It’s sometimes suggested that the driving force behind King Lothar II’s efforts to divorce Theutberga was a desire to secure his succession. Lothar had no children with Theutberga, but several with his would-be queen Waldrada. But whatever Lothar’s motives had been in 857/8, the spiralling crisis of his kingdom in the 860s meant that any long-term concerns about his succession were overtaken by a more urgent problem, that of securing his political (and perhaps personal) survival. Lothar’s ‘solution’ to his marital problems was threatening his kingship in the here and now.
The best evidence for this is a letter written in the name of Lothar’s bishops and addressed to the bishops of Lothar’s uncle, King Charles the Bald (translated into English for the first time below). The letter speaks frankly. Lothar’s bishops state they have heard that unnamed people in Charles’s kingdom are advising him to depose his nephew. They call on their western colleagues to oppose this policy, out of episcopal solidarity but also because contrary to the rumours, Lothar’s kingdom was standing rock-solid behind him. The bishops declare that they have sworn oaths to Lothar which they have no intention of breaking; they admit that he has sinned in the past, but are now confident that he’s back on the right path.
Was Charles the Bald really considering instigating regime change? It is perfectly plausible. After all, Charles himself had nearly been deposed by his brother Louis ‘the German’ a decade or so earlier in 858, who had led an army into West Francia on the grounds that Charles was unfit to be king. Such an accusation could obviously be made against Lothar, thanks to the divorce ‘scandal’ which Lothar himself had initiated. And Uncle Charles was undoubtedly ambitious. The key factor was whether Lothar’s kingdom was divided. Would elements of Lothar’s followers welcome a new ruler, as elements of Charles’s followers had welcomed Louis the German in 858? This question explains the bishops’ insistence on their unity in the letter.
Of course we should be wary of taking this letter at face value. To begin with, the letter is not signed, so we do not know how many bishops were really standing behind Lothar. In fact, we do not even know that the letter was actually sent. It survives as part of the letter collection of Bishop Adventius of Metz, who might have been the text’s author; but we do not know whether the draft was discussed, let alone agreed and dispatched.
Yet it suggests that (at least one of) Lothar’s bishops in the 860s – the letter sadly cannot be precisely dated – were becoming anxious not about the indeterminate future, but about the political present. The rapidity with which Charles the Bald invaded Lothar’s kingdom on his nephew’s death in 869 has led some historians to wonder whether Charles had not pre-arranged a military assault, suggesting that the letter’s fears were not groundless.
One of the things that attracts me to studying (and teaching) Lothar and Theutberga’s divorce case is how much it has to tell us about the political order constructed by the Carolingian rulers, as it continued to evolve after the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The Carolingian dynasty’s grip on power was unchallenged in the 860s, but paradoxically that could be a problem for individual kings. If any Carolingian king would do, and yours was struggling, why not trade up for a better one? And if that was the way the wind was blowing, might it not be better to change tack early? One suspects that this prospect brought sleepness nights for Lothar, wriggling like a fish on the line he’d cast.
 On the letter collection, see Charles West, ‘Knowledge of the past and the judgement of history in tenth-century Trier: Regino of Prüm and the lost manuscript of Bishop Adventius of Metz’, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/emed.12138
In January 867, Pope Nicholas I wrote to Charles the Bald, king of West Francia. His letter (translated below) was on the topic of Lothar II and Theutberga’s divorce, which by this point had been running for nearly a decade. He had heard, he said, alarming rumours that Charles was now preparing to connive with Lothar in (another) trial of Theutberga, leading potentially to a trial by battle and her execution. Charles had hitherto been a steadfast supporter of Theutberga, and Nicholas encouraged him to remain so.
Nicholas also wrote to emphasise that he was now in charge of the divorce case. Both parties, Lothar and Theutberga, had appealed to him as the judge, and since there was no greater judicial authority than the papacy, no further appeal was possible. Any future judicial action required his say-so. A duel in particular was out of the question, for this would be tempting God.
