Who Were the Viking Kings?

As part of my ongoing Viking research, I was looking through references in our sources to Viking kings to try and work out who they are. One surprise was that the answer is relatively few; and these can be generally split into a relatively small number of categories. One of these are figures about whom we know nothing, like the Kalbi of the Annals of Xanten or the Oscytel of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of the two other main categories are ‘people who are definitely related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’. The other, I have come to believe, is ‘people who are probably related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’, and that’s what I want to try and argue today.

 So, first things first: families? Yes, families plural. The most famous king of ninth-century Denmark was King Godefrid (r. -810), who is one of the few people who was able not only to fight Charlemagne but to win, at least until he was murdered by a retainer. Godefrid’s successor was not any of his sons – of whom he had at least five – but his brother’s son Hemming. Hemming lived for only a couple of years, dying in 812, whereupon the succession was disputed between a man named Siegfried, another nephew of Godefrid (probably from a different brother); and a man named Anulo. With Anulo, we appear to have another reigning family, as the Royal Frankish Annals call him a nephew of a man named Harald. Harald is not named as a king in the Annals, but implicitly seems to have been one; perhaps the historical prototype of the legendary Danish king Harald Wartooth. In any event, Anulo was also the nephew of one of the more immediate kings, either Godefrid or Hemming, in my money the latter. (In fact, my specific conjecture is that a Danish noble named Halfdan, who was almost certainly Anulo’s father but who is not named as any relative of Godefrid when he appears in the late ninth century Poeta Saxo under 807, was married to a sister of Hemming.) Both these men died in the following battle, but Anulo’s brothers Harald Klak and Rognfrith both became kings. So far, so good – more internal politics within Denmark follow, but for our purposes we will focus on this royal family, the sons of Halfdan, until right near the end.

Our first stop are kings in Frisia. These are very clearly part of this royal family, not least because we’ve already met one of them: the first Danish leader granted land in the region was none other than Harald Klak. He was followed by probably the most famous ruler of Viking Frisia, Roric of Dorestad, who was probably but not entirely certainly Harald Klak’s nephew. Roric was also, on occasion, entitled king – but he too ruled in Denmark. After a protracted internal struggle, a son of King Godefrid named Horic I ruled the Danes for several decades. In 850, though, his position came under threat: two of his nephews (unnamed in the annals) attacked him and he was forced to partition his realm. This seems to have opened the floodgates: a different nephew (whom we’ll come back to) attacked Horic in 854 and in the ensuing fighting Horic and his two co-reigning nephews were killed. In the aftermath of this, in 855, Roric and his brother Guthfrith tried to gain royal power in Denmark for themselves. They didn’t succeed at that time, but in 857 Roric was able to exploit the youth of the eventual winner Horic II and gain a portion of Denmark for himself; from this point, he was called king. Later, in the 880s, another King Guthfrith was granted Roric’s benefice in Frisia by Charles the Fat. Our sources don’t say that Guthfrith was Roric’s relative; but they seem only to have been aware of first-degree kinship, and the onomastics, royal title, and similar area of operations make it likely that Guthfrith was also related to the Danish royal family.

 That’s relatively straightforward, but I think there’s a bigger connection that can be made. Starting in the mid-ninth century, a dynasty known to historians as the Uí Ímair (which is an Irish phrase meaning ‘descendants of Ivar’) ensconced themselves in Britain and Ireland. Their most famous member was, as you might expect, called Ivar, the historical prototype for the legendary Ivar the Boneless. However, Ivar was not the only one of his family gallivanting around the Irish Sea in the ninth century.

Let’s start by establishing who Ivar’s family were. The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, an eleventh-century source comprised of pseudo-historical saga material on one hand and older chronicles on the other, says that Ivar was brother to a man named Olaf, who appeared in Ireland in 853 to subjugate the Irish Vikings on behalf of his father, the king of Laithlinn. This has been challenged, but I don’t think these challenges are particularly convincing: this relationship is stated in a couple of ways in the non-legendary portion of the material and although there is room for doubt, I find it convincing. (Less convincing but still possible is the ascription of a third brother, Asl; this figure is historical and associated with Olaf and Ivar, but that he was their brother is only mentioned in one of the more legendary-leaning portions of the Fragmentary Annals.) The Ivar of the Irish annals is almost certainly the same man as the Ivar of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle refers in 878 to an (unnamed) brother of Ivar and Halfdan, indicating that Ivar was also brothers with that Great Army leader, who was the first Viking ruler of Northumbria. (This reference has also been questioned on the grounds that the construction of the sentence is peculiar; but the Chronicle is a good contemporary source and I am uncomfortable with arguments that presume we know how our sources should be written better than their actual authors.) Olaf, Ivar, Halfdan and – if he was their brother – Asl are all called kings.

Who was their father? The Fragmentary Annals name Ivar and Olaf’s father a couple of times as a man named Guthfrith, and at one point there is a longer genealogy given:

Guthfrith -> Guthfrith Conung [i.e. king] -> Ragnar -> Guthfrith -> Ivar

This genealogy has been generally dismissed, except maybe the name of the final Guthfrith, Ivar’s father. However, I think there are grounds for taking it seriously. Again, this material is found in the annalistic rather than the legendary portions of the Fragmentary Annals, and the early-to-mid tenth-century source from which it is derived would have been within memory of Ivar’s generation. Moreover, taking it seriously produces some remarkable synchronicities between Irish and Danish history.

