Bestriding the World: The Politics of Hegemony in Francia and China

In May 823, Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) held an assembly at Frankfurt. Much of the business at hand concerned his neighbours to the east. These included the brothers Milegast and Cealadrag, two kings of the Wilzi, a Slavic people who lived on the Baltic. The older, Milegast, had been deposed by his subjects in favour of the younger and the pair now came to the Emperor for arbitration. Louis decided in favour of Cealadrag, judging him to be the true choice of the Wilzi, but softened the blow by giving them both gifts. The brothers swore oaths to keep the agreement, before being sent home. Next on the agenda was (the confusingly similarly named) Prince Ceadrag of the Abodrites, the people to the west of the Wilzi. Not for the first time, Ceadrag had failed to attend the assembly, and he was accused of treachery to the Franks (probably with the Danes). Envoys were sent to the Abodrites to investigate further. The prince moved quickly to rectify this breach, sending messengers promising to attend upon Louis the following winter. When he did so, Ceadrag was able to mollify the emperor with acceptable excuses for the years he had been absent, and was allowed to go home with gifts.

The Wilzi and the Abodrites were two of a number of client states that ringed the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne (r. 768-814) and Louis the Pious. They were particularly common on the eastern frontier. When Louis held an assembly in Frankfurt in the winter of 822, he received offerings from the ‘Abodrites, Sorbs, Wilzi, Bohemians, Moravians, and Praedenecenti, and from the Avars living in Pannonia’. As the events of 823 indicate, their kings were expected to act in a matter that benefitted Frankish aims and to regularly attend upon Carolingian rulers to show their submission with tribute. Louis acted as the court of final appeal for internal disputes, but otherwise the client-kings operated with a great deal of domestic autonomy.

Classical International Relations theory finds such arrangements hard to deal with. The dominant realist school views diplomatic relations as something that happens in conditions of anarchy between states that are acting entirely independently of each other in their own self-interest. In this view, if Louis was sufficiently strong to compel the Abodrites, he should have sent someone after Ceadrag, and not waited to hear his excuses. Likewise, if Ceadrag was powerful enough to put off the Franks, why did he submit to Louis at all? This school of IR thought emerged out of Europe in the nineteenth century, where multiple great powers ruthlessly jockeyed for position in a rotating set of alliances that sought to balance against any single state that looked like it might achieve a dominant position. Whether it analyses even that world accurately is unclear to me. It most certainly doesn’t help us with the assembly of May 823.

This is frustrating, because I genuinely think that other disciplines have a lot to teach medieval histories about our approach to our subject. Early medieval sources are often terse, with the Carolingian annals very rarely explaining why people did what they did. A school of thought that gives us analytic tools to expand these gnomic utterances would be extremely useful. Likewise, there’s a danger of burying oneself too deeply in one particular space and failing to notice what makes it distinctive or interesting because the lack of alternative examples makes you assume that what you see is universal. With this in mind, I went looking for a different model for the way states might interact.

I found it with the help of my friend Joshua Batts, whom I met when we were both fellows at Darwin College, and who does fascinating work on relations between the Tokugawa in Japan and the Spanish empire. At some point over lunch in college several years ago he drew my attention to a recent(ish) book by David C. Kang entitled East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010), which I read, and has been floating around in my head ever since because it gave me a model for a what a long-term stable system of hegemony might look like, as an alternative to Westphalian anarchy. My ignorance of East Asian history is vast, so what will follow will contain mistakes, none of which are attributable to poor Joshua, who did his best to educate a barbarian medievalist.

Kang begins his book with the observation that between 1368, when the Ming dynasty began to rule China, and the First Opium War (1839-1841), there were only two wars between China and its most important East Asian neighbours, that is, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Apart from the Chinese invasion of Vietnam (1407-1428) and the Imjin War when Japan invaded Korea (1592-1598), these four states existed in peace with each other for the best part of five centuries. Other conflicts still happened, including civil wars, Chinese wars against seminomadic peoples on the north and west frontiers, and battles against wakō pirates. But unlike late medieval and early modern Europe, the great powers of East Asia did not routinely go to war with each other.

Kang attributes this stability to the hierarchical tribute system that structured relations between these four states, with Korea, Vietnam and Japan orbiting the Chinese sun. This system was built on the simple fact of overwhelming Chinese power. First, China was so enormously strong and rich that it was effectively invulnerable to its neighbours, something that all parties knew. Second, China’s wealth and cultural confidence meant that it didn’t need anything from these neighbours. Commercial, political and cultural contact and exchange were minor luxuries. As a consequence, what Chinese governments most wanted from these neighbours was the surety that they weren’t going to start any trouble and regular demonstrations of respect in the form of tribute that served to reinforce China’s understanding of itself as the centre of the world.

It didn’t come from Korea, Vietnam or Japan, but how was I possibly supposed to resist this picture of a giraffe presented to the Ming court from India in 1414?

For their part, the rulers of Japan, Korea and Vietnam were mostly willing to go along with this. They had practical reasons. None of them wanted to antagonise China, and all benefitted from Chinese protection. Access to carefully guarded Chinese commercial markets was also of immense importance to them. But Kang suggests that we shouldn’t underestimate how important Chinese political and cultural norms were for these states. Their rulers very deliberately and genuinely bought into Confucianism, poetry and other aspects of Chinese civilisation, and modelled their governments upon them. There was variation to this. Korea was the most perfectly Sinicised neighbour, taking pride in being the closest imitator of the Chinese model. The highest ranked official of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea for most of this period took the clothes and titles of a third-rank Chinese official, with the rest of the Korean hierarchy slotting in below. Japan by contrast, being more distant, was more suspicious of Chinese models, and tended to be the readiest to challenge Chinese hegemony (see the Imjin War).

By participating in the Chinese driven hierarchy, these Confucian states made themselves legible to Ming and Qing officials. Peking understood the institutional structures and philosophies that guided their politics, and could therefore predict their behaviour and assume their goodwill. Any difficulties could be resolved because all participants were speaking the same language both literally and figuratively. The security this provided allowed China to be generous to its clients. Although the tribute they provided were trumpeted as part of the Middle Kingdom’s conception of itself, they were outweighed by the gifts and commercial opportunities the tributaries received in return. A similar generosity applied to frontiers. Despite China’s vastly more powerful military force, disputed borders with Korea and Vietnam were decided by legal negotiation, with the non-Chinese party winning more often than not. This credible commitment to non-exploitation in turn strengthened the willingness of the Confucian states to take part in the Chinese system, creating a virtuous cycle that more-or-less lasted until the collapse of Chinese power in the nineteenth century.

In summarising the core thesis of the book, I have simplified much, leaving out the evidence and the detail. But I think the three key elements here – an overwhelmingly powerful hegemon; client states that go out of their way to be legible and predictable to the hegemon; and generous behaviour by the hegemon – offer a useful lens for thinking about Carolingian hegemony, both for how it was constructed and for why it failed. (Fair warning here – while what was above was constrained by the holes in my knowledge about East Asia, below is me speculating wildly and loosely.)

An example of this is the emphasis on generosity in the Frankish annals. Early medieval rulers were expected to be givers of gifts, so it’s not surprising that we find Louis showering leading Wilzi and Abodrites with presents. Nonetheless, the Chinese example suggests that successful hegemony depends upon such beneficence. It is neither a novel nor a sophisticated insight that people like getting stuff, and will be more likely to acknowledge your power if there is a material benefit to them for doing so. It’s nonetheless worth bearing in mind when we try to understand why the likes of Ceadrag allow themselves to be summoned to attend upon the Emperor. On the other hand, the Chinese example of settling land disputes does suggest another benefit of the relationship for the client. Milegast and Cealadrag came to Louis because they thought he could arbitrate their dispute. This implies at least some respect for Carolingian justice and Louis’ ability to make a settlement stick. Solving political problems by acting as an honest judge might also lie behind a hegemonic relationship.

Another interesting trend is the ‘Carolingianisation’ of many of the neighbours of the Franks. This is reflected in the material remains, with Frankish goods such as metalwork and glass being found in increasing amounts in Central Europe. Missionaries travelled among these client kingdoms, spreading familiarity with Christian ideas. Although it’s hard to say much about the political structures of these places before the Carolingian period, the appearance of kings and dynasties seems to have something to do with copying Frankish models. (The number of Slavic words for king that are derived from Charlemagne’s name, Karl – Bulgarian крал, Czech král, Polish król, Russian коро́ль, Serbian краљ etc – is suggestive of the influence of Carolingian kingship in Central and Eastern Europe). The emergence of royal dynasties literate in Carolingian culture and embedded in Frankish networks of exchange would make the satellites much easier for Carolingian rulers to do business with them, whether or not this was a deliberate or an accidental development.

But where the Chinese example really shines for me is the hints its gives for why Carolingian hegemony was so short-lived. Whereas Kang’s model describes a system that lasted nearly 500 years and survived the dynastic transition from the Ming to the Qing in the seventeenth century, Carolingian hegemony barely lasted a generation (I would place it at roughly c.790-c.830 but that’s a gut assessment and there are signs of trouble in the 820s). The differences between our two examples help explain that discrepancy.

The first difference, and the most important, is that the Carolingian empire was never as overwhelmingly powerful as China. Even at the apogee of Frankish power, the distance between the Carolingians and their neighbours was never as great as that. This was a situation that only became less hegemonic following the division of the empire into rival kingdoms from 843, lessening the resources any single Carolingian monarch could bring to bear on any single problem while giving them dangerous peer competitors. While for most of the ninth century the East Frankish realm was more powerful than any of its non-Frankish neighbours, even that begins to shift with the rise of Moravia in the 860s and 870s, a former client turned increasingly great power.

Further, the Carolingian world was never as unipolar as that of East Asia. In the south-east and south-west respectively, Byzantium and Umayyad Spain competed with the Carolingians for influence within client states. In the north-east, the main rival was the Danish kingdom, who offered Abodrite and Wilzi leaders options if they chose to oppose the Franks. Thus, in 808 the Danish king Godfrid gathered the Wilzi, Smeldingi and Linones into an anti-Frankish alliance. In 821, Ceadrag of the Abodrites was suspected of plotting with the sons of Godfrid.

As a consequence, Carolingian rulers were never as secure in their dealings with client states as their Chinese counterparts. This acted to destabilise the system because it made Frankish monarchs less open-handed and more prone to interfering. I suspect that the ratio of tribute to gift between the Franks and their clients was rather less generous than in the case of China, undermining the relationship’s value. Because of the different balance of power, the Carolingians had to watch their tributaries for signs of rebellion rather more closely, resulting in moments like Louis’ heavy-handed intervention into Abodrite politics in 823. Indeed, Ceadrag became leader of the Abodrites in the first place when Louis ordered Sclaomir to share power with him in 817. Being a client of the Carolingians also made you a potential target, such as when King Godfrid attacked the Abodrites in 808 as an indirect strike at Charlemagne.   

These were not the sort of circumstances that would make you feel good about your more powerful neighbour. Even if you came to power with Frankish support, the conditionality of such backing would encourage you to look for alternative options once established. As a result, Carolingian hegemony was much more dependent upon military coercion than the Chinese equivalent. Said coercion only made it harder to win the genuine allegiance of clients, creating a cycle leading to instability and distrust.

Another difference that I suspect has an impact is in the structure of imperial power. Most Chinese emperors ruled through a tax base administered by the state which supported the bureaucracy, living expenses and standing army. Martial excellence was not a particularly vital requirement so long as the borders were safe and the tribute was coming in. Carolingian emperors depended on their own estates for sustenance and the loyalty of their followers for their military support. A reputation for military skill was much more important, as was the financial rewards of booty and conquest. This doesn’t mean that the Franks needed to be constantly at war, but that domestic tensions might incentivise aggressive behaviour towards one’s neighbours in a way that was hard to predict from the outside.

To sum all of this up, because the Carolingian empire was a weaker superpower, with more plausible rivals, and had a political structure and culture that made it more aggressive, it was a much less predictably benevolent hegemon. This made client states more likely to look for opportunities to free themselves of this dependence and also made it more likely that moments of crisis would emerge that would provide those opportunities.

This isn’t necessarily inevitable. Politics is never written in stone. At different points of their careers Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald seem to have experimented with styles of rulership that depended less upon military expansion. A Carolingian empire that never divides, or where the different members of the family manage to keep the peace between them might change the calculus. Nonetheless, I think the Chinese example of international hierarchy provides us with a useful comparison of a very different system to Westphalian anarchy which at least helps us to ask some of the right questions when it comes to understanding hegemonic systems elsewhere.

