The Rebel and the Apostle

Gratia Dei id quod sum. With these words, Boso of Provence foreshadowed his bid to become king, the first king not from the Carolingian dynasty in over a century. It’s a famous phrase, but there’s an aspect to it I’ve never seen discussed before (although some Googling revealed that it *is* analysed in a few places in passing), and never would have thought of had I not been on a weekend’s holiday in Prague. We got to St Vitus’ Cathedral too late to go in, and so we sloped off to go and have a drink in a nearby abbey brewery, but just as we were about to leave the Prague Castle complex, I saw this:

A statue of St Paul at Prague Castle (source)

‘This’ is a statue of St Paul, with an inscription above it from 1 Corinthians 15:10: gratia Dei sum id quod sum, ‘by the grace of God I am what I am’. Being as it is well over a decade since I read the Epistles, I’d not recognised Boso’s title in Paul’s words, but there it is, clear as day. So what’s going on?

In its Biblical context, Paul is laying out his doctrine on the resurrection of the dead, and prefacing it with his claim to authority.  Paul had not been part of the Christian community during Jesus’ lifetime, and his claims to be an apostle couldn’t be buttressed by references to his actual memory of Jesus. Given that he was trying to compete for status within the early Church with Jesus’ original disciples, up to and including his brother James, this was a problem; and it is this which he addresses in the opening verses of Corinthians. An expanded version of the quotation (1 Corinthians 15:5-10, NIV) goes:

[Jesus] appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

That is, it’s not that Paul was directly in the lineage of Jesus’ disciples. Rather, through hard work and grace he had achieved the same status.

You see where this is going? We know from the record of Boso’s election at Mantaille that his circle’s strategy for legitimating his kingship was engaged with the state-of-the-art of Carolingian political thought. Boso and his followers argued that by his own virtues, hard work, and God’s grace, he was entitled to a crown (even though he was not part of the ruling dynasty).

It is therefore easy to see the parallels between Boso and Paul. Neither had the kind of straightforward claim to authority – royal descent or proximity to Jesus – that their competitors had. Nonetheless, both still pressed their claims. In Paul’s case, this made him the single most important figure in the early Church after Jesus’ death. It also made him a model which Boso could emulate. After all, who was more authoritative than the man whom charters from the period regularly refer to as the Apostle? Ultimately it didn’t work – but it’s the authority behind Boso’s challenges to Carolingian rule which made him such a threat.


Charter A Week 85: All My Friends Are Here

By the early 960s, an era was drawing to a close. King Lothar was now in his twenties, and the great dramas of the first ten years of his reign were starting to die down. The succession to Hugh the Great in the Neustrian March was settling, not least in the face of Count Robert of Troyes’ continued occupation of the citadel of Dijon in the teeth of Lothar’s opposition. Here too, though, the years around 960 saw a settlement being reached. Lothar’s family was also changing shape. In 965, his uncle Archbishop Bruno of Cologne died. His mother, Queen Gerberga, lived for several more years but retreated into the background at roughly the same time. In the same year as Bruno’s death, moreover, Lothar married Otto the Great’s step-daughter Emma of Italy.

Still, in 961 all that is yet to come, and we have this week a diploma giving us a snapshot of Lothar’s early regime before the end:  

D Lo no. 14 (5th October 961) = ARTEM no. 160

In the name of the holy and individual Trinity.

Lothar, by God’s grace king.

Let it be known to all Our followers both present and future that Hugh, a count and Our kinsman, struck by the infirmity which caused him to leave this mortal coil, assigned to Our jurisdiction and granted to Our power the properties which either he possessed or which were unjustly stolen from him and he had legally and justly endeavoured to acquire, making the saints heirs thereto, provided that, by Our royal authority and guarantee, they be described to the churches to which he had designated they be given whilst he was still healthy; that is, so that what he had conferred upon the saints for the remedy of his soul not be taken by the frauds of bad people, who show themselves in acts of perverse habit to be completely unaware of God, and who decided by some vile means to possess the inheritance of sanctuaries of the Lord, not knowing the king and prophet David, who called down such curses as to send such people into the eternal storm, into disturbance, into ignominy and into eternal perdition, which curses the Universal Church thunders.

Wherefore through the consent of both Our bishops and Our counts and the others dwelling in Our palace, it pleased Us to give goods from the aforesaid goods of the said Count Hugh to each church as he had disposed, through Our precept. Whence Our most glorious mother Queen Gerberga, a lover of churches, approaching Our presence along with the venerable bishops Roric [of Laon] and Gibuin [of Châlons] and Count Ragenold [of Roucy], in order that We might give a certain curtilage from the aforesaid goods to Saint-Remi as the aforesaid Hugh had designated, that is, where that man of good memory had disposed to be buried both for the help of St Remigius and also for love of his lord the most glorious King Louis [IV], to wit, Our father. 

Assenting to their petitions, as was worthy, We give to Saint-Remi, as Hugh had designated, the curtilage which is called Condes, to wit, sited in the county of Bologne-sur-Marne, with all its appendages, meadows, woods, lands cultivated and uncultivated, pastures, waters and watercourses, incomes and renders; with bondsmen of both sexes, churches and mills, and with – as We said – all the goods pertaining to it, for the victuals of the monks. 

Whence We commanded this precept be mad, so that no person might come along and inflict any harassment on them. If they try this, let them know that they have acted against Our decree, for which reason let them incur the wrath of God and of all the saints and Us, and be unable to vindicate their claim, and thus led them come to justice and bestow a hundred pounds of gold for the service of Saint-Remi and the brothers, and leave denied. 

And that this might endure more firmly, confirming it with Our own hand We commanded it be signed with the impression of Our signet. 

Sign of the most glorious king lord Lothar. 

Chancellor Gezo witnessed and subscribed.

Enacted on the 3rd nones of October, in the 4th indiction, in the 7th year of the reign of the lord king Lothar. 

Enacted in the estate of Condes.

The original of this charter, from ARTEM as linked above. I’m not clear why it’s not in the Diplomata Karolinorum

Let’s start with Count Hugh. When Lothar says that Hugh was his ‘kinsman’, he’s being a little expansive with the term. Count Hugh seems to be the son of Count Roger II of Laon who himself was – probably but not certainly – the great-grandson of Louis the Pious via his daughter Gisla, wife of Eberhard of Friuli. This made him Lothar’s third cousin once removed. At that distance, being called a royal kinsman is as much a statement of alliance as anything else. It happens that (there being very little charter evidence from north-eastern France for much of the tenth century) we haven’t really encountered this family before, although from Flodoard’s Annals it’s clear they were significant regional players. In the early years of Louis IV’s reign, Roger II was not always a reliable ally. Eventually, though, he was brought on side, and the one time we’ve encountered him he was accompanying Louis to Aquitaine before dying soon afterwards. Hugh is a yet more exiguous figure, but from this diploma it’s clear he was quite important in Lothar’s following. Having now done a whole lot more reading around the subject than I had when I started this paragraph, largely in the vain hope of finding someone who would cite an actual source, I can say that he is often called count of Bolenois and/or Bassigny and given a lot of basically unsupportable genealogical connections. In actually, all we can say is that he was a major landowner in the area around Chaumont. That’s not nothing, though! This property here, at Condes, was one of two major tranches of land Hugh gave to Saint-Remi, alongside the Val-de-Rognon, south of Chaumont. These lands put Hugh right next to Lothar’s ally Abbot Odalric, who would be elected as archbishop of Rheims the following year; and also no more than about ten miles from the Roman road from Châlons to Langres which was an important transport corridor for Louis IV and Lothar and which we have discussed before. This route would have had particular salience in 961, with Lothar’s control over Dijon somewhat shaky. The disposition of Hugh’s estates, therefore, had real contemporary significance.

