Men in the Middle: Evrebert

One group of people I’ve always been interested in are local elites – the sort of people who are definitely still aristocrats, and who are powerful in their own domains, but don’t necessarily have the huge, transregional interests (or even visible presences) of their greater contemporaries. The ‘mayor of Chesham’ types, if you will. However, my main source base is not really good enough to tell me about these people in much detail – I don’t work on the huge and early East Frankish collections or eastern Brittany, and otherwise it’s just not that granular. When I was casting around for postdoctoral projects I wanted to do something on central medieval southern Burgundy to use the Langres/Mâcon/Autun charter material to cast some light on ideological competition between exactly these sorts of figures, but nobody bit… (Let me know if you’re interested and have a few thousand quid to spare!)

Anyway, today I want to talk about one happy exception to the rule, a man who shows up in just enough evidence (four pieces!) to get a sense of who he was and what he was about. So let me introduce you to Evrebert, who flourished in the north-east of Charles the Bald’s kingdom, what would later become southern Flanders, in the latter half of the ninth century. Evrebert, insofar as he has a reputation, doesn’t have a great one, largely because one of our main sources for his times, the Annals of Saint-Vaast, ended up on the other side of a local political dispute in the 890s. But before that, we can see Evrebert operating as a minor figure in the court of Charles the Bald. He first appears as a vassus dominicus at Charles’ court in 861, in a famous diploma in which Charles judged that the peasants of Mitry, an estate of Saint-Denis, owed service to the abbey; Evrebert was one of the people making the judgement at the king’s court at Compiègne. He was clearly trusted by the king: a few years later, in 866 (according to a reference in a twelfth-century cartulary), he acted as a royal nuntio at Saint-Vaast in order to oversee a survey of the abbey’s property. This was a more pointed issue than it sounds. Saint-Vaast had only just been given to Charles the Bald by Lothar II, so assessing the value of his new acquisition was a matter of some importance. Here, the fact that we don’t really know much about Evrebert’s background becomes somewhat frustrating. He would go on to have a long and close relationship with Saint-Vaast, and it would be quite important to know whether this developed out of the missions he undertook at royal behest, or whether Charles ordered him on the missions because he already had the ties… By analogy, he would seem to be a local (the other two royal representatives were the prior of Saint-Vaast and a count from the region), but we can’t really tell. Evrebert then disappears from our sources for over two decades, but we know he was still active and important: he was rewarded with lands, almost certainly in the region around Bapaume, by Carloman II. This region was party central for viking attacks in the 880s, so it may well be that Evrebert played an important part in leading local defence. Either way, he was clearly a figure of some importance in the region.

The abbey of Saint-Vaast as it is today (source).

All this came to play in 892. In January of that year, Abbot Rodolf of Saint-Vaast died. The scramble for his lands and offices began almost immediately. The most vocal contender was Baldwin the Bald, the count of Flanders. Baldwin approached King Odo, asking for the abbeys of Saint-Vaast and Saint-Bertin. Baldwin was, let’s say, a controversial figure. At Saint-Bertin, he definitely didn’t have the local support he needed to back up his request:  the monks sent an emissary to the king to try and prevent his takeover by any means necessary, and succeeded in that. At Saint-Vaast, however, the situation was different. There appear to have been two factions of locals. Odo – and apparently the Saint-Vaast annalist – supported the claims of Count Egfrid of Artois to succeed Rodolf as abbot. Evrebert, however, favoured Baldwin, and prevailed upon a majority of locals to let him in to the monastery’s castle. Baldwin’s demeanour was conciliatory: he sent messengers to Odo asking for ex post facto legitimation of his possession. This didn’t work. Odo tried to attack Baldwin, although the attack failed. The fighting between the two dragged on. Yet Evrebert was no inveterate rebel: in summer 893, he issued a charter for Saint-Vaast dated by the reign of the ‘most glorious king Odo’. This charter is actually the last we see of Evrebert. He had two sons, Roland and Landuin, who are not otherwise known to the historical record. In 896, Odo launched another siege of Saint-Vaast, which had remained under Baldwin’s control, and a deal was struck. By this point, Evrebert may well have been dead.

The sources for Evrebert’s career aren’t everything I would like. Crucially, we have no real sense of Evrebert’s connections to Baldwin. Virtually all of our sources other than the Annals of Saint-Vaast stress his connections to royalty, but he was evidently a close political ally of Baldwin, enough to turn Saint-Vaast over to him. Exactly what he got out of the association is unclear. A patron in his local context, perhaps, much as we expect kingship to work; but in that case why not go directly to the king? In Odo’s case, admittedly, his strong Francian background (yes, north-east – he was a newcomer to Neustria in 886 and all his background points to Francia) meant he had lots of local enemies, and perhaps Evrebert was already one of them… What is more significant, though, is what Baldwin got out of Evrebert. Like Charles the Bald before him, powerful people needed men on the ground to get things done. This isn’t a new or original point, but the case of Evrebert shows how this worked in practice. Evrebert’s ties to a major monastic institution provided a crucial mechanism for controlling it, whether gently as in 866 or dramatically as in 892. He’s unusually visible in our sources, but we have to imagine hundreds and thousands of men like him across the kingdom.

For me the big question – and it is, sort of, answerable, but not in the detail I’d like – then becomes how he compares to other local elites. The first comparison that springs to mind is actually with someone like Adalmar, advocate of Saint-Martin. Here, it is easier to articulate how Adalmar stands out from Evrebert, via his participation in a calcified, crystallised Neustrian hierarchy; by contrast, Evrebert’s power seems much less defined. Further research would help here. After all, given the importance of these people to wider power structures, the differences in how they related to these wider structures have an obvious and crucial relevance to our broader understandings of Late Carolingian politics.


Cologne Columns: St Gereon’s Basilica as a Model for Aachen

In retrospect, it has to be said that my research trip to Cologne and Aachen in February 2022 was not necessarily the best organised. My key error was the timing. I arrived on Thursday 24th, which proved to be the first day of Carnival. As I walked out of the train station in the shadow of the cathedral, the streets of Cologne were already filling up with crowds, glitter and vomit. My hotel in the centre of the city proved to be on top of a nightclub, and my room vibrated at night. Worse still, a large number of the museums and churches I wanted to visit were closed in the face of the revelry.

