Edge Cases: Linear Borders in Early Medieval Europe

In early July 2022 I had the pleasure of attending the Leeds International Medieval Congress. This is the great summer jamboree for medieval historians, the largest annual academic conference in Europe, featuring 613 sessions and over 2,000 people. It was also the first to be held in person since 2019 for obvious disease-related reasons. In addition to catching up with old friends for the first time in years and making my presence felt at the legendary Wednesday night disco with my characteristic grace and poise, I thought I might try to attend some of the papers given that I was in town.

The overall theme of the conference was ‘Borders’. Adhering too strongly to said theme is not necessarily in the true spirit of Leeds IMC, but I got to hear a number of excellent papers that addressed the subject. One thing that struck me though were the number of speakers, particularly in the keynotes, who decried the idea of the existence of linear borders between political entities in the earlier Middle Ages. To hear one paper of this view, such things were unheard of before the fourteenth century at the earliest. Instead of lines, kingdoms and other such polities were separated by ambiguous and shifting border zones, where the writ of central authority ran thin in difficult country far from the heartlands of their power.

Such an assessment is often correct. The frontier between the Carolingians and Umayyad al-Andalus, where I cut my teeth as a researcher, is a fine example. Somewhere on the road between Barcelona and Zaragoza, a ninth-century traveller crossed from one authority to another, but pinning down the exact spot would be a difficult and largely pointless exercise. This emphasis upon nodal points of communication and control is very far from unusual. Nonetheless, there was something about the confident declarations that medieval people did not think in terms of linear borders that troubled me.

Partly this is because I worry that we’re a little too fond of the complexity of ambiguous frontiers. Most of us come from states which come to an end at clearly delineated geographic points (something I have been reminded of all too regularly as a British person who routinely travels across Europe). There’s something immensely exciting and heroic about borderlands that blur into each other. In embracing them, historians in the present demonstrate their ability to engage with very different pasts in a way that shows off our subtlety and cleverness. It also marks us out as different from the Priti Patels, Donald Trumps and Marine Le Pens of the world. This can lead to us fantasising about the Middle Ages as a time when people didn’t care about borders as antidote to the present.

More substantially the concept of the borderless Middle Ages smacks a little too much of modernity constructing medieval otherness. The idea that linear borders only emerge in the fourteenth century feeds into narratives designed to separate the past from the present, allowing modern historians to treat the centuries before their period as an alien irrelevance. The dangers of such an approach can be seen in the literature on the history of international relations, where the idea that diplomacy emerged in the fifteenth century resulted in the considerable neglect of anything in between Thucydides and the Medici. I’m also concerned that assuming that all medieval borders were zones rather than lines lets us off the hook of investigating why this was the case. After all, if people from the Middle Ages resisted toeing the line, then we shouldn’t feel surprised that fluid territorial ambiguity is the ubiquitous order of the day.

I actually think we should be surprised if it turns out that medieval people never thought in terms of linear political boundaries. After all, borders and lines existed within their daily lives. A glance at the boundary clauses in charters often reveals a world where people had very firm and precise ideas about where their property stopped, and another person’s began. These are very common in Anglo-Saxon charters, with a nice example being the boundary clause in a charter from the start of the tenth century in which Edward the Elder confirms the sale of five hides of land at Water Eaton in Oxfordshire:

These are the land-boundaries of Eaton – first from beetle’s stream up along the streamlet till it comes to the coloured floor. Thence along the valley by the two little barrows till it comes to the spring at Wulfhun’s plantation. Then diagonally over the furlong to the thorn bushes westward where the large thorn tree used to stand, and so to bird pool. Then along the ditch till it comes to the muddy spring, and so along the water course till it comes to the Cherwell which forms the boundary from then on.

(trans. here, orig. here)

While some of the landmarks may strike us as rather eccentric, they would have been meaningful to the people on the ground who were the ones who most needed the information. Nor were these clauses confined to England. They can be found in charters from Catalonia and Brittany to Italy and Bavaria.

Should barrows and bird pools not suffice, boundary markers could also be employed. The Law of the Bavarians ordained that:

XII.1 If anyone dares to level boundary lines or remove fixed boundary markers, let him compensate, if he is a freeman, with six solidi for each sign or marker in the neighbourhood.

(trans. Rivers, p.150)

This is followed by a full section on the subject. Cities and towns were criss-crossed with lines, whether those relate to property, parishes or different legal zones. Anglo-Saxon law codes refer to the beating of the bounds, which still happen in parts of Britain and New England to this day, in which priests lead their flocks around the boundaries of their parish, to fix them in memory and practice. (Young boys were often beaten at strategic points in order to secure their recollection of this geography, part of a rich English pedagogical tradition which explains so many of the neuroses of my beloved patria.) There was a long and fine intellectual tradition running behind such boundaries, as demonstrated by the continued use of Roman texts about surveying such as the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum.

Drawing lines in the sand in the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel Codex Guelfferbytanus 36.23 Augusteus 2 f.19r.

The presence of linear boundaries in a domestic context doesn’t mean they existed on the frontier, but it should at least suggest that such a thing was not inconceivable to medieval minds. And sure enough, if we go looking, we find a range of suggestive borders. Some of these are present on natural features. Rivers might have been great connectors for communications and commerce in the medieval world, but they also offered a natural line of demarcation, albeit one that was prone to moving. Einhard claimed that the Vistula and the Ebro marked the limits of Charlemagne’s empire, and while he was clearly overoptimistic in the case of the latter, it at least indicates that fluvial boundaries were an idea that made sense to him. Elsewhere we find linear earthworks such as the Danevirke between the Danes and the Franks and Offa’s Dyke between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms. These may not have marked the precise border, but by acting as places to manage the flow of people, they effectively created a line where one moved from one zone of control to another. Nor was this concept confined to the Christian world. Muslim writers commented on the Iron Gates raised by Alexander the Great to mark the border between the civilised world and the Tartar hordes of Gog and Magog.

Treaties sometimes also indicate that people were thinking in terms of lines. A nice example is the treaty that ended the Beneventan civil war in 849, by partitioning the principality between Radelchis I in Benevento and Sikenolf in Salerno, which states that:

10. Between Benevento and Capua the border goes from Sant’Angelo to Cerro, passing through the edge of Monte Vergine to the place called Fenestella. Between Benevento and Salerno the border lies in the place, which is called ‘Ad Peregrinos’, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side. Between Benevento and Conza the border lies right at the border stone in Frigento, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side.

(translated by Benham here, with useful context here)

Better known in Anglophone world is the agreement made around 880 between Alfred the Great and Guthrum, which declares that the boundaries of their realms shall run ‘up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, and then up the Ouse to Watling Street.’ Centuries of scholars have tried to map the resulting partition with many different interpretations. We may suspect that in reality the result was more fluid, but the treaty nonetheless conveys an understanding of the frontier that is created by a fixed linear legal boundary.

Different frontiers took different forms. The Carolingian empire was bounded by a mix of client kingdoms, such as the Abodrites, organised marches, like my beloved Spanish March, and fortified defensive lines, an example of which can be found along the Elbe. A classic case study of Carolingian rulers thinking in terms of lines appears in the negotiations between Louis the Pious and the Bulgars in the 820s. In 825 the emperor received envoys from Khan Omurtag in order to determine their ‘borders and limits (terminis ac finibus)’. Omurtag was keen to sort this out, sending a further embassy in 826 in response to Louis’ reply, ‘that the borders (terminorum) be determined without delay.’

These talks were complicated by antagonism between the Bulgars and pre-existing Frankish clients such as the Praedenecenti, but the aim was to fix a line between the two powers. What I particularly like about this example is that it demonstrates the way the nature of these boundaries could shift. After a sustained attempt to draw up a clear line, a breakdown in relations between the Franks and the Bulgars led to war, when the latter invaded Upper Pannonia in 827. The development of intermittent conflict, and activities of other peoples in the region like the Timociani who didn’t fancy being Bulgar clients, created a deep frontier zone. This was not an inevitable consequence of medieval people being unable to conceive of linear borders, but rather a dynamic result of political circumstances and decisions, which could change quickly.

It is not my intention in this screed rant post to deny that the borders between medieval polities were often porous or poorly defined. Nor is it to doubt the existence of ambiguous frontier zones that acted as liminal spaces where people got on with their own business without too much concern about which ruler they were theoretically subject to. Instead, what I hope I’ve suggested is that linear borders could indeed exist in the medieval world, and that were we do find edges that shade into each other, we ought to ask why that is, rather than assuming that this was a universal feature. Rather than drawing a line under the matter, we need further investigation in order to more clearly delineate the subject.

