All posts by Charles West

A kingdom on a knife edge

The Treaty of Verdun of 843 is (or used to be) famous, as the moment when the Frankish empire of Charlemagne was divided amongst his heirs. It can be argued that this division can still be traced in modern European political borders.

But at the time, the treaty was seen as no more than provisional.  And one of the most spectacular attempts to reverse it was the invasion of western Francia by the eastern Frankish king, Louis ‘the German’, in 858. In the end the western king, Charles ‘the Bald’, managed to hold on to power – but it appears to have been a close-run thing, and in the winter of 858 the whole political framework of the Frankish world teetered in the balance.

One of the reasons Charles clung on was that his northern Frankish bishops did not desert him (though  Archbishop Wenilo of Sens made a different decision). Instead, the northern bishops met at the royal palace of Quierzy from where they sent a remarkable and wide-ranging letter to the invader Louis, in which they offered him advice on what his priorities should be as a king. Managing royal lands, tackling the Vikings, supporting the church – all these ought to be higher up his agenda than taking over his own brother’s kingdom. Above all, he should be wary of listening too much to (secular) counsellors who might not have his best (spiritual) interests at heart.

Here’s a translation of this source as a pdf (it’s also available on the Hincmar translation website, since Archbishop Hincmar of Reims was  its leading author). It’s the first result of a regular collaborative Latin translation class with PhD students (Harry Mawdsley, Richard Gilbert, and Robert Heffron) at the Department of History here in Sheffield. We hope it’s useful.

Image: adapted from Wikipedia.

‘Our dearest wife and son’ – King Lothar II’s charters

One of the problems of studying the Frankish kingdom of Lotharingia  – the ‘lost’ kingdom between France and Germany – is that the main narrative sources for the time were written outside its borders: they are external perspectives, looking in. It is this that makes the charters issued by Emperor Lothar I and by his son King Lothar II (855-869) so important, as ‘internal’ evidence. A full book-length study of the former by Elina Screen is in hand; this short blogpost focuses on the latter, all available in a high-quality and open-access edition.

Only thirty-six charters  from Lothar II’s nearly fifteen-year reign survive (including a handful of originals).[1]. This isn’t an enormous number, either in absolute terms or compared to the 139 from his father’s admittedly larger kingdom. But the charters nevertheless provide a great deal of useful information, in this as in other early medieval contexts.[2]

For instance, we know that issuing a charter was a ceremonial act, by which a king demonstrated his authority.  Where it took place mattered, then, as the scene for the expression of royal power. Lothar II issued charters at sixteen different locations,  including palaces, monasteries and cities. His great grandfather’s palace of Aachen towers above all the others,  as the site for almost a third of the king’s charters. Plotting these locations on a map creates a view of Lothar’s kingdom defined not by its borders but by its centres of power – a king’s eye view of his kingdom, as it were (see the map above, showing how his kingdom spanned five modern countries).

Many charters also mention important political figures at the time, allowing us to reconstruct something of their careers. It’s striking that the first two of Lothar’s charters, both issued in 855, accord a prominent position to Hubert, the brother of Lothar’s first wife Theutberga. Hubert is described in the first of the two as an influential courtier (‘our beloved adviser Hubert’). Hubert then however disappears – only to crop up again in 868, but this time as a dead rebel whose property has been confiscated.

Another important figure at Lothar’s court was Archbishop Gunthar of Cologne. Although deposed by the pope in 863, Gunthar tried to cling on, and a document from 866 suggests that in that year Lothar II supported him. It states that Gunthar, though longer an archbishop, was now the gubernator et rector of the church – we might say ‘manager’ – and was making efforts to keep the Cologne clergy onside, with Lothar’s help.

But as so often with Lothar II, it’s his marriage that attracts the eye. Here’s an English translation (pdf) of one of the most evocative of his charters, granting property to a convent in Lyon and issued in the early summer of 863. This was just a few weeks after a council at Metz had confirmed, with the approval of papal legates, that he could be married to his mistress Waldrada. And sure enough, in this charter Waldrada is given a prominent place, as Lothar’s ‘dearest wife’; and their son Hugh gets a mention too. Issued on the occasion of Lothar’s successful acquisition of part of his deceased brother’s kingdom, and when all his marital problems seemed behind him, the charter may have marked the apogee of his reign.

Unfortunately, a few months later Pope Nicholas I stepped in to annul the Metz council,  and threatened Lothar with excommunication unless he returned to his wife Theutberga. Waldrada vanishes from the charters. She reappears only in early 869, as ‘our beloved’ (without any reference though to her marital status). At that point, Lothar probably hoped that the new pope Hadrian, who had succeeded to the intransigeant Nicholas, might be more open to negotiation. But fate decided otherwise, since Lothar himself died, still a young man, just a few months later. The 863 charter survives, then, as a poignant reminder of what might have been, for Lothar, Waldrada, Hugh – and indeed for European history more broadly.

[1] Two of these originals can be viewed online at the Marburg Lichtbildarchiv website, Zugangsnummern 4743 and 11400.

[2] See for instance the database of Charlemagne’s charters (including ‘private’ as well as royal documents):

Aachen, 1000, and the Legend of the Last Emperor

In the spring of the year 1000, excavations took place in the great church of Aachen, built by Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks, who had died nearly two centuries previously. The excavations had been commissioned by one of Charlemagne’s imperial successors, Emperor Otto III, with the aim of discovering Charlemagne’s final resting place.

Charlemagne's throne at Aachen
Charlemagne’s throne at Aachen

According to three separate accounts of what happened (on which see below), this early medieval Time Team dig was brilliantly successful, and the living emperor gazed upon the dead. But what none of the accounts quite spells out, and what therefore remains an open  question, is exactly what Otto III was hoping to achieve through his archaeological enquiries. Was it just idle curiosity about his distant predecessor – or was there some deeper motivation at work?

