What Type of Elephant did Charlemagne Have?

[Editor’s note: this week, I’m excited to welcome a new writer on the blog. He’s going to be taking over roughly ever other week, so please give a big welcome to Sam!]

Hello everyone. The observant among you will notice that I’m not Fraser (the clue is the complete absence of charters in this post). My name is Sam Ottewill-Soulsby and I’m thrilled to be joining the blog. I’ve been a huge fan of what Fraser has been doing here since he began and I’m really excited to have the opportunity to share some of the things I’ve been working.

I’m a postdoctoral researcher for the ERC-funded ’Impact of the Ancient City’ project, which means that a lot of my work is concerned with the legacy of Roman ideas of the city on subsequent urbanism (more on which in future weeks). I’m also really interested in early medieval diplomacy and foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the Carolingian world. I’m also currently working on a book on Carolingian diplomacy with the Islamic world, provisionally entitled The Emperor and the Elephant: Christians and Muslims in the Age of Charlemagne, under contract with Princeton University Press.

This post comes from that side of my research. One of the biggest moments (in many ways) in these relations came when the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809) sent Charlemagne (r.768-814) an elephant. In his biography of Charlemagne, Einhard says that the Frankish monarch asked Harun for the elephant with his very first embassy to the Caliph in 797, demonstrating an impressive level of confidence. The elephant, Abu al-Abbas, arrived in Italy in 801, before travelling north to Aachen in 802, where he was a mammoth success, before eventually dying in Saxony in 810.

This charming early ninth-century elephant, from Physiologus Bernensis (Burgerbibliothek Bern Cod. 318 f.19r,) is probably based on a late antique model rather than Abu al-Abbas, but I will shoehorn him into any discussion of Charlemagne’s elephant

I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about elephants (some would say too much), and not just because elephants are cool (although elephants are cool). One of the things that has caught my attention is the question of what species of elephant Abu al-Abbas belonged to. As you know, elephants come in a number of flavours, including the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the two African species, the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). This matters because learning Abu al-Abbas’ species would give us a pretty strong clue about where he was from, telling us a lot specifically about where the Abbasids sourced their elephants and more generally about communications and logistics in the period. It might also have shaped the way people at the time thought and reacted to Abu al-Abbas based on the associations they had with his place of origin.

Unfortunately, none of the primary sources tell us his species directly. There is no reference to Harun sending Charlemagne an elephant in the Arabic sources at all, while the Latin Frankish sources don’t specify where he was from originally. We can rule out one candidate out from the beginning. According to Isidore of Seville (Etymologies 12.2.14), the North African elephant beloved by Hannibal was sadly already extinct by the late eighth century. Nonetheless, a case can be made for an African origin. Abu al-Abbas first appears in the sources when he and the envoys escorting him from Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne arrived in modern Tunisia, which could be taken as a sign of an African connection. Further evidence for an African origin comes from a splendid early ninth-century ivory plaque depicting the Virgin Mary, now in the Met in New York. Ivory was an important part of Carolingian art. Most of it was Roman ivory being reused in later centuries, but this plaque demonstrates that at least one piece of new African ivory was available in Aachen in the early ninth century. The plaque is too large to have come from one of the smaller Asian elephants and radio-carbon dating has demonstrated that this is not ancient ivory. Because it is so unusual to have new ivory in this period, it has been argued that this came from Abu al-Abbas after he died, and that therefore he must have been an African elephant.

The big problem with this, and the reason I think that Abu al-Abbas was an Asian elephant, is that all of the most contemporary sources from the Caliphate are convinced that that was the only type of elephant that could be even slightly domesticated. Writers like al-Jahiz (ninth century) and al-Ma’sudi (tenth century) said that although the best ivory came from Africa, living elephants had to be sourced from India. How true that is might be open to question. There certainly seems to be more evidence for the training of Asian elephants, although the rulers of Axum in Ethiopia possessed elephants, and the Belgians in the Congo appear to have had some success in training elephants there. What matters here is what Harun al-Rashid believed to be true and given that everyone around him assumed that only Asian elephants could be owned, it seems rather unlikely that he would have possessed or sent an African elephant.

A possible hint that Charlemagne’s elephant was an Asian elephant appears in one of the Latin sources, a geography compiled by an Irish monk named Dicuil in 825 (De mensura orbis terrae, 7.35). He mentions Abu al-Abbas while addressing the ancient and vexed question of whether elephants can lie down (more on which another time), placing this comment in a section otherwise about the geography of India.

Interestingly this means that Abu al-Abbas was almost certainly born in India. The Arabic sources are clear that people had tried and failed to breed elephants in Iraq. That Abu al-Abbas was probably from India and that this might have been known by Charlemagne and company has implications for how they thought about him to be explored another time. In the meantime, I’ll close with the thought that long before he began his journey to Charlemagne, Abu al-Abbas was already a very experienced traveller.

