Truth, Lies and Charlemagne’s Invasion of Spain

It is proverbial that truth is the first casualty in war. The events of the past months have reminded us that participants in war seek to control information in order to convince onlookers of the justice of their cause and the strength of their arms. Although the medium changes, this was as evident in the medieval past as in the present. In addition to deliberate fabrications spread by contending parties, misleading statements coexisted with genuine misunderstandings or miscommunications, reinforced by the tendency of commentators to interpret the news they received in ways that confirmed their pre-existing worldviews. This cloud of misinformation offers a challenge to historians, as we attempt to see through it to understand cause and effect and the reality of the conflicts that took place. But the stories people tell about the struggles they lived through also offer us a glimpse at their opinions about the practice and justification of war. Doing so can shed new light even on conflicts we think we know well.

A case in point is Charlemagne’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 778, probably the most famous war he ever took part in. Unfortunately for the Frankish king’s military reputation, the campaign went south very quickly metaphorically as well as literally. Charlemagne was invited to invade in 777 by Sulayman b. Yaqzan al-ʿArabi, the independent Muslim lord of Barcelona. Sadly for the Franks, not all of Sulayman’s pals in the Peninsula were on board with this plan. As a result, when Charlemagne invaded the following year, he found himself stuck outside the formidable walls of Zaragoza, held by Sulayman’s ally Husayn al-Ansari, who was considerably less enthused by the prospect of Charlemagne as a houseguest. Going nowhere fast, and with word of trouble elsewhere in the realm (including a sudden and dramatic collapse in house prices in his new city in Saxony), the Frankish king decided to cut his losses and retreat across the Pyrenees, where his rear-guard was ambushed at Roncesvalles by Basques and a count from the Breton March named Roland earned his posthumous immortality.

The disaster of Roncesvalles was to loom over the rest of Charlemagne’s reign. But in May 778, before that desperate battle in a Pyrenean pass, Pope Hadrian I (r.772-795) sent Charlemagne a letter (Codex Epistolaris Carolinus no.61) that raises questions about the motivations behind the whole messy business. The Pope begins the missive by writing:

Your God-appointed royal rule has informed us through your letter that the Agarene people [Muslims][1] are, contrary to God, striving to invade your territory. When this became known to us, we immediately became very uneasy and concerned, but our Lord God and Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, will never allow such a thing to happen. But we, dearest son and greatest king, constantly pray for you with all our priests and pious monks, with all the clergy and with all our people, for the mercy of our Lord God to subdue this wicked people of the Agarenes and to force them to your feet, so that they can never gain the upper hand against you; just as the people of Pharaoh were sunk in the Red Sea because they did not believe in God, so in this case too our Lord God should put this into your hands through the intervention of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Believe in this and be persuaded that almighty God, if you believe in him, will give you the victory of your kingdom over your enemies and ours. And as, day and night, before the tomb of the Apostle of God [in Old St Peter’s Basilica], we constantly pray to the majesty of the Lord to enlarge your kingdom, let us always rejoice in your well-being and in the exaltation of your kingdom by God.


Pharaoh and his men (and unlucky horses) find themselves taking an unscheduled dip in the Red Sea in the Utrecht Psalter, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32 f.61v.

There’s a lot going on in this passage that we could talk about; divine aid for Christians fighting non-Christians; the liturgy of war; the typologising of Muslims as the followers of Pharaoh. What I’d like to focus on in this post is Hadrian’s apparent conviction, expressed in the first sentence of the letter, that Charlemagne was in imminent danger of being invaded and that this was the motivation for the forthcoming Iberian campaign. The Pope did not necessarily anticipate that the Franks would fight a defensive war, as his hope that Charlemagne would expand his kingdom in the final sentence indicates. But the passage suggests that Hadrian thought the Franks were mustering against a serious enemy that intended to attack them imminently.

