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.

Charter A Week 70/2: Restoration

Last time, things were going badly for Louis IV. He was being kept in prison by Hugh the Great, whilst the duke of the Franks decided what to do with him. It’s probable that Hugh wasn’t trying to depose the king, although not certain; but what seems likely is that Hugh was trying to work out just how tightly he could put the screws on. And so, by July 1st, two weeks after Hugh’s charter for Chartres, Louis was released. The price? The price was Laon, which had been held by Louis’ wife Queen Gerberga. Laon was the most powerful and important fortress of the north-east, and by holding both it and Rheims, Hugh could make a reasonable claim to have won the war which he, his late brother-in-law Heribert II of Vermandois, and various kings had been fighting since the late 920s about control in the region.

In return, Louis got to be king again, having his status and honour fully restored to him. This was marked by a ceremony at Chevregny, just south of Laon. No fewer than three diplomas to Cluny were issued on this occasion, but all three are textually similar so – in an experiment with the format – I’ve translated them all side-by-side, so that you can see where they are similar and different.

D L4 no. 27

D L4 no. 28

D L4 no. 29

In the name of Lord God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.


by ordination of divine providence,

by propitiation of divine clemency,

king. (no. 29: king of the Franks).

If We indeed proffer assent to the prayers of servants of God


and as well

their advantage, We far from doubt conserve (no. 27: exercise) royal dignity (no. 28: in all things) and We decree (no. 27: wish) that it should endure in future with the firmest (no. 29 and inviolable) right (no. 28: inviolably).

Therefore, let the industry of all the followers of the holy Church of God and Us, to wit, present and future, know that


most illustrious

most celebrated

princes of Our realm, that is, Hugh [the Great], duke of the Franks, and another Hugh [the Black], (no. 27: to wit,) duke of the Burgundians, and Count Leotald [of Mâcon], approached


the excellence of

Our Royal Serenity, deprecating that We might concede through a royal precept to the monastery of Cluny, consecrated in honour of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul,

certain goods, that is, a church dedicated in honour of St Jon sited in the suburbs of Mâcon, with all the goods pertaining to the same church, and also the estate of Vésines and Ozan, and the woods and estate of Senozan,



a certain little estate, from the rule of the viscount of Lyon. This estate is sited in the same district of Lyon, on the river Saône, which We donate with all the goods pertaining to it, to wit, vineyards and fields,

a certain monastery consecrated in honour of St Stephen, which is named Charlieu, and the cell of Rigny pertaining to it, dedicated in veneration of St Martin; also a church pertaining to the rule of the blessed Martin of Tours, sited in the suburbs of Mâcon. We concede these places named above, sited in the district of Mâconnais, with all the goods pertaining to it, that is, churches, estates, bondsmen of both sexes, vineyards, fields, meadows, woods, waters and watercourses, in their entirety.

with lands, meadows, woods, (no. 28: waters and) great water(no. 28:course)s and little streams, parks, ditches and the port

of the abovesaid Ozan, and other ports


With (no. 27: pastures,) incomes and renders, (no. 28: with pastures) and all adjacencies, and all fisheries (no. 28: and fishers, and all male and female serfs and colonis with their children and their whole kin-group,) sought and to be sought after,

and with Arnulf and his wife and their sons and daughters and all the male and female serfs and children beholden to the aforesaid goods, and their allods within and without, wherever they are, except a third part of Osan which pertains to Saint-Vincent [of Mâcon], and also Sigebert of Davayé with his wife, sons and daughters, with all their allods and goods, and everything which he holds in the said county.

I cede and transfer wholly and entirely

(nos 27, 29: We did this freely both) for love of (no. 28: God) (no. 29: the divine) and of the (no. 28: His) blessed apostles (nos 27, 29: and for Ourself, and also) for the state (no. 28: and stability) of Our realm, and at the same time the salvation of Our princes and all the (no. 27: Christian) faithful (nos 28, 29: of Christ) (no. 28: to wit, the living and the dead.) (nos 27, 29: and We freely assented to their pious and devoted petition.)

Commanding, therefore, We order that hereafter the aforesaid witnesses of Christ (no. 28: judges of the age, that is) the blessed Peter and Paul, and their abbot (no. 28: the abbots and rulers of their aforesaid abbey) and (no. 28: also) the monks serving the same apostles of Christ should hold and possess (no. 29: the aforesaid goods) with the firmest right through


this Our authority,

this authority of Our sublimity,

and whatever they wish to do or judge concerning it, they may enjoy (no. 28: use) free judgement in everything to do (no. 28: and ordain) whatever they choose.

And that this

Our authority

authority of Our Highness

authority of Our Sublimity

might be held more firmly and conserved better through future (no. 28: coming) times, We commanded it be sealed below with Our signet.

Sign of King Louis.

Chancellor Roric witnessed on behalf of [Bishop] Achard [of Langres].

Enacted at the estate of Chevregny, on the 1st July, in the 11th year of the reign of King Louis, when he also recovered Francia.

So everything’s hunky dory now, right? Not quite. You’ll note these acts all have the same intercessors: not just Hugh the Great, but Hugh the Black and Leotald of Mâcon. Hugh the Great – finally – got to be re-acknowledged, for the first time since 936, as dux Francorum in a royal diploma, but this had to be balanced out. Hugh the Black is called dux Burgundionum, a title he had not previously claimed in any of his own acts or any royal diplomas, and which he would not claim in the future. It seems that he, too, agreed with Raymond Pons’ analysis of the problem posed by Hugh the Great: ‘duke of the Burgundians’ meant that he remained Hugh the Black’s equal and not his superior. Equally, the presence of Leotald of Mâcon is interesting. Cluny was of course in the Mâconnais, but there’s more to it than that. Leotald’s presence reminded Hugh the Great that the Burgundians mattered, that they were watching and – bluntly – that they outnumbered them.