These were not ideal circumstances for gaining insights about the past. And yet the trip vindicated itself for me by creating the circumstances in which I could encounter two churches on consecutive days. The first, the celebrated Palace-Church at Aachen, was an old friend that I had visited several times before. The Carolingian core of the building, including the spectacular octagonal nave, is the largest remnant of Charlemagne’s Aachen still standing. It was originally part of the palace-complex, linked to the Great Hall by a series of corridors. Although the interior decoration that you see in the church now is mostly a nineteenth-century reconstruction, it’s still an extremely impressive statement of Carolingian power and ambition.

The church was at the heart of Charlemagne’s plans for Aachen, with dendrochronology suggesting that its construction predated that of the Great Hall. The great dome above the nave is proportionally taller than any other previous dome that we know of, and constructed with a very different technique to pre-existing Roman and Byzantine examples, using innovative quick drying mortar. It was also built very swiftly. Analysis of the timber used in the dome indicates that construction started in 793 at the earliest, while Alcuin’s letters suggest that it was nearing completion by 798.

A plausible reconstruction of Charlemagne’s palace-complex in Aachen. Any resemblance to a TIE Fighter is entirely uncoincidental. (source)

It’s a remarkable piece of work and one that has inspired considerably scholarly debate about what model inspired its unusual design. Popular suggestions have included buildings from Constantinople, such as the Hagia Sophia or the Church of Sergius and Bacchus, and from Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Dome of the Rock (commonly thought to be Solomon’s temple). Both of these cities loomed large in the Frankish imagination. That said, Charlemagne’s major interest in Jerusalem really took off after 797, by which point the dome at Aachen was well underway. Constantinople remains a possible model, albeit one Charlemagne never saw.

More convincing to me is the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, which Charlemagne visited multiple times. After his first visit to Ravenna in 787, he had mosaics and marbles brought from the city to him as tribute. When he wasn’t stripping Ravenna of treasures, Charlemagne was giving them to the city, including a table adorned with an image of Rome on it. Ravenna may have had a special significance as the city associated with Theoderic, who Charlemagne modelled his kingship and facial hair on. A statue of the Gothic ruler stood in Aachen, taken from Ravenna in 801 when Charlemagne visited as his first destination after his imperial coronation in Rome.

But on my ill-timed visit to Cologne, quite unexpectedly I encountered another possible model for the Palace-Church. The Basilica of St Gereon in the north of the old city, outside the Roman walls, is in a rather more battered state than the Palace-Church. It was badly damaged in the Second World War and nearly collapsed in 1952. The church as it stands is a patchwork, where the late antique and medieval layers mingle with the modern sensibilities of its restorers. But you can still get a sense of the spectacular building, first constructed in the middle of the fourth century. The main building consists of an enormous central oval with fourth conch-like niches and a large apse to the east, clad in marble and porphyry with mosaics on the walls and floors. The impressive decagonal dome above this structure dates to the thirteenth century.

A model of a model. A model of early medieval St Gereon’s displayed in the current church. Photo by author.

In the sixth century Venantius Fortunatus celebrated the building in a poem, saying that it had been repaired by Bishop Carentinus, calling it the golden temple. By this time, the church had acquired an association with the Theban Martyrs. A little later, Gregory of Tours made reference to the Church of the Golden Saints in Cologne, where Gereon and the Theban Legion were martyred, whose relics healed the city’s bishop Ebregisel of a nasty headache. Even in its somewhat decayed current form, it’s an imposing building on a grand scale.

Before I go any further, I should note that I’m not the first person to think that St Gereon’s might be a plausible example for the Palace-Church at Aachen. Indeed, the Centre Charlemagne in Aachen includes a model of St Gereon in its exhibition next to one of Charlemagne’s church. But it strikes me that it’s not a common comparison to make. ‘Why is no-one talking about x?’ is among the most tedious genres of blogging, typically flavoured by misplaced righteous anger, particularly because someone always is actually talking about x, but I think in this case it might be justified. So here goes my attempt to make the case.

The oval St Gereon’s doesn’t match the octagonal nave at Aachen, nor were they built in the same way. But the basic structure of large impressive domed building with a westwork from which a monarch could overlook proceedings while being highly visible is both unusual generally and similar between these two instances. We also have the admittedly very late testimony of Arnold of Born, deacon of St Gereon’s, who wrote in 1229 that Charlemagne had taken marble columns from St Gereon’s to decorate the second level of the octagon in Aachen.

The most obvious advantage St Gereon’s has as a model is straightforward proximity. The two churches are a day’s walk (less than fifty miles) away. Although the two structures were built in different ways, it would have been very easy for the builders working in Aachen to visit Cologne for inspiration, something not possible with Ravenna, Constantinople or Jerusalem. Cologne was also a place that Charlemagne was familiar with, using it as his base for campaigns in Saxony in 782, 789, 794 and 804. In his will of 811, Charlemagne listed all the cities that alms are to be given to. Cologne is the first one mentioned from north of the Alps.

The Frankish monarch had an exceptionally close relationship with Bishop Hildebald of Cologne, who he appointed court chaplain in 794, with responsibility for the Palace-Church then being built. Hildebald travelled with Charlemagne and was raised to archiepiscopal status for his services. Although often away from his see, in his time Cologne cathedral developed into a great centre of the Carolingian renaissance. Interestingly, when Hildebald died he was buried in St Gereon’s rather than in the cathedral, suggesting a special status associated with the building.

St Gereon’s had been a place of power in the Merovingian period. Theuderic II had received the submission of the Austrasian nobility outside St Gereon’s. It may also have had an imperial aura. By around the year 1000 we have evidence for claims that the church had been founded by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in honour of the Theban martyrs. It’s unclear whether this was a story that was familiar in the 790s, but it might have added its desirability as a model.

