Why is Donkey Kong like tenth-century Flanders?

Birthday post! OK, it’s not actually my birthday (I ain’t putting that on the internet), but it is proximate thereto, which is one reason I haven’t been posting recently. Posts will resume after I’ve moved house and gone to the EHS Conference in two weeks, but recently I discovered something fun which is almost entirely devoid of scholarly content, but tickled me so I’m putting it up here anyway.

I have on occasion hinted at something which I like to call the ‘Arnulf Problem’, but I don’t think I’ve ever explained what it is. Basically, in late tenth-century Flanders, Count Arnulf the Great was having family troubles. One of his nephews rebelled, and so he had him executed, earning the hostility of the executed man’s brother, who was also called Arnulf. These two things, that he was a nephew of Arnulf the Great and that he was also called Arnulf, are the only things we have to identify this man. This is a problem, because ‘Arnulf’ is an incredibly common name. Hence, there are about six potential candidates for our Arnulf – and thus, the Arnulf Problem: not knowing who someone is because everyone has the same damn name.

(Ninth-century historians have a different version of this known as the Three Bernards Problem, although these Bernards at least have better nicknames – Bernard Hairypaws, anyone?)


Segue! (source)

Now, as I say, I recently discovered that medieval history is not the only field where this is true. It turns out fans of the venerable Donkey Kong franchise have to deal with a similar problem. The first appearance of Donkey Kong was in 1981, in the arcade game Donkey Kong, which also featured the first appearance of Mario – then named Jumpman – as an animal-abusing builder’s carpenter. However, in more recent games we have learned that the current Donkey Kong is in fact the second holder of that title, the first being the ape now known as DK’s grandfather Cranky Kong (not to be confused with either Swanky Kong or Lanky Kong…). It is, though, not quite clear when the current Donkey Kong took over from Cranky Kong. It certainly happened by Donkey Kong Island, but although the wiki claims that the Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong 3 is Cranky Kong, in fact there’s no real way of knowing. Essentially, it’s the Arnulf Problem all over again.

In fact, there’s a specific equivalent. At some point in the 960s, a series of English bishops wrote to Count Arnulf of Flanders about various matters. Problem is, because Arnulf I (the Great) was succeeded by Arnulf II, we don’t know which Arnulf they were writing to. It’s even a grandfather-grandson transition (although, unlike the current Donkey Kong, we know exactly what happened to Arnulf II’s father)!

So there you have it – if you’re a gamer, then tenth-century historians face your problems. And if you’re a tenth-century historian, then… let’s see if we can get a Mario Kart tournament going at the next IMC?


Geoffrey Koziol’s Peace of God

I’ve now had the time to read Geoff Koziol’s new book on the Peace of God (called, with agreeable straightforwardness, The Peace of God) a couple of times, and spend a week thinking it over. I only got hold of it about a fortnight or so ago so this isn’t my final, definitive opinion or anything; but I reckon I can put together a coherent-enough first impression.

It’s a bit of a disappointing book. That’s a bit of an unfair opinion, because it’s not like it’s bad or anything, but the last two books Koziol wrote were game-changers, even if you don’t agree with them, so simply putting out a book that’s perfectly fine is a bit deflating. It must also be said that the book is literally lightweight as well – here’s a photo of all three of Geoff’s books to show you what I mean.

It’s the one on the right. You can’t tell from this photo, but it’s also less tall than the others as well.

Anyway, it’s divided into three chapters, ‘Before the Peace of God’, ‘The Peace of God’, and ‘Institutionalising the Peace and Truce’. The first covers previous ideas of peace in Late Antiquity and the Carolingian empire and the Aquitanian context in which the Peace emerged. The second looks at what the Peace of God said, how it changed region by region, how the Peace of God worked, and how it was enforced. The third (which might in fact be a game changer if you work on twelfth-century law, I dunno) largely looks at late eleventh and twelfth-century institutionalisation of the Peace, and I’m basically going to ignore it in what follows because I don’t have much to say about it.

