Was Emma of Bohemia the same person as Queen Emma II?

See, Sam: this is how you beat Betteridge’s Law!

We’ve had only had cause to mention King Lothar’s wife Queen Emma II a very small number of times before on this blog. Compared to her mother-in-law Queen Gerberga she lies in shadow, suffering from the absence of sources for West Frankish royalty in the third quarter of the tenth century. A quick primer, then: Emma was the daughter of King Lothar II of Italy (and thus a granddaughter of Hugh of Arles) and Queen Adelaide, daughter of King Rudolf II of Transjurane Burgundy and, later, Empress as wife of Otto the Great. After Adelaide’s remarriage, Emma was brought to the Ottonian court, and in 966 she was married off to Lothar in order to weave the West Frankish king in more tightly as a subordinate member of the Liudolfing family network. When Lothar died, Emma played an important – if not yet fully understood – role in the short reign of her son Louis V. When he in turn died, she was captured by an old enemy, her brother-in-law Charles of Lorraine, and placed in captivity. The last we know of her is a letter in her name written to – probably but not certainly – Bishop Bruno of Langres begging him for money and help. Thereafter, she disappears from the historical record.

Or does she? For several decades now, the theory has been circulating that, in fact, Emma moved east and started a new life as the second wife of the Bohemian duke Boleslaw II, perhaps bound together by a shared ordinal number. This in turn received some push-back, notably from the senior and well-respected German scholar Eduard Hlawitschka. A recently published book on Ottonian queenship, dealing in passing with this question, cites Hlawitschka’s article and notes that its conclusions are generally accepted. This seems to be true in English-, German- and (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent) French-language scholarship; by contrast, in Czech-language work – as far as I can tell, anyway – Hlawitschka’s revision has been mostly rejected and the identification of the two women is accepted as likely, if not proven.

The fundamental lynchpin of the case for the two women being the same comes from numismatics. We have a couple of hundred coins minted at Mělník inscribed with Emma’s name and – crucially, the title of queen, Emma regina. Emma II, as West Frankish queen, also had coins minted in her name – deniers from the Fécamp hoard have been found with Lothar’s name, Lotharius rex, on one side and Emma regina on the other. This is significant, because as a general rule only anointed queens were called regina, and Emma is the only anointed queen of that name we know of who could be a plausible fit for the Emma regina of the coins.

The coins in question (source)

I say that this is the ‘fundamental lynchpin’ of the case – in fact, it’s pretty much the sum and fine. Other positive evidence adduced in favour of the connection is pretty weak: one scholar claimed that the so-called Emma Psalter of Emma II and the Wolfenbüttel manuscript of the life of St Wenceslaus of Emma of Bohemia, both of which contain portraits of their respective Emma, could be deduced from ‘the principle of composition’ as coming from the same workshop. This claim goes beyond vague and into absurd: the Emma Psalter is only known from a not-tremendously-faithful Early Modern copy and making subtle art historical deductions from it is a patently silly idea.

By contrast, the evidence against the case is entirely circumstantial, although it nonetheless has strength. Let’s look at Hlawitschka’s case. There are basically five pillars to it:

  1. Emma’s titulature is strange: she appears in the Wolfenbüttel manuscript as ‘princess’ (principessa).
  2. Surely if Emma had married Boleslaw II Adelaide’s politics towards Bohemia would have been more positive in the early 990s, rather than relatively indifferent as they in fact were?
  3. Necrological sources argue against the identification:
    1. Emma’s date of death appears in the necrology of the Parisian abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés but how would they have known it if Emma had moved to Bohemia?
    1. Emma’s date of death appears in the Merseburg necrology, but in a layer which comes from 999 at the latest. Given Emma of Bohemia is known to have died in the first decade of the eleventh century, they cannot be the same person.
  4. Boleslaw II had three sons, Boleslaw III, Jaromir and Odalrich. Of these three, one at least was old enough to be taking part in military activity in 995, and all were adults by 1002; this precludes them having been born after 989, the earliest possible date for a marriage to Emma II.
  5. A number of contemporary sources do not identify Boleslaw II’s wife with Emma II. Notably:
    1. Thietmar of Merseburg mentions her in passing without noting that she was a daughter of Empress Adelaide.
    1. Odilo of Cluny has Adelaide make a speech when she thinks Otto III is threatened in Rome to the effect that she will have no living relatives if he is killed; he also only mentions Emma’s family by Lothar.
Emma of Bohemia’s portrait on the fronticepiece of the Life of St Wencelaus (source)

I’ve started with the weakest first: titulature in this period is usually not systematic, and unless (as with the case of the dukes of Aquitaine, for example) you can make a specific case that it is then a certain degree of vagueness could easily accommodate someone whose position was as unusual as Emma II’s would have been – a queen married to and then widowed from a duke – dipping downwards in some cases. As for Adelaide’s Ostpolitik, Emma II’s letters in Gerbert’s collection don’t indicate that Adelaide was any kind of reliable ally for Emma. We have several begging letters from daughter to mother after her capture, but no evidence these achieved anything. The argument about the necrology of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is also unimpressive: if Emma had married into Bohemian nobility then presumably Saint-Germain-des-Prés would have found out about it because, like, somebody told them. It does sound a bit like Hlawitschka thinks that communication between Paris and Bohemia was completely impossible in the tenth century, but from his own argument Emma’s death date was known to Ottonian elites anyway!

This brings us to the Merseburg necrology, which requires a bit more discussion. The argument that the layer Emma’s death date is in comes from Gerd Althoff. His argument, very roughly, is that the Ottonian dead in the Merseburg necrology include Adelaide’s relatives but exclude Ottonians who are not Adelaide’s relatives, so a connection to her is plausible and must have been before her own death. This argument is possible, but not completely convincing: the necrology includes other Ottonians who died after Adelaide, notably Otto III himself; and it doesn’t include some of Adelaide’s relatives, such as her son-in-law Lothar or grandson Louis V, whom Odilo of Cluny does include specially. So there’s wiggle room here.

Next stop, the age of Boleslaw’s children. It seems pretty certain that Boleslaw III couldn’t have been born after 989. However, Thietmar only explicitly identifies Emma as the mother of Jaromir and Odalrich. Boleslaw II did have a first wife, who could have been the mother of Boleslaw III. Moreover, Jaromir isn’t said to have been an adult in 1002, simply a target of Boleslaw III’s wrath. In fact, he doesn’t show up doing anything directly until 1004, when he accompanies an army to Prague. If he was aged 13/14 (thus born c. 990), this would be nothing more than Emma II’s husband Lothar had done at the same age! (As for his brother, he doesn’t emerge as a political actor until well down the line.) This does mean that Emma II, whose age we know relatively well, would have had two children in her early forties; not the most likely, but Emma II’s daughter-in-law Adelaide-Blanche was still having children at the same age so it is possible.

This leaves the arguments from silence. Of these, Adelaide’s speech about having no living relatives if Otto III is killed is the weakest: this is the rhetoric of pathos, not a cool genealogical statement (missing out, as it does, Adelaide’s living nephews and grandchildren). The fact that Odilo doesn’t mention Emma having any second marriage is more convincing, but this could be made to cut both ways: the abbot of Cluny mentions that Louis V is dead, but not that Emma is. If his main interest was the West Frankish kings rather than Emma’s family, then he could easily have ignored what was going on in Bohemia. Equally, if Thietmar had digressed from his main point – about conflicts over the Bohemian throne – to provide the name of Emma’s mother, that would be slightly strange. As an analogy, when dealing with King Lothar he doesn’t he was Adelaide’s son-in-law or Otto II’s cousin, even when dealing with Lothar and Otto in the same room.

What does this leave us with? We have one bit of relatively unambiguous positive evidence that Emma of Bohemia was Emma II. On the other hand, we have a number of arguments against, some of which can be easily dismissed, but some of which are more persuasive. All of them can be argued away, but enough of them have enough force that there’s a fair amount of reasonable doubt about the identification. As such, the answer to our title question is certainly not ‘no’ – but it couldn’t be stated much more strongly than ‘maybe’.  

(Big thanks to Theo Riches for sending me a copy of Hlawitschka’s article!)