Come on Siggy! Syria’s Lovely This Time of Year: The Perils of Being a Carolingian Envoy to the Caliphate

In the year 797 a ship set out from Venice for the Holy Land. Among the merchants and pilgrims that made up the majority of the passengers were two unusual parties that had been travelling together from Treviso. The first was a group of clerics employed by the Count of Treviso to collect the relics of Saints Genesius and Eugenius from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The second group had been on the road much longer and had further still to go. Led by Counts Sigimund and Lantfrid and guided by a Jewish man named Isaac, they had been sent by Charlemagne, king of the Franks (r.768-814), with a message to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809), the most powerful man west of China, asking for an elephant. After meeting the Patriarch, the two parties split up. The men from Treviso remained in Jerusalem, while the embassy made their way inland to the court of the Caliph in Raqqa. This was the last time that anyone from the Frankish world saw Lantfrid and Sigimund alive. The relic hunters waited some time for their companions, before eventually despairing and returning home.

Four years later, in June 801, while travelling between Vercelli and Ivrea, the now-Emperor Charlemagne received an embassy from Harun with good news. Isaac was in North Africa, accompanied by the elephant that Charlemagne had requested. The only fly in the ointment was Isaac’s lack of accompaniment. Sigimund and Lantfrid had both died while on the embassy. They were the first Frankish ambassadors to the Caliphate to perish, but not the last. When the second embassy sent by Charlemagne to Harun al-Rashid got back in 806, running a Byzantine naval blockade in the process, they did so with similar news: the leader of their party, Radbert, was no more.

In 807/8, the Emperor sent Counts Agamus and Roculf to Jerusalem. Whether they also went on to Harun al-Rashid is unclear. If so, they were lucky outliers because they survived to return home, albeit in a bad odour: Pope Leo III thought it necessary to beg Charlemagne to show them mercy for unspecified reasons. Three years later Roculf is found as a witness to Charlemagne’s will, so Leo’s intervention may have helped. If Agamus and Roculf only went to Jerusalem, then every single formal legate dispatched by Charlemagne to the ‘Abbasid court perished during the mission.

This is not normal. Carolingian diplomats faced multiple dangers, ranging from paranoid monarchs and pirate attacks to the threat of being sued while away and unable to defend oneself. Death was a risk, but not a common one. Nor does it seem to have routinely affected the ‘Abbasid envoys, although (incredibly) we know even less about them than we do about Charlemagne’s ambassadors. The embassy of 806 was led by one ‘Abd Allah, who was still alive when the Franks put him on a boat back home in 807. Nearly eighty years later, Notker the Stammerer boasted that:

Because of the most vigorous efforts of Charlemagne, the messengers of Harun, whether youths, boys or old men, passed easily from Parthia into Germany and returned from Germany to Parthia and it was not only possible but easy for them to come and go.

(Gesta Karoli Magni II.9)

Although the ‘Abbasid envoys faced challenges of their own, there is no evidence that they suffered a particularly high mortality rate.

So what’s going on? We can probably rule out shenanigans by Harun al-Rashid. For obvious reasons of practicality, the safety of envoys was a universally respected convention. In his Life of Muhammad, Ibn Hisham (d.833) recounts a story of the Prophet getting annoyed by ambassadors sent by his rival Maslama in 631/2. Muhammad upbraided the envoys, ‘By God, were it not that heralds are not to be killed I would behead the pair of you.’ The Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk (d.1092) commented that:

Whatever treatment is given to an ambassador, whether good or bad, it is as if it were done to the very king who sent him; and kings have always shown the greatest respect to one another and treated envoys well.

(Siyasatnameh, XXI.1)

While things could go horribly wrong, there’s no obvious sign that any problems had arisen. Charlemagne took the protection of envoys seriously, issuing laws that made them untouchable. Merovingian precedent also suggested a strong response to the poor treatment of diplomats. King Childebert II (r.575-596) demanded justice from Emperor Maurice (r.582-602) when his envoys were murdered in Byzantine Carthage in 589. Theuderic I (r.511–534) motivated his subjects to wage war on the Thuringians in 531 by telling them about the crimes the latter had committed against Frankish legates. Had Lantfrid, Sigimund and Radbert been the victims of skulduggery, it seems very unlikely that relations between Aachen and Raqqa would have remained as cordial as they were.

Travelling in the early medieval world had its perils. Pirates or bandits could lie in wait, eager to separate people from their goods, and possibly hold their victims to ransom or sell them into slavery. Nor were the only dangers human, as the elements could conspire against travellers as well. Such was the experience of Archbishop Amalarius of Trier (r.812-813), who was sent by Charlemagne as his envoy to Byzantium in 813. On his return from Constantinople, Amalarius’ ship was attacked by pirates, and they were only saved by a miraculous storm that helped them escape.

I’m inclined to suspect that such an attack on the road was probably not the cause of death for the Carolingian ambassadors. The ‘Abbasid postal and communications system was pretty good, with 930 postal stations where supplies could be acquired. There was also a network of hostels that travellers could stay in. Isaac and his party most likely returned to the Frankish world by following the North African coastline to minimise the amount of time they had to keep a nervous elephant on board a ship, crossing to Italy from modern Tunisia. Both this embassy and the one upon which Radbert died came back with vast wealth, including a magnificent curtained tent and a marvellous mechanical clock. Given the safe transmission of these valuable items, they probably weren’t ambushed by pirates or sunk by a gale. Charlemagne seems to have been entirely confident about sending gold and cloth back to the Caliphate in 807.

A more plausible cause of death might be misadventure. Travelling in the Caliphate could be unpredictable. In the eleventh century, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi advised travellers to perform istikhara (prayer for guidance) in order to receive predictions in their dreams about their forthcoming trip. It was inauspicious to start a journey on a Friday, and better to begin on Monday or Thursday. Lantfrid and Sigimund were probably in the Caliphate for multiple years, more than enough time for a stupid and unlucky accident to happen. The odds of both of them and Radbert dying in such a way may be low, but ludicrous coincidences happen all the time. February 2022 saw the tragic deaths of the Serbian ambassador to Portugal and of the Italian ambassador to Australia, both by accidentally falling from a great height. It’s not impossible to imagine some sort of innocent accident on the road or while being entertained by the Caliph.

My favoured cause of death, however, is disease. People in the early medieval Caliphate were well aware that travel could be bad for your health. Building on ancient Greek precedent and particularly the work of Galen, medical knowledge of the time taught that people’s bodies were accustomed to the climate and food of their native lands, which explained why so many became sick when they travelled through different countries. In response to this, the ninth century saw the production of a large number of medical treatises for staying healthy while travelling, often based on Greek medical knowledge.

Among the most celebrated was that of Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Christian doctor originally from Syria who wrote a Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca. In addition to information specific to the hajj, this work contained:

1.   ‘Knowledge of the regimen to resting, eating, drinking, sleeping and sexual intercourse.’

2.   ‘Knowledge of the different kinds of fatigue and their cure.’

3.   ‘Knowledge of the diseases which are caused by the blowing of the different winds and their treatment.’

4.   ‘Knowledge of the prophylaxis against vermin and of the treatment of the injuries caused by them.’

(Trans. Bos, Qusṭā Ibn Lūqā’s Medical Regime, 19.)

 This thirteenth-century image of travellers undertaking the hajj is absolutely essential and definitely not an excuse to have pictures of camels.

Other medical texts, such as that of Razi in the tenth century, advised that people carry a piece of clay from their homeland with which to purify waters in foreign lands that might be less conducive to their constitutions. This is not to say that the Caliphate was a less healthy place than the Carolingian empire (although some places, like Egypt, had a bad reputation for sickness). Rather, the journey to the court of Harun al-Rashid was probably the longest and most stressful that any Frankish diplomat ever had to make. It was one undertaken in a strange climate with unfamiliar food. In such circumstances, I would find it unsurprising if Sigimund, Lantfrid and Radbert were ultimately the victims of disease.

We will probably never know the exact causes of the deaths of Charlemagne’s envoys to Harun al-Rashid, but considering the possible reasons gives us a decent sense of the challenges and dangers involved in conducting pre-modern diplomacy. I suspect that it also gives us a hint at the factors that lay behind the short lifespan of Carolingian-‘Abbasid diplomacy.  Although Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) received an embassy from Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) in 831, to the best of our knowledge he never sent one back. Nor did any of his successors. While there were many reasons for this silence, I can’t help thinking that the toll on Frankish diplomats may have contributed to this. If someone can be trusted to helm an embassy to the Caliphate, they’re probably not the sort of person you can afford to lose to attrition. Given the track record it must have been a really, really unpopular job, so finding volunteers was probably also difficult. While this wouldn’t have stopped a vital military alliance or an essential economic agreement, if the Carolingians saw contact with the ‘Abbasids as more of a prestigious photo-op to impress a domestic audience, they may have calculated that the human wastage was just too high.

Holy War and the Kingdom of Heaven: Pope Leo IV’s Letter to the Frankish Army (847/8?)

I’ve recently had cause to think about holy war in the Carolingian period again. One of the things that struck me is that this is a subject that suffers from being in the shadow of the Crusades. This is not just because the Crusades are the archetype for medieval Christian holy wars, by which all others are measured and understood. Much of the scholarship on holy war in the Carolingian age has been carried out by Crusades specialists trying to understand how a religion of peace whose earliest practitioners were suspicious of military affairs came to be the faith of people crying out ‘Deus le volt’ as they stormed Antioch and Jerusalem in the last years of the eleventh century. The result tends to be a whistlestop tour across a millennium, hitting a couple of perennial points such as Constantine’s conversion and Augustine’s formulation of just warfare, before racing onto the next stop a couple of centuries later.

One of the old chestnuts briefly paused at is the letter of Pope Leo IV (r.847-853) to a Frankish army in the middle of the ninth century. This letter is important as possibly the first place a Christian religious authority explicitly says that soldiers who die fighting a holy war automatically go to heaven. This is of great significance for historians of the Crusades, because the concept of a papal indulgence for those who participated in the campaign is at the heart of many definitions of a Crusade. But in most scholarly accounts the letter merits half a sentence and a footnote. This is a shame, because it’s a fascinating text. Because of this neglect, and because if people on the internet are going to argue about medieval holy war they should at least have access to decent sources and I don’t think the Fordham translation is particularly good, I thought it might be useful to offer one of my own.

Leo IV, Epistolae selectae, ed. A. Hirsch-Gereuth, MGH Epp 5 (Berlin, 1899), no. 28, 601.

To the army of the Franks

1. Put aside all fear and panic, and endeavour to act manfully against the enemies of the holy faith and the foes of all lands.

2. Likewise. Up until now your forebears have always proved to be victorious when they marched forth in military array, and no multitude of people could overcome them. For we have not heard that they ever returned without the fame of a victory.

3. Likewise. Beloved, we want all of you to know that whoever dies faithfully in this contest of war (which we say not wishing it comes to pass) will by no means be denied the kingdom of heaven. For the Almighty knows that if any of you die, he died for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul and the defence of the country of Christians, and therefore he will obtain the aforesaid prize [i.e. heaven] from Him.

An important thing to note about this letter is that it only survives in later legal collections. The full text is preserved in a manuscript known as the Collectio Britannica (BL Add MS 8873 f.167v) which contains a collection of canons probably assembled in France in 1108. The canonist Ivo of Chartres (d. 1114) included it in his Decretum (X.87) and in slightly shortened form in his Panormia (VIII.30). An abbreviated version of Leo’s letter, attributing it to the more celebrated Pope Nicholas I (r. 858-867) makes an appearance in Gratian’s Decretum (C. 23 q. 8 c. 9). The letter survived because it was used as a legal precedent, but this means we don’t have any sense of context for when it was written, who exactly Leo was addressing or how it circulated before the late-eleventh century (i.e. when the Crusades began), although the Collectio claims to be drawing the letters from Leo’s Papal Register. The conventional date of 853 assigned to the letter has no particular evidence behind it and is not to be trusted, particularly as there was no Frankish army near Rome in that year.

We can say a little more about the context of Leo’s pontificate. It was defined by an event that took place the year before he was elected, when in August 846 a Saracen raiding party sacked the part of Rome that lay outside the Aurelian walls, including the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and San Paolo fuori le Mura. As Pope, Leo responded to this disaster by repairing the basilicas, fixing the city walls and establishing a new set of fortifications, known as the Leonine Walls, which contain what is now the Vatican City. Knowing that the raiders might return, he also sought to mobilise aid from the Carolingian rulers of Italy, Emperor Lothar I (r. 817-855) and his son Louis II (r. 844-875), and from southern Italian cities such as Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi. This preparation paid off when a Christian naval coalition intercepted and defeated a Saracen fleet heading towards Rome at the Battle of Ostia in 849. Despite this success, the sack of 846 was an immensely traumatic moment, which sent shockwaves across Christian Europe and threw Rome into a state of emergency. Although we know that the Eternal City would remain safe from the Saracens from then on, Leo obviously didn’t. In 847 Saracen pirates took over Bari, establishing an Emirate that would raid into southern Italy for the next two-and-a-half decades. This atmosphere of crisis helps to explain the unusual contents of the letter.