The content of the diplomas is also carefully balanced in this regard. The first deals with property in Mâcon itself.  The second, however, deals with land pertaining to the viscounts of Lyon, in the kingdom of Conrad the Pacific, where Hugh the Black was count.  This, though, was counterbalanced by the gift of a church in Mâcon under the rule of the abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours, over which Hugh the Great ruled. That is, we have three different acts speaking to the interests of the three different magnates, rather than having Hugh the Great clearly dictating terms. For all that Hugh the Great might have had his title recognised, after almost a decade of hard fighting, he had not been able to overawe the kingdom’s other leading magnates, and these tense acts were the result.

This makes Louis’ ‘recovering Francia’ somewhat ironic. Hugh’s stripping him of key fortresses meant that the Chevregny acts didn’t convince everyone. For all Flodoard says that he had the royal name and power restored, East Frankish sources were more cynical: Adalbert of Magdeburg said that Louis was ‘expelled from the kingdom’. The reason that Adalbert knew this was that Queen Gerberga spent a big chunk of 946 in her brother Otto the Great’s kingdom trying to call for his help. Next week, we’ll see how that went.

Source Translation: Louis IV in the Midi

Once again, I ummed and erred about which charter to give you for Charter A Week 942, and once again I ended up translating more than I needed. But, given there’s no point letting a perfectly good charter going to waste, and because it also feeds back to things I’ve spoken about before, I thought it would be useful to put this one up on our semi-regular Translation Tuesday. So, a quick reminder of context and then we’ll get on with the show. At the end of 941, Louis IV, forced out of the north-east and Burgundy by a coalition under the overlordship of Otto the Great, began a great tour of the south and west of his kingdom, building up a group of allies to fight back. Last time, we focussed on Poitou, but that wasn’t the only place he ended up going:

D L4 no. 17 – 5th December 941

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity.

Louis, by assent of divine grace, king of the Franks.

If We confer anything to places of the saints surrendered to divine worship for love of God and His saints, or corroborate by Our royal authority that which has been devotedly bestowed by the faithful, We are confident for certain that it will be repaid to Us by the Highest Repayer of all goods.

Wherefore let the industry of all of the faithful of the holy Church of God, both present and also future, know that the monks of the outstanding confessor St Marcellinus of the abbey of Chanteuges, humbly approaching Our the presence of Our Dignity, strenuously asked that We might deign to confirm for them by a precept of Our Regality certain goods, which the late Prior Cunebert and the other brothers of Saint-Julien [de Brioude], for their common salvation, through the consent of Raymond [Pons], prince of the Aquitanians, and of the other magnates of that country, both bishops and laymen, bestowed on the aforesaid monastery, as is sanctioned in their testament.

Proffering Our assent to their petitions, out of love of Christ and His saint, the aforesaid Marcellinus, and owing to the request of Our followers, that is, of Bishop Heiric of Langres and Bishop Godeschalk of Le Puy and of the illustrious Count Roger [II of Laon], We commanded this royal decree be made, in which We through confirming decree and through decreeing confirm that the monks of the aforesaid place of Chanteuges should perpetually possess the said goods in their entirety, with both bondsmen and everything rightly and legally pertaining to it, and that whatever in future might be conceded to them should be corroborated by the same authority.

Finally, We order that no powerful person should inflict on them any prejudice at all, nor unjustly require any renders; rather, let them and all their goods be free and absolved from all dominion of any person. Let them institute an abbot for themselves not through anyone’s command but in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict for all time.

And that this grace of Our authority might be observed inviolably through the succeeding course of times to come by everyone, confirming it with Our hand We order it be confirmed by the image of Our signet.

Sign of the most glorious king Louis.

Odilo the chancellor witnessed on behalf of Heiric, bishop and high chancellor.

Given on the nones of December [5th December], in the 15th indiction, in the 6th year of the reign of the most glorious King Louis.

Happily in the name of God, amen.

Raymond Pons’ role in this diploma is significant. You may remember from 936 that the foundation of Chanteuges was a moment when Raymond made a special display of his power over the elites of Auvergne, a display closely connected with Hugh the Great’s assumption of the title dux Francorum. Now, Louis confirms the original charter. The importance of this is that Raymond Pons and the Auvergnats didn’t have to seek out Louis – Raymond Pons in particular was much geographically closer to Hugh of Arles in Italy. However, in an Auvergnat context in 941, it was considered important to have royal endorsement. The key was that Louis was finally out from under Hugh’s thumb, and could therefore bestow patronage on his rivals. Raymond was ideally placed to take advantage of that, and in this diploma that’s exactly what we see him doing.

If that’s what Raymond was hoping to do, though, then the title he is given in this diploma specifically suggests what Louis IV’s circles were doing. Louis was not an ignorant man. He was well aware of how Raymond had responded to his accession, and to the claims of Hugh the Great. By now acknowledging Raymond’s role as ‘prince of the Aquitanians’, in a diploma to the same institution as the charter of 936, he was participating in this ongoing conversation, endorsing Raymond’s analysis of the problem, and agreeing with its solution.

