Category Archives: ethnicity

‘Today many people despise the honest customs of our fathers’ – cultural change in 11th-century Europe


Perceived changes in male fashion annoyed several clerics in 11th-century Europe. Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester apparently waxed wrathful against English male elites for what he considered their effeminate long hair, while the Benedictine chronicler Raoul Glaber, writing around the 1040s, complained that French lay elites had begun to wear ‘indecent hose and shoes’.

Perhaps the angriest cleric of all however was Abbot Siegfried of Gorze, as comes across in a letter Siegfried wrote to a fellow abbot, Poppo of Stavelot, in 1043. This letter is extremely interesting, but not quite as well-known to Anglophone audiences, probably because unlike Wulfstan and Glaber’s texts, it has not been translated into English before (a draft translation is provided below).

Siegfried’s monastery of Gorze lay in the western parts of the empire, but though it was therefore close to France, there was no question about Siegfried’s political or cultural allegiances. He linked changes in clothing in the empire to the growing influence of the French, and this he in turn associated with a general moral decline, and damage to the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). Until the 11th century, emperors Otto and Henry had kept out this pernicious influence; now, Abbot Siegfried lamented, it was growing in strength. He noted changes in beards, and in the cut and tailoring of clothes, and suggested that they were associated with an increase in crimes of various kinds, and with a general abandoning of the empire’s cultural heritage.

Siegfried does not explicitly say why this was a pressing issue in 1043. One factor might have been the empire’s recent takeover of the largely Francophone kingdom of Burgundy which had taken place in 1033. But it’s probably relevant that most of Siegfried’s letter is an attempt to get the influential Abbot Poppo to prevent Emperor Henry III from marrying a French bride, Agnes of Poitou, the daughter of the duke of Aquitaine.

Siegfried was vehemently opposed to this marriage. He was determined to block it, and his chief tactic was to show that it would be incestuous, because Agnes and Henry were too closely related. He demonstrated this kinship with a now sadly lost figura, based on his extensive genealogical enquiries.


A visualisation of some of Siegfried’s family genealogies (his original version has not survived)

To hammer home the point, Siegfried drew on the Bible to argue that if they did marry, God would punish Henry’s incest, even suggesting that the king’s kingroup might die out. As such, the letter casts a fascinating light on 11th-century ideas about kinship.

With this in mind, it’s likely that Siegfried’s apparent tangent on pernicious French customs towards the end of the letter was not so subtly opening up another angle to persuade Emperor Henry not to marry a French woman, by drawing attention to the risks of introducing foreign customs into the empire. If incest wouldn’t put Henry off, maybe a bit of xenophobia might do the trick?

It was all in vain: Siegfried’s scaremongering didn’t work, and the marriage went through in November 1043. Agnes went on to become a truly remarkable empress – but that is a subject for another blog.

Notes: Thanks to Julia Hillner for suggesting a diagram would be useful.
Image: Genealogical table from a Beatus manuscript (Morgan 429)

Abbot Siegfried of Gorze’s Letter to Abbot Poppo of Stavelot, 1043 – translation

Translation based on the edition and French translation by Michel Parisse, ‘Sigefroid, abbé de Gorze et le mariage du roi Henri III avec Agnès de Poitou (1043). Un aspect de la réforme Lotharingienne’, Revue du Nord 356 (2004), 543-566, available online here . The text is preserved in a single early modern copy, now in Austria (https://manuscripta.at/hs_detail.php?ID=13681). This was translated in some haste, so please do let me know if you spot any errors.

To the lord Abbot Poppo, who should be embraced with sincere love and perfect reverence, brother Siegfried, unworthy servant of the community of Gorze, wishes abundant happiness in this life and eternal beatitude in the next.

I have no doubt that your Paternity remembers that recently, when we met at Thionville, we greatly lamented the dangers of our age that the Apostle predicted – in people’s customs and behaviour, the incest and perjury of many, the decline of religion [religio] and the increase in perversity, and, to briefly sum up, the various dangers of the Church. Amongst these things, daring in your Kindness, I asked you why you had not told the king [Henry III] that the girl [Agnes] he has decided to marry is so closely related to him that she cannot be joined to him without grave offence to the Lord. You replied that you had not been silent, and that he did not wish to act against the Lord, but rather had many times asked you to look into the truth of the matter and give him certainty before he did anything against divine right.

