Bishop Altfrid’s Report, summer 862

Much of what we know of early medieval high politics is based on texts written for public consumption: the final version of agreed charters, crafted formal records of meetings, or commemorative (or subtly critical) histories. It’s perhaps this slant of the evidence which has led some historians to emphasise the ritualised quality of those politics. Amidst the records of choreographed assemblies and ceremonies, the actual workings of political process are hard to discern: the surviving evidence appears all highly polished surface, with little indication of whirring cogs beneath.

But just occasionally a text survives, usually by the skin of its teeth, that seems to let us see (to mix metaphors) under the bonnet of the spluttering engine of Carolingian dynastic political manoeuvring. The text presented in this blog in translation for the first time, thanks to one of my former students, Hayley Harrison, is a good example.

It’s a letter sent in the summer of 862 by Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim (†874) to his king, Louis the German (of East Francia). Altfrid had travelled to West Francia on his king’s behalf, to conduct diplomatic negotiations with the king’s brother, King Charles the Bald (of West Francia). He wrote this letter to let King Louis know how things were going. Although Altfrid was from a Saxon family, he had probably been educated in West Francia (perhaps at Corbie), and already had some experience of acting as an envoy between Louis and his royal relatives, so he was a natural choice for this embassy. His predecessor as bishop of Hildesheim was moreover the exiled Ebbo of Reims, so we can assume that Altfrid was quite well informed about wider Frankish politics.

The letter doesn’t explain the specific purpose of Bishop Altfrid’s mission to King Charles, but we do know it touched on the affairs (so to speak) of King Lothar II, Louis and Charles’s nephew, who had just recently divorced his wife Theutberga at the Council of Aachen in April 862, and was now gearing up to marry Waldrada. Indeed this was probably the embassy’s main focus: Louis wanted to reconcile Lothar and Charles, and to help draw a line under his nephew’s recent political difficulties. That was not, however, how things turned out.

As the letter explains, Bishop Altfrid first travelled to Lotharingia, picking up envoys from the young Lothar, before they all proceeded to King Charles’s court, at his grandest ceremonial centre, Compiègne. There, as Altfrid reported to Louis, the two embassies met with very different receptions. To Altfrid, Charles was gracious and cordial; to Lothar’s envoys, he was conspicuously cold and peremptory. Lothar was a king mired in sin, and Charles would have no dealings with him until he mended his ways. Charles did want to talk about Lothar’s case – but with Louis, privately, and in Lothar’s absence.

As Stuart Airlie has argued (1), we see in Charles’s public behaviour a message as clear as the words that were spoken (or written, if as seems possible the ‘Capitulary of Savonnières’ represents an echo of this meeting, perhaps even the ‘other record’ the letter mentions). Until Lothar had resolved his marital problems, his followers and clients were not welcome in Charles’s kingdom. And a king who could not ensure his followers were treated with public respect was a king seriously failing in his responsibilities.

If Lothar II had not yet grasped that the Aachen Council of 862 would not simply extricate him from the crisis engendered by his attempted divorce, he ought to have begun to realise it now.

Translation of Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim’s letter (pdf)

Image: Nordrhein-Westfalen Landesarchiv in Münster, Kindlingersche Sammlung vol. 40, fol. 210v-211r

1: Stuart Airlie, ‘Unreal Kingdom: Francia Media under the shadow of Lothar II’. In: Gaillard, M.Margue, M.Dierkens, A. and Pettiau, H. (eds.) De la mer du Nord a la Mediterranee: Francia Media, une Region au Coeur de l’Europe (c.840-c.1050). Centre luxembourgeois de documentation et d’etudes medievales, pp. 339-356

The Carolingian 1%

As the Carolingian empire grew in size, so its ‘stakeholders’ grew richer – kings, churches, and the highest-ranked Frankish aristocrats above all.

Few if any Carolingian aristocrats were higher-ranking than the couple who issued this will around 863, presented below in draft English translation for the first time (primarily to help students). Count Eberhard came from a well-established noble kinship group labelled by modern historians as the ‘Unruochings’, because many men associated with it were named Unruoch. Eberhard’s wife Gisela was the daughter of Emperor Louis the Pious and Empress Judith, no less. This was a family at the very top of the tree.