Guthfrith Conung’s nickname, I would suggest, derives from the memory of a particularly impressive king who, from the generations, we might expect to have reigned around the year 800. Obviously, this would be King Godefrid (‘Godefrid’ and ‘Guthfrith’ are in fact the same name). Now this is interesting. There actually was a Viking chief named Ragnar who attacked Paris in the mid-840s, but I think it’s unlikely this was Ivar’s grandfather, largely because we have an eye-witness report from an ambassador to Denmark who saw the audience between Ragnar and Horic I of Denmark after his return from Paris. Horic I was definitely a son of Godefrid and it seems unlikely that the ambassador, or anyone else at the time, would have not mentioned the relationship given how touchy the Franks were about Horic’s apparent refusal or inability to prevent Viking raids. More interesting are the events of the 850s. As we’ve noted, in 850 Horic was attacked by two of his nephews, neither of whom the sources name. If one of them were the putative Guthfrith Ragnarsson – i.e. Ivar’s father – then the course of Irish history in the following years takes on a new light.

I mentioned that the first appearance of the Uí Ímair comes in 853, when Olaf, son of the king of Laithlinn, appears to subjugate the Irish Vikings. These events have become caught up in the controversy over where Laithlinn was: in Scotland or in Norway? This controversy has been remarkably bitter given that there are only four contemporary mentions of Laithlinn (and I’m normalising the spelling below): one in 848, when the king of Laithlinn’s deputy Jarl Thorir was killed in battle; the mention of Olaf’s being the king’s son in 853; an Old Irish poem where a monastic author is relieved at a stormy sea because it makes the voyage impassable to ‘the fierce warriors of Laithlinn’ and another Old Irish poem referring to an army coming over from Laithlinn in 866. Personally, I think that both Scotland and Norway are barking up the wrong tree. In response to Jarl Thorir’s death, a Viking fleet showed up in 849 on behalf of the ‘king of the Foreigners’ – i.e., the Vikings. The similar-sounding but unrelated word which replaced Laithlinn, Lochlann, generally denotes ‘Norway’, at least by the latter part of the eleventh century; but it can also just mean ‘generically Viking’, and I think that Laithlinn means the same thing – ‘king of Laithlinn’ and ‘king of the Foreigners’ are synonyms. The Irish authors didn’t know much about Scandinavia at all, and so used these general terms. But the king of Laithlinn, I think, did have a location: the mid-ninth century Danish kingdom.

In this reading, the ‘King of Laithlinn’ of 848 and the ‘King of the Foreigners’ in 849 is Horic I. It may well be that the Irish victories against the Vikings in 848 were one of the factors which made him look vulnerable to attack by his nephews in 850. In any case, when Horic’s nephews became kings, their position was not secure. A renewed wave of Viking attacks across Europe in 850-852 suggests that political losers were fleeing Denmark and engaging in raiding activity to gather political and financial capital; an 852 reference in the Annals of Fulda to Harald, probably the brother of Roric of Dorestad, fleeing to Louis the German and living in Saxony sometime earlier strongly suggests that the court had been purged of potential rivals from within the royal family. (Notably Roric too sought a benefice in Frisia – it looks like both men wanted a base close to the Danish kingdom to exploit instabilities in it. Harald was actually killed in 852 by the ‘wardens on the Danish March’ and I wonder if it might be because they suspected that he might go a-viking the same way Roric had a year or two before…) In 852, Guthfrith, son of Harald Klak, seems to have made a brief attempt to assert power in Denmark before going out and plundering the West Frankish kingdom. In this context, Olaf’s appearance on the Irish scene in 853 has the clear aim of reasserting royal authority over the Irish Vikings and of gaining resources to shore up Olaf’s father’s power in the Danish kingdom. This should be seen in the context of the civil war which killed Horic in 854. This war probably also killed Olaf and Ivar’s father as well – the Annals of Fulda and the Vita Anskarii say that the attrition amongst the Danish elite was serious, and the Annals of Saint-Bertin refer to the deaths of Horic’s co-kings.

I think this presents a decent, if circumstantial, case that the Uí Ímair and the kings of Denmark were related. There is one more interesting overlap to note. After the 850s, Frankish interest in the Danish kingdom itself waned dramatically. One of the few notices – and essentially the only detailed one – comes from the Annals of Fulda, which under 873 notes that the kings of Denmark, Siegfried and Halfdan, sent messengers to Louis the German asking for his protection. The implication is that they had not been on the throne for very long, and it is unlikely they stayed on the throne for very long either. Siegfried is generally supposed to be the King Siegfried whom Charles the Fat besieged at Asselt in 882 and to whom he gave vast sums of money to go away. Siegfried did go away, but he returned in 885 at the head of the fleet which besieged Paris in the famous siege of 885-886. After the siege was lifted, Siegfried raided in the West Frankish kingdom some more before going to Frisia where he was killed – so say the Annals of Saint-Vaast – shortly after autumn 887. This is interesting, because we have reports of an (unnamed) son of Ivar ravaging Lismore in 883 – precisely the one time that we can’t see our Frankish Siegfried active, and the only appearance of a son of Ivar in the Irish annals until 888, when the Annals of Ulster record the death of Siegfried, son of Ivar, by his kinsmen. This is interesting, because the deaths of King Siegfried and of Siegfried Ivarsson appear to match up. The slight difference in date is quite explicable by 1) the fact that the Saint-Vaast annalist doesn’t say that Siegfried died in autumn 887, just sometime after it; and 2) the news would have taken a little time to get to Ireland – it would be quite feasible for Siegfried to have been killed at the very end of 887 and for the report of his death to have reached Ireland in time for the 888 annal. Moreover, the circumstances are intriguing: Siegfried was killed by his kinsmen, and Frisia had been in the hands of members of the Danish royal family for decades at this point. Siegfried’s quondam comrade King Guthfrith, the last man known to have held it, was killed in 885; but there could well have been relics of the family hanging around in the area.

