The Ellwangen Relics Casket and Royal Family Feuds (Louis the Stammerer i)

Sometimes, something can be moved right from the bottom of the agenda to the top purely through serendipity. This happened to me recently when my wife came to visit me in Germany. We went to the Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, a museum I happen to really like and have visited on several occasions before. This time, though, I saw something I’d never noticed before:

The Ellwangen Reliquienskästchen, s. ix ex, photo by author

This is the Ellwangen Relic Casket, and the label says that the three figures on it are the Carolingian emperor Charles the Bald, his son Louis the Stammerer, and his second wife, Louis’ stepmother, Richildis. I had never heard of this thing before, and the portrayal of all three of them on a high-end luxury item got me to restart something I had been playing with and put aside a few months earlier: a rehabilitation of Louis the Stammerer’s role in his father’s late reign. 

Traditionally, Louis the Stammerer is seen as a peculiarly rubbish king. He is not well-served by the simple but unfortunate fact that his reign only lasted for eighteen months, after which he finally succumbed to an illness which had originally struck him down in the summer of 878. However, before that he had a twenty-year career during his father’s reign. Historians almost universally consider Louis’ role under Charles the Bald as that of a useless irritant who failed at everything he tried and whose relationship with his father was unusually toxic even by the low standards of Carolingian men. Louis first emerges on to the scene being crowned King of Neustria in 856, but he was driven out of the region a couple of years later. He returned in the early 860s, and in 862 was part of a conspiracy to rebel between Charles the Bald’s children, which led to his leading an armed revolt with Breton help for a couple of years before he submitted to Charles in the mid-860s. Charles then refused to confirm Louis in his royal title, before sending him in 867 to become king of Aquitaine in company with officials from Charles’ own palace. In 872, Charles sent his new favourite and brother-in-law Boso of Provence into Aquitaine as Louis’ chamberlain, seemingly ending what little role Louis actually played in governing the region. In 875, Louis was sent to Lotharingia to defend it against Louis the German’s invasion, which ended up steamrollering the area. By 877, when Charles set out on his final journey into Italy, he issued a capitulary at Quierzy refusing to confirm Louis as his sole heir and assigning him a series of minders to monitor his behaviour whilst Charles was away. Charles’ ultimate aim, it is argued, was to displace Louis as heir through having more sons with Richildis, and some historians have seen Richildis’ hand in the emperor’s hostility to his son. Ultimately, though, there is general consensus that in the face of Louis’ ineptness Charles refused to allow his son power, responsibility, or respect. 

I don’t intend to go over Louis’ entire career here. (I will in passing note that Louis was about ten years old when made king of Neustria in 856, so whatever went wrong there it’s unlikely to have been his fault*.) What I’d like to focus on for this post is that last decade, the 870s, and specifically Louis the German’s invasion of the West Frankish kingdom in 875. For context, in 875 Emperor Louis II of Italy had died, prompting an instant battle for possession of Italy between Charles the Bald and Louis the German and his sons. Whilst Louis’ son Karlmann got sent into Italy, Louis himself launched a speedily assembled invasion of the West, hoping to force Charles to return north of the Alps and perhaps hoping to take over some more of his kingdom’s west. Here, whilst it is true that Louis the Stammerer didn’t try and fight his uncle in Lotharingia, I’d like to argue that what he did instead was a more sensible and ultimately successful strategy. The first thing to note here is that Louis the German was a very successful and experienced military leader and the East Frankish army was much more battle-hardened than its West Frankish equivalent. In this context, actually trying to fight Louis the German in a pitched battle would have been very stupid. The defensive strategy adopted instead was to focus on strategy, logistics, and politics. The greatest threat posed by Louis the German – which we see too in his invasion of 858 – was his capacity to win over West Frankish magnates. His greatest weakness was the fact that his army had been assembled in such haste. Louis’ supply lines were short. West Frankish defence therefore focussed on ravaging the area where Louis was based, and on reinforcing the loyalty of border magnates. Both of these things we know about largely thanks to Hincmar of Rheims, who strongly disapproved of both. Hincmar’s bias, though, is very palpable, and there’s no reason to take his opinion seriously. Stripped of his commentary, what we can actually see happening is a strengthening of the political loyalties of eastern West Frankish magnates which meant that (unlike in 858) there was no mass defection in favour of Louis; and the constant attrition of his supply base ultimately forced him to retreat after only a few weeks. 

