Category Archives: Frankish law

How a monk blew up a Carolingian kingdom

In April 862, King Lothar II held a council at Aachen to seal his divorce with Queen Theutberga, on the grounds of her previous incestuous relationship with her brother, Hubert, which he argued made her incapable of marriage. But in June 863, the council of Metz instead seems to have justified the divorce on the grounds that Lothar had previously been married to Waldrada. Why had the justification changed? Why the tactical swerve?

The treatise provided here in a draft English translation for the first time gives us a clue. With great erudition, it mercilessly – we might say forensically – takes apart the 862 arguments for Lothar’s divorce. Fornication or adultery could be cause for separation, but never remarriage; and any sins committed by either partner before a marriage were not carried into it, provided they had been repented for. If a woman was chaste – ie, faithful to her husband – within a marriage, then her past no longer mattered, no matter how ‘polluted’ it was. Just because a woman had previously committed incest, that did not mean that a subsequent marriage was incestuous.

The treatise seems to have been written in response to the 862 Aachen council. Very likely its author was Ratramnus of Corbie, a brilliant monk-scholar. And after this treatise was received, Lothar’s advisors had to change tack. Their new argument, that a pre-existing marriage invalidated a subsequent one, was far stronger, but it was also unconvincing in being raised so belatedly. No wonder that Pope Nicholas I didn’t buy it, with all the consequences that flowed from there.

The title of this blog is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic. But it seems probable that Ratramnus’s superb handling of patristic commentaries, canon law and biblical passages brought home to Lothar’s court that their previous arguments were going nowhere: and the desperate U-turn in their position that ensued surely left Lothar’s kingdom, and his kingship, more vulnerable. Flip-flops are never a good political look.

But the treatise is also significant in its own right. It’s one of the most synthetic and developed commentaries on marriage from the Carolingian period (alongside Hincmar’s De Divortio, of course), and notable in particular for its depiction of marriage as representing a ‘fresh start’ for even the most sinful spouse, and for its emphasis on equality of treatment for both husband and wife. It’s an interesting example of how politics and intellectual enquiry fed off one another in Carolingian Francia.

TRANSLATION (opens pdf)

Secret archives in ninth-century Francia

In January 867, Pope Nicholas I wrote to Charles the Bald, king of West Francia. His letter (translated below) was on the topic of Lothar II and Theutberga’s divorce, which by this point had been running for nearly a decade. He had heard, he said, alarming rumours that Charles was now preparing to connive with Lothar in (another) trial of Theutberga, leading potentially to a trial by battle and her execution. Charles had hitherto been a steadfast supporter of Theutberga, and Nicholas encouraged him to remain so.

Nicholas also wrote to emphasise that he was now in charge of the divorce case. Both parties, Lothar and Theutberga, had appealed to him as the judge, and since there was no greater judicial authority than the papacy, no further appeal was possible. Any future judicial action required his say-so. A duel in particular was out of the question, for this would be tempting God.

But Pope Nicholas had another purpose in writing beyond these grand assertions of papal authority. He also hoped to use Charles as a means of getting his letters into Lothar’s kingdom. And this post was intended to be recorded delivery. He asked Charles not only to pass on a letter he had written to Lothar II’s bishops, but also to take note of which bishops refused to receive it, and to send their names back to him immediately. Nicholas was evidently having difficulty in telling which of Lothar’s bishops, thousands of miles across the Alps, were innocently out of the loop, and which were deliberately keeping themselves uninformed of the pope’s wishes.  The disjuncture here between papal aspiration and papal capacity is palpable.

And there was more. Nicholas also enclosed a letter for the attention of Lothar II himself, which he asked Charles to send on to his nephew. But in an appendix, he also asked Charles to keep a copy of it, secretly (nemine alio sciente). Charles was only to publicise this letter if Lothar delayed in obeying its instructions.

This might make the reader pause. Why did Nicholas insist on secrecy? Was Lothar II really not supposed to know that his uncle had a copy of the letter – a letter which this uncle had just passed on to him? If the aim was to put Lothar under pressure, why not just disseminate the letter immediately? And why mention this secret plan in a written document, which was likely to be read by numerous people besides Charles?

The solution to this conundrum, it seems to me, is in the binding power of shared secrets. Nicholas was trying to win Charles round, and by creating a secret, and sharing it with Charles, he hoped to strengthen their entente, and to exclude Lothar. It seems to me likely that Lothar was supposed to know that Charles had a ‘secret’ copy of the letter, and that this secret was intended to weaken the trust between the two kings. The preservation of Lothar’s letter in a West Frankish manuscript context (Paris Bnf. lat. 1557, sadly not yet digitised) suggests Charles did as he was asked.