Charles the Simple in Lotharingia after 911

One of the chief planks in my case that Charles the Simple was pretty good after all, actually, is that alone of the West Frankish kings he was able to put together a winning coalition to take and rule Lotharingia. He not only managed to defeat his rival, the East Frankish king Conrad I, in battle; he also managed to unite the Lotharingian nobles behind him and rule the kingdom peacefully for almost a decade – not a small thing in the very fractious world of late ninth century Lotharingia. Even more, not only was he able to take most of the kingdom in one fell swoop, he was also able to expand his control over time.

Active hostilities between Charles and Conrad appear to have mostly ended by 912. At that time, Charles had gained all of Lotharingia other than Alsace and Frisia (and Trier, but that’s a different story; and in any case Archbishop Ratbod would come over by 913). In the following years, he would manage to gain both. Conrad was in Strasbourg in March 913, but his hold over the city would not persist much longer. Shortly after Conrad left, his ally Bishop Otbert was murdered, and replaced by Charles’ nephew Gozwin. Admittedly, Gozwin didn’t last very long; he died in early November of the same year. Gozwin’s successor is more of a mystery. His name was Richwin and his background was Lotharingian, but how did he become bishop? In 916, Conrad and his bishops held a council at Hohenaltheim at which they accused him of usurping the bishopric. Intriguingly, one of our major sources for the history of Strasbourg, a series of commemorative poems written by the mid-tenth century Bishop Erchembald, says that he was bishop for fifteen years. Given we know he died in 933, this puts the start of his reign in 918 – not before 916. It’s a reasonable supposition that Conrad’s complaint was that Richwin was Charles’ appointee, and that Hohenaltheim was an attempt to retake this liminal region. Evidently in 918, some kind of deal was made. Perhaps Strasbourg became a kind of condominium, the same way that Cologne may have done as well. Notably, in 922 a synod gathered at Koblenz at the command of Charles and Conrad’s successor Henry the Fowler. None of the bishops present were from Lotharingia proper or the West Frankish kingdom – but both Hermann of Cologne and Richwin of Strasbourg were there, and this may signal a kind of joint rule.

Similarly, we can see the Frisian elites supporting Conrad up until 914, but not afterwards. In 916, we see Count Dirk I of Holland and Count Waltger, also a Frisian, at Charles’ court. When Bishop Ratbod of Utrecht died in 917, he was replaced by Baldric, who was friendlier towards Charles and appeared as one of his followers in 920. Charles’ gains in Frisia are thus more straightforward to demonstrate than the situation in Alsace. Even more, Charles’ activity in Frisia gives us a small glimpse of Charles at work. In 912, Conrad had founded an abbey at Weilburg (where his father was buried) in honour of St Walpurgis; in 914, he granted an immunity to the bishopric of Utrecht at Count Waltger’s request there. Charles, though, was also competing for Walpurgis’ patronage. In June 916, he founded a chapel at Attigny for her relics – which it’s implied he stole from the East Frankish kingdom. This is significant, because around this time Waltger and his wife Alberada founded a church at Tiel in Walpurgis’ honour. Alberada was the widow of Charles’ closest Lotharingian supporter, Reginar Long-Neck, and it was probably from Charles that Waltger acquired the relics he used to endow the church. (We know that Charles was handing out such relics elsewhere at this time too, but that’s a story for another post.) Between them, the marriage and the acceptance of the gift of relics signals the success of Charles’ policy towards the Lotharingian margins. Waltger accepted the gifts and the alliance, and brought himself under Charles’ rule.

Unfortunately, the only thing I could find left of it was this rather mundane plaque… (source)

What this shows is that Charles’ takeover of Lotharingia was not a fluke. Conrad wasn’t useless and he wasn’t powerless; and as generations of Carolingians before him and Ottonians afterwards would learn to their cost the Lotharingian aristocracy wasn’t either. Nonetheless, Charles was simply able to outcompete Conrad and attract the Lotharingians. The problem with Charles is the way his deposition becomes the story of his reign. If we abandon such a teleological approach, a different Charles emerges. This Charles is a canny ruler able to deploy various different forms of patronage to draw local and regional elites into his regime, and one who could do so better than his regional rivals. This Charles is the one who ruled as king for twenty uncontested years, the one whom the defeat at Soissons buried, and the one we need to resurrect if we want to understand the political changes of the tenth century.

Truth, Lies and Charlemagne’s Invasion of Spain

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was There A Rus’ Khaganate?

Enough of these remnants of trying to turn the quarter-of-a-million words I wrote on the history of tenth-century France into something a publisher will touch! Let’s turn to something from my actual, current research. As I said announcing it, I’m currently looking at the political cultures of a group of polities I’m lumping together under the heading of ‘Viking realms’ (although in the research proposal this took a fair bit of talking out as to exactly what I mean), with four in particular as my main case studies: Dublin, East Anglia, Frisia and the Rus’ Khaganate. On day two of the project, I discovered that the latter of these might not exist.

You may be wondering how that might be. After all, it’s got a Wikipedia page and everything. However, there are reasons to be concerned. The key piece of evidence linking all three elements of ‘Rus’’, ‘Scandinavians’ and ‘Khagan’ is also the very first piece of evidence which mentions the Rus’ at all, the 839 entry in the Annals of Saint-Bertin, which says that some people who called themselves Rus’ (Rhos) showed up in the train of some Byzantine ambassadors. Their king was called chacanus; but when Louis the Pious investigated further he found them to be Swedes (gens Sueonum) and had them detained on suspicion of being spies. The interpretation of chacanus as ‘khagan’ is by now scholarly orthodoxy, but in (much) older scholarship it was interpreted as being the personal name Hákon, and Ildar Garipzanov has recently written a defence of this position, arguing 1) that as a title ‘khagan’ is always written in our Frankish sources with a ‘g’ (caganus, chaganus, etc) and 2) the argument that the ‘H’ in ‘Hákan’ could very well be written in Latin with an initial ‘Ch’ at this time, by analogy with the Frankish rulers Chlodoicus (Louis the Pious) and Chlotarius (Lothar). So this was worrying; more worrying was a follow-up article by Donald Ostrowski building on recent Russian and Ukrainian historiography and taking a more general tilt at the idea of a Rus’ khagan and a Rus’ khaganate.

How art the mighty fallen? A remnant of the capital of the Khazar Khagagante at Itil – has the idea of a Rus’ khaganate been similarly demolished? (source)

Why does this bother me particularly? After all, even if the Rus’ ruler wasn’t called a khagan, there’s still unambiguously a Scandinavian presence in Eastern Europe which means I could achieve my research goals of comparing the Western European ‘usual suspects’ with a group not as proximate to Latin Christianity. However, whilst that is true, what is also true is that the specific title of ‘khagan’ is especially interesting and opens up a lot of conceptual room for political-cultural borrowing from the steppe world. Thankfully, my mind is more and more set at ease about the existence of a Rus’ khaganate.

Let’s start with the Annals of Saint-Bertin, because if the Rus’ king is called a ‘khagan’ there, then that’s pretty unambiguous. Here, Garipzanov’s primary claim about the uniqueness of a form with a middle ‘c’ doesn’t hold up. Towards the very end of the eighth century, for instance, a poem written to commemorate the victory of King Pippin of Italy over the Avars has a couple of references to ‘the Khagan, their king’ (Cacanus rex), as straightforward as you like, and with that middle ‘c’. Similar middle ‘c’s can be found in one of the manuscript families of the Chronicle of Regino of Prüm as well as the work of Paul the Deacon. On the other hand – and I will defer to a philologist here – I don’t think that a name like ‘Hakán’ would have an initial ‘Ch’. ‘Louis’ and ‘Lothar’ do, but they’re also starting with consonant clusters (‘Chl’) rather than a weak ‘h’. Names like ‘Hagano’ or ‘Heiric’ or ‘Helisachar can often lose the ‘h’ (‘Agano’, ‘Eiric’, etc) but I’ve never seen a ‘Chagano’ or ‘Cheiric’. It therefore seems to me pretty likely that we are, in fact, dealing with a Rus’ khagan.