Raymond’s sphere of influence had never been that closely connected to West Frankish kingship in the ninth century under Charles the Bald, and it’s unsurprising that the rest of Louis IV’s reign saw the king reproduce his predecessors’ much closer ties to königsnah Poitou. However, Raymond and Louis’ joint intervention at this critical moment undoubtedly did much to strengthen Louis’ hand, and gave the young king the in he needed to worm his way into the Midi. A few years later, in 944, as Raymond was probably dying, Louis came back and (as we have talked about in previous posts) rearranged matters in Aquitaine once more. This diploma, then, acts as a pointer towards a West Frankish kingship that has much more geographical reach than is usually allowed – and a southern nobility more concerned with it.

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.

Translating Latin Texts: Le mot juste

Recently, I was doing some peer review on a translation. I thought it was a good translation, and recommended it be published with only a few tweaks, but it was one of several things I’ve seen recently that raised a question which might be interesting to discuss. We do a lot of translation on this website, and if you’ve read them you’ll know that we tend to render every word in English. The translation I was reviewing, and it’s not the only one I’ve seen, kept several words in Latin. I’ll say up front that there’s a case for either approach and I don’t think either is objectively worse, depending on your perspective and goals; but it may be worth writing down why I go for the former option.

First, let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. Here’s a passage from the Bachrach and Fanning translation of Flodoard of Rheims’ Annals (chosen because it’s the easiest example of this in print for me to get – as I write this, which is several weeks before it will go up, I’m in isolation with COVID so my resources are a bit more limited than they otherwise would be):

…King Louis gave the castrum of Amiens to Erluinus. Heribert’s sons took the munitio of Clastres, in the pagus of Vermandois, due to the treachery of Raoul, one of King Louis’s fideles. This Raoul secretly slipped out of the stronghold when Heribert’s sons entered it and plundered the treasures before abandoning the deserted municipium.

B.S. Bachrach & S. Fanning (trans), The Annals of Flodoard of Rheims (Toronto: 2011), p. 39.

As you can see, in these two sentences, five words are untranslated: castrum, munitio, pagus, fideles and municipium. Were I translating the same passage, I would have rendered them as ‘citadel’, ‘fortress’, ‘district’, ‘followers’ and ‘fortress’ again. So what arguments could justify either approach?

I wish my translation work was this well remunerated… (source)

The main argument for leaving some words in Latin is that the word is ‘untranslatable’. In some cases, English can’t convey any of the nuance. Take Vergil’s Aenid, which repeatedly refers to its main character as pius Aeneas. That seems like it should be ‘pious Aeneas’, but a Classically-trained friend of mine once spent a good fifteen minutes explaining to me that this is a very flat translation: pius doesn’t mean that Aeneas is religious, necessarily (although it does include that meaning with its ambit) but that he is dutifully loyal in appropriate ways, especially towards his family. In other cases, English can’t convey wordplay or puns. Gregory the Great’s famous pun that beautiful English slave-boys looked like non Angli sed angeli (‘not Angles but angels’) does work in English, but his follow-up puns don’t – they were from the kingdom of Deira (modern Yorkshire), and Gregory responded bene Deiri, de ira eruti (‘Deira is a good name for it – they will be snatched from God’s wrath’). Or – my favourite – the description of Dominicans as domini canes, ‘the dogs of the Lord’, which also doesn’t really work in English (‘Dominicanines’?). Finally, there are technical terms which some translators deem more appropriate to keep in Latin, in much the same way that people who work on eighteenth-century France tend to keep the French word gabelle rather than putting it into English as ‘salt-tax’. I see these most often in the case of titles (dux is probably the most significant, but marchio also gets this treatment) and fortifications (some well-known medievalists have argued that the endless different Latin words for ‘fortified place’ – arx, castrum, oppidium – and so on all have different technical meanings and so leave them untranslated). I personally find this last point the least sympathetic, not least because at least a few of the arguments that X or Y is a technical term are tendentious and not translating them smells too much of stacking the deck. That is, by leaving these terms untranslated, an artificial sense of a coherent technical terminology is created which might be as if not more misleading than just putting the word in English. Nonetheless, there are certainly ambiguities. Dux is a case in point: I don’t think anyone would object too strenuously to translating dux Normannorum applied to the Viking leader Ragnar in 845 (as indeed it is) as something like ‘Viking chief’ or ‘Scandinavian warlord’; or to translating the same phrase applied to William the Conqueror as ‘duke of Normandy’ in 1066 – but what about when applied to Richard the Fearless c. 970?

All these points are valid, but to leave words untranslated because of them seems to me like an abdication of responsibility. This is a personal point of view – another person may very well see it as due caution – but let me try and explain. To start with, I don’t think translation is the process of transparently rendering a Latin text into an English one; it is (in an academic context, at least) a work of mediation and explanation, a tool to help with understanding the original version. This is so far from being a controversial opinion that it might be almost a commonplace – to go back to the example from Flodoard at the top of this post, the word ‘stronghold’ in the translation isn’t in the Latin but has been added by the translators, making the structure of the sentence smoother in English but also providing a gloss on munitio and municipium – but I think an approach which says that some words are translatable and others aren’t runs the risk of implying it. To take the Bachrach/Fanning translation as an example again, they choose to leave dux in the Latin but render comes as ‘count’, which implies that a comes is straightforwardly comprehensible to English speakers in a way that a dux isn’t – and I am on record on this very blog as not thinking that’s true.

