Source Translation: The Breviary of Erchanbert and the Continuation of Notker the Stammerer

Recently, I updated the Translated Primary Sources page. I know that translating charter material is kind of our gimmick on this blog, and I know that the inevitable progression of chronological time means that if you started at a given point heading towards another you’re going to have more of the earlier material if you haven’t finished yet; but I was nonetheless a bit put out to find how much it skews towards late ninth-century material rather than tenth-century stuff proper, and I also thought that some non-diplomatic sources wouldn’t go amiss. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I decided, now that we’ve paused translating wills, that it wouldn’t go amiss to translate some smaller non-diplomatic sources. The fact I’m doing all this for free in my spare time is going to impose limits on what I deal with – an English translation of the acts of the Council of Saint-Basle is something I’d like very much, but I personally don’t feel incentivised to go through all sixty-odd pages of it – but plenty of material on the shorter side is important and can be overlooked.

Today’s source is certainly the former, although I don’t think it’s the latter. (Ironically too given my concerns, it’s also late ninth century!) It comes in two parts, the first being a breviary written by one Erchanbert around 826. I’m translating this part from the MGH edition, which is an abbreviated version of the text, which is fine by me because the part I’m more interested in is the Continuatio Erchanberti, written by Notker the Stammerer in 881. Between them, these texts cover the history of the Franks from the Merovingians down to the end of the ninth century.

Breviarium Erchanberti

  1. The Breviary of Erchanbert from the Fifth Century Up to AD 827

With the death of King Faramund, who was the first king over the Franks, etc…

King Theuderic, son of Clovis, brother of Chlothar, reigned for 19 years. His mayor of the palace was Berthar; when he was killed, the younger Pippin, son of Ansegisl, coming from the Austrasians, succeeded in the leadership of the mayors of the palace.

Thereafter, the kings began to have the name and not the honour; wherever they were established, they had lots to eat, and they were held under constant oversight in order that they could not do carry out any act of power. In those times and thereafter, Gotfrid, duke of the Alemannians, and other dukes all about were unwilling to obey the dukes of the Franks, because they could not serve the Merovingian kings as they had previously been accustomed. And so each of them carried on, until finally, a little after the death of Duke Gotfrid, Charles [Martel] and the other princes of the Franks little by little endeavoured to bring them back into the fold as tightly as they could…

The Franks established Daniel, formerly a cleric, who had let his hair grow, as king, and they named him Chilperic; because the line of kings had failed, they established him whom they could found to be the closest relation to the Merovingians, because the Merovingians (as they say), just like the Nazarenes of old, never cut their hair; and he reigned for 6 years…

Therefore, the aforesaid prince, with the counsel of his best men, having asked and persuaded the king and receiving in the end his unwilling consent, divided the realm of the Franks between his two sons Carloman and Pippin, and following an illness immediately ended his life in the year 741. 

Carloman, therefore, and his brother Pippin, having divided the realm between themselves, held the leadership of the Franks together for 10 years. Meanwhile, as they say, the aforesaid King Theuderic held the name but not the realm, and only that minor dignity which previous kings had held, nothing except solely that when the aforesaid princes made charters of gift, they put his name and year at the end of the page.

Prince Carloman, in the sixth year of the aforesaid, commending his realm and sons to his brother, in order that he might raise them to kinship when they came of age, went to Rome, was tonsured at St Peter’s, went to the monastery of St Benedict, and subjected himself to be surrendered to the discipline of the Rule.

Before Pippin was elevated to the kingship, a pope named Stephen came from Rome to the borders of the Franks in order to seek out the aforesaid prince so that he could help him with Haistulf, king of the Lombards, because he had seized both cities and other places and borders from St Peter. The aforesaid prince is said to have responded ‘I have a lord king, and I do not know what he wants to rule on this matter’. But the pope beseeched help from the king with the same words. Then the king said ‘Do you not see, O pope, that I do not enjoy royal dignity and power? How can I do any of this?’ The pope said ‘That sounds right, because you are unworthy of such an honour’. Returning to Prince Pippin, he said, ‘By the authority of St Peter I command you to tonsure him and send him to a monastery. How can he hold land? He is useful neither to himself nor to others.’ He was immediately tonsured and thrust into a monastery, and the pope said to the prince: ‘the Lord and the authority of St Peter chooses you to be prince and king over the Franks’. And he immediately established and blessed him as king, and consecrated his two sons – who were still immature – Charles and Carloman as kings. But King Pippin promised that he would do everything as pleased him, and afterwards he did. And King Pippin reigned 17 years after his consecration.

Kings Charles and Carloman, the sons of Pippin, held the realms together for 4 years. King Charles reigned by himself for 45 years, and Pope Leo consecrated him as emperor in the thirtieth year of his reign. Louis, king and emperor, has reigned happily, with God propitious, for 19 years at this point. From King Chlothar to the present 13th year of Emperor Louis, there are 232 and ten years in total. 

Notker the Stammerer, allegedly (source)

2. The continuation of a monk of Reichenau for the years 840-881

Emperor Louis died in the 27th year of his reign, in the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 840, in the third indiction, on the 12th kalends of July.

In the second year after his death, his three sons, after a terrible battle which raged between them over the sharing out of the realm, divided up Europe in this fashion. The first-born Lothar received Italy, Burgundy and part of Lyonnais Gaul, the province of the Moselle, and the part of those who are called the Old Franks. His brother, the most glorious King Louis, received the whole of Germany, that is, the whole of East Francia, Alemannia or Rhaetia, Noricum, Saxony and many barbarian nations. Again, Charles, who was yet a boy, by the efforts of his mother, the most cunning Judith, accepted five provinces: the Viennois, the province of Autun, Gallia Narbonnenis, and part of Belgica or Lyonnais. Their fourth brother, named Pippin, retained Aquitaine, Spain and Gascony and Gothia, which he had received whilst his father was alive (against the will of his father and his brothers), until the end of his life. Provence, which is simply called ‘the Province’, is known to have passed between this party and that party.

The sons of Lothar, that is, Louis and Lothar, divided the realm of their father in such a way that Louis received Italy and the name of emperor and Lothar the cisalpine portion of his father.

Louis, king of Germany, many years before his death, providing for peace, took care to divide his realm between his three very illustrious sons born of Queen Emma in such a way that he committed Noricum and part of the barbarian nations to his first-born, the very warlike Karlmann, to be ruled; he made his like-named son Louis co-heir of his realm, that is, of the Franks and the Saxons, with tribute from the foreign-born. Again, he sent the most mild Charles as ruler into Alemannia, Greater Rhaetia and also Chur. He did this in such a way that his sons should hold these specificestates while he was still alive, and take care to determine minor cases, and that all the bishoprics and monasteries and counties and the public fiscs and all the higher justices should be beholden to himself. 

