Fantasy Writing and the Early Middle Ages

A long legacy of fantasy, as Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir in this twelfth-century carving from Hylestad Stave Church.

Places and people from the past become inextricably linked to particular genres of writing in the present. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story set in Regency England will be in want of a costume romance. The spectre of the Gothic looms over any tale located in Transylvania before the twentieth century. And any fiction set in Los Angeles in the 1940s is going to let you know they’re trouble when they walk into your office with legs that go all the way down to the ground. In the case of the Early Middle Ages, that genre is fantasy. The association stretches back to the Middle Ages themselves. Well before Tolkien began crafting a world for his languages, jongleurs carried songs of Arthur, Attila and Charlemagne through the courts of Europe, while farmers and merchants in Iceland passed long lightless winters listening to sagas about years gone by. That the writer who did more than anyone else to codify modern fantasy was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies with a special interest in Beowulf certainly didn’t hurt either.

The bibliography on the influence of the early medieval world on Tolkien’s fantasy writing is enormous and I have no intention of attempting to add to it. But as a professional specialising in the Early Middle Ages with a deep fondness for fantasy as a genre, it struck me that it might be interesting to think about the ways in which fantasy writers since Tolkien have engaged with the period in their writing. In doing so, I’d like to consider what it is about the early medieval world that they find useful and interesting, what that says about popular perceptions of the period, and what ideas, if any, historians can take from them. My method in selecting examples is highly scientific – I raided the contents of my book shelves and my kindle in no particular order. For this reason, it is by no means exhaustive, being anglophone, with a heavy emphasis on the 2000s (aka my teenage years when I had pocket money and a lot of free time) and reflective of my (very) peculiar tastes. Nonetheless, upon reflection I think certain trends emerge which are potentially revealing.

Filing the Serial Numbers Off: Guy Gavriel Kay

Few fantasy writers have made the inspiration they drew from the Early Middle Ages more obvious than Guy Gavriel Kay, whose literary career began when he worked as Christopher Tolkien’s assistant in editing his father’s unpublished works. The majority of Kay’s books are set in fictionalised versions of real-world settings, many of which are from the early medieval period. These include The Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998, 2000, based on Byzantium in the age of Justinian), The Last Light of the Sun (2004, Alfred the Great and the Vikings), and, my personal favourites, The Lions of al-Rassan (1995, eleventh-century Spain) and Under Heaven (2010, eighth-century China).

Although Kay clearly does considerable research for each book, the setting is ultimately there to serve the story and he very reasonably compresses timelines and characters for narrative economy. The early medieval world provides Kay with epic backdrops, settings filled with colour and scale, and dramatic events kickstarting the conflicts that drive the plot. Generally the broad sweep of the history remains the same, with the big exception being The Sarantine Mosaic which throws a couple of fairly large counterfactuals into the mix. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Kay’s use of the Early Middle Ages, and one of my favourite things about his books in general, is how beautiful his settings are. As we shall see, when the early medieval period is used to provide a fantasy background, it’s normally for a rather grim state of affairs. Kay’s early medieval worlds are culturally rich, filled with art and poetry and song. Despite widespread prejudice, they are also spaces where people of different faiths and races can meet and try to understand each other. Unlike many other works that draw on the period, the tragedy in Kay’s stories is not that the Early Middle Ages are here, but that they are going and with them their beauty and their tolerance. His best writing evokes these fragile middle grounds, creating quiet moments of grace that take place just before the wrecking storm. These spaces are doomed, but that makes them all the more precious. Kay’s ability to see the wonder in the Early Middle Ages helps explain his popularity among medievalists more generally, and is the reason The Lions of al-Rassan is a book I return to every year.

Widukind and Friends: Kate Elliott

As we shall see throughout this post, some early medieval settings are more attractive than others. Arthur and the end of Roman Britain will always attract a crowd. Similarly, anything with Vikings in it does well, particularly when we throw in the compulsory trip to Constantinople. Fantasy depictions of tenth-century Germany on the other hand are rather more unusual. Hesitant though I am to say it, I fear that the Ottonians lack the raw sex appeal of other inhabitants of the Early Middle Ages (Saxon-appeal on the other hand…). Fantasy books that cite Widukind are rare birds indeed.

Rare, but not unheard of thanks to Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series (1997-2006), which is set in an unusually convincing fantasy world based on Ottonian Germany. Fantasy it most certainly is, being stuffed full with magic, monsters, rock-creatures for Vikings, and interdimensional elves which come in Roman and Aztec flavours. These elements are grounded by a thoroughly researched human society based on tenth-century itinerant kingship. (It probably helps that the author’s sister is a professor specialising in medieval German literature.) Elliott adds weight and believability to her world through her close attention to material culture and day to day logistics. A hundred warriors are a considerable army in this setting, and one that needs to be fed. Elliott is skilled enough that such realities add to the plot rather than slowing it down. Even the magic acquires a certain verisimilitude from her use of early medieval scholarship (and a healthy dose of Macrobius).

Perhaps my favourite element is the handling of religion. Modern fantasy writers tend to struggle with the role of religion in their early medieval analogues, if they don’t drop it altogether, often reverting to faith as a cynical con perpetrated by a corrupt church. Crown of Stars certainly features plenty of ecclesiastical shenanigans. But Elliott constructs an interesting religious world based on the teachings of Bardaisan of Edessa, where faith imbues every part of society. Although all the characters have different relationships to it, religion matters practically, spiritually and culturally for our protagonists. The result is a vivid depiction of an early medieval world.

Stories of Arthur: Philip Reeve

In discussing the Early Middle Ages as an inspiration for fantasy writing, Arthur is the 1000-pound bear in the room. There is no possible way anyone can briefly summarise the influence of Camelot and company. Generally, when people write stories about Arthur, they follow one of two routes. Either they embrace the weirdness of the medieval source material with plenty of magic and very little attention to historical context, or they go full ‘Dark Age Arthur’, cutting the mythology out in favour of a gritty allegedly realistic setting. As a rule, I tend to prefer the first approach (which is how you get the superb The Green Knight film from 2021) to the second (which is how you get a horribly miscast and inexplicably Pelagian Clive Owen fighting the Saxons on Hadrian’s Wall). But because this post is about using the early medieval past for fantasy narratives, the latter strand is more directly relevant for us today.

In these sorts of stories, the early medieval past is used to strip out Arthurian weirdness and replace it with something more grounded. Done straight, ‘Dark Age Arthur’ can be very good indeed, with Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (1995-1997) being a fine example. But something about the contempt with which a lot of these narratives cannibalise the mythology rubs me the wrong way. For this reason, the book I’d like to mention in this section is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2007). Despite being written for a YA audience, Reeve’s Arthurian world is a dark place indeed. His Arthur is one armed thug with a retinue among many fighting over the carcass of western Britain, distinguished only by his violence and by his patronage of Myrddin. The latter, who is a bard, wizard and spin-doctor extraordinaire, is determined to unite Britain against the Saxons by turning Arthur into a heroic legend. Our main character, Gwyna, becomes Myrddin’s assistant in this endeavour.

