Fantasy Writing and the Early Middle Ages

A long legacy of fantasy, as Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir in this twelfth-century carving from Hylestad Stave Church.

Places and people from the past become inextricably linked to particular genres of writing in the present. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story set in Regency England will be in want of a costume romance. The spectre of the Gothic looms over any tale located in Transylvania before the twentieth century. And any fiction set in Los Angeles in the 1940s is going to let you know they’re trouble when they walk into your office with legs that go all the way down to the ground. In the case of the Early Middle Ages, that genre is fantasy. The association stretches back to the Middle Ages themselves. Well before Tolkien began crafting a world for his languages, jongleurs carried songs of Arthur, Attila and Charlemagne through the courts of Europe, while farmers and merchants in Iceland passed long lightless winters listening to sagas about years gone by. That the writer who did more than anyone else to codify modern fantasy was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies with a special interest in Beowulf certainly didn’t hurt either.

The bibliography on the influence of the early medieval world on Tolkien’s fantasy writing is enormous and I have no intention of attempting to add to it. But as a professional specialising in the Early Middle Ages with a deep fondness for fantasy as a genre, it struck me that it might be interesting to think about the ways in which fantasy writers since Tolkien have engaged with the period in their writing. In doing so, I’d like to consider what it is about the early medieval world that they find useful and interesting, what that says about popular perceptions of the period, and what ideas, if any, historians can take from them. My method in selecting examples is highly scientific – I raided the contents of my book shelves and my kindle in no particular order. For this reason, it is by no means exhaustive, being anglophone, with a heavy emphasis on the 2000s (aka my teenage years when I had pocket money and a lot of free time) and reflective of my (very) peculiar tastes. Nonetheless, upon reflection I think certain trends emerge which are potentially revealing.

Filing the Serial Numbers Off: Guy Gavriel Kay

Few fantasy writers have made the inspiration they drew from the Early Middle Ages more obvious than Guy Gavriel Kay, whose literary career began when he worked as Christopher Tolkien’s assistant in editing his father’s unpublished works. The majority of Kay’s books are set in fictionalised versions of real-world settings, many of which are from the early medieval period. These include The Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998, 2000, based on Byzantium in the age of Justinian), The Last Light of the Sun (2004, Alfred the Great and the Vikings), and, my personal favourites, The Lions of al-Rassan (1995, eleventh-century Spain) and Under Heaven (2010, eighth-century China).

Although Kay clearly does considerable research for each book, the setting is ultimately there to serve the story and he very reasonably compresses timelines and characters for narrative economy. The early medieval world provides Kay with epic backdrops, settings filled with colour and scale, and dramatic events kickstarting the conflicts that drive the plot. Generally the broad sweep of the history remains the same, with the big exception being The Sarantine Mosaic which throws a couple of fairly large counterfactuals into the mix. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Kay’s use of the Early Middle Ages, and one of my favourite things about his books in general, is how beautiful his settings are. As we shall see, when the early medieval period is used to provide a fantasy background, it’s normally for a rather grim state of affairs. Kay’s early medieval worlds are culturally rich, filled with art and poetry and song. Despite widespread prejudice, they are also spaces where people of different faiths and races can meet and try to understand each other. Unlike many other works that draw on the period, the tragedy in Kay’s stories is not that the Early Middle Ages are here, but that they are going and with them their beauty and their tolerance. His best writing evokes these fragile middle grounds, creating quiet moments of grace that take place just before the wrecking storm. These spaces are doomed, but that makes them all the more precious. Kay’s ability to see the wonder in the Early Middle Ages helps explain his popularity among medievalists more generally, and is the reason The Lions of al-Rassan is a book I return to every year.

Widukind and Friends: Kate Elliott

As we shall see throughout this post, some early medieval settings are more attractive than others. Arthur and the end of Roman Britain will always attract a crowd. Similarly, anything with Vikings in it does well, particularly when we throw in the compulsory trip to Constantinople. Fantasy depictions of tenth-century Germany on the other hand are rather more unusual. Hesitant though I am to say it, I fear that the Ottonians lack the raw sex appeal of other inhabitants of the Early Middle Ages (Saxon-appeal on the other hand…). Fantasy books that cite Widukind are rare birds indeed.

Rare, but not unheard of thanks to Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series (1997-2006), which is set in an unusually convincing fantasy world based on Ottonian Germany. Fantasy it most certainly is, being stuffed full with magic, monsters, rock-creatures for Vikings, and interdimensional elves which come in Roman and Aztec flavours. These elements are grounded by a thoroughly researched human society based on tenth-century itinerant kingship. (It probably helps that the author’s sister is a professor specialising in medieval German literature.) Elliott adds weight and believability to her world through her close attention to material culture and day to day logistics. A hundred warriors are a considerable army in this setting, and one that needs to be fed. Elliott is skilled enough that such realities add to the plot rather than slowing it down. Even the magic acquires a certain verisimilitude from her use of early medieval scholarship (and a healthy dose of Macrobius).

Perhaps my favourite element is the handling of religion. Modern fantasy writers tend to struggle with the role of religion in their early medieval analogues, if they don’t drop it altogether, often reverting to faith as a cynical con perpetrated by a corrupt church. Crown of Stars certainly features plenty of ecclesiastical shenanigans. But Elliott constructs an interesting religious world based on the teachings of Bardaisan of Edessa, where faith imbues every part of society. Although all the characters have different relationships to it, religion matters practically, spiritually and culturally for our protagonists. The result is a vivid depiction of an early medieval world.

Stories of Arthur: Philip Reeve

In discussing the Early Middle Ages as an inspiration for fantasy writing, Arthur is the 1000-pound bear in the room. There is no possible way anyone can briefly summarise the influence of Camelot and company. Generally, when people write stories about Arthur, they follow one of two routes. Either they embrace the weirdness of the medieval source material with plenty of magic and very little attention to historical context, or they go full ‘Dark Age Arthur’, cutting the mythology out in favour of a gritty allegedly realistic setting. As a rule, I tend to prefer the first approach (which is how you get the superb The Green Knight film from 2021) to the second (which is how you get a horribly miscast and inexplicably Pelagian Clive Owen fighting the Saxons on Hadrian’s Wall). But because this post is about using the early medieval past for fantasy narratives, the latter strand is more directly relevant for us today.

In these sorts of stories, the early medieval past is used to strip out Arthurian weirdness and replace it with something more grounded. Done straight, ‘Dark Age Arthur’ can be very good indeed, with Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (1995-1997) being a fine example. But something about the contempt with which a lot of these narratives cannibalise the mythology rubs me the wrong way. For this reason, the book I’d like to mention in this section is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2007). Despite being written for a YA audience, Reeve’s Arthurian world is a dark place indeed. His Arthur is one armed thug with a retinue among many fighting over the carcass of western Britain, distinguished only by his violence and by his patronage of Myrddin. The latter, who is a bard, wizard and spin-doctor extraordinaire, is determined to unite Britain against the Saxons by turning Arthur into a heroic legend. Our main character, Gwyna, becomes Myrddin’s assistant in this endeavour.

Reeve has a lot of fun with Myrddin’s cunning schemes, as he stage-manages a number of familiar literary episodes. But what I particularly like about this book is his willingness to embrace some of the weirder elements of Arthuriana and medieval culture. His handling of gender and sexuality in the Early Middle Ages is particularly bold for 2007 and serves as a nice nod to the complexity that medieval gender studies have been revealing for decades. Reeve’s Age of Arthur is a fluid world, defined by the stories that people tell, and all the more fascinating for it.

In the Far Future there is only the Dark Ages: Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie

One recent trend in fantasy writing is to use the Early Middle Ages as the blueprint for a postapocalyptic world. This is something employed by Mark Lawrence in his The Broken Empire trilogy (2011-2013, followed by The Red Queen’s War, 2014-2016 set in the same world) and by Joe Abercrombie in his Shattered Sea trilogy (2014-2015). Both feature elite young male protagonists relying upon their intelligence and ruthlessness to survive and thrive in a Hobbesian war against all. Both are also incredibly dark narratives, in which our main characters do appalling things. Because of these parallels, I’m talking about them together.

Much of the action in The Broken Empire takes place in a setting that draws heavily on traditional views of France in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Our teenage protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, reads like a cross between Fulk Nerra and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We encounter him leading a merry band of droogs on a brutal rampage across a war-torn northern France. The Shattered Sea treads slightly more familiar ground, set in a postapocalyptic Baltic with a strong Viking flavour (our protagonists even travel to Miklagard in the second book). Born into a royal family with a crippled hand, Yarvi was meant to enter the church but unexpectedly becomes a king. Betrayed and sold as a slave, Yarvi seeks his revenge, giving the plot a pleasing hint of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The first thing that raises eyebrows is of course the idea that the Early Middle Ages is what naturally happens when civilisation collapses. I’ve talked about my problems with the idea of the Dark Ages before. This sort of thing undermines our ability to see the period on its own terms, and understand both its beauty and the unique factors that shaped it. There is nothing natural about the Middle Ages, and treating it as a short hand for the state of nature short-changes it. That said, Lawrence and Abercrombie do make good use of the concept. The visual image of a dark age warlord hunkered down in a fortified office block rereading his treasured copy of Plutarch, or of a band of Vikings exploring the irradiated ruins of modern Stockholm, is a striking one, which adds to the atmosphere of the narrative. I particularly like the way radiation and other postapocalyptic standbys are interpreted via medieval stories of magic and the Monstrous Races, giving a fresh feel to both sets of concepts.

I think as a medieval historian I should probably object to the depiction of the Early Middle Ages as a period of constant warfare characterised by political instability and treachery. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I can. I think it’s safe to say that both Lawrence and Abercrombie struggle with the role of faith and ideology in politics. The idea that people might actually believe in things beyond survival, self-advancement and loyalty to one’s intimates doesn’t really make much of an appearance. That said, I can’t think of many successful well-sourced early medieval rulers who didn’t have an awful lot of blood on their hands. Frankly, the Early Middle Ages could be extremely violent and unstable, although not all the time or at a constant level, and not mindlessly.

