Lost for words – King Lothar II’s “most beloved Theutberga”

All historians, I think, are attracted to the gaps in the archive – the silences, the absences, the things that aren’t there. For historians of early medieval Europe, it can sometimes feel like there’s more gap than record, though really this isn’t such a poorly documented time and place, especially Carolingian Francia. But it’s the inconspicuous absence, not the glaring one, that’s often the most telling: and here’s a case in point.

On 17th January 866, King Lothar II granted his wife Queen Theutberga twenty estates in Francia, in a charter issued at the royal palace of Aachen. For kings to transfer lands to queens was not unusual. But such transfers normally took place at the beginning of a marriage, as a dowry, not as in this case eleven years later.

That’s not however the only remarkable thing about this charter. What’s also odd is how it describes Theutberga – or rather, how it doesn’t. She is described as dilectissima nostra, ‘our most beloved’. But ‘our most beloved’ … what? The adjective dilectissimus is quite common in royal charters from the ninth century, but it’s usually applied to a noun – our most beloved sister, son, wife, daughter, etc.

As all readers of De Divortio will know, though, in 866 Lothar was still grimly struggling to separate from Theutberga, and this charter has been interpreted as a pay-off or compensation in exchange for separation. In that context, he could hardly call her his ‘wife’ – that would be an awkward acknowledgement of a status that he was insistently denying. To call her his ex-wife would however have been politically risky – he wasn’t quite there yet. Better perhaps just not to say anything at all.

In a later charter, Lothar apparently applied similar discretion to Waldrada, his mistress, who is described as ‘our beloved’ with no further qualification – though in this case we cannot be entirely sure, because the key passage was later tampered with, when someone changed Waldrada’s name to ‘Rotrude’.

But Lothar’s grant to Theutberga has not been tampered with, and  survives in its pristine original. And that allows us to see something rather peculiar – something that it’s tempting to ascribe to scribal hesitation in the face of this unusual phrasing.

Though it’s not marked up in the standard edition, Dupraz noted that there was a significant gap after Theutberga’s name.[1] And on inspecting a facsimile, he’s right. There’s in fact a clear gap in both occurrences of the phrase “Theotbergae dilectissimae […] nostrae” in the charter. The first, at line 3, is this blog’s cover image. The second, at line 7, is visible here:

The intact ascender of the L reaching up from the line underneath shows this gap isn’t an erasure. But if the gap isn’t an erasure, what is it?

Dupraz suggested it was to enable a suitable noun to be added later, but I’m not sure the space is quite long enough for that. Rather, the little gap seems to express the uncertainties of Lothar and Theutberga’s circumstances, years into their tragic relationship breakdown. A moment when the scribe stopped, paused and moved on?

Image: Lothar II, D. 27. Original charter in Parma (why it’s there is a topic for another blog – as is why the charter was re-issued in 868, with similar gaps…)

*Updated 10 August 2018 in light of comments from Clemens Radl and Levi Roach (thanks to both).*

[1] Louis Dupraz, ‘Deux préceptes de Lothaire II (867 et 868) : ou les vestiges diplomatiques d’un divorce manqué’, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Kirchengeschichte 59 (1965), pp. 193-256.

Further reading. The charters are briefly discussed in Heidecker, Divorce of Lothar, p. 171, with n. 93. You can see full facsimiles in Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, vol. 93. For helpful context, see Roberta Cimino, ‘Royal women and gendered communication – Female voices in Carolingian diplomas’, L’homme 26 (2015).

Fresh heresy in 11th-c. Lotharingia?

In 2016, the MGH published Benedikt Marxreiter’s edition and German translation* of a hitherto unknown text – a work on demonic magic by an eleventh-century monk, Bern of Reichenau.