Therefore, greatly reassured by his good intention, I told you everything which I had long known about their kinship. But I could not tell you the names of two women who at that time escaped my memory. So you asked that I should carefully look into the certainty about these and other names of this kinship (cognatio), and should take care to inform you in writing. To this request I obey readily as I am concerned that such a great harm should not come about.

So, after having left you, I learned from many people what I had not heard before, that his first wife and she whom he now wants to marry are separated from each other by no more than three or four generations. I omit to write out the kinship now, because of the barbarity of the Danish or Northman names, and for precaution in case things that have not been proven are taken as certain, and thereby false things are taken as true.

Leaving these things aside, let us come to those things that are very well known to many. King Henry had three sons with Matilda: Emperor Otto, Archbishop Bruno, Duke Henry. And he had two daughters: Gerberga and Hadewida. Of these, one, Hadewida, married Hugh; the other, that is Gerberga, married Duke Gilbert, and bore him a daughter named Alberada. After Gilbert’s death Gerberga was joined in marriage to King Louis of the Franks, and had with him two sons, King Lothar and Duke Charles, and a daughter Matilda, later the wife of Conrad king of the Burgundians.

Later, from these sisters, born not from the same father but from the same mother, that is Gerberga, were born Ermentrude, daughter of Alberada, and Gepa known as Gerberga, daughter of Matilda. This was the first generation. Ermentrude bore Agnes, Gepa bore the august Gisela and her sister Matilda. This was the second generation. The son of Gisela, the lord King Henry, and the daughter of Agnes of the same name, that is the Agnes who this is all about, are in the third degree of the genealogy.

I head that it was told to the king that his grandmother Gepa was born not from Matilda but from the first wife of King Conrad. This is not the case, as both the account of truthful men and the naming of these women shows. For the genealogical line passes from Matilda, the wife of the great King Henry, to Matilda the aunt of this our king, through Matildas and Gerbergas, so that Matilda, daughter of Gerberga and namesake of her grandmother, gave the name of her mother to her daughter, and her own name to her granddaughter, as an inheritance (haereditarium).

There is another line of kinship (consanguinitas) which no one of sound mind will contradict, in this way: the great emperor Otto and his sister the oft-mentioned Gerberga both had daughters, one Dudica, the other Alberada. Alberada’s daughter Ermentrude bore Agnes, mother of the young Agnes. Duke Otto, the son of Dudica, name-sake of his grandfather, had Henry, the father of Emperor Conrad, who was the father of our Emperor Henry. And thus he is in the fifth degree, and the girl Agnes is in the fourth degree of the genealogy.

So that these things may be clearer, I have provided a diagram, in which we have written the above mentioned name and some other names of both sexes belonging to this kinship. Please show this to the king, and advise him humbly that when he finds the names of his kin written there and realises their danger, that he should not harden his heart, but should be moved not to wrath, but rather to regret and lament, lest the wrongdoings of his kindred should become his own – may it not happen. For their fault and the blame for that fault will redound upon him if he imitates them in wickedness. For God very terribly and truthfully threatens those who follow the vices of their kindred, that he will return  the injustice of the fathers to the sons and grandsons, to the third and fourth generation. Ask the king again and again, and warn him patiently and impatiently, so that he has this very fearsome declaration constantly in mind, and takes vigilant care to avoid such peril. For this vengeance should be feared as not just on the soul but on the body, since it is known for certain that the generation born from such an illicit union will not be able to successfully thrive (succrescere). The king can easily see that this is true, if he wishes to carefully consider how few now remain from his most noble and once most ample kindred.