Both The Broken Empire and the Shattered Sea take a stab at thinking about how people’s environments and the structure of their societies turn them into bloodstained villains. Where I think they differ is on what they lead into. Lawrence hints that the game can be won, that a Leviathan can emerge to create peace, but that it may require a monster to do so. (Whether a good person can break the wheel is a question he ducks in one of the more disappointing moments in the series). Abercrombie is more sceptical, viewing these events as an escalating cycle, in which efforts to create order through violence lead to more chaos as acts of cruelty beget further cruelty. Trying to read too coherent a philosophy of politics and history into books that are meant to be entertaining may be missing the point. Ultimately both series succeed at their basic ambition of being enjoyable reads if your taste runs to dark fantasy.

Magic and the Waning of the Early Middle Ages: Naomi Mitchison

Travel Light (1952) is probably the weirdest book I want to talk about today. It’s certainly the shortest, clocking in at 135 pages in my copy. Into that relatively brief length, Mitchison crams a huge amount. The book begins as a fairytale for children, a charming and funny story about how a girl named Halla is raised by bears and dragons in the wilds of Scandinavia, with strong nods to Norse mythology. The tone very quickly acquires a tragic air, eventually becoming a surprisingly dark political thriller in which Halla must navigate literally Byzantine court intrigue in Miklagard. But this is merely the second act, leaving a final act that is sad, ambiguous and hauntingly beautiful.

Naomi Mitchison refuses to make things easy for us as the reader. Every time we think we know what genre of story we’re reading and what kind of endgame we’re leading towards, she upends our expectations. Even as she changes, Halla ultimately chooses to remain free and authentic to herself, even when those choices impose costs upon her. Having experienced human civilisation, she sides with the world of magic and dragons, even when its clear both that that world is doomed, and that her own humanity makes it impossible for her ever to truly be a part of it. Halla walks her own path, and not even the Allfather, or the love of her life, can stop her.

In terms of its depiction of the early medieval world, what I find interesting about Travel Light is that it shows the onset of the Early Middle Ages as a tragedy not because it represents an anarchic breakdown of order, but because it is too civilised. The colonisation of the wildernesses of the north marks the end of freedom and magic. Whether it is the corrupt inequality of Byzantium, or the patriarchal brutality of the Russias, the world of men (and it is very much men) does not come across well in this story. Throughout the narrative there are nods to an ancient world were humans were more in touch with nature and power came through personal sacrifice rather than through coercion and violence.

Mitchison also walks the line between medieval literature and history in a way unusual in more recent fantasy. The former provides the basis for the disappearing older world of magic. We’re invited to sympathise with the likes of the Grendels (family friends of Halla) and with Fafnir. In this she resembles Tolkien with whom Mitchison had a long correspondence (she also proofread The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). The result is a story that brings back some of the alienness of the Middle Ages, which I very much enjoyed.

Concluding Thoughts

A lot of fantasy writing that draws inspiration from the Early Middle Ages leans hard on the image of the period as a Dark Age. If you want to tell a story about a poor, violent world, with low levels of technology and stability and high levels of mud, popular perceptions of the early medieval period will give you plenty to work with. Further, the idea of the early medieval world as postlapsarian place, a world in decline in the dying afterglow of Rome, allows for some really compelling stories, which you can also apply to postapocalyptic settings. I don’t really have a problem with this, so long as the stories that we get are entertaining, but it’s worth noting that it reflects a particular interpretation.

It’s also not the only way that you can depict the period. It’s possible to give a much more positive interpretation, as in the case of Guy Gavriel Kay. Other writers, such as Kate Elliott, lean much harder into the primary sources, using her understanding of the Early Middle Ages to ground more fantastical elements. One interesting trend is a move away from medieval literature to history. While they knew a huge amount about history, I suspect that the formative encounter for older writers like Tolkien and Mitchison was with Old English and Norse literature, and that shapes the feel and texture of their writings. By contrast, my sense is that more recent fantasy writing draws much more upon history, which informs their plots and settings but perhaps not the actual language they employ, resulting in books that feel much more modern and less alien. (Kay may be a transitional figure, still active today, but imbued in the older tradition).

As I mentioned above, this is a very brief survey of a somewhat random selection of books. It is by no means exhaustive. I should also say that for all my occasional criticisms, this is a genre I genuinely like. I am already compiling a list of promising sounding authors for the next moment I have some time to read for pleasure (summer of 2057 is going to be amazing). At the moment I have Saladin Ahmed, Poul Anderson and Katherine Kurtz on my radar, but I’d invite readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

Charter a Week 70/1: Meetings About an Imprisoned King

In 945, everything went wrong for Louis IV. The background to this is something we haven’t really discussed, because there’s more-or-less no charter evidence relating to it, but we have seen in other contexts: the assassination of William Longsword, count of Rouen, by Arnulf the Great of Flanders in 943. William had no obvious heir – he had one illegitimate son who was a small boy – and so his quite substantial lands and offices were up for grabs. Louis and Hugh the Great spent several years arguing with each other and several viking chieftains about who got what. In the end, the vikings won: Harald, ruler of Bayeux, whose own position was probably recent and somewhat precarious, ambushed Louis and captured him. He was then sold down the river Seine to Hugh the Great (in exchange for hostages, one of whom – as we’ve previously discussed – was Bishop Guy of Soissons). Hugh then proceeded to keep him in prison for the rest of the year.

However, international and domestic pressure was mounting. King Edmund of England send angry embassies on behalf of his nephew. He was then murdered at Pucklechurch, but he wasn’t the big problem anyway. The big problem was Louis’ brother-in-law, who was generally somewhat cool towards him but whose sister Queen Gerberga now launched frantic embassies to seek his assistance: Otto the Great. Otto, who had faced multiple serious rebellions in his ten-year reign, was in no mood to see a king treated badly by successful rebels. It was with these storm clouds gathering that Flodoard described Hugh hold public assemblies to decide what to do with the king. And, as it happens, a charter from one of these meetings survives.

Cartulaire de Notre-Dame de Chartres no. 7 (19th June 946)

In the name of the highest and eternal Saviour, our lord Jesus Christ.

Hugh, most excellent margrave and duke of the Franks.

Since, in this doubtful and inconsistent life, each mortal is, by gift of the Highest Benefactor, ennobled with the happiness of worldly advantage and nourished by an abundance of temporal goods, each of the faithful should take the greatest care that celestial goods should be acquired through that which they possess in this world, and that, by a happy exchange, the invisible is bought by the visible and the incorruptible by the corruptible. Indeed, anyone will more easily deserve to obtain the rights of an enduring heavenly inheritance if (amongst other efforts to pious action) they faithfully cede their worldly and transient goods to the Bestower of All Goods and strive to honour and elevate the most holy Church, that is, His house, with gifts of perishable things.

Let, therefore, the prudent sagacity of all the faithful of the holy Church of God, present and future, and of Our successors, know that – reinforced by the admonition of this holy exhortation and taught by the inspiration of divine grace – along with the consent and will of Our relatives and followers, We concede and donate to the mother church of Notre-Dame de Chartres a certain fisc of Ours, named Ingré, which We have until now possessed freely and by hereditary right, which is in the district of Orléannais, in the vicariate of Les Muids, with all its appendages, which have these names: Champoigny, Grand Muid, Petit Muid up to Alleville and up to the estate which is called Cercottes, Cultura, Boignaux, Montpatour, Brogilus, Villaris, Chiregius, Coust, Changelin, Sorberes, Pataliacus, Les Masures, Montabusard, Sucrogilas, Buiras, Le Buisson, and certain land which lies in the estate which is called Ormes, and other adjacencies lying both within and also without the town, whatever is seen to be beholden there at present; and the rulers of the estate will have the ability to reclaim whatever has been taken away at any time; and We transfer it from Our dominion and place under its rule, with lands cultivated and uncultivated, pastures, meadows, woods, and bondsmen of both sexes and a church there named and built in honour of St Lupus.

And thus, conceding this gift of Our right, We established through deliberation that it should be delegated to the feeding of the brothers of the said church, and assigned to their stipends and usages, from whence they might every day have food and nourishment and more freely pay attention to divine worship and spiritual exercises, and constantly pour out unceasing prayers to the Lord for us and our wife and as well all our offspring, so that He, by the merits of his mother Mary, for whose love We gave a little gift of this sort, and by the plea of all the saints, might rule and govern Us in the height of temporal dignity and sublimity, by which in the land of the living We might at some time merit to see and gain its good things and possess the freedom of a heavenly inheritance.

If, though, any of Our relatives, heirs or proheirs or any calumniating person should try hereafter to violate the authority of this gift, let them incur the wrath of the Three-In-One Deity and Mary Mother of God on whom they committed this fraud, knowing that she will never be their helper; and let them be unable to vindicate what they have claimed, and withdraw in confusion from this presumption, and let the present writing persist undisturbed and undefiled through times to come, relying on this guarantee.

But so that this page might obtain the strength of stronger firmness, We and Our son Otto [of Burgundy] undersigned it with Our own hands, and We determined it be strengthened by the hands of Our nephews and followers.

Sign of Hugh, duke of the Franks, who made and affirmed the authority of this writing. Sign of Hugh [Capet], his son. Sign of Otto, his son. Sign of Heribert [the Elder], his nephew. Sign of Odo. Sign of Robert. Sign of Theobald. Sign of Fulk. Sign of Bernard. Sign of Godfrey. Sign of Aimo. Sign of Ivo. Sign of Warin. Sign of Gauzbert. Sign of Godfrey. Sign of Frotmund [of Sens]. Sign of Adelelm. Sign of Isembard. Sign of Ansculf. Sign of Walter. Sign of another Walter. Sign of Gauzbert. Sign of Cadelo. Sign of Robert. Sign of another Robert. Sign of Landric. Sign of Hugh. Sign of Heriveus. Sign of Suger. Sign of Gislebert. Sign of Odo. Sign of Ralph.