That position is evident from the document itself, in which Eberhard and Gisela distributed their possessions amongst their sons and daughters. A large part of the will reads like a treasure list: immense quantities of golden, silver and ivory objects, from swords to drinking vessels. Some of these were probably of recent manufacture, others may have been antiques already.  The will is also famous for its dozens of books, which are individually divided up amongst the children too. Eberhard and Gisela had evidently built up a very considerable library.

Nevertheless, the bulk of their wealth was in land. The will does not give a precise value or acreage, but it is apparent that Eberhard and Gisela were seriously wealthy, with property in what is now Germany,  Italy, Belgium and France. They were certainly part of the Carolingian 1%, busy with Piketty and Scheidel’s ‘capital accumulation’, and keen to pass it on to their heirs.

But the more you have, the more you have to lose, and Eberhard and Gisela clearly worried about that. Their will accounts for the possibility that a future king of the Franks, Lombards or Alemans will seize property from one of their heirs ‘by violence or without cause’.  The Carolingian world of the 860s was one of kingdoms ruled by rival kings, which posed problems for those aristocrats whose property stretched over the old empire as a whole.

Indeed the will can be read as indicating that the couple were beginning to create separate ‘kernels’ of land, with, for instance, all their Italian estates passing as a bloc to their eldest son, Unroch. While kings were still aiming for the ultimate prize – to reconstitute the empire of Charlemagne – were their aristocrats already quietly but surely accommodating themselves to a new, more fragmented reality?

Translation: The Will of Count Eberhard and Gisela (pdf)

Image: the “Reliquiary of Pippin”, a 9th-c. reliquiary now in Conques (France), perhaps like those mentioned in the will.

Simony, the Latin West and Byzantium

It’s long been emphasised by historians of the European Middle Ages that their subjects did not think of themselves as medieval, a periodisation that was only invented and imposed later. Less often discussed, but perhaps just as important, is that they would not usually have thought of themselves as ‘European’ either. There certainly was a medieval concept of Europe (Europa). But as Klaus Oschema and Marie-Céline Isaia have suggested, that itself means that we should be cautious about using the term when the people we are studying did not.

To avoid the risk of anachronism that the language of “medieval Europe” might bring with it, historians have sometimes instead talked of the Latin West to describe their focus of study. In many ways this is both understandable and justifiable. People living in Carolingian Francia, for instance, did think of themselves as western, and the widespread use of Latin in liturgical and learned contexts – no matter what the vernacular – eased cultural transfer across wide areas, from Ireland to Hungary, and from Iceland to Sicily. There is a real cultural network here to be studied.

However, this cultural network was not strictly bounded or contained, and in fact many of its most central ideas developed in and through dialogue with those living elsewhere. As Saba Mahmood has put it when talking of European encounters with the wider world, ‘These encounters did not simply leave Christianity untouched but transformed it from within…’[1]

The text presented here in English translation is a case in point. It is a letter written on the theme of simony, that it is to say the purchase (or, according to this treatise, attempted purchase) of ecclesiastical office: paying to become a priest or bishop. Very likely this letter was written by Humbert of Moyenmoutier, since it seems in some ways a first draft of his much longer (and more celebrated) Three books against the simonists. This letter was therefore an important step in the elaboration of a key concept in medieval history.

Significantly, however, this “early draft” was written to a Byzantine governor in southern Italy – a representative of another socio-political complex, in which Greek, not Latin played the role of lingua franca, and in which ancient ideas of the state (and of office holding) seemed better preserved. In other words, we can see Humbert developing his ideas – ideas that proved central in the history of the Latin West – in dialogue with people located in overlapping but distinct cultural networks.

Encounters such as these were not marginal to the development of the cultural network we might label the Latin West: they were baked in.

‘On the heresy of simony’: translation (opens pdf)

[1] Saba Mahmood, ‘Can secularism be other-wise? (A critique of Charles Taylor’s A secular age)’, available via

What is a History lecture for?

Once upon a time, a typical History degree in the UK would be taught through a combination of lectures and small-group teaching. That small-group teaching would be based on discussion of reading done in advance. To enable that reading, libraries would stock multiple copies of relevant books, next to little cardboard boxes of offprints – authorised photocopies – for reading in the library, not for borrowing.