Is this an overwhelming case? Most certainly not. But I think it’s as good a case as any of the other supposed models for the Aachen church have and probably better than any but San Vitale. Yet it’s not a comparison that you encounter very often, particularly in anglophone scholarship. I think this is mostly a simple knowledge issue. Despite its spectacular size, St Gereon’s isn’t particularly famous. It tends to get lost in the shuffle with the numerous other late antique and Romanesque churches of the city. The strong vibe I got from the very keen caretaker who kindly showed me around it when I visited was that it doesn’t get a great deal of footfall. By contrast, places like the Hagia Sophia and San Vitale are part of the basic background knowledge that anyone at all interested in the early medieval period can draw upon. The recent and necessary push to include the Middle East and the Caliphate in our understanding of the period means that the Dome of the Rock is also increasingly on our radar.

But I think it also speaks to another couple of trends in scholarship. The first is the continued conviction that the Carolingians had no interest in cities. As a consequence of this position, the importance of urban churches like St Gereon’s, even when they’re right at the heart of the empire, gets continually overlooked. The second is the tendency to emphasise the global interests of the early medieval past at the expense of the local. Regular patrons of this blog, as well as those unhappy penitents who read my work, will know that I like nothing more than discussing the Carolingians and the wider world, whether its diplomatic relations with the Islamic world or the spread of ideas and culture across the Mediterranean. These connections are real and important. But it’s vital to make sure that in doing so we’re not overlooking what was right underneath the noses of the people we study. Distance mattered and we should be cautious about assuming a far away model when one existed not a day’s ride away.

Despite the chaos of the carnival, my trip to Cologne and Aachen last February was a fabulous expedition, in which I learned a great deal from my wonderful companions. I benefitted greatly from seeing places in person. I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have drawn a connection between Aachen and St Gereon’s if I hadn’t visited them in two successive days. In doing so, I learned a very great deal.

How wealthy were the Carolingians?

Super wealthy. Thank you for reading!

…can’t get away with that one, huh? Well, I tried. Anyway, it’s an important question, and my mind came back round to it recently because someone on Twitter asked it straight up:

Part of the reason this is an important question, and one which is specifically important to me, is because of the reasons for tenth-century Carolingian “decline” is supposed to be the amazing disappearing fisc, the idea that the Frankish monarchs of the ninth century, needing to buy support, give away all of their land and therefore ended up too poor to control the aristocracy. The two giants behind this picture were James Westfall Thompson and Jan Dhondt, especially the latter. Dhondt traced the pattern of land grants in surviving royal diplomas and found: 1) Louis the Pious gave away more land than Charlemagne; 2) Charles the Bald gave away even more land than that; 3) the tenth-century Frankish rulers gave away almost none. Dhondt concluded that the tenth-century rulers had no land, and that their poverty was a fundamental cause of the century’s political disasters. This can still be found, more-or-less explicitly stated in a lot of places: a key change between the ninth century and the tenth is that in the latter magnates were richer and kings were poorer.

I’ve never liked this much. On a basic level, this is because it finds very little direct support in the sources: if kings were poorer after the latter part of the ninth century, no contemporary author seems to have noticed.* But on a deeper level, it goes back to the original question: how wealthy were the Carolingians? This question, you’ll note can be understood two ways: both ‘what quantitative extent did Carolingian richness have?’ and ‘in what ways were Carolingians rich?’ These two questions are connected, and the answer to the former has to inform our view of the latter.

The first question has two answers: 1) we don’t know; 2) probably neither did they. The first of these is pretty straightforward. We don’t know how much land the Carolingians had. Attempts have been made to measure ‘the fisc’ based on charters, but as Charles West has noted such attempts do not take into account the fluid nature of earlier medieval land-ownership. Even worse, we don’t have a clue how much property didn’t make it into the record, and we have no good basis for guesswork. Moreover, this is just land. We definitely don’t know what kind of resources they were able to deploy on the basis of ‘governmental’ income – fines, gifts, tolls, etc. And we definitely definitely can’t measure how many resources they were able to deploy in an indirect manner. Dhondt’s methodology is probably the best anyone’s come up with for measuring change over time, but it’s been pretty comprehensively demolished by now. Any quantitative measurement of Carolingian wealth, therefore, is based on seriously shaky foundations, and statements of global change over time are basically indefensible.

The second may be more surprising. The Carolingians, after all, are supposed to have been concerned to the point of neurosis with record-keeping and accounts. We even have documents such as the Capitulare de villis which testify to a concern with accounts. But is this really about finances? Documents such as polyptychs and other kinds of land register are rarely complete. One thing I’ve been doing recently is looking at the pouillés of the diocese of Rheims trying to identify some land in Provence which Flodoard mentions – and it’s not there. Nor is the land we know the church of Rheims had in Aquitaine. We have seen on this very blog that ecclesiastical institutions could apparently forget they owned land relatively close to home. At the very least, therefore, it is overwhelmingly probable that the information Carolingian-period elites had about their land-owning was patchy.

I tried using an AI image generator for blog illustrations. This was the result for ‘Medieval Manuscript Excel Spreadsheet’…

There are also questions of practicality. Note that in the previous paragraph I slipped from talking about ‘wealth’ to ‘land-owning’, which are not quite the same thing. You have to be able to use the products of the land to meaningfully generate wealth out of it. The Capitulare de villis orders estate stewards to list the income from hides, skins, horns, honey, wax, oil, tallow, soap, mead, vinegar, beer, grain, chickens, eggs, geese, fish, ironmongery, shields, shoes, lead-working, and horses (this isn’t completely comprehensive but it’s representative). What all these things (other than eggs) have in common is that they are relatively simple to preserve. If the estate is in, say, Flanders and the king is in northern Italy, he can still use shields in a way he can’t, say, onions. We know that lords did want estates to produce vegetables, but they can’t have made a real difference to levels of wealth unless the lord was close enough to tap them.

On the other hand, there are also questions about appropriations. Monasteries acted as cash cows for elites. Think here of King Odo’s gifts to Arnulf of Carinthia taken from the treasury of Saint-Denis, which so vexed an anonymous monk. For all intents and purposes, these items were part of Odo’s royal resources, and were used for his political purposes- but could we or he actually account for this as ‘royal wealth’? Shouldn’t we be imagining a scenario where Odo shows up to Saint-Denis, says ‘I need something to impress the big dude in the east, whaddaya got?’ Kings, and by extension other elites, probably didn’t know how wealthy they were because they couldn’t know how wealthy they were. Wealth was not measurable because it was a product of power, not a precondition for it.

