Name in Print XII

As this year drags itself towards its close, and we’re left pondering that, like Conservative prime ministers of the UK, ‘worst years ever’ are coming thicker and faster these days*, something small has popped through my letterbox to try and alleviate the winter gloom. That’s right, my latest article is in print!

Some of you may remember from years ago that I was, on the side, doing a bit of looking at the re-use of charter preambles, known as arengae, in royal diplomas. Well, at one point in lockdown I went into this hard, and I now have a Word document with basically every royal arenga on it to do compare-and-contrast with. After having done this, I noticed one strange thing: a diploma of Robert the Pious and his son Hugh for the cathedral church of Chalon had an arenga that was only ever otherwise used for a short period by Louis IV. So I made further textual comparison, and it turns out that Robert’s act is close to the style of a certain kind of acts of Louis, and these acts of Louis are so distinctive that only a missing example could have provided the model.

That’s obviously a very bald statement, and for the full case you’ll need to consult this, in the latest edition of Francia. As usual with Continental European journals, it’s not open access yet, but it will be after a couple of years and when it is you’ll be able to get the link from the blog. In the meantime, as ever, I have PDF offprints I’d be glad to sent to you if you contact me on the blog, on twitter, or by email at ralph [dot] torta [at] gmail [dot] com. The full citation is:

Fraser McNair, ‘A lost diploma of Louis IV for the church of Chalon-sur-Saône?’, Francia 49 (2022), pp. 479-490.

I’m pleased with the reasoning here. I’ve always argued that Burgundy is a lot more important to the West Frankish kings than is usually appreciated, but one problem in showing that is source preservation. Here, though, we have a diploma not hinted at in any of our sources whose existence is only deducible through textual comparison. This method might have further applications, but you do need quite specific comparanda – arengae which are unusually distinctive but not actually unique – of which there aren’t many out there.

The gritty details: Another straightforward case. I did the research for this in lockdown, summer 2020, wrote it up at the very very start of 2021 and submitted it. One round of peer review later, re-submitted about three-quarters of the way through 2021 and has come out now, autumn 2022.

*Still 2016, for my money; by 2020 the bar had been set so low that ‘global plague’ felt par for the course and 2022 is clearly, erm, ‘benefitting’ from the same effect.


The Three Orders and Adalbero of Laon

In 987, King Louis V fell off his horse and Hugh Capet became king. Soon after, Hugh made his son Robert the Pious co-king, and Robert went on to rule until 1031. For all that Hugh’s accession was the decisive break with Carolingian rule, it’s Robert’s reign that is perhaps the most interesting. A good chunk of the reason for this is that it is in texts from Robert’s reign that we start to get a sense about how varied – and polemical – ideas about kingship had become since the early tenth century. (I have a sneaking suspicion as to why these writings come disproportionately from the early eleventh century rather than the mid tenth, but that’s another story…)               

One of the most polemical authors of the period was Adalbero of Laon. We have discussed Adalbero before briefly on this blog, but the most relevant thing about him today is that he is usually considered a conservative thinker, a crotchety old man who didn’t like what he was seeing in the realm. At some point, possibly around the year 1003, roughly thirty years or half-way through his career, Bishop Adalbero wrote a lengthy and vituperative poem to Robert the Pious, excoriating what he perceived as a world turned upside-down and setting forth his vision for society as it should be ordered. The poem has attracted a lot of attention, for a couple of reasons: it is one of the most explicit and colourful reactions against monastic reform; and it sets out a vision of society known as the Three Orders, which would go on to have a very long life, and I mean a very long life – we still refer to the press as the ‘Fourth Estate’, and the other three ‘estates’ are the orders Adalbero lays out: oratores, bellatores, labores – those who pray (Churchmen), those who fight (nobles), and those who work (peasants).

A later medieval image of the Three Orders (source).