On the Origins of Viscounts

Recently Months ago, friend of the blog Jonathan Jarrett posted some reflections on Carolingian viscounts over on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. At the time, I was visiting my wife in Georgia, but it’s a topic on which I have a lot of thoughts, so I wrote up some ideas offline during a car ride between Vardzia and Tbilisi. Since then, it has sat in a drafts folder waiting to be posted. Today, I decided to clear out said drafts folder and revisited it. Turns out, it’s pages long, which is too long for a comment – but, as it happens, I have this place I can put short-form written content and so you guys now get the dubious benefits of being able to read it, so enjoy…

Jonathan’s musings were prompted by having read an edited volume by Hélène Débax on Vicomtes et vicomtés, viscounts and viscounties. Débax and her fellow authors, who were mostly but not entirely focussed on southern France, basically saw viscounts as the product of comital weakness, ‘taking over unattended jurisdictions’ and acting as their own little lords of the manor. Jonathan, by contrast, was used to a Catalan historiography which sees viscounts as ultimately comital delegates, i.e. public officials there to represent the counts in places the counts cannot be. Jonathan doesn’t like this argument in a Catalan context because viscounts don’t emerge at a time when there’s any special reason for counts to need delegates and because when we seem them in charter evidence from the Spanish March, they don’t often behave like counts except maybe in presiding over courts. For Jonathan, the vicecomital title puts its holder in relation with a count and thus with public power. Its emergence is thus best seen as a way of getting ‘powerful independents’ to engage with comital power by offering them certain kinds of authority which only public officials could wield in return for their own acknowledgement of their subordinate status. He then emphasises the sheer amount of variety we see in a Catalan context, but concludes that “if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases”.

This might work for Catalonia, but I think in the rest of the West Frankish kingdom, the delegation theory holds up better – albeit perhaps amended with some ideas of this sort. Comital weakness, by contrast, I think we can dismiss. Even if I wasn’t inherently opposed to the idea of ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ as analytical terms, most viscounts north of the Dordogne show up at a time when authority in their regions is getting more intensive and (less demonstrably but still there) having its connections to a royal centre strengthened.

We have to distinguish here between viscounts and vice-counts. ‘Viscounts’, in this context, are more institutionalised figures, whose status isn’t contextual and/or temporary. To give you an example, royal legislation from the reign of Charles the Bald sets up a meeting between the king and vicecomites from Paris and Sens in the immediate future. Here, I think we are dealing with ‘duly appointed comital deputies’ nominated for this specific task rather than permanent officials – like advocates at St Gallen vs advocates at Saint-Martin – because otherwise viscounts don’t show up in our sources for these areas until much later.

By contrast, the first significant institutional viscounts I know of from the West Frankish kingdom north of the Dordogne, which are also the ones I know best, are on the Neustrian March. Men such as Viscount Atto I of Tours begin to emerge in the 870s, and this looks like genuine change rather than just the revelation of things that have been there all along, not least because normative formulae change at the same time as specific vicecomital individuals appear. Even more, this does look like delegation. Men such as Atto, and then later Fulk the Red and Theobald the Elder in Angers and Tours respectively, appear when the supra-local authority of the Neustrian marchiones makes actual on-the-spot rule logistically impractical, and our evidence suggests that these viscounts are in fact holding things together for the March’s rulers. Now, this is admittedly mostly holding courts in the charters we have – but that’s also most of what the charter evidence reveals the marchiones doing as well!

Similar patterns can be seen in Aquitaine. This is straightforward, I think, in Poitou and its environs. Greater Poitou is doing much the same thing in political-cultural terms as Neustria, and its viscounts are pretty well controlled by the counts for the tenth century and beyond; pace Delhoume and Remy, the first viscounts of Limoges don’t seem to be associated with the counts of Toulouse, but with Ebalus Manzer of Poitiers, who is also able to assert his jurisdiction over them pretty effectively. In Auvergne and its environs, viscounts show up at the very end of the ninth century, and (as Lauranson-Rosaz says in the Débax volume) appear to be appointments of William the Pious at exactly the time when his personal hegemony stretches over a massive chunk of central Aquitaine. The role of specifically royal authority here might be questioned, but it is I think relevant that William’s subordinates are called ‘viscounts’ rather than anything else, tying them into Late Carolingian regional hierarchies. William himself was trying to capitalise on his Königsnahe at basically the same time, and these phenomena might be connected.

Notably, in generally weird Burgundy, viscounts are mostly absent, and the earliest example I can think of is Ragenard of Auxerre, who is based precisely in one of the key centres of Richard the Justiciar’s power. Based on our analogies above, I’d say Richard’s wobbly personal hegemony, which did not have the benefit of royal approbation for much of its existence, didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – use the language of legitimate Carolingian hierarchy. Equally, viscounts tend to be absent in the north-east, which is much more politically fragmented, and it looks to me rather like comital jurisdictions there are sufficiently small not to need deputies.

Could we consider this in political culture terms? Yes, certainly, but not primarily I think as a means of getting ‘powerful independents’ to participate in the system. Insofar as we can see viscounts in these regions, they tend to be nobodies. Fulk the Red of Angers, for example, has been the focus of a long-running debate about whether or not he was a novus homo because of his family’s onomastic connections to the important Widonid family; but what tends to go overlooked is that whether or not he had famous relatives he himself started his career not as a big Neustrian cheese but as a very minor member of the retinue of the count of Paris. His Tourangeau counterpart Theobald the Elder seems to have been a complete no-name. What I think vice-comital office offers is a means of legitimising counter-weights to the powerful independents. There was no way that, say, Fulk the Red could face off against a genuine powerful independent in Neustria like the Rorgonid Gauzfred, whose family had been there since dot and whose authority in the area doesn’t seem to have depended at all on his intermittent possession of a comital title, without the might of Carolingian royal authority behind him. I’ve spoken before about the calcification of Neustrian hierarchies, and the delegated authority of the vice-comital office is a part of that.

Now, can these guys pull out of comital orbits? Yes, certainly, but it only really works when areas of jurisdiction become simultaneously areas of conflict over spheres of influence – like the way that the viscounts of Thouars become much more independent than the other Poitevin viscounts because they end up caught between Poitiers and the counts of Angers.

The walls of Thouars (source)

A final point I’d like to consider here is that, despite the centuries-long history that the vicecomital office would go on to have in France, their genesis looks like a very specifically Carolingian phenomenon. In most of the regions we’ve been considering, viscounts have a straight line of descent from a Carolingian inheritance. Even in the Limousin, ‘the land of viscounts’, the proliferation of viscounts is fundamentally owed to the prominence (and fecundity) of the viscounts initially appointed by Ebalus Manzer. When the counts of Flanders’ domain got big enough in the tenth century that they started appointing their own delegates, these men were castellans, not viscounts. The vicecomital moment had passed, and new ways of conceptualising comital subordinates were on the rise.

Disability, Disinheritance, Disdain? (Louis the Stammerer ii, with bonus Source Translation)

Last week, we looked at Louis the Stammerer and the powers and responsibilities he held in the last years of Charles the Bald’s reign through the lens of Louis the German’s invasion of the West Frankish kingdom in 875. This time, we’re going to look at Louis the Stammerer and succession. To recap, historians have generally seen the relationship between Charles and Louis as being a particularly rancid example of a Carolingian father-son bond, with Louis resentful and incompetent and Charles suspicious and disdainful. One of the ways this perception of their relationship plays out in analysis of our source material is the perception that Charles was actively trying to cut Louis out of the succession, and this latter perception culminates in an apocalyptic (for Louis’ chances of becoming king, anyway) reading of the 877 Capitulary of Quierzy.

It has to be said right at the start that part of the reasons historians think that Charles was looking to replace Louis is that, at points in his reign, he absolutely was looking to upgrade his heir. The introductory address to the ordo to crown Charles’ first wife Ermentrude as queen in 866 explicitly says as much: his sons have died or disappointed him (or been disqualified by being made part of the clergy) and he’d like the assembled bishops to beseech God to give him some extras just so he can be sure his successors will actually be good. This, though, is a document of 866: both of Charles’ eldest sons, including Louis, had recently rebelled, and Charles’ attempts to assert his patriarchal authority had been a bit damp. The crucial thing is that this is a document of 866, and by a few years later father-son trust had actually been rebuilt. Charles, from our evidence, certainly continued to want more sons, but this was decoupled from any animus against Louis: it stemmed from a generic desire to have more sons for the security of his descent-line and as a display of divinely blessed kingship than from a specific desire to screw Louis out of his inheritance (erm, so to speak).