This all sounds rather quaint in the era of digital reproducibility. When JSTOR first appeared, lecturers publicly lamented that students no longer learned how to use library catalogues, but privately welcomed the way it abolished the old access problems. Every student could read the same chapter or article in preparation for the small-group discussion, and a course could be easily updated if something new and brilliant came out.

Now, though, reproduction technologies are being applied not just to the reading but to the lectures, through lecture capture.

UK students and university administration alike often see lecture capture as progress with no downsides. You can listen to your lecture again and again, at your leisure, whenever and however suits you. Staff concern about dropping attendance is countered by the benefit the technology clearly offers to students who unavoidably miss a lecture through illness, family emergency, or other bona fide commitment, quite apart from university ‘business continuity’ if a lecturer falls ill or is otherwise unavailable.

But these debates, though important, are missing a key point: reproducing something inevitably changes the original in some way.

This year, a number of bright students have politely emailed me, weeks after a lecture, to ask for references to things I referred to in passing in a lecture – and not just book titles (which I of course provided), but page numbers. In essence, they are asking for my lecture’s footnotes. Digital reproduction means the lecture has become a resource, not an event, and that is what these students are treating it as. Now that they can listen to it again, their expectations of the lecture have understandably changed. In due course, we may well see requests for recorded lectures to be subtitled.

Does this matter? As it happens, most of my lectures are texts, since I tend unfashionably to write them out in full. Is there any reason I shouldn’t simply upload them as texts, so all the students can read them for themselves? Why not treat undergraduate lecture series as essentially recited textbooks?

That might be the inevitable outcome. But there are two problems. The first is that if we expect lectures to receive the kind of scrutiny that published texts come under (especially if they end up on the internet, which these days is more likely than not), lecturers will have to spend rather longer on writing them: polishing them up, equipping them with footnotes, and removing those wry quips that might sound awkward taken out of context.

The second is deeper-rooted. I think most History lecturers don’t want their students to ‘learn’ their lectures by dint of repetition: these lectures aren’t e-How videos, teaching a historical technique to be repeated back in an exam. That’s because a History degree, at heart, isn’t primarily about rote learning lots of details about the past – it’s about learning how to construct, for yourself, reasoned and persuasive arguments on the basis of incomplete evidence. Lectures are generally intended to introduce students to a wider body of historical literature, to help guide them through it; they are not supposed to stand in for that literature in itself, or to give the answer for the exam. As lectures change from real-time event to digital resource, though, that is precisely what they may end up having to do.

In other words, as lecture capture becomes ever more prevalent and normal, there is the risk that undergraduate lectures become obstacles to the kind of learning that History degrees are intended to inculcate. It may be historians would be better off replacing them with 20-minute screencasts to be viewed in advance, and ‘flipping the lecture’. Ironically, rather than bringing lectures into the 21st century, could lecture capture end up killing them off?

*Update* 13.11.2018
To my slight surprise, a few people have read this blog as just an(other) attack on lecture capture. But I wasn’t arguing straightforwardly for or against (and I specified the advantages of LC for many students, though I accept I ought to have mentioned disabled students explicitly).

My focus was rather on how LC changes the nature of a lecture – in disciplinary terms, it effectively makes it into a secondary source – and how this has pedagogical (as well as workload) implications. Actually, I suspect many students have long considered lectures to be secondary sources, rather than guides to them, so in that sense LC is just bringing a latent issue to the fore,  but in a way that merits reflection.

Making use of LC technology in an imaginative and properly thought-through way could improve teaching, but perhaps not in a way which leaves the standard lecture-based teaching model intact (whether that’s a good or a bad thing).


Over the past couple of years, I’ve been putting up draft translations of early medieval texts online.  I produced most of them to support my Special Subject on Lothar II and Theutberga’s divorce case,  as a supplement to the material in Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization.

Here’s an index (not including very short partial translations/excerpts), in case the translations are useful for you. I’ll update this page as and when I put fresh material online. These aren’t polished pieces of work, so please do let me know if you have comments or suggestions, or spot any errors.