The first thing to note is that factually this impression is nonsense. The north-east Iberian Peninsula was in the hands of a group of small-time warlords such as Sulayman in Barcelona and Husayn in Zaragoza. None posed a threat to Charlemagne. Further south, ʿAbd al-Rahman I (r.756-788), the Umayyad Emir based in Córdoba, was beginning to expand his reach in order to make his claim to rule all al-Andalus real. In 777 his armies took control of the Central Meseta. This development made him a potential danger to the lords of the north-east, and was what prompted Sulayman to seek help from Charlemagne. Despite this expansion, Córdoba was not an immediate problem the Franks. The first Umayyad attack on Carolingian territory would not take place until 793, under ʿAbd al-Rahman’s successor. Al-Andalus represented no danger to Charlemagne in the 770s.

So how did Hadrian come to the idea that Charlemagne was about to face an Andalusi invasion? It seems to me that there are three possibilities, listed here in chronological order:

1.   Sulayman misled Charlemagne in 777, making the latter think he was in danger to increase the chance of getting his support.

2.   Charlemagne misled Hadrian in his letter to put the war in a better light.

3.   Hadrian has got the wrong end of the stick/is misinterpreting the whole business for his own.

Option one is perhaps the most interesting because it would alter our understanding of events the most. I’ve generally viewed the invasion of 778 as a fairly straightforward attempt at conquest, with Charlemagne taking the opportunity offered by Sulayman to repeat his successful defeat of the Lombard kingdom in 774. That al-Andalus was ruled by non-Christians made it possible to justify the invasion as a holy war (something I’ve written about elsewhere). If Charlemagne legitimately thought he was facing an imminent threat and was looking for WMDs getting in his retaliation first, that changes the picture. That the Frankish king was genuinely concerned is suggested by grants of land he made to Christian settlers from al-Andalus in 781 that they might work together to defend the realm.

That said, this is the possibility I’m most comfortable rejecting. The Roncesvalles campaign was a fiasco that permanently stained Charlemagne’s reputation. A scapegoat, particularly a non-Frankish, non-Christian one, would be very welcome in those circumstances. Yet, there isn’t much effort made to present Sulayman as a malicious actor. The Annals of Lorsch say that Charlemagne took Sulayman prisoner in 778, but this conflicts with what we know about the (brief) rest of his career and is not mentioned in either the Royal Frankish Annals or the Chronicle of Moissac. If Sulayman had misled Charlemagne, I’d expect someone like Einhard to be cursing his name for his treachery. It’s still by no means impossible that Sulayman told Charlemagne that ʿAbd al-Rahman was coming for him, but I think it’s the least likely of the options available.

Option two is more plausible to my mind. Throughout his reign, Charlemagne was good at finding suitable casus belli to wage wars on his neighbours, as Duke Tassilo of Bavaria could confirm. The Carolingians as the defenders of the church and the Christian people against the Saracen menace was a theme that had appeared in writings connected to Charles Martel and Pippin III. That he might have misrepresented the situation to the Pope is not impossible. The preservation of Hadrian’s letter may be evidence in favour of this. The missive survives in the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus, a collection of 99 letters from Popes mostly to Carolingians. They were gathered together in one manuscript in 791 on royal orders so that they be consulted for future use. Given that he deliberately chose to preserve the letter, we can probably assume that Charlemagne was happy with the way Hadrian characterised the situation in early 778. This might be because he was the one who had presented it that way to the Pope.

I do wonder how necessary such a subterfuge would be. Hadrian was pretty dependent on Charlemagne’s support in Italy (more on which below). Further, it’s not like the Muslims of al-Andalus were the most sympathetic victims from a papal perspective. In the 780s Hadrian became increasingly interested in the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula. The letter of 778 suggests he was pretty relaxed about the idea of Charlemagne waging expansionist wars in the region.

