On the Origins of Viscounts

Recently Months ago, friend of the blog Jonathan Jarrett posted some reflections on Carolingian viscounts over on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. At the time, I was visiting my wife in Georgia, but it’s a topic on which I have a lot of thoughts, so I wrote up some ideas offline during a car ride between Vardzia and Tbilisi. Since then, it has sat in a drafts folder waiting to be posted. Today, I decided to clear out said drafts folder and revisited it. Turns out, it’s pages long, which is too long for a comment – but, as it happens, I have this place I can put short-form written content and so you guys now get the dubious benefits of being able to read it, so enjoy…

Jonathan’s musings were prompted by having read an edited volume by Hélène Débax on Vicomtes et vicomtés, viscounts and viscounties. Débax and her fellow authors, who were mostly but not entirely focussed on southern France, basically saw viscounts as the product of comital weakness, ‘taking over unattended jurisdictions’ and acting as their own little lords of the manor. Jonathan, by contrast, was used to a Catalan historiography which sees viscounts as ultimately comital delegates, i.e. public officials there to represent the counts in places the counts cannot be. Jonathan doesn’t like this argument in a Catalan context because viscounts don’t emerge at a time when there’s any special reason for counts to need delegates and because when we seem them in charter evidence from the Spanish March, they don’t often behave like counts except maybe in presiding over courts. For Jonathan, the vicecomital title puts its holder in relation with a count and thus with public power. Its emergence is thus best seen as a way of getting ‘powerful independents’ to engage with comital power by offering them certain kinds of authority which only public officials could wield in return for their own acknowledgement of their subordinate status. He then emphasises the sheer amount of variety we see in a Catalan context, but concludes that “if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases”.

This might work for Catalonia, but I think in the rest of the West Frankish kingdom, the delegation theory holds up better – albeit perhaps amended with some ideas of this sort. Comital weakness, by contrast, I think we can dismiss. Even if I wasn’t inherently opposed to the idea of ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ as analytical terms, most viscounts north of the Dordogne show up at a time when authority in their regions is getting more intensive and (less demonstrably but still there) having its connections to a royal centre strengthened.

We have to distinguish here between viscounts and vice-counts. ‘Viscounts’, in this context, are more institutionalised figures, whose status isn’t contextual and/or temporary. To give you an example, royal legislation from the reign of Charles the Bald sets up a meeting between the king and vicecomites from Paris and Sens in the immediate future. Here, I think we are dealing with ‘duly appointed comital deputies’ nominated for this specific task rather than permanent officials – like advocates at St Gallen vs advocates at Saint-Martin – because otherwise viscounts don’t show up in our sources for these areas until much later.

By contrast, the first significant institutional viscounts I know of from the West Frankish kingdom north of the Dordogne, which are also the ones I know best, are on the Neustrian March. Men such as Viscount Atto I of Tours begin to emerge in the 870s, and this looks like genuine change rather than just the revelation of things that have been there all along, not least because normative formulae change at the same time as specific vicecomital individuals appear. Even more, this does look like delegation. Men such as Atto, and then later Fulk the Red and Theobald the Elder in Angers and Tours respectively, appear when the supra-local authority of the Neustrian marchiones makes actual on-the-spot rule logistically impractical, and our evidence suggests that these viscounts are in fact holding things together for the March’s rulers. Now, this is admittedly mostly holding courts in the charters we have – but that’s also most of what the charter evidence reveals the marchiones doing as well!

Similar patterns can be seen in Aquitaine. This is straightforward, I think, in Poitou and its environs. Greater Poitou is doing much the same thing in political-cultural terms as Neustria, and its viscounts are pretty well controlled by the counts for the tenth century and beyond; pace Delhoume and Remy, the first viscounts of Limoges don’t seem to be associated with the counts of Toulouse, but with Ebalus Manzer of Poitiers, who is also able to assert his jurisdiction over them pretty effectively. In Auvergne and its environs, viscounts show up at the very end of the ninth century, and (as Lauranson-Rosaz says in the Débax volume) appear to be appointments of William the Pious at exactly the time when his personal hegemony stretches over a massive chunk of central Aquitaine. The role of specifically royal authority here might be questioned, but it is I think relevant that William’s subordinates are called ‘viscounts’ rather than anything else, tying them into Late Carolingian regional hierarchies. William himself was trying to capitalise on his Königsnahe at basically the same time, and these phenomena might be connected.