As well as Bern’s treatise, De nigromantia, there also survive two cover letters, which accompanied copies of the work that he sent to people, which are also included in Marxreiter’s edition. One of these letters was addressed to Archbishop Poppo of Trier (d. 1047). Here’s a quick draft translation of a key passage:

“Those people stir up foolish, useless and vain questions, who watch the movement of the stars because they think that every human is born under a constellation, who seek answers from demons, who demand divinations, who foster the magical art, and who destroy themselves. Following the Apostle Paul’s words, they ‘introduce sects of perdition, and denying the Lord who bought them, they bring swift destruction on themselves’. We have heard that these people sprouted forth in Italy in the kingdom of Charles, emerged forth for their own ruin, came to Lotharingia and sowed the poisonous seeds of their lethal teaching, for the destruction of many. Your Authority [Poppo] resisted them according to the wisdom divinely given to you, argued against and contradicted them many times… And recently some news that was not good reached me, which reported that certain seedlings of error have again sprouted in Francia, which strive to contaminate the harvest of the catholic faith…”

What does Bern’s letter mean for students of 11th-century heresy – a long vexed historiographical field? On the one hand, it could represent new evidence for the existence and spread of heretics in post-1000 Europe, moving up from Italy into Lotharingia, and connected moreover with the well-known appearance of heretics in France around this time (e.g. the famous 1022 Orleans burnings).

On the other, it could simply show how what was changing was not the heretics but the church’s classification of people perceived as dissenters. Bern was after all a well-networked ‘reforming’ monk, closely connected with both Fleury and Gorze, and thus perhaps prone to see the devil’s work in any resistance to a programme of reform. His association of heresy with demonic magic and astrology certainly suggests that we are dealing with very thick layers of ecclesiastical interpretation. As Marxreiter points out, it certainly can’t be a coincidence that Archbishop Poppo had accused nuns in his diocese of magic, as a justification for dissolving the convent of Pfazel**.

Either way, it’s exciting to have a new piece of the heresy jigsaw to play with.

Image – Wikipedia

* Another edition and German translation came out less than a year later, by Niels Becker. I haven’t yet been able to consult this.

** There’s discussion and an English translation of this episode in Vanderputten, Dark Age Nunneries.

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.

The Norman Conquest – bibliographies

One of the consequences of the recent adjustment to the National Curriculum in England is the welcome return of the Norman Conquest to school classrooms. My teaching centres really on the Carolingians, but I’ve been running a course on 1066 for second-year undergraduate students at Sheffield since 2011 (with invaluable assistance from a couple of colleagues), and a few teachers have therefore been in touch for advice on what to read.

So I thought I’d make my course bibliographies available in case they’re of any use: one on primary sources (with recommended contextual reading for each major source) and one on secondary sources.

A couple of caveats:

  • these are bibliographies for an 11 week course, with a clear methodological focus on the sources for the Norman Conquest: its background, its course and its impact. That means lots of terrific work on late Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Anglo-Norman topics not directly relatable to the Conquest isn’t featured
  • they’re English-language only
  • they assume access to the University of Sheffield’s library (and its electronic resources)

If you spot any glaring omissions within the remit of the course’s focus on the Conquest, or have suggestions, please do let me know!

Norman Conquest Primary Sources Bibliography (pdf)

Norman Conquest Secondary Sources Bibliography 2017-18 (pdf)

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 with images available online).[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. 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).

His great-grandfather’s palace of Aachen towers above all the others,  as the site for almost a third of Lothar II’s charters.  But the charters also show change in his rule: for instance, the grants he issued in and around Lyon mark Lothar’s takeover of most of the kingdom of his younger brother, Charles of Provence, in 863.

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 had 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.

King Lothar II’s charter for St Pierre-les-Nonnains

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. For the rest, see the amazing Abbildungsverzeichnis der europäischen Kaiser- und Königsurkunden‘s page for Lothar II.

[2] See for instance the database of Charlemagne’s charters (including ‘private’ as well as royal documents): http://www.charlemagneseurope.ac.uk/

Aachen, 1000, and the Legend of the Last Emperor

In the spring of the year 1000, excavations took place in the great church of Aachen, built by Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks, who had died nearly two centuries previously. The excavations had been commissioned by one of Charlemagne’s imperial successors, Emperor Otto III, with the aim of discovering Charlemagne’s final resting place.

Charlemagne's throne at Aachen
Charlemagne’s throne at Aachen

According to three separate accounts of what happened (on which see below), this early medieval Time Team dig was brilliantly successful, and the living emperor gazed upon the dead. But what none of the accounts quite spells out, and what therefore remains an open  question, is exactly what Otto III was hoping to achieve through his archaeological enquiries. Was it just idle curiosity about his distant predecessor – or was there some deeper motivation at work?