Emperor Otto III has long had a special reputation. The son of the Byzantine princess Theophanu, this half-Greek Holy Roman emperor took his role very seriously, despite or perhaps because of his youth. Contemporaries alleged that he preferred Italy, and especially the city of Rome, to his ancestral lands across the Alps.

The Ottonian empire (approx.) with places mentioned in this blog
The Ottonian empire (approx.) with places mentioned in this blog

For some modern historians, Otto was a dreamer, carried away by his impossible vision of reviving the Roman Empire in a very post-Roman world, and increasingly out of touch with fundamental political realities.

More recently, Otto III has been brought back to earth, as historians have asked whether he really was quite as ideologically driven (and unrealistic) as all that.[1] Maybe the ‘programme’ of Roman renovation that historians such as P.E. Schramm have attributed to him was not quite as coherent as they supposed.[2]

Yet that doesn’t explain what Otto thought he was doing in Aachen in the year 1000. One explanation is that the excavations were part of an attempt to canonise Charlemagne, in other words to have the old emperor recognised as a saint. But there is another intriguing possibility: that Otto was motivated by the legend of the Last Emperor.[3]

The roots of this legend were older even than Charlemagne himself – they lie in the horrified reaction of Syrian Christians to the rise of Islam, and the dramatic near-collapse of the Byzantine Empire, in the seventh century. These events were so bewildering that they only made sense in an eschatological framework – as a step towards the inevitable ending of the world. So, around 692, an author claiming to be a fourth-century bishop named Methodius wrote a ‘prediction’ that the sons of Ishmael would take over the world, and impose unbearable tax demands. But ‘Methodius’ added a note of reassurance: the king of the Romans would return in the end, driving out the intruders and bringing peace and justice – until the Antichrist appeared, at which point the Apocalypse would unfold according to God’s plan.

And after these things the king of the Romans will come down and he will dwell in Jerusalem for a week and a half of years, which is ten and a half years, and when ten and a half years are completed, the son of perdition will appear.

This text, known as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, helped overturn centuries of suspicion about the Empire’s role in world history. It influenced many other texts, such as the Tiburtine Sibyl – another work of pseudo-prophecy which survives only in an eleventh-century version.[4] Early Christians had been reluctant to attribute any positive eschatological role to Roman emperors, understandably enough given the history of persecutions. Now, emperors and empire could play a full, active and positive role in world history: imperial time could be folded into Christian time.

The extent to which the year 1000 represented a high point of apocalyptic tension – a thousand years after Christ’s birth – has been debated for years, as has the extent to which Otto would have been personally affected by such concerns.[5] But several contemporary sources – for instance Otto’s own imperial diplomas, as well as hagiographical accounts – do imply that he had eschatological thoughts in his mind in that year, as Levi Roach has recently argued.[6] Did Otto III think Charlemagne was the Last Emperor? Did he think *he* was the last emperor?

Here are the three eleventh-century texts describing Otto’s Indiana Jones-style search for the lost emperor in Aachen, so you can make up your own mind about what Otto was doing (all the translations are mine). They were written by authors from different parts of early medieval Europe, namely a Saxon bishop and two monks – one from northern Italy, and another from southern France.

The Italian monk: the Chronicle of Novalesa.[7]

The Chronicle of Novalesa
The Chronicle of Novalesa

Book III, Chapter 32.
After many years had passed, Emperor Otto III came to the region where the remains of Charlemagne rested in his tomb. Otto travelled to the site of the tomb itself, with two bishops and Count Otto of Lomello. The emperor himself was the fourth person. The count used to tell what happened, saying ‘We entered to see Charlemagne. He was not lying down, as is normal for the corpses of the deceased, but was sitting on a kind of throne as if alive, crowned with a golden crown, carrying a sceptre in his gloved hands, through which his fingernails had broken. There was above him a small building (tugurium), carefully built from limestone and marble. When we came to this, we knocked a hole through it. And when we had passed through the hole, we smelled a very strong odour. We at once venerated him on our knees, and Otto immediately dressed him in white garments, cut his fingernails, and made good all that was lacking around him. Nothing had decayed from his limbs, but there was a little missing from the tip of his nose. Otto at once replaced it with gold. He took one tooth from Charlemagne’s mouth, rebuilt the building, and left.’

The French monk: Ademar of Chabannes’ Chronicle.[8]

Ademar's Chronicle
Ademar’s Chronicle

Book III ch. 31

At this time, Emperor Otto was warned in a dream to raise up the body of the Emperor Charlemagne. He was buried at Aachen, but because of the oblivion of passing time, no one knew exactly the spot he was buried. After fasting for three days,  they found him at the precise spot the emperor had seen in his vision, sat on a golden throne in a vaulted crypt underneath the church of St Mary, crowned with a crown of gold and precious jewels, holding a sceptre and a sword of pure gold; as for the body itself, it was found to be uncorrupted. He was raised up and shown to the people. Then, one of the canons of that place, Adalbert, who was very big and tall, put on the crown of Charlemagne,  as if to try it for size. It was apparent that his skull was narrower than the emperor’s, and that the dimension of the crown exceeded that of his head. He measured his leg against the emperor, finding himself to be smaller – and at once by the effect of divine power his leg was broken. He survived for forty years, but always remained crippled. The body of Charlemagne was placed in the right transept of the church, behind the altar of John the baptist. A great gilded vault was built there, and the remains began to shine out with signs and miracles. But they are not the object of any liturgical cult (sollemnitas), apart from that of the anniversary of the dead, as is the normal custom. Emperor Otto sent Charlemagne’s golden throne to King Boleslav in exchange for relics of Saint Adalbert.