In short, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that the Uí Ímair were offshoots of the family of King Godefrid of Denmark, which means that most of the Viking kings we can place in the ninth century were all related to each other. Before I finish up, I’d like to talk about a few of the others, notably the kings of East Anglia and the early Rus’ princes. The first Viking king of East Anglia was Guthrum. The nephew of Horic I who led the civil war which ended up killing Horic was also called Guthrum, and the two men have been held to be identical, for instance in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Personally, I think the language of the annals implies that Horic’s nephew Guthrum died; but it is interesting that the only other king of East Anglia whose name we know was Eohric = Horic. Onomastics suggest there could be come connection. On a similar, but even more conjectural note, the first three princes of Kievan Rus’ were called Rurik (Roric), Igor (Ivar) and Oleg (Helgi). We have already seen Rorics and Ivars in action, and Helgi is the same name as a c. 900 king of Denmark named by Adam of Bremen. Given just how shadowy the early Rus’ rulers are, I don’t want to propose anything concrete, but the overlap is interesting…

You may be asking, at this point: so what? In fact, if most Viking leaders given a royal title in our sources whose background we can ascertain or hypothesise about were related to one of the existing Danish royal families, that has a number of important implications. However, this post is going long, so we will have to park it for now. Look forward to a post on social status and rank within the Viking world shortly down the line!


The Extra-Long Post on the Genealogy of the Tenth-Century Counts of Toulouse No-One Was Asking For

This is something of a lengthy digression, but an important one. Before marrying Louis V, Adelaide-Blanche’s previous husband was Raymond, ‘duke of the Goths’. His legacy is evidently important for the marriage and the realm. But who was Raymond?

Part of the problem is that the family of the counts of Toulouse and Rouergue is famously complicated. Sébastian Fray put it best: he said (paraphrasing): it’s not that the sources are bad or in limited supply, it’s simply that the counts are attached to using an obnoxiously small number of personal names. Thus, trying to distinguish all of the different Raymonds and Hughs makes things like the problem of the Three Bernards look entry-level. I was going to go to a café for lunch last Tuesday, but instead I dove down this rabbit warren and next thing I knew it was five hours later and my fiancée was concerned. After all, there’s about half a dozen historians who’ve written about this and the reconstructed family tree can vary wildly whether you’re reading Fray, or de Latour, or de Framond, or any of the others whose work is less immediately linkable…

(You know, I’m re-reading this in the editing process and I think I’m going to start giving all the Raymonds and Hughs numbers to make my life easier. Anyway, back to the sources:)

For our purposes, the main question revolves around the identity of Raymond [1] dux Gothorum, the former husband of Adelaide-Blanche. Looking at the attestation of counts called Raymond in the Midi, we know very little about him, and he’s never attested with Adelaide during his lifetime. Our specific data about him personally consists of his rough date of death, c. 980; and the fact that he was a descendant of Count Raymond Pons (at the very least, his great-grandsons William IV of Toulouse and Raymond of Saint-Gilles were and there’s no more plausible way that that filiation comes to them then via Raymond dux Gothorum). The next question becomes, how is he a descendant of Raymond Pons?

There are two important pieces of evidence. The first comes from a manuscript known as the Roda Codex. This work includes genealogies for dynasties around the Kingdom of Navarre, and one of the shortest and most succinct is of Raymond Pons’ family:

“The names of the counts of Toulouse. Pons took to wife a daughter of Garcia Sanchez and begat Raymond [2]. Raymond begat Raymond [3], whom they killed at Garazo, and lord bishop Hugh [1], who himself died hunting.”

The second bit of evidence is the will of a Count Raymond [4] which dates from c. 960 and includes information about a number of his family members, including his wife Bertha and sons Raymond [5] and Hugh [2] (as well as his nepotes – and in this case it’s vanishingly unlikely that doesn’t mean ‘nephews’– Raymond [6] and Hugh [3]), and his kinsman (consanguineus) Count William. Bertha, incidentally, is a niece of Hugh of Arles, meaning this Raymond is the ‘prince of the Aquitanians’ referred to by Liutprand of Cremona.

Can we put these sources together, and say that the Raymond [4] of the will is Raymond [2], son of Raymond Pons? Not so fast, alas. The consensus amongst historians is that this particular Raymond [4] is actually Raymond [7], a son of Count Ermengaud of Rouergue. (This Ermengaud is usually said to be part of the family of the counts of Toulouse, but there is no evidence for this at all.) Ermengaud is attested as having two sons, a Raymond [7] and a Hugh [4]. (See! Told you this was a pain!) Is there any reason to equate Raymond [4] of the will with Raymond [2] son of Raymond Pons rather than Raymond [7] son of Ermengaud? (For what it’s worth, those are the only two plausible options, thank the Lord.)

I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.

Not directly; but before we get into why, I want to introduce one further piece of evidence. We also have a will from Raymond Pons’ second wife Garsendis, from c. 972, referring to various nepotes (again, almost certainly nephews) including a ‘Count Hugh [5]’ and a ‘Raymond [8] son of Gudnildis’. These two figures are often taken to be brothers; personally, I think Raymond [8] son of Gudnilidis is a red herring. Without the comital title, he is unlikely to be Count Hugh [5]’s brother and it’s not like there aren’t enough Raymonds running around. So besides Raymonds we also want a reconstruction which will somehow make Garsendis aunt of a Count Hugh [5] who either does not have a brother Count Raymond or has some plausible reason that the brother Count Raymond doesn’t show up in the will.

