floor. Thence along the valley by the two little barrows till it comes to the spring at Wulfhun’s plantation. Then diagonally over the furlong to the thorn bushes westward where the large thorn tree used to stand, and so to bird pool. Then along the ditch till it comes to the muddy spring, and so along the water course till it comes to the Cherwell which forms the boundary from then on.

(trans. here, orig. here)

While some of the landmarks may strike us as rather eccentric, they would have been meaningful to the people on the ground who were the ones who most needed the information. Nor were these clauses confined to England. They can be found in charters from Catalonia and Brittany to Italy and Bavaria.

Should barrows and bird pools not suffice, boundary markers could also be employed. The Law of the Bavarians ordained that:

XII.1 If anyone dares to level boundary lines or remove fixed boundary markers, let him compensate, if he is a freeman, with six solidi for each sign or marker in the neighbourhood.

(trans. Rivers, p.150)

This is followed by a full section on the subject. Cities and towns were criss-crossed with lines, whether those relate to property, parishes or different legal zones. Anglo-Saxon law codes refer to the beating of the bounds, which still happen in parts of Britain and New England to this day, in which priests lead their flocks around the boundaries of their parish, to fix them in memory and practice. (Young boys were often beaten at strategic points in order to secure their recollection of this geography, part of a rich English pedagogical tradition which explains so many of the neuroses of my beloved patria.) There was a long and fine intellectual tradition running behind such boundaries, as demonstrated by the continued use of Roman texts about surveying such as the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum.

Drawing lines in the sand in the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel Codex Guelfferbytanus 36.23 Augusteus 2 f.19r.

The presence of linear boundaries in a domestic context doesn’t mean they existed on the frontier, but it should at least suggest that such a thing was not inconceivable to medieval minds. And sure enough, if we go looking, we find a range of suggestive borders. Some of these are present on natural features. Rivers might have been great connectors for communications and commerce in the medieval world, but they also offered a natural line of demarcation, albeit one that was prone to moving. Einhard claimed that the Vistula and the Ebro marked the limits of Charlemagne’s empire, and while he was clearly overoptimistic in the case of the latter, it at least indicates that fluvial boundaries were an idea that made sense to him. Elsewhere we find linear earthworks such as the Danevirke between the Danes and the Franks and Offa’s Dyke between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms. These may not have marked the precise border, but by acting as places to manage the flow of people, they effectively created a line where one moved from one zone of control to another. Nor was this concept confined to the Christian world. Muslim writers commented on the Iron Gates raised by Alexander the Great to mark the border between the civilised world and the Tartar hordes of Gog and Magog.

Treaties sometimes also indicate that people were thinking in terms of lines. A nice example is the treaty that ended the Beneventan civil war in 849, by partitioning the principality between Radelchis I in Benevento and Sikenolf in Salerno, which states that:

10. Between Benevento and Capua the border goes from Sant’Angelo to Cerro, passing through the edge of Monte Vergine to the place called Fenestella. Between Benevento and Salerno the border lies in the place, which is called ‘Ad Peregrinos’, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side. Between Benevento and Conza the border lies right at the border stone in Frigento, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side.

(translated by Benham here, with useful context here)

Better known in Anglophone world is the agreement made around 880 between Alfred the Great and Guthrum, which declares that the boundaries of their realms shall run ‘up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, and then up the Ouse to Watling Street.’ Centuries of scholars have tried to map the resulting partition with many different interpretations. We may suspect that in reality the result was more fluid, but the treaty nonetheless conveys an understanding of the frontier that is created by a fixed linear legal boundary.

Different frontiers took different forms. The Carolingian empire was bounded by a mix of client kingdoms, such as the Abodrites, organised marches, like my beloved Spanish March, and fortified defensive lines, an example of which can be found along the Elbe. A classic case study of Carolingian rulers thinking in terms of lines appears in the negotiations between Louis the Pious and the Bulgars in the 820s. In 825 the emperor received envoys from Khan Omurtag in order to determine their ‘borders and limits (terminis ac finibus)’. Omurtag was keen to sort this out, sending a further embassy in 826 in response to Louis’ reply, ‘that the borders (terminorum) be determined without delay.’

These talks were complicated by antagonism between the Bulgars and pre-existing Frankish clients such as the Praedenecenti, but the aim was to fix a line between the two powers. What I particularly like about this example is that it demonstrates the way the nature of these boundaries could shift. After a sustained attempt to draw up a clear line, a breakdown in relations between the Franks and the Bulgars led to war, when the latter invaded Upper Pannonia in 827. The development of intermittent conflict, and activities of other peoples in the region like the Timociani who didn’t fancy being Bulgar clients, created a deep frontier zone. This was not an inevitable consequence of medieval people being unable to conceive of linear borders, but rather a dynamic result of political circumstances and decisions, which could change quickly.

