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.
It’s sometimes suggested that the driving force behind King Lothar II’s efforts to divorce Theutberga was a desire to secure his succession. Lothar had no children with Theutberga, but several with his would-be queen Waldrada. But whatever Lothar’s motives had been in 857/8, the spiralling crisis of his kingdom in the 860s meant that any long-term concerns about his succession were overtaken by a more urgent problem, that of securing his political (and perhaps personal) survival. Lothar’s ‘solution’ to his marital problems was threatening his kingship in the here and now.
The best evidence for this is a letter written in the name of Lothar’s bishops and addressed to the bishops of Lothar’s uncle, King Charles the Bald (translated into English for the first time below). The letter speaks frankly. Lothar’s bishops state they have heard that unnamed people in Charles’s kingdom are advising him to depose his nephew. They call on their western colleagues to oppose this policy, out of episcopal solidarity but also because contrary to the rumours, Lothar’s kingdom was standing rock-solid behind him. The bishops declare that they have sworn oaths to Lothar which they have no intention of breaking; they admit that he has sinned in the past, but are now confident that he’s back on the right path.
Was Charles the Bald really considering instigating regime change? It is perfectly plausible. After all, Charles himself had nearly been deposed by his brother Louis ‘the German’ a decade or so earlier in 858, who had led an army into West Francia on the grounds that Charles was unfit to be king. Such an accusation could obviously be made against Lothar, thanks to the divorce ‘scandal’ which Lothar himself had initiated. And Uncle Charles was undoubtedly ambitious. The key factor was whether Lothar’s kingdom was divided. Would elements of Lothar’s followers welcome a new ruler, as elements of Charles’s followers had welcomed Louis the German in 858? This question explains the bishops’ insistence on their unity in the letter.
Of course we should be wary of taking this letter at face value. To begin with, the letter is not signed, so we do not know how many bishops were really standing behind Lothar. In fact, we do not even know that the letter was actually sent. It survives as part of the letter collection of Bishop Adventius of Metz, who might have been the text’s author; but we do not know whether the draft was discussed, let alone agreed and dispatched.
Yet it suggests that (at least one of) Lothar’s bishops in the 860s – the letter sadly cannot be precisely dated – were becoming anxious not about the indeterminate future, but about the political present. The rapidity with which Charles the Bald invaded Lothar’s kingdom on his nephew’s death in 869 has led some historians to wonder whether Charles had not pre-arranged a military assault, suggesting that the letter’s fears were not groundless.
One of the things that attracts me to studying (and teaching) Lothar and Theutberga’s divorce case is how much it has to tell us about the political order constructed by the Carolingian rulers, as it continued to evolve after the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The Carolingian dynasty’s grip on power was unchallenged in the 860s, but paradoxically that could be a problem for individual kings. If any Carolingian king would do, and yours was struggling, why not trade up for a better one? And if that was the way the wind was blowing, might it not be better to change tack early? One suspects that this prospect brought sleepness nights for Lothar, wriggling like a fish on the line he’d cast.
 On the letter collection, see Charles West, ‘Knowledge of the past and the judgement of history in tenth-century Trier: Regino of Prüm and the lost manuscript of Bishop Adventius of Metz’, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/emed.12138
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.
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.
Looking back from the twenty-first century, we naturally tend to arrange the past into different sections. The historians who work on late ninth-century Carolingian Francia, for instance, find themselves in a different field from those who work on the seventh-century Roman Empire. And understandably so, since the political and cultural set-up of these societies were quite distinct.
Often, however, medieval texts moved across time and space in ways that challenge these subdivisions, layering different histories upon one another. A good example is a work in Greek about the imperial trial in 655 of the firebrand monk Maximus the Confessor. This text, known as the Relatio Motionis, was written by sympathisers of Maximus, and it has some remarkably clear and unequivocal statements about the secular status of the emperor.
For instance, it records that Maximus was challenged with the question ‘Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?’. To this Maximus calmly explained that the answer was: ‘No, he is not. For he does not stand by the altar, nor does he lift up the bread after it has been sanctified, saying Holy of Holies. He does not baptize, nor does he create the chrism, nor does he make bishops or priests or deacons, nor anoint churches, nor does he carry the signs of priesthood, that is the pallium and the Gospels, although he does wear the signs of empire, the crown and the purple.’ So much for Caesaropapism.
Now, the Relatio Motionis is usually read as evidence for debates in seventh-century Byzantium, which it surely is. Yet the Greek account of Maximus’s trial was also translated into Latin in ninth-century Rome by a well-known cleric named Anastasius the Librarian. Moreover, the only surviving manuscript of this translation – Paris BnF. Lat. 5095 – was made not in Rome, but in ninth-century Francia.
