Category Archives: HST 3154

“I am not at all able to endure without any conjugal union” – king Lothar II and the Council of aachen 862

In the year 862, King Lothar II appeared before a group of bishops gathered in Aachen, in a state of high anxiety. Barefoot, and with quavering voice, the king asked for mercy, forgiveness – and a new wife. A previous council in 860 had separated him from Queen Theutberga. But it had not given permission for him to remarry, and Lothar declared this put him in an unbearable position. He was not permitted to take a concubine, but nor, he stated, was he ‘able to bear the ardour of his youth without conjugal union’.

The king’s speech can be read as a remarkably bold act of passive-aggression. By publicly emphasising the king’s human frailty, it compelled the king’s bishops, for reasons of pastoral care, to accede to his demand. As they observed, ‘we are not able to forbid him from marrying a wife and procreating children, lest he slip into worse things’.

Lothar hoped that a public display of royal weakness could be turned into royal strength – a king acting the part of the humble and penitent Christian, setting a moral example for his subjects. It’d worked for Emperor Louis the Pious in 822, after all. And at first sight, it worked again in 862. The bishops agreed that Lothar II could remarry, and his ‘concubine’ Waldrada was soon after formally accepted as his wife.

But the plans soon began to fall apart. To win over sceptics, Lothar was forced to hold yet another council in 863, where in a dramatic and rather unconvincing twist, he revealed that ‘actually’ he had been married to Waldrada all along. And even in 862, his court was so divided that the bishops could not agree on a single version of the Aachen meeting (something I’ve discussed at greater length elsewhere). No wonder that Pope Nicholas I was able to make Lothar yield.

And so in 865, Lothar was obliged to receive back his ex-wife, Theutberga, with all due ceremony. 862 may have been a sham humiliation, but it laid the foundations for 865, which was a very real one.

Here’s a translation of the three main documents from the Council of Aachen 862 – a glimpse of a desperately inventive early medieval royal court.

TRANSLATION (PDF)

The Carolingian military-religious complex & the fate of the Middle Kingdom

Since at least the early tenth century, the failure of the Middle Kingdom – the kingdom of Lothar II, Lotharingia – has been tied to the failure of the Carolingian empire, whose wider history has almost always been dominated by the trope of decline: the inability of Charlemagne’s successors to measure up. That’s lent the kingdom’s eventual fate – divvied up by rival kings in 870 – an air of inevitability.

But for all that a combination of bad luck and poor judgement landed King Lothar II into a very deep hole in the 860s,  we must beware the historian’s besetting vice of teleology. Dramatic reversals in fortune were par for the course in ninth-century politics. Lothar was admittedly in a pickle from 863 onwards thanks to his marital problems, but had it been his uncle King Charles the Bald who’d succumbed to unexpected illness in 869, events would have taken a rather different turn. And this blog is about some evidence that, up to his death, Lothar’s embattled kingdom seemed to remain in working order.

Like other Carolingian kingdoms, Lothar II’s had been afflicted by Viking raids, though the absence of a Lotharingian equivalent of the Annals of St Bertin or Annals of Fulda mean that we’re generally less informed about them. Viking raids could be dangerous and destabilising, but they also offered rulers a chance to demonstrate their martial vigour against an unproblematically ‘othered’ enemy. The Franks had mixed feelings about “civil” war – i.e. killing other Franks – but fighting Vikings was a different matter.

That’s demonstrated by a letter that chances to survive from Bishop Adventius of Metz, one of King Lothar’s most important supporters, and which probably dates from the year 867. In it, Bishop Adventius gives notice that the ‘whole people’ in his diocese is to undertake a three-day fast to beseech God for Lothar’s victory in an upcoming confrontation with the Vikings (see translation below). This is, in a way, the staging for a holy war.

Without doubt there were genuine religious motives at work here. But Lothar II’s kingdom was under enormous external pressure, which had not been relieved by Lothar’s decision under compulsion to readmit Theutberga as his wife in 865. So the opportunity to bring everyone together in a set of religious ceremonies against a common enemy would have been a welcome fillip to the king and his supporters. Here everyone could see the God-given, traditional order being rehearsed by the Carolingian military-religious complex: bishops praying for kings to triumph in war, with the common people (vulgaris populus) doing as they were told by their local priests.

In 867, Lothar II could, then, still present himself as a traditional king doing traditional kingly things, despite all the problems he and his supporters were facing. Ironically, though, hewing to tradition was actually one of the causes of those problems, since his disastrous marriage politics can be read as an attempt to behave just as his predecessors had, without realising that the ground had moved beneath his feet. In the end, maybe Lothar II was just too traditional for his own good?

