(Sam’s) Name in Print I

Academic publications are much like buses in that they are easier to use if you already know where they are going. But they also have a tendency to arrive all at once, and that is something that has just happened with me, with several articles/chapters coming out in the space of the first three months of this year. This represents a sizeable chunk of what I’ve been working on for the past five years with the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project. I thought I’d give a quick overview of what they’re about, partly because they connect some of my research themes that I haven’t talked about much on this blog, and partly because they are all some flavour of Open Access so I can point you to them directly. But mostly because this was an important part of my life, and beyond the lessons I learned and the friends I made, the most tangible expression of what I did in that period. Writing this post gave me a chance to reflect over those years, and try to pull some thoughts together about them.

At the culmination of the Impact project are three volumes addressing the impact of the ancient city from different angles, now out with Oxbow Press. I contributed to all three and edited the second, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, with the wonderful Javier Martínez Jiménez (now of Granada). My specific brief with the project was to think about the influence of Greco-Roman ideas of the city on subsequent urban thinking in the Latin Western Mediterranean. This is of course a pretty expansive topic, and I was accorded considerable independence in how I carried it out. Looking at the publications as they came out however, I think they can be broken down into two themes.

This is the gorgeous cover illustration the incredibly talented Sofia Greaves created for Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City.

1.   The Origins of Cities

–          ‘First Cities in Late Antique Christian Thought’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 30 (2022) (strictly speaking not yet out, but coming out this year and relevant enough that I thought I’d throw it in).

–          ‘“Hunting diligently through the volumes of the Ancients”: Frechulf of Lisieux on the First City and the End of Innocence’, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, edited by Javier Martínez Jiménez and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 225-245.

–          ‘Making Men and Cities: Francesc Eiximenis on the Reasons for City-Founding,’ Rome and the Colonial City, edited by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Sofia Greaves (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 83-100.

These pieces are based around the intuition that there are few things more revealing about the way people understand an institution like the city than what they have to say about its beginnings. By stripping it down to its most basic elements, the story-teller reveals both the purpose of the city and what they feel its most essential elements were. Classical antiquity had a huge range of accounts of the origins of urbanism, which tended to emphasis both that it was the natural outcome of the inherent sociability of humanity and a means by which civilised life developed through the emergence of law, concepts that were very important for their understanding of the city. I became very interested in what happened to such ideas in the later Christian world.

‘First Cities’ begins this line of thinking in Late Antiquity. Although Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) attribution of the first city to Cain based on Genesis 4:17 became the standard explanation in medieval Latin Europe, I argue that before City of God hardly anyone was talking about Cain’s city. Instead, Christian writers encountered the first city as part of complex debates with pagans. Whether they rejected the Greco-Roman first city, like Lactantius (d.c.325), or embraced it, like Eusebius (d.c.339), it is not obvious that the rise of Christianity undermined the older Roman ideas of the city. Read this article if you want to see Augustine at his most tendentious and Lactantius going full anarcho-primitivist and taking precisely zero prisoners along the way.

‘“Hunting diligently”’ pursues the above theme into the early medieval world, focussing on the underappreciated ninth-century historian, Frechulf of Lisieux, with nods to Isidore of Seville (d.636) and Alcuin of York (d.804) along the way. In it, I explore the way in which Frechulf skilfully combined Augustine’s account of Cain’s city with Roman ideas of the fall of humanity from a blessed state of nature. The result is a really powerful narrative, that makes Cain’s city the final corruption of humanity into tyranny. A must for lovers of dubious etymologies and the Tower of Babel, as well as the other members of the Frechulf fan-club (we one day hope to fill a minivan).

‘Making Men and Cities’ is something of a departure in more ways than one. I became increasingly fascinated by the fourteenth-century Catalan Franciscan, Francesc Eiximenis (d.1409). In his great work on the city, the Dotzè, he summarises thirteen reasons for the finding of cities. In this chapter I examine the implications of these reasons for his ideas of what the ancient city was for and what the modern city should be. This is not my last encounter with Eiximenis, so if you like this rest assured there is more in the pipeline. Read if you’re a fan of imprisoning academics to make sure they meet their publishing deadlines, and egging on Spanish cities in obscure and pointless feuds.

