Once Upon a Time in the South: John and the Wages of War (March 795)

Being a medieval historian often brings to mind the old joke about the drunk searching for his keys in the dark. Whatever we might want to find, unless it’s directly under the streetlights (or in our very narrow source base), we’re not going to find it, even if we’re pretty certain it must be around somewhere. In the early medieval period in particular, the lampposts are mostly fixed on royal courts and major religious institutions. For people and places beyond those shining lights, we generally have to hope that their paths will in some way cross these sources of illumination.  A fine example of this happening is the charter translated here (dangerously stepping on Fraser’s toes as the master of all cartulary knowledge in the process). I’m very fond of this one because it gives us an unusual glimpse of a warrior below the highest ranks of the elite. It also provides an illuminating perspective on the endlessly fascinating frontier region known as the Spanish March at an early stage of its development.

(Ed.: the charter as it stands is not preserved without textual question marks, which are illustrated in brackets following the MGH edition.)

DD Karol. 1 no. 179, also Catalunya Carolíngia 2.ii, p.310

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
<The most serene> Charles, by the grace of God, king of the Franks and of the Lombards and patrician of the Romans.
<Let it be known> to all our bishops, abbots, governors, companions, and all our followers, both present and future.
It is right that the power of the king should impart protection upon those who can be proved to need it.
[Therefore, let your greatness and advantage] know that John came to us and showed us the letter which our beloved son Louis [the Pious] had made for him and sent through him to us. And we found in this letter that John himself fought a great battle against the heretics or unbelieving Saracens in the district of Barcelona, where he overcame them at the place called Ad Ponte and slew the aforesaid infidels and took spoils from them. He then presented some of them to our beloved son, the best horse and the best mail coat and a scimitar with a silver scabbard; and he asked him [Louis] for the abandoned hamlet which is called Fontes in the district of Narbonne in order to work on it. He gave him [John] the hamlet and sent him to us.
And when he [John] had come to us with the letter which our son produced for him, he commended himself into our hands. Our said follower John asked that we might grant him the hamlet which our son had given him. We indeed grant him the hamlet itself, with all its borders and its appurtenances in its entirety; and whatever he and his men have occupied or will have occupied; and what they will have cleared from the waste in the village of Fontjoncouse; and what they will have occupied either within its borders or in other places or villages or hamlets; and what he and his men will have taken by aprisio. We grant all these things to him through our donation, so that he and his posterity may have it without any rent or trouble, while they are faithful to us or our sons. And in order that this authority may be held more firmly, we have sealed it under our signet.
Giltbert recognised and subscribed this on behalf of Rado.
Given in the month of March, in the twenty-fifth and eighteenth year of our reign, enacted at our palace at Aachen; happily in the name of God. Amen.

There’s a lot of interest in this short text, but let’s start with the basics. The exact dating of this charter is unclear, as that provided on the charter isn’t coherent. The most likely year is 795, that is before the more than a decade of campaigning through which the Carolingians would seek to expand the March. Louis the Pious was away from Aquitaine for two years from 792, making 794 the earliest he could have had his meeting with John, probably placing the charter grant by Charlemagne in March 795.

I’ve seen it suggested that John’s battle with the Saracens was connected to the invasion ordered by the Umayyad Emir Hisham I in 793. I suspect that that is both unlikely and unnecessary. The incursion of 793 was a fairly serious force that sacked the outskirts of Narbonne and beat the Count of Toulouse in battle, killing a large number of Franks in the process. That sounds like a far larger event than John’s skirmish, although it’s possible that John fought a band that had fanned out from the main invasion force. But we don’t need to assume that it happened then. In his epic poem praising Louis the Pious, Ermold the Black writes about feuds arising from raids on single households. Likewise, the Revised Royal Frankish Annals (s.a. 797) describes Barcelona as an area swinging between Christians and Muslims. This was a tough neighbourhood, and people in the region were quite capable of raiding each other without outside help.

One of the most exciting things about this charter is that it is part of a set. It comes down to us in a twelfth-century manuscript preserved in the cathedral of Narbonne. In 963, a descendant of John gave the land to the cathedral, together with a collection of relevant documents proving ownership, of which this charter was the first. Other documents in the collection included pertinent legislation and reconfirmations of the grant by later Carolingians. In addition, Christoph Haack and Thomas Kohl have recently drawn attention to an oath given by witnesses of the 795 grant in 833 on behalf of John’s son Teudefred. John and Teudefred had been chased off the land by Count Leibulf, but the latter managed to reclaim it, in large part thanks to the witnesses. The result is that we have a dossier that doesn’t just help us follow a family in the Spanish March through the ninth century, but also provides clues to help us understand the charter translated here.

