See the two guys on the right? They’re Normans, messengers from Duke William the Bastard. One of the ways you can tell they’re Normans (beyond the fact that the captions read, loosely translated, ‘yo, these guys are the duke of Normandy’s’) is their distinctive haircut: floppy fring, and shaved back of the head. It’s a very distinctive hairstyle – so where did it come from?
There are basically two camps. Camp 1 (represented, for instance, by the noted scholar Nicholas Brooks) pegs it as a Viking thing. The evidence for this comes from a letter from the early eleventh century, written by one Englishman to his brother (trans. D. Whitelock):
‘…you dress in Danish fashion with bared necks and blinded eyes…’
However, there is a second camp. Camp 2 situated the origins of the Norman hairstyle somewhere in Aquitaine, based on a passage in the Histories of Ralph Glaber. Glaber (the nickname means ‘bald’ – possibly there’s sour grapes here?) wrote of the entourage of the West Frankish queen Constance of Arles that they were:
‘stripped of hair from the middle of their heads, and shaved their bears like actors do…’
Both descriptions seem to encompass our hairstyle. So from which source did it come? Denmark and Aquitaine are about as far apart as you can get and still be in Europe, so although we could perhaps be dealing with independent origins, I find it unlikely.
How can we solve this riddle? Let’s turn to Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s Historia Normannorum, much beloved of this blog. Dudo describes Duke Richard the Fearless as follows (trans. E. Christiansen):
‘Most lovely to look upon, bristling with brilliant white hair, brilliant in eyebrows and in the pupil of the eye, resplendent of nostril and cheek, honoured for a thick, long beard…’
Dudo’s pen portrait of Richard, you’ll note, has both a thick head of hair and a big beard. However, this description of Richard is entirely conventional, in accordance with descriptions of other figures at the time – Widukind describes Otto the Great in a very similar way, as does Helgaud of Fleury with Robert the Pious. That itself is significant, though: I think in this case there’s an acknowledged look (in terms of personal grooming) for rulers which all three men are more-or-less pursuing (Widukind explicitly notes that Otto’s beard went against prior custom because he wore it long).
Given, therefore, that the one Norman we have a description of from someone who knew him in the years around the millennium does not have the characteristic hairstyle, it seems to me more likely that the Norman hairstyle was not a survival from a Scandinavian past, but an early to mid-eleventh century adoption based on trendy Aquitanian fashions.
Why might this matter? Norman hair is a microcosm of the wider development of Norman identity. It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that the Norman rulers had their point of origin in Scandinavia and declare that all kinds of things are authentically Viking. In practice, most things about Normandy that are distinct, from their powerful dukes to their ideas about what being Norman means, to their haircuts, come from Gaul. How these Frankish ideas mutated in this particular province, then, to produce a new and distinct ethno-political group requires subtle and careful thought within the context of West Frankish political and cultural developments. Vikings are fashionable – but not, in this case, literally.
In 890, the most important monarch in (western) Europe was undoubtedly Arnulf of Carinthia, the East Frankish king and future emperor, nephew and usurper of Charles the Fat, and overking (to more-or-less contested extents) of Italy, Burgundy and the West Frankish kingdom. In 965, the most important monarch in (western) Europe was undoubtedly Otto the Great, the East Frankish king and recently crowned emperor, who in that year oversaw a magnificent family assembly at Cologne. He was attended by his brother Archbishop Bruno of Cologne, who ruled Lotharingia on his behalf and his sister Queen Gerberga and her son King Lothar, rulers of the West Frankish kingdom which was about to enter its third decade under East Frankish suzerainty. Perhaps also present was Conrad the Pacific, ruler of Transjurane Burgundy and Provence, who was also a subordinate player on the Ottonian stage.
For a few decades in between, though, from say 910 until 950, a Europe which spent most of the two hundred years between 870 and 1070 with the East Frankish king as its greatest power saw a period of multipolar diplomacy, focussed on a (very) extended family of monarchs, the Bosonids. Different members of this family ruled the West Frankish kingdom (Ralph of Burgundy, r. 923-936), Provence (Louis the Blind, r. 890-928), and Italy (Hugh of Arles, r. 926-947; Lothar II, r. 947-950); the kings of Transjurane Burgundy were so closely related to these guys by marriage we might as well bung ‘em in there*. For me, the most emblematic moment of this period is the division of Louis the Blind’s kingdom of Provence in 929. Our evidence for this comes from a charter where Countess Adelaide, mother of the West Frankish king Ralph of Burgundy, makes a donation to Cluny. The donation was made in the name of the souls of her brother and nephew, Kings Rudolf I and II of Transjurane Burgundy, as well as Rudolf I’s wife Queen Willa (who had gone on to marry Hugh of Arles, by this point king of Italy); as well as her own sons Ralph of Burgundy, Hugh the Black, and Boso of Vitry. The act was witnessed by Rudolf’s daughter Judith, Hugh the Black, and Ralph, the son of Louis the Blind. It was a substantial family meeting, and well it might be: the division of Provence concerned not merely the elite of Provence, but the West Frankish, Transjurane, and Italian kings as well. So what happened? Was this period a fluke? How did multipolar (‘Bosonid’?) Europe change to Ottonian Europe?
The East Frankish kingdom clearly had some structural strengths. It has been conjectured that kingdom’s lengthy eastern border meant that the East Frankish rulers had better access to plunder and military experience than their counterparts elsewhere. However, they certainly weren’t undefeatable – Charles the Simple was able to beat out Conrad I for control of Lotharingia, and at the start of their respective reigns Louis IV (with Lotharingian support) posed a serious challenge to Otto the Great.
On the flip side, there’s a good case that Otto the Great got lucky. Otto came to the throne in 936. In 937, Rudolf II of Burgundy died, leaving a young son as heir, which allowed Otto to swoop in and kidnap him. Louis IV of the West Frankish kingdom was largely put on the back foot as a threat in 939, when – again, quite by happenstance – his two most important allies in the fight against Otto were both killed in battle at Andernach. Even then, though, Hugh of Arles remained the most significant figure in western Europe to outside observers – or, at least, to the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who made special note to treat him with particular dignity. It was only with the implosion of Hugh’s regime in the 940s that the field was cleared. Admittedly, the fact that Otto’s regime was the only one which didn’t implode in the 930s and 940s suggests that he had something going for him; but I’m not inclined to put that down to structural reasons because he spent the first twenty years of his reign coming damn close.