Given on the 13th kalends of July [19th June], in the 11th year of the reign of King Louis.

Obviously, the big interest here is the witness list. We have a veritable Who’s Who of Robertian allies. We’ve got a bunch of relations and clients of the late Count Heribert II of Vermandois, including his sons Heribert the Elder, Robert of Troyes and probably Odo of Amiens, as well as Bernard of Beauvais. We’ve got Hugh’s Neustrian subordinates, including Theobald the Trickster and Fulk the Good; the ‘Ivo’ is perhaps the ancestor of the Bellême on the southern border of the future Normandy, and I’d be inclined to put the ‘Aimo’ there too. We’ve got various Burgundian figures, most obviously Frotmund of Sens but I’d lay decent odds that the ‘Landric’ in the list is the ancestor of the later count of Nevers. In short, these are Hugh the Great’s fideles – but no-one else. That’s far from a negligible base of support, and its certainly enough to be a threat to anyone else in the West Frankish kingdom – but it likely does indicate that he’s having problems winning over anyone else.

We also have Hugh’s sons, Hugh Capet and Otto of Burgundy, both making their first public appearances at the age of about six to eight (their father and mother married in 937, so they can’t be much older). It’s interesting that Otto is the one who confirms this charter, and not Hugh Capet. It’s often assumed that Hugh was the oldest son, but that may well not be the case: this isn’t the only time that Otto shows up first in tenth-century sources… In fact, if Otto were the eldest and Hugh the Great intended for him to get Neustria (as his presence here implies), that might explain developments of a couple of decades later which we’ll get to in time…

Was Hugh the Great planning to depose Louis? It’s a picture that has tempted many historians, and I’ve softened on the idea over time; but ultimately I think he wasn’t. This charter provides one key clue: the dating clause. If Hugh were really planning to kick Louis off the throne, why would this charter be dated by Louis’ regnal years? A subtle clue such as anno Domini dating would be key evidence here; the fact that no such thing exists indicates that whatever Hugh’s goals were, outright deposition is unlikely to have been one of them.

So what did he do instead? That, I’m pleased to say, is a question for a different day, specifically this time next week. Tune in to find out!

Who Were the Viking Kings?

As part of my ongoing Viking research, I was looking through references in our sources to Viking kings to try and work out who they are. One surprise was that the answer is relatively few; and these can be generally split into a relatively small number of categories. One of these are figures about whom we know nothing, like the Kalbi of the Annals of Xanten or the Oscytel of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of the two other main categories are ‘people who are definitely related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’. The other, I have come to believe, is ‘people who are probably related to the royal families of ninth-century Denmark’, and that’s what I want to try and argue today.

 So, first things first: families? Yes, families plural. The most famous king of ninth-century Denmark was King Godefrid (r. -810), who is one of the few people who was able not only to fight Charlemagne but to win, at least until he was murdered by a retainer. Godefrid’s successor was not any of his sons – of whom he had at least five – but his brother’s son Hemming. Hemming lived for only a couple of years, dying in 812, whereupon the succession was disputed between a man named Siegfried, another nephew of Godefrid (probably from a different brother); and a man named Anulo. With Anulo, we appear to have another reigning family, as the Royal Frankish Annals call him a nephew of a man named Harald. Harald is not named as a king in the Annals, but implicitly seems to have been one; perhaps the historical prototype of the legendary Danish king Harald Wartooth. In any event, Anulo was also the nephew of one of the more immediate kings, either Godefrid or Hemming, in my money the latter. (In fact, my specific conjecture is that a Danish noble named Halfdan, who was almost certainly Anulo’s father but who is not named as any relative of Godefrid when he appears in the late ninth century Poeta Saxo under 807, was married to a sister of Hemming.) Both these men died in the following battle, but Anulo’s brothers Harald Klak and Rognfrith both became kings. So far, so good – more internal politics within Denmark follow, but for our purposes we will focus on this royal family, the sons of Halfdan, until right near the end.

Our first stop are kings in Frisia. These are very clearly part of this royal family, not least because we’ve already met one of them: the first Danish leader granted land in the region was none other than Harald Klak. He was followed by probably the most famous ruler of Viking Frisia, Roric of Dorestad, who was probably but not entirely certainly Harald Klak’s nephew. Roric was also, on occasion, entitled king – but he too ruled in Denmark. After a protracted internal struggle, a son of King Godefrid named Horic I ruled the Danes for several decades. In 850, though, his position came under threat: two of his nephews (unnamed in the annals) attacked him and he was forced to partition his realm. This seems to have opened the floodgates: a different nephew (whom we’ll come back to) attacked Horic in 854 and in the ensuing fighting Horic and his two co-reigning nephews were killed. In the aftermath of this, in 855, Roric and his brother Guthfrith tried to gain royal power in Denmark for themselves. They didn’t succeed at that time, but in 857 Roric was able to exploit the youth of the eventual winner Horic II and gain a portion of Denmark for himself; from this point, he was called king. Later, in the 880s, another King Guthfrith was granted Roric’s benefice in Frisia by Charles the Fat. Our sources don’t say that Guthfrith was Roric’s relative; but they seem only to have been aware of first-degree kinship, and the onomastics, royal title, and similar area of operations make it likely that Guthfrith was also related to the Danish royal family.

 That’s relatively straightforward, but I think there’s a bigger connection that can be made. Starting in the mid-ninth century, a dynasty known to historians as the Uí Ímair (which is an Irish phrase meaning ‘descendants of Ivar’) ensconced themselves in Britain and Ireland. Their most famous member was, as you might expect, called Ivar, the historical prototype for the legendary Ivar the Boneless. However, Ivar was not the only one of his family gallivanting around the Irish Sea in the ninth century.

Let’s start by establishing who Ivar’s family were. The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, an eleventh-century source comprised of pseudo-historical saga material on one hand and older chronicles on the other, says that Ivar was brother to a man named Olaf, who appeared in Ireland in 853 to subjugate the Irish Vikings on behalf of his father, the king of Laithlinn. This has been challenged, but I don’t think these challenges are particularly convincing: this relationship is stated in a couple of ways in the non-legendary portion of the material and although there is room for doubt, I find it convincing. (Less convincing but still possible is the ascription of a third brother, Asl; this figure is historical and associated with Olaf and Ivar, but that he was their brother is only mentioned in one of the more legendary-leaning portions of the Fragmentary Annals.) The Ivar of the Irish annals is almost certainly the same man as the Ivar of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle refers in 878 to an (unnamed) brother of Ivar and Halfdan, indicating that Ivar was also brothers with that Great Army leader, who was the first Viking ruler of Northumbria. (This reference has also been questioned on the grounds that the construction of the sentence is peculiar; but the Chronicle is a good contemporary source and I am uncomfortable with arguments that presume we know how our sources should be written better than their actual authors.) Olaf, Ivar, Halfdan and – if he was their brother – Asl are all called kings.

Who was their father? The Fragmentary Annals name Ivar and Olaf’s father a couple of times as a man named Guthfrith, and at one point there is a longer genealogy given:

Guthfrith -> Guthfrith Conung [i.e. king] -> Ragnar -> Guthfrith -> Ivar

This genealogy has been generally dismissed, except maybe the name of the final Guthfrith, Ivar’s father. However, I think there are grounds for taking it seriously. Again, this material is found in the annalistic rather than the legendary portions of the Fragmentary Annals, and the early-to-mid tenth-century source from which it is derived would have been within memory of Ivar’s generation. Moreover, taking it seriously produces some remarkable synchronicities between Irish and Danish history.

Guthfrith Conung’s nickname, I would suggest, derives from the memory of a particularly impressive king who, from the generations, we might expect to have reigned around the year 800. Obviously, this would be King Godefrid (‘Godefrid’ and ‘Guthfrith’ are in fact the same name). Now this is interesting. There actually was a Viking chief named Ragnar who attacked Paris in the mid-840s, but I think it’s unlikely this was Ivar’s grandfather, largely because we have an eye-witness report from an ambassador to Denmark who saw the audience between Ragnar and Horic I of Denmark after his return from Paris. Horic I was definitely a son of Godefrid and it seems unlikely that the ambassador, or anyone else at the time, would have not mentioned the relationship given how touchy the Franks were about Horic’s apparent refusal or inability to prevent Viking raids. More interesting are the events of the 850s. As we’ve noted, in 850 Horic was attacked by two of his nephews, neither of whom the sources name. If one of them were the putative Guthfrith Ragnarsson – i.e. Ivar’s father – then the course of Irish history in the following years takes on a new light.

I mentioned that the first appearance of the Uí Ímair comes in 853, when Olaf, son of the king of Laithlinn, appears to subjugate the Irish Vikings. These events have become caught up in the controversy over where Laithlinn was: in Scotland or in Norway? This controversy has been remarkably bitter given that there are only four contemporary mentions of Laithlinn (and I’m normalising the spelling below): one in 848, when the king of Laithlinn’s deputy Jarl Thorir was killed in battle; the mention of Olaf’s being the king’s son in 853; an Old Irish poem where a monastic author is relieved at a stormy sea because it makes the voyage impassable to ‘the fierce warriors of Laithlinn’ and another Old Irish poem referring to an army coming over from Laithlinn in 866. Personally, I think that both Scotland and Norway are barking up the wrong tree. In response to Jarl Thorir’s death, a Viking fleet showed up in 849 on behalf of the ‘king of the Foreigners’ – i.e., the Vikings. The similar-sounding but unrelated word which replaced Laithlinn, Lochlann, generally denotes ‘Norway’, at least by the latter part of the eleventh century; but it can also just mean ‘generically Viking’, and I think that Laithlinn means the same thing – ‘king of Laithlinn’ and ‘king of the Foreigners’ are synonyms. The Irish authors didn’t know much about Scandinavia at all, and so used these general terms. But the king of Laithlinn, I think, did have a location: the mid-ninth century Danish kingdom.