Notably, in generally weird Burgundy, viscounts are mostly absent, and the earliest example I can think of is Ragenard of Auxerre, who is based precisely in one of the key centres of Richard the Justiciar’s power. Based on our analogies above, I’d say Richard’s wobbly personal hegemony, which did not have the benefit of royal approbation for much of its existence, didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – use the language of legitimate Carolingian hierarchy. Equally, viscounts tend to be absent in the north-east, which is much more politically fragmented, and it looks to me rather like comital jurisdictions there are sufficiently small not to need deputies.

Could we consider this in political culture terms? Yes, certainly, but not primarily I think as a means of getting ‘powerful independents’ to participate in the system. Insofar as we can see viscounts in these regions, they tend to be nobodies. Fulk the Red of Angers, for example, has been the focus of a long-running debate about whether or not he was a novus homo because of his family’s onomastic connections to the important Widonid family; but what tends to go overlooked is that whether or not he had famous relatives he himself started his career not as a big Neustrian cheese but as a very minor member of the retinue of the count of Paris. His Tourangeau counterpart Theobald the Elder seems to have been a complete no-name. What I think vice-comital office offers is a means of legitimising counter-weights to the powerful independents. There was no way that, say, Fulk the Red could face off against a genuine powerful independent in Neustria like the Rorgonid Gauzfred, whose family had been there since dot and whose authority in the area doesn’t seem to have depended at all on his intermittent possession of a comital title, without the might of Carolingian royal authority behind him. I’ve spoken before about the calcification of Neustrian hierarchies, and the delegated authority of the vice-comital office is a part of that.

Now, can these guys pull out of comital orbits? Yes, certainly, but it only really works when areas of jurisdiction become simultaneously areas of conflict over spheres of influence – like the way that the viscounts of Thouars become much more independent than the other Poitevin viscounts because they end up caught between Poitiers and the counts of Angers.

The walls of Thouars (source)

A final point I’d like to consider here is that, despite the centuries-long history that the vicecomital office would go on to have in France, their genesis looks like a very specifically Carolingian phenomenon. In most of the regions we’ve been considering, viscounts have a straight line of descent from a Carolingian inheritance. Even in the Limousin, ‘the land of viscounts’, the proliferation of viscounts is fundamentally owed to the prominence (and fecundity) of the viscounts initially appointed by Ebalus Manzer. When the counts of Flanders’ domain got big enough in the tenth century that they started appointing their own delegates, these men were castellans, not viscounts. The vicecomital moment had passed, and new ways of conceptualising comital subordinates were on the rise.

Some Mad Ideas about Khazarian Archival Practice in Very Early Rus’

If one of the themes I’ve narrowed in on for my vikings research is cult, another is documentary practice. This is perhaps unsurprising given who my doctoral supervisor was; but what is surprising is that for such a nuts-and-bolts (Cnuts-and-bolts, snrk) subject, in this context it goes in some very strange directions. Almost inevitably, the culprit is the Rus’, who, rather like the Peace of God, seem to attract this sort of thing. General evidence for Rus’ literacy is well after my period, although what there is is pretty abundant, including a whole treasure trove of birch-bark letters from Novgorod and a fairly extensive chronicle tradition that a certain strain of scholarship wants to push back about a hundred years earlier than our first evidence for it. Where things get strange is looking at the tiny scraps of information about what was happening before, say, the mid-eleventh century. Fair warning, because this is a blog post not any kind of final or reviewed work, I’m going to be throwing out a lot of crazy ideas and many of them will be wrong. But what’s this blog for if not for exploring ideas that would never make it into print?

So, let’s start at the very beginning. What writing was in use in the world of the Rus’ before, say, c. 1000? We have evidence, exiguous though it mostly is, for five main scripts. First, unquestionably, Hebrew. The famous Khazar Correspondence shows that by the tenth century the Khazar rulers were conducting diplomatic correspondence in Hebrew. However, whilst this is unambiguous, it’s also uninfluential: there’s no evidence of the Rus’ using Hebrew or even really engaging with Judaism. (I’d love to find evidence for this, but it seems to be conspic. by its a.) Second, Greek. This is pretty straightforward: Greek-speaking communities in the Crimea encountered the Rus’ from an early point, and as we’ll see shortly the Byzantine emperors probably communicated with the Rus’ in Greek. Third, Norse runes. There’s much less runic text from former Rus’ lands than you might imagine: a bit of graffiti scratched on coins, an engraved stick from Staraya Ladoga, a runestone in modern-day Ukraine. There are, however, hints that it might have gone further. The Life of St Constantine refers to its eponymous hero staying in Cherson, in Crimea, where he encounters a Gospel and Psalter written in ‘Rus’ letters’ (росьскꙑ писмєнь, ros’kyi pismen’). Exactly what this means is unclear. It’s certainly not Cyrillic. The general consensus is that there’s been a mistake in the manuscripts and it’s in ‘Syriac letters’. I don’t really like this idea, because if it’s an error it’s an early one, since some form of ‘Rus’ letters’ is in every extant witness. I prefer, myself, the idea that it’s in runes. We don’t – as far as I’ve been able to find – have any surviving runic Gospels, but by the time of Constantine in the 860s there had been Scandinavian Christians for at least a hundred and fifty years, and it’s not inconceivable that there had been some translation work. Fourth, Turkic runes. We have a letter from the Jewish community at Kiev which appears to have an endorsement in Turkic runes, possibly in the Khazar language. We’ll return to this later, but for now let’s just not that Turkic runes were at least an option. Fifth and finally, a potential pre-Methodian Slavic script. A Bulgarian tract of c. 900, On Letters, written by one Khrabr, refers to pre-Christian Slav groups using marks and notches as a kind of rudimentary script. It’s vague, and no examples of such a script have been found in the wild; but hey, it’s possible. Overall, our picture is one of heterogeneity, with several scripts co-existing.