It is not my intention in this screed rant post to deny that the borders between medieval polities were often porous or poorly defined. Nor is it to doubt the existence of ambiguous frontier zones that acted as liminal spaces where people got on with their own business without too much concern about which ruler they were theoretically subject to. Instead, what I hope I’ve suggested is that linear borders could indeed exist in the medieval world, and that were we do find edges that shade into each other, we ought to ask why that is, rather than assuming that this was a universal feature. Rather than drawing a line under the matter, we need further investigation in order to more clearly delineate the subject.

Fantasy Writing and the Early Middle Ages

A long legacy of fantasy, as Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir in this twelfth-century carving from Hylestad Stave Church.

Places and people from the past become inextricably linked to particular genres of writing in the present. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story set in Regency England will be in want of a costume romance. The spectre of the Gothic looms over any tale located in Transylvania before the twentieth century. And any fiction set in Los Angeles in the 1940s is going to let you know they’re trouble when they walk into your office with legs that go all the way down to the ground. In the case of the Early Middle Ages, that genre is fantasy. The association stretches back to the Middle Ages themselves. Well before Tolkien began crafting a world for his languages, jongleurs carried songs of Arthur, Attila and Charlemagne through the courts of Europe, while farmers and merchants in Iceland passed long lightless winters listening to sagas about years gone by. That the writer who did more than anyone else to codify modern fantasy was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies with a special interest in Beowulf certainly didn’t hurt either.

The bibliography on the influence of the early medieval world on Tolkien’s fantasy writing is enormous and I have no intention of attempting to add to it. But as a professional specialising in the Early Middle Ages with a deep fondness for fantasy as a genre, it struck me that it might be interesting to think about the ways in which fantasy writers since Tolkien have engaged with the period in their writing. In doing so, I’d like to consider what it is about the early medieval world that they find useful and interesting, what that says about popular perceptions of the period, and what ideas, if any, historians can take from them. My method in selecting examples is highly scientific – I raided the contents of my book shelves and my kindle in no particular order. For this reason, it is by no means exhaustive, being anglophone, with a heavy emphasis on the 2000s (aka my teenage years when I had pocket money and a lot of free time) and reflective of my (very) peculiar tastes. Nonetheless, upon reflection I think certain trends emerge which are potentially revealing.

Filing the Serial Numbers Off: Guy Gavriel Kay

Few fantasy writers have made the inspiration they drew from the Early Middle Ages more obvious than Guy Gavriel Kay, whose literary career began when he worked as Christopher Tolkien’s assistant in editing his father’s unpublished works. The majority of Kay’s books are set in fictionalised versions of real-world settings, many of which are from the early medieval period. These include The Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998, 2000, based on Byzantium in the age of Justinian), The Last Light of the Sun (2004, Alfred the Great and the Vikings), and, my personal favourites, The Lions of al-Rassan (1995, eleventh-century Spain) and Under Heaven (2010, eighth-century China).

Although Kay clearly does considerable research for each book, the setting is ultimately there to serve the story and he very reasonably compresses timelines and characters for narrative economy. The early medieval world provides Kay with epic backdrops, settings filled with colour and scale, and dramatic events kickstarting the conflicts that drive the plot. Generally the broad sweep of the history remains the same, with the big exception being The Sarantine Mosaic which throws a couple of fairly large counterfactuals into the mix. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Kay’s use of the Early Middle Ages, and one of my favourite things about his books in general, is how beautiful his settings are. As we shall see, when the early medieval period is used to provide a fantasy background, it’s normally for a rather grim state of affairs. Kay’s early medieval worlds are culturally rich, filled with art and poetry and song. Despite widespread prejudice, they are also spaces where people of different faiths and races can meet and try to understand each other. Unlike many other works that draw on the period, the tragedy in Kay’s stories is not that the Early Middle Ages are here, but that they are going and with them their beauty and their tolerance. His best writing evokes these fragile middle grounds, creating quiet moments of grace that take place just before the wrecking storm. These spaces are doomed, but that makes them all the more precious. Kay’s ability to see the wonder in the Early Middle Ages helps explain his popularity among medievalists more generally, and is the reason The Lions of al-Rassan is a book I return to every year.