This brings us to the Capitulary of Quierzy. Issued in 877 when Charles the Bald was on the threshold of going to Italy, it sets out his provisions for the government of his northern realms whilst he was away, including making a statement on the succession. That statement is that the West Frankish grandees explicitly designate and accept Louis as Charles’ successor; that Louis is to prepare to go to Rome on Charles’ return for a royal coronation there; but that if, in future, Charles has more sons, they will be entitled to a share (to be determined) in the inheritance, and that Charles’ nepotes may also (to be determined) have a share of the realm.

Historians have seized on the latter part of this much more than the former. I don’t think anyone has put the argument this bluntly, but the general interpretation of the Capitulary can be summed up as: by refusing to declare Louis sole heir once and for all to the whole of his realm, Charles was looking to marginalise him in favour of hypothetical future heirs or even – so desperate was he to find any alternative to his son – his nephews, the sons of Louis the German (this latter being one meaning of the word nepotes).

A priori, I don’t think this is right. One thing that isn’t pointed out is that Charles couldn’t exactly refuse to disinherit his hypothetical sons by Richildis either. (Actually, he could in theory put them in the Church, but given that he already didn’t have a spare heir that was a dangerous manoeuvre). Within that framework, Charles had evidently and very explicitly had Louis affirmed as his successor. Moreover, he was working to put a special gloss on Louis’ authority. A coronation in Rome – not as emperor but certainly with imperial overtones – wasn’t handed out on the street corner, and indeed Charles’ plans to give Louis authority in Italy gave him what contemporaries perceived as a legitimate claim into the period of his sole reign. Moreover, Louis was probably given a major role in determining the future shape of the realm. The part about Charles’ nepotes, it seems to me, is unlikely to refer to his nephews – they do show up as nepotes elsewhere in the Capitulary but only in the context of their being a constant, lurking menace, the combatting of which is one of Louis’ prime delegated responsibilities. I cannot imagine Charles saying ‘fight them on the beaches, fight them on the landing grounds, fight them in the fields and in the streets – but if one of them proves worthy they can be my heir’! Instead, I think that Charles’ nepotes are Louis’ sons, his grandsons. The clause says that if they prove worthy, then a division of the realm will be made secundum quod nobis tunc et cui placuerit. I have found three renderings of this clause into modern languages (two in English, one in French) and as far as I can tell every single one of them leaves out the et cui. The phrase translates straightforwardly, as ‘in accordance with what is at that time pleasing to me and to him’. However, although syntactically it’s not entirely clear whom the cui refers back to (it could be the nepos in question, it could be God), it’s most likely – I think, having talked it over with my current boss who reached the same conclusion independently – to refer to Louis himself. What Charles is actually saying, in essence, is ‘if either of my grandsons prove worthy of getting a sub-kingdom, their father – my son – and I will discuss what to give them and act accordingly.’ In short, I don’t think this document is a prelude to cutting Louis out of the succession: it’s a prelude to making him the senior figure amongst what Charles hopes will be a larger group of son-kings.

Of course, if we could find evidence that Charles actually was attempting to disinherit Louis, then all the preceding discussion would be moot; and this brings us to today’s translated source. Brigitte Kasten has argued that a draft capitulary text usually attributed to Alcuin was not, in fact, from the realm of Charlemagne, but in fact half a century later from the reign of Charles the Bald. Furthermore, the chapters in question make radical suggestions regarding the possibility of disinheriting sons from an inheritance on the grounds of rebellion or mental disability. In such a figure, Kasten sees Louis the Stammerer.

Kasten’s grounds for re-dating the text are essentially derived from an analysis of its content, rather than on any kind of codicological or text-critical grounds. I won’t summarise the whole thing here, but her key point is that there’s no reason for Charlemagne to have asked for advice on how to deal with sons with mental illness whereas for Charles the Bald there was. I don’t find Kasten’s re-dating entirely convincing, I have to say; but for the sake of argument we can assume it.

So, with that in mind, why does Kasten think this text is relevant to Louis? Kasten argues that Louis was ‘mentally deficient’ (Geistesschwäche) based on a passage in Regino of Prüm, where he describes Louis as:

called “the Stammerer”, because speech came to him more slowly and with greater difficulty… this prince was a straightforward and mild man, a lover of peace, justice and religion…

Regino, Chronicon, s.a. 878

Now, the Latin I’ve translated as ‘straightforward man’ is vir simplex, which can mean ‘simple’ as in ‘stupid’ but usually doesn’t. Normally, a vir simplex is one who is – as the Bible says – ‘simple like the dove’, manifesting a given set of theological virtues. There is some debate whether or not these particular virtues were perceived as being good ones for kings to have by Carolingian writers, but they’re definitely not a sign of stupidity. But! argues Kasten. But! He also had a stutter!

If I were being strictly fair, Regino says not only that Louis the Stammerer had a stutter and that he found talking to be slow and difficult. Besides the fact that Talking is Hard is a pretty damn amazing power-pop album, all that we need to say here is a bad stammer does not make one congenitally unable to manage one’s own affairs, and there’s no other indication that Louis had any kind of mental illness (either congenital or acquired).

By contrast, if we continue to accept for argument’s sake that this draft capitulary is from Charles the Bald’s reign, then there’s a much more obvious target that I am surprised Kasten, who literally wrote the book on kings’ sons, missed. Charles’ second son Charles the Child, who rebelled with Louis the Stammerer in 862 but whose reconciliation took longer and was much more begrudging, was badly wounded in 864. The severe head wound he sustained did in fact cause ongoing trauma – Hincmar of Rheims calls it both epilepsy (epelemtica passione) and, in language notably reminiscent of the capitulary text, ‘disturbed in the head’ (cerebro commoto) – and two years later he died from it. We are thus are certainly dealing with a son whom contemporaries saw, unquestionably, as both rebellious and mentally ill. Thus, if we are dealing with a mid-ninth century text here, the target of any attempt at disinheritance was surely Charles the Child and not Louis the Stammerer.

Consequently, our analysis of the Capitulary of Quierzy given above stands, and we can place it in tandem with last week’s analysis of the events of 875 to argue that Louis has been given an historiographically raw deal. He and Charles the Bald certainly had their moments of profound tension, but they patched up their political relationship quite effectively. Charles entrusted Louis with important missions, and Louis carried them out successfully. There was no attempt to disinherit Louis on Charles’ part – in fact, if all had gone according to Charles’ plan, the end result would have been a senior, Rome-crowned, member of a family of kings presiding over much younger half-brothers and the sons whose fate he had collaborated with his father to decide.

(Psuedo?-)Alcuin, Epistola, no. 132 (MGH Epp. vol. 4)

Chapters which it is Appropriate to Bring to Mind at Such a Time

Cap. I: ‘A testament is of force after men are dead’, as the apostle testifies. And so, after the death of the testator it obtains complete firmness. But also, the consensus of everyone confirmed it before death. And thus what could not be previously condemned cannot be afterwards infringed.

Cap. II: Let whoever is found to be ungrateful to a testator also become contumelious. He himself is his own witness that he is not worthy of the testament. For example: Canaan was made a slave by the grave dishonouring of his father; Esau lost his firstborn’s portion out of a lack of self-control; Reuben was put aside in favour of his younger brothers for abusing his father. And finally, ‘let he who curses his father’, etc.

Cap. III: It is natural for a son to inherit his father’s blessings. However, they fight against Nature’s laws who are abusive or disobedient to their parents. Therefore, a legitimate heir is one who keeps to the aforesaid regulations regarding parents.

Cap. IV: It is one thing to be mercifully admittedly when unworthy; and another to be properly put in writing as one’s due. Nor can what was conceded to be gained entirely unworthily be claimed as one’s due. Indeed, different merits require different rewards.

Cap. V: That he who is well-born and legitimately heir to an inheritance, and is not found to spurn laws old or new nor to be wounded against his father nor injured against the people, may have great expectations, by the Lord’s mercy, of an inheritance.

Cap. VI: It is clear that anyone subject to a broken head is ill, since the health of the whole body comes from firmness of mind; nor can subordinate limbs rejoice in the health which the head evidently does not have.

Cap. VII: If truth is sought, this is not unknown; if reason, it is not ambiguous; if authority, it is not uncertain. For indeed authority stands out, and reason is well-known, and truth cannot be concealed.