Therefore Louis, king of Germany, died at Frankfurt on the 5th kalends of September in the thirty-sixth year after the death of his father Emperor Louis, and was buried in Lorsch in the basilica of St Nazarius, and left his three aforesaid sons as heirs to his realm, having also added to his realm about half a part of Lotharingia.

Meanwhile Louis, Lothar’s brother, had died in Italy the year before King Louis of Germany. Their brother Karlmann occupied Italy up to the Po. Charles of Gaul invaded it beyond the Po, and then returned to Gaul from there and died on the journey. He left the government of the empire to Karlmann, since he had previously added the realm of Pippin (who had died without living offspring except only one, Bishop Charles of Mainz) to his own realm.

And so, Karlmann, after holding Italy for a short time, returned to Noricum, attacked by a terrible and incurable disease, whilst he was still alive, conceded Italy to his most pious and faithful brother Charles to be governed. 

He, having gathered a large army, occupied it completely unexpectedly, and came to Ravenna, and commanded the Roman pope, named John, to be summoned to him, and the patriarch of Friuli too, and the archbishop of Milan, and all the bishops and counts and the other leading men of Italy, and he was established king there by them, and all of them besides the bishop of the apostolic see bound themselves with oaths to his devoted service. Liutpert, bishop of Mainz, was present at this gathering at the command of King Louis.

In the same year, the fourth after his father’s death, Karlmann put an end to dwelling in this life. The following year, that is, the 881st from the Incarnation, in the 14th indiction, the same most clement Charles, equal to his grandfather the great emperor Charlemagne in all wisdom and industry and success in war and overcoming him in the tranquillity of peace and the prosperity of affairs, went to Rome with all the rulers of Italy and many from Francia and Swabia, and was consecrated as emperor by the Roman pontiff, who placed on his head a crown from the treasury of the holy apostle Peter, and was called Augustus Caesar, and now by favour of divine clemency rules the most peaceful empire, and lady Richgardis was elevated together with him to the consortship of the realm by the same apostle.

Charles of Gaul left one surviving son, named Louis. He lived a very short time after the death of his father, and left this life by an early death, leaving two surviving sons, that is, Louis and Carloman, who are now growing into the first flower of youth as the hope of Europe. Karlmann, son of the great Louis, had no sons except one named Arnulf, born from a certain very noble woman who was not legally betrothed to him. He still lives and O! Let him live so that the light of the great Louis be not extinguished in the house of the Lord!

Similarly, Louis king of Francia had one son named Hugh, a very attractive and warlike youth, from a concubine of very high nobility, who this year was killed in battle against the barbarians alongside the most religious bishops Thierry and Markward and Bruno, brother of Queen Liutgard, to the ruin of the Franks, since not long before the son of this Liutgard received from lord Louis was killed by a sudden death on the journey to Noricum whilst Karlmann yet lived, I know not from what cause, and indeed various opinions are bandied around about this by the fickle mob.

Now, therefore, it rests in the hand of God Almighty alone, by Whose will the universe is ruled, whether He will deign to awaken the seed of the lord emperor Charles, who is still young but excels all the old in good habits, and from the most religious queen and augusta Richgardis, through which the tyrants, or rather bandits, who (although the most serene emperor Charles and his brother the lord king Louis yet lived) presumed in secret to raise their head, might be suppressed by divine help. In the meantime, having respect for human shame, we will pass over them in silence until either they come over to the princes of the world and seek pardon for their stupidity or (as is appropriate that men who disturbed the commonwealth should suffer) until they are burned to ashes and blown away in the wind and condemned with their names – or, better, their ignominy and memory – forever.

I’m not going to comment on the original Breviarium here, although there’s some pretty darn interesting stuff on it out there. But there’s enough to talk about in Notker’s comments on his own time! First of all, Notker is already starting to get really concerned about the shape of at least the East Frankish descent line. Noteworthily, whilst he comments on whether or not children are legitimate, he’s not completely ruling at least some illegitimate offspring out of the royal succession. Notker’s view on Arnulf of Carinthia would only get sharper as the 880s wore on, but his apparent interest in Hugh, son of Louis the Younger, is also interesting. Noteworthy too is the fact that Charles the Fat’s illegitimate son Bernard doesn’t get a mention here – possibly he was too young? Even more, it’s only 881 – there are still four legitimate, crowned Carolingians rocking around.  I suppose, from his point of view, there have been four major deaths in just the last two years; but I think the main clue is that final paragraph.

Who are the ‘tyrants’ whom Notker is talking about? The text’s editor mentions Boso of Provence, but as always when talking about the early 880s we also have to consider Hugh of Alsace as well. Both these figures raise interesting questions about Notker’s ideas about rulership. Hugh of Alsace, illegitimate though he might have been, was a son of a Carolingian king, but if it is him about whom Notker is talking he clearly doesn’t envisage him as throne-worthy. (For the record, I think Notker does mean Hugh of Alsace, so from here on out I’ll stop with the qualifiers.) My guess is that Notker thinks he missed his window: he might be in a descent line, but he’s not an ‘heir to the realm’ and there’s already qualified kings. This makes his comments as applied to Boso equally interesting, as he mentions Charles the Fat and Louis the Younger, not Carloman II or Louis III, as the relevant kings. Boso did pose a threat to territory under the control of the East Frankish kings, but that wasn’t the primary objective. One of Boso’s justifications for becoming king was that there was no king otherwise after Louis the Stammerer’s death. I wonder if the argument that Carloman and Louis for whatever reason didn’t count could actually have found wider purchase? Louis the Younger, of course, was trying his hardest to come after the West Frankish kingdom as well…

More broadly, despite Notker being more-or-less contemporary the shape of the wider array of the Carolingian family is starting to get fuzzier. He mis-identified Pippin II of Aquitaine as a brother rather than a nephew of the sons of Louis the Pious – something even more noteworthy because he’s apparently familiar with Pippin’s brother (not son) Archbishop Charles of Mainz. He also manages to completely forget about Lothar I’s third son Charles of Provence. I can’t think of any particular sinister motivation for this, but it’s a useful reminder that the endless array of Charles’ and Louis’ were confusing for contemporaries as well.