Reeve has a lot of fun with Myrddin’s cunning schemes, as he stage-manages a number of familiar literary episodes. But what I particularly like about this book is his willingness to embrace some of the weirder elements of Arthuriana and medieval culture. His handling of gender and sexuality in the Early Middle Ages is particularly bold for 2007 and serves as a nice nod to the complexity that medieval gender studies have been revealing for decades. Reeve’s Age of Arthur is a fluid world, defined by the stories that people tell, and all the more fascinating for it.

In the Far Future there is only the Dark Ages: Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie

One recent trend in fantasy writing is to use the Early Middle Ages as the blueprint for a postapocalyptic world. This is something employed by Mark Lawrence in his The Broken Empire trilogy (2011-2013, followed by The Red Queen’s War, 2014-2016 set in the same world) and by Joe Abercrombie in his Shattered Sea trilogy (2014-2015). Both feature elite young male protagonists relying upon their intelligence and ruthlessness to survive and thrive in a Hobbesian war against all. Both are also incredibly dark narratives, in which our main characters do appalling things. Because of these parallels, I’m talking about them together.

Much of the action in The Broken Empire takes place in a setting that draws heavily on traditional views of France in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Our teenage protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, reads like a cross between Fulk Nerra and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We encounter him leading a merry band of droogs on a brutal rampage across a war-torn northern France. The Shattered Sea treads slightly more familiar ground, set in a postapocalyptic Baltic with a strong Viking flavour (our protagonists even travel to Miklagard in the second book). Born into a royal family with a crippled hand, Yarvi was meant to enter the church but unexpectedly becomes a king. Betrayed and sold as a slave, Yarvi seeks his revenge, giving the plot a pleasing hint of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The first thing that raises eyebrows is of course the idea that the Early Middle Ages is what naturally happens when civilisation collapses. I’ve talked about my problems with the idea of the Dark Ages before. This sort of thing undermines our ability to see the period on its own terms, and understand both its beauty and the unique factors that shaped it. There is nothing natural about the Middle Ages, and treating it as a short hand for the state of nature short-changes it. That said, Lawrence and Abercrombie do make good use of the concept. The visual image of a dark age warlord hunkered down in a fortified office block rereading his treasured copy of Plutarch, or of a band of Vikings exploring the irradiated ruins of modern Stockholm, is a striking one, which adds to the atmosphere of the narrative. I particularly like the way radiation and other postapocalyptic standbys are interpreted via medieval stories of magic and the Monstrous Races, giving a fresh feel to both sets of concepts.

I think as a medieval historian I should probably object to the depiction of the Early Middle Ages as a period of constant warfare characterised by political instability and treachery. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I can. I think it’s safe to say that both Lawrence and Abercrombie struggle with the role of faith and ideology in politics. The idea that people might actually believe in things beyond survival, self-advancement and loyalty to one’s intimates doesn’t really make much of an appearance. That said, I can’t think of many successful well-sourced early medieval rulers who didn’t have an awful lot of blood on their hands. Frankly, the Early Middle Ages could be extremely violent and unstable, although not all the time or at a constant level, and not mindlessly.

Both The Broken Empire and the Shattered Sea take a stab at thinking about how people’s environments and the structure of their societies turn them into bloodstained villains. Where I think they differ is on what they lead into. Lawrence hints that the game can be won, that a Leviathan can emerge to create peace, but that it may require a monster to do so. (Whether a good person can break the wheel is a question he ducks in one of the more disappointing moments in the series). Abercrombie is more sceptical, viewing these events as an escalating cycle, in which efforts to create order through violence lead to more chaos as acts of cruelty beget further cruelty. Trying to read too coherent a philosophy of politics and history into books that are meant to be entertaining may be missing the point. Ultimately both series succeed at their basic ambition of being enjoyable reads if your taste runs to dark fantasy.

Magic and the Waning of the Early Middle Ages: Naomi Mitchison

Travel Light (1952) is probably the weirdest book I want to talk about today. It’s certainly the shortest, clocking in at 135 pages in my copy. Into that relatively brief length, Mitchison crams a huge amount. The book begins as a fairytale for children, a charming and funny story about how a girl named Halla is raised by bears and dragons in the wilds of Scandinavia, with strong nods to Norse mythology. The tone very quickly acquires a tragic air, eventually becoming a surprisingly dark political thriller in which Halla must navigate literally Byzantine court intrigue in Miklagard. But this is merely the second act, leaving a final act that is sad, ambiguous and hauntingly beautiful.

Naomi Mitchison refuses to make things easy for us as the reader. Every time we think we know what genre of story we’re reading and what kind of endgame we’re leading towards, she upends our expectations. Even as she changes, Halla ultimately chooses to remain free and authentic to herself, even when those choices impose costs upon her. Having experienced human civilisation, she sides with the world of magic and dragons, even when its clear both that that world is doomed, and that her own humanity makes it impossible for her ever to truly be a part of it. Halla walks her own path, and not even the Allfather, or the love of her life, can stop her.

In terms of its depiction of the early medieval world, what I find interesting about Travel Light is that it shows the onset of the Early Middle Ages as a tragedy not because it represents an anarchic breakdown of order, but because it is too civilised. The colonisation of the wildernesses of the north marks the end of freedom and magic. Whether it is the corrupt inequality of Byzantium, or the patriarchal brutality of the Russias, the world of men (and it is very much men) does not come across well in this story. Throughout the narrative there are nods to an ancient world were humans were more in touch with nature and power came through personal sacrifice rather than through coercion and violence.

Mitchison also walks the line between medieval literature and history in a way unusual in more recent fantasy. The former provides the basis for the disappearing older world of magic. We’re invited to sympathise with the likes of the Grendels (family friends of Halla) and with Fafnir. In this she resembles Tolkien with whom Mitchison had a long correspondence (she also proofread The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). The result is a story that brings back some of the alienness of the Middle Ages, which I very much enjoyed.

Concluding Thoughts

A lot of fantasy writing that draws inspiration from the Early Middle Ages leans hard on the image of the period as a Dark Age. If you want to tell a story about a poor, violent world, with low levels of technology and stability and high levels of mud, popular perceptions of the early medieval period will give you plenty to work with. Further, the idea of the early medieval world as postlapsarian place, a world in decline in the dying afterglow of Rome, allows for some really compelling stories, which you can also apply to postapocalyptic settings. I don’t really have a problem with this, so long as the stories that we get are entertaining, but it’s worth noting that it reflects a particular interpretation.

It’s also not the only way that you can depict the period. It’s possible to give a much more positive interpretation, as in the case of Guy Gavriel Kay. Other writers, such as Kate Elliott, lean much harder into the primary sources, using her understanding of the Early Middle Ages to ground more fantastical elements. One interesting trend is a move away from medieval literature to history. While they knew a huge amount about history, I suspect that the formative encounter for older writers like Tolkien and Mitchison was with Old English and Norse literature, and that shapes the feel and texture of their writings. By contrast, my sense is that more recent fantasy writing draws much more upon history, which informs their plots and settings but perhaps not the actual language they employ, resulting in books that feel much more modern and less alien. (Kay may be a transitional figure, still active today, but imbued in the older tradition).