On the other hand, though, what did ‘multipolar Europe’ mean in the 930s? Not a lot, honestly. From the evidence we have (which isn’t a lot), there are two ‘circles’ of rulers at this time: a northern one with the East and West Frankish rulers and the king of England and a southern one with the Transjurane and (where relevant) Provençal rulers and the various would-be kings of Italy. There are overlaps here: the East Frankish kingdom and Transjurane Burgundy have some traffic, as do the West Frankish kings and Provence whilst Hugh of Arles is still in the mix. However, it’s rare to see more than two kings together – no repetition of the shuttle diplomacy of the mid-ninth century Regime of Brotherly Love, when different members of the Carolingian family were constantly meeting each other. In this sense, I wonder if what we are dealing with is not so much a balance of power in the sense that ‘multipolar Europe’ might suggest, but a series of isolated kingdoms who were ready to be picked off one by one the instant one of them gained any kind of advantage? This might multiply small structural advantages such that Otto and Louis IV’s divergent career paths become a bit more explicable…
*Rudolf I (r. 888-912)’s wife Willa married Hugh of Arles; his daughter Adelaide was the mother of Ralph of Burgundy; Rudolf II (r. 912-937)’s wife Bertha also married Hugh of Arles and his daughter Adelaide married Lothar II. Odds are reasonable Louis the Blind also married someone from this family, although we don’t actually know anything about his wife Adelaide other than her name.
In 987, King Louis V fell off his horse and Hugh Capet became king. Soon after, Hugh made his son Robert the Pious co-king, and Robert went on to rule until 1031. For all that Hugh’s accession was the decisive break with Carolingian rule, it’s Robert’s reign that is perhaps the most interesting. A good chunk of the reason for this is that it is in texts from Robert’s reign that we start to get a sense about how varied – and polemical – ideas about kingship had become since the early tenth century. (I have a sneaking suspicion as to why these writings come disproportionately from the early eleventh century rather than the mid tenth, but that’s another story…)
One of the most polemical authors of the period was Adalbero of Laon. We have discussed Adalbero before briefly on this blog, but the most relevant thing about him today is that he is usually considered a conservative thinker, a crotchety old man who didn’t like what he was seeing in the realm. At some point, possibly around the year 1003, roughly thirty years or half-way through his career, Bishop Adalbero wrote a lengthy and vituperative poem to Robert the Pious, excoriating what he perceived as a world turned upside-down and setting forth his vision for society as it should be ordered. The poem has attracted a lot of attention, for a couple of reasons: it is one of the most explicit and colourful reactions against monastic reform; and it sets out a vision of society known as the Three Orders, which would go on to have a very long life, and I mean a very long life – we still refer to the press as the ‘Fourth Estate’, and the other three ‘estates’ are the orders Adalbero lays out: oratores, bellatores, labores – those who pray (Churchmen), those who fight (nobles), and those who work (peasants).
The poem has some wonderful imagery. Adalbero’s complaint is that the world is topsy-turvy, and no-one knows their assigned place any longer, and the main target of his bile is Abbot Odilo of Cluny. To emphasise how far he thinks Odilo has led monks from their proper role of cloistered contemplation, he images ‘King’ Odilo leading his warrior-monks to fight the Saracens in the south of France; but, of course, as monks, they are completely inept. “Ride two to a donkey! Ten to a camel!” “Upon your head, place a garland of flowers, and tie your helmet to your loins! Hold a sword in your teeth!” he exhorts his men. Unsurprisingly, they lose the battle.
The question of what exactly Adalbero is protesting here is open to more question than, to my mind, it has got. There are a couple of references to monks going to fight Saracens at around this period; but these don’t refer to an organised Cluniac proto-crusade but to a band of rag-tag monks from Provence forced into self-defence. Odilo himself, it’s worth saying, did not lead any military forces. Rather, what I think Adalbero is doing is parodying a work written by Odilo’s predecessor, Abbot Odo of Cluny, the biography of St. Gerald of Aurillac. In this work, Odo describes how Gerald, who was not a cleric, behaved in a particularly holy manner more befitting a monk than a layman. In particular, he tells of Gerald fighting a battle and ordering his men to fight with the butts of their spears and the flats of their swords. Odo is aware of how ridiculous this is, for the record; but he says that Gerald was so favoured by God that he won anyway. Of course, this kind of thing – making laymen behave like clerics – is exactly what Adalbero is complaining about, and his poem illustrates how little he thinks getting one type of person to do another type of person’s job would work in practice.
Odilo’s failure to defeat the Saracens lets Adalbero outline his own vision for society, and this is where his reputation for conservatism comes in. What Adalbero wants is, in content, very Carolingian, going back to the 829 Council of Paris. He wants the king to defend the Church, do justice, and crush the overmighty. He wants monks to be contemplative and cloistered, he wants bishops to pray for the community’s wellbeing and give learned advice to kings. However, it is also striking how Adalbero must find what are actually novel reasons for his conservative vision: new bottles for old wine, if you will. Old Carolingian justifications like royal ministerium are missing, and instead Adalbero justifies the royal duty of protecting the Church in terms of the schema of the Three Orders. The king’s duties come from his being a bellator, one of the order of those who fight.
Historians have pointed out that Adalbero’s scheme of the Three Orders was not a new invention. Two scholars in the ninth century named Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre described society as divided between ‘priests, soldiers and farmers’; this was possibly taken from the highly respected Church father Isidore of Seville. It may have been taken up in late tenth-century Rheims, and this may have been where Adalbero found it. However, it was not particularly common in either the ninth century or the tenth, and Adalbero’s use of it to justify what amounts to a caste system is completely new. Adalbero was not drawing on a common aspect of his time’s thought, but underpinning traditional conceptions of kingship with a new justification to make up for the fact that the old ones had gone.
This scheme of the Three Orders was not conjured out of whole cloth. Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre has described something very similar in the ninth century, and versions of their formulation appeared in Alfredian England and mid-tenth century Italy. However, in Gaul it was not common in either the tenth century or the ninth, and it is noticeable that when in the eleventh century it gains two very high-profile spokesmen, Adalbero and Bishop Gerald I of Cambrai, both of whom were educated at Rheims in the late tenth century. This is notable because Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims (Adalbero of Laon’s uncle) renovated the cathedral school at this time. What I suspect we are seeing, therefore, is not a widespread intellectual idea, but a development in political thought specific to Rheims c. 970 which then found some long-lived and voluble advocates. In short, Adalbero’s nominal conservatism illustrates how little purchase Late Carolingian thought had in early Capetian political debates, and how fragmented the landscape of post-Carolingian political thought had become.
In the year 778, an army of Saxons rose up in rebellion against Charlemagne. In a demonstration of baffling ingratitude towards the Frankish king for having gone to the trouble of conquering them and destroying the sacred Irminsul, they took advantage of him being otherwise occupied by Basque ambushes in the Pyrenees to revolt. The Saxon rebels crossed the Rhine, sacking towns and burning to the ground a settlement that had been built by the Franks two years earlier in 776 on the River Lippe.
