Edge Cases: Linear Borders in Early Medieval Europe

In early July 2022 I had the pleasure of attending the Leeds International Medieval Congress. This is the great summer jamboree for medieval historians, the largest annual academic conference in Europe, featuring 613 sessions and over 2,000 people. It was also the first to be held in person since 2019 for obvious disease-related reasons. In addition to catching up with old friends for the first time in years and making my presence felt at the legendary Wednesday night disco with my characteristic grace and poise, I thought I might try to attend some of the papers given that I was in town.

The overall theme of the conference was ‘Borders’. Adhering too strongly to said theme is not necessarily in the true spirit of Leeds IMC, but I got to hear a number of excellent papers that addressed the subject. One thing that struck me though were the number of speakers, particularly in the keynotes, who decried the idea of the existence of linear borders between political entities in the earlier Middle Ages. To hear one paper of this view, such things were unheard of before the fourteenth century at the earliest. Instead of lines, kingdoms and other such polities were separated by ambiguous and shifting border zones, where the writ of central authority ran thin in difficult country far from the heartlands of their power.

Such an assessment is often correct. The frontier between the Carolingians and Umayyad al-Andalus, where I cut my teeth as a researcher, is a fine example. Somewhere on the road between Barcelona and Zaragoza, a ninth-century traveller crossed from one authority to another, but pinning down the exact spot would be a difficult and largely pointless exercise. This emphasis upon nodal points of communication and control is very far from unusual. Nonetheless, there was something about the confident declarations that medieval people did not think in terms of linear borders that troubled me.

Partly this is because I worry that we’re a little too fond of the complexity of ambiguous frontiers. Most of us come from states which come to an end at clearly delineated geographic points (something I have been reminded of all too regularly as a British person who routinely travels across Europe). There’s something immensely exciting and heroic about borderlands that blur into each other. In embracing them, historians in the present demonstrate their ability to engage with very different pasts in a way that shows off our subtlety and cleverness. It also marks us out as different from the Priti Patels, Donald Trumps and Marine Le Pens of the world. This can lead to us fantasising about the Middle Ages as a time when people didn’t care about borders as antidote to the present.

More substantially the concept of the borderless Middle Ages smacks a little too much of modernity constructing medieval otherness. The idea that linear borders only emerge in the fourteenth century feeds into narratives designed to separate the past from the present, allowing modern historians to treat the centuries before their period as an alien irrelevance. The dangers of such an approach can be seen in the literature on the history of international relations, where the idea that diplomacy emerged in the fifteenth century resulted in the considerable neglect of anything in between Thucydides and the Medici. I’m also concerned that assuming that all medieval borders were zones rather than lines lets us off the hook of investigating why this was the case. After all, if people from the Middle Ages resisted toeing the line, then we shouldn’t feel surprised that fluid territorial ambiguity is the ubiquitous order of the day.

I actually think we should be surprised if it turns out that medieval people never thought in terms of linear political boundaries. After all, borders and lines existed within their daily lives. A glance at the boundary clauses in charters often reveals a world where people had very firm and precise ideas about where their property stopped, and another person’s began. These are very common in Anglo-Saxon charters, with a nice example being the boundary clause in a charter from the start of the tenth century in which Edward the Elder confirms the sale of five hides of land at Water Eaton in Oxfordshire:

These are the land-boundaries of Eaton – first from beetle’s stream up along the streamlet till it comes to the coloured floor. Thence along the valley by the two little barrows till it comes to the spring at Wulfhun’s plantation. Then diagonally over the furlong to the thorn bushes westward where the large thorn tree used to stand, and so to bird pool. Then along the ditch till it comes to the muddy spring, and so along the water course till it comes to the Cherwell which forms the boundary from then on.

(trans. here, orig. here)

While some of the landmarks may strike us as rather eccentric, they would have been meaningful to the people on the ground who were the ones who most needed the information. Nor were these clauses confined to England. They can be found in charters from Catalonia and Brittany to Italy and Bavaria.

Should barrows and bird pools not suffice, boundary markers could also be employed. The Law of the Bavarians ordained that:

XII.1 If anyone dares to level boundary lines or remove fixed boundary markers, let him compensate, if he is a freeman, with six solidi for each sign or marker in the neighbourhood.

(trans. Rivers, p.150)

This is followed by a full section on the subject. Cities and towns were criss-crossed with lines, whether those relate to property, parishes or different legal zones. Anglo-Saxon law codes refer to the beating of the bounds, which still happen in parts of Britain and New England to this day, in which priests lead their flocks around the boundaries of their parish, to fix them in memory and practice. (Young boys were often beaten at strategic points in order to secure their recollection of this geography, part of a rich English pedagogical tradition which explains so many of the neuroses of my beloved patria.) There was a long and fine intellectual tradition running behind such boundaries, as demonstrated by the continued use of Roman texts about surveying such as the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum.

Drawing lines in the sand in the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel Codex Guelfferbytanus 36.23 Augusteus 2 f.19r.

The presence of linear boundaries in a domestic context doesn’t mean they existed on the frontier, but it should at least suggest that such a thing was not inconceivable to medieval minds. And sure enough, if we go looking, we find a range of suggestive borders. Some of these are present on natural features. Rivers might have been great connectors for communications and commerce in the medieval world, but they also offered a natural line of demarcation, albeit one that was prone to moving. Einhard claimed that the Vistula and the Ebro marked the limits of Charlemagne’s empire, and while he was clearly overoptimistic in the case of the latter, it at least indicates that fluvial boundaries were an idea that made sense to him. Elsewhere we find linear earthworks such as the Danevirke between the Danes and the Franks and Offa’s Dyke between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms. These may not have marked the precise border, but by acting as places to manage the flow of people, they effectively created a line where one moved from one zone of control to another. Nor was this concept confined to the Christian world. Muslim writers commented on the Iron Gates raised by Alexander the Great to mark the border between the civilised world and the Tartar hordes of Gog and Magog.

Treaties sometimes also indicate that people were thinking in terms of lines. A nice example is the treaty that ended the Beneventan civil war in 849, by partitioning the principality between Radelchis I in Benevento and Sikenolf in Salerno, which states that:

10. Between Benevento and Capua the border goes from Sant’Angelo to Cerro, passing through the edge of Monte Vergine to the place called Fenestella. Between Benevento and Salerno the border lies in the place, which is called ‘Ad Peregrinos’, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side. Between Benevento and Conza the border lies right at the border stone in Frigento, where since ancient times the distance is 20 miles per side.

(translated by Benham here, with useful context here)

Better known in Anglophone world is the agreement made around 880 between Alfred the Great and Guthrum, which declares that the boundaries of their realms shall run ‘up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, and then up the Ouse to Watling Street.’ Centuries of scholars have tried to map the resulting partition with many different interpretations. We may suspect that in reality the result was more fluid, but the treaty nonetheless conveys an understanding of the frontier that is created by a fixed linear legal boundary.

Different frontiers took different forms. The Carolingian empire was bounded by a mix of client kingdoms, such as the Abodrites, organised marches, like my beloved Spanish March, and fortified defensive lines, an example of which can be found along the Elbe. A classic case study of Carolingian rulers thinking in terms of lines appears in the negotiations between Louis the Pious and the Bulgars in the 820s. In 825 the emperor received envoys from Khan Omurtag in order to determine their ‘borders and limits (terminis ac finibus)’. Omurtag was keen to sort this out, sending a further embassy in 826 in response to Louis’ reply, ‘that the borders (terminorum) be determined without delay.’