2.   Remembering the Roman City

–          With Javier Martínez Jiménez, ‘Zimbabwe and Rome: Remembering and Forgetting Ancient Cities’, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, edited by Javier Martínez Jiménez and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 1-20.

–          ‘William of Tyre and the Cities of the Levant’, Cities as Palimpsests?, edited by Louise Blanke, Suna Çagaptay, Elizabeth Key Fowden and Edward Zychowicz-Coghill. (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 141-154.

–          With Javier Martínez Jiménez, ‘Ancient cities in new worlds: neo-Latin views and Classical ideals in the sixteenth century’, Rome and the Colonial City, edited by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Sofia Greaves (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 101-121.

‘Zimbabwe and Rome’ is a piece I co-wrote with Javi. Although it’s meant to act as an introduction to the Remembering and Forgetting volume we edited, it also gave us an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while, which is to make the Roman city weird. Most people in the West grow up with a mental image of the Roman city that feels familiar from school and the movies that makes it feel comfortable and normal and we decided to shake that up a little bit. One of the oddest things about the Roman city is how much we know about how their inhabitants understood it. Compare that to places like Mohenjo-daro, Teotihuacán or Great Zimbabwe, where we only have the outside perspective. Javi and I think about some of the factors that led to this weirdness. We also explore some of the odder readings of the Roman city that have appeared over the last millennium and a half. Read for Monkey-People, the Hunger Games and a thirteenth-century Florentine’s best stab at coming up with a plausible name for someone from the Roman Republic (spoilers – it’s hilarious).

In 2019 the project hosted a conference in Istanbul thinking about cities in the Eastern Mediterranean. As I saw the programme come together, it occurred to me that there was a potentially interesting perspective that was missing, that of the Latin Crusader kingdoms of the Levant. ‘William of Tyre’ is the result of the thoughts I gave at that conference. I find William (d.c.1186) fascinating because he was born and died in the kingdom of Jerusalem, and self-consciously identified as a Latin. In the chapter I look at his extended descriptions of the cities of the Levant in his History and the way he carefully highlights their classical history while ignoring their Byzantine or Islamic pasts, despite good evidence that he knew an awful lot about them. The Roman past mattered to William because he saw it as his past, and part of the history of his people in the region. Will be enjoyed by fans of twelfth-century universities and misleading history writing (his, not mine, honest guv).

Finally, ‘Ancient cities in new worlds’ is another chapter I co-wrote with Javi (I cannot recommend having a writing partner sufficiently patient to check the punctuation in every footnote so you don’t have to enough. It’s wonderful ). Over the years, and for my part somewhat inspired by a trip to Mexico in 2018, we had become increasingly interested in the idea of the Roman city in the Spanish colonial empire. This is a two-parter. In the first half we think about the way the civilisations of the Americas were understood by Europeans through the lens of Greco-Roman urbanism through the chronicle of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (d.1526). In the second, we skip forward a couple of generations and see how the inhabitants of sixteenth-century Mexico City fashioned themselves as civilised and cultured in the light of the Roman city by looking at the writings of Francisco Cervantes de Salazar (d.1575, not that Cervantes). A must for enthusiasts of Tlaxcalan politics, grid streets and dodgy prophecies.

And with that I’ve summarised some, but by no means all, of the last half decade, which is a profoundly weird feeling. But four continents and a little over twelve centuries is probably enough for one post, so I will leave it at that for the moment.


Reccopolis Now

Starting in Madrid, travel east along the A2 motorway, dipping down into a lush valley where the dry Meseta is interrupted by the Jarama river. Having made your crossing, continue along the royal road built by the Habsburgs to join their capital to Zaragoza, a smaller but important cousin to those that stretch across their former empire in distant lands like Florida, Panama and Chile. This is high country, a hard, beautiful realm populated by short, scrubby oak trees under skies ruled by red kites, punctuated by valleys filled with stubborn olive groves. Passing through towns named Pozo, Cigosa and Yebra, you approach the river Tagus which bisects and binds the entire Iberian Peninsula, bright blue under a clear sky, mighty even here, hundreds of miles from its eventual rendezvous with the Atlantic at Lisbon. Many bridges have stood at the site of the one you use to cross. Once over the river, pause in the fields which the ever-generous Tagus has filled with a fine harvest of smooth and perfectly round stones for the local farmers, and gaze up the hill that looms above the alluvial plain. There you will see what remains of the walls of the city of Reccopolis.