Widukind and Friends: Kate Elliott

As we shall see throughout this post, some early medieval settings are more attractive than others. Arthur and the end of Roman Britain will always attract a crowd. Similarly, anything with Vikings in it does well, particularly when we throw in the compulsory trip to Constantinople. Fantasy depictions of tenth-century Germany on the other hand are rather more unusual. Hesitant though I am to say it, I fear that the Ottonians lack the raw sex appeal of other inhabitants of the Early Middle Ages (Saxon-appeal on the other hand…). Fantasy books that cite Widukind are rare birds indeed.

Rare, but not unheard of thanks to Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series (1997-2006), which is set in an unusually convincing fantasy world based on Ottonian Germany. Fantasy it most certainly is, being stuffed full with magic, monsters, rock-creatures for Vikings, and interdimensional elves which come in Roman and Aztec flavours. These elements are grounded by a thoroughly researched human society based on tenth-century itinerant kingship. (It probably helps that the author’s sister is a professor specialising in medieval German literature.) Elliott adds weight and believability to her world through her close attention to material culture and day to day logistics. A hundred warriors are a considerable army in this setting, and one that needs to be fed. Elliott is skilled enough that such realities add to the plot rather than slowing it down. Even the magic acquires a certain verisimilitude from her use of early medieval scholarship (and a healthy dose of Macrobius).

Perhaps my favourite element is the handling of religion. Modern fantasy writers tend to struggle with the role of religion in their early medieval analogues, if they don’t drop it altogether, often reverting to faith as a cynical con perpetrated by a corrupt church. Crown of Stars certainly features plenty of ecclesiastical shenanigans. But Elliott constructs an interesting religious world based on the teachings of Bardaisan of Edessa, where faith imbues every part of society. Although all the characters have different relationships to it, religion matters practically, spiritually and culturally for our protagonists. The result is a vivid depiction of an early medieval world.

Stories of Arthur: Philip Reeve

In discussing the Early Middle Ages as an inspiration for fantasy writing, Arthur is the 1000-pound bear in the room. There is no possible way anyone can briefly summarise the influence of Camelot and company. Generally, when people write stories about Arthur, they follow one of two routes. Either they embrace the weirdness of the medieval source material with plenty of magic and very little attention to historical context, or they go full ‘Dark Age Arthur’, cutting the mythology out in favour of a gritty allegedly realistic setting. As a rule, I tend to prefer the first approach (which is how you get the superb The Green Knight film from 2021) to the second (which is how you get a horribly miscast and inexplicably Pelagian Clive Owen fighting the Saxons on Hadrian’s Wall). But because this post is about using the early medieval past for fantasy narratives, the latter strand is more directly relevant for us today.

In these sorts of stories, the early medieval past is used to strip out Arthurian weirdness and replace it with something more grounded. Done straight, ‘Dark Age Arthur’ can be very good indeed, with Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (1995-1997) being a fine example. But something about the contempt with which a lot of these narratives cannibalise the mythology rubs me the wrong way. For this reason, the book I’d like to mention in this section is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2007). Despite being written for a YA audience, Reeve’s Arthurian world is a dark place indeed. His Arthur is one armed thug with a retinue among many fighting over the carcass of western Britain, distinguished only by his violence and by his patronage of Myrddin. The latter, who is a bard, wizard and spin-doctor extraordinaire, is determined to unite Britain against the Saxons by turning Arthur into a heroic legend. Our main character, Gwyna, becomes Myrddin’s assistant in this endeavour.

Reeve has a lot of fun with Myrddin’s cunning schemes, as he stage-manages a number of familiar literary episodes. But what I particularly like about this book is his willingness to embrace some of the weirder elements of Arthuriana and medieval culture. His handling of gender and sexuality in the Early Middle Ages is particularly bold for 2007 and serves as a nice nod to the complexity that medieval gender studies have been revealing for decades. Reeve’s Age of Arthur is a fluid world, defined by the stories that people tell, and all the more fascinating for it.

In the Far Future there is only the Dark Ages: Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie

One recent trend in fantasy writing is to use the Early Middle Ages as the blueprint for a postapocalyptic world. This is something employed by Mark Lawrence in his The Broken Empire trilogy (2011-2013, followed by The Red Queen’s War, 2014-2016 set in the same world) and by Joe Abercrombie in his Shattered Sea trilogy (2014-2015). Both feature elite young male protagonists relying upon their intelligence and ruthlessness to survive and thrive in a Hobbesian war against all. Both are also incredibly dark narratives, in which our main characters do appalling things. Because of these parallels, I’m talking about them together.

