Category Archives: teaching

A kingdom on a knife edge

The Treaty of Verdun of 843 is (or used to be) famous, as the moment when the Frankish empire of Charlemagne was divided amongst his heirs. It can be argued that this division can still be traced in modern European political borders.

But at the time, the treaty was seen as no more than provisional.  And one of the most spectacular attempts to reverse it was the invasion of western Francia by the eastern Frankish king, Louis ‘the German’, in 858. In the end the western king, Charles ‘the Bald’, managed to hold on to power – but it appears to have been a close-run thing, and in the winter of 858 the whole political framework of the Frankish world teetered in the balance.

One of the reasons Charles clung on was that his northern Frankish bishops did not desert him (though  Archbishop Wenilo of Sens made a different decision). Instead, the northern bishops met at the royal palace of Quierzy from where they sent a remarkable and wide-ranging letter to the invader Louis, in which they offered him advice on what his priorities should be as a king. Managing royal lands, tackling the Vikings, supporting the church – all these ought to be higher up his agenda than taking over his own brother’s kingdom. Above all, he should be wary of listening too much to (secular) counsellors who might not have his best (spiritual) interests at heart.

Here’s a translation of this source as a pdf (it’s also available on the Hincmar translation website, since Archbishop Hincmar of Reims was  its leading author). It’s the first result of a regular collaborative Latin translation class with PhD students (Harry Mawdsley, Richard Gilbert, and Robert Heffron) at the Department of History here in Sheffield. We hope it’s useful.

Image: adapted from Wikipedia.

‘Our dearest wife and son’ – King Lothar II’s charters

One of the problems of studying the Frankish kingdom of Lotharingia  – the ‘lost’ kingdom between France and Germany – is that the main narrative sources for the time were written outside its borders: they are external perspectives, looking in. It is this that makes the charters issued by Emperor Lothar I and by his son King Lothar II (855-869) so important, as ‘internal’ evidence. A full book-length study of the former by Elina Screen is in hand; this short blogpost focuses on the latter, all available in a high-quality and open-access edition.

Only thirty-six charters  from Lothar II’s nearly fifteen-year reign survive (including a handful of originals).[1]. This isn’t an enormous number, either in absolute terms or compared to the 139 from his father’s admittedly larger kingdom. But the charters nevertheless provide a great deal of useful information, in this as in other early medieval contexts.[2]

For instance, we know that issuing a charter was a ceremonial act, by which a king demonstrated his authority.  Where it took place mattered, then, as the scene for the expression of royal power. Lothar II issued charters at sixteen different locations,  including palaces, monasteries and cities. His great grandfather’s palace of Aachen towers above all the others,  as the site for almost a third of the king’s charters. Plotting these locations on a map creates a view of Lothar’s kingdom defined not by its borders but by its centres of power – a king’s eye view of his kingdom, as it were (see the map above, showing how his kingdom spanned five modern countries).

Many charters also mention important political figures at the time, allowing us to reconstruct something of their careers. It’s striking that the first two of Lothar’s charters, both issued in 855, accord a prominent position to Hubert, the brother of Lothar’s first wife Theutberga. Hubert is described in the first of the two as an influential courtier (‘our beloved adviser Hubert’). Hubert then however disappears – only to crop up again in 868, but this time as a dead rebel whose property has been confiscated.

Another important figure at Lothar’s court was Archbishop Gunthar of Cologne. Although deposed by the pope in 863, Gunthar tried to cling on, and a document from 866 suggests that in that year Lothar II supported him. It states that Gunthar, though longer an archbishop, was now the gubernator et rector of the church – we might say ‘manager’ – and was making efforts to keep the Cologne clergy onside, with Lothar’s help.

But as so often with Lothar II, it’s his marriage that attracts the eye. Here’s an English translation (pdf) of one of the most evocative of his charters, granting property to a convent in Lyon and issued in the early summer of 863. This was just a few weeks after a council at Metz had confirmed, with the approval of papal legates, that he could be married to his mistress Waldrada. And sure enough, in this charter Waldrada is given a prominent place, as Lothar’s ‘dearest wife’; and their son Hugh gets a mention too. Issued on the occasion of Lothar’s successful acquisition of part of his deceased brother’s kingdom, and when all his marital problems seemed behind him, the charter may have marked the apogee of his reign.

