Category Archives: kingship

“Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?”

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

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)

‘Quite a battle of words ensued’ – struggles for public opinion in Carolingian Francia

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

English translation of the ‘Capitulary of Savonnières’ (pdf)

[1] E.g.

[2] McCormick, Origins of the European economy, p. 665.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not at all able to endure without any conjugal union” – king Lothar II and the Council of aachen 862

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.


The Carolingian military-religious complex & the fate of the Middle Kingdom

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?

Translation of Adventius’s letter about the Vikings (pdf) 

Image – oh just some manuscript or other (w. thanks to Anna Dorofeeva)

Bishop Altfrid’s Report, summer 862

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.

Translation of Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim’s letter (pdf)

Image: Nordrhein-Westfalen Landesarchiv in Münster, Kindlingersche Sammlung vol. 40, fol. 210v-211r

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

Carolingian queens – coronation ordines

“Curiously, the earliest documented [coronation ordo] is for a queen, Judith in 856” – Jinty Nelson.

The coronation ritual by which the Frankish princess Judith was initiated into her marriage with the West Saxon king Aethelwulf has often been studied by historians of queenship and Anglo-Frankish contacts and connections. It has not however been translated into English before, as far as I know.  This blog is therefore to make available my own draft translation of this important text, on the day of a modern royal wedding to boot. It’s rather rough and ready (& not polished enough for formal publication), so comments are welcome.

To provide some context, I’ve also translated a slightly later coronation ritual for another Frankish queen, Ermentrude. This ceremony,  which took place in 866, did not mark the beginning of Ermentrude’s marriage to Charles the Bald – they had been married since 842, and in fact Judith was one of their children. The liturgy is preceded by a short text which offers an explanation as to why Charles (and Ermentrude?) arranged the event, decades into their married life. Further research on this by Zubin Mistry is forthcoming in the journal Early Medieval Europe.

Medieval coronation orders are strange sources. Composed largely of prayers, interspersed with citations from and references to the Bible, they can seem difficult to make much of (and to translate into English,  too). However, these two rituals were written for specific occasions, and it may be possible to detect traces of how they were tailored to those occasions. They were also written by the same person – Archbishop Hincmar of Reims.  That makes a comparison even more telling: how did Hincmar adjust and adapt his material, according to the political and theological imperatives of the moment?

One final point. It’s often assumed that marriages such as these were political affairs, not affairs of the heart. Perhaps. But Hincmar at least hoped that one wouldn’t exclude the other, since alongside praying for eternal life, freedom from ‘the stain of adultery’ and plenty of offspring, he also hoped Ermentrude and Charles would persevere amore coniugali sincero: ‘in sincere conjugal love’. Unfortunately, Charles’s efficiency in negotiating a remarriage to a woman named Richildis merely days after Ermentrude’s death in 869 suggests this prayer may not have been fully answered.

Translation of the Judith and Ermentrude consecration ordines (pdf)

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.