As Stuart Airlie and Abigail Firey have both remarked, secrecy is a thread running through the divorce case – Theutberga’s secret sin, her secret confession, the anonymity of the group who contacted Hincmar. It seems that not even the pope was immune from falling into its conspiratorial orbit.

Translation of Pope Nicholas’s letter (opens PDF).

A note on Pope Nicholas’s letters available in translation
A selection of Pope Nicholas’s letters concerning the divorce have been translated, some in full and some in part by David D’Avray, Dissolving royal marriages: a documentary history. Another set have recently been translated into German by Klaus Herbers and Veronika Unger in Papstbriefe des 9. Jahrhundert. Nicholas’s letter to Theutberga, written at the same time as this one (Jan 867), has been translated on the marvellous Epistola website. This particular letter to Charles is not in either selection, and has not been translated before to my knowledge.

Image: Stuttgart Psalter

CSI Carantania

A post by Rachel Stone

At some point in the mid-ninth century an auxiliary bishop called Osbald had a serious problem with a turbulent priest in Carantania (later the duchy of Carinthia in southern Austria and northern Slovenia). Osbald was told to investigate whether or not this priest was responsible for the death of a deacon. We don’t know the outcome, but a look now at this very, very cold case is revealing about justice and clerics in the early Middle Ages.

All we know about this case comes from part of a letter by Pope Nicholas I (which dates it to 858-867). The original letter does not survive, but an excerpt from it is included in later canon law collections. That means that we don’t know why Osbald had probably written directly to the Pope rather than to his superior, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Osbald, whose name suggests Anglo-Saxon origins, was a chorbishop, an additional subordinate bishop helping to administer the vast diocese of Salzburg. (As an indication of its size, the later suffragan diocese covering Carantania/Carinthia had its first seat at Gurk, 120 miles away from Salzburg).

Pope Nicholas’ reply, however, demanded the involvement not only of the far-off Archbishop of Salzburg, but a considerably wider group of ecclesiastics. Here’s the first part of the surviving text:

Let your sanctity apply yourself to persuading your bishop to unite together with himself the canonical number of colleagues, that is six brothers and fellow-bishops from neighbouring provinces, and with them deciding, joined to you, diligently apply yourselves to investigating and take care to examine carefully, with all striving, in order that you able to find whether the same deacon, who it is reported has died, died from beating/striking (percussio) by the priest named now [elsewhere in the letter] or from breaking his neck.

This had now turned into a complex detective and legal operation, which probably also involved some difficult logistics. So why had Osbald got the Pope involved in the first place and why was all this investigation needed to work out the deacon’s cause of death? Hints of an answer come in the next section of Nicholas’ letter:

And if indeed he was not beaten to death (ad mortem percussus est) by the aforementioned priest, but falling from his horse, died from a broken neck, according to your judgement announce a corresponding penance for the priest beating/striking recklessly: and let him be suspended for some time from the solemnities of mass. After this he should once more be returned to priestly office.

But if that deacon truly died from whatever beating/striking by that priest, we decree that this one is for no reason to minister in a priestly way, since even if he did not have the wish to kill, yet the fury and indignation by which a motion [of his] produced those deadly things, are to curbed in many ways in everyone, but especially in God’s ministers, and to be condemned everywhere.

This suggests that the case may have involved what modern lawyers would describe as a chain of causation. The question may have been not simply whether the deacon had died from falling off his horse, but whether the priest’s attack had led to that fall in some way. Many possible scenarios can be imagined here (and imagination is all we can go on, given the lack of detail). Had the deacon already been on horseback when a blow had disrupted his control of his horse? Had he jumped on a horse (perhaps not his own) and ridden away hastily to escape further violence from the priest?

Or had the priest’s attack happened at some earlier point, leaving the deacon suffering longer-term ill effects, perhaps via the aftereffects of concussion or even brain damage? As a possible parallel, in 864, Charles, the son of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald was struck in the head with a sword by a friend during some horseplay. He suffered from fits as a result and died a year later (Annales Bertiniani, 864, 865). The verb used to describe Charles’ injuring (percutio) is the same one used for the priest’s attack on the deacon; it’s not therefore possible to be sure whether the priest had inflicted a single blow or a sustained beating.

