Revenants revisited

This blog’s about the links between a medieval ghost story and the Norman Conquest – two topics that might seem far apart, but whose connections tell us quite a lot about society in the Middle Ages. The ghost story goes something like this (you can read a full translation of the original Latin text here):

Around 1090, two villagers from Stapenhill in Staffordshire, living on lands owned by the rich abbey of Burtofn, fled to the neighbouring village of Drakelow, which was owned by a prominent Norman aristocrat called Roger. Roger helped them out by plundering the abbot’s lands, but desisted after his knights were (miraculously) beaten in battle by the abbot of Burton’s forces. Meanwhile, the two troublesome villagers mysteriously died. They were immediately buried at Stapenhill. But…

…. The very same evening of their burial, they reappeared at Drakelow, carrying their coffins on their backs. The pair proceeded to haunt the village over the next few weeks, until hardly anyone was left living there. Eventually their corpses were disinterred and ceremonially mutilated, which put an end to the nightly visitations, but Drakelow itself was nevertheless abandoned as a settlement.

So much for the ghost story. As it happens, we have a very good idea of the life in Stapenhill the two villagers had run away from, because the abbey of Burton produced an estate survey listing the onerous dues of the peasants there around the 1130s. The dozen or so residents that this survey names must have heard of, and some might even have remembered, the peculiar events of a generation earlier. What’s more, the estate survey was organised by the very same person who wrote the ghost story for us: Abbot Geoffrey of Burton. 

What has all this got to do with the Norman Conquest? At first sight, not much. The Normans did not introduce the kinds of obligations that the Stapenhill peasants were fleeing (weekly labour for their lords, dues in kind, etc), though they might perhaps have helped intensify them. Nor did they introduce ideas about ghosts or revenants. Both these things were present in England before 1066 as well as after it.

However, the plot thickens if we look at the history of the villages concerned. Domesday Book tells us that before the Conquest, the village of Drakelow had been owned by an Englishman named Alric. Most of Stapenhill was owned by the abbey of Burton, but another Englishman, Godric, had owned a parcel of land there as well. He was probably a client of Burton Abbey, since his lands intersected with the monastery’s elsewhere too. After the Conquest, however,  a Norman named Nigel de Stafford ‘inherited’ the lands of both Godric and Alric. And it seems that these consolidated rights passed onto Roger, who was a real mover and shaker in early Anglo-Norman England.

That means that, as a direct consequence of 1066, a new and powerful aristocrat had arrived in the locality, whose property rights overlapped with those of the monastery’s at Stapenhill, and who also owned outright another estate just next to it, Drakelow. This is probably why the villagers fled from Stapenhill to Drakelow. Either the peasants were taking advantage of the situation to negotiate a better deal with a patron who might have relished the excuse to take on the monastery; or they were innocently caught in the cross-fire as Roger and the abbey squared off.

Ghost stories and revenants can often be connected with social tensions of some kind or other: in this specific case, they are associated with the confrontation between two powerful landowners, as an indirect result of the slaughter of Hastings a generation earlier. This doesn’t entirely explain the revenants, but it does at least give them a context. That makes the story a good illustration of how political events at the “top”, such as the Norman Conquest, might trickle down with unexpected implications for the “bottom”. Medieval society was more inter-connected than it can sometimes appear.

But there’s another Norman Conquest dimension to the tale. Why did our author, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton, record it in the first place? Because he claimed it illustrated the power of the monastery’s patron saint, Modwenna. Abbot Geoffrey was very interested in Modwenna. He wrote an account of her life, and included recent miracles such as this one which he attributed to the saint’s wrath.

It’s striking that earlier monks of Burton hadn’t written much about Modwenna before. In fact, by the twelfth century, Modwenna was a pretty mysterious figure, about whom very little was known even in Burton. Maybe information about her had been lost in the changes of personnel that followed the Conquest, as the monastery was “Normanised”. More likely, though, Saint Modwenna had always been shadowy, but this was more of a problem for Norman incomers at Burton than it had been for their English predecessors, for whom the relics had just always been there and therefore didn’t require any explaining.

So, just as the weird events that Abbot Geoffrey documented were linked to the tenurial reshuffle indirectly caused by the Conquest, so his eagerness to record them (and thus our knowledge of them) might reflect an attempt to plug a “cultural gap” that had opened up as a consequence of the Norman Conquest.

