Being a medieval historian often brings to mind the old joke about the drunk searching for his keys in the dark. Whatever we might want to find, unless it’s directly under the streetlights (or in our very narrow source base), we’re not going to find it, even if we’re pretty certain it must be around somewhere. In the early medieval period in particular, the lampposts are mostly fixed on royal courts and major religious institutions. For people and places beyond those shining lights, we generally have to hope that their paths will in some way cross these sources of illumination. A fine example of this happening is the charter translated here (dangerously stepping on Fraser’s toes as the master of all cartulary knowledge in the process). I’m very fond of this one because it gives us an unusual glimpse of a warrior below the highest ranks of the elite. It also provides an illuminating perspective on the endlessly fascinating frontier region known as the Spanish March at an early stage of its development.
(Ed.: the charter as it stands is not preserved without textual question marks, which are illustrated in brackets following the MGH edition.)
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. <The most serene> Charles, by the grace of God, king of the Franks and of the Lombards and patrician of the Romans. <Let it be known> to all our bishops, abbots, governors, companions, and all our followers, both present and future. It is right that the power of the king should impart protection upon those who can be proved to need it. [Therefore, let your greatness and advantage] know that John came to us and showed us the letter which our beloved son Louis [the Pious] had made for him and sent through him to us. And we found in this letter that John himself fought a great battle against the heretics or unbelieving Saracens in the district of Barcelona, where he overcame them at the place called Ad Ponte and slew the aforesaid infidels and took spoils from them. He then presented some of them to our beloved son, the best horse and the best mail coat and a scimitar with a silver scabbard; and he asked him [Louis] for the abandoned hamlet which is called Fontes in the district of Narbonne in order to work on it. He gave him [John] the hamlet and sent him to us. And when he [John] had come to us with the letter which our son produced for him, he commended himself into our hands. Our said follower John asked that we might grant him the hamlet which our son had given him. We indeed grant him the hamlet itself, with all its borders and its appurtenances in its entirety; and whatever he and his men have occupied or will have occupied; and what they will have cleared from the waste in the village of Fontjoncouse; and what they will have occupied either within its borders or in other places or villages or hamlets; and what he and his men will have taken by aprisio. We grant all these things to him through our donation, so that he and his posterity may have it without any rent or trouble, while they are faithful to us or our sons. And in order that this authority may be held more firmly, we have sealed it under our signet. Giltbert recognised and subscribed this on behalf of Rado. Given in the month of March, in the twenty-fifth and eighteenth year of our reign, enacted at our palace at Aachen; happily in the name of God. Amen.
There’s a lot of interest in this short text, but let’s start with the basics. The exact dating of this charter is unclear, as that provided on the charter isn’t coherent. The most likely year is 795, that is before the more than a decade of campaigning through which the Carolingians would seek to expand the March. Louis the Pious was away from Aquitaine for two years from 792, making 794 the earliest he could have had his meeting with John, probably placing the charter grant by Charlemagne in March 795.
I’ve seen it suggested that John’s battle with the Saracens was connected to the invasion ordered by the Umayyad Emir Hisham I in 793. I suspect that that is both unlikely and unnecessary. The incursion of 793 was a fairly serious force that sacked the outskirts of Narbonne and beat the Count of Toulouse in battle, killing a large number of Franks in the process. That sounds like a far larger event than John’s skirmish, although it’s possible that John fought a band that had fanned out from the main invasion force. But we don’t need to assume that it happened then. In his epic poem praising Louis the Pious, Ermold the Black writes about feuds arising from raids on single households. Likewise, the Revised Royal Frankish Annals (s.a. 797) describes Barcelona as an area swinging between Christians and Muslims. This was a tough neighbourhood, and people in the region were quite capable of raiding each other without outside help.
One of the most exciting things about this charter is that it is part of a set. It comes down to us in a twelfth-century manuscript preserved in the cathedral of Narbonne. In 963, a descendant of John gave the land to the cathedral, together with a collection of relevant documents proving ownership, of which this charter was the first. Other documents in the collection included pertinent legislation and reconfirmations of the grant by later Carolingians. In addition, Christoph Haack and Thomas Kohl have recently drawn attention to an oath given by witnesses of the 795 grant in 833 on behalf of John’s son Teudefred. John and Teudefred had been chased off the land by Count Leibulf, but the latter managed to reclaim it, in large part thanks to the witnesses. The result is that we have a dossier that doesn’t just help us follow a family in the Spanish March through the ninth century, but also provides clues to help us understand the charter translated here.
One of those clues pertains to John’s ethnicity. Included in the manuscript is a charter given by Charlemagne in 812 to a group of men called hispani, one of whom is named John. The Emperor promised to protect the rights of these small landowners against the more powerful counts of the region. If, as seems most plausible, we identify this John as the same one from the first charter, this tells us that he and his men were most likely from the Iberian Peninsula (and after all, it takes Juan to know Juan). It is traditional to assume that such men were refugees from Muslim persecution in al-Andalus, and perhaps they were, but nothing in the historical record forces us to assume this. John appears as a warrior with a small following, who shrewdly parlayed success in battle into landed wealth. Although he was clearly a man of some standing, with a warband capable of skirmishing with enemy companies, this nonetheless places him several rungs below the type of military men we normally meet in the sources.
The site of John’s battle, Ad Ponte/To the Bridge, is unknown today, as is Fontes in the country of Narbonne. The oath of 833 tells us that it was originally given to John by a Count Sturmi as aprisio, before being confirmed by Louis and Charlemagne. The term aprisio is one that has been repeatedly discussed by scholars, but broadly it seems to have been a word of Iberian origin, applied to wasteland that was now being occupied. The hamlet of Fontes was deserted, so John raised buildings and cultivated the land. The reason the land was abandoned is uncertain. Saracen raids are one possibility, but there are many others.
There are a number of interesting details in this charter. The reference to the Saracens as ‘heretics’ points to the vagueness of Carolingian understandings of Islam. The discussion of the items presented by John to Louis suggests the importance of booty for warfare in the period, as well as the significance of gifts for relations between lords and followers. We can also see the interesting relationship between the written word and oral testimony. Louis wrote a letter for John that he could take to Charlemagne. Charlemagne confirmed the grant of lands in a text that was carefully preserved so we can read it today. But when John’s possession of the land was questioned, his son reclaimed it using the testimony of witnesses to the original grant. That testimony was itself written down and preserved. The two sources of authority interacted and complemented each other.
There’s much more that could be said about this charter, but it remains one of my favourites for the way it casts a spotlight on the Spanish March and on the people who tried to benefit from its sometimes-volatile nature.
In May 823, Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) held an assembly at Frankfurt. Much of the business at hand concerned his neighbours to the east. These included the brothers Milegast and Cealadrag, two kings of the Wilzi, a Slavic people who lived on the Baltic. The older, Milegast, had been deposed by his subjects in favour of the younger and the pair now came to the Emperor for arbitration. Louis decided in favour of Cealadrag, judging him to be the true choice of the Wilzi, but softened the blow by giving them both gifts. The brothers swore oaths to keep the agreement, before being sent home. Next on the agenda was (the confusingly similarly named) Prince Ceadrag of the Abodrites, the people to the west of the Wilzi. Not for the first time, Ceadrag had failed to attend the assembly, and he was accused of treachery to the Franks (probably with the Danes). Envoys were sent to the Abodrites to investigate further. The prince moved quickly to rectify this breach, sending messengers promising to attend upon Louis the following winter. When he did so, Ceadrag was able to mollify the emperor with acceptable excuses for the years he had been absent, and was allowed to go home with gifts.
The Wilzi and the Abodrites were two of a number of client states that ringed the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne (r. 768-814) and Louis the Pious. They were particularly common on the eastern frontier. When Louis held an assembly in Frankfurt in the winter of 822, he received offerings from the ‘Abodrites, Sorbs, Wilzi, Bohemians, Moravians, and Praedenecenti, and from the Avars living in Pannonia’. As the events of 823 indicate, their kings were expected to act in a matter that benefitted Frankish aims and to regularly attend upon Carolingian rulers to show their submission with tribute. Louis acted as the court of final appeal for internal disputes, but otherwise the client-kings operated with a great deal of domestic autonomy.
Classical International Relations theory finds such arrangements hard to deal with. The dominant realist school views diplomatic relations as something that happens in conditions of anarchy between states that are acting entirely independently of each other in their own self-interest. In this view, if Louis was sufficiently strong to compel the Abodrites, he should have sent someone after Ceadrag, and not waited to hear his excuses. Likewise, if Ceadrag was powerful enough to put off the Franks, why did he submit to Louis at all? This school of IR thought emerged out of Europe in the nineteenth century, where multiple great powers ruthlessly jockeyed for position in a rotating set of alliances that sought to balance against any single state that looked like it might achieve a dominant position. Whether it analyses even that world accurately is unclear to me. It most certainly doesn’t help us with the assembly of May 823.
This is frustrating, because I genuinely think that other disciplines have a lot to teach medieval histories about our approach to our subject. Early medieval sources are often terse, with the Carolingian annals very rarely explaining why people did what they did. A school of thought that gives us analytic tools to expand these gnomic utterances would be extremely useful. Likewise, there’s a danger of burying oneself too deeply in one particular space and failing to notice what makes it distinctive or interesting because the lack of alternative examples makes you assume that what you see is universal. With this in mind, I went looking for a different model for the way states might interact.
I found it with the help of my friend Joshua Batts, whom I met when we were both fellows at Darwin College, and who does fascinating work on relations between the Tokugawa in Japan and the Spanish empire. At some point over lunch in college several years ago he drew my attention to a recent(ish) book by David C. Kang entitledEast Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010), which I read, and has been floating around in my head ever since because it gave me a model for a what a long-term stable system of hegemony might look like, as an alternative to Westphalian anarchy. My ignorance of East Asian history is vast, so what will follow will contain mistakes, none of which are attributable to poor Joshua, who did his best to educate a barbarian medievalist.
Kang begins his book with the observation that between 1368, when the Ming dynasty began to rule China, and the First Opium War (1839-1841), there were only two wars between China and its most important East Asian neighbours, that is, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Apart from the Chinese invasion of Vietnam (1407-1428) and the Imjin War when Japan invaded Korea (1592-1598), these four states existed in peace with each other for the best part of five centuries. Other conflicts still happened, including civil wars, Chinese wars against seminomadic peoples on the north and west frontiers, and battles against wakō pirates. But unlike late medieval and early modern Europe, the great powers of East Asia did not routinely go to war with each other.