This diploma, though, gives us a sense of who is around Lothar at this time, his chief courtiers. The influence of Queen Gerberga here is noticeable: if you remember her charter for Homblières, you’ll remember Roric of Laon was there too, and I’ve written before about the role of Ragenold of Roucy (Gerberga’s son-in-law, and a prominent figure in Burgundian affairs) played in the 940s and 950s. Moreover, we can’t forget the significance of Saint-Remi either. Gerberga had an especial devotion to St Remigius, and as long as she was alive Rheims and its main abbey remained key elements in West Frankish royal power.

This would change by the 970s, as would almost everything else this charter shows about Lothar’s network of power. Nonetheless, the regime we see here stayed more-or-less stable for about a decade, maybe a decade and a half, and this charter is a key source for reconstructing it.

On Sea-Kings

Some time ago, we discussed viking kingship. One the things I argued at that time was that the viking rulers given the royal title in our sources fall into three categories: 1) we don’t know their background; 2) they were definitely part of the Danish royal family; or 3) they were probably part of the Danish royal family. Today, I would like to bring out one consequence of this argument a little further.

The concept of the ‘sea-king’ (ON sækonungr) is well-established in historiography. A ‘sea-king’ is a warrior chieftain, a leader of viking bands on raids across the sea, a man perhaps not much elevated amongst his warriors yet endowed by his success in battle with a special status, allowing him to claim in however small a way to be a king. They show up in the sagas with names – or, rather, nicknames –  like ‘Messmate’, ‘Clashing’, ‘Robber’, ‘Destroyer’. Work, especially on the early history of Norway, has pointed to these sea-kings as the local elites from amongst whom Harald Hairfair, the first king of Norway, emerged.

Excavations at Avaldsnes, one of Norway’s oldest elite sites (albeit of a more recent layer). Photo by Marit Synnøve Vea (source)

It is thus unfortunate that the first reference to ‘sea-kings’ in Old Norse comes from not much earlier than 1200, in Orkneyinga saga. (At least, that’s the earliest reference I know of.) Moreover, it is, to say the least, difficult to trace ‘sea kings’ in contemporary eighth- and ninth-century sources. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are none. It’s difficult to prove a negative, but there are a couple of people whose careers seem to tell against it. The viking leaders Hasting and Oscar, the former active between England and the West Frankish kingdom at the end of the ninth century and the latter operating in Aquitaine and on the Seine in the middle, are both relatively well-documented (by the standards of their contemporaries, anyway…). They both had successful careers over the course of decades – but even with that, no contemporary source calls them ‘kings’. Despite their prowess in battle, they remained simply chieftains.

This brings us back to my first post on this matter. As I argued, we have no definite examples of the various kings who appear in contemporary sources in the eighth, ninth, or early tenth centuries not being related to a pre-existing royal family. In my opinion, the so-called Uí Ímair active in Ireland and Britain in the ninth century were related to contemporary Danish royals. I’m willing to take this further: I can’t prove it, but I would be astonished if it were not the case that every king who appears in contemporary sources from the First Viking Age were not part of a pre-existing royal family. I’ve emphasised the Danish connection, but we know from Rimbert’s Vita Anskarii that there were several royal lines in what is now Sweden as well, all of which provides plenty of opportunity to produce surplus royals to seek their fortune as pirates.

What they all had in common, however, was that their claim to royal status was something with which they were born, not something they could gain through success in battle, however distinguished. This is not to say that all people with a claim to royal status automatically activated it. Some, such as Harald Klak in 827 and Roric of Dorestad in 857, required backing from the Carolingians. Equally, there was change over time. The emergence of the Uí Ímair as kings in Ireland and Britain is a novelty here. Olaf and Ivar first appear in our sources as kings in 863. Their father, Guthfrith, had been king in Denmark in the early 850s, but was killed in the civil wars of the middle of that decade. (Their brother, Halfdan, did become king in Denmark in the 870s, but we don’t know when he took the throne.) Olaf and Ivar’s innovation was that, despite not wielding power in Denmark, they nonetheless preserved their claims to royal status. I suspect that this was born of the close ties between viking bands in Ireland and elites in Denmark. As early as the late 840s, the king of Denmark was sending a special deputy (OI Tánaiste) to manage the Irish side of his affairs. In any case, being a viking king required being born of a pre-existing royal family.

What is the significance of this? For me, the particularly interesting thing about this is that viking societies are new, violent, and often flexible, adapting to the problems of ruling conquest polities. And yet, their view of kingship seems to be preserved from its Scandinavian origins. Moreover, the view of kingship as somehow numinous is a structural element in viking polities – success alone is not enough.

The most obvious point of contrast here is the Roman Empire, which was the most significant European polity where a sufficiently powerful rando could declare themselves supreme ruler. Some post-Roman kingdoms (looking at you, Visigoths) adopted similarly flexible practices of succession, and the fact that this doesn’t seem to have translated northwards is interesting: despite the traffic in people, goods, and ideas which passed at all times between Scandinavia and the Roman world, ideas about kingship didn’t make much impact. On the other hand, though, the ideas about kingship which the vikings found in the polities they met in the ninth and tenth centuries were rather close. For instance, in the Frankish world, with one sole and major exception, people don’t claim the royal office for themselves willy-nilly. Instead, one has to have that blood connection, or there has to be a pressing and immediate crisis of 888 levels. Similarly, one of the things that Björn Weiler shows well in his book we were talking about a few weeks back is that when, in the central Middle Ages, dynasties which have not previously been royal (such as the Normans of Sicily) take the crown for themselves, the groundwork has to be prepared thoroughly and in advance. The viking polities of the ninth and tenth centuries, then, were far from being outliers in a European context.

Of course, there is one counterpoint that some of you may be yelling at your computer screen. What about Norway? After all, the emergence of a Norwegian kingdom is surely an example of the creation of a royal bloodline in action. Isn’t this an exception to your case? Well, reader, it’s cliffhanger time! We will discuss the emergence of Norwegian kingship down the line – and how it fits into the argument I’m making here.

Periodising the Carolingians

What do we mean by ‘Carolingian’? This is a question which has been much debated amongst your blog team this year. After all, if I want to talk about a Carolingian ‘mandala polity’, it’s quite important to precis elements of political culture which are specifically Carolingian, more generally Frankish, or from a wider Roman-Christian background. This surfaced again recently, because I read Björn Weiler’s Paths to Kingship, a really lucid explanation of the political culture surrounding royal succession in the central Middle Ages. In his introduction, Weiler downplays Carolingian influence on later medieval ideas of kingship, mentioning specifically late eighth and early ninth century ‘mirrors for princes’ and their lack of reception in the central Middle Ages. He’s quite right about this, I think – the withering away of one particular Carolingian ideal of kingship over the tenth century is something I’ve clocked in my own research. (Abbo of Fleury is probably the last person to seriously propagate it, for what it’s worth, and he doesn’t garner much interest.)

What I think is worth pushing back against, though, is the equation of ‘Carolingian kingship’ with ‘kingship as imagined in the courts of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious’. More analytically useful for me is a three-fold division into ‘Early Carolingian’, ‘High Carolingian’, and ‘Late Carolingian’. Crucially, none of these have anything to do with the genetic heritage of the rulers (‘Early Carolingian’ could just as happily be called ‘Late Merovingian’; and about half the ‘Late Carolingian’ kings aren’t from the Carolingian family), but rather the different political cultures at play.