But Pope Nicholas had another purpose in writing beyond these grand assertions of papal authority. He also hoped to use Charles as a means of getting his letters into Lothar’s kingdom. And this post was intended to be recorded delivery. He asked Charles not only to pass on a letter he had written to Lothar II’s bishops, but also to take note of which bishops refused to receive it, and to send their names back to him immediately. Nicholas was evidently having difficulty in telling which of Lothar’s bishops, thousands of miles across the Alps, were innocently out of the loop, and which were deliberately keeping themselves uninformed of the pope’s wishes. The disjuncture here between papal aspiration and papal capacity is palpable.
And there was more. Nicholas also enclosed a letter for the attention of Lothar II himself, which he asked Charles to send on to his nephew. But in an appendix, he also asked Charles to keep a copy of it, secretly (nemine alio sciente). Charles was only to publicise this letter if Lothar delayed in obeying its instructions.
This might make the reader pause. Why did Nicholas insist on secrecy? Was Lothar II really not supposed to know that his uncle had a copy of the letter – a letter which this uncle had just passed on to him? If the aim was to put Lothar under pressure, why not just disseminate the letter immediately? And why mention this secret plan in a written document, which was likely to be read by numerous people besides Charles?
The solution to this conundrum, it seems to me, is in the binding power of shared secrets. Nicholas was trying to win Charles round, and by creating a secret, and sharing it with Charles, he hoped to strengthen their entente, and to exclude Lothar. It seems to me likely that Lothar was supposed to know that Charles had a ‘secret’ copy of the letter, and that this secret was intended to weaken the trust between the two kings. The preservation of Lothar’s letter in a West Frankish manuscript context (Paris Bnf. lat. 1557, sadly not yet digitised) suggests Charles did as he was asked.
As Stuart Airlie and Abigail Firey have both remarked, secrecy is a thread running through the divorce case – Theutberga’s secret sin, her secret confession, the anonymity of the group who contacted Hincmar. It seems that not even the pope was immune from falling into its conspiratorial orbit.
A note on Pope Nicholas’s letters available in translation A selection of Pope Nicholas’s letters concerning the divorce have been translated, some in full and some in part by David D’Avray, Dissolving royal marriages: a documentary history. Another set have recently been translated into German by Klaus Herbers and Veronika Unger in Papstbriefe des 9. Jahrhundert. Nicholas’s letter to Theutberga, written at the same time as this one (Jan 867), has been translated on the marvellous Epistola website. This particular letter to Charles is not in either selection, and has not been translated before to my knowledge.
In early June 860, three Frankish kings met at Koblenz, an old Roman fort on the River Rhine. The two brothers Louis and Charles had come to draw a line under the political crisis ignited by Louis’s failed invasion of Charles’s kingdom in 858. This meeting was the culmination of much diplomatic fencing; their nephew Lothar II was also present to help broker the deal.
The meeting produced various written texts (as Jenny Benham has discussed). The peace itself was expressed partly through a Latin text, a jointly written statement. This had been hammered out a couple of days in advance by a joint group of select advisors, made up of bishops and senior aristocrats. The group played it safe, compiling a capitulary that mostly repeated verbatim one that been issued eight years previously in 851 at another royal conference. Emphasising the importance of fraternal love, the need for peace and support for the church, it was the Frankish equivalent of ‘motherhood and apple pie’, a largely symbolic affirmation of shared values with which no one could quibble. The Koblenz group did however throw in a few additions which perhaps tell us something about the key issues at the time, notably about marital abduction and over-hasty excommunication (see the translation below).
But the entente at Koblenz was also expressed through speaking and action: and here language came into play. It is not clear whether the Latin capitulary was publicly read out. But what is clear is that King Louis gave a vernacular summary of it in German, and that King Charles then gave a vernacular summary of it in Romance (i.e., proto-French). Alongside this interesting evidence for how Carolingian capitularies might have been ‘used’ in assemblies, the Koblenz text also notes that Louis spoke to Charles in Romance, and that Charles recapitulated his own speech in German. This was a multi-lingual summit in which the Frankish kings acted as their own translators.