Part of the reason the evidence is so fragmentary is because archival practice in the lands of Rus’ was either non-existent or very different from Christian lands. One of the reasons that such a two-horse part of the ninth-century world as Europe is so well documented is the role that that the Church played as an archive. Early Rus’ had no Church, thus no archives. Or did it? After all, we know that Church archives were not the only kind of Western archives. The evidence for lay archives has been extensively documented, although we tend to only find out about such things when they get assimilated into Church archives. We also have evidence for government archives, the so-called gesta municipalia, although these are if anything even more shadowy. This raises a significant point. Simon Franklin has argued that the patterns displayed by the gaps in our evidence for writing in eleventh- and twelfth-century Rus’ suggests that there is unlikely to have been a massive loss of material, rather than that material simply having not been there to begin with. His point probably stands for the later period, but in the different world of early Rus’ it might actually be weaker. The Western analogies suggest one thing that can affect patterns of document survival is if whole types of archive disappear. Could the same thing have happened in Rus’?

Let’s go back to the Khazar Correspondence I mentioned above. This is one of our very few ‘internal’ sources for the Khazar Khaganate, a letter (actually, three different surviving redactions of a letter) written by the Khazar ruler Joseph ben Aaron to the Andalusi statesman Hasdai ibn Shaprut, in the mid-tenth century. Hasdai had written to Joseph because he had heard that there was, in the far-off reaches of the world, a Jewish kingdom and he wanted to find out about it. Ibn Shaprut’s introductory letter survives, explaining who he is and who his lord, the Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III, was. Joseph’s response is interesting: he thanks Ibn Shaprut for the letter but then says that he already knew about al-Andalus, because his ancestors used to engage in diplomatic correspondence with it and this is preserved in writing (ספר, sefer, lit. ‘book’, but can also mean written record more broadly). Elsewhere, he refers to the Khazars possessing genealogical tracts (ספר יחוסים, sefer yikhusyam). There is some supporting evidence for this. Another Khazarian Hebrew letter, known as the Cambridge Document, tells a version of the story of the Khazar debate, when the Khazar ruler invited Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy men to debate with each other at the court (an event likely to be historical, because it shows up completely independently in the Life of Constantine). In this version, the Khazar magnates order books – in this case, the Torah – to be brought forth from a cave in the plain of TYZWL so the holy men can expound upon their contents. If we take this story at something approximating face value – and that might well be a dangerous thing to do – this could indicate that the ‘cave in the plain of TYZWL’ acted as a kind of document storage repository. It doesn’t have to have been an official one, just one that the Khazar officials knew about and could readily access.

We have, then, hints that there were Khazarian archives. You might now be asking, ‘so what’, and that’s simple enough to answer: what if the early Rus’ took over Khazar archival practice, at least for a little bit? The Russian Primary Chronicle preserves the texts of four tenth-century (but, interestingly, no eleventh-century) Rus’-Byzantine treaties, of which three seem to be legit. General scholarly consensus is that these were found in Byzantine archives pretty close to the compilation of the Primary Chronicle at the start of the twelfth century, but this is, as far as I can see, an assumption and there are a few points against it. First, why would Rus’ scholars be allowed into the Byzantine state archives? Second, these treaties were written in Greek but translated into Slavonic, apparently – according to philologists – by someone very familiar with Bulgarian, which doesn’t scream ‘eleventh-century context’ to me. Third, why does the series stop in 971? We know there were eleventh-century Rus’-Byzantine agreements, they’re just not preserved in the Primary Chronicle. (Malingoudi, the most influential scholar of this matter, argues that the putative Byzantine documents came from one of the hypothetical earlier works used by the Primary Chronicle author, but recent research is increasingly sceptical of the existence of these works.) Several of the treaties make reference to there being two versions produced, one for the Byzantines and one for the Rus’. What if the copies we have really are those made for the Rus’, stored in Kiev in archives which in some way derived from Khazarian practice and which consequently don’t preserve eleventh-century treaties either because their maintenance decayed after the end of the Khazar Khaganate in the latter part of the tenth century or because the Rus’ conversion to Christianity in the early eleventh century overwrote (erm, so to speak) Khazarian archival traditions?

