Chris Wickham has argued that polities whose political economy is based on grants of land (as opposed, say, to tax and salaries) are intrinsically unstable. Here’s a text in support of his argument, written by Archbishop Hincmar of Reims in 876 – the De villa noviliaco, a text surviving in a single ninth-century manuscript (Paris lat. 10758).
In it, Hincmar recounts the complex history of the villa (estate) of Neuilly. King Carloman granted this estate to the church of Reims in the late eighth century; the grant was confirmed by Charlemagne who nevertheless gave it in benefice to a Saxon named Anscher. Later, Charlemagne’s son Louis gave it to a count named Donatus. Legally, these grants in benefice did not overturn Reims’s ultimate ownership. However, Donatus craftily sliced off some holdings from the benefice which his family would later claim were entirely his.
When Emperor Louis’s sons rebelled against him, Donatus had to make a political choice; unfortunately for him, he made the wrong decision, joining Lothar just before Lothar surrendered. Neuilly was duly taken from Donatus, and given to a certain Hatto. But when Hatto died, Donatus and his family got it back again. However, when Louis the German invaded the western Frankish kingdom in 858, Donatus’s widow Landrada read the politics wrong once again, deserting Charles to join Louis. When Charles re-established control, he therefore took the estate from Landrada and gave it to the monastery of Orbais. Only then did Hincmar finally manage to get Neuilly back for Reims, shortly followed by the associated holdings stolen by Donatus. Hincmar did not keep the estate in house, however, preferring to grant it out in benefice to clients, Rothaus and Bernaus.
Donatus’s family was down but not out, however, for when Louis the German invaded again in 874 (while King Charles was in Italy), his and Landrada’s sons managed to get the estate back from Queen Richildis, presumably in return for their political and maybe military support. Not until Charles’s return from Italy was this grant overturned thanks to Hincmar’s lobbying.
The estate of Neuilly thus changed hands at least eleven times in around a century. Hincmar thought Reims had the better claim – and used the written word to prove it, referring to several charters none of which now survive. But the family of Donatus thought otherwise, and had their own established hereditary claim which had twice been honoured. We cannot know what they would have made of Hincmar’s arguments, but mostly likely they would have argued that although Reims owned Neuilly, they had a family claim to it as a benefice. Perhaps the families of Hatto, Anscher and Bernaus (each of who had held at it some point) would have seen things differently again.
Who had the best claim to Neuilly was therefore a political question, which is why Hincmar wrote and preserved his (doubtless partisan) account. But what Hincmar’s history does show quite unequivocally is how tensions over landholding made Frankish politics in the ninth century very unstable. For there was always someone waiting for the right opportunity to press long-harboured claims over some estate – and no shortage of rival kings willing to provide that opportunity.
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).. 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.
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.
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.
 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
* This blog was written primarily for undergraduate teaching purposes, and hence only refers to English-language material.
 See the recent biography by G. Althoff, Otto III (University Park, Penn., 2004).
 D. Warner, ‘Ideals and action in the reign of Otto III’, Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999), 1-18.
 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.
 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.
 L. Roach, ‘Emperor Otto III and the End of Time’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Ser. 6, 23 (2013), 75-102.
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).
 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.
 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).
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 numberofstudies 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:
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.
Today, the eastern French city of Verdun is best known in Britain for its role in the First World War. That association is even stronger in France, where the Battle of Verdun occupies the symbolic place equivalent to that of the Battle of the Somme in the UK. As such, the town is at the heart of the current state-supported programmes of commemoration.
But Verdun has of course a longer history – and what’s more, the politics of its commemoration go back a lot further than the twentieth century, as I’ll be talking about at a conference in Gent later this week, on ‘Bishops in the Age of Iron’.
In particular, I’m going to discuss a remarkable document written in the year 893 by a bishop of Verdun named Dado (you can read my English translation of it here as a pdf). Known as the ‘Memorial of Bishop Dado’, it’s a short first-person account of Verdun’s history, and of Dado’s place in it. In other words, it presents an early medieval bishop’s own view of history, both personal and institutional.
Bishop Dado’s text is fascinating for what it has to say about the importance of aristocratic family consciousness in the early Middle Ages, and for the prominence of Carolingian kings too. Dado was proud that he was the nephew of the preceding bishop of Verdun Berhard (‘my uncle’, he reminds the reader several times), and in a short text he manages to cram in six Carolingian kings, all mentioned by name.
But Dado’s text is also interesting for what it doesn’t say. The absence of the treaty signed in Verdun in 843 that broke apart the Frankish empire is maybe understandable, since Dado only begins his account with Hatto, Verdun’s bishop from 847. But the lack of any reference to Bishop Hatto’s close involvement in the royal divorce scandal that rocked the Frankish world in the 860s is more striking.
Bishop Hatto had been closely involved helping King Lothar II secure his divorce so he could marry Waldrada, for which the king amply rewarded him with lands. But when things began to go awry in the divorce process, the bishop seems to have reassessed his priorities, building bridges instead with the fiery pope Nicholas.
A generation later, Bishop Dado celebrated Hatto’s success in acquiring property for the church of Verdun, but he evidently preferred not to mention the political context behind it. And he doesn’t mention popes at all – not because they hadn’t had an impact on Verdun, but because that impact didn’t fit the story he wanted to be told. Nor for that matter does Dado mention the contested circumstances of his own election (the details, as a result, are rather murky).
Dado, in other words, was choosing what he thought should be publicly remembered about Verdun, and skirting round a difficult past. His text may be short, but it’s a carefully fashioned remembering nevertheless, notable for what it misses out as much as for what it contains.
Really, that’s not surprising: commemoration – that is, remembering in its organised forms – is always a bit about forgetting, if only because you can’t emphasise all of the past at the same time. It may seem ironic that today’s symbol of official remembrance, the poppy, chosen for its links to the battlefields around Verdun, is also the plant that produces the drug most closely associated with obliviousness – but in another sense perhaps it’s quite appropriate.
National commemorations are of course important, and in this case a fitting tribute to the tens of thousands of men who died in the battlefields around Verdun. But there are different ways of remembering the past, and different pasts to be remembered. Dado’s Memorial reminds us not only of the city’s longer history – a history that inevitably tends to be overlooked – but also of how the act of commemoration itself has a deeper history to be explored.