It is this short-lived new development that I’m interested in today. Opinions in the contemporary annals as to what the settlement was that the Saxons demolished differ. Some call it a castellum (fort). The Royal Frankish Annals, which is the most extensive and closest to Charlemagne’s court, calls it a castrum (castle). Other sources disagree and call it a city. The Annals of Moselle report that in 776 Charlemagne ‘built a city on the river Lippe, called Karlesburg’. The Annals of Petau agree, stating that ‘the Franks built in the country of the Saxons a city called Urbs Karoli’. The Annales Maximiniani refers to it as the ‘urbs Karoli et francorum (the city of Charles and the Franks)’.
The difference here is important. Losing a fort wasn’t exactly desirable, but to a certain extent it was an expected possible outcome. One doesn’t put up forts in safe country and the torching of the odd castellum was probably one of the costs of doing business, and a relatively small cost at that. A city, on the other hand, is a rather bigger investment. As well as implying a certain scale and commitment of resources larger than the average military installation, founding a city is a statement of confidence that the future shall be like the present. It suggests security and power. Having a city that you founded be burned down within two years of being set up is embarrassing. This is all the more so if you put your name on it (Karlesburg, Urbs Karoli) and linked it with the fortunes of your people (urbs Karoli et francorum).
If Charlemagne had really decided to found a city in Saxony in 776, it would be an important statement about the permanence and stability of Carolingian rule in the region (think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003). Such a city would put Charlemagne within a long tradition of Roman and late antique urban foundations stretching back to Romulus, and including luminaries such as Constantine, Theodoric and Justinian. If such a city was then levelled to the ground within two years it would be deeply embarrassing (again, think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003).
On the whole, I’m inclined to suspect that this was really meant to be a city. The Royal Frankish Annals has form in reinterpreting and suppressing past events to make them seem less embarrassing for Charlemagne. Its description of the Frankish king’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula, which took place in the same year as the Saxon revolt, is spectacularly misleading. What actually happened was that the Frankish army was stymied by the walls of Zaragoza, had to return to Francia having achieved nothing and its rear-guard was surprised and destroyed by Basques in the Pyrenees. In the Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne is described as marching into Spain, receiving the submission of all he met, before going home. Absent in that account are the words ‘ambush’, ‘Roland’ and ‘screw-up’.
The end of the campaign was not something that could easily hushed up. A later Reviser added a full account of the ambush, observing that it ‘shadowed the king’s view of his success in Spain’. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard spoke of the frustration felt by the Franks that this defeat could not be avenged. The anonymous Astronomer who composed a biography of Louis the Pious said that the names of the fallen at Roncesvalles were still remembered and mourned in his day. This was a big deal that inspired strong emotional reactions across the Frankish world. That the Royal Frankish Annals were willing to omit it points to a general tendency its authors had to present Charlemagne in the best possible light.
The Royal Frankish Annals also provide another clue that the settlement founded on the Lippe in 776 was meant to be really important. The entry for 776 reports that the Saxons were summoned to the site ‘with wives and children, a countless number, and were baptized and gave as many hostages as the Lord King [Charlemagne] demanded’. A huge public gathering like this suggests that the settlement on the Lippe was intended to be a centre of power.
Charlemagne regained control of Saxony in the end, but if the Karlesburg was meant to be a city, it proved to be a dead end, to such an extent that it is now not clear exactly where it was. It may have been where Paderborn now stands. If so, that would be very interesting because Paderborn became one of the most important palaces in Charlemagne’s later reign. The settlement Charlemagne is most associated with, Aachen, is sometimes described as a city, but more often as a palace. One of the ideas I’m playing around with currently is that after 778 Charlemagne decided that founding cities was too much a hostage to fortune. The city of Charles became a palace, still imbued with power and significance, but less fundamentally important if it got sacked. The result was a series of palace-cities that had many of the characteristics of cities, but which were not consistently presented as them.
Even if this line of thought doesn’t go anywhere, I find Karlesburg fascinating as a hint of something that was potentially really important. The city in Saxony would have consumed considerable material resources and been invested with major political and cultural capital. Had it worked, would have radically changed the way modern historians think about Charlemagne. The Carolingian empire is still generally perceived of us a rural one (see this excellent magistraetmater post on the subject). Charlemagne might have been remembered as a city-founder. Instead the project was burned, Charlemagne rebranded, and we get the image of the Franks as country palace dwellers instead. (I have other thoughts on the importance of cities for the Carolingians for another time). Looked at from a distance, by any reasonable measure, Charlemagne’s reign was incredibly successful. Thinking about failed endeavours like Karlesburg reminds us not just how different it might have looked, but also the number of fiascos that had to be negotiated and tastefully buried as bad news.
Whilst making revisions to an article, I’ve had to revisit a question which has been circulating, one way or another, since the nineteenth century: did Louis IV create a sub-kingdom in Burgundy for his son Charles in 953? As far as I know, this was first proposed by Auguste Bernard before being refuted by Ferdinand Lot; Lot’s view then held the field for decades until it was counterattacked by Carlrichard Brühl, and now historians are going in both directions.
So, first things first: why does this matter? Well, Brühl and Hlawitschka’s debate was over whether or not there was a ‘tenth-century principle of indivisibility’, which I find a rather abstract constitutionalist question. My interest is more direct: if Louis did try and endow Charles with a kingdom in Burgundy, this suggests that he was punching hard in the region, and it also explains why he made some really significant concessions to Hugh the Great in early 953. In fact, it suggests a paradigm shift in West Frankish politics which would have taken place in the mid-950s had matters not been scuppered by Louis’ early death.
The cases for and against are easy to lay out, not lease because the evidence consists entirely of two charters and their dating clauses:
CC 1.857: “I, Bernard, wrote and gave [this charter] on Thursday, in the month of October, in the first year of the reign of King Charles.”
CC 1.875: “…Cluny, over which lord abbot Aimard (r. from 942, †965) presides… Rothard, levite and monk, wrote this on the 2nd March, a Thursday, at Cluny in public, in the reign of King Charles.”
When do these date from? The second is pretty clear: it must be between 942 and 965; based on the years where the 2nd March was a Thursday, 954 makes good sense. The first one needs a bit more context: it is a charter from one Engelard to his betrothed Neuthild, the contents of which were repeated, evidently at a later date, in another charter dated to “1st November, a Friday, in anno septanta of King Conrad [the Pacific of Transjurane Burgundy]”. Anno septanta, taken literally, should mean ‘in the seventieth year’, which is palpably ridiculous. If it means ‘in the seventh year’, then we’re dealing with some time in the late 940s (although we can’t be more exact than that); if ‘the seventeenth year’ then sometime in the mid-950s. (For what it’s worth, the 1st November was a Friday in 950 and then not again until 961; both Bernard and Brühl proposed emending it to a date that better suited their argument but there’s no reason to make this emendation.)