Photo taken from within the palace at Reccopolis, with Javier Martínez Jiménez (left) and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (right). Beyond the fence is a sheer drop down to the Tagus, with the village of Zorita visible in the background.

This was my view on a beautiful morning in mid-December 2021. I was there as part of a field trip organised by the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project, which had been employing me from January 2017. We were being guided by our friend and colleague, Dr Javier Martínez Jiménez, a man whose infinite talents stretch to rugby, playing the guitar and cooking a mean paella, but who was acting that day in his capacity as master of Spanish archaeology.

Reccopolis was a site of great interest to us. The early medieval period that followed the end of the Roman empire in the West was meant to be a poor time for cities, when they shrank in size and significance. Certainly, there weren’t supposed to be any new ones. The Visigoths, who dominated the Iberian Peninsula from the late fifth century to the Arab Conquest of 711, don’t seem to have got the memo on this urban moratorium. Their kingdom was defined by urban centres, most notably the capital of Toledo, where great synods were held and kings chosen, but also places like Mérida, Seville, Córdoba, Zaragoza and Narbonne. Not content with the cities they had inherited from the Romans, they also founded new ones. While many of these are simply names in sources dubiously connected to physical sites, Reccopolis had been securely located by the 1890s to the site known as Racupel in sixteenth-century records. Serious excavations began in the 1940s, with a certain amount of political motivation. Plans were made to display the site to Goebbels on a visit to emphasise the supposed shared ‘Aryan’ heritage between the Spanish and German nations. Since then, a lot of superb work has been conducted, bringing Reccopolis to life.

I confess that I came to the site with some scepticism. In his Chronicle, John of Biclaro informs us that the city was founded in 578 by King Liuvigild (r.568-586) and named in honour of his son Reccared (r.586-601). What I expected was a vanity project, a collection of monumental but unused architecture hastily assembled at an unsuitable site and quickly abandoned when royal attention and funds were directed elsewhere. This assumption was prompted both by a general suspicion of artificial cities and by lingering doubts concerning the planning and resources that early medieval monarchs were capable of wielding. What I found surprised and impressed me.

Let’s begin with the Visigothic city. The majority of the site, both in the upper city on top of the hill and the suburbs below, remains in private hands and has not been excavated, although recent geomagnetic surveying suggests relatively dense occupation. What has been unearthed indicates a substantial settlement, with a population of several thousand. Ascending the upper city via the grand western ‘Toledo’ gates, still imposing today as a nest for thousands of sparrows which wheel out in formation when disturbed, a seventh-century visitor would have looked up and seen an enormous palace and heard the bells from the neighbouring church[1] forming a great plaza at the end of a monumental road. But they would have had to walk through streets filled with ordinary people. They would also have smelled the industry from the glass furnace, the mint and the goldsmith, no doubt primarily patronised by the palace and church, but speaking to the wide range of functions carried out in this settlement. Not the least impressive was the aqueduct bringing fresh water into the centre of town, possibly built by engineers from Byzantium. On our visit, Javi guided us up into the hills, following the track of the aqueduct amid newly planted pine trees, showing us the sometimes strikingly large remains.

Perhaps even more important to me was the longevity of the settlement. Reccopolis continued to expand during the Visigothic period, with more domestic buildings in the seventh century. Its proximity to Toledo down the navigable Tagus gave it a role as source of agricultural products for the capital, as well as being a formidable base to control the local area. The aqueduct shows signs of prolonged use. The mint was producing coins into the early eighth century. The settlement adapted to the Muslim conquest as Madinat Raqquba, with the fortification of the palace and the establishment of a smithy and buried granaries indicating changing uses. One of the buildings revealed by geomagnetic surveying has been identified as a mosque on the basis of its orientation, but we may want to be cautious of such a label until excavation is possible.