There are – for me at least – three big takeaway arguments from the first two chapters. First, the Peace of God genuinely was something new and different to the way the Carolingians talked about peace and violence. Second, it worked by regulating the lordships which proliferated alongside castles in a way which worked because it relied on the self-interest of lords. Third, although it was a consistent approach, it was very adaptable and needs to be approached in each region in that region’s own context.

Many of these points are very well made. Point one, for instance, is largely a response to Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier’s argument that the way the Church talked about its enemies didn’t change much from Late Antiquity onwards, and it’s able to express convincingly the point that, yes, there was actually something which had changed between 500 and 1100. Equally, Point 2 seems reasonable, at least in part.

However, there’s a lot in here which is dealt with oddly, where his actual argument doesn’t match his admirable statements about approach, or which are arguably wrong.

The context is a big one. Yes, every iteration of the Peace of God needs to be looked at from its specific context – it’s a great point; but a lot of the time he either doesn’t do this, or does and doesn’t get it quite right. In the latter case, his description of Aquitaine immediately before the Peace of God emerged, in the second half of the tenth century, relies heavily on the work of Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, and so reproduces much that Lauranson-Rosaz got wrong as well as some of his peculiar biases. In particular, Bishop Stephen II of Clermont doesn’t count as regional supremo because he’s just a bishop and not a ‘real’ lay ruler. The opposite view is quite findable out there in print – Anne-Hélène Brunterc’h published an article about this thirteen years ago, for instance. So what we have is a Peace of God emerging in a fragmented political vacuum which may in fact be illusory. In the former case, Koziol deals with lordship in chapter 2 as basically undifferentiated; but (as you can read in the last blog post, actually) even ‘a southern Aquitanian region with lots of castles’ has lots of different ways of being locally in charge depending on whether you’re in the Limousin or Quercy. Some more contextualisation of what ‘lordship’ meant would have put words into practice; and, sure, it would have meant a bigger book, but this book may be too small for its topic anyway.

Equally, Koziol is, quite simply, wrong when he talks about how there were very few aristocratic assemblies in tenth-century Gaul, and the Auvergne was unusual for the number it had. What is true is that aristocratic assemblies in tenth-century France – or immediately thereafter, actually – have never been studied. (As such, anyway; there’s a literature about local courts, especially in the Mâconnais, but not on political assemblies, with maybe one honourable exception) They are, though, there to find, even if no-one’s done it systematically yet – my own familiarity with the evidence from, in particular, Neustria and Poitou, suggests that princely assemblies existed and persisted during the tenth century. An examination of the Peace of God in the context of assembly politics in tenth-century regions, then, needs to actually be done rather than assumed.

Third and finally, I’ve noticed before that Koziol has an overt anti-Carolingian bias and here it’s on full display. A major part of what is called his second point above is that, unlike Carolingian capitularies (‘fervent, ideological, and utterly unpragmatic’ (p. 131)), the Peace of God was good legislation, because it’s ‘crisp, clear, to the point, and eminently practical’ (p. 65); and I don’t know what documents he’s reading, because it’s clearly not the same ones I am. In fact, immediately after saying this, he quotes the Peace of Narbonne (1054):

Let no Christian harm any other Christian or presume to mistreat him or despoil him of property.

Practical, huh? ‘Don’t be nasty’ is about as practical as the diatribes of Archbishop Hincmar which Koziol rails against. Equally, on the other side, Koziol uses the 884 Capitulary of Ver as an example of ‘unpragmatic’ Carolingian legislation. Here’s the second heading of that capitulary, just as an example:

We therefore decree that everyone who lives in Our palace or visits it from any place should live in peace. If anyone breaks the peace and commits robbery let them by Our royal authority and the command of Our representative be brought to a hearing in the palace, and, in accordance with what is contained in the capitularies of Our ancestors, by a legal judgement be punished with a threefold fine and the royal ban.