Option three shifts the focus to Rome and comes in two flavours. The first of these observes that misunderstanding the situation allows Hadrian to rhetorically boost his own importance to Charlemagne. The devotions of the Pope and assembled faithful of Rome to St Peter on the Frankish king’s behalf look a lot more valuable if the heathen is massing at the border. Charlemagne valued these prayers. Hadrian had performed litanies for his victory over the Lombards in 774 and the Frankish king would request them in 791. Emphasising the protection that St Peter was offering meant emphasising the role of the Prince of the Apostles as Charlemagne’s patron.

As it happened, Hadrian, and therefore St Peter, needed a favour. Most of the rest of the letter is concerned with the Pope’s difficulties with Prince Arichis II of Benevento (r.754-787). Hadrian complains that Arichis is trying ‘to unlawfully free the inhabitants of Campania from the power and rule of St. Peter and ours and to put them under the [Byzantine] Patrician of Sicily’. He asks that Charlemagne intervene, and order Arichis to desist in such behaviour. This would not be the last time Hadrian would worry about the Beneventans plotting with Byzantium. Playing up how necessary the aid of the Pope and the blessing of St Peter were for Charlemagne’s success couldn’t hurt Hadrian’s case. A further bit of context might be important. Two years earlier Hadrian had been accused of participating in the sale of Christians as slaves to Muslim traders. He had denied the allegations, but he might have felt that a noisy declaration of a ‘tough on Saracens’ policy would be useful to distance himself from the rumours.

This is the more rational version of option three. The other variant is that Hadrian just straight up misunderstood the message. Although he was a shrewd politician who forged a successful alliance with Charlemagne, there were gaps to his knowledge. In a letter of 781 Hadrian sought to counsel the Frankish king on ʿAbbasid campaigns against Byzantium. In addition to being several years behind recent developments, the Pope completely garbled his information, inventing a civil war in the Caliphate that hadn’t happened. A hint that Hadrian might have been concerned that he didn’t have the full story comes in the letter, where he mentions that he sent the diplomats bearing this letter to Charlemagne ‘to clarify the matter’ of the forthcoming Saracen invasion.

I’m not sure which of these options is correct (although two and three strike me as the most plausible). It may never be possible to be certain. In the meantime, we shall have to content ourselves with weighing the meagre evidence trying to balance likelihoods. Nonetheless, we can say a couple of things for certain. In the eighth century, no less than in the twenty-first, people struggled to understand the causes of wars, hampered by poor communication systems, deliberate falsifications and the magnification of half-truths and misunderstandings. Despite these difficulties, they made the attempt. The reasons for conflict mattered, sufficient to lie and sufficient to try to pierce through the lies.

[1] -Ish. Early medieval Christian understanding of Islam and Muslims could be a little vague. Indicating that someone was a descendant of the Biblical Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Abraham, Agarene had both religious and racial connotations and while it could be used neutrally, it had strong pejorative overtones.


Was There A Rus’ Khaganate?

Enough of these remnants of trying to turn the quarter-of-a-million words I wrote on the history of tenth-century France into something a publisher will touch! Let’s turn to something from my actual, current research. As I said announcing it, I’m currently looking at the political cultures of a group of polities I’m lumping together under the heading of ‘Viking realms’ (although in the research proposal this took a fair bit of talking out as to exactly what I mean), with four in particular as my main case studies: Dublin, East Anglia, Frisia and the Rus’ Khaganate. On day two of the project, I discovered that the latter of these might not exist.