What that means is that not translating Latin words hamstrings a translation’s value as a tool to aid understanding. An important part of translating a text is deciding what the words mean, and refusing to do that in (say) 3% of cases means that the translation is only 97% useful as a tool. It certainly means you as a translator have to make interpretative judgements; but the whole translation is an interpretative judgement, making refusal in particular cases somewhat arbitrary. Sometimes, choosing one rendition of a word or phrase is tricky – but this is exactly the sort of thing that scholarly apparatus exists to discuss: nuance, wordplay and technicalities find their home in footnotes. This does mean that translations are not very useful for doing detailed linguistic analysis of sources. On the other hand, that’s not their job: a translation isn’t a source, it’s a translation of a source, and anything which rests on particularities of the language needs to be related back to the original text. For this reason, I think my comments apply even to translations aimed at an audience of academics, who might have more grounding in the source languages than interested non-academics – anyone who is going to be doing serious research based on an historical text will need to have a copy of the original to hand anyway if the language matters, because by their nature translations are useful but not dependable for this: trust, but verify, as the saying goes.

As I’ve said several times, I think leaving words untranslated is a legitimate choice, and I don’t find it reprehensible or unjustifiable. However, I do think that translating all the words, even the difficult ones, is more helpful, and that’s why I do it.

(Oh, and it almost goes without saying that calling this a post about ‘translation philosophy’ is a little pretentious – there is a large literature which is actually about translation philosophy, to which my only exposure is a couple of comments at the front of Penguin Classics. Consequently, these are only the little musings of a rough-and-ready practitioner and may seem rather naive to anyone who’s actually well-versed in these ideas!) 

Charter A Week 60: Two Responses to the Accession of Louis IV

This is, I promise, the last time I’ll mention the issues of finding charters to translate for the last years of Ralph of Burgundy, but it’s really noticeable how much the accession of Louis IV changes the evidential picture. This is actually the fifth post I’ve written over the years covering the events of 936, and it’s a twofer. That’s right, I couldn’t decide between two charters and so I’ve done both. What links them is that both are responding to Louis’ accession in different ways. The salient point here is that, as we’ve covered before, once Louis was crowned his main backer Hugh the Great took him into Burgundy to try and claim as much of it as possible. You see, Ralph’s brother Hugh the Black, whose powerbase was really more in Transjurane Burgundy, was also trying to do the same thing. We’ve seen before some of the tactics Louis and Hugh the Great tried to use to outbid Hugh the Black for regional support, but we’ve never looked at it from the other side. This brings us to our first charter – one of the most elaborate surviving in Hugh the Black’s name – issued just after the successful conclusion of Louis’ campaign.

ASSA no. 7 (1st September 936, Autun).

In the name of Lord God Eternal and our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Hugh, humble count and margrave.

We wish to make it known to the faithful of the holy Church of God, present and future, but chiefly those before whose presence it should happen that this charter of this Our largess should come, that, when We approached the parts of Autunois for a certain necessary reason and entered the hall of the outstanding martyr St Symphorian to pray, and were awaiting the coming of Our followers there for a little while, there came into the presence of Our view Count Gilbert [of Chalon], Count Alberic [of Mâcon] and his son Leotald, and Our follower Adso, intimating to Our Sublimity that the abbot and prior of that place, Teudo, and the whole multitude of canons dwelling under him were suppliantly asking for some gift for Our commemoration in future; and that the place now seemed to be like it was brought to nothing due to the poverty, need, and want of the canons serving there.

We, then, wishing to obey their advice, for love of God and St Symphorian, and in alms for Our father Richard [the Justiciar] and Adelaide, and as well for the remedy of Our soul, restore and give certain manses of land to the stipends of the brothers serving the church of Saint-Symphorien: to wit, in the county of Beaune, twelve manses of land of fruitful vines in the estate which is called Nolay; and in the same district, in another place, eight-and-a-half manses in the estate of Créancey pertaining to the estate of Panthier which a certain matron named Drosia once gave to Saint-Symphorien.

Moreover, Our said followers beseeched that We might concede to them a charter concerning this gift of Our largess to be held in posterity. And thus We commanded a testament of this Our assent to be made, a decree of which We decreed, and in decreeing We urge that the aforesaid manses of land, with everything pertaining to them, visited and unvisited, should endure perpetually assigned and eternally deputed to the uses of the brothers and canons of Saint-Symphorien, and that they should unceasingly exhort the Lord and St Symphorian for Our life and safety; and, when the time comes and the end of Our life, let them, moved by mercy and led by piety, not neglect to commemorate the day of Our death, sustained by the aforesaid goods.

May peace and blessings, long life and joy, honour, praise and glory without any end come to those who conserve this Our decree; but to those who destroy it, may their part be anathema maranatha, be written with Judas, the betrayer of the Lord, and may they be thought of with Dathan and Abiron whom the Earth swallowed alive, subject to an endless curse.

And that this charter of Our largess might in the name of God grasp fuller firmness, We confirmed it with a touch and We asked it be confirmed by Our followers written herein.

Enacted at Autun, happily in the Lord, amen.

Sign of Count Hugh. Sign of Count Gilbert. Sign of Count Alberic. Sign of Adso. Sign of Humfrid. Sign of Viscount Robert [of Dijon]. Sign of Humbert. Sign of Witlenc. Sign of Manfred. Sign of Hugh. Sign of Leotald.

Given on the first day of the month of September, in the …th indiction, in the first year of the reign of King Louis.