The decline of Reccopolis should probably be linked to the establishment by 812 of a Berber settlement across the river, which is the modern village of Zorita de los Canes. Stone from Reccopolis was used in the building of the settlement, which is beautiful and well worth a visit (I can recommend the restaurant located in the remains of the old bridge tower as a place for lunch). The extraordinary castle there was begun on the order of Emir Muhammad I (r.852-886) in order to control the Tagus. You can still see the Umayyad work below the enormous walls raised by the Knights of Calatrava in the thirteenth century. The Roman columns placed in the church in Reccopolis are now in the gates of the walls there. Even this was not the end of Reccopolis. The church building that now stands on the site is mostly eleventh-century Romanesque, with sixteenth-century elements speaking to continued use, before it became the hermitage of Racupel. Reccopolis was a settlement that died slowly, at least as much because of competition with a more politically favoured rival than because it was an inherently flawed enterprise.

Having my expectations overturned at Reccopolis has been immensely useful to me. First it confirmed the size of the resources and ambitions of early medieval monarchs. Liuvigild could build at scale and this was not his only city, with another named Victoriacum in 581, which may or may not be modern Vitoria in the Basque Country. The peopling of the site would have involved moving populations. The walls, gates and aqueduct are architecturally sophisticated and required considerable technical knowhow. Further, the site suggests that the urban habit did not die in Western Europe with the Roman empire. Cities continued to matter and could be founded and grow in the right conditions, with the right support. More speculatively, I wonder how much the idea of Reccopolis, reported by Isidore of Seville in his History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi, might have influenced other early medieval city foundations. While Constantinople and Ravenna probably loomed larger in the imagination, I suspect that the Visigoths also served as a model for rulers such as Charlemagne. With their synods, laws and emphasis on correctio, kings such as Reccared offered an example for Carolingian-style kingship, which the numerous Gothic figures at court such as Theodulf of Orléans would have been familiar with. I can’t help wondering if the spectre of Reccopolis looms behind initiatives such as Aachen and Karlesburg.

[1] Because of its founder, this is one of the few we can be certain was established as an Arian church. It looks pretty identical to a Catholic one to me.

Being Human in the Early Middle Ages

In the middle of the ninth century a Frankish monk named Ratramnus was given an interesting problem. Ratramnus was a member of the monastic community of Corbie, in what is now northern France, but the conundrum that he was presented with demanded that he direct his attention north, beyond the relative safety of Carolingian kings and the authority of Christian bishops, to the mostly pagan lands of Scandinavia. According to Ratramnus (and there may be some space for scepticism here, but we’ll indulge him on this point), this puzzle came to him as a letter from his friend Rimbert, future Bishop of Hamburg-Bremen, then a missionary in Scandinavia. Rimbert wrote that his contacts in the region had informed him of the presence of cynocephali, creatures with the bodies of humans and the heads of dogs, who apparently lived close by. This troubled him, for he was not sure whether these dog-heads were human or not, so he wrote to Ratramnus for advice. The decision was important, for if they were mere beasts Rimbert could leave them to it, but if they were fellow humans then it was Rimbert’s duty to try to save their souls for Christ. This was the challenge that Ratramnus had to solve.

Today, as crude moderns, we determine species by blood and sex, organising life by DNA sequence and capacity to produce fertile offspring. Linnaeus and Darwin ensured that we were obsessed by genealogy long before Foucault arrived on the scene. As DNA sequencers are only brought to the very best of parties, we approximate this by appearance, determining if someone is human by whether they look human. The definition of what it means to look human is of course often sadly narrow, and prone to unexpectedly and sharply tightening, with tragic results.

In his City of God, Augustine of Hippo (d.430) offered his readers an alternative approach. In Book 16, chapter 8, he argued that:

whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in colour, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast.

For Augustine, the crucial features of a human were that they were mortal (and therefore not an angel) and possessed of reason. Appearance didn’t come into it. It is striking that the Bishop of Hippo was also thinking of cynocephali when he wrote this. The dog-heads were a perfect problem to inspire such philosophising.

Ratramnus was inclined to follow the good bishop’s lead, but this raised further difficulties. As the users of modern dating apps can attest, it is very difficult to determine if someone is rational just by looking at them. He was having to play a sort of medieval version of a Turing test. His primary solution was to adopt an anthropological approach, insofar as that was possible from hundreds of miles away with no personal experience of the people being discussed, while being entirely dependent on someone else’s account. Ratramnus’ analysed Rimbert’s description of the cynocephali, looking for behaviour that suggested to him rational planning and organisation.