Kang attributes this stability to the hierarchical tribute system that structured relations between these four states, with Korea, Vietnam and Japan orbiting the Chinese sun. This system was built on the simple fact of overwhelming Chinese power. First, China was so enormously strong and rich that it was effectively invulnerable to its neighbours, something that all parties knew. Second, China’s wealth and cultural confidence meant that it didn’t need anything from these neighbours. Commercial, political and cultural contact and exchange were minor luxuries. As a consequence, what Chinese governments most wanted from these neighbours was the surety that they weren’t going to start any trouble and regular demonstrations of respect in the form of tribute that served to reinforce China’s understanding of itself as the centre of the world.
For their part, the rulers of Japan, Korea and Vietnam were mostly willing to go along with this. They had practical reasons. None of them wanted to antagonise China, and all benefitted from Chinese protection. Access to carefully guarded Chinese commercial markets was also of immense importance to them. But Kang suggests that we shouldn’t underestimate how important Chinese political and cultural norms were for these states. Their rulers very deliberately and genuinely bought into Confucianism, poetry and other aspects of Chinese civilisation, and modelled their governments upon them. There was variation to this. Korea was the most perfectly Sinicised neighbour, taking pride in being the closest imitator of the Chinese model. The highest ranked official of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea for most of this period took the clothes and titles of a third-rank Chinese official, with the rest of the Korean hierarchy slotting in below. Japan by contrast, being more distant, was more suspicious of Chinese models, and tended to be the readiest to challenge Chinese hegemony (see the Imjin War).
By participating in the Chinese driven hierarchy, these Confucian states made themselves legible to Ming and Qing officials. Peking understood the institutional structures and philosophies that guided their politics, and could therefore predict their behaviour and assume their goodwill. Any difficulties could be resolved because all participants were speaking the same language both literally and figuratively. The security this provided allowed China to be generous to its clients. Although the tribute they provided were trumpeted as part of the Middle Kingdom’s conception of itself, they were outweighed by the gifts and commercial opportunities the tributaries received in return. A similar generosity applied to frontiers. Despite China’s vastly more powerful military force, disputed borders with Korea and Vietnam were decided by legal negotiation, with the non-Chinese party winning more often than not. This credible commitment to non-exploitation in turn strengthened the willingness of the Confucian states to take part in the Chinese system, creating a virtuous cycle that more-or-less lasted until the collapse of Chinese power in the nineteenth century.
In summarising the core thesis of the book, I have simplified much, leaving out the evidence and the detail. But I think the three key elements here – an overwhelmingly powerful hegemon; client states that go out of their way to be legible and predictable to the hegemon; and generous behaviour by the hegemon – offer a useful lens for thinking about Carolingian hegemony, both for how it was constructed and for why it failed. (Fair warning here – while what was above was constrained by the holes in my knowledge about East Asia, below is me speculating wildly and loosely.)
An example of this is the emphasis on generosity in the Frankish annals. Early medieval rulers were expected to be givers of gifts, so it’s not surprising that we find Louis showering leading Wilzi and Abodrites with presents. Nonetheless, the Chinese example suggests that successful hegemony depends upon such beneficence. It is neither a novel nor a sophisticated insight that people like getting stuff, and will be more likely to acknowledge your power if there is a material benefit to them for doing so. It’s nonetheless worth bearing in mind when we try to understand why the likes of Ceadrag allow themselves to be summoned to attend upon the Emperor. On the other hand, the Chinese example of settling land disputes does suggest another benefit of the relationship for the client. Milegast and Cealadrag came to Louis because they thought he could arbitrate their dispute. This implies at least some respect for Carolingian justice and Louis’ ability to make a settlement stick. Solving political problems by acting as an honest judge might also lie behind a hegemonic relationship.
Another interesting trend is the ‘Carolingianisation’ of many of the neighbours of the Franks. This is reflected in the material remains, with Frankish goods such as metalwork and glass being found in increasing amounts in Central Europe. Missionaries travelled among these client kingdoms, spreading familiarity with Christian ideas. Although it’s hard to say much about the political structures of these places before the Carolingian period, the appearance of kings and dynasties seems to have something to do with copying Frankish models. (The number of Slavic words for king that are derived from Charlemagne’s name, Karl – Bulgarian крал, Czech král, Polish król, Russian коро́ль, Serbian краљ etc – is suggestive of the influence of Carolingian kingship in Central and Eastern Europe). The emergence of royal dynasties literate in Carolingian culture and embedded in Frankish networks of exchange would make the satellites much easier for Carolingian rulers to do business with them, whether or not this was a deliberate or an accidental development.
But where the Chinese example really shines for me is the hints its gives for why Carolingian hegemony was so short-lived. Whereas Kang’s model describes a system that lasted nearly 500 years and survived the dynastic transition from the Ming to the Qing in the seventeenth century, Carolingian hegemony barely lasted a generation (I would place it at roughly c.790-c.830 but that’s a gut assessment and there are signs of trouble in the 820s). The differences between our two examples help explain that discrepancy.
The first difference, and the most important, is that the Carolingian empire was never as overwhelmingly powerful as China. Even at the apogee of Frankish power, the distance between the Carolingians and their neighbours was never as great as that. This was a situation that only became less hegemonic following the division of the empire into rival kingdoms from 843, lessening the resources any single Carolingian monarch could bring to bear on any single problem while giving them dangerous peer competitors. While for most of the ninth century the East Frankish realm was more powerful than any of its non-Frankish neighbours, even that begins to shift with the rise of Moravia in the 860s and 870s, a former client turned increasingly great power.
Further, the Carolingian world was never as unipolar as that of East Asia. In the south-east and south-west respectively, Byzantium and Umayyad Spain competed with the Carolingians for influence within client states. In the north-east, the main rival was the Danish kingdom, who offered Abodrite and Wilzi leaders options if they chose to oppose the Franks. Thus, in 808 the Danish king Godfrid gathered the Wilzi, Smeldingi and Linones into an anti-Frankish alliance. In 821, Ceadrag of the Abodrites was suspected of plotting with the sons of Godfrid.
As a consequence, Carolingian rulers were never as secure in their dealings with client states as their Chinese counterparts. This acted to destabilise the system because it made Frankish monarchs less open-handed and more prone to interfering. I suspect that the ratio of tribute to gift between the Franks and their clients was rather less generous than in the case of China, undermining the relationship’s value. Because of the different balance of power, the Carolingians had to watch their tributaries for signs of rebellion rather more closely, resulting in moments like Louis’ heavy-handed intervention into Abodrite politics in 823. Indeed, Ceadrag became leader of the Abodrites in the first place when Louis ordered Sclaomir to share power with him in 817. Being a client of the Carolingians also made you a potential target, such as when King Godfrid attacked the Abodrites in 808 as an indirect strike at Charlemagne.
These were not the sort of circumstances that would make you feel good about your more powerful neighbour. Even if you came to power with Frankish support, the conditionality of such backing would encourage you to look for alternative options once established. As a result, Carolingian hegemony was much more dependent upon military coercion than the Chinese equivalent. Said coercion only made it harder to win the genuine allegiance of clients, creating a cycle leading to instability and distrust.
Another difference that I suspect has an impact is in the structure of imperial power. Most Chinese emperors ruled through a tax base administered by the state which supported the bureaucracy, living expenses and standing army. Martial excellence was not a particularly vital requirement so long as the borders were safe and the tribute was coming in. Carolingian emperors depended on their own estates for sustenance and the loyalty of their followers for their military support. A reputation for military skill was much more important, as was the financial rewards of booty and conquest. This doesn’t mean that the Franks needed to be constantly at war, but that domestic tensions might incentivise aggressive behaviour towards one’s neighbours in a way that was hard to predict from the outside.
To sum all of this up, because the Carolingian empire was a weaker superpower, with more plausible rivals, and had a political structure and culture that made it more aggressive, it was a much less predictably benevolent hegemon. This made client states more likely to look for opportunities to free themselves of this dependence and also made it more likely that moments of crisis would emerge that would provide those opportunities.
This isn’t necessarily inevitable. Politics is never written in stone. At different points of their careers Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald seem to have experimented with styles of rulership that depended less upon military expansion. A Carolingian empire that never divides, or where the different members of the family manage to keep the peace between them might change the calculus. Nonetheless, I think the Chinese example of international hierarchy provides us with a useful comparison of a very different system to Westphalian anarchy which at least helps us to ask some of the right questions when it comes to understanding hegemonic systems elsewhere.
In the year 797 a ship set out from Venice for the Holy Land. Among the merchants and pilgrims that made up the majority of the passengers were two unusual parties that had been travelling together from Treviso. The first was a group of clerics employed by the Count of Treviso to collect the relics of Saints Genesius and Eugenius from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The second group had been on the road much longer and had further still to go. Led by Counts Sigimund and Lantfrid and guided by a Jewish man named Isaac, they had been sent by Charlemagne, king of the Franks (r.768-814), with a message to Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809), the most powerful man west of China, asking for an elephant. After meeting the Patriarch, the two parties split up. The men from Treviso remained in Jerusalem, while the embassy made their way inland to the court of the Caliph in Raqqa. This was the last time that anyone from the Frankish world saw Lantfrid and Sigimund alive. The relic hunters waited some time for their companions, before eventually despairing and returning home.
Four years later, in June 801, while travelling between Vercelli and Ivrea, the now-Emperor Charlemagne received an embassy from Harun with good news. Isaac was in North Africa, accompanied by the elephant that Charlemagne had requested. The only fly in the ointment was Isaac’s lack of accompaniment. Sigimund and Lantfrid had both died while on the embassy. They were the first Frankish ambassadors to the Caliphate to perish, but not the last. When the second embassy sent by Charlemagne to Harun al-Rashid got back in 806, running a Byzantine naval blockade in the process, they did so with similar news: the leader of their party, Radbert, was no more.
In 807/8, the Emperor sent Counts Agamus and Roculf to Jerusalem. Whether they also went on to Harun al-Rashid is unclear. If so, they were lucky outliers because they survived to return home, albeit in a bad odour: Pope Leo III thought it necessary to beg Charlemagne to show them mercy for unspecified reasons. Three years later Roculf is found as a witness to Charlemagne’s will, so Leo’s intervention may have helped. If Agamus and Roculf only went to Jerusalem, then every single formal legate dispatched by Charlemagne to the ‘Abbasid court perished during the mission.