Raphael’s depiction of The Battle of Ostia in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, painted in 1514-15. Note Leo IV on the left, bearing a strong resemblance to Pope Leo X (r.1513-1521).

Although Leo specifies that the Frankish army is fighting against enemies of the faith in c.1, the discussion of holy war is mostly confined to c.3, where it is pretty explicit. Franks who die righteously in this war will go to heaven. Leo lays stress on the causes they are defending – the truth of the faith, their souls, and the defence of Christendom. It’s hard to find much in the way of precedent for this statement. This is surprising given how many of the elements that made it were already available. Paul compared Christians to soldiers fighting for the cause. Christian martyrs had been dying for the faith from the very beginning, and they automatically won eternal life for doing so. As I have discussed elsewhere, Charlemagne waged wars that were meant to bring Christianity to new peoples such as the Saxons, or to rescue Christians believed to be suffering persecution in the Iberian Peninsula. Bringing together the ideas of fighting for the faith and going to heaven for dying for the faith seems like an obvious thing to do.

Pope Leo’s letter is perhaps not as isolated as it may appear. Many of the papal letters preserved in the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus on Charlemagne’s orders in 791 contain suggestions that going to war on behalf of the pope could ensure one’s path to heaven. A particularly striking example appears in a letter of 756 sent by Pope Stephen II (r. 752-757) to King Pippin III (r. 751-768) and his sons, which purports to be the words of St Peter addressing the Franks. Stephen wanted Frankish help against the Lombard king Aistulf (r. 749-756). St Peter lists the crimes of the Lombards to the Franks before stating that he was:

Offering you the rewards of eternal recompense and the unending joys of heaven – provided that you have very speedily defended my Roman city and my own people, your Roman brothers, from the hands of the evil Lombards.

(Translated in McKitterick, van Espelo, Pollard and Price.)

There are some obvious differences with Leo’s letter. Peter/Stephen doesn’t state that the Franks would have to perish while on this campaign to enjoy this heavenly perk. More surprising is the target of this campaign, the Lombards being Christian, albeit not behaving particularly so from a papal perspective.

Despite these differences, this letter and others in the same collection offer a Carolingian context for Pope Leo’s exhortation to the Frankish army. Something similar appears in material celebrating Gerold, the Prefect of Bavaria, who died fighting the Avars in 799. Heito’s Visio Wettini from 824 declared that Gerold deserved ‘everlasting life’ because he died ‘in defence of the holy church against the infidels’. Fraser recently drew my attention to a sermon of Abbo of Saint-Germain from the 880s, translated by Charles West, which calls upon the listener:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs.

I suspect that such ideas were not unknown elsewhere in the Carolingian world, but they might not have been commonly expressed. This is hinted by the fact that in 878 Pope John VIII (r. 872-882) had to reassure the bishops of the West Frankish kingdom that those who died fighting against pagans would go to heaven, suggesting that it wasn’t an idea that they regularly encountered. Likewise, the importance of Leo’s letter for the canonists was in large part the result of the absence of other authorities to draw upon. When Peter Comestor (d. 1179) sought to defend the point in a tract addressed to a Patriarch of Jerusalem, his only sources were Leo and Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099).

Looking at c.3 of the letter alone makes Leo IV look like a solitary prophet of the age of the Crusades. The rest of the text however very firmly places him in the Carolingian world. This is a letter written by Leo to stiffen the spine of a Frankish army, and the consolations of heaven to the fallen is the very last argument he uses to steady the troops. He begins by emphasising the evil of the enemy, who are both inimical to the faith and the peace of all people (c.1). Interestingly, Leo addresses the men in the context of the history of the Franks in c.2, recalling to them the example set by their ancestors. In doing so, the Pope was probably doing more than reminding them of the formidable achievements of Frankish arms over the previous century and a half. He also implicitly harked back to the relationship between the Carolingians and the Papacy that stretched back to the days of Pippin and Stephen, in which the Franks protected Rome against all threats. The sack of 846 was a shocking moment for the Carolingians as well as the Papacy, prompting Lothar and, particularly, Louis II to pay much more attention to southern Italy. The latter would define his reign by his capacity to protect Italy and the Pope from Saracen threats. That bond was acknowledged by Leo as he steeled the Franks of his own day by celebrating the deeds of those long past.  

This may give us a clue for dating the letter. Louis II arrived in southern Italy with a Frankish army in 847, and spent much of 848 campaigning against Muslim pirates while trying to end the civil war that had riven Benevento, leading to the formal division in 849 of the troubled principality. He returned south in 852 to campaign against Bari. This suggests 847-8 or 852 as the most likely contexts for the Leo’s address to a Frankish army. Although it could be either, I’m tempted to go with the earlier date, simply because praising the efforts of the ancestors of the Frankish army seems like a slightly odd move if there had already been an expedition five years earlier in which some of the army of 852 had probably participated. By contrast, before 847 there hadn’t been a Frankish army south of Rome since the days of Charlemagne, a full generation earlier.

Even if we can’t pinpoint the exact year of the letter, we can locate it in a Carolingian milieu. Leo’s comments on the souls of those fallen in holy war were unusual for his period. They would go onto be highly influential in the very different circumstances of the Crusades. But by reading the entire letter as it survives to us, we can see it as the product of the Carolingian world, written not to be an example for lawyers, but as a rallying cry for desperately scared and fiercely proud men in a time of crisis.

The New Diplomatic History and the Middle Ages

Writing Diplomatically

People have been writing the history of diplomacy for as long as they’ve been writing history. The terse Spring and Autumn annals of the Chinese state of Lu find space for embassies in their brief account of the passing of the years. Many of the most memorable set-pieces in Greek historical writing centre on diplomatic encounters, whether it is the Persian envoys demanding earth and water from the Greek states in Herodotus (Hdt. 6.48) or the dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in Thucydides (Thuc. 5.84). In the European tradition, the heyday of the writing of diplomatic history probably came in the nineteenth century. In this we can partly see the influence of Ranke on the practice of history. His dependence upon the Venetian archives, and the reports from ambassadors that they held, shaped his perspective of the past. Ranke’s theory of the Primat der Außenpolitik, the primacy of foreign policy, in which the domestic politics of a state was subordinated to the needs of its foreign relations in order to ensure its survival, also privileged diplomatic history.

In addition to the role played by Ranke, this sort of history was perceived to be useful to the state, with analysis of foreign policy offering useful lessons for the statesmen of their age and training for their successors in the future. The result was a diplomatic history that focussed on relations between European states. While some attention was paid to monarchs or to idealised ministers whose genius was to be outlined for the edification of the nation, it was a largely depersonalised history, in which countries or capital cities made decisions on the basis of a rational understanding of their material interests.

This approach is not particularly useful for writing the history of medieval diplomacy. Unlike the classical world, which can be made to fit into such a model provided you’re willing to abuse Thucydides enough (he suffers what he must), the medieval past resists the imposition of straightforward ideas of the state and rational diplomacy (as extended arguments about whether we can even talk about the medieval state demonstrate). Instead, to these observers, medieval Europe resembled a complicated mess of entities and individuals doing things that failed to conform to the sort of sound diplomatic principles that makes sense to nineteenth-century statesmen/twentieth-century military academies.

This has a number of consequences. For a start, it means that mainstream diplomatic history doesn’t normally discuss the medieval period. In the second half of the twentieth century, the study of the history of premodern diplomacy in the English-speaking world was dominated by Garrett Mattingly’s Renaissance Diplomacy (1955) and Donald Queller’s The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages (1967). They argued that diplomacy as we understand it developed in Italy in the fifteenth century, with the rise of permanent ambassadors. While this depends on a very particular definition of diplomacy that most medieval historians would reject, it remains alarmingly popular among modern historians. Also important in the narrative of the rise of ‘proper’ diplomacy was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, at which point the system of modern states which traditional diplomatic history was based on was deemed to have fully arrived. It also means that medieval historians who do study diplomacy tend to do so without reference to the ideas and methods developed by their modernist colleagues, or by people working in the wider field of International Relations.

As someone who has been thinking about medieval diplomacy for a decade, this conceptual distance has long frustrated me. This is why I’ve become increasingly interested in a new development in the study of diplomacy, the descriptively named New Diplomatic History. As with many historiographical movements, identifying its precise genesis is a murky and perhaps unhelpful business. An important moment of crystallisation took place with a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies in 2008 entitled ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History’. In his introduction to the issue, the editor of the issue, John Watkins, called for this New Diplomatic History, and his description of it is one of the canonical texts of the movement. By 2011 a network for the New Diplomatic History was established, based in Leiden. That perhaps overstates its institutionalisation as a school, and there is a much wider range of scholars who cite the New Diplomatic History without being fully attached to the Leiden circle. 

Watkins identified the beginning of the New Diplomatic History in Italian universities in the 1990s, with works such as Daniela Frigo’s Principe, Ambasciatori e “Jus Gentium”: L’amministrazione della Politica Estera nel Piemonte del Settecento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1991). Given the focus of earlier diplomatic history on the Venetian archives for their source base, and on Italy as the birthplace of modern diplomacy, Italy loomed large in the old diplomatic history. The work of Frigo and her later collaborators served to explode many of these myths, as they argued that early modern Italian diplomacy was driven by personalities rather than offices, and that those institutions that did exist were evolutions from medieval precedent.

Feeding into the development of the New Diplomatic History in the 1990s and 2000s were changes in the field of International Relations. One of these was the increasing challenge to old ideas about Westphalia, which came to a head in 1998 at the 350th anniversary of the Peace. If 1648 did not inaugurate a system of state sovereignty, then new approaches to diplomacy both before and after it were going to be required. Likewise these decades saw growing interest in non-state actors. The diplomatic importance of international bodies such as the European Union, terrorist organisations such as FARC, or major companies such as Amazon, encouraged scholars in International Relations to move away from a focus on diplomacy as a thing that happened between states.

Don’t you hate it when you show up at a peace treaty and realise someone is wearing the same outfit as you? The Ratification of the Spanish-Dutch Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648.

So, what is the New Diplomatic History?

In many ways the New Diplomatic History represents a deliberate repudiation of older diplomatic models. For a start, it rejects the state as the chief actor in diplomacy. One of the ways that manifests is by being ‘actor-centred’. Diplomacy is conducted by individuals, rather than faceless metonyms. Decisions made within governments or institutions are ultimately made by people, with their own personalities, experiences and agendas, operating within a particular political and cultural context.  Daniela Frigo’s work pointed to the importance of individuals in ways that often overrode the technical roles of the offices they held. In this way we can move away from bland and misleading statements that Germany did this, or London decided that. This ‘actor-centred’ diplomacy has also led to a new emphasis on ambassadors, their personalities, skills and motivations. Rather than being a method of delivering a letter, they become key parts of the process by which diplomacy took place.

This focus on people has gone hand-in-hand with a greater attention to the practicalities of diplomacy. How diplomats got from place to place, how they were received by and communicated with their hosts and how they remained in touch with their employers back home. This emphasis on practicality can also shift focus away from diplomats themselves, to their families, retinues and support staffs, as well as to the spies and informants who provided information, and the allies and friends who offered help or sought to use the ambassadors for their own purposes. This expands the scope of diplomatic history, embedding it in the context in which it happened and helping us understand the practicalities involved. But it also allows us to think about how people who weren’t elite men such as commoners, women and children were involved in diplomacy.

Another way this rejection of the modern European state as the primary actor in diplomacy emerges is in a greater emphasis on non-European diplomacy. By taking the politics and institutions of non-European powers seriously and on their own terms, the scope for diplomatic history has expanded considerably. Work on the Ottoman empire has pointed to the importance of community leaders, such as the heads of Christian minority groups under the millet system, in communicating with the representatives of foreign powers. European empires such as Britain worked through agents such as consuls, successful merchants based in places like Smyrna and Alexandria who combined their commercial activities and prominence among the local foreign community with diplomatic missions.

One of the important things about people like consuls and missionaries is that although they might deal with governments on behalf of a foreign polity, they also frequently did so for their own purposes, or as representatives of non-state actors such as religious groups, ethnic minorities or commercial interests. Such groups frequently wielded considerable power, and here we might want to think about the Hanseatic League negotiating with English and Russian monarchs, or the Jesuit order in the Rio Grande de Sol region bargaining with Spanish and Portuguese kings and the leaders of groups such as the Tupi. Moving away from the state allows us to see the other actors in diplomatic history, who represented groups and blocs who mattered, even if they fit untidily in more traditional historiography.