I don’t think this requires much justification, honestly. It seems a bit silly to suggest that there was something profoundly transformative about the rule of, say, Boso of Provence simply because his parents didn’t come from a specific patrilineage. After all, he and all his supporters had come to prominence in the court of Charles the Bald and their ideological concerns demonstrably resembled those of Charles’ court: it’s  straightforward simply to say ‘these men are kings of the same style’. Yet the prominence of the date 888 as ‘the fall of the Carolingian Empire’ creates a kind of optical illusion whereby Charles the Bald and Ralph of Burgundy seem to be operating in different worlds despite the actual deep continuities between their regimes.

In this context, the ‘Carolingian’ world Weiler is talking about is very much that of the ‘High Carolingian’ period. That is, the world of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, the one everyone thinks of: the one trying to remake the Frankish Empire in such a way that it will become a lean, smooth machine of general salvation. It’s intense, it’s moralistic, it produces lots of written sources – and it all falls apart quite spectacularly in the middle decades of the ninth century.

The major problem with Louis the Pious’ regime, rather like that of any earlier medieval penitential state, is that the causes of the problems these regimes are facing are largely outside their control. Famines (for example) in the Frankish Empire are the results of a combination of climactic and environmental factors, rather than the sign of God’s anger. Penitential rituals and similar can work as factors integrating a political community. However, when the problem continues afterwards – as they inevitably will at some point – then it becomes an invitation to purge. The chain of logic that goes ‘bad things are the result of punishment for sin’ becomes an invitation to find the sins that you know must be there, the atmosphere becomes hysterical, and the floggings continue until morale improves (erm, political-culturally speaking). This is more or less what happens to Louis the Pious: the usual political wrangles get overcharged with moralising, people start crossing normative boundaries. Then after his death, the Battle of Fontenoy happens, too many people die, and a large chunk of the elite start looking around at all the screaming and corpses and start thinking wistfully about something lower-temperature.

An image of Louis the Pious from 826 (source)

Thus, quite quickly in the West Frankish kingdom, one sees developing a Late Carolingian mode of governance where the inquisitive, intrusive royal government of the early ninth century gets rolled back, the moral weighting associated with kingship gets redirected in directions involving less policy making and more endlessly redividing the spoils, and in fact it all starts to look much more like Weiler’s central Middle Ages. Historiographically speaking, the idea that the Carolingian Empire ‘fell’ is thoroughly misleading here. Charles the Bald’s West Frankish kingdom and Otto II’s Empire are basically comparable (and both might well be quite happily comparable with the later Merovingians). Late Carolingian kingship is more-or-less stable for quite a long time. A big question then becomes what to do with the term ‘post-Carolingian’. Even here, though, I think it’s useful: it can highlight that the West Frankish kingdom goes off the rails in some very strange directions in the mid-tenth century in a way which the rest of the Frankish world simply doesn’t; and in an East Frankish context it fits nicely into debates about long-term structural change. (I personally would say that ‘post-Carolingian Germany’ is largely a product of the early twelfth century and has more to do with bottom-up administrative intensification than anything else…)

This is not to posit Charles the Bald’s accession as too big a break, of course. There were plenty of senior people around whose training, development and worldview took place in the context of Charlemagne and Louis’ court, and who attached profound importance to the norms developed there. They had influence, sometimes lots of it: the Edict of Pîtres of 864 is a case in point. However, just as it’s important not to forget these people existed or posit too stark a difference between 820 and 850, it’s also important not to efface the very real differences between the earlier and later ninth century just because one of these High Carolingian intellectual moralists happens to be one of our main sources. Indeed, one of the reasons Hincmar gets so unhappy and alienated from the court at the end of his life is that he and his good advices are so out of place in the world of Gozlin of Saint-Denis and Hugh the Abbot. This may have changed if Carloman II had lived longer and his enthusiasm for old-style moralising had become a trend. But he died, Charles the Fat came in and lowered the temperature, and the scene was set for Late Carolingian kingship to continue for decades, perhaps centuries to come.

Men in the Middle: Evrebert

One group of people I’ve always been interested in are local elites – the sort of people who are definitely still aristocrats, and who are powerful in their own domains, but don’t necessarily have the huge, transregional interests (or even visible presences) of their greater contemporaries. The ‘mayor of Chesham’ types, if you will. However, my main source base is not really good enough to tell me about these people in much detail – I don’t work on the huge and early East Frankish collections or eastern Brittany, and otherwise it’s just not that granular. When I was casting around for postdoctoral projects I wanted to do something on central medieval southern Burgundy to use the Langres/Mâcon/Autun charter material to cast some light on ideological competition between exactly these sorts of figures, but nobody bit… (Let me know if you’re interested and have a few thousand quid to spare!)

Anyway, today I want to talk about one happy exception to the rule, a man who shows up in just enough evidence (four pieces!) to get a sense of who he was and what he was about. So let me introduce you to Evrebert, who flourished in the north-east of Charles the Bald’s kingdom, what would later become southern Flanders, in the latter half of the ninth century. Evrebert, insofar as he has a reputation, doesn’t have a great one, largely because one of our main sources for his times, the Annals of Saint-Vaast, ended up on the other side of a local political dispute in the 890s. But before that, we can see Evrebert operating as a minor figure in the court of Charles the Bald. He first appears as a vassus dominicus at Charles’ court in 861, in a famous diploma in which Charles judged that the peasants of Mitry, an estate of Saint-Denis, owed service to the abbey; Evrebert was one of the people making the judgement at the king’s court at Compiègne. He was clearly trusted by the king: a few years later, in 866 (according to a reference in a twelfth-century cartulary), he acted as a royal nuntio at Saint-Vaast in order to oversee a survey of the abbey’s property. This was a more pointed issue than it sounds. Saint-Vaast had only just been given to Charles the Bald by Lothar II, so assessing the value of his new acquisition was a matter of some importance. Here, the fact that we don’t really know much about Evrebert’s background becomes somewhat frustrating. He would go on to have a long and close relationship with Saint-Vaast, and it would be quite important to know whether this developed out of the missions he undertook at royal behest, or whether Charles ordered him on the missions because he already had the ties… By analogy, he would seem to be a local (the other two royal representatives were the prior of Saint-Vaast and a count from the region), but we can’t really tell. Evrebert then disappears from our sources for over two decades, but we know he was still active and important: he was rewarded with lands, almost certainly in the region around Bapaume, by Carloman II. This region was party central for viking attacks in the 880s, so it may well be that Evrebert played an important part in leading local defence. Either way, he was clearly a figure of some importance in the region.

The abbey of Saint-Vaast as it is today (source).

All this came to play in 892. In January of that year, Abbot Rodolf of Saint-Vaast died. The scramble for his lands and offices began almost immediately. The most vocal contender was Baldwin the Bald, the count of Flanders. Baldwin approached King Odo, asking for the abbeys of Saint-Vaast and Saint-Bertin. Baldwin was, let’s say, a controversial figure. At Saint-Bertin, he definitely didn’t have the local support he needed to back up his request:  the monks sent an emissary to the king to try and prevent his takeover by any means necessary, and succeeded in that. At Saint-Vaast, however, the situation was different. There appear to have been two factions of locals. Odo – and apparently the Saint-Vaast annalist – supported the claims of Count Egfrid of Artois to succeed Rodolf as abbot. Evrebert, however, favoured Baldwin, and prevailed upon a majority of locals to let him in to the monastery’s castle. Baldwin’s demeanour was conciliatory: he sent messengers to Odo asking for ex post facto legitimation of his possession. This didn’t work. Odo tried to attack Baldwin, although the attack failed. The fighting between the two dragged on. Yet Evrebert was no inveterate rebel: in summer 893, he issued a charter for Saint-Vaast dated by the reign of the ‘most glorious king Odo’. This charter is actually the last we see of Evrebert. He had two sons, Roland and Landuin, who are not otherwise known to the historical record. In 896, Odo launched another siege of Saint-Vaast, which had remained under Baldwin’s control, and a deal was struck. By this point, Evrebert may well have been dead.