The Saxon bishop Thietmar of Merseburg’s Chronicle.[9]

Thietmar's Chronicle
Thietmar’s Chronicle

Book IV, chapter 47

The emperor [Otto III] wanted to renew in his time the ancient customs of the Romans, then for the most part destroyed, and so he did many things, about which different people had different opinions. He sat alone at a table made into a semicircle, at a higher place than the others. As Emperor Otto III was unsure about the location of the bones of Emperor Charles, he secretly had the pavement ripped up where he thought they were and ordered excavations, until they were discovered on the royal throne (solium). He took the gold cross which hung around the emperor’s neck and part of his clothing, which remained uncorrupted, and he replaced the rest with great veneration.

Image credits:

* This blog was written primarily for undergraduate teaching purposes, and hence only refers to English-language material.

[1] See the recent biography by G. Althoff, Otto III (University Park, Penn., 2004).

[2] D. Warner, ‘Ideals and action in the reign of Otto III’, Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999), 1-18.

[3] For a wider discussion, see M. Gabriele, ‘Otto III, Charlemagne, and Pentecost A.D. 1000: A Reconsideration Using Diplomatic Evidence’, in The Year 1000: Religious and Social Response to the Turning of the First Millennium, ed. Michael Frassetto (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 111–32.

[4] Convincingly argued by C. Bonura, ‘When Did the Legend of the Last Emperor Originate? A New Look at the Textual Relationship between the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Tiburtine Sibyl’, Viator 47, 3 (2016), 47-100.

[5] See J. Palmer, The Apocalypse in the early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2014), as well as the useful accompanying website

[6] L. Roach, ‘Emperor Otto III and the End of Time’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Ser. 6, 23 (2013), 75-102.

[7] Latin text. This is my own translation; cf. however a complete English translation, new edition and extensive commentary of the chronicle by Elizabeth Clark in her 2017 PhD thesis (pdf).

[8] Latin edition: P. Bourgain with R. Landes and G. Pon, ed., Ademari Cabannensis Chronicon (Turnhout, 1999). French translation: Y. Chauvin and G. Pon, trans., Chronique: Adémar de Chabannes (Turnhout, 2003). There is no complete English translation of the text.

[9] Latin edition: R. Holtzmann, ed., Die Chronik des Bischofs Thietmar von Merseburg und ihre Korveier Überarbeitung. Thietmari Merseburgensis episcopi chronicon (Berlin, 1935). Full English translation: D. Warner, tr., Ottonian Germany: the chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg (Manchester, 2001).

Religious Exemption in pre-Modern Eurasia – special issue

I’m very pleased to announce the publication just a couple of days ago of a special issue in the journal Medieval Worlds, on the theme of religious exemption in Eurasia c. 300 to 1300.  The special issue is based on a conference I organised here in Sheffield in 2016, together with some specially commissioned articles to round it out.  All the articles are open access: I’ve copied in the links below for convenience (each opens a pdf file).


(some of the) places mentioned in the special issue.

  1. Charles West (Sheffield) Introduction
  2. R. I. Moore (Newcastle) Treasures in Heaven: Defining the Eurasian Old Regime
  3. Kanad Sinha (Delhi) Envisioning a No-Man’s Land: Hermitage as a Site of Exemption in Ancient and Early Medieval Indian Literature
  4. Mario Poceski (Florida) The Evolving Relationship between the Buddhist Monastic Order and the Imperial States of Medieval China
  5. Kriston Rennie (Queensland) The Normative Character of Monastic Exemption in the early medieval Latin West
  6. Anne Duggan (KCL) Clerical exemption in the learned law from Gratian to the Decretals
  7. Ulrich Pagel (SOAS) Nothing to Declare: Status, Power and Religious Aspiration in the Policies of Taxation in Ancient India
  8. Antonello Palumbo (SOAS) Exemption not granted: the confrontation between Buddhism and the Chinese state in Late Antiquity and the ‘First Great Divergence’ between China and Western Eurasia
  9. Dominic Goodall (Pondicherry) and Andrew Wareham (Roehampton) The political significance of gifts of power in the Khmer and Mercian kingdoms 793-926
  10. Uriel Simonsohn (Haifa) Conversion, Manipulation, and Legal Exemption: A Few Case Studies from the Early Islamic Period
  11. Thomas Kohl (Tübingen) Religious exemption, justice, and territories around the year 1000: the forgeries of Worms
  12. Rutger Kramer (Vienna) The Exemption that Proves the Rule: Autonomy and Authority between Alcuin, Theodulf and Charlemagne (802)
  13. Judith Green (Edinburgh) From Symbiosis to Separate Spheres? England, 1163
  14. Julia McClure (Glasgow) Religious exemption and global history before 1300: concluding comments


“In the time of the Greeks”: the Rizana Dispute and the Carolingian & Byzantine Empires

What was the difference between the Carolingian Empire formally established by Charlemagne through his coronation in Rome in the year 800, and the Byzantine Empire centred around Constantinople (modern Istanbul)?

The ideological and cultural aspects of this enormous question have been abundantly studied for these two heirs of the ancient Roman Empire, but the issue is perhaps less clearly understood when it comes to the exercise of power. Historians have plenty of sources at their disposal for both these political units, but these sources are culturally embedded in such a way as to make direct comparison difficult, especially when it comes to thinking about how power worked at an everyday level, and how rulers controlled their territories.

There is however one source that not just allows but encourages us to think comparatively about how these two empires actually worked, and that is the Rižana Dispute (sometimes also known as the Plea of Rižana). You can read a full English translation, but here is a brief summary:

Around 804, Charlemagne sent three legates to Istria, a peninsula to the north-east of Italy, to resolve a dispute that had broken out there.

Rizana map

Istria was a region that had previously been under Byzantine control, but Charlemagne had conquered it in 788, and annexed it to the kingdom of Italy (which he had also conquered a few years earlier, in 774). This conquest had brought with it some changes in how Istria was governed: and it was to these changes that people in Istria were objecting in 804.