Let him moreover hear and carefully understand from you that though infamy is to be feared by all, it must be as attentively avoided by the royal majesty as that majesty appears highly exalted over everyone. For like a city on the hill cannot be hidden, as the Lord said, and just as the candle lifted up on the candelabra gives light to everyone in the household, so the good reputation or infamy of the king cannot be hidden from many people living both within and outwith his kingdom. And, what is more serious, the customs of people are such that such a shameful reputation very quickly grows and spreads day by day more widely, and with growing wings, flies from mouth to mouth, ever increasing. A good reputation runs more slowly and more narrowly, and finding many detractors and few imitators, it quickly diminishes and fades away. If therefore the king puts his will ahead of the canonical sanctions (may it not happen) and does not fear to bring to completion what has begun, how many people who might have been coerced by fear of him not to do what they wish, will rejoice in his example and be emboldened, and will do similar and ever worse things – and if they begin to be warned or called out by someone, then they will immediately point to this deed of the royal highness in defence of their wickedness! We believe to be certain that the fault and blame of those whom he could have helped to salvation but instead made to sin and thus to perish by his example will rebound upon him.

Let him read if he wishes, or let him have read to him what holy Scripture says about King Jeroboam, and he will find that the sins which Jeroboam made others commit are more often mentioned than those he committed himself. About all the kings who acted like him, it is read that the sons of Nabat did not step back from the sins of Jeroboam – and it does not add ‘who sinned’, but rather it notes explicitly ‘who made Israel sin’, so that we can clearly understand how seriously we shall incur the wrath of God whenever we provoke others to sin by our bad example.

Let the Generosity of our king pay attention to this, and carefully reflect on how a manifold danger looms over him if he carries out the wickedness against the canons that he is thinking about. And if for the fear and love of God he renounces his desire and chooses not to follow his predecessors in their illicit deeds, if he continues as a lover of justice and piety, if he maintains his humility amidst his royal excellence and happy successes, if he seeks the glory of God rather than his own, and if finally he energetically represses the sins of not just himself but of others, and stimulates them to virtue – if, I say, he perseveres with vigilance in such actions through to the end, then he will not be bound by sin of his kindred and other people, but the grace of God will precede and follow him, and he will be worthy to reign with Christ in this life and in the future life. As it is fearsomely written about wicked sons that the sins of their fathers will rebound upon them, so it is mercifully written about good sons that ‘the son does not bear the iniquity of his father’.

When King Josiah, born from very wicked parents, discovered and recognised their sin from the book of divine law, and learned how great a vengeance loomed over him and his people, he grieved and wept bitterly, and tore his clothing as was then the custom to show his inner grief, and left behind his father’s wickedness and sought the Lord with all his heart, and made sure to serve Him carefully and to warn others in order to placate divine anger. Because of this, not only did the fault of his predecessors not count against him, but he was worthy to hear divine consolation in this way: ‘Because, said the Lord God Israel, ‘you heard the words of the Book and your heart was terrified and you were humble before the Lord, after you heard the sermons against this place and its inhabitants, that they would become the object of amazement and cursing, and because you tore your clothing and wept before, I heard you, says the Lord. Therefore I will gather you along with your fathers and you will be placed in your tomb peacefully, so that your eyes will not see the harm which I shall bring upon this place’. I wanted to put these words about King Josiah here so that the lord king, warned by you, will take care to imitate him; and when Henry holds in his hands the diagram I have made and sees the names of his kindred (parentes sui) there, he will be afraid for himself and for them, and to avoid provoking the anger of God upon himself and the people subjected to him, he will not act against the canonical decrees, but will decide to place the will of God before his own in all matters, so that he will be worthy to rejoice with Him now and always.

I remember one other thing. When his father [Conrad II] wished to marry the daughter of the king of the Franks, and decided to do this against divine right, as can be seen in the diagram, there were many who wished to be pleasing to the majesty of the emperor, and they competed to tell him that the marriage could be well and usefully carried through, because they hoped that thanks to it the two kingdoms could be joined in a single peace or brought into unity. And I think that now too there are such people who similarly flatter and claim to work for royal praise, and since they want to be pleasing to the earthly ruler, they speak falsehoods and so do not care about displeasing the Lord, not noticing or caring little about what is written, ‘He will dissolve the bones of whose are pleasing to men’.

