Charter a Week 70/1: Meetings About an Imprisoned King

In 945, everything went wrong for Louis IV. The background to this is something we haven’t really discussed, because there’s more-or-less no charter evidence relating to it, but we have seen in other contexts: the assassination of William Longsword, count of Rouen, by Arnulf the Great of Flanders in 943. William had no obvious heir – he had one illegitimate son who was a small boy – and so his quite substantial lands and offices were up for grabs. Louis and Hugh the Great spent several years arguing with each other and several viking chieftains about who got what. In the end, the vikings won: Harald, ruler of Bayeux, whose own position was probably recent and somewhat precarious, ambushed Louis and captured him. He was then sold down the river Seine to Hugh the Great (in exchange for hostages, one of whom – as we’ve previously discussed – was Bishop Guy of Soissons). Hugh then proceeded to keep him in prison for the rest of the year.

However, international and domestic pressure was mounting. King Edmund of England send angry embassies on behalf of his nephew. He was then murdered at Pucklechurch, but he wasn’t the big problem anyway. The big problem was Louis’ brother-in-law, who was generally somewhat cool towards him but whose sister Queen Gerberga now launched frantic embassies to seek his assistance: Otto the Great. Otto, who had faced multiple serious rebellions in his ten-year reign, was in no mood to see a king treated badly by successful rebels. It was with these storm clouds gathering that Flodoard described Hugh hold public assemblies to decide what to do with the king. And, as it happens, a charter from one of these meetings survives.

Cartulaire de Notre-Dame de Chartres no. 7 (19th June 946)

In the name of the highest and eternal Saviour, our lord Jesus Christ.

Hugh, most excellent margrave and duke of the Franks.

Since, in this doubtful and inconsistent life, each mortal is, by gift of the Highest Benefactor, ennobled with the happiness of worldly advantage and nourished by an abundance of temporal goods, each of the faithful should take the greatest care that celestial goods should be acquired through that which they possess in this world, and that, by a happy exchange, the invisible is bought by the visible and the incorruptible by the corruptible. Indeed, anyone will more easily deserve to obtain the rights of an enduring heavenly inheritance if (amongst other efforts to pious action) they faithfully cede their worldly and transient goods to the Bestower of All Goods and strive to honour and elevate the most holy Church, that is, His house, with gifts of perishable things.

Let, therefore, the prudent sagacity of all the faithful of the holy Church of God, present and future, and of Our successors, know that – reinforced by the admonition of this holy exhortation and taught by the inspiration of divine grace – along with the consent and will of Our relatives and followers, We concede and donate to the mother church of Notre-Dame de Chartres a certain fisc of Ours, named Ingré, which We have until now possessed freely and by hereditary right, which is in the district of Orléannais, in the vicariate of Les Muids, with all its appendages, which have these names: Champoigny, Grand Muid, Petit Muid up to Alleville and up to the estate which is called Cercottes, Cultura, Boignaux, Montpatour, Brogilus, Villaris, Chiregius, Coust, Changelin, Sorberes, Pataliacus, Les Masures, Montabusard, Sucrogilas, Buiras, Le Buisson, and certain land which lies in the estate which is called Ormes, and other adjacencies lying both within and also without the town, whatever is seen to be beholden there at present; and the rulers of the estate will have the ability to reclaim whatever has been taken away at any time; and We transfer it from Our dominion and place under its rule, with lands cultivated and uncultivated, pastures, meadows, woods, and bondsmen of both sexes and a church there named and built in honour of St Lupus.

And thus, conceding this gift of Our right, We established through deliberation that it should be delegated to the feeding of the brothers of the said church, and assigned to their stipends and usages, from whence they might every day have food and nourishment and more freely pay attention to divine worship and spiritual exercises, and constantly pour out unceasing prayers to the Lord for us and our wife and as well all our offspring, so that He, by the merits of his mother Mary, for whose love We gave a little gift of this sort, and by the plea of all the saints, might rule and govern Us in the height of temporal dignity and sublimity, by which in the land of the living We might at some time merit to see and gain its good things and possess the freedom of a heavenly inheritance.

If, though, any of Our relatives, heirs or proheirs or any calumniating person should try hereafter to violate the authority of this gift, let them incur the wrath of the Three-In-One Deity and Mary Mother of God on whom they committed this fraud, knowing that she will never be their helper; and let them be unable to vindicate what they have claimed, and withdraw in confusion from this presumption, and let the present writing persist undisturbed and undefiled through times to come, relying on this guarantee.

But so that this page might obtain the strength of stronger firmness, We and Our son Otto [of Burgundy] undersigned it with Our own hands, and We determined it be strengthened by the hands of Our nephews and followers.

Sign of Hugh, duke of the Franks, who made and affirmed the authority of this writing. Sign of Hugh [Capet], his son. Sign of Otto, his son. Sign of Heribert [the Elder], his nephew. Sign of Odo. Sign of Robert. Sign of Theobald. Sign of Fulk. Sign of Bernard. Sign of Godfrey. Sign of Aimo. Sign of Ivo. Sign of Warin. Sign of Gauzbert. Sign of Godfrey. Sign of Frotmund [of Sens]. Sign of Adelelm. Sign of Isembard. Sign of Ansculf. Sign of Walter. Sign of another Walter. Sign of Gauzbert. Sign of Cadelo. Sign of Robert. Sign of another Robert. Sign of Landric. Sign of Hugh. Sign of Heriveus. Sign of Suger. Sign of Gislebert. Sign of Odo. Sign of Ralph.

Given on the 13th kalends of July [19th June], in the 11th year of the reign of King Louis.

Obviously, the big interest here is the witness list. We have a veritable Who’s Who of Robertian allies. We’ve got a bunch of relations and clients of the late Count Heribert II of Vermandois, including his sons Heribert the Elder, Robert of Troyes and probably Odo of Amiens, as well as Bernard of Beauvais. We’ve got Hugh’s Neustrian subordinates, including Theobald the Trickster and Fulk the Good; the ‘Ivo’ is perhaps the ancestor of the Bellême on the southern border of the future Normandy, and I’d be inclined to put the ‘Aimo’ there too. We’ve got various Burgundian figures, most obviously Frotmund of Sens but I’d lay decent odds that the ‘Landric’ in the list is the ancestor of the later count of Nevers. In short, these are Hugh the Great’s fideles – but no-one else. That’s far from a negligible base of support, and its certainly enough to be a threat to anyone else in the West Frankish kingdom – but it likely does indicate that he’s having problems winning over anyone else.

We also have Hugh’s sons, Hugh Capet and Otto of Burgundy, both making their first public appearances at the age of about six to eight (their father and mother married in 937, so they can’t be much older). It’s interesting that Otto is the one who confirms this charter, and not Hugh Capet. It’s often assumed that Hugh was the oldest son, but that may well not be the case: this isn’t the only time that Otto shows up first in tenth-century sources… In fact, if Otto were the eldest and Hugh the Great intended for him to get Neustria (as his presence here implies), that might explain developments of a couple of decades later which we’ll get to in time…

Was Hugh the Great planning to depose Louis? It’s a picture that has tempted many historians, and I’ve softened on the idea over time; but ultimately I think he wasn’t. This charter provides one key clue: the dating clause. If Hugh were really planning to kick Louis off the throne, why would this charter be dated by Louis’ regnal years? A subtle clue such as anno Domini dating would be key evidence here; the fact that no such thing exists indicates that whatever Hugh’s goals were, outright deposition is unlikely to have been one of them.