If philosophically, the New Diplomatic History is based on rejecting the model of modern European states interacting with each other, methodologically it seeks to break out of the box that traditional diplomatic history frequently placed itself in. One of ways its practitioners seek to do so is by thinking about the connections between domestic politics and foreign relations. Rather than being a separate sphere, the two blurred and fed into each other. Specialists in diplomacy need to take internal politics seriously in order to understand the motivations and restraints in which these relations were conducted.

The New Diplomatic History also embraces greater interdisciplinarity in the study of diplomacy. This point appears in the opening line of John Watkins’ call for a New Diplomatic History. Watkins’ own preferred focus is with literary studies, thinking about the impact of diplomatic careers on writers such as Petrarch, Chaucer and Montaigne, or examining the importance of literary culture in shaping diplomatic correspondence and spaces such as salons. Embracing cultural and social history more broadly has allowed other scholars to think about how diplomats participated in the lives of the spaces that hosted them, while also considering the ideas and mentalities they bore and the environments that shaped them. Likewise, scholars thinking about gender and race have offered provocative new ideas about the role of their fields in thinking about diplomacy. Of especial interest has been the role of women in acting as go-betweens, setting cultural norms and fostering environments where informal diplomacy could take place. New research on material culture has been particularly important. Diplomatic gifts have acquired a fresh importance with greater attention paid to their meaning and provenance. But the material turn has gone much further than that, paying attention to clothes worn by diplomats, their purchases and the means with which they lived their lives and the significance this had for their work.

The New Diplomatic Middle Ages?

This is all very well, but what does it actually do for us as medievalists? After all, you’ll have noticed that most of the examples I’ve used to illustrate points thus far have been early modern. This reflects the state of the field. Where medieval scholars have been involved, it has generally been specialists in the very late period. Medievalists also face unusual challenges that complicate some of the mainstays of the New Diplomatic History. Most obviously our source base is usually much, much thinner. There are also dangers involved in a naïve use of the New Diplomatic History. While much of that scholarship aims to break free of traditional models of diplomacy by looking at non-European powers, the fact remains that the Ottomans, Comanche and their like existed within the modern world, with implications for their technology and communications that shaped their diplomacy. The people and places we are interested in are distant to us in time, adding a layer of complexity. In drawing too direct a connection between medieval and non-European modern diplomacy we risk diminishing both, reducing them to a caricature of generic primitiveness and missing what is distinctive about them.

Nonetheless, I think the New Diplomatic History offers a great deal for the study of the medieval past. This is in part because their vision of what diplomacy is fits the realities of the medieval world much more closely than older interpretations. A political landscape where states were frequently weak or non-existent and where power depended greatly on individual actors, with limited separation between public and private is one that the New Diplomatic History is much better able to navigate than previous models. Ideas about the role played by non-state actors, or by diplomats who don’t look like permanent, professional ambassadors can be usefully applied to the medieval world. On a grander scale, being able to step away from a Westphalian model of sovereign states aggressively competing with each other offers alternative ways for thinking about how medieval entities related to each other, such as hegemony or collaborative world orders.  The value the New Diplomatic History places on interdisciplinarity also offers a chance to widen the source base medieval historians work with, encouraging us for example to think about the wider cultural horizons in which medieval diplomacy took place.

The New Diplomatic History can be particularly useful for providing medieval historians with a context and terminology for what we already do. As I may have mentioned, in 2019 I published an article on the camels that Charles the Bald received from the Umayyad Emir Muhammad I in 865. Writing that piece a couple of years earlier was a strange and slightly isolating experience, as I buried myself both in the logistics of sourcing and transporting the camels and in the cultural meanings that both polities had concerning camels in order to understand their significance. My subsequent encounter with the New Diplomatic History was extremely helpful for comprehending what I had been doing by instinct.

Perhaps most striking for me is that modernists in the New Diplomatic History actually seem to want to talk to medievalists. John Watkins made his call for this new approach in a Journal for medieval as well as early modern historians. I think most medievalists know the experience of being hived off from the rest of the historical profession for being too weird. Having a bunch of modern scholars who are genuinely interested in hearing what we have to say is useful as well as refreshing. In my time in Cambridge, I benefited from collaborating with modern diplomatic historians in informal sessions, teaching environments and lectures, acquiring ideas and perspectives that I have found provocative and helpful to my work. Any movement that makes it easier for us to have those conversations immediately has my sympathy.

Storm-Raisers and Blood-Drinkers: The Many Sides of Agobard of Lyon

Someone forgot to pay off the storm-raisers (source)

People from the past, particularly the very distant past, often appear to lack the complexity of their modern counterparts. That is of course when we can see those people at all. The names of the vast majority of the human beings who inhabited the medieval past are entirely unknown to us, and their lives are visible only in the aggregate. Even among those people we can identify by name, most are just that, names in memorial books or witness lists. But looking at the tiny minority we actually know something about as individuals – a category dominated by high aristocrats and religious specialists – most of them come across as straightforward types or characters, such as the wicked queen, the pious nobleman or the stubborn cleric, to list a few possibilities.

This is of course generally an artefact of the aforementioned lack of material. There’s a limit to how complex someone can be when their historical record can be summarised on a sheet of A4. It also reflects the nature of those sources. Even apparently private letters were often intended for large audiences, and therefore don’t include the more intimate reminiscences that can allow us to catch the human soul at war with itself. Medieval writing genres encouraged a tendency to present their subjects within the mould of previous models, so that princes and prelates often resemble their celebrated forebears. For this reason, I always get interested when I seem to stumble across the contradictions and complexities in a medieval person’s behaviour that seem to give us more of a hint at their personality. This is even more the case when it means that I get to talk about sky-pirates, as is the case today.

In around 815 or 816, probably in the vicinity of Lyon, Bishop Agobard (d. 840) encountered a curious sight. He found four captives in chains, three men and a woman, who were about to be stoned by an angry crowd. These prisoners stood accused of an unusual crime. According to the crowd, they were cloud-sailors from the distant land of Magonia, who sailed their ships in the sky, using flight to steal crops from the fields. They were enabled by storm-raisers, people who could make high winds and create hail and thunder. The cloud-sailors would pay the storm-raisers to help them carry off the grain via a mechanism that remains somewhat obscure to me but was presumably clear to Agobard and the furious mob. The unlucky individuals in chains had apparently fallen off their ships and were now fair game for the angered crowd. The bishop had to intervene to rescue them from their fate.

Agobard doesn’t specify precisely what he said in order to rescue these captives. But elsewhere in the same text where he talks about this incident, he gives us some sense of the type of reasoning he used to argue against belief in storm-raisers. This text is a curious work snappily entitled A Book against the Stupid Belief of the Common People on Hail and Thunder. Who the audience for this material was is a little unclear, although I like the idea that it was originally a sermon subsequently punched up to be read in more intellectual circles.

As Agobard is our only source for the events he describes, we have to be a little careful about assuming how much of this actually took place. Another reason for caution here is that Agobard may also have been motivated by seeing off competition as much as by saving souls. He complains in On Hail and Thunder that people have been giving the storm-raisers tithes that should have been going to the church. That said, I’m more interested in how he constructed his arguments than whether the confrontation actually happened or whether this was ultimately a battle over tithes (proof of the existence of cloud-sailors on the other hand would be very much appreciated).

So how did Agobard seek to disprove the existence of storm-raisers? As we might expect, there’s a fair amount of appealing to authority going on. Belief in storm-raising, he says, ‘should be verified by the authority of Holy Scripture’. Such an approach in Agobard’s mind was not irrational, indeed he writes:

‘Because this error, which in this area possesses the minds of almost everyone, ought to be judged by reason, let us offer up the witness of Scripture through which the matter can be judged.’

[Translated by Dutton].

Agobard makes reference to the story of Job, which makes clear that the weather is only under the control of God, and inaccessible to human weather-workers.

But Agobard also had other means of arguing his case. The first of these was personal experience, or the lack thereof. He observed that despite all the stories he had been told of storm-raisers ‘we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things.’ Sorting through all the stories of the ‘my mate’s oldest cousin’s girlfriend who lives in Canada’ variety, Agobard actually tracked down and interviewed someone he was told had seen storm-raising in person. Possibly intimidated by the bishop, this man ‘declared that what he said was indeed true and he named the person, the time and the place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at that time.’

The absence of witnesses was for Agobard a damning point against stories of storm-raisers. The bishop also sought to apply logic to the subject. If the farmers were willing to pay storm-raisers to protect their crops from storms, why didn’t they also ask them to bring rain in times of drought? Such a task should be straightforward to any manipulator of the weather. For Agobard, the fact that ‘you do not do that, nor did you ever see or hear of anyone doing it’ was an indication that not only did the storm-raisers have no real power, but that everyone really knew it.

Agobard is probably at his most sympathetic when he describes a nasty conspiracy theory that swept through Lyon in 810. A cattle murrain was afflicting the Carolingian world at the time, and people blamed Prince Grimoald IV of Benevento (r.806-817) because of his hostility to Charlemagne. It was said that the prince ‘had sent people with a dust which they were to spread on the fields, mountains, meadows, and wells and that it was because of the dust they spread that the cattle died.’ The consequences for anyone suspected of being a Beneventan agent, presumably mostly foreigners and other outsiders, were dire. Agobard describes people being captured and thrown into rivers to drown with plaques listing their crime around their necks. Most baffling to the bishop were the number of the accused who broke down and confessed to deeds they couldn’t possibly have committed, an all-too-common phenomenon of the twentieth century that he attributed to the Devil.

 The bishop challenged this conspiracy theory by attacking its logistical implications. He wrote that those who believed the story:

‘did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust.’

In his search for the truth, Agobard combined analysis of relevant written authorities, personal testimony (or lack thereof) from witnesses and logical argument. In doing so he was drawing upon the skillset necessary of a bishop who would be called to sit in judgement in court cases. In other works, Agobard took aim at trials by ordeal, challenging their use in criminal justice as irrational.

Thus far, Agobard has played the role of the voice of wisdom. But what I find intriguing about this whole affair is the apparent contrast with the other Agobard we find elsewhere in his works. This Agobard is an altogether more unsettling figure, defined by his views on Jews and the campaign he waged against them in the 820s. In an age where Jews were largely tolerated in the Frankish world, the fact that Agobard wrote at least five tracts attacking Jews in the space of about five years marks him out as unusual in his own time. It put him on the wrong side of Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) and his officials, who passed legislation protecting Jews.

This Agobard comes across as very different to the rational rescuer of unlucky cloud-sailors. The archbishop repeatedly names Jews ‘children of the devil’. His claim that local officials in Lyon were so in hoc to Jewish interests that they had moved the market day from Saturday to Sunday in order to respect their Sabbath looks frankly ludicrous, as does his belief that Jews sold Christians adulterated goods such as wine mixed with dirt. Agobard is also quick to share questionable stories about Christian children being kidnapped by Jews and sold as slaves to the Muslims of al-Andalus.

It’s very tempting for me at this point to call it a day, having demonstrated the diversity that could exist within one medieval mind. But the more one reads Agobard, the more one sees the conspiracy debunker and the anti-Semite as part of a coherent whole. In reality, Agobard drew upon the same rhetorical tricks and forensic techniques for the latter campaign that he did for the former. He read widely, quoting earlier authorities such as Jerome and previous law. His work suggests some familiarity with material resembling the Toledoth Jeshu and the Sefer Yetzirah, hinting that he had either read texts from a Jewish milieu or had spoken with those who had. Agobard’s writings generally indicate that he had either talked to Jews or to former members of the community, and the stories he tells of Jewish doctors drinking blood looks like a misconstrued interpretation of the practice of smelling menstrual blood for symptoms of ill-health. This is not to say that his animus against Jews was in any way rational. Rather it is to observe that the weapons by which Agobard protected the afflicted outsiders accused of being cloud-sailors and dust-spreaders were the same ones he used to attempt to persecute another vulnerable minority.

The apparent contrast between the two Agobards is a product of a perspective grounded in the present day. By his own standards, there was nothing incoherent about his positions on cloud-sailors and Jews. Both emerged from his concern for the promotion of a Christian society, untrammelled by superstition and with non-Christian minorities very firmly in their place. Placed together, the two sides reveal an Agobard who was brilliantly intelligent and determined to use that intelligence to improve the world, and was frequently frustrated when the world refused to recognise his cleverness, fall into line and treat him with the respect he felt he deserved. Stubborn, proud, passionate, and possessed of little patience for fools, the Agobard who we encounter in these texts is a fascinating man, who wanted to save the little people, but who did not necessarily feel much affection or respect for them.

