Source Translation: 936 Ain’t Over Yet

This post was a mistake. Not a serious mistake, to be clear: this was going to be the Charter A Week for 937 and I got the whole way through translating it before I realised that, duh, it’s from 936. Still, no need to waste a diploma, and this one genuinely is quite important and interesting. I keep talking about Hugh the Great’s pretentions to overwhelmingly high status after Louis IV’s accession; and I’ve mentioned that there was tension in the air – but so far you haven’t seen the worst of it. Today’s source gets us up close and personal with that discontent:

D L4 no. 4 (25th December 936, Compiègne)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Louis, by the preordaining clemency of the Highest King king of the Franks.

If We come to help and concede any gift of honour and restoration to the holy church of God  and also extend the hands of Our Highness and Piety to those who should dwell Catholically in it and devotedly seek the gift of His clemency for the state of this realm and of Christianity, through the deliverance of the King on High Jesus Christ and the most clement intercession of His saints such that they might not be illegally and unjustly oppressed by violence from anyone, We hold most firmly that it will benefit Us temporally and eternally in the augmentation of Our honour.

Thus, let the skill of those both present and future discover that the brothers of the abbey of Compiègne, when We first came there, made a complaint before the summit of Our Highness concerning Bishop Rothard of Meaux, previously prior of the same place, regarding their own land, which ought to pertain to their allowance of food, and clothing, and which had been conceded by Our progenitors to the nourishing mother of God and undefiled virgin Mary and the most precious martyrs Cornelius and Cyprian, for the work of the brothers serving therein; to wit, concerning the estate which is called Chauny and also concerning Gury and concerning Mareuil-la-Motte and Marest-sur-Matz and Manseau and concerning Margny-sur-Matz and concerning Elincourt and concerning the churches sited in them, that is, Notre-Dame, Saint-Denis, Saint-Médard, Sainte-Marguerite, and concerning their tithes and concerning the other side of the river Aronde and the mill which is called Frost and concerning the land which lies besides the same river, on this side of the aforesaid river and on the far side, and also concerning the space next to the aforesaid river on which he had strengthened a residence, which space, that is, is named Coudun; all of which, when in fact he should have been a servant of the said place, he kept hold of and usurped for himself, purportedly for rent, which he also never paid any of.

We, then, hearing this and enjoying the common consent of Our followers, to wit, of Hugh [the Great], Our most beloved and the duke of the Franks, who is second to Us in all Our realms; and Our most faithful pontiff Walbert [of Noyon], and also with the counsel of the most prudent man Bernard [of Beauvais], tremendously great in Our fidelity, and Ermenfred [of Amiens], restore to them, to the common portion of the brothers serving the Lord therein, all the said land with all the aforesaid things, in order that from this day forth they might hold and possess that land and all the aforesaid things for their allowance of food, and clothing in times to come without the trouble of any contradiction.

In addition, moreover, We concede to the said brothers that they should have free power to distribute prebends and that they should have all the service given for them for their own uses, just as Our most glorious father King Charles [the Simple] conceded to them in a precept of renewal.

Let them have the same power over the appointed ministers of the place as well, except the prior and dean, treasurer and cantor; and in these cases, with the counsel of the senior brothers and the election of the other clerics.

Let them have the same, too, over houses given between them or over land within and without the castle pertaining to the same brothers.

We concede to them, furthermore, in regard to the castle and its ramparts and concerning the outside area inside the walls and defensive ditch, that none who is an outsider to the same place should accept command on the pretext of overseeing the castle; and that no-one should claim rights of hospitality there.

Next, We concede to them in regard to the cultivated land which they have for outward uses that no-one should presume to enter their residences; and the toll from the ovens which have been or will be built there and from the wine-taverns within the castle and without the castle which customarily came to the part of Our predecessors.

From the confluence of waters next to the estate of Clairoix up to the bridge of Venette, We concede to them the river with both banks, and fishing-rights, and ship-passage and wherever nets ought to be dragged out of the river, whether going upriver or downriver, and from there up to Magnicurtis; also that no-one should presume to fish or hunt there without permission from the brothers; and if any fleeing wild animal comes there without being pursued by hunters, let it be brought to the brothers’ table. And similarly We concede to them whatever might be found from the confluence of waters next to Clairoix up to Magnicurtis.