Cap. VIII: All this seems to be contained in a threefold division: to wit, of those who take care, and those who cause injury, and those who waver between the two so that they might continuously associate themselves with those whom they perceive will receive. Therefore, those who take care should be usefully helped; those who resist, on the other hand, manfully opposed; and the dubious either reasonably drawn in or circumspectly ignored; and it should be demonstrated to everyone that authority cannot be corrupted, nor reason defeated, nor can truth be at all overcome.

Cap. IX: The people should be led in accordance with divine law, not followed; and honourable people should rather be chosen to witness. Nor should those who say ‘the voice of the people are the voice of God’ be listened to, since the turbulence of the common folk is always the closest thing to madness.

Cap. X: There is a proverb amongst the common folk: ‘from hardness, something survives; from weakness, nothing remains’. And indeed wisdom ought to attend constancy; and constancy complete wisdom, such that wisdom may be constant and constancy wise.

Cap. XI: Thus the preaching of peace should be carried out carried out such that a false assertion might not be introduced under the name of piety. For just as it is a dreadful thing to break the peace it is a blasphemous thing to deny the truth. In the end, truthful unity and peaceful truth are in harmony with each other.

Cap. XII: I think things of this sort should be taught to simple folk, because ignorance of truth causes a lot of people to err. Then, once truth has been made manifest, the contrary might be confounded, friends will be strengthened, and everyone equally will be left without excuses.

Diligently and worthily, I beseech you, consider these things. For indeed, the immensity of your trust renders my smallness impatient on your behalf, and makes me dare beyond my powers. But one cannot lose trust if one never had it… May He in Whose hands are kings and the rights of kingdoms multiply, protect and defend your crowns.

The Ellwangen Relics Casket and Royal Family Feuds (Louis the Stammerer i)

Sometimes, something can be moved right from the bottom of the agenda to the top purely through serendipity. This happened to me recently when my wife came to visit me in Germany. We went to the Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, a museum I happen to really like and have visited on several occasions before. This time, though, I saw something I’d never noticed before:

The Ellwangen Reliquienskästchen, s. ix ex, photo by author

This is the Ellwangen Relic Casket, and the label says that the three figures on it are the Carolingian emperor Charles the Bald, his son Louis the Stammerer, and his second wife, Louis’ stepmother, Richildis. I had never heard of this thing before, and the portrayal of all three of them on a high-end luxury item got me to restart something I had been playing with and put aside a few months earlier: a rehabilitation of Louis the Stammerer’s role in his father’s late reign. 

Traditionally, Louis the Stammerer is seen as a peculiarly rubbish king. He is not well-served by the simple but unfortunate fact that his reign only lasted for eighteen months, after which he finally succumbed to an illness which had originally struck him down in the summer of 878. However, before that he had a twenty-year career during his father’s reign. Historians almost universally consider Louis’ role under Charles the Bald as that of a useless irritant who failed at everything he tried and whose relationship with his father was unusually toxic even by the low standards of Carolingian men. Louis first emerges on to the scene being crowned King of Neustria in 856, but he was driven out of the region a couple of years later. He returned in the early 860s, and in 862 was part of a conspiracy to rebel between Charles the Bald’s children, which led to his leading an armed revolt with Breton help for a couple of years before he submitted to Charles in the mid-860s. Charles then refused to confirm Louis in his royal title, before sending him in 867 to become king of Aquitaine in company with officials from Charles’ own palace. In 872, Charles sent his new favourite and brother-in-law Boso of Provence into Aquitaine as Louis’ chamberlain, seemingly ending what little role Louis actually played in governing the region. In 875, Louis was sent to Lotharingia to defend it against Louis the German’s invasion, which ended up steamrollering the area. By 877, when Charles set out on his final journey into Italy, he issued a capitulary at Quierzy refusing to confirm Louis as his sole heir and assigning him a series of minders to monitor his behaviour whilst Charles was away. Charles’ ultimate aim, it is argued, was to displace Louis as heir through having more sons with Richildis, and some historians have seen Richildis’ hand in the emperor’s hostility to his son. Ultimately, though, there is general consensus that in the face of Louis’ ineptness Charles refused to allow his son power, responsibility, or respect. 

I don’t intend to go over Louis’ entire career here. (I will in passing note that Louis was about ten years old when made king of Neustria in 856, so whatever went wrong there it’s unlikely to have been his fault*.) What I’d like to focus on for this post is that last decade, the 870s, and specifically Louis the German’s invasion of the West Frankish kingdom in 875. For context, in 875 Emperor Louis II of Italy had died, prompting an instant battle for possession of Italy between Charles the Bald and Louis the German and his sons. Whilst Louis’ son Karlmann got sent into Italy, Louis himself launched a speedily assembled invasion of the West, hoping to force Charles to return north of the Alps and perhaps hoping to take over some more of his kingdom’s west. Here, whilst it is true that Louis the Stammerer didn’t try and fight his uncle in Lotharingia, I’d like to argue that what he did instead was a more sensible and ultimately successful strategy. The first thing to note here is that Louis the German was a very successful and experienced military leader and the East Frankish army was much more battle-hardened than its West Frankish equivalent. In this context, actually trying to fight Louis the German in a pitched battle would have been very stupid. The defensive strategy adopted instead was to focus on strategy, logistics, and politics. The greatest threat posed by Louis the German – which we see too in his invasion of 858 – was his capacity to win over West Frankish magnates. His greatest weakness was the fact that his army had been assembled in such haste. Louis’ supply lines were short. West Frankish defence therefore focussed on ravaging the area where Louis was based, and on reinforcing the loyalty of border magnates. Both of these things we know about largely thanks to Hincmar of Rheims, who strongly disapproved of both. Hincmar’s bias, though, is very palpable, and there’s no reason to take his opinion seriously. Stripped of his commentary, what we can actually see happening is a strengthening of the political loyalties of eastern West Frankish magnates which meant that (unlike in 858) there was no mass defection in favour of Louis; and the constant attrition of his supply base ultimately forced him to retreat after only a few weeks. 

Yet there is more. Louis the Stammerer played a major role in opposing Louis the German, but he didn’t do it alone. Leading the defence alongside him, probably as the senior partner, was his stepmother Richildis. Carlrichard Brühl, referring to Charles’ perceived disdain for Louis as his heir, said it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine Richildis’ role in trying to disinherit her stepson. That’s literally true, but one would hope historians would apply a bit more imagination before basing their analysis on tropes from the Brothers Grimm. In fact, their actions during the events of 875 suggests that Louis and Richildis were effective co-operators and political allies.

This is where the Ellwangen Casket comes in. We have to admit right away that the identification of the three figures on the casket is not entirely certain. The argument was made by Percy Schramm. He noted that the scholar who originally described the casket, Fritz Vollbach, identified it as a product of the West Frankish ‘court school’ of ornamentation in the 870s. Schramm then argued that a) it was nothing originally to do with the abbey of Ellwangen (and indeed we still don’t really know how it got there) and b) probably wasn’t intended to house relics, because there’s no dedication to any saint on it. He then argued that the place of honour of the female figure made it likely that this person was the recipient of the casket. Furthermore, Schramm argued, we have more portraits of Charles the Bald than any of his contemporary kings, so surely one of them must by Charles making the woman Richildis and the other king likely Louis the Stammerer. I think Schramm’s argument could be strengthened here, actually – if it’s from the West Frankish court in the 870s, this makes it overwhelmingly likely Charles is pictured on it, something Schramm implies but doesn’t actually state explicitly. Anyway, that’s the argument for the identification of these figures, and it’s not universally accepted. I read one article making a very lengthy case that these three figures are supposed to represent the holy Trinity as part of an overall iconographic scheme based on the theology of the Irish monk Eriugena, an article I think mostly shows how much ingenuity can be used to read theological arguments into a golden box, but which nonetheless advises us to take a note of caution before accepting Schramm’s conclusions uncritically.