The sources for Evrebert’s career aren’t everything I would like. Crucially, we have no real sense of Evrebert’s connections to Baldwin. Virtually all of our sources other than the Annals of Saint-Vaast stress his connections to royalty, but he was evidently a close political ally of Baldwin, enough to turn Saint-Vaast over to him. Exactly what he got out of the association is unclear. A patron in his local context, perhaps, much as we expect kingship to work; but in that case why not go directly to the king? In Odo’s case, admittedly, his strong Francian background (yes, north-east – he was a newcomer to Neustria in 886 and all his background points to Francia) meant he had lots of local enemies, and perhaps Evrebert was already one of them… What is more significant, though, is what Baldwin got out of Evrebert. Like Charles the Bald before him, powerful people needed men on the ground to get things done. This isn’t a new or original point, but the case of Evrebert shows how this worked in practice. Evrebert’s ties to a major monastic institution provided a crucial mechanism for controlling it, whether gently as in 866 or dramatically as in 892. He’s unusually visible in our sources, but we have to imagine hundreds and thousands of men like him across the kingdom.

For me the big question – and it is, sort of, answerable, but not in the detail I’d like – then becomes how he compares to other local elites. The first comparison that springs to mind is actually with someone like Adalmar, advocate of Saint-Martin. Here, it is easier to articulate how Adalmar stands out from Evrebert, via his participation in a calcified, crystallised Neustrian hierarchy; by contrast, Evrebert’s power seems much less defined. Further research would help here. After all, given the importance of these people to wider power structures, the differences in how they related to these wider structures have an obvious and crucial relevance to our broader understandings of Late Carolingian politics.

Charter A Week 78: Meet the New Dux, Same as the Old Dux

With this Charter A Week, we enter a new age: as 2022 finishes, so too does the reign of Louis IV. Louis died young, aged only in his mid-thirties, in a hunting accident. One source remembered him as ‘having led his whole life full of troubles and strife’, and indeed his final year or so was somewhat anti-climactic. One of the reasons for this was that his patron Otto the Great was locked in the last major rebellion of his career, as his son Liudolf and son-in-law Conrad the Red allied with dissident elements to try and regain influence they perceived they were losing at court.

In the West Frankish kingdom, a combination of these difficulties and Louis’ death opened the door for Hugh the Great to make one last stab at becoming secundus a rege, second only to the king. In return for a promise not to make trouble, Hugh was allowed access to the new king, Lothar. Lothar’s main guardian was his mother, Queen Gerberga, with hefty input too from her brother, Otto the Great’s new point man in Lotharingia, Archbishop Bruno of Cologne. They decided that, to stabilise the first period of Lothar’s reign, it was worth giving Hugh access to the king to legitimise some of his pet projects. And so we get documents like:

D Lo no. 2 (954-955)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Lothar, with divine clemency propitious most excellent and most powerful king of the Franks of youthful age.

If (preserving the custom of kings) We confer any supplement on Our followers through a precept of Our defence, We hold most firmly that this will eternally benefit the increase of Our honour.

Wherefore We wish it to be known to the followers of God’s holy Church and of Us, to wit, present and future, that Hugh, duke of the Franks and nearly the most powerful man in the whole empire, and Gilbert, special count of Burgundy, the strongest knight of the aforenoted Hugh, and Count Theobald [the Trickster], Our follower extraordinary in everything, came and asked Our Highness and the dignity of Our Sublimity, strenuously beseeching that We might deign to have a precept of immunity made for Witlenc and his sons, to wit, Guy and Norduin, concerning certain goods of Saint-Beurry lying in the district of Burgundy. These goods are sited in the district of Burgundy, as We said, in the estate of Cheilly on the river Dheune, that is, 10 and 8 manses and half a church in the county of Beaune, with another entire church in the county of Chalon, named in honour of St Lupus, sited on the aforesaid river.

Lending the ears of Our Serenity to their petitions, preserving the custom of kings, We commanded this precept be made to the people spoken of, and (led by free-flowing piety) We confirmed it, on the condition that the said Witlenc and his two sons Guy and Narduin should have, hold and possess it in their lifetimes, and after the course of their lives it should all return to the aforesaid basilica of Saint-Beurry.

But that the writing of this precept might be held more firmly and creditably, and be more diligently conserved by all in future times, We confirmed it below with Our own hand and We commanded it be signed with the impression of Our signet.

Sign of Lothar, glorious king of the Franks.

Chancellor Guy witnessed on behalf of Artald [of Rheims], archbishop and archchancellor.

Enacted in the town of Paris, in the first year of the reign of the most glorious king Lothar, in the 13th indiction. 

This act, issued some time between the middle of 954 and the middle of 955, is more pointed than it looks. For one thing, its protagonists either are about to, or have just (probably the former), launched a military campaign on Poitiers. This campaign would not be a massive success: Lothar would acquit himself well (doubly well for someone only just pubescent) on the battlefield, but the siege of Poitiers was a failure and Hugh and his men retreated home ingloriously. (The embarrassment of the defeat was remembered at Sens decades later.)

To justify this war, we have Hugh the Great with titles as grandiloquent as they had been since the early years of Louis IV. ‘Nearly the most powerful man in the whole empire’! After decades of warfare, it was as close as Hugh could have come to validating the position he had always sought. Even more, the presence of Gilbert of Chalon, now Gilbert of Burgundy, indicates that a significant shift has taken place in the balance of power. Hugh the Black, duke of Burgundy, was dead. Gilbert had taken his place, but Gilbert was also deeply ensconced within Hugh’s network of allies: one of Gilbert’s only two children was married to Hugh’s son Otto and the other to Hugh’s nephew Robert. From being a counterbalance to the Robertians, it looked like Burgundy might swing fully into their camp. It is thus noteworthy that Burgundy is described as a ‘district’ (pagus) – usually some more prestigious word is used. The hint, I think, is that Burgundy has been reduced to a mere appendage of Hugh’s ducal power. How that situation would play out, we will see next year, as we dive into the long, poorly documented reign of Lothar.

Finally, a brief bit of housekeeping: with Christmas and the move back to the UK from Tübingen, my buffer has run low. As you future people of the year 2023 read this, I am writing it at the end of December 2022, about to leave for the US to finish our wedding celebrations. As such, I’m going to be taking a week off. Normal service (minus a bit of rejiggling to sort out the scheduling of Charter A Week) will resume with another post from Sam on the 12th.

How wealthy were the Carolingians?

Super wealthy. Thank you for reading!

…can’t get away with that one, huh? Well, I tried. Anyway, it’s an important question, and my mind came back round to it recently because someone on Twitter asked it straight up:

Part of the reason this is an important question, and one which is specifically important to me, is because of the reasons for tenth-century Carolingian “decline” is supposed to be the amazing disappearing fisc, the idea that the Frankish monarchs of the ninth century, needing to buy support, give away all of their land and therefore ended up too poor to control the aristocracy. The two giants behind this picture were James Westfall Thompson and Jan Dhondt, especially the latter. Dhondt traced the pattern of land grants in surviving royal diplomas and found: 1) Louis the Pious gave away more land than Charlemagne; 2) Charles the Bald gave away even more land than that; 3) the tenth-century Frankish rulers gave away almost none. Dhondt concluded that the tenth-century rulers had no land, and that their poverty was a fundamental cause of the century’s political disasters. This can still be found, more-or-less explicitly stated in a lot of places: a key change between the ninth century and the tenth is that in the latter magnates were richer and kings were poorer.

I’ve never liked this much. On a basic level, this is because it finds very little direct support in the sources: if kings were poorer after the latter part of the ninth century, no contemporary author seems to have noticed.* But on a deeper level, it goes back to the original question: how wealthy were the Carolingians? This question, you’ll note can be understood two ways: both ‘what quantitative extent did Carolingian richness have?’ and ‘in what ways were Carolingians rich?’ These two questions are connected, and the answer to the former has to inform our view of the latter.