Turning outwards to our other sources, we have a fairly large number of references to a khagan over the ninth and early tenth century. Ostrowski tries to minimise these, but I’m not convinced by his arguments. The best Latin source is a letter written from Louis II of Italy to the Byzantine Emperor Basil I as part of a lengthy ding-dong about titulature. This has been translated in full elsewhere, but the relevant section goes as follows:

We find that the overlord of the Avars is named the khagan (chaganum) not the *Khazars (Gazanorum) or Northmen (Nortmannorum); nor is that of the Bulgars ‘prince’, but rather ‘king and lord of the Bulgars’. We say all this, so that you might know that these things are otherwise than you have written based on what you read in Greek books.

This seems to me to be much clearer about what Basil said than has sometimes been allowed. Basil’s letter no longer survives and we have to reconstruct it from Louis’; but nonetheless Louis is fairly evidently contradicting specific assertions of Basil and one of those was that the Northmen (or a word which Louis understood that way) were ruled by a khagan. Of note is that is the Gazani were the Khazars, Louis is wrong here.

A final more-or-less contemporary source is the work of Ibn Rustah, a Persian geographer writing in the very early tenth century, who says that the Rus’ live on a big swampy island, spend their time raiding and trading, and are ruled by a khagan (Khaqan Rus, خاقان روس). This is pretty straightforward, and most of the serious opposition to the idea of a Rus’ khagan essentially handwaves it.

So it seems that a reasonably large range of contemporary authorities in the ninth century thought the Rus’ were ruled by a khagan. One important critique I’ve read in a few places protests the jump from this to reifying their political organisation into a ‘Rus’ khaganate’, but I think that with appropriate caution it’s a perfectly useable shorthand. That is, so long as we consciously avoid inferring things we can’t actually demonstrate about the khaganate’s social and political organisation simply because we’ve given it a name, we should be OK. After all, we know very little about the khaganate’s internal organisation, governing ideology, or even geographical location; but with slightly different balances the same is true for what we habitually and unprotestingly call (on about the same direct evidence, mind) the Viking kingdom of East Anglia.

What is particularly interesting about the Rus’ khagan, from this angle, is that whilst a row of good authorities – Bishop Prudentius of Troyes, Emperor Basil I, Ibn Rusta – line up to say there was a khagan amongst the Rus’, an equally large row of good authorities – Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, Archbishop Rimbert of Hamburg, Louis II of Italy, the Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh and – most intriguingly – the Arabic traveller Ibn Faḍlān – don’t mention him. Some of these omissions are explicable. Rimbert, for instance, isn’t talking about the Rus’ at all, but about the Swedes. The main reason his silence on the khagan question is interesting is the important role Birka (about which he was writing) played in the eastern trade, to the point it’s actually been proposed as the home for the 839 Rhos. Equally, Photius’ literary purposes vitiate any use he might be as a guide to Rus’ political organisation: in his homily following their attack on Constantinople in 860, he refers to the Rus’ as ‘leaderless’ (deep breath, since I don’t speak Greek: ἀστρατήγητου, astratēgētou) but he’s pretty evidently deploying Classical stereotypes of outer barbarians to emphasise how much the Constantinopolitans have angered God for Him to be sending such rude peoples to vex and harass them. Ibn Khordadbeh and Ibn Faḍlān, though, are much better informed: Ibn Khordadbeh was high-up in the ‘Abbasid caliphate and Ibn Faḍlān actually met the Rus’, and neither of them say that the ruler is a khagan. Ibn Khordadbeh mentions other peoples who have a khagan, but not the Rus’; Ibn Faḍlān calls the Rus’ ruler a king (malik).

So what do I think is going on here? Well, coming up with an answer to that question is currently my job so this is preliminary. However, my first inclination is that these are different groups of Rus’. Several historians have argued that ‘Rus’’ is not an ethnic name, but a professional one, rather like ‘Viking’. We know from western parallels that Viking groups were farraginous clusters of smaller groups, not necessarily related to other groups called the same thing by our sources. (This is one of the problems with tribute payments to Vikings: paying off one army doesn’t help you with any of the others.) What if we have here multiple different groups of Rus’, perhaps competing with one another, perhaps representing different ideological tendencies within a wider overarching framework, perhaps just in different places and unrelated to each other? This raises important questions about how different groups of Vikings assimilated, changed or resisted the traditions they found – questions which we can ask more easily with different flavours of the Latin Christian tradition in the west, but which are deepened by comparison with political behaviour in a steppe arena that is not Christian and certainly not Latin.

*I put ‘Khazars’ with an asterisk because the form as we have it here, Gazani, is not the same as the more recognisable Chazari which shows up a little bit later in the letter and doubts have been thrown on whether it’s the same people meant. I think it probably is – Christian of Stavelot has the form Gazari and the letter’s orthography (such as in the case of the name ‘Abraham’) isn’t fully consistent – but there’s room for reasonable doubt.

[Edit from some weeks after this was written: and I’ve since come across a letter of Anastasius Bibliothecarius unambiguously referring to the Khazars by both forms, so I think the same applies here – which is potentially important, because Louis is of course wrong about the title held by the Khazar ruler!]

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

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

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

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

This extremely grisly incident is the subject of this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolingian Normandies

This post was planned anyway, but by sheer coincidence it happens that I’ve recently finished Neil Price’s The Children of Ash and Elm. It’s a good book on the Viking Age and I do recommend it; but it’s not at its best when dealing with the Viking presence in the Frankish world. As a case in point, Price is firmly wedded to the idea that Normandy was created in toto by three grants, in 911, 924 and 933. This is a common picture, at least outside the cutting edge of the scholarly literature. I imagine our old friend Dudo of Saint-Quentin would be very pleased with it, because the idea of an ancient Normandy which burst onto the scene fully formed in the early tenth century was one of his main agendas in writing the Historia Normannorum. However, the idea of ‘Normandy’ is one of those big ones that casts a shadow backwards over what came before it. In this blog post, we’ll look at tenth-century northern Neustria and I will try and argue, first, that the area which would become Normandy spent most of the century as a farraginous and fluctuating group of local polities and factions; and second, and more controversially, that the history of these polities is one in which the Scandinavian heritage of some regional elites played a minimal role for a long time. When Normandy emerged as a ‘Northman’ polity, the role of its Scandinavian past was not straightforward.  

This one goes long, and a map is probably useful. This one is from Mark Hagger, Norman Rule in Normandy 911-1144, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2017, p. xix.

The first place to consider is Rouen itself. We know from Flodoard (who was a more-or-less contemporary witness) that the original grant to Rollo constituted Rouen and the maritime districts associated with it. On its southern end, references from Charles the Simple’s 918 diploma as well as the location of the putative agreement at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte suggest that the grant stopped a relatively short distance south down the Seine and included some portion of the Epte valley – in total, a relatively small parallelogram of land. Already, then, the importance of the 911 grant starts to look relatively small (and the later grants of 924 and 933 were on paper only, have been recognised as purely nominal for a long time, and can be safely dismissed without further discussion).

Moreover, as time goes on, it’s less and less clear to me that Rouen had been under Rollo’s control prior to 911. The problem is that anything we think we know about Rollo prior to 911 comes from Dudo’s work and there’s no real reason to trust it because his depiction of Rollo’s career is precisely aimed at legitimising his family’s control of a Normandy centred at Rouen which means that placing him firmly in control there prior to 911 is rhetorically necessary whether or not it’s true. Notably, thinking of the Battle of Chartres, we know that the Frankish forces who were sent out to fight Rollo were based at Paris. If you’re going from Paris to fight someone based on the Upper Seine, Chartres is not an obvious place to find them; but it is if they’re based on the Loire…

What there was at Rouen instead appears to have been a fully functioning Carolingian regime. The key evidence for this is a diploma of 905 granting the fiscal estate at Pîtres to his notary, Ernust. (Of note is that the commentary I wrote for the Charter A Week post linked is not quite what I’m about to say here.) This reveals two things: first, that Charles was firmly in control of the royal estates in the area; and two, that he felt no qualms about granting them, not to a count or other lay magnate or even to a bishop in order to co-ordinate regional defence, but rather to a chancery clerk. Pîtres and the associated fortification at Pont de-l’Arche had been a sophisticated part of anti-Viking defence under Charles the Bald, so its use here to reward a relatively minor ecclesiastical noble suggests that, as of 905, the Upper Seine was not feeling pressed by attacks from the North. Similarly, Rouen’s ecclesiastical infrastructure seems to have held up pretty well. The archbishops of Rouen were able to offer safe havens to the bishops of Coutances (definitely) and Bayeux (maybe), and they played an important role in Church councils throughout the late ninth and early tenth century. We know, too, that demand for liturgical manuscripts was ongoing into the early tenth century, when the bishop of Sées composed a new benedictional for use at Rouen. 