As I mentioned above, this is a very brief survey of a somewhat random selection of books. It is by no means exhaustive. I should also say that for all my occasional criticisms, this is a genre I genuinely like. I am already compiling a list of promising sounding authors for the next moment I have some time to read for pleasure (summer of 2057 is going to be amazing). At the moment I have Saladin Ahmed, Poul Anderson and Katherine Kurtz on my radar, but I’d invite readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

Name in Print XI

This week I got back to the UK from Tübingen to discover that something I was looking forward to receiving very much had arrived! Some of you may remember that several years ago I wrote a blog post about a bit of tenth-century textile work known as the Kriegsfahne of Queen Gerberga. As of this week, that article now exists in the world for you to read in the latest issue of Viator. This makes it the second article I’ve got into print which had its genesis on this here blog, so I’m doubly proud of it.

Turns out Viator doesn’t put its name on the front cover, forcing me to resort to desperate measures.

This article rexamines whom the Kriegsfahne depicts and, having identified that figure as Ragenold of Roucy, the son-in-law of the textile’s patron Queen Gerberga, proceeds to examine changing strategies of aristocratic legitimation as they evolved hand-in-glove with changing strategies of royal legitimation. It’s probably the clearest exposition of the capillary nature of political culture I’ve ever written, which is to say that it looks at how changes in the nature of legitimate authority spread down socio-political networks like an inkblot. Even though it’s about the Ottonians and the West Frankish kingdom, I think it’s worth a read if you work on anything in the earlier Middle Ages.

Sadly it’s not open access, but if you’d like to read it I have a PDF offprint I’d be very happy to send you if you e-mail me on the usual address at ralph [dot] torta [at] gmail [dot] com. The citation in full is:

Fraser McNair, ‘The Kriegsfahne of Queen Gerberga and the Liudolfing ascendancy in the West’, Viator 52 (2022), pp. 115-135.  

The gritty details: This one was actually pretty straightforward. I wrote the blog post back in 2019, and wrote up a first draft of the article pretty quickly. I sent it round a couple of beta readers – my thanks to Simon MacLean and Megan Welton, the latter especially for some very focussed suggestions on clarifying the structure – and thence to Viator. One round of relatively minor revisions later*, it was accepted in summer 2021 and came out now in summer 2022.

* and I have to say, my respect for the anonymous reviewer who remembered that Heinrich Löwe had made the identification with Ragenold in an offhand footnote in a piece dedicated to something else has my serious respect for their memory and/or note-taking system…

One more thing: both Sam and I will be at the Leeds International Medieval Congress this coming week. I’m not speaking myself, but Sam will be doing a roundtable on ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier’ on the Monday night at 19:00 in the Esther Simpson Building room 3.08, and then giving a paper on the Thursday morning at 11:15 on Stage 2 of Stage@Leeds on ‘Hungry Borders: Escalating Conflict on the Carolingian Frontier’. So do pop along to both of those if you’re interested, and please do come and say hi to either of us if you see us around – we’d love to meet the blog’s audience!

Charter A Week 64: Hugh the Black, Briefly

Last week, we took a break from high politics for 939. This was not an unimportant year to pass over. That year, a huge rebellion amongst the magnates of Lotharingia asked Louis IV to become their king. He did – although, sadly, no diplomas survive from his abortive reign there – but not for very long. At the Second Battle of Andernach, the two main East Frankish rebels, Eberhard and Gislebert of Lotharingia, were killed and the whole thing collapsed. Louis was forced back on the man who, after he had torn himself away from Hugh the Great, had become his most important supporter: his predecessor’s brother, Hugh the Black.

D L4, no. 12 (14th February 940, Gurziaicus) = ARTEM no. 799 = D. Kar 8.v

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Louis, by grace of God king.

If We lend Our ears to the fitting petitions of Our followers, We maintain the customs of Our predecessors as king and We render them rather more familiar to Our Highness.

Wherefore let it be known to all Our followers, both present and future, that the famous Count Hugh approached Our presence and beseeched that We might give certain abbeys, sited in the district of Porthois, to one of Our followers, named Adelard, and his wife Adele and their heirs. One of these monasteries is called Faverney, named in honour of St Mary; the other is called Enfonvelle, and it is named in honour of the holy martyr Leodegar.

And thus, most freely favouring the prayers of the aforesaid glorious Count Hugh, We concede to the same Adelard and his wife Adele the aforesaid abbeys in their entirety, that is, Faverney in its entirety, with its appendages, that is, with churches, estates, bondsmen of both sexes, fields, meadows, woods, waters and watercourses, mills, incomes and renders, visited and unvisited; and Saint-Léger similarly wholly and entirely with everything pertaining to it; only on the condition that by this precept of Our Highness which We commanded to be made and given to the same couple, as long as Adelard and his said wife and their heirs live, they might hold and possess the abovewritten abbeys, and after their deaths (whenever they are), let the same abbeys revert without diminution or deterioration to that state they are known to have been in until now.

And that this Our statute might endure more firmly, We commanded this precept be made concerning it and be signed with Our signet.

Sign of the lord and most glorious king Louis.

Odilo the notary witnessed on behalf of Heiric [of Langres], bishop and high chancellor.

Given on the 16th kalends of March [14th February], in the 3rd year of the reign of the most glorious King Louis, in the 13th indiction.

Enacted at the estate of Gurziaicus on the river Marne.

The diploma in the original (source above)

If Louis 936 Christmas diploma shows the regime Hugh the Great forced upon him, this act shows him using patronage to develop his support in Burgundy. Hugh the Black is, obviously, the main event; but Hugh’s old rival Bishop Heiric of Langres shows up as archchancellor. Hugh the Black evidently knows how to relate to Louis better than Hugh the Great did: there are no extravagant titles here, but rather a simple ‘famous count’. Nonetheless, Hugh the Black clearly did have demands: Adelard and Adele get two plum monasteries for their own uses.

Notably, this is not the first time we’ve met Notre-Dame de Faverney. Last time, it was the focus of an exchange of property between its holder, Guy of Spoleto, later king of Italy and would-be king of the West Frankish kingdom, and Archdeacon Otbert of Langres. I find it interesting that Louis, in the diploma, is kind of shifty about Faverney’s current state. Given Guy’s withdrawal to Italy after the turn of the tenth century, I see two main possibilities as to what happened to it. First, it’s possible that Hugh the Black took it over as the predominant regional magnates and felt he either needed or wanted Louis’ consent to justify the transfer of monastic property to two laypeople. Second, and I think this is more likely, I suspect Otbert of Langres kept Faverney. In this scenario, Louis’ involvement becomes more crucial, as he is in effect using the legitimacy provided by his royal position and his ties to Bishop Heiric to justify using something which is – sort of – Langres’ property to reward Hugh’s followers.