Yet there is more. Louis the Stammerer played a major role in opposing Louis the German, but he didn’t do it alone. Leading the defence alongside him, probably as the senior partner, was his stepmother Richildis. Carlrichard Brühl, referring to Charles’ perceived disdain for Louis as his heir, said it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine Richildis’ role in trying to disinherit her stepson. That’s literally true, but one would hope historians would apply a bit more imagination before basing their analysis on tropes from the Brothers Grimm. In fact, their actions during the events of 875 suggests that Louis and Richildis were effective co-operators and political allies.

This is where the Ellwangen Casket comes in. We have to admit right away that the identification of the three figures on the casket is not entirely certain. The argument was made by Percy Schramm. He noted that the scholar who originally described the casket, Fritz Vollbach, identified it as a product of the West Frankish ‘court school’ of ornamentation in the 870s. Schramm then argued that a) it was nothing originally to do with the abbey of Ellwangen (and indeed we still don’t really know how it got there) and b) probably wasn’t intended to house relics, because there’s no dedication to any saint on it. He then argued that the place of honour of the female figure made it likely that this person was the recipient of the casket. Furthermore, Schramm argued, we have more portraits of Charles the Bald than any of his contemporary kings, so surely one of them must by Charles making the woman Richildis and the other king likely Louis the Stammerer. I think Schramm’s argument could be strengthened here, actually – if it’s from the West Frankish court in the 870s, this makes it overwhelmingly likely Charles is pictured on it, something Schramm implies but doesn’t actually state explicitly. Anyway, that’s the argument for the identification of these figures, and it’s not universally accepted. I read one article making a very lengthy case that these three figures are supposed to represent the holy Trinity as part of an overall iconographic scheme based on the theology of the Irish monk Eriugena, an article I think mostly shows how much ingenuity can be used to read theological arguments into a golden box, but which nonetheless advises us to take a note of caution before accepting Schramm’s conclusions uncritically.

Nonetheless, if Schramm is right, and I think he probably is, then I’d be more inclined to see Richildis as the patron of the casket than its recipient. I’d also probably date it to around 875. (It can only be from 870-877 anyway, because that’s the dates for Richildis’ and Charles’ marriage.) The two men on the casket are dressed in Byzantine-style imperial regalia, making it likely it was produced in the context of Charles’ imperial ambitions and the conquest of Italy. If so, then the placement of Richildis next to Louis becomes very important. That the three figures are shown together is a public and material statement of their alliance. If Richildis is the patron, moreover, then the inclusion of Louis gains particular significance because she didn’t have to have him portrayed on there – a husband/wife pairing would be quite sufficient. It indicates that Richildis wanted her alliance with Louis specifically noted – perhaps because of their successful defence of the kingdom from Louis the German. In 875, an alliance between Richildis and Louis the Stammerer was not just empty words – it came off the back of a fierce fight to defend their kingdom and their own conjoined authority. Thus, it becomes a beautiful illustration of Louis’ effectiveness in constructing familial alliances in the context of effectively managing delegated responsibilities. 

This isn’t all I could say about Louis. The reason I wanted to write this blog post is because I’m currently working on an article about this and the blog format is one which forces me to summarise my argumentation, in turn clarifying the extended version I’m doing for the article. But the events of 875 are only one of the things we’re looking at. Next week, in a translation post, we’ll take a look at Louis’ inheritance, the Capitulary of Quierzy, and a little known capitulary text recently redated from Charlemagne’s reign to that of Charles the Bald. 

*In fact, we know what went wrong here, and it’s entirely down to Charles’ mismanagement of regional patronage. 


Did India have an Early Middle Ages?

When writers in Europe started dividing history into the ancient-medieval-modern periodisation system familiar today, they did so in light of a past and future which they believed to be Roman. The end of the Western Roman Empire marked the beginning of their medieval period. Likewise, the revival of classical culture and city life that figures such as Petrarch and Bruni perceived in their own times signalled the onset of modernity, a new era that rescued the spirit of the ancient from the medieval caesura. Historians can (and do) question the usefulness of this periodisation for Western Eurasia, but it looks even worse when applied to the majority of the human world for whom Rome was at most a name. While the Roman Emperor Valens was dying in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople in 378, Teotihuacán was expanding its political and cultural influence among the cities of the Maya. As Alaric sacked Rome in 410, the Gupta empire was enjoying a year of unexpected peace, following the successful conclusion of a series campaigns by Chandragupta II. And 476, the year that Romulus Augustulus began his career as a former emperor, was the same year that Emperor Xianwen of Northern Wei ended his by being assassinated; but was otherwise just another year in the age of the Northern and Southern dynasties. In this light, attempting to fit these places into a periodisation synchronised to that of the western half of the Roman empire seems perverse.