In this reading, the ‘King of Laithlinn’ of 848 and the ‘King of the Foreigners’ in 849 is Horic I. It may well be that the Irish victories against the Vikings in 848 were one of the factors which made him look vulnerable to attack by his nephews in 850. In any case, when Horic’s nephews became kings, their position was not secure. A renewed wave of Viking attacks across Europe in 850-852 suggests that political losers were fleeing Denmark and engaging in raiding activity to gather political and financial capital; an 852 reference in the Annals of Fulda to Harald, probably the brother of Roric of Dorestad, fleeing to Louis the German and living in Saxony sometime earlier strongly suggests that the court had been purged of potential rivals from within the royal family. (Notably Roric too sought a benefice in Frisia – it looks like both men wanted a base close to the Danish kingdom to exploit instabilities in it. Harald was actually killed in 852 by the ‘wardens on the Danish March’ and I wonder if it might be because they suspected that he might go a-viking the same way Roric had a year or two before…) In 852, Guthfrith, son of Harald Klak, seems to have made a brief attempt to assert power in Denmark before going out and plundering the West Frankish kingdom. In this context, Olaf’s appearance on the Irish scene in 853 has the clear aim of reasserting royal authority over the Irish Vikings and of gaining resources to shore up Olaf’s father’s power in the Danish kingdom. This should be seen in the context of the civil war which killed Horic in 854. This war probably also killed Olaf and Ivar’s father as well – the Annals of Fulda and the Vita Anskarii say that the attrition amongst the Danish elite was serious, and the Annals of Saint-Bertin refer to the deaths of Horic’s co-kings.

I think this presents a decent, if circumstantial, case that the Uí Ímair and the kings of Denmark were related. There is one more interesting overlap to note. After the 850s, Frankish interest in the Danish kingdom itself waned dramatically. One of the few notices – and essentially the only detailed one – comes from the Annals of Fulda, which under 873 notes that the kings of Denmark, Siegfried and Halfdan, sent messengers to Louis the German asking for his protection. The implication is that they had not been on the throne for very long, and it is unlikely they stayed on the throne for very long either. Siegfried is generally supposed to be the King Siegfried whom Charles the Fat besieged at Asselt in 882 and to whom he gave vast sums of money to go away. Siegfried did go away, but he returned in 885 at the head of the fleet which besieged Paris in the famous siege of 885-886. After the siege was lifted, Siegfried raided in the West Frankish kingdom some more before going to Frisia where he was killed – so say the Annals of Saint-Vaast – shortly after autumn 887. This is interesting, because we have reports of an (unnamed) son of Ivar ravaging Lismore in 883 – precisely the one time that we can’t see our Frankish Siegfried active, and the only appearance of a son of Ivar in the Irish annals until 888, when the Annals of Ulster record the death of Siegfried, son of Ivar, by his kinsmen. This is interesting, because the deaths of King Siegfried and of Siegfried Ivarsson appear to match up. The slight difference in date is quite explicable by 1) the fact that the Saint-Vaast annalist doesn’t say that Siegfried died in autumn 887, just sometime after it; and 2) the news would have taken a little time to get to Ireland – it would be quite feasible for Siegfried to have been killed at the very end of 887 and for the report of his death to have reached Ireland in time for the 888 annal. Moreover, the circumstances are intriguing: Siegfried was killed by his kinsmen, and Frisia had been in the hands of members of the Danish royal family for decades at this point. Siegfried’s quondam comrade King Guthfrith, the last man known to have held it, was killed in 885; but there could well have been relics of the family hanging around in the area.

In short, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that the Uí Ímair were offshoots of the family of King Godefrid of Denmark, which means that most of the Viking kings we can place in the ninth century were all related to each other. Before I finish up, I’d like to talk about a few of the others, notably the kings of East Anglia and the early Rus’ princes. The first Viking king of East Anglia was Guthrum. The nephew of Horic I who led the civil war which ended up killing Horic was also called Guthrum, and the two men have been held to be identical, for instance in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Personally, I think the language of the annals implies that Horic’s nephew Guthrum died; but it is interesting that the only other king of East Anglia whose name we know was Eohric = Horic. Onomastics suggest there could be come connection. On a similar, but even more conjectural note, the first three princes of Kievan Rus’ were called Rurik (Roric), Igor (Ivar) and Oleg (Helgi). We have already seen Rorics and Ivars in action, and Helgi is the same name as a c. 900 king of Denmark named by Adam of Bremen. Given just how shadowy the early Rus’ rulers are, I don’t want to propose anything concrete, but the overlap is interesting…

You may be asking, at this point: so what? In fact, if most Viking leaders given a royal title in our sources whose background we can ascertain or hypothesise about were related to one of the existing Danish royal families, that has a number of important implications. However, this post is going long, so we will have to park it for now. Look forward to a post on social status and rank within the Viking world shortly down the line!

Charter a Week 65/2: Judicial Duels in the Loire Valley

The real scholarly commentary was on Tuesday. I just wanted to put this charter up because it’s fun. It’s also, somewhat sadly, the last of our Martinian dispute settlement records. The abbey’s surviving archive starts decreasing in content from the end of the reign of Charles the Simple, and in the mid-tenth century there’s a big hiatus. Even after it starts up again in the 960s, it’s never the same (and indeed I don’t think we’ll be encountering another charter of Saint-Martin again). So as a fond farewell:

Introduction 8 (August 941, Amboise)

A notice of how a certain priest of Saint-Martin named Tesmund, from the castle of Amboise, came on the ides of August [13th August], before the presence of lord Fulk [the Red] and of his son [… and of] Fulk [the Good], and of other noble men residing therein, making a complaint concerning… his allod which is sited in the estate of Avon, which his uncle Ansebald left to him in proper order and he legitimately held until the time when the Northmen took him and led him captive overseas, when Isembert wrongly and against the law held that allod.

Then lord Fulk and his aforesaid son interrogated him for which reason he held that allod. The same Isembert responded that he had bought that allod for his fixed price from Guy, who he held to be a late cousin of Tesmund and for that reason he held it. The aforesaid lords also said that he should show a charter or testimony as to how he had bought the aforesaid allod. Isembert responded that he had neither a charter nor testimony. They also interrogated the aforesaid Isembert if he could have such an advocate as would dare to prove on the field against an advocate of the aforesaid Tesmund that the aforesaid allod pertained more to Isembert through purchase than to the aforesaid Tesmund through inheritance from paternal and other relatives. Finally Isembert responded that he would have his advocate prepared to defend this at the established assembly. Therefore, they judged that both should formally bring their advocates to the first court, who would thus be able… one against the other, and thus they did.

But when they came to the court, the aforesaid Isembert… was able to have [nothing], who would dare defend this against the advocate of Tesmund, because… to everyone who was there that he held the aforesaid allod unjustly and against the law.

Then lord Fulk made him give a bond of 60 shillings because of this, that he formally bring his advocate to the established assembly… he was not able to have. Thereafter everyone who was there judged that Tesmund should make no other judgement that on holy relics with his own hand, because he was a priest… which he did immediately. And the aforesaid Isembert yielded thereafter and surrendered it through a rod. Then not… to the aforesaid Tesmund, that he should seek a notice concerning such a decision, which they commanded be done immediately.

This was enacted in the presence and sight of these people:

[Sign of the holy Cross of lord abbot Hugh.] Sign of lord Fulk [the Red]. Sign of his son lord Fulk [the Good]. Sign of Erard, advocate and legislator. Sign of Arduin the legislator. Sign of Eldemand the vicar. Sign of Wanilo the vicar. Sign of Bernard. Sign of Markward. Sign of Fulculf. Sign of Odalger. Sign of Rainald. Sign of Adalelm.

Given in the month of August, in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 941, or the 4th year of the reign of King Louis, son of Charles.     

Amboise today, which had an Early Modern glow-up (source)

So what’s happening here? We start with Tesmund the priest, for whom everything was apparently hunky-dory until he was captured by Northmen. The circumstances under which he was captured bear some consideration, because it’s distinctly unlucky. Amboise is probably too far upriver to be affected by the fighting in Brittany after 936; but there was a raid into Berry in 935 in which the men of the Touraine participated. Tesmund was probably captured in this campaign – the last we know about on the Loire until the Norman War of the 960s. Anyway, Tesmund is ransomed or escaped, but was a captive for long enough that his estate goes to his cousin who then sells it to Isembard. When Tesmund gets home, he wants his land back.

At this point, the count of Anjou, Fulk the Red, and his son and heir Fulk the Good show up. Fulk the Red is a very old man by now, in his mid-to-late seventies at least. He’s also quite far east of Angers. This charter lends some support to the twelfth-century Deeds of the Consuls of Anjou which say that Amboise was a very early acquisition of the family. Of note, therefore, is that Fulk is probably not holding the mallus court because he’s count of the area. This fits with an argument I’ve made before, that the Carolingian judicial charter tradition covers up a much more flexible and informal set of practices even at very high levels.

In the end, the participants settle on trial by battle. The charter emphasises the problems Isembert has finding someone to support him, to the point that he ends up having to pay a forfeit and Tesmund wins the case. I wonder about the dynamics underlying this. That Isembert can find no-one suggests a stitch up, but the fine of 60 solidi makes me wonder if Isembert wasn’t being punished for being too stubborn and resisting the judgement… In any case, Tesmund gets his land back.

The problem of what to do with captives of the vikings was not unique to Tours. The Old Frisian law-codes, first written down in the thirteenth century but possibly containing older material, have provision for what happens if a child is sold into slavery to the heathens and returns: if he can recognise his land and his close kin, he can reclaim the land without further ado. One wonders if Tesmund wished he had been a Frisian. In any case, this charter is interesting evidence for the problems of re-integrating freed captives back into their original society.

