Hair and the Heir: The Politics of Shaving in Eighth-Century Italy

In the year 788, Pope Hadrian I (r.772-795) wrote to Charlemagne about an extremely urgent matter. Duke Arichis II of Benevento (r.754-787) had changed his hairstyle. This grooming alteration set off alarm bells in the papal court and Hadrian begged the Frankish king to do something about the situation. It was not matters of taste and style that bothered the Pope, but the possibility of a far more serious political crisis. 

Charlemagne’s famous conquest of the kingdom of the Lombards in North Italy in 774 had left more than a few loose ends in the Peninsula. His ability to project influence in the south was very limited, where the Lombard duchy of Benevento remained the predominant power. The Duke of Benevento, Arichis II, had proclaimed himself Prince in 774, and positioned himself as a leader of the Lombards throughout Italy. Arichis was particularly dangerous because his wife was the formidable Adelperga, the daughter of Desiderius, the last king of the Lombards (r.756-774). His family thus represented a potential alternative to Carolingian rule in the Peninsula. Arichis was involved in a number of plots to drive the Franks out of Italy. Charlemagne’s patience, never particularly good, seems to have snapped and in 787 he marched south and besieged Capua. Arichis was forced to surrender his younger son Grimoald as a hostage and give the Frankish king a great deal of money. Charlemagne’s name appears on Arichis’ coinage and charters after this point.

However, as many of his descendants were also to realise, Charlemagne’s writ in southern Italy only had force in his presence, as the letter which we began with written by Hadrian within a year of the Frankish king leaving Capua reveals. The Pope included a report from a Capuan priest that Arichis was looking for friends outside of Italy to counterbalance Frankish power. After Charlemagne had left Capua, Arichis had sent messengers to the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VI (r.780-797), then under the regency of his mother, Irene (who later ruled as Empress, 797-802). Constantinople’s power in Italy was not what it had been, but it retained Sicily and had influence in the region. Following Charlemagne’s conquest of the Lombard kingdom, they had given refuge to Adelchis, son of Desiderius and Arichis’ brother-in-law.

According to Hadrian, Arichis asked Constantine and Irene for military support, the title of Patrician and with it the Duchy of Naples, and for Adelchis, presumably as an ally and rallying point for anti-Carolingian sentiment. In return he would recognise imperial authority, symbolised by his hair. He promised ‘that he would conform fully to the usage of the Greeks in both hairstyle and dress under the emperor’s authority’. This offer was accepted by Constantinople, who sent two envoys who ‘bore with them vestments interwoven in gold as well as sword, comb and scissors for making him a patrician’.

As this all suggests, hair was really important in this period, as it has been in all time periods, including our own. What the hairstyle that Arichis adopted actually looked like is unclear. Given that, unlike the beardless and moustachioed Carolingians, contemporary images of Byzantines depict neatly trimmed beards and hair that rests just above the shoulder, I’m inclined to suspect that Arichis may have grown a beard. Facial hair had a particular significance for the Lombards. Writers such as Isidore of Seville (Etymologies 9.2.95) and Paul the Deacon (History of the Lombards 1.9) attributed the name ‘Lombard/Langobard in Latin’ to their ‘Long-Beards’. As this and the idea of ‘Greek style’ indicates, hair could be a really important element in communicating and constituting ethnic identity in the early medieval world.

The Franks had their own political traditions with hair. The Merovingian dynasty were famously identified by their long uncut hair and flowing beards which indicated their right to rule. After overthrowing the Merovingians, the Carolingians differentiated themselves from the dynasty they had displaced by adopting a new style, complete with short hair and frankly ludicrous moustaches. The latter element features heavily in one of my favourite books about medieval history, Paul Dutton’s Charlemagne’s Mustache (2004). The moustache appears to have been an innovation by Charlemagne emulating his hero, Theoderic the Great (r.475-526). Theoderic was an interesting model for Charlemagne, as a king who had managed to rule Italy as both a Roman and a Goth. The Frankish king acquired a statue of Theoderic, complete presumably with moustache, and placed it at his palace at Aachen.

These Frankish and Lombard hirsute histories had combined a generation earlier. Charlemagne’s father, Pippin the Short (r.751-768), had been sent as a child to have his first haircut by King Liutprand of the Lombards (r.712-744). This very important milestone was conducted in this manner not because of the reputation of Italian barbers, but as a means of securing an alliance between Liutprand and Pippin’s father, Charles Martel (effect ruler of the Franks, 718-741). It speaks to the intense political significance that came with the adoption of the hairstyle of another.