Dudo of Saint-Quentin and the Earliest Norman Court

Recently, I’ve had cause to look at the Historia Normannorum of Dudo of Saint-Quentin again. As many of you will know, I have past form with this work, but this time I was looking at it as a source for the events of the 940s rather than the ideology of the 1000s. Now, if you’ve encountered Dudo’s work, you’ll know that that’s a rather dicey thing to do, and I really wouldn’t want to disagree with it. In fact, probably the best thing you can say about Dudo is that he’s not the most ludicrous thing you’ll encounter reading about the earliest Norman elite…

Anyway, what I was looking for was a simple question: who does Dudo say was in the following of the Norman rulers in c. 940? The short answer is not many people. Rather like his contemporary Richer of Rheims, Dudo is not a court chronicler in the strict sense. He’s not interested in nailing down who surrounds the Norman duke – the duke’s soldiers, advisors, and nobles appear as a faceless group to lend their presence to crowd scenes, but Dudo isn’t interested in them as individuals. In fact (minus speaking roles for two Breton counts which are significant for other reasons but whom I’m going to ignore now), Dudo only names four really important men other than the duke in the earliest days of Normandy: Botho of Bayeux, Bernard the Dane, Anslech, and (the legendary) Ralph Torta.

Of those four, only Ralph Torta shows up in other independent sources – specifically, a section of William of Jumièges’ Gesta Normannorum Ducum which appears to be based on oral tradition from the monastery of Jumièges.

The abbey of Jumièges as it stands today (source).

The rest are only known from Dudo’s work. So, what does he say about them? Botho is probably the most significant figure. He has two distinct personalities, one as an ‘outstanding count of the Normans’ strongly associated with Bayeux, and the others as the commander-in-chief of the Norman army. He then disappears from the work around the beginning of the reign of Richard the Fearless (c. 945). Bernard the Dane (Dacigena, ‘Dacian-born’) is described as one of William Longsword’s chief confidantes (the word used is secretarius, which as he is also called conscius secretorum – i.e. a secret keeper – can’t really be translated as ‘secretary’ or any other kind of household position), and one of the leading citizens (optimates) of Rouen. After William Longsword’s death and Botho’s disappearance, he steps into the role of ‘leader of the Norman army’ and plays a major role in keeping the young Richard the Fearless safe from the machinations of his Frankish enemies. He’s also the one whom Dudo gives us the best sense of a personality for – Bernard gets a lot of the best lines, and he comes across as a loyal but acid straight-talker not afraid to say ‘I told you so’. Notably, where Botho was called a ‘count’ Bernard is only ever called a knight (miles). In turn, he disappears from the narrative when Richard comes of age. Anslech is by far the least fleshed-out – like Bernard, he is called William Longsword’s confidante and a principal citizen of Rouen; but his role in the book is peripheral at best. Finally, Ralph Torta, who is another of the leading citizens of Rouen. In what in context is the late 940s he was able to claim the ‘entire honour of Normandy’ for himself, although Dudo doesn’t say how or on what grounds. (William of Jumièges adds that he was a royal appointee.) Dudo presents him as a tyrant whom Richard eventually overthrows, forcing Ralph to go and seek refuge with his son, the bishop of Paris. 

First question: how much of this might be true? Starting with Botho, it’s noticeable that despite Dudo’s insistence on his Norman background, he has a very Frankish name (= Bodo) with no real Old Norse equivalent. (In fact, of the four only Anslech has a visibly Old Norse name and Bernard’s name is Carolingian par excellence.) It’s also noticeable that he is called a count, since at the time Dudo was writing there wasn’t a count of Bayeux, and in fact there was never again a count of Bayeux whilst Normandy was under ducal rule. The timing of his disappearance is also noticeable, given that Botho vanishes from the text at what we know from Flodoard’s Annals was the same time that Bayeux was conquered by a Viking warlord named Harald. Bernard the Dane is more difficult – we are given few incidental details about his background, and although his personality is well-developed it’s also idealised. Vikings in Frankish sources are often presented as witty, albeit cruelly so; and Dudo’s combination of that trait with loyalty and resource is a model of the ideal Norman retainer, not a specific person. Finally, I am inclined to believe that Ralph Torta’s son was the bishop of Paris, because it’s such an odd and pointless bit of information that the most plausible reason it’s in there is that it was true. What makes this interesting is that this elite seems to have been deeply enmeshed in the Carolingian world. It’s possible that ‘Bernard’ is a baptismal name (‘William’ doesn’t seem to have been the name William Longsword was born with either), but Botho seems much more likely to have been actually Frankish, a Frankish count no less, bound to Rouen by ties of fictive kinship engendered by fostering. Similarly, Ralph Torta was able to persuade Louis IV to appoint him as ruler of Rouen in the mid-to-late 940s, and his son (probably Bishop Walter of Paris) was a major figure in the Church hierarchy outside Normandy. (In fact, given that the contemporary archbishop of Rouen, Hugh de Calvacamp, had been a monk at Saint-Denis, the rather arresting image is raised of a kind of bishop exchange programme…) Dudo, then, has taken this elite and recast it in a Norman image.