Of these two charters, the second is by far the most important, because 1) it still survives in the original, so we can probably rule out copyist error (which we can’t necessarily with the second, not least because it’s so loosely drafted anyway) and 2) because it can be fairly securely dated. So, we have a fairly unambiguous bit of evidence that a scribe in the Mâconnais in spring 954 thought that there was a ‘King Charles’ in the vicinity. For Brühl, this is enough to have Louis’ son Charles made into a full-fledged king over a Burgundian sub-kingdom.
So, what are the problems with this view? There are two main issues: one, the absence of evidence; and two, the inherent implausibility of the scenario. Let’s start with the second one, because it’s the weaker of the two (improbable things happen often), but it is still worth noting. Louis’ son Charles (the future Charles of Lotharingia) was born in summer 953, meaning that if he was a king, he was a king as an actual infant. Some sub-kings were constituted at very, very young ages, admittedly – Louis the Pious was all of three years old – but a literal baby seems a bit much.
The absence of evidence is a bit more substantial, enough to constitute evidence of absence. We have a substantial chronicler (Flodoard) and a couple of others (the Annals of Sainte-Colombe, the Annals of Fleury, the Annals of Nevers) who cover Burgundian affairs, and none of them give any kind of king-making ceremony the slightest bit of attention. Even more crucially, we have a whole load of other charters from 953 and 954, all of which are still dated by Louis’ reign – including, crucially, the notice of a court held by Count Leotald of Mâcon in October 953. We know from both Flodoard and diploma evidence that Leotald was one of Louis’ most consistent allies in southern Burgundy. Given, therefore, that he would have been both one of the people whom Louis most needed to bring on board to support any kind of subkingship and one of the most likely to support the king, the lack of any reference to Charles is significant.
So, then, we have one unambiguous bit of clearly contemporary evidence, but it’s tinny in the face of a deafening silence. Ultimately, I’m with Lot, not Brühl: it might still be possible that baby Charles got his brief kingdom, but Occam’s Razor says that Rothard is the outlier, not everyone else. Charles’ brief kingdom would have to wait several decades to fail… but that’s another story.
For reasons that will become clear down the line, I’ve been starting to think about coinages in the ninth-century Viking world, particularly in places where incoming rulers had to establish themselves. There’s lots and lots of people looking at Viking coinage, of course – you won’t struggle to find people comparing York’s coinage with Thor’s hammer with the St Edmund coinage of East Anglia memorialising not just any saint, but one the region’s Viking rulers had martyred just a few decades earlier. However, I want to a) take a bit of a broader perspective and b) bring in bullion too. Let me spit-ball some ideas at you to give you a sense of what I mean.
The ideological content of Viking coinages are, as I’ve said, oft-discussed; but these coinages are remarkably tightly bounded geographically: they’re in parts of Britain, and (sort of) on the Gaulish coast. They’re not, for instance, found in Ireland or Rus’. Part of this might be absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. For instance, we know that Rus’ neighbour the Khazar Khaganate minted coinage with an ideological message on it after its elite converted to Judaism; but we know this from a meagre handful of coins. If there had been a small issue of coins in some Viking polity in the eastern Baltic in c. 860, we might very well not know about it. Still, we should consider the ideological role of bullion, not least because its use seems to have persisted even in Britain. Most scholarship I can find on the role of bullion is purely economic – one historian actually contrasted coins (as something which could have ideological uses) against bullion (which couldn’t).
Yet this doesn’t explain why we don’t see more minting earlier. Viking rulers were well-familiar with coinage, and with its use as an ideological tool – the raiders who came back from Gaul with bags of silver deniers marked BY GOD’S GRACE CHARLES IS KING could hardly fail to get the picture, even if there hadn’t been bands based in Frisia (who also played an active role in Scandinavian politics) actively overseeing minting themselves. And indeed in Rouen, East Anglia, and elsewhere Viking rulers were quick to use making coins to say things about their rule. (You may be wondering, especially if you’ve read what I’ve written on this blog before: do William Longsword’s coins of c. 930 count as those of a ‘Viking’ ruler? Surely it’s more comparable to ‘feudal’ coinages? The short answer there is that I suspect the dynamics behind the minting practices of, say, the Northumbrian Viking ruler Cnut and William the Pious trend in similar directions…) So why not do so in Dublin or Kiev?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the vast majority of coins I’ve encountered so far are imitative – Carolingian-style in Normandy and Frisia, West Saxon in East Anglia, and so on. Minting seems to come with a displacement of ideas about rule, a gravitational pull towards pre-existing habits of kingship in the region. Understanding coins requires a certain amount of political and cultural literacy. To illustrate the point, I’ve just gone into my desk and pulled out (appropriately enough) a Norwegian 1-Krone coin, and even with coins from a relatively close country I don’t know why it’s got a hole in the middle and I don’t understand the picture of a bird on the reverse.
This means that starting minting requires a certain amount of indoctrination to start with: in the case of William Longsword’s Temple-type coinage, for instance, you have to know that the ‘W’ on the obverse means ‘William, count of Rouen’; you have to know that the design is supposed to be a temple; you may well have to know that it’s a deliberate imitation of a coin which hadn’t been in common circulation for about seventy years. It’s a lot of work.
In addition, incoming elites were already plugged into an existing ideology of precious metals disconnected from coinage. Flicking through the skaldic poetry preserved in the kings’ sagas, it’s noticeable that ‘gold-breaker’ is such a common circumlocution for ‘generous man’. Similarly, Thjodolf of Hvinir describes how ‘the glorious ruler gave his champions red gold and many rings, bright mail-shirts and keen blades, shining and richly-decorated shields’. Good, i.e. generous, kingship is here tied tightly to a non-monetarised economy. This isn’t to say that a Scandinavian chief of the mid-ninth century would have turned down a bag full of coins, but he might not have drawn a distinction between them and a bag full of hack-silver; and probably wasn’t worth the effort to make him try.