So what did he do instead? That, I’m pleased to say, is a question for a different day, specifically this time next week. Tune in to find out!

Come on Siggy! Syria’s Lovely This Time of Year: The Perils of Being a Carolingian Envoy to the Caliphate

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.

(Siyasatnameh, XXI.1)

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 a Medical 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.)

 This thirteenth-century image of travellers undertaking the hajj is absolutely essential and definitely not an excuse to have pictures of camels.

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.

The New Diplomatic History and the Middle Ages

Writing Diplomatically

People have been writing the history of diplomacy for as long as they’ve been writing history. The terse Spring and Autumn annals of the Chinese state of Lu find space for embassies in their brief account of the passing of the years. Many of the most memorable set-pieces in Greek historical writing centre on diplomatic encounters, whether it is the Persian envoys demanding earth and water from the Greek states in Herodotus (Hdt. 6.48) or the dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in Thucydides (Thuc. 5.84). In the European tradition, the heyday of the writing of diplomatic history probably came in the nineteenth century. In this we can partly see the influence of Ranke on the practice of history. His dependence upon the Venetian archives, and the reports from ambassadors that they held, shaped his perspective of the past. Ranke’s theory of the Primat der Außenpolitik, the primacy of foreign policy, in which the domestic politics of a state was subordinated to the needs of its foreign relations in order to ensure its survival, also privileged diplomatic history.

In addition to the role played by Ranke, this sort of history was perceived to be useful to the state, with analysis of foreign policy offering useful lessons for the statesmen of their age and training for their successors in the future. The result was a diplomatic history that focussed on relations between European states. While some attention was paid to monarchs or to idealised ministers whose genius was to be outlined for the edification of the nation, it was a largely depersonalised history, in which countries or capital cities made decisions on the basis of a rational understanding of their material interests.

This approach is not particularly useful for writing the history of medieval diplomacy. Unlike the classical world, which can be made to fit into such a model provided you’re willing to abuse Thucydides enough (he suffers what he must), the medieval past resists the imposition of straightforward ideas of the state and rational diplomacy (as extended arguments about whether we can even talk about the medieval state demonstrate). Instead, to these observers, medieval Europe resembled a complicated mess of entities and individuals doing things that failed to conform to the sort of sound diplomatic principles that makes sense to nineteenth-century statesmen/twentieth-century military academies.

This has a number of consequences. For a start, it means that mainstream diplomatic history doesn’t normally discuss the medieval period. In the second half of the twentieth century, the study of the history of premodern diplomacy in the English-speaking world was dominated by Garrett Mattingly’s Renaissance Diplomacy (1955) and Donald Queller’s The Office of Ambassador in the Middle Ages (1967). They argued that diplomacy as we understand it developed in Italy in the fifteenth century, with the rise of permanent ambassadors. While this depends on a very particular definition of diplomacy that most medieval historians would reject, it remains alarmingly popular among modern historians. Also important in the narrative of the rise of ‘proper’ diplomacy was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, at which point the system of modern states which traditional diplomatic history was based on was deemed to have fully arrived. It also means that medieval historians who do study diplomacy tend to do so without reference to the ideas and methods developed by their modernist colleagues, or by people working in the wider field of International Relations.

As someone who has been thinking about medieval diplomacy for a decade, this conceptual distance has long frustrated me. This is why I’ve become increasingly interested in a new development in the study of diplomacy, the descriptively named New Diplomatic History. As with many historiographical movements, identifying its precise genesis is a murky and perhaps unhelpful business. An important moment of crystallisation took place with a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies in 2008 entitled ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History’. In his introduction to the issue, the editor of the issue, John Watkins, called for this New Diplomatic History, and his description of it is one of the canonical texts of the movement. By 2011 a network for the New Diplomatic History was established, based in Leiden. That perhaps overstates its institutionalisation as a school, and there is a much wider range of scholars who cite the New Diplomatic History without being fully attached to the Leiden circle. 

Watkins identified the beginning of the New Diplomatic History in Italian universities in the 1990s, with works such as Daniela Frigo’s Principe, Ambasciatori e “Jus Gentium”: L’amministrazione della Politica Estera nel Piemonte del Settecento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1991). Given the focus of earlier diplomatic history on the Venetian archives for their source base, and on Italy as the birthplace of modern diplomacy, Italy loomed large in the old diplomatic history. The work of Frigo and her later collaborators served to explode many of these myths, as they argued that early modern Italian diplomacy was driven by personalities rather than offices, and that those institutions that did exist were evolutions from medieval precedent.

Feeding into the development of the New Diplomatic History in the 1990s and 2000s were changes in the field of International Relations. One of these was the increasing challenge to old ideas about Westphalia, which came to a head in 1998 at the 350th anniversary of the Peace. If 1648 did not inaugurate a system of state sovereignty, then new approaches to diplomacy both before and after it were going to be required. Likewise these decades saw growing interest in non-state actors. The diplomatic importance of international bodies such as the European Union, terrorist organisations such as FARC, or major companies such as Amazon, encouraged scholars in International Relations to move away from a focus on diplomacy as a thing that happened between states.

Don’t you hate it when you show up at a peace treaty and realise someone is wearing the same outfit as you? The Ratification of the Spanish-Dutch Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648.

So, what is the New Diplomatic History?

In many ways the New Diplomatic History represents a deliberate repudiation of older diplomatic models. For a start, it rejects the state as the chief actor in diplomacy. One of the ways that manifests is by being ‘actor-centred’. Diplomacy is conducted by individuals, rather than faceless metonyms. Decisions made within governments or institutions are ultimately made by people, with their own personalities, experiences and agendas, operating within a particular political and cultural context.  Daniela Frigo’s work pointed to the importance of individuals in ways that often overrode the technical roles of the offices they held. In this way we can move away from bland and misleading statements that Germany did this, or London decided that. This ‘actor-centred’ diplomacy has also led to a new emphasis on ambassadors, their personalities, skills and motivations. Rather than being a method of delivering a letter, they become key parts of the process by which diplomacy took place.

This focus on people has gone hand-in-hand with a greater attention to the practicalities of diplomacy. How diplomats got from place to place, how they were received by and communicated with their hosts and how they remained in touch with their employers back home. This emphasis on practicality can also shift focus away from diplomats themselves, to their families, retinues and support staffs, as well as to the spies and informants who provided information, and the allies and friends who offered help or sought to use the ambassadors for their own purposes. This expands the scope of diplomatic history, embedding it in the context in which it happened and helping us understand the practicalities involved. But it also allows us to think about how people who weren’t elite men such as commoners, women and children were involved in diplomacy.

Another way this rejection of the modern European state as the primary actor in diplomacy emerges is in a greater emphasis on non-European diplomacy. By taking the politics and institutions of non-European powers seriously and on their own terms, the scope for diplomatic history has expanded considerably. Work on the Ottoman empire has pointed to the importance of community leaders, such as the heads of Christian minority groups under the millet system, in communicating with the representatives of foreign powers. European empires such as Britain worked through agents such as consuls, successful merchants based in places like Smyrna and Alexandria who combined their commercial activities and prominence among the local foreign community with diplomatic missions.

