Category Archives: Historiography

Aachen, 1000, and the Legend of the Last Emperor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chronicle of Novalesa
The Chronicle of Novalesa

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

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

Ademar's Chronicle
Ademar’s Chronicle

Book III ch. 31

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

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

Thietmar's Chronicle
Thietmar’s Chronicle

Book IV, chapter 47

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

Image credits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How (not) to edit a medieval chronicle

The medieval chronicler Hugh of Flavigny has recently been in the UK news, after Marc Morris suggested that some biographers of William the Conqueror have been misreading his chronicle. A passage which has been taken as describing King William as ‘jovial’ in fact refers to someone else entirely.

How important this is for our knowledge of William the Conqueror I shall leave to others to decide – you can read Marc Morris’s new popular biography of the king for yourselves. But the issue brings back into focus a rather neglected chronicler – and also raises interesting questions about how we re-present texts that were written centuries ago.

It’s true that Hugh of Flavigny isn’t much read outside a fairly narrow circle today. But he ought to be. He observed at close quarters the struggles between pope and emperor in the late eleventh century, for which he’s a very important source. And while he didn’t describe King William as ‘jovial’, Hugh did visit England in the 1090s as part of a diplomatic mission

In fact he recounts some lurid stories about the country. For instance, he recalls how the archbishop of York Gerard was caught in secret conversation with the devil, planning to feed his guests with bewitched pork as part of a satanical ritual; and how Gerard’s brother, a cleric at the king’s chapel named Peter, confessed to becoming pregnant after intercourse with a man, and died from the resulting growth (no, I’m not making it up: here’s the Latin).

With this sort of content, you might think the time is ripe for a translation of Hugh (to my knowledge, there isn’t one, in any language). And you’d be right. But first of all, what we actually need is a new edition of the original Latin. We currently rely on the edition of Georg Pertz, produced in 1848. For its time, this was an excellent piece of work. But as has recently been pointed out by Mathias Lawo, it doesn’t really do justice to Hugh’s chronicle, which survives in just one copy – in fact what seems to be Hugh’s own personal manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1870).

Here’s a picture of a page from Pertz’s 19th-century edition:

HF p. 354

Now, compare that with a picture of the original 11th-century manuscript, courtesy of the Berlin State Library,  on which that same page was based:


As is clear just by looking at the original with all its marginal insertions, Hugh added to his chronicle as he wrote it – as he found new sources, or as his personal priorities changed over his eventful career. It seems that his purpose in writing changed as time went on: his chronicle went from being mostly about his own monastery in Verdun, to being about wider questions of church reform – and then to being about his new monastery, Flavigny. But this is obscured by the 1848 edition, which squeezes Hugh’s messy text into the neat format of a printed book.

In some cases, it’s not even clear where in his text Hugh meant to insert his additions. But the edition had to put the text somewhere in the linear flow, so Georg Pertz had to make decisions. Those decisions weren’t necessarily bad ones, but they’re invisible to the reader encountering the text in this way. As a result, Pertz’s edition in a way creates a text that never existed. It’s hardly going too far to say that when we read Pertz’s edition, what we’re reading is a 19th-century interpretation of Hugh’s chronicle.

A stop-gap revised edition has been made available by the MGH (thanks to Ed Roberts for pointing this out to me), which ‘highlights’ all of Hugh’s later additions. But what’s really required is a new edition as a type-face facsimile of the original – not technically possible in Pertz’s day, but perfectly practical nowadays.  Then we could read not only the words that Hugh wrote: but read them in the right order, too. Any volunteers?

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The forms of feudalism

I’ve had a few conversations over the past couple of weeks which have persuaded me it might be worth writing a short post about feudalism as a historiographical concept.

I say write, but really I mean summarise, because this blog is based squarely on Chris Wickham’s excellent article on the issue.[1] Unfortunately a) this article is not available online, and b) it’s in Italian – and that justifies, I think, putting the ideas out there in this format. Though if you’re interested, you should definitely go and read the original. Anyway, here goes:

‘Feudalism’ is a concept that has been used in three different historiographical traditions (these are often complicated by national traditions in practice, but they can be separated in principle nevertheless).

  1. For Marxists, it defines an economic system in which surplus production is extracted from peasant families by coercion. It’s a system in which elites control exchange more than production, which distinguishes it from slavery, or wage labour, or societies where there’s very little surplus extraction at all. There are debates about whether this definition ought to include the privatisation of justice, and whether it should distinguish between tax and rent, since some purists would argue that including these elements makes it too much about the state, and not enough about the economy.
  1. For those working within a tradition that we might call Annaliste, feudalism refers to a social structure characterised by a number of factors. These usually include a militarised elite that was rewarded by grants of land rather than salary, a dependant peasantry, merely vestigial tax, and a widespread emphasis on loyality and obedience (these characteristics are taken from Marc Bloch’s famous list, in a classic book published in 1939 which still repays reading).[2] This is pretty close to what lots of people would think of as ‘medieval Europe’, but in principle it’s an ideal type that can also be (and has been) applied to different areas and times.
  1. Finally, there’s the legal tradition, often identified with the great Belgian historian F.-L. Ganshof in the mid 20th century, though actually it’s the oldest of the traditions, reaching back into the 17th century. In this reading, feudalism is used to describe a society dominated by the fief: that is, the grant of land from a lord to a vassal in exchange for service, often closely defined. The implicit comparison here is with societies that are dominated instead by state sovereignty.

It’s sometimes suggested that all this is too complex and confusing, and too wedded to outdated historiographical assumptions, and so that we ought to cut the Gordian knot by simply dropping the word feudalism altogether. People in the Middle Ages, after all, didn’t use the term , so maybe nor should we – it’s a model (or rather a set of models) that we’re imposing on the period.

But though this is an appealing argument at first sight, it’s not quite as compelling as it seems. It’s true that feudalism has baggage, and can mean different things to different people. But so do too lots of other words, like the ‘Middle Ages’, or ‘Europe’, or ‘lordship’, or ‘society’. Some of these words may prove not to be helpful, but not to use abstract words simply on principle would be impede both generalisation and comparison, and it’s almost impossible in practice anyway.  The only real question is whether feudalism can highlight certain important aspects of medieval society in ways that are useful: for instance, the contingent nature of property rights, or the relative absence of salaried officials.

Debates about feudalism link us back to older historiographies. But simply to drop the term wouldn’t remove the influence that those historiographies have upon us – it’d just make that influence harder to detect. Much better then to engage with those historiographical legacies rather than to pretend that they don’t exist. All historiographical models (or approaches) themselves have a history – that doesn’t automatically invalidate them, it makes them more interesting. And ultimately we do need some kind of “model” to make sense of the mass of fragmented evidence that survives from this distant past, otherwise we’re just doing antiquarianism.

That said, there are two caveats:

  1. Feudalism shouldn’t be thought to be a real thing – it’s a label, not an entity. Feudalism never ‘did’ anything, or made something happen. So if your argument depends on ‘because of feudalism’, then you should think again.
  2. If you do want to talk about feudalism – if it’s a useful concept for you in any of its forms – then go ahead. Just make sure you avoid confusion by being clear what you mean by it: otherwise the feudalism police will hunt you down, wherever you are…

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[Updated Jan 2018]

[1] Chris Wickham, ‘Le forme del feudalesimo’, Settimane di Studio 47, (2000)15-46. The article also tackles the feudal revolution, but there’s lots in English on this, including a little book published by CUP in 2013 (ahem), so I’m won’t cover that now.

[2] Marc Bloch, La société féodale, 2 vols., (Paris, 1939-1940)