Of course, even if this baseless speculation is right, that still raises the question of what motivated coin production and coin design across the Viking world. That’s one of the questions I’ll be looking at in future, so keep an eye out. This post was very much The Historian’s Sketchpad at its sketch-padiest. This time next year, hopefully I will be able to present you with thought-out conclusions based on evidence. In the meantime, with an at-best vague knowledge of the sources and the literature, I’m happy to have got something down to orientate future research.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not generally, I get the impression, been good for research. Libraries have been shut, there’s been almost no chance of archive access, and lots of the usual venues for exchanging knowledge have either not happened or gone online which – even as someone who’s run a couple of online conferences myself – just isn’t the same. The pandemic has had the same impact on me – my ongoing research has been heavily disrupted for about a year, so I’ve been working on a couple of pandemic projects I can do with the resources at hand. The biggest, and the one into which I’ve put the most time, is writing an actual narrative history of tenth-century France. It seems to me that there’s a need for such a book. For one thing, if you want detailed narrative for the period then at the moment your normal recourse is to a series of about six studies all of which are over a century old, in which time our fundamental assumptions about tenth-century history have changed notably. What this means is that the current boom in work on the period is in the strange situation where very theoretically and critically advanced material is being put in the context of a narrative all of whose assumptions come from the historiography of belle epoque France. This isn’t to say that these books need replacing, necessarily – the scholars who wrote them were deeply immersed in the sources and the world, and their insights remain valuable – but it would be nice to have something a) more up-to-date and b) in fewer than half-a-dozen volumes. This isn’t just a question of synthesis – in basically every chapter, I have to argue for my story; and this is – as always – ever more the case when it comes to Provence.
Yes! Surprise – it’s another Provence post. This time, we’re going later than we usually do, to the late 940s and the reign of Conrad the Pacific. You may remember from previous posts about Provence that after the death of Louis the Blind there is a period of confusion where it’s not entirely clear who’s in charge. There is a long-standing historiographical tradition that this comes to an end in 933 when Rudolf II of Transjurane Burgundy makes a deal with Hugh of Arles that Rudolf gets to rule Provence in return for not trying to overthrow Hugh in Italy. I have argued before that this is more-or-less nonsense, and there is a solid and separate historiographical tradition which agrees with me. However, that tradition in turn would give a date of 942, when Otto the Great and Louis IV met at a place called Visé and made a pact. The argument is that we know Conrad the Pacific was in Otto the Great’s train in 942; in late 942 and early 943 we see Conrad for the first time in Provence; so it must have been the case that Louis, Otto, and Conrad made some kind of settlement over northern Provence. Given Flodoard says absolutely nothing about any of this, such an argument gets me muttering about correlation and causation (not that Flodoard’s silences are clinching proof, but they do get me suspicious); and there is a further historiographical tradition which is happy for Conrad’s assumption of power in Provence to have been a much more drawn-out affair.
To give you a really quick timeline: Louis IV comes to the throne in 936; Conrad in 937 but he gets quickly kidnapped by Otto the Great. We don’t have any charters from south of the Lyonnais which can be securely dated to this period in the name of either monarch but narrative sources seem to indicate that Louis more punch in northern Provence than any other ruler. This changes by 943, when Conrad is in Vienne. There, he seems to have most of the region’s elite on side, despite some friction with Vienne’s count, Charles Constantine (son of Louis the Blind). By 946, Conrad looks like he’s firmly in charge of the north. Then, in 947, something important happens: Hugh of Arles, who has been king of Italy all this time, is deposed, and flees north to Arles itself, where he seeks help to regain his throne before quickly dying in April. Hugh’s death changes the picture, and I’m currently trying to work out how Conrad and Louis respond to it.
This is hampered by the fact that there’s already a great story that you can put together from work that’s already out there. Two very serious French scholars, Jean-Pierre Poly and Etienne Fournial, both working on rather different issues, have two arguments which complement one another wonderfully.
To start with, Poly points towards a letter from Rather of Verona, addressed to a series of Provençal bishops including Guy of Lyon and Sobbo of Vienne, refusing to come to a synod, in part at least because he was not properly under their jurisdiction. He infers from this that it was a synod arranged to judge Rather’s claims to the see of Verona against Archbishop Manasses of Arles, who also claimed the see. He then links this to the 947 Council of Tournus, where most of the same bishops were assembled, and argues based on a charter for Cluny that Manasses did show up, and was given the all-clear by them.
Fournial, meanwhile, is also looking at charters, in this case from the abbey of Savigny, and points out an interesting pattern: whilst most charters from the Lyonnais after 942 are dated by the reign of Conrad the Pacific, some are dated by the reign of the West Frankish kings, and nearly all of them come from the region of the western Lyonnais known as Forez. Fournial therefore argued that Forez was reserved to Louis by the Treaty of Visé.
Here’s where I come in. The earliest charters Fournial has are actually dated to 949*. Manasses of Arles’ charter is also dated by Louis. Now, Archbishop Odalric of Aix-en-Provence shows up at the Synod of Verdun in winter 947, and in autumn/winter 948 Louis was spending a lot of time making nice with the great magnates of southern Burgundy. Conrad, though, evidently also saw an opportunity because he seems to have been exerting his influence to get his men into important positions in southern Provence, notably in the case of the election of Bishop Honoratus of Marseille in 948. So, this presents us with a picture roughly as follows: after Hugh of Arles’ death, Manasses (the biggest cheese left in the region) comes north and negotiates with the area’s other leading prelates about what to do next. Conrad the Pacific sees opportunity, but so does Louis IV, and Manasses is a swing factor. In the end, Conrad does get southern Provence, Manasses goes back to Italy – but Louis is bought off with Forez. It’s an appropriate closing movement to the long and complicated history of Provence after Louis the Blind.
The problem is that it’s definitely wrong.
Let’s start with Poly’s claims, because they are peculiarly baffling. There’s not much literature about the Council of Tournus, but in what there is it is clear that German and French scholars have not been reading each other’s work. German scholars not being familiar with Poly’s work I can understand – they tend to be Carolingian-focussed Church historians and it’s not immediately obvious that a history of feudalism in the central Middle Ages is relevant to that – but Poly is apparently unaware of basic things, like the ‘modern’ edition of Rather’s letters (‘modern’ in quotation marks because whilst it is a product of modern scholarship in a way which the much older edition Poly cites is not, it’s also from the 1940s), or the extensive German-language historiography on Rather’s career. This is relevant because that scholarship is universally agreed that the letter in question dates from the mid-to-late 930s, and whilst I’m not 100% convinced of the reasoning there, at the very least Rather was back in Verona in mid-late 946 so is unlikely to have had anything to do with the Council of Tournus. Equally, there’s no evidence linking Manasses to that council either – he was certainly in Provence in September 948 but that’s over a year later!
Equally, Fournial’s argument has been respectfully demolished by Pierre Ganivet. The thing with Fournial’s argument is that there are a lot (like, a lot) of charters from Forez dated by Conrad’s reign, and it’s far from clear what factors affected the drafting. Ganivet points out that one of the most likely factors seems to be scribal preference, which if the scribe wasn’t from Forez might not be very helpful. In any case, we definitely don’t have a picture of West Frankish control over Forez, as opposed to a few weird outliers.
