I’ll Bite Your Kneecaps Off! Boso of Provence and Keeping Going after Massive Political Damage

Way back in the day when I first started doing Charter A Week, I did a fair few posts on Boso of Provence. That was a while ago now, so for those who are just joining us, Boso of Provence was the erstwhile brother-in-law of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald. He married the daughter of the king of Italy, and enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top in the last few years of Charles’ reign, a prominence he more-or-less managed to keep up in the reign of Louis the Stammerer. After Louis died in 879, however, Boso ignored his two teenage sons and had himself declared king at the fortress of Mantaille by a congress of Burgundian and Provençal bishops. However, in 880 a combined force of Carolingian rulers led an army south to deal with him, taking Mâcon and besieging Vienne. Most of Boso’s key supporters abandoned him; and this is where we left him: late in 880, a neutered force, his support lopped off, destined to be a hedge-king skulking about the mountains of the French Prealps for the rest of his life. This is, I would venture to say, basically the standard story about Boso. However, since I wrote those posts, I’ve come across a few things and I’ve started to wonder whether Boso was less a spent force and more the Carolingian political equivalent of MRSA.

Boso’s kingdom. c. 883 (source)

You see, after the success of the 880 campaign, the Carolingian rulers leading the army started to drift apart. Charles the Fat wanted to get to Italy to succeed his late brother Karlmann of Bavaria, and Louis III was panicked by reports that his northern army had met a serious defeat at the hands of a Viking force in Flanders. The end result was that they buggered off to do their own thing, leaving Carloman II to handle the anti-Boso action. And, with his support not entirely eradicated, he seems to have been able to slowly grow stronger and resist the Carolingian armies.(*) For one thing, it took another two years to take Boso’s fortified capital of Vienne itself. An attack in 881 appears to have done nothing, certainly not in terms of Boso’s support. Indeed, Regino of Prüm (writing a bit later) takes care to note that none of Boso’s supporters ever betrayed him to the Carolingians despite significant material inducement to do so. Archbishop Otrand of Vienne, one of his most important supporters, had gone so far as to imprison the bishop of Geneva. At the same time, Bishop Adalbert of Maurienne attacked and imprisoned Bishop Berner of Grenoble. These two bishops had been at each other’s throats for years, but it is possible that one or the other of them was a supporter of Boso, giving Adalbert his excuse for invasion.

With that said, Vienne was taken in 882, and the devastation was massive – a charter a few years later was dated by the ‘destruction of Vienne’. This left Boso reliant on the support of the mountainous provinces of eastern Provence, and that wasn’t a great base for launching any serious attacks on his opponents. Still, there are signs Boso had a resurgence towards the end of his life. In 887, Count Odilo of Die issued a charter dated by Boso’s reign as king. We also have signs that he was being sought ought by Provençal churchmen: around this time he issued a lost diploma for the church of Valence, and we also have evidence of grants to the churches of Vienne and Lyon (although it is possible that these might have been death-bed grants, it still implies there was enough of a tie there for these churches to accept some ideologically pointed gifts, such as crowns). If we’re feeling generous, there might even be some evidence from silence – despite his importance in the politics of the 870s and early 880s, Bishop Adalgar of Autun is conspicuously absent from the sources for the reign of Charles the Fat, which could possibly hint at his renewed support for Boso.

We also have a little bit of evidence for Charles the Fat’s response to this. Regino says that he allowed the Viking fleet which besieged Paris in 885-886 into Burgundy to punish a revolt against him there. This can’t be true of the bits of Burgundy the fleet actually went to – Sens, Auxerre, and Langres all show up as loyal to Charles in summer 886 – but it could indicate Charles knew about rumblings from Boso’s old heartlands in southern Burgundy and northern Provence. A more problematic, but potentially more interesting, source is a diploma of Charles the Fat for the church of Nevers, dating to 885. It claims to have been petitioned for by William the Pious, son of Aquitaine’s most important magnate Bernard Plantevelue. In the diploma, Charles recalls ‘the unbroken loyalty of [William’s] father Bernard… [who] with tremendous courage, inner strength, and unending loyalty set himself against… the tyrant Boso and his followers’, in the course of which battle he died. Now, as this diploma currently stands it is a forgery of c. 950-1100 (not least because we know Bernard Plantevelue was still alive in summer 886!). However, it’s a weird thing for a forger in the decades around the millennium to toy with – William and Bernard’s family had long died out by then, and their memory was kept, if anywhere, at Cluny (in the Mâconnais) or in Auvergne, not at Nevers. However, they had ruled Nevers back in the day, and maybe there was some information the forger had access to – otherwise, it’s a very odd thing to put in there, as it doesn’t serve the church’s interests and it doesn’t add formal authenticity to the document. If Bernard Plantevelue did die against Boso in autumn 886, then, it could be a sign that Charles was taking his old rival more seriously than historians have yet realised.