Emperor Otto III has long had a special reputation. The son of the Byzantine princess Theophanu, this half-Greek Holy Roman emperor took his role very seriously, despite or perhaps because of his youth. Contemporaries alleged that he preferred Italy, and especially the city of Rome, to his ancestral lands across the Alps.

The Ottonian empire (approx.) with places mentioned in this blog
The Ottonian empire (approx.) with places mentioned in this blog

For some modern historians, Otto was a dreamer, carried away by his impossible vision of reviving the Roman Empire in a very post-Roman world, and increasingly out of touch with fundamental political realities.

More recently, Otto III has been brought back to earth, as historians have asked whether he really was quite as ideologically driven (and unrealistic) as all that.[1] Maybe the ‘programme’ of Roman renovation that historians such as P.E. Schramm have attributed to him was not quite as coherent as they supposed.[2]

Yet that doesn’t explain what Otto thought he was doing in Aachen in the year 1000. One explanation is that the excavations were part of an attempt to canonise Charlemagne, in other words to have the old emperor recognised as a saint. But there is another intriguing possibility: that Otto was motivated by the legend of the Last Emperor.[3]

The roots of this legend were older even than Charlemagne himself – they lie in the horrified reaction of Syrian Christians to the rise of Islam, and the dramatic near-collapse of the Byzantine Empire, in the seventh century. These events were so bewildering that they only made sense in an eschatological framework – as a step towards the inevitable ending of the world. So, around 692, an author claiming to be a fourth-century bishop named Methodius wrote a ‘prediction’ that the sons of Ishmael would take over the world, and impose unbearable tax demands. But ‘Methodius’ added a note of reassurance: the king of the Romans would return in the end, driving out the intruders and bringing peace and justice – until the Antichrist appeared, at which point the Apocalypse would unfold according to God’s plan.

And after these things the king of the Romans will come down and he will dwell in Jerusalem for a week and a half of years, which is ten and a half years, and when ten and a half years are completed, the son of perdition will appear.

This text, known as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, helped overturn centuries of suspicion about the Empire’s role in world history. It influenced many other texts, such as the Tiburtine Sibyl – another work of pseudo-prophecy which survives only in an eleventh-century version.[4] Early Christians had been reluctant to attribute any positive eschatological role to Roman emperors, understandably enough given the history of persecutions. Now, emperors and empire could play a full, active and positive role in world history: imperial time could be folded into Christian time.

The extent to which the year 1000 represented a high point of apocalyptic tension – a thousand years after Christ’s birth – has been debated for years, as has the extent to which Otto would have been personally affected by such concerns.[5] But several contemporary sources – for instance Otto’s own imperial diplomas, as well as hagiographical accounts – do imply that he had eschatological thoughts in his mind in that year, as Levi Roach has recently argued.[6] Did Otto III think Charlemagne was the Last Emperor? Did he think *he* was the last emperor?

Here are the three eleventh-century texts describing Otto’s Indiana Jones-style search for the lost emperor in Aachen, so you can make up your own mind about what Otto was doing (all the translations are mine). They were written by authors from different parts of early medieval Europe, namely a Saxon bishop and two monks – one from northern Italy, and another from southern France.

The Italian monk: the Chronicle of Novalesa.[7]

The Chronicle of Novalesa
The Chronicle of Novalesa

Book III, Chapter 32.
After many years had passed, Emperor Otto III came to the region where the remains of Charlemagne rested in his tomb. Otto travelled to the site of the tomb itself, with two bishops and Count Otto of Lomello. The emperor himself was the fourth person. The count used to tell what happened, saying ‘We entered to see Charlemagne. He was not lying down, as is normal for the corpses of the deceased, but was sitting on a kind of throne as if alive, crowned with a golden crown, carrying a sceptre in his gloved hands, through which his fingernails had broken. There was above him a small building (tugurium), carefully built from limestone and marble. When we came to this, we knocked a hole through it. And when we had passed through the hole, we smelled a very strong odour. We at once venerated him on our knees, and Otto immediately dressed him in white garments, cut his fingernails, and made good all that was lacking around him. Nothing had decayed from his limbs, but there was a little missing from the tip of his nose. Otto at once replaced it with gold. He took one tooth from Charlemagne’s mouth, rebuilt the building, and left.’