Examining the apparent contrast between Agobard the enlightened defender of the victims of mob superstition and Agobard the anti-Semite serves as a useful reminder that if we want to understand people from the medieval past, we need to do it (1) holistically, and (2) on their own terms. Any portrait of Agobard that doesn’t capture both of these facets of his thought is liable to misunderstand him. When we understand him on his own terms, we can see that what initially looks like contradiction actually makes sense as a thematic whole. We have to remember Agobard protecting the innocent from the crowd and spreading lies about Jews all at the same time, because they emerged from the same place in his personality and training.

Agobard was in many ways an unusual man. Certainly, his campaigns against Jews marked him out in his context. Although we can say that the way he argued and many of the concerns that motivated his writing emerged from his education, others from his background worked in very different ways and for very different causes. Drawing conclusions on the way people in ninth-century Europe thought based solely on his writing would be a misleading thing to do. Nonetheless, although he did not define his age, he was defined by it, and if we want to trace the contours of his mind, we must understand him as an inhabitant of the ninth century.

All’s Fair in Love and Holy War: A Response to My Critic

One of the things that makes being an academic often seem slightly unreal is that you spend a lot of time feeling like you’re screaming into the void. You craft articles by conducting the research, honing the argument in conference papers, writing and re-writing variations of the same words over again until by some curious alchemy they are transmuted into something resembling coherence, before scurrying off to the library to get the last footnote just right. You benefit from/endure the advice of anonymous peer reviewers. You edit, and edit some more, and question your intelligence and sanity when at the very last minute you spot a ghastly spelling mistake that somehow escaped the ministrations of the past half year or more of work. At last, you finally place it into the journal’s online submission system, and away into the aether it goes. And then, if you’re anything like me, in the quiet moments in the middle of the night, you ask yourself whether there was in fact any point to the exercise, whether any of that work will make any difference, and if anyone, anywhere, will ever read your labour of love.

This is why my first emotional reaction to reading a chapter criticising my work was joy. In this piece, ‘Holy wars’? ‘Religious wars’?: The perception of religious motives of warfare against non-Christian enemies in ninth-century chronicles’, in the recent volume Early Medieval Militarisation[1], Professor Hans-Werner Goetz spends a couple of pages (pp. 214-216) discussing an article of mine (‘“Those same cursed Saracens”: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare’, Journal of Medieval History 42 (2016), pp. 405-428). I think it’s fair to say that he’s not a fan of it. Nonetheless, the excitement of opening the volume, seeing my name in print and realising that someone somewhere had read my work and thought it worth their time demolishing it was very real.

My attention was drawn to this chapter for a couple of reasons. These begin with the fact that Hans-Werner Goetz is a major scholar whose work on medieval frontiers and perceptions of other religions I have greatly benefited from. But also, this isn’t the first time that my article has attracted the attention of Professor Goetz in print, having featured previously in his ‘Glaubenskriege? Die Kriege der Christen gegen Andersgläubige in der früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Wahrnehmung’, Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 59 (2019), 67-114, specifically at pp. 99-102. Given this, I thought it might be useful for me to take some time to respond to Goetz’ concerns, not least because he raises some interesting questions about the relationship between war and religion in the early medieval period.

The argument in my original article, which you can read in full here, runs as follows:

1. Charlemagne’s wars in the Iberian Peninsula, which include both the disastrous invasion of 778 and the campaigns conducted by his son Louis the Pious as king of Aquitaine in the 790s and 800s, are normally understood as secular affairs, opportunistic wars of expansion. This is because the most important primary sources, particularly the Royal Frankish Annals, don’t depict them as religious conflicts.

2. This is quite striking when compared to wars against other non-Christian neighbours such as the Saxons, where Charlemagne deliberately targeted sites of worship such as the Irminsul and forced the population to convert to Christianity at the point of a sword, imposing multiple laws defining what it meant to be a Christian.

3. However, by looking at a wider range of sources that relate to Carolingian warfare in the Iberian Peninsula in this period, we can see a more complicated picture, where defending and even expanding the Christian faith are key motives for these campaigns. These sources are:

  • a. The Continuations of the Chronicle of Fredegar, compiled during the reign of Charlemagne’s father, which celebrate his ancestors in their wars against Muslims.
  • b. A letter of Pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne discussing the 778 expedition.
  • c. The liturgies of war contained within the Sacramentaries of Gellone, Angoulême and Arles.
  • d. Charters from Charlemagne, granting land to the Hispani on the Spanish March in about 780 and 801.
  • e. A letter of Alcuin from around 790 concerning Charlemagne’s expansion of the Christian world, including in the Iberian Peninsula.
  • f.  A poem by Theodulf from 796 calling upon Charlemagne to bring the Arabs to Christ.
  • g. A letter from Charlemagne to Bishop Elipandus of Toledo from around 794, saying that he had sought to liberate the Christians of al-Andalus from Saracen rule.
  • h. Ermold the Black’s praise poem of Louis the Pious (written 824-6), which has Louis declare that if the defenders of Barcelona in 801 were Christian, there would be no need for him to go to war against them.

While individually each would be a thin reed to base an entire argument, in accumulation they become increasingly convincing.

4. Based on these perspectives from within and without the court, Frankish wars in al-Andalus in the reign of Charlemagne can be characterised as holy wars, because they were presented as wars to protect and expand the Christian church in Francia and in the Iberian Peninsula. This does not mean those were the only motivations for those conflicts, but they were a major one, and the dominant explanation provided in contemporary or near contemporary sources.

5. I speculate that the reason the annals avoid much of this religious language is that with the exception of the capture of Barcelona in 801, the majority of the campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula did not go particularly well. While this was never desirable, it was particularly embarrassing if you had previously raised the stakes by making it a war of faith. Therefore, annalists linked to the court played down the religious fervour that surrounded the expeditions.

As mentioned above, Hans-Werner Goetz has disagreed with this article in two separate publications. Both resemble each other closely, often sentence-by-sentence and footnote-by-footnote, so unless specified I’m going to treat them as the same text. His broad argument is that the category of ‘holy war’ is not a meaningful one in the early medieval world, because all of culture and society was so imbued with religion that there was no other type of war. All conflicts were justified and legitimised by the faith so the idea of a war of religion is a modern anachronism. This is an idea I find extremely interesting and which I want to discuss later.

However, Professor Goetz has also disagreed with my article on more specific grounds and, with your indulgence reader, I would address them first, if only because anyone who read his pieces would fairly walk away under the impression that I am a poor scholar indeed. But let’s start with places where we both agree. Goetz begins by saying that my work ‘still pre-assumes (setzt voraus) that Charlemagne’s wars were religiously motivated’. Basing my work on assumptions would indeed be unfortunate. However, prior scholarship for several decades tended to assume the opposite, and it was this prior scholarship which the case that I made was responding to. The professor also notes that ‘the fact that the Saracens are recognised and judged as non-Christians’ is not proof that wars against them were holy wars. I agree! My argument was that the apparently ‘secular’ ethnic labels often used in the sources such as ‘Saracen’ or ‘Agarene’, were in fact imbued with Biblical significance, implying that they were non-Christian and antithetical to Christianity; but this was not meant to be evidence for holy war, but rather against standard arguments that the language of the annals is secular on the matter. In the longer German treatment, Goetz argues that we cannot use the religious motivations that the biography of Louis the Pious written by the anonymous author known as ‘the Astronomer’ attributes to Louis for his campaigns against al-Andalus, because they are too late. I agree and did not use it in my article for precisely that reason.

Turning to the pieces of evidence underpinning my argument listed under point 3 above, Goetz only mentions b, c, d and g; and I will deal with these in order. With regards to Hadrian’s letter to Charlemagne on the eve of the campaign of 778 (b), he argues that the Pope’s language comparing the Saracens to Pharaoh in the Bible says nothing about his motivations and was applied to every war. I disagree. The reference to Pharaoh is relevant because Hadrian notes that the reason he and the Egyptians drowned is because ‘they did not believe in God’. Charlemagne will triumph because he is Christian and the Saracens are not. Goetz’ argument is not strengthened by the examples of other wars he himself lists where similar comparisons were made. These include the statement in the Life of Bishop Athanasius of Naples c.7 that God helped the people of Naples defeat the Saracens and cast them down like Pharaoh. However, insofar as this language is also being used to describe non-Christian enemies this comparison would seem to support my case better than his. The other examples listed in fn.193 of the German article are all considerably later but also don’t strike me as entirely convincing in this context. Henry of Latvia describing the conversion of Baltic pagans as being akin to the casting down of Pharaoh does not scream secularity to me. I am not intimately familiar with Otto of Freising or William of Newburgh and so won’t comment on them. Nonetheless, I would argue that two of the four examples which Goetz chose to prove that comparisons to Pharaoh did not have connotations of holy war actually do look like precisely that. 

Goetz also dismisses the sacramentaries (c), writing that ‘people prayed to God for assistance before every war’. This is true, but not every sacramentary contains a mass specifically for wars against non-Christians, in the case of that of Gellone against ‘the infidel people’, in that of Angoulême ‘the pagans’. These are highly unusual masses, and in the case of the Sacramentary of Arles, the relevant mass had to be added to the manuscript at a later date than the other liturgical texts. All three of these sacramentaries are to be located in Aquitaine or Septimania, where the most likely non-Christians to be encountered were Muslims. That of Gellone may have belonged to Count William of Toulouse, who spent much of his career battling al-Andalus.

Nor is Goetz impressed by the charters (d), stating that ‘the granting of charters and donations to individual followers is a completely normal procedure’. In this case, though, what is significant is the unusual content of these documents. Charlemagne explains that he is giving the land because the recipients have had to flee the oppression of the Saracens in their homes in al-Andalus. The reason they are oppressed is that they are Christian, and the Saracens are ‘the enemies of the Christians’. The reason that Charlemagne is helping them is because they are his fellow Christians and they take part ‘in the unity of the faith’. In turn, they would perform military service, fighting with Charlemagne against their shared enemy the Saracens, who were their enemy because the Saracens hate Christians. This is strengthened by a charter from the 790s which rewards a soldier named John with land because he had killed ‘the heretic or infidel Saracens’. In fn. 49 (fn. 197 of the German article), Goetz claims that I explain the presence of Arab or Berber sounding names among the charter beneficiaries as ‘a misconception of the scribes’. However, my argument was somewhat different: I suggest that this points to the possibilities for nuance and complexity, where grandiose rhetoric and ideology meet reality. I don’t think even the most hardcore scholar of holy war would doubt that there were places where lines blurred at the edges, as any historian of the crusades could tell us.

In the longer German treatment, Goetz states that Charlemagne was more concerned with heretics than with non-Christians. This refers to Charlemagne’s letter to Elipandus (g), where the Frankish king informs the Adoptionist bishop of Toledo that whereas before he had striven to save them ‘from worldly bondage’, that is, being ruled by Saracens, but now that he knows they are heretics, he will leave them to their fate. Moreover, in this letter Charlemagne claims that his motivation for his earlier wars against al-Andalus, including the invasion of 778, was to save the Christian population, his co-religionists, who were being oppressed because of their religion. If that’s not a religious war, I don’t know what is. Further, Charlemagne’s statement that he felt less inclined to wage war on the Saracens now that he knew he wouldn’t be saving his fellow catholic Christians again seems to me to fall on my side of the ledger.

Goetz finally observes that in 778 Charlemagne treated the Muslims of Zaragoza gently, while sacking the Christian Basque city of Pamplona. The reason Zaragoza got off lightly is that Charlemagne didn’t conquer it. It was never in Carolingian hands. The ruler, Husayn al-Ansari, refused to let the Franks in and they were balked by the mighty Roman walls of the city. Pamplona may have been sacked because it was perceived to be in rebellion, something Charlemagne was never gentle in his dealings with. In any case, as the ignominious example of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates, religious military campaigns can be vulnerable to mission creep.

Roland duels the giant Ferragut in an illustrated Grandes Chroniques de France (source)

Having said all that, Hans-Werner Goetz does raise an interesting point. Religion suffused medieval society to the point that it was the air that it breathed. Kings begged for divine aid in their endeavours and sought the help of their advisors who were learned in such matters. Spin doctors legitimised conflicts as being pleasing to God, encouraging people to believe that their cause was just and that they would triumph. Those engaged in battle beseeched the heavens for survival. He also notes that unlike the idea of a ‘just war’, there is no clear category of ‘religious war’ in the sources.