This is not normal. Carolingian diplomats faced multiple dangers, ranging from paranoid monarchs and pirate attacks to the threat of being sued while away and unable to defend oneself. Death was a risk, but not a common one. Nor does it seem to have routinely affected the ‘Abbasid envoys, although (incredibly) we know even less about them than we do about Charlemagne’s ambassadors. The embassy of 806 was led by one ‘Abd Allah, who was still alive when the Franks put him on a boat back home in 807. Nearly eighty years later, Notker the Stammerer boasted that:
Because of the most vigorous efforts of Charlemagne, the messengers of Harun, whether youths, boys or old men, passed easily from Parthia into Germany and returned from Germany to Parthia and it was not only possible but easy for them to come and go.
(Gesta Karoli Magni II.9)
Although the ‘Abbasid envoys faced challenges of their own, there is no evidence that they suffered a particularly high mortality rate.
So what’s going on? We can probably rule out shenanigans by Harun al-Rashid. For obvious reasons of practicality, the safety of envoys was a universally respected convention. In his Life of Muhammad, Ibn Hisham (d.833) recounts a story of the Prophet getting annoyed by ambassadors sent by his rival Maslama in 631/2. Muhammad upbraided the envoys, ‘By God, were it not that heralds are not to be killed I would behead the pair of you.’ The Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk (d.1092) commented that:
Whatever treatment is given to an ambassador, whether good or bad, it is as if it were done to the very king who sent him; and kings have always shown the greatest respect to one another and treated envoys well.
While things could go horribly wrong, there’s no obvious sign that any problems had arisen. Charlemagne took the protection of envoys seriously, issuing laws that made them untouchable. Merovingian precedent also suggested a strong response to the poor treatment of diplomats. King Childebert II (r.575-596) demanded justice from Emperor Maurice (r.582-602) when his envoys were murdered in Byzantine Carthage in 589. Theuderic I (r.511–534) motivated his subjects to wage war on the Thuringians in 531 by telling them about the crimes the latter had committed against Frankish legates. Had Lantfrid, Sigimund and Radbert been the victims of skulduggery, it seems very unlikely that relations between Aachen and Raqqa would have remained as cordial as they were.
Travelling in the early medieval world had its perils. Pirates or bandits could lie in wait, eager to separate people from their goods, and possibly hold their victims to ransom or sell them into slavery. Nor were the only dangers human, as the elements could conspire against travellers as well. Such was the experience of Archbishop Amalarius of Trier (r.812-813), who was sent by Charlemagne as his envoy to Byzantium in 813. On his return from Constantinople, Amalarius’ ship was attacked by pirates, and they were only saved by a miraculous storm that helped them escape.
I’m inclined to suspect that such an attack on the road was probably not the cause of death for the Carolingian ambassadors. The ‘Abbasid postal and communications system was pretty good, with 930 postal stations where supplies could be acquired. There was also a network of hostels that travellers could stay in. Isaac and his party most likely returned to the Frankish world by following the North African coastline to minimise the amount of time they had to keep a nervous elephant on board a ship, crossing to Italy from modern Tunisia. Both this embassy and the one upon which Radbert died came back with vast wealth, including a magnificent curtained tent and a marvellous mechanical clock. Given the safe transmission of these valuable items, they probably weren’t ambushed by pirates or sunk by a gale. Charlemagne seems to have been entirely confident about sending gold and cloth back to the Caliphate in 807.
A more plausible cause of death might be misadventure. Travelling in the Caliphate could be unpredictable. In the eleventh century, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi advised travellers to perform istikhara (prayer for guidance) in order to receive predictions in their dreams about their forthcoming trip. It was inauspicious to start a journey on a Friday, and better to begin on Monday or Thursday. Lantfrid and Sigimund were probably in the Caliphate for multiple years, more than enough time for a stupid and unlucky accident to happen. The odds of both of them and Radbert dying in such a way may be low, but ludicrous coincidences happen all the time. February 2022 saw the tragic deaths of the Serbian ambassador to Portugal and of the Italian ambassador to Australia, both by accidentally falling from a great height. It’s not impossible to imagine some sort of innocent accident on the road or while being entertained by the Caliph.
My favoured cause of death, however, is disease. People in the early medieval Caliphate were well aware that travel could be bad for your health. Building on ancient Greek precedent and particularly the work of Galen, medical knowledge of the time taught that people’s bodies were accustomed to the climate and food of their native lands, which explained why so many became sick when they travelled through different countries. In response to this, the ninth century saw the production of a large number of medical treatises for staying healthy while travelling, often based on Greek medical knowledge.
Among the most celebrated was that of Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Christian doctor originally from Syria who wrote aMedical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca. In addition to information specific to the hajj, this work contained:
1. ‘Knowledge of the regimen to resting, eating, drinking, sleeping and sexual intercourse.’
2. ‘Knowledge of the different kinds of fatigue and their cure.’
3. ‘Knowledge of the diseases which are caused by the blowing of the different winds and their treatment.’
4. ‘Knowledge of the prophylaxis against vermin and of the treatment of the injuries caused by them.’
(Trans. Bos, Qusṭā Ibn Lūqā’s Medical Regime, 19.)
Other medical texts, such as that of Razi in the tenth century, advised that people carry a piece of clay from their homeland with which to purify waters in foreign lands that might be less conducive to their constitutions. This is not to say that the Caliphate was a less healthy place than the Carolingian empire (although some places, like Egypt, had a bad reputation for sickness). Rather, the journey to the court of Harun al-Rashid was probably the longest and most stressful that any Frankish diplomat ever had to make. It was one undertaken in a strange climate with unfamiliar food. In such circumstances, I would find it unsurprising if Sigimund, Lantfrid and Radbert were ultimately the victims of disease.
We will probably never know the exact causes of the deaths of Charlemagne’s envoys to Harun al-Rashid, but considering the possible reasons gives us a decent sense of the challenges and dangers involved in conducting pre-modern diplomacy. I suspect that it also gives us a hint at the factors that lay behind the short lifespan of Carolingian-‘Abbasid diplomacy. Although Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) received an embassy from Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) in 831, to the best of our knowledge he never sent one back. Nor did any of his successors. While there were many reasons for this silence, I can’t help thinking that the toll on Frankish diplomats may have contributed to this. If someone can be trusted to helm an embassy to the Caliphate, they’re probably not the sort of person you can afford to lose to attrition. Given the track record it must have been a really, really unpopular job, so finding volunteers was probably also difficult. While this wouldn’t have stopped a vital military alliance or an essential economic agreement, if the Carolingians saw contact with the ‘Abbasids as more of a prestigious photo-op to impress a domestic audience, they may have calculated that the human wastage was just too high.
One of the things that makes being an academic often seem slightly unreal is that you spend a lot of time feeling like you’re screaming into the void. You craft articles by conducting the research, honing the argument in conference papers, writing and re-writing variations of the same words over again until by some curious alchemy they are transmuted into something resembling coherence, before scurrying off to the library to get the last footnote just right. You benefit from/endure the advice of anonymous peer reviewers. You edit, and edit some more, and question your intelligence and sanity when at the very last minute you spot a ghastly spelling mistake that somehow escaped the ministrations of the past half year or more of work. At last, you finally place it into the journal’s online submission system, and away into the aether it goes. And then, if you’re anything like me, in the quiet moments in the middle of the night, you ask yourself whether there was in fact any point to the exercise, whether any of that work will make any difference, and if anyone, anywhere, will ever read your labour of love.
This is why my first emotional reaction to reading a chapter criticising my work was joy. In this piece, ‘Holy wars’? ‘Religious wars’?: The perception of religious motives of warfare against non-Christian enemies in ninth-century chronicles’, in the recent volumeEarly Medieval Militarisation, Professor Hans-Werner Goetz spends a couple of pages (pp. 214-216) discussing an article of mine (‘“Those same cursed Saracens”: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare’,Journal of Medieval History42 (2016), pp. 405-428). I think it’s fair to say that he’s not a fan of it. Nonetheless, the excitement of opening the volume, seeing my name in print and realising that someone somewhere had read my work and thought it worth their time demolishing it was very real.
My attention was drawn to this chapter for a couple of reasons. These begin with the fact that Hans-Werner Goetz is a major scholar whose work on medieval frontiers and perceptions of other religions I have greatly benefited from. But also, this isn’t the first time that my article has attracted the attention of Professor Goetz in print, having featured previously in his ‘Glaubenskriege? Die Kriege der Christen gegen Andersgläubigein der früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Wahrnehmung’,Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 59 (2019), 67-114, specifically at pp. 99-102. Given this, I thought it might be useful for me to take some time to respond to Goetz’ concerns, not least because he raises some interesting questions about the relationship between war and religion in the early medieval period.
The argument in my original article, which you can read in full here, runs as follows:
1. Charlemagne’s wars in the Iberian Peninsula, which include both the disastrous invasion of 778 and the campaigns conducted by his son Louis the Pious as king of Aquitaine in the 790s and 800s, are normally understood as secular affairs, opportunistic wars of expansion. This is because the most important primary sources, particularly the Royal Frankish Annals, don’t depict them as religious conflicts.
2. This is quite striking when compared to wars against other non-Christian neighbours such as the Saxons, where Charlemagne deliberately targeted sites of worship such as the Irminsul and forced the population to convert to Christianity at the point of a sword, imposing multiple laws defining what it meant to be a Christian.
3. However, by looking at a wider range of sources that relate to Carolingian warfare in the Iberian Peninsula in this period, we can see a more complicated picture, where defending and even expanding the Christian faith are key motives for these campaigns. These sources are:
a. The Continuations of the Chronicle of Fredegar, compiled during the reign of Charlemagne’s father, which celebrate his ancestors in their wars against Muslims.
b. A letter of Pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne discussing the 778 expedition.
c. The liturgies of war contained within the Sacramentaries of Gellone, Angoulême and Arles.
d. Charters from Charlemagne, granting land to the Hispani on the Spanish March in about 780 and 801.
e. A letter of Alcuin from around 790 concerning Charlemagne’s expansion of the Christian world, including in the Iberian Peninsula.
f. A poem by Theodulf from 796 calling upon Charlemagne to bring the Arabs to Christ.
g. A letter from Charlemagne to Bishop Elipandus of Toledo from around 794, saying that he had sought to liberate the Christians of al-Andalus from Saracen rule.
h. Ermold the Black’s praise poem of Louis the Pious (written 824-6), which has Louis declare that if the defenders of Barcelona in 801 were Christian, there would be no need for him to go to war against them.