Worse still, such efforts come with their own history. This is particularly the case with India, the region I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. James Mill’s periodisation of Indian history into Hindu-Muslim-British (The History of British India, 1817) was quickly conflated with ancient-medieval-modern. This naturally suited colonial administrators, as it made modernity in India coterminous with British rule. It was also surprisingly popular with certain groups of Indian nationalists, because it reified their vision of Hindu culture as the output of a pure ‘classical’ period that represented the true India, while implicitly making the ‘Muslim age’, generally identified with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, the bad ‘medieval’ period.

The Ghateshwara Mahadeva temple, dedicated to Shiva, in Rajasthan. Tenth century, but is it early medieval? (source)

All of this context is intended to signal a note of caution for the rest of this post. Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent more time than I previously expected reading about the history of India in the eighth and ninth centuries, initially as I tried to track down the origins of Charlemagne’s elephant, Abu al-Abbas, and later out of straightforward fascination. One of the things that has struck me are the parallels between what I found in India and Western Europe in this period, in ways that I don’t think exist in the Caliphate or Tang China, to give two examples. What I’d like to do today is consider some of those parallels and ask whether we can meaningfully talk about an ‘early medieval India’.

I am grossly beyond the limits of my competence here, with my expertise merely stretching to having read a few books. In the interests of brevity, I have removed most of the qualifications and admissions of ignorance that should follow nearly every sentence. The Indian subcontinent is enormous and fantastically diverse, and most of what I have to say applies to Northern India (the Imperial Cholas are fascinating but seem to me to be doing their own thing). Everything I say should be taken with extreme caution, and I would welcome comments and corrections on this post even more than usual.

I’m also by no means the first person to talk about ‘early medieval’ India. In the 1950s and 60s Marxist historians such as Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi and Ram Sharan Sharma began applying that label to the period between about 550 and 1206. These scholars used the term for these centuries because although they pre-dated the Delhi Sultanate, they identified the rise of feudalism in this period, making it medieval in their eyes. I have spent a career avoiding talking about feudalism in Europe (and most historians who deal with it would probably say it develops after the early medieval phase) so I’m certainly not going to engage with it now in India, except to say that’s not what I’m talking about. Nor am I necessarily talking about the implied chronological sequence inherent in the terminology. My ‘early medieval’ India does not need to be followed by a period resembling the high or later Middle Ages in Europe. Rather, it seems to me that early medieval Europe is defined by a number of features that also appear in India at roughly the same time.

Feature 1

The region used to be dominated by a single large empire with pretensions to universality, run in large part by appointed officials. It is now divided between a number of competing successor states which are each still large entities, and which explicitly claim the legacy of empire, but which are increasingly devolving administration to local landed elites. There is nonetheless considerable continuity in political institutions, as well as in language and culture.

This is fairly obviously the Roman empire, whose legacy carried on most straightforwardly in Byzantium, but also in the ‘barbarian’ kingdoms to the west, seen through continuities in political elites and structures, and the prestige of Latin and Classical culture, right down to Charlemagne having himself crowned Emperor in Rome.

But it’s also the Gupta empire, which dominated northern India from the late third to the sixth centuries. After its decline, large kingdoms emerged, all influenced by the Sanskrit language and culture fostered by the Guptas. The most successful of these competing rulers, Harsha (r.606-647), briefly united most of the region, but this was short-lived. The empires that came after all fought for the same sites, including Harsha’s capital of Kannauj. Particularly interesting is the tendency for tax collection to be farmed out and gradually diminish. Imperial administration increasingly depended on a network of maharajas and rajas embedded in the locality whose status was inherited, rather than the court bureaucrats who had previously been more important.

Possible Objections – The successor kingdoms to the Gupta are generally much less explicit about their imperial inheritance and there isn’t anywhere that resembles Byzantium in terms of prestige and continuity. Although many of the texts that these monarchs drew upon took their form in the Gupta period, the actual legends they’re interested in were set in much earlier centuries. 