The legendary Kievan Letter (source)

A final Hebrew letter, which I mentioned above, may also provide a key to unlocking this mystery. The so-called Kievan Letter, written to Jewish communities abroad in the early-to-mid tenth century to ask for help ransoming a member of their own community who had been taken by bandits, bears an endorsement in Turkic runes which says ‘I have read this’. This bears close parallels to Roman traditions of the legimus endorsement, and was probably put in place by a Khazar official in Kiev to signify that the letter had permission from the local government to be sent. This is interesting, because by this period Kiev was under Rus’ rule. This letter may therefore provide the most direct evidence for the initial maintenance of Khazar administrative traditions under the early Rus’ great princes.

…Or, it would if it were not for the fact that pretty much everything I said just now is is heavily disputed. It’s not clear this letter is original. It’s not clear that the letter was written by the Kiev community rather than to it. The dating is heavily disputed, and paleographical evidence only narrows it down – if that’s not too generous a phrase – from the late ninth to the twelfth centuries. It’s not clear that the runic inscription was put there in Kiev. It’s not clear it’s in Khazarian. If it is in Khazarian, there are arguments over what it says. (For what it’s worth, scholarly consensus still puts the letter’s date in the early/mid-tenth century, I’m convinced by arguments saying that a) it is original (because it bears signs of having been transported from Kiev elsewhere and indeed comes to us from the Cairo Genizah) and b) it was from not to Kiev; but the Turkological wranglings are a) technical and b) as-of-yet unread by me.)

Nonetheless, if we assume for the state of argument that the extremely suspect hypotheses in the initial paragraph are correct, then we put it together with other elements of early Rus’ political culture like their titulature to give a picture of a very early Rus’ state which is, in essence, a ‘barbarian kingdom’ of the Khazar empire rather like the ‘barbarian’ successor states of the Roman Empire. This doesn’t mean a one-to-one correspondence, but just as lots of early medieval Europe looks like evolutions of Roman provincial culture, so too do political-cultural similarities between groups such as the Rus’, Petchenegs, Magyars and Volga Bulghars suggest the importance of regional Khazarian legacies in the ninth century.

Was There A Rus’ Khaganate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolingian Normandies

This post was planned anyway, but by sheer coincidence it happens that I’ve recently finished Neil Price’s The Children of Ash and Elm. It’s a good book on the Viking Age and I do recommend it; but it’s not at its best when dealing with the Viking presence in the Frankish world. As a case in point, Price is firmly wedded to the idea that Normandy was created in toto by three grants, in 911, 924 and 933. This is a common picture, at least outside the cutting edge of the scholarly literature. I imagine our old friend Dudo of Saint-Quentin would be very pleased with it, because the idea of an ancient Normandy which burst onto the scene fully formed in the early tenth century was one of his main agendas in writing the Historia Normannorum. However, the idea of ‘Normandy’ is one of those big ones that casts a shadow backwards over what came before it. In this blog post, we’ll look at tenth-century northern Neustria and I will try and argue, first, that the area which would become Normandy spent most of the century as a farraginous and fluctuating group of local polities and factions; and second, and more controversially, that the history of these polities is one in which the Scandinavian heritage of some regional elites played a minimal role for a long time. When Normandy emerged as a ‘Northman’ polity, the role of its Scandinavian past was not straightforward.  

This one goes long, and a map is probably useful. This one is from Mark Hagger, Norman Rule in Normandy 911-1144, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2017, p. xix.

The first place to consider is Rouen itself. We know from Flodoard (who was a more-or-less contemporary witness) that the original grant to Rollo constituted Rouen and the maritime districts associated with it. On its southern end, references from Charles the Simple’s 918 diploma as well as the location of the putative agreement at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte suggest that the grant stopped a relatively short distance south down the Seine and included some portion of the Epte valley – in total, a relatively small parallelogram of land. Already, then, the importance of the 911 grant starts to look relatively small (and the later grants of 924 and 933 were on paper only, have been recognised as purely nominal for a long time, and can be safely dismissed without further discussion).