You may be wondering how that might be. After all, it’s got a Wikipedia page and everything. However, there are reasons to be concerned. The key piece of evidence linking all three elements of ‘Rus’’, ‘Scandinavians’ and ‘Khagan’ is also the very first piece of evidence which mentions the Rus’ at all, the 839 entry in the Annals of Saint-Bertin, which says that some people who called themselves Rus’ (Rhos) showed up in the train of some Byzantine ambassadors. Their king was called chacanus; but when Louis the Pious investigated further he found them to be Swedes (gens Sueonum) and had them detained on suspicion of being spies. The interpretation of chacanus as ‘khagan’ is by now scholarly orthodoxy, but in (much) older scholarship it was interpreted as being the personal name Hákon, and Ildar Garipzanov has recently written a defence of this position, arguing 1) that as a title ‘khagan’ is always written in our Frankish sources with a ‘g’ (caganus, chaganus, etc) and 2) the argument that the ‘H’ in ‘Hákan’ could very well be written in Latin with an initial ‘Ch’ at this time, by analogy with the Frankish rulers Chlodoicus (Louis the Pious) and Chlotarius (Lothar). So this was worrying; more worrying was a follow-up article by Donald Ostrowski building on recent Russian and Ukrainian historiography and taking a more general tilt at the idea of a Rus’ khagan and a Rus’ khaganate.

How art the mighty fallen? A remnant of the capital of the Khazar Khagagante at Itil – has the idea of a Rus’ khaganate been similarly demolished? (source)

Why does this bother me particularly? After all, even if the Rus’ ruler wasn’t called a khagan, there’s still unambiguously a Scandinavian presence in Eastern Europe which means I could achieve my research goals of comparing the Western European ‘usual suspects’ with a group not as proximate to Latin Christianity. However, whilst that is true, what is also true is that the specific title of ‘khagan’ is especially interesting and opens up a lot of conceptual room for political-cultural borrowing from the steppe world. Thankfully, my mind is more and more set at ease about the existence of a Rus’ khaganate.

Let’s start with the Annals of Saint-Bertin, because if the Rus’ king is called a ‘khagan’ there, then that’s pretty unambiguous. Here, Garipzanov’s primary claim about the uniqueness of a form with a middle ‘c’ doesn’t hold up. Towards the very end of the eighth century, for instance, a poem written to commemorate the victory of King Pippin of Italy over the Avars has a couple of references to ‘the Khagan, their king’ (Cacanus rex), as straightforward as you like, and with that middle ‘c’. Similar middle ‘c’s can be found in one of the manuscript families of the Chronicle of Regino of Prüm as well as the work of Paul the Deacon. On the other hand – and I will defer to a philologist here – I don’t think that a name like ‘Hakán’ would have an initial ‘Ch’. ‘Louis’ and ‘Lothar’ do, but they’re also starting with consonant clusters (‘Chl’) rather than a weak ‘h’. Names like ‘Hagano’ or ‘Heiric’ or ‘Helisachar can often lose the ‘h’ (‘Agano’, ‘Eiric’, etc) but I’ve never seen a ‘Chagano’ or ‘Cheiric’. It therefore seems to me pretty likely that we are, in fact, dealing with a Rus’ khagan.

Turning outwards to our other sources, we have a fairly large number of references to a khagan over the ninth and early tenth century. Ostrowski tries to minimise these, but I’m not convinced by his arguments. The best Latin source is a letter written from Louis II of Italy to the Byzantine Emperor Basil I as part of a lengthy ding-dong about titulature. This has been translated in full elsewhere, but the relevant section goes as follows:

We find that the overlord of the Avars is named the khagan (chaganum) not the *Khazars (Gazanorum) or Northmen (Nortmannorum); nor is that of the Bulgars ‘prince’, but rather ‘king and lord of the Bulgars’. We say all this, so that you might know that these things are otherwise than you have written based on what you read in Greek books.

This seems to me to be much clearer about what Basil said than has sometimes been allowed. Basil’s letter no longer survives and we have to reconstruct it from Louis’; but nonetheless Louis is fairly evidently contradicting specific assertions of Basil and one of those was that the Northmen (or a word which Louis understood that way) were ruled by a khagan. Of note is that is the Gazani were the Khazars, Louis is wrong here.

A final more-or-less contemporary source is the work of Ibn Rustah, a Persian geographer writing in the very early tenth century, who says that the Rus’ live on a big swampy island, spend their time raiding and trading, and are ruled by a khagan (Khaqan Rus, خاقان روس). This is pretty straightforward, and most of the serious opposition to the idea of a Rus’ khagan essentially handwaves it.