804: the Rizana placitum 

835: Florus of Lyon’s On the Appointment of bishops

840?: the Capitulare in pago cenomannico datum

847: the Courtisols judgement

c. 850: the Apparition of St Vaast

852: Hincmar’s first episcopal capitulary (on the Hincmar.blogspot)

856: Judith ordo (and 866 Ermentrude ordo), by Hincmar

858: the Quierzy letter to Louis the German

c. 860?  Ordeal of cold water

862: The Aachen Council of 862 (on the Hincmar.blogspot)

862: Embassy of Bishop Altfrid to King Charles the Bald 

863: A charter by Lothar II mentioning Waldrada

c. 863: The will of Eberhard and Gisela

864: Bishop Adventius of Metz writes to Pope Nicholas I (on the Hincmar blogspot)

867: Ratramnus of Corbie’s Contra Graecorum opposita (extract)

871: Letter of Louis II to Basil I

876: De noviliaco villa/About the estate of Neuilly,  by Hincmar

877: the Capitulary of Quierzy

893: Hatto of Verdun’s Memoriale

c.900: a Carolingian sermon on the Vikings

c. 1050: A treatise on simony

c.1090: the visit of Joseph the Englishman to Constantinople

Carolingian queens – coronation ordines

“Curiously, the earliest documented [coronation ordo] is for a queen, Judith in 856” – Jinty Nelson.

The coronation ritual by which the Frankish princess Judith was initiated into her marriage with the West Saxon king Aethelwulf has often been studied by historians of queenship and Anglo-Frankish contacts and connections. It has not however been translated into English before, as far as I know.  This blog is therefore to make available my own draft translation of this important text, on the day of a modern royal wedding to boot. It’s rather rough and ready (& not polished enough for formal publication), so comments are welcome.

To provide some context, I’ve also translated a slightly later coronation ritual for another Frankish queen, Ermentrude. This ceremony,  which took place in 866, did not mark the beginning of Ermentrude’s marriage to Charles the Bald – they had been married since 842, and in fact Judith was one of their children. The liturgy is preceded by a short text which offers an explanation as to why Charles (and Ermentrude?) arranged the event, decades into their married life. Further research on this by Zubin Mistry is forthcoming in the journal Early Medieval Europe.

Medieval coronation orders are strange sources. Composed largely of prayers, interspersed with citations from and references to the Bible, they can seem difficult to make much of (and to translate into English,  too). However, these two rituals were written for specific occasions, and it may be possible to detect traces of how they were tailored to those occasions. They were also written by the same person – Archbishop Hincmar of Reims.  That makes a comparison even more telling: how did Hincmar adjust and adapt his material, according to the political and theological imperatives of the moment?

One final point. It’s often assumed that marriages such as these were political affairs, not affairs of the heart. Perhaps. But Hincmar at least hoped that one wouldn’t exclude the other, since alongside praying for eternal life, freedom from ‘the stain of adultery’ and plenty of offspring, he also hoped Ermentrude and Charles would persevere amore coniugali sincero: ‘in sincere conjugal love’. Unfortunately, Charles’s efficiency in negotiating a remarriage to a woman named Richildis merely days after Ermentrude’s death in 869 suggests this prayer may not have been fully answered.

Translation of the Judith and Ermentrude consecration ordines (pdf)

The politics of land in ninth-century Francia

Chris Wickham has argued that polities whose political economy is based on grants of land (as opposed, say, to tax and salaries) are intrinsically unstable. Here’s a text in support of his argument, written by Archbishop Hincmar of Reims in 876 – the De villa noviliaco, a text surviving in a single ninth-century manuscript (Paris lat. 10758).

In it, Hincmar recounts the complex history of the villa (estate) of Neuilly. King Carloman granted this estate to the church of Reims in the late eighth century; the grant was confirmed by Charlemagne who nevertheless gave it in benefice to a Saxon named Anscher. Later, Charlemagne’s son Louis gave it to a count named Donatus. Legally, these grants in benefice did not overturn Reims’s ultimate ownership. However, Donatus craftily sliced off some holdings from the benefice which his family would later claim were entirely his.

When Emperor Louis’s sons rebelled against him, Donatus had to make a political choice; unfortunately for him, he made the wrong decision, joining Lothar just before Lothar surrendered. Neuilly was duly taken from Donatus, and given to a certain Hatto. But when Hatto died, Donatus and his family got it back again. However, when Louis the German invaded the western Frankish kingdom in 858, Donatus’s widow Landrada read the politics wrong once again, deserting Charles to join Louis. When Charles re-established control, he therefore took the estate from Landrada and gave it to the monastery of Orbais. Only then did Hincmar finally manage to get Neuilly back for Reims, shortly followed by the associated holdings stolen by Donatus. Hincmar did not keep the estate in house, however, preferring to grant it out in benefice to clients, Rothaus and Bernaus.