So, going back to the question, who is Count Raymond [4] of the will? Having weighed the options at extreme length, I do think it is Raymond [2] son of Raymond Pons. The identification with Raymond [7], son of Ermengaud, has a few attractive features. It makes a family tree based on the attested relationships in our sources slightly more economical, insofar as we have to hypothesise fewer relationships and unattested people. (Don’t get me wrong, though, unattested people do still have to be hypothesised.) However, it has a number of weaknesses. For one thing, it makes placing a number of relationships we known about (such as the existence of a Hugh [6] abbicomes son of Raymond [9] in the mid-980s) harder than the alternative. There’s also no terribly plausibly way to have Counts Hugh who are nephews of both Raymond [4] of the will and Garsendis, but who don’t have comital brothers named Raymond.

The hypothesis that Raymond [4] of the will was Raymond [2] son of Raymond Pons, though, has some external strengths. Above all, it explains the marriage with Bertha of Italy: Hugh of Arles, being in pretty desperate straits at that point, would have rather more reason to seek a marriage alliance with the sole son of the most powerful man in Aquitaine than with the joint heir of a relatively minor southern count. It also explains the kinsman Count William in the will (the land Raymond [4] bought from him is not named but is implicitly in Rouergue). This figure is certainly not William Towhead of Poitiers, because the counts of Poitiers are never seen that far east. It is unlikely to be either William the Pious or William the Younger of Aquitaine, largely for chronological reasons. However, it could very well be one of the Count Williams of Angoulême and/or Périgord. That family married into the family of Raymond Pons at the beginning of the tenth century, explaining both the kinship connection and why they would have land in the area to begin with.

Furthermore, the proposed identification makes it easier to construct a hypothesis that explains all of the different nepotes. By making Raymond [7] son of Ermengaud husband of a putative sister of Garsendis and father of the Count Hugh [5] we know was around later in the tenth century, we have a Count Hugh at the right time with the right relationship who doesn’t have a comital brother named Raymond. Giving that Raymond [7]’s brother Hugh [4] a wife who was a daughter of Raymond Pons, followed by two sons called Hugh [7] and Raymond [10], then allows for Raymond [4] of the will to also have the right nepotes as well. This does raise the question of why neither of them are called counts in Raymond [4]’s will, given that Hugh [4] had probably been dead for about fifteen years at that point, but it’s easier to imagine a scenario in which they did not immediately inherit their father’s position – possibly because they were young at their father’s death – than it is to fit the necessary preconditions around another scenario.

So Raymond [4] of the will, husband of Bertha, is very likely Raymond [2] son of Raymond Pons. How does this help us? Well, the good news is that thanks to the work of de Gournay and Fray I’m pretty confident about his descendants. One of the bequests in his will is of an estate called Pallas to his son Raymond [11]. Pallas was later bestowed on the abbey of Conques by a Count Raymond [12] of Rouergue, son of a Count Raymond [13] and Bertildis, who controlled it ‘by hereditary right’. Now, Bertildis and Bertha are not the same name. This means that the Raymond [12] who donated Pallas can’t be the son of the Raymond [4] who wrote the will. He can, however, be a grandson. What we have, then, is Count Raymond [13 = 3], son of Bertha, who appears in charter evidence and who, per the Rodas genealogy, would be the man killed at Garazo (per the Book of the Miracles of St Foy, he was murdered on the road to Compostela (presumably Garazo is on the road to Compostela; such a thing has been suggested but I haven’t been able to find corroborating evidence of this). From him descends Count Raymond [12] donor of Pallas and from him the counts of Rouergue.

The importance of this is that Bertildis was still alive in the 1010s. Neither her husband nor her son, therefore, fit easily into a chronology which requires Raymond [1] dux Gothorum to have married Adelaide-Blanche in the mid-970s and to have died shortly thereafter. This means we need to look elsewhere for our Raymond dux Gothorum.

You may have noticed me cunningly setting up the descent-line above. If Raymond [1] dux Gothorum were the son of Raymond [7] son of Ermengaud through a daughter of Raymond Pons, this fulfils all the extant data points, makes sense chronologically, and preserves the Raymond Pons ancestry of the later counts of Toulouse. Consequently, for the purposes of my reconstruction of the events surrounding Louis V’s kingship in the next post, this is the family tree we’re going to go for:

(If the kerning on this looks wrong, as though I had to edit it after it was made, that’s 100% accurate. My original reconstruction had Raymond dux Gothorum as son of Raymond (II) and Hugh (II) as son of Hugh (I), but re-examining the pattern of their appearances in the charters, Hugh (II) probably wants to be son of Raymond (II) instead.)

And next week, we’ll write the post that was originally supposed to be Part 2 and Last before I got sucked down onto this lengthy, lengthy detour.

Some further notes:

  1. Garsendis’ parentage: Garsendis has been identified as both the same person as Raymond Pons’ Gascon bride and also a daughter of Ermengaud of Rouergue and also as a relation of the viscounts of Narbonne. We have no evidence for any of them, and I don’t think the second assumption in particular is at all necessary. As for the first, it is even less likely: Garsendis’ will doesn’t mention children living or dead, so a number of historians have made the quite reasonable assumption that the marriage was childless.
  2. Sadly, we don’t know where Hugh [1] was bishop of. It wasn’t Toulouse, for sure. His see has been placed in Gascony, which makes sense given that the author of the genealogy seems to have only been interested in the material insofar as it pertained to the Basque country.
  3. Relatedly, Gerbert of Aurillac’s letters mention a Hugh [6] abbicomes son of Raymond, and ask about his marriage. If you thought this was enough to disqualify him from contention as Hugh [1] the bishop then I wouldn’t think you were crazy; but although the case for uxoriousness amongst the tenth-century episcopate is wildly overstated in general, one of the places it does apply is Gascony. Also, the other use of the word abbicomes I’ve found is in the chronicle of Hugh of Flavigny, where it refers to Hugh, bishop of Auxerre and count of Chalon, so it may well be that Bishop Hugh [1] could be Hugh [6] abbicomes.
  4. The Vita Sancti Fulcranni mentions Bishop Fulcrand of Lodève in the second half of the tenth century running across a Count of Toulouse who had repudiated his first wife to marry another woman who had been repudiated by her husband. If this information is accurate, we could hypothesis that Raymond [1] dux Gothorum was also Raymond [13] son of Bertha and husband of Bertildis, having divorced Bertildis in order to marry Adelaide-Blanche. This would have the advantage of being elegant. However, the Vita Fulcranni is of no historical value at all for this period. Besides being constructed of barely-rephrased hagiographical tropes, and besides being thirteenth-century, it is very likely that this episode is based on something which itself happened in the late twelfth century.

Henry, William, and Naming Patterns Amongst the Frankish Aristocracy

One of my occasional but long-running interests is onomastics, the study of personal names. You can probably trace this back to the early part of my PhD, when I had to read a frankly alarming amount of implausible genealogical speculation based on people’s names. There is a very respectable tradition amongst scholars of the Early Middle Ages that onomastic links are a useful tool for tracing family ties. The idea goes something like this: the counts of Anjou (say) from c. 890 until c. 1040 were called Fulk, Fulk, Geoffrey, Fulk, and Geoffrey. If, then, we have someone of unknown family background but who is called Fulk or Geoffrey, this could be a sign they are related to the counts of Anjou. There are, naturally, nuances and finesses to this particular argument – for instance, holding land in the same area, or inheriting the same office, makes a case much stronger – and good scholars are generally unwilling to accept onomastic conjecture by itself as proving family relations. Still, the idea is there, and I’ve always wondered: can we reverse-engineer this method? That is, if we look at naming patterns amongst people who we know are related, can we show a familial element to naming patterns which would give us confidence in this method when we don’t know of any definitive relationship?

I have to say, it’s remarkably hard to answer this question with a ‘no’, much as I might want to. Take the case of the name ‘Henry’, for instance. Virtually every significant Henry in tenth- and eleventh-century Europe seems to derive ultimately from the East Frankish king Henry the Fowler. Henry had a large family, and four of his children in particular concern us here: Emperor Otto the Great, Duke Henry I of Bavaria, the West Frankish queen Gerberga, and Hedwig, wife of Hugh the Great, duke of the Franks. From these four people, the name ‘Henry’ ended up being used by the Capetians (one king of France, one duke of Burgundy), from whence it also ended up as a name used by the kings of England (King Henry I of England being presumably named after his mother’s uncle King Henry I of France).  It also passed to the Salian emperors of Germany through two different paths (Otto the Great’s daughter Liutgard, wife of Conrad the Red; and Gerberga’s daughter Matilda, wife of Conrad the Pacific of Transjurane Burgundy). It also passed to the counts of Leuven and their cadet branches, as well as to the counts of Limburg and Durbuy (unclear precisely how, but through Hedwig’s daughter Beatrice in the first instance and Gerberga’s son Charles of Lotharingia in the second).

So far so good, if we’re thinking that names pass down through families. Two problems arise, though. The first is that several generations can go by before the name Henry re-emerges. I have found vanishingly few cases where more than four generations separate two Henries (i.e. the parents of younger Henries are, at the most distant, naming the kid after one of their own grandfathers or great-uncles). Probably the most distant is Henry of Speyer, progenitor of the Salians:

Henry the Fowler –> Otto the Great –> Liutgard –> Otto of Worms –> Henry of Speyer

And even then, if we knew more about the identity of Otto of Worms’ wife we might be able to cut a generation or two off that. Still, four generations is a lot, and although it is accurate to say that (say) King Henry I of England and his son-in-law Emperor Henry V were a) related and b) ultimately derived their names from the same ancestor, it’s not helpful in telling you anything about either’s conception of their family or their political behaviour. The second problem is that we have a number of other Henries who can’t be assigned with any confidence to this family tree, notably Henry I of Austria and Stephen-Henry of Blois (the latter, indeed, has been conjectured to have received his name from Henry I of France as his godfather, which would be a very interesting nugget if there were any proof that Henry was his godfather – maybe there is and I don’t know it, answers in the comments please). This doesn’t mean they weren’t related* – we know that there were other nobles called Henry who were somehow related to Henry the Fowler hanging around and probably reproducing in the tenth century – but it means that all we can say with confidence about their family relations was ‘they were related somehow’. Given we’re talking about the aristocracy, even at a time when they were operating under some of the strictest incest taboos human society has ever produced, we can probably take that as a default assumption.

Our second case is even less helpful, and that’s the name William. ‘William’ is a paradox. On one hand, it is a name which is deeply characteristic of some families. Most notable in this regard are the counts of Poitiers, who were all called William to the point it got ridiculous. William (V) the Great had four sons who succeeded him in turn: William the Fat, Odo, Peter, and Guy Geoffrey. However, when their turn came around all except Odo changed their name, so Peter became William VII (William Aigret) and Guy Geoffrey William VIII. The problem is that ‘William’ is characteristic of too many families: amongst others, it is a characteristic name of the dukes of Aquitaine, the dukes of Normandy, the counts of Burgundy, the counts of Angoulême, the counts of Provence, and the rulers of Montferrat and Montpellier; and it’s as clear as mud how it got there. In some cases, we can trace the name’s diffusion quite clearly. Stephen-Henry of Blois, for instance, had a son named William clearly named after Stephen-Henry’s father-in-law William the Conqueror. Equally, the Landricid counts of Nevers, Auxerre, and Tonnerre gained the name William from a marriage with a daughter of Count Otto-William of Burgundy, a marriage seemingly so prestigious that Otto-William’s family names colonised the Landricid family, where Landrics and Bodos were replaced with Williams and Rainalds.