It pleases me therefore to denounce the poisonous statement of those who promise peace to him and others through a transgression of divine law, and to show how much they are opposed to the truth. It is obvious and undoubtedly true that canonical authority is the law of God. Whoever acts against the canons, acts against the law of God. Who acts against the law of God, commits an impiety, and is made impious. And it is written ‘There is no peace for the impious’, says the Lord. From these things it can be gathered that the peace of those prevaricators of the canons is not a true peace. We say true peace, since we are not unaware that there is a false peace. For the reprobate and the transgressors have peace, that is adulterers with adulterers, murderers with murderers, and perjurers with perjurers. Sometimes these and others like them have a peace between themselves, but it is a simulated peace, a deceiving peace, a peace that is damaging to them and others. The Lord Jesus came to destroy this peace, and said about it to those listening to him, ‘Do not think that I came to bring peace upon earth. I came to bring not peace but the sword’. And the Lord said to his disciples about the peace that the world cannot give, ‘I leave my peace to you, I give my peace to you’, and the angels announced it singing ‘Glory in excelsis to God and peace on earth to people of goodwill’. As the Psalmist said, only the good and those who observe divine precepts can have this peace, ‘Much peace is given to those who love your law, O Lord, an it is not an impediment for them’.

It is carefully to be noted that when the Psalmist says ‘peace’, he adds first ‘Much’, so that it is given to understand how those who do not obey the law of God, even if they seem to have peace, do not have much peace, but only a short and swiftly changeable peace. And whenever they seem outwardly to prosper and relax, they are always inwardly agitated by all kinds of wickedness, and whenever they devote themselves individually each to their own vices, together they incur many occasions for sinning amongst themselves. But for those who love the law of God there is much peace, and there is no occasion for sinning, since even if they are outwardly disturbed by various storms of disorder, they are inwardly fixed in the solidity of true faith, firmly rooted in love, and they meet whatever adversities there are with tranquil mind in the hope of eternal reward. They desire to have peace with everyone if possible. They do not wish to risk falling into sin for any reason, nor do they wish to make anyone else risk falling int sin, but rather they always hurry towards better things, and reconcile themselves with the Lord and His angels, so that with their help they may reach eternal peace. We wanted to offer this digression to show that those who encourage their lords to do illicit things and promise them a firm future peace deceive themselves and others. It is just as if they say, ‘Let us do harm so that good may come’. If you meet someone like this, manfully resist them to their face, and beg our glorious king not to give his assent to it.

And since the day fixed for the marriage is now approaching, I beg you, blessed father, to go to the king and not to delay in showing him all this, since you yourself asked for this investigation and a great peril looms over you if you a great harm is carried out through your delay. Hurry then to show him this letter with the diagram, and we steadfastly beseech him that his Highness will not be angered by our Smallness because I have dared to say and write such things, nor let him pay attention to the rusticity of our speech, but let him consider the intention of my heart and recognise how much sollicitude I have for him and the safety of his kingdom. From that day when first at Aachen and then at Metz he humbly asked me to pray for him, he has never been absent from the little prayers of myself and my brothers. We will regret that this will have achieved nothing or little if we hear that he has fallen into this wickedness. But if – and may it not happen – he grows angry that we have written this, let him know that even if we honour him as is right, we must fear and love God more, and therefore we cannot be silent about the truth. We think it more appropriate to warn him humbly before the deed than to criticise him more fiercely and thus more dangerously afterwards.

O venerable father, press these and similar things without delay, as much as God permits, since whatever you give in addition, the good Samaritan when He comes to judgement will restore to you many times over. And if you can bring the king back from what he has begun, you will receive a reward from the Lord. If not, you will free yourself from the blame of keeping silent.

Moreover, I see may things which are displeasing and in need of emendation, but I keep quiet about them for the moment, so we do not annoy the king’s ears. But there is one thing which upsets me very greatly and which I cannot allow to pass over in silence, that is about the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). In the times of previous emperors, this honour flourished very properly in clothing and comportment, in arms and horseriding. But in our days this has been put in second place, and the ignominious custom of French ineptitudes has been introduced, in the shaving of beards, in the shameful shortening and deforming of garments, and in many other novelties which it would take too long to list, and whose introduction was forbidden in the times of the Ottos and Henrys.