Such a recasting is unsurprising in terms of what we know about Dudo’s agenda; but can we use Dudo’s reimagining of the men to get negative information about them? I think so. Above all, I think it shows that these men had no descendants, if not biologically at least in terms of people who wanted to claim them as ancestors. In the case of Botho and Ralph Torta, this fits what we know about their careers as well. (Later genealogists have claimed a posterity for them – the house of Taisson for Botho, that of Harcourt and also Beaumont for Bernard the Dane, and Montfort for Anslech – but the earliest evidence for this comes from hundreds of years later and more contemporary sources don’t know it.*) It is of course possible that there were myths and stories circulating about these men, but if so Dudo either didn’t know them or didn’t want to use them – and his Norman patrons clearly agreed with him. This fits in with an argument I’ve made before: the tumultuous period between c. 940 and c. 960 represents a significant break with the early Rouen countship of Rollo and William Longsword, and part of that was a massive turnover amongst the elites, definitely in terms of their self-understanding and quite probably in terms of the actual people concerned. In short: the old elite were killed or forced out, and a new, heterogenous elite who owed their positions to Richard the Fearless came to the fore. This elite and their descendants, then, would be the people who built pre-Conquest Normandy.

(*If you’ve found this blog post because you’re following that particular rabbit hole, then let’s be clear: this is all nonsense, there’s no evidence for this, and ridiculous claims like Bernard the Dane being “of the blood-royal of Saxony” are bad Victorian inferences.)

Charles the Bald: Overdrive

I noticed something weird lately, and it’s made me think that Charles the Bald came very close to utterly ruining the late-Carolingian political system. But let’s start at the beginning. One of the things which is supposed to be a big black mark on the record of tenth-century kings is their limited reach. This doesn’t sit right with me on either end, and I’ve written here before about you can see the tenth-century Carolingians in all kinds of places traditional historiography says you shouldn’t find them. But it’s also the case that there are big swathes of ninth- and even eighth-century Gaul which don’t have much to do with royal power. Martin Gravel uses the phrase ‘non-communicating elites’, and I haven’t got far enough through his book to find out how badly I’m misusing his words (suspicion: badly), but I like talking about these people in those terms. Whereas the movers and shakers of the Loire valley, say, or the bishops of southern Burgundy will have plenty of contact with the court, the bishops of what will become Rouen or the leading men of Quercy don’t seem ever to have had much contact with the Carolingian rulers, not in the ninth century and not in the tenth.

Here, indeed, is a contemporary picture of some of those Neustrian movers-and-shakers: this is Charles the Bald receiving a delegation of Neustrian monks in the 840s (source).

Given that the amount of documentation for the later tenth and eleventh century in these regions increases dramatically, what I think we then see is something of an optical illusion. The combination of ‘more stuff’ and ‘no kings’ makes historians think that the ‘no kings’ is a new development, whereas it’s more likely that if we had more stuff from earlier, we’d see kings as very distant figures then as well. (The original charters of the cathedral of Rodez, where we do have more stuff from earlier, seem to bear this out.)

A good way to look at this are the witness lists of Church councils. These are good because they essentially eliminate preservation bias as a factor – their preservation is so widely-distributed that if we see patterns in who does and does not attend, it’s unlikely to be because the archbishops of Trier (or whoever) were left out deliberately by dozens of scribes over dozens of institutions. And as it happens if we look at the witness lists of big, realm-wide Church councils under the Carolingians, we do see some consistent absences, a major one being the bishops of Cahors, who don’t show up at any Church councils that I’ve been able to find, not under Charles the Bald, not under Louis the Pious, and not under Charlemagne. This seems pretty good evidence that these bishops were never more than tenuously associated with Carolingian governance.

But, there is one exception to this rule. The Council of Ponthion in 876, called by Charles the Bald as part of his grand imperial dreams of the last few years of his life, had a ludicrously-large number of bishops taking part, including Cahors. Now, Cahors is just one example of this, but one thing I think we can see in the last part of Charles’ reign is the presence of more and more people around the king-emperor, including many more of these ‘non-communicating’ elites. At the same time, though, Charles’ inner circle was being more and more reduced (sometimes to the relief of the later historian – it’s during this period that the number of important Bernards around Charles goes from about five to one).