Donatus’s family was down but not out, however, for when Louis the German invaded again in 874 (while King Charles was in Italy), his and Landrada’s sons managed to get the estate back from Queen Richildis, presumably in return for their political and maybe military support. Not until Charles’s return from Italy was this grant overturned thanks to Hincmar’s lobbying.

The estate of Neuilly thus changed hands at least eleven times in around a century. Hincmar thought Reims had the better claim – and used the written word to prove it, referring to several charters none of  which now survive. But the family of Donatus thought otherwise, and had their own established hereditary claim which had twice been honoured. We cannot know what they would have made of Hincmar’s arguments, but mostly likely they would have argued that although Reims owned Neuilly, they had a family claim to it as a benefice. Perhaps the families of Hatto, Anscher and Bernaus (each of who had held at it some point) would have seen things differently again.

Who had the best claim to Neuilly was therefore a political question, which is why Hincmar wrote and preserved his (doubtless partisan) account. But what Hincmar’s history does show quite unequivocally is how tensions over landholding made Frankish politics in the ninth century very unstable. For there was always someone waiting for the right opportunity to press long-harboured claims over some estate – and no shortage of rival kings willing to provide that opportunity.

English translation (pdf) 

Ninth-century popular heresy?

Clerics preaching that God could be worshipped anywhere and that the cult of relics was a fraud, spreading their dangerous message in the countryside, and preying in particular on credulous and uneducated women…

…This may sound like a summary of some 11th or 12th-century criticism of heretics, like that of Ralph Glaber. But actually it’s a resumé of a ninth-century miracle story, recorded in the Miracula sancti Dionysii of Paris (an English translation is provided below).

The Miracles of Saint-Denis is a surprisingly neglected ninth-century  source.  It’s divided into three books. According to Levillain and, following him, Stoclet, the first two books (BHL 2202) were written in the 830s by none other than this blog’s old friend, Hincmar of Reims, who had been a monk at St Denis before his elevation to the Reims archbishopric in 845.[1] It’s certainly striking that extracts from them survive in Reims BM. 1395, a ninth-century manuscript from St Remi.

A third book of miracles was written later, around 877 (BHL 2203).[2] Most historians have been less interested in this book: Levillain because it had nothing to say about the Merovingian kings, Stoclet because it has less topographical information for the history of the monastery. In his recent book on Dionysian hagiography, Michael Lapidge also thought Book III wasn’t that interesting – just “a sequence of brief and unilluminating miracles”.[3] Yet it’s in this book that our miracle story of the ‘pseudo-preaching’ clerics and their victims is to be found.

Obviously one can’t take such an account at face value. But it’s nevertheless interesting that in his recounting of the miracle, the author, presumably a monk of St-Denis, went to some trouble to justify the monumentality of the early medieval church, using a string of biblical precedents. That suggests a perception of a genuine counter-argument of the kind attributed to the ‘brainless’ clerics in the story – one that might be linked to contemporary arguments about church property, mentioned in an earlier blog.

Since it’s at the end of the miracle collection, could this story have been added later? That’s in principle possible, since the earliest manuscript is 12th-century, and miracle collections did sometimes grow by accretion. But the story’s author notes that he had mentioned the place of Chaudrades “above”, in a cross-reference to chapter 10 of Book III, whose ninth-century credentials seem pretty strong (e.g. references to pagi, the personal names, etc). So any addition would have been fraudulent in intent. Given that we know there was some ambivalence about relics in the ninth-century, this seems an over-complicated solution.

What’s most surprising about the story is its suggestion that ‘ordinary’ people, not just clerical elites (or sub-elites), might have been affected by such views in the Carolingian period. How to interpret this evidence is a problem that needs to be chewed over. In any case, it’s a reminder that early medieval miracle collections deserve more attention than they tend to receive – and for none is that more true than the Miracles of Saint-Denis.

