Carolingian Normandies

This post was planned anyway, but by sheer coincidence it happens that I’ve recently finished Neil Price’s The Children of Ash and Elm. It’s a good book on the Viking Age and I do recommend it; but it’s not at its best when dealing with the Viking presence in the Frankish world. As a case in point, Price is firmly wedded to the idea that Normandy was created in toto by three grants, in 911, 924 and 933. This is a common picture, at least outside the cutting edge of the scholarly literature. I imagine our old friend Dudo of Saint-Quentin would be very pleased with it, because the idea of an ancient Normandy which burst onto the scene fully formed in the early tenth century was one of his main agendas in writing the Historia Normannorum. However, the idea of ‘Normandy’ is one of those big ones that casts a shadow backwards over what came before it. In this blog post, we’ll look at tenth-century northern Neustria and I will try and argue, first, that the area which would become Normandy spent most of the century as a farraginous and fluctuating group of local polities and factions; and second, and more controversially, that the history of these polities is one in which the Scandinavian heritage of some regional elites played a minimal role for a long time. When Normandy emerged as a ‘Northman’ polity, the role of its Scandinavian past was not straightforward.  

This one goes long, and a map is probably useful. This one is from Mark Hagger, Norman Rule in Normandy 911-1144, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2017, p. xix.

The first place to consider is Rouen itself. We know from Flodoard (who was a more-or-less contemporary witness) that the original grant to Rollo constituted Rouen and the maritime districts associated with it. On its southern end, references from Charles the Simple’s 918 diploma as well as the location of the putative agreement at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte suggest that the grant stopped a relatively short distance south down the Seine and included some portion of the Epte valley – in total, a relatively small parallelogram of land. Already, then, the importance of the 911 grant starts to look relatively small (and the later grants of 924 and 933 were on paper only, have been recognised as purely nominal for a long time, and can be safely dismissed without further discussion).

Moreover, as time goes on, it’s less and less clear to me that Rouen had been under Rollo’s control prior to 911. The problem is that anything we think we know about Rollo prior to 911 comes from Dudo’s work and there’s no real reason to trust it because his depiction of Rollo’s career is precisely aimed at legitimising his family’s control of a Normandy centred at Rouen which means that placing him firmly in control there prior to 911 is rhetorically necessary whether or not it’s true. Notably, thinking of the Battle of Chartres, we know that the Frankish forces who were sent out to fight Rollo were based at Paris. If you’re going from Paris to fight someone based on the Upper Seine, Chartres is not an obvious place to find them; but it is if they’re based on the Loire…

What there was at Rouen instead appears to have been a fully functioning Carolingian regime. The key evidence for this is a diploma of 905 granting the fiscal estate at Pîtres to his notary, Ernust. (Of note is that the commentary I wrote for the Charter A Week post linked is not quite what I’m about to say here.) This reveals two things: first, that Charles was firmly in control of the royal estates in the area; and two, that he felt no qualms about granting them, not to a count or other lay magnate or even to a bishop in order to co-ordinate regional defence, but rather to a chancery clerk. Pîtres and the associated fortification at Pont de-l’Arche had been a sophisticated part of anti-Viking defence under Charles the Bald, so its use here to reward a relatively minor ecclesiastical noble suggests that, as of 905, the Upper Seine was not feeling pressed by attacks from the North. Similarly, Rouen’s ecclesiastical infrastructure seems to have held up pretty well. The archbishops of Rouen were able to offer safe havens to the bishops of Coutances (definitely) and Bayeux (maybe), and they played an important role in Church councils throughout the late ninth and early tenth century. We know, too, that demand for liturgical manuscripts was ongoing into the early tenth century, when the bishop of Sées composed a new benedictional for use at Rouen. 

Rollo, mostly, and his son William Longsword, entirely, behave like normal Frankish magnates. Rollo’s involvement in the civil war surrounding the deposition of Charles the Simple has been used as evidence for the failure of Rollonid Rouen as a Carolingian bastion – but it was a Frankish civil war and the Norse came in on behalf of the Carolingian king. Sure, they turned to fighting for their own advantage shortly afterwards, but this isn’t a failure of Viking policy any more than the precisely identical and contemporary behaviour of Duke Gislebert of Lotharingia. William, even more than his father, was a normal count. From just after the end of his reign we have the first written evidence from inside the Norman court: a Latin poem commissioned by William’s sister for his son which presents him as ‘Count of Rouen’. This picture has been clouded by Flodoard’s consistent reference to William as princeps Normannorum – ‘Viking chief’ – but Flodoard’s titulature here stems from anti-Norman prejudice and doesn’t reflect anything we know about the internal structure of William’s regime.

Where the picture changes a little is after William’s murder in 943. William’s son Richard was a small boy, and Rouen was fought over by a number of factions. First out of the gate, notably, was a faction of pagan Vikings under two rulers named Turmod and Sigtryggr, the latter straight off the boat from York. These men controlled the young Richard, whom they forced to participate in pagan rites. However, they were turfed out easily by Louis IV, suggesting their base of support was shallow. Louis then gave Rouen to his and William’s old ally Count Herluin of Ponthieu. However, despite some strong PR moves – Herluin killed William’s murderer on the battlefield and sent his mutilated appendages to Rouen – the city faced a new problem immediately afterwards, as warrior bands forced out of York by the city’s conquest by the English king in 944 moved on northern Neustria. Louis and Herluin marched into the area around Rouen and purged the city of those who did not want to obey royal authority.