One of the important things about people like consuls and missionaries is that although they might deal with governments on behalf of a foreign polity, they also frequently did so for their own purposes, or as representatives of non-state actors such as religious groups, ethnic minorities or commercial interests. Such groups frequently wielded considerable power, and here we might want to think about the Hanseatic League negotiating with English and Russian monarchs, or the Jesuit order in the Rio Grande de Sol region bargaining with Spanish and Portuguese kings and the leaders of groups such as the Tupi. Moving away from the state allows us to see the other actors in diplomatic history, who represented groups and blocs who mattered, even if they fit untidily in more traditional historiography.

If philosophically, the New Diplomatic History is based on rejecting the model of modern European states interacting with each other, methodologically it seeks to break out of the box that traditional diplomatic history frequently placed itself in. One of ways its practitioners seek to do so is by thinking about the connections between domestic politics and foreign relations. Rather than being a separate sphere, the two blurred and fed into each other. Specialists in diplomacy need to take internal politics seriously in order to understand the motivations and restraints in which these relations were conducted.

The New Diplomatic History also embraces greater interdisciplinarity in the study of diplomacy. This point appears in the opening line of John Watkins’ call for a New Diplomatic History. Watkins’ own preferred focus is with literary studies, thinking about the impact of diplomatic careers on writers such as Petrarch, Chaucer and Montaigne, or examining the importance of literary culture in shaping diplomatic correspondence and spaces such as salons. Embracing cultural and social history more broadly has allowed other scholars to think about how diplomats participated in the lives of the spaces that hosted them, while also considering the ideas and mentalities they bore and the environments that shaped them. Likewise, scholars thinking about gender and race have offered provocative new ideas about the role of their fields in thinking about diplomacy. Of especial interest has been the role of women in acting as go-betweens, setting cultural norms and fostering environments where informal diplomacy could take place. New research on material culture has been particularly important. Diplomatic gifts have acquired a fresh importance with greater attention paid to their meaning and provenance. But the material turn has gone much further than that, paying attention to clothes worn by diplomats, their purchases and the means with which they lived their lives and the significance this had for their work.

The New Diplomatic Middle Ages?

This is all very well, but what does it actually do for us as medievalists? After all, you’ll have noticed that most of the examples I’ve used to illustrate points thus far have been early modern. This reflects the state of the field. Where medieval scholars have been involved, it has generally been specialists in the very late period. Medievalists also face unusual challenges that complicate some of the mainstays of the New Diplomatic History. Most obviously our source base is usually much, much thinner. There are also dangers involved in a naïve use of the New Diplomatic History. While much of that scholarship aims to break free of traditional models of diplomacy by looking at non-European powers, the fact remains that the Ottomans, Comanche and their like existed within the modern world, with implications for their technology and communications that shaped their diplomacy. The people and places we are interested in are distant to us in time, adding a layer of complexity. In drawing too direct a connection between medieval and non-European modern diplomacy we risk diminishing both, reducing them to a caricature of generic primitiveness and missing what is distinctive about them.

Nonetheless, I think the New Diplomatic History offers a great deal for the study of the medieval past. This is in part because their vision of what diplomacy is fits the realities of the medieval world much more closely than older interpretations. A political landscape where states were frequently weak or non-existent and where power depended greatly on individual actors, with limited separation between public and private is one that the New Diplomatic History is much better able to navigate than previous models. Ideas about the role played by non-state actors, or by diplomats who don’t look like permanent, professional ambassadors can be usefully applied to the medieval world. On a grander scale, being able to step away from a Westphalian model of sovereign states aggressively competing with each other offers alternative ways for thinking about how medieval entities related to each other, such as hegemony or collaborative world orders.  The value the New Diplomatic History places on interdisciplinarity also offers a chance to widen the source base medieval historians work with, encouraging us for example to think about the wider cultural horizons in which medieval diplomacy took place.

The New Diplomatic History can be particularly useful for providing medieval historians with a context and terminology for what we already do. As I may have mentioned, in 2019 I published an article on the camels that Charles the Bald received from the Umayyad Emir Muhammad I in 865. Writing that piece a couple of years earlier was a strange and slightly isolating experience, as I buried myself both in the logistics of sourcing and transporting the camels and in the cultural meanings that both polities had concerning camels in order to understand their significance. My subsequent encounter with the New Diplomatic History was extremely helpful for comprehending what I had been doing by instinct.

Perhaps most striking for me is that modernists in the New Diplomatic History actually seem to want to talk to medievalists. John Watkins made his call for this new approach in a Journal for medieval as well as early modern historians. I think most medievalists know the experience of being hived off from the rest of the historical profession for being too weird. Having a bunch of modern scholars who are genuinely interested in hearing what we have to say is useful as well as refreshing. In my time in Cambridge, I benefited from collaborating with modern diplomatic historians in informal sessions, teaching environments and lectures, acquiring ideas and perspectives that I have found provocative and helpful to my work. Any movement that makes it easier for us to have those conversations immediately has my sympathy.

Charter A Week 61: Gosh, This Seems Very Polite

It did not take very long after Hugh the Great screwed Louis IV over in Burgundy for the king to decide that letting his former uncle-by-marriage monopolise him so thoroughly wasn’t going well. Early in 937, he (as Flodoard put it) ‘separated himself from Hugh’s oversight’. Hugh responded by mending fences with his brother-in-law Heribert II of Vermandois. There was clearly tension in the air. However, the march into outright warfare was much slower than it’s often portrayed. As a case in point, here’s a diploma Louis issued at the same time as the break:

D L4 no. 5 (1st February 937, Laon)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Louis, by grace of God king.

We are completely confident that whatever We strive to effect with the eagerness of good zeal for love of God and reverence of His saints will benefit Us in more easily obtaining the eternal glory of being blessed and happily passing through the present life.

Therefore, let the skill of all the followers of the holy Church of God and of Us both present and also future know that Our illustrious followers, Count Hugh and Bishop Walter of Paris and Viscount Teudo [of Paris], approaching the presence of Our Serenity, humbly asked that We might renew and confirm by a precept of Our authority the rental contracts of the church of Saint-Pierre [i.e. Saint-Merri], in which St Mederic rests in body, which Count Adalard and Abbo the vassal made, which the most glorious kings Carloman [II] and Odo corroborated in precepts. And so, it pleased Our Highness to acquiesce to their most salubrious requests, and so We commanded a precept of Our Loftiness on this matter be made and given to John and his mother Alberada and her son, named Walter, through which We order and command that both the above-named persons, that is, Alberada and her two sons John and Walter, and their successors might possess in their uses, for all time, and without any diminution, the little abbey of the aforesaid church of Saint-Pierre and the most precious confessor of Christ Mederic, where are beholden 20 little manses in the estate of Linas, similarly 20 little manses in la Grand-Vivier, 3 manses in Morvilliers, 6 manses in Ivry-sur-Seine; 4 manses where there are 20 arpents of vines on Monsivry and 20 arpents of meadow on the Seine; 2 manses in Belleville where there are 4 arpents; and similarly 20 arpents of vineyard in Morgevalle; 6 bonniers and 6 perches of land below Montmartre; 6 arpents of meadow above the estate of Nigeon; and 4 arpents of vineyard at Vémars, which pertain to the bondsmen of the same church; 12 bonniers of land around the church itself, and at the aforesaid bonniers six where there are threshing-floors; then again at Montmartre 2 arpents of land with a little field; 3 manses at L’Hay; two and a half arpents of vineyard at Thermes; and 4 arpents of meadow in the place which is called ‘Cow’s Head’; 1 manse in Drancy: all this, in the advantages of the said church. Nor should any judicial power henceforth receive toll, nor water-toll, nor fodrum or rivage nor also freight-charge.