How’s that for fervent, otherworldly lawmaking? It’s longer, sure, but it’s just as enforceable as any Peace of God clause. Koziol is right that Peace of God legislation tends to forego some of the sermonising found in Carolingian legislation, but only by focussing narrowly on the texts: on the day, as it were, given these things were issued at large assemblies with lots of major clerics present, there would have been all the preaching you could eat. (Equally, we know from manuscripts that Carolingian capitularies were used as guidebooks for legal practice – some manuscript comparison would have been useful, because I don’t think Peace of God legislation tends to get written down much at all, which suggests Koziol is comparing apples and oranges here…) So I think Koziol’s dislike of the Carolingians has led him into an unsupportable binary distinction between Carolingian and Peace of God legislation which in turn means that his ideas about how different the Peace of God was from the Carolingian peace start to look a lot shakier.

Now, I’ve spent 1200 words – gosh, really? This was supposed to be short… – criticising it, but like I said, it’s not bad. I suspect it’ll go down as a footnote in the Koziol oeuvre, but it offers useful precepts for people looking the Peace of God in the future, even if it puts them into practice imperfectly. Personally, I think the call to contextual analysis is key. No staggering new insight on the Peace of God is going to emerge unless we have a much better idea than we currently do about political formations, assembly practices, and local, regional, and regnal communities both in Aquitaine and elsewhere before the Peace of God emerged.


What King™?

So, there will be a blog post this week, because this week marks the one-year anniversary of Salutem Mundo going up on the web. If I have a bit of spare time, I might put up a retrospective; but today I wanted to do something fun: counter-factual speculation! I was reading a biography of King Edward II, which made me think that England came reasonably close at one point to a King Gilbert, and this in turn led my thoughts back to my own work. After all, there were three relatively long periods in the tenth and early eleventh centuries where the reigning king was without an obvious direct heir, i.e. a legitimate, adult son. So the question naturally arose: had some accident befallen these kings, who would have ended up as their successor?

The first period is also the longest: the twenty-odd years between 898 and 920 when King Charles the Simple was without a legitimate son. Until the birth of Louis IV in around 920, Charles did not have a direct heir. If he had died before 919 or so, the kingdom’s most powerful magnate and brother of Charles’ predecessor Odo, Robert of Neustria, was by far the most likely candidate to become king. One suggestion I’ve never seen (although some readers may be able to correct me on this) is that this may have been important. After 920, relations between Robert and Charles deteriorated rapidly. I wonder if his participation in rebellion after that year was conditioned by the fact that Louis cut him out of the succession?

Other possibilities for king include Richard the Justiciar, duke of Burgundy (possible, but I don’t see him having the power base or the connections to the throne) or Louis the Child until 911 (good dynastic claim, but he doesn’t seem to have had much connection at all with West Frankish magnates and indeed wasn’t all that close to the Lotharingian aristocracy, from a kingdom he actually did rule).

The next period is in the reign of Charles’ son Louis, between 936 and 941. Here, the situation is complicated by the fact that Louis himself appears to have been something of a compromise candidate between Robert of Neustria’s son Hugh the Great, Count Heribert II of Vermandois, or Hugh the Black, duke of Burgundy and brother of Louis’ predecessor King Ralph. I cannot imagine any of these people letting one of the others have it without a very nasty fight. The probable winner, in my view, would have been Heribert, due to his geographical proximity to the centres of royal power in Rheims and Laon. However, an outside possibility is Roric, Louis’ illegitimate half-brother, who might present another useful compromise candidate. He was a cleric and a bastard, but illegitimacy wasn’t necessarily a disqualifier for kingship; and he may have been able to go back into the world if absolutely necessary, perhaps, although I can’t think of any Frankish examples of clerical sons becoming secular this early.

The final period is the first decade of the reign of King Robert the Pious, between 996 and 1007. Between 996 and his death in 1002, Duke Henry of Burgundy, Robert’s uncle, might have been a plausible candidate, although he was childless and in the equivalent situation in 936, Hugh the Black had been passed over. Thus, my preference is for King Rudolf III of Transjurane Burgundy, nephew of the penultimate Carolingian king Lothar and brother-in-law of one of the most powerful West Frankish magnates, Odo II of Blois. He’s plausible as a king, without being too threatening to established power bases. It is possible that Odo himself might have sought the crown, but I find this unlikely: too many people would have been opposed to the action. Other possibilities include Otto III or Henry II of Germany, who were also closely related to both the Carolingians and the Robertians and whose ties were perhaps closer. However, an actual reunification of East and West Francia seems a bit unlikely to me. The final possibility is Otto or Louis of Lower Lotharingia, children of the last serious Carolingian claimant to the West Frankish throne, Charles of Lower Lotharingia. Certain, in 1012, Louis appears to have been in Poitiers as a potential figurehead for rebellion. With Aquitanian and maybe Ottonian support, a Carolingian restoration might well have been possible.