A final note is about Louis the German’s division of his realm between his sons. If you remember our discussion of the provisions of the 877 Capitulary of Quierzy regarding Louis the Stammerer, you may also recall that Charles the Bald’s refusal to allow his son any quote-unquote ‘real power’ whilst he was in Italy is an important plank in the argument that Charles was uniquely contemptuous of Louis. Yet a simple look at Notker’s statements shows Louis doing the same thing with his sons. This is a strong plank in the case that Quierzy is just business as usual for power sharing between fathers and sons in the late ninth century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.   Far away

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

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

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

Slavs and East Franks Love It So: Aribo’s Letter to King Arnulf (891)

Cod. Aug. Fr. 150 is not one of the prettiest manuscripts kept in the Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe. It’s a scrappy sheet of parchment, 135×205 mm in size and repeatedly folded. The brief message it contains is incomplete, written in a plain book minuscule in a bad Latin that complicates reading its otherwise simple vocabulary. So little was it valued that someone at the Abbey of Reichenau in the fifteenth century used it to rebind the famous eighth-century Reichenau Glossary (Cod. Aug. perg. 248), gluing it to the rear wooden cover, trimming the fragment by 2-3 cm on the right edge and by an unknown amount at the bottom in the process. Once there it was chiefly appreciated by the woodworms that chewed several holes in it until it was published by Alfred Holder in 1914.

You may not like it, but this is what peak manuscript performance looks like. Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Cod. Aug. Fr. 150

Why am I interested in this unprepossessing manuscript? Because the badly written fragment is one of the most precious clues we have about Carolingian diplomacy. One of the problems that scholars of medieval diplomacy face is that we lack the paper trail that modern scholars rely upon. We generally don’t have the informal letters, personal briefing reports and cryptic notes that are the bread-and-butter of diplomatic history. Instead, we have to work with brief references in sources that are primarily interested in other subjects, or with official material intended for public consumption. But in Cod. Aug. Fr. 150, we get lucky, because it’s a letter from Count Aribo to King Arnulf (r.887-899) reporting on progress made by a Frankish embassy to the Moravians, which I’ve translated below.

“Aribo’s Letter to King Arnulf” in H. Schwarzmaier, ‘Ein Brief des Markgrafen Aribo an König Arnulf über die Verhältnisse in Mähren,’ Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 6 (1972), 55-66, p. 57.

To the most pious king

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Life and health to Arnulf, by favour of divine clemency most serene of kings. Aribo, your humble count, sends faithful service.

Your Clemency should know that you have neither free nor serf amongst your followers who strives for you as strongly as I.

We make it known to your ears that our representatives came from the eastern regions last Sunday and told us that all the Moravians together had ordered the cattle into the kind of service owed by their own serfs, and they are all joined together in friendship and give themselves to your service with no lordship due to any of the nobles.

My lord, they received Bishop Wiching and your other messenger with joy and they denied what had been told of them.

And everything… they were in observation and every day they gather them for your service.

My most pious lord, when you left from our parts, I was captured by the enemy with my most important people and… to come into the eastern parts… it was improved until… to carry out your service, by which… these named individuals died…

This text isn’t entirely straightforward to follow, not helped by the fact that we’re missing a good chunk of the manuscript. In the letter, Count Aribo addresses King Arnulf, relaying news to him about the progress of an embassy to the Moravians, led by Bishop Wiching and another, unnamed, envoy. Things seem to be going well, because the envoys were well received. The Moravians deny rumours that they were about to break with the Franks. Instead, as instructed they are gathering cattle for Arnulf. At the more fragmentary bottom of the manuscript, Aribo refers to being captured by enemies with his men.

When this letter was written is a little unclear. Arnulf became king in late 887. That Aribo addresses him thus suggests that the letter is from before Arnulf was crowned emperor in February 896. Bishop Wiching was Arnulf’s chancellor from late 893, something we might expect Aribo to mention in the letter. Arnulf was at war with the Moravians for most of 892-3, something not reflected in the letter. This suggests we’re looking for a date before 892. Rather promisingly, the Annals of Fulda state that in 891 ‘the king sent his ambassadors to the Moravians to renew peace’. This seems close enough to the situation Aribo describes that Schwarzmaier assigns it to this year, which strikes me as plausible.

If the letter is from 891, it comes from a context of good relations between the Franks and the Moravians. The last major war between the Franks and the Moravians had ended in 874, when Svatopluk I (r.871-894) made peace with Arnulf’s grandfather, Louis the German (r.840-876). The following years weren’t entirely peaceful. In 882 Count Aribo was attacked by rivals within Bavaria who wanted his title and office. Svatopluk intervened on Aribo’s side, while Arnulf supported his enemies. Charles the Fat (r.876-887) came to region in 884 and settled the matter in Aribo’s favour, leaving Arnulf to make a separate peace with Svatopluk in 885.

After overthrowing Charles in 887, Arnulf received envoys from ‘the Slavs’ in 888 and 889, which may have included the Moravians. In 890 Arnulf and Svatopluk had a summit together, where they discussed a number of items, including difficulties faced by the Pope. The embassy sent the following year was meant to confirm unnamed arrangements made at that summit. Aribo’s letter suggests that things were proceeding as planned. Relations were to break down the following year leading to war. It’s possible that the rumours the Moravians denied to the envoys were a hint of the trouble to come, but Wiching and Aribo seem to have been content with the situation.

One of the most exciting things about this manuscript is that it’s not a copy. The opening address ‘To the most pious king’ is on the other side of the sheet, so it would be visible when folded as a letter. The script was either that of Aribo or a scribe of his.[1] Thus the Latin and the hand tell us a great deal about the literacy of a frontier count and his retinue. The formulaic opening suggests that Aribo routinely wrote reports to Arnulf like this, updating him about affairs on the frontier and in the Moravian world. The letter hints that Aribo was not a participant in the embassy, but was rather relaying information from the envoys. This implies that he expected Arnulf to want to hear the news faster than the embassy with their retinue could travel. It is also indicates that he was confident his messenger could find the king. Over the course of 891, Arnulf moved from Regensburg to Maastricht and Nijmegen in the west in order to battle Vikings before celebrating Christmas in Ulm. Aribo’s letter points to the state of communications in the East Frankish kingdom. We should probably picture Arnulf’s mobile court being met by a constant stream of messengers from all over the realm, keeping him informed.

This leaves the question of how this letter ended up in Reichenau. Arnulf spent Christmas 891 in Ulm, a little over 70 miles from the monastery. An interpolated charter attributed to Arnulf purporting to date from 21 January 892 places him in Zusmarshausen in Bavaria renewing Reichenau’s privileges. If there is any truth to this charter whatsoever it suggests that Arnulf was in the area and dealing with people from Reichenau, which might help explain how the letter ended up there, although the exact chain of transmission remains mysterious.