To take the second point first, while avoiding anachronism is an important part of comprehending the past, historians apply categories and ideas familiar to us but unfamiliar to the period all the time when it helps us to analyse and understand the past in ways that the people who wrote our sources were not consciously able to. A nice example here is economic history, which uses methods and concepts developed by modern economists in order to build up a sense of how resources, labour and exchange interacted to underpin the medieval world in ways that would not have been articulated at the time, but which reveal something real about the period that we can use. This applies to other topics related to the world of ideas and identities. Studying subjects such as gender and sexuality requires that we both understand the way they were categorised in the past and relate them to our own concepts in the present. Sticking purely to the intellectual constructions we find in our sources traps us in the worldview of the sorts of people wrote those sources. Those include few women, poor people or slaves. To get their history, our history, the history of the vast majority of human beings alive at the time, we need to be able to read our sources against the grain, and to ask questions which cut across the purpose and mindset of their writers.

But I would also suggest that there are points where we can in fact see people from the early middle ages categorising a particular war as specifically religious. When Pope Leo IV exhorted a Frankish army in 852 going to war against the Saracens, he famously promised them ‘that the kingdom of heaven will be given as a reward to those who shall be killed in this war’. This was because they were ‘fighting for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul, and the defence of the country of the Christians’. The Pope draws an implied distinction between this type of war and other types of wars. Unlike other campaigns the Franks might find themselves on, this one would see them win the ultimate prize because they were fighting for a holy cause. The same point was made by Pope John VIII in 878 in a reply to the bishops of West Francia who had asked for clarification on this. John wrote ‘those who, out of love to the Christian religion, shall die in battle fighting bravely against pagans or unbelievers, shall receive eternal life’. The Pope emphasises that this is because of the nature of the cause and of the enemy being fought. Again, this distinguishes between a religious war and other sorts of conflict.

The statements made by Leo and John are old chestnuts in scholarly circles because it is unusual to have anyone be this explicit on the matter in the early medieval world. But we might also be able to identify holy wars by the behaviour of those who undertook it. There were any number of possible reasons that Charlemagne might want to conquer the Saxons that would not involve religious motivations, ranging from a desire for a more secure frontier, military glory or expanded resources. None of those explanations would require the Frankish king to destroy Saxon cultic sites or forcibly convert the population to Christianity. Such a policy was if anything more likely to inspire resistance and rebellion. His father, Pippin the Short, had not felt the need to do such things when he invaded Saxony in 747 and 758. The way Charlemagne prosecuted the war against the Saxons was specifically shaped by his motivations. This was a holy war in a way that Pippin’s had not been, and his behaviour and that of his men and his opponents was different because of it.

This is where I think the concept of ‘holy war’ comes in useful, because by identifying it as a meaningful category, we can use it to draw up hypotheses and make predictions about people in the past. This is not to say that all religiously driven warfare was the same, or that all people involved in it had no other motivations. The past is complicated. People are complicated. But, by having ‘holy war’ in our tool box, we can understand and interpret patterns of behaviour that would be otherwise baffling if we didn’t have it.

I want to close this post by expressing my gratitude to Hans-Werner Goetz. If he had not taken the time to seriously consider and respond to my work, I might not have been motivated to think about this topic in this way, and clarify in my own mind why ‘holy war’ strikes me as an interesting and meaningful topic. Scholarship makes better progress through friction. So thank you, Professor Goetz, for making me feel less like a voice screaming into the void.

[1] Edited by Ellora Bennett, Guido M. Berndt, Stefan Esders and Laury Sarti (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).

(Sam’s) Name in Print I

Academic publications are much like buses in that they are easier to use if you already know where they are going. But they also have a tendency to arrive all at once, and that is something that has just happened with me, with several articles/chapters coming out in the space of the first three months of this year. This represents a sizeable chunk of what I’ve been working on for the past five years with the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project. I thought I’d give a quick overview of what they’re about, partly because they connect some of my research themes that I haven’t talked about much on this blog, and partly because they are all some flavour of Open Access so I can point you to them directly. But mostly because this was an important part of my life, and beyond the lessons I learned and the friends I made, the most tangible expression of what I did in that period. Writing this post gave me a chance to reflect over those years, and try to pull some thoughts together about them.

At the culmination of the Impact project are three volumes addressing the impact of the ancient city from different angles, now out with Oxbow Press. I contributed to all three and edited the second, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, with the wonderful Javier Martínez Jiménez (now of Granada). My specific brief with the project was to think about the influence of Greco-Roman ideas of the city on subsequent urban thinking in the Latin Western Mediterranean. This is of course a pretty expansive topic, and I was accorded considerable independence in how I carried it out. Looking at the publications as they came out however, I think they can be broken down into two themes.

This is the gorgeous cover illustration the incredibly talented Sofia Greaves created for Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City.

1.   The Origins of Cities

–          ‘First Cities in Late Antique Christian Thought’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 30 (2022) (strictly speaking not yet out, but coming out this year and relevant enough that I thought I’d throw it in).

–          ‘“Hunting diligently through the volumes of the Ancients”: Frechulf of Lisieux on the First City and the End of Innocence’, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, edited by Javier Martínez Jiménez and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 225-245.

–          ‘Making Men and Cities: Francesc Eiximenis on the Reasons for City-Founding,’ Rome and the Colonial City, edited by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Sofia Greaves (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 83-100.

These pieces are based around the intuition that there are few things more revealing about the way people understand an institution like the city than what they have to say about its beginnings. By stripping it down to its most basic elements, the story-teller reveals both the purpose of the city and what they feel its most essential elements were. Classical antiquity had a huge range of accounts of the origins of urbanism, which tended to emphasis both that it was the natural outcome of the inherent sociability of humanity and a means by which civilised life developed through the emergence of law, concepts that were very important for their understanding of the city. I became very interested in what happened to such ideas in the later Christian world.

‘First Cities’ begins this line of thinking in Late Antiquity. Although Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) attribution of the first city to Cain based on Genesis 4:17 became the standard explanation in medieval Latin Europe, I argue that before City of God hardly anyone was talking about Cain’s city. Instead, Christian writers encountered the first city as part of complex debates with pagans. Whether they rejected the Greco-Roman first city, like Lactantius (d.c.325), or embraced it, like Eusebius (d.c.339), it is not obvious that the rise of Christianity undermined the older Roman ideas of the city. Read this article if you want to see Augustine at his most tendentious and Lactantius going full anarcho-primitivist and taking precisely zero prisoners along the way.

‘“Hunting diligently”’ pursues the above theme into the early medieval world, focussing on the underappreciated ninth-century historian, Frechulf of Lisieux, with nods to Isidore of Seville (d.636) and Alcuin of York (d.804) along the way. In it, I explore the way in which Frechulf skilfully combined Augustine’s account of Cain’s city with Roman ideas of the fall of humanity from a blessed state of nature. The result is a really powerful narrative, that makes Cain’s city the final corruption of humanity into tyranny. A must for lovers of dubious etymologies and the Tower of Babel, as well as the other members of the Frechulf fan-club (we one day hope to fill a minivan).

‘Making Men and Cities’ is something of a departure in more ways than one. I became increasingly fascinated by the fourteenth-century Catalan Franciscan, Francesc Eiximenis (d.1409). In his great work on the city, the Dotzè, he summarises thirteen reasons for the finding of cities. In this chapter I examine the implications of these reasons for his ideas of what the ancient city was for and what the modern city should be. This is not my last encounter with Eiximenis, so if you like this rest assured there is more in the pipeline. Read if you’re a fan of imprisoning academics to make sure they meet their publishing deadlines, and egging on Spanish cities in obscure and pointless feuds.

2.   Remembering the Roman City

–          With Javier Martínez Jiménez, ‘Zimbabwe and Rome: Remembering and Forgetting Ancient Cities’, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, edited by Javier Martínez Jiménez and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 1-20.

–          ‘William of Tyre and the Cities of the Levant’, Cities as Palimpsests?, edited by Louise Blanke, Suna Çagaptay, Elizabeth Key Fowden and Edward Zychowicz-Coghill. (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 141-154.

–          With Javier Martínez Jiménez, ‘Ancient cities in new worlds: neo-Latin views and Classical ideals in the sixteenth century’, Rome and the Colonial City, edited by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Sofia Greaves (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 101-121.

‘Zimbabwe and Rome’ is a piece I co-wrote with Javi. Although it’s meant to act as an introduction to the Remembering and Forgetting volume we edited, it also gave us an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while, which is to make the Roman city weird. Most people in the West grow up with a mental image of the Roman city that feels familiar from school and the movies that makes it feel comfortable and normal and we decided to shake that up a little bit. One of the oddest things about the Roman city is how much we know about how their inhabitants understood it. Compare that to places like Mohenjo-daro, Teotihuacán or Great Zimbabwe, where we only have the outside perspective. Javi and I think about some of the factors that led to this weirdness. We also explore some of the odder readings of the Roman city that have appeared over the last millennium and a half. Read for Monkey-People, the Hunger Games and a thirteenth-century Florentine’s best stab at coming up with a plausible name for someone from the Roman Republic (spoilers – it’s hilarious).

In 2019 the project hosted a conference in Istanbul thinking about cities in the Eastern Mediterranean. As I saw the programme come together, it occurred to me that there was a potentially interesting perspective that was missing, that of the Latin Crusader kingdoms of the Levant. ‘William of Tyre’ is the result of the thoughts I gave at that conference. I find William (d.c.1186) fascinating because he was born and died in the kingdom of Jerusalem, and self-consciously identified as a Latin. In the chapter I look at his extended descriptions of the cities of the Levant in his History and the way he carefully highlights their classical history while ignoring their Byzantine or Islamic pasts, despite good evidence that he knew an awful lot about them. The Roman past mattered to William because he saw it as his past, and part of the history of his people in the region. Will be enjoyed by fans of twelfth-century universities and misleading history writing (his, not mine, honest guv).

Finally, ‘Ancient cities in new worlds’ is another chapter I co-wrote with Javi (I cannot recommend having a writing partner sufficiently patient to check the punctuation in every footnote so you don’t have to enough. It’s wonderful ). Over the years, and for my part somewhat inspired by a trip to Mexico in 2018, we had become increasingly interested in the idea of the Roman city in the Spanish colonial empire. This is a two-parter. In the first half we think about the way the civilisations of the Americas were understood by Europeans through the lens of Greco-Roman urbanism through the chronicle of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (d.1526). In the second, we skip forward a couple of generations and see how the inhabitants of sixteenth-century Mexico City fashioned themselves as civilised and cultured in the light of the Roman city by looking at the writings of Francisco Cervantes de Salazar (d.1575, not that Cervantes). A must for enthusiasts of Tlaxcalan politics, grid streets and dodgy prophecies.

And with that I’ve summarised some, but by no means all, of the last half decade, which is a profoundly weird feeling. But four continents and a little over twelve centuries is probably enough for one post, so I will leave it at that for the moment.

Truth, Lies and Charlemagne’s Invasion of Spain

It is proverbial that truth is the first casualty in war. The events of the past months have reminded us that participants in war seek to control information in order to convince onlookers of the justice of their cause and the strength of their arms. Although the medium changes, this was as evident in the medieval past as in the present. In addition to deliberate fabrications spread by contending parties, misleading statements coexisted with genuine misunderstandings or miscommunications, reinforced by the tendency of commentators to interpret the news they received in ways that confirmed their pre-existing worldviews. This cloud of misinformation offers a challenge to historians, as we attempt to see through it to understand cause and effect and the reality of the conflicts that took place. But the stories people tell about the struggles they lived through also offer us a glimpse at their opinions about the practice and justification of war. Doing so can shed new light even on conflicts we think we know well.

A case in point is Charlemagne’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 778, probably the most famous war he ever took part in. Unfortunately for the Frankish king’s military reputation, the campaign went south very quickly metaphorically as well as literally. Charlemagne was invited to invade in 777 by Sulayman b. Yaqzan al-ʿArabi, the independent Muslim lord of Barcelona. Sadly for the Franks, not all of Sulayman’s pals in the Peninsula were on board with this plan. As a result, when Charlemagne invaded the following year, he found himself stuck outside the formidable walls of Zaragoza, held by Sulayman’s ally Husayn al-Ansari, who was considerably less enthused by the prospect of Charlemagne as a houseguest. Going nowhere fast, and with word of trouble elsewhere in the realm (including a sudden and dramatic collapse in house prices in his new city in Saxony), the Frankish king decided to cut his losses and retreat across the Pyrenees, where his rear-guard was ambushed at Roncesvalles by Basques and a count from the Breton March named Roland earned his posthumous immortality.