Nonetheless, if Schramm is right, and I think he probably is, then I’d be more inclined to see Richildis as the patron of the casket than its recipient. I’d also probably date it to around 875. (It can only be from 870-877 anyway, because that’s the dates for Richildis’ and Charles’ marriage.) The two men on the casket are dressed in Byzantine-style imperial regalia, making it likely it was produced in the context of Charles’ imperial ambitions and the conquest of Italy. If so, then the placement of Richildis next to Louis becomes very important. That the three figures are shown together is a public and material statement of their alliance. If Richildis is the patron, moreover, then the inclusion of Louis gains particular significance because she didn’t have to have him portrayed on there – a husband/wife pairing would be quite sufficient. It indicates that Richildis wanted her alliance with Louis specifically noted – perhaps because of their successful defence of the kingdom from Louis the German. In 875, an alliance between Richildis and Louis the Stammerer was not just empty words – it came off the back of a fierce fight to defend their kingdom and their own conjoined authority. Thus, it becomes a beautiful illustration of Louis’ effectiveness in constructing familial alliances in the context of effectively managing delegated responsibilities. 

This isn’t all I could say about Louis. The reason I wanted to write this blog post is because I’m currently working on an article about this and the blog format is one which forces me to summarise my argumentation, in turn clarifying the extended version I’m doing for the article. But the events of 875 are only one of the things we’re looking at. Next week, in a translation post, we’ll take a look at Louis’ inheritance, the Capitulary of Quierzy, and a little known capitulary text recently redated from Charlemagne’s reign to that of Charles the Bald. 

*In fact, we know what went wrong here, and it’s entirely down to Charles’ mismanagement of regional patronage. 

Who Won the First Battle of Conquereuil?

Last week’s post was a sombre reflection on a live controversy over the role of public memory, so this week I thought I’d put up something deliberately lightweight, although also I suppose connected to memory insofar as it involves dealing with events which seem to have been quickly forgotten. In 981, there was a battle at Conquereuil, half-way between Nantes and Rennes. Who was it fought between? Who won? These are not simple questions, but today we’ll try and answer them.

The most immediate background to Conquereuil comes in the long-term rivalry between the counts of Rennes and the counts of Nantes. At some point around 980, Count Conan the Crooked of Rennes had Count Hoël of Nantes assassinated in a supposed hunting accident. Hoël’s brother Guerech had just been nominated as bishop of Nantes and set out for Tours to be consecrated, so the people of Nantes sent hurried messengers after him urging him to take Hoël’s place as count, which Guerech duly did.

The ducal castle at Nantes (source)

Guerech’s assumption of power came at time of growing tension in the western Loire valley. Conan’s father-in-law Geoffrey Grisegonelle of Anjou was increasingly at odds with Conan’s lord Odo I of Blois-Chartres-Tours, notably in regard to a dispute over an estate at La Pellerine in 977. Meanwhile, Geoffrey’s lord William Fierabras, duke of Aquitaine, was embroiled in a domestic dispute with his wife Emma, who happened to be Odo’s sister. Relations between William, Geoffrey, and Odo were nowhere near breaking out into armed conflict, but this frostiness did give them an interest in the fighting between Guerech and Conan.

Matters came to a head on the plain of Conquereuil. Conan of Rennes led one side. On the other side were both Guerech and Geoffrey Grisegonelle, although of our sources the Chronicle of Nantes only mentions Guerech and the Chronicle of the Mont-Saint-Michel only mentions the Angevins. Equally, both sources are contradictory about who won. The Chronicle of Nantes imputes the victory to Guerech, but the Chronicle of Mont-Saint-Michel – implicitly, at least – to Conan. However, there are two reasons to think that Conan managed to squeeze out a narrow victory.  First of all, the History of Saint-Florent makes reference to what was apparently a common Angevin pun in the eleventh century referring to the battle of Conquereuil, ‘where the crooked beat the right’. There are problems with this source. The author appears to have mixed up the first and second battles of Conquereuil. Moreover, the Latin could be construed the other way around, as saying that ‘the right beat the crooked’, although this is less probable. Jules Lair claims that the name ‘Guerech’ derives from a Breton word meaning ‘right’ or ‘just’, which would be a useful bit of further evidence if I could verify it…

Second, the Fragmentum of Fulk le Réchin makes reference to an attack on Angers by Conan’s sons, which is likely to have been in the aftermath of the battle. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the losses inflicted on Conan’s forces by the Nantais-Angevin alliance, they lost, and Geoffrey killed one and captured others. Conan’s sons’ impetuosity turned out to be a very good thing for Geoffrey and Guerech. With Conan having been wounded in the arm during the battle, and with two of his sons as hostages, the Rennes side did not launch any further actions.

The end result was the status quo ante bellum, something which benefitted Guerech rather more than Geoffrey. The count of Anjou ended up with nothing, but the count of Nantes was able to consolidate his power, presenting Conquereuil as a win – hence the Chronicle of Nantes’ report. This meant he began to look like a serious local player, and he was able to compel William Fierabras to restore to him some contested lands south of the Loire.

As for Geoffrey, the defeat at Conquereuil put him in a position where he could really use an ally. As it happens, there was one right there and waiting: King Lothar. Probably shortly after Conquereuil, Lothar granted Geoffrey the county of Chalon. A little after that, he married his son Louis V to Geoffrey’s sister Adelaide-Blanche – but that, as they say, is another story.

Some Mad Ideas about Khazarian Archival Practice in Very Early Rus’

If one of the themes I’ve narrowed in on for my vikings research is cult, another is documentary practice. This is perhaps unsurprising given who my doctoral supervisor was; but what is surprising is that for such a nuts-and-bolts (Cnuts-and-bolts, snrk) subject, in this context it goes in some very strange directions. Almost inevitably, the culprit is the Rus’, who, rather like the Peace of God, seem to attract this sort of thing. General evidence for Rus’ literacy is well after my period, although what there is is pretty abundant, including a whole treasure trove of birch-bark letters from Novgorod and a fairly extensive chronicle tradition that a certain strain of scholarship wants to push back about a hundred years earlier than our first evidence for it. Where things get strange is looking at the tiny scraps of information about what was happening before, say, the mid-eleventh century. Fair warning, because this is a blog post not any kind of final or reviewed work, I’m going to be throwing out a lot of crazy ideas and many of them will be wrong. But what’s this blog for if not for exploring ideas that would never make it into print?

So, let’s start at the very beginning. What writing was in use in the world of the Rus’ before, say, c. 1000? We have evidence, exiguous though it mostly is, for five main scripts. First, unquestionably, Hebrew. The famous Khazar Correspondence shows that by the tenth century the Khazar rulers were conducting diplomatic correspondence in Hebrew. However, whilst this is unambiguous, it’s also uninfluential: there’s no evidence of the Rus’ using Hebrew or even really engaging with Judaism. (I’d love to find evidence for this, but it seems to be conspic. by its a.) Second, Greek. This is pretty straightforward: Greek-speaking communities in the Crimea encountered the Rus’ from an early point, and as we’ll see shortly the Byzantine emperors probably communicated with the Rus’ in Greek. Third, Norse runes. There’s much less runic text from former Rus’ lands than you might imagine: a bit of graffiti scratched on coins, an engraved stick from Staraya Ladoga, a runestone in modern-day Ukraine. There are, however, hints that it might have gone further. The Life of St Constantine refers to its eponymous hero staying in Cherson, in Crimea, where he encounters a Gospel and Psalter written in ‘Rus’ letters’ (росьскꙑ писмєнь, ros’kyi pismen’). Exactly what this means is unclear. It’s certainly not Cyrillic. The general consensus is that there’s been a mistake in the manuscripts and it’s in ‘Syriac letters’. I don’t really like this idea, because if it’s an error it’s an early one, since some form of ‘Rus’ letters’ is in every extant witness. I prefer, myself, the idea that it’s in runes. We don’t – as far as I’ve been able to find – have any surviving runic Gospels, but by the time of Constantine in the 860s there had been Scandinavian Christians for at least a hundred and fifty years, and it’s not inconceivable that there had been some translation work. Fourth, Turkic runes. We have a letter from the Jewish community at Kiev which appears to have an endorsement in Turkic runes, possibly in the Khazar language. We’ll return to this later, but for now let’s just not that Turkic runes were at least an option. Fifth and finally, a potential pre-Methodian Slavic script. A Bulgarian tract of c. 900, On Letters, written by one Khrabr, refers to pre-Christian Slav groups using marks and notches as a kind of rudimentary script. It’s vague, and no examples of such a script have been found in the wild; but hey, it’s possible. Overall, our picture is one of heterogeneity, with several scripts co-existing.