Aribo was highly qualified to comment on Moravian affairs. In addition to being based on the frontier, he close ties to Svatopluk, who had saved his life in 882. Aribo seems to have been equally comfortable in the Moravian world as the Frankish, and was suspected of being involved in the civil war that broke out in Moravia after Svatopluk’s death in 894. His son, Isanrich, was a hostage of Svatopluk’s who later became a leading figure in Moravian politics.

There are strong parallels between Wiching and Aribo. Originally from Alemannia, Wiching spent much of the 870s in Moravia, being appointed Bishop of Nitra in 879, becoming the leading representative of Latin Christianity in the empire and chief rival to the Byzantine Methodius. He seems to have been a close adviser to Svatopluk, who sent him as his representative to the Pope in 880. From 886 he was the only bishop in Moravia. Like Aribo, Wiching had friends and experience in both camps, which made him a valuable diplomat for Arnulf. Although his later stint as the king’s chancellor drew him back into Frankish affairs, his subsequent appointment in 899 as Bishop of Passau on the frontier suggests that he remained connected to the region.

A number of interesting questions do emerge from this letter. These include the mysterious absence of Svatopluk. Given the brevity of the missive it is likely that Aribo assumed that Arnulf would understand the Moravian monarch to be involved without mentioning him, but it is odd. I’m tempted to wonder if there’s a connection to Aribo’s curious reference to the Moravian people serving Arnulf before any of their own nobles. The Moravian empire would experience a nasty civil war after Svatopluk’s death. Perhaps some of those tensions were present as early as 891. That said, I suspect there was nothing too serious going on, given that Svatopluk seems to have capably led the Moravians in the war with Arnulf in 892-3.

Another interesting question relates to the cattle the Moravians are gathering for Arnulf. I was tempted to translate the word pecora as a generic word for tribute, but cattle seems like a more natural rendering. Cattle do seem to have been a large part of the Moravian economy, with cow bones appearing in a lot of archaeological sites. The cattle might have been a regular tribute. Svatopluk had made peace with Louis the German in 874 on terms that he would pay annual tribute, and the summit of 890 might have led to a revival of that arrangement with Arnulf.

Alternatively, this might have been a one-off deal, negotiated for a special purpose. Inspired by this recent excellent post by Jonathan Jarrett, Fraser suggested to me that they might be intended for a military baggage train. Arnulf was definitely in need of one in 891. The first army he sent to battle the Vikings plaguing the west of his realm was ambushed in the woods near Aachen. Regino of Prüm notes that the Vikings ‘captured many wagons and carts in which provisions were being carried to the army.’ The only problem is that its not clear what Arnulf’s purpose would have been in assembling this baggage train. The Vikings were a surprise when they invaded at the start of 891. The king had already ruled out an invasion of Italy the previous year.

The mysterious and fragmentary closing lines suggest that Aribo was facing difficulties. Given that things seem to be going well with the Moravians, it seems unlikely that they were the enemies who had captured him. Aribo had had difficulties with the Bavarians in the past, what with the whole having to flee to Svatopluk in 882 to escape the Wilhelminer business. In 893 the Bavarians ambushed and killed the newly appointed marchio Engelschalk, himself one of the Wilhelminer. Given the rough and volatile state of local politics, I wonder if Aribo had been captured by enemies within Bavaria at some point after Arnulf left the region to fight the Vikings. If so, his ability to get out of trouble speaks to his diplomatic skills. It might also explain quite how keen Aribo is to emphasise his usefulness to Arnulf in the letter to keep the king on his side against local rivals.

A letter like this one raises unanswerable questions. Even were it intact, it is a short missive commenting on an ongoing situation for a reader who was already aware of the background. But at least the questions it allows us to ask are new questions. We don’t know why the Moravians were gathering cattle for Arnulf, but we know that they were. We don’t know who took Aribo prisoner in 891, but we know that he was. Being able to define the shape of our ignorance is a precious thing in medieval studies. By this point I have spent more time thinking about this letter than Aribo spent composing it or Arnulf did reading it. It is the very transience and disposability of this document that makes it so valuable today.

[1] As a consequence of this, I’ve resolved to become more careful about what I call Aribo. He goes by a number of different names in the sources and scholarship and in the past I’ve referred to him as Arbo. But in this letter, which is the only place we can hear him in his own words, he wishes to be known as Aribo. That matters, so Aribo he shall be. If that means me hearing an annoying jingle and developing a craving for sweets whenever I think about him, that is a me problem rather than a him problem.

Source Translation: Dynasty and Rebellion

Flodoard of Rheims, Historia Remensis Ecclesiae, IV.v, pp. 380-383 (c. 894).

[Fulk] sent letters to the Transrhenian king Arnulf [of Carinthia] for the sake of King Charles [the Simple], whom he had anointed as king whilst he was still a boy, and he explained the causes for [Charles’] elevation, for he had heard that Arnulf’s mind had been turned against him because of what he had done. He noted that after the death of Emperor Charles [the Fat], Arnulf’s uncle, he had set out for Arnulf’s service, wanting to receive his dominion and governance – but the king had sent him away without any counsel or consolation. Therefore, since no hope remained for [Fulk] in [Arnulf], he was compelled to receive the dominion of [Arnulf’s] man, that is, Odo, who was unconnected to the royal family and tyrannically abused royal power, but whose dominion he had reluctantly endured until now. So, because he desired Arnulf’s dominion, he therefore set out for his service but after he could get no advice from him, he did the only thing which was left to him, which was to choose to have the only other king whom they had from the royal line and whose predecessors and brothers had been kings.

He also rendered account for why they had not done it before (for which the same king blamed him). Because, when Emperor Charles died, and Arnulf himself was unwilling to receive the rule of the realm, this Charles [the Simple] was still very little, both in body and in wisdom, and was unsuitable for governing a kingdom, and given the threat of persecution by the Northmen, it was at that time too dangerous to elect him. But since they had seen him reach an appropriate age, when he knew to proffer assent to those wholesomely giving him counsel, they received him in a manner appropriate with God’s honour, that he might take care of the realm, wanting to establish him in such a manner that he might be useful to this realm and Arnulf. Against the accusation that they had presumed to do this without Arnulf’s counsel, he asserted that they had followed the custom of the Frankish people, whose custom had always been that when the king died, they would elect another from the royal family and lineage without respect to or inquiry after the wishes of any greater or more powerful king. Having made the king by this custom, they wanted to commit him to [Arnulf’s] fidelity and counsel, so that he might use his aid and counsel in everything, and so that both the king and the whole realm might be subdued to his precepts and ordinances.