The disaster of Roncesvalles was to loom over the rest of Charlemagne’s reign. But in May 778, before that desperate battle in a Pyrenean pass, Pope Hadrian I (r.772-795) sent Charlemagne a letter (Codex Epistolaris Carolinus no.61) that raises questions about the motivations behind the whole messy business. The Pope begins the missive by writing:

Your God-appointed royal rule has informed us through your letter that the Agarene people [Muslims][1] are, contrary to God, striving to invade your territory. When this became known to us, we immediately became very uneasy and concerned, but our Lord God and Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, will never allow such a thing to happen. But we, dearest son and greatest king, constantly pray for you with all our priests and pious monks, with all the clergy and with all our people, for the mercy of our Lord God to subdue this wicked people of the Agarenes and to force them to your feet, so that they can never gain the upper hand against you; just as the people of Pharaoh were sunk in the Red Sea because they did not believe in God, so in this case too our Lord God should put this into your hands through the intervention of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Believe in this and be persuaded that almighty God, if you believe in him, will give you the victory of your kingdom over your enemies and ours. And as, day and night, before the tomb of the Apostle of God [in Old St Peter’s Basilica], we constantly pray to the majesty of the Lord to enlarge your kingdom, let us always rejoice in your well-being and in the exaltation of your kingdom by God.

 

Pharaoh and his men (and unlucky horses) find themselves taking an unscheduled dip in the Red Sea in the Utrecht Psalter, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32 f.61v.

There’s a lot going on in this passage that we could talk about; divine aid for Christians fighting non-Christians; the liturgy of war; the typologising of Muslims as the followers of Pharaoh. What I’d like to focus on in this post is Hadrian’s apparent conviction, expressed in the first sentence of the letter, that Charlemagne was in imminent danger of being invaded and that this was the motivation for the forthcoming Iberian campaign. The Pope did not necessarily anticipate that the Franks would fight a defensive war, as his hope that Charlemagne would expand his kingdom in the final sentence indicates. But the passage suggests that Hadrian thought the Franks were mustering against a serious enemy that intended to attack them imminently.

The first thing to note is that factually this impression is nonsense. The north-east Iberian Peninsula was in the hands of a group of small-time warlords such as Sulayman in Barcelona and Husayn in Zaragoza. None posed a threat to Charlemagne. Further south, ʿAbd al-Rahman I (r.756-788), the Umayyad Emir based in Córdoba, was beginning to expand his reach in order to make his claim to rule all al-Andalus real. In 777 his armies took control of the Central Meseta. This development made him a potential danger to the lords of the north-east, and was what prompted Sulayman to seek help from Charlemagne. Despite this expansion, Córdoba was not an immediate problem the Franks. The first Umayyad attack on Carolingian territory would not take place until 793, under ʿAbd al-Rahman’s successor. Al-Andalus represented no danger to Charlemagne in the 770s.

So how did Hadrian come to the idea that Charlemagne was about to face an Andalusi invasion? It seems to me that there are three possibilities, listed here in chronological order:

1.   Sulayman misled Charlemagne in 777, making the latter think he was in danger to increase the chance of getting his support.

2.   Charlemagne misled Hadrian in his letter to put the war in a better light.

3.   Hadrian has got the wrong end of the stick/is misinterpreting the whole business for his own.

Option one is perhaps the most interesting because it would alter our understanding of events the most. I’ve generally viewed the invasion of 778 as a fairly straightforward attempt at conquest, with Charlemagne taking the opportunity offered by Sulayman to repeat his successful defeat of the Lombard kingdom in 774. That al-Andalus was ruled by non-Christians made it possible to justify the invasion as a holy war (something I’ve written about elsewhere). If Charlemagne legitimately thought he was facing an imminent threat and was looking for WMDs getting in his retaliation first, that changes the picture. That the Frankish king was genuinely concerned is suggested by grants of land he made to Christian settlers from al-Andalus in 781 that they might work together to defend the realm.

That said, this is the possibility I’m most comfortable rejecting. The Roncesvalles campaign was a fiasco that permanently stained Charlemagne’s reputation. A scapegoat, particularly a non-Frankish, non-Christian one, would be very welcome in those circumstances. Yet, there isn’t much effort made to present Sulayman as a malicious actor. The Annals of Lorsch say that Charlemagne took Sulayman prisoner in 778, but this conflicts with what we know about the (brief) rest of his career and is not mentioned in either the Royal Frankish Annals or the Chronicle of Moissac. If Sulayman had misled Charlemagne, I’d expect someone like Einhard to be cursing his name for his treachery. It’s still by no means impossible that Sulayman told Charlemagne that ʿAbd al-Rahman was coming for him, but I think it’s the least likely of the options available.

Option two is more plausible to my mind. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne was good at finding suitable casus belli to wage wars on his neighbours, as Duke Tassilo of Bavaria could confirm. The Carolingians as the defenders of the church and the Christian people against the Saracen menace was a theme that had appeared in writings connected to Charles Martel and Pippin III. That he might have misrepresented the situation to the Pope is not impossible. The preservation of Hadrian’s letter may be evidence in favour of this. The missive survives in the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus, a collection of 99 letters from Popes mostly to Carolingians. They were gathered together in one manuscript in 791 on royal orders so that they be consulted for future use. Given that he deliberately chose to preserve the letter, we can probably assume that Charlemagne was happy with the way Hadrian characterised the situation in early 778. This might be because he was the one who had presented it that way to the Pope.

I do wonder how necessary such a subterfuge would be. Hadrian was pretty dependent on Charlemagne’s support in Italy (more on which below). Further, it’s not like the Muslims of al-Andalus were the most sympathetic victims from a papal perspective. In the 780s Hadrian became increasingly interested in the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula. The letter of 778 suggests he was pretty relaxed about the idea of Charlemagne waging expansionist wars in the region.

Option three shifts the focus to Rome and comes in two flavours. The first of these observes that misunderstanding the situation allows Hadrian to rhetorically boost his own importance to Charlemagne. The devotions of the Pope and assembled faithful of Rome to St Peter on the Frankish king’s behalf look a lot more valuable if the heathen is massing at the border. Charlemagne valued these prayers. Hadrian had performed litanies for his victory over the Lombards in 774 and the Frankish king would request them in 791. Emphasising the protection that St Peter was offering meant emphasising the role of the Prince of the Apostles as Charlemagne’s patron.

As it happened, Hadrian, and therefore St Peter, needed a favour. Most of the rest of the letter is concerned with the Pope’s difficulties with Prince Arichis II of Benevento (r.754-787). Hadrian complains that Arichis is trying ‘to unlawfully free the inhabitants of Campania from the power and rule of St. Peter and ours and to put them under the [Byzantine] Patrician of Sicily’. He asks that Charlemagne intervene, and order Arichis to desist in such behaviour. This would not be the last time Hadrian would worry about the Beneventans plotting with Byzantium. Playing up how necessary the aid of the Pope and the blessing of St Peter were for Charlemagne’s success couldn’t hurt Hadrian’s case. A further bit of context might be important. Two years earlier Hadrian had been accused of participating in the sale of Christians as slaves to Muslim traders. He had denied the allegations, but he might have felt that a noisy declaration of a ‘tough on Saracens’ policy would be useful to distance himself from the rumours.

This is the more rational version of option three. The other variant is that Hadrian just straight up misunderstood the message. Although he was a shrewd politician who forged a successful alliance with Charlemagne, there were gaps to his knowledge. In a letter of 781 Hadrian sought to counsel the Frankish king on ʿAbbasid campaigns against Byzantium. In addition to being several years behind recent developments, the Pope completely garbled his information, inventing a civil war in the Caliphate that hadn’t happened. A hint that Hadrian might have been concerned that he didn’t have the full story comes in the letter, where he mentions that he sent the diplomats bearing this letter to Charlemagne ‘to clarify the matter’ of the forthcoming Saracen invasion.

I’m not sure which of these options is correct (although two and three strike me as the most plausible). It may never be possible to be certain. In the meantime, we shall have to content ourselves with weighing the meagre evidence trying to balance likelihoods. Nonetheless, we can say a couple of things for certain. In the eighth century, no less than in the twenty-first, people struggled to understand the causes of wars, hampered by poor communication systems, deliberate falsifications and the magnification of half-truths and misunderstandings. Despite these difficulties, they made the attempt. The reasons for conflict mattered, sufficient to lie and sufficient to try to pierce through the lies.

[1] -Ish. Early medieval Christian understanding of Islam and Muslims could be a little vague. Indicating that someone was a descendant of the Biblical Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Abraham, Agarene had both religious and racial connotations and while it could be used neutrally, it had strong pejorative overtones.

The Evil that Men Do: Rhetoric and Reality in Ninth-Century Atrocity Reports

Trying to prove that an atrocity took place in the modern world can be challenging, particularly if the perpetrators deny that it happened, and can command resources and sympathy from their home constituencies. Prosecutors draw upon photographs, videos, surviving eyewitnesses and whatever paper trail they can unearth in order to show that the events took place, and to identify those who carried it out and whose orders they were following. As the alarming rates of Holocaust-denial show, even crimes with overwhelming evidence behind them can become controversial, particularly as the chain of human memory grows frailer with the passing of years.

This obviously gets even harder when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, as was made clear to me when I began getting interested in a series of events known as the Wilhelminer War or Feud. To make a long story short, in 871 two counts on the Bavarian frontier named William and Engelschalk were killed while fighting the Moravians. After their death, Louis the German (r.840-876) gave their titles to Aribo. In 882, the sons of William and Engelschalk (generally referred to as the Wilhelminer) raised an army and attacked Aribo, claiming their fathers’ offices. Aribo fled across the border to the Prince of the Moravians, Svatopluk I (r.870-894), with whom he had a good relationship. Svatopluk sought to restore Aribo, and his retribution was merciless according to the Bavarian Continuator of the Annals of Fulda (more on which below). The Moravian army invaded Bavaria and:

on the north side of the Danube they captured Werinhar, the middle of the three sons of Engelschalk, and Count Wezzilo who was their relative, and cut off their right hands, their tongues, and – horrible to relate – their genitals, so that not a trace of them could be seen. Some of their men returned without either their right or their left hand. (Translation by Timothy Reuter).

This extremely grisly incident is the subject of this post.

One place to begin is by defining what happened here. Whether the Continuator considered this an atrocity might be open to dispute. The only people they accuse of perpetrating a crime are the Wilhelminer, for attacking Aribo. On the other hand, they clearly found it distressing and difficult to talk about, as well as unusual and worthy of comment. Later they describe Svatopluk as cruel for his treatment of the Bavarians. This seems to get at the core of our idea of an atrocity, which is that it is an act of extreme cruelty perpetrated in a manner that is shocking.

When I first encountered the horrible fate of these Wilhelminer and their men, I saw no particular reason to be sceptical about it, and put it down in my mental list of nasty things that happened in the ninth century. Since that initial moment I have had my belief in this incident challenged by reviewers, who argue that this may be an unreliable account. Settling scores against anonymous academics is rarely useful for the people involved nor edifying for anyone who has to witness it, but I found the set of questions this raised in my mind interesting to think about, as I tried to work out how one could go about proving that this incident actually took place.

 A big part of the problem in this case are the sources, or rather, source singular. The Annals of Fulda are the main narrative account for the East Frankish kingdom. From 882 there are two variants. The relevant one for our purposes is known as the Bavarian Continuation, which proceeds down to 902. As the name suggests, this text was written by someone in Bavaria and generally interested in Bavarian affairs. Within it, the Wilhelminer Feud stands as a set-piece. Although material is normally arranged year-by-year, in this case the Continuator includes most of the narrative within the entry for 884, going back to 882 to begin the story. This entry is our only source for the mass mutilation or for the conflict as a whole.

Plausible arguments can be made for and against their reliability. I am inclined to the pro-side. The Continuator was based close to events, and seems to be writing in 884, without knowledge of how the crisis would end. They name specific people who were afflicted, which seems like a big step to take if they were being misleading. Spreading untrue stories that members of powerful aristocratic families based in the local area had had their genitals removed strikes me as a bold move for a writer. On the other hand, a critic could very reasonably point to the Continuator’s dislike of both the Moravians and the Wilhelminer, and credibly argue that the unusually rhetorically styled nature of the passage is a clue that the whole incident has been fabricated or exaggerated in order to position Svatopluk as an animalistic barbarian, and the Wilhelminer as wrongdoers who received their just deserts.

This sort of debate is relatively widespread in early medieval scholarship. The classic centre for it is in viking studies, where the perennial argument about how seriously to take descriptions of atrocities carried out by Scandinavian raiders and preserved in monastic chronicles and saint’s lives continues to lead to fights (although for what it’s worth, the debate seems to be swinging towards believing the sources, at least in outline). As with the Wilhelminer Feud, our sources are difficult and hard to corroborate.