This was not the end of the faction fighting, but without going too deep into the weeds, by the later part of the 940s the winner who had emerged was none other than the legendary Ralph Torta, whose closest ties were to the Robertians. (As noted in the previous post, Ralph may or may not have had biologically Scandinavian origins but his son was bishop of Paris and he was an entirely typical mid-level West Frankish aristocrat in every respect which matters.) We know little of Ralph’s activities as ruler in Rouen, but there is a striking contract between his behaviour regarding Jumièges, where he tore down the abbey buildings to use for wall repair; and the Rouen monastery of Saint-Ouen, where he donated an estate just outside the city. One rather wonders whether this was a deliberate attack on a Rollonid pet project as a way of erasing the family’s local footprint. In any case, the fact that Rouen ended up under the control of a mid-level Carolingian aristocrat who was, nominally, a royal appointee for about a decade is significant. 

We already, then, have a picture of a region mostly under normal West Frankish style regional elites for half a century, something which in no way prevented it from having violent, nasty succession crises which the presence of Viking elites embroidered but didn’t fundamentally alter. However, Rollonid Rouen was not the only power in the region, nor the only place to suffer turbulence. Around the year 900, for instance, the counts of Maine were figures to be reckoned with across northern Neustria – a diploma we’ve discussed before shows Count Hugh I patronising the abbey of Saint-Évroult in the Évrecin using lands in the Hiémois, to the south of Bayeux. By the 930s, though, the picture had changed. Dudo of Saint-Quentin keeps the story of a rebellion against William Longsword by a Scandinavian leader named Riulf (a story which does find purchase in other sources). Riulf, who was a pagan, wanted land up to the river Risle – but he appears to have been based in Évreux. This would have been less than a decade after an extensive series of border conflicts between the Seine Norse and the counts supporting the new regime of King Ralph of Burgundy. It is therefore possible that Riulf’s group was a new arrival; it is certainly evident that they wanted out. By the time of the wars after William Longsword’s murder in 943, Évreux was divided between different Viking factions – Flodoard, at least, presents them as religiously motivated pagan and Christian groups – but a significant local elite remained as well. In the end, the Christian Norse and/or local elite (and by that time it may not have been possible to draw a clear on-the-ground difference) handed the city over to Robertian control, embodied in the person of Theobald the Trickster, who held the city until the 960s. 

Further west, around Bayeux and the Cotentin, the picture is sketchier. In a previous post on this blog I looked at Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s picture of the earliest Norman court. One figure in particular stood out to me then and stands out to me now, and that’s Botho of Bayeux. Dudo’s work, like all hagiography, is most interesting at its stumbles: his purpose is so clear and his dedication to it so single-minded that when something doesn’t quite fit, it sticks out more and so it is with Botho, the purportedly Norman aristocrat with a Frankish name and a Frankish title which didn’t exist in later Normandy. In short, I think the Botho of Dudo’s book is an incomplete fossil of a Frankish count at Bayeux. (Remarkably, Flodoard also thinks the people of the Bessin aren’t Norse at this time.) It was probably not until 944 that the picture changed. In that year, a pagan Norse chieftain named Harald (likely another refugee from York) took over Bayeux. He played an adroit hand manipulating the succession crisis after William Longsword’s murder. It is likely that it was to Harald that the pagan Vikings purged from Rouen by Louis IV went. In the immediate aftermath of that affair, Harald organised a meeting with Louis and captured him, eventually handing him over to Hugh the Great. Hugh had been in charge of the initial attempt to get Harald out of Bayeux, and it would not be surprising if Harald’s price for the king was being allowed to stay there. Notably, Harald is remembered in Dudo’s work positively but as a pagan, which suggests that he may have justified his rule by using some kind of specifically ‘Northman’ (i.e. non-Carolingian) discourse, something which would make sense if he had been substantially reinforced by men whom Louis had purged from Rouen. In any case, he didn’t get too long – in 954, Hugh attacked and defeated him. After that, we don’t know precisely what happened. We do, though, have a pretty clear idea that Bayeux and the Bessin, and that whole centre-west region, were not under Norman control until the last decades of the tenth century at the earliest.

But thus far we have largely focussed on comital authority. In fact, northern Neustria was something of a frontier zone in the ninth century, and a fair bit of the continuity we can see in the region comes from people it would be more or less fair to call ‘local elites’ – not Scandinavian (at least not in any political-cultural sense; some, although in all probability a tiny minority, may have originated there but that doesn’t matter for our purposes), but not members of a Carolingian administrative hierarchy. The most obvious point of continuity here is what would become Normandy’s southern frontier, the Perche-to-Domfront area, which were forested lands of light control under local lords anyway and remained so consistently. More interesting are our hints about Coutances. The Cotentin peninsula had been granted to the Breton king Salomon in the late ninth century, and its control during this time seems to have been contested. William Longsword claimed to be overlord in the region. Direct evidence for his control comes from the memory of some land grants he made in the area, all of which are around the coast and none of which suggest a massive landed base there. Dudo has another one of those splinters in his text describing the ‘men of Coutances’ as a kind of praetorian guard for William, although it wouldn’t be sound to speculate too intensively based on that. After 943, whilst the southern belt saw relatively little change, Viking settlement in the Cotentin peninsula established a number of small-scale lordships which may not have been under powerful control from anyone. These lordships, moreover, are the places where the most obvious signs of ‘Northman’ practice – notably paganism – took root.