The French monk: Ademar of Chabannes’ Chronicle.[8]

Ademar's Chronicle
Ademar’s Chronicle

Book III ch. 31

At this time, Emperor Otto was warned in a dream to raise up the body of the Emperor Charlemagne. He was buried at Aachen, but because of the oblivion of passing time, no one knew exactly the spot he was buried. After fasting for three days,  they found him at the precise spot the emperor had seen in his vision, sat on a golden throne in a vaulted crypt underneath the church of St Mary, crowned with a crown of gold and precious jewels, holding a sceptre and a sword of pure gold; as for the body itself, it was found to be uncorrupted. He was raised up and shown to the people. Then, one of the canons of that place, Adalbert, who was very big and tall, put on the crown of Charlemagne,  as if to try it for size. It was apparent that his skull was narrower than the emperor’s, and that the dimension of the crown exceeded that of his head. He measured his leg against the emperor, finding himself to be smaller – and at once by the effect of divine power his leg was broken. He survived for forty years, but always remained crippled. The body of Charlemagne was placed in the right transept of the church, behind the altar of John the baptist. A great gilded vault was built there, and the remains began to shine out with signs and miracles. But they are not the object of any liturgical cult (sollemnitas), apart from that of the anniversary of the dead, as is the normal custom. Emperor Otto sent Charlemagne’s golden throne to King Boleslav in exchange for relics of Saint Adalbert.

The Saxon bishop Thietmar of Merseburg’s Chronicle.[9]

Thietmar's Chronicle
Thietmar’s Chronicle

Book IV, chapter 47

The emperor [Otto III] wanted to renew in his time the ancient customs of the Romans, then for the most part destroyed, and so he did many things, about which different people had different opinions. He sat alone at a table made into a semicircle, at a higher place than the others. As Emperor Otto III was unsure about the location of the bones of Emperor Charles, he secretly had the pavement ripped up where he thought they were and ordered excavations, until they were discovered on the royal throne (solium). He took the gold cross which hung around the emperor’s neck and part of his clothing, which remained uncorrupted, and he replaced the rest with great veneration.

Image credits:

References
* This blog was written primarily for undergraduate teaching purposes, and hence only refers to English-language material.

[1] See the recent biography by G. Althoff, Otto III (University Park, Penn., 2004).

[2] D. Warner, ‘Ideals and action in the reign of Otto III’, Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999), 1-18.

[3] For a wider discussion, see M. Gabriele, ‘Otto III, Charlemagne, and Pentecost A.D. 1000: A Reconsideration Using Diplomatic Evidence’, in The Year 1000: Religious and Social Response to the Turning of the First Millennium, ed. Michael Frassetto (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 111–32.

[4] Convincingly argued by C. Bonura, ‘When Did the Legend of the Last Emperor Originate? A New Look at the Textual Relationship between the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the Tiburtine Sibyl’, Viator 47, 3 (2016), 47-100.

[5] See J. Palmer, The Apocalypse in the early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2014), as well as the useful accompanying website https://medapocalypse.wordpress.com/

[6] L. Roach, ‘Emperor Otto III and the End of Time’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Ser. 6, 23 (2013), 75-102.

[7] Latin text. This is my own translation; cf. however a complete English translation, new edition and extensive commentary of the chronicle by Elizabeth Clark in her 2017 PhD thesis (pdf).

[8] Latin edition: P. Bourgain with R. Landes and G. Pon, ed., Ademari Cabannensis Chronicon (Turnhout, 1999). French translation: Y. Chauvin and G. Pon, trans., Chronique: Adémar de Chabannes (Turnhout, 2003). There is no complete English translation of the text.

[9] Latin edition: R. Holtzmann, ed., Die Chronik des Bischofs Thietmar von Merseburg und ihre Korveier Überarbeitung. Thietmari Merseburgensis episcopi chronicon (Berlin, 1935). Full English translation: D. Warner, tr., Ottonian Germany: the chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg (Manchester, 2001).

Religious Exemption in pre-Modern Eurasia – special issue

I’m very pleased to announce the publication just a couple of days ago of a special issue in the journal Medieval Worlds, on the theme of religious exemption in Eurasia c. 300 to 1300.  The special issue is based on a conference I organised here in Sheffield in 2016, together with some specially commissioned articles to round it out.  All the articles are open access: I’ve copied in the links below for convenience (each opens a pdf file).