This manuscript has usually been evaluated as useful evidence firstly for reconstructing Maximus’s original statements and secondly for understanding Anastasius’s translation campaign, but as always in medieval history, it’s worth looking at manuscripts and not just through them. In a recent article, I’ve argued that Paris 5095 was copied at the behest of Bishop Hincmar of Laon, who was interested in Maximus’s persecution by rulers, and how he handled it. Hincmar had been deposed as bishop by King Charles the Bald in 871, but did not gracefully accept his new circumstances and settle into retirement. Instead he fought against his deposition, accusing Charles the Bald of having acted tyrannically. I argued that the Paris 5095 manuscript, including the trial of Maximus the Confessor, was part of the bishop’s efforts to stage a come-back, which resulted in qualified success in 878.
In other words, a Latin translation made in Rome of a Greek text was being read with great interest in Francia in the 870s, as part of debates over the nature of Carolingian kingship and its relation to the church. To what extent can and should we therefore read the Latin Maximus as a Carolingian text, as well as a Roman and indeed Byzantine one?
For a fuller version of this argument (with references to further reading), see C. West, ‘”And how, if you are a Christian, can you hate the emperor?” Reading a Seventh-Century Scandal in Carolingian Francia’, in Karina Kellermann, Alheydis Plassmann and Christian Schwermann, eds., Criticising the Ruler in pre-modern societies – possibilities, chances and methods (Bonn, 2019), 411-430: open access version https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:27953/
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.
Or: King Lothar’s divorce & 5,000 people in a field
How far was there a public sphere, an arena of public debate and opinion, in early medieval European kingdoms? It’s often been assumed that there wasn’t, whether because of the pervasion of ‘lordship’ which suppressed notions of the public, or because of presumed limitations to communication (for instance, low literacy rates). But recent work, for instance by Mayke de Jong and Irene van Renswoude, has suggested that we shouldn’t prejudge the question. And this blog’s about a somewhat neglected text relating to the turbid politics of Lothar II’s divorce case which points in the same direction.
By the autumn of 862, King Lothar II had been struggling to escape his marriage to Theutberga for several years. But recent events had seemed to be going his way. In April, he had successfully persuaded his bishops to allow him to remarry at a council in Aachen. And at some point over the next few weeks he had Waldrada crowned as his queen. There were however two remaining obstacles. One was to secure the approval of the pope, Nicholas, to Theutberga’s removal; the other was to win over Lothar’s neighbour and uncle, King Charles the Bald of West Francia. Charles was refusing even to meet Lothar, so Lothar’s other uncle, King Louis the German of East Francia, lent his help. In the summer of 862 Louis sent envoys to Charles on Lothar’s behalf, to arrange a meeting where everything could all be ironed out.
That meeting took place at Savonnières, a royal estate near Toul in Lothar’s kingdom, in early November 862. However, Charles the Bald arrived with the intention not of letting bygones be bygones, but with the plan of turning the heat up on his nephew’s predicament. For he came armed with a written list of his grievances against Lothar. Specifically, he emphasised his concern that Lothar was sheltering people who had been excommunicated by the pope (a woman named Engeltrude who had fled her husband, and a man named Baldwin who had eloped with Charles’s own daughter); and he emphasised his opposition to Lothar’s attempts at divorce and remarriage given what Charles knew of the pope’s position. He would only meet Lothar, and give him the kiss of peace, if Lothar would publicly commit to remedying, or ‘emending’, these matters. These demands led to ‘quite a battle of words’ (non mediocri querela inde sermonibus est conflictum), according to the Annals of St Bertin.
But Charles did not stop there. Remarkably, he also brought with him to Savonnières pre-drafted speeches (adnuntationes) for delivery by himself, Lothar and Louis. These speeches were all modelled on a common pattern: each king promised to uphold the general commitments they had entered into at a previous royal meeting at Koblenz in 860, and noted that Charles had demanded of Lothar action on certain unspecified issues, to which Lothar had agreed.
But Charles’s plan hit a snag. For in some of the manuscripts in which Charles’s list of grievances and the speeches are preserved, an addendum notes that
After these preceding declarations had been read out in front of all the almost 200 counsellors of the three kings who were present, including bishops and abbots and laymen, Louis and Lothar and their followers entirely rejected them, that they should not be read to the people [populus], so that the case of Lothar should be entirely unmentioned.
In other words, Charles’s carefully pre-prepared speeches were never actually read out.
In the Annals of St-Bertin, Hincmar of Reims, who was present at Savonnières (and who was involved in writing up Charles’s documents) sheds a little more light on the incident. He blamed one of the aristocratic counsellors, Conrad, who was trying ‘to prevent the people from finding out what accusation Charles was making against Lothar’. In fact none of the speeches explicitly mentioned what the accusation was; but they did mention that there was an accusation, and perhaps that would have been enough to provoke further interest.