But that this precept of Our authority might in God’s name obtain inviolable vigour in perpetuity, We confirmed it below with Our own hand and We commanded it be signed with the impression of Our signet.

Sign of the most glorious king Louis.

Gerard the chancellor witnessed on behalf of Archbishop Artald.

Enacted at Clavate Laon, on the kalends of February [1st February], in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 936, in the 5th indiction, in the 1st year of the most glorious King Louis.

800px-c389glise_saint-merri2c_paris2c_17th_c.

Saint-Merri as it look in the seventeenth century (source)

 So, what’s going on here? Well, first of all we’ve got a bevy of Robertian allies showing up at the royal court. The identity of Count Hugh is unclear. Lauer, who edited the diploma, thought it was Hugh the Great himself. If so, that’s a pretty big downgrade in status for a man who, in the last diploma he was in, was literally called one step below the king. It could, however, be Count Hugh II of Maine, in which case this become simply a high-powered delegation from Hugh the Great rather than the man himself.

The timing and location is important here. Part of the way that Louis emancipated himself from Hugh the Great was by inviting his mother Eadgifu to come and join him at Laon. I said above that this was early in the year. What that means is that if this diploma wasn’t issued whilst Eadgifu was there – and I would argue that the sense of the timings we get from Flodoard mean that in all probability it was – she must have been on the way and the Robertians must have known about it.

This diploma, it seems to me, thus represents a kind of olive branch, a way of trying to show Hugh that even without having his yoke on Louis’ neck his interests would still be looked after. Note, for instance, the citation of Hugh’s uncle Odo as a ‘most glorious king’. Louis’ actions here show a young man trying to control how much of a breach his actions are actually going to cause.

It quite reminds me of Zwentibald in 898. As I’ve written elsewhere, in that year the Lotharingian king was forced by a combination of circumstances and his well-meaning but not entirely competent-to-decide father to abandon his chief supporter Reginar Long-Neck in favour of reconciling with a bunch of Upper Lotharingian aristocrats, including Archbishop Ratbod of Trier. We have two copies of the same diploma stripping Reginar of the abbey of Sint-Servaas in Maastricht. I’ve commented before on how the one produced by the church of Trier is vindictive and uncompromising; but that produced by the royal court is much more hesitant, perhaps hoping that a reconciliation with Reginar is still possible. Zwentibald and Louis are trying similar strategies and, I have to say, it didn’t work amazingly for either of them. Zwentibald’s fate we have spoken about on this blog before. Louis had a bit more success, but the forces propelling him and Hugh into conflict were bigger than just the two of them – we’ll hear more about this quarrel again.

Charter A Week 59: Intercession for the Dead

Most of the time when choosing material for Charter A Week, I’m dealing with stuff I already know. After all, I’ve been working with this material for a decade by now – I know what is and isn’t important, and I’ve already got scratch translations of basically all of it. As we limp towards the end of the reign of Ralph of Burgundy, however, the options I knew about were so uninspiring that I went a-searching elsewhere. Specifically, I had a look at the Regesta Imperii for the tenth-century papacy. And there, I found something rather curious: two letters, which once upon a time I had skimmed and dismissed in the cartulary of the Dijon abbey of Saint-Bénigne as mid-eleventh century, redated to the 930s. The reason behind the redating is simple enough: despite the first letter being in the name of ‘Abbot H.’, suggesting the eleventh-century Abbot Halinard, the second letter says that the ‘duke of the Romans’ to whom it is addressed has the same name as the abbot writing it. This is not true of Halinard, but it is true of the tenth-century Abbot Alberic, who shared his name with the lay ruler of Rome Alberic. The text itself is evidently corrupt at points – the Saint-Bénigne text is gibberish in one spot, so I actually went to the cartulary, which is digitised, to see what it said and, yep, it’s gibberish there too. An older version printed by Mabillon has different readings in places – I don’t know the source, he just says it’s ex nostris schedis, which I think means ‘from my notes’ – but these actually make sense so I have followed them where necessary to produce something comprehensible. Anyway, the point is it’s a lot easier to see how an A might become an H than to see how someone would confuse the names ‘Halinard’ and ‘Alberic’, so I’m quite happy to follow the Regesta here. This is doubly so because these letters are still pretty interesting. With that said, a lot of their interest comes from what they show about diplomacy and city planning, so I’m going to need to channel my inner Ottewill-Soulsby… 

Saint-Bénigne 325 (c. 930-935)

To the holy lord and teacher of the whole world, that is, the universal Pope John [XI], [Alberic], humble abbot of the power of Saint-Bénigne, with the entire congregation, sends the faithful service of holy prayers.

It is not hidden from the whole world that the pastor of the Roman church performs their duties on behalf of the Apostle, so that what he establishes concerning the ecclesiastical order should endure fixed and stable and inviolable forever. Therefore, it is worthy for one who resolves problems that he should have with him always a philosophy of civic virtue, to wit, good judgement, so that he to whom the power over churches has been given should not ignorantly establish because of malicious rumours what, when he knows true antiquity, he should not have any doubts about destroying.

We say this, father, to come before your presence, because it was brought to Our notice that the canons [of Saint-Étienne de Dijon] who neighbour Us, desiring to take away monastic honour, wanted to seek the highness of your authority so that, after gaining permission from you, they could transfer our cemetery into the castle for themselves. You should know, however, that those who wish to change the ancient establishment of the Fathers seek not what is God’s but what is their own. Therefore, We ask in God’s name that you do not concede this; and We will fittingly hold a memory of service.

 Saint-Benigne 326

To the most illustrious lord, chamberlain of the sacred palace, first senator and sole duke of the Romans [Alberic], an abbot holding his same name [Alberic of Saint-Bénigne], sends the service of continual fidelity.

Distance between places can never separate those whom a true connection of charity joins together. For this reason, let it be known to Your Highness that although I am far away in body, nonetheless I am always near you in mind and spirit, and not only me myself, but also my fellow brothers sedulously serving St Benignus, and indeed our lord himself as well, and we cherish your salvation in all prosperity with holy prayers; in the present world, you will have me – who is not unmindful of your good deeds – in your service in the next case as long as I live. Otherwise, because We confide many things in you, whatever should happen to Us, We confidently disclose and request that if any of Our neighbouring rivals should want to plot anything before the lord Pope against Our place, you (as well as you can) should prohibit it from being done.

We don’t ask for anything unjust; instead, We wish that the ancient law of Our place to be safe concerning the graveyard which they unjustly want to move. This was known to you, but will become better known shortly. If you take good care of it, you will cause us to remember you.