Much of the action in The Broken Empire takes place in a setting that draws heavily on traditional views of France in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Our teenage protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, reads like a cross between Fulk Nerra and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We encounter him leading a merry band of droogs on a brutal rampage across a war-torn northern France. The Shattered Sea treads slightly more familiar ground, set in a postapocalyptic Baltic with a strong Viking flavour (our protagonists even travel to Miklagard in the second book). Born into a royal family with a crippled hand, Yarvi was meant to enter the church but unexpectedly becomes a king. Betrayed and sold as a slave, Yarvi seeks his revenge, giving the plot a pleasing hint of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The first thing that raises eyebrows is of course the idea that the Early Middle Ages is what naturally happens when civilisation collapses. I’ve talked about my problems with the idea of the Dark Ages before. This sort of thing undermines our ability to see the period on its own terms, and understand both its beauty and the unique factors that shaped it. There is nothing natural about the Middle Ages, and treating it as a short hand for the state of nature short-changes it. That said, Lawrence and Abercrombie do make good use of the concept. The visual image of a dark age warlord hunkered down in a fortified office block rereading his treasured copy of Plutarch, or of a band of Vikings exploring the irradiated ruins of modern Stockholm, is a striking one, which adds to the atmosphere of the narrative. I particularly like the way radiation and other postapocalyptic standbys are interpreted via medieval stories of magic and the Monstrous Races, giving a fresh feel to both sets of concepts.

I think as a medieval historian I should probably object to the depiction of the Early Middle Ages as a period of constant warfare characterised by political instability and treachery. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I can. I think it’s safe to say that both Lawrence and Abercrombie struggle with the role of faith and ideology in politics. The idea that people might actually believe in things beyond survival, self-advancement and loyalty to one’s intimates doesn’t really make much of an appearance. That said, I can’t think of many successful well-sourced early medieval rulers who didn’t have an awful lot of blood on their hands. Frankly, the Early Middle Ages could be extremely violent and unstable, although not all the time or at a constant level, and not mindlessly.

Both The Broken Empire and the Shattered Sea take a stab at thinking about how people’s environments and the structure of their societies turn them into bloodstained villains. Where I think they differ is on what they lead into. Lawrence hints that the game can be won, that a Leviathan can emerge to create peace, but that it may require a monster to do so. (Whether a good person can break the wheel is a question he ducks in one of the more disappointing moments in the series). Abercrombie is more sceptical, viewing these events as an escalating cycle, in which efforts to create order through violence lead to more chaos as acts of cruelty beget further cruelty. Trying to read too coherent a philosophy of politics and history into books that are meant to be entertaining may be missing the point. Ultimately both series succeed at their basic ambition of being enjoyable reads if your taste runs to dark fantasy.

Magic and the Waning of the Early Middle Ages: Naomi Mitchison

Travel Light (1952) is probably the weirdest book I want to talk about today. It’s certainly the shortest, clocking in at 135 pages in my copy. Into that relatively brief length, Mitchison crams a huge amount. The book begins as a fairytale for children, a charming and funny story about how a girl named Halla is raised by bears and dragons in the wilds of Scandinavia, with strong nods to Norse mythology. The tone very quickly acquires a tragic air, eventually becoming a surprisingly dark political thriller in which Halla must navigate literally Byzantine court intrigue in Miklagard. But this is merely the second act, leaving a final act that is sad, ambiguous and hauntingly beautiful.

Naomi Mitchison refuses to make things easy for us as the reader. Every time we think we know what genre of story we’re reading and what kind of endgame we’re leading towards, she upends our expectations. Even as she changes, Halla ultimately chooses to remain free and authentic to herself, even when those choices impose costs upon her. Having experienced human civilisation, she sides with the world of magic and dragons, even when its clear both that that world is doomed, and that her own humanity makes it impossible for her ever to truly be a part of it. Halla walks her own path, and not even the Allfather, or the love of her life, can stop her.

In terms of its depiction of the early medieval world, what I find interesting about Travel Light is that it shows the onset of the Early Middle Ages as a tragedy not because it represents an anarchic breakdown of order, but because it is too civilised. The colonisation of the wildernesses of the north marks the end of freedom and magic. Whether it is the corrupt inequality of Byzantium, or the patriarchal brutality of the Russias, the world of men (and it is very much men) does not come across well in this story. Throughout the narrative there are nods to an ancient world were humans were more in touch with nature and power came through personal sacrifice rather than through coercion and violence.