The poem has some wonderful imagery. Adalbero’s complaint is that the world is topsy-turvy, and no-one knows their assigned place any longer, and the main target of his bile is Abbot Odilo of Cluny. To emphasise how far he thinks Odilo has led monks from their proper role of cloistered contemplation, he images ‘King’ Odilo leading his warrior-monks to fight the Saracens in the south of France; but, of course, as monks, they are completely inept. “Ride two to a donkey! Ten to a camel!” “Upon your head, place a garland of flowers, and tie your helmet to your loins! Hold a sword in your teeth!” he exhorts his men. Unsurprisingly, they lose the battle.

The question of what exactly Adalbero is protesting here is open to more question than, to my mind, it has got. There are a couple of references to monks going to fight Saracens at around this period; but these don’t refer to an organised Cluniac proto-crusade but to a band of rag-tag monks from Provence forced into self-defence. Odilo himself, it’s worth saying, did not lead any military forces. Rather, what I think Adalbero is doing is parodying a work written by Odilo’s predecessor, Abbot Odo of Cluny, the biography of St. Gerald of Aurillac. In this work, Odo describes how Gerald, who was not a cleric, behaved in a particularly holy manner more befitting a monk than a layman. In particular, he tells of Gerald fighting a battle and ordering his men to fight with the butts of their spears and the flats of their swords. Odo is aware of how ridiculous this is, for the record; but he says that Gerald was so favoured by God that he won anyway. Of course, this kind of thing – making laymen behave like clerics – is exactly what Adalbero is complaining about, and his poem illustrates how little he thinks getting one type of person to do another type of person’s job would work in practice.

Odilo’s failure to defeat the Saracens lets Adalbero outline his own vision for society, and this is where his reputation for conservatism comes in. What Adalbero wants is, in content, very Carolingian, going back to the 829 Council of Paris. He wants the king to defend the Church, do justice, and crush the overmighty. He wants monks to be contemplative and cloistered, he wants bishops to pray for the community’s wellbeing and give learned advice to kings. However, it is also striking how Adalbero must find what are actually novel reasons for his conservative vision: new bottles for old wine, if you will. Old Carolingian justifications like royal ministerium are missing, and instead Adalbero justifies the royal duty of protecting the Church in terms of the schema of the Three Orders. The king’s duties come from his being a bellator, one of the order of those who fight.

Historians have pointed out that Adalbero’s scheme of the Three Orders was not a new invention. Two scholars in the ninth century named Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre described society as divided between ‘priests, soldiers and farmers’; this was possibly taken from the highly respected Church father Isidore of Seville. It may have been taken up in late tenth-century Rheims, and this may have been where Adalbero found it. However, it was not particularly common in either the ninth century or the tenth, and Adalbero’s use of it to justify what amounts to a caste system is completely new. Adalbero was not drawing on a common aspect of his time’s thought, but underpinning traditional conceptions of kingship with a new justification to make up for the fact that the old ones had gone. 

This scheme of the Three Orders was not conjured out of whole cloth. Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre has described something very similar in the ninth century, and versions of their formulation appeared in Alfredian England and mid-tenth century Italy. However, in Gaul it was not common in either the tenth century or the ninth, and it is noticeable that when in the eleventh century it gains two very high-profile spokesmen, Adalbero and Bishop Gerald I of Cambrai, both of whom were educated at Rheims in the late tenth century. This is notable because Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims (Adalbero of Laon’s uncle) renovated the cathedral school at this time. What I suspect we are seeing, therefore, is not a widespread intellectual idea, but a development in political thought specific to Rheims c. 970 which then found some long-lived and voluble advocates. In short, Adalbero’s nominal conservatism illustrates how little purchase Late Carolingian thought had in early Capetian political debates, and how fragmented the landscape of post-Carolingian political thought had become.