So it seems that a reasonably large range of contemporary authorities in the ninth century thought the Rus’ were ruled by a khagan. One important critique I’ve read in a few places protests the jump from this to reifying their political organisation into a ‘Rus’ khaganate’, but I think that with appropriate caution it’s a perfectly useable shorthand. That is, so long as we consciously avoid inferring things we can’t actually demonstrate about the khaganate’s social and political organisation simply because we’ve given it a name, we should be OK. After all, we know very little about the khaganate’s internal organisation, governing ideology, or even geographical location; but with slightly different balances the same is true for what we habitually and unprotestingly call (on about the same direct evidence, mind) the Viking kingdom of East Anglia.

What is particularly interesting about the Rus’ khagan, from this angle, is that whilst a row of good authorities – Bishop Prudentius of Troyes, Emperor Basil I, Ibn Rusta – line up to say there was a khagan amongst the Rus’, an equally large row of good authorities – Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, Archbishop Rimbert of Hamburg, Louis II of Italy, the Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh and – most intriguingly – the Arabic traveller Ibn Faḍlān – don’t mention him. Some of these omissions are explicable. Rimbert, for instance, isn’t talking about the Rus’ at all, but about the Swedes. The main reason his silence on the khagan question is interesting is the important role Birka (about which he was writing) played in the eastern trade, to the point it’s actually been proposed as the home for the 839 Rhos. Equally, Photius’ literary purposes vitiate any use he might be as a guide to Rus’ political organisation: in his homily following their attack on Constantinople in 860, he refers to the Rus’ as ‘leaderless’ (deep breath, since I don’t speak Greek: ἀστρατήγητου, astratēgētou) but he’s pretty evidently deploying Classical stereotypes of outer barbarians to emphasise how much the Constantinopolitans have angered God for Him to be sending such rude peoples to vex and harass them. Ibn Khordadbeh and Ibn Faḍlān, though, are much better informed: Ibn Khordadbeh was high-up in the ‘Abbasid caliphate and Ibn Faḍlān actually met the Rus’, and neither of them say that the ruler is a khagan. Ibn Khordadbeh mentions other peoples who have a khagan, but not the Rus’; Ibn Faḍlān calls the Rus’ ruler a king (malik).

So what do I think is going on here? Well, coming up with an answer to that question is currently my job so this is preliminary. However, my first inclination is that these are different groups of Rus’. Several historians have argued that ‘Rus’’ is not an ethnic name, but a professional one, rather like ‘Viking’. We know from western parallels that Viking groups were farraginous clusters of smaller groups, not necessarily related to other groups called the same thing by our sources. (This is one of the problems with tribute payments to Vikings: paying off one army doesn’t help you with any of the others.) What if we have here multiple different groups of Rus’, perhaps competing with one another, perhaps representing different ideological tendencies within a wider overarching framework, perhaps just in different places and unrelated to each other? This raises important questions about how different groups of Vikings assimilated, changed or resisted the traditions they found – questions which we can ask more easily with different flavours of the Latin Christian tradition in the west, but which are deepened by comparison with political behaviour in a steppe arena that is not Christian and certainly not Latin.

*I put ‘Khazars’ with an asterisk because the form as we have it here, Gazani, is not the same as the more recognisable Chazari which shows up a little bit later in the letter and doubts have been thrown on whether it’s the same people meant. I think it probably is – Christian of Stavelot has the form Gazari and the letter’s orthography (such as in the case of the name ‘Abraham’) isn’t fully consistent – but there’s room for reasonable doubt.

[Edit from some weeks after this was written: and I’ve since come across a letter of Anastasius Bibliothecarius unambiguously referring to the Khazars by both forms, so I think the same applies here – which is potentially important, because Louis is of course wrong about the title held by the Khazar ruler!]

