What Type of Elephant did Charlemagne Have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charter a Week 1, part 2: Carlopolis

As warned on Monday, there’s another of these last diplomas of Charles the Bald. Sometimes, you just can’t choose, and this is a particularly rich case. I mentioned on Monday that in 877, Charles did not expect to die; he expected to rule more and more of his family inheritance. This diploma in particular is a rich tapestry of Carolingian memory and aspirations:

DD CtB no. 425 (5th May 877, Compiègne) = ARTEM no. 1787 = DK 5.xx

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Charles, by mercy of the same Almighty God emperor augustus.

Whatever We offer by way of thanks in vow or action to God Almighty, to Whom We owe not only that which We have and which We got from His hand but Our very self, Who deigned to elevate Us and the emperors and kings Our predecessors to the garland of royalty not by Our merit but by His most beneficent grace, We in no way doubt that this will be of greater consequence for Us in more happily passing through the present life and more fruitfully laying hold of the future.

Hence, because the emperor of rich recollection, to wit, Our grandfather Charle[magne], on whom divine providence deigned to bestow sole rule of this whole empire, is recognised to have built a chapel in the palace of Aachen in honour of the blessed virgin Mary the mother of God, and to have established clerics therein to serve the Lord for the remedy of his soul and the absolution of his sins and equally for the dignity of the imperial highness, and to have consecrated the same place with a great collection of relics and to have cultivated it with manifold ornaments, We likewise, desiring to imitate the custom of him and other kings and emperors, to wit, Our predecessors, since that part of his realm has not yet fallen to Us as a share of the division, nevertheless raised from the foundations within the domain of Our power, that is, in the palace of Compiègne, a monastery in honour of the glorious mother of God and always ever-virgin Mary, to which We give the name ‘royal’, and We enriched it, by the Lord’s help, with great offerings, and We decreed that there should be clerics therein numbering a hundred, to constantly implore the Lord’s mercy for the state of the holy Church of God, for Our fathers and progenitors, for Us, Our wife and offspring, and for the stability of the whole realm.

We consigned these estates to be held perpetually for the use of this basilica and for necessary stipends for the aforesaid brothers. That is, in the district of Tardenois, the estate of Romigny with a chapel and in its entirety; and in the district of Beauvaisis, the estate of Longueil-Sainte-Marie, Sacy-le-Petit, and Marest-sur-Matz with everything pertaining to them; and in the district of Amiénois, Piennes and Erches; in the district of Boulonnais, the estate of Attin, and the cell of Sainte-Macre in the district of Tardenois with all its appendages; and in the Soissonnais, the estate of Bruyères; and in the district of Laonnois, the estate of Estraon and Berry-au-Bac (after the death of Primordius); and in the district of Vermandois, the estate of Cappy, and also the cultivated land which We conceded with a fishery to the same brothers for their outside uses outside the monastery; a chapel in Venette, a chapel in Verberie, a chapel in Nanteuil-le-Haudoin, a chapel in Montmacq (after the death of Berto); in the district of Noyonnais, the small estate which is called Les Bons Hommes; also, the tithes of the fiscs which We conceded to them through a precept, that is, the tithe of Le Chesne, Verberie, Cuignières, Roye, Montmacq, and two parts of the tithe of the estate of Orville, Doullens, Creolicupinus, Ferrières, Sinceny, Amigny, Voyenne, Rozoy-sur-Serre, Samoussy, Andigny, Erquery, Sevigny-Waleppe, Attigny, Belmia, Taizy, Bitry, Ponthion, Merlaut and Bussy, and all the others which they have through Our precept; and cottages in Bourgogne, and the bridge over the Vesle pertaining to Fismes, and the all the toll of the annual market with the meadow by Venette where it usually takes place. Also, We similarly confirm that the custom of complete silence and quiet should be canonically observed there, and be violated by no outside guest, as is contained in the same precept. Moreover, We concede to the said holy monastery and the brothers assiduously serving the Lord therein on this day when We celebrated the dedication of that holy basilica, that is, the 3rd nones of May [5th May], through the same precept of Our authority, the estate of Sarcy in the district of Tardenois, with a demesne, and a chapel, and whatever is beholden there, and whatever Count Othere once held from the same; and in the district of Beauvaisis, in Béthancourt, whatever is beholden there from Margny-lès-Compiègne.

And thus, We resolve that all the aforesaid, those estates and goods which We conceded before the dedication of the aforesaid basilica and those which We conceded at the dedication of the same, with chapels and all their appendages, lands, vineyards, woods, meadows, pastures, waters and watercourses, mills, bondsmen of both sexes dwelling thereon or justly and legally pertaining to the same, roads in and out, and all legitimate boundaries, should be eternally held and canonically disposed of by the said holy place and the congregation serving the Lord therein for their advantage; and from Our right We place them in the right and power of the same monastery, such that, as We ordained in Our other precepts, they may have, hold and possess whatever from this day divine piety might wish to bestow upon the said place and brothers through Us and through Our successors or by gift of any other person and have free and most firm power to act and make canonical dispositions in everything, to wit, on the condition that the offices and ministries of the same place, to wit, of lighting, of guests, and of the reception of the poor, and of the brothers’ stipends should remain ordained in accordance with what We or Our representatives or the prelates of the same monastery might dispose.