These are just my speculations, of course. What do you think? I’m interested to hear discussions of this: how people interpret these possibilities is heavily dependent on what they think matters about royal successions, and that’s an area where I am keenly aware of my own blinkers…

Source Translation: An Early Medieval Love Letter

Apparently when I said ‘tomorrow’ I meant ‘on Saturday’; I would have written this up when I got back from Mons yesterday, but I was distracted by some jousting. What this means is that this week is that it’s some more source translation. A few days ago, I was speaking with some friends about work (I have remarkably few other topics of conversation) and the question of love and marriage came up. There have been a few other things I’ve written about this, and these duly came up; but this raised a question which always gets brought up with these things: how far was marriage transactional?

In response, I mentioned one of my favourite little medieval texts, the only surviving early medieval love letter, preserved in the Formulae Salicae Merkelianae, written probably in the ninth century:

No. 47: Letter to a fiancée [i.e., specifically to a female recipient].

To my sweetest and dearest in everything, my honey-sweet girlfriend [insert name here], I, in God’s name [insert name here], with dearest love and unceasing desire for you whom I miss so much. I send you through this letter greetings for as much joy as is contained within the fullness of our hearts, greetings which walk amidst the clouds and which the Sun and his Moon bring to you. When I go to bed, you are ever on my mind; and when I sleep, I dream always of you. Stay well in the day and sleep well at night. Always keep your boyfriend in mind, and do not forget him, for I do not forget you (*). Come up with a clever way, and I’ll one more acquire, through what kind of trickery we’ll fulfil our desire (**).

Codex Manesse 071v Kristan von Hamle.jpg
A cunning plan! (source)

May He who reigns in Heaven and oversees the whole world lead you into my arms (***) before I die.

(This is a great greeting for two young people; the one sends it to the other and neither gets tired of it (****).)

So, what can I say about this? Well, on a personal level I can tell you that, contrary to what’s advertised, it doesn’t actually work as a Valentine’s Day card; but in terms more relevant to our theme, it illustrates much the same thing as some of the dowry charters I’ve written about before: that, however transactional it might have been in real life, it was expected that relationships be cloaked with what is evidently a close relation of the modern language of romantic affection, right down to the same endearments – ‘honey-sweet’ (melliflua) has been translated an adjective here, but could just as easily have been rendered as a noun; or, in other words, ‘hi, honey!’

Particularly interesting is that it’s in a formulary collection. Scholars have recently become more and more interested in formularies, or collections of form letters, and one of the reasons for this is that they contain lots of things that don’t otherwise survive, such as, indeed, love letters. Its inclusion in a formulary implies that there was demand we can’t otherwise see. This is perhaps due to the predominance in written culture of male celibates… What is a little frustrating is the way the nuances are lost. It’s not completely clear whether the tone of this letter is simply ‘I miss you’ or the more passive-aggressive ‘why don’t you write me?’. I’ve chosen to render it in the first way, but it could well be the second, which has interesting implications; not least that there were other letters of a more straightforward kind, of which this is a slightly acidic sub-variation.

I’ll admit, though, either way it’s not as attractive as talking about Vikings

(Short one today b/c I’m on a train back to the UK for a week; this also means there won’t be a post next week at all.)

(*) OK, a more literal translation here is ‘I don’t do that to you’, but that sounds much pissier in English than in Latin…

(**) This actually is a literal translation, insofar as the metre’s off and one of the words doesn’t quite rhyme, even if you assume that the MS’ altero is supposed to be alterum (as other scholars have, I’m not spitballing here).

(***) Lit, ‘give you into my hands’, but that’s a lot more ‘cartoonishly villainous’ than ‘sweetly romantic’.