[The blessed pope Gregory says that the soul of anyone whose body is buried within the city walls will wander for all time. And in another place it is said that it is not permitted to bury the dead within the city walls, because we read and known that the Lord both suffered and was buried outside the city; similarly St Stephen and many others; and for this reason the holy fathers forbade any cemetery from being made within the walls of a city or a castle. We ought to follow Christ, indeed, in everything.]

(The bit in square brackets, for the record, was included in the Saint-Bénigne cartulary text and clearly relates to the same thing; but it’s on a separate page of the manuscript and I don’t think it was originally part of the letter as sent to Alberic in Rome.) 

dijonms

The manuscript in question, BM Dijon 591, fol. 62r (source)

I was actually tempted to try and do a parody of Sam’s writing style, but as I’m doing this on the morning I’ve registered (successfully, thank the Lord) at the Tübingen Auslanderamt, which involved both an early morning appointment and little sleep the night before, I’ll spare you and me. Anyway, the fundamental reason that the abbot of Saint-Bénigne is so opposed to moving the graveyard isn’t stated here, but is likely to be, in the most direct sense, the burial fees the abbey would have received for disposing of the dead. More broadly, the home of a family’s dead could expect to have a privileged relationship with that family. We know this most obviously from royal and comital necropoli, such as Saint-Denis. Losing the dead may well have meant losing that relationship. Even worse, from the point of view of the abbey of Saint-Bénigne, was losing it to the collegiate church of Saint-Étienne. A good long while ago now, we looked at the activities of Archdeacon Rather of Langres, prior of Saint-Étienne, who had tried to defraud Saint-Bénigne of a church they owned, something which rankled years on after he did it. It’s a reasonable presumption that there as a rivalry between the two institutions which lent a particular spice to this quarrel. 

Interestingly, the proof texts which I have put in square brackets are a remarkable call-back to Classical ideas of burial in the city. Famously, during Classical Antiquity, dead bodies could not be buried within the city walls. As Late Antiquity shifted into the Earlier Middle Ages, though, this became a more and more common practice. Here, though, the practice is called back to, although it is justified with reference to a Christian not a Roman past. In particular, it is the need to follow Christian exemplars, most obviously Jesus himself, which is cited. 

It is, as I noted above, not certain whether or not either Pope John XI or Alberic of Rome actually saw these texts. Instead, Alberic of Saint-Bénigne takes a much more straightforward approach. To the pope, he simply offers a quid pro quo, trading on the idea that as monks Saint-Bénigne’s prayers are worth more than Saint-Étienne’s. However, he’s also trying to hedge his bets, hence the letter to John’s half-brother Alberic, a serious figure to be reckoned with in mid-tenth century Rome. This is, unfortunately, the only evidence we have of communication between Rome and Dijon at this time, so we don’t know if the abbot actually did have prior knowledge of the patrician. Nonetheless, this is a really interesting example of how intercession was sought by would-be clients. 

Recently in Tübingen, Sam gave a roundtable discussing the so-called New Diplomatic History, an approach to diplomatic history which aimed to restore individuality, agency, and political culture to what was often perceived as a history of abstractions. He was very gung-ho about the prospects for it, but I was more sceptical. Especially coming from a tenth-century background, where we’re accustomed to talk about everything in terms of negotiation and intercession, it seems to me that this approach runs the risk of dissolving the history of Earlier Medieval diplomacy into being simply a history of political culture. During the round table, one of the questions I asked Sam was whether or not such a dissolution was a bad thing. After musing, and bearing these letters in mind, I now think it does run that risk, but that that’s not a bad thing, at least not for our period. In a world where social and political organisation is simply managed and reproduced differently, I would not care to discuss whether or not what Abbot Alberic is doing is or is not diplomacy – he certainly thinks he’s part of the same structure as John, if not as the patrician Alberic. What strikes me as a more useful approach in an earlier medieval context is how perceptions of different kinds of difference (of status, geography, language, etc) impacted on practices of negotiation, and Abbot Alberic’s problems are a good way into that. 

Louis the Pious and the Cynocephalus

As all learned folk of the Middle Ages knew, monsters were warnings, their twisted forms messages from a nature at war with itself, a dread portent of the evil men do writ large in their debased flesh. Hybrid beings such as cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs, broke down all the safe barriers that made life secure, unsettling the hierarchy that placed humans above their beasts. But warnings prompt the wise to observe what needs to be noticed. The writers of the middle ages found instruction in these unnerving transgressions. In the stories they told about people with the heads of dogs we can hear the echoes of their thoughts on those with the heads of apes. The land that lies between human and animal, fact and fiction, is often fertile, even if it produces curious fruit. It is in this country that I find myself walking with this post.

In the year 814, the recently crowned Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious was presented with a dog-headed man.  That this extraordinary incident is not better known is entirely due to an error in our primary source, the Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents Old and New of Jakob Mennel, which is a historical survey of portents and omens produced in 1503 for the Emperor Maximilian I.:

In the year 914, a monster having the head of a dog and other limbs like a person was presented to Louis. And well could it represent the monstrous state of that time, when people without a head wavered in their loyalties hither and yon barking like dogs.

Mennel reported the incident faithfully, but accidentally dated it to 914, a time when there were no monarchs called Louis. As the previous portent in Mennel’s catalogue refers to the age of Charlemagne, we can reasonably assume that the jurist intended to refer to Charlemagne’s son before an accidental slip of the pen made the very idea of Louis the Pious encountering a dog-headed man seem ridiculous.

A visual depiction of Louis’ meeting with the cynocephalus illustrating Mennel’s Treatise of Signs, Prodigies, and Portents old and new, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek cod.4417 f.9v, also containing the text quoted above [Ed: the source won’t let us link directly to the page, so if you’re curious it’s image number 27/60]. Note also the evidence that Louis the Pious invented vaping.

Establishing that the emperor met a cynocephalus is thus trivial. The hard part is determining what this encounter meant. Mennel was well aware that monsters are messengers, delivering signals from the heavens. As Isidore of Seville tells us in his Etymologies (11.3.15):

omens (monstrum) derive their name from admonition (monitus), because in giving a sign they indicate (demonstrare) something, or else because they instantly show (monstrare) what may appear.

Mennel interpreted the cynocephalus as a prediction of the vacillating character of the people of the age. Anyone who has ever had to study the twisted accounts from the Field of Lies in 833 will feel some sympathy for this assessment of the reign of Louis the Pious.

However, if we are to truly understand this moment, we need to go a little deeper into the nature of the dog-headed man. Charlemagne had been widely celebrated when in 802 he had received an elephant from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid. Likewise, as I may have mentioned once or twice, Louis’ son Charles the Bald was to receive camels from the Emir of Córdoba. It’s not hard to imagine that Louis was aiming to continue that tradition. Exotic animals provided rulers with an opportunity to demonstrate their power over nature and the respect held for them by far off peoples. By demonstrating their special relationship with distant lands, kings built a sense of magic and glamour about themselves.

That the cynocephali were beasts is attested by a number of authorities. Isidore of Seville said of them that ‘their barking indeed reveals that they are rather beasts than humans’ (Etymologies 11.3.5). The Liber Monstrorum, composed in the late seventh or early eighth century in a southern Anglo-Saxon context, tells us that they ‘do not imitate humans but the beasts themselves in eating raw flesh’ (1.16). Classical authorities placed the cynocephali in the far east, with Ctesias and Pliny locating them in India. The dog-headed man might therefore have been a gift from the ‘Abbasid Caliph, the follow-up to the elephant.