The source is a record of the meeting that Charlemagne’s legates arranged to sort things out at Rižana, an area now just outside the modern Slovenian town of Koper, a couple of kilometres from the Italian border. The legates summoned 172 leaders from cities and fortified settlements in the Istrian region to hear what the issue was: and these people did not hold their punches.

First of all, the Istrian witnesses complained that since the Frankish conquest, the church had started to throw its weight around much more. They began by accusing the Patriarch of Grado, the most senior churchman of the area, of evading his financial responsibilities. Then they moved onto the other bishops, who they said had been dodging their obligations, evicting people from church lands wrongfully, and generally bullying the local free population.

But their real anger was reserved for Duke John, the main secular agent appointed by the Franks. John, they said, had appropriated the revenues meant for the imperial court for his own purposes, and had also taken over a great deal of property. And that was just the start of it! He’d abolished the traditional hierarchy of offices held by regional leaders, along with the cherished privileges that went with them; he’d demanded extra humiliating services, such as feeding his dogs and onerous long-distance transport duties; and he’d raised tax demands considerably. Getting direct access to the centre of power was much harder than it had been, the Istrian leaders claimed, under the Greeks.

What does this account tell us about the Carolingian and Byzantine empires? Both were obviously agrarian empires, getting their revenues from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Rights over grazing livestock were particularly important in this region. So in focusing their demands for revenue on these resources, to some extent the new rulers of Istria simply stepped into the shoes of the old.

But the differences are striking, too. Power in Carolingian Istria was organised and exercised in new ways. The Carolingian regime had apparently empowered bishops at the expense of what seems like the relics of a Roman-style city-based administration maintained by the Byzantines. The Carolingian administrative apparatus was also far less elaborate: instead of a series of grand-sounding titles and offices, each with their own administrative privileges, rituals and customs designed to boost egos, there was just the duke and his all-purposes “sheriffs” (centenarii), together with his own extended family. And, as already mentioned, the new emperor was harder to reach than the old one. To get to the court, and thus to reach Charlemagne’s attention, the Istrians had to go through mediators whom they didn’t altogether trust, whether it was a duke or a church patriarch.

The new Carolingian regime may seem therefore less sophisticated than the Byzantine administration had been. Yet despite our modern preconceptions, and as Matthew Innes has pointed out, that doesn’t mean that it was less effective at flexing its muscles.[1] In fact, judging from the complaints, it was actually more successful at extracting revenues from the region than the Byzantine rulers had been, even if not all of the proceeds ended up at the imperial centre any more.

And, as Stefan Esders has noted, the new regime was also just as literate.[2] The Rižana record itself demonstrates that, since it was probably the first time that the customs of the region had been written down, in this case under the auspices of the Patriarch of Grado (in some ways as much a representative of Frankish authority in Istria as Duke John).

So, a relatively unelaborated and informal apparatus of government posed no barrier to efficient and effective rule. Carolingian Istria seems to have been just as controlled, and just as exploited, as Byzantine Istria, even though (as Rachel Stone has also argued) the Carolingian Empire was organised very differently.

Can we securely draw sweeping conclusions about how power worked in two empires just on the basis of a single document? Of course not. Matters in Istria were complicated by its recent conquest. This was a frontier zone between two empires, so things may well have been very different elsewhere.  But the Rižana Dispute at least gives us a glimpse into how the Carolingian and Byzantine empires were ‘experienced’ differently by the same regional community – and that’s a precious insight of which we should make the most.

Further reading
For more discussion (in English) of the Rizana (sometimes also spelled Risano or Riziano) dispute, see

  • J. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge, 2015), esp.  pp. 102-4 and 274-277.
  • M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.

Image: the Rizana dispute charter (Wikipedia)

[1] M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.

[2] Stefan Esders, ‘Regionale Selbstbehauptung zwischen Byzanz und dem Frankenreich: Die inquisitio der Rechtsgewohnheiten Istriens durch die Sendboten Karls des Großen und Pippins von Italien’, in Eid und Wahrheitssuche. Studien zu rechtlichen Befragungspraktiken in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. S. Esders (Frankfurt, 1999), 49-112.

Constantinople, Jerusalem and Canterbury: Joseph the monk and the Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest is most often considered primarily in an English context, obviously enough given its immediate circumstances. Historians are increasingly minded to give 1066 a wider British context too, in the light of its immense consequences for Wales and Scotland over the decades that followed. But we shouldn’t forget that the Conquest also had a broader “international” impact. One of its most intriguing consequences was the establishment of a group of Englishmen in exile at the court of the Emperor of Byzantium in Constantinople, a group often known as the “Varangian guard”.

This blog is about one of the most important pieces of early evidence for that group. It’s a short text about the adventures of a Canterbury monk called Joseph, a text to my knowledge never translated into English before (my provisional translation is provided below). It records how, on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Joseph took a detour to visit Constantinople – modern Istanbul –  because of the quantity of holy relics stored there. By chance, he met some other English men, “in the emperor’s household”, some of whom he knew already. These men arranged for Joseph to obtain access to the imperial chapel, and one of them acted as an interpreter. Joseph used this interpreter to try to bribe the Greek guard, in the hope of acquiring relics of Saint Andrew for the newly reformed monastic community back in Kent at Rochester.

There the text unfortunately breaks off in its sole surviving manuscript (now stored in the Vatican)[1]: but it’s already given us lots to think about. We learn that the English were a community in Constantinople around 1090; we learn that they were the kind of people who might be acquainted with a wealthy Canterbury monk; we learn that at least one of them had learned Greek; we learn that they were integrated into the imperial court, with Byzantine friends there. For these men, presumably remnants of the pre-conquest English aristocracy, 1066 had been nothing short of a catastrophe; but they had managed successfully to reinvent themselves in a very different world, thousands of miles away.