I, Boso, chaplain of Saint-Symphorien, wrote and gave this.

As you can see right at the end there, by this point Hugh has recognised Louis as king, so this is probably after the division of Burgundy into spheres of influence. Partly, in fact, the charter seems to be asserting spheres of influence. As we’ve seen before, the big bone of division was over Langres. The end result of the fighting seems to have been to split the diocese of Langres in two, leaving the south under Hugh’s direct influence. The estates he confirms here are significant, therefore: they are in the county of Beaune, but the north of it (specifically, Créancey the northernmost of the two estates, is in Auxois). This is an assertion of power: Louis might have cut him out of Langres, but Hugh can still reach pretty far north.

With that said, it’s unlikely that any division cut Hugh off from his support. What we can see here, I think, is very much his established following and I don’t think that a charter from, say, July 936 would have had a witness list that looks very different. The biggest petitioners are Alberic of Mâcon and Gilbert of Chalon. Alberic is an old hand here: in addition to being count of Mâcon, he’s also count of Besançon, another significant Transjurane player and someone who has been allied to Hugh for a good long while now. The bond between Hugh and Gilbert is a little less obvious, but nonetheless present. Gilbert was a major figure in Ralph’s Burgundy and with a power-base mostly around Chalon, another important southern figure. The final titled person here, Viscount Robert of Dijon, supports the idea that the north/south split was a de facto division as much as anything else. And, of course, on the southern front, this is all taking place in Autun – although, you’ll note, without Bishop Rotmund being present. If he had (as I’ve suggested) had his coat turned by Hugh the Great and Louis, maybe he was persona non grata that winter?

Our second charter takes us to a familiar place and a familiar response. We’ve seen before that Hugh of Arles was a bit worried about all of this. He wasn’t the only one.

Brioude no. 337 (28th August 936, Brioude)

The Commander of everything good and the Lover of human salvation, Who gave himself for our redemption, has deigned to look out for us such that we can buy eternal prizes from the transitory goods which we will leave behind after a short time when death interrupts us. Wherefore it is greatly expedient that we should endeavour to entrust if not all then part of the doomed goods which we secure by His grant to His service, so that (that is) when the others are used up in the usages of this life, we might rejoice that what we gave to Him will remain with us forever.

Therefore, let everyone, both present and future, who will take their place in the congregation of the most blessed martyr Julian at Brioude, that I, Cunebert, levite and prior of the aforesaid congregation, at the exhortation and with the consent, to wit, of lord Hector, our dean, and all the canons of our said congregation of all ages, hand over a certain possession named Chanteuges in honour of our Saviour and the holy martyrs, to wit, in the first place the said lord Julian and another Julian, nicknamed ‘of Antioch’, and Saturninus, churches of the two of whom have been built therein, for this end: that hereafter a monastic way of life might exist therein. My grandfather Claudius, himself a convert, wished to make this possession a canonical congregation, as did his wife; she managed her other part with holy nuns, and because she was overtaken by death she left the aforesaid possession to me by right of a testament, so that after her death it should remain with St Julian at the abbey of Brioude.

However, since I and our abovesaid Dean Hector and all the brothers spoke frequently of the perils of this life and as well the tremendous trail of the Final Judgement, at length we all came to this consensus: that we should hand over the aforesaid place to a stricter way of life, that is, of monks, for our common salvation; and because charity already grows cold, since iniquity overflows all around and the order of things is soon overthrown such that we are unable to change our way of life to the canonical institution, at least it should benefit us before the Lord if we sustain from our rights those who might live according to the Rule, particularly fearing this, that for the honour of our lord Julian much should be given by us in alms lest it should happen that the Judge of All should impute to us that prophecy and hold us to have eaten up the sins of the people.

Both Prince Raymond [Pons] of the Aquitanians, and our abbot and viscount Dalmatius [I of Brioude] and certainly our bishop Arnald [of Clermont] and also the excellent men of this region, to wit, Bertrand and Viscount Robert [of Clermont] and the younger Robert and Eustorgius, and certain other provincials, consented to this decree in order that they would not be seen to rejoice half-heartedly, abjuring, indeed, their successors, in the name of God and the aforesaid holy martyrs, and chiefly indeed the most holy lord Marcellinus, bishop of Embrun, whose most holy body (with many other relics of the saints) were at the present time, by God’s gift, received in that place, that each of them in his time should defend this our constitution as much as possible, and that they should never endure that it be infringed.

Let this offering be first for our congregation, both living and dead; and then for our king and lords and our abovesaid princes, as well as for our kinsmen and intimates. After that – just all of us members of the church are held in one binding of charity, thus let it profit all of the faithful, so that we might be able to share in the good of each; then let this offering be, truly, for the soul of Duke William [the Pious] and his nephews William [the Younger] and Acfred, and for the soul of Claudius – to wit, my grandfather – and the other deceased; otherwise, let it be specially for all of those who offered defence or solace to this place and its inhabitants.

If anyone, God forbid, should contradict this Our ordination, or try to change this we have decreed to injure us and St Marcellinus and the aforesaid holy martyrs, not only let them be deprived of this reward, but also, unless they correct themselves, let them incur the crime of a reckless person and persecutor before Christ’s tribunal; and beholding their own damnation, let them be immersed in the inferno by the Devil with Judas, betrayer of the Lord.