Thereafter, because he had heard it suggested to the king that he had done this against the king’s fidelity and for his own private gain, he said that the very Anskeric [bishop of Paris] who was known to have bandied this about had, before the archbishop himself had tried to do anything about this matter, come to him in the presence of Counts Heribert [I of Vermandois] and Ecfrid [of Artois] and sought both counsel and aid on what he should do about the commands of Odo, who had ordered him to do insupportable things. He asked for counsel on behalf of Gozfred’s sons concerning the evil which Odo was trying to do to them; and they asked that a chief should be established by common counsel who was such a man that they might be secure after having submitted themselves to him, intending either on Guy [of Spoleto] or on this Charles of the royal line. At the same time, those who were there considered whom they would be better advised to attend, and it seemed to them, for the sake of gaining the realm’s advantage and out of fear of contradiction on Arnulf’s part, and because the rulership of a royal race is right and proper, that they should go over to this Charles. They believed that Arnulf would be happy for his kinsman, and defend him and the realm.

But he had heard it bandied about that he had done this on behalf of Guy [of Spoleto], so that by this wile he might secretly bring him into the realm and, having dismissed the boy Charles, go over to Guy’s side. He asserted that this was a knowing falsehood bandied against him by the envy of the jealous. For the sort of man who promulgated such slanders knew that he could be accused in the same way; he, on the other hand, knew himself neither to be such a man nor to be born from such parents. The king’s predecessors had never found such trickery in his forefathers, whom they considered proven as completely loyal and useful for the realm, and for that reason they honourably elevated them. Wherefore he blushed on the king’s behalf, that he would believe this of him or brand himself with such infamy.

Finally, because he had heard that it had been said to Arnulf that this Charles was not Louis [the Stammerer’s] son, he asserted that he could not believe that there was anyone who, if they saw him and knew his relatives’ appearance, would not recognise him as coming from the royal lineage: he bore certain signs of his father Louis by which he could be known as his son. He therefore asked Arnulf’s royal majesty that he should worthily accept this truth and that no-one be able to turn his mind against his innocent king, his kinsman, but that he have examined in his presence and the presence of his followers whether matters were as he had stated, and lead affairs to their due conclusion, thinking of how his ancestors had governed the state of the realm and how the descent of royal highness had always hitherto flourished, but how at that time just that prince and his little kinsman Charles remained from the whole royal family; and he should consider what might come to pass if the end due to everyone should ask for him, since there were already some many kings unconnected to the royal family, and there would be yet more who would affect for themselves the name of kings. Who would help his son ascend to the inheritance of the realm due to him after his death, if it happened that his kinsman Charles were toppled?

He also added that it was known that amongst nearly all the peoples, the Frankish people were accustomed to have hereditary kings, offering the witness of the blessed Pope Gregory on this, and adding as well from German books the story of old king Ermenric, who sent all his offspring to die by the impious counsels of one of his counsellors; and he begged that the king should not acquiesce to wicked counsels, but should have mercy on this people and aid the failing royal race, taking care that the dignity of his line should be strengthened in his own time, and that those who became kings from unconnected families, or who desired so to become, should not prevail against those to whom royal honour was due because of their family. He stated that he had sent Aletramnus to suggest to the same Arnulf that he should command any of those who had established Charles as king he pleased to come into his service, and they would reasonably show before his sublimity that matters were as he had described.

He also solicited and prayed that the king should deal with the aforewritten material with a receptive heart, and know of [Fulk’s] devotion to and intent on his fidelity, that Charles should respect [Arnulf’s] counsel in everything he did, and remain protected by his piety, and that no-one should be able to turn the heart of the king away from helping the realm or Charles.

This isn’t the first time justifying rebellion has come up on this blog, and it isn’t the first time that dynasty has either. What’s significant about this letter is that it is more-or-less the key piece of evidence for historians who want to argue that 888 represents a ‘dynastic crisis’ as opposed to just a succession crisis. And if you read it you can see why: if you’re looking for a statement about the paramount importance of blood, it’s right hee.

It’s just a shame the letter itself is such a crock. As we talked about on Monday, Archbishop Fulk of Rheims was using Charles the Simple as figurehead for his own rebellion. This letter was written to defend himself against the charge of – as he puts it – putting his private interests ahead of that of the realm. Thing is, it’s clear from reading it that this is exactly what Fulk has done. He has to defend himself from charge after charge after charge – that he didn’t crown Charles in 888 (he didn’t), that he’s going against Arnulf in crowning him now (he is), that he’s working on behalf of Guy of Spoleto (he probably isn’t, but given that Guy is who he did crown in 888, it’s a reasonable belief), and so on. It’s also clear from the letter that he has few friends at Arnulf’s court, and that some people who he thought were originally on side have turned out not to be – Bishop Anskeric of Paris comes in for a drubbing here. Even worse, he doesn’t have real arguments against the Guy of Spoleto point, which is probably the key charge against his own rhetoric – note how what he says in response amounts to ‘I know you are, but what am I?’

Fulk’s appeals availed him nought. It’s clear that justifying his rebellion in terms of Charles’ Carolingian blood did not gain him much support, and may in fact have caused contemporaries to view his cause with a certain degree of cynicism. Equally, it didn’t persuade Arnulf. If Fulk hoped that an appeal to family would help, he was sorely mistaken. Arnulf stayed on Odo’s side throughout the 890s, fairly constantly, and Fulk himself was given the cold shoulder. I think what is happening here is that Fulk has picked out a fringe idea to legitimise himself in the hope that it’ll appeal to Arnulf’s self-interest, but that idea is in fact too fringe to be convincing.

Carolingian Overkingship

One thing about the putative ‘end of the Carolingian Empire’ in 888 is how long Charles the Fat’s empire takes, even in the strictest sense, to wind down. There might be a bunch of new kings, but Arnulf of Carinthia manages to gain and for the most part maintain a hegemonic position over most of them.

This is most obvious with Odo, whom the eastern chroniclers seem to like because he goes and recognises Arnulf as overking early and stays on-side until he dies. But Odo’s erstwhile enemy Charles the Simple tries to do something similar: the difference is that Arnulf doesn’t recognise him as a real king (along, it must be said, with most of the West Franks themselves). Something similar can be seen at various times with King Berengar I of Italy, Rudolph of Burgundy (although that one didn’t stick), Louis of Provence, and Sviatopolk of Moravia (which also didn’t stick). In addition, Arnulf made two of his own sons, Zwentibald (of whom we shall hear more) and Ratold (of whom we shan’t) kings in their own kingdoms. Arnulf, to varying degrees of success over his career, was a king of kings, and even when he was unsuccessful in enforcing it, it does appear as though his authority, not simply his power, was generally acknowledged.