Unfortunately, a few months later Pope Nicholas I stepped in to annul the Metz council,  and threatened Lothar with excommunication unless he returned to his wife Theutberga. Waldrada vanishes from the charters. She reappears only in early 869, as ‘our beloved’ (without any reference though to her marital status). At that point, Lothar probably hoped that the new pope Hadrian, who had succeeded to the intransigeant Nicholas, might be more open to negotiation. But fate decided otherwise, since Lothar himself died, still a young man, just a few months later. The 863 charter survives, then, as a poignant reminder of what might have been, for Lothar, Waldrada, Hugh – and indeed for European history more broadly.

[1] Two of these originals can be viewed online at the Marburg Lichtbildarchiv website, Zugangsnummern 4743 and 11400.

[2] See for instance the database of Charlemagne’s charters (including ‘private’ as well as royal documents):

In Praise of Gobbets

As the teaching year begins, one of the routine tasks historians in many UK institutions face is explaining to puzzled students (and sometimes new colleagues too) what we mean by “gobbets”.

This is a venerable and (I suspect) distinctly British form of examination in which students are provided with a series of text extracts or images, and expected to write something about them in a short period of time: typically, 20 minutes for each extract (or ‘gobbet’). They are sometimes labelled old-fashioned – but in fact they’re ideally suited to the 21st-century classroom.

As an example, here’s a gobbet that we’ll be studying in my class:

“The holy Roman Church, as the mother and teacher, nurse and instructress of all churches, is to be consulted about all doubtful and obscure things which concern the continuity of the right faith or the dogmas of piety, and her healthful admonitions are to be kept”.
– Hincmar of Rheims, De Divortio, 860

How might one ‘respond’ to or comment on this gobbet? Well, a good response might:

  • observe that this, the opening line of the treatise by Hincmar of Reims, suggests the pope should be consulted: this signals Hincmar’s cautious fence-sitting, for fear of being proved wrong at this early stage of the controversy over King Lothar II’s marriage;
  • pick up on the ‘doubtful and obscure things’, an issue that lay at the heart of the treatise and the divorce scandal as a whole;
  • connect this passage to Hincmar’s often fraught relation with the papacy, noting how in this passage he framed papal authority as primarily pedagogical (and that in practice he recommended holding a general council rather than going straight to the pope);
  • and could finish by noting that the Roman church indeed did end up being consulted in the case, and that Pope Nicholas made great efforts to ensure that his ‘healthful admonitions’ were kept.

These are just the comments that spring to my mind as I write this blog: quite certainly other interesting things could be said about the content, context and significance of this short passage.

You’ll notice that these comments are all quite specific, and probably won’t make much sense unless you already know quite a lot about the history of Lothar II’s divorce (as all right-thinking people should). That’s because the strength of the gobbet examination is that it blends assessing precise historical knowledge of the sources with interpretative creativity. You can’t bluff your way through them; but it’s not a test of how much you know, it’s a test of how you use that knowledge to make a point based on exactly what’s in front of you. If your commentary could apply to *any* extract from the text in question, then it’s probably too generic. Good responses tend to pick on the precise wording of the extract to make observations grounded in a wider knowledge; the best can surprise and enlighten even the person who chose the extract in the first place.

According to legend, gobbets go back to Victorian period civil service exams: that may be so, but they seem to be coming back into fashion. In some ways that’s not surprising. After all, the contemporary world is all about “discontinuous reading”, it’s all about the fast-paced analysis of screenfuls of text. If the gobbet examination didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.

And if gobbets are in this way surprisingly “aligned” with the wider world, they’re also neatly aligned with history as it’s practised today: rigorous but imaginative source analysis is after all at the heart of all historical writing worth its salt. No wonder gobbets are a jewel in the crown of final year examinations, alongside other assessment forms such as dissertations: they’re an excellent means of simultaneously assessing – and promoting – both knowledge of a broad range of historical sources and a methodological sophistication in historical interpretation, all with reference to the particular as well as the general. And isn’t all that still at the heart of what historians actually do?

Update Feb 2018: Jonathan Healey  has pointed out on Twitter that as part of a court case, there is now a judicial discussion of a gobbet paper, with the priceless opening observation that ‘The word “gobbet” does not generally evoke a pleasant picture or a comfortable feeling’. I suspect many students would whole-heartedly agree.