I suspect that at the core of this argument is an unconscious disagreement about the probability of atrocities taking place. If you’re inclined to the view that such events are uncommon and that reports of them are often invented for the purpose of propaganda, your response to a solitary account in a medieval annal is going to be sceptical. This is neither an inherently stupid or morally wicked approach to the world.* It is, however, one I struggle with. My own position is that while humans are on balance social animals who tend to cooperate and bond with each other, acts of spectacular violence should not be seen as unusual.

I also wonder if this problem gets exacerbated by specialising in subjects from the distant past. Try as we might, awful events in the medieval period don’t hit most of us with the same emotional force as those from more recent centuries. This is mostly a good thing for the practice of history, as it makes it easier to study the medieval past with an element of detachment. But this tendency to read all texts as rhetorical constructions can mean we miss what the writer is actually trying to tell us as we probe and pull the material apart, looking for flaws and hidden agendas.

This is why I began this post by reference to the present. We can all fill in our own horror stories from the last hundred years, gifted to us by regimes such as the Khmer Rouge or ISIS, epitomised by place names that have become synonymous with evil, such as Auschwitz or Srebrenica. The point here is that any sentence that begins ‘But humans would never really be so cruel as to…’ is almost certainly wrong and dangerously so. Of course, just because awful things have happened in living memory doesn’t mean that Svatopluk really mutilated the captured Wilhelminer on the banks of the Danube in 882. But it should suggest that it’s a possibility that is worth thinking about.

Other written sources point to the possibility of mass killings in the early medieval world. Charlemagne’s massacre of 4,500 captured Saxons at Verden a century before the Wilhelmer feud has become notorious enough to inspire heavy metal tracks. The Byzantine emperor Basil II (r.976-1025) is reported to have had 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners blinded in 1014 before sending them home. Closer to home, when Svatopluk betrayed Rastislav (r.846-870), his uncle and predecessor as Prince, by handing him over to the Franks in 870, Louis the German had the unfortunate Moravian blinded.

Archaeology offers more tangible evidence and recent decades have seen the unearthing of a number of mass graves in England which suggest mass executions. In 2008, the bodies of 37 male individuals, probably of Scandinavian origin, were found during excavations at St John’s College, Oxford. The individuals had been stabbed with bladed weapons and placed in a ditch. Archaeologists working on the bodies suggested that they were vikings who were captured and executed in the tenth century. Another mass grave was found at Ridgeway Hill in Weymouth the following year, which included the remains of 54 men, including 51 decapitated skulls. The isotopic analyses of teeth of the victims suggest a Scandinavian origin. The most plausible reading is that these were defeated vikings, executed by their captors. Again, this doesn’t prove that Svatopluk castrated anyone in 882. It doesn’t offer much in the way of evidence of mutilation. But at the very least it offers a sanity check for the idea that massacres never happened, particularly of enemies captured in warfare by a party that had reason to consider themselves aggrieved.

The Middle Ages could be extremely violent, but it was violence that took place within a particular social and cultural context that made it meaningful. One of the reasons I find the Continuator’s account convincing is that I think it makes a great deal of sense from Svatopluk’s point of view. The public maiming of Wilhelminer and their supporters served to indicate Svatopluk’s power and sent a very strong message about the consequences of attacking anyone under his protection. Castration was not a common punishment in the Frankish world, and it served to mark the Moravian Prince as an outsider, but it had an awful logic given the circumstances. The Wilhelminer had attacked Aribo because they believed he was in possession of a title that belonged to them through paternal descent. The removal of the genitalia of Wernher and Wezzilo undermined their masculinity but Svatopluk was also striking right at the heart of their claim to power by attacking their procreative ability. He may also have been attempting to end the feud definitively and keep it from stretching to another generation.

The Continuator’s presentation of the Wilhelminer as criminals is also interesting. I wonder if the mutilation was intended by Svatopluk to be read as a punishment for breaking the peace. We don’t know that much for sure about Moravian law in the period, but the oldest surviving Slavic legal code, the Zakon Sudnyj Ljudem (Court Law for the People), has been associated with ninth-century Moravia (with due caution, as the earliest manuscript is from thirteenth-century Novgorod). The code orders amputation as a punishment for a wide range of crimes. Although nothing that happened to the Wilhelminer exactly matches anything in the Court Law, this implies that Svatopluk probably came from a legal culture that accepted amputation as a way of dealing with criminals. Mutilation was also employed in the Carolingian world to punish, as the blinding of Rastislav discussed above indicates.

I haven’t definitely proved in this post that the mass mutilation described that the Continuator took place. Barring a really lucky new manuscript find or an archaeological site on the north side of the Danube which happens to be datable with astonishing precision, that isn’t going to happen. I’ve tried to suggest a couple of reasons why Svatopluk might have been inclined to carry out such a thing, including the specific context of the incident and a possible legal background. But what I’ve also tried to gesture to is that the idea that deliberately targeted acts of mass violence are not implausible events in human history, but are things that still happen today. This isn’t to say that we should believe all medieval accounts of bad things happening, some of them may well be invented or heavily distorted. Rather, it’s to say that scepticism needs to be tempered with an awareness that sometimes people genuinely do really nasty things to each other and that any understanding of the Middle Ages needs to be able to include that in its reckoning of the period.

* It is one I suspect is fostered by an academic lifestyle. Contrary to some stereotypes, my lived experience of scholars is that they tend to be kind, thoughtful and relatively conflict-averse people. While I am very glad this is the case, it may not always be the best headspace for understanding ninth-century warfare.

Louis the Pious and the Cynocephalus

As all learned folk of the Middle Ages knew, monsters were warnings, their twisted forms messages from a nature at war with itself, a dread portent of the evil men do writ large in their debased flesh. Hybrid beings such as cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs, broke down all the safe barriers that made life secure, unsettling the hierarchy that placed humans above their beasts. But warnings prompt the wise to observe what needs to be noticed. The writers of the middle ages found instruction in these unnerving transgressions. In the stories they told about people with the heads of dogs we can hear the echoes of their thoughts on those with the heads of apes. The land that lies between human and animal, fact and fiction, is often fertile, even if it produces curious fruit. It is in this country that I find myself walking with this post.

In the year 814, the recently crowned Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious was presented with a dog-headed man.  That this extraordinary incident is not better known is entirely due to an error in our primary source, the Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents Old and New of Jakob Mennel, which is a historical survey of portents and omens produced in 1503 for the Emperor Maximilian I.:

In the year 914, a monster having the head of a dog and other limbs like a person was presented to Louis. And well could it represent the monstrous state of that time, when people without a head wavered in their loyalties hither and yon barking like dogs.

Mennel reported the incident faithfully, but accidentally dated it to 914, a time when there were no monarchs called Louis. As the previous portent in Mennel’s catalogue refers to the age of Charlemagne, we can reasonably assume that the jurist intended to refer to Charlemagne’s son before an accidental slip of the pen made the very idea of Louis the Pious encountering a dog-headed man seem ridiculous.

A visual depiction of Louis’ meeting with the cynocephalus illustrating Mennel’s Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents old and new, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek cod.4417 f.9v, also containing the text quoted above [Ed: the source won’t let us link directly to the page, so if you’re curious it’s image number 27/60]. Note also the evidence that Louis the Pious invented vaping.

Establishing that the emperor met a cynocephalus is thus trivial. The hard part is determining what this encounter meant. Mennel was well aware that monsters are messengers, delivering signals from the heavens. As Isidore of Seville tells us in his Etymologies (11.3.15):

omens (monstrum) derive their name from admonition (monitus), because in giving a sign they indicate (demonstrare) something, or else because they instantly show (monstrare) what may appear.

Mennel interpreted the cynocephalus as a prediction of the vacillating character of the people of the age. Anyone who has ever had to study the twisted accounts from the Field of Lies in 833 will feel some sympathy for this assessment of the reign of Louis the Pious.

However, if we are to truly understand this moment, we need to go a little deeper into the nature of the dog-headed man. Charlemagne had been widely celebrated when in 802 he had received an elephant from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid. Likewise, as I may have mentioned once or twice, Louis’ son Charles the Bald was to receive camels from the Emir of Córdoba. It’s not hard to imagine that Louis was aiming to continue that tradition. Exotic animals provided rulers with an opportunity to demonstrate their power over nature and the respect held for them by far off peoples. By demonstrating their special relationship with distant lands, kings built a sense of magic and glamour about themselves.

That the cynocephali were beasts is attested by a number of authorities. Isidore of Seville said of them that ‘their barking indeed reveals that they are rather beasts than humans’ (Etymologies 11.3.5). The Liber Monstrorum, composed in the late seventh or early eighth century in a southern Anglo-Saxon context, tells us that they ‘do not imitate humans but the beasts themselves in eating raw flesh’ (1.16). Classical authorities placed the cynocephali in the far east, with Ctesias and Pliny locating them in India. The dog-headed man might therefore have been a gift from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, the follow-up to the elephant.

There are problems with this hypothesis. First, it is difficult to attribute an eastern origin to the cynocephalus. In these years the Caliphate was in the midst of a civil war between the sons of Harun al-Rashid, who all had better things to think about. Further, our sources from the Carolingian period strongly suggest that the cynocephali population of the period were more strongly concentrated in Scandinavia. The Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister locates them in the well-known island of Munitia, which lies in the North Sea, where they traded with German merchants. Likewise, the letter written by the missionary Rimbert to Ratramnus of Corbie places the cynocephali in Scandinavia, close to the people Rimbert was attempting to convert.

The correspondence between Rimbert and Ratramnus raises a further issue for the assumption that Louis was attempting to compete with Charlemagne’s elephant, because they clearly demonstrate the humanity of the cynocephali. Rimbert provided Ratramnus with an ethnographic description of the dog-headed people as reported to him. Ratramnus used this to demonstrate that the cynocephali must be rational, thinking beings, organised in cities with laws, crafts and a sense of morality. This rationality was the key factor in deciding whether the cynocephali were humans. As Augustine noted in City of God (6.18), evidence of rationality would reveal even those ‘Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men’ to be human beings. As Ratramnus commented, by these criteria the dog-heads of Scandinavia were clearly rational and therefore human. This is reinforced by the evidence that St Christopher was in fact dog-headed, something traditionally downplayed in modern accounts (in yet another example of the erasure of the cynocephali community from history).

Understanding this gets us a little closer to what was happening in 814. Far from being a present from Baghdad, the cynocephalus brought to Louis the Pious was clearly an ambassador sent by the dog-headed people of Scandinavia. Relations between Charlemagne and the cynocephali had been strained. As Notker the Stammerer tells us (2.13), the dog-heads allied with the Danish king Godfrid (r.804-810) when he invaded Frisia in 810. Following Godfrid’s retreat, Charlemagne is said to have bemoaned that he ‘was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends’. We know that Louis was much concerned with northern affairs at the start of his rule. His earlier career had been primarily based in Aquitaine, but in 815 he visited Saxony for the first and only time in his reign. The death of Charlemagne provided an excellent opportunity for Louis the Pious to reset Frankish relations with the cynocephali.

The same year that the dog-headed man made his appearance, Harald Klak, one of the struggling contenders for the Danish throne, also came to the court of Louis the Pious. Having been driven out of Denmark, Harald sought Louis’ aid in order to be restored to the throne, which Louis agreed to, helping him return to power in 819. Given the Scandinavian location of the polity of the cynocephali and their past association with Godfrid, it seems plausible that the dog-headed man may have been connected to Harald, although in what capacity is unclear. Perhaps the cynocephalus was a supporter of Harald.

Alternatively, the collapse of the Danish polity into warring factions at this point may have convinced the cynocephali that they needed to find new allies in a wider world. Aachen could be extremely generous to northern peoples who made themselves useful. The Slavic Abodrites in modern Pomerania had been rewarded with land and gifts for supporting Charlemagne in his wars against the Saxons. Louis may have had ambitions of converting the cynocephali. Much of his diplomatic activity in the northern lands was aimed at making things easier for his missionaries. Certainly, the interest of later writers such as Rimbert and Ratramnus lay in their desire to know whether they should attempt to bring the word of God to the dog-headed men.

This seems to me to be the best way to understand the material presented by Jakob Mennel. One could of course tell a different story, in which dog-head, signifying cruel stupidity, was an ethnic slur applied to Scandinavians, which over the years was taken increasingly literally, until a Danish prince at the court of Louis the Pious lost any vestige of being a human, and instead joined a menagerie of curiosities intended for the amusement of a much later emperor. Perhaps that was the tale I should have told in this post, the story of how a man became a monster. But I must confess I have never had much patience for such accounts. So instead, I shall walk a little further into the strange country, looking for men within monsters.