One of those clues pertains to John’s ethnicity. Included in the manuscript is a charter given by Charlemagne in 812 to a group of men called hispani, one of whom is named John. The Emperor promised to protect the rights of these small landowners against the more powerful counts of the region. If, as seems most plausible, we identify this John as the same one from the first charter, this tells us that he and his men were most likely from the Iberian Peninsula (and after all, it takes Juan to know Juan). It is traditional to assume that such men were refugees from Muslim persecution in al-Andalus, and perhaps they were, but nothing in the historical record forces us to assume this. John appears as a warrior with a small following, who shrewdly parlayed success in battle into landed wealth. Although he was clearly a man of some standing, with a warband capable of skirmishing with enemy companies, this nonetheless places him several rungs below the type of military men we normally meet in the sources.

The site of John’s battle, Ad Ponte/To the Bridge, is unknown today, as is Fontes in the country of Narbonne. The oath of 833 tells us that it was originally given to John by a Count Sturmi as aprisio, before being confirmed by Louis and Charlemagne. The term aprisio is one that has been repeatedly discussed by scholars, but broadly it seems to have been a word of Iberian origin, applied to wasteland that was now being occupied. The hamlet of Fontes was deserted, so John raised buildings and cultivated the land. The reason the land was abandoned is uncertain. Saracen raids are one possibility, but there are many others.

There are a number of interesting details in this charter. The reference to the Saracens as ‘heretics’ points to the vagueness of Carolingian understandings of Islam. The discussion of the items presented by John to Louis suggests the importance of booty for warfare in the period, as well as the significance of gifts for relations between lords and followers. We can also see the interesting relationship between the written word and oral testimony. Louis wrote a letter for John that he could take to Charlemagne. Charlemagne confirmed the grant of lands in a text that was carefully preserved so we can read it today. But when John’s possession of the land was questioned, his son reclaimed it using the testimony of witnesses to the original grant. That testimony was itself written down and preserved. The two sources of authority interacted and complemented each other.

There’s much more that could be said about this charter, but it remains one of my favourites for the way it casts a spotlight on the Spanish March and on the people who tried to benefit from its sometimes-volatile nature.

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Peripheral Violence: Kalyvas and the Carolingians

There’s a reasonably large faction of early medieval historians who are somewhat suspicious of theory, a trait which is particularly pronounced at Cambridge. Given this background,my instinct is to be sceptical about applying elegant theoretical models to messy historical reality. On the other hand, I am also a historian specialising in a field that has a shortage of sources. Such a situation encourages omnivorous scholarship, fed by a diet of whatever evidence or ideas you can get your teeth into. As a consequence, early medievalists are magpies by nature, pilfering from archaeology, geography, anthropology and a whole range of other subjects for anything that looks useful/shiny. This post is about one particular shiny object I acquired some years ago which I still find valuable.

Subjects of the Carolingians took part on both sides of many of the conflicts that involved the Frankish empire in the ninth century. Given that civil war was a Carolingian pastime rivalled only by the growing of silly moustaches, this shouldn’t surprise us too much, but it also features regularly in conflicts with outside powers. Powerful Frankish figures from the frontier supported invasions from Muslim Spain on multiple occasions. When Prince Svatopluk I of the Moravians invaded Bavaria in 882, he was accompanied by Count Aribo, whose job it was to stop these sorts of things. Clearly leading Frankish aristocrats had choices to make about whose side they were on when war broke out.

In trying to understand what is going on here, I’ve found useful food for thought in the work of the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, and in particular his book, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006). Kalyvas is interested in modern civil wars, particularly the Greek Civil War of 1943-1949. He argues that the apparently mindless violence that often characterised such conflicts is actually highly (if monstrously) rational based on the logic of the situation combatants find themselves. There’s a lot going on in this book, which uses examples from a wide number of wars since the French Revolution. The theme of strategic uses of violence is explored in a number of different ways. The passages that most caught my attention were the ones which discussed the way local actors were drawn into the wider war on either side.

Soldiers from the Greek Civil War. Conclusions as to how Carolingian warfare would have changed had Charlemagne had an artillery battery will have to remain speculative until my time machine is ready.

For Kalyvas, one of the problems in the way that wars are studied is the assumption that central elites dictate politics and the local population on the peripheries more or less go along with it, fighting for the causes of different ideological movements or powerful factions as a monolith. In reality of course this is very far from the case, as Kalyvas observes ‘more often than not that populations (including ethnic groups) are internally divided into competing families, clans, localities, or other factions (p.11)’. He argues that these local divisions were often more salient for people than conflict on a state level. The outbreak of civil war is important for such groups because:

‘individuals and local communities involved in the war tend to take advantage of the prevailing situation to settle private and local conflicts whose relation to the grand causes of the war or the goals of the belligerents is often tenuous. (p.365)’

Local actors can use the disruption of the broader war to remove enemies and achieve power in their vicinity, provided they legitimise their violence by using the appropriate terminology which makes them combatants on one side of the national conflict. The groups being attacked in this way will then often ally with the other side of the civil war on the time and tested doctrine of ‘my enemy’s enemy’. These alliances allow actors at the centre to expand their power in the periphery by allying with local groups who are already present in those regions. In turn, actors in the locality get muscle and sanction from the centre.