One of the more famous Williams, shown here with his name (source)

These cases are a minority, and that’s important. Above all, it means that ‘William’ becomes essentially meaningless as a way of tracing family connections – it’s just too common. This is a shame, because there are some fascinating questions which we could answer if we knew more. Take the question of Normandy. ‘William’ is a name which is everywhere in Normandy: it’s characteristic not just of the ducal family, but of others such as the Bellême and the Hautevilles. It would be really nice to know whether the popularity of ‘William’ in Normandy in the tenth and (especially) eleventh centuries was due to a) kinship connections with the ducal family; b) non-kinship connections with the ducal family; c) the same event which caused the name to appear in the ducal family; or d) coincidence…

*Stephen-Henry certainly was, being a great-great-great-great-grandson of Henry the Fowler; but that’s reaching if we’re thinking about significance.

Flagging Up an Issue

Being a mostly text-based historian, it’s nice when I get to work with more material-culture stuff, not least because it means that I can put it into blog posts like the following… So, take a look at this:

(source, copyright them)

Good, no? This is the Kriegsfahne (‘war banner’) of Gerberga. It’s not actually a war banner – it’s too small, for one thing – but that name has become attached to it. To give a bit of explanation about the iconography, what we have here is Christ and several saints in the middle, with a ‘Count Rainard’ (Ragenardus comes) kneeling before Christ, several martial verses from Psalm 144 stitched around the outside, and the phrase ‘Gerberga made me’ near the bottom. The textile is currently to be found in the cathedral treasury at Cologne, where it has been since the mid-tenth century. It is usually associated with Queen Gerberga, wife of Louis IV, which is fair enough insofar as a) Bruno, archbishop of Cologne in the mid-tenth century, was her brother; and b) one of the saints on this thing is St Baso, who was only culted in the abbey of Nore-Dame de Laon, which Gerberga happened to own.

The more interesting question, in terms of what this flag is trying to convey, is who Count Rainard is. He’s usually associated with Count Reginar III of Hainaut, a major figure in northern Lotharingia. So the argument goes, Gerberga, Bruno, and Reginar had a major dust-up in the 950s, the flag depicts Reginar defeated and prostrate, and it’s a reminder of her role in Reginar’s overcoming.

I have to confess to being unconvinced by this. First of all, Reginar (Ragenarius, Reginherus, Raginerus) is not the same name as Ragenardus. Second, Ragenardus here is not visibly defeated. For one thing, he’s not wearing penitential clothing; for another, he’s still very visibly wearing a sword, which one would have thought would be an obvious no-no if you wanted to depict a beaten enemy. In fact, the closest parallel to Ragenardus’ position are Carolingian and Ottonian pictures of reigning kings kneeling before Christ.

Such as this image of Otto III, from the emperor’s own prayer book (source)

So what do I think is happening here? Well, first, who is Ragenardus? My answer to that is that it is a man named Count Ragenold of Roucy. Ragenold was Queen Gerberga’s son-in-law, a major figure in Louis IV’s latter years, and a major military leader in the fight Louis and Gerberga led against Hugh the Great. It must be admitted that Ragenardus and Ragenoldus are also not quite the same name, but an L-R elision is not unknown, and in the parallel case of Count Rainald the Old of Sens, you can see contemporary authors making precisely this elision.

If it is Ragenold, then the flag must be presenting him not as a penitent, but as a successful warrior. The words of Psalm 144 around the edge, ‘Blessed be the Lord my strength which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight’, caption an armed figure kneeling before a triumphant Christ. This fits well into the context of Ragenold’s career in the late 950s, where he was involved in a number of Carolingian military expeditions into Burgundy in which both Gerberga and Bruno of Cologne were involved. Given that, thanks to his marriage, Ragenold was part of the extended Ottonian family, imagining this as a gift to the in-laws is far from implausible… This does of course raise the question: why give to the in-laws, and why give this? And for the answer to that, well, you’ll have to wait for the book…

The Problem of the Three Bernards

Whew. This year has been exhausting. How about something more fun? Let’s head back over a century to mid-ninth century Aquitaine, and deal with one of the most entertaining antiquarian problems in Carolingian history: how many people called Bernard were there?

It’s called the ‘Three Bernards’ problem because of a line in Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims’ Annals of Saint-Bertin where he refers in 868 to ‘the margraves, Bernard of Toulouse and Bernard of Gothia and another different Bernard’. However, nobody thinks there are three Bernards in play. The most generous number I’ve seen is actually about seven, and personally I think there are either four or five.

So who are they? Let’s start with the first two above. Bernard of Gothia is by far the least controversial: he is the brother of a man named Emeno, he was dispossessed in the 870s and he died in rebellion. So far, so easy. Bernard of Toulouse is also fairly easy to deal with: he is the son of a man named Count Raymond of Toulouse and his family have been in charge there for a couple of decades by this point. However, here we run into the first problem. In 872, Hincmar refers to a man named Bernard the Calf dying. Is this Bernard of Toulouse? Janet Nelson argues no: because Charles the Bald received the news in Burgundy, Bernard the Calf should belong in Burgundy and thus Nelson identifies him as perhaps a brother of Count Heccard of Mâcon. This seems like a weak basis for an argument to me. Bouchard points out that the evidence for Bernard of Toulouse’s death being in around 872 is very good, if circumstantial, and the lands and offices held by the Aquitanian magnates of the later 870s makes better sense if Bernard of Toulouse and Bernard the Calf are the same man. So I am therefore quite happy to go along with this identification. (For those of you keeping score: number of actual Bernards: 2; number of potential Bernards: 3.)