Whatever the reality, Hugh the Black was not going to hang around in Louis’ following too much longer, although in his defence, that’s not really his fault. Louis’ presence in Burgundy was in part because his support of the Lotharingian rebels had provoked a rebellion of his own in the north, a rebellion which his angry rival, the East Frankish king Otto the Great, was supporting. Shortly after this diploma was issued, Otto headed south and – in essence – absolutely merked Hugh. There was fighting around Troyes, and Otto forced Hugh to give him hostages and an oath not to harm the northern rebels. Hugh’s humiliation was capped when he was made to give Otto his own golden brooch (later donated to the abbey of Corvey). With Hugh’s absence, Louis lost his most powerful support. What would he do next?

Lothar’s Potential Supporters in the Invasion of 978

In 978, King Lothar attacked Aachen, forcing Emperor Otto II to flee. It was an audacious move, aimed to conquer Lotharingia – the third attempt made in as many generations of West Frankish kings. However, unlike Charles the Simple in 911 or Louis IV in 939, Lothar’s support within Lotharingia itself seems remarkably weak. Charles and Louis had the backing of a vast array of Lotharingian nobles – it’s one of the reasons why Charles’ attempt worked and Louis’ required some serious bad luck to go wrong. Who did Lothar have?

Charlemagne’s throne at Aachen. The city was being revived as an imperial centre in the 960s and 970s, so an attack here had tremendous symbolic resonance. (source)

The only sure supporters we know about are two brothers, Reginar IV of Hainaut and his brother Lambert of Leuven. Reginar and Lambert were the sons of Reginar III, who had been an inveterate opponent of Archbishop Bruno of Cologne in the 950s and had been exiled to Bohemia and stripped of his lands. In the early 970s, Reginar and Lambert returned to Lotharingia and launched a serious of wars trying to regain control of their lost lands. In 976, they achieved a significant military success, capturing the citadel at Mons. The Annals of Niederaltaich actually give them credit for inspiring Lothar’s attack, and it’s quite possible that it was in part to capitalise on their strong position. However, in terms of explicit evidence of support for Lothar, that’s about it.

That’s not to say that cases – more or less tenuous – can’t be made for other members of the Lotharingian aristocracy being, if not behind Lothar, at least not behind Otto II. My personal favourite candidate is Archbishop Egbert of Trier. According to Alpert of Metz, once Lothar had taken Aachen, he went to besiege Metz. His route from Aachen to Metz would have taken him through Trier (at least if he was following the Roman road), and we know from charter evidence that Egbert was actually in Trier at the same time Lothar was. Even more, the charter from whence we know this is dated not by the regnal dates of Otto II, but only by an AD date. My suspicion is that this is because Egbert was acting as Lothar’s host. Later, in the 980s, he was accused of being a West Frankish sympathiser – might he have also been one in 978?

Egbert’s father, Count Dirk II of Holland, is another potential sympathiser. We don’t know much at all about what he was doing in this period, but besides his relationship to Egbert he has indirect ties to another potential supporter of Lothar. Abbot Poppo of Stavelot, a major ecclesiastical figure in the early-to-mid eleventh century Empire, was the son of a man named (according to his Vita) ‘Tizekinus’, who originated on the Lotharingian border of Flanders. The Vita says that Tizekin died in ‘the war for Hesbaye’, which is generally understood to mean the 978 attack. ‘Tizekinus’ as a name is unique, and is in all likelihood an error for the name ‘Tescelin’. There is a Tescelin who shows up in charters from Ghent next to Count Dirk II, and given that Poppo originally took up knightly service with Dirk’s grandson Dirk III, Vanheule has suggested the family had hereditary ties to the counts of Holland. I like this suggestion, but I want to pile one more on top of it. Tescelin’s death has generally been viewed as fighting against Lothar, but the Vita doesn’t say that explicitly, and he could have been fighting for Lothar. If he was, and if his allegiance reflected Dirk’s, the Frisian count might have thrown in his lot with the West Frankish king rather than his Ottonian opponent.

It is therefore interesting that the name ‘Tescelin’ appears in a list of malefactors who had attacked the church of Cambrai. This list is replete with problems, not least of which is the dating. It could be from the 950s or the 970s – Mériaux, the most recent commentator, suggests the 970s as more probable, and I agree with this view. This list of malefactors is clearly focused around the Reginarids, and a ‘Count Reginar’ is named. If this is a 970s list, this is evidently Reginar III. If Tescelin was an ally of Reginar, then this is another oblique hint that he might have been an ally of Lothar too.

Another name on the list of malefactors is ‘Count Albert’. There are a few potential identities for this figure. Probably the most likely, as Mériaux says, is Count Albert the Pious of Vermandois, a known enemy of the church of Cambrai during this period. However, Mériaux also keeps open the possibility that it is Count Albert of Namur. This latter Albert appears in an early eleventh-century vision of a monk from Saint-Vaast (an abbey in Cambrai’s diocese) being tortured in Hell, so evidently left an unhappy memory there. The reason this is interesting is that Lothar’s initial route to Aachen would have put him within easy striking distance of the citadel at Namur, yet he apparently passed without resistance. Albert of Namur’s father Robert was an old ally of the Reginarids, and of Count Immo, who had recently been killed fighting alongside Reginar and Lambert and who had also been a follower of Hugh Capet, one of the major figures on the expedition. Perhaps, then, Albert of Namur was at least a fence-sitter during the invasion.

A final piece of evidence comes from Toul. Charter evidence from the abbey of Bouxières – a clause referring to the seal ‘of whichever king God chooses to preside over the realm – has been convincingly dated to this period by Bautier, and may in turn suggest that at least some local people did not back the Ottonians to the hilt. However, we don’t know who.

Ultimately, after heaping up hypotheses, we still haven’t got very much – one potential episcopal supporter, a much weaker case for one comital supporter, and a possible neutral. I still think it’s worth making these arguments, or else Otto II’s powerbase within Lotharingia looks so overwhelming that Lothar looks like a complete cretin for even trying; but even if all this speculation happens to be accurate it was still a very risky gamble.

In fact, Lothar’s attack reminds me most of Charles the Simple’s attempted invasion of 898, right down to having limited and mostly Reginarid support. Our sources, in fact, emphasise that Lothar’s game plan was one massive alpha strike aimed at captured Otto II personally. Once this failed, Lothar does seem to have had a Plan B – an attack on Upper Lotharingia, where much of the tepid support-cum-lack-of-opposition we saw above came from – but that fizzled out pretty quickly.

Looked at through this lens, 978 looks like a much more traditionally Carolingian attempt to opportunistically exploit the ambiguous position of the Middle Kingdom than the kind of proto-William-the-Conqueror unsupported invasion it’s often implicitly portrayed as. This has two interesting corollaries. First, it implies that Lothar thought that he could pose a convincing military threat to Otto if it came down to it. This is striking because of how overwhelming Ottonian military power had been in the mid-tenth century compared to anything the West Franks could muster and indicates the degree of political and military consolidation which had taken place since the darkest days of the West Frankish civil war. Second, it gives Lothar’s second invasion of Lotharingia in 984 a much more interesting cast. After all, if traditional Carolingian warfare hadn’t worked for him, why not try something new? That, though, is a story for another day…

Why Was Charles of Lorraine So Tardy?