These talks were complicated by antagonism between the Bulgars and pre-existing Frankish clients such as the Praedenecenti, but the aim was to fix a line between the two powers. What I particularly like about this example is that it demonstrates the way the nature of these boundaries could shift. After a sustained attempt to draw up a clear line, a breakdown in relations between the Franks and the Bulgars led to war, when the latter invaded Upper Pannonia in 827. The development of intermittent conflict, and activities of other peoples in the region like the Timociani who didn’t fancy being Bulgar clients, created a deep frontier zone. This was not an inevitable consequence of medieval people being unable to conceive of linear borders, but rather a dynamic result of political circumstances and decisions, which could change quickly.

It is not my intention in this screed rant post to deny that the borders between medieval polities were often porous or poorly defined. Nor is it to doubt the existence of ambiguous frontier zones that acted as liminal spaces where people got on with their own business without too much concern about which ruler they were theoretically subject to. Instead, what I hope I’ve suggested is that linear borders could indeed exist in the medieval world, and that were we do find edges that shade into each other, we ought to ask why that is, rather than assuming that this was a universal feature. Rather than drawing a line under the matter, we need further investigation in order to more clearly delineate the subject.

Once Upon a Time in the South: John and the Wages of War (March 795)

Being a medieval historian often brings to mind the old joke about the drunk searching for his keys in the dark. Whatever we might want to find, unless it’s directly under the streetlights (or in our very narrow source base), we’re not going to find it, even if we’re pretty certain it must be around somewhere. In the early medieval period in particular, the lampposts are mostly fixed on royal courts and major religious institutions. For people and places beyond those shining lights, we generally have to hope that their paths will in some way cross these sources of illumination.  A fine example of this happening is the charter translated here (dangerously stepping on Fraser’s toes as the master of all cartulary knowledge in the process). I’m very fond of this one because it gives us an unusual glimpse of a warrior below the highest ranks of the elite. It also provides an illuminating perspective on the endlessly fascinating frontier region known as the Spanish March at an early stage of its development.

(Ed.: the charter as it stands is not preserved without textual question marks, which are illustrated in brackets following the MGH edition.)

DD Karol. 1 no. 179, also Catalunya Carolíngia 2.ii, p.310

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
<The most serene> Charles, by the grace of God, king of the Franks and of the Lombards and patrician of the Romans.
<Let it be known> to all our bishops, abbots, governors, companions, and all our followers, both present and future.
It is right that the power of the king should impart protection upon those who can be proved to need it.
[Therefore, let your greatness and advantage] know that John came to us and showed us the letter which our beloved son Louis [the Pious] had made for him and sent through him to us. And we found in this letter that John himself fought a great battle against the heretics or unbelieving Saracens in the district of Barcelona, where he overcame them at the place called Ad Ponte and slew the aforesaid infidels and took spoils from them. He then presented some of them to our beloved son, the best horse and the best mail coat and a scimitar with a silver scabbard; and he asked him [Louis] for the abandoned hamlet which is called Fontes in the district of Narbonne in order to work on it. He gave him [John] the hamlet and sent him to us.
And when he [John] had come to us with the letter which our son produced for him, he commended himself into our hands. Our said follower John asked that we might grant him the hamlet which our son had given him. We indeed grant him the hamlet itself, with all its borders and its appurtenances in its entirety; and whatever he and his men have occupied or will have occupied; and what they will have cleared from the waste in the village of Fontjoncouse; and what they will have occupied either within its borders or in other places or villages or hamlets; and what he and his men will have taken by aprisio. We grant all these things to him through our donation, so that he and his posterity may have it without any rent or trouble, while they are faithful to us or our sons. And in order that this authority may be held more firmly, we have sealed it under our signet.
Giltbert recognised and subscribed this on behalf of Rado.
Given in the month of March, in the twenty-fifth and eighteenth year of our reign, enacted at our palace at Aachen; happily in the name of God. Amen.

There’s a lot of interest in this short text, but let’s start with the basics. The exact dating of this charter is unclear, as that provided on the charter isn’t coherent. The most likely year is 795, that is before the more than a decade of campaigning through which the Carolingians would seek to expand the March. Louis the Pious was away from Aquitaine for two years from 792, making 794 the earliest he could have had his meeting with John, probably placing the charter grant by Charlemagne in March 795.

I’ve seen it suggested that John’s battle with the Saracens was connected to the invasion ordered by the Umayyad Emir Hisham I in 793. I suspect that that is both unlikely and unnecessary. The incursion of 793 was a fairly serious force that sacked the outskirts of Narbonne and beat the Count of Toulouse in battle, killing a large number of Franks in the process. That sounds like a far larger event than John’s skirmish, although it’s possible that John fought a band that had fanned out from the main invasion force. But we don’t need to assume that it happened then. In his epic poem praising Louis the Pious, Ermold the Black writes about feuds arising from raids on single households. Likewise, the Revised Royal Frankish Annals (s.a. 797) describes Barcelona as an area swinging between Christians and Muslims. This was a tough neighbourhood, and people in the region were quite capable of raiding each other without outside help.

One of the most exciting things about this charter is that it is part of a set. It comes down to us in a twelfth-century manuscript preserved in the cathedral of Narbonne. In 963, a descendant of John gave the land to the cathedral, together with a collection of relevant documents proving ownership, of which this charter was the first. Other documents in the collection included pertinent legislation and reconfirmations of the grant by later Carolingians. In addition, Christoph Haack and Thomas Kohl have recently drawn attention to an oath given by witnesses of the 795 grant in 833 on behalf of John’s son Teudefred. John and Teudefred had been chased off the land by Count Leibulf, but the latter managed to reclaim it, in large part thanks to the witnesses. The result is that we have a dossier that doesn’t just help us follow a family in the Spanish March through the ninth century, but also provides clues to help us understand the charter translated here.

One of those clues pertains to John’s ethnicity. Included in the manuscript is a charter given by Charlemagne in 812 to a group of men called hispani, one of whom is named John. The Emperor promised to protect the rights of these small landowners against the more powerful counts of the region. If, as seems most plausible, we identify this John as the same one from the first charter, this tells us that he and his men were most likely from the Iberian Peninsula (and after all, it takes Juan to know Juan). It is traditional to assume that such men were refugees from Muslim persecution in al-Andalus, and perhaps they were, but nothing in the historical record forces us to assume this. John appears as a warrior with a small following, who shrewdly parlayed success in battle into landed wealth. Although he was clearly a man of some standing, with a warband capable of skirmishing with enemy companies, this nonetheless places him several rungs below the type of military men we normally meet in the sources.

The site of John’s battle, Ad Ponte/To the Bridge, is unknown today, as is Fontes in the country of Narbonne. The oath of 833 tells us that it was originally given to John by a Count Sturmi as aprisio, before being confirmed by Louis and Charlemagne. The term aprisio is one that has been repeatedly discussed by scholars, but broadly it seems to have been a word of Iberian origin, applied to wasteland that was now being occupied. The hamlet of Fontes was deserted, so John raised buildings and cultivated the land. The reason the land was abandoned is uncertain. Saracen raids are one possibility, but there are many others.

There are a number of interesting details in this charter. The reference to the Saracens as ‘heretics’ points to the vagueness of Carolingian understandings of Islam. The discussion of the items presented by John to Louis suggests the importance of booty for warfare in the period, as well as the significance of gifts for relations between lords and followers. We can also see the interesting relationship between the written word and oral testimony. Louis wrote a letter for John that he could take to Charlemagne. Charlemagne confirmed the grant of lands in a text that was carefully preserved so we can read it today. But when John’s possession of the land was questioned, his son reclaimed it using the testimony of witnesses to the original grant. That testimony was itself written down and preserved. The two sources of authority interacted and complemented each other.