This isn’t the only evidence in the story for a cultural gap, though. As it happens, the name Drakelow actually means “Dragon’s Mound”: an extremely sinister place name. This would have been obvious to the Old-English speaking peasants, and we may imagine that their own interpretation of events at the Dragon’s Mound might have been different from the abbot’s. Did Abbot Geoffrey not mention this etymology because, as a French-speaker, he didn’t understand it – or did he simply prefer to put a different spin on what had happened? Further research might help to elucidate this and other puzzles.

Notes
This blog owed its origins to a paper given at conference organised by Alyx Mattison and James Chetwood in Sheffield in May 2016. Thanks to both Alyx and James, and to Matt Innes for advice.  Published 23 May 2016, updated 20 October 2019.

The entire Life and miracles of Modwenna is translated and edited by Robert Bartlett, Geoffrey of Burton: Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002). You can see a page of the medieval manuscript here.

For an example of research on the social context of “strange happenings” in the Middle Ages, see C. West, ‘Visions in a Ninth-Century Village: an Early Medieval Microhistory’, History Workshop Journal 81 (2016), open access. 

Will the real Roman Emperor please stand up?

For a couple of years, I’ve been working intermittently on a translation of a long letter sent by the Carolingian king and emperor of Italy, Louis II, to his Byzantine counterpart Basil in 871. It probably still wouldn’t be done, had not an invitation to talk at a roundtable on Romanness after Rome prodded me to finish it. The draft translation – the first full one in English, about 5,000 words – is appended to this blog, in the hope of encouraging other people to study (and teach about) the text. It’s interesting for all kinds of reasons, but it’s especially useful for thinking through questions of what it was to be Roman after Rome, because its main concern was what it meant to be a post-Roman Roman emperor.

First, some background. Louis II, son of Emperor Lothar I, had been crowned the fourth Carolingian emperor in 844, aged around 20, before taking up sole rule in Italy on his father Lothar’s death in 855. Louis (surely the least well studied Carolingian, though Clemens Gantner is now on the case)  wrote this letter towards the end of his long reign, in response to a provocative message from Emperor Basil I of Byzantium (867-886). Basil’s letter itself is now lost, but its content can be fairly guessed from Louis’s reply and from the known political context, which included military co-operation against North African raiders and a marriage proposal.

In spite of this close collaboration, or maybe because of it, Emperor Basil’s letter centred on a refusal to accept that Louis was the, or even a, Roman emperor. This was on two grounds: because the title was not hereditary (paternum), and because it was not suitable (non convenit) for someone from a gens, that is from an ethnic group, such as (in this case) the Franks. There was only one Roman emperor, and that was him, Basil. Louis might perhaps be emperor of the Franks, but that was all – and Basil was not sure even about that, because only the leader of the Romans  could be the basileus (the Greek word for emperor). Louis was a Frank, and that was that.

To a great extent, therefore, Basil’s arguments (and understanding of his own office) rested on his conceptions of ethnicity and Romanness. For Basil, the world was divided between the (Byzantine) Romans on the one hand, and all the various ‘peoples’ gentes on the other. Being a Roman was not the equivalent to being a Frank, or a Saracen, or a Khazar, because Romanness was not an “ethnicity”: there was no Roman gens. As a consequence, having an ethnic identity, as Louis did, in Basil’s view intrinsically excluded an imperial identity.

Louis’s conceptions of ethnicity were very different, with major implications for how he viewed Romanness and empire. For Louis, *everyone* belonged to an ethnic group. This included the Romans, whom Louis describes as the gens romana: these were the people with a glorious past who lived in Rome, and whom (Louis points out) the Byzantine emperors had deserted. Each of these peoples or gentes could be led by a basileus, and historically often had been: the rulers of Constantinople had no monopoly on that title, but shared it with “other gentes”.

These gentes also included the Franks, who however had a special place. In a very interesting passage, Louis situates the Franks as not just the successors but the surrogates of the Romans, through a fascinating metaphor: “When the branches were broken, we were grafted onto them; when we were wild olives, we were joined to their roots and became fat with olives. We say therefore that the branches were broken so that we might be grafted on”. The Franks were therefore in effect the new ancient Romans.