We also concede permission that if any fiscal servant wishes to sell or give anything from his allod to that holy place or to the canons of that place, they may have free power to do it and the deed may endure perpetually, as Our father King Charles [the Simple] once established and conceded there through a precept.

If, though, anyone might presume to violate this statute and that which Our father established and Pope John of the holy Roman see conceded in his privilege and excommunicated and cursed those who might try to violate it, let them have portion with Judas, the betrayer of the Lord, and be anathema maranatha, and be excluded from the company of the faithful and be burned forever in the punishments of Hell.

But that this precept of Our authority might endure firm and inviolable eternally without fear, confirming it below with Our own hand We mandated it be signed with the signet of Our royal dignity.

Sign of the most glorious king Louis.

Gerard the notary witnessed on behalf of Artald, Archbishop and High Chancellor.

Enacted at the royal palace of Compiègne, on the day of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the 10th indiction, in the 1st year of the reign of the most glorious King Louis.


The closest surviving thing we have to part of the Carolingian palace, and it ain’t that close (source)

Christmas at Compiègne was by itself a sign that something new was in the air. Under Ralph of Burgundy, Compiègne was not a significant royal palace. In fact, it seems to have been something of a neutral zone – there are a couple of times when Ralph and his squabbling brothers-in-law met there seemingly because it was a liminal location where they could get together on a roughly even footing. Compiègne was Charles the Simple’s place, and it’s appropriate that Louis IV issued his rehabilitative diploma for ‘the glorious king Charles’ quoting at length from one of Charles’ own diplomas for the abbey. Louis also pulled in Count Ermenfred of Amiens, whom we’ve met before as a prop of Charles’ late period regime. Hugh’s own father Robert of Neustria had been rehabilitated in the early 930s – but, of course, rehabilitating Charles was more fraught, given Hugh’s personal role in his overthrow.

This isn’t to say that Hugh was opposed to this. In fact, one wonders if it was the bone he threw Louis, because otherwise the diploma shows off Hugh’s power over the king. Note the presence of Bernard of Beauvais, with a remarkably exalted epithet.  Bernard had been Hugh’s right-hand man during the Burgundy campaign, and his presence – and elaborate praise – here gives an insight into how cloying Hugh’s oversight of the king may have been. Bernard was also the cousin of Heribert II of Vermandois, who had led Charles to imprisonment at Saint-Quentin, and thus his presence was at best ironic. Too, Ansegis of Troyes has been replaced as archchancellor by Archbishop Artald of Rheims. Given later developments, it can be hard to remember this, but in 936 Artald was Hugh’s ally, the man to whom he owed his position. Most important of all, though, is the description of Hugh himself. Hugh’s new title, ‘duke of the Franks’, was ambiguous, and it seems that he may have been pushing for a clarification. The act spells it out, and it is startling. Raymond Pons was right: Hugh was a menace to the ambitions of every other aristocrat in the kingdom. He is placed as greater than all the realm’s other magnates, not simply in the north of Gaul but in Aquitaine and Burgundy as well. Even Robert of Neustria at the peak of his power had never had his status exalted in such concrete terms.

Perhaps the most appropriate presence was Bishop Walbert of Noyon. This diploma was the last thing he ever did: he died on Boxing Day 936. Hugh and Louis’ alliance would follow suit soon after.

Good Guy Hugh the Great

Well, I’m in Leeds now. It’s not so much that everything’s sorted – much remains to be done – but I have an office and I’m sitting in it and so blog can be written. Onwards! Last week I put up a charter translation, which pointed towards this blog post. I mentioned when I was leaving Germany that it made sense to put all the arguments I had about the political narrative of tenth-century West Frankish history in separate articles so that, someday, I could write a book for a general audience without getting bogged down. Fairly high up my to-do list, then (largely because big chunks of it were already written and even partly footnoted) is a short piece on our old friend, the succession to Ralph of Burgundy.