Part of the reason the evidence is so fragmentary is because archival practice in the lands of Rus’ was either non-existent or very different from Christian lands. One of the reasons that such a two-horse part of the ninth-century world as Europe is so well documented is the role that that the Church played as an archive. Early Rus’ had no Church, thus no archives. Or did it? After all, we know that Church archives were not the only kind of Western archives. The evidence for lay archives has been extensively documented, although we tend to only find out about such things when they get assimilated into Church archives. We also have evidence for government archives, the so-called gesta municipalia, although these are if anything even more shadowy. This raises a significant point. Simon Franklin has argued that the patterns displayed by the gaps in our evidence for writing in eleventh- and twelfth-century Rus’ suggests that there is unlikely to have been a massive loss of material, rather than that material simply having not been there to begin with. His point probably stands for the later period, but in the different world of early Rus’ it might actually be weaker. The Western analogies suggest one thing that can affect patterns of document survival is if whole types of archive disappear. Could the same thing have happened in Rus’?

Let’s go back to the Khazar Correspondence I mentioned above. This is one of our very few ‘internal’ sources for the Khazar Khaganate, a letter (actually, three different surviving redactions of a letter) written by the Khazar ruler Joseph ben Aaron to the Andalusi statesman Hasdai ibn Shaprut, in the mid-tenth century. Hasdai had written to Joseph because he had heard that there was, in the far-off reaches of the world, a Jewish kingdom and he wanted to find out about it. Ibn Shaprut’s introductory letter survives, explaining who he is and who his lord, the Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III, was. Joseph’s response is interesting: he thanks Ibn Shaprut for the letter but then says that he already knew about al-Andalus, because his ancestors used to engage in diplomatic correspondence with it and this is preserved in writing (ספר, sefer, lit. ‘book’, but can also mean written record more broadly). Elsewhere, he refers to the Khazars possessing genealogical tracts (ספר יחוסים, sefer yikhusyam). There is some supporting evidence for this. Another Khazarian Hebrew letter, known as the Cambridge Document, tells a version of the story of the Khazar debate, when the Khazar ruler invited Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy men to debate with each other at the court (an event likely to be historical, because it shows up completely independently in the Life of Constantine). In this version, the Khazar magnates order books – in this case, the Torah – to be brought forth from a cave in the plain of TYZWL so the holy men can expound upon their contents. If we take this story at something approximating face value – and that might well be a dangerous thing to do – this could indicate that the ‘cave in the plain of TYZWL’ acted as a kind of document storage repository. It doesn’t have to have been an official one, just one that the Khazar officials knew about and could readily access.

We have, then, hints that there were Khazarian archives. You might now be asking, ‘so what’, and that’s simple enough to answer: what if the early Rus’ took over Khazar archival practice, at least for a little bit? The Russian Primary Chronicle preserves the texts of four tenth-century (but, interestingly, no eleventh-century) Rus’-Byzantine treaties, of which three seem to be legit. General scholarly consensus is that these were found in Byzantine archives pretty close to the compilation of the Primary Chronicle at the start of the twelfth century, but this is, as far as I can see, an assumption and there are a few points against it. First, why would Rus’ scholars be allowed into the Byzantine state archives? Second, these treaties were written in Greek but translated into Slavonic, apparently – according to philologists – by someone very familiar with Bulgarian, which doesn’t scream ‘eleventh-century context’ to me. Third, why does the series stop in 971? We know there were eleventh-century Rus’-Byzantine agreements, they’re just not preserved in the Primary Chronicle. (Malingoudi, the most influential scholar of this matter, argues that the putative Byzantine documents came from one of the hypothetical earlier works used by the Primary Chronicle author, but recent research is increasingly sceptical of the existence of these works.) Several of the treaties make reference to there being two versions produced, one for the Byzantines and one for the Rus’. What if the copies we have really are those made for the Rus’, stored in Kiev in archives which in some way derived from Khazarian practice and which consequently don’t preserve eleventh-century treaties either because their maintenance decayed after the end of the Khazar Khaganate in the latter part of the tenth century or because the Rus’ conversion to Christianity in the early eleventh century overwrote (erm, so to speak) Khazarian archival traditions?

The legendary Kievan Letter (source)

A final Hebrew letter, which I mentioned above, may also provide a key to unlocking this mystery. The so-called Kievan Letter, written to Jewish communities abroad in the early-to-mid tenth century to ask for help ransoming a member of their own community who had been taken by bandits, bears an endorsement in Turkic runes which says ‘I have read this’. This bears close parallels to Roman traditions of the legimus endorsement, and was probably put in place by a Khazar official in Kiev to signify that the letter had permission from the local government to be sent. This is interesting, because by this period Kiev was under Rus’ rule. This letter may therefore provide the most direct evidence for the initial maintenance of Khazar administrative traditions under the early Rus’ great princes.

…Or, it would if it were not for the fact that pretty much everything I said just now is is heavily disputed. It’s not clear this letter is original. It’s not clear that the letter was written by the Kiev community rather than to it. The dating is heavily disputed, and paleographical evidence only narrows it down – if that’s not too generous a phrase – from the late ninth to the twelfth centuries. It’s not clear that the runic inscription was put there in Kiev. It’s not clear it’s in Khazarian. If it is in Khazarian, there are arguments over what it says. (For what it’s worth, scholarly consensus still puts the letter’s date in the early/mid-tenth century, I’m convinced by arguments saying that a) it is original (because it bears signs of having been transported from Kiev elsewhere and indeed comes to us from the Cairo Genizah) and b) it was from not to Kiev; but the Turkological wranglings are a) technical and b) as-of-yet unread by me.)

Nonetheless, if we assume for the state of argument that the extremely suspect hypotheses in the initial paragraph are correct, then we put it together with other elements of early Rus’ political culture like their titulature to give a picture of a very early Rus’ state which is, in essence, a ‘barbarian kingdom’ of the Khazar empire rather like the ‘barbarian’ successor states of the Roman Empire. This doesn’t mean a one-to-one correspondence, but just as lots of early medieval Europe looks like evolutions of Roman provincial culture, so too do political-cultural similarities between groups such as the Rus’, Petchenegs, Magyars and Volga Bulghars suggest the importance of regional Khazarian legacies in the ninth century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Were the Viking Kings?

As part of my ongoing Viking research, I was looking through references in our sources to Viking kings to try and work out who they are. One surprise was that the answer is relatively few; and these can be generally split into a relatively small number of categories. One of these are figures about whom we know nothing, like the Kalbi of the Annals of Xanten or the Oscytel of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of the two other main categories are ‘people who are definitely related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’. The other, I have come to believe, is ‘people who are probably related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’, and that’s what I want to try and argue today.

 So, first things first: families? Yes, families plural. The most famous king of ninth-century Denmark was King Godefrid (r. -810), who is one of the few people who was able not only to fight Charlemagne but to win, at least until he was murdered by a retainer. Godefrid’s successor was not any of his sons – of whom he had at least five – but his brother’s son Hemming. Hemming lived for only a couple of years, dying in 812, whereupon the succession was disputed between a man named Siegfried, another nephew of Godefrid (probably from a different brother); and a man named Anulo. With Anulo, we appear to have another reigning family, as the Royal Frankish Annals call him a nephew of a man named Harald. Harald is not named as a king in the Annals, but implicitly seems to have been one; perhaps the historical prototype of the legendary Danish king Harald Wartooth. In any event, Anulo was also the nephew of one of the more immediate kings, either Godefrid or Hemming, in my money the latter. (In fact, my specific conjecture is that a Danish noble named Halfdan, who was almost certainly Anulo’s father but who is not named as any relative of Godefrid when he appears in the late ninth century Poeta Saxo under 807, was married to a sister of Hemming.) Both these men died in the following battle, but Anulo’s brothers Harald Klak and Rognfrith both became kings. So far, so good – more internal politics within Denmark follow, but for our purposes we will focus on this royal family, the sons of Halfdan, until right near the end.

Our first stop are kings in Frisia. These are very clearly part of this royal family, not least because we’ve already met one of them: the first Danish leader granted land in the region was none other than Harald Klak. He was followed by probably the most famous ruler of Viking Frisia, Roric of Dorestad, who was probably but not entirely certainly Harald Klak’s nephew. Roric was also, on occasion, entitled king – but he too ruled in Denmark. After a protracted internal struggle, a son of King Godefrid named Horic I ruled the Danes for several decades. In 850, though, his position came under threat: two of his nephews (unnamed in the annals) attacked him and he was forced to partition his realm. This seems to have opened the floodgates: a different nephew (whom we’ll come back to) attacked Horic in 854 and in the ensuing fighting Horic and his two co-reigning nephews were killed. In the aftermath of this, in 855, Roric and his brother Guthfrith tried to gain royal power in Denmark for themselves. They didn’t succeed at that time, but in 857 Roric was able to exploit the youth of the eventual winner Horic II and gain a portion of Denmark for himself; from this point, he was called king. Later, in the 880s, another King Guthfrith was granted Roric’s benefice in Frisia by Charles the Fat. Our sources don’t say that Guthfrith was Roric’s relative; but they seem only to have been aware of first-degree kinship, and the onomastics, royal title, and similar area of operations make it likely that Guthfrith was also related to the Danish royal family.