(****) That last bit is odd; in Latin it’s neminem sufficit, which literally means ‘it suffices no-one’. My initially guess was that the whole sentence was a marginal annotation from a disgruntled youth, but as it turns out the MS is online, and nope, it’s in the text. This phrase in the translation is based off a French translation I found with a quick Google…

New Medieval Podcast, and Sexual Frustration

So, this week Twitter (@ralphtorta, ladies and gents *winks*) informed me that those good folks over at King’s College London have launched a new podcast dealing with medieval matters. So I went and had a look, and, what do you know, it was pretty interesting:


Leaving aside the inherent oddness of hearing my elders and betters having an extended discussion about dildo use and manufacture, there are a couple of things this podcast raises I thought it would be worth talking about.

The first is a question which comes up towards the end of the episode. The idea behind the show is that they answer question sent in by the audience, and this week it’s ‘did medieval people know other kinds of sex?’. That question itself is framed in a rather eyebrow-raising way (what’s the non-other kind of sex?), but it leads our erstwhile presenters to ask: why do people frame the Middle Ages as being sexually naïve?

Their answer is about Church control over lay sex lives. People think that the Middle Ages consisted of people who don’t have sex telling people who do how to have it, and thus, boom, (or indeed not boom), sexual desert. And sure, that’s probably part of it, but I think there’s a little more that can be said here.

I call it ‘Rearview Mirror Syndrome’. When dealing with stuff outside living memory (nowadays, say, before the turn of the twentieth century), everything becomes an undifferentiated ‘past’, so Victorian and Tudor and Norman pasts get mixed up and amalgamated. Sure, this might not happen at the level of the most basic aesthetics – you won’t see William the Conqueror portrayed in a top hat – but that’s about as far as it goes. Hence why people think that medieval people burned witches at the stake (it’s really an Early Modern phenomenon), for instance.

Exhibit A. (source)

This usually works backwards, because most people know (or think they know) more about the Tudor and Stuart periods than the Middle Ages and about Victorian times than the Tudors and Stuarts. Hence, you get a kind of foreshortening effect.

In this case, I think that there’s a train of thought going ‘the Victorians were unutterably prudish about sex, thus the past was as well, and thus the Middle Ages also covered up their legs and had sex through a hole in the bedsheet’: as in the case of witch burnings, people perceive all the past as being the same. Indeed, whilst it would be hard to argue that it’s the most profound job of historians in interacting with the public, one of our most basic tasks is, I would argue, just to remind people that past societies were chronologically varied. At the very least, this way we might get more interesting movies out of it…

(and yes, I will be reviewing the new King Arthur film. Stay tuned…)

The other point this podcast raised for me (wahey) was a question I’ve been asking for a long time. How did medieval people, and in my case specifically tenth- and eleventh-century people, have sex? It’s noticeable that for the most part, the presenters talk about canon law sources and what they prohibit (as memorialised in the by-now world-famous medieval sex flowchart:)


What this doesn’t tell us about, though, is quotidian sex. This is more important than it sounds, especially if you think about queens. One way a queen is supposed to be important, to have influence at court, is that she has the ear of the king during some pretty intimate moments; and it makes a fairly major difference here whether one envisages royal sex as a bit of perfunctory thrusting or a full evening of candles-and-rose-petals-and-sensual-massages.

Thietmar of Merseburg has a story about Henry the Fowler getting drunk and forcing himself upon his protesting wife St. Matilda. This is interesting for a couple of reasons, not least insofar it indicates that lack of consent to sex was seen as a real problem and a real evil (as Thietmar tells the story, the wickedness of the act allowed the Devil to enter Henry’s semen, impregnating St. Matilda with a baby who would go on to be a prominent and persistent rebel against royal authority); but also because it may, at least to my reading, indicate that this was seen as unusual, and that sex would usually be a more tender affair. Of course, there isn’t anything like enough evidence to tell, at least as far as I know; and there’s also the problem that sex is always particularly charged in medieval histories. Still, it’s one of those things that’s self-evidently sufficiently important to more than just the history of sexual practice that one would like to know…