Mitchison also walks the line between medieval literature and history in a way unusual in more recent fantasy. The former provides the basis for the disappearing older world of magic. We’re invited to sympathise with the likes of the Grendels (family friends of Halla) and with Fafnir. In this she resembles Tolkien with whom Mitchison had a long correspondence (she also proofread The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). The result is a story that brings back some of the alienness of the Middle Ages, which I very much enjoyed.

Concluding Thoughts

A lot of fantasy writing that draws inspiration from the Early Middle Ages leans hard on the image of the period as a Dark Age. If you want to tell a story about a poor, violent world, with low levels of technology and stability and high levels of mud, popular perceptions of the early medieval period will give you plenty to work with. Further, the idea of the early medieval world as postlapsarian place, a world in decline in the dying afterglow of Rome, allows for some really compelling stories, which you can also apply to postapocalyptic settings. I don’t really have a problem with this, so long as the stories that we get are entertaining, but it’s worth noting that it reflects a particular interpretation.

It’s also not the only way that you can depict the period. It’s possible to give a much more positive interpretation, as in the case of Guy Gavriel Kay. Other writers, such as Kate Elliott, lean much harder into the primary sources, using her understanding of the Early Middle Ages to ground more fantastical elements. One interesting trend is a move away from medieval literature to history. While they knew a huge amount about history, I suspect that the formative encounter for older writers like Tolkien and Mitchison was with Old English and Norse literature, and that shapes the feel and texture of their writings. By contrast, my sense is that more recent fantasy writing draws much more upon history, which informs their plots and settings but perhaps not the actual language they employ, resulting in books that feel much more modern and less alien. (Kay may be a transitional figure, still active today, but imbued in the older tradition).

As I mentioned above, this is a very brief survey of a somewhat random selection of books. It is by no means exhaustive. I should also say that for all my occasional criticisms, this is a genre I genuinely like. I am already compiling a list of promising sounding authors for the next moment I have some time to read for pleasure (summer of 2057 is going to be amazing). At the moment I have Saladin Ahmed, Poul Anderson and Katherine Kurtz on my radar, but I’d invite readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

Once Upon a Time in the South: John and the Wages of War (March 795)

Being a medieval historian often brings to mind the old joke about the drunk searching for his keys in the dark. Whatever we might want to find, unless it’s directly under the streetlights (or in our very narrow source base), we’re not going to find it, even if we’re pretty certain it must be around somewhere. In the early medieval period in particular, the lampposts are mostly fixed on royal courts and major religious institutions. For people and places beyond those shining lights, we generally have to hope that their paths will in some way cross these sources of illumination.  A fine example of this happening is the charter translated here (dangerously stepping on Fraser’s toes as the master of all cartulary knowledge in the process). I’m very fond of this one because it gives us an unusual glimpse of a warrior below the highest ranks of the elite. It also provides an illuminating perspective on the endlessly fascinating frontier region known as the Spanish March at an early stage of its development.

(Ed.: the charter as it stands is not preserved without textual question marks, which are illustrated in brackets following the MGH edition.)

DD Karol. 1 no. 179, also Catalunya Carolíngia 2.ii, p.310

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
<The most serene> Charles, by the grace of God, king of the Franks and of the Lombards and patrician of the Romans.
<Let it be known> to all our bishops, abbots, governors, companions, and all our followers, both present and future.
It is right that the power of the king should impart protection upon those who can be proved to need it.
[Therefore, let your greatness and advantage] know that John came to us and showed us the letter which our beloved son Louis [the Pious] had made for him and sent through him to us. And we found in this letter that John himself fought a great battle against the heretics or unbelieving Saracens in the district of Barcelona, where he overcame them at the place called Ad Ponte and slew the aforesaid infidels and took spoils from them. He then presented some of them to our beloved son, the best horse and the best mail coat and a scimitar with a silver scabbard; and he asked him [Louis] for the abandoned hamlet which is called Fontes in the district of Narbonne in order to work on it. He gave him [John] the hamlet and sent him to us.
And when he [John] had come to us with the letter which our son produced for him, he commended himself into our hands. Our said follower John asked that we might grant him the hamlet which our son had given him. We indeed grant him the hamlet itself, with all its borders and its appurtenances in its entirety; and whatever he and his men have occupied or will have occupied; and what they will have cleared from the waste in the village of Fontjoncouse; and what they will have occupied either within its borders or in other places or villages or hamlets; and what he and his men will have taken by aprisio. We grant all these things to him through our donation, so that he and his posterity may have it without any rent or trouble, while they are faithful to us or our sons. And in order that this authority may be held more firmly, we have sealed it under our signet.
Giltbert recognised and subscribed this on behalf of Rado.
Given in the month of March, in the twenty-fifth and eighteenth year of our reign, enacted at our palace at Aachen; happily in the name of God. Amen.