It’s unlikely that Osbald and the other bishops were able to investigate the case thoroughly and discover the truth, in the way that Nicholas wanted. Even if there had been witnesses to the attack, it would have been extremely difficult to get them to Salzburg, the most likely place for any episcopal judgement to take place. And without witnesses or forensic evidence, the only testimony available would have been from the priest himself. Dead deacons tell no tales.

Our modern categories of criminal law/civil law/church law or law as against penance are inadequate for describing this case. We don’t know whether the priest had paid wergild for the deacon’s death or not. There’s no mention of it in the portion of the letter that survives, but any such act wouldn’t necessarily have decided the issue for church leaders. What both Pope Nicholas and Osbald were concerned about was a complex blend of the subjective issues of the priest’s intentions and motivation and the objective effects of his acts, concerns common to many different legal and penitential systems.

But there’s a final twist to this story that takes it beyond purely legal courts and penitential judgements. Nicholas ends the surviving section of the letter with a judgement on a slightly different aspect:

But if indeed the priest should perhaps make clear to Your Zealousness that he is guilty (noxius), we order that such a benefice should be conceded by his church to him, from which he and his (et ipse et sui) may be able to have enough compensation for their maintenance.

This looks at first sight like some incongruous form of plea-bargaining: why should a guilty man be rewarded? One canonical collection has the priest making clear that he is obnoxius (which could mean either “guilty” or “submissive/compliant”). The original editor, however, preferred noxius and I think he’s right.

It’s instructive here to bring in a second letter that Nicholas sent in response to another question from Osbald. This question was whether clerics who had killed a pagan in self-defence should be allowed to remain in their current grade or advance to a higher one. Nicholas’ response was firmly worded. He gave no-one licence to kill and he allowed no “soldier of Christ” (miles Christi) to defend himself other than the way Christ had defended himself, i.e. no resistance was allowed. If a cleric of the rank of priest or above should kill a pagan, the Pope advised him to consider giving up his office, rather than risking his soul. (It is interesting that Nicholas advises this but does not specifically decree it as a canon that must be followed).

Carantania was on the edge of east Francia; it was a region where potentially dangerous pagans might well be found. It was also a region undergoing missionary activity throughout the ninth century, carried out by missions that were sometimes rivals: operations subject to the Catholic dioceses of Salzburg and Passau and also slightly later efforts by the Byzantine missionaries SS. Cyril and Methodius. A text from the 870s called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum stressed the rights of Salzburg and included a reference to Osbald’s earlier missionary work.

In this missionary context, we need to consider the existence of another “court”: the court of public opinion. Whatever the details of the priest’s attack on the deacon, he was hardly setting a good example for a barely Christianised population, any more than priests who had shed the blood of pagans even in self-defence were. Nicholas had harsh words for priests who had killed in self-defence, but he did not specifically attempt to remove them from office. The suspicion must be that the pope similarly hoped that Osbald might be able to “buy off” the angry priest from his office, whose scandalous behaviour might otherwise offend or deter new converts. It is possible that, as happened frequently in other regions, the priest was himself from a prominent local family. The passing reference made to the priest’s dependents might indicate a married man, but it might also indicate a priest rich enough to own unfree people personally.

This cold case may therefore end by revealing further injustice, but it reflects the realities of the period. Any attempt by the church authorities to deal with a badly-behaved “turbulent priest” in the early Middle Ages always had to consider whether more harm than good to the church’s reputation could result from a disciplinary process.

***

Text of Nicholas’ letter(s) from MGH Epistolae 6, pp. 660-661:

(Although they are treated as part of one letter (no. 142) in the MGH edition, the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum refers to two letters sent by Nicholas to Osbald, so I have regarded them as separate).

(1) Studeat sanctitas tua persuadere episcopo tuo sibi canonicum sociare numerum collegarum, id est sex ex vicinis provinciis fratres et coepiscopos suos; quibus tecum iunctis, et decernentibus diligenter investigare, et omni annisu scrutari procurate, quatinus invenire valeatis utrum percussione iam nominati presbyteri, an cervicis fractione idem diaconus, ut fertur, extinctus est.

Et si quidem a saepefato presbytero non ad mortem percussus est, sed ex equo cadens cervice fracta interiit, secundum arbitrium vestrum pro percussione incaute agenti presbytero paenitentiam competentem indicate, et aliquanto tempore a missarum solempniis suspendatur, denuo ad sacerdotale post haec rediturus officium.