What was the point of all this language-switching? Presumably it was for the benefit of the audience. Kings such as Charles and Louis were bi-lingual, as would have been the top Frankish magnates. But that was not necessarily the case for all of the entourage of these kings present at Koblenz. Those more minor aristocrats with lands only in the west, for instance, might well have been unfamiliar with German. So it was important that the kings showed they were speaking to everyone. This tactical multilingualism had already been used at the Strasbourg oaths of 841, when Louis and Charles had cemented an alliance. It was an established part of the political repertoire of a pluralised political community.
Events would prove, however that no matter how many languages they were read out in, the fine words about family feeling were not very deeply felt. All the recorded participants at the Koblenz meeting were men, but there was one woman who although not present must have been on many people’s minds – Queen Theutberga. By the time of the Koblenz summit, the young Lothar was several months into his fresh campaign to divorce his wife on grounds of incest. (One wonders if he awkwardly bumped into Theutberga’s brother Boso, who seems to have been present at Koblenz as an influential Frankish magnate). At Koblenz, the young Lothar was granted a junior role on the public stage, and his uncle Charles was still warmly referring to him as his ‘dearest nephew’. But not long afterwards, at another royal conference at Savonnières in 862, Charles had scented a political opportunity, and refused even to speak with a man increasingly engulfed by the scandal he had himself rashly orchestrated.
While studying for my PhD at the University of Sheffield, I was lucky enough to be part of the Medieval Latin Translation (MLT) group, which meets informally on a roughly fortnightly basis during term time. Each semester we have a go at translating a medieval text, preferably one which has not yet been translated into English, with the aim of making our finished version available online for the benefit of other researchers and students.
In Autumn semester 2019, I proposed a letter written by an African bishop named Honoratus Antoninus in c.437 A.D. I had come across this letter while researching the penalty of exile in the post-Roman kingdoms, as it was addressed to a man named Arcadius who had been banished somewhere in North Africa by the Vandal king Geiseric (r. 428-477). Although I had already produced a rough translation of the letter, I was eager to look at the text more closely with the MLT group. The fruits of our labour are presented in this blog post, which provides (to the best of my knowledge) the first published translation of Honoratus’ letter. My thanks to Jasper Chopping, Richard Gilbert, Alex Traves, and Tianpeng Zhang who all collaborated with me on the translation, and especially to Dr Charles West, who led the group, checked over the finished translation, and heroically researched its complicated manuscript history. Any errors that remain are, of course, my sole responsibility.
Before providing the English translation, I thought it might be helpful to prospective readers to offer a brief summary of the letter’s historical context and contents. The letter was written during a tumultuous period in Roman history. In the first decade of the fifth century, several ‘barbarian’ groups had crossed over Rome’s Rhine frontier and caused disruption as they moved through the western provinces. One of those groups were the Vandals who, by the time of Geiseric’s succession in 428, had settled in the province of Baetica in southern Spain.
King Geiseric, however, took the momentous decision to move his followers across the straits of Gibraltar into Roman North Africa. Advancing eastwards along the coast, Geiseric won a string of victories against the Roman armies sent to resist him and captured the city of Hippo Regius – the see of the renowned theologian St Augustine who died during the siege – in 432. With limited resources available and recognising the strength of the Vandal position, the Western Emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455) concluded a peace treaty with Geiseric in 435 and ceded him control of the provinces of Mauretania and the western half of Numidia.
Like many other barbarian kings, Geiseric subscribed to a form of Christianity erroneously referred to by contemporaries (and many modern historians) as Arianism but which is more properly described as Homoian. However, unlike many of his counterparts, Geiseric was a militant proponent of his creed, and over the course of his long reign he enacted several policies that targeted the Catholic or rather Nicene church in Vandal Africa. He was particularly concerned with ensuring that those serving in the royal administration subscribed to the Homoian confession and on several occasions attempted to force his Nicene officials to apostatise through threats of punishment.
It was this policy that resulted in the banishment of one of Geiseric’s loyal advisers, a man named Arcadius, in around 437. According to the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, Arcadius fell out with the king when he refused to adopt Homoian Christianity. Geiseric responded by banishing Arcadius together with three other Catholic courtiers named Paschasius, Probus, and Eutychianus. Prosper provides no indication of where the men were sent but they must have remained within the Vandal territories as they were later executed on Geiseric’s orders.