So how were the Carolingians rich? Not, I think, in terms of anything which could be put on a balance sheet. The Carolingians certainly ordered balance sheets made, but their purpose was, I think, more moral than fiscal. The aim was to record and register so as to be seen to be a just and worthy steward of the realm rather than because that was how you knew what your resources for a given period were. Revealing here is a diploma of Charles the Simple for Compiègne in which he donates land in Verberie, giving the names of the people who used to dwell on its manses some time ago (ex antiquo) and which he found written in the estate’s polyptych: it didn’t matter that this information was out of date, it simply mattered that records had been used and thus the moral duty of kingship had been fulfilled. Royal wealth came from having the prestige and the connections to get what kings wanted, whether that was ‘give me cheese’, ‘give me the contents of your monastic treasury’, or ‘take thirty men and march over the Alps to Italy’. In this sense, moreover, the tenth-century rulers were basically as wealthy as those of the ninth century.

We return, finally, to the original question: how wealthy were the Carolingians? The options were ‘enough for the matter at hand’ or ‘not enough’. Generally, the former applied to kings. Sometimes, the latter. A spreadsheet, though, would not have been the greatest help to kings in working out which applied to them in the moment.

*I’m ignoring here two things: 1) a bunch of sources wherein Louis IV complains about being stripped of all resources in 946, because in this case the unusual circumstances mean that the complaints are literally true but also very temporary; and 2) a bit in Aimoin of Fleury where he says that Charles of Lower Lotharingia ‘grew old in private houses’, which has been interpreted as meaning that the West Frankish kings didn’t have enough resources to carve out a sub-kingdom for him but realistically just means that Lothar didn’t trust him enough to entrust him with public office.

The Rights and Wrongs of Saint-Denis

Today I’d like to discuss one of my favourite manuscripts, BNF Lat. 7230. Well, I say it’s one of my favourite manuscripts. More accurately, it’s my favourite two pages in a manuscript I otherwise have no strong opinions on. The bulk of the manuscript consists of copies of Vegetius’ De re militari and Solinus’ Collectanea rerum memorabilium, but the first and last folios… they’re different. Let’s talk about King Odo.

A long time ago, we spoke about the relationship between Saint-Denis and King Odo in the context of the accession of Charles the Simple, but here’s a brief recap. At the beginning of Odo’s reign, Saint-Denis was ruled by Abbot Ebalus, Odo’s old comrade from the time of the viking siege of Paris. However, Odo made a series of ham-fisted political blunders, and in particular he tried to disinherit a young Ebalus Manzer, bastard son and chosen heir of Count Ramnulf II of Poitiers. Ebalus of Saint-Denis was Ebalus Manzer’s uncle, and rebelled. Odo, however, fought Ebalus, and the abbot was killed in battle in 892. After this, Odo took direct control of Saint-Denis. This was not universally popular amongst the monks.

Exhibit A in our manuscript is a list entitled ‘This is What King Odo Took from Saint-Denis’ Treasury’.  In 895, Odo had a meeting with Arnulf of Carinthia, and he brought with him a cornucopia of valuable gifts, including books probably from Charles the Bald’s palace library and a hefty amount from Saint-Denis. The list includes two crowns, two diadems, and more gold and silver liturgical items than one could shake a stick at. In fact, a golden staff was also taken, so Arnulf could have actually tried shaking a stick at them.

The manuscript context makes it clear that this list was far from neutral. On the first folio, in the same hand, there are extracts from a fake diploma of King Dagobert and a probably fake bull of Pope Nicholas I. Both are concerned with the honour of Saint-Denis: Dagobert’s diploma exhorts: ‘all Our successors, kings and princes…to conserve the honour and reverence of the holy mother church, where Our lord and patron the most holy Dionysius rests, in every way’. The list of things Odo took amplifies this. Two of the items, two golden crowns (the word used is faislum), are specified as having been given to the church by kings Charles and Louis.

The portion of Nicholas’ bull which was copied is pretty pointed. The whole text does survive, but what is preserved on this folio is only the anathema clause, threatening anyone who messes with (as the title rubric puts it) ‘the property and stipends of the brothers’ with eternal damnation. The combination of these extracts with what Odo took cannot be coincidental. The overall message seems pretty clear: Dagobert, Charles and Louis all gave to the church; Odo took away, and is courting disaster for it.

The opening page of the manuscript, courtesy of the BNF (source)

These texts are not exactly display copies. The handwriting is competent, but not high grade, and the title on the first folio wanders all over the left-hand side of the page. The impression is of a preliminary gathering of materials for a more coherent denunciation which either never emerged or which has not survived. This compilation of extracts seems to have been written with, if not a purpose, at least a sense of coherence, by a contemporary monk angry at what Odo was doing to exploit the abbey’s resources. As such, it stands as one of the few directly contemporary monuments to monastic resistance to powerful abbots from the late Carolingian period.

Charles the Bald and the Golden Idol

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

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

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

             (trans. by König, p.194)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Carolingian Galactic Polity; or Bretons IN SPACE!

Exciting times are afoot! Specifically, I’m part-way through a deep-dive into non-Weberian theories of the state. There’s some background to this: back in 2014, I was part of a team organising a conference on the Carolingian frontier, and my pet frontier was ninth-century Brittany. I have subsequently published about this, but I never did get to grips with one key question: was Brittany part of the West Frankish kingdom, and if so, how? King Salomon (say) had various symbolic and ritual bonds of submission with Charles the Bald, but would either or both of them thought of themselves as being members of the same polity; and if so, how, and at what point in their relationship? I’d filed these questions in the musty cardboard boxes at the back of my head. Then, at this year’s IMC, I went to see John Latham Sprinkle talk about the Byzantine Empire as something called a ‘segmentary state’, and it was one of the most exciting papers I’ve ever been to. John kindly gave me a reading list, and I’ve been beavering away at the reading ever since. This blog post, then, is a first effort to outline what a ‘segmentary state’/’mandala polity’ is, and how useful it is to scholars of the early middle ages generally and Carolingianists specifically.