While individually each would be a thin reed to base an entire argument, in accumulation they become increasingly convincing.
4. Based on these perspectives from within and without the court, Frankish wars in al-Andalus in the reign of Charlemagne can be characterised as holy wars, because they were presented as wars to protect and expand the Christian church in Francia and in the Iberian Peninsula. This does not mean those were the only motivations for those conflicts, but they were a major one, and the dominant explanation provided in contemporary or near contemporary sources.
5. I speculate that the reason the annals avoid much of this religious language is that with the exception of the capture of Barcelona in 801, the majority of the campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula did not go particularly well. While this was never desirable, it was particularly embarrassing if you had previously raised the stakes by making it a war of faith. Therefore, annalists linked to the court played down the religious fervour that surrounded the expeditions.
As mentioned above, Hans-Werner Goetz has disagreed with this article in two separate publications. Both resemble each other closely, often sentence-by-sentence and footnote-by-footnote, so unless specified I’m going to treat them as the same text. His broad argument is that the category of ‘holy war’ is not a meaningful one in the early medieval world, because all of culture and society was so imbued with religion that there was no other type of war. All conflicts were justified and legitimised by the faith so the idea of a war of religion is a modern anachronism. This is an idea I find extremely interesting and which I want to discuss later.
However, Professor Goetz has also disagreed with my article on more specific grounds and, with your indulgence reader, I would address them first, if only because anyone who read his pieces would fairly walk away under the impression that I am a poor scholar indeed. But let’s start with places where we both agree. Goetz begins by saying that my work ‘still pre-assumes (setzt voraus) that Charlemagne’s wars were religiously motivated’. Basing my work on assumptions would indeed be unfortunate. However, prior scholarship for several decades tended to assume the opposite, and it was this prior scholarship which the case that I made was responding to. The professor also notes that ‘the fact that the Saracens are recognised and judged as non-Christians’ is not proof that wars against them were holy wars. I agree! My argument was that the apparently ‘secular’ ethnic labels often used in the sources such as ‘Saracen’ or ‘Agarene’, were in fact imbued with Biblical significance, implying that they were non-Christian and antithetical to Christianity; but this was not meant to be evidence for holy war, but rather against standard arguments that the language of the annals is secular on the matter. In the longer German treatment, Goetz argues that we cannot use the religious motivations that the biography of Louis the Pious written by the anonymous author known as ‘the Astronomer’ attributes to Louis for his campaigns against al-Andalus, because they are too late. I agree and did not use it in my article for precisely that reason.
Turning to the pieces of evidence underpinning my argument listed under point 3 above, Goetz only mentions b, c, d and g; and I will deal with these in order. With regards to Hadrian’s letter to Charlemagne on the eve of the campaign of 778 (b), he argues that the Pope’s language comparing the Saracens to Pharaoh in the Bible says nothing about his motivations and was applied to every war. I disagree. The reference to Pharaoh is relevant because Hadrian notes that the reason he and the Egyptians drowned is because ‘they did not believe in God’. Charlemagne will triumph because he is Christian and the Saracens are not. Goetz’ argument is not strengthened by the examples of other wars he himself lists where similar comparisons were made. These include the statement in theLife of Bishop Athanasius of Naplesc.7 that God helped the people of Naples defeat the Saracens and cast them down like Pharaoh. However, insofar as this language is also being used to describe non-Christian enemies this comparison would seem to support my case better than his. The other examples listed in fn.193 of the German article are all considerably later but also don’t strike me as entirely convincing in this context. Henry of Latvia describing the conversion of Baltic pagans as being akin to the casting down of Pharaoh does not scream secularity to me. I am not intimately familiar with Otto of Freising or William of Newburgh and so won’t comment on them. Nonetheless, I would argue that two of the four examples which Goetz chose to prove that comparisons to Pharaoh did not have connotations of holy war actually do look like precisely that.
Goetz also dismisses the sacramentaries (c), writing that ‘people prayed to God for assistance before every war’. This is true, but not every sacramentary contains a mass specifically for wars against non-Christians, in the case of that of Gellone against ‘the infidel people’, in that of Angoulême ‘the pagans’. These are highly unusual masses, and in the case of the Sacramentary of Arles, the relevant mass had to be added to the manuscript at a later date than the other liturgical texts. All three of these sacramentaries are to be located in Aquitaine or Septimania, where the most likely non-Christians to be encountered were Muslims. That of Gellone may have belonged to Count William of Toulouse, who spent much of his career battling al-Andalus.
Nor is Goetz impressed by the charters (d), stating that ‘the granting of charters and donations to individual followers is a completely normal procedure’. In this case, though, what is significant is the unusual content of these documents. Charlemagne explains that he is giving the land because the recipients have had to flee the oppression of the Saracens in their homes in al-Andalus. The reason they are oppressed is that they are Christian, and the Saracens are ‘the enemies of the Christians’. The reason that Charlemagne is helping them is because they are his fellow Christians and they take part ‘in the unity of the faith’. In turn, they would perform military service, fighting with Charlemagne against their shared enemy the Saracens, who were their enemy because the Saracens hate Christians. This is strengthened by a charter from the 790s which rewards a soldier named John with land because he had killed ‘the heretic or infidel Saracens’. In fn. 49 (fn. 197 of the German article), Goetz claims that I explain the presence of Arab or Berber sounding names among the charter beneficiaries as ‘a misconception of the scribes’. However, my argument was somewhat different: I suggest that this points to the possibilities for nuance and complexity, where grandiose rhetoric and ideology meet reality. I don’t think even the most hardcore scholar of holy war would doubt that there were places where lines blurred at the edges, as any historian of the crusades could tell us.
In the longer German treatment, Goetz states that Charlemagne was more concerned with heretics than with non-Christians. This refers to Charlemagne’s letter to Elipandus (g), where the Frankish king informs the Adoptionist bishop of Toledo that whereas before he had striven to save them ‘from worldly bondage’, that is, being ruled by Saracens, but now that he knows they are heretics, he will leave them to their fate. Moreover, in this letter Charlemagne claims that his motivation for his earlier wars against al-Andalus, including the invasion of 778, was to save the Christian population, his co-religionists, who were being oppressed because of their religion. If that’s not a religious war, I don’t know what is. Further, Charlemagne’s statement that he felt less inclined to wage war on the Saracens now that he knew he wouldn’t be saving his fellow catholic Christians again seems to me to fall on my side of the ledger.
Goetz finally observes that in 778 Charlemagne treated the Muslims of Zaragoza gently, while sacking the Christian Basque city of Pamplona. The reason Zaragoza got off lightly is that Charlemagne didn’t conquer it. It was never in Carolingian hands. The ruler, Husayn al-Ansari, refused to let the Franks in and they were balked by the mighty Roman walls of the city. Pamplona may have been sacked because it was perceived to be in rebellion, something Charlemagne was never gentle in his dealings with. In any case, as the ignominious example of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates, religious military campaigns can be vulnerable to mission creep.
Having said all that, Hans-Werner Goetz does raise an interesting point. Religion suffused medieval society to the point that it was the air that it breathed. Kings begged for divine aid in their endeavours and sought the help of their advisors who were learned in such matters. Spin doctors legitimised conflicts as being pleasing to God, encouraging people to believe that their cause was just and that they would triumph. Those engaged in battle beseeched the heavens for survival. He also notes that unlike the idea of a ‘just war’, there is no clear category of ‘religious war’ in the sources.
To take the second point first, while avoiding anachronism is an important part of comprehending the past, historians apply categories and ideas familiar to us but unfamiliar to the period all the time when it helps us to analyse and understand the past in ways that the people who wrote our sources were not consciously able to. A nice example here is economic history, which uses methods and concepts developed by modern economists in order to build up a sense of how resources, labour and exchange interacted to underpin the medieval world in ways that would not have been articulated at the time, but which reveal something real about the period that we can use. This applies to other topics related to the world of ideas and identities. Studying subjects such as gender and sexuality requires that we both understand the way they were categorised in the past and relate them to our own concepts in the present. Sticking purely to the intellectual constructions we find in our sources traps us in the worldview of the sorts of people wrote those sources. Those include few women, poor people or slaves. To get their history, our history, the history of the vast majority of human beings alive at the time, we need to be able to read our sources against the grain, and to ask questions which cut across the purpose and mindset of their writers.
But I would also suggest that there are points where we can in fact see people from the early middle ages categorising a particular war as specifically religious. When Pope Leo IV exhorted a Frankish army in 852 going to war against the Saracens, he famously promised them ‘that the kingdom of heaven will be given as a reward to those who shall be killed in this war’. This was because they were ‘fighting for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul, and the defence of the country of the Christians’. The Pope draws an implied distinction between this type of war and other types of wars. Unlike other campaigns the Franks might find themselves on, this one would see them win the ultimate prize because they were fighting for a holy cause. The same point was made by Pope John VIII in 878 in a reply to the bishops of West Francia who had asked for clarification on this. John wrote ‘those who, out of love to the Christian religion, shall die in battle fighting bravely against pagans or unbelievers, shall receive eternal life’. The Pope emphasises that this is because of the nature of the cause and of the enemy being fought. Again, this distinguishes between a religious war and other sorts of conflict.
The statements made by Leo and John are old chestnuts in scholarly circles because it is unusual to have anyone be this explicit on the matter in the early medieval world. But we might also be able to identify holy wars by the behaviour of those who undertook it. There were any number of possible reasons that Charlemagne might want to conquer the Saxons that would not involve religious motivations, ranging from a desire for a more secure frontier, military glory or expanded resources. None of those explanations would require the Frankish king to destroy Saxon cultic sites or forcibly convert the population to Christianity. Such a policy was if anything more likely to inspire resistance and rebellion. His father, Pippin the Short, had not felt the need to do such things when he invaded Saxony in 747 and 758. The way Charlemagne prosecuted the war against the Saxons was specifically shaped by his motivations. This was a holy war in a way that Pippin’s had not been, and his behaviour and that of his men and his opponents was different because of it.
This is where I think the concept of ‘holy war’ comes in useful, because by identifying it as a meaningful category, we can use it to draw up hypotheses and make predictions about people in the past. This is not to say that all religiously driven warfare was the same, or that all people involved in it had no other motivations. The past is complicated. People are complicated. But, by having ‘holy war’ in our tool box, we can understand and interpret patterns of behaviour that would be otherwise baffling if we didn’t have it.