Quodsi veraciter qualicumque percussione istius presbyteri ille mortuus est diaconus, nulla hunc ratione ministrare sacerdotis more decernimus, quoniam, etsi voluntatem occidendi non habuit, furor tamen et indignatio ex quibus motio illa mortifera prodiit, in omnibus, sed praecipue in Dei ministris multipliciter inhibentur, atque ubique dampnantur.

Verum si presbyter adeo vestro studio noxius forte claruerit, praecipimus, ut tale beneficium sibi ecclesiae suae concedatur, quo et ipse et sui sufficiens possint habere suae sustentationis solacium.

(2) De his clericis pro quibus consuluisti, scilicet qui se defendendo paganum occiderunt, si postea per paenitentiam emundati possint ad pristinum gradum redire aut ad altiorem ascendere, scito nos nullam occasionem dare, nec ullam tribuere licentiam eis quemlibet hominem quolibet modo occidendi.

Non igitur licentiam damus militibus Christi aliter se defendere quam ipse in se monstravit Christus, illis dumtaxat, qui clericatus funguntur officio quique familiarius in castris militantur eis, nec occidendi eis prorsus tribuimus facultatem. Verum si contigerit, et clericus sacerdotalis ordinis saltem paganum occiderit, multum sibi consulit, si ab officio sacerdotali recesserit, satiusque est, illi in hac vita Domino sub inferiori habitu inreprehensibiliter famulari, quam alte indebite appetendo dampnabiliter in profundum dimergi.  

Hincmar’s trial by ordeal? An unpublished text

Back in 2016, I published an English translation of a ninth-century ‘trial by cold water’ liturgy on this blog. That text came from a now lost manuscript of St-Remi of Reims, which was enough for me to suggest a possible connection with Hincmar of Reims, who we know was keen on the trial by ordeal (he discusses it extensively in De Divortio).

However, in 2017 I re-read an article by Rudolf Pokorny which drew my attention to an early modern manuscript now in Paris, shelved as Collection Duchesne 64. Duchesne 64 includes a table of contents and a partial transcription of another lost medieval manuscript, from Liege, which mostly contained Hincmar’s own works. Pokorny noted that Duchesne 64’s transcription included a trial by ordeal liturgy, but he didn’t edit it in his article. In 2019 I finally got round to looking up the ordeal copied in Duchesne 64, which is online thanks to the amazing Gallica, and gave a paper about it in St Andrews at the SAIMS grad conference.

There are some good reasons for supposing that Hincmar might have been involved in putting this liturgy together (though it’s slightly different from the version from the lost St-Remi manuscript). I’m still planning to work more on this text, and to set it in the context of Hincmar’s thinking about the ordeal, but since that probably won’t happen this summer, I thought I’d share my re-transcription of the Latin in the meantime. Thanks to Giorgia Vocino for advice on some of the most testing bits of Andre Duchesne’s seventeenth-century handwriting; there are still a few bits I haven’t quite established, and any errors that remain are of course mine (and please tell me when you spot them!).

Examen aquae frigidae

Quando Romani propter invidiam tulerunt domno Leoni papae oculos et linguam propter
thesaurum sancti Petri, tunc venit ad imperatorem Karolum, ut eum adiuvaret de suis inimicis.
Tunc imperator reduxit eum Romam, et restituit eum in locum suum, et thesaurum supradictum
non potuit invenire aliter nisi per istud iudicium. Quod iudicium fecerunt beatus Eugenius et Leo et imperator, ut episcopi et abbates et comites firmiter teneant et credant, quia probatum habuerunt illi sancti
viri, quia illud invenerunt.

Cum volueris hominem mittere ad examem aquae frigidae, apprehende illos quos vis
examinere, et duc eos ad ecclesiam, quibus cantet Presbiter missam, faciat eos ad ipsam offerre. Cum
autem ad communionem venerint, antequam communicent, interroget eos sacerdos conjurando ita.

Adiuro vos homines, per Patrem et Filium et Spiritum sanctum, per sanctam Trinitatem, et per vestram christianitatem quam suscepistis, et per sanctum euangelium, et per istas reliquias quae in ista ecclesia
sunt, ut non praesumatis ullo modo communicare neque ad altare accedere, si vos fecistis quod
vobis imputatur, aut consensistis.

Si autem omnes tacuerint et nullus hoc …, accedat sacerdos ad altare et communi
-cet illos quos voluerunt in aquam probare. Cum autem … communicaverint, dicat sacerdos ad singulos
Hoc corpus et sanguis domini nostri Iesu Christi sit tibi hodie ad probationem. Et expleta missa, faciat ipse sacerdos aquam benedictam, et accipiens eam pergat ad istum locum ubi iudicium facere habent…
omnibus illis bibere aquam benedictam. Cum autem dederit, dicat ad unumquemque Hac aqua fiat
tibi hodie ad probationem.