When Richard the Fearless ran Ralph Torta out of town in the mid-to-late 950s, he faced the prospect not of reclaiming an early tenth-century inheritance, but of expanding into a fractious collection of local and regional polities which had wildly different current statuses and political histories. Those histories all had Vikings in them, whether as enemies or settlers or biological ancestors; but only in the furthest west, and even then only after 943 could any of them be really termed ‘Viking polities’. This is a key part of the context in which Normandy as we know it was created, as I’ve written about before. The ideology of Norman-hood which Richard developed was flexible to the point of incoherence – it let anyone willing to play the game of being distinctive and of obeying the duke into the clubhouse, no matter what kind of Northman they were. With this complex history behind him, could Richard have succeeded with anything else?

Dudo of Saint-Quentin and the Earliest Norman Court

Recently, I’ve had cause to look at the Historia Normannorum of Dudo of Saint-Quentin again. As many of you will know, I have past form with this work, but this time I was looking at it as a source for the events of the 940s rather than the ideology of the 1000s. Now, if you’ve encountered Dudo’s work, you’ll know that that’s a rather dicey thing to do, and I really wouldn’t want to disagree with it. In fact, probably the best thing you can say about Dudo is that he’s not the most ludicrous thing you’ll encounter reading about the earliest Norman elite…

Anyway, what I was looking for was a simple question: who does Dudo say was in the following of the Norman rulers in c. 940? The short answer is not many people. Rather like his contemporary Richer of Rheims, Dudo is not a court chronicler in the strict sense. He’s not interested in nailing down who surrounds the Norman duke – the duke’s soldiers, advisors, and nobles appear as a faceless group to lend their presence to crowd scenes, but Dudo isn’t interested in them as individuals. In fact (minus speaking roles for two Breton counts which are significant for other reasons but whom I’m going to ignore now), Dudo only names four really important men other than the duke in the earliest days of Normandy: Botho of Bayeux, Bernard the Dane, Anslech, and (the legendary) Ralph Torta.

Of those four, only Ralph Torta shows up in other independent sources – specifically, a section of William of Jumièges’ Gesta Normannorum Ducum which appears to be based on oral tradition from the monastery of Jumièges.

The abbey of Jumièges as it stands today (source).

The rest are only known from Dudo’s work. So, what does he say about them? Botho is probably the most significant figure. He has two distinct personalities, one as an ‘outstanding count of the Normans’ strongly associated with Bayeux, and the others as the commander-in-chief of the Norman army. He then disappears from the work around the beginning of the reign of Richard the Fearless (c. 945). Bernard the Dane (Dacigena, ‘Dacian-born’) is described as one of William Longsword’s chief confidantes (the word used is secretarius, which as he is also called conscius secretorum – i.e. a secret keeper – can’t really be translated as ‘secretary’ or any other kind of household position), and one of the leading citizens (optimates) of Rouen. After William Longsword’s death and Botho’s disappearance, he steps into the role of ‘leader of the Norman army’ and plays a major role in keeping the young Richard the Fearless safe from the machinations of his Frankish enemies. He’s also the one whom Dudo gives us the best sense of a personality for – Bernard gets a lot of the best lines, and he comes across as a loyal but acid straight-talker not afraid to say ‘I told you so’. Notably, where Botho was called a ‘count’ Bernard is only ever called a knight (miles). In turn, he disappears from the narrative when Richard comes of age. Anslech is by far the least fleshed-out – like Bernard, he is called William Longsword’s confidante and a principal citizen of Rouen; but his role in the book is peripheral at best. Finally, Ralph Torta, who is another of the leading citizens of Rouen. In what in context is the late 940s he was able to claim the ‘entire honour of Normandy’ for himself, although Dudo doesn’t say how or on what grounds. (William of Jumièges adds that he was a royal appointee.) Dudo presents him as a tyrant whom Richard eventually overthrows, forcing Ralph to go and seek refuge with his son, the bishop of Paris. 

First question: how much of this might be true? Starting with Botho, it’s noticeable that despite Dudo’s insistence on his Norman background, he has a very Frankish name (= Bodo) with no real Old Norse equivalent. (In fact, of the four only Anslech has a visibly Old Norse name and Bernard’s name is Carolingian par excellence.) It’s also noticeable that he is called a count, since at the time Dudo was writing there wasn’t a count of Bayeux, and in fact there was never again a count of Bayeux whilst Normandy was under ducal rule. The timing of his disappearance is also noticeable, given that Botho vanishes from the text at what we know from Flodoard’s Annals was the same time that Bayeux was conquered by a Viking warlord named Harald. Bernard the Dane is more difficult – we are given few incidental details about his background, and although his personality is well-developed it’s also idealised. Vikings in Frankish sources are often presented as witty, albeit cruelly so; and Dudo’s combination of that trait with loyalty and resource is a model of the ideal Norman retainer, not a specific person. Finally, I am inclined to believe that Ralph Torta’s son was the bishop of Paris, because it’s such an odd and pointless bit of information that the most plausible reason it’s in there is that it was true. What makes this interesting is that this elite seems to have been deeply enmeshed in the Carolingian world. It’s possible that ‘Bernard’ is a baptismal name (‘William’ doesn’t seem to have been the name William Longsword was born with either), but Botho seems much more likely to have been actually Frankish, a Frankish count no less, bound to Rouen by ties of fictive kinship engendered by fostering. Similarly, Ralph Torta was able to persuade Louis IV to appoint him as ruler of Rouen in the mid-to-late 940s, and his son (probably Bishop Walter of Paris) was a major figure in the Church hierarchy outside Normandy. (In fact, given that the contemporary archbishop of Rouen, Hugh de Calvacamp, had been a monk at Saint-Denis, the rather arresting image is raised of a kind of bishop exchange programme…) Dudo, then, has taken this elite and recast it in a Norman image.

