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)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four × 1 =