There’s much more that could be said about this charter, but it remains one of my favourites for the way it casts a spotlight on the Spanish March and on the people who tried to benefit from its sometimes-volatile nature.

Bestriding the World: The Politics of Hegemony in Francia and China

In May 823, Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) held an assembly at Frankfurt. Much of the business at hand concerned his neighbours to the east. These included the brothers Milegast and Cealadrag, two kings of the Wilzi, a Slavic people who lived on the Baltic. The older, Milegast, had been deposed by his subjects in favour of the younger and the pair now came to the Emperor for arbitration. Louis decided in favour of Cealadrag, judging him to be the true choice of the Wilzi, but softened the blow by giving them both gifts. The brothers swore oaths to keep the agreement, before being sent home. Next on the agenda was (the confusingly similarly named) Prince Ceadrag of the Abodrites, the people to the west of the Wilzi. Not for the first time, Ceadrag had failed to attend the assembly, and he was accused of treachery to the Franks (probably with the Danes). Envoys were sent to the Abodrites to investigate further. The prince moved quickly to rectify this breach, sending messengers promising to attend upon Louis the following winter. When he did so, Ceadrag was able to mollify the emperor with acceptable excuses for the years he had been absent, and was allowed to go home with gifts.

The Wilzi and the Abodrites were two of a number of client states that ringed the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne (r. 768-814) and Louis the Pious. They were particularly common on the eastern frontier. When Louis held an assembly in Frankfurt in the winter of 822, he received offerings from the ‘Abodrites, Sorbs, Wilzi, Bohemians, Moravians, and Praedenecenti, and from the Avars living in Pannonia’. As the events of 823 indicate, their kings were expected to act in a matter that benefitted Frankish aims and to regularly attend upon Carolingian rulers to show their submission with tribute. Louis acted as the court of final appeal for internal disputes, but otherwise the client-kings operated with a great deal of domestic autonomy.

Classical International Relations theory finds such arrangements hard to deal with. The dominant realist school views diplomatic relations as something that happens in conditions of anarchy between states that are acting entirely independently of each other in their own self-interest. In this view, if Louis was sufficiently strong to compel the Abodrites, he should have sent someone after Ceadrag, and not waited to hear his excuses. Likewise, if Ceadrag was powerful enough to put off the Franks, why did he submit to Louis at all? This school of IR thought emerged out of Europe in the nineteenth century, where multiple great powers ruthlessly jockeyed for position in a rotating set of alliances that sought to balance against any single state that looked like it might achieve a dominant position. Whether it analyses even that world accurately is unclear to me. It most certainly doesn’t help us with the assembly of May 823.

This is frustrating, because I genuinely think that other disciplines have a lot to teach medieval histories about our approach to our subject. Early medieval sources are often terse, with the Carolingian annals very rarely explaining why people did what they did. A school of thought that gives us analytic tools to expand these gnomic utterances would be extremely useful. Likewise, there’s a danger of burying oneself too deeply in one particular space and failing to notice what makes it distinctive or interesting because the lack of alternative examples makes you assume that what you see is universal. With this in mind, I went looking for a different model for the way states might interact.

I found it with the help of my friend Joshua Batts, whom I met when we were both fellows at Darwin College, and who does fascinating work on relations between the Tokugawa in Japan and the Spanish empire. At some point over lunch in college several years ago he drew my attention to a recent(ish) book by David C. Kang entitled East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010), which I read, and has been floating around in my head ever since because it gave me a model for a what a long-term stable system of hegemony might look like, as an alternative to Westphalian anarchy. My ignorance of East Asian history is vast, so what will follow will contain mistakes, none of which are attributable to poor Joshua, who did his best to educate a barbarian medievalist.

Kang begins his book with the observation that between 1368, when the Ming dynasty began to rule China, and the First Opium War (1839-1841), there were only two wars between China and its most important East Asian neighbours, that is, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Apart from the Chinese invasion of Vietnam (1407-1428) and the Imjin War when Japan invaded Korea (1592-1598), these four states existed in peace with each other for the best part of five centuries. Other conflicts still happened, including civil wars, Chinese wars against seminomadic peoples on the north and west frontiers, and battles against wakō pirates. But unlike late medieval and early modern Europe, the great powers of East Asia did not routinely go to war with each other.

Kang attributes this stability to the hierarchical tribute system that structured relations between these four states, with Korea, Vietnam and Japan orbiting the Chinese sun. This system was built on the simple fact of overwhelming Chinese power. First, China was so enormously strong and rich that it was effectively invulnerable to its neighbours, something that all parties knew. Second, China’s wealth and cultural confidence meant that it didn’t need anything from these neighbours. Commercial, political and cultural contact and exchange were minor luxuries. As a consequence, what Chinese governments most wanted from these neighbours was the surety that they weren’t going to start any trouble and regular demonstrations of respect in the form of tribute that served to reinforce China’s understanding of itself as the centre of the world.

It didn’t come from Korea, Vietnam or Japan, but how was I possibly supposed to resist this picture of a giraffe presented to the Ming court from India in 1414?

For their part, the rulers of Japan, Korea and Vietnam were mostly willing to go along with this. They had practical reasons. None of them wanted to antagonise China, and all benefitted from Chinese protection. Access to carefully guarded Chinese commercial markets was also of immense importance to them. But Kang suggests that we shouldn’t underestimate how important Chinese political and cultural norms were for these states. Their rulers very deliberately and genuinely bought into Confucianism, poetry and other aspects of Chinese civilisation, and modelled their governments upon them. There was variation to this. Korea was the most perfectly Sinicised neighbour, taking pride in being the closest imitator of the Chinese model. The highest ranked official of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea for most of this period took the clothes and titles of a third-rank Chinese official, with the rest of the Korean hierarchy slotting in below. Japan by contrast, being more distant, was more suspicious of Chinese models, and tended to be the readiest to challenge Chinese hegemony (see the Imjin War).

By participating in the Chinese driven hierarchy, these Confucian states made themselves legible to Ming and Qing officials. Peking understood the institutional structures and philosophies that guided their politics, and could therefore predict their behaviour and assume their goodwill. Any difficulties could be resolved because all participants were speaking the same language both literally and figuratively. The security this provided allowed China to be generous to its clients. Although the tribute they provided were trumpeted as part of the Middle Kingdom’s conception of itself, they were outweighed by the gifts and commercial opportunities the tributaries received in return. A similar generosity applied to frontiers. Despite China’s vastly more powerful military force, disputed borders with Korea and Vietnam were decided by legal negotiation, with the non-Chinese party winning more often than not. This credible commitment to non-exploitation in turn strengthened the willingness of the Confucian states to take part in the Chinese system, creating a virtuous cycle that more-or-less lasted until the collapse of Chinese power in the nineteenth century.

In summarising the core thesis of the book, I have simplified much, leaving out the evidence and the detail. But I think the three key elements here – an overwhelmingly powerful hegemon; client states that go out of their way to be legible and predictable to the hegemon; and generous behaviour by the hegemon – offer a useful lens for thinking about Carolingian hegemony, both for how it was constructed and for why it failed. (Fair warning here – while what was above was constrained by the holes in my knowledge about East Asia, below is me speculating wildly and loosely.)