Translation of Adventius’s letter about the Vikings (pdf) 

Image – oh just some manuscript or other (w. thanks to Anna Dorofeeva)

Bishop Altfrid’s Report, summer 862

Much of what we know of early medieval high politics is based on texts written for public consumption: the final version of agreed charters, crafted formal records of meetings, or commemorative (or subtly critical) histories. It’s perhaps this slant of the evidence which has led some historians to emphasise the ritualised quality of those politics. Amidst the records of choreographed assemblies and ceremonies, the actual workings of political process are hard to discern: the surviving evidence appears all highly polished surface, with little indication of whirring cogs beneath.

But just occasionally a text survives, usually by the skin of its teeth, that seems to let us see (to mix metaphors) under the bonnet of the spluttering engine of Carolingian dynastic political manoeuvring. The text presented in this blog in translation for the first time, thanks to one of my former students, Hayley Harrison, is a good example.

It’s a letter sent in the summer of 862 by Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim (†874) to his king, Louis the German (of East Francia). Altfrid had travelled to West Francia on his king’s behalf, to conduct diplomatic negotiations with the king’s brother, King Charles the Bald (of West Francia). He wrote this letter to let King Louis know how things were going. Although Altfrid was from a Saxon family, he had probably been educated in West Francia (perhaps at Corbie), and already had some experience of acting as an envoy between Louis and his royal relatives, so he was a natural choice for this embassy. His predecessor as bishop of Hildesheim was moreover the exiled Ebbo of Reims, so we can assume that Altfrid was quite well informed about wider Frankish politics.

The letter doesn’t explain the specific purpose of Bishop Altfrid’s mission to King Charles, but we do know it touched on the affairs (so to speak) of King Lothar II, Louis and Charles’s nephew, who had just recently divorced his wife Theutberga at the Council of Aachen in April 862, and was now gearing up to marry Waldrada. Indeed this was probably the embassy’s main focus: Louis wanted to reconcile Lothar and Charles, and to help draw a line under his nephew’s recent political difficulties. That was not, however, how things turned out.

As the letter explains, Bishop Altfrid first travelled to Lotharingia, picking up envoys from the young Lothar, before they all proceeded to King Charles’s court, at his grandest ceremonial centre, Compiègne. There, as Altfrid reported to Louis, the two embassies met with very different receptions. To Altfrid, Charles was gracious and cordial; to Lothar’s envoys, he was conspicuously cold and peremptory. Lothar was a king mired in sin, and Charles would have no dealings with him until he mended his ways. Charles did want to talk about Lothar’s case – but with Louis, privately, and in Lothar’s absence.

As Stuart Airlie has argued (1), we see in Charles’s public behaviour a message as clear as the words that were spoken (or written, if as seems possible the ‘Capitulary of Savonnières’ represents an echo of this meeting, perhaps even the ‘other record’ the letter mentions). Until Lothar had resolved his marital problems, his followers and clients were not welcome in Charles’s kingdom. And a king who could not ensure his followers were treated with public respect was a king seriously failing in his responsibilities.

If Lothar II had not yet grasped that the Aachen Council of 862 would not simply extricate him from the crisis engendered by his attempted divorce, he ought to have begun to realise it now.

Translation of Bishop Altfrid of Hildesheim’s letter (pdf)

Image: Nordrhein-Westfalen Landesarchiv in Münster, Kindlingersche Sammlung vol. 40, fol. 210v-211r

1: Stuart Airlie, ‘Unreal Kingdom: Francia Media under the shadow of Lothar II’. In: Gaillard, M.Margue, M.Dierkens, A. and Pettiau, H. (eds.) De la mer du Nord a la Mediterranee: Francia Media, une Region au Coeur de l’Europe (c.840-c.1050). Centre luxembourgeois de documentation et d’etudes medievales, pp. 339-356

The Carolingian 1%

As the Carolingian empire grew in size, so its ‘stakeholders’ grew richer – kings, churches, and the highest-ranked Frankish aristocrats above all.

Few if any Carolingian aristocrats were higher-ranking than the couple who issued this will around 863, presented below in draft English translation for the first time (primarily to help students). Count Eberhard came from a well-established noble kinship group labelled by modern historians as the ‘Unruochings’, because many men associated with it were named Unruoch. Eberhard’s wife Gisela was the daughter of Emperor Louis the Pious and Empress Judith, no less. This was a family at the very top of the tree.