Bernard Bernard Bernard Bernard mushroom mushroom…

This brings us to the other different Bernard, and this is where things get tricky. Let’s stay with Bouchard for a minute. Bouchard argues that ‘the other different Bernard’ is the same man as one named in Hincmar’s Annals as ‘Bernard son of Bernard’. So let’s start with, who is Bernard son of Bernard?

Most historians would happily identify him as the son of an earlier ninth-century magnate named Bernard of Septimania, most famous for being accused of sleeping with Charles the Bald’s mother and eventually being executed for treason. However, a historian named Mathieu has argued that Bernard son of Bernard is not son of Bernard, but the son of Bernard.

(Feel free to pause for refreshment here.)

Specifically, he argues that ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ is not the son of Bernard of Septimania, but of a man named Count Bernard I of Auvergne. The reasoning for this has to do with Bernard son of Bernard’s career in Lotharingia looking after King Lothar II’s bastard son Hugh, a position Mathieu sees as too responsible for a rebel, too important for someone without much of a patrimony, and too dangerous in terms of Lothar’s relationship with Charles the Bald. This is not a very substantial objection: by analogy with Baldwin Iron-Arm of Flanders, we know that Carolingian kings were quite happy to attach their sons to people who might be described as adventurers, and Hincmar’s description of Bernard as ‘son of the tyrant Bernard’, as he does a few times, fits neatly with a son of Bernard of Septimania. Bernard I of Auvergne certainly existed, and may have been Bernard son of Bernard’s father-in-law, but is unlikely to have been his father.

One thing we can all agree on is that ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ is the same person Hincmar at one point calls ‘Bernard Plantevelue [Hairypaws]’, so that’s nice.

Was Bernard Plantevelue the ‘other different Bernard’ of the 868 annal, though? Bouchard’s argument that he was rests on the assumption that Hincmar is explicit about only meaning three Bernards. However, I don’t think he does. The description of Bernard as ‘another different Bernard’ seems to mark him out from not only Bernard of Gothia and Bernard the Calf, but also Bernard Plantevelue. Bernard Plantevelue, as mentioned above, seems to have spent 868 and 869 in Lotharingia, and Hincmar looks to be distinguishing between him and, well, another, different, Bernard. (The Lotharingian adventure also provides a good contextual reason why Bernard Plantevelue wasn’t hanging around in Aquitaine at the same time.)

So who was the other different Bernard? Nelson proposes that he was Count Bernard I of the Auvergne, and this does just about work. However, the problem is that the most natural reading of the charter evidence from the abbey of Brioude is that Bernard I of Auvergne died by September 868, which is just about possible, but requires him to get home from the meeting reported in the 868 annal and die immediately. It also requires Charles the Bald not to find out about it for a year or so, because he was apparently expecting to meet this Bernard in 869. (He didn’t, and there may be a reason why, but it’s an odd lapse in information gathering at best.)

The alternative is that ‘the other different Bernard’ is another, different Bernard. The Latin of Hincmar’s passage can be construed as drawing a distinction between Bernard the Calf and Bernard of Gothia, who are margraves, and the third who isn’t; in which case the third need not be a layman at all. If not, my guess would be Abbot Bernard of Solignac, who was an important churchman with close ties to Charles the Bald’s court.

So where does this leave us? With four or perhaps five Bernards: Bernard of Toulouse, who is Bernard the Calf; Bernard of Gothia; Bernard Plantevelue, who is also ‘Bernard son of Bernard’ and the son of Bernard of Septimania; Bernard I of Auvergne, who might be the ‘other different Bernard’; and Bernard of Solignac who is another reasonable candidate for the other different Bernard.

If you’ve read this far, then congratulations! If you see me at a conference, use the code word ‘vanadium’ and I’ll buy you a drink. But more seriously, you might be wondering why any of this matters. The short answer is that who we think is doing things can change the picture dramatically. To take only one example: if Bernard son of Bernard isn’t the other different Bernard, his support of Lothar II’s son Hugh is a regional problem at best. If he is, it’s an international conspiracy and this has important effects on how we tell the story of the politics of this decade. The Three Bernards problem, then, might be dry, or even comically absurd, but it is worthy of attention.

Why is Donkey Kong like tenth-century Flanders?

Birthday post! OK, it’s not actually my birthday (I ain’t putting that on the internet), but it is proximate thereto, which is one reason I haven’t been posting recently. Posts will resume after I’ve moved house and gone to the EHS Conference in two weeks, but recently I discovered something fun which is almost entirely devoid of scholarly content, but tickled me so I’m putting it up here anyway.

I have on occasion hinted at something which I like to call the ‘Arnulf Problem’, but I don’t think I’ve ever explained what it is. Basically, in late tenth-century Flanders, Count Arnulf the Great was having family troubles. One of his nephews rebelled, and so he had him executed, earning the hostility of the executed man’s brother, who was also called Arnulf. These two things, that he was a nephew of Arnulf the Great and that he was also called Arnulf, are the only things we have to identify this man. This is a problem, because ‘Arnulf’ is an incredibly common name. Hence, there are about six potential candidates for our Arnulf – and thus, the Arnulf Problem: not knowing who someone is because everyone has the same damn name.