Moreover, as time goes on, it’s less and less clear to me that Rouen had been under Rollo’s control prior to 911. The problem is that anything we think we know about Rollo prior to 911 comes from Dudo’s work and there’s no real reason to trust it because his depiction of Rollo’s career is precisely aimed at legitimising his family’s control of a Normandy centred at Rouen which means that placing him firmly in control there prior to 911 is rhetorically necessary whether or not it’s true. Notably, thinking of the Battle of Chartres, we know that the Frankish forces who were sent out to fight Rollo were based at Paris. If you’re going from Paris to fight someone based on the Upper Seine, Chartres is not an obvious place to find them; but it is if they’re based on the Loire…

What there was at Rouen instead appears to have been a fully functioning Carolingian regime. The key evidence for this is a diploma of 905 granting the fiscal estate at Pîtres to his notary, Ernust. (Of note is that the commentary I wrote for the Charter A Week post linked is not quite what I’m about to say here.) This reveals two things: first, that Charles was firmly in control of the royal estates in the area; and two, that he felt no qualms about granting them, not to a count or other lay magnate or even to a bishop in order to co-ordinate regional defence, but rather to a chancery clerk. Pîtres and the associated fortification at Pont de-l’Arche had been a sophisticated part of anti-Viking defence under Charles the Bald, so its use here to reward a relatively minor ecclesiastical noble suggests that, as of 905, the Upper Seine was not feeling pressed by attacks from the North. Similarly, Rouen’s ecclesiastical infrastructure seems to have held up pretty well. The archbishops of Rouen were able to offer safe havens to the bishops of Coutances (definitely) and Bayeux (maybe), and they played an important role in Church councils throughout the late ninth and early tenth century. We know, too, that demand for liturgical manuscripts was ongoing into the early tenth century, when the bishop of Sées composed a new benedictional for use at Rouen. 

Rollo, mostly, and his son William Longsword, entirely, behave like normal Frankish magnates. Rollo’s involvement in the civil war surrounding the deposition of Charles the Simple has been used as evidence for the failure of Rollonid Rouen as a Carolingian bastion – but it was a Frankish civil war and the Norse came in on behalf of the Carolingian king. Sure, they turned to fighting for their own advantage shortly afterwards, but this isn’t a failure of Viking policy any more than the precisely identical and contemporary behaviour of Duke Gislebert of Lotharingia. William, even more than his father, was a normal count. From just after the end of his reign we have the first written evidence from inside the Norman court: a Latin poem commissioned by William’s sister for his son which presents him as ‘Count of Rouen’. This picture has been clouded by Flodoard’s consistent reference to William as princeps Normannorum – ‘Viking chief’ – but Flodoard’s titulature here stems from anti-Norman prejudice and doesn’t reflect anything we know about the internal structure of William’s regime.

Where the picture changes a little is after William’s murder in 943. William’s son Richard was a small boy, and Rouen was fought over by a number of factions. First out of the gate, notably, was a faction of pagan Vikings under two rulers named Turmod and Sigtryggr, the latter straight off the boat from York. These men controlled the young Richard, whom they forced to participate in pagan rites. However, they were turfed out easily by Louis IV, suggesting their base of support was shallow. Louis then gave Rouen to his and William’s old ally Count Herluin of Ponthieu. However, despite some strong PR moves – Herluin killed William’s murderer on the battlefield and sent his mutilated appendages to Rouen – the city faced a new problem immediately afterwards, as warrior bands forced out of York by the city’s conquest by the English king in 944 moved on northern Neustria. Louis and Herluin marched into the area around Rouen and purged the city of those who did not want to obey royal authority.

This was not the end of the faction fighting, but without going too deep into the weeds, by the later part of the 940s the winner who had emerged was none other than the legendary Ralph Torta, whose closest ties were to the Robertians. (As noted in the previous post, Ralph may or may not have had biologically Scandinavian origins but his son was bishop of Paris and he was an entirely typical mid-level West Frankish aristocrat in every respect which matters.) We know little of Ralph’s activities as ruler in Rouen, but there is a striking contract between his behaviour regarding Jumièges, where he tore down the abbey buildings to use for wall repair; and the Rouen monastery of Saint-Ouen, where he donated an estate just outside the city. One rather wonders whether this was a deliberate attack on a Rollonid pet project as a way of erasing the family’s local footprint. In any case, the fact that Rouen ended up under the control of a mid-level Carolingian aristocrat who was, nominally, a royal appointee for about a decade is significant. 