If we look at this from a wider earlier medieval point of view, this makes complete sense as a political setup. In the British Isles in particular, different grades of kingship are a perfectly normal and recognised phenomenon: the so-called ‘Bretwaldas’ are an example of this: royal overlords whose hegemony was accepted by other kings. Ireland had a much more sophisticated and finely-graded version of this system, where the different ranks of kings were closely laid out by Irish lawyers.

Even in the eighth- and ninth-century Carolingian world, various rulers played around with different aspects of this. Charles the Bald, for instance, established various sons as kings of greater or lesser degree, and did the same with the rulers of neighbouring Brittany. His nephew Louis the Younger, I’ve always got the impression, is another example: without being a formal overlord the way Charles the Bald was in Brittany, Louis seems to come off as something like the ‘senior Frankish king’ in the early 880s. This is not typically thought of as ‘overkingship’ per se, not least because the other kings involved were close family members or non-Frankish foreigners. This does impact the dynamic, certainly, but I’d argue that the core principle – differing grades of kingship – remains the same.

This goes right through into the Ottonian period. By 965, when Otto I holds his grand family gathering at Cologne, he has various degrees of hegemony over two other kings (his son Otto II and his nephew Lothar) and a vice-regal ruler (Henry of Bavaria). Really, the model of one unified empire with one king and no others looks odd applied to earlier medieval politics and to Carolingian politics in particular – if applied strictly, it’s anachronistic (even Charlemagne’s period of literal sole rule was relatively short).

karl_der_grosse_-_pippin_von_italien
And here’s a picture of Charlemagne with one of his sub-kings, Pippin of Italy (tenth-century copy of a ninth-century original, source)

If applied loosely, it’s an unusual situation, applying pretty much just to Charlemagne’s reign, parts of Louis the Pious’ and Charles the Fat’s.

This does change – in fact, the streamlining of understandings of kingship, such that a king becomes the king, is one of the big fault-lines between the earlier and later middle ages. Moreover, if ‘overkingship’ is a perfectly normal model of Carolingian government in theory, I’d say it’s only applied in practice about half the time. There’s another type, and the late-Carolingian world looks, also, like the Carolingian world in this respect as well, but that’s another story.

Charter a Week 12: The “End of the Carolingian Empire”

We’re here! That legendary year 888, the all-caps Fall of the Carolingian Empire, a year of the succession crisis which SHOOK Frankish Europe to its very CORE and had mostly SHORT-TERM CONSEQUENCES with LITTLE IMPACT ON POLITICS OR POLITICAL CULTURE!

Yeah, I said it. Come at me, bro.

Background: things might have been looking relatively placid from our West Frankish perspective lately, but in the wider world, things weren’t so hot. Charles the Fat had systematically failed to produce a legitimate son – not a world-shattering problem in 880, when he was one of five living male Carolingians; but by 888, after a decade of unforeseen deaths in his family, he was the last one left, and had no obvious heir – or, rather, no obvious heir he wanted to recognise.

Of the four potential options, no-one seems to have considered the future Charles the Simple, a young child being fostered in Aquitaine. The emperor tried to have his own illegitimate son, named Bernard, acknowledged as heir by the pope, which didn’t work. He also may have adopted Louis the Blind as his heir – he certainly adopted him in some sense, and although it’s not clear what was intended, a very weird text known as the Vision of Charles the Fat suggests that Louis was being pushed by some people at least as an heir for the whole empire. (Most historians, it must be said, think that the vision dates from Louis’ coronation in 890 rather than from before 888. I don’t think this fits well into the circumstances of 890 and that there is at least a case that it should be dated earlier.)

In any case, the most obvious candidate was Charles the Fat’s illegitimate nephew Arnulf of Carinthia. Arnulf was an adult, a successful warrior, and had support amongst the aristocracy, particularly in his heartland of Bavaria. Yet Charles didn’t want to acknowledge him as heir, in great part because Arnulf had ended up rebelling against him in a series of events known as the Wilheminer War. Notker the Stammerer’s Life of Charlemagne, which is probably the most entertaining work of pseudo-history from the entire Carolingian era, was written not least to try and persuade Charles to stop ignoring Arnulf.

By November 887, two things had come together. First, one of Charles’ schemes to displace Arnulf looked like it would have some degree of success; and second, the emperor was very, very ill. At an assembly in Frankfurt, a group of East Frankish nobles launched a sudden coup to replace Charles with Arnulf. Charles was pensioned off to an estate where he died shortly thereafter – he was very, very ill – and Arnulf…

Arnulf hightailed it back to his powerbase, first to Bavaria then to Pannonia, not coming back west until May 888. In the meantime, things got very muddy very quickly. Arnulf had only been made king by the East Frankish nobility, and Charles the Fat actually hadn’t been deposed. When Charles died, and Arnulf tarried, it must have seemed unclear that Arnulf was even going to try to be king outside the eastern kingdom.

And so, over winter 887 and spring 888, a group of other kings sprang up. This, I think, was fundamentally compelled by necessity. The Franks needed kings, not least to lead their defence – at this time, the north of the West Frankish kingdom was subject to serious Viking attacks not least from the fallout of the 886 siege of Paris – and I think there was also an element of getting in there first – if your guy wasn’t crowned, then your rival’s might be. Hence the confusion over exactly how many kings there were going to be, and where they would rule. In the West, Odo of Paris faced off against both Ramnulf of Aquitaine (who didn’t make any claims to kingship stick) and Guy of Spoleto (who lost and went to Italy). In Italy, Guy fought against Berengar of Friuli. In the Middle Kingdom, Rudolph of Transjurane Burgundy had himself crowned king, largely it appears as a challenge to Arnulf. It’s clear from the degree of confusion that this was an unexpected scenario, and there was a lot of improvising going on, although I’ll be posting more about the fallout from this on Wednesday.

But, speaking of the now-king Rudolph, his kingdom is probably the one genuinely new development of 888. There are strong implications that Transjurane Burgundy was a defined unit before 888, but it had never been the centre of a kingdom. So let’s take a look at this new kingdom’s new king’s first diploma.

DD Burg no. 3 (10th June 888, Walperswil) = ARTEM no. 1796 = DK 9.xviii

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Rudolph, by favour of divine clemency king.

Since it behooves royal eminence that it should proffer beneficent attention towards its subjects and bring their just petitions to effect, it is above all befitting that it should clemently share its liberality with those who exert the promptest devotion in its service.

And through this let the skill of all those faithful to the holy Church of God both present, that is, and future know that there came before the clemency of Our Magnitude Our sweetest and most beloved sister Adelaide, seeking and supplicating that We might through a precept of Our royal dignity concede to her for her lifetime the abbey of Romainmôtier, which was constructed in honour of the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, and is sited in the county of Vaud; and that after her death she might have power to leave it to whichever of her heirs she wishes.