The Bishop of Laon is Minted, and Career News II

Some good career news came down the pipeline last week: I have been elected to be an Associate Committee Member of the SCBI/MEC projects! What this means in practice is loads of coins – the M[edieval] E[uropean] C[oinage] project has been well underway for a while, and further volumes are in preparation as we speak. Further news on the projects’ activities as and when it’s ready to print; but from my point of view what’s exciting is being able to talk about some of my previously-mentioned difficulties in understanding tenth-century coinage with some of the best numismatic minds in the country…

Meanwhile, to celebrate, a post on some coins which I think I do have a handle on. As it happens I have written about these elsewhere, but not here, and not really with the textual links in play. So, let’s talk about Adalbero of Laon. Famous as ‘the old traitor’ because of his betrayal of the last Carolingian candidate for the West Frankish crown into the hands of Hugh Capet, he left behind a relatively extensive corpus of work, including a poem excoriating Count Landric of Nevers as an ambitious and scheming womanizer, and another work addressed to King Robert the Pious complaining about how kids these days weren’t doing things properly. There’s lots in this poem, the Carmen ad Rotbertum Regem, but one clear thing is that Adalbero is worried about the blurring of social roles. He particularly takes to task Abbot Odilo of Cluny for leading a monastic ‘army’ which, as monks aren’t supposed to fight, is useless as well as wrong. What does he propose instead? Well, in the words he gives to the king,

Let [Saint] Basil and [Saint] Benedict[, two of the founding fathers of monasticism,] possess their realms,

Let their realms observe and hold all of their commands.

Let bishops never throng fields hereafter,

If they would keep their rights; if not, let them tend crops!

Let Our order [of warriors] never dare to give up the rule of justice;

Rather, let it apply itself thereto with the greatest effort.

What Adalbero wants is for all the different bits of society to do what they’re supposed to and stop doing otherwise: monks should observe the monastic Rule, bishops shouldn’t be messing around in the fields like peasants, and warriors should protect clerics and labourers justly.

Whatever one might think of Adalbero as politician or as social philosopher, there’s no doubt that he was committed to this point of view, and this does come through in the coins of Laon around the year 1000. During the reign of Louis V (986-987), the mint at Laon began to mint a very unusual double portrait issue. As you can see, the figure on the right is supposed to be a king. I’m not sure the figure on the left is supposed to represent anything – the coin is too worn to tell any iconography, and the inscription around that side is just the word for ‘Minted at Laon’.

obole louis v
Gallica says it’s an obol of Louis IV for some reason, but the numismatical consensus is Louis V (source)

By the 1000s, however, Adalbero had taken this design and changed it slightly towards his ideological views of society. Have a look at this:

That’s more like it! (source)

As you can see, Adalbero had evidently found a slightly more technically-skilled mint master since 987. The design of the coin has also been updated, too. The portrait of the king is not simply a king, it’s a reasonable facsimile of Robert the Pious’ seal.

A picture-heavy post, today (source)

The other portrait is now not just any old male figure, it’s specifically Bishop Adalbero himself. Partly you can tell this from the stonking great cross on his head, and partly from the fact that the coin has the name ‘Adalbero’ engraved around the outside. What we have here, then, is coinage as medium for the political message outlined in the Carmen: the king doing his job, the bishop doing his job, each distinct, both together the two authorities ruling Christian society – in a quite literal sense, two sides of the same coin.

Capetian Kingship and Neustrian Tradition

So back when I was puzzling over the caritas-prologue in the diplomas of Robert the Pious, I mentioned off-handedly that I disagreed with Geoffrey Koziol’s theory about Robert’s use of the cross monogram; and given the topic’s fairly interesting, I thought I might discuss it further today.