A number of features of cynocephali life caught Ratramnus’ attention. He wrote to Rimbert:

They follow some laws of society, to which their dwelling in villages bears witness. They cultivate fields, which [can be] inferred from their harvesting of crops. They do not reveal their private parts as animals do, but cover them with modesty in the way humans do, which is an indication of their sense of decency. As you wrote, they possess not only hides for use as coverings, but even clothes. All these things seem to bear witness in a way that there is a rational soul in [these dog-headed ones].

[translated by Dutton.]

The cynocephali hard at work, in this fifteenth-century illustration of the travels of Marco Polo: Paris Bibl. Nat. fr.2810, fol.76v

It’s worth going through Ratramnus’ thinking with some of these characteristics. For example, he argues that in order to live together in villages, the cynocephali had to have a shared set of laws. Such a legal system would imply a communal identity, making them a city (by which Ratramnus meant a political and social community rather than an urban centre) rather than a mere agglomeration of beasts, like a pack of dogs or badgers living in setts.. The existence of law also points to the existence of a moral code on which the law would be based. Laws, a civic community and morality were all evidence of reason. On the basis of observations like this, Ratramnus therefore argued that the cynocephali were indeed humans.

Naturally this account tells us nothing about the dog-headed people themselves because dog-headed people aren’t real (no matter what the Goofy-truthers will tell you). That there aren’t any Scandinavia is demonstrated by their absence from award-winning crime dramas wearing really nice knitwear. This description does however tell us an awful lot about Ratramnus, what he thought it meant to be human and what he felt was natural about the society he lived in. The assumptions he made when he reasoned about the implications of the cynocephali having villages are instructive here, that such a thing would require the existence of a formal law code, and that a sense of morality would also manifest in a legal code being just two of them. These are logical steps we might not necessarily make ourselves.

But this passage also gets at the deeper ideas Ratramnus had about being human. For Ratramnus, living in permanent settlements, participating in cereal agriculture and wearing clothes weren’t individual decisions or the contingent result of societies interacting with their environments and past patterns of behaviour over multiple centuries. Instead they were the natural outgrowth of rationality, which would be expected from a rational being, any rational being, no matter where they were or what their context was.

There is something intuitively appealing about a definition of humanity that doesn’t get stuck on ‘surface’ questions of body but rather cares about the ‘really important’ issue of our minds. There’s a reason we immodestly named ourselves Homo sapiens. We like to think that our intelligence is our most important characteristic. The fact that this allows someone in the middle ages to extend the branch of fraternity to a group of people who look nothing like him is worth noting. Similar patterns of thought would be really important for the Europeans who defended the humanity of American Indians in the Spanish Empire by reference to the cities and art of Pre-Colombian civilisation.

But Ratramnus also reveals the drawbacks of this way of thinking. One is that it ultimately devolves to what the beholder believes rational behaviour to be. Ratramnus believed that villages populated by cereal agriculturalists who wore clothes was a natural human state. But in his lifetime, large numbers of people across Eurasia very happily got on with their lives while only following some or none of these patterns of behaviour. The pastoral nomads of the steppe, who were by no means unheard of in the Carolingian world, are an obvious example. By Ratramnus’ logic, their ‘irrational’ way of life would render them not human. This wouldn’t just apply to external groups. Within the past century, we can list numerous examples of marginal groups defined by behaviour deemed unusual by the rest of society, such as homosexuals, being labelled as ‘irrational’ and suffering as a consequence.

Another, more insidious problem is the potential difficulties for people whose minds genuinely do work differently from whatever the assumed normality is. Very few of us are obviously rational in our first year of life. Many of us will develop medical conditions in our lifetime which may impair our ability to reason as we age. It seems profoundly unsatisfactory to have a definition of humanity that one can acquire and then lose. Further, this type of definition can have potentially disastrous consequences for people with conditions such as Down syndrome, which may leave them vulnerable to having their humanity stripped from them, only deepening the ableism they already face in society.