Charter A Week 59: Intercession for the Dead

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

Saint-Bénigne 325 (c. 930-935)

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

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

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

 Saint-Benigne 326

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the most pious king

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Translation: Dynasty and Rebellion

Flodoard of Rheims, Historia Remensis Ecclesiae, IV.v, pp. 380-383 (c. 894).

[Fulk] sent letters to the Transrhenian king Arnulf [of Carinthia] for the sake of King Charles [the Simple], whom he had anointed as king whilst he was still a boy, and he explained the causes for [Charles’] elevation, for he had heard that Arnulf’s mind had been turned against him because of what he had done. He noted that after the death of Emperor Charles [the Fat], Arnulf’s uncle, he had set out for Arnulf’s service, wanting to receive his dominion and governance – but the king had sent him away without any counsel or consolation. Therefore, since no hope remained for [Fulk] in [Arnulf], he was compelled to receive the dominion of [Arnulf’s] man, that is, Odo, who was unconnected to the royal family and tyrannically abused royal power, but whose dominion he had reluctantly endured until now. So, because he desired Arnulf’s dominion, he therefore set out for his service but after he could get no advice from him, he did the only thing which was left to him, which was to choose to have the only other king whom they had from the royal line and whose predecessors and brothers had been kings.

He also rendered account for why they had not done it before (for which the same king blamed him). Because, when Emperor Charles died, and Arnulf himself was unwilling to receive the rule of the realm, this Charles [the Simple] was still very little, both in body and in wisdom, and was unsuitable for governing a kingdom, and given the threat of persecution by the Northmen, it was at that time too dangerous to elect him. But since they had seen him reach an appropriate age, when he knew to proffer assent to those wholesomely giving him counsel, they received him in a manner appropriate with God’s honour, that he might take care of the realm, wanting to establish him in such a manner that he might be useful to this realm and Arnulf. Against the accusation that they had presumed to do this without Arnulf’s counsel, he asserted that they had followed the custom of the Frankish people, whose custom had always been that when the king died, they would elect another from the royal family and lineage without respect to or inquiry after the wishes of any greater or more powerful king. Having made the king by this custom, they wanted to commit him to [Arnulf’s] fidelity and counsel, so that he might use his aid and counsel in everything, and so that both the king and the whole realm might be subdued to his precepts and ordinances.

Thereafter, because he had heard it suggested to the king that he had done this against the king’s fidelity and for his own private gain, he said that the very Anskeric [bishop of Paris] who was known to have bandied this about had, before the archbishop himself had tried to do anything about this matter, come to him in the presence of Counts Heribert [I of Vermandois] and Ecfrid [of Artois] and sought both counsel and aid on what he should do about the commands of Odo, who had ordered him to do insupportable things. He asked for counsel on behalf of Gozfred’s sons concerning the evil which Odo was trying to do to them; and they asked that a chief should be established by common counsel who was such a man that they might be secure after having submitted themselves to him, intending either on Guy [of Spoleto] or on this Charles of the royal line. At the same time, those who were there considered whom they would be better advised to attend, and it seemed to them, for the sake of gaining the realm’s advantage and out of fear of contradiction on Arnulf’s part, and because the rulership of a royal race is right and proper, that they should go over to this Charles. They believed that Arnulf would be happy for his kinsman, and defend him and the realm.

But he had heard it bandied about that he had done this on behalf of Guy [of Spoleto], so that by this wile he might secretly bring him into the realm and, having dismissed the boy Charles, go over to Guy’s side. He asserted that this was a knowing falsehood bandied against him by the envy of the jealous. For the sort of man who promulgated such slanders knew that he could be accused in the same way; he, on the other hand, knew himself neither to be such a man nor to be born from such parents. The king’s predecessors had never found such trickery in his forefathers, whom they considered proven as completely loyal and useful for the realm, and for that reason they honourably elevated them. Wherefore he blushed on the king’s behalf, that he would believe this of him or brand himself with such infamy.