Feature 2

A class of religious and cultural specialists spreads across the region. Although they and their beliefs existed before, this period sees the standardisation of their spiritual texts and status. They acquire new prominence, legitimising secular rulers who give them land and the resources to build large temples and other cult structures. A lot of the really interesting intellectual ideas emerges in the form of commentary on scriptural texts, and older literature gets repurposed to fit the spiritual demands of the time.

This is Christianity in Western Eurasia, manifesting itself in the network of church buildings, church officials and institutions such as monasteries, employing large numbers of people and getting resources in the form of land, tithes and influence. Lay and ecclesiastical leaders combined in order to try to determine correct beliefs and practices. Moments like the Carolingian Renaissance get started with the preservation and reinterpretation of Classical work and Patristic writings, with an explosion in expositions and encyclopaedic writings. Classical texts such as Virgil’s Aeneid were reread to reveal Christian truths.

This manifests itself in India as the codification of Hinduism in the post-Gupta world. Key texts such as the Puranas are compiled or standardised, and commentaries start being produced on classical texts. I particularly enjoy the coincidence that Bede (672/3-735, best known in his own time for Biblical commentary) and Adi Shankar (likely early eighth century, the great commentator of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Ghita among others) probably chronologically overlapped. Brahmins start appearing across the region, acquiring large landholdings from the rulers they advise on correct practice and morality. Kings also found large temples which dominate the landscape. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata start acquiring a much more normative and sacred quality than they previously had.

Possible Objections – There is no equivalent to the Ecumenical Councils, or a Pope or a Patriarch trying to ensure unity and coordinating believers from above. As a consequence, you get much more variety in practice (see for example the Upapuranas which adapt the Puranas with Bengalese local customs). The religious landscape was much more eclectic, with Buddhism (see the Pala empire) and Jainism (the Chalukya empire) continuing to receive royal support, with a little bit of everything showing up everywhere. 

Feature 3

A decline in the size of urban centres and in the volume and importance of long-distance trade, as power moves to the rural countryside.

Cities across the Roman world, but particularly in the western half, become smaller and less dense, and trade, particularly in bulk goods such as grain and pottery, declines. Economies become simpler and more local, with fewer specialists. Similar patterns are described in India in the period.

Possible Objections – This is the one I’m least happy with. Most of the literature I can find makes this case for India, but I’ve also read some convincing work that suggests that the archaeology hasn’t yet been done to really say for certain, and that our understanding of long-distance trade in this period is based on some dubious assumptions, so possibly treat this with even more caution than the rest of this post.

Comparative Thoughts

Assuming that these parallels are real, it’s hard to point to a shared cause. Both the Guptas and the Romans had to deal with invasions by steppe nomads from Central Asia in the fifth century (the Hunas and the Huns respectively, and whether or not these are the same people is an argument I am very happy to stay clear of). But beyond their contributions to the collapse of said empires, it’s hard to see the Hunas/Huns as particularly important to shaping what followed. Likewise, while these regions represented respectively the eastern and the western frontiers of the early Caliphate, it’s difficult to see that commonality as being significant for other shared features. Arguments based on pan-Eurasian or global phenomena such as climate would need to explain the different paths taken in China or the Caliphate at the same time.  

At the moment, I’m inclined to see the parallels as the symptom of a shared pattern – what happens when a unipolar world with a complex literary culture and urban economy starts breaking up. Being a specialist in a different region, what I’m most interested in is how this type of comparison can help me get new perspectives on the places I work on. For me these fall into two categories: things which strike me as very different, and things that are the same but which I hadn’t previously noticed.

An example of the former is discussion of forest-people, now often known as Adivasi. Indian monarchs had a complicated relationship with the inhabitants of the forests, which could be found across the subcontinent, needing the products of their home (including elephants) and their expertise at extracting them, but finding them hard to control. Both parties benefitted from exchange, but viewed each other with suspicion, with the forest-people often being depicted as not quite human.

I can’t really think of an equivalent to this in the western early Middle Ages, where multiple lifestyles based on dramatically different ecological niches were entwined in quite the same way. Mountainous regions like the Alps, or marsh like the Fens just aren’t large enough or essential enough. The closest I can come to are places like the Hungarian Plain, or the homes of the Sámi, but these are fairly geographically contained. Instead, it puts me more in mind of the mutual dependence of pastoralist steppe nomads and their sedentary cereal-agriculture-practising neighbours along the Silk Road. One of the things this suggests to me is just how ecologically specialised the Roman world was. (Another point here might be to compare the thin strip of wheat-producing coastal North Africa ruled by the Roman with the much deeper reach of the Caliphate, which does a better job of engaging with the pastoralist peoples in the interior).