In May 987, Louis V fell off a horse and died. His cousin Hugh Capet took the throne in a coup, only to be opposed by his uncle Charles of Lower Lotharingia. The two men fought a civil war which lasted for almost three full years, ending in March 991 and starting in late April or May 988.

…Hang on. That doesn’t sound right.

Charles, on the right, next to his brother King Lothar. (source)

Yes, today we’re looking at the coup of Charles of Lotharingia, an event which is normally taken completely for granted but which probably shouldn’t be. For once, his motivation is probably clear – legitimate sons of kings were prima facie candidates to be kings themselves, and Charles had previous form plotting against his brother Lothar in 978*. It’s his timing that’s the issue. Charles apparently saw Hugh Capet being crowned but waited for almost a whole year before making his own move. This is an important delay, passed over by historians who see Charles’ move as self-evident; but I want to ask: why then? Why not a year earlier, after Louis’ death? The longer Charles delayed, the more time Hugh had to entrench himself. I don’t want to overstate this, because there clearly were coup attempts which were launched years after a new king’s succession, but not a lot and the delay did hurt the plotters’ legitimacy. So here are a few options:

1) “Charles didn’t wait, actually.” This answer would short-circuit the question, but unfortunately it would also have to be based on Richer of Rheims’ account. Richer describes how, after Louis’ death but before Hugh’s election as king, Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims went from Senlis to Rheims itself, where Charles approached him to beg for his support in becoming king. Adalbero refused and went back to Senlis, where he made a speech supporting Hugh. We’ve seen before that Richer is not an amazing source for political details, and this case is no exception. The journey from Senlis to Rheims was (pace Robert-Henri Bautier) completely pointless, and the timings are off. They’re not completely impossible, but they do require everyone involved, especially the ageing Adalbero, to move at courier speeds the whole time. In fact, Richer is probably referring to a meeting between Charles and Adalbero which happened later and in a different place, and which he probably knew through the same source we do, which is to say the letters of Adalbero’s secretary (and later pope) Gerbert of Aurillac. This does bring us, though, to the next option, which is:

2) “Ottonian backing!” Ah, the ole’ tried-n-true. However, evidence here is very indirect indeed. We know Charles was at the Easter court of the young Otto III at Ingelheim in April 988, immediately before he attacked Laon. What transpired there is unknown, but later in the year Theophanu tried to arrange a truce between Charles and Hugh and probably some kind of negotiated settlement. This does not, to me, suggest wholehearted support. I have trouble with this whole picture, honestly: relations between Theophanu and Hugh weren’t great, but they weren’t awful either – chilliness is one thing, but three years earlier the West Frankish king had been actively at war with the Ottonians! I’m unclear, therefore, on what Theophanu’s motivation for supporting Charles was supposed to be.

3) “Hugh Capet’s regime was running into trouble.” Again, not obvious. Hugh Capet is known to have sent an angry letter to Archbishop Seguin of Sens, who was dragging his feet about professing loyalty. He also besieged a guy called Odo Rufinus at Marçon in summer. Odo is sometimes argued to be a cat’s paw for Odo I of Blois (and sometimes, through him, of Charles), but the chain of logic there is very tenuous.** This is about it – over winter 987/988, Hugh was able to describe his realm in a letter as ‘very quiet’. If Hugh had any problems, they were more to do with lack of enthusiasm than opposition; but this doesn’t present much of an opening for a would-be pretender. In the closest comparable case, that of Hugh’s great-uncle Odo and Charles the Simple, King Odo had committed a series of patronage blunders and high-handed executions which had provoked a general crisis. There’s nothing like that in Hugh Capet’s case.

4) “Hugh Capet was distracted.” The king’s letter describing his kingdom as ‘very quiet’ was addressed to Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. Borrell had been sending panicked letters not only to Hugh but also to Lothar and Louis V ever since Barcelona had been sacked by the Andalusi vizier al-Mansur in 985. All three kings had had some sort of interest in leading aid to Borrell, but the turmoil in the north of the realm under Lothar and Louis had prevented anything concrete from happening. Hugh Capet appears to have the time and energy to try and put something together. He used his planned expedition to browbeat Adalbero of Rheims into crowning his son, Robert the Pious, as king at Christmas 987, and at around the same time sent a letter to Borrell asking him to send guides into Aquitaine. Hugh’s sincerity has been doubted, but I don’t think the grounds for that are particularly good – our evidence does all point to his intentions to lead an army southwards. Notably, between Christmas 987 and Easter 988 we have no idea what he was doing. Robert’s coronation was at Orléans, the gateway to Aquitaine, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable that Hugh actually did go south. However, we can also be reasonably sure that Borrell didn’t meet him – Hugh’s letter suggests that Borrell was thinking of making terms with al-Andalus, and after over two years of delay I don’t blame him – and the whole thing came to nothing. I like this explanation conceptually – ‘the king and most of his army are far away and getting further’ presents a good tactical scenario for Charles to opportunistically take advantage of. However, the big question mark is the chronology, and this requires a second paragraph on…

…the Flemish succession.

On March 30th 988, Count Arnulf II of Flanders died. On May 20th, the imperial court was at Braine-le-Comte, a little north of Mons, where Otto III issued a diploma for the abbey of Blandijnberg at the intervention of Counts Godfrey the Prisoner and Arnulf of Valenciennes. Probably some time after that, Gerbert of Aurillac wrote a letter in Adalbero of Rheims’ name to Archbishop Egbert of Trier, the relevant part of which goes:

We are somewhat agitated though, that you told us what was happening in your parts so late, and chiefly concerning the case of your brother and nephew. Indeed, as soon as We had read your news, we received Our messenger from the palace, who confirmed that Arnulf’s son has received everything which was his by the king’s gift. In this, we have no other solace save that We know that the knights disagree strongly with him.

This is an opaque letter which admits several possible interpretations, but one in particular stands out to me.  There are other possibilities, but it seems to me vanishingly remote that the ‘son of Arnulf’ in question is anyone other than Baldwin IV of Flanders. Similarly, whilst the king in question could be Otto III, it is overwhelmingly probable that it’s Hugh Capet. What this means is that odds are good that Hugh Capet was far enough north to hand out Flemish honores in April, while Charles was at the Ottonian Easter court, which makes a putative southern distraction improbable.

But why is Adalbero opposed to Hugh giving Baldwin his father’s lands, and why are Egbert’s relatives, the counts of Holland, involved?

5. “Backing, but not from the Ottonians.” We know about Charles’ presence at the Ingelheim assembly from two letters, one from Gerbert and one in the name of Adalbero of Rheims, the latter written during Hugh Capet’s siege of Laon in summer 988. It appears that Gerbert was pretty keen on Charles. By the time Adalbero’s letter was written, though, the archbishop was more hostile. By that point in summer, Adalbero was opposed to Charles, but at Easter he appears to have been more cautious about taking sides, concerned that Charles had limited support amongst the West Frankish magnates.