‘Ninth-century writer believed things we don’t anymore’ is hardly headline news. The point here isn’t to browbeat Ratramnus for being stupid, something he most certainly wasn’t. Instead, I’d like to close with a couple of thoughts. The first is that definitions of humanity are the products of the time in which they emerge. They are contingent upon the intellectual resources available to the people doing the defining and the place in which they decide to draw the line between natural and learned behaviour. The second is to observe that the middle ages often gets a bad rap as an age of intolerance and narrow-minded persecution. That’s a reputation that has something behind it (although I’m not convinced that its notably more so than in most periods of history before the mid to late twentieth century). But Ratramnus was not alone in his expanded definition of humanity, which allowed him to see himself in the dog-headed people. This vision of being human that depended on what a person thought rather than what they looked like, speaks to a rather more open middle ages than its image might suggest.

[Editor’s note: Sam was too modest to mention it in his post, but he has in fact written a whole article about cynocephali, rationality, and urbanism, which you can find by clicking this fine and well-crafted hyperlink.

Karlesburg: Probably the Best Carolingian City Burned Down in Saxony

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).

An exciting urban regeneration project from the Utrecht Psalter, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32.6r (source).

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.

The Bavarian Geographer and the Cities of the East

Bavarian Geographer, Description of Cities and Lands on the North Bank of the Danube, ed. E. Herrmann, Slawisch-germanische Beziehungen im südostdeutschen Raum (Munich: 1965), pp. 220-1.

[Part 1]

(1) Those who live closest to the borders of the Danes are called North Abodrites (Nortabtrezi), which is a land where there are 53 cities divided between their leaders. (2) The Wilzi (Uuilzi) have 95 cities and four lands. (3) The Linones (Linaa) are a people who have 7 cities; near them dwell those called Bethenici, and Smeldingon, and Morizani, who have 11 cities. (4) Next to them are those called Hevelli (Hehfeldi) who have 8 cities. (5) Next to them is the land called Surbi. In this country there are many smaller countries that have 50 cities. (6) Next to them are those called Talaminzi, who have 14 cities. (7) The Bohemians (Becheimare) have 15 cities. (8) The Marharii have 11 cities. (9) The country of the Bulgars (Uulgarii) is immeasurably large and has 5 cities, because for the vast majority of them it is not the custom to have cities. (10) There is a people called Moravians (Merehani) who have 30 cities.

These are the countries that are adjacent to our borders.

[Part 2]

These are those who settle next to their borders.

(11) The East Abodrites (Osterabtrezi), where there are more than 100 cities. (12) The Miloxi, where there are 67 cities. (13) The Phesnuzi have 70 cities. (14) The Thadesi have more than 200 cities. (15) The Glopeani, where there are 400 or more cities. (16) The Zuireani have 325 castles. (17) The Busani have 231 castles. (18) The Sittici have a land that is immeasurable in people and fortified cities (urbibus). (19) The Stadici, which have 516 cities and an immense people. (20) The Sebbirozi have 90 cities. (21) The Unlizi have a numerous people and 318 cities. (22) The Nerivani have 78 cities. (23) The Attorozi have 148 cities and are the wildest people. (24) The Eptaradici have 273 cities. (25) The Uuillerozi have 180 cities. (26) The Zabrozi have 212 cities. (27) The Znetalici have 73 cities. (28) The Aturezani have 104 cities. (29) The Chozirozi have 250 cities. (30) The Lendizi have 98 cities. (31) The Thafnezi have 257 cities. (32) The Zerivani is such a great kingdom that all the peoples of the Slavs arose and derive their origin from it, as they affirm. (32) The Prissani [possibly Prussians] have 70 cities. (33) The Uuelunzani have 79 cities. (34) The Bruzi [also possibly Prussians] [whose territory is] bigger on each side [than the distance] from the Enns to the Rhine. (35) The Uuizunbeire. (36) The Khazars (Caziri) have 100 cities. (37) The Rus (Ruzzi). (38) The Forsderen. (39) The Liudi. (40) The Fresiti. (41) The Seravici. (42) The Lucolane. (43) The Hungarians (Ungare). (44) The Vistulans (Uuislane). (45) The Sleenzane have 15 cities. (46) The Lusatians (Lunsici) have 30 cities. (47) The Dadosesani have 20 cities. (48) The Milzane have 30 cities. (49) The Besunzane have 2 cities. (50) The Uuerizane have 10 cities. (51) The Fraganeo have 40 cities. (52) The Lupiglaa have 30 cities. (53) The Opolini have 20 cities. (54) The Golensizi have 5 cities.