The first question has two answers: 1) we don’t know; 2) probably neither did they. The first of these is pretty straightforward. We don’t know how much land the Carolingians had. Attempts have been made to measure ‘the fisc’ based on charters, but as Charles West has noted such attempts do not take into account the fluid nature of earlier medieval land-ownership. Even worse, we don’t have a clue how much property didn’t make it into the record, and we have no good basis for guesswork. Moreover, this is just land. We definitely don’t know what kind of resources they were able to deploy on the basis of ‘governmental’ income – fines, gifts, tolls, etc. And we definitely definitely can’t measure how many resources they were able to deploy in an indirect manner. Dhondt’s methodology is probably the best anyone’s come up with for measuring change over time, but it’s been pretty comprehensively demolished by now. Any quantitative measurement of Carolingian wealth, therefore, is based on seriously shaky foundations, and statements of global change over time are basically indefensible.

The second may be more surprising. The Carolingians, after all, are supposed to have been concerned to the point of neurosis with record-keeping and accounts. We even have documents such as the Capitulare de villis which testify to a concern with accounts. But is this really about finances? Documents such as polyptychs and other kinds of land register are rarely complete. One thing I’ve been doing recently is looking at the pouillés of the diocese of Rheims trying to identify some land in Provence which Flodoard mentions – and it’s not there. Nor is the land we know the church of Rheims had in Aquitaine. We have seen on this very blog that ecclesiastical institutions could apparently forget they owned land relatively close to home. At the very least, therefore, it is overwhelmingly probable that the information Carolingian-period elites had about their land-owning was patchy.

I tried using an AI image generator for blog illustrations. This was the result for ‘Medieval Manuscript Excel Spreadsheet’…

There are also questions of practicality. Note that in the previous paragraph I slipped from talking about ‘wealth’ to ‘land-owning’, which are not quite the same thing. You have to be able to use the products of the land to meaningfully generate wealth out of it. The Capitulare de villis orders estate stewards to list the income from hides, skins, horns, honey, wax, oil, tallow, soap, mead, vinegar, beer, grain, chickens, eggs, geese, fish, ironmongery, shields, shoes, lead-working, and horses (this isn’t completely comprehensive but it’s representative). What all these things (other than eggs) have in common is that they are relatively simple to preserve. If the estate is in, say, Flanders and the king is in northern Italy, he can still use shields in a way he can’t, say, onions. We know that lords did want estates to produce vegetables, but they can’t have made a real difference to levels of wealth unless the lord was close enough to tap them.

On the other hand, there are also questions about appropriations. Monasteries acted as cash cows for elites. Think here of King Odo’s gifts to Arnulf of Carinthia taken from the treasury of Saint-Denis, which so vexed an anonymous monk. For all intents and purposes, these items were part of Odo’s royal resources, and were used for his political purposes- but could we or he actually account for this as ‘royal wealth’? Shouldn’t we be imagining a scenario where Odo shows up to Saint-Denis, says ‘I need something to impress the big dude in the east, whaddaya got?’ Kings, and by extension other elites, probably didn’t know how wealthy they were because they couldn’t know how wealthy they were. Wealth was not measurable because it was a product of power, not a precondition for it.

So how were the Carolingians rich? Not, I think, in terms of anything which could be put on a balance sheet. The Carolingians certainly ordered balance sheets made, but their purpose was, I think, more moral than fiscal. The aim was to record and register so as to be seen to be a just and worthy steward of the realm rather than because that was how you knew what your resources for a given period were. Revealing here is a diploma of Charles the Simple for Compiègne in which he donates land in Verberie, giving the names of the people who used to dwell on its manses some time ago (ex antiquo) and which he found written in the estate’s polyptych: it didn’t matter that this information was out of date, it simply mattered that records had been used and thus the moral duty of kingship had been fulfilled. Royal wealth came from having the prestige and the connections to get what kings wanted, whether that was ‘give me cheese’, ‘give me the contents of your monastic treasury’, or ‘take thirty men and march over the Alps to Italy’. In this sense, moreover, the tenth-century rulers were basically as wealthy as those of the ninth century.

We return, finally, to the original question: how wealthy were the Carolingians? The options were ‘enough for the matter at hand’ or ‘not enough’. Generally, the former applied to kings. Sometimes, the latter. A spreadsheet, though, would not have been the greatest help to kings in working out which applied to them in the moment.

*I’m ignoring here two things: 1) a bunch of sources wherein Louis IV complains about being stripped of all resources in 946, because in this case the unusual circumstances mean that the complaints are literally true but also very temporary; and 2) a bit in Aimoin of Fleury where he says that Charles of Lower Lotharingia ‘grew old in private houses’, which has been interpreted as meaning that the West Frankish kings didn’t have enough resources to carve out a sub-kingdom for him but realistically just means that Lothar didn’t trust him enough to entrust him with public office.

The Carolingian Galactic Polity; or Bretons IN SPACE!

Exciting times are afoot! Specifically, I’m part-way through a deep-dive into non-Weberian theories of the state. There’s some background to this: back in 2014, I was part of a team organising a conference on the Carolingian frontier, and my pet frontier was ninth-century Brittany. I have subsequently published about this, but I never did get to grips with one key question: was Brittany part of the West Frankish kingdom, and if so, how? King Salomon (say) had various symbolic and ritual bonds of submission with Charles the Bald, but would either or both of them thought of themselves as being members of the same polity; and if so, how, and at what point in their relationship? I’d filed these questions in the musty cardboard boxes at the back of my head. Then, at this year’s IMC, I went to see John Latham Sprinkle talk about the Byzantine Empire as something called a ‘segmentary state’, and it was one of the most exciting papers I’ve ever been to. John kindly gave me a reading list, and I’ve been beavering away at the reading ever since. This blog post, then, is a first effort to outline what a ‘segmentary state’/’mandala polity’ is, and how useful it is to scholars of the early middle ages generally and Carolingianists specifically.

Let’s start at the beginning. From at least the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists, and historians of Southeast Asia (amongst others, but these groups make up the bulk of my reading list) have been trying to escape from, or at least adapt to different circumstances, Weberian models of the polity conceived of as Eurocentric, and a number of models have been developed which, if not identical, at the very least overlap closely. In 1956, Aidan Southall wrote a study of the Alur of what is now Uganda, and for his study developed a model of the ‘segmentary state’. In an article in the ‘70s, he championed a version of this model explicitly for comparative purposes, and in that article he gave a simple one-sentence definition of the ‘segmentary state’: ‘one in which the spheres of ritual suzerainty and political sovereignty do not coincide. The former extends widely towards a flexible, changing periphery. The latter is confined to the central, core domain.’ However, I find this definition too simple, and prefer the list of criteria that he gave in his original monograph. There, he defined a ‘segmentary state’ as one in which:

1) Territorial sovereignty is recognised but limited and relative, forming a series of zones in which authority fades out the further away you go, shading into ritual hegemony.

2) There is a central government but also numerous peripheral foci of administration over which the centre exercises only limited control.

3) There are specialised administrators at the centre, which are repeated on a limited scale at these peripheral foci.

4) The centre has a limited monopoly on legitimate force, but the peripheral foci have a more restricted range of legitimate force options as well.

5) Several levels of peripheral foci can be distinguished, arranged pyramidally, these being reduced images of the centre.

6) The more peripheral a subordinate authority is the more likely it can change from one power pyramid to another, and some can have political standing in several adjacent power pyramids.