Charter a Week 65/2: Kings in Flanders, of Various Vintages

The archives of the abbey of Blandijnberg in Ghent can do one. I’ve actually been to the abbey on holiday, it’s an interesting visit and I liked the site – but the archives are something else. The monks of Sint-Pieters are some of the most notorious forgers of the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Koziol has described the Blandijnberg archives as retreating into ‘an Escher-like dimension where fact and fiction become indistinguishable’. Charters have been worked up out of whole cloth, reworked thoroughly, lightly touched up. Their dating clauses have been stripped and remade on the basis of – seemingly – nothing. And how tainted any given charter is is going to vary wildly depending on which diplomatist you’re talking to. As such, it’s quite pleasant to note that the charter establishing the reform of Blandijnberg, issued by Count Arnulf the Great in 941, has not only been given a generally clean bill of health, it’s also really interesting.

Dip Belg 53 = DiBe no. 538 (8th July 941, Ghent)

Arnulf, supported by the clemency of the King on High margrave, to the followers of the Holy Church soldiering catholically for God anywhere and in any order of society.

We read in the divinely-written books of Maccabees that God’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the most nefarious of kings Antiochus, but that after many and most weighty triumphs in battle Judas Maccabeus rebuilt and decorated it with the gold and silver which he had acquired from the spoils of the enemy; by which deed, to wit, he believed he would receive help from the heaven of the King of the Stars.

Therefore, urged on with keen desire to follow this example, I, the most humble Arnulf, wishing with every sinew of my heart to share in the benefits of those who, obeying the Lord’s commands, have transferred a worldly patrimony for heavenly treasure, was animated by the exhortation of religious and truthful men and – so to speak – rising as if awoken from a deep sleep, I began in silent contemplation day and night to reflect upon a certain monastery, under my rule, anciently sited by the most holy Amand, a pontiff worthy of praise from the good, next to the river Scheldt in the castle of Ghent, which he called Blandijnberg, and which, by Christ’s favour, he solemnly ennobled with relics of the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, and many saints which he brought with him on his second return from Rome. He did this at the time when Pope Martin [I] ruled the Roman Church, 75 years [sic] after the blessed Peter, keymaster of Heaven’s hall, in the time of the famous King of the Franks Dagobert [I], while Eligius of wonderful sanctity presided as bishop of Noyon and Tournai. I rejoice, truly, that the said monastery is made illustrious in so many ways by the relics of such saints; but I sorrow greatly that it lacks the honour with which the saints these relics came from shine in the court of Heaven; with which, if I had my way, I would raise up relics of such dignity on Earth.

Finally, with the permission of King Louis, and having taken counsel with Bishop Transmar [of Noyon], to whose diocese the place pertains, and with my friends and especially with my followers, I made returns and restorations to the holy place, partially of those renders from the land which the most blessed Amand sought from the kings who at that time subjected themselves to divine laws; and which, out of love for the prince of the apostles Peter, he gave in perpetual right to those dwelling in same abbey; and partially of those which faithful people in divers times and places have bestowed from the time of the aforesaid King Dagobert up to Our days. And if not everything, I have at least returned some of what was taken away from there in the time of my predecessors; and which I estimate will suffice the monks dwelling there for love of Christ.

That is: I concede to the relics of the aforesaid monastery the census which is taken from the houses sited in the port of Ghent, from the river Scheldt up to the confluence with the river Lys; and the tithe which those dwelling in that port should pay to God for the remedy of their souls; and the fare exacted from passing traffic; and the floral meadows which lie next to the port.

I cede to their power 1 mill in the place which is called Afsnee; 1 chapel named in honour of St Mary in the estate of Mariakerke; the vineyard which I rebuilt next to the monastery and the land which lies adjacent to it up to the port; and the other farms which are next to the monastery, on which they may built suitable workshops and gardens in which they may plant vegetables appropriate for the monks; and I restored and strengthened with my own hand the other things which are written in the charter of Abbot Einhard.

In the district of Flanders, next to the castle of Oostburg in the place named Merona Bennonis, pasturage which can suffice 120 sheep; and in another place next to the sea named Kommerswerve, land to feed 100 sheep; and in that district half my fisc which is called Snellegem, the half-part of which lies next to the eastern part; of which I consent to give 1 manse to the abbot and brothers of the aforesaid monastery whilst I live; and desire with all my heart that they should have, hold and possess the part of the remaining half after the end of my life.

In the district of Hainaut, on the river Selle, I restore to them the estate which is called Douchy-les-Mines with its appendages.

Moreover, in the district of Waas, on the river Scheldt, there is an estate named Temse in which for a long time rested the body of the most blessed virgin Amalberga, which she was seen to possess in hereditary right while she lived; and because of this I restored it to those who keep vigil attending her holy body day and night.

All though all this seems a bit small in quantity and number, let the crowd of monks and their abbot established in the aforesaid monastery perpetually obtain them, provided with solace from which they may be able to indefatigably serve the Lord, putting aside all grumbling, which is generally typical of monks.

I desire and greatly wish that the monks in the aforesaid monastery should serve Christ according to the Rule for all time, as was enacted in the time of the said most holy Amand; and let them, living in accordance with the norm of St Benedict, place in charge an abbot in accordance with their choice and the consent of that lord and margrave who might have succeeded me in the chief position after my death. Animated by his exhortation and rule, let them put aside the worldly and endeavour to meditate on the heavenly.

If any of my successors should endeavour with abominable daring to calumniate or diminish these benefices of my restitution which We restored out of love of God and the holy prince of the apostles Peter and the other saints whose precious remains are kept within, unless they quickly come to their senses let them incur the wrath of God Almighty, for Whom St Amand, the builder of this place, sincerely soldered; and the offence of the keymaster of the stars Peter and the outstanding teacher Paul and the miraculous virgin Amalgberga and of all the saints; and let him endure forever deprived of their company, indissolubly joined to the company of demons. The company of all good men and I say amen!

Enacted at the abbey of Blandijnberg, on the 8th ides of July, in the 6th year of the reign of Louis, son of the imprisoned King Charles.

Sign of Arnulf, most clement count and margrave, who asked the writing of this document be done and confirmed.

[col. 1] + Bishop Transmar [of Noyon]. + Bishop Fulbert [of Cambrai]. + Archdeacon Bernacer. + Archdeacon Odilbald. + Archdeacon Wulfard. + Dean Ingelfred. + Tancred. + Wibert.

[col. 2] + Baldwin [III], son of Margrave Arnulf. + Count Isaac [of Cambrai]. + Arnulf his son. + Count Dirk [II of Holland]. + Winemar, advocate [of Blandijnberg]. + Fulbert, vicar [of Ghent]. + Wolbert. + Baldwin. + Leutbert. + Anskeric.

[col. 3] + Everard. + Heribrand. + Otgaud. + Siward. + George. + Everard. + Ebroin. + Dodo. + Blithard. + William.

[col. 4] + Fulcard. + Arnulf. + Erembald. + Theobald. + Onulf. + Lambert. + Ralph. + Ebroin. + Robert. + Adso. 

The original of the charter (sourced from DiBe as above).

Before looking at the content, let’s address what at first sight appears to be the most suspicious thing about this charter: the seal. A layman’s seal on a charter from this early is by itself a massive red flag to Continental diplomatists, because lay seals don’t start showing up, really, until well into the eleventh century and only explode in popularity in the twelfth. However, I want to make a small attempt at defending both this example and others. All the examples of sealed lay charters (most only now known through later descriptions and/or drawings) come from the Channel coast – Flanders, Normandy, Brittany. This is significant because lay seals are a well-known phenomenon in England. There aren’t huge surviving numbers, but they definitely existed, and existed this early. Given the geographical proximity and political-cultural influence of England on the coastal parts of Gaul, I think there’s at least a meaningful possibility that lay aristocrats in these areas adopted – even if only temporarily – Insular sealing practices. (And, in fact, Jenny Benham has pointed out that an Anglo-Norman treaty of 991 makes reference to Normans carrying seals.)

In terms of the content, the most interest thing to me is the arenga. A big part of my research is the use of charters to transmit ideology and communicate legitimacy to audiences, and this is one of the most straightforward examples. The witness list of this charter is relatively amenable to prosopographical investigation, and once you’ve done that the result is that they are all what Flodoard calls maritimi Franci: men from the seaside parts of Flanders around Saint-Omer and Ghent, and more generally people on the wrong side of the river Oise, which is where West Frankish kings tended to make their stand against Viking fleets. Men like these had borne the brunt of the viking attacks for generations by 941, and in particular Arnulf himself had likely led many of them against the Northmen of Rouen about ten years earlier. By casting himself as Judas Maccabeus, Blandijnberg as Jerusalem, and the vikings as the evil Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, Arnulf was able to relate their shared experiences to a well-known and prestigious narrative which bolstered his own position by analogy.

However, it’s not quite enough. Striking in a charter otherwise so replete with Arnulf’s own authority, the count puts right up front that he is doing what he is doing with the permission of Louis IV. This added legitimacy to Arnulf’s games with Blandijnberg. For a man so heavily involved in Church reform, Arnulf’s actions could be breathtakingly cynical, and historians have consequently speculated about his motives. The most recent hypothesis is that reform removed the final vestiges of royal rights over the abbey, but I don’t find this convincing. There had been no royal intervention in Flanders for decades at this point. Rather, I suspect that Arnulf was using royal authority to expel local rivals. In the case of Blandijnberg we don’t know who those were – there are some very scattered and/or iffy hints that the Robertians had a presence there – but it’s likely that Arnulf’s control of Ghent was not as good as is usually imagines.