Such a recasting is unsurprising in terms of what we know about Dudo’s agenda; but can we use Dudo’s reimagining of the men to get negative information about them? I think so. Above all, I think it shows that these men had no descendants, if not biologically at least in terms of people who wanted to claim them as ancestors. In the case of Botho and Ralph Torta, this fits what we know about their careers as well. (Later genealogists have claimed a posterity for them – the house of Taisson for Botho, that of Harcourt and also Beaumont for Bernard the Dane, and Montfort for Anslech – but the earliest evidence for this comes from hundreds of years later and more contemporary sources don’t know it.*) It is of course possible that there were myths and stories circulating about these men, but if so Dudo either didn’t know them or didn’t want to use them – and his Norman patrons clearly agreed with him. This fits in with an argument I’ve made before: the tumultuous period between c. 940 and c. 960 represents a significant break with the early Rouen countship of Rollo and William Longsword, and part of that was a massive turnover amongst the elites, definitely in terms of their self-understanding and quite probably in terms of the actual people concerned. In short: the old elite were killed or forced out, and a new, heterogenous elite who owed their positions to Richard the Fearless came to the fore. This elite and their descendants, then, would be the people who built pre-Conquest Normandy.

(*If you’ve found this blog post because you’re following that particular rabbit hole, then let’s be clear: this is all nonsense, there’s no evidence for this, and ridiculous claims like Bernard the Dane being “of the blood-royal of Saxony” are bad Victorian inferences.)

The Earliest History of Ducal Normandy

The Fécamp Chronicle

1. In the days of Chlothar, king of the Franks, there was an illustrious man, eminent in prudence, very conspicuous in goodness, and obedient to God, named Waning, who built many dwellings for monks on his possessions, one of which was called Fécamp, whose affairs turned out in this way. He was brought to the same place on his deathbed, seized by a terrible illness, and taken up in ecstasy, the torments of the damned and the joys of the just were shown to him, and he heard in a prophesy shown to him by divine gift that he would live for 20 more years and the holy martyr of Christ Eulalia, to whose prayers he was accustomed to sedulously commend himself, asked this from the Lord. And that martyr appeared to him and admonished him that he should build a little monastery in the aforesaid estate where he was staying, and he should commit it to none of his line to be ruled. He, having returned to the world above, called to him Audoënus, archbishop of Rouen and priest of Christ, and the man of God Wandregisl, abbot of the abbey of Fontenelle, and he told them about his vision, and at the same time received by their prayers the desired recovery from the fever which oppressed him; and he began to build the aforesaid abbey there as he had been admonished.

2. King Chlothar, son of Clovis the Younger, was at the same gathering, and was summoned by the famous and greatest marvel of that miracle which had been done for Waning: that is, that he had been restored to the gate of life from the threshold of death by the prayers of the priest and the abbot, and that on his deathbed the chaos of Hell was revealed to him through a rapture, and that through a heavenly vision, as happened to King Hezekiah, 20 years had been added to his life. Whereupon, at this heavenly spectacle, a mighty rumour gathered all the primates of the Franks and a great multitude of the people. Therefore, the work for which the pontiff and the abbot had convened was carried out, the monastery was dedicated, a number of holy virgins was gathered and a Rule for living was set out. There was at that time in the town of Bordeaux a virgin of Christ name Hildemarca, governess in a very holy monastery of nuns, to whom a certain man of God and deacon named Sindard, when he was sent to those parts on the business of the servants of God at Fontenelle, was accustomed to turn for hospitality. She told him that she had been admonished in a vision that she should go to Rouen and visit the man of the lord Wandregisl and obey the divine edicts under his rule. As is described in her deeds, she went to the servant of Christ, and he led her to the aforesaid very illustrious Waning, and the same Waning, bestowing the aforesaid abbey of Fécamp on the blessed Wandregisl through a testament, by his advice gave it to the same very religious virgin to be ruled. The little book which was written of her acts clearly tells of her biography and her laudable way of life.

3. After King Chlothar had died, Childeric received the realm of the Franks. He did not quite hold the realm for four years before he died and was succeeded by his brother Theuderic. In his time, Ebroin the mayor of the palace held St Leodegar, bishop of Auxerre, in chains. He summoned the aforesaid Waning and said ‘Take Leodegar, whom you have often seen as a proud man. It is to be the time of his final summons, when he receives what he deserves from his enemies.’ Having received him, he took him to the aforesaid abbey, in which, abiding for many days, he stayed under custody. And indeed his tongue, although it had been cut out, received its usual office, and gave unto the people the mighty seed of his doctrine, so that as many times as he went amongst the virgins, as it is said, so many times did his sweet eloquence shine, so that anyone who heard it marvelled how great a mercy of God had been worked; and having converted from their wicked works they quickly sought the fruit of penitence.