Who were ‘the people’ whose opinion evidently mattered enough to spike the speeches? It was not the 200 counsellors, who had already heard the draft speeches in the hall. But of course these counsellors would not have travelled to Savonnières alone. Michael McCormick reckoned that each of these aristocrats would have had a group of retainers and followers of their own, and estimated the total numbers at Savonnieres as around 5,000. What Charles had in mind was surely for the kings to deliver their speeches to a crowd of these people (presumably outside, since the hall at Savonnières would have been too small for so many people), much as had taken place at Koblenz in 860.
Louis and Lothar’s position was clearly that the matter of Lothar’s marriage was now resolved, and everyone could move on. Charles, however had no intention of letting Lothar get away with it, and had hoped to use his speeches to ensure that it remained publicly marked as a live issue. Was this in the hope of making gains at Lothar’s expense, or out of concern for not being sucked into the maelstrom? Either way, when his proposed speeches were blocked for fear of their effect on the populus, Charles gave his own short address that very evening, inside the hall to a group of counsellors – and had it written down, too.
In the end, the Savonnières meeting was a mixed success for everyone. Lothar got the kiss of peace from Charles, and avoided having the assembled transalpine Frankish aristocracy publicly reminded of his sins; Charles at least made sure his version of events was written down, which emphasised the conditionality of his friendship. King Charles was a tough negotiator, but thanks to Uncle Louis’s support Lothar II was making some headway. As Lothar would discover, the pope was going to prove a rather harder challenge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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’.
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’.
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
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.
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.
In the year 862, King Lothar II appeared before a group of bishops gathered in Aachen, in a state of high anxiety. Barefoot, and with quavering voice, the king asked for mercy, forgiveness – and a new wife. A previous council in 860 had separated him from Queen Theutberga. But it had not given permission for him to remarry, and Lothar declared this put him in an unbearable position. He was not permitted to take a concubine, but nor, he stated, was he ‘able to bear the ardour of his youth without conjugal union’.
The king’s speech can be read as a remarkably bold act of passive-aggression. By publicly emphasising the king’s human frailty, it compelled the king’s bishops, for reasons of pastoral care, to accede to his demand. As they observed, ‘we are not able to forbid him from marrying a wife and procreating children, lest he slip into worse things’.
Lothar hoped that a public display of royal weakness could be turned into royal strength – a king acting the part of the humble and penitent Christian, setting a moral example for his subjects. It’d worked for Emperor Louis the Pious in 822, after all. And at first sight, it worked again in 862. The bishops agreed that Lothar II could remarry, and his ‘concubine’ Waldrada was soon after formally accepted as his wife.
But the plans soon began to fall apart. To win over sceptics, Lothar was forced to hold yet another council in 863, where in a dramatic and rather unconvincing twist, he revealed that ‘actually’ he had been married to Waldrada all along. And even in 862, his court was so divided that the bishops could not agree on a single version of the Aachen meeting (something I’ve discussed at greater length elsewhere). No wonder that Pope Nicholas I was able to make Lothar yield.
And so in 865, Lothar was obliged to receive back his ex-wife, Theutberga, with all due ceremony. 862 may have been a sham humiliation, but it laid the foundations for 865, which was a very real one.
Here’s a translation of the three main documents from the Council of Aachen 862 – a glimpse of a desperately inventive early medieval royal court.
Since at least the early tenth century, the failure of the Middle Kingdom – the kingdom of Lothar II, Lotharingia – has been tied to the failure of the Carolingian empire, whose wider history has almost always been dominated by the trope of decline: the inability of Charlemagne’s successors to measure up. That’s lent the kingdom’s eventual fate – divvied up by rival kings in 870 – an air of inevitability.
But for all that a combination of bad luck and poor judgement landed King Lothar II into a very deep hole in the 860s, we must beware the historian’s besetting vice of teleology. Dramatic reversals in fortune were par for the course in ninth-century politics. Lothar was admittedly in a pickle from 863 onwards thanks to his marital problems, but had it been his uncle King Charles the Bald who’d succumbed to unexpected illness in 869, events would have taken a rather different turn. And this blog is about some evidence that, up to his death, Lothar’s embattled kingdom seemed to remain in working order.
Like other Carolingian kingdoms, Lothar II’s had been afflicted by Viking raids, though the absence of a Lotharingian equivalent of the Annals of St Bertin or Annals of Fulda mean that we’re generally less informed about them. Viking raids could be dangerous and destabilising, but they also offered rulers a chance to demonstrate their martial vigour against an unproblematically ‘othered’ enemy. The Franks had mixed feelings about “civil” war – i.e. killing other Franks – but fighting Vikings was a different matter.