The basic point of this, which I will rehearse in brief here, is not to make any big splash with new information, but to reinterpret what we already know. “So, like most of medieval history then?”, I hear you say. Good point well made, reader; but in this case we’ve ‘known’ something for rather longer than usual and it has remained unchallenged – as far as I know, at all. But on really trying to set down the state of affairs, I think that the consensus is all wrong and a bag of chips.


That consensus in a nutshell. I presume if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you already know the events, but if not, briefly: in January 936, King Ralph of the West Frankish kingdom, whose core support base was Burgundy, died. As king, he was succeeded by Louis IV, an exile who had lived his entire life in England; as duke of Burgundy, by his brother Hugh the Black. After Louis was crowned, he and Hugh the Great, the so-called ‘duke of the Franks’ and the magnate who had organised Louis’ crowning, attacked Burgundy, seizing the north of it from Hugh the Black. This was an unscrupulous attack carried out at Hugh the Great’s instigation and for his profit, snatching northern Burgundy from the rightful heir, Hugh the Black; and the only reason it could be done was because Louis was a helpless pawn completely under the power of Hugh the Great, whose only interest lay in exploiting the king’s presence to increase his own power, leaving Louis helpless and dependent.

Now, in recent works this is presented a bit less moralistically than it was in the early twentieth century, but it’s still more-or-less the same argument. However, it hinges on the idea that a) Hugh the Black was the ‘rightful heir’ to a ‘duchy of Burgundy’ and b) Hugh the Great was shortsightedly self-serving. I’ve argued against the first point here (Hugh the Black was an outsider to much of his brother’s core regions, and there’s no reason to think that men who had been operating in Ralph’s royal court would not look to the next royal court – rather than a not-so-local potentate – as his successor); but the second is also important.

Historians have long appreciated that kings and nobles were not always and inherently antagonistic such that the kings had to keep unruly and unscrupulous aristocrats down before they tore polities apart in pursuit of their own profit. This appreciation can sometimes seem to stop at around 870. But let’s look at Hugh the Great’s actions. We have a new king. He’s young, and unlike his almost-as-young East Frankish counterpart Otto the Great, he’s inexperienced. He has no West Frankish allies, and a lot of the old royal lands and palaces in the north-east are contested (thanks, Heribert of Vermandois!). But, there are these other guys to the south, in Burgundy, who were in with the last king, and who have no particular love for his brother’s attempts to impose himself on them by force…

Seen in this light, Hugh the Great’s campaign against Hugh the Black looks like a good-faith attempt to set Louis up as successor to Ralph’s power in the region of Burgundy. Certainly, not a disinterested one – Hugh the Great was made lay abbot of Saint-Germain-d’Auxerre – but this was just allowing Hugh an office which had for most of the late ninth century been attached to his particular bloc of lands and offices. (Hugh’s Neustria was actually much more formal than Ralph’s Burgundy, and maybe I should do a post about that…) But Ralph of Burgundy had not been a negligible figure, and asserting Louis as his heir in Burgundy made sense as a way of ensuring that Louis would also be a figure to reckon with.

Why did Hugh want Louis to be a figure to reckon with? Because useless kings were… erm, useless. If, as Hugh could reasonably expect, he would be the most important figure in Louis’ regime, then he needed the king to be rich and powerful, or else he couldn’t reward Hugh or judge in his favour in any meaningful way. He’d just be a useless appendage of Hugh’s own power. Moreover, in the 930s this wasn’t just hypothetical. Less than ten years before, Heribert of Vermandois had tried that sort of puppet arrangement with Louis’ imprisoned father, Charles the Simple, who – absent any particular power of his own – could add nothing to Heribert’s own resources except an alliance with the Normans, who were so suspicious of Heribert’s treatment of the king that they ended up demanding enough in the way of hostages to be rather counter-productive.

Hugh the Great, then, emerges not as a grasping aristocrat exploiting a helpless king, but as a man who, for his own benefit certainly but that makes it no less illustrative of how politics worked, tried to turn an exile king into a political force to be reckoned with.