But there are also things that come which I recognise but the significance of which had previously escaped me. Indian scholarship puts a great deal of emphasis on this period as the age when monarchy becomes the default political system, eclipsing the oligarchical republics (gana-sanghas) that had previously spread across India. This is of course something that also happens in the Mediterranean, as the myriad city-states of the Mediterranean with their varied constitutions were first brought together under Roman rule and gradually subsumed into a political world shaped by emperors and kings (the new urban republics of Italy, Flanders and the Hansa would emerge after the early medieval period). This is a process that was obscured to me by my tendency to begin somewhere in the fourth or fifth century, in the more centralised administrative regimes of late antique Rome and the Sasanians, but is something I’d like to keep in mind in the future.

Another point that leapt out to me is the emphasis that many of these studies (particularly those of B.D. Chattopadhyaya and Hermann Kulke) put on the spread of the state to new places and the intensification of the presence of the state in old regions. Competing empires expand their reach into previously peripheral regions while in other places new states emerge in conversation with those from outside (the Deccan being a prime example). Elsewhere, the growing number of sub-kings and temples means that the land is being more intensively governed than it previously was, particularly in the countryside.

I was initially inclined to put this down as something that was different from Europe in this period. However, further thought suggested a number of places where state structures start emerging in early medieval Europe where there hadn’t been before, such as Saxony or Scandinavia. Elsewhere, by the tenth century places such as lowland Britain or northern Iberia are far more intensively governed than they were in the Roman period, through state systems that were less dependent on cities and more on palaces and religious institutions than previously.

I don’t have a grand thesis to conclude this post with. Historians are by necessity specialists in something, if only because the alternative becomes extremely shallow and loses all purchase in historical reality really quickly. But what I hope I’ve suggested are some of the possible benefits of looking for situations and environments that resemble one’s own specialisms in order to get a sense of what similarities and differences we find.

[Editor’s note: after reading this post, there were a lot of points in it I wanted to explore further. I am therefore pleased to say that – schedules of all involved allowing – a specialist in the history of the Indian Ocean has agreed to help us delve deeper into this comparison sometime in Q1 next year, so keep an eye out for that!]

[Further Editor’s note twelve months down the line: I’m sad the previous note didn’t work out, but schedules of all really didn’t allow: all three of us involved changed institutions at least once; in two cases that involved international moves and in one case multiple international moves. I’m still hoping we can work something out but academic precarity being what it is, it’s a difficult thing to co-ordinate…]

Practical Peace-making: Charlemagne’s Letter to Michael I (813)

We tend to view Carolingian peace-making from a high vantage point. Unnamed envoys appear in our sources and are received by a monarch, a peace is agreed, and the legates are graciously permitted to depart. Sometimes our annalist generously deigns to inform us about the general terms of the peace just made. Other times we have to work it out from context, inference and a certain amount of educated guessing (the treaties themselves rarely survive). As a result, we are often presented with peace as an accomplished fact rather than a long process. One of the consequences of this is that we generally have only a very fuzzy idea about the actual practicalities of this procedure. I’m not talking here about the backroom bargaining, the loud shouting and the quiet whispers, the discrete incentives and not-so-discrete scandals. Barring screw-ups, these matters are opaque even in the modern age. Rather, what I’m interested in today is the process of making a treaty real and official.

Fortunately, every so often we get lucky, and something survives that gives us a bit of a hint about the nuts and bolts of finalising a treaty in the age of Charlemagne. What follows is a translation of a letter sent by Charlemagne to the Byzantine Emperor Michael I (r.811-813). In addition to serving as something of a sequel to my previous post translating a letter to Nikephoros I, it also provides an interesting glimpse into the practical issues of making peace happen in the early middle ages.

Charlemagne, Epistolae variorum, ed. E. Dümmler, MGH Epp 4 (Berlin, 1895), no.37, 555-556.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Charles, by the largess of divine grace, Emperor and Augustus, and also King of the Franks and of the Lombards, wishes his esteemed and venerable brother Michael, the glorious Emperor and Augustus, eternity with our Lord Jesus Christ.