Now, it doesn’t help that both Charles and his son Louis the Stammerer die fairly shortly after one another, but I’m not sure its coincidence that the years around 880 see a serious factional crisis in the West Frankish kingdom. I’m starting to think that Charles, by demanding increased participation and cutting off the flow of reward, ran his kingdom into overdrive. Earlier medieval government doesn’t do well with density, and the years from 875 to 877 see a lot of actors in very little space – the subsequent explosion may well have something to do with this…

Yet More On the Origins of the Peace of God

Recently I was talking to one of my colleagues and expressed the opinion that pretty much everything written on the Peace of God is mad, including my own stuff. I think this is the fault of the material rather than the historians, but it does mean that doing anything involving the Peace can lead you to some very strange places. I say this by way of introduction for more-or-less the region you might imagine: I’ve come up with a theory of the proto-Peace of God’s origins, and it’s not what you might expect.

I’ve written on this blog before that we can’t really think of the actions of Stephen II in Auvergne and Guy of Puy in the Velay in the mid-to-late-tenth century as being ‘the Peace of God’ – that’s far too reified. Nonetheless, I’ve argued that Stephen of Clermont in particular assembled an interlocking suite of claims linking assemblies, oaths, and a discourse surrounding the word pax, peace. Where precisely Stephen got this idea from left me stumped – but something new has turned up.

So let’s turn out attention waaaay to the east, to Lotharingia in the 950s. We’ve recently become familiar with Lotharingia under Charles the Simple, possibly one of the most stable decades of its late- and post-Carolingian history. Most of the rest of the time, Lotharingia is a basket case. Otto the Great, after he came to power in 936, had to face a series of powerful dukes. He got lucky here: the most powerful, Gislebert, drowned after losing a battle in 939; but even after that Otto’s own appointee, Conrad, teamed up with Otto’s son Liudolf in a rebellion in the early 950s. After Liudolf and Conrad had been defeated, Otto appointed his own brother, Archbishop Bruno of Cologne, as duke of Lotharingia.

A twelfth-century Ottonian genealogical table. Bruno is in the top row on the right. (source)

Bruno’s reign went… okay. There were a few more rebellions, the most noticeable being that of Reginar III in the late 950s which is often although incorrectly adduced as the context for Gerberga’s Kriegsfahne which we’ve spoken about here before. However, for the most part Bruno was able to handle the situation in Lotharingia reasonably well. Bruno’s combination of secular and religious authority had a distinctly viceregal tint: Bruno’s biographer has Otto the Great tell the archbishop and newly-appointed archduke that ‘both priestly religion and royal power swell in thee’, and Bruno does seem to have had a direct share in royal power. It is not therefore terribly surprising to find that Bruno’s first actions when he got to Lotharingia were to summon the magnates of the region to Aachen, and tell them regie maiestati et sue ipsorum fidei pollicitationes nullas preponerent – i.e., that they should not abandon their oaths to him and his brother. If they did violate the ‘peace of the Church’, he would deal with them most severely.

Our source for this is the Vita Brunonis, written by a cleric from Cologne named Ruotger. Ruotger seems to have known Bruno, and certainly to have admired him – part of the text’s mission appears to have been to defend Bruno from the people who thought that his wielding of worldly power was distinctly dubious. He wrote shortly after Bruno’s death, apparently under the patronage of his successor Folcmar, who had also been closely connected with the dead archbishop; and Henry Mayr-Harting has characterised the text as aiming at ‘some kind of official status’.  It is therefore striking that the closest work we have to Bruno’s circles, we have assemblies, oaths, and (a theme which occurs throughout the Vita, not just in the bit I’ve quoted above) a discourse of peace.

There’s no reason historians would have picked up a link between Bruno and the Peace of God. Bruno’s activity looks like (one type of) Ottonian governance in action, and the Peace is so very far away. But the fact that this was all taking place in the late 950s is important, because if ever Stephen of Clermont were going to encounter Bruno of Cologne, it would have been at exactly this point. First, Stephen and Bruno almost certainly met at the coronation of King Lothar, very shortly after the events described above. We know Bruno was there, and it’s very probable Stephen was because he appears to have interceded for a charter which was confirmed at a placitum in 955. Second, there were also ongoing links between the western Ottonians and the Auvergne during this very period. I have never been happier for hyperlinks than in the following sentence, but we have already seen both Bruno and other major Church figures with ties to the Ottonian court such as Amblard of Lyon playing a major role in negotiating peace in the Auvergne in the latter part of the 950s.

What I think is happening here, then, is that as regional supremo in his own patch, Stephen is taking Bruno as a model to be imitated. Absent the Ottonian royal context, this is a lot weirder-looking, and the Vita Amabilis implies that Stephen was as if not more controversial than Bruno in seeking to claim worldly authority. But it does mean we can, perhaps, put the proto-Peace into what we already know about tenth-century governance rather than have it spring fully-formed out of the forehead of one brilliant bishop.