First of all, what’s a monogram? Well, it’s this*:


That is, a visual symbol of a ruler’s name, made as a sign of their authority.  Here, for instance, we have a diploma and a coin of Charles the Bald, and you can see the Latin form of his name – Karolus – here, the K on the right, and the thing in the middle acting as AO, and U. These things are very common under the Carolingians, and for much of the tenth century they look like this:


Under Robert the Pious, however, the form changes to look like this:

Robertus; note the longer arms

Geoff argues in this article** (which includes prettier pictures, such as can be found here) that this change is a very personal one for Robert, reflecting his particular devotion to Christ’s holy Cross; an innovation in his kingship and deriving from the very particular context of his reign. And sure, it is a new innovation in terms of Frankish kingship, but not, I would argue, a novel expression of Robert’s authority. Rather, it appears to me more likely that it’s an amalgamation of a very long-standing tradition of Neustrian rulership into Robert’s kingship.

As long-time readers will know, Robert the Pious came from the so-called Robertian family, who had been rulers of the Neustrian March in western France for much of the tenth century. One peculiarity of Neustria was that lay abbots in the region (such as Robert’s family) sign charters with the signum sanctae crucis (the sign of the Holy Cross), as it’s usually expressed. I can find examples of this in a Neustrian context back to the early ninth century; and, moreover, I can’t find it outside Neustria, at least not in the regions of the West Frankish kingdom I know the evidence for – no Aquitanian or Burgundian parallels here.

Signing charters with the sign of the Cross, by the mid-tenth century, was one of the few visible markers of Robertian status they didn’t share with other Neustrian magnates. It’s a consistent, if low-key, part of the visual repertoire of their authority: they sign with the Cross because they’re just that little bit closer to God than everyone else. What I think is happening in Robert’s reign, then, is that this Neustrian tradition of the sign of the Cross is mixed with that of the royal monogram, not so much putting Robert’s personal mark on Frankish kingship as a wider Neustrian one. After all, when the non-royal Robertians became the royal Capetians, they inherited a lot of Carolingian traditions of how to be a king – but they had their own century-long tradition of rulership as well; and this particular example is a nice little case of how that influenced earlier Capetian kingship as well as the flashier traditions of the descendants of Charlemagne.

(This does of course raise questions about timing, such as why Hugh Capet didn’t do it, and why it took Robert until 1019 to start, which I need to think on; but that will wait until another day.)

*So it turns out I can’t do my usual trick of putting image sources in the captions, so I’ll put them here instead:

Diploma of Charles the Bald 

Coin of Charles the Bald

Diploma of Charles the Simple

Diploma of Ralph of Burgundy

Diploma of Louis IV

Diploma of Lothar

Diploma of Robert the Pious

**Which I actually really like, for the record; I just happen to think he’s wrong about this specific point.


What King™?

So, there will be a blog post this week, because this week marks the one-year anniversary of Salutem Mundo going up on the web. If I have a bit of spare time, I might put up a retrospective; but today I wanted to do something fun: counter-factual speculation! I was reading a biography of King Edward II, which made me think that England came reasonably close at one point to a King Gilbert, and this in turn led my thoughts back to my own work. After all, there were three relatively long periods in the tenth and early eleventh centuries where the reigning king was without an obvious direct heir, i.e. a legitimate, adult son. So the question naturally arose: had some accident befallen these kings, who would have ended up as their successor?

The first period is also the longest: the twenty-odd years between 898 and 920 when King Charles the Simple was without a legitimate son. Until the birth of Louis IV in around 920, Charles did not have a direct heir. If he had died before 919 or so, the kingdom’s most powerful magnate and brother of Charles’ predecessor Odo, Robert of Neustria, was by far the most likely candidate to become king. One suggestion I’ve never seen (although some readers may be able to correct me on this) is that this may have been important. After 920, relations between Robert and Charles deteriorated rapidly. I wonder if his participation in rebellion after that year was conditioned by the fact that Louis cut him out of the succession?

Other possibilities for king include Richard the Justiciar, duke of Burgundy (possible, but I don’t see him having the power base or the connections to the throne) or Louis the Child until 911 (good dynastic claim, but he doesn’t seem to have had much connection at all with West Frankish magnates and indeed wasn’t all that close to the Lotharingian aristocracy, from a kingdom he actually did rule).