4. The same place flourished from the time of the aforesaid kings until the time of Emperor Louis, son of Charlemagne. In his time, the cruellest race of the Danes burst in on France’s shores, and brought no little slaughter to the Christian people. Whence it happened that the nuns fled the aforesaid monastery, and the same place was returned to wasteland, such that what had been an ornament for those who worship Christ became a dwelling-place for wild animals.

5. In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation eight hundred and seventy six, with King Charles governing the realm of the Franks, a certain Rollo, a Dane by nation, a pagan by rite, a knight by order, with his men, entered France by ship. After wreaking terrible havoc on the land, he received a part of it from the aforesaid king and the magnates of the realm; and having gained baptism’s grace he remained faithful for the rest of his life. As long as he lived, he ruled that land well, and he preserved for its dwellers their paternal laws and rights. In the nine hundred and seventeenth year from the Lord’s Incarnation he quit this world.

His son William succeeded to his realm, who built the palace of Fécamp with marvellous workmanship. While he dwelled there, he begat a son named Richard, a child elegant in form, whom he commanded be instructed in legal disciplines by the princes of his land. In that time, no-one yet lived in the aforesaid destroyed monastery, because a great wood had grown over the destroyed walls there. In that place, the estate’s peasants covered up, as far as they were able to at the time, an altar they had found amongst the brushwood, concerning the beginnings of which (as we have heard from the ancients) the Creator and Redeemer of the human race, foreknowing that He would be served in that place in future, deigned to reveal a great miracle in the form of a certain marvellous stag.

6. It happened that in those days, in the district of the Cotentin, on a certain island in the sea named Saint-Marcouf, there was a chapel build from well-worked wood in memory of that confessor. God, wishing to show mortals how great and good the same place would be in future, which was then little and vile to men, deigned to work a certain act. Truly, the sea, obeying the commands of its Maker, led by an angel, sent that whole building to the aforesaid place of Fécamp in the same state it had previously been in, without human help, and left it there.

7. Widespread rumour of this deed spread, and nearly from that hour it began to be venerated by the nearby inhabitants, and when it came to pass that they wanted to celebrate the divine office there, not at that time knowing in whose honour the place should be venerated, there suddenly appeared to them a man elegantly fit out in venerable white, who entered the oratory in the sight of everyone and placed on the altar a dagger on whose hilt was written in letters of gold: ‘in honour of the Holy Trinity’. When he had placed this on the altar, he prayed, and saying nothing to anyone he left the oratory and then was not visible, from which he was shown to be indubitably an angel of God. The dagger is kept to this day in that church as a great gift, in testimony of this miracle.

8. In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation nine hundred and forty three, Duke William was killed by a trick by Count Arnulf. The youthful Richard, of pious memory, succeeded to his realm. He, because of God’s will and his birth, loved the aforesaid place. One day, standing at the entrance to his house, he noticed that the house itself was taller and more capacious than the basilica dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity. He summoned a stonemason who was skilled in the art of architecture and said to him: ‘It is right and fitting that the house of God and of prayer should be roofed superlatively well, with particular beauty and appropriate height, to be supereminent over all the buildings of this city; because the Shaper and Redeemer of mankind assigned it to himself by his generous indulgence, to be the mother of wonderful regeneration through the bath of symbolic washing, and in this building we ought to hear the words of divine wisdom and weep for our sins. For this hall is named the gate of Heaven, and it is where they dwell and over which heaven’s dwellers preside. This house is, as the Psalmist says, ‘the hill of God, the fat hill, the hill in which God is pleased to dwell’, ‘for the Lord will dwell in it to the end’. For this is the hill on which my grandfather Rollo saw himself standing, through the salutary mystery of the holy vision, and washing himself in the fount of salvation; and in a dream beheld himself purified from the leprosy of the vices by which he was infected. Therefore, as it is fitting that the house of God should excel our house, with a loftier design and a bigger roof, try and find if you can any building stone in the gullies and heights of the nearby hills, with which you might be able to construct a temple of God taller than the house we live in’.   

And the man grasped a mattock forthwith, and went first to the cliffs along the hills, and picked away at their base with digging tools, and not finding any stony materials hard enough for his wall, he went to the slopes of the hills lying between two little streams near Fécamp and there he found a mass of gypsum. And he cut out one stone of gypsum in the shape of a cube and brought it before Duke Richard. Then said the great duke Richard: ‘Can you find enough such stone?’ He replied ‘Enough, my lord’. And Richard: ‘Put this stone in a safe place, and send many workmen to quarry the rocks, and make up a good many kilns of quicklime; because, when all the things that are necessary have been prepared, this is what I will lay down first, as the initial foundation, as notice of the raising of a house of God.’

Eventually, when the lime was prepared and the stones quarried and piled up and the tiles artfully manufactured, the most celebrated margrave constructed a shrine in honour of the Holy Trinity which was wonderful to speak of and to see. It was formed on an admirable plan, being girded with towers here, there, and on every side, and was amazingly double-arched and roofed with tiles artfully fitted together. Then he whitewashed it on the outside; but the inside he painted with historical scenes and decorated the altars with gold and jewels acquired at great cost; and he made crosses of admirable largeness from the purest gold, and he added chalices of great weight and cost in gold, and he set up golden candelabra before the sanctuary that were much taller than the figure of a man, and he assigned incense-burners of unheard-of bigness and value, made of gold, and vestments embellished by the Phrygian loom and dyed more than once in Tyrian reds. To which he applied panels with coarser gold and emerald greens, and white and purple linens embroidered with gold, and to the embroidery he devoted full silk of admirable workmanship. And he caused a numerous throng of clergy to serve Christ and labour under the discipline of the practical life and receive a day’s allowance every day.