Rollo, mostly, and his son William Longsword, entirely, behave like normal Frankish magnates. Rollo’s involvement in the civil war surrounding the deposition of Charles the Simple has been used as evidence for the failure of Rollonid Rouen as a Carolingian bastion – but it was a Frankish civil war and the Norse came in on behalf of the Carolingian king. Sure, they turned to fighting for their own advantage shortly afterwards, but this isn’t a failure of Viking policy any more than the precisely identical and contemporary behaviour of Duke Gislebert of Lotharingia. William, even more than his father, was a normal count. From just after the end of his reign we have the first written evidence from inside the Norman court: a Latin poem commissioned by William’s sister for his son which presents him as ‘Count of Rouen’. This picture has been clouded by Flodoard’s consistent reference to William as princeps Normannorum – ‘Viking chief’ – but Flodoard’s titulature here stems from anti-Norman prejudice and doesn’t reflect anything we know about the internal structure of William’s regime.

Where the picture changes a little is after William’s murder in 943. William’s son Richard was a small boy, and Rouen was fought over by a number of factions. First out of the gate, notably, was a faction of pagan Vikings under two rulers named Turmod and Sigtryggr, the latter straight off the boat from York. These men controlled the young Richard, whom they forced to participate in pagan rites. However, they were turfed out easily by Louis IV, suggesting their base of support was shallow. Louis then gave Rouen to his and William’s old ally Count Herluin of Ponthieu. However, despite some strong PR moves – Herluin killed William’s murderer on the battlefield and sent his mutilated appendages to Rouen – the city faced a new problem immediately afterwards, as warrior bands forced out of York by the city’s conquest by the English king in 944 moved on northern Neustria. Louis and Herluin marched into the area around Rouen and purged the city of those who did not want to obey royal authority.

This was not the end of the faction fighting, but without going too deep into the weeds, by the later part of the 940s the winner who had emerged was none other than the legendary Ralph Torta, whose closest ties were to the Robertians. (As noted in the previous post, Ralph may or may not have had biologically Scandinavian origins but his son was bishop of Paris and he was an entirely typical mid-level West Frankish aristocrat in every respect which matters.) We know little of Ralph’s activities as ruler in Rouen, but there is a striking contract between his behaviour regarding Jumièges, where he tore down the abbey buildings to use for wall repair; and the Rouen monastery of Saint-Ouen, where he donated an estate just outside the city. One rather wonders whether this was a deliberate attack on a Rollonid pet project as a way of erasing the family’s local footprint. In any case, the fact that Rouen ended up under the control of a mid-level Carolingian aristocrat who was, nominally, a royal appointee for about a decade is significant. 

We already, then, have a picture of a region mostly under normal West Frankish style regional elites for half a century, something which in no way prevented it from having violent, nasty succession crises which the presence of Viking elites embroidered but didn’t fundamentally alter. However, Rollonid Rouen was not the only power in the region, nor the only place to suffer turbulence. Around the year 900, for instance, the counts of Maine were figures to be reckoned with across northern Neustria – a diploma we’ve discussed before shows Count Hugh I patronising the abbey of Saint-Évroult in the Évrecin using lands in the Hiémois, to the south of Bayeux. By the 930s, though, the picture had changed. Dudo of Saint-Quentin keeps the story of a rebellion against William Longsword by a Scandinavian leader named Riulf (a story which does find purchase in other sources). Riulf, who was a pagan, wanted land up to the river Risle – but he appears to have been based in Évreux. This would have been less than a decade after an extensive series of border conflicts between the Seine Norse and the counts supporting the new regime of King Ralph of Burgundy. It is therefore possible that Riulf’s group was a new arrival; it is certainly evident that they wanted out. By the time of the wars after William Longsword’s murder in 943, Évreux was divided between different Viking factions – Flodoard, at least, presents them as religiously motivated pagan and Christian groups – but a significant local elite remained as well. In the end, the Christian Norse and/or local elite (and by that time it may not have been possible to draw a clear on-the-ground difference) handed the city over to Robertian control, embodied in the person of Theobald the Trickster, who held the city until the 960s. 

Further west, around Bayeux and the Cotentin, the picture is sketchier. In a previous post on this blog I looked at Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s picture of the earliest Norman court. One figure in particular stood out to me then and stands out to me now, and that’s Botho of Bayeux. Dudo’s work, like all hagiography, is most interesting at its stumbles: his purpose is so clear and his dedication to it so single-minded that when something doesn’t quite fit, it sticks out more and so it is with Botho, the purportedly Norman aristocrat with a Frankish name and a Frankish title which didn’t exist in later Normandy. In short, I think the Botho of Dudo’s book is an incomplete fossil of a Frankish count at Bayeux. (Remarkably, Flodoard also thinks the people of the Bessin aren’t Norse at this time.) It was probably not until 944 that the picture changed. In that year, a pagan Norse chieftain named Harald (likely another refugee from York) took over Bayeux. He played an adroit hand manipulating the succession crisis after William Longsword’s murder. It is likely that it was to Harald that the pagan Vikings purged from Rouen by Louis IV went. In the immediate aftermath of that affair, Harald organised a meeting with Louis and captured him, eventually handing him over to Hugh the Great. Hugh had been in charge of the initial attempt to get Harald out of Bayeux, and it would not be surprising if Harald’s price for the king was being allowed to stay there. Notably, Harald is remembered in Dudo’s work positively but as a pagan, which suggests that he may have justified his rule by using some kind of specifically ‘Northman’ (i.e. non-Carolingian) discourse, something which would make sense if he had been substantially reinforced by men whom Louis had purged from Rouen. In any case, he didn’t get too long – in 954, Hugh attacked and defeated him. After that, we don’t know precisely what happened. We do, though, have a pretty clear idea that Bayeux and the Bessin, and that whole centre-west region, were not under Norman control until the last decades of the tenth century at the earliest.

But thus far we have largely focussed on comital authority. In fact, northern Neustria was something of a frontier zone in the ninth century, and a fair bit of the continuity we can see in the region comes from people it would be more or less fair to call ‘local elites’ – not Scandinavian (at least not in any political-cultural sense; some, although in all probability a tiny minority, may have originated there but that doesn’t matter for our purposes), but not members of a Carolingian administrative hierarchy. The most obvious point of continuity here is what would become Normandy’s southern frontier, the Perche-to-Domfront area, which were forested lands of light control under local lords anyway and remained so consistently. More interesting are our hints about Coutances. The Cotentin peninsula had been granted to the Breton king Salomon in the late ninth century, and its control during this time seems to have been contested. William Longsword claimed to be overlord in the region. Direct evidence for his control comes from the memory of some land grants he made in the area, all of which are around the coast and none of which suggest a massive landed base there. Dudo has another one of those splinters in his text describing the ‘men of Coutances’ as a kind of praetorian guard for William, although it wouldn’t be sound to speculate too intensively based on that. After 943, whilst the southern belt saw relatively little change, Viking settlement in the Cotentin peninsula established a number of small-scale lordships which may not have been under powerful control from anyone. These lordships, moreover, are the places where the most obvious signs of ‘Northman’ practice – notably paganism – took root.