We received this petition with the deepest sincerity and through the authority which We have We bestow upon the same woman the said principal abbey of Romainmôtier for as long as she lives. When, moreover, God deigns to summon her from her body, let her have permission and by all means relinquish it to whomsoever of her heirs she might elect.

And that this Our largess might be held more firmly and be conserved undisturbedly for all time, We confirmed it below with Our hand and We order it be sealed with the impression of Our signet.

Sign of Rudolph, most pious of kings.

Berengar the notary witnessed on behalf of Archbishop and Chancellor Theodoric [of Besançon].

Given on the 4th ides of June [10th June], in the first year, with Christ propitious, of Rudolph, most pious of kings, in the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 888, in the 6th indiction.

Enacted at Walperswil(*).

Happily in the name of God, amen.

(*) The MGH editor is very firmly against Uabre villa being Walperswil and insists we simply don’t know where it is. Some modern scholars do still go with Walperswil so I’ve included it, but it shouldn’t be taken as a reliable identification.

cw 12 888
Rudolph’s diploma, taken from the Diplomata Karolinorum linked above.

This is very much improvised. The editor notes that the scribe appears to have come from the abbey of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune, where Rudolph was lay abbot and which lay at the centre of his power. The scribe clearly knew what royal diplomas looked like, and was trying to do it properly, but did not himself have any experience in writing the things, hence why the script looks a little off by the standards of regular royal acts. This is probably to be expected – none of the kings of 888 except Arnulf himself expected to be kings a year earlier, so it’s not as though they could have clerics practising for their inevitable moment of triumph.

This also makes sense in the context of Rudolph’s reign, because it’s not immediately clear where he was trying to be king of: he appears to have been made king once in Transjurane Burgundy and then again at Toul, before Arnulf came and attacked him, which suggests that he was trying for the whole of Lotharingia. This is a controversial point, but I lean towards thinking that, like Boso, Rudolph was in fact going for as much as he could get away with. Political geography was fairly fluid at this point, and no-one knew what the surviving kingdoms would eventually shake down as – in the west, for instance, Odo ending up as ruler of Aquitaine as well as the north was at the least not completely certain, thanks to Count Ramnulf; had things gone really badly for Rudolph, Transjurane Burgundy could have been a similar blip.

Consequently, it’s very interesting that the diploma is for Rudolph’s sister Adelaide. Adelaide had probably been married to Richard the Justiciar since the early 880s, and Richard’s connections were quite far-spread: his family had interests in Lotharingia which his son Boso of Vitry would pick up, Richard himself had ties in various places in Burgundy, and – as we’ll be seeing in a few weeks – he was very intimately involved in the early days of Louis the Blind’s regime. We’ve seen before that in this region, things can be very fluid and cross-border activity is the norm rather than the exception. What this diploma looks like, then, is trying to bring Adelaide on side, and through her all her marital family’s links, in order to try and build a wide-ranging network of support for Rudolph’s kingship bid.

This is particularly interesting if Uabre villa is, as several historians have suggested, near Toul – in that case, it becomes particularly intimately tied to Lotharingian politics in a way which, although it didn’t work out in the long term, suggests that Rudolph was making a very serious try to push his kingdom’s boundaries north.

Towards a Typology of the Carolingian Count?

I wasn’t sure about writing this one. I started, and then went, ‘Insofar as this isn’t half-baked, I think I’ve just ended up at Matthew Innes’ arguments about royal power in the localities; and in any case this is an old battle to fight’. But, apparently there’s interest, so I might as well jot this down and see if people think there’s anything to it. (Plus, it’ll be a break from the Aquitanian stuff, although there’ll be more of that next week.)

The question of the Carolingian count is a big historiographical question, more or less revolving around the questions of ‘what did a count do?’ and ‘where did he do it?’ There’s an old model that a count is a government functionary, he exercises state power, and he does it in his comitatus (‘county’) which can be directly equated with the districts known as pagi (such as Flanders, Touraine, or Wormsgau). Modern historians have raised serious questions about this (many of these questions are in German, in a literature dealing with south Germany, which I have tried to read a little of in preparation for this but basically don’t really know, so consider yourself forewarned). Hence the idea that 1 pagus = 1 comitatus now seems very questionable indeed. I myself have observed that some pagi just don’t have counts at all. The Limousin is a case in point here: one will often find references to William the Pious being ‘count of Limoges’, but actually what that means is he shows up on a charter witness list in the 880s and again in a diploma dealing with land in the area a decade or two later, and there’s no evidence at all to assume that he had administrative jurisdiction or even real political clout there unless you assume that every pagus had to have a count.

I want to go further than that today, though. Like I said, maybe this will be obvious to people who know the literature better than me, but I would propose that the title comes (‘count’) did not have the same meaning all the time. So here is a list of all the different types of counts I think I’ve encountered. Some of them in fact overlap; but not all of them do.

First, you have counts who are counts of comitatus. These are much easier to see in Lotharingia and the East Frankish kingdom, where royal diplomas often refer to property as being in ‘the pagus of X, in the county of Y’. And we know that the pagus and the comitatus don’t necessarily overlap, so that you can have multiple pagi under the same comital jurisdiction; but you can also have multiple comitatus in the same pagus. I went looking for examples of the latter, actually, and found one in DD Arnulf no. 60, where a grant to Corvey is ‘in pago Huueitago in comitatibus Ecperti et Reithardi et Herimanni’; sometimes one finds one comitatus being held by multiple people but the plural here suggests that it is multiple counties. (Because this isn’t really what I’m supposed to be doing at all, I stopped there; but there may well be others.)

However, there’s a twist. Because much of this work comes from historians working east of the Meuse, they’re not necessarily as familiar with the West Frankish evidence, because I can tell you that we do in fact have counts who are explicitly counts of pagi. Thus Odo of Paris, the later King Odo, can describe himself in the 880s as ‘count of the pagus of Parisais’. So sometimes counts evidently were made counts of individual pagi.

‘Made’ is an important word there, because some of these counts are as well royal functionaries, or at least royal appointees, coming in from outside to run a locality. Odo is also a good example here: he seems to have spent most of his life in Lotharingia and became count of Paris mostly because Charles the Fat put him there.