(Even the date of 948 for the election of Honoratus of Marseille is probably wrong: it’s dependent on a charter dated by ‘the twelfth year of Conrad’, but we have another charter from the same monastery dated to his thirteenth year, and that also gives an AD date of 955…)
So, is there anything left? …Honestly, not really. I’ve looked at the evidence from every conceivable angle trying to find something, because we definitely have traces of something interesting happening in these years, but there’s no ‘there’ there. Now, on one hand, Conrad’s expansion into the south of Provence is well-documented, and his consolidation of power in the north is also well-known even if not often commented upon. How this interacted with the West Frankish kingdom, though, is unknown, if hinted very obliquely in our sources. For one thing, there are a lot of West Frankish bishops at the Council of Tournus, including the suffragans of the archbishop of Lyon but also Godeschalk of Puy, who wasn’t (but, on the other hand, Godeschalk has lots of ties with Transjurane Burgundy and Provence…). Then, there’s the presence of Bishop Odalric of Aix-en-Provence at the Synod of Verdun in late 947 (but he was running the see of Rheims for years and the evidence he ever went back south after the 920s is very dubious…).
Then, we have Manasses of Arles visiting Cluny in September 948, along with Countess Bertha of Arles and the bishop of Avignon. This is probably the least controvertible piece of evidence we have that something is going on, because that certainly looks like a delegation to me. The charter in Manasses’ name through which we know any of this is dated in the name of Louis IV, which could be significant except that the charter itself deals with lands near Chalon, was issued at Cluny, and was written by a scribe who from what I can tell only worked at Cluny, so it’s – again – probably just scribal preference. The significance of this is that it’s a reasonable leap to say that Manasses is there to talk to Hugh the Black (who in addition to ruling southern Burgundy is also in charge around Lyon and Besançon) and Count Leotald of Mâcon (and Besançon), and probably Bishop Maimbod of Mâcon too – all of them have clout in northern Provence. At precisely the same time, Louis IV is also spending a lot of time talking to precisely these people. But there’s no route through them from Louis to Manasses, and no trace of any kind of deal between Louis and either Manasses or Conrad. Ultimately, this is one of those cases where it’s best not to push the evidence too far…
*OK, not really, but that’s the best interpretation. They’re actually dated to ‘the twentieth year of the reign of Louis, king of the Franks’, who didn’t reign for twenty years. The editor proposed, I think reasonably, that they were dating from the death of Charles the Simple in 929. It must be said, there are also a number of other options, including but not limited to a) they mean ‘Conrad’ not ‘Louis’ and there’s been a scribal error (I’ve seen ‘Charles’ and ‘Lothar’ get mixed up before); or b) ‘twenty years’ is being used as a vague, rounding shorthand by the cartulary compilator.
When in 865 Emir Muhammad I of Cordoba (r. 852-886) sent back the Frankish envoys he had received from Charles the Bald (r. 843-877) the previous year, he entrusted them with a number of gifts, which they conveyed to Charles at his capital at Compiegne. According to Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, writing in the Annals of St-Bertin, these included ‘fine cloth of various kinds’, ‘many perfumes’ and ‘camels carrying couches and canopies’.
To say that I have been interested in these camels is perhaps to slightly underplay it [No kidding – Ed.].
Unwary scholars in half a dozen countries and two continents have had the experience of listening to me talking about these camels. What was meant to be a paragraph in my PhD thesis rapidly escalated into an article, (‘The Camels of Charles the Bald’, Medieval Encounters, 25 (2019), 263-292), and I acquired a healthy quantity of camel-related memorabilia along the way.
Part of what fascinated me about these camels was trying to work out what Charles would have made of them. Camels were decidedly thin on the ground in ninth-century Francia and although some of his courtiers may have encountered them on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Charles himself had no personal experience with them. Being somewhat pungent and prone to spitting, a close encounter with a camel can be an ambiguous experience for the inexperienced. It is not obvious whether getting a camel as a present is a good or a bad thing.
In order to understand Charles’ response to these camels, I tried to reconstruct the intellectual context by which he would have understood them. Even in the modern world, the way we think about animals is shaped by the culturally-induced associations we have with them. Thus, for instance, a white-headed fish eagle has become synonymous with the United States; and a black-and-white bear with a digestive system that is poorly adapted for its diet has ended up as the symbol of wildlife conservation. This is particularly the case when it comes to diplomatic gifts, which come imbued with meaning (some readers may remember the uproar when in 2009 the newly elected American President Barack Obama presented Prime Minister Gordon Brown with 25 DVDs, a gift widely viewed by the British press as a snub).
The range of potential meanings the camels could have had for Charles is large and I discuss them in my article. He and his advisers had access to a huge range of classical and biblical sources of knowledge that refer to camels, and I want to illustrate this point by using this blogpost to talk about one of my favourite readings of the camel, which comes from the Old Testament. Saying that the Bible was important in the medieval world is not exactly a hot take. In addition to its religious significance, Carolingian rulers read the historical books of the Old Testament both as a record of the past and as an example of what it meant to be a king. They drew moral and practical lessons from what they read. Knowledge of scripture was something they shared with both religious and lay elites, meaning that the ideas and stories that a king like Charles encountered in the Bible were familiar to many of the powerful people whose support and participation gave his kingdom its substance.
Charles the Bald’s favourite Biblical king was Solomon, prompting Hincmar to write at length on the monarch in response to Charles’ questions about him. Charles was repeatedly described by his courtiers as ‘our Solomon’ and he seems to have actively encouraged this identification. Famously wise, powerful and successful at bringing about peace, Solomon was a popular model for medieval kings to aspire to. Solomon had additional advantages for Charles, being famous for culture and learning, something that Charles was interested in, while not being famous as a warrior-king. Charles’ military career was decidedly chequered, so Solomon provided a useful archetype for a peaceful king. Charlemagne had been compared to David, so by becoming the new Solomon, Charles could portray himself as the heir to his revered grandfather’s glory.
Camels feature heavily in various contexts in the Old Testament, but one of the most spectacular moments comes when the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon. Both 1 Kings 10:2 and 2 Chronicles 9:1 describe the Queen coming ‘with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones’. The land of Sheba itself was also associated with camels because of the words of the Prophet Isaiah [60:6]:
The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord.
Carolingian intellectuals commented on these camels from Sheba, identifying Sheba as the land of the Queen who visited Solomon. The camels represented the gentile souls coming to God, barbarian peoples brought to the light. More prosaically, the camels of Sheba represented a righteous king being recognised for his wisdom by distant and fantastically wealthy foreign rulers, demonstrating his importance and authority.