However, although Louis had in fact visited Flanders multiple times in the run-up to this charter, this reminder of Arnulf’s Könighsnahe would have sounded awkward in 941. Arnulf was temporarily on the outs with Louis, having been part of the Ottonian-led coalition which attacked him the previous year. The mention of Louis, then, can also be seen as aspirational on Louis’ part. Arnulf’s hostility to Louis had a pretty clear policy objective: compelling him to abandon his designs on Lotharingia and resume the alliance with Otto the Great which Arnulf had originally brokered. In this context, the 941 charter also shows Arnulf and his supporters dreaming of the great things king and count could do together.

The Right Honourable Member for Skidbladnir? Assemblies in Viking Polities

The þing (assembly) is a pretty well-documented phenomenon, at least as far as these things go. In the context of ninth-century Scandinavia, we have both external and internal written sources attesting to it, which is pretty spectacular. Both of them, moreover, give some insight into the functions these assemblies could have. The Forsa ring, from Hälsingland in central Sweden, refers to the assembly’s role in making laws; the Vita Anskarii, written in the later ninth century by Archbishop Rimbert of Hamburg-Bremen, describes how assemblies played a role in political decision-making, to the point where the Swedish kings were constrained by the decisions of regional assemblies. What happened, then, outside Scandinavia?

The Forsa ring, testifying to ninth-century assembly practice (source)

Fair warning at the start here: I’m writing this in my flat on a scorching hot Saturday. What that means is that I really don’t want to go into town to pick up the resources I need to write the blog posts nominally further up the agenda, and that in turn means that I’m going to write something which I can do without leaving the house. That, in its own turn, means that you’re getting something a bit more out there, a bit less well thought-through than usual. With a new project, I’ve been a bit cautious about putting really sketchy draft work online so that the bits of it people can access don’t look half-assed or insane. This week, I’ll take the risk…

So, viking assemblies. Of note to begin with is that we have references to assemblies from almost all over the viking sphere of influence from quite early on. The main exception is the Insular world. Ireland has the better evidence, sort of. Here there are late tenth-century references to a ‘law-speaker’ of Dublin and an early eleventh-century reference to an assembly in the town. This doesn’t prove any kind of continuity with the ninth century – the putative site of the Dublin þing has been argued to have been an important symbolic focus for the town from that early, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility it was co-opted by an assembly which was a later development. Nonetheless, we do at least have references to assemblies in Dublin c. 1000. By contrast, I really haven’t found much in the English evidence, with one important exception. The eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto describes how King Guthred of Northumbria was acclaimed as king on a mound by the assembled army and people of the region. No specific term is used to describe it, but an assembly is at least implied. (Moreover, in the case of England an absence of evidence is what I’d expect – sources associated with the West Saxon court tend to be aggressively uninterested in the internal organisation of viking polities, I suspect to deny them the legitimacy of actually being a polity…)

In Rus’, by contrast, evidence is relatively abundant. The Vita Basilii, a life of Emperor Basil I, refers to a missionary bishop amongst the Rus’ demonstrating the superiority of Christianity to the ruler and his elders by performing a miracle in their assembly. A lengthy vignette in the Histories of Leo the Deacon describes the Rus’ ruler Sviatoslav convening his men in an assembly to decide how to end the siege of Dorostolon (modern Silistra). Notably, Leo calls the assembly a komenton (χομέντον), which he says is what the Rus’ call it. This is interesting if true, because it appears to be the Latin word conventus

Even more worthy of note is the also-good evidence for assemblies amongst viking armies on the move. The Annals of Saint-Vaast describe the Great Army in the West Frankish kingdom holding an assembly (facere placitum) to decide their next move in 884, after they have received the tribute which King Carloman II had promised them. Similar accounts can be found in the Vita Sancti Findani, written in modern-day Switzerland but by Irish monks, and the Liber Miraculorum Sancti Bertini.

This is a remarkable consistent set of behaviours, and it suggests first of all that this is a political practice exported from Scandinavia. There are a couple of objections which could be lodged, however. The first is that it’s not 100% clear this is a universal behaviour within Scandinavia. Scandinavian archaeologists are keen to suggest assembly sites attested later are much older than their first attestation, and whilst I don’t have any theoretical problem with this I haven’t yet read around widely enough to endorse it myself at this moment. Certainly, our written evidence has a strongly Swedish tilt. Descriptions of assembly practice in the Danish kingdom are not quite absent, but at minimum they are potentially suggestive of fairly hefty differences in assembly practice. I won’t deal with this problem any further right now, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

The second objection is that, if you use a broad definition, assembly practice is almost universal everywhere. (This, for instance, is certainly not the first time we’ve discussed the subject on the blog.) In both England and the Carolingian world, assemblies were a foundational element in political life; and the same is true in the Steppe world, where writers such as Bruno of Querfurt have left us vivid descriptions of Petcheneg assemblies which cannot possibly derive from Northman practice. To paraphrase a book review I read, taking a broad-brush view of assembly practice leaves you with the result of ‘Group X held meetings to decide things’…

So do these assemblies have any kind of distinctive character? I think a few elements can be drawn out. At the moment, I’m teaching a class on ‘Places of Power in the Ottonian World’, and Ottonian assemblies, which are heavily stage-managed, extremely hierarchical events are a useful point of contrast. The assemblies we see in these viking polities are much more palpably deliberative. Decision-making at assemblies can’t be taken for granted (we know in the Carolingian and Ottonian realms most of it happens behind closed doors), so the fact that groups have what seems a much more open forum to deliberate in is quite significant. (And, of course, fits with the Vita Rimberti.) Similarly, these assemblies are quite flat. Northman societies in general are not distinguished by elaborate hierarchies, but in these sources the closest we get to a distinction within the assembly is the Vita Basilii’s distinction between ‘subjects’ (ῠ̔πήκοοι, hypikooi) and ‘elders’ (γέροντες, gerontes) (although the Liber Miraculorum’s references to ‘lords’ and ‘courtiers’ (seniores and curiales [!]) might preserve something of this, and Leo the Deacon’s reference to an ‘assembly of nobles’ (βουλὴν τῶν ἀρίστων, boulin ton ariston) gives us grounds for suspicion that these were in any case relatively elite events). In general, it is the body of the polity – the army, the people, the multitude, and so on – who do the deliberating. Similarly, there is very limited evidence that these are monarchical bodies. Sviatoslav’s role in convening the Dorostalon assembly is unusual in this regard. Normally, they are presented as a venue for collective leadership, even when – as in the case of the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto – selecting one person as their ruler.

Nonetheless, they do, I think, play a legitimising role. There is evidence that these were held at important places. Dublin is the obvious case here, but the acclamation of Guthred of Northumbria on Oswigesdune could also be cited. So too, more intriguingly, could the Liber Miraculorum – the assembly described there took place not in the open air, but in the church of Saint-Pierre at Saint-Omer, a place presumably chosen to lend some grandeur to the event. Hints of ritual come through, and certainly of public performance. Again, Oswigesdune is a case in point. Guthred, according to the Historia, was a slave-boy chosen as king by a vision which God granted to Abbot Eadred of Carlisle. This is very unlikely to be true, but what is likely to be true is that Guthred’s acclamation marked the point where the Christian community and religious elites of Northumbria found a modus vivendi with the Northman conquerors. In this context, such assemblies might have more than they seem in common with their Ottonian counterparts. Timothy Reuter described assemblies as constitutive of the Ottonian polity. The same might well be true in the viking world, whether than polity was kingdom, khanate, or army.

The Frisian Church and the Frisian Vikings

One of the themes of my research into viking political cultures is ‘cult’. This is admittedly a well-ploughed field, but it is nonetheless turning up new findings. Often these findings are so corroded as to be difficult or impossible to do anything with. It may be significant that we have references to pagan cult specialists from viking groups active in Ireland, Britain and Rus’; but given that most of these reference are ambiguous or late it may equally well, y’know, not be. Similarly when dealing with Abrahamic faiths, the conversion process in Ireland has been opaque to better scholars than me, and my hope of finding Jewish or Muslim viking groups has borne no fruit. However, I am starting to build up a picture in one of my regions which I think is both real and significant.

Frisia, roughly the northern and western parts of the modern-day Netherlands, had not been Christian for very long, relatively speaking, in the ninth century. The missionary process which had taken place over the eighth century and before had produced a lot of hagiographical literature but was still an ongoing concern in the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. New parish churches were still being founded – at north-eastern Frisia, in Oostergo, a church at Leeuwarden was founded as late as 850 – and the latest research indicates that many of them were situated so far away from population centres that reasonably large chunks of the population would not have been able to access them. Major ecclesiastical players included the bishoprics at Münster and Utrecht, and abbeys, particularly that founded at Echternach by Willibrord, a man whose career was largely dedicated to evangelising Frisia.

One might therefore expect fragility to be the order of the day when the vikings showed up. Frisia was target number one for Danish pirates, up to and including the Danish king Godefrid who invaded in 810. Further attacks continued throughout the ninth century and as late as the eleventh. Indeed, recent research into parish formation in Frisia has concluded that the viking period was a time of devastation and administrative collapse: ‘There is no doubt that the temporary reign of the Vikings Rorik and Godfrey – who, between c. 850 and 885, received a large part of West Frisia from the king in fief in order to defend it against other Vikings – led to a dislocation of the ecclesiastical infrastructure during which churches were destroyed and church land was lost.’

Yet on closer inspection, the evidence for this is remarkably exiguous. The authors of the aforementioned study point the curious reader towards Kohl’s volume on Münster in the Germania Sacra series (where material losses are simply asserted without further evidence) and van Vliet’s work on Utrecht, whose conclusions are a lot more cautious than you would work out from the way they’re cited. In fact, it would be prima facie surprising if viking attacks on Frisia did cause severe structural damage. Frisia’s connections with Denmark were very close, not least because geographically speaking they are almost next door to one another. Similarly, pirate raids were a feature of life in the region for a very long time – famously, there are references in Beowulf and other Old English poetry to Danish raids on Frisia in the immediately post-Roman period and we’ve already mentioned raids in the eleventh century. Annalistic evidence gives the impression that the Frisians were unusually good at fighting off pirate raids on their communities: Frisia was clearly not a defeated and demoralised region. By a process of analogy, although individual raids caused damage and trauma, we might well be better served expecting church structures in Frisia to be robust and adaptable rather than delicate and easily broken. (Archaeological evidence from places like Zutphen and Deventer suggests that even when viking raids did massive damage places that were not already moribund for other reasons were able to rebuild quite quickly.)