When Richard the Fearless ran Ralph Torta out of town in the mid-to-late 950s, he faced the prospect not of reclaiming an early tenth-century inheritance, but of expanding into a fractious collection of local and regional polities which had wildly different current statuses and political histories. Those histories all had Vikings in them, whether as enemies or settlers or biological ancestors; but only in the furthest west, and even then only after 943 could any of them be really termed ‘Viking polities’. This is a key part of the context in which Normandy as we know it was created, as I’ve written about before. The ideology of Norman-hood which Richard developed was flexible to the point of incoherence – it let anyone willing to play the game of being distinctive and of obeying the duke into the clubhouse, no matter what kind of Northman they were. With this complex history behind him, could Richard have succeeded with anything else?

So You’re at War with the Carolingians: A Survival Guide

Picture it in your mind’s eye. You are the ruler of a medium sized polity in eighth- or ninth-century Europe, cheerfully going about your business extracting economic surplus from your people, when one of your advisors comes up to you with a worried expression on his face. He has just received bad news from your informants at the court of the Franks. Your mighty Carolingian neighbour is starting to muster his armies and you are the target. Maybe your idiot son has launched one too many raids into his territory. Maybe too many of his nobles have been talking quietly to his idiot son about the need for fresh blood in Frankish politics. Maybe his favourite exotic animal has just died and he’s in a bad mood. As the Byzantines say, ‘If a Frank is your friend, he is not your neighbour,’ and unfortunately this Frank is right next door to you. You’re in trouble. Thankfully, help is at hand. In this post we’re going to consider some of the options you have when the Carolingian war machine is at the gates. These are by no means foolproof, but they will give you the best chance you have to survive.

This is Fine. Everything is Fine. (The Golden Psalter, St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 22, fo. 141).

Rule number one of fighting the Carolingians is don’t. This is the family that conquered most of western Europe, including Aquitaine, Saxony, Lombard Italy, Bavaria, the Avars and the Spanish March. They carved out the biggest empire west of Byzantium and they did not do that by being bad at war. You should at the very least be exploring options for avoiding conflict with them. Offering tribute and becoming a client is an entirely viable move, particularly if it buys you time to regain your autonomy at a later date (see Benevento in 788). If you’re not already a Christian, consider converting. Not only will that endear you to your Carolingian neighbours, but the process of baptism also comes with free shiny new clothes and a pen-pal who lives in Rome. (Christianity also comes in Greek, which is less immediately useful in the circumstances but in the longer run may allow you to play the Franks off against Constantinople).

As Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria (r.748-788) could confirm, becoming a client of the Carolingians is not without risk and you may find yourself in front of a kangaroo court on dubious grounds, particularly if you have enemies at home eager to replace you (and who doesn’t?). Even if you’re willing to risk that, peace is not always an option. Sometimes the Carolingians are out to get you specifically. In the unhappy event that war is unavoidable, you are best served by avoiding a straight fight. People as far away as Baghdad know that Frankish swords are the best, and the wealth of the empire means that their armies are well-equipped with chainmail and horses. Most importantly, you will almost certainly be outnumbered. Whichever colourfully named Charles or Louis you’re facing can raise large forces made up of contingents from different peoples across the empire. They will probably place multiple armies in the field, something that Charlemagne (r.768-814) did against the Saxons in 774, al-Andalus in 778, the Bavarians in 787 and the Avars in 791 and 796, and that Louis the German (r.840-876) would still be doing against the Moravians in the 870s. Their aim here is to limit your room to manoeuvre and force you into a pitched battle, playing to their strengths in numbers and soldiers on horseback.

(The one potential exception here for avoiding a major battle is if your Carolingian opponent is Charles the Bald (r.840-877). Charles did not have a great record at winning battles, if his defeats at the hands of the Bretons at Ballon in 845 and Jengland in 851 and by his nephews at Andernach in 876 mean anything. He was a very successful ruler but not particularly lucky on the battlefield, with a tendency to try to be a bit too clever for his own good in his military tactics. High risk, cunning schemes like attacking Brittany in the middle of winter with a small army or attempting to manoeuvre his army at night often blew up in his face, so you could try to bring him to battle and hope he outsmarts himself.)

A core concept here is time. If you can’t go toe-to-toe with the Carolingians, your aim is to make the process of conquering you too long, difficult and unpleasant to be worth the continual effort (think Russia in 1812, or Geoffrey Boycott). Keep it going long enough and a crisis is going to happen somewhere else in the Carolingian world to distract attention, like the Saxon uprising that forced Charlemagne to leave the Iberian Peninsula in 778. Internal Frankish conflict in particular is your friend. As the Bretons in 830 can attest, Louis the Pious (r.814-840) can’t invade your lands if no one wants to show up to join his army. Playing for time is easier said than done and you may need to survive several years of being repeatedly invaded. It helps if, like Benevento, you are far away from the Carolingian heartlands between the Seine and the Rhine and getting to you is a bit difficult. Sometimes you’re just going to get unlucky and become someone’s pet project they keep returning to over the decades, as with Charlemagne and the Saxons.

Other powers will take advantage of the Carolingians being focussed elsewhere, such as Emir Hisham I of al-Andalus, who raided Francia in 793 at the height of the Avar Wars. It may be worth formalising such alignments of interest by allying with your neighbours. The Bohemians were quite big on this, allying with the Moravians in 871 in the face of Frankish aggression, and in 880 with the Daleminzi and Sorbs. On a larger scale, Prince Arichis II of Benevento entered into negotiations for Byzantine support in 787. Admittedly, none of these enterprises were particularly successful; but with that said, keeping your neighbours on side will help stymie another classic Carolingian strategy of allying with them against you, as demonstrated by Charlemagne’s deal with the Abodrites, targeted against the Saxons.

You can also try cutting deals with rebels within the empire. The Umayyads of Córdoba repeatedly destabilised the Spanish March by allying with the losers in internal conflicts in the region, such as Aizo and Willemund in 827, and William of Septimania in 847. By dividing the frontier regions, you make it harder for them to be used as springboards against you, while also gaining sources of intelligence about Frankish movements. The Moravians did similar things with the counts of the Bavarian frontier, suborning multiple figures such as Ratpod in 854 and Gundachar in 869. The Carolingians were not always good at keeping their family conflicts in-house, and frustrated sons resisting the authority of their fathers can also make useful friends. Salomon of Brittany (r.857-874) sent troops to support Louis the Stammerer against his father Charles the Bald in 862, while Rastislav of Moravia (r.846-870) allied with multiple rebellious sons of Louis the German. This is a high-stakes move. By interfering in Carolingian politics you are placing a target on your back for retribution, so make sure you’re not exposed if/when the scapegrace princes decide to reconcile with their family.

One of the best means of getting the time you need to survive is by building fortifications. High walls are not invulnerable to Carolingian armies, but they can slow them down nicely (making derogatory comments about the species and odour of the besiegers’ parents from the top of the walls is traditional). Something like the extensions to the Danevirke finished in 808 by King Godfrid of the Danes (r.804-810) serves as a deterrent and statement of intent, while getting your subjects facing in the right direction and united in a shared project. The Moravians frequently managed to hold off East Frankish armies from their fortified cities. As I can attest from personal experience, trying to climb up to Devín castle in what is now Slovakia when the people on top don’t want you to makes for a challenging day out. The Vikings were masters of setting up shop on a strategically located island in a river and refusing to move unless they were paid to go. Perhaps the gold standard here are the fortified cities of the Upper March in al-Andalus, where the Carolingians spent several decades banging their heads against the walls of Zaragoza, Tortosa and Tarragona to limited effect.

This turtling strategy is not without risk. The Franks can be patient if the rewards are high enough. Concentrating all of your resources and political capital in one place is tempting, but leaves you vulnerable to being taken out with the fall of one city. Charlemagne was willing to overwinter and spend eight months besieging King Desiderius of the Lombards (r.757-774) in Pavia because seizing it got him most of northern Italy in one fell swoop.  Likewise, Emperor Louis II of Italy (r.855-875) kept laying siege to Bari until it finally fell in 871 because doing so destroyed the emirate that was based there. Allowing the Carolingians to get too comfy outside your walls is also a problem. Barcelona fell to Louis the Pious in 801 because Louis knew he didn’t have to worry about reinforcements coming from Córdoba and could besiege at his leisure.