The next period is in the reign of Charles’ son Louis, between 936 and 941. Here, the situation is complicated by the fact that Louis himself appears to have been something of a compromise candidate between Robert of Neustria’s son Hugh the Great, Count Heribert II of Vermandois, or Hugh the Black, duke of Burgundy and brother of Louis’ predecessor King Ralph. I cannot imagine any of these people letting one of the others have it without a very nasty fight. The probable winner, in my view, would have been Heribert, due to his geographical proximity to the centres of royal power in Rheims and Laon. However, an outside possibility is Roric, Louis’ illegitimate half-brother, who might present another useful compromise candidate. He was a cleric and a bastard, but illegitimacy wasn’t necessarily a disqualifier for kingship; and he may have been able to go back into the world if absolutely necessary, perhaps, although I can’t think of any Frankish examples of clerical sons becoming secular this early.

The final period is the first decade of the reign of King Robert the Pious, between 996 and 1007. Between 996 and his death in 1002, Duke Henry of Burgundy, Robert’s uncle, might have been a plausible candidate, although he was childless and in the equivalent situation in 936, Hugh the Black had been passed over. Thus, my preference is for King Rudolf III of Transjurane Burgundy, nephew of the penultimate Carolingian king Lothar and brother-in-law of one of the most powerful West Frankish magnates, Odo II of Blois. He’s plausible as a king, without being too threatening to established power bases. It is possible that Odo himself might have sought the crown, but I find this unlikely: too many people would have been opposed to the action. Other possibilities include Otto III or Henry II of Germany, who were also closely related to both the Carolingians and the Robertians and whose ties were perhaps closer. However, an actual reunification of East and West Francia seems a bit unlikely to me. The final possibility is Otto or Louis of Lower Lotharingia, children of the last serious Carolingian claimant to the West Frankish throne, Charles of Lower Lotharingia. Certain, in 1012, Louis appears to have been in Poitiers as a potential figurehead for rebellion. With Aquitanian and maybe Ottonian support, a Carolingian restoration might well have been possible.

These are just my speculations, of course. What do you think? I’m interested to hear discussions of this: how people interpret these possibilities is heavily dependent on what they think matters about royal successions, and that’s an area where I am keenly aware of my own blinkers…

Who Were The Preceeding Kings?

Man, I had such a good idea for my IMC paper next year. I was going to look at every post-Carolingian royal diploma, seeing who named their predecessors, either by name (‘King Odo’) or generically (‘the custom of Our royal ancestors’) and see what changed. Problem was, this was such a good idea that someone else on the panel had already had it, based on their long-standing research… Still, thanks to my collection of West Frankish royal diplomas actually doing the start of the research as a feasibility study only took a morning, and if I can do nothing else with it it can at least serve as a blog post, so here goes. At least this way I don’t have to spend a thousand words on the methodological issues (although I have thought about them!) …

The first thing I noted was that the overall amount of citations in both categories remains fairly consistent between 888 and 1032, at around 66%. There are two major exceptions to this: Ralph of Burgundy, and Robert the Pious. My first thought was that Ralph and Robert both came to power in coups, so might not want to remind people of their – implicitly more legitimate – predecessors; but this isn’t true of Hugh Capet… I still wonder if the ‘don’t mention the predecessors’ reason might be valid for Ralph – who also basically never mentions specific, named, precursors, and who did after all come to the throne after a shockingly-violent battle – but I think in Robert’s case it might fit into a wider pattern in his kingship, the meandering trend towards being less royal about the whole thing. This is also, as far as I can tell, not a universal percentage: I also did the kings of Transjurane Burgundy, and their historical memory is very limited – they hardly ever mention their predecessors, and when they do it’s overwhelmingly their father.