Finally, We enact as well that all the aforesaid goods should remain under that defence of Our immunity and tutelage under which the goods of other churches which earned to obtain this from Us or from Our predecessors are known to remain, such that none of Our followers or anyone with judicial power or anyone else, both present and also future, might dare to enter into the churches or places or fields or other possessions of the aforesaid monastery which it justly and legally possesses in any pagi or territories, or those which henceforth divine piety wishes be placed within the right of that holy place to hear cases or exact fines or tribute, or make a halt or claim hospitality, or take securities, or distrain the men both free and servile dwelling on its land, or require any renders or illicit requisitions in Our or future times, nor might they presume to exact anything from what is noted above. And whatever the fisc might be able to hope for from the goods of the said church, let it be completely open that We have conceded it to the aforesaid holy place for eternal repayment, so that for time everlasting it might contribute towards alms for the poor and an increase in the stipends of the canons serving the Lord therein, so that it might delight these servants of God and their successors to exhort the Lord’s mercy for Us more fruitfully. And because all the aforesaid goods are from Our fiscs, We wish and equally command that they should be protected and defended under that law under which the goods of Our fisc constantly remain, and under the relevant mundeburdum and defence, and that they should remain under that imperial tutelage under which the abbey, to wit, Prüm, which Our forefather Pippin built; and the monastery of nuns at Laon established in honour of Saint Mary are known to remain.

Verily, whatever We have conceded in gold, silver and jewels, garments, goods or in any kind to the same place, because We offered them to be consecrated to the Lord out of love for divine worship and equally for the remedy of Our soul and Our fathers and progenitors, We ask and prohibit under the witness of the divine name that no successor of Ours as king or emperor, nor anyone endowed with the dignity of any rank, should receive anything from whose which are recorded above into their own uses or put them to use in the worship of their chapel, nor (as is known sometimes happens) confer them to another church under the supposed pretext of almsgiving. Rather, let them completely and perpetually conserve them as We have given them, to be held by the Lord and the aforesaid holy place. Truly, let no-one presume to diminish anything from all of the aforesaid goods, which We have established as aid for the advantage of the basilica and the aforesaid brothers, numbering one hundred. Rather, this concession of Our piety and ordinance of imperial highness be as conserved in perpetuity as is set out in the privilege of the lord and Our most holy father John [VIII], the apostolic and universal pope, and in the privileges of other bishops. And, if anyone might wish to add to it, after their goods and uses have been increased and multiplied let the number of those taking care of divine service be increased. Finally, We confirm through this Our word the said privilege of the most holy pope lord John, and, as his ordinance decreed, let Our strengthening also decree that it should endure in perpetuity.

And that this authority of Our donation and establishment of an edict and strengthening of an immunity should be conserved, in God’s name, inviolably and be more truly believed for all time, We confirmed it below with Our own hand, and We commanded it be sealed with impressions of Our bulls.

Sign of Charles, most glorious of august emperors.

Sign of the glorious king Louis [the Stammerer].

Odoacer the notary witnessed and subscribed on behalf of Gozlin.

Given on the 3rd nones of May [5th May], in the 10th indiction, in the 37th year of the reign of lord emperor Charles in Francia and the 7th in succession to King Lothar [II] and the second of his empire.

Enacted at the imperial palace of Compiègne.

Happily in the name of God, amen.

CW1.2 877
It’s an impressive looking sucker, too. From the Diplomata Karolinorum linked above. 

The year before this, in 876, Charles’ dangerous older half-brother Louis the German had died. Charles immediately moved to try and claim a portion of his kingdom – Louis had already thwarted his efforts to claim Lotharingia in 869, after the death of Lothar II. However, Charles suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Louis’ son Louis the Younger at the Battle of Andernach.

With that in mind, this diploma doesn’t sound particularly defeated. Sure, Charles is explicitly building a substitute for Aachen; but that’s only because it hasn’t fallen to his part yet. In the meantime, Charles is building a full statement in stone of his absolute right to succeed Charlemagne: Compiègne is big, it’s rich, and above all it’s royal. Charles calls it royal, and he endows it with the same privileges of Notre-Dame de Laon and above all of Prüm, which is the Carolingian family foundation. It’s a statement of intent: Charles will be the head of the Carolingian family no matter who controls the dynasty’s old heartlands.

Of course, within a few months Charles would be too dead to do anything much, and Compiègne’s importance abated somewhat. Hereafter, its associations would be primarily not with Charlemagne, but with Charles the Bald himself – and one future monarch would be particularly interested in the place. However, that’s many moons down the line from here…