We also communally decree that we should commit the case and execution of this matter to the venerable lord abbot Odo [of Cluny]; and because he is occupied with many other things, therefore we delegate the business of the aforesaid matter to the most reverend man lord abbot Arnulf to be carried out. Let the monks, with their abbot, lead a life entirely according to the Rule as it was handed down by the blessed Benedict. After the death of the present abbot, moreover, let them make another for themselves not in accordance with the ordination of anyone else, but in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict; and let them and all their goods be free and absolved from all dominion of any person.

Therefore we entrust to the service of God and the holy Rule, absolved in every way, the aforesaid place of Chanteuges, sited on one side on the river Allier and on the other on the river Desges, with two churches, as we said, with other woods, meadows, waters, mills, all their adjacencies, cultivated and uncultivated, currently known and to be discovered; with another wood, that is, named Bourleyre. This place is in the district of Auvergne, in the county of Brioude, in the vicariate of the same estate. We also give to that place, in another place, the estate which is called Vaunat with all its adjacencies; and in another place, one double manse, called Benac, in its entirety; in that aich, two manses, of which one is called Bonnavat, in its entirety; and in the vicariate of Nonette, in the estate which is called Collanges, and in that aich, two manses called Combrunas, and in that vicariate, in the estate which is named Sauciat, as much in these estates as we are seen to have and possess, we cede wholly there with all its adjacencies. And I, Cunebert, for the honour of God our Saviour and the most holy Marcellinus and other saints whose merits are venerated there by all, cede to that place something from the goods of my property which fell to me through acquisition and inheritance legitimately; that is, in the estate called Paredon, three manses, with all their adjacencies, and in that aich, in the estate called Rivacus, two manses with appendages, with a garden and an indominical meadow; and in another place called Vaillac, three manses in their entirety, as much in those said estates as I am seen to have and possess; and in another place which is called Cros, as much there as I acquired from Ainard, and will be able to acquire both in land and in vineyards.

I give, transfer and give over this wholly and entirely to God, as was written above, the Saviour, and Saint Marcellinus; but, because the said place was bestowed from the dominion of Saint-Julien, as the case is being enacted for spiritual reasons, thus we ordered that spiritual rent should be rendered for the sake of recognising possession (nothing to men); to wit, that they should on ordinary days pay two psalms for the living and the office for the dead in each of the Regular hours. Indeed, our congregation holds a privilege, conceded anciently, that is, from the time of King Pippin, that whatever we might communally decree concerning the goods of our church should endure entirely undisturbed and inviolable. Therefore we pray and call to witness through the Lord and in the Lord and through all His saints, that no king at all, nor any bishop, nor any viscount, nor (as was said above) any person at all might presume to disturb this our constitution, fearing the divine warning which says ‘‘Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark’, and he who consents, and let him deserve blessings who consents to good.’

Sign of Cunebert, prior and levite, who asked this constitution to be made and confirmed. Sign of Raymond, duke of the Aquitanians, whose other name, by God’s will, is Pons. Sign of Bishop Godeschalk [of le Puy]. Sign of Viscount Dalmatius. Sign of Ingelberga. Sign of Dalmatius [II of Brioude], his son. Sign of Bertrand. Sign of Stephen. Sign of Viscount Robert. Sign of Bertelaicus. Sign of Eustorgius. Sign of Bernard. Sign of Wirald. Sign of Rodrand.

The authority of this testament given on the fifth kalends of September [28th August], in the first year of the reign of lord king Louis, in the basilica of the nourishing martyr Julian, before the altar of Saint Stephen.

I’ve actually spoken about the politics behind this one before so I can be shorter here than with the above. There are two main arguments here. First, Raymond Pons of Toulouse is never otherwise seen this far north. This is probably a show of force to rally support: with Ralph dead, the settlement of affairs in Auvergne which he oversaw and which we’ve discussed in passing in a couple of previous Charter A Weeks was potentially vulnerable. This meant that Raymond’s loose suzerainty could be challenged – but it could also be reinforced. Hence his presence here alongside the great and the good, reminding them of his claims and his power. Second, the claim to be ‘duke of the Aquitanians’ is new. Such a claim must be a response to Hugh the Great’s claim to be ‘duke of the Franks’, a denial of Hugh’s authority over Raymond and a claim that his status is equal. Even more, it may well be a warning to Hugh not to try anything in Aquitaine.

Hugh didn’t try anything in Aquitaine, but he did in Burgundy. Details are scanty, but it seems he cut a separate deal with Hugh the Black, leaving Louis IV out of the loop. Why he did this is unknown, and it appears to involve a change in his intentions since summer 936 (so much for Good Guy Hugh, past me…) but it’s the first sign of some really serious tensions between Hugh the Great and Louis. Next time on Charter A Week, we’ll look for a sign of some more…

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!]

Charter a Week 25: Richard the Justiciar’s Time in the Limelight

After Robert of Neustria’s departure from court in summer 900, he stayed away for several years. Charles, whose favouring of Richard the Justiciar had probably instigated the conflict in the first place, continued to favour Richard. Although he continued to build up wider alliances, it was unquestionably Richard who held the dominant place at court:

DD CtS no. 38 (22nd April 901, Troyes)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Charles, by grace of God king.

If We freely give a hearing to the petitions of servants of God, We copy works of royal excellence and through this We do not doubt that We will gain possession of the prize of eternal life.

