Category Archives: ethnicity

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]

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.

A 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 the various 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 – which we might translate almost as “being a foreigner” – 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, ethnicity wasn’t about being a foreigner: rather, everyone belonged to an ethnic group. 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”. Those gentes 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 Byzantines had deserted.

And they included too the gens Francorum. 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 Romans.

And yet – ultimately Louis did not define the Roman empire in relation to 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 Roman 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. There’s a delightful passage in the letter in which Louis comments on Basil’s claims that the Frankish envoys were so uncouth that they would have attacked the Byzantines with their teeth, had they not been afraid of him, Basil. Nonsense, says Louis, that can’t be right: our men would never have behaved like that – but anyway they aren’t afraid of anybody! 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: 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. This was a Roman empire justified by results.

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 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

*** 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 ****

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