In many ways, however, Joseph is the more interesting figure. For ultimately Joseph outdid his English friends when it came to cultural flexibility.  Like them, he was a seasoned and intrepid traveller, familiar with the Near East. Like them, he was English – and it is noteworthy how important that identity was to the text. When Joseph recognised his compatriots, he spoke to them “joyfully”. They in turn welcomed his visit, and helped him in his efforts to secure relics: they evidently considered him ‘one of them’. Yet documentary sources suggest that Joseph would later become close to Anselm, the Italo-Norman archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109).

True, Joseph was determined to bring relics home to his English homeland, the patria he shared  with the Constantinopolitan exiles. But what specifically motivated him to obtain the relics was the recent reform of the cathedral community at Rochester, transformed from canonical to monastic: a change in line with an English tradition to be sure, but one pushed through nevertheless by the new Norman bishop there, Gundulf.

So, Joseph’s life had undoubtedly been affected by the Norman Conquest, but ultimately not nearly as much as those of his secular friends. He had managed to come to terms with the new order, and even to thrive under it: remaining English, but adapting smoothly to Norman rule, secure in the continuity of an enduring Christian order.

However, just a few years after Joseph’s return to Kent, another army, once again with a sizeable Norman contingent, would make another conquest. For in 1099, the original object of Joseph’s pilgrimage, the holiest city in his cosmology, the site of the central miracle of Joseph’s religion, astonishingly – providentially – fell to besiegers from the Latin west: Jerusalem. That conquest, we may suspect,  turned Joseph’s world view upside down far more than had the events of 1066.

Joseph of Canterbury’s visit to Constantinople: translation by Charles West [2]

“At the time when King William the Younger was in charge of the English people and the church of Christ at Canterbury was bereaved by the death of Archbishop Lanfranc [1089], there was a certain monk called Joseph from that church who went to Jerusalem for the sake of prayer. When he had fulfilled his wish and was returning directly with a large number of companions, he left the direct route and went with only a few of his own servants to Constantinople. For he heard that there was an incomparable treasury of relics there, to whose patronage he wished to commend himself in person.

When therefore he arrived there with God’s guidance, and asked where the treasury was stored, he found certain men from his own homeland (patria) and his own friends, who were part of the emperor’s household. When he suddenly recognised them and joyfully spoke with them, he learned that these relics were in the imperial chapel, and that it was difficult for anyone to gain entry there. For the emperor, wishing carefully to guard these incomparable jewels, had installed many guards, including one in particular who was in charge of the others in guarding them. But since the friends of the already mentioned monk were known to the guard and were his friends, it was arranged that by their intervention the guard would introduce the monk into the chapel, and show him the greater part of these relics.

When the guard had displayed various relics to him, and the monk had humbly venerated each one, it happened that the guard pointed out certain bones of Saint Andrew the Apostle to him, among the other relics. When the guard said that these relics were of that apostle and confirmed it, the monk venerated his relics with even more devotion, because he had always loved this apostle in particular. As soon as he saw them, he very devoutly prostrated himself on the ground, and amongst other things prayed for this, “May it be pleasing to Almighty God that I shall hold these relics in the place I want to keep them”. The guard heard this but because he was Greek, did not understand it at all, and he asked one of the monk’s friends, who was their interpreter, what it was that the monk had said.

The interpreter however, since he did not dare to reveal this kind of wish to the guard, first asked the monk whether he wanted him to tell the guard, and when he had received permission to tell him, then finally he laid bare to the guard that the monk had wished for these things. Hearing this, the guard said to the monk through the same interpreter “What price would you pay to the person who carried out the desire you have indicated?”. He replied “Little money remains to me for my journey, and there is still a long journey for me to travel. But if someone carried out the wish I hope for, I should give him as much of my money as I can manage to spare.  And I would take those relics to a place where the very greatest reverence would be shown to them. For there is in my homeland a certain episcopal see [Rochester], in which there is founded a church in honour of St Andrew the Apostle, where a group of monks, recently gathered together, very devoutly serves God. If God deigns to fulfil my wish, I wish to take some of these relics of the Apostle to that church.”

Then the guard replied “Go, and return to your lodgings, and then send this our interpreter and your friend back to me, and indicate your wish to me through him. For it is not convenient for us that you should return, lest anyone notice about this matter…” [text breaks off].

Update 9 December 2017
An excellent article putting Joseph’s trip into a wider context is provided by D. Pelteret, ‘Eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon Long-Haul Travelers: Jerusalem, Constantinople and Beyond’, in The Maritime World of the Anglo-Saxons, ed. S. Klein, W. Schipper and S. Lewis-Simpson (2014), 75-130. This article mentions a translation of Joseph’s Latin text by Alexander Vasiliev in 1937; I have not yet laid my hands on this work.

Update 10 March 2018
Another piece of early evidence for the Anglo-Saxon ‘Varangian guard’, in the form of the embassy of Wulfric of Lincoln, is discussed in this excellent blog (with an extensive bibliography) by Caitlin Green: Wulfric of Lincoln and the English Varangians


[1] Vatican Lat. 4951 (s. XII), f. 220, now available online here

[2] Based on the edition by C.H. Haskins, ‘A Canterbury Monk at Constantinople, c. 1090’, English Historical Review 25 (1910), pp. 294-5. See also S. Kuttner, ‘Reliquie di sant’Andrea: un testo poco conosciuto’, Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia 36 (1982), pp. 105-110, who notes that Joseph the monk is also mentioned in the inscription of another 12th-c. manuscript, British Library Royal MS 5 E i, f. 2r (I have not yet been able to follow up this reference).