There are problems with this hypothesis. First, it is difficult to attribute an eastern origin to the cynocephalus. In these years the Caliphate was in the midst of a civil war between the sons of Harun al-Rashid, who all had better things to think about. Further, our sources from the Carolingian period strongly suggest that the cynocephali population of the period were more strongly concentrated in Scandinavia. The Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister locates them in the well-known island of Munitia, which lies in the North Sea, where they traded with German merchants. Likewise, the letter written by the missionary Rimbert to Ratramnus of Corbie places the cynocephali in Scandinavia, close to the people Rimbert was attempting to convert.

The correspondence between Rimbert and Ratramnus raises a further issue for the assumption that Louis was attempting to compete with Charlemagne’s elephant, because they clearly demonstrate the humanity of the cynocephali. Rimbert provided Ratramnus with an ethnographic description of the dog-headed people as reported to him. Ratramnus used this to demonstrate that the cynocephali must be rational, thinking beings, organised in cities with laws, crafts and a sense of morality. This rationality was the key factor in deciding whether the cynocephali were humans. As Augustine noted in City of God (6.18), evidence of rationality would reveal even those ‘Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men’ to be human beings. As Ratramnus commented, by these criteria the dog-heads of Scandinavia were clearly rational and therefore human. This is reinforced by the evidence that St Christopher was in fact dog-headed, something traditionally downplayed in modern accounts (in yet another example of the erasure of the cynocephali community from history).

Understanding this gets us a little closer to what was happening in 814. Far from being a present from Baghdad, the cynocephalus brought to Louis the Pious was clearly an ambassador sent by the dog-headed people of Scandinavia. Relations between Charlemagne and the cynocephali had been strained. As Notker the Stammerer tells us (2.13), the dog-heads allied with the Danish king Godfrid (r.804-810) when he invaded Frisia in 810. Following Godfrid’s retreat, Charlemagne is said to have bemoaned that he ‘was not thought worthy to see my Christian hands dabbling in the blood of those dog-headed fiends’. We know that Louis was much concerned with northern affairs at the start of his rule. His earlier career had been primarily based in Aquitaine, but in 815 he visited Saxony for the first and only time in his reign. The death of Charlemagne provided an excellent opportunity for Louis the Pious to reset Frankish relations with the cynocephali.

The same year that the dog-headed man made his appearance, Harald Klak, one of the struggling contenders for the Danish throne, also came to the court of Louis the Pious. Having been driven out of Denmark, Harald sought Louis’ aid in order to be restored to the throne, which Louis agreed to, helping him return to power in 819. Given the Scandinavian location of the polity of the cynocephali and their past association with Godfrid, it seems plausible that the dog-headed man may have been connected to Harald, although in what capacity is unclear. Perhaps the cynocephalus was a supporter of Harald.

Alternatively, the collapse of the Danish polity into warring factions at this point may have convinced the cynocephali that they needed to find new allies in a wider world. Aachen could be extremely generous to northern peoples who made themselves useful. The Slavic Abodrites in modern Pomerania had been rewarded with land and gifts for supporting Charlemagne in his wars against the Saxons. Louis may have had ambitions of converting the cynocephali. Much of his diplomatic activity in the northern lands was aimed at making things easier for his missionaries. Certainly, the interest of later writers such as Rimbert and Ratramnus lay in their desire to know whether they should attempt to bring the word of God to the dog-headed men.

This seems to me to be the best way to understand the material presented by Jakob Mennel. One could of course tell a different story, in which dog-head, signifying cruel stupidity, was an ethnic slur applied to Scandinavians, which over the years was taken increasingly literally, until a Danish prince at the court of Louis the Pious lost any vestige of being a human, and instead joined a menagerie of curiosities intended for the amusement of a much later emperor. Perhaps that was the tale I should have told in this post, the story of how a man became a monster. But I must confess I have never had much patience for such accounts. So instead, I shall walk a little further into the strange country, looking for men within monsters.

Charter A Week 58: A Triple Alliance in Provence and Italy

934 and 935 continue to be pains to pick charters for, so once again I’m playing a little fast and loose with the format. In this case, like last week, the dating elements in the document we’re going to look at are discordant: the AD year is 934, but the indiction gives 933. Schiaparelli, who edited the act, plumped for 933; the Regesta Imperii isn’t so sure, and that’s good enough for me to put it here.

So, somewhat unusually, we’re in Italy. We’ve spoken before about the multipolar Europe of the 930s, and this act is an interesting insight into that.

D HL no. 34 (8th March 933/934, Pavia)

In the name of Lord God Eternal.

Hugh and Lothar, by God’s grace kings. 

If we grant worldly benefits on places venerable and dedicated to God, we do not doubt we will gain eternal prizes from the Lord.

Consequently, let the entirety of all the followers of the holy Church of God and ourselves, to wit, present and future, know that we, for love of God Almighty and of the holy virgin Mary and of the blessed apostles, to wit, Peter and Paul, and for love of the other apostles, and for the remedy of our souls and those of Our father and mother, to wit, Theobald and Bertha, and our other relatives, concede to the holy and venerable monastery of Cluny, where Odo is at present now seen to be abbot, two curtilages from the right of our property lying in the county of Lyon, of which one is called Savigneux and the other Ambérieux-en-Dombes, in their entirety (besides Leotard the baker and five other servants pertaining there, who now serve us, whom we reserve for our power); that is, with chapels, houses, lands, vineyards, fields, meadows, pastures, woods, salt-pans, feeding grounds, waters and watercourses, hills, valleys, mountains, plains, male and female serfs of both sexes (besides those six servants whom we reserved for our power above), labouring men and women, and with everything they can say or name justly and legally pertaining to these two curtilages in their entirety (these six servants put to one side), so that from the present day, in their entirety (these six servants, as we said, put to one side), they might be in the right and dominion of the same abbey and of the abbot who is there now and of his successors, for the common advantage of the brothers serving God there at the time, rightly, quietly, and without any contradiction. 

If anyone might with reckless daring endeavour to infringe or violate our donation, let them know themselves to be damned by God Almighty like a sacrilege; in secular terms, as well, let them know themselves to be liable for a fine of one hundred pounds of pure gold, half to our treasury and half to the abbot of the aforesaid abbey and his successors and the brothers who are there at the time.

And that this might be more truly believed and diligently observed by all, we strengthened it with our own hands and commanded it be marked below with our signet.

Sign of the most serene kings Hugh and Lothar.

Chancellor Peter witnessed on behalf of Abbot and Archchancellor Gerland.

Given on the 8th ides of March [8th March], in the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 934, in the 8th year of the reign of the most pious lord king Hugh and the 3rd of lord king Lothar, in the 6th indiction

Enacted in Pavia.

Happily in God’s name, amen.