Postea vero adjurat aquam in hanc modum, in qua illos probare voluerunt: Adiuro te aqua
in nomine Dei patris omnipotentis qui te in principio creavit et iussit ad humanis necessitatibus,
[f. 50] qui etiam te iussit segregari ab aquis superioribus. Adiuro te etiam per ineffabile
nomen Iesu Christi, filii Dei omnipotentis, sub cuius pedibus mare se calcabile prebuit. Adiuro
te etiam per Spiritum sanctum, qui super baptizatum … dominum descendit. Adiuro te per nomen
sanctae et individuae Trinitatis, cuius voluntate aquarum elementum discissum est, et populum
Israel siccis pedibus per illud transivit. Ad cuius etiam invocationem Heliseus ferrum ferventum
quod de manubrio exierat super aquam natare fecit, ut nullomodo, ut nullomodo [sic]
suscipias hominem illum, si in aliquo est inde culpabilis quod illi obicitur, scilicet
opera, consensus, scientia aut ullo ingenio; sed fac eum natare super te, et nulla posset hic
praevalere fantasia aut prestigatio cum quod quaeritur, eo quem occulta cordis non
fallunt revelante modo manifestetur. Adjuro te per nomen Christi precipioque tibi
fidens in sola virtute Dei ut nobis per nomen eius obedias, cui omnis creatura servit,
quem Cherubin et Seraphin ineffabile voce conlaudant, dicentes: ‘Sanctus, sanctus,
sanctus, dominus deus sabaoth, pleni sunt celi et terra gloria tua, osanna in excelsis’,
qui regnat et dominatur per infinita secula seculorum. Amen.

Finita … huius… adiurationem aquae, exeat illos vestibus suis, et faciat
eos osculare sanctum euangelium et crucem Christi. Postea de aqua benedicta aspergat secundum
morem quod super unumquemque eorum. Et conversus ad hominem illum, qui …debet ad iudicium, dicat
Adiuro te homo in presento iudicio aquae frigidae, et per invocationem domini nostri Iesu Christi. Adiuro te
per Patrem et Filium et spiritum sanctum, et per Trinitatem inseperabilem, per Mariam matrem domini
nostri Iesu Christi, et per omnes angelos et per archangelos, virtutes et potestates, principatus domina-
-tiones thronos, Cherubin et Seraphim, et .. per omnia caelestia agmina, et per …judicii
Dei et per 24 seniores, et per 4 evangelistas Marcus et Mattheum Lucam et Johannem et per 12 apostolos
et 12 prophetas, per martyres per confessores et virgines, et per tres pueros qui cum ceteris
ante Deum assistunt, Sidrach Misach, et Abdenago, et per 144 milia qui empti sunt de terra,
et sequentes agnum quocumque …et per omnem populum Dei sanctum et per baptismum, quo in Christo per
sacerdotem regeneratus es, te adiuro, ut, si hoc furtum fecisti vel aut facere alterum vidisti
aut bajulasti, aut in domum tuum recepisti, aut in aliquo consentaneus fuisti, aut si habes cor
incrassatum, induratum, et culpabilis es, non te praesens suscipiat aqua, neque aliquo maleficio
tuo res possit occultari quam credimus dei omnipotentia manifestari. Propterea te deprecor domine
Iesu Christe ostende nobis maiestatis signum tale, ut si culpabilis in hoc facto iste homo est nullatenus ab hac
aqua recipiatur, et hoc facias ad laudem et gloriam et invocationem nominis tui, ut cognoscant omnes qui
tu es dominus noster Iesus Christus qui cum patre et spiritu sancto vivis,  et regnas in secula seculorum amen. His dictis ex more colligatus in nomine Domini deponatur in aquam qui deponandum est.

Multilingual medieval kings, shared values and the Council of Koblenz 860

In early June 860, three Frankish kings met at Koblenz, an old Roman fort on the River Rhine. The two brothers Louis and Charles had come to draw a line under the political crisis ignited by Louis’s failed invasion of Charles’s kingdom in 858. This meeting was the culmination of much diplomatic fencing; their nephew Lothar II was also present to help broker the deal.