There were other ways that Charles could and probably did read his new zoological presents. But given his interest in Solomon and that his teachers and advisors associated camels with Sheba, it’s hard to imagine that the comparison didn’t cross his mind. It would also have been fantastically useful as yet another way of convincing his followers that they were participating in something special, and that their king was indeed a good one, who was guided by the wisdom of Solomon.
Connections like these are why I’m so interested in the role played by animals in medieval diplomacy (see also my ramblings on Charlemagne’s elephants). They bring out the importance of spectacle at court, as well as the significance of sources of knowledge of distant lands. For Emir Muhammad, the camels he sent had a completely different cultural significance and meaning. Yet despite the fact that he and Charles had minimal common ground in their comprehension of the camels, they could both understand their giving and receiving as a sign of good will and amity. Although we are allowed to suspect that it would probably have been for the best if Muhammad never found out that Charles had cast him as the Queen of Sheba in this spectacle.
One of my occasional but long-running interests is onomastics, the study of personal names. You can probably trace this back to the early part of my PhD, when I had to read a frankly alarming amount of implausible genealogical speculation based on people’s names. There is a very respectable tradition amongst scholars of the Early Middle Ages that onomastic links are a useful tool for tracing family ties. The idea goes something like this: the counts of Anjou (say) from c. 890 until c. 1040 were called Fulk, Fulk, Geoffrey, Fulk, and Geoffrey. If, then, we have someone of unknown family background but who is called Fulk or Geoffrey, this could be a sign they are related to the counts of Anjou. There are, naturally, nuances and finesses to this particular argument – for instance, holding land in the same area, or inheriting the same office, makes a case much stronger – and good scholars are generally unwilling to accept onomastic conjecture by itself as proving family relations. Still, the idea is there, and I’ve always wondered: can we reverse-engineer this method? That is, if we look at naming patterns amongst people who we know are related, can we show a familial element to naming patterns which would give us confidence in this method when we don’t know of any definitive relationship?
I have to say, it’s remarkably hard to answer this question with a ‘no’, much as I might want to. Take the case of the name ‘Henry’, for instance. Virtually every significant Henry in tenth- and eleventh-century Europe seems to derive ultimately from the East Frankish king Henry the Fowler. Henry had a large family, and four of his children in particular concern us here: Emperor Otto the Great, Duke Henry I of Bavaria, the West Frankish queen Gerberga, and Hedwig, wife of Hugh the Great, duke of the Franks. From these four people, the name ‘Henry’ ended up being used by the Capetians (one king of France, one duke of Burgundy), from whence it also ended up as a name used by the kings of England (King Henry I of England being presumably named after his mother’s uncle King Henry I of France). It also passed to the Salian emperors of Germany through two different paths (Otto the Great’s daughter Liutgard, wife of Conrad the Red; and Gerberga’s daughter Matilda, wife of Conrad the Pacific of Transjurane Burgundy). It also passed to the counts of Leuven and their cadet branches, as well as to the counts of Limburg and Durbuy (unclear precisely how, but through Hedwig’s daughter Beatrice in the first instance and Gerberga’s son Charles of Lotharingia in the second).
So far so good, if we’re thinking that names pass down through families. Two problems arise, though. The first is that several generations can go by before the name Henry re-emerges. I have found vanishingly few cases where more than four generations separate two Henries (i.e. the parents of younger Henries are, at the most distant, naming the kid after one of their own grandfathers or great-uncles). Probably the most distant is Henry of Speyer, progenitor of the Salians:
Henry the Fowler –> Otto the Great –> Liutgard –> Otto of Worms –> Henry of Speyer
And even then, if we knew more about the identity of Otto of Worms’ wife we might be able to cut a generation or two off that. Still, four generations is a lot, and although it is accurate to say that (say) King Henry I of England and his son-in-law Emperor Henry V were a) related and b) ultimately derived their names from the same ancestor, it’s not helpful in telling you anything about either’s conception of their family or their political behaviour. The second problem is that we have a number of other Henries who can’t be assigned with any confidence to this family tree, notably Henry I of Austria and Stephen-Henry of Blois (the latter, indeed, has been conjectured to have received his name from Henry I of France as his godfather, which would be a very interesting nugget if there were any proof that Henry was his godfather – maybe there is and I don’t know it, answers in the comments please). This doesn’t mean they weren’t related* – we know that there were other nobles called Henry who were somehow related to Henry the Fowler hanging around and probably reproducing in the tenth century – but it means that all we can say with confidence about their family relations was ‘they were related somehow’. Given we’re talking about the aristocracy, even at a time when they were operating under some of the strictest incest taboos human society has ever produced, we can probably take that as a default assumption.
Our second case is even less helpful, and that’s the name William. ‘William’ is a paradox. On one hand, it is a name which is deeply characteristic of some families. Most notable in this regard are the counts of Poitiers, who were all called William to the point it got ridiculous. William (V) the Great had four sons who succeeded him in turn: William the Fat, Odo, Peter, and Guy Geoffrey. However, when their turn came around all except Odo changed their name, so Peter became William VII (William Aigret) and Guy Geoffrey William VIII. The problem is that ‘William’ is characteristic of too many families: amongst others, it is a characteristic name of the dukes of Aquitaine, the dukes of Normandy, the counts of Burgundy, the counts of Angoulême, the counts of Provence, and the rulers of Montferrat and Montpellier; and it’s as clear as mud how it got there. In some cases, we can trace the name’s diffusion quite clearly. Stephen-Henry of Blois, for instance, had a son named William clearly named after Stephen-Henry’s father-in-law William the Conqueror. Equally, the Landricid counts of Nevers, Auxerre, and Tonnerre gained the name William from a marriage with a daughter of Count Otto-William of Burgundy, a marriage seemingly so prestigious that Otto-William’s family names colonised the Landricid family, where Landrics and Bodos were replaced with Williams and Rainalds.
These cases are a minority, and that’s important. Above all, it means that ‘William’ becomes essentially meaningless as a way of tracing family connections – it’s just too common. This is a shame, because there are some fascinating questions which we could answer if we knew more. Take the question of Normandy. ‘William’ is a name which is everywhere in Normandy: it’s characteristic not just of the ducal family, but of others such as the Bellême and the Hautevilles. It would be really nice to know whether the popularity of ‘William’ in Normandy in the tenth and (especially) eleventh centuries was due to a) kinship connections with the ducal family; b) non-kinship connections with the ducal family; c) the same event which caused the name to appear in the ducal family; or d) coincidence…
*Stephen-Henry certainly was, being a great-great-great-great-grandson of Henry the Fowler; but that’s reaching if we’re thinking about significance.