An example of this is the emphasis on generosity in the Frankish annals. Early medieval rulers were expected to be givers of gifts, so it’s not surprising that we find Louis showering leading Wilzi and Abodrites with presents. Nonetheless, the Chinese example suggests that successful hegemony depends upon such beneficence. It is neither a novel nor a sophisticated insight that people like getting stuff, and will be more likely to acknowledge your power if there is a material benefit to them for doing so. It’s nonetheless worth bearing in mind when we try to understand why the likes of Ceadrag allow themselves to be summoned to attend upon the Emperor. On the other hand, the Chinese example of settling land disputes does suggest another benefit of the relationship for the client. Milegast and Cealadrag came to Louis because they thought he could arbitrate their dispute. This implies at least some respect for Carolingian justice and Louis’ ability to make a settlement stick. Solving political problems by acting as an honest judge might also lie behind a hegemonic relationship.

Another interesting trend is the ‘Carolingianisation’ of many of the neighbours of the Franks. This is reflected in the material remains, with Frankish goods such as metalwork and glass being found in increasing amounts in Central Europe. Missionaries travelled among these client kingdoms, spreading familiarity with Christian ideas. Although it’s hard to say much about the political structures of these places before the Carolingian period, the appearance of kings and dynasties seems to have something to do with copying Frankish models. (The number of Slavic words for king that are derived from Charlemagne’s name, Karl – Bulgarian крал, Czech král, Polish król, Russian коро́ль, Serbian краљ etc – is suggestive of the influence of Carolingian kingship in Central and Eastern Europe). The emergence of royal dynasties literate in Carolingian culture and embedded in Frankish networks of exchange would make the satellites much easier for Carolingian rulers to do business with them, whether or not this was a deliberate or an accidental development.

But where the Chinese example really shines for me is the hints its gives for why Carolingian hegemony was so short-lived. Whereas Kang’s model describes a system that lasted nearly 500 years and survived the dynastic transition from the Ming to the Qing in the seventeenth century, Carolingian hegemony barely lasted a generation (I would place it at roughly c.790-c.830 but that’s a gut assessment and there are signs of trouble in the 820s). The differences between our two examples help explain that discrepancy.

The first difference, and the most important, is that the Carolingian empire was never as overwhelmingly powerful as China. Even at the apogee of Frankish power, the distance between the Carolingians and their neighbours was never as great as that. This was a situation that only became less hegemonic following the division of the empire into rival kingdoms from 843, lessening the resources any single Carolingian monarch could bring to bear on any single problem while giving them dangerous peer competitors. While for most of the ninth century the East Frankish realm was more powerful than any of its non-Frankish neighbours, even that begins to shift with the rise of Moravia in the 860s and 870s, a former client turned increasingly great power.

Further, the Carolingian world was never as unipolar as that of East Asia. In the south-east and south-west respectively, Byzantium and Umayyad Spain competed with the Carolingians for influence within client states. In the north-east, the main rival was the Danish kingdom, who offered Abodrite and Wilzi leaders options if they chose to oppose the Franks. Thus, in 808 the Danish king Godfrid gathered the Wilzi, Smeldingi and Linones into an anti-Frankish alliance. In 821, Ceadrag of the Abodrites was suspected of plotting with the sons of Godfrid.

As a consequence, Carolingian rulers were never as secure in their dealings with client states as their Chinese counterparts. This acted to destabilise the system because it made Frankish monarchs less open-handed and more prone to interfering. I suspect that the ratio of tribute to gift between the Franks and their clients was rather less generous than in the case of China, undermining the relationship’s value. Because of the different balance of power, the Carolingians had to watch their tributaries for signs of rebellion rather more closely, resulting in moments like Louis’ heavy-handed intervention into Abodrite politics in 823. Indeed, Ceadrag became leader of the Abodrites in the first place when Louis ordered Sclaomir to share power with him in 817. Being a client of the Carolingians also made you a potential target, such as when King Godfrid attacked the Abodrites in 808 as an indirect strike at Charlemagne.   

These were not the sort of circumstances that would make you feel good about your more powerful neighbour. Even if you came to power with Frankish support, the conditionality of such backing would encourage you to look for alternative options once established. As a result, Carolingian hegemony was much more dependent upon military coercion than the Chinese equivalent. Said coercion only made it harder to win the genuine allegiance of clients, creating a cycle leading to instability and distrust.

Another difference that I suspect has an impact is in the structure of imperial power. Most Chinese emperors ruled through a tax base administered by the state which supported the bureaucracy, living expenses and standing army. Martial excellence was not a particularly vital requirement so long as the borders were safe and the tribute was coming in. Carolingian emperors depended on their own estates for sustenance and the loyalty of their followers for their military support. A reputation for military skill was much more important, as was the financial rewards of booty and conquest. This doesn’t mean that the Franks needed to be constantly at war, but that domestic tensions might incentivise aggressive behaviour towards one’s neighbours in a way that was hard to predict from the outside.

To sum all of this up, because the Carolingian empire was a weaker superpower, with more plausible rivals, and had a political structure and culture that made it more aggressive, it was a much less predictably benevolent hegemon. This made client states more likely to look for opportunities to free themselves of this dependence and also made it more likely that moments of crisis would emerge that would provide those opportunities.

This isn’t necessarily inevitable. Politics is never written in stone. At different points of their careers Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald seem to have experimented with styles of rulership that depended less upon military expansion. A Carolingian empire that never divides, or where the different members of the family manage to keep the peace between them might change the calculus. Nonetheless, I think the Chinese example of international hierarchy provides us with a useful comparison of a very different system to Westphalian anarchy which at least helps us to ask some of the right questions when it comes to understanding hegemonic systems elsewhere.

All’s Fair in Love and Holy War: A Response to My Critic

One of the things that makes being an academic often seem slightly unreal is that you spend a lot of time feeling like you’re screaming into the void. You craft articles by conducting the research, honing the argument in conference papers, writing and re-writing variations of the same words over again until by some curious alchemy they are transmuted into something resembling coherence, before scurrying off to the library to get the last footnote just right. You benefit from/endure the advice of anonymous peer reviewers. You edit, and edit some more, and question your intelligence and sanity when at the very last minute you spot a ghastly spelling mistake that somehow escaped the ministrations of the past half year or more of work. At last, you finally place it into the journal’s online submission system, and away into the aether it goes. And then, if you’re anything like me, in the quiet moments in the middle of the night, you ask yourself whether there was in fact any point to the exercise, whether any of that work will make any difference, and if anyone, anywhere, will ever read your labour of love.

This is why my first emotional reaction to reading a chapter criticising my work was joy. In this piece, ‘Holy wars’? ‘Religious wars’?: The perception of religious motives of warfare against non-Christian enemies in ninth-century chronicles’, in the recent volume Early Medieval Militarisation[1], Professor Hans-Werner Goetz spends a couple of pages (pp. 214-216) discussing an article of mine (‘“Those same cursed Saracens”: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare’, Journal of Medieval History 42 (2016), pp. 405-428). I think it’s fair to say that he’s not a fan of it. Nonetheless, the excitement of opening the volume, seeing my name in print and realising that someone somewhere had read my work and thought it worth their time demolishing it was very real.

My attention was drawn to this chapter for a couple of reasons. These begin with the fact that Hans-Werner Goetz is a major scholar whose work on medieval frontiers and perceptions of other religions I have greatly benefited from. But also, this isn’t the first time that my article has attracted the attention of Professor Goetz in print, having featured previously in his ‘Glaubenskriege? Die Kriege der Christen gegen Andersgläubige in der früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Wahrnehmung’, Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 59 (2019), 67-114, specifically at pp. 99-102. Given this, I thought it might be useful for me to take some time to respond to Goetz’ concerns, not least because he raises some interesting questions about the relationship between war and religion in the early medieval period.