There’s a lot of interest in this short text, but let’s start with the basics. The exact dating of this charter is unclear, as that provided on the charter isn’t coherent. The most likely year is 795, that is before the more than a decade of campaigning through which the Carolingians would seek to expand the March. Louis the Pious was away from Aquitaine for two years from 792, making 794 the earliest he could have had his meeting with John, probably placing the charter grant by Charlemagne in March 795.

I’ve seen it suggested that John’s battle with the Saracens was connected to the invasion ordered by the Umayyad Emir Hisham I in 793. I suspect that that is both unlikely and unnecessary. The incursion of 793 was a fairly serious force that sacked the outskirts of Narbonne and beat the Count of Toulouse in battle, killing a large number of Franks in the process. That sounds like a far larger event than John’s skirmish, although it’s possible that John fought a band that had fanned out from the main invasion force. But we don’t need to assume that it happened then. In his epic poem praising Louis the Pious, Ermold the Black writes about feuds arising from raids on single households. Likewise, the Revised Royal Frankish Annals (s.a. 797) describes Barcelona as an area swinging between Christians and Muslims. This was a tough neighbourhood, and people in the region were quite capable of raiding each other without outside help.

One of the most exciting things about this charter is that it is part of a set. It comes down to us in a twelfth-century manuscript preserved in the cathedral of Narbonne. In 963, a descendant of John gave the land to the cathedral, together with a collection of relevant documents proving ownership, of which this charter was the first. Other documents in the collection included pertinent legislation and reconfirmations of the grant by later Carolingians. In addition, Christoph Haack and Thomas Kohl have recently drawn attention to an oath given by witnesses of the 795 grant in 833 on behalf of John’s son Teudefred. John and Teudefred had been chased off the land by Count Leibulf, but the latter managed to reclaim it, in large part thanks to the witnesses. The result is that we have a dossier that doesn’t just help us follow a family in the Spanish March through the ninth century, but also provides clues to help us understand the charter translated here.

One of those clues pertains to John’s ethnicity. Included in the manuscript is a charter given by Charlemagne in 812 to a group of men called hispani, one of whom is named John. The Emperor promised to protect the rights of these small landowners against the more powerful counts of the region. If, as seems most plausible, we identify this John as the same one from the first charter, this tells us that he and his men were most likely from the Iberian Peninsula (and after all, it takes Juan to know Juan). It is traditional to assume that such men were refugees from Muslim persecution in al-Andalus, and perhaps they were, but nothing in the historical record forces us to assume this. John appears as a warrior with a small following, who shrewdly parlayed success in battle into landed wealth. Although he was clearly a man of some standing, with a warband capable of skirmishing with enemy companies, this nonetheless places him several rungs below the type of military men we normally meet in the sources.

The site of John’s battle, Ad Ponte/To the Bridge, is unknown today, as is Fontes in the country of Narbonne. The oath of 833 tells us that it was originally given to John by a Count Sturmi as aprisio, before being confirmed by Louis and Charlemagne. The term aprisio is one that has been repeatedly discussed by scholars, but broadly it seems to have been a word of Iberian origin, applied to wasteland that was now being occupied. The hamlet of Fontes was deserted, so John raised buildings and cultivated the land. The reason the land was abandoned is uncertain. Saracen raids are one possibility, but there are many others.

There are a number of interesting details in this charter. The reference to the Saracens as ‘heretics’ points to the vagueness of Carolingian understandings of Islam. The discussion of the items presented by John to Louis suggests the importance of booty for warfare in the period, as well as the significance of gifts for relations between lords and followers. We can also see the interesting relationship between the written word and oral testimony. Louis wrote a letter for John that he could take to Charlemagne. Charlemagne confirmed the grant of lands in a text that was carefully preserved so we can read it today. But when John’s possession of the land was questioned, his son reclaimed it using the testimony of witnesses to the original grant. That testimony was itself written down and preserved. The two sources of authority interacted and complemented each other.

There’s much more that could be said about this charter, but it remains one of my favourites for the way it casts a spotlight on the Spanish March and on the people who tried to benefit from its sometimes-volatile nature.