Untitled

(some of the) places mentioned in the special issue.

  1. Charles West (Sheffield) Introduction
  2. R. I. Moore (Newcastle) Treasures in Heaven: Defining the Eurasian Old Regime
  3. Kanad Sinha (Delhi) Envisioning a No-Man’s Land: Hermitage as a Site of Exemption in Ancient and Early Medieval Indian Literature
  4. Mario Poceski (Florida) The Evolving Relationship between the Buddhist Monastic Order and the Imperial States of Medieval China
  5. Kriston Rennie (Queensland) The Normative Character of Monastic Exemption in the early medieval Latin West
  6. Anne Duggan (KCL) Clerical exemption in the learned law from Gratian to the Decretals
  7. Ulrich Pagel (SOAS) Nothing to Declare: Status, Power and Religious Aspiration in the Policies of Taxation in Ancient India
  8. Antonello Palumbo (SOAS) Exemption not granted: the confrontation between Buddhism and the Chinese state in Late Antiquity and the ‘First Great Divergence’ between China and Western Eurasia
  9. Dominic Goodall (Pondicherry) and Andrew Wareham (Roehampton) The political significance of gifts of power in the Khmer and Mercian kingdoms 793-926
  10. Uriel Simonsohn (Haifa) Conversion, Manipulation, and Legal Exemption: A Few Case Studies from the Early Islamic Period
  11. Thomas Kohl (Tübingen) Religious exemption, justice, and territories around the year 1000: the forgeries of Worms
  12. Rutger Kramer (Vienna) The Exemption that Proves the Rule: Autonomy and Authority between Alcuin, Theodulf and Charlemagne (802)
  13. Judith Green (Edinburgh) From Symbiosis to Separate Spheres? England, 1163
  14. Julia McClure (Glasgow) Religious exemption and global history before 1300: concluding comments

 

“In the time of the Greeks”: the Rizana Dispute and the Carolingian & Byzantine Empires

What was the difference between the Carolingian Empire formally established by Charlemagne through his coronation in Rome in the year 800, and the Byzantine Empire centred around Constantinople (modern Istanbul)?

The ideological and cultural aspects of this enormous question have been abundantly studied for these two heirs of the ancient Roman Empire, but the issue is perhaps less clearly understood when it comes to the exercise of power. Historians have plenty of sources at their disposal for both these political units, but these sources are culturally embedded in such a way as to make direct comparison difficult, especially when it comes to thinking about how power worked at an everyday level, and how rulers controlled their territories.

There is however one source that not just allows but encourages us to think comparatively about how these two empires actually worked, and that is the Rižana Dispute (sometimes also known as the Plea of Rižana). You can read a full English translation, but here is a brief summary:

Around 804, Charlemagne sent three legates to Istria, a peninsula to the north-east of Italy, to resolve a dispute that had broken out there.

Rizana map

Istria was a region that had previously been under Byzantine control, but Charlemagne had conquered it in 788, and annexed it to the kingdom of Italy (which he had also conquered a few years earlier, in 774). This conquest had brought with it some changes in how Istria was governed: and it was to these changes that people in Istria were objecting in 804.

The source is a record of the meeting that Charlemagne’s legates arranged to sort things out at Rižana, an area now just outside the modern Slovenian town of Koper, a couple of kilometres from the Italian border. The legates summoned 172 leaders from cities and fortified settlements in the Istrian region to hear what the issue was: and these people did not hold their punches.

First of all, the Istrian witnesses complained that since the Frankish conquest, the church had started to throw its weight around much more. They began by accusing the Patriarch of Grado, the most senior churchman of the area, of evading his financial responsibilities. Then they moved onto the other bishops, who they said had been dodging their obligations, evicting people from church lands wrongfully, and generally bullying the local free population.

But their real anger was reserved for Duke John, the main secular agent appointed by the Franks. John, they said, had appropriated the revenues meant for the imperial court for his own purposes, and had also taken over a great deal of property. And that was just the start of it! He’d abolished the traditional hierarchy of offices held by regional leaders, along with the cherished privileges that went with them; he’d demanded extra humiliating services, such as feeding his dogs and onerous long-distance transport duties; and he’d raised tax demands considerably. Getting direct access to the centre of power was much harder than it had been, the Istrian leaders claimed, under the Greeks.