The Language of Competent Administration in the Bishopric of Langres

A few weeks ago, we took a look at a charter of Bishop Argrim of Langres, and I mentioned in passing that there were a few things about the language. This week, I’d like to look at that in a bit more detail.

Here are Argrim’s words:

When… I was residing in the bosom of the same mother church in general synod… and was settling the affairs and advantages of the churches committed to Our Unworthiness with pastoral solicitude, insofar as Our ability and understanding allowed; and was giving an equal amount of attention to disposing that what was legitimately established should endure undisturbed; and, if anything, perchance, could be found to be twisted and without authority, with divinity propitious was busying myself to get it back in line…

Here’s his successor Heiric 31 years later:

When I was residing in the bosom of the mother church committed to Us by God, and was inquiring and investigating how its status, with Christ’s favour, could improve for the better, along with the counsel of Our faithful men…

And his successor Achard 31 years after that:

When I was sincerely residing in the womb of the mother church committed to Us by Christ on the days of holy synod, and, as far as the quality of Our strength allowed, seeking and requiring in an orderly manner and investigating to reasonably deal with the business of the same church so that, by Christ’s administration, with the counsel and prayer of Our faithful men, to wit, of both orders, it might be improved to a better state…

And his own successor Widric 9 years after that:

When We were dwelling in the bosom of the Mother Church granted to Us by Christ, according to Our potential and knowledge equally, along with the faithful men of Our aforesaid church, and diligently and freely laboured over the state and progress of it, so that, with God’s bestowal, it might be effected to be sublimated, and the sons of the said church might be able to endure therein and serve God Almighty and Saint Mammet with devoted minds without end…

This kind of language stretches forward right up to the eleventh century, and in fact if we were rewinding the clock you could see it in the late ninth. You might be thinking that this seems unexceptional, insofar as all of the above appears to be a reasonable thing for a bishop to be saying; and certainly these aren’t iconoclastic sentiments – but they are unusual.

Langres today. (source)

Let’s start with the form. This kind of ‘synod-form’ charter is actually very rare in the tenth century. Let’s go outside of Burgundy for a second. We have large numbers of episcopal charters from the bishops of Laon, Poitiers, Verdun and Tours. Of those, Poitiers has two, Verdun and Tours one, and Laon none. It’s clear from other evidence that synods continued to happen; it’s just that they didn’t use this charter form. The bishops of Langres do.

Now, so to do the bishops of Autun and Mâcon. The difference is that in Langres the synod-form charter is paired with the language of good administration – diligently and studiously labouring to improve the affairs and utilities of the Church, that sort of thing. I don’t want to get categorical here, but this kind of language is much, much more typical of the bishops of Langres than their neighbours.

So what’s going on? Partly, it’s a late-Carolingian inheritance. We’ve seen before on this blog the significance of Burgundian bishops in the late ninth century, and those ninth-century bishops talk and govern like this. Langres preserves this inheritance particularly well for two (well, three) reasons: first, it never stopped being important; and second, it never really fell under the spell of the dukes of Burgundy the way that, say, Autun did for several decades there. (The third has to do with the particular legacy of Bishop Isaac of Langres, but maybe we’ll cover that another time.)

This has implications for the regional power of the bishops, of course – and if you want to know about that, the book is still underway – but I’d like to touch on the Peace of God in relation to it. I’ve already drawn parallels between Peace councils and the bishops of Langres, but here we can look at it from the other direction. Holding councils and making a big deal out of holding councils is known practice during the tenth century, and when the Aquitanians come to do the same in the latter half of it, they’re not necessarily doing anything new. What changes is that they pick a different selling point – ‘peace’ rather than ‘inquiring and investigating how the status of the mother Church might be improved for the better’. Pithier, certainly, but not necessarily all that dissimilar in principle.

Flagging Up an Issue

Being a mostly text-based historian, it’s nice when I get to work with more material-culture stuff, not least because it means that I can put it into blog posts like the following… So, take a look at this:

(source, copyright them)

Good, no? This is the Kriegsfahne (‘war banner’) of Gerberga. It’s not actually a war banner – it’s too small, for one thing – but that name has become attached to it. To give a bit of explanation about the iconography, what we have here is Christ and several saints in the middle, with a ‘Count Rainard’ (Ragenardus comes) kneeling before Christ, several martial verses from Psalm 144 stitched around the outside, and the phrase ‘Gerberga made me’ near the bottom. The textile is currently to be found in the cathedral treasury at Cologne, where it has been since the mid-tenth century. It is usually associated with Queen Gerberga, wife of Louis IV, which is fair enough insofar as a) Bruno, archbishop of Cologne in the mid-tenth century, was her brother; and b) one of the saints on this thing is St Baso, who was only culted in the abbey of Nore-Dame de Laon, which Gerberga happened to own.