This is where I come in. One of the questions I’m trying to ask is whether or not viking rulers outside of Scandinavia patronised pre-existing cult structures. Evidence for this generally is not abundant. There are two questions here: first, was there, generally speaking, continuity between the earlier and later ninth centuries? After all, you can’t patronise the Church if the Church doesn’t exist. Second, if there was continuity in Frisia, did viking rulers actually patronise the Church?

In regard to the first question, there is some evidence for discontinuity, largely relating to the bishopric of Utrecht. In 858, King Lothar II issued a diploma for Bishop Hunger saying that because Utrecht itself had been nearly destroyed by the Northmen, he had fled to Sint Odiliënberg. The bishops would not come back full-time to Utrecht until well into the tenth century, and from the end of the ninth century their main centre was actually Deventer. Otherwise, the Vita Adalberti refers to the church at Egmond suffering from Viking attacks, and a twelfth-century letter suggests that Echternach lost most of its property on Walcheren during the viking period in Frisia. This is not a lot of explicit evidence, and some of it – like the Echternach letter – is late enough that references to viking depredations are more likely an ecclesiastical trope than a reflection of a real ninth-century state of affairs. The biggest question-mark hangs over the role of Utrecht. At first sight, the evidence for disruption here seems pretty damning; but there are some hints that not all is as it seems. Hunger of Utrecht was an opponent of Lothar II’s divorce and had strong links to Lothar’s aggressive uncle Louis the German. I suspect, therefore, the move to Sint Odiliënberg might be a kind of very gilded arrest using the vikings as an excuse. Certainly, there are hints in the letters of Hincmar of Rheims that Hunger was back by the 860s. There is a case for taking a more granular approach, distinguishing between the period of Roric’s rule in Frisia (and the decades beforehand) and the significant, but brief, disruption caused by the massive raids around 880. More research is needed here.

On the other hand, what we have in the way of archival material from the major churches does suggest administrative, and occasionally actual, continuity. For a region supposedly devastated by Scandinavian attacks, we have estate surveys surviving from almost all the major players in the region (Münster and Echternach being the biggest exceptions) from c. 900 and all of them indicate some continuation of Church infrastructure. A list of the goods possessed by the see of Utrecht, dating from c. 900, says little explicitly about continuity, but it does say that the church it owned on the island of Texel had kept going until the reign of Bishop Odilbald (so after the time of Roric and Hunger, up to about the time of those devastating 880s attacks I mentioned earlier). Estate surveys from Prüm and Werden indicate that their goods in the region included functioning churches and responsive officials – some of the material in the Werden Urbar came directly from local representatives of the abbey.

I’d also like to make special mention of the Vita Adalberti. This source, written around the end of the tenth century, goes into surprising detail about Egmond’s existence before it was turned into a monastic foundation by the Counts of Frisia. It does say that Egmond was damaged by viking raids – but it also says that it was restored afterwards. Interestingly, it also says it was patronised not only by Christians but by pagans.

Egmond Abbey in the seventeenth century (source)

This brings us to the second question: if some, and probably most, Church infrastructure was battered but not destroyed by viking attacks, did the viking rulers of Frisia patronise churches? To start with, let’s look at the religious backgrounds of these rulers. The longest-reigning ruler, Roric of Dorestad, only became a Christian in c.860, having ruled in the area for well over a decade beforehand. However, his predecessor Harald Klak and successor Guthfrith were baptised before being given any land in Frisia. (We can debate the ‘sincerity’ of this conversion if you like; but it’s asinine question, and in any case the example of Rollo – whose own conversion was ambiguous enough he was remembered in some quarters as having ordered human sacrifices on his deathbed – shows that even if one wasn’t necessarily a die-hard zealot it was still politic to patronise the Church.) Formal profession of Christianity, though, is only part of the story. We have several stories of unbaptised people patronising churches across Europe during the ninth century – as we’ve seen with the Vita Adalberti. It’s well-known that the Christian God could be assimilated into polytheistic cult practise. Famously, King Raedwald of East Anglia had a Christian altar set up in his personal temple alongside non-Christian shrines. What this means is that people whom a Christian cleric might not perceive as Christians could very well patronise churches, both out of political calculation and also quite sincerely as a religious person.

So, with that out of the way, is there any evidence that they actually did patronise the Church? Some. We’ve already covered pagan patronage of Egmond, but the Vita Adalberti also specifically mentions that Roric of Dorestad specifically restored it. I’m inclined to take this report seriously: Roric had no descendants to care about his memory, and power in the area was in the hands of a quite different group of people. The simplest reason for this story to be here is that the community at Egmond actually did remember Roric restoring their church. There is another piece of evidence that Roric patronised church-building, more contemporary but more gnomic. A poem from Sedulius Scotus refers to an alter being dedicated by Bishop Ratbald in the time of King Roric. Roric is evidently our man; Bishop Ratbald is completely unknown. It’s also not clear where this altar was. Roric did have a brief career as king in Denmark, so it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that this altar was in Scandinavia. However, I find it less likely that Sedulius would commemorate this in a poem than an altar within the Frankish kingdom. The dating by Roric’s reign, further, suggests that a) it was in an area under his control, therefore Frisia; and b) that he patronised it in some fashion.

As far as explicit evidence goes, that’s it. It’s not a lot, but it’s more than is usually brought to the table. Those who argue for extensive disruption caused by viking attacks would likely argue (like the eleventh-century reformer Mayeul of Cluny) that Northmen were breakers not builders of churches. However, I suspect it’s probably more likely to be that Frisia did not possess any major monasteries. Records of monastic landholding represent a disproportionate amount of what we know about Carolingian-era patronage of the Church, and the much smaller churches of Frisia did not preserve their archives into the modern period (if they ever had them). Roric’s power-base in Frisia lay in Dorestad and Kennemerland (around Haarlem). Dorestad’s churches have vanished in the modern day, and there were no significant abbeys in Kennemerland to patronise. For this reason, I think this is absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. Viking leaders in Frisia probably did patronise the Church, albeit on a limited scale, and certainly in ways which don’t show up very clearly in our evidence because of the nature of the churches that were the subjects of such generosity.

Was There A Rus’ Khaganate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolingian Normandies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So You’re at War with the Carolingians: A Survival Guide

Picture it in your mind’s eye. You are the ruler of a medium sized polity in eighth- or ninth-century Europe, cheerfully going about your business extracting economic surplus from your people, when one of your advisors comes up to you with a worried expression on his face. He has just received bad news from your informants at the court of the Franks. Your mighty Carolingian neighbour is starting to muster his armies and you are the target. Maybe your idiot son has launched one too many raids into his territory. Maybe too many of his nobles have been talking quietly to his idiot son about the need for fresh blood in Frankish politics. Maybe his favourite exotic animal has just died and he’s in a bad mood. As the Byzantines say, ‘If a Frank is your friend, he is not your neighbour,’ and unfortunately this Frank is right next door to you. You’re in trouble. Thankfully, help is at hand. In this post we’re going to consider some of the options you have when the Carolingian war machine is at the gates. These are by no means foolproof, but they will give you the best chance you have to survive.

This is Fine. Everything is Fine. (The Golden Psalter, St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 22, fo. 141).

Rule number one of fighting the Carolingians is don’t. This is the family that conquered most of western Europe, including Aquitaine, Saxony, Lombard Italy, Bavaria, the Avars and the Spanish March. They carved out the biggest empire west of Byzantium and they did not do that by being bad at war. You should at the very least be exploring options for avoiding conflict with them. Offering tribute and becoming a client is an entirely viable move, particularly if it buys you time to regain your autonomy at a later date (see Benevento in 788). If you’re not already a Christian, consider converting. Not only will that endear you to your Carolingian neighbours, but the process of baptism also comes with free shiny new clothes and a pen-pal who lives in Rome. (Christianity also comes in Greek, which is less immediately useful in the circumstances but in the longer run may allow you to play the Franks off against Constantinople).

As Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria (r.748-788) could confirm, becoming a client of the Carolingians is not without risk and you may find yourself in front of a kangaroo court on dubious grounds, particularly if you have enemies at home eager to replace you (and who doesn’t?). Even if you’re willing to risk that, peace is not always an option. Sometimes the Carolingians are out to get you specifically. In the unhappy event that war is unavoidable, you are best served by avoiding a straight fight. People as far away as Baghdad know that Frankish swords are the best, and the wealth of the empire means that their armies are well-equipped with chainmail and horses. Most importantly, you will almost certainly be outnumbered. Whichever colourfully named Charles or Louis you’re facing can raise large forces made up of contingents from different peoples across the empire. They will probably place multiple armies in the field, something that Charlemagne (r.768-814) did against the Saxons in 774, al-Andalus in 778, the Bavarians in 787 and the Avars in 791 and 796, and that Louis the German (r.840-876) would still be doing against the Moravians in the 870s. Their aim here is to limit your room to manoeuvre and force you into a pitched battle, playing to their strengths in numbers and soldiers on horseback.

(The one potential exception here for avoiding a major battle is if your Carolingian opponent is Charles the Bald (r.840-877). Charles did not have a great record at winning battles, if his defeats at the hands of the Bretons at Ballon in 845 and Jengland in 851 and by his nephews at Andernach in 876 mean anything. He was a very successful ruler but not particularly lucky on the battlefield, with a tendency to try to be a bit too clever for his own good in his military tactics. High risk, cunning schemes like attacking Brittany in the middle of winter with a small army or attempting to manoeuvre his army at night often blew up in his face, so you could try to bring him to battle and hope he outsmarts himself.)