Bishop Honoratus and the Contents of his Letter
Honoratus Antoninus was the Catholic bishop of the see of Cirta/Constantina [mod. Constantine, Algeria – pictured above], which had fallen under Vandal rule following the treaty of 435. It is not clear why Honoratus addressed his letter solely to Arcadius, rather than to all four of the courtiers who had been punished by Geiseric – perhaps Arcadius had some pre-existing connection with Honoratus or was living in exile close to his see, or perhaps the bishop believed that Arcadius’ faith was wavering and thus needed special attention.
In any case, Honoratus’ letter was designed to console Arcadius, while encouraging him to remain steadfast in his commitment to Nicene Christianity. Judging by Honoratus’ repeated allusions to Arcadius’ impending martyrdom, it would seem that at the time of the letter’s writing Geiseric had already sentenced Arcadius to death (or at least Honoratus anticipated that this would happen in the near future). Throughout the letter, the bishop reminds Arcadius time and again of what is at stake in his dispute with the king. Arcadius, so Honoratus tells him, is on the cusp of greatness; if he remains true to his faith and accepts the martyr’s crown, he will join Christ and the apostles in heaven. However, if he falters, he will humiliate the Catholic church and will risk spending eternity in damnation. So, while the tone of the letter is generally positive and uplifting, it is laced with a stark warning.
Honoratus employs several rhetorical strategies to prepare Arcadius for his showdown with the Homoian authorities. He refers to exemplars drawn from scripture – Job, the Maccabean mother, and, of course, Christ himself – whom Arcadius should look to for inspiration. He also reassures Arcadius about his fate, explaining how his pain will be assuaged through the strength of his faith and that his sins will be forgiven. But again such reassurances come with a sting in the tail, as Honoratus reminds Arcadius that God is watching him and testing him. Thus, for the good of his soul, and the souls of others, he must persevere and complete his victory.
In the latter half of his letter, Honoratus adopts a more theological perspective, outlining the nature of the relationship between Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. By way of analogy, Honoratus emphasises the unity of the Trinity. It is possible that Arcadius had specifically requested such an explanation in some previous (and non-extant) correspondence with the bishop. Alternatively, Honoratus may have simply wanted to provide Arcadius with a refresher in how Nicene belief differed from the Vandal’s Homoian confession, which favoured a nontrinitarian doctrine in which Christ is distinct from and subordinate to God the Father.
The first edition of the letter was published by Johannes Sichard in 1528, in Antidotum contra diversas omnium fere seculorum hereses. The German palaeographer and philologist, Paul Lehmann, who wrote about Sichard’s sources, was unsure which manuscript Sichard had used for his text and was unable to find one. However, a little digging has turned up two manuscripts: Montpellier BM H 308, at fol. 174, a ninth-century manuscript from Lyon linked to the Carolingian scholar Florus of Lyon, and Paris lat. 16331, a thirteenth-century manuscript (probably the manuscript mentioned in a medieval Sorbonne catalogue).  The edition used for our translation was published as part of the Patrologia Latina (PL 50, Paris, 1846, cols 567-70) which was itself based on the edition published by Marguerin de La Bigne in Maxima bibliotheca veterum patrum vol. 8 in 1677, which in turn was probably based on Sichard’s 1528 edition. The Patrologia edition of the Latin text we used for our translation can be found here (n.b. requires subscription), or as in open access format here (via the Zuerich Corpus corporum project).
The Consolatory Letter of Bishop Honoratus Antoninus of Constantina to Arcadius, who has been Driven into Exile by King Geiseric of the Vandals.