Not that most kings aren’t above all interested primarily in their immediate predecessors, if you look at who they cite by name. This usually, but not always, means their father: Louis IV cites Charles the Simple, and Lothar cites Louis IV. However, this does mean there are some interesting exceptions: Louis isn’t interested in his immediate predecessor (and father’s usurper) Ralph of Burgundy, for instance. More widely, both Charles the Simple and his predecessor Odo of Paris take as their most-cited figure Charles the Bald, not Charles the Fat; probably because Charles the Bald was such a dominating presence that his after-effects were still being felt a quarter of a century later.

Finally, historical memory going further back is a lot weaker. Contrary to what you might expect, Charlemagne is not a normative figure: Odo and Louis IV don’t mention him at all, and in total Louis the Pious is rather more cited than Charlemagne is. On the other hand, exactly in accordance with what you might expect, the Merovingians hardly ever appear. The exception is Charles the Simple, whose memory evidently goes back much further than his fellow-kings’: he cites no fewer than six Merovingian monarchs, and has more time than the other kings for Pippin the Short. Admittedly many of these Merovingian mentions can be accounted for by Saint-Denis’ interest in King Dagobert I and Archbishop Fulk of Rheims’ pulling out all the stops in terms of historical precedent in one particular charter for Saint-Vaast; but not all of them can. It does seem to support Geoffrey Koziol’s idea that Charles is an unusually thoughtful monarch. Talking to a colleague the other day, I was saying that I increasingly get a kind of Joseph-II-of-Austria-vibe off Charles: a policy wonk who happened to actually be the ruler…

On that note, it’s announcement time! As previously said on this august forum, I’m shortly going to be moving countries, and will be trapped in Schwäbisch Hall on an intensive German course for the next two months. Consequently, blog posts will be few and far between. If inspiration really strikes me, I might write something; but I rather suspect my time will be full-up… Thus, normal service will be resumed in November.

Charity and Kingship: Eleventh-Century Royal Diplomas

Yesterday was going so well. Writing the last bit of written work I’ve got scheduled for while I’m still here, I polished off one section, and prepared to move onto the next. So, King Robert the Pious’ chancellor puts together a new prologue to his charters, does he? Let’s pull out the textual models of that, write about how the historiographical consensus is wrong about him and monks, and then all I need to do is spend a few days counting witness lists and I can spend my last two months in Brussels napping and playing video games.

Several hours later, I’d spent so much time staring at the damn thing that I’d most of it memorised, but textual parallels weren’t going so well.

So what this means is that today on the blog, I’ll be using it for the purest form of its intended purpose: as a sketch pad. I’m going to take this new standard prologue, read it in excruciating detail, and try and work out what it means about Robert the Pious’ kingship. First, the text:

Cum in exhibitione temporalium rerum, quas humana religio divino cultui famulando locis sanctorum et congregationibus fldelium ex devotione animi largitur, tam presentis quam perpetue vite, ut jampridem multis expertum est indiciis, solatium adquiratur, saluberrimus valde et omnibus imitabilis est hic fructus primitive virtutis, scilicet caritatis, per quam et mundi prosperatur tranquillitas et felici remuneratione eterna succedit felicitas.

Since (as has been proved by many tokens) it is in the presentation of worldly goods, which, by the soul’s devotion, human religion bestows on the places of the saints and the congregations of the faithful for the service of divine worship, that the comfort of both this life and the next is acquired, such an action is very beneficial and imitable by everyone; it is the fruit of the first of the virtues, charity, through which the peace of the world prospers and eternal happiness follows by a happy repayment.

First appearing just after 1020, this prologue is the work of a man named Baldwin, chancellor under Kings Robert the Pious and Henry I. It will go on to be the standard opening of royal documents for most of the eleventh century, so it’s quite important. To deal with it, I’ll start by doing bullet points of each of the individual words, and then pull together some overall observations at the end.