Arichis was not to enjoy his new look for long. Indeed, by the time Hadrian had sent his letter, Arichis was already dead, having passed away in August 787. This led to a problem with the succession. Arichis’ heir, Grimoald, was still Charlemagne’s hostage. When his mother, Adelperga, who had become regent in Benevento, sent envoys to the Frankish king, asking for his release, Hadrian was amongst the voices counselling against his return. Charlemagne ultimately took the other route, and released his captive to assume his father’s position in Benevento as Grimoald III (r.788-806).

Writing in the ninth century, the Lombard historian Erchempert notes that Charlemagne released Grimoald on condition ‘that the Lombards were to trim their beards, and to always write his name on the charters and coins’, a statement of Carolingian control marked in their facial hair. When that same year Adelchis landed in Italy with Byzantine soldiers, he was defeated by a presumably clean shaven Grimoald with the backing of Frankish arms. But Carolingian influence was short-lived once the threat of Adelchis was removed. Charlemagne’s name did not long remain on Grimoald’s coins and charters and his sons were to campaign against Benevento in 792. Given the similarity between Grimoald’s image and that of his father on their coins, we might be forgiven for suspecting that the Frankish haircut didn’t last very long either.

Forgery and Continuity at Saint-Amand

Working with forged charters is interesting, but it’s often difficult to do because of how difficult it is to work out when they were forged. (And yes, some documents are quite easy to place, but it does involve being really interested in Abbo of Fleury.) But whilst recently browsing through the Diplomata Belgica, I found some Merovingian diplomas for the abbey of Saint-Amand, or Elnon, which can be fairly neatly placed in the late ninth century, and that got my ears pricked up. For, you see, I already knew the ‘pancarte’ of Charles the Simple which, so the diplomas’ editor notes, these documents were probably produced in advance of, and I’d already marked it as being unusually historically-minded. So putting it in the context of these forged diplomas is interesting.

But first, a digression about charters and their purposes. One of the big questions we have about charters is ‘who decides what goes into one’? (This is distinct from ‘who decides who gets one’, which is an even bigger debate…) The thing with a charter’s content is basically three-fold: 1) most charters, even royal diplomas, were written by the people for whom they were issued not the people by whom they were issued; 2) in the case of laymen, there is some question about how much Latin they understood*; but 3) some historians have argued, to my mind quite convincingly, that in some royal diplomas we can see the personal concerns of the kings in whose names they were issued coming through.

My opinion? My opinion is that it’s a false distinction. These documents are still speaking for their issuer, after all. I mean, a royal charter will open with “I, Charles, by grace of God king of the Franks” (for all the kings of the Franks are called Charles) not “I, Squitgar the monk, on behalf of King Charles”, so whatever the document says is being presented as the words of the king. This means that even if the contents of the diploma aren’t coming directly out of a pony-stickered diary with a lock and a note saying ‘Mum and Dad Keep Out’, they’re still a part of the public figure of the monarch: it’s irrelevant whether they’re personal, because they’re still a persona.

Moreover, not any randomer gets charters. To get a diploma, you need connections and influence; and that probably means that you’re in a good position at court anyway. Timothy Reuter had a great line about any given king being an historian’s shorthand for the king-plus-coterie-of-advisors-friends-and-chief-nobles, but if we unpack this in terms of diploma content, it means that most of the recipients are part of this ‘king’ figure anyway. What this means in practice  – well, there are a few things it means in practice, and maybe I should talk about the diplomas of Robert the Pious sometime in the next few weeks to illustrate one of the more important arguments I’ll be making in the book now that there’s a plan for starting to write that – but in this case what it means in practice is that we should be expecting the contents of charters to fit the ideological needs of both issuer and recipient; and here we return to Saint-Amand, because this is a particularly nice example.

The first forged diploma I found was one of King Childeric II and his mother Queen Chimnechild to the saintly bishop Amand. My first thought was that this was really on the nose, actually: what, the newly-establish regime of Charles the Simple, backed by his mother Queen Adelaide and surrogate father-figure Archbishop Fulk of Rheims is repeating the alleged actions of another young-king-queen-mother-holy-bishop trio? You don’t say… But as it turns out, Saint-Amand a) did in fact probably have a genuine diploma of Childeric II which Chimnechild was likely in; and b) forged a few more diplomas at the same time that are rather less applicable to the 899 context; so the actual reasoning looks to be a bit less direct.

So, Saint-Amand did have these old Merovingian diplomas, and these were still there in the mid-ninth century; but they were probably destroyed by Viking attack in the late ninth century. The rights the forged diplomas confer don’t appear to be particularly controversial – that of Childeric II, for instance, granted the cell of Barisis-aux-Bois near Laon, which had been being regularly confirmed for hundreds of years and whose relationship to Saint-Amand doesn’t look to have been doubted. So it looks more like the monks were engaging in so-called ‘pious fraud’, forging documents to show what everyone already knew to be true.