But the biggest problem with hunkering down in your fortress is that it leaves your land and people vulnerable to the occupying army. The Franks will loot and pillage the surrounding countryside, partly to get booty, but mostly to put pressure on you to come out and fight. Not only is your resource base being stolen before your eyes, but a king who won’t protect his people is going to get very unpopular very quickly. Being on the defensive all the time is draining, and morale may collapse quite quickly. A case in point is the plight of Duke Liudewit of Lower Pannonia, whose fortification strategy against the armies of Louis the Pious, while not without success, eventually exhausted the patience of his allies, leading to his death in 823 at their hands.

All this suggests that fortifications may be useful, but they need to form part of a wider strategy. If you can’t take on the entire Carolingian host in one go, then you can at least attempt some aggressive countermeasures. Raids and ambushes will go a long way to restoring your morale and reducing theirs. The Basques and Bretons acquired a particular reputation for this sort of irregular warfare, practiced most famously when the former ambushed Charlemagne’s rear-guard at Roncesvalles in 778, leading to the death of Roland. The key to this sort of warfare is mobility, which allows you to pick your fights when and where you want them. No one did this better than the Vikings, who could use their ships to move unexpectedly along the rivers, but were also surprisingly good at moving over land by commandeering horses.

A certain audacity can sometimes be useful: see the example of the Saxons who snuck into a Frankish camp in 775 by pretending to be foragers, causing chaos among the half-asleep soldiers. Dirty tricks may also be necessary. In 871, having promised to bring the rebellious Moravians under East Frankish controls, upon arriving at the Moravian capital, Svatopluk I (r.871-894) changed sides and took by surprise the Bavarian army that had accompanied him.  Be aware that the Franks are by no means novices at irregular warfare themselves, as the unlucky Moravians ambushed by them later the same year learned to their cost. 

I would also suggest launching raids across the border if the Franks have retreated for the end of the campaigning season. Having spent much of 855 being besieged by Louis the German, Rastislav of Moravia tailed the Frankish army when it returned home for winter and began raiding the countryside. While this may feel akin to lobbing pinecones at a bear while it’s walking away, it helps place pressure on the Carolingians to come to the negotiating table. You want to make being at war with you an uncomfortable experience that has wider ramifications. Keep offering them a reasonable face-saving out while making it clear that the alternative is unpleasant. Salomon of Brittany was able to use attacks on Frankish territory to force Charles the Bald to recognise him as King of Brittany in 867. Raids like this also help solidify your position at home, not just by acquiring booty, but by giving your warriors something to feel good about, and helping your wider political community understand that you have a plan for how to win this war that goes beyond letting yourself be punched in the face until the other guy’s hand starts hurting.

While I have strongly counselled against taking the main Carolingian army in the field, smaller detachments are another matter. A classic example of divide and conquer can be observed in 849. The Bohemians, under pressure from a large Frankish army under the command of Ernest, dux of the Bavarian frontier, sent envoys offering peace to one of the army’s captains, Thachulf, dux of the Sorbian March. Thachulf’s arrogance in accepting their terms without consulting the rest of the army annoyed a large chunk of the Franks, who pressed ahead without the others and were defeated by the Bohemians. The military organisation of Carolingian forces into units based on kingdom of origin can be used in your favour, as when a campaign against the Moravians in 872 collapsed because the Thuringians and the Saxons taking part kept feuding with each other.

When it does come to battle, try to pick ground that suits you, and force the Carolingians to fight on your terms. Einhard observed that the Basques at Roncesvalles in 778 were helped by the lightness of their gear and their familiarity with the uneven mountain terrain. Charles the Bald was lured into a marsh at Ballon in 845, allowing the Bretons to exploit their superior knowledge of the ground. At Jengland in 851, the Bretons refused to close with Charles’s men, using their lightly armoured horsemen to harass the Carolingian army with javelins and feinting to draw them out of formation. In 891, King Arnulf (r.888-899) hesitated before engaging and defeating the Vikings at the Battle of the Dyle because his army would be hemmed in by marsh and river and have to fight on foot.  

There are no sure-fire ways of defending yourself against the Carolingians, but following these rules of thumb will give you as much a chance as anyone has.

[The above is an extremely artificial exercise and there are obvious problems with what I’ve just written. Not only have I flattened more than a century of Carolingian history, ignoring dramatic changes in the political structure of the empire, I’ve also homogenised the various peoples and polities unlucky enough to be stuck next to them. This is particularly egregious in the case of the Vikings, who operated very differently to the other examples I discuss.

My central conceit of addressing an early medieval prince also led me to encourage certain types of solutions, suggesting that the political community best equipped to resist the Carolingians is:

1.   Far away

2.   Sufficiently centralised to raise the resources to build and man extensive fortifications, and to remain united under considerable pressure.

While point 1 stands in any circumstances, strictly speaking point 2 can be challenged. Fracturing into small, hard to manage communities and thereby becoming ungovernable will also give the Carolingians a real headache, as Louis II’s misadventures in southern Italy attest. I just couldn’t see this being the sort of option that would appeal to a prince.

The main reason I wrote this post is because I wanted to put myself into the head of someone who was an enemy of the Carolingians. Most of our sources come from the Carolingian world, which shapes our perspective of their wars. Not only do we understand things from their logic, it leads us to sympathise with them. One of my research priorities is to centre these apparently peripheral polities. I want to underline how scary a prospect the Carolingians were in this period (Reuter’s adage that ‘for most of Europe in the eighth and ninth century it was the Franks who were the Vikings’). But I also want to think about their leaders as undertaking strategies and responding to the problems caused by their giant neighbour. This represents one way of thinking about that.]

A Sad Story About Why Charles the Simple Succeeded Odo

We’ve discussed Charles the Simple’s succession to the West Frankish throne a little bit before, but never really gone into detail about one question which has always bugged me: why did Odo let Charles succeed him? OK, sure, we can talk about Charles’ dynastic legitimacy and his hereditary claim to the throne, and that may have been a factor. Certainly, later sources put Odo and Charles in some kind of ward/guardian situation; but this is basically ahistorical and the result of working backwards from eleventh century expectations. The main practical reason that Charles ends up as Odo’s successor is that, over the course of several years of peace negotiations but most crucially in late 897, as Odo lies on his deathbed, Odo conceded that role to him. So, to reframe the question, why was Odo so willing to negotiate?

It can’t be because Charles posed a significant military threat. The high point of the rebellion of which Charles was the figurehead was right at the start, in 893 and 894. After 895, when the siege of Laon which Charles conducted with Zwentibald failed, the young ruler’s situation was pretty dire. From the beginning, his rebellion was riven with internal dissent, and by the last years of Odo’s reign virtually everyone had jumped ship. All of Charles’ backers – even Archbishop Fulk of Rheims, who was in loco parentis to the young man – went back to Odo’s side (in Fulk’s case only briefly, but his persistent opposition to Odo and support for Charles was the exception in these years). Odo was able to confiscate the rebels’ castles, estates and resources. Charles had no money, no troops, and no friends.

It is very surprising, therefore, that Odo condescended to negotiate from this position of superiority, yet in 896 he did so. Not merely did he do so, but he was – according to the Annals of Saint-Vaast – active in encouraging his followers to lend their support to Charles as his successor. What could his motivations for such a thing have been? One option is that he was a far-sighted statesman, who could see that the best way to repair the damage the civil war had caused the realm was to allow Charles to succeed him whilst negotiating for the best deal for his followers after his own death. This is not an implausible option, and certainly it seems like Odo’s brother Robert of Neustria was well-placed to be honourably received by the king after Odo’s death. But was there more at work?

Perhaps the general sense of malaise hanging over Odo’s court by 895 had something to do with it. Morale on Odo’s side, even the king’s own morale, seems to have been declining. Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés complained in an addition to his Bella Parisiacae Urbis that the king whom he had once praised as a glorious Viking fighter was now useless and apathetic: he heard of Vikings raiding across his kingdom, and declared he simply didn’t care. Certainly his pacific tendencies after 895 form a contrast with his bullish approach before that year.

However, there may be more to it than that Odo was simply ground down by war. A neglected carmen figuratum, a picture poem in praise of Odo written around 893, ends with a prayer that God will bestow a son on Odo.