  • Exhibitio temporalium rerum: An exhibitio is literally a handout, but it’s slightly unusual in the context of royal diplomas. Usually one would expect to see a word like largitio (grant), which emphasises royal generosity. Exhibitio suggests something more public – it’s an exhibition of generosity, geddit – which does fit with a consistent theme of Robert’s reign, which is that a lot of his kingship is performed in public, before large crowds.
  • Humana religio: This is an odd one. Religio can mean religion, in the sense that we’d use it day-to-day, but it’s also reverence, and religious awe… Mostly around this time, it would be connected to words like ‘divine’ or ‘sacred’, with the first meaning predominating. Here, though, it’s clearly being used as an opposition to divinus cultus (divine worship), which has the interesting function of really stressing the mediation provided by the clergy between the human and the divine.
  • Congregationes fidelium: This is particularly so in light of the use of the word congregatio, which literally means ‘assembly’ but almost always by the early eleventh century means ‘organised group of clerics’, and – as far as I can tell – usually monks. The word congregatio derives from the phrase for ‘to flock together’, and the word for flock, grex, is almost entirely associated with groups of monks in this context.
  • Fructus primitivae virtutis – Describing royal action as motivated by caritas (usually translated as ‘charity’ but better thought of as ‘lovingkindness’) is again unusual. The reference here is to Galatians 5:22: ‘the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith’. Caritas has a long Christian history, which Guyotjeannin points out about this formula, but it’s hard to find precise textual parallels for how its described here. The closest is perhaps the eighth-century scholar Alcuin’s treatise on Virtues and Vices. He describes caritas as ‘first place in the precepts of God’: to love both God and your neighbour with every fibre of your being.

A diploma of Robert to a church in Châlons, featuring a recognisable predecessor of this formula. (Source. Turns out its a lot harder to find nice images of Capetian royal diplomas than Carolingian ones. You know, the first three Capetians don’t even have their diplomas properly edited yet.)

Thus: it is in giving alms to religious institutions, allowing them to mediate between God and the laity, that relief is acquired in both this life and that to come. This almsgiving is the product of an internal caritas, a virtue which is necessary for both worldly and heavenly success.

It’s not very royal. This is important, because charter prologues are usually imbued with the language of, specifically, royal majesty; but not here. Note that the whole thing is written mostly in the passive: solace ‘is acquired’, for instance. If you parce it, the element of the sentence actually acting is the animus, the soul of the individual believer. It’s therefore noticeable that almsgiving is described as ‘imitable’; it looks rather like the king is being set up not as a figure separate from his subjects, but as an example for them to follow; as a man, not as a king. Geoff Koziol has written about Robert’s self-presentation as a Christian rather than as a king; as it happens, I disagree with him about his specific example (the use of Cross monograms) – I might write about why in the near future, actually – but the idea might be applicable here…

Well, that was a helpful exercise. Much to chew over there, but it was good to get things written down. Am I missing anything? Please let me know if you have any comments – this formula shows up so often that unlocking it is a big deal.


Helgaud of Fleury, Buzzkill

Medieval humour doesn’t often tend to be all that funny. There are a few exceptions – Liutprand of Cremona springs to mind, although that story is definitely NSFW – but in general there aren’t many jokes in my period, or at least laugh-out-loud ones. There are various reasons this is so. Take this example from the Historia Normannorum of Dudo of Saint-Quentin:

‘The bishops said to Rollo, who didn’t want to kiss the king’s feet, “Anyone receiving such a gift [as Normandy] should want to kiss the king’s foot”. He replied: “I will never bend my knees to anyone else’s, nor kiss anyone’s foot.” And so, compelled by the Franks’ requests, he commanded one of his men to kiss the king’s foot. He immediately grabbed the king’s foot and brought it to his mouth, remaining standing to kiss it, and so threw the king on his back. And thus a huge gale of laughter arose amongst the people. Otherwise, King Charles and Duke Robert and the counts and magnates, bishops and abbots, swore an oath of the catholic faith to the patrician Rollo…’


And so it goes on.

I’ve tried to be as generous as possible with my translation here, but there’s several ways in which this isn’t funny. First, the phrase ‘the king’s foot’ (pedum regis) is repeated too many times. Second, Dudo adds the crowd’s laughter as an eleventh-century laugh track. Third, the timing’s off: with the ‘otherwise’ (caeterum), Dudo moves quickly onto something a bit more dignified.