By itself, this might not look like very much. It’s a royal grant of property with added extra memorialisation, to Cluny no less – and royal diplomas for Cluny, from across Europe, are ten a penny. However, what’s interesting about it is the way that it takes us into the middle of alliances spanning most of western Europe: Hugh of Arles, for this short period, was the man in the centre of almost everything, and right behind him was Odo of Cluny. Hugh and Odo may have known each other (so thinks Isabelle Rosé) from Odo’s upbringing at the court of William the Pious, and they seem to have remained on good terms. However, this was particularly expressed in the early 930s. Besides this diploma, in 929, Hugh arranged his own betrothal with the important Roman noblewoman Marozia, who in 931 imposed her son as Pope John XI. Shortly afterwards, he granted Odo a papal privilege. He also intervened in 932 to confirm the new archbishop of Rheims, Artald, who (as we will have much cause to hear about in subsequent weeks) had recently been imposed on that church by Ralph of Burgundy.

In 933, too, Ralph of Burgundy was active in northern Provence. In 931, Count Charles Constantine of Vienne had promised his loyalty to Ralph; in 933, he actually handed it over. Hugh of Arles may well have had a hand in this. In 929, he had played an important role in ending the rebellion of Count Heribert II of Vermandois, the jailer of Charles the Simple, who had released his captive from prison and set him up against Ralph. Part of the deal was that Hugh agreed to grant Heribert the ‘province of Vienne’ (whatever that meant) on behalf of Heribert’s son Odo. West of the Rhône, the role of Odo of Cluny in West Frankish politics is something we’ve covered a lot recently; but to summarise, Ralph’s takeover of the duchy of Aquitaine was thoroughly aided along by the fact that he had the support of Odo, along with the networks of alliances surrounding his abbeys.

We have here a three-pointed alliance. Hugh can help both Ralph and Odo on the Italian side, as in the cases of Artald and Odo’s papal privileges (notably, both papal interventions came before the breakdown in relations between Hugh and the Romans later in 932). Odo can help Ralph in Aquitaine. His use for Hugh is a bit more obscure to me, but my guess is that, amongst other things, his connections with the Transjurane court and thus with Hugh’s rival for the kingship of Italy Rudolf II may be the operative factor. Ralph, meanwhile, can help Odo against his monastic rival Guy of Gigny; and he can ensure that the situation in northern Provence remains relatively stable. In fact, I would say that ensuring regional stability in the face of the deaths of both William the Younger and Louis the Blind (at least, once they’ve all helped themselves after the initial instability) is probably the most obvious binding force between these three men.

This diploma hints at that more than it says any of it. It is nonetheless significant that the estates in question are right next to Anse, where Ralph issued a diploma for Cluny in summer 932; and are also in William the Younger’s former county of Lyon. These gifts have presumably, therefore, been selected to implant Odo more firmly in Lyon and to emphasise the ongoing role of Hugh and Ralph together in ensuring a stable division of power in Provence. Much of the diplomatic activity of this period is hidden from us, and so there’s a lot of inference in this picture. Nonetheless, our box of hints builds up to a pretty convincing picture of a multipolar Frankish world in the 930s, all centred on the Trans-Ararian region.

A Sad Story About Why Charles the Simple Succeeded Odo

We’ve discussed Charles the Simple’s succession to the West Frankish throne a little bit before, but never really gone into detail about one question which has always bugged me: why did Odo let Charles succeed him? OK, sure, we can talk about Charles’ dynastic legitimacy and his hereditary claim to the throne, and that may have been a factor. Certainly, later sources put Odo and Charles in some kind of ward/guardian situation; but this is basically ahistorical and the result of working backwards from eleventh century expectations. The main practical reason that Charles ends up as Odo’s successor is that, over the course of several years of peace negotiations but most crucially in late 897, as Odo lies on his deathbed, Odo conceded that role to him. So, to reframe the question, why was Odo so willing to negotiate?

It can’t be because Charles posed a significant military threat. The high point of the rebellion of which Charles was the figurehead was right at the start, in 893 and 894. After 895, when the siege of Laon which Charles conducted with Zwentibald failed, the young ruler’s situation was pretty dire. From the beginning, his rebellion was riven with internal dissent, and by the last years of Odo’s reign virtually everyone had jumped ship. All of Charles’ backers – even Archbishop Fulk of Rheims, who was in loco parentis to the young man – went back to Odo’s side (in Fulk’s case only briefly, but his persistent opposition to Odo and support for Charles was the exception in these years). Odo was able to confiscate the rebels’ castles, estates and resources. Charles had no money, no troops, and no friends.

It is very surprising, therefore, that Odo condescended to negotiate from this position of superiority, yet in 896 he did so. Not merely did he do so, but he was – according to the Annals of Saint-Vaast – active in encouraging his followers to lend their support to Charles as his successor. What could his motivations for such a thing have been? One option is that he was a far-sighted statesman, who could see that the best way to repair the damage the civil war had caused the realm was to allow Charles to succeed him whilst negotiating for the best deal for his followers after his own death. This is not an implausible option, and certainly it seems like Odo’s brother Robert of Neustria was well-placed to be honourably received by the king after Odo’s death. But was there more at work?

Perhaps the general sense of malaise hanging over Odo’s court by 895 had something to do with it. Morale on Odo’s side, even the king’s own morale, seems to have been declining. Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés complained in an addition to his Bella Parisiacae Urbis that the king whom he had once praised as a glorious Viking fighter was now useless and apathetic: he heard of Vikings raiding across his kingdom, and declared he simply didn’t care. Certainly his pacific tendencies after 895 form a contrast with his bullish approach before that year.

However, there may be more to it than that Odo was simply ground down by war. A neglected carmen figuratum, a picture poem in praise of Odo written around 893, ends with a prayer that God will bestow a son on Odo.

The manuscript in question being this one, Berlin Staatsbibliothek Fragm. 89, fol. 8r (source)

A second poem, in praise of Odo’s queen Theodrada, accompanies the first. However, evidence of Odo actually having any children is generally conspicuous by its absence. (There is a bizarre document purporting to be from the early tenth century from the Breton monastery of Redon which mentions the presence of one ‘Guy, son of King Odo of France’ – however, this is transparently a later forgery and Guy did not have any historical reality.) These poems are interesting because they are signs that, a brief way into Charles’ rebellion, Odo had dynastic ambitions. A clear inference, therefore, is that something had changed by 896, and the most obvious thing is that Theodrada had died. It would have been quite possible for Odo to remarry, of course – one thing that always surprises me about Odo is how young he was, being only in his early thirties when he became king – but that was a way in the future and Charles’ rebellion was a problem now. It seems that Odo’s ambitions to have a male heir were buried with his wife. Under these circumstances, negotiating with Charles was the option of least resistance. If Odo couldn’t be succeeded by an heir of his body, he could at least ensure that the crown went to someone with a good claim, and try and prevent a war such as he had been fighting for the previous several years from breaking out anew on his death.

King Lothar and Flanders in the Reign of Count Arnulf II

In theory, if there’s any two West Frankish regions I have any special claim to know, it should be Normandy and Flanders. I’ve been working on these areas since I was an undergraduate – in fact, my master’s dissertation was a comparison of tenth-century princely power in the two of them. Yet one of the joys of the tenth century is that by deep-diving into the sources and by making cross-connections you can discover new things and end up changing your mind even after working on it for a decade. Flanders is a case in point. As often mentioned on this blog, I wrote an article reassessing the succession crisis following the death of Arnulf the Great of Flanders; but the state of my knowledge in 2014 was such that I left it there. However, what has emerged out of my research since then is that Flanders played a pretty crucial role in the rest of Lothar’s reign too, and this is what I want to talk about today.