We praise Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and we thank him wholeheartedly, as much as humanly possible and according to the ability of our intellect, because He has deigned, through the inexpressible gift of his grace, to grant us this reward: just as He has deigned in our days to establish the long-sought and always-desired peace between the western and eastern empire, thus He has also now deigned in our time to grant unity and peace to His holy and immaculate Catholic Church, which extends over the whole world, in accordance with its daily prayers (just as He deigns to always rule and protect it).

We therefore speak of it as if it had already been realized, because we have done everything that had to be done on our part, and we do not doubt that you intend to do your part as well; for we trust in Him who ordered this work that we have taken in hand, namely to make peace; for He is loyal and truthful and appears as a helper for every good endeavour; He will thus also bring to completion what we have started well, as we really believe.

Seized by the desire to complete it, we have sent our present ambassadors, the venerable Bishop Amalarius of Trier and the pious Abbot Peter of the venerable Monastery of the Holy Apostles (Nonantola), into our esteemed brother’s glorious presence, in order to – in accordance with what the faithful ambassadors of your esteemed brotherly person, the venerable Bishop Michael and the glorious First Sword Bearers Arsafius and Theognostus, did with us when they received the written version of the treaty, confirmed both by our own signature and those of our priests and leading men – in the same way our envoys should receive from a sacred altar by your outstretched hand the written version of the agreement, confirmed by the signatures of your priests, patricians and leading men; so that they bring them to us, if God supports their journey. For reason demands it, and the agreement between us and your ambassadors said that after their departure, at the first opportunity for sailing, we shall send our ambassadors before the glorious presence of your esteemed brotherly person, who will receive the above-mentioned written version of the contract or alliance when you give it to them, and bring it to us.

So we ask your esteemed and fraternal person that, if you like the version of the contract that we have drawn up and sent to you, you might deign to give the same – in Greek and strengthened in the way we said above – to our already mentioned envoys; and that after they have come to you and have been kindly received by you, as we expect from your affection, you dispatch them without any delay, so that we may enjoy their return and the answer of your esteemed brotherly person, if God stand by us; and that God, the giver of all good, may reimburse you with a worthy compensation for what you have expended to be a friend and promoter of this peace, which He has ordered should rule between us. Farewell.

Michael I confers with his courtiers, Madrid Skylitzes, Madrid Biblioteca Nacional de España, Graecus Vitr. 26-2, 11r.

There are a few things going on here. As discussed with the letter to Nikephoros, the Franks and the Byzantines had been at loggerheads over Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in 800 and Carolingian intervention in Venice and Dalmatia. Peace had become increasingly desirable to both sides as it became clear that the Franks weren’t going to take the disputed territories without putting in considerably more effort than Aachen was willing to. For its part, Constantinople had a growing Bulgar problem, as evidenced by Nikephoros’ death in battle against them and the use of his skull as a novelty drinking vessel by Khan Krum. As a consequence, Charlemagne’s new correspondent, Michael I, had his own incentives to seek peace. This spirit of détente had manifested itself in 812 in the form of the Byzantine embassy Charlemagne mentions in the fourth paragraph of the letter. These envoys acclaimed the Frankish monarch in the chapel at Aachen as Emperor and Basileus (the Greek title for emperor), recognising Charlemagne’s claim to imperial status. As the letter above notes, Bishop Michael, Arsafius and Theognostus also received a written copy of the agreed treaty, before going home via Rome where, interestingly, Pope Leo III presented them with another copy of the same treaty in St Peter’s Basilica. 

The letter to Emperor Michael has a number of fascinating features. Themes from the earlier letter reappear. Once again Charlemagne presents peaceful diplomacy between Aachen and Constantinople as the workings of divine will, making it seem both desirable and inevitable. We have the pleasure of renewing our acquaintance with Arsafius the skilled diplomat. The information about Charlemagne’s ambassadors is also useful, although we also have a fascinating account of the embassy written by Amalarius, the Versus Marini. Intriguingly, the letter refers to western and eastern empires, creating equivalence between the Carolingians and Byzantium while very carefully avoiding the word Roman. The shared institutions of the church are called upon to cement them in common purpose. 

Perhaps most interesting though is the passage where Charlemagne spells out the physical, legal and spiritual acts that he believes are necessary for the completion of the treaty, acts that he indicates he has already performed and which he (rather too intently and repeatedly to be entirely convincing) believes are a necessary formality that Michael will easily discharge. Specifically, Michael is to hand over personally a Greek version of the treaty, with the subscriptions of Michael’s chief followers, from on top of an altar.