Go on, faithful soul, go on; and, confessor of unity, rejoice that you have merited to suffer abuse in the name of Christ, just as when the apostles were flogged. Behold, this snake now lies beneath your feet. It was able to attack, but it fell, since it was not able to strike you. I demand of you, crush its head: let it not rise again in the martyr’s contest, let no one agitate you. Behold, Christ rejoices and watches you: the angels rejoice, and assist you; the crowd of demons watches your heel: do not falter, lest the demons who are now grieving rejoice. The whole chorus of the martyrs, your predecessors, stands with you: the martyrs await and protect you, and stretch out the crown. I ask you; hold fast what you have, lest someone else take your crown [Apoc. 31]. How short is the time in which you will fight! And how long the time in eternity in which you will be victorious in eternity! Finish what you have begun; today you will see why you are suffering; nothing is hidden from the Lord; let the devil not deceive you in the matter, when he piles confusion upon you; he does not want you, my dearest, to suffer. Truly, brother, you have a struggle. This confession is undiminished: if you die, you may be certain that you will be a martyr.
Job did not pay heed to his wife, and so he won; not to his family, not to riches, not to his friends, and rightly he prevailed. Adam loved his spouse too much, and therefore he fell so lamentably. Thus, the Lord says: “He does not send away his father, or his mother, or his wife, or his sons, or his daughters for me, is not my disciple”. [Mark 10]. If you were dead, how could your wife or family call you back? Just stay with him whom you have taken up, listen to him, hold him tight, do not reject him; and do not look back to your wife or family. In your heart, the battle you have begun is already complete. The archangel that fell is fighting you; he himself is wrestling against you; but on your side you have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid: see, he is helping you so he can crown you. The Maccabean mother sent seven sons to their death for Christ. They were tortured in front of her, and she encouraged them all the more to die. After her sons were killed, behold – she exults to be crowned with her sons. Consider that God made you in your mother’s womb: he gave you spirit and soul, he endowed you with reason and wisdom. He made heaven and earth, and all the things which are in them. Thus he wants to receive you when you die for the faith, so that he may display his full majesty to you. Consider the world: it will perish. Consider the sun and the moon and the stars: they too will melt away. Fight bravely for your soul, which will either live forever or will forever perish. Behold, your sins have been forgiven. And for this struggle, God will expunge all your iniquities whatever you have managed to commit up to today.
Hear what the prophet Ezekiel says about this matter: “the day when the unjust man is a fellow-servant and creates justice from his iniquity, I will not remember any of his transgressions anymore, saith the Lord” [Ezek. 18.22]. Your justice, your faith (since he is just who lives from faith), your tribulation, despoliation, and exile have brought you the remission of your sins. Death opens up to you the kingdoms of heaven. What will it feel like when you see yourself with Saint Stephen? What will it feel like when you have Peter and Paul as friends, whom you used to pray to as patrons? Your soul will soon see Christ, and your body will be in the cool resting place of the resurrection, so that your flesh may see what your soul will see when it soon departs. The Devil rages, Christ rejoices. Ask, cry out, and demand help; and soon you will receive peace of mind. Fear the eternal punishments, where it always burns, where the body and soul are always tortured in darkness, where body and soul burn for eternity with the Devil. Fear Gehenna, and now hold onto Christ. Now is the time to either live or die. No one will rescue you if you falter in this fight.
And what benefit is it to you, if you agree with the devil, and soon afterwards you depart from your body? Or do you not know that the life of your body is in the power of your God, who can instantly take the flesh away from you if you relinquish the faith? A certain Christian recounted that, while he was being tortured on the rack for his faith, there was an angel with a shining face standing by him, with a cloth soaked in water, who splashed water on his face and wiped it with the cloth. While he was tortured, the angel did not withdraw, consoling him and refreshing him. Moreover, the martyr of Christ did not inwardly feel the punishment that he sustained. The tortures are less felt when the fighting is for Christ, because the strength of the soul overcomes the pains of the world; and since the divinity has been invoked, the bitterness of the tortures is softened.
Behold, you are held on behalf of mankind; and when you are broken, you will not lose the faith, even if you have lost your flesh. Show God this perseverance, and you need not greatly fear the punishment; for either it will either be great and soon over, or it will be trifling, and your soul will be in no great torment. You must pray, however, because you have begun to struggle, and you have not failed; you have commenced your martyrdom, so look after your soul. I adjure you by the union of the Trinity, for which you will suffer death, to preserve your heart, and strengthen it through the Holy Spirit, which you wished to inspire you, and which you have honoured in yourself. Fight bravely through the purity of your baptism, which you never intended to let down. Be sure of the crown; be sure in the fight, until the Lord wishes to complete your victory. Now God is testing your soul. There is the eye of God: it is watching you from hour to hour, what you are doing, what are thinking, how you are fighting, how you are behaving. If it sees that you are strong, it rejoices and assists; if it sees that you are weak, it sustains and uplifts.