I want to close this post by expressing my gratitude to Hans-Werner Goetz. If he had not taken the time to seriously consider and respond to my work, I might not have been motivated to think about this topic in this way, and clarify in my own mind why ‘holy war’ strikes me as an interesting and meaningful topic. Scholarship makes better progress through friction. So thank you, Professor Goetz, for making me feel less like a voice screaming into the void.
 Edited by Ellora Bennett, Guido M. Berndt, Stefan Esders and Laury Sarti (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).
It is proverbial that truth is the first casualty in war. The events of the past months have reminded us that participants in war seek to control information in order to convince onlookers of the justice of their cause and the strength of their arms. Although the medium changes, this was as evident in the medieval past as in the present. In addition to deliberate fabrications spread by contending parties, misleading statements coexisted with genuine misunderstandings or miscommunications, reinforced by the tendency of commentators to interpret the news they received in ways that confirmed their pre-existing worldviews. This cloud of misinformation offers a challenge to historians, as we attempt to see through it to understand cause and effect and the reality of the conflicts that took place. But the stories people tell about the struggles they lived through also offer us a glimpse at their opinions about the practice and justification of war. Doing so can shed new light even on conflicts we think we know well.
A case in point is Charlemagne’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 778, probably the most famous war he ever took part in. Unfortunately for the Frankish king’s military reputation, the campaign went south very quickly metaphorically as well as literally. Charlemagne was invited to invade in 777 by Sulayman b. Yaqzan al-ʿArabi, the independent Muslim lord of Barcelona. Sadly for the Franks, not all of Sulayman’s pals in the Peninsula were on board with this plan. As a result, when Charlemagne invaded the following year, he found himself stuck outside the formidable walls of Zaragoza, held by Sulayman’s ally Husayn al-Ansari, who was considerably less enthused by the prospect of Charlemagne as a houseguest. Going nowhere fast, and with word of trouble elsewhere in the realm (including a sudden and dramatic collapse in house prices in his new city in Saxony), the Frankish king decided to cut his losses and retreat across the Pyrenees, where his rear-guard was ambushed at Roncesvalles by Basques and a count from the Breton March named Roland earned his posthumous immortality.
The disaster of Roncesvalles was to loom over the rest of Charlemagne’s reign. But in May 778, before that desperate battle in a Pyrenean pass, Pope Hadrian I (r.772-795) sent Charlemagne a letter (Codex Epistolaris Carolinus no.61) that raises questions about the motivations behind the whole messy business. The Pope begins the missive by writing:
Your God-appointed royal rule has informed us through your letter that the Agarene people [Muslims] are, contrary to God, striving to invade your territory. When this became known to us, we immediately became very uneasy and concerned, but our Lord God and Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, will never allow such a thing to happen. But we, dearest son and greatest king, constantly pray for you with all our priests and pious monks, with all the clergy and with all our people, for the mercy of our Lord God to subdue this wicked people of the Agarenes and to force them to your feet, so that they can never gain the upper hand against you; just as the people of Pharaoh were sunk in the Red Sea because they did not believe in God, so in this case too our Lord God should put this into your hands through the intervention of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Believe in this and be persuaded that almighty God, if you believe in him, will give you the victory of your kingdom over your enemies and ours. And as, day and night, before the tomb of the Apostle of God [in Old St Peter’s Basilica], we constantly pray to the majesty of the Lord to enlarge your kingdom, let us always rejoice in your well-being and in the exaltation of your kingdom by God.
There’s a lot going on in this passage that we could talk about; divine aid for Christians fighting non-Christians; the liturgy of war; the typologising of Muslims as the followers of Pharaoh. What I’d like to focus on in this post is Hadrian’s apparent conviction, expressed in the first sentence of the letter, that Charlemagne was in imminent danger of being invaded and that this was the motivation for the forthcoming Iberian campaign. The Pope did not necessarily anticipate that the Franks would fight a defensive war, as his hope that Charlemagne would expand his kingdom in the final sentence indicates. But the passage suggests that Hadrian thought the Franks were mustering against a serious enemy that intended to attack them imminently.
The first thing to note is that factually this impression is nonsense. The north-east Iberian Peninsula was in the hands of a group of small-time warlords such as Sulayman in Barcelona and Husayn in Zaragoza. None posed a threat to Charlemagne. Further south, ʿAbd al-Rahman I (r.756-788), the Umayyad Emir based in Córdoba, was beginning to expand his reach in order to make his claim to rule all al-Andalus real. In 777 his armies took control of the Central Meseta. This development made him a potential danger to the lords of the north-east, and was what prompted Sulayman to seek help from Charlemagne. Despite this expansion, Córdoba was not an immediate problem the Franks. The first Umayyad attack on Carolingian territory would not take place until 793, under ʿAbd al-Rahman’s successor. Al-Andalus represented no danger to Charlemagne in the 770s.
So how did Hadrian come to the idea that Charlemagne was about to face an Andalusi invasion? It seems to me that there are three possibilities, listed here in chronological order:
1. Sulayman misled Charlemagne in 777, making the latter think he was in danger to increase the chance of getting his support.
2. Charlemagne misled Hadrian in his letter to put the war in a better light.
3. Hadrian has got the wrong end of the stick/is misinterpreting the whole business for his own.
Option one is perhaps the most interesting because it would alter our understanding of events the most. I’ve generally viewed the invasion of 778 as a fairly straightforward attempt at conquest, with Charlemagne taking the opportunity offered by Sulayman to repeat his successful defeat of the Lombard kingdom in 774. That al-Andalus was ruled by non-Christians made it possible to justify the invasion as a holy war (something I’ve written about elsewhere). If Charlemagne legitimately thought he was facing an imminent threat and was looking for WMDs getting in his retaliation first, that changes the picture. That the Frankish king was genuinely concerned is suggested by grants of land he made to Christian settlers from al-Andalus in 781 that they might work together to defend the realm.
That said, this is the possibility I’m most comfortable rejecting. The Roncesvalles campaign was a fiasco that permanently stained Charlemagne’s reputation. A scapegoat, particularly a non-Frankish, non-Christian one, would be very welcome in those circumstances. Yet, there isn’t much effort made to present Sulayman as a malicious actor. The Annals of Lorsch say that Charlemagne took Sulayman prisoner in 778, but this conflicts with what we know about the (brief) rest of his career and is not mentioned in either the Royal Frankish Annals or the Chronicle of Moissac. If Sulayman had misled Charlemagne, I’d expect someone like Einhard to be cursing his name for his treachery. It’s still by no means impossible that Sulayman told Charlemagne that ʿAbd al-Rahman was coming for him, but I think it’s the least likely of the options available.
Option two is more plausible to my mind. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne was good at finding suitable casus belli to wage wars on his neighbours, as Duke Tassilo of Bavaria could confirm. The Carolingians as the defenders of the church and the Christian people against the Saracen menace was a theme that had appeared in writings connected to Charles Martel and Pippin III. That he might have misrepresented the situation to the Pope is not impossible. The preservation of Hadrian’s letter may be evidence in favour of this. The missive survives in the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus, a collection of 99 letters from Popes mostly to Carolingians. They were gathered together in one manuscript in 791 on royal orders so that they be consulted for future use. Given that he deliberately chose to preserve the letter, we can probably assume that Charlemagne was happy with the way Hadrian characterised the situation in early 778. This might be because he was the one who had presented it that way to the Pope.
I do wonder how necessary such a subterfuge would be. Hadrian was pretty dependent on Charlemagne’s support in Italy (more on which below). Further, it’s not like the Muslims of al-Andalus were the most sympathetic victims from a papal perspective. In the 780s Hadrian became increasingly interested in the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula. The letter of 778 suggests he was pretty relaxed about the idea of Charlemagne waging expansionist wars in the region.
Option three shifts the focus to Rome and comes in two flavours. The first of these observes that misunderstanding the situation allows Hadrian to rhetorically boost his own importance to Charlemagne. The devotions of the Pope and assembled faithful of Rome to St Peter on the Frankish king’s behalf look a lot more valuable if the heathen is massing at the border. Charlemagne valued these prayers. Hadrian had performed litanies for his victory over the Lombards in 774 and the Frankish king would request them in 791. Emphasising the protection that St Peter was offering meant emphasising the role of the Prince of the Apostles as Charlemagne’s patron.
As it happened, Hadrian, and therefore St Peter, needed a favour. Most of the rest of the letter is concerned with the Pope’s difficulties with Prince Arichis II of Benevento (r.754-787). Hadrian complains that Arichis is trying ‘to unlawfully free the inhabitants of Campania from the power and rule of St. Peter and ours and to put them under the [Byzantine] Patrician of Sicily’. He asks that Charlemagne intervene, and order Arichis to desist in such behaviour. This would not be the last time Hadrian would worry about the Beneventans plotting with Byzantium. Playing up how necessary the aid of the Pope and the blessing of St Peter were for Charlemagne’s success couldn’t hurt Hadrian’s case. A further bit of context might be important. Two years earlier Hadrian had been accused of participating in the sale of Christians as slaves to Muslim traders. He had denied the allegations, but he might have felt that a noisy declaration of a ‘tough on Saracens’ policy would be useful to distance himself from the rumours.
This is the more rational version of option three. The other variant is that Hadrian just straight up misunderstood the message. Although he was a shrewd politician who forged a successful alliance with Charlemagne, there were gaps to his knowledge. In a letter of 781 Hadrian sought to counsel the Frankish king on ʿAbbasid campaigns against Byzantium. In addition to being several years behind recent developments, the Pope completely garbled his information, inventing a civil war in the Caliphate that hadn’t happened. A hint that Hadrian might have been concerned that he didn’t have the full story comes in the letter, where he mentions that he sent the diplomats bearing this letter to Charlemagne ‘to clarify the matter’ of the forthcoming Saracen invasion.
I’m not sure which of these options is correct (although two and three strike me as the most plausible). It may never be possible to be certain. In the meantime, we shall have to content ourselves with weighing the meagre evidence trying to balance likelihoods. Nonetheless, we can say a couple of things for certain. In the eighth century, no less than in the twenty-first, people struggled to understand the causes of wars, hampered by poor communication systems, deliberate falsifications and the magnification of half-truths and misunderstandings. Despite these difficulties, they made the attempt. The reasons for conflict mattered, sufficient to lie and sufficient to try to pierce through the lies.
 -Ish. Early medieval Christian understanding of Islam and Muslims could be a little vague. Indicating that someone was a descendant of the Biblical Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Abraham, Agarene had both religious and racial connotations and while it could be used neutrally, it had strong pejorative overtones.
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.