The short version of one of my arguments in the article is that when Arnulf died in 965, Lothar broke his promise to safeguard Arnulf II, the elder Arnulf’s baby grandson, invaded Flanders, imposed a friendly regent, and annexed a huge swathe of the south for himself. However, that’s not where things stopped. A little while ago, I argued that Lothar’s patronage can be detected on the Flemish border during the 970s, hoping to Lotharingian border magnates into his own orbit. That, however, is only half the story. What I left out is that all the magnates Lothar was hoping to attract were indelibly associated with Arnulf II of Flanders: Dirk of Holland was his guardian, Godfrey of Verdun his stepfather, and even though Arnulf of Valenciennes doesn’t seem to have been related to him (at least not in any way we can prove) he was an important figure in the last days of Arnulf the Great. In fact, Lothar’s patronage around 970 extended to Arnulf II directly. In 972, for instance, Arnulf issued a charter for Blandijnberg in Ghent. The Blandijnberg charters are never above suspicion, and indeed in its current form this is a mid-eleventh century forgery. The crucial thing about it for our purpose, though, is that it grants the abbey the estate of Harnes, near Lens. (This donation was confirmed by a more-or-less unsuspicious royal grant a few years later, so this bit of information in the charter is likely legit.) This is interesting, because Harnes was under Lothar’s control twice over after 965. On one hand, it was south of the Lys, the area he annexed after Arnulf the Great’s death; on the other, it was recorded in 899 (in a charter we’ve discussed on this blog before for entirely separate reasons) as belonging to Saint-Amand, an abbey which we know Lothar controlled at this time. The most likely way for it to get into Arnulf’s hands, therefore, is that Lothar gave it to him; and the most likely reason for that is that the king wanted to draw the young count into dependence on him.

Another hint is that despite everything, Arnulf was able to keep hold of at least the northern part of Ponthieu. Conflict over Ponthieu was a structuring element of northern French politics in the middle and late tenth century. To keep things short, I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that the fighting pitted the Flemish counts on one side against the Robertians on the other; and that it was a multi-generational conflict. That Arnulf appears ruling Montreuil in 981, therefore, despite the fact that it was in the area Lothar took over in 965, indicates that Lothar favoured him over the Robertians and backed his continued possession of the stronghold.

All this changed, as I noted in my earlier post, after 973, when the exiled sons of Count Reginar III returned from exile. Their bellicose pursuit of their lost inheritance forced the border magnates to cling closely to Otto II, and undid years work of work on Lothar’s part. In the mid-to-late 970s, therefore, we can see Lothar pivot to attacking Arnulf. In 974, for instance, he issued a diploma for the elder Robertian brother and duke of the Franks Hugh Capet confirming donations he had made of land in the Ternois to the abbey of Saint-Riquier in southern Ponthieu, confirming his overlordship over the southern part of the region and giving him some kind of role in the north (which was in all likelihood under Arnulf’s rule at the time).  In 975, he issued a diploma for Marchiennes restoring the estate of Haisnes, which was ‘unjustly stolen from [the abbey] in the time of Count Arnulf [the Great]’ – Arnulf II’s grandfather ended up a historiographical casualty of the new hostility between the king and his comital relative. Interestingly, in 976 Arnulf’s step-uncle Adalbero of Rheims sponsored the translation of St. Thierry in Rheims. Lothar refused to come because he was busy in other parts of the kingdom, and when he did show up he was accompanied by a large army. We don’t know what this army had been used for, but one good suggestion is Flanders.

This brings us to a question we’ve covered before on this blog, the emergence of a separate line of counts of Boulogne. I argued in the previous post that our earliest evidence for any kind of count in the area comes not from the start of Arnulf II’s reign, but from the end.  Count Arnulf, that shadowy figure who is nonetheless the clearest outline we can see from this shadowy time, evidently had a powerbase in western Flanders. This is interesting, because Lothar had some support in that region (including, probably, the chronicler Folcuin of Saint-Bertin); and Arnulf II seems – from later, bitter reports of his behaviour towards Saint-Bertin – to have left a bad memory there. This is speculative, of course, but I think it’s quite possible that, first of all, Arnulf of Boulogne/Ternois was from the family of the advocates of Saint-Bertin (based on their onomastics); second, that that this advocatial position was the basis for the assumption of comital status; and third, this may have been helped by Lothar’s military intervention. Notably, our last attestation of this family as advocates is from 975 – by the 980s, a new family, the Gerbodos, was in place. It is worth considering, therefore, that the fragmentation of Flemish comital power which we know to have taken place by 988 was helped along by royal support for local opposition.

Lothar’s position changed again after 978. As we’ve seen, his invasion of Lotharingia in that year failed. It is therefore noteworthy that – by contrast with Charles the Simple’s invasion of 898 which I have argued was its closest comparison – it took  over a year for peace to be made after direct fighting had stopped. What was Lothar doing in that time? Dudo of Saint-Quentin has a confused anecdote as part of a panegyric on the peacemaking efforts of the Norman duke Richard the Fearless, which says that Arnulf II refused to do military service for Lothar and the king therefore invaded Artois and the area south of the Lys. This has intriguing parallels with a passage in the Gesta Episcoporum Cameracensium which says that Lothar invaded the area at the end of the reign of Bishop Teudo of Cambrai (so, late 978). Either on their own could be written off as a simple repetition of the events of 965. However, although both are evidently confused, the fact that two independent sources have put figures from the late 970s into the same scenario suggests that what is being confused with 965 is real events of 978. That is, Lothar invaded Artois, targeting Arnulf’s possessions or (more likely) those of the church of Cambrai or (perhaps) both.

He then used his gains to reconcile with Arnulf. This gave him a point of entry back into Arnulf’s family networks, and we can in fact see hints of his step-family being used to negotiate the peace between Lothar and Otto which was ultimately signed at Margut in 980. This peace and reconciliation between Arnulf and Lothar, though, led to hostility between Lothar and Hugh Capet. Hugh made a separate peace with Otto II at Rome in 981 and then rushed home to besiege and attack Montreuil, which he was able to take by surprise. Arnulf agreed to hand over the fortress and northern Ponthieu.

Which is, I think, what this late medieval miniature is supposed to show (source)

After decades of fighting, the Robertians had finally defeated the Flemish for Ponthieu. At the same time, Lothar had established himself as master of Artois, even if his more grandiose schemes for using his Flemish connections had failed to pan out. Lothar’s relationship with Arnulf, in fact, is a kind of microcosm for his entire reign. He was a canny politician and powerful ruler whose capacity to manipulate and control events within his kingdom was generally significant. However, he was not great at resolving the contradictions within his own policy aims. Thus, during the 970s, he treated Flanders and its associated elites as on one hand targets but on the other hand important allies. What this meant was that when Lothar was treating Arnulf II as an ally his capacity to get things done in the region was weakened through what Lothar had done when he was his enemy. There must have been other issues too – trust springs readily to mind – but this factor is a key for understanding why, despite all his efforts, the gains Lothar reaped from his Flemish policy during the 970s were so relatively limited compared to his designs.    

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

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

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

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

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

To the most pious king

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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