Which brings us to Charles’ pancarte. On the 17th March 899, just before Passiontide, Charles was approached by Fulk of Rheims, who was also abbot of Saint-Amand, who asked him to confirm the abbey’s properties, which he did**, making special note of those which had been confirmed by his predecessors as king – like I said, it’s a very historically-minded document. What this means is that Charles’ diploma is there to please everyone: Charles (who was fairly historically-minded anyway) was placed in a line of kings going back to the seventh century, and Fulk and Saint-Amand were placed in a relationship with kings that went back as far as well, despite the loss of their genuine diplomas and replacement by forgeries. Asking questions about beneficiary vs. actor here is simply pointless: this is a diploma issued by Charles’ regime, which props up all parts of it.

*Although being a student of Rosamond McKitterick, I would naturally tend to downplay this. Even otherwise, we know that people translated into vernacular languages; and honestly, this should have been fairly easy.

** There is one question I have about this act, actually, in relation to the forgeries. Charles’ act says that he needed to confirm the property because some older documents had been destroyed. Yet he also cites the forged diplomas of Childeric and King Dagobert. This seems a quite uneasy relationship to the forgeries, no? Hmmm… maybe if the rights in the Merovingian diplomas were so uncontroversial, these ‘forged’ acta weren’t even seen as forgeries at all – they weren’t supposed to fool anyone, simply replace older documents which everyone knew existed and accepted as legitimate. In this case, Charles’ statement becomes more ‘We all know these are ersatz, but don’t worry, they’re still good…’

What Counts As Precedent? Royal Authority over Episcopal Elections

During their heyday, the control that the predecessors of the Carolingian family as kings of the Franks, the Merovingian dynasty, exercised over the choice of bishops within their kingdoms had been quite substantial, both in practice and in theory. In 549, for instance, the council of Orléans had legislated that no-one could become bishop ‘without the will of the king, along with an election by the clergy and people’; and by early medieval standards you can’t say fairer than that. (There was also a long tradition of conciliar statements during this period which were opposed to royal influence in episcopal elections, but they seem to have had less impact in practice.) These conciliar decrees stuck around – the MGH edition is made up of no fewer than eleven manuscripts, which given that someone like, say, Flodoard survives in about three is a pretty generous distribution.

Consequently, looking at things over the long term, it is fair to say that whatever was happening in the late- and post-Carolingian period, it’s part of an ongoing fluctuation of royal control over bishoprics which won’t actually become overwhelmingly dominant until the Early Modern period. That said, one thing which has been striking me lately is how this longer tradition seems to be ignored by tenth-century figures.

In 920, a dispute erupted over the bishopric of Liège. A cleric named Hilduin, supported by the ruler of Lotharingia, Gislebert, took over the see with support of Henry the Fowler, king of Germany and against the rule of this blog’s old friend and Best King Ever, Charles the Simple. In response, Charles summoned a council to judge Hilduin and impose his own candidate Richer, and to explain his reasoning he sent a round letter to the bishops of his realm (translated here). The claims made in Charles’ favour during the course of this dispute have been called a ‘high point of royal absolutism in control over the Church’, and this letter is no exception. Charles calls Hilduin out, citing ‘the book of royal capitularies, which says that “if anyone presumes to a dignity they have not earned from a prince or just lord, let them be considered a sacrilege.”’ Among other things, this seems to equate bishoprics with other honores the king could bestow, which is quite a spectacular claim.

What’s interesting here, though, is that it comes from the capitulary collection of Benedict Levita, a ninth-century composition. Looking at the authorities which Charles (or the person writing in his name) cites to justify the king’s position, a pattern emerges. For one thing, virtually everything cited is actually a forgery from the Dionysian Collection of canons; but taking them at face value, most of what is cited falls into three categories: Roman church councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, an African council), Late Antique papal letters, and Carolingian-era capitulary collections. What’s doubly interesting is what each type of source is cited to justify. The Roman councils are cited against the crime of simony, and most of the papal letters and Martin of Braga against stealing Church property. The big thesis statement about royal control comes from Benedict Levita. Merovingian canons are conspicuous by their absence, be they never so useful in this case.

This seems to say something interesting about what Charles’ court considered to be authoritative. When faced with a situation where it needed to make a strong statement about royal authority, it looked towards the traditions of something which was very definitely from its own political culture, not from the Merovingian period. This in turn implies that, whatever one can say about long-term fluctuations in royal authority, Charles perceived himself as doing something that, if not new, exactly, was at least specifically Carolingian.