At this point, we come back to Gerbert’s letter. Jean Dunbabin argues that this letter may well show that Arnulf of Holland was backed by Adalbero as the new count of Flanders over the (very young) Baldwin IV, who may have been accused of being illegitimate. This is a plausible argument; but to what end was Adalbero’s support given? Let us imagine the following sequence of events: Charles of Lotharingia approached Adalbero of Rheims at Ingelheim, seeking his support. Adalbero, who was not the most whole-hearted supporter of Hugh, equivocated but was basically positive, if cautious. However, because Charles did not have widespread support amongst the West Frankish nobility, Adalbero said that Charles needed to bolster his following. Flanders, whose count had recently died, would be a useful thin end of the wedge – if it could be controlled. Charles spread rumours that Baldwin IV was illegitimate, supporting the claims of Count Dirk II of Holland. There were good reasons to hope that this would work – the lower-level elite of Flanders (milites, which I have given here as ‘knights’) preferred an adult ruler such as Dirk to that of a child like Baldwin. However, Charles jumped the gun and attacked Laon before the Flemish affair was done. Egbert was not able to communicate with Adalbero in time. Dirk II died in early May and Hugh Capet swooped in, granting Flanders to Baldwin and marrying Baldwin’s mother, Arnulf’s widow Rozala (who now took the name Susannah), to his son Robert the Pious. Dirk II’s son Arnulf of Holland and grandson Dirk III tried to keep pushing their claim; but faced with the collapse of his plot, Adalbero dropped Charles and the rest is history.

This is, of course, conjecture, but it is a useful hypothesis which explains a lot of things. First, as Dunbabin points out in her article, the counts of Holland seem to have lost control of Ghent and Waas at about this time, something which may well have resulted from their failed coup. Similarly, argues Dunbabin, Rozala’s assumption of the name Susannah could be easily explained if she was being accused of adultery. Moreover, Charles had pedigree in using these types of accusations, which were otherwise rare in an Ottonian context, having made the same charges against his sister-in-law Lothar’s wife Emma. This sequence of affairs also explains the tone of the letter – why Adalbero and Egbert are on the same side in this matter, why Adalbero doesn’t seem all that concerned, and why speed was of the essence. It fits neatly with Charles’ background: he had long-standing associations with Flanders ever since the 960s, had been an ally of Egbert’s in the 980s, and seems to have been an ally of Adalbero’s during the reign of Louis V. Finally, it is the best explanation I can think of, or that I’ve read, as to why, after a year’s delay, Charles acted when he did.

*Although odds are pretty good that, despite the historical consensus, he was never actually crowned at that point. I’ve got a translation post coming out probably in March or April where I’ll discuss this further.

** A generation later, there was a man named Odorus who was Odo I’s distant kinsman. If Odorus was the same man as the mid-eleventh century ‘Odo the Red’ from the Loire valley, and if Odo the Red was related to Odo Rufinus, and if Odo Rufinus’ putative kinship with the count meant that he was Odo I’s vassal then it is possible that this was a portion of a larger struggle rather than just a purely local affair.

I’m used to wobbly conjectures, but this is something else.  

King Lothar and the Origins of Valenciennes and Ename

At some point in the third quarter of the tenth century, several military commands appeared on the river Scheldt, based at Antwerp, Ename and Valenciennes. By the year 1000, their purpose was clear enough: defending Lower Lotharingia against attacks from the counts of Flanders. However, their original purpose is a bit fuzzier. The extant debate in historiography pitches one side which sees them as creations of the mid-960s, after the death of Duke Godfrey of Lower Lotharingia from plague whilst on campaign in Italy; and another which places their genesis in the early-to-mid-970s, responding to the return from exile of the sons of Reginar III, who had a military following, a lot of claims to land, and a grudge. (The wars began in 973 and kept going for years.) Basic to all these claims is the idea that from the very beginning the Flemish marches were a creation of the Ottonian emperors.

However, I wonder if we might not benefit from inverting our perspective. As I have written about before, when Count Arnulf the Great of Flanders died in 965, Lothar launched an invasion to take over as much of Flanders as he could get. Eventually, he grabbed most of the southern portion and placed his own man (Baldwin Baldzo) in the north, watched over by Queen Gerberga and Lothar’s brother Charles. This was presented to the East Frankish king Otto the Great – possibly as a fait accompli – and he signed off on it. One of the reasons he signed off on it was that he was keen to get back to Italy, where he spent most of the years from then until his death, bringing with him his heir Otto II and a surprisingly large chunk of the Lotharingian nobility.

Nothing about this time period is easy or clear – in fact, I’ll put an asterisk next to all the seemingly simple statements of fact which would require a lengthy discursive footnote to justify – but there are hints that Lothar took advantage of the cats being away to try and spread his influence across the Lotharingian frontier. Let’s work north-to-south. From the latter part of the tenth century, we find scattered references in our sources to a ‘county of Ghent’ which did not exist in Arnulf the Great’s time. In 969, however, we find Lothar granting Count Dirk of Holland ‘the forest of Waas in the same county’.* One of our sources explicitly equates the county of Ghent and the pagus of Waas. It may well be that Lothar deliberately sliced off an area of territory around Ghent to give to Dirk in return for the count’s support. Notably, despite the fact that Baldwin Baldzo had been put in place by Lothar as the guardian of the child-count Arnulf II, we find Dirk and Arnulf together in Ghent a few days before Lothar’s grant*.

Even more interestingly, Dirk’s donation was witnessed by Godfrey the Prisoner, count of Verdun. Godfrey’s powerbase lay around Trier and Verdun, and he had no existing ties to the Scheldt region – except one. Probably around this time*, he married Matilda Billung, the widow of Baldwin III of Flanders and Arnulf II’s mother. It is also around this time that Godfrey and Matilda were endowed with a significant estate at Ename. This is extremely unlikely to have belonged to either of them as their own hereditary property, and Matilda is also unlikely to have received it as a dowry from Baldwin. It has been suggested that Ename was a strategic wedding gift from the Ottonians. However, we know that the (by this point recently deceased) Queen Gerberga held estates in this area, just up the river at Krombrugge. Given this, Lothar is as if not more likely a source for this estate than the Ottonians.

Map from Dirk Callebaut, ‘Ename and the Ottonian West Border Policy in the Middle Scheldt Region’, in de Groote & Pieters (eds), Exchanging Medieval Material Culture, p. 224.

This leaves Valenciennes. Valenciennes had been a Carolingian royal estate in the ninth century, but had been badly hit by Viking attacks. I need to do some more reading about this – Leeds’ library doesn’t have the relevant books – but it could well have belonged to Gerberga by the mid-tenth century as well. More significantly, though, Count Arnulf of Valenciennes (whose career would stretch well into the eleventh century) emerges into our sources in the 960s* as a man whose interests and estates were split between Lotharingia and southern Flanders. In fact, he seems to have acted as Queen Gerberga’s advocatus when she donated Meerssen to Saint-Remi in 968*.