Let’s start at the beginning. From at least the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists, and historians of Southeast Asia (amongst others, but these groups make up the bulk of my reading list) have been trying to escape from, or at least adapt to different circumstances, Weberian models of the polity conceived of as Eurocentric, and a number of models have been developed which, if not identical, at the very least overlap closely. In 1956, Aidan Southall wrote a study of the Alur of what is now Uganda, and for his study developed a model of the ‘segmentary state’. In an article in the ‘70s, he championed a version of this model explicitly for comparative purposes, and in that article he gave a simple one-sentence definition of the ‘segmentary state’: ‘one in which the spheres of ritual suzerainty and political sovereignty do not coincide. The former extends widely towards a flexible, changing periphery. The latter is confined to the central, core domain.’ However, I find this definition too simple, and prefer the list of criteria that he gave in his original monograph. There, he defined a ‘segmentary state’ as one in which:

1) Territorial sovereignty is recognised but limited and relative, forming a series of zones in which authority fades out the further away you go, shading into ritual hegemony.

2) There is a central government but also numerous peripheral foci of administration over which the centre exercises only limited control.

3) There are specialised administrators at the centre, which are repeated on a limited scale at these peripheral foci.

4) The centre has a limited monopoly on legitimate force, but the peripheral foci have a more restricted range of legitimate force options as well.

5) Several levels of peripheral foci can be distinguished, arranged pyramidally, these being reduced images of the centre.

6) The more peripheral a subordinate authority is the more likely it can change from one power pyramid to another, and some can have political standing in several adjacent power pyramids.

That’s a lot of stuff in one go, but hopefully turning to the south-east Asian side will make it a bit clearer. In south-east Asian studies, a very similar model of the pre-modern polity is associated with the work of Stanley Tambiah, who described what he called a ‘mandala polity’. Based on the Buddhist conception of a mandala, Tambiah proposed that south-east Asian polities could be described in terms of overlapping and/or concentric circles. Thus, the archetypal ‘mandala polity’ can be diagrammed as such:

source: Tambiah, ‘Galactic Polity’, p. 505, fig. 1.

Schematically, we have an imperial centre (a royal capital such as the city of Pagan or Ayutthaya), surrounded by a core of inner provinces ruled over by subordinate rulers, and an outer periphery of ‘tributary’ kingdoms ruled over by yet smaller-scale rulers. Each of these levels reproduces the one above it on a smaller scale: Shan princelings in the Burmese highlands copied the imperial palace at Mandalay, and tiny local Kachin chiefs copied the Shan copying the imperial centre. The power of the centre ebbed and flowed, and there was never only one centre. The ‘mandala polity’ is also known as the ‘solar’ or ‘galactic polity’, to sharpen this metaphor. The idea here is that the imperial centre acts as a ‘sun’, exerting a gravitational influence on outlying ‘satellites’ which is stronger the closer a satellite is. However, the ‘satellites’ also exert their own gravitational pull; and a ‘satellite’ can be under the effects of more than one degree of pull at once. Finally, the system ‘pulsates’, such that the pull of a ‘sun’ can decrease substantially and one of the outlying ‘planets’ can increase enough for it to form a new imperial centre. These ideas have been developed in numerous directions, but I particularly want to point out the work of James C. Scott, who adds two main insights: 1) that the pull exerted by a ‘sun’ is not a linear function of distance, but is heavily affected by geography which is not amenable to state control (in his case, mountains; but he notes that oceans would also fit the bill); and 2) that the effects of overlapping ‘gravitational pulls’ can work out in quite different ways, from simple dual vassalage to outright cancelling each other out.

These two ideas, the ‘segmentary state’ and the ‘galactic polity’ do have some differences – for instance, the ‘segmentary state’’s focus on genealogical lineage and the explicit ties of the ‘galactic polity’ to Buddhist cosmology – but in terms of what I find interesting about them, the similarities are much stronger and more interesting than the dissimilarities. Both of them give a model of the pre-modern polity which, in my reading, have five key points:

1)    they focus on centres, not borders.

2)    These centres are layered: there is legitimate conceptual space for lower-level rulers to exercise authority in qualitatively similar ways to higher-level ones.

3)    Indeed, authority is actively imitative: lower-level rulers consciously model themselves on higher-level ones.

4)    However, authority is not exclusive: subordinate authorities can have political relationships to multiple higher-level rulers.

5)    Finally, there is a firm role for the esoteric: the symbolic and ritual dimensions of rule are as important as Weberian indicators of sovereign control.

I am, of course, wildly unqualified to comment on how well these models actually work within their own disciplinary contexts. Do they, though, work for the Carolingian world, or can they be adapted thereto? Let’s go through the points in order.


Broadly speaking, this one gets a thumbs up. I don’t want to deny the importance of borders in the Carolingian world and the early Middle Ages more broadly – not least because Sam has already written about that subject on this very website – but I’ve always found thinking about centres not edges more helpful for the Carolingian period. In this case, Southall’s ‘segmentary state’ is probably the more helpful version. The focus on cities in the Southeast Asian material doesn’t have much Carolingian parallel. Sure, there are your Aachens and your Compiègnes, but ‘capital cities’ are conspic. by their a. Southall’s focus on the person of chiefs seems more helpful here. In fact, this point seems like it would pair up with medievalist ideas of königsnahe to feed back in to wider discussions of these concepts. Both models have a linearly geographic focus, which the Carolingian world raises questions about: it would be hard to argue that, say, Toulouse had more königsnahe than the Spanish March even though Toulouse was closer to West Frankish kingship centres. A analytical emphasis on the strength of the ‘gravitational’ pull rather than the geographic arrangement of the planets would help here. (Scott does hint towards this in his discussion of the ‘friction of distance’ over difficult terrain; but ‘political distance’, if I can put it like that, doesn’t necessarily require logistically difficult geographical space.) This emphasis would also help when dealing with something else the Southeast Asian historians don’t seem to have to deal with: itinerancy. Medievalists have been dealing with patterns of royal movement for a very long time, but whilst Louis the Pious or Charles the Simple’s limited mobility can fit relatively neatly into a ‘solar polity’ model, something like Louis IV’s 941/942 journey across the length and breadth of the West Frankish kingdom threatens to turn our image from a solar system into a billiard table unless we model political relations very abstractly.