That’s demonstrated by a letter that chances to survive from Bishop Adventius of Metz, one of King Lothar’s most important supporters, and which probably dates from the year 867. In it, Bishop Adventius gives notice that the ‘whole people’ in his diocese is to undertake a three-day fast to beseech God for Lothar’s victory in an upcoming confrontation with the Vikings (see translation below). This is, in a way, the staging for a holy war.
Without doubt there were genuine religious motives at work here. But Lothar II’s kingdom was under enormous external pressure, which had not been relieved by Lothar’s decision under compulsion to readmit Theutberga as his wife in 865. So the opportunity to bring everyone together in a set of religious ceremonies against a common enemy would have been a welcome fillip to the king and his supporters. Here everyone could see the God-given, traditional order being rehearsed by the Carolingian military-religious complex: bishops praying for kings to triumph in war, with the common people (vulgaris populus) doing as they were told by their local priests.
In 867, Lothar II could, then, still present himself as a traditional king doing traditional kingly things, despite all the problems he and his supporters were facing. Ironically, though, hewing to tradition was actually one of the causes of those problems, since his disastrous marriage politics can be read as an attempt to behave just as his predecessors had, without realising that the ground had moved beneath his feet. In the end, maybe Lothar II was just too traditional for his own good?
Much of what we know of early medieval high politics is based on texts written for public consumption: the final version of agreed charters, crafted formal records of meetings, or commemorative (or subtly critical) histories. It’s perhaps this slant of the evidence which has led some historians to emphasise the ritualised quality of those politics. Amidst the records of choreographed assemblies and ceremonies, the actual workings of political process are hard to discern: the surviving evidence appears all highly polished surface, with little indication of whirring cogs beneath.
But just occasionally a text survives, usually by the skin of its teeth, that seems to let us see (to mix metaphors) under the bonnet of the spluttering engine of Carolingian dynastic political manoeuvring. The text presented in this blog in translation for the first time, thanks to one of my former students, Hayley Harrison, is a good example.
It’s a letter sent in the summer of 862 by Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim (†874) to his king, Louis the German (of East Francia). Altfrid had travelled to West Francia on his king’s behalf, to conduct diplomatic negotiations with the king’s brother, King Charles the Bald (of West Francia). He wrote this letter to let King Louis know how things were going. Although Altfrid was from a Saxon family, he had probably been educated in West Francia (perhaps at Corbie), and already had some experience of acting as an envoy between Louis and his royal relatives, so he was a natural choice for this embassy. His predecessor as bishop of Hildesheim was moreover the exiled Ebbo of Reims, so we can assume that Altfrid was quite well informed about wider Frankish politics.
The letter doesn’t explain the specific purpose of Bishop Altfrid’s mission to King Charles, but we do know it touched on the affairs (so to speak) of King Lothar II, Louis and Charles’s nephew, who had just recently divorced his wife Theutberga at the Council of Aachen in April 862, and was now gearing up to marry Waldrada. Indeed this was probably the embassy’s main focus: Louis wanted to reconcile Lothar and Charles, and to help draw a line under his nephew’s recent political difficulties. That was not, however, how things turned out.
As the letter explains, Bishop Altfrid first travelled to Lotharingia, picking up envoys from the young Lothar, before they all proceeded to King Charles’s court, at his grandest ceremonial centre, Compiègne. There, as Altfrid reported to Louis, the two embassies met with very different receptions. To Altfrid, Charles was gracious and cordial; to Lothar’s envoys, he was conspicuously cold and peremptory. Lothar was a king mired in sin, and Charles would have no dealings with him until he mended his ways. Charles did want to talk about Lothar’s case – but with Louis, privately, and in Lothar’s absence.
As Stuart Airlie has argued (1), we see in Charles’s public behaviour a message as clear as the words that were spoken (or written, if as seems possible the ‘Capitulary of Savonnières’ represents an echo of this meeting, perhaps even the ‘other record’ the letter mentions). Until Lothar had resolved his marital problems, his followers and clients were not welcome in Charles’s kingdom. And a king who could not ensure his followers were treated with public respect was a king seriously failing in his responsibilities.
If Lothar II had not yet grasped that the Aachen Council of 862 would not simply extricate him from the crisis engendered by his attempted divorce, he ought to have begun to realise it now.
1: Stuart Airlie, ‘Unreal Kingdom: Francia Media under the shadow of Lothar II’. In: Gaillard, M., Margue, M., Dierkens, A. and Pettiau, H. (eds.) De la mer du Nord a la Mediterranee: Francia Media, une Region au Coeur de l’Europe (c.840-c.1050). Centre luxembourgeois de documentation et d’etudes medievales, pp. 339-356
A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)