The manuscript in question being this one, Berlin Staatsbibliothek Fragm. 89, fol. 8r (source)

A second poem, in praise of Odo’s queen Theodrada, accompanies the first. However, evidence of Odo actually having any children is generally conspicuous by its absence. (There is a bizarre document purporting to be from the early tenth century from the Breton monastery of Redon which mentions the presence of one ‘Guy, son of King Odo of France’ – however, this is transparently a later forgery and Guy did not have any historical reality.) These poems are interesting because they are signs that, a brief way into Charles’ rebellion, Odo had dynastic ambitions. A clear inference, therefore, is that something had changed by 896, and the most obvious thing is that Theodrada had died. It would have been quite possible for Odo to remarry, of course – one thing that always surprises me about Odo is how young he was, being only in his early thirties when he became king – but that was a way in the future and Charles’ rebellion was a problem now. It seems that Odo’s ambitions to have a male heir were buried with his wife. Under these circumstances, negotiating with Charles was the option of least resistance. If Odo couldn’t be succeeded by an heir of his body, he could at least ensure that the crown went to someone with a good claim, and try and prevent a war such as he had been fighting for the previous several years from breaking out anew on his death.

Peripheral Violence: Kalyvas and the Carolingians

There’s a reasonably large faction of early medieval historians who are somewhat suspicious of theory, a trait which is particularly pronounced at Cambridge. Given this background,my instinct is to be sceptical about applying elegant theoretical models to messy historical reality. On the other hand, I am also a historian specialising in a field that has a shortage of sources. Such a situation encourages omnivorous scholarship, fed by a diet of whatever evidence or ideas you can get your teeth into. As a consequence, early medievalists are magpies by nature, pilfering from archaeology, geography, anthropology and a whole range of other subjects for anything that looks useful/shiny. This post is about one particular shiny object I acquired some years ago which I still find valuable.

Subjects of the Carolingians took part on both sides of many of the conflicts that involved the Frankish empire in the ninth century. Given that civil war was a Carolingian pastime rivalled only by the growing of silly moustaches, this shouldn’t surprise us too much, but it also features regularly in conflicts with outside powers. Powerful Frankish figures from the frontier supported invasions from Muslim Spain on multiple occasions. When Prince Svatopluk I of the Moravians invaded Bavaria in 882, he was accompanied by Count Aribo, whose job it was to stop these sorts of things. Clearly leading Frankish aristocrats had choices to make about whose side they were on when war broke out.

In trying to understand what is going on here, I’ve found useful food for thought in the work of the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, and in particular his book, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006). Kalyvas is interested in modern civil wars, particularly the Greek Civil War of 1943-1949. He argues that the apparently mindless violence that often characterised such conflicts is actually highly (if monstrously) rational based on the logic of the situation combatants find themselves. There’s a lot going on in this book, which uses examples from a wide number of wars since the French Revolution. The theme of strategic uses of violence is explored in a number of different ways. The passages that most caught my attention were the ones which discussed the way local actors were drawn into the wider war on either side.

Soldiers from the Greek Civil War. Conclusions as to how Carolingian warfare would have changed had Charlemagne had an artillery battery will have to remain speculative until my time machine is ready.

For Kalyvas, one of the problems in the way that wars are studied is the assumption that central elites dictate politics and the local population on the peripheries more or less go along with it, fighting for the causes of different ideological movements or powerful factions as a monolith. In reality of course this is very far from the case, as Kalyvas observes ‘more often than not that populations (including ethnic groups) are internally divided into competing families, clans, localities, or other factions (p.11)’. He argues that these local divisions were often more salient for people than conflict on a state level. The outbreak of civil war is important for such groups because:

‘individuals and local communities involved in the war tend to take advantage of the prevailing situation to settle private and local conflicts whose relation to the grand causes of the war or the goals of the belligerents is often tenuous. (p.365)’

Local actors can use the disruption of the broader war to remove enemies and achieve power in their vicinity, provided they legitimise their violence by using the appropriate terminology which makes them combatants on one side of the national conflict. The groups being attacked in this way will then often ally with the other side of the civil war on the time and tested doctrine of ‘my enemy’s enemy’. These alliances allow actors at the centre to expand their power in the periphery by allying with local groups who are already present in those regions. In turn, actors in the locality get muscle and sanction from the centre.

Kalyvas’ case studies are all civil wars from the modern world, which should make us hesitant about applying his conclusions to wars involving external polities in the Carolingian era. Nonetheless, I find his ideas intriguing because they help me with thinking about some of the ninth-century conflicts I’m interested in. A surprising number of wars or almost-wars in the period were triggered by local conflicts which then expanded. The Umayyad invasion of 829 was invited by a number of frontier lords on the Spanish March who were frustrated at the accumulation of power and honours by Bernard of Septimania, led by Willemund, whose family’s position in the March had been undermined by Bernard’s. The Wilhelminer war I mentioned in a recent post on atrocities (because I like picking cheerful topics to write about), was kicked off when one family group attacked Count Aribo because they wanted his title. Aribo called in Svatopluk of Moravia to help him, the Wilhelminer turned to Arnulf of Carinthia, and before you know it everything starts looking a bit Europe 1914. Most notably, in both of these conflicts, key figures or families can be observed changing side shortly afterwards as their local circumstances changed. Bernard’s own son, William, would ally with al-Andalus in order to wage war on the March following the execution of his father by Charles the Bald. In 893, a member of the Wilhelminer family was executed for corresponding with Svatopluk.

Apart from not being pure civil wars, these conflicts differ from the ones Kalyvas describes in that the local violence happens before, and causes, the bigger violence between state actors. The Carolingians wanted none of these wars, and I suspect that Svatopluk wasn’t entirely happy to get pulled into the mess either. That said, in both cases we can see the same pattern of local actors using their alliances with central governments to acquire the military strength and the legitimacy they need to prosecute their own feuds in the periphery. Those alliances existed because the Carolingians and their neighbours wanted to project influence in those border regions because they were worried about the potential for war with each other and needed to ensure that the frontier could be easily defended/invaded according to preference. They did this by cultivating leading figures in the area by giving them official titles or offering them protection. As a result, wider tensions between the Franks and the Umayyads or the Moravians created the conditions for the likes of Willemund or the Wilhelminer to settle scores.

Things I like about this approach:

1.     It gets us thinking about the impact of local politics on state-level conflict. Kalyvas tells us that if we want to understand the success or failure of the national cause, we need to pay attention to pre-existing tensions on a smaller scale. People had their own concerns, which mattered to them as much as the fates of kings. These spheres of politics are motivated by different things, but are nonetheless inherently linked, so that both operate under the influence of the other.

2.     It also helps explain how apparently very distant causes could motivate and mobilise support far away from the centre of the action (you should totally risk your life and limb over whether my brother-in-law’s best friend gets to be king may or may not be the easiest sell otherwise).

3.     I find the awkward coalition of different groups needing each other’s support for purposes that aren’t the same but can be aligned a compelling model for understanding the otherwise very confusing conflicts I encounter in the sources.

Things that I don’t like:

1.     There’s a risk that actors at the centre start coming across as either total rubes who haven’t understood why they get the support they do or as cynics willing to go along with any crime so long as there is something in it for them. Coalition-building was at the core of most medieval politics. Monarchs and ministers who didn’t know exactly who their constituency was weren’t going to last very long. Nor were such rulers necessarily relaxed about the wholesale slaughter of their subjects. Part of the point of having a king was that they can act as an arbiter in conflicts, making sure that justice happened. Allowing one’s allies to settle scores certainly happened, but it had to be done carefully.

2.     The bigger problem here is that it makes it seem like local elites were never interested in state politics and had no political ideas beyond getting stuff and removing enemies. In this reading, only people at the royal court get to have actual values or a capacity to think on multiple levels. As work on the Crusades has shown, medieval elites generally genuinely believed the things they said and were willing to take part in causes that transcended their own immediate interests in the name of faith, nation, justice or loyalty. The Carolingian era is particularly interesting for the number of secular counts on the edge of the empire who seem to have been genuinely committed to the imperial project of reform, corresponding with intellectuals, collecting books and founding religious houses. The civil wars of the ninth century caused real emotional strain for Frankish nobles who believed in a united empire.