The more interesting question, in terms of what this flag is trying to convey, is who Count Rainard is. He’s usually associated with Count Reginar III of Hainaut, a major figure in northern Lotharingia. So the argument goes, Gerberga, Bruno, and Reginar had a major dust-up in the 950s, the flag depicts Reginar defeated and prostrate, and it’s a reminder of her role in Reginar’s overcoming.

I have to confess to being unconvinced by this. First of all, Reginar (Ragenarius, Reginherus, Raginerus) is not the same name as Ragenardus. Second, Ragenardus here is not visibly defeated. For one thing, he’s not wearing penitential clothing; for another, he’s still very visibly wearing a sword, which one would have thought would be an obvious no-no if you wanted to depict a beaten enemy. In fact, the closest parallel to Ragenardus’ position are Carolingian and Ottonian pictures of reigning kings kneeling before Christ.

Such as this image of Otto III, from the emperor’s own prayer book (source)

So what do I think is happening here? Well, first, who is Ragenardus? My answer to that is that it is a man named Count Ragenold of Roucy. Ragenold was Queen Gerberga’s son-in-law, a major figure in Louis IV’s latter years, and a major military leader in the fight Louis and Gerberga led against Hugh the Great. It must be admitted that Ragenardus and Ragenoldus are also not quite the same name, but an L-R elision is not unknown, and in the parallel case of Count Rainald the Old of Sens, you can see contemporary authors making precisely this elision.

If it is Ragenold, then the flag must be presenting him not as a penitent, but as a successful warrior. The words of Psalm 144 around the edge, ‘Blessed be the Lord my strength which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight’, caption an armed figure kneeling before a triumphant Christ. This fits well into the context of Ragenold’s career in the late 950s, where he was involved in a number of Carolingian military expeditions into Burgundy in which both Gerberga and Bruno of Cologne were involved. Given that, thanks to his marriage, Ragenold was part of the extended Ottonian family, imagining this as a gift to the in-laws is far from implausible… This does of course raise the question: why give to the in-laws, and why give this? And for the answer to that, well, you’ll have to wait for the book…

The Problem of Older Brothers

This blog post may be a bit less convoluted than some, because it’s a rant about one general assumption found in earlier medieval scholarship which is so wide-spread that I’ve never even seen it verbalised, but you can find implicit pretty much everywhere: that when there are brothers the most important brother is the oldest.

The most obvious example of this are the three sons of Richard the Justiciar: Ralph of Burgundy, Hugh the Black and Boso of Vitry. Ralph of Burgundy became king, and if you read around you’ll find most historians making the assumption that he was the oldest brother of the three. Yet he’s only attested in 916, whereas Hugh the Black is attested sixteen years earlier, in a royal diploma of Louis the Blind dating from 900 where he’s already a count and clearly important enough to be sent on expeditions to see the king of Provence. Ralph might be the oldest brother, but it’s not proven!

Even more the case of King Odo. It is generally assumed that Odo is older than his brother Robert of Neustria, and again it might be the case. The two siblings were certainly of a similar age. But again, there is as far as I know no specific reference to Odo being older than Robert. In fact, if it is true that Robert was a count near Liège whilst Odo was still hanging around on the family farm in Worms, that might suggest the opposite.

Sometimes, you can prove traditional ideas of who’s older. Arnulf the Great of Flanders, who used to be one of my big hopes for being demonstrably-if-not-provably a ‘younger but more important brother’, actually turned out to be the opposite: re-reading Folcuin of Saint-Bertin’s history of his abbey, I found a reference to Arnulf being maior natu – older – than his brother Adalolf. It’s a shame not to be able to back up my point here, but it is at least a reminder of how rare statements this explicit are.

Still not important enough to be mentioned explicitly in Witger’s genealogy: Saint-Omer, BM ms 776, fol. 33v (source)

Why might this matter? The answer has to do with how succession worked in the early middle ages. We know, I think – and certainly I’ve argued – that norms of succession are extremely flexible, more so than they’re given credit for, and this is part of that. The assumption that the personal who eventually gets the high office must be the older child seems to me to be unconscious, reflex-level part projection of post-twelfth century(-ish) rules of succession-by-the-eldest-male onto a period where that may not have been the case. Ralph is a good example, actually – he might have been a good candidate for king because of his age, sure; but it’s remarkable that both is brothers appear to have been rather more parti pris in the recent and extremely controversial civil war than he was… Age may have been completely irrelevant here. The point is, that unless we recognise this assumption as an assumption, there’ll always be that barrier to our understanding of succession in the earlier middle ages.

(I am, for the record, an older brother myself, so there’s no personal dog in this fight…)

Was Flanders Unusually Invested In Relics Around the Year 900?