What does this account tell us about the Carolingian and Byzantine empires? Both were obviously agrarian empires, getting their revenues from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Rights over grazing livestock were particularly important in this region. So in focusing their demands for revenue on these resources, to some extent the new rulers of Istria simply stepped into the shoes of the old.

But the differences are striking, too. Power in Carolingian Istria was organised and exercised in new ways. The Carolingian regime had apparently empowered bishops at the expense of what seems like the relics of a Roman-style city-based administration maintained by the Byzantines. The Carolingian administrative apparatus was also far less elaborate: instead of a series of grand-sounding titles and offices, each with their own administrative privileges, rituals and customs designed to boost egos, there was just the duke and his all-purposes “sheriffs” (centenarii), together with his own extended family. And, as already mentioned, the new emperor was harder to reach than the old one. To get to the court, and thus to reach Charlemagne’s attention, the Istrians had to go through mediators whom they didn’t altogether trust, whether it was a duke or a church patriarch.

The new Carolingian regime may seem therefore less sophisticated than the Byzantine administration had been. Yet despite our modern preconceptions, and as Matthew Innes has pointed out, that doesn’t mean that it was less effective at flexing its muscles.[1] In fact, judging from the complaints, it was actually more successful at extracting revenues from the region than the Byzantine rulers had been, even if not all of the proceeds ended up at the imperial centre any more.

And, as Stefan Esders has noted, the new regime was also just as literate.[2] The Rižana record itself demonstrates that, since it was probably the first time that the customs of the region had been written down, in this case under the auspices of the Patriarch of Grado (in some ways as much a representative of Frankish authority in Istria as Duke John).

So, a relatively unelaborated and informal apparatus of government posed no barrier to efficient and effective rule. Carolingian Istria seems to have been just as controlled, and just as exploited, as Byzantine Istria, even though (as Rachel Stone has also argued) the Carolingian Empire was organised very differently.

Can we securely draw sweeping conclusions about how power worked in two empires just on the basis of a single document? Of course not. Matters in Istria were complicated by its recent conquest. This was a frontier zone between two empires, so things may well have been very different elsewhere.  But the Rižana Dispute at least gives us a glimpse into how the Carolingian and Byzantine empires were ‘experienced’ differently by the same regional community – and that’s a precious insight of which we should make the most.

Further reading
For more discussion (in English) of the Rizana (sometimes also spelled Risano or Riziano) dispute, see

  • J. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge, 2015), esp.  pp. 102-4 and 274-277.
  • M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.

Image: the Rizana dispute charter (Wikipedia)

[1] M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.

[2] Stefan Esders, ‘Regionale Selbstbehauptung zwischen Byzanz und dem Frankenreich: Die inquisitio der Rechtsgewohnheiten Istriens durch die Sendboten Karls des Großen und Pippins von Italien’, in Eid und Wahrheitssuche. Studien zu rechtlichen Befragungspraktiken in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. S. Esders (Frankfurt, 1999), 49-112.

How to deal with a mentally ill bishop

A post by Rachel Stone

In the early 850s, the clergy and people of Nevers, a small city in central France, had a problem: their bishop, called Herimann, was behaving strangely. There were complaints of his “excesses” and the “persistence of his frivolity” (perseverantia levitatum). He had been frequently corrected for this behaviour and rebuked by other bishops “moderately and sharply” (modeste et acriter), but the problems had persisted.

But the unsuitable behaviour of this turbulent bishop was not solely due to Herimann’s character flaws. The first account we have, from the Council of Soissons in April 853, also reports that he had some “bodily trouble” and talks of his “infirmity”. Later reports describe him as having “lost the soundness of his understanding” (sensus integritate privatus) and “similar to the insane” (insano similis). How did the Carolingian church respond to a bishop with what sounds like serious mental health problems? And what can this case tell us about the role of bishops in the early Middle Ages?

The response of the Council of Soissons in the spring of 853 to the problem of Herimann was a pragmatic and temporary one, with the main responsibility falling on Herimann’s metropolitan, Archbishop Wenilo of Sens. He was to send a bishop to Nevers to administer the see; he was also to take Herimann back with him to Sens for the summer, a season which worsened Herimann’s condition (aestivum tempus, quod valde contrarium infirmitati illius ferebatur). After the summer, and once Herimann had, the council hoped, been “accustomed to suitable abstinence, instructed in episcopal gravity, informed about apostolic behaviour”, the clergy and people of Nevers could recall him to his see.