These possible problems indicate that we have to be cautious when using this model. Despite this, I think that there is a valuable insight here for how conflicts could spread from the centre to the periphery and vice versa via chains of alliances by linking up apparently unconnected disputes, which is why I have kept it in my collection of shiny items.

King Lothar and Flanders in the Reign of Count Arnulf II

In theory, if there’s any two West Frankish regions I have any special claim to know, it should be Normandy and Flanders. I’ve been working on these areas since I was an undergraduate – in fact, my master’s dissertation was a comparison of tenth-century princely power in the two of them. Yet one of the joys of the tenth century is that by deep-diving into the sources and by making cross-connections you can discover new things and end up changing your mind even after working on it for a decade. Flanders is a case in point. As often mentioned on this blog, I wrote an article reassessing the succession crisis following the death of Arnulf the Great of Flanders; but the state of my knowledge in 2014 was such that I left it there. However, what has emerged out of my research since then is that Flanders played a pretty crucial role in the rest of Lothar’s reign too, and this is what I want to talk about today.

The short version of one of my arguments in the article is that when Arnulf died in 965, Lothar broke his promise to safeguard Arnulf II, the elder Arnulf’s baby grandson, invaded Flanders, imposed a friendly regent, and annexed a huge swathe of the south for himself. However, that’s not where things stopped. A little while ago, I argued that Lothar’s patronage can be detected on the Flemish border during the 970s, hoping to Lotharingian border magnates into his own orbit. That, however, is only half the story. What I left out is that all the magnates Lothar was hoping to attract were indelibly associated with Arnulf II of Flanders: Dirk of Holland was his guardian, Godfrey of Verdun his stepfather, and even though Arnulf of Valenciennes doesn’t seem to have been related to him (at least not in any way we can prove) he was an important figure in the last days of Arnulf the Great. In fact, Lothar’s patronage around 970 extended to Arnulf II directly. In 972, for instance, Arnulf issued a charter for Blandijnberg in Ghent. The Blandijnberg charters are never above suspicion, and indeed in its current form this is a mid-eleventh century forgery. The crucial thing about it for our purpose, though, is that it grants the abbey the estate of Harnes, near Lens. (This donation was confirmed by a more-or-less unsuspicious royal grant a few years later, so this bit of information in the charter is likely legit.) This is interesting, because Harnes was under Lothar’s control twice over after 965. On one hand, it was south of the Lys, the area he annexed after Arnulf the Great’s death; on the other, it was recorded in 899 (in a charter we’ve discussed on this blog before for entirely separate reasons) as belonging to Saint-Amand, an abbey which we know Lothar controlled at this time. The most likely way for it to get into Arnulf’s hands, therefore, is that Lothar gave it to him; and the most likely reason for that is that the king wanted to draw the young count into dependence on him.

Another hint is that despite everything, Arnulf was able to keep hold of at least the northern part of Ponthieu. Conflict over Ponthieu was a structuring element of northern French politics in the middle and late tenth century. To keep things short, I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that the fighting pitted the Flemish counts on one side against the Robertians on the other; and that it was a multi-generational conflict. That Arnulf appears ruling Montreuil in 981, therefore, despite the fact that it was in the area Lothar took over in 965, indicates that Lothar favoured him over the Robertians and backed his continued possession of the stronghold.

All this changed, as I noted in my earlier post, after 973, when the exiled sons of Count Reginar III returned from exile. Their bellicose pursuit of their lost inheritance forced the border magnates to cling closely to Otto II, and undid years work of work on Lothar’s part. In the mid-to-late 970s, therefore, we can see Lothar pivot to attacking Arnulf. In 974, for instance, he issued a diploma for the elder Robertian brother and duke of the Franks Hugh Capet confirming donations he had made of land in the Ternois to the abbey of Saint-Riquier in southern Ponthieu, confirming his overlordship over the southern part of the region and giving him some kind of role in the north (which was in all likelihood under Arnulf’s rule at the time).  In 975, he issued a diploma for Marchiennes restoring the estate of Haisnes, which was ‘unjustly stolen from [the abbey] in the time of Count Arnulf [the Great]’ – Arnulf II’s grandfather ended up a historiographical casualty of the new hostility between the king and his comital relative. Interestingly, in 976 Arnulf’s step-uncle Adalbero of Rheims sponsored the translation of St. Thierry in Rheims. Lothar refused to come because he was busy in other parts of the kingdom, and when he did show up he was accompanied by a large army. We don’t know what this army had been used for, but one good suggestion is Flanders.

This brings us to a question we’ve covered before on this blog, the emergence of a separate line of counts of Boulogne. I argued in the previous post that our earliest evidence for any kind of count in the area comes not from the start of Arnulf II’s reign, but from the end.  Count Arnulf, that shadowy figure who is nonetheless the clearest outline we can see from this shadowy time, evidently had a powerbase in western Flanders. This is interesting, because Lothar had some support in that region (including, probably, the chronicler Folcuin of Saint-Bertin); and Arnulf II seems – from later, bitter reports of his behaviour towards Saint-Bertin – to have left a bad memory there. This is speculative, of course, but I think it’s quite possible that, first of all, Arnulf of Boulogne/Ternois was from the family of the advocates of Saint-Bertin (based on their onomastics); second, that that this advocatial position was the basis for the assumption of comital status; and third, this may have been helped by Lothar’s military intervention. Notably, our last attestation of this family as advocates is from 975 – by the 980s, a new family, the Gerbodos, was in place. It is worth considering, therefore, that the fragmentation of Flemish comital power which we know to have taken place by 988 was helped along by royal support for local opposition.

Lothar’s position changed again after 978. As we’ve seen, his invasion of Lotharingia in that year failed. It is therefore noteworthy that – by contrast with Charles the Simple’s invasion of 898 which I have argued was its closest comparison – it took  over a year for peace to be made after direct fighting had stopped. What was Lothar doing in that time? Dudo of Saint-Quentin has a confused anecdote as part of a panegyric on the peacemaking efforts of the Norman duke Richard the Fearless, which says that Arnulf II refused to do military service for Lothar and the king therefore invaded Artois and the area south of the Lys. This has intriguing parallels with a passage in the Gesta Episcoporum Cameracensium which says that Lothar invaded the area at the end of the reign of Bishop Teudo of Cambrai (so, late 978). Either on their own could be written off as a simple repetition of the events of 965. However, although both are evidently confused, the fact that two independent sources have put figures from the late 970s into the same scenario suggests that what is being confused with 965 is real events of 978. That is, Lothar invaded Artois, targeting Arnulf’s possessions or (more likely) those of the church of Cambrai or (perhaps) both.

He then used his gains to reconcile with Arnulf. This gave him a point of entry back into Arnulf’s family networks, and we can in fact see hints of his step-family being used to negotiate the peace between Lothar and Otto which was ultimately signed at Margut in 980. This peace and reconciliation between Arnulf and Lothar, though, led to hostility between Lothar and Hugh Capet. Hugh made a separate peace with Otto II at Rome in 981 and then rushed home to besiege and attack Montreuil, which he was able to take by surprise. Arnulf agreed to hand over the fortress and northern Ponthieu.

Which is, I think, what this late medieval miniature is supposed to show (source)

After decades of fighting, the Robertians had finally defeated the Flemish for Ponthieu. At the same time, Lothar had established himself as master of Artois, even if his more grandiose schemes for using his Flemish connections had failed to pan out. Lothar’s relationship with Arnulf, in fact, is a kind of microcosm for his entire reign. He was a canny politician and powerful ruler whose capacity to manipulate and control events within his kingdom was generally significant. However, he was not great at resolving the contradictions within his own policy aims. Thus, during the 970s, he treated Flanders and its associated elites as on one hand targets but on the other hand important allies. What this meant was that when Lothar was treating Arnulf II as an ally his capacity to get things done in the region was weakened through what Lothar had done when he was his enemy. There must have been other issues too – trust springs readily to mind – but this factor is a key for understanding why, despite all his efforts, the gains Lothar reaped from his Flemish policy during the 970s were so relatively limited compared to his designs.