This rather cumbersome set up, involving multiple journeys and the assembly of large chunks of the political communities of two empires, combines both written (the signed treaty) and oral testimony (the assembled witnesses) in an effort to make the deal stick. By swearing on the altar, both Charlemagne and Michael staked their relationship with God and their hopes of salvation on keeping their word. The public involvement of the leading figures of their realms raised the stakes of defecting further while also committing the Franks and the Byzantines as a whole to peace.

The really big question for me is how representative this all is. If, as Charlemagne is strongly trying to imply throughout this letter, this procedure is routine, then that would be fabulous. We could say that we know how peace between warring empires was made in the age of Charlemagne and could move on with our lives. There are a couple of hints that this might be the case. Similar features characterised the tenth-century treaties between Constantinople and the Rus’, preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle, which feature a complex combination of multiple written parchments and oaths sworn on relics and other items of religious significance. Byzantium was not unfamiliar with securing political deals by placing documents on the altar. In 776 Leo IV (r.775-780) had agreed to the demands of his generals that he make his infant son (Constantine VI r.780-797) co-emperor, but only if written oaths of loyalty sworn by the leading men of the empire on relics were placed on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. The procedure also bears a remarkable resemblance to what we know of ceremonies associated with the granting of land and property through charters (he writes, confident in the knowledge that his editor is amongst the most qualified people in the world to correct him).

On the other hand, there are a couple of other signs that something a bit weird is up here. When political operators get fixated on a detail that is apparently no big deal but nonetheless a really important thing to do, it’s a hint that something is afoot. Peace between the Carolingians and other polities was achieved with much less grief. The same year that Charlemagne wrote to Michael, he successfully concluded peace with the Danes following negotiations that had begun in late-812 with a ceremony that makes no mention of written treaties. In 812 he had made peace with the Umayyads of al-Andalus and Grimoald III of Benevento. The protracted pattern of multiple embassies over several years to nail down one peace treaty is unusual (although regular readers may remember something similar happening in last week’s Charter a Week – as noted above, it makes sense that the acts required to make a treaty valid would rely on the same mechanisms as other important agreements!), and should perhaps suggest that the specification of the need for all of the elements of written documents, oaths on relics and the participation of the entire political community in combination with each other is not necessarily standard procedure. Elements of these were probably in play with all peacemaking of this period, but this looks like something a bit special.

So what gives? I suspect that part of what is happening here is that Byzantium simply had a specific style of making peace which looked different to the normal practice of, for example, the Danes, one which placed emphasis on the written word (in Greek). But I also wonder if a bigger part is the nature of what Charlemagne wanted, which was recognition of his imperial title. He needed to know that Michael, his successors and their courts would take his position and those of his heirs as emperor seriously, and he needed to be able to communicate that recognition within his own empire. That made him care a lot more about the ceremony and the proof of complete acceptance than he might have in other cases.

One also gets a strong sense of urgency from Charlemagne’s letter. This may be a consequence of his own advancing years, for he turned 65 in April 813. It also probably reflects Byzantine political instability. Michael might fall quickly and be replaced by someone less sympathetic. Alternatively, should he defeat the Bulgars, his strengthened regime might decide to renegotiate. Getting this done now, while Michael needed Frankish neutrality, was a good idea.

If this was what lay behind Charlemagne’s thinking, then he was not wrong to desire haste. Michael’s campaign against Krum was more of a success than that of Nikephoros but only because he didn’t end up with his skull as part of the Khan’s kitchenware. The Byzantine army was defeated, Michael abdicated in favour of Leo V (r.813-820) and his sons were castrated. Michael himself spent the next thirty years living quietly as a monk. Amalarius and Peter arrived in Constantinople to find a Bulgar army outside. Upon their return to Francia in 814, they discovered that Charlemagne had passed away in their absence on the 28th January.

Within a year of the letter being composed, neither of the emperors was still in power. Despite this, Charlemagne’s purposes were fulfilled. Leo V ratified the treaty as the Frankish ruler had requested, sending more envoys to bear the document of the treaty. Louis the Pious and Leo engaged in an amicable relationship, confirming their friendship with further treaties in 814-815. Dealings between the Franks and the Byzantines may have been unusually complicated, but Charlemagne’s letter gives us an unusual glimpse at some of the legal heavy lifting behind the bland words of the annals.