A core concept here is time. If you can’t go toe-to-toe with the Carolingians, your aim is to make the process of conquering you too long, difficult and unpleasant to be worth the continual effort (think Russia in 1812, or Geoffrey Boycott). Keep it going long enough and a crisis is going to happen somewhere else in the Carolingian world to distract attention, like the Saxon uprising that forced Charlemagne to leave the Iberian Peninsula in 778. Internal Frankish conflict in particular is your friend. As the Bretons in 830 can attest, Louis the Pious (r.814-840) can’t invade your lands if no one wants to show up to join his army. Playing for time is easier said than done and you may need to survive several years of being repeatedly invaded. It helps if, like Benevento, you are far away from the Carolingian heartlands between the Seine and the Rhine and getting to you is a bit difficult. Sometimes you’re just going to get unlucky and become someone’s pet project they keep returning to over the decades, as with Charlemagne and the Saxons.

Other powers will take advantage of the Carolingians being focussed elsewhere, such as Emir Hisham I of al-Andalus, who raided Francia in 793 at the height of the Avar Wars. It may be worth formalising such alignments of interest by allying with your neighbours. The Bohemians were quite big on this, allying with the Moravians in 871 in the face of Frankish aggression, and in 880 with the Daleminzi and Sorbs. On a larger scale, Prince Arichis II of Benevento entered into negotiations for Byzantine support in 787. Admittedly, none of these enterprises were particularly successful; but with that said, keeping your neighbours on side will help stymie another classic Carolingian strategy of allying with them against you, as demonstrated by Charlemagne’s deal with the Abodrites, targeted against the Saxons.

You can also try cutting deals with rebels within the empire. The Umayyads of Córdoba repeatedly destabilised the Spanish March by allying with the losers in internal conflicts in the region, such as Aizo and Willemund in 827, and William of Septimania in 847. By dividing the frontier regions, you make it harder for them to be used as springboards against you, while also gaining sources of intelligence about Frankish movements. The Moravians did similar things with the counts of the Bavarian frontier, suborning multiple figures such as Ratpod in 854 and Gundachar in 869. The Carolingians were not always good at keeping their family conflicts in-house, and frustrated sons resisting the authority of their fathers can also make useful friends. Salomon of Brittany (r.857-874) sent troops to support Louis the Stammerer against his father Charles the Bald in 862, while Rastislav of Moravia (r.846-870) allied with multiple rebellious sons of Louis the German. This is a high-stakes move. By interfering in Carolingian politics you are placing a target on your back for retribution, so make sure you’re not exposed if/when the scapegrace princes decide to reconcile with their family.

One of the best means of getting the time you need to survive is by building fortifications. High walls are not invulnerable to Carolingian armies, but they can slow them down nicely (making derogatory comments about the species and odour of the besiegers’ parents from the top of the walls is traditional). Something like the extensions to the Danevirke finished in 808 by King Godfrid of the Danes (r.804-810) serves as a deterrent and statement of intent, while getting your subjects facing in the right direction and united in a shared project. The Moravians frequently managed to hold off East Frankish armies from their fortified cities. As I can attest from personal experience, trying to climb up to Devín castle in what is now Slovakia when the people on top don’t want you to makes for a challenging day out. The Vikings were masters of setting up shop on a strategically located island in a river and refusing to move unless they were paid to go. Perhaps the gold standard here are the fortified cities of the Upper March in al-Andalus, where the Carolingians spent several decades banging their heads against the walls of Zaragoza, Tortosa and Tarragona to limited effect.

This turtling strategy is not without risk. The Franks can be patient if the rewards are high enough. Concentrating all of your resources and political capital in one place is tempting, but leaves you vulnerable to being taken out with the fall of one city. Charlemagne was willing to overwinter and spend eight months besieging King Desiderius of the Lombards (r.757-774) in Pavia because seizing it got him most of northern Italy in one fell swoop.  Likewise, Emperor Louis II of Italy (r.855-875) kept laying siege to Bari until it finally fell in 871 because doing so destroyed the emirate that was based there. Allowing the Carolingians to get too comfy outside your walls is also a problem. Barcelona fell to Louis the Pious in 801 because Louis knew he didn’t have to worry about reinforcements coming from Córdoba and could besiege at his leisure.

But the biggest problem with hunkering down in your fortress is that it leaves your land and people vulnerable to the occupying army. The Franks will loot and pillage the surrounding countryside, partly to get booty, but mostly to put pressure on you to come out and fight. Not only is your resource base being stolen before your eyes, but a king who won’t protect his people is going to get very unpopular very quickly. Being on the defensive all the time is draining, and morale may collapse quite quickly. A case in point is the plight of Duke Liudewit of Lower Pannonia, whose fortification strategy against the armies of Louis the Pious, while not without success, eventually exhausted the patience of his allies, leading to his death in 823 at their hands.

All this suggests that fortifications may be useful, but they need to form part of a wider strategy. If you can’t take on the entire Carolingian host in one go, then you can at least attempt some aggressive countermeasures. Raids and ambushes will go a long way to restoring your morale and reducing theirs. The Basques and Bretons acquired a particular reputation for this sort of irregular warfare, practiced most famously when the former ambushed Charlemagne’s rear-guard at Roncesvalles in 778, leading to the death of Roland. The key to this sort of warfare is mobility, which allows you to pick your fights when and where you want them. No one did this better than the Vikings, who could use their ships to move unexpectedly along the rivers, but were also surprisingly good at moving over land by commandeering horses.

A certain audacity can sometimes be useful: see the example of the Saxons who snuck into a Frankish camp in 775 by pretending to be foragers, causing chaos among the half-asleep soldiers. Dirty tricks may also be necessary. In 871, having promised to bring the rebellious Moravians under East Frankish controls, upon arriving at the Moravian capital, Svatopluk I (r.871-894) changed sides and took by surprise the Bavarian army that had accompanied him.  Be aware that the Franks are by no means novices at irregular warfare themselves, as the unlucky Moravians ambushed by them later the same year learned to their cost. 

I would also suggest launching raids across the border if the Franks have retreated for the end of the campaigning season. Having spent much of 855 being besieged by Louis the German, Rastislav of Moravia tailed the Frankish army when it returned home for winter and began raiding the countryside. While this may feel akin to lobbing pinecones at a bear while it’s walking away, it helps place pressure on the Carolingians to come to the negotiating table. You want to make being at war with you an uncomfortable experience that has wider ramifications. Keep offering them a reasonable face-saving out while making it clear that the alternative is unpleasant. Salomon of Brittany was able to use attacks on Frankish territory to force Charles the Bald to recognise him as King of Brittany in 867. Raids like this also help solidify your position at home, not just by acquiring booty, but by giving your warriors something to feel good about, and helping your wider political community understand that you have a plan for how to win this war that goes beyond letting yourself be punched in the face until the other guy’s hand starts hurting.

While I have strongly counselled against taking the main Carolingian army in the field, smaller detachments are another matter. A classic example of divide and conquer can be observed in 849. The Bohemians, under pressure from a large Frankish army under the command of Ernest, dux of the Bavarian frontier, sent envoys offering peace to one of the army’s captains, Thachulf, dux of the Sorbian March. Thachulf’s arrogance in accepting their terms without consulting the rest of the army annoyed a large chunk of the Franks, who pressed ahead without the others and were defeated by the Bohemians. The military organisation of Carolingian forces into units based on kingdom of origin can be used in your favour, as when a campaign against the Moravians in 872 collapsed because the Thuringians and the Saxons taking part kept feuding with each other.

When it does come to battle, try to pick ground that suits you, and force the Carolingians to fight on your terms. Einhard observed that the Basques at Roncesvalles in 778 were helped by the lightness of their gear and their familiarity with the uneven mountain terrain. Charles the Bald was lured into a marsh at Ballon in 845, allowing the Bretons to exploit their superior knowledge of the ground. At Jengland in 851, the Bretons refused to close with Charles’s men, using their lightly armoured horsemen to harass the Carolingian army with javelins and feinting to draw them out of formation. In 891, King Arnulf (r.888-899) hesitated before engaging and defeating the Vikings at the Battle of the Dyle because his army would be hemmed in by marsh and river and have to fight on foot.  

There are no sure-fire ways of defending yourself against the Carolingians, but following these rules of thumb will give you as much a chance as anyone has.

[The above is an extremely artificial exercise and there are obvious problems with what I’ve just written. Not only have I flattened more than a century of Carolingian history, ignoring dramatic changes in the political structure of the empire, I’ve also homogenised the various peoples and polities unlucky enough to be stuck next to them. This is particularly egregious in the case of the Vikings, who operated very differently to the other examples I discuss.

My central conceit of addressing an early medieval prince also led me to encourage certain types of solutions, suggesting that the political community best equipped to resist the Carolingians is:

1.   Far away

2.   Sufficiently centralised to raise the resources to build and man extensive fortifications, and to remain united under considerable pressure.

While point 1 stands in any circumstances, strictly speaking point 2 can be challenged. Fracturing into small, hard to manage communities and thereby becoming ungovernable will also give the Carolingians a real headache, as Louis II’s misadventures in southern Italy attest. I just couldn’t see this being the sort of option that would appeal to a prince.

The main reason I wrote this post is because I wanted to put myself into the head of someone who was an enemy of the Carolingians. Most of our sources come from the Carolingian world, which shapes our perspective of their wars. Not only do we understand things from their logic, it leads us to sympathise with them. One of my research priorities is to centre these apparently peripheral polities. I want to underline how scary a prospect the Carolingians were in this period (Reuter’s adage that ‘for most of Europe in the eighth and ninth century it was the Franks who were the Vikings’). But I also want to think about their leaders as undertaking strategies and responding to the problems caused by their giant neighbour. This represents one way of thinking about that.]