9. In those days there was a certain priest named Isaac, a man of good life, who frequently celebrated solemn masses at the altar of the holy bishop and confessor Macutus not far from Fécamp, two miles away. One day, in his usual way, he was doing this after the Sunday prayer and he found the host turned into flesh and the wine similarly to blood. And thus, after he had completed the mysteries and dismissed the faithful who were in the church, he went to Prince Richard and told him what had happened to them. The joyful duke gave thanks to God, Who deigned to reveal such a mystery to mortals, lest anyone thereafter should doubt it to be the body and blood of God. Therefore, having gathered a multitude of clerics, they brought the true body into the church at Fécamp and placed it on the altar of the Holy Trinity. With everything which was necessary for the dedicated prepared, the aforesaid duke gathered fourteen bishops, and with great joy, in the year of the Lord’s Incarnation nine hundred and ninety, on the 17th kalends of July [15th June], they happily dedicated the church. On that day, Duke Richard gave as a gift to that church… Argences and Mondeville with everything which pertained to them…

[Underlined sections very lightly adapted from the translation by Eric Christiansen]

The abbey of Fécamp today (source)

The other major event in the West Frankish kingdom in 911 was of course* the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, granting Rouen and the adjoining districts to the Viking leader Rollo and laying the foundations for the duchy of Normandy. I didn’t want to let this pass unnoticed, but I’ve already said much of what I wanted to say under the Charter A Week for 905, and much of the rest will come in the equivalent for 918. So, with that in mind, I have translated for you possibly the earliest history of Normandy from within the duchy itself.

This text, known as the Fécamp Chronicle, comes, unsurprisingly, from the abbey of Fécamp. It can be dated quite precisely: it was written after the death of Duke Richard I in 996 (note that he shows us as ‘of pious memory’) but before the replacement of the canons of Fécamp by Benedictine monks in 1001, a year that the Benedictine community regarded as its real foundation date. This, incidentally, provides important evidence about the dating of Dudo’s Historia Normannorum, because the underlined section was taken from there wholesale by the Fécamp Chronicle’s author (who appears not to have been Dudo, because he uses a completely different set of hagiographical sources). This means that parts at least of Dudo’s work were both extant and circulating as early as 1000.

That is in and of itself significant. Cross has recently argued that one of the reasons we think of Normandy as, well, ‘Normandy’, is that the dukes were willing and able to throw vast amounts of patronage at literary production. The value of the word ‘propaganda’ has been questioned in this context, but I think it’s apt enough. This text is a good example of that. The work is not really about how great the Norman dukes are, it’s about how great the abbey of Fécamp is, and about showing continuity in its holiness between the year 1000 and its far-flung Merovingian past. Yet when they need to draw on a Norman past, it is the ducal version (and Dudo’s specifically) which they draw on. Fécamp was very close to the dukes, but we can see similar phenomena in other Norman abbeys as the eleventh century progresses.

One can even see it outside of Normandy by a later period – when versions of Norman history show up in twelfth-century French works, from my admittedly-limited experience, they tend to be based on Dudo. This is particularly interesting, because what you don’t find are the versions of the story found in, say, the histories of Adhemar of Chabannes or Richer of Rheims. Neither of these specific works circulated terribly widely, but the stories they are telling may have done. Especially in the former case, some bits of the Fécamp Chronicle look like they’re addressing specific charges made against Rollo. For instance, Adhemar describes how Rollo continued with pagan practice after his baptism, including sacrificing prisoners to the Norse gods; by contrast, the Fécamp Chronicle insists that he remained faithful until his dying breath. It therefore looks like the dukes were using their resources to flood the market with their own version of the story – and that it worked.

*I say ‘of course’; our evidence for the date of the foundation of Normandy comes from Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s Historia Normannorum and is… a bit tenuous, let’s say.

Norman Sexuality, Norse Sexuality

It’s been a busy week here in Tübingen, not least on the blogging front, and that’s why this week you’re getting something a little more light-hearted. I’ve written before about the distinctiveness of Norman sexual culture in the context of Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s biography of the first Norman rulers, but I don’t think I talked about why it’s distinctive. Well, I’ve been doing a bit more research on this topic, and the results are quite interesting.

The first thing to say is that Dudo is not alone in his interest in sex, in the context of Norman literature. There’s a whole cluster of sexually-explicit poetry from basically the same time. For those who don’t know it, I recommend (for a given value of ‘recommend’) checking out the poem Moriuht, which is hair-raisingly explicit even by modern standards; it’s not every medieval source one can describe by using the phrase ‘Viking gang-bang’. Such work isn’t unparalleled from elsewhere in the Frankish world – the Ottonian author Liutprand of Cremona writes a lot of filthy jokes as a way of showing how bad Italian rulers are – but what’s striking is that, whereas for most Frankish authors explicit expression of sexuality is largely a tool of insult, in Norman literature it is neutral or even positive.