These measures appear to have worked: the Council of Verberie in August of the same year reported that Herimann had been restored to his see and it stressed that he had been removed only because of his illness and not because of any “faults of character or public sins”. Unfortunately, this recovery was not permanent: around five years later the problem recurred.

We have three sources for the second part of this episcopal drama. One is a letter from Lupus of Ferrières (presumably on behalf of Wenilo) to an unnamed pope, asking for permission to depose Herimann, who, “frequently admonished and long expected to grow well again, is not able to fulfil his office, his mind not being whole (mente non integra)”. The second is a letter from Pope Nicholas to Archbishop Wenilo, replying either to Lupus’ letter or a similar one. Finally, there is the fragment of a letter from Charles the Bald to Wenilo (Tessier no. 224) which announces that the royal ministers Liudo and Geilo will take over the administration of the diocese. By 862, the bishop of Nevers is recorded as being Liudo, probably the same person, which has normally been taken to imply that Herimann was dead by that point.

The dating of all these letters is uncertain, although Lupus’ letter is probably from 858 and the reply by Nicholas has thus been dated to 858-860. Nicholas’ reply cannot have been welcomed by Wenilo. After praise of Wenilo for respecting papal authority, Nicholas then goes on to criticise him for summoning Herimann to synods when he was ill. Nicholas also comments that he cannot judge about Herimann’s “excesses” in his absence and without more details about whether he was of sound mind when he committed them. He states that Herimann should be consoled and his infirmity sympathised with rather than punished, although Nicholas approves of Wenilo admonishing Herimann if this is done from true charity.

Nicholas, in other words, was probably trying to take over the judgement of the case himself in order to assert his papal authority. We have no further record of papal involvement, however, and the letter by Charles the Bald may suggest that Wenilo took a different route. Although Charles’ ordering of administrators to be sent to the diocese could be dated at any period between 853 and 860 (and Charles was present at the Council of Soissons in 853), it is tempting to see this letter as a response to Wenilo’s inability to depose Herimann, reflecting a desire to put on a permanent footing alternative administrative arrangements that had already been used intermittently before.

Disciplining or deposing a bishop in the ninth century was normally a contentious matter, and therefore most sources discussing such matters reflect conflicts within the episcopate. Here, however, is a case where there was relative consensus, where we can see councils and the king working together effectively to solve a difficult problem. What made Herimann’s case so difficult was not a bishop being too ill or infirm to carry out his episcopal duties. The Council of Meaux-Paris 845-846 had already issued a canon (c. 47) on the topic, which envisaged the bishop handing over his power of ordination to his archbishop and the administration of the diocese to suitable subordinates. The problem with Herimann, I would argue, is that the probable nature of his mental illness caused specific administrative problems.

Retrospective diagnosis of any illness is always speculative and is particularly difficult when we have so few details. But are there are some revealing features in the sources on Herimann. Firstly, there is no mention of any head trauma or other injury (which Carolingian authors were aware could cause mental health problems). Secondly, the illness was long-lasting, but intermittent: Herimann had recovered sufficiently by August 853 to be re-entrusted with his see. That argues against degenerative brain disorders. Thirdly, there was a seasonal effect, with additional problems for Herimann in the summer. There have been a number of studies showing such a pattern for mania and schizophrenia, but not for other mental illnesses.

I think that Herimann was more likely to have had bipolar disorder with manic episodes than schizophrenic symptoms. There is no mention of possession (which might be used to explain hallucinations), and Herimann is described only as “similar to the insane”, suggesting that he may not have been obviously delusional. Instead, we have references to “excesses” and “frivolity” and an implied lack of episcopal gravity. Charles the Bald refers to complaints from Nevers of the “insolence” shown by Herimann. This all fits well with manic symptoms of heightened energy, euphoria and rapid speech, possibly in the milder form of hypomania.