Boso never got the chance to do more, because he died in early 887. And there’s a lot of maybes in the above. Nonetheless, I think most of them are plausible maybes. Even then, even accepting most of them all they add up to is a slower decline in the early 880s and a bit of a recovery in the late 880s. Still, that’s more than he’s been allowed thus far. It also makes his career more explicable: rather than an enormous rise and catastrophic fall, it lets Boso’s kingship evolve more naturally, and more accurately reflects the Carolingians’ ultimate failure to crush him completely once they were in a dominant position.

(*) PSA: if your doctor proscribes you a course of antibiotics, be sure to finish it even if you’re feeling better before the end!


The Problem of the Three Bernards

Whew. This year has been exhausting. How about something more fun? Let’s head back over a century to mid-ninth century Aquitaine, and deal with one of the most entertaining antiquarian problems in Carolingian history: how many people called Bernard were there?

It’s called the ‘Three Bernards’ problem because of a line in Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims’ Annals of Saint-Bertin where he refers in 868 to ‘the margraves, Bernard of Toulouse and Bernard of Gothia and another different Bernard’. However, nobody thinks there are three Bernards in play. The most generous number I’ve seen is actually about seven, and personally I think there are either four or five.

So who are they? Let’s start with the first two above. Bernard of Gothia is by far the least controversial: he is the brother of a man named Emeno, he was dispossessed in the 870s and he died in rebellion. So far, so easy. Bernard of Toulouse is also fairly easy to deal with: he is the son of a man named Count Raymond of Toulouse and his family have been in charge there for a couple of decades by this point. However, here we run into the first problem. In 872, Hincmar refers to a man named Bernard the Calf dying. Is this Bernard of Toulouse? Janet Nelson argues no: because Charles the Bald received the news in Burgundy, Bernard the Calf should belong in Burgundy and thus Nelson identifies him as perhaps a brother of Count Heccard of Mâcon. This seems like a weak basis for an argument to me. Bouchard points out that the evidence for Bernard of Toulouse’s death being in around 872 is very good, if circumstantial, and the lands and offices held by the Aquitanian magnates of the later 870s makes better sense if Bernard of Toulouse and Bernard the Calf are the same man. So I am therefore quite happy to go along with this identification. (For those of you keeping score: number of actual Bernards: 2; number of potential Bernards: 3.)

Bernard Bernard Bernard Bernard mushroom mushroom…

This brings us to the other different Bernard, and this is where things get tricky. Let’s stay with Bouchard for a minute. Bouchard argues that ‘the other different Bernard’ is the same man as one named in Hincmar’s Annals as ‘Bernard son of Bernard’. So let’s start with, who is Bernard son of Bernard?

Most historians would happily identify him as the son of an earlier ninth-century magnate named Bernard of Septimania, most famous for being accused of sleeping with Charles the Bald’s mother and eventually being executed for treason. However, a historian named Mathieu has argued that Bernard son of Bernard is not son of Bernard, but the son of Bernard.

(Feel free to pause for refreshment here.)

Specifically, he argues that ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ is not the son of Bernard of Septimania, but of a man named Count Bernard I of Auvergne. The reasoning for this has to do with Bernard son of Bernard’s career in Lotharingia looking after King Lothar II’s bastard son Hugh, a position Mathieu sees as too responsible for a rebel, too important for someone without much of a patrimony, and too dangerous in terms of Lothar’s relationship with Charles the Bald. This is not a very substantial objection: by analogy with Baldwin Iron-Arm of Flanders, we know that Carolingian kings were quite happy to attach their sons to people who might be described as adventurers, and Hincmar’s description of Bernard as ‘son of the tyrant Bernard’, as he does a few times, fits neatly with a son of Bernard of Septimania. Bernard I of Auvergne certainly existed, and may have been Bernard son of Bernard’s father-in-law, but is unlikely to have been his father.

One thing we can all agree on is that ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ is the same person Hincmar at one point calls ‘Bernard Plantevelue [Hairypaws]’, so that’s nice.

Was Bernard Plantevelue the ‘other different Bernard’ of the 868 annal, though? Bouchard’s argument that he was rests on the assumption that Hincmar is explicit about only meaning three Bernards. However, I don’t think he does. The description of Bernard as ‘another different Bernard’ seems to mark him out from not only Bernard of Gothia and Bernard the Calf, but also Bernard Plantevelue. Bernard Plantevelue, as mentioned above, seems to have spent 868 and 869 in Lotharingia, and Hincmar looks to be distinguishing between him and, well, another, different, Bernard. (The Lotharingian adventure also provides a good contextual reason why Bernard Plantevelue wasn’t hanging around in Aquitaine at the same time.)