However, there is more. Later in 969, Archbishop Odalric of Rheims died. His successor was Adalbero, a canon of the church of Metz. Metz’s cathedral was one of the tenth century’s ‘episcopal finishing schools’, so this is not by itself surprising; but more significant than his ecclesiastical background is the fact that he was Godfrey of Verdun’s brother. In light of all of the above, the shadows thrown by our sources come together to form a picture that looks rather like Lothar was trying to weave a network of alliances covering the whole of northern Lotharingia, infiltrating himself into a area stretching from the Netherlands to Luxembourg. This was probably not, originally, intended as a military rather than a political network. Archaeological excavation at Ename has revealed that at this time it was set up as a trading rather than a military site. The transformation of the site into a military base probably did come in the 970s with the return of the Reginarids, which pushed Godfrey and Arnulf away from Lothar and towards Otto II.

It is questionable whether Lothar’s plan would have worked that well anyway. Godfrey and especially Adalbero turned out to be very canny political operators, neither of whom cared that much for Lothar’s interests. Still, it’s worth thinking about Lothar’s part in the story of these marches, because otherwise we run the risk of putting the Ottonians at the centre of everything, perpetuating the stereotype of the West Frankish rulers as weak and lacking initiative. Quite apart from anything else, this doesn’t explain anything about late tenth century politics. By the 970s and 980s, Lothar thought he could fight and win against the Ottonians, and he was never definitively proven wrong. His schemes came to an end with his death in 986, and the reaction against them led to the end of his dynasty as kings in 987. As such, putting Lothar back in his place as a major Lotharingian player is key to explaining political changes which had repercussions for centuries afterwards.  

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.

More Wandering Charter Prologues: Louis IV and the Germans

There was another blog post scheduled for today, but I’ve moved it down the pipeline so that I can share with you all another exciting thing I’ve found in my obsessively-close reading of royal diplomas. Come with me now to autumn 948, where King Louis IV issues two diplomas, one to the abbey of Sant Pere de Roda in the Spanish March and one to the cathedral church of Mâcon. Each of these diplomas begins with a prologue that goes:

(The prologue for Mâcon is longer; I add the extra bits in square brackets.)

If royal majesty, for love of God [and His saints], endeavours to freely receive and adjudicate[/vindicate] and ordain the cares of churchly matters with just consideration of equity, We are confident that this ought to greatly benefit it in eternal repayment [because that which is paid out to the Repayer of All Goods cannot be fruitless].

I was, as I have been known to do for fun but in this instance actually for part of the book, looking to see where the textual precedents for this came from. And do you know what I found? Germans.

1280px-kloster_klingenmc3bcnster_1
The abbey of Klingenmünster (source)

Specifically, Louis the German, who issued an act for the abbey of Klingenmünster in 849 with an identical opening. This opening, which is extremely distinctive and not really found anywhere else, matches it essentially word-for-word, with some slight scribal variants. This gives us three alternatives:

  • There is a separate, no-longer-surviving, third source for both.

It is, at least, fair to say that I haven’t found one. If you know of one, please let me know! With that said, this strikes me as extremely unlikely. If there were a common source, given how far apart in time and space the recipients are, I’d expect at least fragments of it to show up elsewhere, and they don’t.

  • Louis IV’s acts are a source for Louis the German’s.

Obviously the chronology here raises problems, insofar as Louis the German’s act was purportedly issued in 849, almost exactly a century before Louis IV’s. Admittedly, Louis’ act as it exists now has been interpolated, but the diploma’s editor reckons it’s a ninth-century interpolation and as far as I can tell German historiography has followed in his footsteps in agreeing with this. So unless it’s a much, much better forgery than previously suspected, which is unlikely, we can rule this one out.

  • Louis the German’s act is a source for Louis IV’s.

Now we’re talking. You see, when I saw that these acts were issued in 948, my first thought was ‘oh, hang on a sec. Where is Klingenmünster?’ And it turns out that it is in the Rhineland, a little bit south-west of Speyer and north of the modern French border. And that’s when I started grinning like a maniac, because in 948 Louis IV has particularly good reason to be talking to people from that area. In 946, Louis was imprisoned and blackmailed by his most powerful magnate Hugh the Great. He was freed, and his wife Queen Gerberga sent to her brother, Otto the Great of Germany, for help. In 948, this kicked into high gear: at a synod at Ingelheim, Hugh the Great was excommunicated and Otto sent an army to help Louis kick Hugh out of the lands around Rheims. He didn’t lead it himself, however.

Instead, at the head of the Ottonian army, was the duke of Lotharingia, Conrad the Red. Louis and Conrad appear to have spent the last half of 948 acting in concert. Conrad even acted as godfather to Louis’ daughter! And although he might have been duke of Lotharingia, Conrad’s home base was around… Speyer.

Now, we can’t trace a direct connection between Conrad and Klingenmünster. Insofar as I’ve been able to find out, the tenth-century history of Klingenmünster is essentially a blank. (Thanks to Levi Roach and Björn Weiler for their suggestions!) However, the area was his power-base, and his family had priors with that particular area – Conrad’s son Otto of Worms was intimately associated with the abbey of Wissembourg, a morning’s walk to the south. And certainly, this is a clear channel for this text to end up in Louis’ chancery.

What does this mean? This is perhaps the important part of this story. In late 948, Louis owed his restoration to Ottonian arms, and specifically to Conrad. That these two acts – his first (surviving) since his imprisonment – both drew on a unique example of East Frankish Carolingian munificence to an institution in Conrad’s home base to compose their texts. The royal chancery was expressing itself in East Frankish words. By picking Rhineland texts to base their portrayal of kingship on, Louis and his circle were displaying and broadcasting their alliance with their East Frankish benefactors in a very direct way.

Carolingian Overkingship

One thing about the putative ‘end of the Carolingian Empire’ in 888 is how long Charles the Fat’s empire takes, even in the strictest sense, to wind down. There might be a bunch of new kings, but Arnulf of Carinthia manages to gain and for the most part maintain a hegemonic position over most of them.

This is most obvious with Odo, whom the eastern chroniclers seem to like because he goes and recognises Arnulf as overking early and stays on-side until he dies. But Odo’s erstwhile enemy Charles the Simple tries to do something similar: the difference is that Arnulf doesn’t recognise him as a real king (along, it must be said, with most of the West Franks themselves). Something similar can be seen at various times with King Berengar I of Italy, Rudolph of Burgundy (although that one didn’t stick), Louis of Provence, and Sviatopolk of Moravia (which also didn’t stick). In addition, Arnulf made two of his own sons, Zwentibald (of whom we shall hear more) and Ratold (of whom we shan’t) kings in their own kingdoms. Arnulf, to varying degrees of success over his career, was a king of kings, and even when he was unsuccessful in enforcing it, it does appear as though his authority, not simply his power, was generally acknowledged.