That’s a lot of stuff in one go, but hopefully turning to the south-east Asian side will make it a bit clearer. In south-east Asian studies, a very similar model of the pre-modern polity is associated with the work of Stanley Tambiah, who described what he called a ‘mandala polity’. Based on the Buddhist conception of a mandala, Tambiah proposed that south-east Asian polities could be described in terms of overlapping and/or concentric circles. Thus, the archetypal ‘mandala polity’ can be diagrammed as such:

source: Tambiah, ‘Galactic Polity’, p. 505, fig. 1.

Schematically, we have an imperial centre (a royal capital such as the city of Pagan or Ayutthaya), surrounded by a core of inner provinces ruled over by subordinate rulers, and an outer periphery of ‘tributary’ kingdoms ruled over by yet smaller-scale rulers. Each of these levels reproduces the one above it on a smaller scale: Shan princelings in the Burmese highlands copied the imperial palace at Mandalay, and tiny local Kachin chiefs copied the Shan copying the imperial centre. The power of the centre ebbed and flowed, and there was never only one centre. The ‘mandala polity’ is also known as the ‘solar’ or ‘galactic polity’, to sharpen this metaphor. The idea here is that the imperial centre acts as a ‘sun’, exerting a gravitational influence on outlying ‘satellites’ which is stronger the closer a satellite is. However, the ‘satellites’ also exert their own gravitational pull; and a ‘satellite’ can be under the effects of more than one degree of pull at once. Finally, the system ‘pulsates’, such that the pull of a ‘sun’ can decrease substantially and one of the outlying ‘planets’ can increase enough for it to form a new imperial centre. These ideas have been developed in numerous directions, but I particularly want to point out the work of James C. Scott, who adds two main insights: 1) that the pull exerted by a ‘sun’ is not a linear function of distance, but is heavily affected by geography which is not amenable to state control (in his case, mountains; but he notes that oceans would also fit the bill); and 2) that the effects of overlapping ‘gravitational pulls’ can work out in quite different ways, from simple dual vassalage to outright cancelling each other out.

These two ideas, the ‘segmentary state’ and the ‘galactic polity’ do have some differences – for instance, the ‘segmentary state’’s focus on genealogical lineage and the explicit ties of the ‘galactic polity’ to Buddhist cosmology – but in terms of what I find interesting about them, the similarities are much stronger and more interesting than the dissimilarities. Both of them give a model of the pre-modern polity which, in my reading, have five key points:

1)    they focus on centres, not borders.

2)    These centres are layered: there is legitimate conceptual space for lower-level rulers to exercise authority in qualitatively similar ways to higher-level ones.

3)    Indeed, authority is actively imitative: lower-level rulers consciously model themselves on higher-level ones.

4)    However, authority is not exclusive: subordinate authorities can have political relationships to multiple higher-level rulers.

5)    Finally, there is a firm role for the esoteric: the symbolic and ritual dimensions of rule are as important as Weberian indicators of sovereign control.

I am, of course, wildly unqualified to comment on how well these models actually work within their own disciplinary contexts. Do they, though, work for the Carolingian world, or can they be adapted thereto? Let’s go through the points in order.


Broadly speaking, this one gets a thumbs up. I don’t want to deny the importance of borders in the Carolingian world and the early Middle Ages more broadly – not least because Sam has already written about that subject on this very website – but I’ve always found thinking about centres not edges more helpful for the Carolingian period. In this case, Southall’s ‘segmentary state’ is probably the more helpful version. The focus on cities in the Southeast Asian material doesn’t have much Carolingian parallel. Sure, there are your Aachens and your Compiègnes, but ‘capital cities’ are conspic. by their a. Southall’s focus on the person of chiefs seems more helpful here. In fact, this point seems like it would pair up with medievalist ideas of königsnahe to feed back in to wider discussions of these concepts. Both models have a linearly geographic focus, which the Carolingian world raises questions about: it would be hard to argue that, say, Toulouse had more königsnahe than the Spanish March even though Toulouse was closer to West Frankish kingship centres. A analytical emphasis on the strength of the ‘gravitational’ pull rather than the geographic arrangement of the planets would help here. (Scott does hint towards this in his discussion of the ‘friction of distance’ over difficult terrain; but ‘political distance’, if I can put it like that, doesn’t necessarily require logistically difficult geographical space.) This emphasis would also help when dealing with something else the Southeast Asian historians don’t seem to have to deal with: itinerancy. Medievalists have been dealing with patterns of royal movement for a very long time, but whilst Louis the Pious or Charles the Simple’s limited mobility can fit relatively neatly into a ‘solar polity’ model, something like Louis IV’s 941/942 journey across the length and breadth of the West Frankish kingdom threatens to turn our image from a solar system into a billiard table unless we model political relations very abstractly.


This point is probably the least important qua the Carolingians, because I think it’s originally designed to draw a distinction with a Weberian ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ which we don’t think the Carolingians had anyway. There is more to say about this, but I think it’s better placed under the next point:


Here consideration of Carolingian society takes us in two opposite directions. On one hand, as Jinty Nelson has pointed out, kingship was special. The unique connection forged by ceremonies like unction gives the king a relationship with the numinous that then becomes the key aspect of his power: a count is legitimate because he can access the font of legitimacy which is kingship. There is thus a qualitative chasm between the king and even high-authority territorial officials like the Neustrian marchio. However, on the other hand, I think that there is room for exploration here. Claims such as ‘the tenth-century English state was the most Carolingian kingdom of the earlier Middle Ages’ are well-known, and I think that the Danish kingdom might have been adopting elements of Carolingian rule as well. Sometimes, this was actively pursued by Carolingian kings: Charles the Bald’s dealings with the Breton ruler Salomon, including offering him Frankish-style royal regalia, were part of an attempt to make Brittany easier to control by channelling Breton rulership into Carolingian models. Equally, imitation of *non-royal* Carolingian rule would repay inquiry: I have an article in preparation discussing this in the case of Normandy, for instance, which we’ll go into more in a future post.


This is one the places where the mandala polity not only fits well, but has its strongest explanatory power. I’ve mentioned before that Frisia is peculiar, partially because it’s in both the Frankish and the Danish spheres of influence. The work of IJssennagger and Croix has stressed Frisia’s place within a cultural continuum, its liminal status. This rhymes beautifully with a mandala polity model: Frisia is within the ‘orbits’ of both the Carolingians and the Danes. Thus, Roric of Dorestad – for example – can be conceptualised as an integral part of both ‘solar systems’. This then helps us explain some of the stranger things about Frisia. For instance, we recently discussed how Frisia (like Normandy) had Carolingian-style counts, but Roric himself was never (unlike the Norman rulers) characterised as a Carolingian-style supermagnate, but rather as a Danish king. But this makes sense: Frisia was part of the Danish kingdom and simultaneously part of the Lotharingian one, and so its political culture reflects not just both, but the interactions between both as well. There are other examples here: in the tenth century, for instance, parts of western Lotharingia were in the mandalas of both the West Frankish and Ottonian kingdoms (and this might be, as Scott discusses, an instance where the result was two sovereignties cancelling each other out), and Brittany, Normandy and Flanders could probably be conceptualised as being part of the English mandala too.


Finally, we come to the role played by the symbolic and ritual dimensions of rule. Here, let’s go back to Brittany, where I started. I was having trouble conceptualising Brittany because it’s hard to understand Frankish influence in the region when viewed through a Weberian prism. The Carolingians didn’t rule Brittany, and their power in the region was only ever manifest through actual invasions (and in Charles the Bald’s time, at least, the odds of the Bretons winning was pretty good). However, Brittany was not a peer polity. It was – somehow – subordinate, and that subordination tended to be expressed precisely in these symbolic dimensions, such as Charles the Bald making Erispoë his son-in-law or Alan the Great adopting Carolingian styles of rule. Looking at it with a ‘mandala polity’ model in mind, though, Brittany comes into relatively clear focus as an example of an outer-ring polity of the Carolingian mandala. There are, of course, nuances here (as I’ve written about in the past, there were forces in Breton politics which actively rejected associations with the Carolingians, and I feel like the model needs to provide conceptual space for conscious rejection of models of rule as well as conscious imitation). Nonetheless, the Breton case shows quite clearly that this is good to think with.