Kalyvas’ case studies are all civil wars from the modern world, which should make us hesitant about applying his conclusions to wars involving external polities in the Carolingian era. Nonetheless, I find his ideas intriguing because they help me with thinking about some of the ninth-century conflicts I’m interested in. A surprising number of wars or almost-wars in the period were triggered by local conflicts which then expanded. The Umayyad invasion of 829 was invited by a number of frontier lords on the Spanish March who were frustrated at the accumulation of power and honours by Bernard of Septimania, led by Willemund, whose family’s position in the March had been undermined by Bernard’s. The Wilhelminer war I mentioned in a recent post on atrocities (because I like picking cheerful topics to write about), was kicked off when one family group attacked Count Aribo because they wanted his title. Aribo called in Svatopluk of Moravia to help him, the Wilhelminer turned to Arnulf of Carinthia, and before you know it everything starts looking a bit Europe 1914. Most notably, in both of these conflicts, key figures or families can be observed changing side shortly afterwards as their local circumstances changed. Bernard’s own son, William, would ally with al-Andalus in order to wage war on the March following the execution of his father by Charles the Bald. In 893, a member of the Wilhelminer family was executed for corresponding with Svatopluk.

Apart from not being pure civil wars, these conflicts differ from the ones Kalyvas describes in that the local violence happens before, and causes, the bigger violence between state actors. The Carolingians wanted none of these wars, and I suspect that Svatopluk wasn’t entirely happy to get pulled into the mess either. That said, in both cases we can see the same pattern of local actors using their alliances with central governments to acquire the military strength and the legitimacy they need to prosecute their own feuds in the periphery. Those alliances existed because the Carolingians and their neighbours wanted to project influence in those border regions because they were worried about the potential for war with each other and needed to ensure that the frontier could be easily defended/invaded according to preference. They did this by cultivating leading figures in the area by giving them official titles or offering them protection. As a result, wider tensions between the Franks and the Umayyads or the Moravians created the conditions for the likes of Willemund or the Wilhelminer to settle scores.

Things I like about this approach:

1.     It gets us thinking about the impact of local politics on state-level conflict. Kalyvas tells us that if we want to understand the success or failure of the national cause, we need to pay attention to pre-existing tensions on a smaller scale. People had their own concerns, which mattered to them as much as the fates of kings. These spheres of politics are motivated by different things, but are nonetheless inherently linked, so that both operate under the influence of the other.

2.     It also helps explain how apparently very distant causes could motivate and mobilise support far away from the centre of the action (you should totally risk your life and limb over whether my brother-in-law’s best friend gets to be king may or may not be the easiest sell otherwise).

3.     I find the awkward coalition of different groups needing each other’s support for purposes that aren’t the same but can be aligned a compelling model for understanding the otherwise very confusing conflicts I encounter in the sources.

Things that I don’t like:

1.     There’s a risk that actors at the centre start coming across as either total rubes who haven’t understood why they get the support they do or as cynics willing to go along with any crime so long as there is something in it for them. Coalition-building was at the core of most medieval politics. Monarchs and ministers who didn’t know exactly who their constituency was weren’t going to last very long. Nor were such rulers necessarily relaxed about the wholesale slaughter of their subjects. Part of the point of having a king was that they can act as an arbiter in conflicts, making sure that justice happened. Allowing one’s allies to settle scores certainly happened, but it had to be done carefully.

2.     The bigger problem here is that it makes it seem like local elites were never interested in state politics and had no political ideas beyond getting stuff and removing enemies. In this reading, only people at the royal court get to have actual values or a capacity to think on multiple levels. As work on the Crusades has shown, medieval elites generally genuinely believed the things they said and were willing to take part in causes that transcended their own immediate interests in the name of faith, nation, justice or loyalty. The Carolingian era is particularly interesting for the number of secular counts on the edge of the empire who seem to have been genuinely committed to the imperial project of reform, corresponding with intellectuals, collecting books and founding religious houses. The civil wars of the ninth century caused real emotional strain for Frankish nobles who believed in a united empire.

These possible problems indicate that we have to be cautious when using this model. Despite this, I think that there is a valuable insight here for how conflicts could spread from the centre to the periphery and vice versa via chains of alliances by linking up apparently unconnected disputes, which is why I have kept it in my collection of shiny items.