This point is probably the least important qua the Carolingians, because I think it’s originally designed to draw a distinction with a Weberian ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ which we don’t think the Carolingians had anyway. There is more to say about this, but I think it’s better placed under the next point:


Here consideration of Carolingian society takes us in two opposite directions. On one hand, as Jinty Nelson has pointed out, kingship was special. The unique connection forged by ceremonies like unction gives the king a relationship with the numinous that then becomes the key aspect of his power: a count is legitimate because he can access the font of legitimacy which is kingship. There is thus a qualitative chasm between the king and even high-authority territorial officials like the Neustrian marchio. However, on the other hand, I think that there is room for exploration here. Claims such as ‘the tenth-century English state was the most Carolingian kingdom of the earlier Middle Ages’ are well-known, and I think that the Danish kingdom might have been adopting elements of Carolingian rule as well. Sometimes, this was actively pursued by Carolingian kings: Charles the Bald’s dealings with the Breton ruler Salomon, including offering him Frankish-style royal regalia, were part of an attempt to make Brittany easier to control by channelling Breton rulership into Carolingian models. Equally, imitation of *non-royal* Carolingian rule would repay inquiry: I have an article in preparation discussing this in the case of Normandy, for instance, which we’ll go into more in a future post.


This is one the places where the mandala polity not only fits well, but has its strongest explanatory power. I’ve mentioned before that Frisia is peculiar, partially because it’s in both the Frankish and the Danish spheres of influence. The work of IJssennagger and Croix has stressed Frisia’s place within a cultural continuum, its liminal status. This rhymes beautifully with a mandala polity model: Frisia is within the ‘orbits’ of both the Carolingians and the Danes. Thus, Roric of Dorestad – for example – can be conceptualised as an integral part of both ‘solar systems’. This then helps us explain some of the stranger things about Frisia. For instance, we recently discussed how Frisia (like Normandy) had Carolingian-style counts, but Roric himself was never (unlike the Norman rulers) characterised as a Carolingian-style supermagnate, but rather as a Danish king. But this makes sense: Frisia was part of the Danish kingdom and simultaneously part of the Lotharingian one, and so its political culture reflects not just both, but the interactions between both as well. There are other examples here: in the tenth century, for instance, parts of western Lotharingia were in the mandalas of both the West Frankish and Ottonian kingdoms (and this might be, as Scott discusses, an instance where the result was two sovereignties cancelling each other out), and Brittany, Normandy and Flanders could probably be conceptualised as being part of the English mandala too.


Finally, we come to the role played by the symbolic and ritual dimensions of rule. Here, let’s go back to Brittany, where I started. I was having trouble conceptualising Brittany because it’s hard to understand Frankish influence in the region when viewed through a Weberian prism. The Carolingians didn’t rule Brittany, and their power in the region was only ever manifest through actual invasions (and in Charles the Bald’s time, at least, the odds of the Bretons winning was pretty good). However, Brittany was not a peer polity. It was – somehow – subordinate, and that subordination tended to be expressed precisely in these symbolic dimensions, such as Charles the Bald making Erispoë his son-in-law or Alan the Great adopting Carolingian styles of rule. Looking at it with a ‘mandala polity’ model in mind, though, Brittany comes into relatively clear focus as an example of an outer-ring polity of the Carolingian mandala. There are, of course, nuances here (as I’ve written about in the past, there were forces in Breton politics which actively rejected associations with the Carolingians, and I feel like the model needs to provide conceptual space for conscious rejection of models of rule as well as conscious imitation). Nonetheless, the Breton case shows quite clearly that this is good to think with.

Prima facie, then, we have a good case for the application of a ‘mandala polity’ model to the Carolingian world. I am, of course, about as far from being an expert on southeast Asia or Africa as you could get, so it’s quite possible that I have misunderstood the models. If and when I use them more in my work, I will certainly chop and change them to better fit the specifics of my research’s time and place. For now, though, I leave you on two questions. First, if you’re from one of the fields which generated these models, what have I missed? What should I be reading about this? Second, if you’re from my own field, what do you think of this model as a tool for understanding?

The Road to Roncesvalles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Flavours of Viking Ruler

In the 840s, the monk Walafrid Strabo wrote a work called the Libellus de exordiis et incrementis quarundam in observationibus ecclesiasticis rerum. At the end of the work, he compared lay and ecclesiastical hierarchies, going all the way from kings and emperors through dukes, counts, and then local officials and royal vassals. Compared to the elaborate hierarchy of the Byzantine court (or for that matter of Irish laywers), Walafrid’s schema might be a bit rough and ready, but it’s still a fairly well-worked out set of socio-political gradations. Compared to contemporary viking polities, moreover, it’s arcane to the point of absurdity: viking polities are flat, and it’s that flatness we’ll be discussing today.

What do I mean by ‘flat’? Well, one of the things I’ve noticed is that – almost no matter what the source – there are only ever three kinds of title given to viking leaders. The first is ‘king’. The royal title, moreover, tends to be given in the most straightforward manner available in any given language. Even though there were in fact different grades of kingship in the viking world (as in the earlier medieval world generally), we don’t see words for ‘lower king’ (such as Latin regulus) or ‘higher king’ (such as Old Irish ardri) used in our sources. This isn’t too significant, especially because such technical language isn’t used that often in our historical sources anyway (the earliest use I can find of ardri for an Irish king in the Annals of Ulster is under the entry for 980), but it’s worth keeping in the back of our minds. The most significant exception comes from the case of the Rus’. Given the overtones of Christian monarchy implicit in the word, it’s unlikely any Frankish author would think to apply a word like imperator to a viking ruler; but the Rus’ title of khagan could hold similar meanings. Given that the Rus’ almost certainly had a khagan, this holds quite significant implications for the ideological basis of early Rus’ rulership.

A different kind of viking trefoil. Taken from Jane Kershaw, Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewelry in England (Oxford: OUP, 2013), p. 82.