Recently Months ago (this post has been rescheduled, can you tell?) on Twitter, I was asking if there was a handlist of Carolingian relic-translations. Turns out there is (thanks, Giorgia!). But some of you may have been wondering why I was asking about this. The answer is that I’ve been writing the book sub-chapter about Flanders, and Count Arnulf the Great of Flanders (with whom I have some priors) was described by one contemporary chronicler as ‘relic-mad’, so the question was, what were the significance of relics in the north-east of Gaul? When I wrote my thesis, I wrote that the area of Flanders had seen an usually-large number of a certain kind of relic translations which Arnulf might have been picking up on. This was written with the blithe confidence of someone writing a PhD who can therefore be pretty sure that no-one is going to read the damn thing; but for the book I wanted to get some actual numbers behind my assertion. Was I right?

You know what, kinda. What I discovered reading the big list of relic translations was that – well, above all it’s that there’s a lot of hagiography out there and I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone with the patience to trawl through it(*); but more relevantly it’s that if there’s a disproportion, and there is a bit of one, it’s still not huge (the area of Flanders and its immediate neighbours accounts for roughly one in eight relic translations between 860 and 940), and that the numbers go up and down dramatically depending on what you count. I, for instance, did not count any relics making journeys in order to escape from Viking raids…

What I think still holds up is the more specific point I made in my thesis, which is that there are an unusually-large number of comitally-sponsored relic translations in late ninth-century Flanders, starting with Everard of Friuli and St Calixtus in the 850s and going up to Erchengar of Boulogne and saints Bertulf and Kilian in around 895. There are also, even more importantly, a lot of these being done by Arnulf’s family, starting with Baldwin Iron-Arm and St Amalburga in 870 and then continuing under Baldwin the Bald in the 890s and 900s. Comital relic translations aren’t unknown from the rest of the West Frankish kingdom – although I can think of only about three off the top of my head – but this is quite a dense number.

This being what there is in modern times of one of Baldwin the Bald’s foundations, Bergues-Saint-Winoc (source)

Above all, in an important article from a little while back, Brigitte Meijns pointed out that what the counts of Flanders are doing with their relics around the year 900 is remarkably similar to what the Anglo-Saxon kings are doing with theirs at the same time: i.e., moving them around and pairing them with fortresses and either newly-founded or reformed churches. Given the amount of interplay between Flanders and England – Arnulf’s brother Adalolf is named after Alfred the Great’s father, his own great-grandfather (and step-great-great-grandfather) – this must not be a coincidence.

What this means is that Arnulf was picking up on a local tradition with his support for relic translations. He was intensifying it, as was happening with local ideological traditions all over the kingdom; but it was there in advance, and that’s the important bit.

(*) I still haven’t got round to reading the Divers Calamities of the Abbey of Montier-en-Der and the Miracles of St Berchar and that’s been on the reading list since six months into my thesis…

The Problems of Lordship

There was going to be a much more urgent post on lordship back at the end of November, back before Chapter 4 of the book veered off in another direction; but what this does mean is that now we can take a more relaxed approach to this sort of thing. So, lordship. What is it?

To be honest, I’m not sure. As I poked around the historiography of this matter, it seemed increasingly difficult to get any grasp on ‘lordship’ as a concept. It’s very slippery. Thomas Bisson wrote a whole article called ‘Medieval Lordship’ without ever really specifying what it is. It’s quite easy to get a sense of what lordship is not – government, administration, political thought, legal rights, a legal institution, a social class – but other than ‘not the nineteenth-century Prussian bureaucracy’ it is hard to get a sense of how ‘lordship’ as used by historians is different from ‘power’.

Charles West – whose recent article questioning the analytic value of ‘lordship’ for the earlier middle ages set me off on this whole thing – sets up his stand against an idea of lordship as power that is personal, non-institutional, tinged with emotion, and distinctively medieval. His argument that this essentially reifies something that wasn’t actually there seems fairly solid (‘suggesting that within the relations between lords and dependants there was something stable and consistent enough to warrant an abstraction, even if hedged about with qualifiers (talking of ‘practices’ of lordship, or emphasizing its ‘fluidity’), is to go beyond what the evidence really permits’, p. 138). He suggests instead talking about unequal personal bonds in terms of a variety of different modes of patron-client relationships.

Lordship? Perhaps not… (source)

That all sounds plausible enough, so what’s my problem? Well, I don’t really have a problem with this, just a different angle of approach, I think. Fundamentally this comes from the fact that West and I are reading Richard Barton’s work slightly differently. Barton is the main English-language proponent of putting lordship in the Carolingian period, and West reads his work as being about this kind of hierarchical personal power between lords and dependents. Now, it’s quite possible that in what I’m about to say I’m either misreading West or misreading Barton. If the former – sorry, Charles! If the latter, I’m less inclined to apologise because if it is a misreading, it’s one I find useful… In any case, what I read Barton as talking about is not just vertical relations. Let me quote him at length:

The traditional approach to [lordship] has been from the standpoint of legal and institutional history… [but in fact] both the exercise and practice of lordship were ultimately connected to the ultimately personal facets of honor, reputation, and relative social status. These aspects of lordship, moreover, were the most immediate ones to the aristocratic mindset, since lords undoubtedly thought more about their social status relative to their kin, their neighbors, their enemies, and their peers than they did about law, custom, or institutional norms.