Finally, because he had heard that it had been said to Arnulf that this Charles was not Louis [the Stammerer’s] son, he asserted that he could not believe that there was anyone who, if they saw him and knew his relatives’ appearance, would not recognise him as coming from the royal lineage: he bore certain signs of his father Louis by which he could be known as his son. He therefore asked Arnulf’s royal majesty that he should worthily accept this truth and that no-one be able to turn his mind against his innocent king, his kinsman, but that he have examined in his presence and the presence of his followers whether matters were as he had stated, and lead affairs to their due conclusion, thinking of how his ancestors had governed the state of the realm and how the descent of royal highness had always hitherto flourished, but how at that time just that prince and his little kinsman Charles remained from the whole royal family; and he should consider what might come to pass if the end due to everyone should ask for him, since there were already some many kings unconnected to the royal family, and there would be yet more who would affect for themselves the name of kings. Who would help his son ascend to the inheritance of the realm due to him after his death, if it happened that his kinsman Charles were toppled?

He also added that it was known that amongst nearly all the peoples, the Frankish people were accustomed to have hereditary kings, offering the witness of the blessed Pope Gregory on this, and adding as well from German books the story of old king Ermenric, who sent all his offspring to die by the impious counsels of one of his counsellors; and he begged that the king should not acquiesce to wicked counsels, but should have mercy on this people and aid the failing royal race, taking care that the dignity of his line should be strengthened in his own time, and that those who became kings from unconnected families, or who desired so to become, should not prevail against those to whom royal honour was due because of their family. He stated that he had sent Aletramnus to suggest to the same Arnulf that he should command any of those who had established Charles as king he pleased to come into his service, and they would reasonably show before his sublimity that matters were as he had described.

He also solicited and prayed that the king should deal with the aforewritten material with a receptive heart, and know of [Fulk’s] devotion to and intent on his fidelity, that Charles should respect [Arnulf’s] counsel in everything he did, and remain protected by his piety, and that no-one should be able to turn the heart of the king away from helping the realm or Charles.

This isn’t the first time justifying rebellion has come up on this blog, and it isn’t the first time that dynasty has either. What’s significant about this letter is that it is more-or-less the key piece of evidence for historians who want to argue that 888 represents a ‘dynastic crisis’ as opposed to just a succession crisis. And if you read it you can see why: if you’re looking for a statement about the paramount importance of blood, it’s right hee.

It’s just a shame the letter itself is such a crock. As we talked about on Monday, Archbishop Fulk of Rheims was using Charles the Simple as figurehead for his own rebellion. This letter was written to defend himself against the charge of – as he puts it – putting his private interests ahead of that of the realm. Thing is, it’s clear from reading it that this is exactly what Fulk has done. He has to defend himself from charge after charge after charge – that he didn’t crown Charles in 888 (he didn’t), that he’s going against Arnulf in crowning him now (he is), that he’s working on behalf of Guy of Spoleto (he probably isn’t, but given that Guy is who he did crown in 888, it’s a reasonable belief), and so on. It’s also clear from the letter that he has few friends at Arnulf’s court, and that some people who he thought were originally on side have turned out not to be – Bishop Anskeric of Paris comes in for a drubbing here. Even worse, he doesn’t have real arguments against the Guy of Spoleto point, which is probably the key charge against his own rhetoric – note how what he says in response amounts to ‘I know you are, but what am I?’

Fulk’s appeals availed him nought. It’s clear that justifying his rebellion in terms of Charles’ Carolingian blood did not gain him much support, and may in fact have caused contemporaries to view his cause with a certain degree of cynicism. Equally, it didn’t persuade Arnulf. If Fulk hoped that an appeal to family would help, he was sorely mistaken. Arnulf stayed on Odo’s side throughout the 890s, fairly constantly, and Fulk himself was given the cold shoulder. I think what is happening here is that Fulk has picked out a fringe idea to legitimise himself in the hope that it’ll appeal to Arnulf’s self-interest, but that idea is in fact too fringe to be convincing.