The meeting produced various written texts (as Jenny Benham has discussed). The peace itself was expressed partly through a Latin text, a jointly written statement. This had been hammered out a couple of days in advance by a joint group of select advisors, made up of bishops and senior aristocrats. The group played it safe, compiling a capitulary that mostly repeated verbatim one that been issued eight years previously in 851 at another royal conference. Emphasising the importance of fraternal love, the need for peace and support for the church, it was the Frankish equivalent of ‘motherhood and apple pie’, a largely symbolic affirmation of shared values with which no one could quibble. The Koblenz group did however throw in a few additions which perhaps tell us something about the key issues at the time, notably about marital abduction and over-hasty excommunication (see the translation below).

But the entente at Koblenz was also expressed through speaking and action: and here language came into play. It is not clear whether the Latin capitulary was publicly read out. But what is clear is that King Louis gave a vernacular summary of it in German, and that King Charles then gave a vernacular summary of it in Romance (i.e., proto-French). Alongside this interesting evidence for how Carolingian capitularies might have been ‘used’ in assemblies, the Koblenz text also notes that Louis spoke to Charles in Romance, and that Charles recapitulated his own speech in German. This was a multi-lingual summit in which the Frankish kings acted as their own translators.

What was the point of all this language-switching? Presumably it was for the benefit of the audience. Kings such as Charles and Louis were bi-lingual, as would have been the top Frankish magnates. But that was not necessarily the case for all of the entourage of these kings present at Koblenz. Those more minor aristocrats with lands only in the west, for instance, might well have been unfamiliar with German. So it was important that the kings showed they were speaking to everyone. This tactical multilingualism had already been used at the Strasbourg oaths of 841, when Louis and Charles had cemented an alliance. It was an established part of the political repertoire of a pluralised political community.

Events would prove, however that no matter how many languages they were read out in, the fine words about family feeling were not very deeply felt. All the recorded participants at the Koblenz meeting were men, but there was one woman who although not present must have been on many people’s minds – Queen Theutberga. By the time of the Koblenz summit, the young Lothar was several months into his fresh campaign to divorce his wife on grounds of incest. (One wonders if he awkwardly bumped into Theutberga’s brother Boso, who seems to have been present at Koblenz as an influential Frankish magnate). At Koblenz, the young Lothar was granted a junior role on the public stage, and his uncle Charles was still warmly referring to him as his ‘dearest nephew’. But not long afterwards, at another royal conference at Savonnières in 862, Charles had scented a political opportunity, and refused even to speak with a man increasingly engulfed by the scandal he had himself rashly orchestrated.

Capitulary of Koblenz 860: TRANSLATION (PDF)

Image: the Stuttgart Psalter fol. 39v: a king (David) struggles with a horse and mule (Ps. 32)

The Carolingian 1%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Stephane Lebecq has done a French translation of the will, in one of the two Festschrifts for Regine le Jan: https://www.brepolsonline.net/doi/abs/10.1484/M.HAMA-EB.5.103301

The politics of land in ninth-century Francia

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

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

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

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

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

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

English translation (pdf) 

Peasants and emperors in ninth-century Francia

A book about the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, based on a conference held in Paris in 2014 (twelve centuries after his death), has just been published. I contributed a chapter about a decree issued by the great emperor in the year of his imperial coronation (800), concerning the obligations owed by tenants to their lords. Since the chapter’s not open access, I thought I might unpack its content a bit here.

The decree is known as the Capitulary of Le Mans (Capitulare in pago Cenomannico datum) – it’s quite a famous text that’s widely cited as evidence for the early medieval peasantry. In brief, Charlemagne regulates how much labour tenants can be expected to do for their landlords, capping it at three days a week maximum, and less for the richer tenants. In spoken versions of the paper (though not in the written version!), I described the decree a little tongue-in-cheek as the first European Working Time Directive. Here’s an open-access English translation of the capitulary which I put together.

The Capitulary of Le Mans was copied in lots of early manuscripts (including Paris BnF. ms Latin 5577, now online thanks to Gallica). But *spoiler alert* the chapter actually argues that it probably wasn’t issued by Charlemagne after all (sorry!)…

Yet I’m not sure that actually matters all that much. Even if we can’t securely associate it directly with the ruler, the notion it expresses that kings might or should take such an interest in “the peasantry”‘s daily life was pathbreaking. And I think that makes the Capitulary of Le Mans a key source for the emergence of the medieval ‘three orders’ ideology – albeit in a version intriguingly and significantly different from that which developed post-860.

Image: the inimitable Stuttgart Psalter, f. 124v.

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’…