This catalogue of cities and lands compiled by an anonymous figure known as the Bavarian Geographer is at first glance a pretty dull text. If the names it lists are recognisable, it is only by squinting, and most are entirely unknown (the identifications I have offered are informed guesses and ought to be treated with caution). The information it provides is decidedly thin, limited to the counting of cities in a manner that is simultaneously both worryingly precise and worryingly round; and to offering a vague sense of geographical interrelation, spiced only with the occasional detail. That such meagre gruel has been seized upon so eagerly by scholars from Germany to Russia is a testament to how poor the source base otherwise is for the lands east of the Carolingian empire. Even as archaeology is giving us ever greater insights into this part of the past, any opportunity to attach names to the places we discover is seized upon. For modern people in central and eastern Europe desperate to find a history for themselves, the mysterious labels have been decoded in numerous ways since the eighteenth century.

The primary interest of this list for me is as a Carolingian text. It is preserved in a single manuscript, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 560 f. 149v–150r. It was compiled in Bavaria, probably in Reichenau Abbey, possibly linked to the Bavarian court at Regensburg. For all that it is presented as looking north across the Danube, it reads as a catalogue gazing east, with its first part starting with the peoples closest to the Frankish world and then moving farther east. Its dating is uncertain, although almost certainly ninth century, probably between the 830s and the 890s. Given this background, the Descriptio is inevitably as interesting for what it says about Frankish views of the east as it does about those people themselves.

Interested as I am in early medieval foreign relations, I find this text fascinating as evidence for how the Franks thought about external peoples, with some of whom they had very intensive dealings (sometimes of the peaceful type, sometimes of the sack your cities and murder every single member of your family type). The reference to spoken information suggests that at least some of the information came from talking to members of these people. As a practical basis for war and peace it is clearly lacking, despite the little snippets of ethnographic and cultural detail. At a glance it resembles Roman geographies such as the Notitia Dignitatum. But if it is an encyclopaedia and taxonomy, designed to showcase Carolingian mastery of geography and inheritance of Roman learning, it contains an alarming number of gaps and admissions of ignorance. The overwhelming impression is of a vast multitude of peoples, some of whom are very mighty indeed.

Mikulčice-Valy, IV. kostel (1).jpg
One of the churches at Mikulčice (source)

The Descriptio also appeals to me as someone interested in ideas about the city. The Bavarian Geographer counts the civitates of different peoples (or in the case of the Sittici, urbes). I have chosen to translate this word as ‘cities’, although other scholars render this as ‘fortresses’. I believe that city is the more natural reading and that doing so allows us to see through our own assumptions of what central and eastern Europe was like in the period. Viewing all of these places as fortresses implies a world of small-scale settlements organised entirely for war in an unstable world, which may not match reality. The area was not heavily urbanised in our sense of the word, although archaeological digs at places such as Mikulčice, Staré Město at Uherskě Hradište and Pohansko at Břeclav in the Czech Republic are revealing sites that compare well to the cities of the Carolingian world. Fortified cities were an important part of Frankish warfare in the east, and the listing of cities may be designed to convey some sense of how hard a people would be to conquer. But the word civitas did not just mean an urban settlement. In ancient and early medieval Latin, it meant something more like community of people bound together by shared law and custom (see for example, Isidore’s Etymologies 15.2.1, which says that, ‘a civitas is a multitude of people united by a bond of community, named for its citizens (civis)…now urbs is the name for the actual buildings, while civitas is not the stones but the inhabitants’; a formulation later used by Hrabanus Maurus, with similar sentiments expressed by Frechulf of Lisieux and Ratramnus of Corbie.) By using the word city, the Bavarian Geographer may have been describing not armed anarchy, but a world of peoples with recognisable laws and societies. The Franks were not averse to describing their own territories as assemblages of civitates, particularly for the purpose of constructing itineraries, or dividing them up between warring Carolingians. In writing about cities therefore, the Bavarian Geographer may have sought to make the peoples he described resemble those of his own lands.