The second title is equally simple, and could be summed up as ‘boss’. There are almost endless variations of this in our different source languages, from dux and princeps in Latin, to heretoga in Old English, toísech in Old Irish, ἡγεμών (hegemon) in Greek, رئيس (rais) in Arabic, and so on… On its own, this might not mean very much. One could make the argument that, say, a Byzantine historiographer might not be terribly interested in understanding or communicating to their readers the specifics of viking titulature. Two counterarguments can be made against this point of view. First, as we’ve already seen with khagan and will see below with our third title, often authors did in fact deal with viking titulature on its own terms. Second, the fact that this vague titulature is repeated across such wide vistas of time and space suggests that it’s reflecting something real. Irish authors of the early ninth century or Byzantine authors of any period might not have known or cared what viking captains called themselves; but by the year 900 viking raiders had been known to other societies for a very long time and some authors were writing within polities ruled by Northman elites. That so many viking rulers were known by titles translating as ‘the guy in charge’ strongly suggests that in a lot of these political cultures authority was not very tightly or formally conceptualised.

Our third title also hints in this direction, and that’s ‘jarl’. I say ‘jarl’ specifically because it shows up actually as such in our Old English and Old Irish sources, and I think that odds are very good it’s hiding behind the few uses in Latin of titles such as comes Normannorum. We have no direct evidence for the title in a Rus’ context, but the Russian chronicle tradition makes tantalising reference to nobles called ‘voivodes’ who may well be the same thing. (In any case, there’s no evidence of more elaborate hierarchies amongst the early Rus’.) As this implies, our evidence for the presence of jarls in viking polities is scrappier than for kings or ‘bosses’. This is by itself significant: not only do we seem to have only one non-royal elite title which was conceptualised as a distinct position, it may not have been present always and everywhere.

One intriguing thing about this flatness is that it’s distinctive to viking polities but not obviously ‘genetic’ in the sense of descended directly from Scandinavian institutions. Our evidence for late eighth and ninth-century Scandinavian polities indicates a somewhat more nuanced hierarchy of officials, perhaps based on Frankish models. We have annalistic references to a custos limitis, a border magnate with enlarged responsibilities; and various other references (largely from Rimbert of Hamburg-Bremen) to urban officials. These might, of course, be Franks incorrectly reading the ranks of their own society into the Danish and/or Swedish kingdoms, but I am inclined to think that it’s reflecting developments within Scandinavia – the titles Rimbert gives to urban officials, for instance, are not very well-attested within the Carolingian empire itself. Scandinavian hierarchies, then, might have been more formal than viking ones. However, the threefold division of viking polities is also not reflected directly amongst other groups: descriptions of, say, Magyars and especially Petchenegs (the latter of whom don’t seem to have had individual leaders until very late on), don’t match up.

There are of course exceptions, and I’ll discuss a few now. First, there are some cases where viking rulers assimilated into more elaborate pre-existing hierarchies. The most celebrated case is of course Normandy, where Rollo and his descendants took over the role of a Carolingian count. By the early eleventh century, in fact, Normandy’s administration was almost archetypically Carolingian, with a regional supermagnate of fluctuating but high-status title (dux, marchio, etc) over a smaller number of subordinate counts and viscounts, and then Carolingian-style local officials such as vicarii. A similar pattern can be seen in Frisia, where viking rulers ruled over Carolingian counts. However, Frisia’s situation between the Danish kingdom and the Frankish world made it somewhat peculiar in this regard, and we’ll discuss that more in a future post. In general, though, this exception proves the rule: Rollo and the Frisian rulers were much less ‘genetically’ descended from viking armies (using ‘genetic’ here in the sense of social rather than biological reproduction) and their position was negotiated under the auspices of existing rulership, as opposed to the conquest polities of, say, East Anglia or Dublin.

That’s not the whole story, and the second exception we’ll finish off with before this post gets too long is that of development over time. In our discussion of Normandy above, the key phrase was ‘by the early eleventh century’: it’s unclear, but unlikely, that there was a Carolingian administration in place in early tenth century Normandy, not least because there doesn’t appear to have been a Carolingian administration in place in ninth-century Normandy either. For instance, Rollo was either the first count of Rouen period or the first in about a hundred years. The elaboration of lay hierarchies in Normandy can be paralleled elsewhere: in Rus’, for instance, it kept going for centuries and we have eleventh-century law codes showing a hierarchy of local officials. Even in Dublin, we have some evidence for a more fleshed-out lay hierarchy by the eleventh century. This reinforces my sense that the ‘flat’ nature of viking polities is a functional development from the hierarchies of viking armies, and the further away a polity gets from being a viking army the more elaborate its hierarchies get.

So where does this leave us? One of the questions of my research is the impact of Scandinavian forms of government on viking polities. ‘Scandinavian’ is already a big enough category that I went looking for regional differences; but actually I’m increasingly coming to the opinion (and I’m hardly original here) that ‘viking army’ is probably a more significant laboratory for settled rule than whatever kingdom the Scandinavian element within these armies came from. Naturally, the content assigned to titles such as ‘king’ or ‘jarl’ will be linked to how they’re understood in Scandinavia; but their place in society doesn’t have to have been. However, the comparative example of the Petchenegs is always at the back of my mind. I still don’t know why viking fleets in (say) Ireland and Rus’ look in important ways like each other, but not like either the Danish kingdom or other mobile military polities. I will keep you updated on what I come up with!

What’s Medieval about the Medieval Frontier?

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

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

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

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

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

Frontiers of Faith

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

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

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

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

Technological Termini

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Limits

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

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

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

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


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

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

Helpless Franks and Alien Danes?

One of the things I’m slowly getting to grips with is German-language historiography on the vikings. There’s not, in relative terms, a lot of this: most work (maybe three-quarters?) on the subject is in English, with the proportion naturally varying depending on which region one is looking at (thus, the internal history of – say – Sweden has more in Swedish, on Normandy in French, on Frisia in Dutch, and so on). However, because of the role that northern attackers played in the history of the Carolingian empire, there is a fair amount of material to handle, and it’s in this context that I have once again met the work of Johannes Fried. Fried is a very senior and learned medievalist whose heyday as a leading light in the field was, I would say, roughly the ‘80s to the ‘00s. I previously read the English translation of his massive biography of Charlemagne back in 2017, and… Look, there’s no point in beating about the bush. Despite Fried’s erudition, his work displays some of the most bizarre contempt for the subjects of his research I’ve ever read.