But today many people despise the honest customs of our fathers, and seek the clothing, and at the same time and very quickly, the perversities of foreigners. Through all this, they wish to be similar to those whom they know to be enemies and traitors. And what is be lamented even more, such people are not only not chastised, but are even treated as close companions by kings and other princes, and everyone received a greater reward the more promptly they copy these stupidities. The others see this and do not blush to copy them, and because they see the that they are tolerated and rewarded, they rush to think up even greater novel insanities. For these and other things, O father, I grieve very greatly, since with these foreign changes so too customs change, and we see in a kingdom hitherto more honourable than others that murders, rapine, perjury, betrayal and various deceptions are gradually increasing, and we fear that these are signs of greater ills. This is why we suppliantly beseech you, and in the name of God’s love, we ask you to take care to counter and cure these harms, through the king and through whomever you can. Farewell.

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

NOTES

[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 http://marcus.group.shef.ac.uk/constantinople-jerusalem-and-canterbury-joseph-the-monk-and-the-norman-conquest/

Will the real Roman Emperor please stand up?

For a couple of years, I’ve been working intermittently on a translation of a long letter sent by the Carolingian king and emperor of Italy, Louis II, to his Byzantine counterpart Basil in 871. It probably still wouldn’t be done, had not an invitation to talk at a roundtable on Romanness after Rome prodded me to finish it. The draft translation – the first full one in English, about 5,000 words – is appended to this blog, in the hope of encouraging other people to study (and teach about) the text. It’s interesting for all kinds of reasons, but it’s especially useful for thinking through questions of what it was to be Roman after Rome, because its main concern was what it meant to be a post-Roman Roman emperor.

First, some background. Louis II, son of Emperor Lothar I, had been crowned the fourth Carolingian emperor in 844, aged around 20, before taking up sole rule in Italy on his father Lothar’s death in 855. Louis (surely the least well studied Carolingian, though Clemens Gantner is now on the case)  wrote this letter towards the end of his long reign, in response to a provocative message from Emperor Basil I of Byzantium (867-886). Basil’s letter itself is now lost, but its content can be fairly guessed from Louis’s reply and from the known political context, which included military co-operation against North African raiders and a marriage proposal.

In spite of this close collaboration, or maybe because of it, Emperor Basil’s letter centred on a refusal to accept that Louis was the, or even a, Roman emperor. This was on two grounds: because the title was not hereditary (paternum), and because it was not suitable (non convenit) for someone from a gens, that is from an ethnic group, such as (in this case) the Franks. There was only one Roman emperor, and that was him, Basil. Louis might perhaps be emperor of the Franks, but that was all – and Basil was not sure even about that, because only the leader of the Romans  could be the basileus (the Greek word for emperor). Louis was a Frank, and that was that.

To a great extent, therefore, Basil’s arguments (and understanding of his own office) rested on his conceptions of ethnicity and Romanness. For Basil, the world was divided between the (Byzantine) Romans on the one hand, and all the various ‘peoples’ gentes on the other. Being a Roman was not the equivalent to being a Frank, or a Saracen, or a Khazar, because Romanness was not an “ethnicity”: there was no Roman gens. As a consequence, having an ethnic identity, as Louis did, in Basil’s view intrinsically excluded an imperial identity.

Louis’s conceptions of ethnicity were very different, with major implications for how he viewed Romanness and empire. For Louis, *everyone* belonged to an ethnic group. This included the Romans, whom Louis describes as the gens romana: these were the people with a glorious past who lived in Rome, and whom (Louis points out) the Byzantine emperors had deserted. Each of these peoples or gentes could be led by a basileus, and historically often had been: the rulers of Constantinople had no monopoly on that title, but shared it with “other gentes”.

These gentes also included the Franks, who however had a special place. In a very interesting passage, Louis situates the Franks as not just the successors but the surrogates of the Romans, through a fascinating metaphor: “When the branches were broken, we were grafted onto them; when we were wild olives, we were joined to their roots and became fat with olives. We say therefore that the branches were broken so that we might be grafted on”. The Franks were therefore in effect the new ancient Romans.