We already, then, have a picture of a region mostly under normal West Frankish style regional elites for half a century, something which in no way prevented it from having violent, nasty succession crises which the presence of Viking elites embroidered but didn’t fundamentally alter. However, Rollonid Rouen was not the only power in the region, nor the only place to suffer turbulence. Around the year 900, for instance, the counts of Maine were figures to be reckoned with across northern Neustria – a diploma we’ve discussed before shows Count Hugh I patronising the abbey of Saint-Évroult in the Évrecin using lands in the Hiémois, to the south of Bayeux. By the 930s, though, the picture had changed. Dudo of Saint-Quentin keeps the story of a rebellion against William Longsword by a Scandinavian leader named Riulf (a story which does find purchase in other sources). Riulf, who was a pagan, wanted land up to the river Risle – but he appears to have been based in Évreux. This would have been less than a decade after an extensive series of border conflicts between the Seine Norse and the counts supporting the new regime of King Ralph of Burgundy. It is therefore possible that Riulf’s group was a new arrival; it is certainly evident that they wanted out. By the time of the wars after William Longsword’s murder in 943, Évreux was divided between different Viking factions – Flodoard, at least, presents them as religiously motivated pagan and Christian groups – but a significant local elite remained as well. In the end, the Christian Norse and/or local elite (and by that time it may not have been possible to draw a clear on-the-ground difference) handed the city over to Robertian control, embodied in the person of Theobald the Trickster, who held the city until the 960s. 

Further west, around Bayeux and the Cotentin, the picture is sketchier. In a previous post on this blog I looked at Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s picture of the earliest Norman court. One figure in particular stood out to me then and stands out to me now, and that’s Botho of Bayeux. Dudo’s work, like all hagiography, is most interesting at its stumbles: his purpose is so clear and his dedication to it so single-minded that when something doesn’t quite fit, it sticks out more and so it is with Botho, the purportedly Norman aristocrat with a Frankish name and a Frankish title which didn’t exist in later Normandy. In short, I think the Botho of Dudo’s book is an incomplete fossil of a Frankish count at Bayeux. (Remarkably, Flodoard also thinks the people of the Bessin aren’t Norse at this time.) It was probably not until 944 that the picture changed. In that year, a pagan Norse chieftain named Harald (likely another refugee from York) took over Bayeux. He played an adroit hand manipulating the succession crisis after William Longsword’s murder. It is likely that it was to Harald that the pagan Vikings purged from Rouen by Louis IV went. In the immediate aftermath of that affair, Harald organised a meeting with Louis and captured him, eventually handing him over to Hugh the Great. Hugh had been in charge of the initial attempt to get Harald out of Bayeux, and it would not be surprising if Harald’s price for the king was being allowed to stay there. Notably, Harald is remembered in Dudo’s work positively but as a pagan, which suggests that he may have justified his rule by using some kind of specifically ‘Northman’ (i.e. non-Carolingian) discourse, something which would make sense if he had been substantially reinforced by men whom Louis had purged from Rouen. In any case, he didn’t get too long – in 954, Hugh attacked and defeated him. After that, we don’t know precisely what happened. We do, though, have a pretty clear idea that Bayeux and the Bessin, and that whole centre-west region, were not under Norman control until the last decades of the tenth century at the earliest.

But thus far we have largely focussed on comital authority. In fact, northern Neustria was something of a frontier zone in the ninth century, and a fair bit of the continuity we can see in the region comes from people it would be more or less fair to call ‘local elites’ – not Scandinavian (at least not in any political-cultural sense; some, although in all probability a tiny minority, may have originated there but that doesn’t matter for our purposes), but not members of a Carolingian administrative hierarchy. The most obvious point of continuity here is what would become Normandy’s southern frontier, the Perche-to-Domfront area, which were forested lands of light control under local lords anyway and remained so consistently. More interesting are our hints about Coutances. The Cotentin peninsula had been granted to the Breton king Salomon in the late ninth century, and its control during this time seems to have been contested. William Longsword claimed to be overlord in the region. Direct evidence for his control comes from the memory of some land grants he made in the area, all of which are around the coast and none of which suggest a massive landed base there. Dudo has another one of those splinters in his text describing the ‘men of Coutances’ as a kind of praetorian guard for William, although it wouldn’t be sound to speculate too intensively based on that. After 943, whilst the southern belt saw relatively little change, Viking settlement in the Cotentin peninsula established a number of small-scale lordships which may not have been under powerful control from anyone. These lordships, moreover, are the places where the most obvious signs of ‘Northman’ practice – notably paganism – took root.

When Richard the Fearless ran Ralph Torta out of town in the mid-to-late 950s, he faced the prospect not of reclaiming an early tenth-century inheritance, but of expanding into a fractious collection of local and regional polities which had wildly different current statuses and political histories. Those histories all had Vikings in them, whether as enemies or settlers or biological ancestors; but only in the furthest west, and even then only after 943 could any of them be really termed ‘Viking polities’. This is a key part of the context in which Normandy as we know it was created, as I’ve written about before. The ideology of Norman-hood which Richard developed was flexible to the point of incoherence – it let anyone willing to play the game of being distinctive and of obeying the duke into the clubhouse, no matter what kind of Northman they were. With this complex history behind him, could Richard have succeeded with anything else?