(Lordship in Maine, pp. 220-21)

I read this as talking about something broader: to understand authority we have to look at the full portfolio of a noble’s connections in every direction, including to the side.  (And Barton in fact says pretty much exactly this pp. 78-79.) Think, for instance, of the role of William the Younger in the entourage of William the Pious: he’s junior, but he’s also a count, he’s a relation, he’s probably the designated heir, he’s an ally. What he is not is a dependent, and I have trouble seeing him even as a client. This kind of bond, neither horizontal nor vertical but diagonal, I find easier to cover with Barton’s formulation than West’s.

This isn’t to say that I want to subscribe to every aspect of Barton’s paradigm, far from it! Looking at the entire portfolio means looking at the entire portfolio, something that drawing a sharp distinction between institutional and non-institutional aspects of authority doesn’t help. I mean, countship is (or can be) taking both a role in an institutional apparatus and making a personal, even affective status claim.

In fact, I wish Barton weren’t talking about ‘lordship’. He nails his flag to the term in such a way that it underpins his entire work, but as used it’s too vague and slippery a concept to drive analysis – all it does (as West rightly points out) is shut down certain paths of its own inquiry, for instance by ruling out institutional ties as part of a portfolio. West is very likely on the money about the analytical value of ‘lordship’ applied as an abstract noun to the Carolingian period. But I do still like Barton’s ideas, even if not his teminology, for understanding earleir medieval politics.

Men in the Middle: Rather of Dijon

Bouncing off this week’s charter, today we launch an occasional series on this blog looking at the second- and third-tier people you don’t usually see very much of. Now, admittedly, some people do have the kind of depth of evidence that you can see quite far below the top tier of society, so I’m generalising wildly here. The thing is, I’m not one of them, so being able to trace sub-comital or sub-episcopal figures relatively closely is always quite exciting for me. And to start us off, it’s one of a whole sub-group of people I could write about in this context, an archdeacon of the church of Langres. We’ve met him already, but there’s so much more to him than the Saint-Vincent affair would make out: it’s Rather, prior of Saint-Etienne de Dijon and archdeacon of Langres.

The first thing to note about Rather is how long his career was. In his first appearance in 899, he’s already archdeacon and prior of Saint-Etienne, and his last appearance is in 944. In theory, he should have been at least twenty-five to be made an archdeacon, and so by the mid-940s he’s past seventy years old. This is a respectable age: no tenth-century king got that far.

We’ve already seen that Rather looks to have had a close relationship with Bishop Argrim, and that this let him do a bit of shady dealing in Dijon. Argrim was probably the most important, but he wasn’t the only bishop who gave him a leg up. Bishop Warner seems to have made Rather the cathedral treasurer, although as we’ve seen he probably also forced him to give up Saint-Vincent. Nonetheless, it’s under Argrim that Rather appears to have established himself as an important figure.

And a shady one!

I don’t talk about this in the text, but here he is making exchanges with Saint-Etienne’s lands for his own benefit (source)

We’ve already seen him appropriating Saint-Bénigne’s church, but this isn’t the only blot on his copybook. In 909, the canons of Saint-Etienne themselves went before Bishop Argrim and asked him to get Rather to give back their estate in Arceau. Rather’s close ties to Argrim apparently came in  useful here, because the bishop judged that Rather should keep the estate in return for a rental payment.

With that said, Rather did live up to contemporary standards surrounding his office. In 921, Warner gave Rather permission to build a church at Epinant in order that the tithes going to that church could help provide the lighting for the cathedral at Langres. (Although, as we saw on Monday restoring church life was how he justified the seizure of Saint-Vincent, so maybe there’s more going on here…)

He also shows up judging a complaint of some serfs in around 915. The headman of the estate of Ahuy said that they were being forced to provide more renders than they had before the Viking attacks of c. 900, and Rather actually found in their favour. This is surprising, not least insofar as we still have the record of it; and it is at least nice to know that Rather was willing to keep an ear open to his subjects…

A final point to make about Rather is that, although he wasn’t first-rank, he wasn’t a strictly local figure either. In addition to both Dijon and Langres, Rather shows up interceding for people near Tonnerre, and that church in Epinant is actually in Bassigny. Rather’s influence shows up across what would later be archdeaconry borders, and suggests that by at least a decade into his career, his importance was rather more social than ex officio.