The argument in my original article, which you can read in full here, runs as follows:

1. Charlemagne’s wars in the Iberian Peninsula, which include both the disastrous invasion of 778 and the campaigns conducted by his son Louis the Pious as king of Aquitaine in the 790s and 800s, are normally understood as secular affairs, opportunistic wars of expansion. This is because the most important primary sources, particularly the Royal Frankish Annals, don’t depict them as religious conflicts.

2. This is quite striking when compared to wars against other non-Christian neighbours such as the Saxons, where Charlemagne deliberately targeted sites of worship such as the Irminsul and forced the population to convert to Christianity at the point of a sword, imposing multiple laws defining what it meant to be a Christian.

3. However, by looking at a wider range of sources that relate to Carolingian warfare in the Iberian Peninsula in this period, we can see a more complicated picture, where defending and even expanding the Christian faith are key motives for these campaigns. These sources are:

  • a. The Continuations of the Chronicle of Fredegar, compiled during the reign of Charlemagne’s father, which celebrate his ancestors in their wars against Muslims.
  • b. A letter of Pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne discussing the 778 expedition.
  • c. The liturgies of war contained within the Sacramentaries of Gellone, Angoulême and Arles.
  • d. Charters from Charlemagne, granting land to the Hispani on the Spanish March in about 780 and 801.
  • e. A letter of Alcuin from around 790 concerning Charlemagne’s expansion of the Christian world, including in the Iberian Peninsula.
  • f.  A poem by Theodulf from 796 calling upon Charlemagne to bring the Arabs to Christ.
  • g. A letter from Charlemagne to Bishop Elipandus of Toledo from around 794, saying that he had sought to liberate the Christians of al-Andalus from Saracen rule.
  • h. Ermold the Black’s praise poem of Louis the Pious (written 824-6), which has Louis declare that if the defenders of Barcelona in 801 were Christian, there would be no need for him to go to war against them.

While individually each would be a thin reed to base an entire argument, in accumulation they become increasingly convincing.

4. Based on these perspectives from within and without the court, Frankish wars in al-Andalus in the reign of Charlemagne can be characterised as holy wars, because they were presented as wars to protect and expand the Christian church in Francia and in the Iberian Peninsula. This does not mean those were the only motivations for those conflicts, but they were a major one, and the dominant explanation provided in contemporary or near contemporary sources.

5. I speculate that the reason the annals avoid much of this religious language is that with the exception of the capture of Barcelona in 801, the majority of the campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula did not go particularly well. While this was never desirable, it was particularly embarrassing if you had previously raised the stakes by making it a war of faith. Therefore, annalists linked to the court played down the religious fervour that surrounded the expeditions.

As mentioned above, Hans-Werner Goetz has disagreed with this article in two separate publications. Both resemble each other closely, often sentence-by-sentence and footnote-by-footnote, so unless specified I’m going to treat them as the same text. His broad argument is that the category of ‘holy war’ is not a meaningful one in the early medieval world, because all of culture and society was so imbued with religion that there was no other type of war. All conflicts were justified and legitimised by the faith so the idea of a war of religion is a modern anachronism. This is an idea I find extremely interesting and which I want to discuss later.

However, Professor Goetz has also disagreed with my article on more specific grounds and, with your indulgence reader, I would address them first, if only because anyone who read his pieces would fairly walk away under the impression that I am a poor scholar indeed. But let’s start with places where we both agree. Goetz begins by saying that my work ‘still pre-assumes (setzt voraus) that Charlemagne’s wars were religiously motivated’. Basing my work on assumptions would indeed be unfortunate. However, prior scholarship for several decades tended to assume the opposite, and it was this prior scholarship which the case that I made was responding to. The professor also notes that ‘the fact that the Saracens are recognised and judged as non-Christians’ is not proof that wars against them were holy wars. I agree! My argument was that the apparently ‘secular’ ethnic labels often used in the sources such as ‘Saracen’ or ‘Agarene’, were in fact imbued with Biblical significance, implying that they were non-Christian and antithetical to Christianity; but this was not meant to be evidence for holy war, but rather against standard arguments that the language of the annals is secular on the matter. In the longer German treatment, Goetz argues that we cannot use the religious motivations that the biography of Louis the Pious written by the anonymous author known as ‘the Astronomer’ attributes to Louis for his campaigns against al-Andalus, because they are too late. I agree and did not use it in my article for precisely that reason.

Turning to the pieces of evidence underpinning my argument listed under point 3 above, Goetz only mentions b, c, d and g; and I will deal with these in order. With regards to Hadrian’s letter to Charlemagne on the eve of the campaign of 778 (b), he argues that the Pope’s language comparing the Saracens to Pharaoh in the Bible says nothing about his motivations and was applied to every war. I disagree. The reference to Pharaoh is relevant because Hadrian notes that the reason he and the Egyptians drowned is because ‘they did not believe in God’. Charlemagne will triumph because he is Christian and the Saracens are not. Goetz’ argument is not strengthened by the examples of other wars he himself lists where similar comparisons were made. These include the statement in the Life of Bishop Athanasius of Naples c.7 that God helped the people of Naples defeat the Saracens and cast them down like Pharaoh. However, insofar as this language is also being used to describe non-Christian enemies this comparison would seem to support my case better than his. The other examples listed in fn.193 of the German article are all considerably later but also don’t strike me as entirely convincing in this context. Henry of Latvia describing the conversion of Baltic pagans as being akin to the casting down of Pharaoh does not scream secularity to me. I am not intimately familiar with Otto of Freising or William of Newburgh and so won’t comment on them. Nonetheless, I would argue that two of the four examples which Goetz chose to prove that comparisons to Pharaoh did not have connotations of holy war actually do look like precisely that. 

Goetz also dismisses the sacramentaries (c), writing that ‘people prayed to God for assistance before every war’. This is true, but not every sacramentary contains a mass specifically for wars against non-Christians, in the case of that of Gellone against ‘the infidel people’, in that of Angoulême ‘the pagans’. These are highly unusual masses, and in the case of the Sacramentary of Arles, the relevant mass had to be added to the manuscript at a later date than the other liturgical texts. All three of these sacramentaries are to be located in Aquitaine or Septimania, where the most likely non-Christians to be encountered were Muslims. That of Gellone may have belonged to Count William of Toulouse, who spent much of his career battling al-Andalus.

Nor is Goetz impressed by the charters (d), stating that ‘the granting of charters and donations to individual followers is a completely normal procedure’. In this case, though, what is significant is the unusual content of these documents. Charlemagne explains that he is giving the land because the recipients have had to flee the oppression of the Saracens in their homes in al-Andalus. The reason they are oppressed is that they are Christian, and the Saracens are ‘the enemies of the Christians’. The reason that Charlemagne is helping them is because they are his fellow Christians and they take part ‘in the unity of the faith’. In turn, they would perform military service, fighting with Charlemagne against their shared enemy the Saracens, who were their enemy because the Saracens hate Christians. This is strengthened by a charter from the 790s which rewards a soldier named John with land because he had killed ‘the heretic or infidel Saracens’. In fn. 49 (fn. 197 of the German article), Goetz claims that I explain the presence of Arab or Berber sounding names among the charter beneficiaries as ‘a misconception of the scribes’. However, my argument was somewhat different: I suggest that this points to the possibilities for nuance and complexity, where grandiose rhetoric and ideology meet reality. I don’t think even the most hardcore scholar of holy war would doubt that there were places where lines blurred at the edges, as any historian of the crusades could tell us.