And yet – ultimately, even for Louis, the Roman empire transcended ethnicity. Even at the height of the Roman empire, Louis declared, non-Romans had become emperors. “In what way”, asked Louis, “is [the imperial title] inappropriate for a people (gens), since we know – mentioning only a few for the sake of brevity – that Roman emperors were created from the people (the gens) of Hispania, Isauria, and Khazaria?” The latter two examples related to fairly recent Byzantine history, but the former took the reader back to the fourth century. Louis went on to explain, “For certainly the elder Theodosius and his sons Arcadius and Honorius, and Theodosius the younger, the son of Arcadius, were raised from Spaniards to the summit of the Roman empire. And we do not find that anyone complained or grumbled that he was not a Roman but a Spaniard (quod non Romanus sed Hispanus existeret)”.

What was relevant for imperial rule was therefore not what one was or was called, but what one did. Louis accordingly contrasted Frankish military prowess and bravery with Byzantine cowardice.  Strikingly, Louis declares his intention to conquer Sicily too, to restore it to its “former liberty” after its recent capture by the Muslims.

Louis’s Roman imperial title was justified by war, then. But its chief justification nevertheless lay elsewhere: in religion. The superiority of Frankish belief was manifested partly by Frankish religious learning – the letter itself is intended to show the command the Franks had of historical and ethnographic knowledge, both Greek and Latin. It was partly demonstrated by their missionary activities. But most of all, it was expressed by the recognition given to them by the Pope of Rome, who had rejected the ‘cacadoxy’ and indeed heresy of the Byzantines in new Rome in favour of the orthodoxy of the gens Francorum. Louis was Roman emperor, because God had given him the city, people and church of Rome to protect, through the Pope.

Talking of post-Roman Roman emperors has a touch of paradox about it, which is not dispelled by the squabbles between a Greek-speaking ruler based in Constantinople and a Frankish ruler who seldom actually visited Rome over who was the rightful heir to the Roman legacy. Indeed there is a related paradox at the heart of this letter. Basil did not think that the Romans were an ethnic group at all – and yet he nevertheless defined the Roman Empire in ethnic terms, in that it was defined against ethnicity. Louis by contrast lived in an entirely ethnicised world, and yet did not view the Roman Empire as defined by a relationship to ethnicity: this was the empire of God, Who had created all the gentes.

Basil to be sure had the greater weight of continuity on his side, since his arguments resonated with older Roman conceptions of group identity. But Louis’s arguments made good sense of the facts on the ground, so to speak.  And proof of how convincing Louis’s arguments were is perhaps provided by the letter’s authorship. The letter was of course written in Louis’s name, and we may assume that he agreed with its sentiments. But Louis had naturally outsourced the actual drafting to someone else, in this case probably a prominent cleric called Anastasius the Librarian. Anastasius was highly educated and had experience of the Greek court, so he was an obvious choice. But Anastasius was not himself Frankish: he was Roman, from an important family of the city of Rome.

That such a figure, at the heart of the papal establishment, could elaborate the Frankish view of ethnicity – the simultaneous ethnicisation of Romanness and de-ethnicisation of empire – so conscientiously suggests that to some extent he had internalised it; that it was now the Roman view. By the late ninth century, Rome and the Byzantine world had indeed drifted very far apart.

Translation (pdf)Emperor Louis II of Italy to Emperor Basil I

Further reading

For a study of the changing role of ethnicity in Roman and post-Roman Europe, see P.  Geary, ‘European Ethnicities and European as an Ethnicity: Does Europe Have Too Much History’, in M. Staub and G. Loud (eds.), The Making of Medieval History (Woodbridge, 2017), 57-69.

Louis II is not well served in English-language work, but see now C. Gantner, ‘”Our Common Enemies Shall Be Annihilated!” How Louis II’s Relations with the Byzantine Empire Shaped his Policy in Southern Italy’, in Southern Italy as Contact Area and Border Region during the Early Middle Ages, ed. Wolf and Herbers (2017), pp. 295-314,  concentrating on the earlier part of Louis’s reign.

*** Professor Berto has kindly brought to my attention his new English translation, Italian Carolingian historical and poetical texts, Pisa,  2016, which includes an English translation of Andreas of Bergamo’s chronicle as well as some poetical works (but does not include this text). 27.03.17 ***

***Clemens Gantner has kindly pointed out that the manuscript containing Louis’s letter is now available online: Vat. lat. 5001, fol. 60: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.5001 05/07/19***

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