 That’s relatively straightforward, but I think there’s a bigger connection that can be made. Starting in the mid-ninth century, a dynasty known to historians as the Uí Ímair (which is an Irish phrase meaning ‘descendants of Ivar’) ensconced themselves in Britain and Ireland. Their most famous member was, as you might expect, called Ivar, the historical prototype for the legendary Ivar the Boneless. However, Ivar was not the only one of his family gallivanting around the Irish Sea in the ninth century.

Let’s start by establishing who Ivar’s family were. The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, an eleventh-century source comprised of pseudo-historical saga material on one hand and older chronicles on the other, says that Ivar was brother to a man named Olaf, who appeared in Ireland in 853 to subjugate the Irish Vikings on behalf of his father, the king of Laithlinn. This has been challenged, but I don’t think these challenges are particularly convincing: this relationship is stated in a couple of ways in the non-legendary portion of the material and although there is room for doubt, I find it convincing. (Less convincing but still possible is the ascription of a third brother, Asl; this figure is historical and associated with Olaf and Ivar, but that he was their brother is only mentioned in one of the more legendary-leaning portions of the Fragmentary Annals.) The Ivar of the Irish annals is almost certainly the same man as the Ivar of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle refers in 878 to an (unnamed) brother of Ivar and Halfdan, indicating that Ivar was also brothers with that Great Army leader, who was the first Viking ruler of Northumbria. (This reference has also been questioned on the grounds that the construction of the sentence is peculiar; but the Chronicle is a good contemporary source and I am uncomfortable with arguments that presume we know how our sources should be written better than their actual authors.) Olaf, Ivar, Halfdan and – if he was their brother – Asl are all called kings.

Who was their father? The Fragmentary Annals name Ivar and Olaf’s father a couple of times as a man named Guthfrith, and at one point there is a longer genealogy given:

Guthfrith -> Guthfrith Conung [i.e. king] -> Ragnar -> Guthfrith -> Ivar

This genealogy has been generally dismissed, except maybe the name of the final Guthfrith, Ivar’s father. However, I think there are grounds for taking it seriously. Again, this material is found in the annalistic rather than the legendary portions of the Fragmentary Annals, and the early-to-mid tenth-century source from which it is derived would have been within memory of Ivar’s generation. Moreover, taking it seriously produces some remarkable synchronicities between Irish and Danish history.

Guthfrith Conung’s nickname, I would suggest, derives from the memory of a particularly impressive king who, from the generations, we might expect to have reigned around the year 800. Obviously, this would be King Godefrid (‘Godefrid’ and ‘Guthfrith’ are in fact the same name). Now this is interesting. There actually was a Viking chief named Ragnar who attacked Paris in the mid-840s, but I think it’s unlikely this was Ivar’s grandfather, largely because we have an eye-witness report from an ambassador to Denmark who saw the audience between Ragnar and Horic I of Denmark after his return from Paris. Horic I was definitely a son of Godefrid and it seems unlikely that the ambassador, or anyone else at the time, would have not mentioned the relationship given how touchy the Franks were about Horic’s apparent refusal or inability to prevent Viking raids. More interesting are the events of the 850s. As we’ve noted, in 850 Horic was attacked by two of his nephews, neither of whom the sources name. If one of them were the putative Guthfrith Ragnarsson – i.e. Ivar’s father – then the course of Irish history in the following years takes on a new light.

I mentioned that the first appearance of the Uí Ímair comes in 853, when Olaf, son of the king of Laithlinn, appears to subjugate the Irish Vikings. These events have become caught up in the controversy over where Laithlinn was: in Scotland or in Norway? This controversy has been remarkably bitter given that there are only four contemporary mentions of Laithlinn (and I’m normalising the spelling below): one in 848, when the king of Laithlinn’s deputy Jarl Thorir was killed in battle; the mention of Olaf’s being the king’s son in 853; an Old Irish poem where a monastic author is relieved at a stormy sea because it makes the voyage impassable to ‘the fierce warriors of Laithlinn’ and another Old Irish poem referring to an army coming over from Laithlinn in 866. Personally, I think that both Scotland and Norway are barking up the wrong tree. In response to Jarl Thorir’s death, a Viking fleet showed up in 849 on behalf of the ‘king of the Foreigners’ – i.e., the Vikings. The similar-sounding but unrelated word which replaced Laithlinn, Lochlann, generally denotes ‘Norway’, at least by the latter part of the eleventh century; but it can also just mean ‘generically Viking’, and I think that Laithlinn means the same thing – ‘king of Laithlinn’ and ‘king of the Foreigners’ are synonyms. The Irish authors didn’t know much about Scandinavia at all, and so used these general terms. But the king of Laithlinn, I think, did have a location: the mid-ninth century Danish kingdom.

In this reading, the ‘King of Laithlinn’ of 848 and the ‘King of the Foreigners’ in 849 is Horic I. It may well be that the Irish victories against the Vikings in 848 were one of the factors which made him look vulnerable to attack by his nephews in 850. In any case, when Horic’s nephews became kings, their position was not secure. A renewed wave of Viking attacks across Europe in 850-852 suggests that political losers were fleeing Denmark and engaging in raiding activity to gather political and financial capital; an 852 reference in the Annals of Fulda to Harald, probably the brother of Roric of Dorestad, fleeing to Louis the German and living in Saxony sometime earlier strongly suggests that the court had been purged of potential rivals from within the royal family. (Notably Roric too sought a benefice in Frisia – it looks like both men wanted a base close to the Danish kingdom to exploit instabilities in it. Harald was actually killed in 852 by the ‘wardens on the Danish March’ and I wonder if it might be because they suspected that he might go a-viking the same way Roric had a year or two before…) In 852, Guthfrith, son of Harald Klak, seems to have made a brief attempt to assert power in Denmark before going out and plundering the West Frankish kingdom. In this context, Olaf’s appearance on the Irish scene in 853 has the clear aim of reasserting royal authority over the Irish Vikings and of gaining resources to shore up Olaf’s father’s power in the Danish kingdom. This should be seen in the context of the civil war which killed Horic in 854. This war probably also killed Olaf and Ivar’s father as well – the Annals of Fulda and the Vita Anskarii say that the attrition amongst the Danish elite was serious, and the Annals of Saint-Bertin refer to the deaths of Horic’s co-kings.

I think this presents a decent, if circumstantial, case that the Uí Ímair and the kings of Denmark were related. There is one more interesting overlap to note. After the 850s, Frankish interest in the Danish kingdom itself waned dramatically. One of the few notices – and essentially the only detailed one – comes from the Annals of Fulda, which under 873 notes that the kings of Denmark, Siegfried and Halfdan, sent messengers to Louis the German asking for his protection. The implication is that they had not been on the throne for very long, and it is unlikely they stayed on the throne for very long either. Siegfried is generally supposed to be the King Siegfried whom Charles the Fat besieged at Asselt in 882 and to whom he gave vast sums of money to go away. Siegfried did go away, but he returned in 885 at the head of the fleet which besieged Paris in the famous siege of 885-886. After the siege was lifted, Siegfried raided in the West Frankish kingdom some more before going to Frisia where he was killed – so say the Annals of Saint-Vaast – shortly after autumn 887. This is interesting, because we have reports of an (unnamed) son of Ivar ravaging Lismore in 883 – precisely the one time that we can’t see our Frankish Siegfried active, and the only appearance of a son of Ivar in the Irish annals until 888, when the Annals of Ulster record the death of Siegfried, son of Ivar, by his kinsmen. This is interesting, because the deaths of King Siegfried and of Siegfried Ivarsson appear to match up. The slight difference in date is quite explicable by 1) the fact that the Saint-Vaast annalist doesn’t say that Siegfried died in autumn 887, just sometime after it; and 2) the news would have taken a little time to get to Ireland – it would be quite feasible for Siegfried to have been killed at the very end of 887 and for the report of his death to have reached Ireland in time for the 888 annal. Moreover, the circumstances are intriguing: Siegfried was killed by his kinsmen, and Frisia had been in the hands of members of the Danish royal family for decades at this point. Siegfried’s quondam comrade King Guthfrith, the last man known to have held it, was killed in 885; but there could well have been relics of the family hanging around in the area.