Coins, Bullion and Legitimacy in Viking Realms

For reasons that will become clear down the line, I’ve been starting to think about coinages in the ninth-century Viking world, particularly in places where incoming rulers had to establish themselves. There’s lots and lots of people looking at Viking coinage, of course – you won’t struggle to find people comparing York’s coinage with Thor’s hammer with the St Edmund coinage of East Anglia memorialising not just any saint, but one the region’s Viking rulers had martyred just a few decades earlier. However, I want to a) take a bit of a broader perspective and b) bring in bullion too. Let me spit-ball some ideas at you to give you a sense of what I mean.

The ideological content of Viking coinages are, as I’ve said, oft-discussed; but these coinages are remarkably tightly bounded geographically: they’re in parts of Britain, and (sort of) on the Gaulish coast. They’re not, for instance, found in Ireland or Rus’. Part of this might be absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. For instance, we know that Rus’ neighbour the Khazar Khaganate minted coinage with an ideological message on it after its elite converted to Judaism; but we know this from a meagre handful of coins. If there had been a small issue of coins in some Viking polity in the eastern Baltic in c. 860, we might very well not know about it. Still, we should consider the ideological role of bullion, not least because its use seems to have persisted even in Britain. Most scholarship I can find on the role of bullion is purely economic – one historian actually contrasted coins (as something which could have ideological uses) against bullion (which couldn’t).

Yet this doesn’t explain why we don’t see more minting earlier. Viking rulers were well-familiar with coinage, and with its use as an ideological tool – the raiders who came back from Gaul with bags of silver deniers marked BY GOD’S GRACE CHARLES IS KING could hardly fail to get the picture, even if there hadn’t been bands based in Frisia (who also played an active role in Scandinavian politics) actively overseeing minting themselves. And indeed in Rouen, East Anglia, and elsewhere Viking rulers were quick to use making coins to say things about their rule. (You may be wondering, especially if you’ve read what I’ve written on this blog before: do William Longsword’s coins of c. 930 count as those of a ‘Viking’ ruler? Surely it’s more comparable to ‘feudal’ coinages? The short answer there is that I suspect the dynamics behind the minting practices of, say, the Northumbrian Viking ruler Cnut and William the Pious trend in similar directions…) So why not do so in Dublin or Kiev?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the vast majority of coins I’ve encountered so far are imitative – Carolingian-style in Normandy and Frisia, West Saxon in East Anglia, and so on. Minting seems to come with a displacement of ideas about rule, a gravitational pull towards pre-existing habits of kingship in the region. Understanding coins requires a certain amount of political and cultural literacy. To illustrate the point, I’ve just gone into my desk and pulled out (appropriately enough) a Norwegian 1-Krone coin, and even with coins from a relatively close country I don’t know why it’s got a hole in the middle and I don’t understand the picture of a bird on the reverse.

Mysterious! (OK, not that mysterious because I had to look up the meaning of the design to find out which side was the reverse; but still. Modified from source.)

This means that starting minting requires a certain amount of indoctrination to start with: in the case of William Longsword’s Temple-type coinage, for instance, you have to know that the ‘W’ on the obverse means ‘William, count of Rouen’; you have to know that the design is supposed to be a temple; you may well have to know that it’s a deliberate imitation of a coin which hadn’t been in common circulation for about seventy years. It’s a lot of work.

In addition, incoming elites were already plugged into an existing ideology of precious metals disconnected from coinage. Flicking through the skaldic poetry preserved in the kings’ sagas, it’s noticeable that ‘gold-breaker’ is such a common circumlocution for ‘generous man’. Similarly, Thjodolf of Hvinir describes how ‘the glorious ruler gave his champions red gold and many rings, bright mail-shirts and keen blades, shining and richly-decorated shields’. Good, i.e. generous, kingship is here tied tightly to a non-monetarised economy. This isn’t to say that a Scandinavian chief of the mid-ninth century would have turned down a bag full of coins, but he might not have drawn a distinction between them and a bag full of hack-silver; and probably wasn’t worth the effort to make him try.

Of course, even if this baseless speculation is right, that still raises the question of what motivated coin production and coin design across the Viking world. That’s one of the questions I’ll be looking at in future, so keep an eye out. This post was very much The Historian’s Sketchpad at its sketch-padiest. This time next year, hopefully I will be able to present you with thought-out conclusions based on evidence. In the meantime, with an at-best vague knowledge of the sources and the literature, I’m happy to have got something down to orientate future research.