The history books inform us that Charlemagne died on the 28th January 814 and was buried on the same day in Aachen. This is of course a lie. As we all know from the Brothers Grimm, Charlemagne is not dead, but merely sleeping beneath the Untersberg on the modern Austrian-German border. Confirmation of the truth of the sleeping Charlemagne came when Otto III opened his tomb in the year 1000 and found a perfectly preserved body. After giving his nails a quick trim, they left him to his rest. As with many Kings in the Mountain, such as King Arthur, Frederick Barbarossa, Constantine XI and Alan Rickman, it is prophesied that he will arise from his slumber to save his people in a time of crisis.
Quite when this will happen is a little unclear. In his Chronicle, Abbot Ekkehard of Aura noted fabulous stories of Charlemagne returning for the First Crusade. If we share his scepticism we must face a major problem. Given that Charlemagne has managed to sleep undisturbed through the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War and the Second World War, we might ask ourselves exactly how large a crisis would be necessary to wake him.
This issue seems particularly strange if we consult Alcuin, who in a poem describes Charlemagne leaping out of bed in the mornings. In his biography of Charlemagne, Einhard provides us with a possible explanation for Charlemagne’s long slumber, informing us that ‘he was in the habit of awaking and rising from bed four or five times during the night’, supplementing this limited rest with a short siesta in the afternoon. Einhard drew upon Suetonius’ description of Augustus in this, right down to the afternoon nap. Suetonius’ Augustus ‘often suffered from want of sleep’.
In Suetonius’ portraits of the early Roman Emperors, an inability to sleep could be a sign of a fundamental disorder in the individual’s mind. His Caligula:
was especially tormented with sleeplessness; for he never rested more than three hours at night…weary of lying in bed wide awake during the greater part of the night, he would…wander through the long colonnades, crying out from time to time for daylight and longing for its coming.
A similar flavour of the unnatural appears in Procopius’ description of Justinian in the Secret History. The Emperor’s insomnia is presented as a mark of the Satanic:
And how could this man fail to be some wicked demon, he who never had a sufficiency of food or drink or sleep, but taking a taste at haphazard of that which was set before him, walked about the Palace at unseasonable hours of the night, though he was passionately devoted to the joys of Aphrodite?
As with Macbeth, the inability of these Emperors to sleep demonstrates monarchs at odds with the natural order of things.
However, a more positive interpretation of sleepless kings was available. Seneca said of Claudius that ‘the watchfulness of Caesar guards the sleep of everyone’. In his AnabasisArrian describes Alexander reproaching his mutinous troops ‘I wake before you and watch so that you might sleep properly’. The Harun al-Rashid of the Arabian Nights also fits this pattern, as the sleepless Caliph wanders his city in disguise in order to right wrongs and protect his people.
These rulers stay awake in order to safeguard their subjects. Nor is the model of the vigilant guardian alien to the modern age. Napoleon declared that the number of hours’ sleep required was ‘Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.’ Margaret Thatcher famously got by on four hours of sleep a night as Prime Minister. So too, it is rumoured, does Vladimir Putin. While there are plenty of people who might wish that both had got a bit more sleep before making some of their decisions, these stories add to the mystique of both, as indefatigable leaders endlessly working for the good of their peoples. While earlier rulers defend their people at night, modern restless leaders are celebrated out for their discipline and dedication.
Given this continuity between the ancient and the modern worlds, it is unsurprising that the model of the watchful ruler can be found in the early medieval period. Nor were Classical models the sole source for early medieval biographers. In the figure of Christ they had perhaps the perfect example of the ever vigilant king. As the Psalms promised ‘He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’. Elsewhere David says ‘I have slept and have taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me’. The Old Testament offered another model of the sleepless ruler in King David, weeping that ‘I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears’.
We can see the concept of the sacrificing king in Asser’s King Alfred, who works day and night to deal ‘with the cares of the royal office at home and abroad, and also with the invasions of pagans by land and sea’ (Life of Alfred cap. 25). Elsewhere the West Saxon king is described working all night to alleviate the plight of the poor (cap. 105). All of this is done at the expense of leisure time to read, learn languages and above all, sleep.
This was also a familiar trope in the Carolingian period. In his poem in praise of Louis the Pious, Ermold the Black mocked the Prince of the Bretons as ‘so weighed down with drink and deep sleep that he can scarcely open his eyes’ (In Honour of Louis, bk. 3). This was in contrast to Louis, who the Astronomer portrayed staying up on the roof of his palace to protect his people from evil portents (cap. 58).
As is often the case, the exemplar of these tendencies was Charlemagne. The century after Charlemagne’s reign saw intense mythologizing of the Emperor, as he became an ideal ruler. Stories of Charlemagne’s nocturnal watchfulness grew with the years, drawing upon and expanding the details found in Einhard. The clearest celebration of the ever vigilant emperor appears in the anonymous work of the Poeta Saxo, written in the 880s, which declares:
Charles seldom fell to sleep
Occupied as he was with serious deliberations
Constantly turning over in his mind great issues.
He responded to his many cares with watchfulness,
For this reason, four times every night or even more often,
He shook off sleep and arose from bed.
Oh how greatly did the state prosper under his attention;
The reference to Charlemagne rising four times or more each night is taken from Einhard, and helps us to think about the transition between history and myth in the epic of Charlemagne.
Writing just before the Poeta Saxo, Notker the Stammerer recounts a tale of two nobles who got drunk and fell asleep while they were meant to be guarding Charlemagne’s tent during the Saxon Wars. Charlemagne was able to creep past them and go about the camp without disturbing his slumbering guards, before upbraiding them in the morning (Deeds of Charles 2.3). Notker’s story provides us with a vision of Charlemagne as the war leader, wandering past the camp fires in the manner of Henry V, reassuring his nervous men in dangerous country.
But if Charlemagne was watchful on campaign, nowhere was his nocturnal vigilance more effective than in the palace of Aachen, which in the legends comes to seem a sort of Panopticon for the Emperor. This caused difficulties for his daughter Bertha, who was engaged in a relationship with the poet Angilbert, one of the results of which was to be the soldier and historian Nithard. According to the Chronicle of Lorsch, in order to hide the evidence of a nocturnal tryst, Bertha gave Angilbert a piggyback across a snow covered court, so that only one set of small footprints would be visible in the morning. Unfortunately for the lovers, Charlemagne was awake and saw them from his rooms. Luckily Charlemagne forgave them and let them continue with their affair.
In this manner the people of Francia could sleep easily, knowing their beloved Emperor was forever vigilant. Given his lack of sleep during his reign, Charlemagne’s failure to emerge from under the mountain makes rather more sense.
(For more on this subject, see Paul Dutton’s magnificent The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire (Lincoln and London, 1994).)