In the case of the vikings, our focus is on his article ‘Why viking rulers were incomprehensible to the Franks’ (‘Weshalb die Normannenherrscher für die Franken unvorstellbar waren’), the tone of which is accurately conveyed by the title. Fried’s argument is pretty simple, and can be equally accurately conveyed by one of his subtitles, ‘incapable diplomacy, constant surprise: two hundred years of incorrect models’ (‘Hilflose Diplomatie, ständige Überraschung: zwei Jahrhunderte der falsche Maßstab’). That is, the Franks were irredeemably blinkered by their ‘gentile’ understanding of socio-political formations, in which an ethnic group (gens) and king are ‘quantities firmly bound up in one another, one unit of action, so to speak’ (‘einander fest zugeordnete Größen, gleichsam eine Handlungseinheit’). They were incapable of understanding that the inhabitants of Scandinavia didn’t fit the model provided by the Franks’ own society, and consequently their actions towards the people they called ‘Danes’ were doomed to failure, predicated as they were on the assumption that the Franks could pull the levers of Danish society in the way they could in their own kingdoms to achieve the same effects.

Prima facie, this argument might seem surprising: after all, we know that the Franks sent envoys to the Danish court and we even have eye-witness evidence from some of them, like the Saxon count Cobbo; or well-informed accounts from visitors to the region, like the missionary Rimbert. Surely this would have given some insight into the Scandinavian world? But! Fried has you covered: as another subtitle has it, Rimbert was ‘no less incapable’ (‘nicht minder hilflos’). Rimbert’s description of the Swedish kingdom, for instance, ‘betrays by the way it is formulated that [Rimbert’s] interpretative filter is derived from Frankish social circumstances’ (‘verrät durch die Formulierung sein von den fränkischen Verhältnissen abgeleitetes Deutungsmuster’). Poor Rimbert! Despite actually spending his life and career working in Scandinavia, despite possibly being Danish himself, he too was so arrogant, dogmatic and inflexible to understand the realities of the society and polity in which he worked. It’s tragic, really.

If I seem irritated, it’s because I am. What bothers me about this approach is the sheer high-handedness of it, the assumption that, thanks to the benefits of modern historical science, we have a better grasp on the reality of the earlier Middle Ages than people who actually lived at the time. Of course, distance and perspective are generally very useful in analysing past societies. Consequently, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it were helpful (Eleanor Searle, for instance, wrote in a deliberately obnoxious prose style but as recent posts have probably hinted I think her work is incredibly useful); but in this instance I don’t think it is.

There’s one straightforward reason for this: I’ve looked at the vikings comparatively and I don’t think Fried has. As I’ve already pointed out, Frankish sources harmonize quite nicely with Irish, English, Greek and Arabic ones; you could I suppose make a very weak case that they’re all caught in the straitjacket of Roman ethnographic traditions, but (say) Ibn Rustah does not derive his Deutungsmuster from fränkische Verhältnisse. This is particularly significant because these sources, like the Frankish sources and like Fried, are talking about Northman political formulations; and everywhere we get a picture of kingship, indeed of overkingship, of that kingship being over a group identity which is understood in ethnic terms, and furthermore that this kingship is not always effective. Here, I think Fried actually misreads the Frankish sources: they’re quite aware that the ‘Danish’ king and the ‘Danes’ don’t work as eine Handlungseinheit. There’s a greater degree of canniness than Fried allows in Frankish analysis of Danish political troubles, and a number of our annalists as well as Rimbert draw connections between viking bands and political opposition to ‘Danish’ kings. This all tallies with non-Frankish sources and thus gives us serious reason to doubt that viking rulers were in fact incomprehensible.

Once again, there’s no point dressing this up in pretty words – we can’t understand Carolingian politics if we assume that the Franks are morons. Fried’s argument is not simply that the Carolingian court is severely intellectually blinkered, it’s that this had major policy repercussions because the Franks were incapable of understanding that what mattered to them didn’t matter to the Danes. Thus, the sons of Louis the Pious sent angry messengers to Horic of Denmark threatening him if he didn’t control his people and stop them sending out viking raids because they didn’t understand that Horic couldn’t control them; and at the same time they tried to grant vikings land and make them swear oaths despite the fact that vikings themselves were outsiders who didn’t care about these Frankish systems of rule. The problem is it then becomes a major historical conundrum how people so stupid were able to rule most of Continental Europe for several centuries. As it happens, Fried is underestimating both Carolingian cunning and early Medieval inter-cultural connection. In the case of Horic, for example, the Franks knew perfectly well that the Danish ruler was sitting on top of a snake pit that he didn’t really control (just read Count Cobbo’s account of his embassy to Horic in 845), and their threat was intended to intimidate Horic into making the political gamble of trying to control raiding elites rather than compel him to exert control they already believed he had.

Accepting that Frankish authors could understand the vikings at least a bit (however much they strategically deployed them in their texts; however partial that understanding was) also rescues the Danish kings themselves from being a fuzzily undifferentiated ‘primitive society’ about whom nothing can be known (Fried does discuss the archaeology, a bit, but mostly to prove that the written sources don’t know what they’re talking about). Fried’s argument has Frankish and Danish societies as completely foreign to one another, leaving us with a bunch of Frankish-written snapshots of alien people doing violent things for incomprehensible reasons. However, if we allow that the Frankish people who got to know these elites well enough to accurately transmit nicknames in still-recognisable Scandinavian dialects (thinking here of Osfrid Turdimulo = ‘Razorbill’) had a rough idea of what they were talking about then we have a better picture of an actual society rather than a crude-cut alien monolith.

“Someone called?” (source)

Allowing Franks to not be utterly blind to the world around them means that, for instance, when the Royal Frankish Annals talk about a Danish ‘guardian of the border’ (custos limitis) – a very Carolingian style – we can play with the possibility that the Danes were deliberately taking their cues from the very powerful and important empire to their south in designing their own political regime (in a way with many world-historical parallels), rather than simply dismissing the Franks as incapable of doing anything other than forcing alien worlds into their own wonky mould.

Fried’s argument creates artificial divisions between Franks and Danes based on a high-handed dismissal of Frankish sources per se that doesn’t stand up to either comparative or empirical reading. What I find so bizarre about this is that studying the Carolingians is a major part of Fried’s long and distinguished career, and he has this particular kind of dislike for them. It makes me wonder: why would you bother spending so much time with people whose capabilities you respect so little?