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.]
We tend to view Carolingian peace-making from a high vantage point. Unnamed envoys appear in our sources and are received by a monarch, a peace is agreed, and the legates are graciously permitted to depart. Sometimes our annalist generously deigns to inform us about the general terms of the peace just made. Other times we have to work it out from context, inference and a certain amount of educated guessing (the treaties themselves rarely survive). As a result, we are often presented with peace as an accomplished fact rather than a long process. One of the consequences of this is that we generally have only a very fuzzy idea about the actual practicalities of this procedure. I’m not talking here about the backroom bargaining, the loud shouting and the quiet whispers, the discrete incentives and not-so-discrete scandals. Barring screw-ups, these matters are opaque even in the modern age. Rather, what I’m interested in today is the process of making a treaty real and official.
Fortunately, every so often we get lucky, and something survives that gives us a bit of a hint about the nuts and bolts of finalising a treaty in the age of Charlemagne. What follows is a translation of a letter sent by Charlemagne to the Byzantine Emperor Michael I (r.811-813). In addition to serving as something of a sequel to my previous post translating a letter to Nikephoros I, it also provides an interesting glimpse into the practical issues of making peace happen in the early middle ages.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Charles, by the largess of divine grace, Emperor and Augustus, and also King of the Franks and of the Lombards, wishes his esteemed and venerable brother Michael, the glorious Emperor and Augustus, eternity with our Lord Jesus Christ.
We praise Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and we thank him wholeheartedly, as much as humanly possible and according to the ability of our intellect, because He has deigned, through the inexpressible gift of his grace, to grant us this reward: just as He has deigned in our days to establish the long-sought and always-desired peace between the western and eastern empire, thus He has also now deigned in our time to grant unity and peace to His holy and immaculate Catholic Church, which extends over the whole world, in accordance with its daily prayers (just as He deigns to always rule and protect it).
We therefore speak of it as if it had already been realized, because we have done everything that had to be done on our part, and we do not doubt that you intend to do your part as well; for we trust in Him who ordered this work that we have taken in hand, namely to make peace; for He is loyal and truthful and appears as a helper for every good endeavour; He will thus also bring to completion what we have started well, as we really believe.
Seized by the desire to complete it, we have sent our present ambassadors, the venerable Bishop Amalarius of Trier and the pious Abbot Peter of the venerable Monastery of the Holy Apostles (Nonantola), into our esteemed brother’s glorious presence, in order to – in accordance with what the faithful ambassadors of your esteemed brotherly person, the venerable Bishop Michael and the glorious First Sword Bearers Arsafius and Theognostus, did with us when they received the written version of the treaty, confirmed both by our own signature and those of our priests and leading men – in the same way our envoys should receive from a sacred altar by your outstretched hand the written version of the agreement, confirmed by the signatures of your priests, patricians and leading men; so that they bring them to us, if God supports their journey. For reason demands it, and the agreement between us and your ambassadors said that after their departure, at the first opportunity for sailing, we shall send our ambassadors before the glorious presence of your esteemed brotherly person, who will receive the above-mentioned written version of the contract or alliance when you give it to them, and bring it to us.
So we ask your esteemed and fraternal person that, if you like the version of the contract that we have drawn up and sent to you, you might deign to give the same – in Greek and strengthened in the way we said above – to our already mentioned envoys; and that after they have come to you and have been kindly received by you, as we expect from your affection, you dispatch them without any delay, so that we may enjoy their return and the answer of your esteemed brotherly person, if God stand by us; and that God, the giver of all good, may reimburse you with a worthy compensation for what you have expended to be a friend and promoter of this peace, which He has ordered should rule between us. Farewell.
There are a few things going on here. As discussed with the letter to Nikephoros, the Franks and the Byzantines had been at loggerheads over Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in 800 and Carolingian intervention in Venice and Dalmatia. Peace had become increasingly desirable to both sides as it became clear that the Franks weren’t going to take the disputed territories without putting in considerably more effort than Aachen was willing to. For its part, Constantinople had a growing Bulgar problem, as evidenced by Nikephoros’ death in battle against them and the use of his skull as a novelty drinking vessel by Khan Krum. As a consequence, Charlemagne’s new correspondent, Michael I, had his own incentives to seek peace. This spirit of détente had manifested itself in 812 in the form of the Byzantine embassy Charlemagne mentions in the fourth paragraph of the letter. These envoys acclaimed the Frankish monarch in the chapel at Aachen as Emperor and Basileus (the Greek title for emperor), recognising Charlemagne’s claim to imperial status. As the letter above notes, Bishop Michael, Arsafius and Theognostus also received a written copy of the agreed treaty, before going home via Rome where, interestingly, Pope Leo III presented them with another copy of the same treaty in St Peter’s Basilica.
The letter to Emperor Michael has a number of fascinating features. Themes from the earlier letter reappear. Once again Charlemagne presents peaceful diplomacy between Aachen and Constantinople as the workings of divine will, making it seem both desirable and inevitable. We have the pleasure of renewing our acquaintance with Arsafius the skilled diplomat. The information about Charlemagne’s ambassadors is also useful, although we also have a fascinating account of the embassy written by Amalarius, theVersus Marini. Intriguingly, the letter refers to western and eastern empires, creating equivalence between the Carolingians and Byzantium while very carefully avoiding the word Roman. The shared institutions of the church are called upon to cement them in common purpose.
Perhaps most interesting though is the passage where Charlemagne spells out the physical, legal and spiritual acts that he believes are necessary for the completion of the treaty, acts that he indicates he has already performed and which he (rather too intently and repeatedly to be entirely convincing) believes are a necessary formality that Michael will easily discharge. Specifically, Michael is to hand over personally a Greek version of the treaty, with the subscriptions of Michael’s chief followers, from on top of an altar.
This rather cumbersome set up, involving multiple journeys and the assembly of large chunks of the political communities of two empires, combines both written (the signed treaty) and oral testimony (the assembled witnesses) in an effort to make the deal stick. By swearing on the altar, both Charlemagne and Michael staked their relationship with God and their hopes of salvation on keeping their word. The public involvement of the leading figures of their realms raised the stakes of defecting further while also committing the Franks and the Byzantines as a whole to peace.
The really big question for me is how representative this all is. If, as Charlemagne is strongly trying to imply throughout this letter, this procedure is routine, then that would be fabulous. We could say that we know how peace between warring empires was made in the age of Charlemagne and could move on with our lives. There are a couple of hints that this might be the case. Similar features characterised the tenth-century treaties between Constantinople and the Rus’, preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle, which feature a complex combination of multiple written parchments and oaths sworn on relics and other items of religious significance. Byzantium was not unfamiliar with securing political deals by placing documents on the altar. In 776 Leo IV (r.775-780) had agreed to the demands of his generals that he make his infant son (Constantine VI r.780-797) co-emperor, but only if written oaths of loyalty sworn by the leading men of the empire on relics were placed on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. The procedure also bears a remarkable resemblance to what we know of ceremonies associated with the granting of land and property through charters (he writes, confident in the knowledge that his editor is amongst the most qualified people in the world to correct him).
On the other hand, there are a couple of other signs that something a bit weird is up here. When political operators get fixated on a detail that is apparently no big deal but nonetheless a really important thing to do, it’s a hint that something is afoot. Peace between the Carolingians and other polities was achieved with much less grief. The same year that Charlemagne wrote to Michael, he successfully concluded peace with the Danes following negotiations that had begun in late-812 with a ceremony that makes no mention of written treaties. In 812 he had made peace with the Umayyads of al-Andalus and Grimoald III of Benevento. The protracted pattern of multiple embassies over several years to nail down one peace treaty is unusual (although regular readers may remember something similar happening in last week’s Charter a Week – as noted above, it makes sense that the acts required to make a treaty valid would rely on the same mechanisms as other important agreements!), and should perhaps suggest that the specification of the need for all of the elements of written documents, oaths on relics and the participation of the entire political community in combination with each other is not necessarily standard procedure. Elements of these were probably in play with all peacemaking of this period, but this looks like something a bit special.
So what gives? I suspect that part of what is happening here is that Byzantium simply had a specific style of making peace which looked different to the normal practice of, for example, the Danes, one which placed emphasis on the written word (in Greek). But I also wonder if a bigger part is the nature of what Charlemagne wanted, which was recognition of his imperial title. He needed to know that Michael, his successors and their courts would take his position and those of his heirs as emperor seriously, and he needed to be able to communicate that recognition within his own empire. That made him care a lot more about the ceremony and the proof of complete acceptance than he might have in other cases.
One also gets a strong sense of urgency from Charlemagne’s letter. This may be a consequence of his own advancing years, for he turned 65 in April 813. It also probably reflects Byzantine political instability. Michael might fall quickly and be replaced by someone less sympathetic. Alternatively, should he defeat the Bulgars, his strengthened regime might decide to renegotiate. Getting this done now, while Michael needed Frankish neutrality, was a good idea.
If this was what lay behind Charlemagne’s thinking, then he was not wrong to desire haste. Michael’s campaign against Krum was more of a success than that of Nikephoros but only because he didn’t end up with his skull as part of the Khan’s kitchenware. The Byzantine army was defeated, Michael abdicated in favour of Leo V (r.813-820) and his sons were castrated. Michael himself spent the next thirty years living quietly as a monk. Amalarius and Peter arrived in Constantinople to find a Bulgar army outside. Upon their return to Francia in 814, they discovered that Charlemagne had passed away in their absence on the 28th January.
Within a year of the letter being composed, neither of the emperors was still in power. Despite this, Charlemagne’s purposes were fulfilled. Leo V ratified the treaty as the Frankish ruler had requested, sending more envoys to bear the document of the treaty. Louis the Pious and Leo engaged in an amicable relationship, confirming their friendship with further treaties in 814-815. Dealings between the Franks and the Byzantines may have been unusually complicated, but Charlemagne’s letter gives us an unusual glimpse at some of the legal heavy lifting behind the bland words of the annals.
In the year 788, Pope Hadrian I (r.772-795) wrote to Charlemagne about an extremely urgent matter. Duke Arichis II of Benevento (r.754-787) had changed his hairstyle. This grooming alteration set off alarm bells in the papal court and Hadrian begged the Frankish king to do something about the situation. It was not matters of taste and style that bothered the Pope, but the possibility of a far more serious political crisis.