A shorter version of this blog was first posted at

A Carolingian view of clerical marriage

When did priests stop being allowed to marry in medieval western Europe? The question might seem recondite, but it’s actually of enormous importance. The prohibition of clerical marriage separated out priests from the laity in a very clear and obvious way, in parallel to their exemption from processes of secular justice (one of the focuses of my research at the moment). It meant that they couldn’t legally have heirs, which had a big impact on wider family strategies; and it was associated with changes in masculinity, too.

Establishing when this happened is however surprisingly difficult. The key texts are often ambiguous. And of course, for the early Middle Ages we don’t have enough evidence to be able to say for certain exactly what proportion of priests were married (though recent research on local priests by Julia Barrow and a team led by Steffen Patzold and Carine van Rhijn has moved things on here a lot).

Nevertheless, many historians would suggest that the history goes something like this. Early church councils were keen for clerics in general (and bishops in particular) to refrain from illicit sexual activity, and ideally from all sexual activity. But as good householders, it was expected that these leaders would be married men: they merely had to be continent after their ordination. That tradition was maintained for centuries – the classic illustration is that Pope Hadrian II (d. 872) was a married man, and no one at the time batted an eyelid.  Only in the eleventh century did reformers, seeking to create an autonomous church free from secular control, develop a novel insistence on clerical celibacy (as opposed to merely clerical continence within marriage), leading to a formal legal prohibition in the 12th century.

In many ways this is a convincing and accurate narrative. Yet there are two problems. The first is that the narrative perhaps doesn’t take sufficiently into account regional diversity in the early Middle Ages. Ninth-century Italian clerics, in particular, seem to have treated clerical careers very differently from their Frankish colleagues, as Rachel Stone has shown – so we can’t necessarily generalise from the case of Pope Hadrian.

Perhaps an even bigger problem though is that we tend to approach the late antique councils directly, relying on the most recent editions and the sharpest-sighted interpretations to work out what the church fathers originally had in mind. That’s obviously a good thing. But it’s not necessarily how early medieval authors read them.

Here’s a case in point (brought to my attention by Helen Parish’s excellent book). In the late 860s, Pope Nicholas I and Photius the Patriarch of Constantinople became caught up in a fierce argument. It ultimately revolved around about the extent of papal authority, but as part of this argument, a Byzantine letter began to circulate that criticised western church customs. When he heard about this, Pope Nicholas called for Frankish backup. Of the several treatises that were written in response, perhaps the most interesting for our purposes is that written by Ratramnus of Corbie in 867, known as the Contra Graecorum opposita.

Ratramnus was a noted Carolingian intellectual who remains understudied, overshadowed by his (much less sympathetic) fellow monk Radbert. This work of his is no exception, and it languishes in an inadequate 18th-century edition to this day. Yet it’s of considerable interest for the relatively level-headed defence of western customs that occupies most of its fourth book (and Ratramnus’s emphasis on the western/eastern (orientalis/occidentialis) distinction is incidentally quite striking).

Ratramnus argues for instance that whether clerics shaved their beards (as the Romans did) or whether they didn’t (like the Byzantines) was just a matter of local custom, not of doctrine. There was a ritual logic to doing things the way people did in the western churches, but he didn’t think the Byzantines should necessarily follow suit. In the end it wasn’t that important.

On clerical marriage, however, Ratramnus was more intransigeant. He had heard that the Byzantines labelled the Roman church as anti-marriage because they would not let their priests marry. Nonsense, said Ratramnus – the Apostle Paul wasn’t married, yet that hadn’t stopped him telling people that they ought to marry.

But, argued Ratramnus, it was simply inappropriate for priests to  marry, since they would inevitably become distracted by trying to please their wives rather than God (an indication perhaps of a typically Carolingian companionate view of marriage). And there was also the problem of ritual pollution, though Ratramnus seems much less bothered by this, consistent with his other work.

Not content with leaving matters there,  Ratramnus declared that this was in fact the traditional position, and he cited the Council of Nicaea of 325 to prove his point. Now, modern scholars are unanimous that the Council of Nicaea did not ban clerics from being married. But that’s not how Ratramnus seems to interpret the key canon, canon 4. This canon forbade priests from cohabiting with women except for close family members. It doesn’t mention wives – but in a fascinating short passage (translated below), Ratramnus uses common sense to argue that this was implied.

Was Ratramnus arguing that priests once ordained should not marry, or that they should be actually not be married at all? Here there’s a touch of perhaps deliberate ambiguity to the Latin. He says that priests shouldn’t  matrimonia sortiri (lit: ‘acquire marriages’)  which implies a prohibition on becoming married after ordination. But he also says that uxoria copula (lit: ‘wifely bond/union’) is forbidden to priests. Now, this could in principle mean sexual contact with one’s wife – but the context, and the other occasions on which Ratramnus uses this phrase, strongly suggest he meant the state of being married. [1]

In arguing that the Nicene Fathers prohibited priests from being married, Ratramnus was almost certainly misrepresenting the Nicene council’s original intentions. But in a sense, that’s irrelevant. What matters is that for this ninth-century author, clerical celibacy was baked into the early church decisions – and moreover that this was a key factor in separating the laity from the priests.[2]

Historians working on clerical celibacy and other related issues naturally tend to focus on new and dramatic texts produced in the eleventh century. But to what extent had the groundwork for these new texts already been laid by subtle, and much harder to discern, changes in how pre-existing texts were interpreted?

TRANSLATION: Ratramnus of Corbie, Contra Graecorum opposita, Book IV, c.6 (PL 121, 329, based on D’Achery’s Spicilegium) – extract (please note this is just a provisional translation, & suggestions for improvements are welcome).