Prima facie, then, we have a good case for the application of a ‘mandala polity’ model to the Carolingian world. I am, of course, about as far from being an expert on southeast Asia or Africa as you could get, so it’s quite possible that I have misunderstood the models. If and when I use them more in my work, I will certainly chop and change them to better fit the specifics of my research’s time and place. For now, though, I leave you on two questions. First, if you’re from one of the fields which generated these models, what have I missed? What should I be reading about this? Second, if you’re from my own field, what do you think of this model as a tool for understanding?

Charter A Week 75: New Peace, Old Tricks

In early 950, Louis IV and Hugh the Great finally agreed to an Ottonian-brokered peace deal. One of the effects of this was a de facto division of the West Frankish kingdom into spheres of Carolingian and Robertian influence. However, this peace was fragile. Part of the reason was that Louis’ and Hugh’s subordinates were not necessarily compliant: they had their own personal interests, and a peace between their masters did not always affect their behaviour. Flodoard, for instance, tells us that in 950 both one of Louis’ subordinates (Ragenold of Roucy) and one of Hugh’s (Theobald the Trickster) infringed the peace deal. Notably, whereas Louis persuaded Ragenold to step back, Hugh was unable to do the same with Theobald. Louis responded by rattling sabres, displaying public support for Hugh’s enemy Arnulf the Great of Flanders and – going back to his strategies of the 940s – seeking to strengthen his alliances in the south.

In 951, Louis set out for Aquitaine. As we’ve seen in previous weeks, there were reasons to think he’d find a good reception there. Bishop Stephen of Clermont, the big cheese of the Auvergne, had probably been appointed by Louis, and had certainly backed him over Hugh when Louis was imprisoned in 945. However, this doesn’t appear to have translated into concrete support in the key years of the late 940s, and it makes sense that Louis would have wanted to renegotiate his relationship with central Aquitaine. Moreover, a little before 951, Stephen had reorientated his strategies of legitimacy:

CC no. 1.792 (c. 950)

In the name of Lord God Eternal.

Stephen, by grace of the Holy Spirit bishop of Auvergne.

If it can be done, I want it to be known to all Christ’s followers in common how I and my father Robert and his wife Hildegard endeavoured to summon to the place which is called Sauxillanges the abbot named Aimard from the monastery of Cluny, who delegated monks therein to build up the same place in accordance with the Rule, both for the salvation of our souls and also for the remedy of Count Acfred [II of Aquitaine], who bestowed that allod on God Almighty, of whom my same father was also an almsman; and for the soul of William [the Pious], the first and greatest duke; and as well for the younger William [the Younger], and for the rest of all our relatives, and all the Christian faithful living and dead, such that they might busy themselves to offer prayers to God Almighty there. 

Therefore, we established concerning this matter that from this day forth for all time the same place should be held and disposed and ordained, with God’s help, legally and in accordance with the Rule by the aforesaid abbot and after his death by his successors and by the monks of Cluny.

If, perchance, anyone is displeased that we have so ordained the goods which were given to God Almighty (as is written in the aforesaid place’s charter), they should remember that Lord Jesus gave His Church, which He deigned to call His bride, and which He bought with his own and precious blood, to the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, commanding not merely once but also twice and three times that he should nourish this flock. And thus, because of this, we prohibit and call to witness in God and through God and through Lord Jesus that no prince, no bishop succeeding me in this episcopal office, nor any invader should presume to prey upon, devastate, or diminish the goods of this place, nor exact any service or dues from the power of this place with any trickeryor ordain anything unjustly using episcopal authority as an excuse, nor exercise dominion over anything by the power of his situation.  

Witnesses: Stephen, bishop of the Auvergne. Viscountess Hildegard. Bishop Otgar [unknown see, probably southern Aquitanian]. Viscount Robert [of Clermont]. Viscount Eustorgius. Stephen, abbot of Mozac. Abbot Robert [of Mozat]. Gilbert. William. Hector. Godo. Andrald. Albion. Desiderius. Hugh. Eliseus. Bernard. Roger. Prior Bernard. Keymaster Stephen. Archdeacon Deodatus. Stephen son of Theotard. Theotard. Eldin. Another Eldin. Gulfer. 

Stephen, like a number of central Aquitanian elites in the first part of the tenth century, kept alive the memory of the Guillelmid dukes, and Sauxillanges became a lieu de memoire par excellence, even if Acfred II wouldn’t have appreciated it. In fact, subordinating Sauxillanges to Cluny would have particularly galled him… In any case, though, this charter shows Stephen and his family, the viscounts of Clermont, putting Sauxillanges into a Cluniac orbit. My best reading of this is that it was an act of ideological reconciliation: with Ralph of Burgundy out of the way, the two halves of the Guillelmid monastic legacy could finally team up, and Stephen and his family, who – as you can see here – claimed to follow in Guillelmid footsteps, could present a past of central Aquitanian regional hegemony where troubles had been smoothed over.

In 951, Louis showed up with an army, evidently expecting trouble. However, the major magnates of Aquitaine – Charles Constantine of Vienne (on whom more next time), William Towhead of Poitiers, and Stephen II of Clermont – appeared and submitted to him. There were several meetings. Stephen’s submission took place, significantly, at Pouilly-sur-Loire, a traditional meeting place for meetings between Aquitanian magnates and West Frankish kings going back to the ninth century. The only surviving documentary evidence for this is the following charter:

D L4 no. 37 = CC no. 1.763 = ARTEM no. 1604 = D.Kar VIII.8 (3rd February 951, Pouilly-sur-Loire)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Louis, by propitiation of divine mercy king of the Franks.

If in giving work to divine worship We endeavour to raise God’s Church to the highest state of holy religion, We use royal custom and the privileges of Our predecessors.

Wherefore let the skill of all the faithful of the holy Church of God both present and future know that the venerable Bishop Stephen [II] of Auvergne, approaching Our Presence, reverently asked that We might deign to confer by a precept of Our Regality certain goods, the same goods which the late Count Acfred [II of Aquitaine] bestowed on God and His saints from the right of his property in the district of Auvergne for the remedy of his soul and that of his relatives to build up the Rule of St Benedict there, for the monastery of Cluny and its abbot, and this We did. 

Whence We commanded this decree of Our Highness to be made and given to Aimard, abbot of the aforesaid monastery, through which the same abbot and his successors might perpetually hold the aforesaid goods in their entirety just as is contained in the charter of the aforesaid Count Acfred, disturbed by no-one.

And that this emolument of Our authority might be inviolably conserved through the course of times to come, confirming it below with Our own hand, We commanded it be signed with the impression of Our signet.

Sign of lord Louis, the most glorious king.

Odilo the notary re-read and underwrote on behalf of Archbishop Artald [of Rheims].

Enacted at the estate of Pouilly-sur-Loire, on the 3rd nones of February [3rd February], in the 6th indiction, in the 15th year of the reign of the glorious King Louis. 

The original diploma (source linked above).