Charlemagne’s famous conquest of the kingdom of the Lombards in North Italy in 774 had left more than a few loose ends in the Peninsula. His ability to project influence in the south was very limited, where the Lombard duchy of Benevento remained the predominant power. The Duke of Benevento, Arichis II, had proclaimed himself Prince in 774, and positioned himself as a leader of the Lombards throughout Italy. Arichis was particularly dangerous because his wife was the formidable Adelperga, the daughter of Desiderius, the last king of the Lombards (r.756-774). His family thus represented a potential alternative to Carolingian rule in the Peninsula. Arichis was involved in a number of plots to drive the Franks out of Italy. Charlemagne’s patience, never particularly good, seems to have snapped and in 787 he marched south and besieged Capua. Arichis was forced to surrender his younger son Grimoald as a hostage and give the Frankish king a great deal of money. Charlemagne’s name appears on Arichis’ coinage and charters after this point.
However, as many of his descendants were also to realise, Charlemagne’s writ in southern Italy only had force in his presence, as the letter which we began with written by Hadrian within a year of the Frankish king leaving Capua reveals. The Pope included a report from a Capuan priest that Arichis was looking for friends outside of Italy to counterbalance Frankish power. After Charlemagne had left Capua, Arichis had sent messengers to the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VI (r.780-797), then under the regency of his mother, Irene (who later ruled as Empress, 797-802). Constantinople’s power in Italy was not what it had been, but it retained Sicily and had influence in the region. Following Charlemagne’s conquest of the Lombard kingdom, they had given refuge to Adelchis, son of Desiderius and Arichis’ brother-in-law.
According to Hadrian, Arichis asked Constantine and Irene for military support, the title of Patrician and with it the Duchy of Naples, and for Adelchis, presumably as an ally and rallying point for anti-Carolingian sentiment. In return he would recognise imperial authority, symbolised by his hair. He promised ‘that he would conform fully to the usage of the Greeks in both hairstyle and dress under the emperor’s authority’. This offer was accepted by Constantinople, who sent two envoys who ‘bore with them vestments interwoven in gold as well as sword, comb and scissors for making him a patrician’.
As this all suggests, hair was really important in this period, as it has been in all time periods, including our own. What the hairstyle that Arichis adopted actually looked like is unclear. Given that, unlike the beardless and moustachioed Carolingians, contemporary images of Byzantines depict neatly trimmed beards and hair that rests just above the shoulder, I’m inclined to suspect that Arichis may have grown a beard. Facial hair had a particular significance for the Lombards. Writers such as Isidore of Seville (Etymologies 9.2.95) and Paul the Deacon (History of the Lombards 1.9)attributed the name ‘Lombard/Langobard in Latin’ to their ‘Long-Beards’. As this and the idea of ‘Greek style’ indicates, hair could be a really important element in communicating and constituting ethnic identity in the early medieval world.
The Franks had their own political traditions with hair. The Merovingian dynasty were famously identified by their long uncut hair and flowing beards which indicated their right to rule. After overthrowing the Merovingians, the Carolingians differentiated themselves from the dynasty they had displaced by adopting a new style, complete with short hair and frankly ludicrous moustaches. The latter element features heavily in one of my favourite books about medieval history, Paul Dutton’sCharlemagne’s Mustache (2004). The moustache appears to have been an innovation by Charlemagne emulating his hero, Theoderic the Great (r.475-526). Theoderic was an interesting model for Charlemagne, as a king who had managed to rule Italy as both a Roman and a Goth. The Frankish king acquired a statue of Theoderic, complete presumably with moustache, and placed it at his palace at Aachen.
These Frankish and Lombard hirsute histories had combined a generation earlier. Charlemagne’s father, Pippin the Short (r.751-768), had been sent as a child to have his first haircut by King Liutprand of the Lombards (r.712-744). This very important milestone was conducted in this manner not because of the reputation of Italian barbers, but as a means of securing an alliance between Liutprand and Pippin’s father, Charles Martel (effect ruler of the Franks, 718-741). It speaks to the intense political significance that came with the adoption of the hairstyle of another.
Arichis was not to enjoy his new look for long. Indeed, by the time Hadrian had sent his letter, Arichis was already dead, having passed away in August 787. This led to a problem with the succession. Arichis’ heir, Grimoald, was still Charlemagne’s hostage. When his mother, Adelperga, who had become regent in Benevento, sent envoys to the Frankish king, asking for his release, Hadrian was amongst the voices counselling against his return. Charlemagne ultimately took the other route, and released his captive to assume his father’s position in Benevento as Grimoald III (r.788-806).
Writing in the ninth century, the Lombard historian Erchempert notes that Charlemagne released Grimoald on condition ‘that the Lombards were to trim their beards, and to always write his name on the charters and coins’, a statement of Carolingian control marked in their facial hair. When that same year Adelchis landed in Italy with Byzantine soldiers, he was defeated by a presumably clean shaven Grimoald with the backing of Frankish arms. But Carolingian influence was short-lived once the threat of Adelchis was removed. Charlemagne’s name did not long remain on Grimoald’s coins and charters and his sons were to campaign against Benevento in 792. Given the similarity between Grimoald’s image and that of his father on their coins, we might be forgiven for suspecting that the Frankish haircut didn’t last very long either.
One of the running problems in the study of international relations is the question of how universal its practice and theory is. On the one side we have the argument that all international relations in any place and period are fundamentally the pursuit of political advantage between state-like entities, engaged in by social elites who are all playing the same game with differing levels of skill, having been dealt better or worse hands. In such a reading, we can draw up universal laws for international relations that apply for any era and circumstances. On the other, we have a more anthropological approach, which stresses the need to take into account the material and ideological differences between people and places, arguing that both the practice and aims of international relations are shaped by the resources, means of communication, structures and general worldview of the individuals and societies involved.
Both approaches hold dangers for the medieval historian. The first risks distorting the medieval period by making it a slightly muddier version of modern international relations, losing what is distinctive and different about the period. The second can result in the Middle Ages being condescendingly hived off as a primitive time when no diplomacy of any sort took place because everyone was too culturally determined to be capable of strategy. The medieval historian thus has to walk a line between a pragmatic ‘realist’ reading of the game of international relations, and a sympathetic attention to what our sources actually say and the points of view they reveal.
With this in mind that I present the following letter, sent in early 811 by Charlemagne to the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I (r.802-811), not just because it provides us with an opportunity to read an early medieval emperor sounding like a lovesick teenager, but because it forces us to reckon with the sorts of questions I began this post with:
Since the help of God should be asked for at the beginning of all human affairs, greatly should the aid of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ be implored by all means in this business, which by God’s mediation is being carried out between us so that we, who are marked by His name and are confident that we are redeemed from the eternal peril of death through the dispensation of His passion, may deserve to bring what we begin at his instigation to an honourable and useful end and conclusion.
In His name and in His honour, we have kindly and with honour received into Our court your envoy, Our brother, whom you sent to our son, King Pippin of good memory, namely Arsafius, the famous imperial spatharios, along with the words and letters of your affection. And although he had not been sent to us, we have taken care of him as if he was sent to us, and we listened to him and, because we thought it prudent, talked with him about what he brought. This was not undeservedly, for such was the fullness of the desired and ever-desirable peace, not only in the letters he brought with him, but also in the words that reached our ears from his mouth, that his message was able to please us and all those who fear God greatly. Indeed, they were seasoned so heavily with the salt of goodwill and peace that they could taste of true sweetness on the palate of any of the faithful, and even a complete fool, to whom such things seem tasteless, could tell. Therefore, after we had received the news that he had arrived within the borders of our kingdom, as if we had known in advance of his great and godly mission, we could not hold back, and bade him come to Our presence at an appropriate moment; especially because him to whom he had been sent, Our beloved son King Pippin, had been separated from human life by divine judgement, and we could not bear it that he return with empty hands and with such a great work as that he had been sent on incomplete.
And not only because of that, but also because since that time in the first year of your reign when Your Belovedness sent the Metropolitan Michael, the eminent Abbot Peter and the famous candidatus Calistus to establish with us a long-lasting peace in order to unite and bring together we two in the love of Christ, we have been in anxious suspense with long-lasting expectation, like someone stationed in a watchtower, while we waited to receive bearers, whether through a messenger or a letter, of friendly responses from you, our brother, to our important letters. As is the nature of the weakness of the human spirit, despair had already begun to dominate our heart instead of hope. And yet we have trusted in Him, who never forsakes those who trust in Him, because according to the apostle, our efforts with him will not be in vain, and our wish, which as we believe we have made at His urging, will be fulfilled according to the abundance of His mercy and sooner or later be effected. Therefore, we were extremely pleased at the news of the arrival of the already mentioned envoy from your esteemed person, the famous sword-bearer Arsafius, in the firm conviction that we would get from uncertain circumstances to the desired certainty and that we would receive a response to what we gave to your aforesaid envoys to pass on to you. And indeed it happened that way. We have observed on the one hand the favour of divine aid in the fulfilment of our prayers in what we desired and [on the other hand] noticed that we received no small part of the answer we longed for in the words and letters which were brought by the embassy of the aforesaid envoy, although they were written for our son.
We have therefore thanked the Almighty, not as much as we should have, but as much as we could, because He has deigned to instil in the heart of your esteemed person, where as the desire for peace for which we have asked and pleaded, and we pray like the apostle so that God, who has granted you the will to this peace, also grants that it may be brought to a conclusion.
Because of this, we have brooked no delay, but without hesitation and without any kind of delay we have prepared our ambassadors to send them to you, our brother, with friendly love.
Ed.: What is probably Arsaphius’ personal seal, which is cool! (from Dumbarton Oaks, source)
There is clearly quite a lot going on beneath the surface in this letter which, like so much diplomatic correspondence, drops us in media res. I’m going to provide only the briefest outlines of context for this whole affair, which got complicated very quickly, as befits any mess that involves Byzantium, Venice and questions of imperial status.
The first decade of the ninth century saw tension between the Carolingian empire and Byzantium for a couple of reasons. The first was Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor in Rome in 800 by the Pope. This rather vexed the rulers of Constantinople, who took the view that they were the only Roman Emperors around. The second was Venice and the neighbouring region of Dalmatia, theoretically under Byzantine authority, but in practice a collection of border territories with a penchant for playing Constantinople off against the Franks.