So who was the other different Bernard? Nelson proposes that he was Count Bernard I of the Auvergne, and this does just about work. However, the problem is that the most natural reading of the charter evidence from the abbey of Brioude is that Bernard I of Auvergne died by September 868, which is just about possible, but requires him to get home from the meeting reported in the 868 annal and die immediately. It also requires Charles the Bald not to find out about it for a year or so, because he was apparently expecting to meet this Bernard in 869. (He didn’t, and there may be a reason why, but it’s an odd lapse in information gathering at best.)

The alternative is that ‘the other different Bernard’ is another, different Bernard. The Latin of Hincmar’s passage can be construed as drawing a distinction between Bernard the Calf and Bernard of Gothia, who are margraves, and the third who isn’t; in which case the third need not be a layman at all. If not, my guess would be Abbot Bernard of Solignac, who was an important churchman with close ties to Charles the Bald’s court.

So where does this leave us? With four or perhaps five Bernards: Bernard of Toulouse, who is Bernard the Calf; Bernard of Gothia; Bernard Plantevelue, who is also ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ and the son of Bernard of Septimania; Bernard I of Auvergne, who might be the ‘other different Bernard’; and Bernard of Solignac who is another reasonable candidate for the other different Bernard.

If you’ve read this far, then congratulations! If you see me at a conference, use the code word ‘vanadium’ and I’ll buy you a drink. But more seriously, you might be wondering why any of this matters. The short answer is that who we think is doing things can change the picture dramatically. To take only one example: if Bernard son of Bernard isn’t the other different Bernard, his support of Lothar II’s son Hugh is a regional problem at best. If he is, it’s an international conspiracy and this has important effects on how we tell the story of the politics of this decade. The Three Bernards problem, then, might be dry, or even comically absurd, but it is worthy of attention.

Why is Donkey Kong like tenth-century Flanders?

Birthday post! OK, it’s not actually my birthday (I ain’t putting that on the internet), but it is proximate thereto, which is one reason I haven’t been posting recently. Posts will resume after I’ve moved house and gone to the EHS Conference in two weeks, but recently I discovered something fun which is almost entirely devoid of scholarly content, but tickled me so I’m putting it up here anyway.

I have on occasion hinted at something which I like to call the ‘Arnulf Problem’, but I don’t think I’ve ever explained what it is. Basically, in late tenth-century Flanders, Count Arnulf the Great was having family troubles. One of his nephews rebelled, and so he had him executed, earning the hostility of the executed man’s brother, who was also called Arnulf. These two things, that he was a nephew of Arnulf the Great and that he was also called Arnulf, are the only things we have to identify this man. This is a problem, because ‘Arnulf’ is an incredibly common name. Hence, there are about six potential candidates for our Arnulf – and thus, the Arnulf Problem: not knowing who someone is because everyone has the same damn name.

(Ninth-century historians have a different version of this known as the Three Bernards Problem, although these Bernards at least have better nicknames – Bernard Hairypaws, anyone?)


Segue! (source)

Now, as I say, I recently discovered that medieval history is not the only field where this is true. It turns out fans of the venerable Donkey Kong franchise have to deal with a similar problem. The first appearance of Donkey Kong was in 1981, in the arcade game Donkey Kong, which also featured the first appearance of Mario – then named Jumpman – as an animal-abusing builder’s carpenter. However, in more recent games we have learned that the current Donkey Kong is in fact the second holder of that title, the first being the ape now known as DK’s grandfather Cranky Kong (not to be confused with either Swanky Kong or Lanky Kong…). It is, though, not quite clear when the current Donkey Kong took over from Cranky Kong. It certainly happened by Donkey Kong Island, but although the wiki claims that the Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong 3 is Cranky Kong, in fact there’s no real way of knowing. Essentially, it’s the Arnulf Problem all over again.

In fact, there’s a specific equivalent. At some point in the 960s, a series of English bishops wrote to Count Arnulf of Flanders about various matters. Problem is, because Arnulf I (the Great) was succeeded by Arnulf II, we don’t know which Arnulf they were writing to. It’s even a grandfather-grandson transition (although, unlike the current Donkey Kong, we know exactly what happened to Arnulf II’s father)!

So there you have it – if you’re a gamer, then tenth-century historians face your problems. And if you’re a tenth-century historian, then… let’s see if we can get a Mario Kart tournament going at the next IMC?