Therefore, let the industry of all the faithful of the holy Church of God, to wit, present and future, know that Our follower, the venerable, the most noble of counts, and as well abbot of the monastery of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre, Richard [the Justiciar], approaching the clemency of Our Highness, sought from Our Munificence that We might concede certain goods from the same abbacy to the monks of the same most holy place for use in the stipends of the monks; to wit, twenty little manses sited in the district of Auxerrois, in the estate which is called Irancy, which Walcaud and Leotard used to hold in benefice.

Lending the ears of Our Sublimity to his right salutary requests, which are beneficial for Our soul, We conceded the aforementioned goods to the same sacrosanct place, and We commanded this precept of Our Magnitude be made and given to them concerning it, through which We confirm that the same goods should eternally serve their uses, and, disturbed by no-one, no abbot, nor any officer or judicial power, We decree in entrusting them to them that they be perennially possessed, on the authoritative terms that they should possess the freest judgement in anything whatever they should decree be done with the same things for their needs, and that the aforesaid monks, faithfully and worthily thinking upon this largess, should not desist from beating the pious ears of God Almighty with continuous prayers for Our safety and the state of Our whole realm and the salvation of Our beloved and faithful Richard.

And that this largess might be held more firmly through many times to come and be more diligently be conserved in perpetuity by all God’s faithful, confirming it below with Our own hand, We commanded it be signed with the impression of Our signet.

Given on the 10th kalends of May (22nd April), in the 3rd indiction, in the 9th year of the reign of and 3rd year of the restoration of unity to the kingdom by Charles, most serene of kings.

Enacted and confirmed at the city of Troyes.

Happily in the name of God, amen.

The abbey of Saint-Germain-d’Auxerre as it appears today (source)

This is one of the five royal diplomas Richard petitioned for between summer 900 and spring 903 (out of a total of 11 surviving acta). It was issued at Troyes, well outside of Charles’ usual travel range. The 22nd April in 901 was just after Easter – the implication seems to be that Charles went to visit Richard in Burgundy for Eastertide, an idea perhaps reinforced by a diploma purporting to have been issued in Autun in March 901. As it currently stands, it is an obvious forgery; but if real information is underlying that dating clause, it could support this suggestion.

In any case, this diploma shows how high Richard’s star was at court in the early 900s. His description as venerabilis et nobilissimus comes, set et fidelis noster necnon et abbas monasterii Sancti Germanii is a very high-flown bit of titulature, and his inclusion in the prayer clause is very unusual in Charles’ diplomas. This is a remarkable bit of favour.

Richard’s time in the spotlight would come to an end relatively shortly. Next week, however, we’ll be taking a quick peek outside the West Frankish kingdom.

A Time of Origins in Aquitaine: The Peace of God, Ducal Power, and the “Vita Amabilis”

So I recently had cause to be in Cambridge, and whilst catching up with the University Library there I discovered a fascinating new document which provides insight on Auvergnat history and the Peace of God, and I’d like to share it all with you. You see, I went back to Christian Lauranson-Rosaz’s L’Auvergne et ses marges. This is a very large book, and I’ve never read it cover-to-cover because in addition being very large it’s also quite blinkered and in a lot of ways a bit weird. But you can’t fault it for comprehensiveness, and so it was that I turned to the passage on early eleventh-century Auvergne and found reference to the Vita of St Amabilis of Riom.

A fifteenth-century image of Riom (source)

What does it say? The relevant portion of the text opens with a reference to a Bishop Stephen of Clermont, whom everyone loved. He was a great pastor, and he got everyone in Auvergne to swear an oath to him on holy relics. However, the Devil inspired them to leave the path of peace and they called on William, count of Poitiers and Aquitaine, who attacked Stephen and besieged Riom, although they couldn’t take it. Eventually, Stephen was able to overcome William despite his smaller forces and the count returned home empty-handed.

Now, Lauranson-Rosaz dates this text – as far as I can tell entirely arbitrarily – to the reign of Duke William the Great, around 1015-ish. But I read the excerpts in the footnotes and went ‘Count William of Poitiers fighting Bishop Stephen of Clermont in the Auvergne? That sounds familiar!’ and rushed off to Gallica to check the text. And it turns out if you read the Vita Amabilis, a) there’s no reason at all to put is in c. 1010, but b) there are hints that it is a tenth-century composition. First, the William in question is described as comes Pictavensium et Aquitanicum. By the eleventh century, the counts of Poitiers have been claiming to be dux Aquitanensium for several decades – the terminology is unusually consistent. But right in the 960s, at the very beginning of the dukes’ claims to be dukes, they’re a bit more fluid, and William Towhead is at one point comes ducatus Aquitanici, much closer to the version in the Vita. This is far from proof, but it is suggestive. Just as important is the other name the text gives, that of a cleric named Ragenfred. I was able to look through my charters, and as it happens there isn’t anyone named Ragenfred recorded in the early eleventh century, only in the late tenth. It could still be that this is an otherwise-unrecorded Ragenfred, of course, but personally I’m fairly confident that this is a text written in the 960s.