In short, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that the Uí Ímair were offshoots of the family of King Godefrid of Denmark, which means that most of the Viking kings we can place in the ninth century were all related to each other. Before I finish up, I’d like to talk about a few of the others, notably the kings of East Anglia and the early Rus’ princes. The first Viking king of East Anglia was Guthrum. The nephew of Horic I who led the civil war which ended up killing Horic was also called Guthrum, and the two men have been held to be identical, for instance in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Personally, I think the language of the annals implies that Horic’s nephew Guthrum died; but it is interesting that the only other king of East Anglia whose name we know was Eohric = Horic. Onomastics suggest there could be come connection. On a similar, but even more conjectural note, the first three princes of Kievan Rus’ were called Rurik (Roric), Igor (Ivar) and Oleg (Helgi). We have already seen Rorics and Ivars in action, and Helgi is the same name as a c. 900 king of Denmark named by Adam of Bremen. Given just how shadowy the early Rus’ rulers are, I don’t want to propose anything concrete, but the overlap is interesting…

You may be asking, at this point: so what? In fact, if most Viking leaders given a royal title in our sources whose background we can ascertain or hypothesise about were related to one of the existing Danish royal families, that has a number of important implications. However, this post is going long, so we will have to park it for now. Look forward to a post on social status and rank within the Viking world shortly down the line!

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gesta Karoli Magni II.9)

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

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

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

(Siyasatnameh, XXI.1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Right Honourable Member for Skidbladnir? Assemblies in Viking Polities

The þing (assembly) is a pretty well-documented phenomenon, at least as far as these things go. In the context of ninth-century Scandinavia, we have both external and internal written sources attesting to it, which is pretty spectacular. Both of them, moreover, give some insight into the functions these assemblies could have. The Forsa ring, from Hälsingland in central Sweden, refers to the assembly’s role in making laws; the Vita Anskarii, written in the later ninth century by Archbishop Rimbert of Hamburg-Bremen, describes how assemblies played a role in political decision-making, to the point where the Swedish kings were constrained by the decisions of regional assemblies. What happened, then, outside Scandinavia?

The Forsa ring, testifying to ninth-century assembly practice (source)

Fair warning at the start here: I’m writing this in my flat on a scorching hot Saturday. What that means is that I really don’t want to go into town to pick up the resources I need to write the blog posts nominally further up the agenda, and that in turn means that I’m going to write something which I can do without leaving the house. That, in its own turn, means that you’re getting something a bit more out there, a bit less well thought-through than usual. With a new project, I’ve been a bit cautious about putting really sketchy draft work online so that the bits of it people can access don’t look half-assed or insane. This week, I’ll take the risk…

So, viking assemblies. Of note to begin with is that we have references to assemblies from almost all over the viking sphere of influence from quite early on. The main exception is the Insular world. Ireland has the better evidence, sort of. Here there are late tenth-century references to a ‘law-speaker’ of Dublin and an early eleventh-century reference to an assembly in the town. This doesn’t prove any kind of continuity with the ninth century – the putative site of the Dublin þing has been argued to have been an important symbolic focus for the town from that early, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility it was co-opted by an assembly which was a later development. Nonetheless, we do at least have references to assemblies in Dublin c. 1000. By contrast, I really haven’t found much in the English evidence, with one important exception. The eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto describes how King Guthred of Northumbria was acclaimed as king on a mound by the assembled army and people of the region. No specific term is used to describe it, but an assembly is at least implied. (Moreover, in the case of England an absence of evidence is what I’d expect – sources associated with the West Saxon court tend to be aggressively uninterested in the internal organisation of viking polities, I suspect to deny them the legitimacy of actually being a polity…)

In Rus’, by contrast, evidence is relatively abundant. The Vita Basilii, a life of Emperor Basil I, refers to a missionary bishop amongst the Rus’ demonstrating the superiority of Christianity to the ruler and his elders by performing a miracle in their assembly. A lengthy vignette in the Histories of Leo the Deacon describes the Rus’ ruler Sviatoslav convening his men in an assembly to decide how to end the siege of Dorostolon (modern Silistra). Notably, Leo calls the assembly a komenton (χομέντον), which he says is what the Rus’ call it. This is interesting if true, because it appears to be the Latin word conventus

Even more worthy of note is the also-good evidence for assemblies amongst viking armies on the move. The Annals of Saint-Vaast describe the Great Army in the West Frankish kingdom holding an assembly (facere placitum) to decide their next move in 884, after they have received the tribute which King Carloman II had promised them. Similar accounts can be found in the Vita Sancti Findani, written in modern-day Switzerland but by Irish monks, and the Liber Miraculorum Sancti Bertini.

This is a remarkable consistent set of behaviours, and it suggests first of all that this is a political practice exported from Scandinavia. There are a couple of objections which could be lodged, however. The first is that it’s not 100% clear this is a universal behaviour within Scandinavia. Scandinavian archaeologists are keen to suggest assembly sites attested later are much older than their first attestation, and whilst I don’t have any theoretical problem with this I haven’t yet read around widely enough to endorse it myself at this moment. Certainly, our written evidence has a strongly Swedish tilt. Descriptions of assembly practice in the Danish kingdom are not quite absent, but at minimum they are potentially suggestive of fairly hefty differences in assembly practice. I won’t deal with this problem any further right now, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

The second objection is that, if you use a broad definition, assembly practice is almost universal everywhere. (This, for instance, is certainly not the first time we’ve discussed the subject on the blog.) In both England and the Carolingian world, assemblies were a foundational element in political life; and the same is true in the Steppe world, where writers such as Bruno of Querfurt have left us vivid descriptions of Petcheneg assemblies which cannot possibly derive from Northman practice. To paraphrase a book review I read, taking a broad-brush view of assembly practice leaves you with the result of ‘Group X held meetings to decide things’…

So do these assemblies have any kind of distinctive character? I think a few elements can be drawn out. At the moment, I’m teaching a class on ‘Places of Power in the Ottonian World’, and Ottonian assemblies, which are heavily stage-managed, extremely hierarchical events are a useful point of contrast. The assemblies we see in these viking polities are much more palpably deliberative. Decision-making at assemblies can’t be taken for granted (we know in the Carolingian and Ottonian realms most of it happens behind closed doors), so the fact that groups have what seems a much more open forum to deliberate in is quite significant. (And, of course, fits with the Vita Rimberti.) Similarly, these assemblies are quite flat. Northman societies in general are not distinguished by elaborate hierarchies, but in these sources the closest we get to a distinction within the assembly is the Vita Basilii’s distinction between ‘subjects’ (ῠ̔πήκοοι, hypikooi) and ‘elders’ (γέροντες, gerontes) (although the Liber Miraculorum’s references to ‘lords’ and ‘courtiers’ (seniores and curiales [!]) might preserve something of this, and Leo the Deacon’s reference to an ‘assembly of nobles’ (βουλὴν τῶν ἀρίστων, boulin ton ariston) gives us grounds for suspicion that these were in any case relatively elite events). In general, it is the body of the polity – the army, the people, the multitude, and so on – who do the deliberating. Similarly, there is very limited evidence that these are monarchical bodies. Sviatoslav’s role in convening the Dorostalon assembly is unusual in this regard. Normally, they are presented as a venue for collective leadership, even when – as in the case of the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto – selecting one person as their ruler.

Nonetheless, they do, I think, play a legitimising role. There is evidence that these were held at important places. Dublin is the obvious case here, but the acclamation of Guthred of Northumbria on Oswigesdune could also be cited. So too, more intriguingly, could the Liber Miraculorum – the assembly described there took place not in the open air, but in the church of Saint-Pierre at Saint-Omer, a place presumably chosen to lend some grandeur to the event. Hints of ritual come through, and certainly of public performance. Again, Oswigesdune is a case in point. Guthred, according to the Historia, was a slave-boy chosen as king by a vision which God granted to Abbot Eadred of Carlisle. This is very unlikely to be true, but what is likely to be true is that Guthred’s acclamation marked the point where the Christian community and religious elites of Northumbria found a modus vivendi with the Northman conquerors. In this context, such assemblies might have more than they seem in common with their Ottonian counterparts. Timothy Reuter described assemblies as constitutive of the Ottonian polity. The same might well be true in the viking world, whether than polity was kingdom, khanate, or army.