So fight for the truth continuously until death; and you will be a salvation not only for yourself but for others: otherwise God will examine both your soul and the souls of others. You are the standard-bearer of Christ; you are marching first in the battle line: if you fall, you will not be without blame for the death of others. Be apprehensive of that: for, if you succeed, you will have fought for the salvation of many people, and you will receive a manifold crown. God is one, God can be nothing less, God cannot be changed. You know these things, so hold on to the truth strongly. Listen briefly to what I said before. God is one: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, yet the flesh pertains only to Christ. Truly, the soul is one thing, reason is another: but reason is in the soul. And the soul is one; but the soul does one thing, reason does another: the soul lives, reason knows. Life pertains to the soul; wisdom pertains to reason; and yet neither is the soul without reason, nor is reason without the soul; and though they are one, the soul alone takes up life, reason alone takes up wisdom. Thus the Father and the Son, although they are one, and God is one, yet the flesh pertains to Christ alone, just as wisdom pertains to reason alone, though it does not recoil from the soul. See therefore, the heat and light of the sun are in one ray, but the heat dries out, while the light illuminates: the heat does one thing, the light another, although the heat and the light cannot be separated from each other. The light therefore brings illumination, not warmth; the heat brings warmth, not illumination.
Each does different things individually, yet they do not recoil from each other. Thus the Son alone took on the flesh, and yet did not depart from the Father, nor did he divide himself from the Father. The Son therefore took on the flesh as a quality, and yet the Father and the Holy Spirit were not absent in majesty. Equality in divinity, specific in the Son’s flesh; but the divinity of the Father or the Holy Spirit did not recede from him. Christ took on the flesh, but did he retreat from the Father or the Holy Spirit? Therefore, there is a true unity. Both Father and Holy Spirit filled the flesh of Christ, but by majesty, not by taking it up. You want to know that the Father was in him: “I am not alone”, said Christ, “but the Father is with me “[John 16:32]. Listen to what the evangelist relates about the Holy Spirit, who was with him: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned to the [river] Jordan” [Luke 4.1]. Behold, Christ alone took on the flesh, and yet the Father and the Holy Spirit were not absent in their majesty. If they fill up heaven and earth, they could not abandon the flesh of Christ, as long as they remained in the unity of divinity.
Furthermore, consider the lyre as it gives forth melodies with sweet sounds: three things seem as one, skill, hand and string. Skill dictates, the hand plays, and the string resounds. All three are at work, but only the string produces the sound you hear. Neither skill nor the hand make a sound, but each of them is working together with the string. Thus, neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit took flesh, but even so they are working together with the Son. Only the string produces sounds, only Christ took on flesh. The working consists of three things; but just as the production of sound pertains only to the string, so the taking on of human flesh pertains only to Christ. These words come from an inconsequential man placed in great suffering, so that whatever should be said came only with difficulty to my mind. This is the proper rule of the faith. If anything happens to you on account of this, you have achieved martyrdom. Christ received blows, Christ endured the spit of others, Christ drank sour wine vinegar, Christ was crowned with thorns, Christ was crucified, and the righteous was condemned among guilty thieves; Christ was pierced by a spear — Christ stood firm through all this on behalf of your faults, so how much firmer must you stand for your soul, so that nobody takes away your crown.
Now you are in the stadium; march forward bravely, do not be afraid; let nothing terrify you; let nothing deeply trouble you, because the whole Church prays for you so that you might conquer. The Catholic church is looking out for you, its martyr, so that it may honour you just like its martyr Stephen. See to it that you do not confound us in this world. See to it that you do not humiliate us in the sight of our enemies. Christ the Lord endures with you, the church endures with you. Be most confident about your crown; do not fear at all whatever past sins you have been able to commit.