Some of them, however, don’t appear to be. This post in fact comes out of the older one about Gerald of Aurillac, who I think is a good example of a figure who is locally entrenched already and whose acquisition of the comital title is a bottom-up process: he is first called count as a mark of respect in the locality, and then the king decides to roll with it as a way of co-opting them. My suspicion is that the evidence for Alemannia, Bavaria, or the middle Rhine would show more of these guys, if I had any familiarity with it at all…

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Maybe a count, maybe not; but certainly a Carolingian aristocrat (source)

Another suspicion is that these people might be how to explain counts who it’s hard to place geographically. A shout-out here to my friend and colleague Jelle Lisson, who’s done some work on this regard about ancestors of the counts ‘of Vermandois’ (coming soon, he informs me, in the Journal of Family History as ‘Family Continuity and Territorial Power in Early Medieval West Francia: A Reconsideration of the “House” of Vermandois (9th-10th Centuries)’ [edit: and it is now available open access through this finely-crafted hyperlink.). What his work shows is that Heribert I of Vermandois is actually really hard to localise, and that past work calling him the count ‘of Soissons’ or ‘of Meaux’ or the like is reading too much into the contemporary evidence. I’m not sure he’d push it this far, but I think that this is because Heribert I doesn’t actually have a comitatus at all, just a cluster of local interests. Hence, he might be a count who controls an abbey in Soissons or territory in Vermandois, but he’s not count of Soissons or of Vermandois, or of anywhere: his title is unconnected to his territory.  

Opposite to him are people who definitely have comitatus (it’s an annoying word to write in English, because the Latin plural of comitatus is comitatus, not comitati, but it looks wrong…), but whose comital title seems to me unlikely to rest on that fact. The ancestor of the Capetians Robert the Strong looks to me like an example of this sort of figure: the Annals of Saint-Bertin show him being shuffled between the counties of Angers and Auxerre and Nevers, but I think his status is such that his comital title probably doesn’t depend on which specific counties he possesses. Some evidence for this comes from the Annal’s entry for 867, which describe how Charles the Bald took the county of Bourges away from Count Gerald and gave it to Egfrid; that Gerald is still described as ‘count’ suggests that his title was socially embedded rather than legally linked to possession of a specific official competence.

This leads to a final category, which is counts whose title was strictly palatine. There is a title ‘count of the palace’ (comes palatinus), which isn’t quite this, not least because by about 900 it’s become smooshed together into conspalatinus, a separate title you can hold together with comes. I mean counts whose title goes right back to the word’s origin – comes was originally the Latin word for ‘companion’, meaning men who were members of a ruler’s retinue and whose prestige came therefrom. It’s very hard to prove that a given count was a comes in this sense, but if I had to propose one figure, it would be Charles the Simple’s favourite Hagano. Everything we know about his career links him to the palace and only to the palace. I don’t think he ever was a comes in the sense of an administrative functionary in a locality; his title was always a product of his status at court.

Wow, that went on longer than I’d expected, and it’s still rather brief. In any case, it looks rather like the single word comes is hiding a number of different animals, different in degree and not just in scale… Is there anything to this, or have I stumbled the roundabout way onto something obvious?

888 And The Dynastic Crisis Which Wasn’t

Sorry about the lack of posts last week – I was on my way to one conference in Cork having just attended one in Canterbury. I’m back home in Brussels now, though, so this little moment of respite from your drab, wretched lives can once more take up its customary position.

The Canterbury conference provided the opportunity to vent a rant which has been building up for several years now. The end of the Carolingian Empire is usually ascribed to the ‘dynastic crisis’ of 888, when the Carolingian family ran out of legitimate, adult males to be king, and a gourmet selection of new, non-Carolingian, kings emerged. Thing is (to put it as bluntly as possible): I don’t think there’s anything ‘dynastic’ about this dynastic crisis. Carolingian legitimism – the idea that the Carolingian family was specifically owed the crown by virtue of its being the royal family – was either non-existent or the view of fringe weirdos.

Let’s confine ourselves simply to two of the sources most often pointed to as evidence for the legitimacy problem which affected the new kings by virtue of their not being Carolingian. First, Regino of Prüm. Regino wrote his Chronicon in the early tenth century, and here’s how he describes the events of 888:

‘After the death [of Emperor Charles the Fat], the kingdoms which had been under his rule, as though they did not have a legitimate heir, dissolved into pieces, and did not wait for a natural lord, but created kings for themselves from their own entrails.’ [source]

‘Legitimate heir’, ‘natural lord’ – sounds like Carolingian legitimism here, right? Well, not so much. In 887, as Regino describes it, the leading men of Charles’ realm had overthrown him and made his illegitimate nephew Arnulf of Carinthia ruler in his stead. Regino is more-or-less a supporter of Arnulf, and the reason that he talks about natural lords and legitimate heirs is not because Arnulf is a Carolingian, but because he’s already been made king! There’s a ‘natural lord’ because a duly-designated king already exists – and it is noticeable that when the new kings proffer due submission to him as their overlord, Regino starts presenting them as legitimate. Their dynastic affiliation doesn’t change, but his presentation of them does – whatever’s going on here, it’s not dynastic.

The second source is a letter (translated here) from Archbishop Fulk of Rheims seeking the aid of Arnulf in overthrowing the West Frankish king Odo on behalf of this blog’s favourite, Charles the Simple. Fulk refers to Odo as ‘not a member of the royal family’, and says that he ‘chose to have for his king he… who was from the royal bloodline [i.e. Charles the Simple]’. This is Carolingian legitimism here, but what’s interesting is that it appears to be fringe weirdness. Fulk’s professions of loyalty to Charles are somewhat disingenuous. In 888, he hadn’t supported Charles – or even Arnulf – but his own relative Guy of Spoleto, who became king of Italy, and whom Fulk had invited to become king in the West without any particular success. Fulk clearly indicates that his readers knew this, because he fills a good half the letter with rather weak justifications for why he did this, and it’s clear from context that what he refers to as the slanders and lies surrounding him at Arnulf’s court are in fact the well-justified scepticism of people whose memories stretch back longer than five years.

Fulk, it seems, disliked Odo intensely. He spent most of his reign in rebellion against him on any pretext, and it looks like his support for Charles was yet another one of these. (There’s more to his rebellion than personal dislike, of course, but it doesn’t detract from the main point.) It’s worth saying that his arguments don’t seem to have convinced many people – Arnulf didn’t join the war on Charles’ side, and Fulk’s party was consistently outmatched and defeated.

Carolingian legitimism, then, did exist, but its influence doesn’t seem to have been very great. Viewing 888 as this massive, seismic shift in the politics of Frankish Europe is somewhat misleading – in everything except which womb the king had come out of, the kingdom of Odo and that of the man reigning ten years before him, Louis the Stammerer, were basically similar. The imposition of later ideas about royal succession – and royal families – onto 888 has meant that historians have spent centuries seeing a gap where there isn’t one.