We cannot know for certain whether Herimann experienced manic episodes, but such mania might have caused particular problems for the Carolingian church. To see this, it is useful to consider another aspect of Herimann’s life: his commissioning of manuscripts. The British Library today holds Harley 2790, a gospel book probably written in Tours and containing a short poem recording how it was donated by Herimann to the cathedral church of St Cyr, Nevers:

Harley 2790 folio 19v - Herimann poem

Me quicumque legis, Herimanni sis memor oro
Cuius me studio possidet iste locus
Obtulit eclesiae sibi commissae memorandus
Praesul me fateor, pro bonitatis ope
Me sancto Cyrico tali sub conditione
En dedit ut pereat qui cupit abstrahere (f. 19v)

I pray whoever reads me remember Herimann
By whose zeal this place possesses me
The memorable one offered it to the church committed to him
I acknowledge that the bishop on account of the riches of goodness
Gave me to St Cyr under such a condition
That he might perish who desires to take me away.

The gospel book has decorated canon tables, but is not a particularly ornate work otherwise. Nevertheless, any substantial manuscript like this (of around 270 leaves, each slightly bigger than A4) would have been expensive to produce in terms of paying for parchment and scribal labour. And the otherwise unremarkable poem suggests Herimann’s “zeal” (studium) to do good via generosity, at a time when he was presumably in better mental health.

It’s interesting to bring that together with some of the complaints about him in 853 and 858. In 853 there were complaints about his “excesses” and how these had caused “injury to the most sacred order”. Herimann “was accustomed to act strangely (ineptire)…and indiscreetly to do certain things that could have lead to the shipwreck of the powers (facultates) and matters/possessions (res) of the church”, as well as carrying out acts that were a danger to salvation. Charles the Bald talks of the “agitation” of the church’s res, with no stability, “either in the disposition of the demesnes (villas dominicas) or the arrangement of all business”.

This raising the intriguing possibility that serious alarms about Herimann were raised because of two common symptoms of hypomania: overspending and over-generosity. It is easy to imagine such recklessness with money and property as having the potential to cause severe damage to the diocese’s finances.

Yet people during hypomanic episodes are not delusional in the sense of having false beliefs, even if they recklessly overestimate their capabilities. The Council of Verberie mentions in passing that Wenilo had taken Herimann into his keeping in the summer of 858, because no-one in the church of Nevers had wanted to do so, “partly perhaps from undue piety, partly from reverence to a lord (reverentia seniorali)”.

A key issue is that early medieval bishops had a large amount of autonomy: there were, for example, no formal financial structures to check their spending. Suffragan bishops like Herimann might in theory be subject to their archbishop’s oversight, but the only archbishop we know regularly interfering with their suffragan’s activities was Hincmar of Rheims. The main check on a bishop’s behaviour was the informal one of his need to maintain his local reputation among his clerics and congregation. That may have been inadequate in this specific case. Was Herimann’s behaviour difficult to deal with because it was an exaggerated version of how a good Christian should deal with money? After all, appropriate spending and generosity by bishops was admirable behaviour.

The Council of Verberie stressed that Herimann had not committed any public sins, implying that any possible mania or hypomania had not led him to behave in a sexually inappropriate or aggressive way (two common symptoms of hypomania). If Herimann was behaving extravagantly with the diocese’s funds, but was not obviously “insane”, his damaging behaviour might have been peculiarly difficult for his subordinates to protest about or prevent.

Historical and cross-cultural studies have rightly stressed the variation in symptoms, diagnoses and responses to mental illness in different societies. Modern medical research has also been interested in how social class affects the prevalence and treatment of mental illness and whether particular occupations lead to higher risks of mental health problems. Herimann’s case tells us something else interesting about the connection between mental illness and social role: particular occupations and social organisations in any culture may be better able to cope with some forms of mental illness than others. A Carolingian lay nobleman, for example, described in the sources as very active, risk-taking, sociable, irritable, extravagant, self-confident and with strong sexual desires, would probably be regarded by most of as entirely typical, even though these are many of the symptoms of hypomania. In contrast, it’s easy to imagine the Carolingian episcopate as being reasonably well able to shelter a depressed bishop for some considerable period of time without him becoming controversial.

It is unlikely that Herimann was the only ninth-century bishop with mental health problems (especially since the office was normally held until death). His real difficulty was probably that his particular symptoms were ones that were unusually disruptive to his episcopal office.

Image credit: BL Harley ms 2790, now online 

A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)