This second issue was primarily a problem for King Pippin of Italy, as Charlemagne allowed his son considerable autonomy within his realm. Nikephoros had sent an embassy to Charlemagne in 803 to announce his assumption of imperial authority, having overthrown the Empress Irene the previous year. In 805 the dukes of Venice and Zara had come to Charlemagne, with the emperor settling the affairs of Venice and Dalmatia. Nikephoros sent a fleet to retake Venice and Dalmatia, blockading the Adriatic. The war lasted from 806-810, culminating in Pippin dying from a disease acquired while besieging Venice in 810. Pippin left a teenage son, Bernard, as his heir, so Charlemagne felt the need/saw the opportunity to intervene. Doing so allowed him to revive the issue of his imperial status, something that Nikephoros seems to have been ignoring since 803 hence Charlemagne’s wistful sighs at the lack of any message from the Byzantine Emperor since then.
This is a very abbreviated account of the ins and outs of a very complicated diplomatic situation that I’m still not convinced I entirely understand yet. Neither of the big issues are directly mentioned in the letter. Charlemagne asserts equality of status with Nikephoros by referring to him as brother, and alludes to the need for peace, but otherwise we can assume that these were matters quietly addressed between Charlemagne and the envoy Arsafius.
I want to flag up a few points here. The first is to observe just how hard making peace could be. Truces had been attempted from 807 but kept collapsing. Charlemagne wanted Byzantine recognition of his imperial title. By 810 at the latest it was clear that Venice and Dalmatia weren’t going to just fall into the Carolingian sphere of influence as had seemed possible in 805 and the war had already cost Charlemagne too much, including his son. From Nikephoros’ perspective, Byzantine forces in the Adriatic were acting in response to Frankish aggression, so status quo ante bellum represented a win for him. In the meantime, Nikephoros had more urgent problems to deal with, most notably Krum, the Khan of the Bulgars, who had recently captured Serdica (modern Sofia) and was expanding rapidly in the Balkans.
All the incentives were there for peace, but the truces kept breaking down. The dukes of Venice seem to have been actively hindering the process, driving off a Byzantine commander with orders to enter talks with Pippin in early 809. The death of Pippin also wouldn’t help things, as early medieval diplomacy tended to take place between rulers as individuals and it was by no means guaranteed that existing agreements would continue when a monarch was replaced. This is part of the reason Charlemagne was at such pains to spell out his connection to Pippin in the letter, to strengthen the notion of continuity and his ability to make an agreement stick despite not being the person Arsafius was sent to talk to. But a final problem here with the peace process were simple logistics. There were no permanent ambassadors and no easy means of communication, with the result that messages needed to go back and forth slowly and it was easy for things to get misinterpreted, or for new developments on the ground to screw things up.
A second thing to observe is the explicitly Christian terms that Charlemagne used. In working for peace they were following a desire inspired by God, not just carrying out His wishes but acting in a way only possible because of divine blessing. A cynical reading of this would be that such language was largely meaningless bumf covering over the real business of realpolitik, allowing Charlemagne to skirt past the reality that the war was not going terribly well for the Franks. An alternative interpretation would look at Charlemagne’s very real piety and concern for Christians beyond his lands and take this as a serious insight into how the Frankish emperor structured his relations with his fellow Christian monarchs.
Both of these rhetorical strawmen are clearly flawed. Throughout his career Charlemagne demonstrated a ruthless pragmatism in his dealings with his Christian neighbours, as the king of the Lombards, the duke of the Bavarians and his own nephews could attest. Nonetheless, Charlemagne was deeply pious and it is really hard not to read his letters and other documents and not get the sense of a man desperately trying to understand and fulfil God’s purpose for him. Any interpretation of this letter to Nikephoros that does not try to hold both Charlemagnes in mind, and which doesn’t see the way in which they joined together to form a coherent whole, is doomed to fail.
One way forward here is to see the Christian framing in this letter as both sincere and carefully chosen to highlight uncontroversial things both Charlemagne and Nikephoros had in common, offering both of them shared language they could use to reach a compromise. It’s also worth thinking about the audience for this letter. That it survives in multiple western copies suggests that it was meant to be read by people in Charlemagne’s empire. But it was also meant to be read out loud in the court in Constantinople. It therefore needed to portray Charlemagne in a positive light, while also being persuasive for a Byzantine audience.
Another point to note is what this letter tells us about diplomats. Charlemagne is extremely complimentary about the Byzantine envoy, Arsafius. This might be partly to reassure Nikephoros that he hadn’t mistreated this envoy meant for Pippin, whom he had effectively hijacked. But it also suggests the type of things an effective envoy might do. Arsafius impressed Charlemagne in their private conversations. He also performed well in public, helping Charlemagne sell the prospect of peace even to the dimmer or more truculent members of his court by speaking with sincerity. Charlemagne connects this to the memory of Pippin, mostly to make it clear that these talks were indeed carrying out Arsafius’ mission. I wonder if there might also be a hint at Arsafius’ emotional intelligence, using their shared experience with Pippin to create a bond with the grieving emperor.
Nikephoros may never have read the letter. He went on campaign against the Bulgars and was killed in battle in July 811. His skull was later used a drinking cup by Krum. Yet many of Charlemagne’s objectives were achieved. Emperor Michael I (r.811-813), who usurped Nikephoros’ son, received the Frankish envoys. In 812 his own embassy, which included Arsafius and the Bishop Michael Charlemagne had also written warmly about, publicly acknowledged the Frankish ruler as Emperor in Aachen. Venice and Dalmatia were left in the Byzantine sphere. Embassies went back and forth over the next few years, but peace and positive relations were achieved. Whether we give the credit to Christ or to the diplomats shall have to be left for another day.
In the year 778, an army of Saxons rose up in rebellion against Charlemagne. In a demonstration of baffling ingratitude towards the Frankish king for having gone to the trouble of conquering them and destroying the sacred Irminsul, they took advantage of him being otherwise occupied by Basque ambushes in the Pyrenees to revolt. The Saxon rebels crossed the Rhine, sacking towns and burning to the ground a settlement that had been built by the Franks two years earlier in 776 on the River Lippe.
It is this short-lived new development that I’m interested in today. Opinions in the contemporary annals as to what the settlement was that the Saxons demolished differ. Some call it a castellum (fort). The Royal Frankish Annals, which is the most extensive and closest to Charlemagne’s court, calls it a castrum (castle). Other sources disagree and call it a city. The Annals of Moselle report that in 776 Charlemagne ‘built a city on the river Lippe, called Karlesburg’. The Annals of Petau agree, stating that ‘the Franks built in the country of the Saxons a city called Urbs Karoli’. The Annales Maximiniani refers to it as the ‘urbs Karoli et francorum (the city of Charles and the Franks)’.
The difference here is important. Losing a fort wasn’t exactly desirable, but to a certain extent it was an expected possible outcome. One doesn’t put up forts in safe country and the torching of the odd castellum was probably one of the costs of doing business, and a relatively small cost at that. A city, on the other hand, is a rather bigger investment. As well as implying a certain scale and commitment of resources larger than the average military installation, founding a city is a statement of confidence that the future shall be like the present. It suggests security and power. Having a city that you founded be burned down within two years of being set up is embarrassing. This is all the more so if you put your name on it (Karlesburg, Urbs Karoli) and linked it with the fortunes of your people (urbs Karoli et francorum).
If Charlemagne had really decided to found a city in Saxony in 776, it would be an important statement about the permanence and stability of Carolingian rule in the region (think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003). Such a city would put Charlemagne within a long tradition of Roman and late antique urban foundations stretching back to Romulus, and including luminaries such as Constantine, Theodoric and Justinian. If such a city was then levelled to the ground within two years it would be deeply embarrassing (again, think George W Bush declaring Mission Accomplished in 2003).
On the whole, I’m inclined to suspect that this was really meant to be a city. The Royal Frankish Annals has form in reinterpreting and suppressing past events to make them seem less embarrassing for Charlemagne. Its description of the Frankish king’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula, which took place in the same year as the Saxon revolt, is spectacularly misleading. What actually happened was that the Frankish army was stymied by the walls of Zaragoza, had to return to Francia having achieved nothing and its rear-guard was surprised and destroyed by Basques in the Pyrenees. In the Royal Frankish Annals, Charlemagne is described as marching into Spain, receiving the submission of all he met, before going home. Absent in that account are the words ‘ambush’, ‘Roland’ and ‘screw-up’.
The end of the campaign was not something that could easily hushed up. A later Reviser added a full account of the ambush, observing that it ‘shadowed the king’s view of his success in Spain’. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard spoke of the frustration felt by the Franks that this defeat could not be avenged. The anonymous Astronomer who composed a biography of Louis the Pious said that the names of the fallen at Roncesvalles were still remembered and mourned in his day. This was a big deal that inspired strong emotional reactions across the Frankish world. That the Royal Frankish Annals were willing to omit it points to a general tendency its authors had to present Charlemagne in the best possible light.
The Royal Frankish Annals also provide another clue that the settlement founded on the Lippe in 776 was meant to be really important. The entry for 776 reports that the Saxons were summoned to the site ‘with wives and children, a countless number, and were baptized and gave as many hostages as the Lord King [Charlemagne] demanded’. A huge public gathering like this suggests that the settlement on the Lippe was intended to be a centre of power.
Charlemagne regained control of Saxony in the end, but if the Karlesburg was meant to be a city, it proved to be a dead end, to such an extent that it is now not clear exactly where it was. It may have been where Paderborn now stands. If so, that would be very interesting because Paderborn became one of the most important palaces in Charlemagne’s later reign. The settlement Charlemagne is most associated with, Aachen, is sometimes described as a city, but more often as a palace. One of the ideas I’m playing around with currently is that after 778 Charlemagne decided that founding cities was too much a hostage to fortune. The city of Charles became a palace, still imbued with power and significance, but less fundamentally important if it got sacked. The result was a series of palace-cities that had many of the characteristics of cities, but which were not consistently presented as them.
Even if this line of thought doesn’t go anywhere, I find Karlesburg fascinating as a hint of something that was potentially really important. The city in Saxony would have consumed considerable material resources and been invested with major political and cultural capital. Had it worked, would have radically changed the way modern historians think about Charlemagne. The Carolingian empire is still generally perceived of us a rural one (see this excellent magistraetmater post on the subject). Charlemagne might have been remembered as a city-founder. Instead the project was burned, Charlemagne rebranded, and we get the image of the Franks as country palace dwellers instead. (I have other thoughts on the importance of cities for the Carolingians for another time). Looked at from a distance, by any reasonable measure, Charlemagne’s reign was incredibly successful. Thinking about failed endeavours like Karlesburg reminds us not just how different it might have looked, but also the number of fiascos that had to be negotiated and tastefully buried as bad news.