As a description of Auvergnat politics in the 950s, in addition to according quite well with the other sources, it sheds some extra light. First off, it raises a very exciting possibility about the earliest origins of what would become the Peace of God. Most historians see the Peace as reactive, a response to… well, something, it’s debated, but often social disruption or knightly violence. What the text seems to suggest though is that at its earliest point, swearing an oath to a bishop within a discourse of peace was itself an act of disruption. This makes sense to me – as we’ll see in a couple of weeks, I’m happy seeing the peace tradition, small-p and big-P, not as a pragmatic peacekeeping measure so much as a claim to local or regional authority, so the idea that it started as a hegemonic gesture by Stephen II fits that neatly. This is also probably what annoyed the Auvergnat magnates – as far as I know, taking general loyalty oaths is a royal thing, and Stephen may well have been perceived as a usurper, especially given how tied in he was to royal legitimacy. It’s a shame that we can’t fit it too closely with that 958 charter, because it would be nice to know how the ‘princes of the Auvergne rebelling against one another’ matched with this document’s chronology… (I suspect the 958 charter is after these events, which puts Stephen’s oath-taking in around 954, which is very interesting timing, as King Louis IV would have recently died… More to think on here.)

What it also shows is William Towhead taking advantage of Auvergnat dissension to try and increase his own power there. The counts of Poitou, as we’ve seen before, had no history in the Auvergne and no reason to intervene there – unless they were drawn in. In short, this text might also be an important insight into the origin of the wider hegemony of the dukes of Aquitaine in the early eleventh century as well as into the very beginnings of the Peace of God. Watch this space!

Some Issues in Aquitanian History, pt. 8: Becoming the Counts of Clermont

If Louis V was the new hotness, the career of Bishop Stephen of Clermont’s nephew Guy shows that the power of the more rooted families was by no means old and busted.

Pictured: Guy of Clermont and Louis V (source: property of Columbia Pictures)

Guy’s attempt to assert his power in Auvergne after Stephen’s death was less showy than that of the Carolingians, but led to longer-term success. Guy appears a few times in Stephen’s reign, first appearing around 950-960 when he must have been fairly young, and then appearing in the Rigald charter we discussed previously as a viscount, signing after his brother Robert. Robert appears to have been the older brother, and to have died around the same time as Bishop Stephen: a charter of May 980 (which is, frustrating, the only document of Guy’s dossier which is dated) has Guy, ‘viscount of the city of the Auvergne’, making a donation for the souls of both men.

It’s an interesting document. May 980 is more-or-less right the time that Louis V is being made king of Aquitaine, so it’s interesting that the donation is of property in southern Burgundy to the abbey of Cluny and that most of the ‘old families’ of the Auvergne appear to be witnessing – it implies they’re not in Aquitaine at that moment. Guy does Bishop Stephen’s old trick of putting himself at the head of a prayer association of his relatives. The introduction of the charter announces that this should be known to ‘everyone… to wit, kings and dukes and counts’, which is very much not Stephen praying for the reigning monarch but hasn’t cut them out the loop either. It’s also interesting that Guy is called viscount rather than ‘count’ here. My suspicion is that this is Guy – and the ‘old families’ more broadly – hedging their bets and waiting to see how Louis V’s kingship works out. After all, Louis’ connections, although significant, weren’t with them…

After the early 980s, though, Guy was more open about his power. At some point, perhaps in 984, Guy was at some more gatherings of the ‘old families’. Two charters, one to Sauxillanges and one to Brioude, feature two different men named Viscount Bertrand donating to these abbeys with Count Guy as their overlord: the donation of Bertrand, husband of Faith, has Guy as Bertrand’s almsman, to whom he entrusts the carrying-out of the donation; the other charter is by Guy’s brother Bertrand husband of Arsinda, where he is viscount and Guy is count. There is some overlap in the witness lists – a scribe named Stephen, a guy named Gozbert – which makes me think these donations are connected. If so, 984 would be a reasonable guess at the year – the first donation is a larger gathering, which suggests a church festival. It took place on a Sunday in March, and as it happens between the early 980s and Guy’s death c. 990 the only year Easter took place in March was 984. This logic ain’t exactly watertight, but it’s a reasonable stab, and in any case I’d be mildly surprised if Guy wasn’t up and running with his full suite of claims to authority by the mid-980s anyway. The difference here would be the chronology – I suspect that these charters are the ‘old families’ actually acknowledging that Guy is now preeminent amongst them, although obviously I can’t prove that.

Certainly, by what must have been the mid-980s because Guy’s career isn’t that long, he was referring to himself in a charter as princeps Arvenorum, ‘prince of the men of the Auvergne’ (coincidentally this was what Vercingetorix was called, but I’m 95% sure that’s a coincidence), again donating for Stephen’s soul. He makes appearances in a couple more charters, always with some specific reference to his predominant position – for Prior Eustorgius of Clermont Cathedral, Guy was ‘my lord’; for Hugh the priest – who was evidently a member of the same social cluster – he was ‘our defender’.

Guy died around 990, but his brother William became count in his stead, and his descendants after him. The later counts don’t appear to have had to fight for their position in the way Guy did, so clearly he did a good job. In fact, the right of the rulers of Clermont to be counts was retroactively accepted around 1020 – when King Robert the Pious confirmed Guy’s 980 donation to Cluny, Guy was named as count, not as viscount. The line of counts continued until the fourteenth century, so of all the attempts to rule Auvergne it was the longest-lasting. However, that longevity came with a price. We’ve seen Guy using some of the same techniques of legitimation as Stephen, but on a smaller scale. The prayer community wasn’t as large, nor was it any longer connected to the kings. In fact, Guy seems to have worked largely on getting his face-to-face subordinates to acknowledge his superiority in their own documents. This led to a shrinking of the political community, pretty much back to just the ‘old families’ of the Auvergne. There was, however, a closer successor to Bishop Stephen in terms of reach and ambition if not blood, and like Guy he would leave a long-term legacy to the European world – but his would go far beyond the confines of the county of Clermont.