Silcher Must Fall?: Lessons about Statues with Difficult Pasts

There are few more beautiful spots in Tübingen to take a stroll than the Platanenallee. Beginning at the Eberhard bridge, which crosses the Neckar at the heart of the city, you descend down onto a narrow island that divides the river, lined by the mighty and ancient plane trees from which the avenue takes its name.  Picnics are held amid these giants. Small children play hiding games behind their trunks. Down the broad avenue, elderly Tübingers wearing their best nod courteously to the revelling teenagers whose paths they cross. On the water, scholars attempt to balance their punts and take them down the river, with varying ratios of skill to enthusiasm. To your right, on the far side of the Neckar, rises the city, where the colourful medieval residential buildings that define the view are further adorned by students sat on the wall in front of them. As you make your way west, you will see the late Gothic tower of the Stiftskirche in the distance, as well as the bright yellow tower on the river in which the poet Hölderlin battled his demons. Looming above it all is the red roofed castle, whose thick walls, which once housed the local count, now defend the treasures of the university museum. Press on, and you will reach the sighing forest, where the regimented plane trees that open one to the world are replaced by their smaller, less-disciplined cousins, creating a space of solitude in the middle of the city.

But before reaching that shelter, one must meet a monster.

Photo by author

The most controversial statue in Tübingen lurks where the avenue meets the forest, commanding an open circle that draws you into his realm. Its subject is the celebrated composer and music teacher Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860). Statues and their role in the telling of history have been much in the news recently, not least in the city of my birth, so my attention was drawn to the Silcher statue. I’ve long felt that the way Germany talks about its history holds lessons for other countries with difficult pasts (that is, all of them). The complicity of ordinary Germans in the crimes of the Third Reich and the DDR are taught honestly and bravely in schools and communicated regularly in public. Nor are they separated from ordinary life. Walking down the streets of Germany, one encounters the little golden bricks (Stolpersteine), giving you the name and details of a person who once lived where you now stand and was murdered by the Nazis. Such moments, which collapse time by fixing you to the place, make it impossible to fully banish the spectre of the past.  Although other parts of German history are still more forgotten than they should be, most notably the colonial empire in Africa that led to the Herero and Nama genocide, even here efforts are being made to face up to that past. (In between my writing this piece and its publication, Tübingen has acquired an excellent set of signs organised by the local museum which inform the reader about the colonial connections of the city and university in preparation for a permanent exhibition on the subject.) Given Germany’s excellence in coping with historical memory, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the treatment of the Silcher statue.

The statue is not controversial because of its subject. As far as I can tell, Silcher was as inoffensive as the average nineteenth-century person could be. His liberal nationalist leanings led him to be sympathetic to the 1848 revolution. His passion for the German nation was primarily expressed by his work collecting and arranging traditional Volkslieder (folk music). As the head of the music school in Tübingen for most of his life, Silcher played a key role in the cultural life of the city, as well as being celebrated across the German-speaking world. His contribution to Tübingen is commemorated by a street named after him, and his grave in the city cemetery is signposted for visitors.

Rather, the controversy comes from the circumstances in which the statue was put up. You get a strong hint about this when you approach the statue from the front. The whole composition is nearly six metres tall, made of sandstone, and features a colossal sitting Silcher, making notes in a book. The monumental style of a simple twentieth century that fetishized clean lines and dynamic force is ill suited to the composer’s delicate Biedermeier face and cravat, rendering them blocky and crude.  Further clues appear as you go round the statue, where, bursting out of Silcher’s back like so many alien parasites, we encounter two soldiers in battle, one of whom has fallen to unseen enemies; another soldier locked in a farewell kiss with a woman; and, most grotesquely, a child marching with a rifle over his shoulder. The effect of the ensemble carried out by these empty-faced figures is to glorify warfare. We can accuse it of many things, but subtle it is not. Just in case we haven’t worked out what we’re looking at yet, we can consult the helpful bright pink graffiti on the base, which accurately informs us that this is a ‘Nazi Denkmal [Monument]’.

The statue was first announced on the 25th June 1939, as Tübingen celebrated the 150th anniversary of Silcher’s birth, and was completed on 11th May 1941. The design and construction followed the specifications of the local Nazi district leader. Given the circumstances, it was felt that the official opening of the statue should be delayed. No such inauguration ever took place. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Nazi-era sculpture, it was never taken down, despite multiple requests over the decades by inhabitants of Tübingen.