In the longer German treatment, Goetz states that Charlemagne was more concerned with heretics than with non-Christians. This refers to Charlemagne’s letter to Elipandus (g), where the Frankish king informs the Adoptionist bishop of Toledo that whereas before he had striven to save them ‘from worldly bondage’, that is, being ruled by Saracens, but now that he knows they are heretics, he will leave them to their fate. Moreover, in this letter Charlemagne claims that his motivation for his earlier wars against al-Andalus, including the invasion of 778, was to save the Christian population, his co-religionists, who were being oppressed because of their religion. If that’s not a religious war, I don’t know what is. Further, Charlemagne’s statement that he felt less inclined to wage war on the Saracens now that he knew he wouldn’t be saving his fellow catholic Christians again seems to me to fall on my side of the ledger.

Goetz finally observes that in 778 Charlemagne treated the Muslims of Zaragoza gently, while sacking the Christian Basque city of Pamplona. The reason Zaragoza got off lightly is that Charlemagne didn’t conquer it. It was never in Carolingian hands. The ruler, Husayn al-Ansari, refused to let the Franks in and they were balked by the mighty Roman walls of the city. Pamplona may have been sacked because it was perceived to be in rebellion, something Charlemagne was never gentle in his dealings with. In any case, as the ignominious example of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates, religious military campaigns can be vulnerable to mission creep.

Roland duels the giant Ferragut in an illustrated Grandes Chroniques de France (source)

Having said all that, Hans-Werner Goetz does raise an interesting point. Religion suffused medieval society to the point that it was the air that it breathed. Kings begged for divine aid in their endeavours and sought the help of their advisors who were learned in such matters. Spin doctors legitimised conflicts as being pleasing to God, encouraging people to believe that their cause was just and that they would triumph. Those engaged in battle beseeched the heavens for survival. He also notes that unlike the idea of a ‘just war’, there is no clear category of ‘religious war’ in the sources.

To take the second point first, while avoiding anachronism is an important part of comprehending the past, historians apply categories and ideas familiar to us but unfamiliar to the period all the time when it helps us to analyse and understand the past in ways that the people who wrote our sources were not consciously able to. A nice example here is economic history, which uses methods and concepts developed by modern economists in order to build up a sense of how resources, labour and exchange interacted to underpin the medieval world in ways that would not have been articulated at the time, but which reveal something real about the period that we can use. This applies to other topics related to the world of ideas and identities. Studying subjects such as gender and sexuality requires that we both understand the way they were categorised in the past and relate them to our own concepts in the present. Sticking purely to the intellectual constructions we find in our sources traps us in the worldview of the sorts of people wrote those sources. Those include few women, poor people or slaves. To get their history, our history, the history of the vast majority of human beings alive at the time, we need to be able to read our sources against the grain, and to ask questions which cut across the purpose and mindset of their writers.

But I would also suggest that there are points where we can in fact see people from the early middle ages categorising a particular war as specifically religious. When Pope Leo IV exhorted a Frankish army in 852 going to war against the Saracens, he famously promised them ‘that the kingdom of heaven will be given as a reward to those who shall be killed in this war’. This was because they were ‘fighting for the truth of the faith and the salvation of the soul, and the defence of the country of the Christians’. The Pope draws an implied distinction between this type of war and other types of wars. Unlike other campaigns the Franks might find themselves on, this one would see them win the ultimate prize because they were fighting for a holy cause. The same point was made by Pope John VIII in 878 in a reply to the bishops of West Francia who had asked for clarification on this. John wrote ‘those who, out of love to the Christian religion, shall die in battle fighting bravely against pagans or unbelievers, shall receive eternal life’. The Pope emphasises that this is because of the nature of the cause and of the enemy being fought. Again, this distinguishes between a religious war and other sorts of conflict.

The statements made by Leo and John are old chestnuts in scholarly circles because it is unusual to have anyone be this explicit on the matter in the early medieval world. But we might also be able to identify holy wars by the behaviour of those who undertook it. There were any number of possible reasons that Charlemagne might want to conquer the Saxons that would not involve religious motivations, ranging from a desire for a more secure frontier, military glory or expanded resources. None of those explanations would require the Frankish king to destroy Saxon cultic sites or forcibly convert the population to Christianity. Such a policy was if anything more likely to inspire resistance and rebellion. His father, Pippin the Short, had not felt the need to do such things when he invaded Saxony in 747 and 758. The way Charlemagne prosecuted the war against the Saxons was specifically shaped by his motivations. This was a holy war in a way that Pippin’s had not been, and his behaviour and that of his men and his opponents was different because of it.

This is where I think the concept of ‘holy war’ comes in useful, because by identifying it as a meaningful category, we can use it to draw up hypotheses and make predictions about people in the past. This is not to say that all religiously driven warfare was the same, or that all people involved in it had no other motivations. The past is complicated. People are complicated. But, by having ‘holy war’ in our tool box, we can understand and interpret patterns of behaviour that would be otherwise baffling if we didn’t have it.

I want to close this post by expressing my gratitude to Hans-Werner Goetz. If he had not taken the time to seriously consider and respond to my work, I might not have been motivated to think about this topic in this way, and clarify in my own mind why ‘holy war’ strikes me as an interesting and meaningful topic. Scholarship makes better progress through friction. So thank you, Professor Goetz, for making me feel less like a voice screaming into the void.

[1] Edited by Ellora Bennett, Guido M. Berndt, Stefan Esders and Laury Sarti (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).

Louis the Pious and the Cynocephalus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So You’re at War with the Carolingians: A Survival Guide

Picture it in your mind’s eye. You are the ruler of a medium sized polity in eighth- or ninth-century Europe, cheerfully going about your business extracting economic surplus from your people, when one of your advisors comes up to you with a worried expression on his face. He has just received bad news from your informants at the court of the Franks. Your mighty Carolingian neighbour is starting to muster his armies and you are the target. Maybe your idiot son has launched one too many raids into his territory. Maybe too many of his nobles have been talking quietly to his idiot son about the need for fresh blood in Frankish politics. Maybe his favourite exotic animal has just died and he’s in a bad mood. As the Byzantines say, ‘If a Frank is your friend, he is not your neighbour,’ and unfortunately this Frank is right next door to you. You’re in trouble. Thankfully, help is at hand. In this post we’re going to consider some of the options you have when the Carolingian war machine is at the gates. These are by no means foolproof, but they will give you the best chance you have to survive.

This is Fine. Everything is Fine. (The Golden Psalter, St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 22, fo. 141).

Rule number one of fighting the Carolingians is don’t. This is the family that conquered most of western Europe, including Aquitaine, Saxony, Lombard Italy, Bavaria, the Avars and the Spanish March. They carved out the biggest empire west of Byzantium and they did not do that by being bad at war. You should at the very least be exploring options for avoiding conflict with them. Offering tribute and becoming a client is an entirely viable move, particularly if it buys you time to regain your autonomy at a later date (see Benevento in 788). If you’re not already a Christian, consider converting. Not only will that endear you to your Carolingian neighbours, but the process of baptism also comes with free shiny new clothes and a pen-pal who lives in Rome. (Christianity also comes in Greek, which is less immediately useful in the circumstances but in the longer run may allow you to play the Franks off against Constantinople).

As Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria (r.748-788) could confirm, becoming a client of the Carolingians is not without risk and you may find yourself in front of a kangaroo court on dubious grounds, particularly if you have enemies at home eager to replace you (and who doesn’t?). Even if you’re willing to risk that, peace is not always an option. Sometimes the Carolingians are out to get you specifically. In the unhappy event that war is unavoidable, you are best served by avoiding a straight fight. People as far away as Baghdad know that Frankish swords are the best, and the wealth of the empire means that their armies are well-equipped with chainmail and horses. Most importantly, you will almost certainly be outnumbered. Whichever colourfully named Charles or Louis you’re facing can raise large forces made up of contingents from different peoples across the empire. They will probably place multiple armies in the field, something that Charlemagne (r.768-814) did against the Saxons in 774, al-Andalus in 778, the Bavarians in 787 and the Avars in 791 and 796, and that Louis the German (r.840-876) would still be doing against the Moravians in the 870s. Their aim here is to limit your room to manoeuvre and force you into a pitched battle, playing to their strengths in numbers and soldiers on horseback.

(The one potential exception here for avoiding a major battle is if your Carolingian opponent is Charles the Bald (r.840-877). Charles did not have a great record at winning battles, if his defeats at the hands of the Bretons at Ballon in 845 and Jengland in 851 and by his nephews at Andernach in 876 mean anything. He was a very successful ruler but not particularly lucky on the battlefield, with a tendency to try to be a bit too clever for his own good in his military tactics. High risk, cunning schemes like attacking Brittany in the middle of winter with a small army or attempting to manoeuvre his army at night often blew up in his face, so you could try to bring him to battle and hope he outsmarts himself.)

A core concept here is time. If you can’t go toe-to-toe with the Carolingians, your aim is to make the process of conquering you too long, difficult and unpleasant to be worth the continual effort (think Russia in 1812, or Geoffrey Boycott). Keep it going long enough and a crisis is going to happen somewhere else in the Carolingian world to distract attention, like the Saxon uprising that forced Charlemagne to leave the Iberian Peninsula in 778. Internal Frankish conflict in particular is your friend. As the Bretons in 830 can attest, Louis the Pious (r.814-840) can’t invade your lands if no one wants to show up to join his army. Playing for time is easier said than done and you may need to survive several years of being repeatedly invaded. It helps if, like Benevento, you are far away from the Carolingian heartlands between the Seine and the Rhine and getting to you is a bit difficult. Sometimes you’re just going to get unlucky and become someone’s pet project they keep returning to over the decades, as with Charlemagne and the Saxons.

Other powers will take advantage of the Carolingians being focussed elsewhere, such as Emir Hisham I of al-Andalus, who raided Francia in 793 at the height of the Avar Wars. It may be worth formalising such alignments of interest by allying with your neighbours. The Bohemians were quite big on this, allying with the Moravians in 871 in the face of Frankish aggression, and in 880 with the Daleminzi and Sorbs. On a larger scale, Prince Arichis II of Benevento entered into negotiations for Byzantine support in 787. Admittedly, none of these enterprises were particularly successful; but with that said, keeping your neighbours on side will help stymie another classic Carolingian strategy of allying with them against you, as demonstrated by Charlemagne’s deal with the Abodrites, targeted against the Saxons.

You can also try cutting deals with rebels within the empire. The Umayyads of Córdoba repeatedly destabilised the Spanish March by allying with the losers in internal conflicts in the region, such as Aizo and Willemund in 827, and William of Septimania in 847. By dividing the frontier regions, you make it harder for them to be used as springboards against you, while also gaining sources of intelligence about Frankish movements. The Moravians did similar things with the counts of the Bavarian frontier, suborning multiple figures such as Ratpod in 854 and Gundachar in 869. The Carolingians were not always good at keeping their family conflicts in-house, and frustrated sons resisting the authority of their fathers can also make useful friends. Salomon of Brittany (r.857-874) sent troops to support Louis the Stammerer against his father Charles the Bald in 862, while Rastislav of Moravia (r.846-870) allied with multiple rebellious sons of Louis the German. This is a high-stakes move. By interfering in Carolingian politics you are placing a target on your back for retribution, so make sure you’re not exposed if/when the scapegrace princes decide to reconcile with their family.

One of the best means of getting the time you need to survive is by building fortifications. High walls are not invulnerable to Carolingian armies, but they can slow them down nicely (making derogatory comments about the species and odour of the besiegers’ parents from the top of the walls is traditional). Something like the extensions to the Danevirke finished in 808 by King Godfrid of the Danes (r.804-810) serves as a deterrent and statement of intent, while getting your subjects facing in the right direction and united in a shared project. The Moravians frequently managed to hold off East Frankish armies from their fortified cities. As I can attest from personal experience, trying to climb up to Devín castle in what is now Slovakia when the people on top don’t want you to makes for a challenging day out. The Vikings were masters of setting up shop on a strategically located island in a river and refusing to move unless they were paid to go. Perhaps the gold standard here are the fortified cities of the Upper March in al-Andalus, where the Carolingians spent several decades banging their heads against the walls of Zaragoza, Tortosa and Tarragona to limited effect.

This turtling strategy is not without risk. The Franks can be patient if the rewards are high enough. Concentrating all of your resources and political capital in one place is tempting, but leaves you vulnerable to being taken out with the fall of one city. Charlemagne was willing to overwinter and spend eight months besieging King Desiderius of the Lombards (r.757-774) in Pavia because seizing it got him most of northern Italy in one fell swoop.  Likewise, Emperor Louis II of Italy (r.855-875) kept laying siege to Bari until it finally fell in 871 because doing so destroyed the emirate that was based there. Allowing the Carolingians to get too comfy outside your walls is also a problem. Barcelona fell to Louis the Pious in 801 because Louis knew he didn’t have to worry about reinforcements coming from Córdoba and could besiege at his leisure.

But the biggest problem with hunkering down in your fortress is that it leaves your land and people vulnerable to the occupying army. The Franks will loot and pillage the surrounding countryside, partly to get booty, but mostly to put pressure on you to come out and fight. Not only is your resource base being stolen before your eyes, but a king who won’t protect his people is going to get very unpopular very quickly. Being on the defensive all the time is draining, and morale may collapse quite quickly. A case in point is the plight of Duke Liudewit of Lower Pannonia, whose fortification strategy against the armies of Louis the Pious, while not without success, eventually exhausted the patience of his allies, leading to his death in 823 at their hands.

All this suggests that fortifications may be useful, but they need to form part of a wider strategy. If you can’t take on the entire Carolingian host in one go, then you can at least attempt some aggressive countermeasures. Raids and ambushes will go a long way to restoring your morale and reducing theirs. The Basques and Bretons acquired a particular reputation for this sort of irregular warfare, practiced most famously when the former ambushed Charlemagne’s rear-guard at Roncesvalles in 778, leading to the death of Roland. The key to this sort of warfare is mobility, which allows you to pick your fights when and where you want them. No one did this better than the Vikings, who could use their ships to move unexpectedly along the rivers, but were also surprisingly good at moving over land by commandeering horses.

A certain audacity can sometimes be useful: see the example of the Saxons who snuck into a Frankish camp in 775 by pretending to be foragers, causing chaos among the half-asleep soldiers. Dirty tricks may also be necessary. In 871, having promised to bring the rebellious Moravians under East Frankish controls, upon arriving at the Moravian capital, Svatopluk I (r.871-894) changed sides and took by surprise the Bavarian army that had accompanied him.  Be aware that the Franks are by no means novices at irregular warfare themselves, as the unlucky Moravians ambushed by them later the same year learned to their cost. 