That position is evident from the document itself, in which Eberhard and Gisela distributed their possessions amongst their sons and daughters. A large part of the will reads like a treasure list: immense quantities of golden, silver and ivory objects, from swords to drinking vessels. Some of these were probably of recent manufacture, others may have been antiques already.  The will is also famous for its dozens of books, which are individually divided up amongst the children too. Eberhard and Gisela had evidently built up a very considerable library.

Nevertheless, the bulk of their wealth was in land. The will does not give a precise value or acreage, but it is apparent that Eberhard and Gisela were seriously wealthy, with property in what is now Germany,  Italy, Belgium and France. They were certainly part of the Carolingian 1%, busy with Piketty and Scheidel’s ‘capital accumulation’, and keen to pass it on to their heirs.

But the more you have, the more you have to lose, and Eberhard and Gisela clearly worried about that. Their will accounts for the possibility that a future king of the Franks, Lombards or Alemans will seize property from one of their heirs ‘by violence or without cause’.  The Carolingian world of the 860s was one of kingdoms ruled by rival kings, which posed problems for those aristocrats whose property stretched over the old empire as a whole.

Indeed the will can be read as indicating that the couple were beginning to create separate ‘kernels’ of land, with, for instance, all their Italian estates passing as a bloc to their eldest son, Unroch. While kings were still aiming for the ultimate prize – to reconstitute the empire of Charlemagne – were their aristocrats already quietly but surely accommodating themselves to a new, more fragmented reality?

Translation: The Will of Count Eberhard and Gisela (pdf)

Image: the “Reliquiary of Pippin”, a 9th-c. reliquiary now in Conques (France), perhaps like those mentioned in the will.

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).

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.

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/

Winning political consent, Carolingian-style

On Thursday, voters in the UK will to go to the polls to elect a new government. Although they agree about the apparent inevitability of Brexit, the two main parties in England are otherwise miles apart in their policies. That means voters have a clear choice. Thanks to the UK’s peculiar ‘first-past-the-post’ system, however, it also means that millions of people will be very disappointed on Friday morning, as it’s almost certain that the winning party will attract well under half the vote. The whole thing seems almost designed to generate dissatisfaction. Did things work any better in the Middle Ages?

Contrary to what some people may tell you, elections were pretty common in the medieval period, though usually with a restricted franchise, and not normally on a strict one-person one-vote basis. As towns grew in size, they were often run by elected officials, and election was an important principle in the church throughout the period, for popes, bishops and abbots (and abbesses) in particular. Even crusaders elected their leaders on occasion.

Sometimes kings were elected too, but most often they based their claim to rule on inheritance. Even so, governing with the consent of (some of) the governed was vital, in practice as well as in theory. A king who lost the trust of his aristocracy could, like King John in England or Emperor Louis the Pious in Francia, find himself in serious trouble, accused of tyranny, and facing rebellion and even deposition.

So although medieval kings didn’t need to win regular elections, they did need to generate consent amongst the elite. The Carolingian kings of the ninth century were already masters of this game. For instance, they used to hold a ‘secret’ meeting with their most trusted and senior advisors to thrash things out, before then holding a ‘general’ meeting with a much larger group, to discuss the same issues all over again as if for the first time. All the senior advisors would stick to the secretly pre-arranged line, so the second meeting’s outcome was more or less predictable. A way of sneakily sewing up the meeting in advance: or a sensible method of steering discussion, generating buy-in, and avoiding divisive conflict?

This blog was prompted however by another Carolingian tactic, evidenced by a text whose English translation is provided below (for the first time in full) – the Capitulary of Quierzy of 877, issued by King Charles the Bald of West Francia. Capitularies were essentially royal edicts, declarations of the royal will, and this capitulary is no different. It’s traditionally been seen as marking the beginning of the end for Carolingian rule (and the onset of feudalism), because it supposedly recognised that public offices could be inherited. In reality, a quick glance will show that King Charles very much kept the whip-hand: sons could take over their fathers’ offices temporarily, while Charles was away, but he reserved the right to appoint someone else on his return.

But maybe what’s most interesting about this text isn’t its content, but its “unique form”[1]: the way that it’s written out partially in a question-and-answer format, or, more accurately, as a set of declarations followed by affirmatory responses. For instance, King Charles begins by stating that the church ought to be protected, which evokes this response: “We all praise and wish to keep the first chapter, as you have decreed with God’s inspiration”.

Now,  the capitulary could be a verbatim record of the Quierzy meeting, borrowing  techniques used to record church councils, in which case it could show how a king might choreograph consent in royal assemblies.[2] But at no point is it ever spelled out exactly who this ‘we’ is, which is a rather strange omission.