Source Translation: A Royal Privilege of Free Election

Hello readers. I meant to post something about my research today, I really did; I realised last week that the last time I actually posted directly about it was over a month ago. However, my time at the minutes is taken up with finishing everything I need to do in Brussels before I move to Germany, which would be fine except it turns out that the last bit of writing that’s got to be finished before the end of this month is really hard, you guys. With that in mind, here’s a translated source that I’m using for that very piece, a diploma of Best King Ever Charles the Simple, issued in 913 to the Church of Trier, granting them the right to freely elect their bishops.

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity and singular Godhead. Charles, by the preordination of divine providence, glorious king. Since the whole body of God’s holy Church should be cared for by priestly oversight and administration and royal tutelage, and since royal majesty ought to be of one mind with the ministers of the Lord, We judge it equitable to proffer assent to the petitions of Our pontiffs, beseeching Us concerning churchly business, by whose prayers We believe that We and the state of Our realm are ceaselessly supported. Therefore, let the industry of all who follow the Christian religion and Our faithful men, present and future, know that Ratbod, the venerable metropolitan of the holy see of Trier, and Our archchaplain, providing for and mindful of the welfare of the church committed to him in future like a provident and good shepherd, asked Our Highness that We might conceded a privilege of Our authority to his see concerning episcopal elections after his death. Freely acquiescing to his pious petition, out of respect for the divine and reverence of the blessed Peter, and due to his love and faithfulness, We commanded this privilege of Our present letters be made, earnestly commanding and sanctioning with the inviolable stability of perpetual firmness that after the death of this bishop, whomsoever the clergy and people of Trier might by common consent elect from amongst the very sons of the same Church should be given to them, by God’s favour, as bishop without contradiction from any party; nor might they be compelled against their will and against canonical authority to receive as a pastor any person they have not chosen. And if, perchance, which We little believe will come to pass, no-one suitable can be found in that church, who is worthy of being given up to an honour of this kind, let an election not be denied to them thereby and Our privilege broken, but rather let them receive from royal majesty whomsoever else they might wish to elect. If it should come to pass, moreover (as is seen to have happened recently in the election of certain bishops) that the votes of the electors are divided, let royal authority favour the part of him on whom the clergy and the men of better intention agree, those who are proven to pursue God’s cause and the salvation of the Lord’s flock, and let the one so chosen be established over them as bishop in accordance with their election. And that this authority of Our privilege might in God’s name obtain firmer vigour of everlasting stability through all times to come, and be inviolably conserved by Our successors, We confirmed it below with Our own hand, and We commanded it be marked with the impression of Our seal.

Sign of the most serene king, lord Charles.

Gozlin the notary witnessed and subscribed on behalf of Archbishop and Archchancellor Ratbod.

Given on the ides of August (i.e. the 13th) in the 1st indiction, in the 21st year of the reign of the most glorious king Charles, in the 16th of his renewal, in the 2nd of his acquisition of a larger inheritance.

Enacted at Thionville. Happily in the name of God, amen.

(I actually have no idea what the reference to contentious elections in other sees is referring to. The ongoing disputes over the bishopric of Strasbourg in the 900s and 910s, maybe?)

Trier Cathedral today (source)

The writing style here is a little unusual; like many contemporary diplomas for the Church of Trier, it appears to have been written by that church’s writing staff, with less involvement by royal personnel. Nonetheless, there’s an intriguing sign here of attitudes to royal involvement in episcopal elections. There was a simmering dispute in the ninth century about whether or not royal involvement should be active or passive; that is, whether or not the royal power actually played a role in making a bishop a bishop or whether it simply removed itself as an obstacle. Men such as Florus of Lyon and Hincmar of Rheims (the latter of whom said ‘kings only agree, they don’t elect’) argued at one time or another for the latter, but over time it is clear that the former position removed competition.

This is neatly illustrated by this charter. Compared to other, earlier, diplomas granting similar rights, Charles actually gives up more power – usually, for instance, kings reserve the right to pick someone if no-one suitable can be found within the recipient church; here, it is specified that Trier can pick anyone, even if from outside Trier itself. However, it also rhetorically emphasises the role of kings more: royal authority and royal majesty play an active part as agents, even if what this might involve in practice has probably not changed all that much. The difference is that here and now, it is being perceived as being much more active and participating much more directly. This, I think, is a key part of that specifically-late-Carolingian political culture that we’ve discussed here before, and it would go on to have knock-on effects that would reach for centuries – but that is perhaps something for another time…