I would also suggest launching raids across the border if the Franks have retreated for the end of the campaigning season. Having spent much of 855 being besieged by Louis the German, Rastislav of Moravia tailed the Frankish army when it returned home for winter and began raiding the countryside. While this may feel akin to lobbing pinecones at a bear while it’s walking away, it helps place pressure on the Carolingians to come to the negotiating table. You want to make being at war with you an uncomfortable experience that has wider ramifications. Keep offering them a reasonable face-saving out while making it clear that the alternative is unpleasant. Salomon of Brittany was able to use attacks on Frankish territory to force Charles the Bald to recognise him as King of Brittany in 867. Raids like this also help solidify your position at home, not just by acquiring booty, but by giving your warriors something to feel good about, and helping your wider political community understand that you have a plan for how to win this war that goes beyond letting yourself be punched in the face until the other guy’s hand starts hurting.

While I have strongly counselled against taking the main Carolingian army in the field, smaller detachments are another matter. A classic example of divide and conquer can be observed in 849. The Bohemians, under pressure from a large Frankish army under the command of Ernest, dux of the Bavarian frontier, sent envoys offering peace to one of the army’s captains, Thachulf, dux of the Sorbian March. Thachulf’s arrogance in accepting their terms without consulting the rest of the army annoyed a large chunk of the Franks, who pressed ahead without the others and were defeated by the Bohemians. The military organisation of Carolingian forces into units based on kingdom of origin can be used in your favour, as when a campaign against the Moravians in 872 collapsed because the Thuringians and the Saxons taking part kept feuding with each other.

When it does come to battle, try to pick ground that suits you, and force the Carolingians to fight on your terms. Einhard observed that the Basques at Roncesvalles in 778 were helped by the lightness of their gear and their familiarity with the uneven mountain terrain. Charles the Bald was lured into a marsh at Ballon in 845, allowing the Bretons to exploit their superior knowledge of the ground. At Jengland in 851, the Bretons refused to close with Charles’s men, using their lightly armoured horsemen to harass the Carolingian army with javelins and feinting to draw them out of formation. In 891, King Arnulf (r.888-899) hesitated before engaging and defeating the Vikings at the Battle of the Dyle because his army would be hemmed in by marsh and river and have to fight on foot.  

There are no sure-fire ways of defending yourself against the Carolingians, but following these rules of thumb will give you as much a chance as anyone has.

[The above is an extremely artificial exercise and there are obvious problems with what I’ve just written. Not only have I flattened more than a century of Carolingian history, ignoring dramatic changes in the political structure of the empire, I’ve also homogenised the various peoples and polities unlucky enough to be stuck next to them. This is particularly egregious in the case of the Vikings, who operated very differently to the other examples I discuss.

My central conceit of addressing an early medieval prince also led me to encourage certain types of solutions, suggesting that the political community best equipped to resist the Carolingians is:

1.   Far away

2.   Sufficiently centralised to raise the resources to build and man extensive fortifications, and to remain united under considerable pressure.

While point 1 stands in any circumstances, strictly speaking point 2 can be challenged. Fracturing into small, hard to manage communities and thereby becoming ungovernable will also give the Carolingians a real headache, as Louis II’s misadventures in southern Italy attest. I just couldn’t see this being the sort of option that would appeal to a prince.

The main reason I wrote this post is because I wanted to put myself into the head of someone who was an enemy of the Carolingians. Most of our sources come from the Carolingian world, which shapes our perspective of their wars. Not only do we understand things from their logic, it leads us to sympathise with them. One of my research priorities is to centre these apparently peripheral polities. I want to underline how scary a prospect the Carolingians were in this period (Reuter’s adage that ‘for most of Europe in the eighth and ninth century it was the Franks who were the Vikings’). But I also want to think about their leaders as undertaking strategies and responding to the problems caused by their giant neighbour. This represents one way of thinking about that.]

Horrible Hamburg Harangues – Help!

This blog post is a call for help. I’m keeping pushing on with the wandering arengae, and there’s one which has me stumped. This is a tale of two diplomas, Recueil des actes de Robert Ier et Raoul, no. 14 (D R 14, for convenience), and Die Urkunden Ludwigs des Frommen, no. †338 (D LP †338). The first of these, issued in 927-930, confirms Bishop Adalem of Laon’s refoundation of the collegiate community of Saint-Vincent and the second, issued in 833, founds the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen. Let me give you the texts (shared text in bold):

D R 14 D LP †338

If, having inspected the particular necessities of any one of Our followers, royal authority advises they should be helped out, by how much more does it fairly and worthily pertain to the due oversight of everything that We should endeavour to take in everything pious and solicitous care of the catholic and apostolic Church, which Christ redeemed with His precious blood and committed to us, the sons of which we became through adoption, to rule and protect; and so that We are seen to show due diligence for its success and exaltation, We should provide necessary and useful dispositions for its need and advantage.    

If, having examined the particular necessities of any of Our followers, imperial authority advises they should be helped out, by how much more does it fairly and worthily pertain to the due oversight of everything that one ought to take in everything pious and solicitous care of the catholic and apostolic Church, which Christ redeemed with His precious blood and committed to Us to rule and protect; and so that We exhibit due diligence for its success and exaltation, We should indeed provide necessary and useful new dispositions for the new matters pertaining to its need and advantage.     

Fairly close, no? This leads us to the obvious question: how come they share the same text?

1024px-hamburg_domkirche
What Hamburg Cathedral used to look like, when it existed (source)

This is more complicated than it seems. First of all, you may have noticed the little dagger in D LP †338. This indicates that it’s a forgery. In fact, the early history of the diocese of Hamburg-Bremen is beset by forgery. This is a problem for me not least because as far as I can tell none of the distinguished scholars who’ve looked at Louis’ diploma for Hamburg have known about Ralph’s for Laon… So, when was this arenga actually written, if not in 833? The most recent author on this matter, Eric Knibbs, has placed it actually in Louis the Pious’ reign, and I’m inclined to agree with him because there are quite close verbal parallels between this diploma and the acts of the 829 Council of Paris which make Louis’ reign the best time for it to be composed. In any case, I think D LP †338 must be precedent to D R 14, because that addition about becoming sons through adoption doesn’t quite make sense, because the plural there must refer to the whole Church rather than specifically to Ralph, and so conflicts with the sentence as a whole which clearly does mean the king personally. This suggests it’s a later addition to an existing text.

Second, is D R 14 legit? The act’s editor thinks yes, not least because although the original doesn’t survive anymore it did long enough for there to be partial facsimiles and these apparently appear like genuine early tenth-century diploma script. There’s also the fact that Saint-Vincent was reformed as a Benedictine monastery in 961 and any time after that seems like a weird place to forge a diploma referring to the community as one of canons. On the other hand, Bishop Adalelm’s reign is an equally-strange place for Ralph to be issuing a diploma heavily based on an act for Hamburg, as for pretty much that whole period he’s a) not in control of Laon, b) at war with the East Frankish king, or c) both.

This raises the question of what the terminus ante quem might be for these acts. For various other reasons of intertextuality, I think that the early 980s is the case for both – there are acts of 982 and 983 which clearly depend on these as their precursors. Whatever’s happening here, these arengae can’t be later than the latter part of the tenth century.

So we have two possibilities, then. First, these acts are dependent on one another. If this is the case, I think that D R 14 is vastly more likely to be based on D LP †338 than vice-versa. Second, there’s a third source. Given all of the above, I am warmer towards this idea than I was previously; but that raises the question of what it is… So here’s my question to you all: what are the links between Hamburg and a) Laon or b) the West Frankish crown in the ninth and/or tenth centuries which might lead towards Ralph’s chancery (probably) taking Louis’ act as its model? Failing that, what might the third document be? Over to you…

[Addendum a few days later: on reflection, the most likely place for a link seems to be Corbie, but then we face the problem of how you get from Corbie to Laon… A smaller problem, perhaps, but still real!]