If we look at this from a wider earlier medieval point of view, this makes complete sense as a political setup. In the British Isles in particular, different grades of kingship are a perfectly normal and recognised phenomenon: the so-called ‘Bretwaldas’ are an example of this: royal overlords whose hegemony was accepted by other kings. Ireland had a much more sophisticated and finely-graded version of this system, where the different ranks of kings were closely laid out by Irish lawyers.

Even in the eighth- and ninth-century Carolingian world, various rulers played around with different aspects of this. Charles the Bald, for instance, established various sons as kings of greater or lesser degree, and did the same with the rulers of neighbouring Brittany. His nephew Louis the Younger, I’ve always got the impression, is another example: without being a formal overlord the way Charles the Bald was in Brittany, Louis seems to come off as something like the ‘senior Frankish king’ in the early 880s. This is not typically thought of as ‘overkingship’ per se, not least because the other kings involved were close family members or non-Frankish foreigners. This does impact the dynamic, certainly, but I’d argue that the core principle – differing grades of kingship – remains the same.

This goes right through into the Ottonian period. By 965, when Otto I holds his grand family gathering at Cologne, he has various degrees of hegemony over two other kings (his son Otto II and his nephew Lothar) and a vice-regal ruler (Henry of Bavaria). Really, the model of one unified empire with one king and no others looks odd applied to earlier medieval politics and to Carolingian politics in particular – if applied strictly, it’s anachronistic (even Charlemagne’s period of literal sole rule was relatively short).

karl_der_grosse_-_pippin_von_italien
And here’s a picture of Charlemagne with one of his sub-kings, Pippin of Italy (tenth-century copy of a ninth-century original, source)

If applied loosely, it’s an unusual situation, applying pretty much just to Charlemagne’s reign, parts of Louis the Pious’ and Charles the Fat’s.

This does change – in fact, the streamlining of understandings of kingship, such that a king becomes the king, is one of the big fault-lines between the earlier and later middle ages. Moreover, if ‘overkingship’ is a perfectly normal model of Carolingian government in theory, I’d say it’s only applied in practice about half the time. There’s another type, and the late-Carolingian world looks, also, like the Carolingian world in this respect as well, but that’s another story.

Top 10 Charters: The House Selection, pt. 2

We’ve already covered the first half of the #top10charters list I put up on Facebook a couple of months ago; so without any further ado, let’s get on with the second half!

No. 5: Robert of Neustria to Saint-Martin of Tours, 892.

‘I’m supposed to steal the property of Saint-Martin and the brothers and hurt my soul for three shields?’

Roman Deutinger is sceptical of the authenticity of this charter. I’m not: his reasons basically boil down to ‘it’s weird, and it doesn’t look like a trial record’, to which I would respond ‘it’s not that weird, and that’s because it isn’t one’. It’s a notice wherein the brother of Saint-Martin and advocate Adalmar of whom we have spoken go and get some land of Saint-Martin of their abbot Robert; it’s interesting institutionally, and it’s got some nice echoes of personality in it.

No. 4: Richard the Fearless to Saint-Denis, 968.

‘Wherefore let the provident industry of both peoples, to wit, the Franks and the Normans, know…’

This is the foundational document of Norman identity. I’d write more about it, but as it happens I’ve already done that at length elsewhere, so you can read that if this interests you.

No. 3: Louis IV to Saint-Remi of Rheims, 953.

‘…the most blessed bishop, who was specially bestowed by God on Our royal bloodline as a pastor and patron…’

The middle of the tenth century was a crucial time of change for West Frankish kingship. Briefly, after about 920 everything went to hell and stayed there for about thirty years. It took Louis IV his entire reign, quite a lot of desperate improvisation, and in the end the help of some absolutely vast Ottonian armies to establish his throne on solid ground, and when he did so its ideological basis was distinctly different. Key here was the see of Rheims, and this charter exemplifies that, drawing links between the Carolingian bloodline (which is otherwise unusual), the patron saint of Rheims, Remigius, and the office of king.

It also has links to a diploma of Otto I issued at around the same time, linking the three protagonists – Carolingians, Ottonians, and the see of Rheims – together in an ideological framework which reinforces the hegemonic role of the Ottonian kings in stabilising West Frankish kingship.

No. 2: Charles the Simple to Saint-Denis, 917.

‘…similarly let them carry out my memorial, and the memorial of my dead wife Frederuna…’

Rather like no. 4, I’ve already written about this elsewhere. Suffice to say, it is the greatest love story of the entire century.

No. 1: Odo I of Blois-Chartres-Tours to Bourgueil, 995.

‘…and unless he repents, let him join Nero and Diocletian and Julian the Apostate and those who followed them as persecutors of martyrs in the eternal fires of Gehenna’

Coming from the same tradition as number 6, this charter, purely and simply, validates my whole approach to these documents, by proving that questions of legitimacy mattered enough to fight over, and being one of the few direct responses to ideological claims by lay magnates. That legitimacy mattered should, you’d think, be self-evident, but apparently not: I have been told, by a senior scholar as well, that no-one in the tenth century cared about legitimating their power because they were all bloodthirsty warlords who only spoke the guttural tongue of violence.

But no! The situation here is fairly simple. Fulk Nerra, count of Anjou, and Odo I of Blois-Chartres-Tours were fighting for dominance in Brittany. In the year 992, Fulk had fought a battle with Count Conan of Rennes at a place called Conquereuil, and massacred him and his army. This was a big deal – killing Christians was never seen as a good thing, and was increasingly frowned on at this time. Thus, when, two years later, Fulk’s castle at Langeais was besieged by Conan’s patron Odo, before setting off to defend it, Fulk issued a charter ‘in penitence for the exceedingly great slaughter of Christians which happened on the plain at Conquereuil’, evidently issued in order to gain divine favour before the siege.

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The author explaining all this at the tenth-century donjon of Langeais, which still survives.

The siege of Langeais lasted for some time, beginning in or around May or June and continuing into the next year. Things got desperate for Fulk, sufficiently desperate that he offered to surrender to Odo. These terms, as recorded in the history of Richer of Rheims, were humiliating: Fulk offered to pay compensation for the death of Odo’s ally Conan of Rennes, to give service to Odo, and to pledge his son to Odo’s service. However, news reached Fulk that reinforcements were coming, and he withdrew the terms. After this, and almost certainly in response to it, Odo issued this charter.

In it, there is one key clause in the charter which demonstrates that the siege of Langeais was an ideological as well as a literal battleground. Odo threatens violators of his grant thusly: ‘let him be associated in the flames of eternal gehenna with Nero and Diocletian and Julian the Apostate and their followers as persecutors of martyrs.’ This formula is unique in tenth-century France, and it is a directly and unsubtle attack on Fulk Nerra: Fulk was a killer of Christians, Fulk was an insincere penitent, Fulk would not get the salvation he claimed.

The greatest princes of tenth-century France, then, were sufficiently concerned about justifying their rule to go beyond simple school-bully tactics. They developed and contested ideological claims, going beyond simple coercion to develop strategies of legitimacy which not only existed, but mattered. For Odo, denying Fulk the moral high ground was as important as denying him the literal high ground.