(Ninth-century historians have a different version of this known as the Three Bernards Problem, although these Bernards at least have better nicknames – Bernard Hairypaws, anyone?)


Segue! (source)

Now, as I say, I recently discovered that medieval history is not the only field where this is true. It turns out fans of the venerable Donkey Kong franchise have to deal with a similar problem. The first appearance of Donkey Kong was in 1981, in the arcade game Donkey Kong, which also featured the first appearance of Mario – then named Jumpman – as an animal-abusing builder’s carpenter. However, in more recent games we have learned that the current Donkey Kong is in fact the second holder of that title, the first being the ape now known as DK’s grandfather Cranky Kong (not to be confused with either Swanky Kong or Lanky Kong…). It is, though, not quite clear when the current Donkey Kong took over from Cranky Kong. It certainly happened by Donkey Kong Island, but although the wiki claims that the Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong 3 is Cranky Kong, in fact there’s no real way of knowing. Essentially, it’s the Arnulf Problem all over again.

In fact, there’s a specific equivalent. At some point in the 960s, a series of English bishops wrote to Count Arnulf of Flanders about various matters. Problem is, because Arnulf I (the Great) was succeeded by Arnulf II, we don’t know which Arnulf they were writing to. It’s even a grandfather-grandson transition (although, unlike the current Donkey Kong, we know exactly what happened to Arnulf II’s father)!

So there you have it – if you’re a gamer, then tenth-century historians face your problems. And if you’re a tenth-century historian, then… let’s see if we can get a Mario Kart tournament going at the next IMC?

Onomastic Oddities in Tenth-Century Langres

Names are important. Something’s name is a crucial part of its identity, and also an important part of the identity of the person who named it – just think of the implied difference between someone who names their dog ‘Kylie’ and one who names it ‘Lucifer’. This is just as true of people as of objects or animals. People give names to play up ethnic identities (think of fourth-generation Irish-Americans with names like Muirchertach), family connections (Bill Jnr.), celebrity fixations (Kylie again), political or religious opinions (Francis Xavier), or even simply the aesthetic tastes of the name-giver (liking the way the name sounded seems to be why south India has a politician named Adolf Hitler).

In the early medieval period, where surnames were uncommon to the point of non-existence, names have attracted a lot of historical attention as a marker of family connections. Some names are so common in families, the argument goes, that they can themselves be used as to indicate that someone with such-and-such a name belongs to such-and-such a family. There’s certainly a case to be made along these lines: the Carolingians, notoriously, were big fans of the names Charles and Louis, such that one ends up reading genealogies along the lines of ‘Charles begat Louis begat Charles begat Louis begat Charles begat Louis begat Charles begat Louis’ (an entirely genuine line of descent, incidentally). Whether or not this works as much as many scholars, particularly French- and German-speaking ones, think is for me a bit of an open question.

This was a problem at the time: J. Lake, translation of the Histories of Richer of Saint-Remi, p. 3.

Partly, this is because we have so little explicit reasoning about why people gave their children the names they did. Cases such as Arnulf the Great of Flanders, explicitly named to highlight his connection with his royal ancestor St. Arnulf of Metz, are rare; cases such as King Zwentibald of Lotharingia (a Carolingian, but named after his godfather King Sviatopolk of Moravia to highlight the alliance between Zwentibald’s father and the Moravian ruler) where the reason can be readily inferred are more common, but only slightly.

Sometimes, though, one comes across a name that provokes all kinds of speculation, and this happened to me this week. Reading through a 908 charter of Bishop Argrim of Langres in which the bishop makes an exchange of land, goods and people with his follower Arnold, I came across a list of slaves. Most of them had perfectly ordinary names for the time and place – Benedict, Alberada, Adalsind, Sigelm – but one rejoiced in the name of Bellerophon. This raises so many questions.

A Classical urn showing the Bellerophon of myth.

Bellerophon was the Greek hero who rode Pegasus and slew the Chimera; he appears in the Iliad and a few other ancient Greek works. It’s not a common name in the early medieval West – I’ve never seen it before in ninth- or tenth-century France, and the only other bearers of it I can find are two middling-status Italians from the eighth century. Our Bellerophon, though, is no priest or noble – he’s an unfree dependent, property. This makes me think that he’s likely named after the Bellerophon, which provokes the most interesting question of all: where did his parents hear the name?

Two possibilities arise. First, that the name comes from interaction with high culture: his parents knew their way around Latin – or even Greek – well enough to know a fairly-obscure Classical myth well enough to name a child after it. Second, it comes directly from pop culture: the story of Bellerophon – and presumably by extension other Classical myths – were still in circulation, directly continuous from the Roman past. Here, we would have a peasant thought world which hasn’t changed all that dramatically for centuries.

For me, the former is more likely. The parents didn’t have to read Homer themselves to know someone who did. Bellerophon’s estate, Bannes, is right next to Langres,  so it could be trickle-down from the episcopal court; it could simply be a well-educated local priest or lord (as we know were around at this time). The story here is implicitly rather sweet: it implies a real appetite for learned culture on the part of the slaves (which is not itself surprising) but also good enough relations between social groups as to allow for transfer of knowledge.

(Of course, as I wrote this, the darker interpretation, that this was like nineteenth-century slaveholders naming their slaves ‘Caesar’ as a sick joke, occurred to me. A priori, I wouldn’t give Carolingian lords that level of social control; but I don’t actually know.)

In the end, all these stories are imaginary. We don’t know why Bellerophon was given that name. Whatever story lies behind it, though, Bellerophon’s name speaks to the depths of the social world of the Frankish peasantry.