‘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. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/emed.12183

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

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