But let us come to the ecclesiastical decrees, by which we may understand what they [the maiores] wished to decide about this. In the Council of Nicaea held under Emperor Constantine I, it was thus decided by 380 bishops: “The great synod stringently decreed that it was not permissible for a bishop, priest or deacon, or absolutely anyone else in the clergy, to have a woman living in (mulier subintroducta): except perhaps his mother, or sister, or aunt, or those women who escape suspicion”.

Let these Constantinopolitan emperors hear this, and judge whether those grades this canon concerns ought to obtain marriage (matrimonia sortiri) – grades to whom it is not permitted to cohabit with women, except only those persons whom no suspicion can stain. For whoever marries (duxerit) a wife is unable not to have other women in the household too apart from his wife, women through whom wifely necessity and domestic business (domestica cura) may be supplemented. In truth where the living-in (subintroductio) of all women is forbidden, except for those persons who lack all suspicion, it is clear that a wifely union (uxoria copula) is also forbidden, since this can in no way happen without contact (accessio) with other women.[3]


[1] Earlier in the passage, R. wrote that Paul “significat se caelibem esse, nec uxoris copula detineri” – ie, that he was not married. Cf. his comment re: the 862 council of Aachen here:  “quod autem opponitur non fuisse copulam illam legitimum conubium”

[2] nec inter laicos et sacri altaris ministros ullam differentiam consistere.

[3] Sed veniamus ad ecclesiastica tandem decreta, quo cognoscamus quid decernere super his maluerint. In Nicaeno concilio sub Constantino imperatore primo per trecentos octodecim episcopos sic decernitur: «Interdixit per omnia magna synodus, non episcopo, non presbytero, non diacono, nec alicui omnino qui in clero est, licere subintroductam habere mulierem; nisi forte matrem, aut sororem, aut amitam, vel eas tantum personas quae suspiciones effugiunt.» Audiant haec Constantinopoleos imperatores, et judicent, an debeant isti gradus, super quibus hoc capitulo decernitur, matrimonia sortiri, quibus non licet mulieribus cohabitare, nisi solummodo personis illis quas nulla suspicio possit commaculare. Nam quisquis uxorem duxerit, non potest praeter uxorem alias etiam mulieres in domo non habere, quibus uxoria necessitas, et cura domestica suppleatur. Ubi vero cunctarum interdicitur subintroductio feminarum, praeter omnino personas quae careant omni suspicione, manifestum est quod interdicatur etiam uxoria pariter copula, quae nullo modo potest fieri sine reliquarum accessione feminarum.

Image: Utrecht Psalter (Psalm 52)

Winning political consent, Carolingian-style

On Thursday, voters in the UK will to go to the polls to elect a new government. Although they agree about the apparent inevitability of Brexit, the two main parties in England are otherwise miles apart in their policies. That means voters have a clear choice. Thanks to the UK’s peculiar ‘first-past-the-post’ system, however, it also means that millions of people will be very disappointed on Friday morning, as it’s almost certain that the winning party will attract well under half the vote. The whole thing seems almost designed to generate dissatisfaction. Did things work any better in the Middle Ages?

Contrary to what some people may tell you, elections were pretty common in the medieval period, though usually with a restricted franchise, and not normally on a strict one-person one-vote basis. As towns grew in size, they were often run by elected officials, and election was an important principle in the church throughout the period, for popes, bishops and abbots (and abbesses) in particular. Even crusaders elected their leaders on occasion.

Sometimes kings were elected too, but most often they based their claim to rule on inheritance. Even so, governing with the consent of (some of) the governed was vital, in practice as well as in theory. A king who lost the trust of his aristocracy could, like King John in England or Emperor Louis the Pious in Francia, find himself in serious trouble, accused of tyranny, and facing rebellion and even deposition.

So although medieval kings didn’t need to win regular elections, they did need to generate consent amongst the elite. The Carolingian kings of the ninth century were already masters of this game. For instance, they used to hold a ‘secret’ meeting with their most trusted and senior advisors to thrash things out, before then holding a ‘general’ meeting with a much larger group, to discuss the same issues all over again as if for the first time. All the senior advisors would stick to the secretly pre-arranged line, so the second meeting’s outcome was more or less predictable. A way of sneakily sewing up the meeting in advance: or a sensible method of steering discussion, generating buy-in, and avoiding divisive conflict?

This blog was prompted however by another Carolingian tactic, evidenced by a text whose English translation is provided below (for the first time in full) – the Capitulary of Quierzy of 877, issued by King Charles the Bald of West Francia. Capitularies were essentially royal edicts, declarations of the royal will, and this capitulary is no different. It’s traditionally been seen as marking the beginning of the end for Carolingian rule (and the onset of feudalism), because it supposedly recognised that public offices could be inherited. In reality, a quick glance will show that King Charles very much kept the whip-hand: sons could take over their fathers’ offices temporarily, while Charles was away, but he reserved the right to appoint someone else on his return.

But maybe what’s most interesting about this text isn’t its content, but its “unique form”[1]: the way that it’s written out partially in a question-and-answer format, or, more accurately, as a set of declarations followed by affirmatory responses. For instance, King Charles begins by stating that the church ought to be protected, which evokes this response: “We all praise and wish to keep the first chapter, as you have decreed with God’s inspiration”.

Now,  the capitulary could be a verbatim record of the Quierzy meeting, borrowing  techniques used to record church councils, in which case it could show how a king might choreograph consent in royal assemblies.[2] But at no point is it ever spelled out exactly who this ‘we’ is, which is a rather strange omission.

So just as likely is that this response-format is primarily a textual effect, designed to communicate consent to readers, rather than faithfully recording – or scripting – an actual dialogue. Agreement is literally ‘built-in’ to the Quierzy edict, in an innovative and rather striking fashion. The text comes pre-ratified, so to speak: the royal will has already received consent, before any further discussion.