Note on the Latin edition of the Miracula Sancti Dionysii (with links to the manuscripts on the ever-amazing Gallica)
The standard edition of the Miracula Sancti Dionysii is Mabillon’s Acta Sanctorum Ordinis sancti Benedicti, based on two 13th– and 15th-century manuscripts (Paris BnF nal 1509 and Paris, Arsenal 1030). Mabillon later came across the much older Reims BM 1395. He published two more miracles he found there, but without updating his earlier edition, although the Reims manuscript clearly provides alternative readings. And Mabillon didn’t know at all about Vatican Reg. lat. 571, a late 12th-century manuscript, which has a full text that may well be better than the manuscripts Mabillon used. A new edition of the Miracula could be based on the Vatican manuscript, drawing on the Reims extracts (already edited by Luchaire as an appendix to his study).[4]

Miracles of St Denis, Book III, Ch. 15: draft translation

Latin edition: Mabillon Acta Sanctorum p. 329

Paris nal. 1509, s. xiii, p. 372
Paris lat. 2447, s. xiii, fol. 184
Vatican Reg. 571, s. xii, fol. 95v
Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), fol?

About two women who suffered from spasms and were eventually cured

There were two women, one of whom lived in Chaudardes of Laon (Caldarda Laudunensium) which I mentioned above, and the other in the village (vicus) of Breuil, whose faith was subverted by pseudo-preaching clerics. These clerics mocked the afore oft-mentioned Denis. They said that God was everywhere and did not need to be sought anywhere else, although Jacob placed the stone where he said the true God was [Genesis 28], and Naaman was cured nowhere else but the River Jordan [2 Kings 5], and certain kings of Israel who walked perfectly before God were blamed only because they worshipped him in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ wished to be born nowhere else than in a house of bread [ie the Eucharist]* – Jesus who gives life to those who worthily consume him, and is a future judgement for those who take him unworthily…**

Eventually these women, urged by the admonitions of their neighbours, came together amongst the crowds that gathered on the sixteenth kalends of October [16th Sept]. While we were celebrating the night office on the holy Sunday night, suddenly amongst the whole multitude they began to suffer from that disease which we call spasm. After they had collapsed to the ground many times like madmen, they looked like they were dead. They suffered for this for a long time, until they confessed that they had not only believed what they had heard from the brainless clerics, but had often mocked those who sought the saint.


*Thus Mabillon (in panis domo). The Vatican manuscript however has an abbreviation mark on the p and a suspension mark over the a: not panis but p̱ānis. Answers on a postcode please.
**the Latin continues ita ibi per quindecim dies sana est reddita (‘thus for fifteen days ?health was returned there’) which is difficult to make sense of.

[1] Levillain, Études sur l’abbaye de Saint-Denis; Stoclet, ‘Les miracula sancti Dionysii, commentaire et donnees topographiques’, in Wyss, Atlas historique de Saint-Denis. The BHL website lists six manuscripts:

Paris lat. 2445A, fols 33-35 (s. xii, extracts);

Vat Reg. 571 (s. xii), fols. 72-97;

Montpellier BU H1 (s. xii?), fols. 213-215r – in fact just the Inventio

Paris lat. 2447 (s. xiii), 153-184v;

Paris lat. 17631 (s. xv), 61-71; and

Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), 133-162.
The BHL list omits the Reims 1395 manuscript and Paris nal 1509, pp. 305-349.

[2] The BHL website lists four mss with BHL 2203 (all also contain BHL 2202, ie Books I-II):
Vat Reg. 571  (s. xii)

Paris lat. 2447 (s. xiii)
Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), and
Paris nal 1509 (s. xiii) pp. 349-373.

The Montpellier FM 1, Paris lat. 2445A and Paris lat. 17631 do not have text from the third book.

[3] Lapidge, Hilduin of Saint-Denis.

[4] Luchaire, ‘Étude’.

Before truth puts on its boots – homage and Wikipedia

As readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of Wikipedia. But it’s only as useful, and accurate, as its editors make it (one reason why I’ve experimented with getting students to improve its content).

Here’s a case in point. The cover image for this blog is well known as an illustration of medieval homage. Before I updated the page, the image credit  described it simply as a miniature from the Archives Departementales de Perpignan, depicting the act of homage – no date,  no shelfmark.

That copyright-free  image has now been used on a dozen Wikipedia sites to illustrate medieval homage. And a Google image search pulls up dozens of other websites using it, many of them for ‘the feudal system’, mostly without any further details.