I think on balance this is a good thing, because keeping the statue helps to communicate a number of useful points to the people who visit it. The first is the capacity and willingness of totalitarian ideologies to claim and pervert the past and art for its own purposes. The monumental figures of soldiers point towards some of Silcher’s most famous compositions, most notably the tune to Ludwig Uhland’s ‘Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden’. Far from straightforwardly glorifying war, though, the song speaks to the loss experienced by soldiers in battle. This universal applicability has led to it being picked up by militaries from France to Chile. Under Nazi rule, Silcher’s haunting tribute to the sorrow of war was instrumentalised in order to express war’s glory. Nazi leaders used their control of the arts in the present to redefine the art of the past, and place themselves right at the heart of Tübingen’s relationship with its own history.

But this is not just a story of alien functionaries imposing a Nazi ideology upon Tübingen’s historical landscape. That would be far too straightforward. Because the second point to take from this is the enthusiastic participation by people in the Nazi project. People in Tübingen liked the Nazis. It was not hard to find a sculptor, Wilhelm Julius Frick, who could fulfil the requirements of the organisers. For the most part the sculpture was organised by local people who were Nazis. Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazis had been popular in Tübingen. Although the working class of the city predominantly supported the Social Democrats or the Communists, the university was strongly right wing, and many of its students would be fast-tracked through the ranks of the SS and the Gestapo. The only Jewish professor in the university was forced out in 1931. By 1935 there were no Jewish students at the university. An Institute for Racial Studies was established in order to racially classify people. It was later renamed the Anthropological Institute. The intellectuals of Tübingen, the people who presumed to set its artistic taste and preserve its cultural tradition, were fully on board with the Nazi project. The statue of Silcher speaks to their willingness to corrupt their past for the totalitarian present.

These are good reasons to keep the statue up. But a statue alone can’t communicate that message. Figural depiction is forever ambiguous and you don’t have to be Percy Shelley to know that statues get read in many different ways by the people who see them. The medieval inhabitants of Constantinople believed the ancient statues of their city communicated omens at night. Historians writing in Ottoman Athens interpreted the ancient statues of their home as magical automata, built to act as soldiers for the wizard-philosophers on the Acropolis during their vain quest for immortality. If the statue of Silcher is going to usefully communicate anything about the Nazi past, it needs to be contextualised. Which is why today the statue is accompanied by a lengthy sign explaining its history, with photos. This sign can also be found online, here in English, and is part of a series of nineteen signs set up in 2016, distributed throughout Tübingen, addressing the city’s Nazi past. (They are well worth reading, and will communicate how easy the good people of Tübingen made researching this post for me). Hence, the visitor to the statue does not just get information while at Silcher’s feet. They are also primed and prepared for it by the very explicit signage throughout the city that provides vital context. This commitment to offering information is what allows the statue to be useful in the present, de-fanging its obvious original purpose and helping us in the present to learn its lessons.

It’s also important to note that this is the result of a continuing conversation among the people of Tübingen that has led to changes over the past eighty years, and this is potentially not the end of the conversation. Statues are intended to be permanent monuments, transmuting the fleeting and the perishable by immortalising it in stone. In practice, this is not the case. Untouched, statues decay, slowly corroding or rapidly collapsing in the face of the elements. Their preservation is a choice, and a conscious active one that demands time, money and labour. The Silcher statue commemorates someone of great artistic significance who had a deep connection to the city in which it stands. No one is harmed by the burnishing of his memory. Nor is the statue a rallying point for those who would be heir to the Nazis. Those are essential preconditions for the statue’s continued prominence. If those facts were to change, if the far-right were to start gathering where Platanenallee meets the forest of sighs, or if new information were to come to light about Silcher, then a new decision might have to be made.

I’m aware that this is not a stirring cry for one side or the other in the debate about controversial statues, but I don’t think a contribution to this debate has to be strident to be useful. Statues are part of the conversation that people and communities have with each other about their past. Above all, they need to be useful or meaningful to the people they serve in the present, even if some of that use or meaning comes from the uncomfortable truths they can tell us about our histories. Because they are part of a continuing process, no final rule or decision can be made that will neatly fit all cases or that can bind all generations to come.

Despite the need to think about all statues in their individual circumstances, I think the Silcher statue does offer a useful lesson for the handling of controversial statues. That is the importance of providing historical context. The commitment by the Tübingen Landkreis to making it really easy to understand the history of the statue, the reasons it was put up, and the explanation for its design is what transforms it from Nazi propaganda to a valuable learning moment for the present. That historical context is the most potent antidote to the poison it was meant to spread, and is an insight that I think communities across the world who are grappling with the monuments of a past both too foreign and too near all at once could benefit from.