All this is simply to repeat that Norman sexual mores are different from those of their neighbours. So what made Normandy different? Well, obviously, its Norse background. Other scholars such as Elisabeth van Houts and Klaus van Eickels have already suggested Scandinavian roots for Norman ideas about sex and gender, but whilst they are very interesting and may well be true, they rest on reading back saga evidence from centuries later into early Norman evidence, and that makes me a little uncomfortable. What I’ve been doing this last week, then, is looking at contemporary Norse literature (which in practice means skaldic poetry) for parallels. And there are some!

“If it’s longer than it’s wide…” (source)

Take, for instance, the Hákonardrápa of Hallfreðr Óttarsson, written in the latter part of the tenth century in praise of Jarl Hákon the Powerful. Hákon’s conquest of Norway is described as follows: ‘[Hákon] draws under himself the foliage-haired waiting wife of Þriði [i.e. the land] by means of true words of swords’. This motif is actually a very direct parallel of one found in Dudo wherein Rollo makes a personified Francia pregnant, although I think that’s parallel evolution rather than direct influence.

There are other examples of this from elsewhere in Scandinavian writing, but I’ll skip past them for the general point. It seems as though Scandinavian sexual culture was more out there, and that in particular sex had a greater role to play in discourses supporting legitimate authority. Normandy’s Scandinavian background therefore makes sense as a reason why its sexual culture was different from its neighbours. This is not to say that randy, macho Vikings imported an alien plant into Frankish soil; rather than elements within Scandinavian culture went well with elements of a Frankish culture that had many points of similarity to it, and so some ideas which in the latter may have been secondary found a more fertile environment and could play a more prominent role.

Let’s Talk About Sex (And Early Normandy)

Were I to note that Norman sexual culture around the year 1000 appears to have been unusually bawdy in comparison with the principality’s neighbours, I would not be the first to make this observation. This is, after all, the culture which gave us Moriuht, the only Latin poem which requires the phrase ‘homosexual Viking gang bang’ in a plot summary. However, the topic is of more than simply literary interest. In the moments I can snatch between revising dative prepositions, I’m currently writing up a couple of papers I gave last year, about the surprisingly key political role masculine sexuality played in legitimising the Norman dukes; and maybe this will interest you all.

Who am I to not make the most obvious reference I could? (source)

But first I need to introduce to you Dudo of Saint-Quentin. Nothing about his background suggests he was at all unusual: he had a traditional education in north-eastern Gaul, and a respectable if not distinguished career as a canon in Saint-Quentin, in eastern France. Even his name suggests an origin amongst the middling nobility of the West Frankish/Lotharingian border. However, the work he produced, the Historia Normannorum, is tremendously weird. Written in around 1000, it is a series of biographies of the earliest dukes of Normandy, written in Latin at the commission of Duke Richard I and later his half-brother Count Ralph of Ivry. It presents the first Norman duke, Rollo, and his descendants as saints, blessed by God with the highest level of divine virtue and earthly success. Because of this, it is notoriously unreliable in matters of fact and actively tendentious. However, it also provides key insights into the earliest days of Norman political culture, and in its form and detail is comparable to no other contemporary text about a non-royal ruler.

And it’s full of sex, in a way which one can’t really parallel from other tenth-century texts, certainly not ones which purport to describe saintly laymen. St. Gerald of Aurillac, whom we have discussed here before, is a case in point: part of his holiness is his rejection of sex, in order to live more like a monk. Even St. Gangulf of miraculous farting fame, whose marriage was accepted by his hagiographer, was sex-neutral.

In Dudo’s work, however, the right kind of sex is actively good, as it demonstrates the right kind of masculinity, the kind necessary to rule as virile a people as the Normans. Book 3, the biography of Normandy’s second duke William Longsword and easily the most interesting bit of the whole work, illustrates this rather neatly. One of William’s big problems – and believe me, it’s presented as a bad thing – is that he wants to leave the world and become a monk; consequently, he avoids sex. His other main problems is his tendency to avoid fighting. Between them, these are the great detriments to his authority over the Normans, and they are linked – at one point, his men accuse him of being ‘frigid in arms’, and no, you’re not projecting the double-entendre.

Consequently, the narrative is structured so as to resolve both problems together. This accusation by William’s men as they debate how to react to a violent rebellion against William. William proposes to retreat into Frankish territory to seek help from his relatives, and his men categorically refuse to follow him, making plain the text’s fundamental point: ‘a girly man like you can’t rule over us real men’ (non vales nobis ultra viribus effeminatus praesse). This outrages William, who goes and slaughters the rebels more-or-less single-handedly. As he stands on the battlefield, surrounded by gore and corpses, a messenger comes to tell him that his wife has born him a son. His skill in arms and ‘arms’ proven, no further challenges to his authority arise during the text.

This is not to say that this is an autochthonous Norman development, however. For one thing, Dudo’s background was not Norman. For another, it wouldn’t do to paint Frankish culture as necessarily prudish. The notoriously-filthy Liutprand of Cremona is evidence enough against that, although his sexual invective is doing very different things to Dudo’s work. From Normandy’s next-door neighbour Flanders, however, comes a genealogy written by a priest named Witger, which discusses God’s special favour for the counts of Flanders in terms of their reproduction and thus, implicitly, sex. It’s nowhere near as explicit as in Dudo, and neither masculinity nor violence play much of a role, though.