But there’s a complication. What the image actually shows is not a vassal doing homage to his feudal lord, but a royal tenant putting his hands in those of a royal agent, as part of rent collection. So as the Archives informed me (pers. comm.), “il ne s’agit pas d’un hommage vassalique,  bien que la gestuelle soit la meme”.  And the image has a precise context too, created in 1293, which most of its users aren’t aware of.

Far from representing a politically decentralised ‘feudal society’, then, this image in fact shows kings (in this case King James II of Majorca) asserting their power pretty thoroughly.

This perhaps isn’t as serious a case as the image of the ‘Black Death’ that turned out to be of leprosy. But it does illustrate the power of images, and how their decontextualised use can sometimes be a little misleading.

Yet it also illustrates one of the wonderful things about Wikipedia : unlike other encyclopedias, if you spot something that’s wrong or missing, you can change it!

Image credit: Wikimedia, Archives Départementales de Pyrénées-Orientales 1B31.

Lost for words – King Lothar II’s “most beloved Theutberga”

All historians, I think, are attracted to the gaps in the archive – the silences, the absences, the things that aren’t there. For historians of early medieval Europe, it can sometimes feel like there’s more gap than record, though really this isn’t such a poorly documented time and place, especially Carolingian Francia. But it’s the inconspicuous absence, not the glaring one, that’s often the most telling: and here’s a case in point.

On 17th January 866, King Lothar II granted his wife Queen Theutberga twenty estates in Francia, in a charter issued at the royal palace of Aachen. For kings to transfer lands to queens was not unusual. But such transfers normally took place at the beginning of a marriage, as a dowry, not as in this case eleven years later.

That’s not however the only remarkable thing about this charter. What’s also odd is how it describes Theutberga – or rather, how it doesn’t. She is described as dilectissima nostra, ‘our most beloved’. But ‘our most beloved’ … what? The adjective dilectissimus is quite common in royal charters from the ninth century, but it’s usually applied to a noun – our most beloved sister, son, wife, daughter, etc.

As all readers of De Divortio will know, though, in 866 Lothar was still grimly struggling to separate from Theutberga, and this charter has been interpreted as a pay-off or compensation in exchange for separation. In that context, he could hardly call her his ‘wife’ – that would be an awkward acknowledgement of a status that he was insistently denying. To call her his ex-wife would however have been politically risky – he wasn’t quite there yet. Better perhaps just not to say anything at all.

In a later charter, Lothar apparently applied similar discretion to Waldrada, his mistress, who is described as ‘our beloved’ with no further qualification – though in this case we cannot be entirely sure, because the key passage was later tampered with, when someone changed Waldrada’s name to ‘Rotrude’.

But Lothar’s grant to Theutberga has not been tampered with, and  survives in its pristine original. And that allows us to see something rather peculiar – something that it’s tempting to ascribe to scribal hesitation in the face of this unusual phrasing.

Though it’s not marked up in the standard edition, Dupraz noted that there was a significant gap after Theutberga’s name.[1] And on inspecting a facsimile, he’s right. There’s in fact a clear gap in both occurrences of the phrase “Theotbergae dilectissimae […] nostrae” in the charter. The first, at line 3, is this blog’s cover image. The second, at line 7, is visible here:

The intact ascender of the L reaching up from the line underneath shows this gap isn’t an erasure. But if the gap isn’t an erasure, what is it?

Dupraz suggested it was to enable a suitable noun to be added later, but I’m not sure the space is quite long enough for that. Rather, the little gap seems to express the uncertainties of Lothar and Theutberga’s circumstances, years into their tragic relationship breakdown. A moment when the scribe stopped, paused and moved on?

Image: Lothar II, D. 27. Original charter in Parma (why it’s there is a topic for another blog – as is why the charter was re-issued in 868, with similar gaps…)

*Updated 10 August 2018 in light of comments from Clemens Radl and Levi Roach (thanks to both).*

[1] Louis Dupraz, ‘Deux préceptes de Lothaire II (867 et 868) : ou les vestiges diplomatiques d’un divorce manqué’, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Kirchengeschichte 59 (1965), pp. 193-256.

Further reading. The charters are briefly discussed in Heidecker, Divorce of Lothar, p. 171, with n. 93. You can see full facsimiles in Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, vol. 93. For helpful context, see Roberta Cimino, ‘Royal women and gendered communication – Female voices in Carolingian diplomas’, L’homme 26 (2015).

A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)