So just as likely is that this response-format is primarily a textual effect, designed to communicate consent to readers, rather than faithfully recording – or scripting – an actual dialogue. Agreement is literally ‘built-in’ to the Quierzy edict, in an innovative and rather striking fashion. The text comes pre-ratified, so to speak: the royal will has already received consent, before any further discussion.

It’s been said that Thursday’s election in the UK may be about control of the means of production, but that it’ll be won through control of the means of representation. King Charles might not have understood the politics involved (and they might have confirmed his rather mixed opinion of the English) – but it’s a lesson he and his advisors would instinctively have grasped.

English translation (pdf): Quierzy capitulary 877

[1] J.L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 248.

[2] As proposed by J.L. Nelson, ‘Carolingian royal ritual’, in The Frankish World, 750-900, p. 120,

Image: Charles the Bald, from the Codex Aureus of St Emmeram, made a few years before the Capitulary of Quierzy (full page here)

In Praise of Gobbets

As the teaching year begins, one of the routine tasks historians in many UK institutions face is explaining to puzzled students (and sometimes new colleagues too) what we mean by “gobbets”.

This is a venerable and (I suspect) distinctly British form of examination in which students are provided with a series of text extracts or images, and expected to write something about them in a short period of time: typically, 20 minutes for each extract (or ‘gobbet’). They are sometimes labelled old-fashioned – but in fact they’re ideally suited to the 21st-century classroom.

As an example, here’s a gobbet that we’ll be studying in my class:

“The holy Roman Church, as the mother and teacher, nurse and instructress of all churches, is to be consulted about all doubtful and obscure things which concern the continuity of the right faith or the dogmas of piety, and her healthful admonitions are to be kept”.
– Hincmar of Rheims, De Divortio, 860

How might one ‘respond’ to or comment on this gobbet? Well, a good response might:

  • observe that this, the opening line of the treatise by Hincmar of Reims, suggests the pope should be consulted: this signals Hincmar’s cautious fence-sitting, for fear of being proved wrong at this early stage of the controversy over King Lothar II’s marriage;
  • pick up on the ‘doubtful and obscure things’, an issue that lay at the heart of the treatise and the divorce scandal as a whole;
  • connect this passage to Hincmar’s often fraught relation with the papacy, noting how in this passage he framed papal authority as primarily pedagogical (and that in practice he recommended holding a general council rather than going straight to the pope);
  • and could finish by noting that the Roman church indeed did end up being consulted in the case, and that Pope Nicholas made great efforts to ensure that his ‘healthful admonitions’ were kept.

These are just the comments that spring to my mind as I write this blog: quite certainly other interesting things could be said about the content, context and significance of this short passage.

You’ll notice that these comments are all quite specific, and probably won’t make much sense unless you already know quite a lot about the history of Lothar II’s divorce (as all right-thinking people should). That’s because the strength of the gobbet examination is that it blends assessing precise historical knowledge of the sources with interpretative creativity. You can’t bluff your way through them; but it’s not a test of how much you know, it’s a test of how you use that knowledge to make a point based on exactly what’s in front of you. If your commentary could apply to *any* extract from the text in question, then it’s probably too generic. Good responses tend to pick on the precise wording of the extract to make observations grounded in a wider knowledge; the best can surprise and enlighten even the person who chose the extract in the first place.

According to legend, gobbets go back to Victorian period civil service exams: that may be so, but they seem to be coming back into fashion. In some ways that’s not surprising. After all, the contemporary world is all about “discontinuous reading”, it’s all about the fast-paced analysis of screenfuls of text. If the gobbet examination didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.

And if gobbets are in this way surprisingly “aligned” with the wider world, they’re also neatly aligned with history as it’s practised today: rigorous but imaginative source analysis is after all at the heart of all historical writing worth its salt. No wonder gobbets are a jewel in the crown of final year examinations, alongside other assessment forms such as dissertations: they’re an excellent means of simultaneously assessing – and promoting – both knowledge of a broad range of historical sources and a methodological sophistication in historical interpretation, all with reference to the particular as well as the general. And isn’t all that still at the heart of what historians actually do?

Update Feb 2018: Jonathan Healey  has pointed out on Twitter that as part of a court case, there is now a judicial discussion of a gobbet paper, with the priceless opening observation that ‘The word “gobbet” does not generally evoke a pleasant picture or a comfortable feeling’. I’m optimistic that my students wouldn’t agree!