So what I think we’re dealing with in Normandy is a situation where a strand of ideas about sex present but muted in Frankish culture found a more fertile ground in a territory where humour was more risqué and political authority was more explicitly gendered. Dudo’s work is part of an ongoing dialogue of legitimacy between ruler and ruled, picking up on its audience’s ideas and trying to steer them in one particular direction: that the Norman dukes are the best rulers because they are the best men, not least because they have the best sex.

(Incidentally, at one point Dudo describes William Longsword’s sword as having about six pounds of gold on the hilt; Eric Christiansen did the maths and reckoned that, to be balanced, it would indeed have to have been a long sword…)

Loyalty and Regime Change in Neustria, part 2: The Keys to the Kingdom

So, as of last time, Hugh the Great, duke of the Franks and master of kings, had died at the height of his power. What happened next? Hugh left split his domains between his two (presumably) oldest sons, Hugh Capet, the later king, and Odo. Hugh got Neustria (Paris, Orléans, and the Loire valley) and Odo got Burgundy – but in both cases, only for a given value of ‘got’.

Here, we must introduce a new character: Theobald the Trickster, count of Blois and Tours. Theobald had been Hugh the Great’s chief leg-breaker – it had been he, for instance, who had been Louis IV’s jailer after he was sold to Hugh in 945. After Hugh the Great’s death, he seems to have actively and aggressively expanded his power, capturing the cities of Châteaudun, Chinon, and Évreux on the southern border of Normandy. He also seems to have excluded Hugh Capet from exercising his father’s authority – in one memorable charter, he and his ally Count Fulk the Good of Angers are referred to as ‘by the generosity of the Lord, the administrators and governors of the [realm of Neustria]’ – Hugh doesn’t get a look-in. This is sometimes referred to as Hugh’s minority, but he was probably around 940 or so, making him around 16 when his father died and around 18 when the charter mentioned above was issued – easily old enough to be considered an adult. (King Lothar, as a parallel, took over his father’s role at a slightly younger age.) So it looks awfully like Theobald locked Hugh out deliberately.

The fallout from Hugh the Great’s death is fascinating, and I would probably argue for it being either the most or the second-most important moment in tenth-century West Frankish politics. This will not be last time I’ll come back to this time, so for the moment, here’s that question which bothers me about Theobald’s role: why did he do it? Why betray the son of his lord and benefactor?

Obviously, were I a Victorian (and even if I were a distressingly large number of modern people), I’d say it’s because he’s a Treacherous Aristocrat in the Century of Iron, Motivated only by Greed and Short-Term Advantage™. This is roughly on the level of accusing him of being naturally inconsistent because he’s French, and doesn’t work on its own terms – if Theobald were really interested in maximum returns from the new duke, why oppose him when it would be easier and less potentially perilous to simply sell him your services? Hugh’s brother Odo was fighting for his rights in Burgundy at this point, and Theobald had useful connections there – all he’d need to do was get Hugh to pay him, I don’t know, northern Burgundy for his help, and he would have made an easy profit. It must be that something actively drove Theobald out of Hugh Capet’s camp.

Hugh Capet was not an unknown quantity. Charter evidence indicates that his father had been putting him on the political stage, as it were, since he was a small child – his first appearance in the documentary record is in 946, and he witnesses charters alongside his father several times thereafter. Theobald and Hugh knew each other – so what didn’t Theobald like?

In 943, the ruler of Normandy, William Longsword, had been murdered. His son and heir, Richard the Fearless, was at the time a small child, and so a free-for-all over what would happen to Normandy resulted. Eventually, what seems to have happened is that Hugh the Great, allied to a Northman cabal, had left Richard in place in Rouen under his tutelage, whilst accepting the rule of a pagan Viking named Harald in western Normandy. At this time, though, the important city of Évreux in southern Normandy seems to have come under Theobald’s auspices – its bishop is found in his retinue by the late 940s.

By the time of Hugh the Great’s death, Richard the Fearless seems to have worked his way towards a closer alliance with Hugh and his family. The historian Dudo of Saint-Quentin claims that Hugh the Great betrothed his daughter Emma to Richard before his death. Dudo was writing a tendentious piece of Norman ducal propaganda, and so this claim is surrounded by panegyric addressed to Richard, and its chronology is all over the place. However, the contemporary chronicler Flodoard does record that Richard and Emma married in 960, and that after that Hugh and Theobald were hostile. It may be that, leaving aside Dudo’s extraneous verbiage, the basic elements of his story – that Richard was betrothed to Emma before Hugh the Great’s death and had a more prominent place in Hugh Capet’s entourage afterwards because of this – are roughly correct.

In that case, the potential threat to his control of Évreux might have been an important push factor leading Theobald to oppose Hugh. It might even have been that the idea of handing land back over the Normans from whom Hugh the Great had captured it only a decade or so before was morally repugnant to Theobald, although this is speculation. To my mind, though, whatever the specific factors behind Theobald’s decision, a sense comes through that his opposition to Hugh Capet followed on from his role under Hugh the Great – a sense that he could hold up the elder Hugh’s legacy better than his son could, that after risking life and limb in service to his ruler, he wasn’t going to be pushed out in favour of parvenu Northmen by the son. Of course, looking at the ideological aspect of Theobald’s conflict with Hugh is another long essay, and this has gone on for two posts already, so I’ll leave it here. As I said, though, this is not the last time I’ll come back to this…