Today, though, I think I may have found an example of someone sabotaging a joke deliberately. First, however, I need to introduce our protagonists. Gerbert of Rheims, also called Gerbert of Aurillac, was a monk and bishop of the latter part of the tenth century. He was famed for his learning, being the man who introduced the abacus to Europe, and ran a school at Rheims with a number of illustrious pupils. Politically, he was a close associate of Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims, and, as his letter collections reveal, spent much of his time brown-nosing the Ottonian rulers of Germany. When Adalbero died, Gerbert sought the see of Rheims for himself – but the new king, Hugh Capet, gave it to a man named Arnulf instead. When Arnulf took the wrong side in the civil war which followed Hugh’s accession, Gerbert tried to take advantage and gain the see for himself. He did become archbishop, but Arnulf’s deposition proved hugely controversial, and Gerbert was out on his ear after a few years. He then became important in the court of the young emperor Otto III, becoming first Archbishop of Ravenna and then pope under the name Sylvester II. He died in 1003, leaving behind a decidedly mixed reputation.


The other man is Helgaud of Fleury. Helgaud was a monk at the abbey of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, AKA Fleury, in the early-to-mid eleventh century. Fleury was one of the most important monasteries in the kingdom, and under Abbot Abbo in the early eleventh century, it became both a centre of learning and a focal point for a kind of church politics which were, if not actively radical, at least quite controversial. In particular, Abbo pushed for the exemption of his monastery from episcopal oversight, and in the process managed to spectacularly piss off several important bishops. In the 1030s, Helgaud wrote a biography of King Robert the Pious, and, as Robert was a pupil of Gerbert’s, he included a brief synopsis of Gerbert’s life:

‘This Gerbert, having received the archbishopric of Rheims by the gift of King Hugh owing to his world-renowned knowledge, adorned it splendidly with everything a church needs, although not for very long. Having abandoned that bishopric, he was made governor of Ravenna (rector Ravennatium) by Otto III; from whence he quickly advanced to the apostolic see of St. Peter. He carried out many good works, chiefly in giving alms, which he took care to do while he lived faithfully. Among other things, he made a joke – which he found very funny – about the letter R: “Gerbert rose from R to R, and then became pope of R”, clearly indicating by this that the three bishoprics which he received, ruled and held after professing a monastic life under the rule of St. Benedict, all begin with the sign of this letter R.’

Left to its own devices, that would be a reasonably amusing joke; not hilarious, I admit, but enough to raise a wan smile. Helgaud, however, utterly kills it by over-explanation – I mean, thanks Helgaud, we’d worked out what he meant by the three Rs.

Thinking on it, though, I think he’s doing it on purpose. Helgaud clearly doesn’t want to criticise him too explicitly, but he also evidently doesn’t like Gerbert all that much. He specifies that Gerbert didn’t stay in Rheims very long and that he abandoned (derelicto) the see. He says that he carried out many good works, and then, as an example, gives us a mildly-humorous play on words, painting Gerbert in the process as one of those annoying people who laughs at their own jokes: it might be funny enough, but it’s not going to make anyone laetus et hilaris.

I think the clue here is that he says that Gerbert held three bishoprics after being made a monk. Precisely what the criticism here is I’m unsure of – maybe that, as a monk, he was too embroiled in worldly affairs (Abbo of Fleury once described the difference between monks and other clerics as being between the better and the best); maybe that he was an inconstant pastor of his sees. In any case, this sentence seems to indicate that Helgaud had some kind of ideological opposition to Gerbert. He may not have been able to do much about it without it reflecting badly on the king whose life he was writing, but at least he could have his own little revenge: taking a joke which Gerbert was clearly very proud of and ruining it for posterity.

*(not the original one, but it was definitely Open Source when I used it the first time…)