It’s been said that Thursday’s election in the UK may be about control of the means of production, but that it’ll be won through control of the means of representation. King Charles might not have understood the politics involved (and they might have confirmed his rather mixed opinion of the English) – but it’s a lesson he and his advisors would instinctively have grasped.

English translation (pdf): Quierzy capitulary 877

[1] J.L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 248.

[2] As proposed by J.L. Nelson, ‘Carolingian royal ritual’, in The Frankish World, 750-900, p. 120,

Image: Charles the Bald, from the Codex Aureus of St Emmeram, made a few years before the Capitulary of Quierzy (full page here)

Verify the Source

If you pay a visit to the Sheffield city archives, you might spot a nearby piece of graffiti, pictured above:  ‘Verify the Source’.

That’s a great lesson, and not just for the patrons of the Sheffield archive, as was brought home to me when I revisited some work I’ve been doing on (who else?) Hincmar of Reims, everyone’s favourite Frankish bishop. I’m particularly interested in a text Hincmar wrote in 868, known as the Rotula. This text defends clerics from being put on trial in secular courts, and Hincmar wrote it on behalf of his nephew  Hincmar of Laon, who was being threatened by King Charles the Bald. It’s quite a famous text (well, in a niche kind-of-way),  and is readily accessible in Patrologia Latina.

PL, as it’s known, is a huge set of Latin texts, whose ubiquity has been strengthened by being readily available – and searchable – online. The problem is that Patrologia Latina was put together in the 19th century in a hurry,  and mostly just reprinted earlier editions. In this case, it relied for Hincmar’s text on a 17th-c. edition by a French Jesuit called Louis Cellot. So,  the searchable version of PL on your screen is a striking combination of 21st, 19th and 17th-century text technologies – a triple mediation of the early medieval manuscripts.

And in this case, a price has been paid.

Because though Cellot’s edition was quite good, it relied on a very partial manuscript of Hincmar’s work, now in Barcelona (Ripoll 40). Another version of the Rotula  is however available in a different manuscript, one now in Berlin (SB Phill 1741). And it’s a much more complete version, with several fairly long passages not present in the Barcelona manuscript, or in Cellot’s edition, or in the PL.

And what that means is that a key passage in a key work by a key early medieval author has never – to my knowledge – been edited before (my draft translation of some the text is available here ), while historians have been happily relying on the (not so) trusty PL.

Like the graffiti says: ‘verify the source’…

Fragments of history – or, why judges shouldn’t get married

One of the joys of being a historian of the early Middle Ages is working with fragmentary evidence: artefacts shorn of clear and definite context, and isolated, often incomplete texts that are at first sight inscrutable – and that often remain so even after further inspection. This blog’s about one of these fragments that I stumbled across in the course of my research into clerical exemption.

At the end of a ninth-century canon law manuscript now in Florence, a slightly later hand entered a passage that appears to be an imperial decree prohibiting secular judges from getting married. Here’s a draft English translation from the (rather tricky) Latin.[1]

About the life and continence of judges.
Moreover, it is permitted to none of the judges giving the law in our sacred palace or elsewhere in our kingdoms to contract marriages. This is so that they should not be led by love of their children to leave the path of truth and law, and to unjustly seize other people’s property for the ambition of their children, using their judgements for their advantage. But let them despise the delights of this wicked world, and hold to the norm of truth in all things, in customs, apparel and the signs of all goodness, and as we determined above in another capitulary, let them imitate the religious priests, and adhere in all things to their laws.

What should the historian think, faced with such a text? The first reaction is surely that this must be a forgery. No Roman, Carolingian or Ottonian emperor ever issued any command like this, at least not to my knowledge. Rulers often did worry about judges’ private interests interfering with their decisions, but there was never a prohibition on secular judges getting married. That would have gone against the grain of how medieval society worked. The text is entirely unprecedented.

But that observation doesn’t exhaust the text’s interest. The parallel it draws between judges and priests, urging the former to imitate the latter, is fascinating. Arguments about priestly marriage flared up in Western Europe in the eleventh century, but they did so on the basis of earlier anxieties and concerns. This little text, which is probably tenth- or early eleventh-century, illustrates that point very neatly. It looks like before Pope Leo IX and his circle came together, someone was already hard at work constructing a legal precedent to support a stronger line on married priests, by fair means or foul.

Of course, the aim of establishing a continent (and eventually celibate) priesthood was to create a sharper distinction between the laity and the priesthood. So it’s ironic that this author sought to justify the position with reference to secular law, and secular judges. Perhaps that’s why the text doesn’t seem to have circulated?

Update (11.01.17). In light of the very useful comments on this blog, I’ve realised Kaiser’s text might repay more detailed attention. So I’ve ordered a copy of the relevant folios to examine the palaeography more closely (and now have an excuse to visit the library in Florence, too). I’ll keep you posted!


[1] Edited by Wolfgang Kaiser, Authentizität und Geltung Spätantiker Kaisergesetze (Munich, 2007), p. 204, n. 12, from Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Edili 82. Kaiser provides no commentary other than to observe that this Heiratsverbot seems neither to be in any other manuscript nor to have been edited before. I have not yet been able to see the manuscript.

Latin (from Kaiser):
De vita et continentia iudicum. Nulli praeterea ex iudicibus nostris sacro palatio iura dantibus vel in omnibus regnorum nostrorum finibus liceat contrahere matrimonium (interlinear: id est mulierem) ne forte filiorum inducti diligentia a veritati et legis declinantes semita aliena iniuste subrepta ambitione filiorum ad opus eorundem per sua trahant discrimina sed huius noxii contempnentes (interlinear: id est respuentes) saeculi delicias normam veritatis ubique teneant moribus vestibus atque totius bonitatis insignibus sicut superios in alio capitulo statuimus religiosorum sacerdotum imitentur eorumque per omnia inhereant legibus.