Whilst this diploma is significant, it is also straightforward. Despite everything which had happened over the years, despite the many shocks the realm had undergone since the foundation of Sauxillanges in 927, the fundamental dynamic of early medieval kingship had changed little. Stephen of Clermont led a regional aristocratic group, to which he gave Louis access; in return, Louis legitimised Stephen’s position at the head of that group. Way back in my original series of posts on Aquitaine, I noted how important this royal connection was to Stephen, and this was a key link in the chain, next to 945 and 962. This significance came down to the place itself: as Stephen stood in Pouilly, where Aquitanian rulers from Charles the Child to Bernard Plantevelue had met their West Frankish overlords, he must have felt the symbolic resonances empowering his rule. However, Stephen was not there alone. Probably at Pouilly with him was William Towhead, count of Poitiers. The Poitevin counts did not normally come that far east, and one wonders how many plans occurred to William along the journey…

Three Flavours of Viking Ruler

In the 840s, the monk Walafrid Strabo wrote a work called the Libellus de exordiis et incrementis quarundam in observationibus ecclesiasticis rerum. At the end of the work, he compared lay and ecclesiastical hierarchies, going all the way from kings and emperors through dukes, counts, and then local officials and royal vassals. Compared to the elaborate hierarchy of the Byzantine court (or for that matter of Irish laywers), Walafrid’s schema might be a bit rough and ready, but it’s still a fairly well-worked out set of socio-political gradations. Compared to contemporary viking polities, moreover, it’s arcane to the point of absurdity: viking polities are flat, and it’s that flatness we’ll be discussing today.

What do I mean by ‘flat’? Well, one of the things I’ve noticed is that – almost no matter what the source – there are only ever three kinds of title given to viking leaders. The first is ‘king’. The royal title, moreover, tends to be given in the most straightforward manner available in any given language. Even though there were in fact different grades of kingship in the viking world (as in the earlier medieval world generally), we don’t see words for ‘lower king’ (such as Latin regulus) or ‘higher king’ (such as Old Irish ardri) used in our sources. This isn’t too significant, especially because such technical language isn’t used that often in our historical sources anyway (the earliest use I can find of ardri for an Irish king in the Annals of Ulster is under the entry for 980), but it’s worth keeping in the back of our minds. The most significant exception comes from the case of the Rus’. Given the overtones of Christian monarchy implicit in the word, it’s unlikely any Frankish author would think to apply a word like imperator to a viking ruler; but the Rus’ title of khagan could hold similar meanings. Given that the Rus’ almost certainly had a khagan, this holds quite significant implications for the ideological basis of early Rus’ rulership.

A different kind of viking trefoil. Taken from Jane Kershaw, Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewelry in England (Oxford: OUP, 2013), p. 82.

The second title is equally simple, and could be summed up as ‘boss’. There are almost endless variations of this in our different source languages, from dux and princeps in Latin, to heretoga in Old English, toísech in Old Irish, ἡγεμών (hegemon) in Greek, رئيس (rais) in Arabic, and so on… On its own, this might not mean very much. One could make the argument that, say, a Byzantine historiographer might not be terribly interested in understanding or communicating to their readers the specifics of viking titulature. Two counterarguments can be made against this point of view. First, as we’ve already seen with khagan and will see below with our third title, often authors did in fact deal with viking titulature on its own terms. Second, the fact that this vague titulature is repeated across such wide vistas of time and space suggests that it’s reflecting something real. Irish authors of the early ninth century or Byzantine authors of any period might not have known or cared what viking captains called themselves; but by the year 900 viking raiders had been known to other societies for a very long time and some authors were writing within polities ruled by Northman elites. That so many viking rulers were known by titles translating as ‘the guy in charge’ strongly suggests that in a lot of these political cultures authority was not very tightly or formally conceptualised.

Our third title also hints in this direction, and that’s ‘jarl’. I say ‘jarl’ specifically because it shows up actually as such in our Old English and Old Irish sources, and I think that odds are very good it’s hiding behind the few uses in Latin of titles such as comes Normannorum. We have no direct evidence for the title in a Rus’ context, but the Russian chronicle tradition makes tantalising reference to nobles called ‘voivodes’ who may well be the same thing. (In any case, there’s no evidence of more elaborate hierarchies amongst the early Rus’.) As this implies, our evidence for the presence of jarls in viking polities is scrappier than for kings or ‘bosses’. This is by itself significant: not only do we seem to have only one non-royal elite title which was conceptualised as a distinct position, it may not have been present always and everywhere.

One intriguing thing about this flatness is that it’s distinctive to viking polities but not obviously ‘genetic’ in the sense of descended directly from Scandinavian institutions. Our evidence for late eighth and ninth-century Scandinavian polities indicates a somewhat more nuanced hierarchy of officials, perhaps based on Frankish models. We have annalistic references to a custos limitis, a border magnate with enlarged responsibilities; and various other references (largely from Rimbert of Hamburg-Bremen) to urban officials. These might, of course, be Franks incorrectly reading the ranks of their own society into the Danish and/or Swedish kingdoms, but I am inclined to think that it’s reflecting developments within Scandinavia – the titles Rimbert gives to urban officials, for instance, are not very well-attested within the Carolingian empire itself. Scandinavian hierarchies, then, might have been more formal than viking ones. However, the threefold division of viking polities is also not reflected directly amongst other groups: descriptions of, say, Magyars and especially Petchenegs (the latter of whom don’t seem to have had individual leaders until very late on), don’t match up.

There are of course exceptions, and I’ll discuss a few now. First, there are some cases where viking rulers assimilated into more elaborate pre-existing hierarchies. The most celebrated case is of course Normandy, where Rollo and his descendants took over the role of a Carolingian count. By the early eleventh century, in fact, Normandy’s administration was almost archetypically Carolingian, with a regional supermagnate of fluctuating but high-status title (dux, marchio, etc) over a smaller number of subordinate counts and viscounts, and then Carolingian-style local officials such as vicarii. A similar pattern can be seen in Frisia, where viking rulers ruled over Carolingian counts. However, Frisia’s situation between the Danish kingdom and the Frankish world made it somewhat peculiar in this regard, and we’ll discuss that more in a future post. In general, though, this exception proves the rule: Rollo and the Frisian rulers were much less ‘genetically’ descended from viking armies (using ‘genetic’ here in the sense of social rather than biological reproduction) and their position was negotiated under the auspices of existing rulership, as opposed to the conquest polities of, say, East Anglia or Dublin.

That’s not the whole story, and the second exception we’ll finish off with before this post gets too long is that of development over time. In our discussion of Normandy above, the key phrase was ‘by the early eleventh century’: it’s unclear, but unlikely, that there was a Carolingian administration in place in early tenth century Normandy, not least because there doesn’t appear to have been a Carolingian administration in place in ninth-century Normandy either. For instance, Rollo was either the first count of Rouen period or the first in about a hundred years. The elaboration of lay hierarchies in Normandy can be paralleled elsewhere: in Rus’, for instance, it kept going for centuries and we have eleventh-century law codes showing a hierarchy of local officials. Even in Dublin, we have some evidence for a more fleshed-out lay hierarchy by the eleventh century. This reinforces my sense that the ‘flat’ nature of viking polities is a functional development from the hierarchies of viking armies, and the further away a polity gets from being a viking army the more elaborate its hierarchies get.

So where does this leave us? One of the questions of my research is the impact of Scandinavian forms of government on viking polities. ‘Scandinavian’ is already a big enough category that I went looking for regional differences; but actually I’m increasingly coming to the opinion (and I’m hardly original here) that ‘viking army’ is probably a more significant laboratory for settled rule than whatever kingdom the Scandinavian element within these armies came from. Naturally, the content assigned to titles such as ‘king’ or ‘jarl’ will be linked to how they’re understood in Scandinavia; but their place in society doesn’t have to have been. However, the comparative example of the Petchenegs is always at the back of my mind. I still don’t know why viking fleets in (say) Ireland and Rus’ look in important ways like each other, but not like either the Danish kingdom or other mobile military polities. I will keep you updated on what I come up with!