And yet – ultimately, even for Louis, the Roman empire transcended ethnicity. Even at the height of the Roman empire, Louis declared, non-Romans had become emperors. “In what way”, asked Louis, “is [the imperial title] inappropriate for a people (gens), since we know – mentioning only a few for the sake of brevity – that Roman emperors were created from the people (the gens) of Hispania, Isauria, and Khazaria?” The latter two examples related to fairly recent Byzantine history, but the former took the reader back to the fourth century. Louis went on to explain, “For certainly the elder Theodosius and his sons Arcadius and Honorius, and Theodosius the younger, the son of Arcadius, were raised from Spaniards to the summit of the Roman empire. And we do not find that anyone complained or grumbled that he was not a Roman but a Spaniard (quod non Romanus sed Hispanus existeret)”.

What was relevant for imperial rule was therefore not what one was or was called, but what one did. Louis accordingly contrasted Frankish military prowess and bravery with Byzantine cowardice.  Strikingly, Louis declares his intention to conquer Sicily too, to restore it to its “former liberty” after its recent capture by the Muslims.

Louis’s Roman imperial title was justified by war, then. But its chief justification nevertheless lay elsewhere: in religion. The superiority of Frankish belief was manifested partly by Frankish religious learning – the letter itself is intended to show the command the Franks had of historical and ethnographic knowledge, both Greek and Latin. It was partly demonstrated by their missionary activities. But most of all, it was expressed by the recognition given to them by the Pope of Rome, who had rejected the ‘cacadoxy’ and indeed heresy of the Byzantines in new Rome in favour of the orthodoxy of the gens Francorum. Louis was Roman emperor, because God had given him the city, people and church of Rome to protect, through the Pope.

Talking of post-Roman Roman emperors has a touch of paradox about it, which is not dispelled by the squabbles between a Greek-speaking ruler based in Constantinople and a Frankish ruler who seldom actually visited Rome over who was the rightful heir to the Roman legacy. Indeed there is a related paradox at the heart of this letter. Basil did not think that the Romans were an ethnic group at all – and yet he nevertheless defined the Roman Empire in ethnic terms, in that it was defined against ethnicity. Louis by contrast lived in an entirely ethnicised world, and yet did not view the Roman Empire as defined by a relationship to ethnicity: this was the empire of God, Who had created all the gentes.

Basil to be sure had the greater weight of continuity on his side, since his arguments resonated with older Roman conceptions of group identity. But Louis’s arguments made good sense of the facts on the ground, so to speak.  And proof of how convincing Louis’s arguments were is perhaps provided by the letter’s authorship. The letter was of course written in Louis’s name, and we may assume that he agreed with its sentiments. But Louis had naturally outsourced the actual drafting to someone else, in this case probably a prominent cleric called Anastasius the Librarian. Anastasius was highly educated and had experience of the Greek court, so he was an obvious choice. But Anastasius was not himself Frankish: he was Roman, from an important family of the city of Rome.

That such a figure, at the heart of the papal establishment, could elaborate the Frankish view of ethnicity – the simultaneous ethnicisation of Romanness and de-ethnicisation of empire – so conscientiously suggests that to some extent he had internalised it; that it was now the Roman view. By the late ninth century, Rome and the Byzantine world had indeed drifted very far apart.

Translation (pdf)Emperor Louis II of Italy to Emperor Basil I

Further reading

For a study of the changing role of ethnicity in Roman and post-Roman Europe, see P.  Geary, ‘European Ethnicities and European as an Ethnicity: Does Europe Have Too Much History’, in M. Staub and G. Loud (eds.), The Making of Medieval History (Woodbridge, 2017), 57-69.

Louis II is not well served in English-language work, but see now C. Gantner, ‘”Our Common Enemies Shall Be Annihilated!” How Louis II’s Relations with the Byzantine Empire Shaped his Policy in Southern Italy’, in Southern Italy as Contact Area and Border Region during the Early Middle Ages, ed. Wolf and Herbers (2017), pp. 295-314,  concentrating on the earlier part of Louis’s reign.

*** Professor Berto has kindly brought to my attention his new English translation, Italian Carolingian historical and poetical texts, Pisa,  2016, which includes an English translation of Andreas of Bergamo’s chronicle as well as some poetical works (but does not include this text). 27.03.17 ***

***Clemens Gantner has kindly pointed out that the manuscript containing Louis’s letter is now available online: Vat. lat. 5001, fol. 60: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.5001 05/07/19***

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