Or: King Lothar’s divorce & 5,000 people in a field
How far was there a public sphere, an arena of public debate and opinion, in early medieval European kingdoms? It’s often been assumed that there wasn’t, whether because of the pervasion of ‘lordship’ which suppressed notions of the public, or because of presumed limitations to communication (for instance, low literacy rates). But recent work, for instance by Mayke de Jong and Irene van Renswoude, has suggested that we shouldn’t prejudge the question. And this blog’s about a somewhat neglected text relating to the turbid politics of Lothar II’s divorce case which points in the same direction.
By the autumn of 862, King Lothar II had been struggling to escape his marriage to Theutberga for several years. But recent events had seemed to be going his way. In April, he had successfully persuaded his bishops to allow him to remarry at a council in Aachen. And at some point over the next few weeks he had Waldrada crowned as his queen. There were however two remaining obstacles. One was to secure the approval of the pope, Nicholas, to Theutberga’s removal; the other was to win over Lothar’s neighbour and uncle, King Charles the Bald of West Francia. Charles was refusing even to meet Lothar, so Lothar’s other uncle, King Louis the German of East Francia, lent his help. In the summer of 862 Louis sent envoys to Charles on Lothar’s behalf, to arrange a meeting where everything could all be ironed out.
That meeting took place at Savonnières, a royal estate near Toul in Lothar’s kingdom, in early November 862. However, Charles the Bald arrived with the intention not of letting bygones be bygones, but with the plan of turning the heat up on his nephew’s predicament. For he came armed with a written list of his grievances against Lothar. Specifically, he emphasised his concern that Lothar was sheltering people who had been excommunicated by the pope (a woman named Engeltrude who had fled her husband, and a man named Baldwin who had eloped with Charles’s own daughter); and he emphasised his opposition to Lothar’s attempts at divorce and remarriage given what Charles knew of the pope’s position. He would only meet Lothar, and give him the kiss of peace, if Lothar would publicly commit to remedying, or ‘emending’, these matters. These demands led to ‘quite a battle of words’ (non mediocri querela inde sermonibus est conflictum), according to the Annals of St Bertin.
But Charles did not stop there. Remarkably, he also brought with him to Savonnières pre-drafted speeches (adnuntationes) for delivery by himself, Lothar and Louis. These speeches were all modelled on a common pattern: each king promised to uphold the general commitments they had entered into at a previous royal meeting at Koblenz in 860, and noted that Charles had demanded of Lothar action on certain unspecified issues, to which Lothar had agreed.
But Charles’s plan hit a snag. For in some of the manuscripts in which Charles’s list of grievances and the speeches are preserved, an addendum notes that
After these preceding declarations had been read out in front of all the almost 200 counsellors of the three kings who were present, including bishops and abbots and laymen, Louis and Lothar and their followers entirely rejected them, that they should not be read to the people [populus], so that the case of Lothar should be entirely unmentioned.
In other words, Charles’s carefully pre-prepared speeches were never actually read out.
In the Annals of St-Bertin, Hincmar of Reims, who was present at Savonnières (and who was involved in writing up Charles’s documents) sheds a little more light on the incident. He blamed one of the aristocratic counsellors, Conrad, who was trying ‘to prevent the people from finding out what accusation Charles was making against Lothar’. In fact none of the speeches explicitly mentioned what the accusation was; but they did mention that there was an accusation, and perhaps that would have been enough to provoke further interest.
Who were ‘the people’ whose opinion evidently mattered enough to spike the speeches? It was not the 200 counsellors, who had already heard the draft speeches in the hall. But of course these counsellors would not have travelled to Savonnières alone. Michael McCormick reckoned that each of these aristocrats would have had a group of retainers and followers of their own, and estimated the total numbers at Savonnieres as around 5,000. What Charles had in mind was surely for the kings to deliver their speeches to a crowd of these people (presumably outside, since the hall at Savonnières would have been too small for so many people), much as had taken place at Koblenz in 860.
Louis and Lothar’s position was clearly that the matter of Lothar’s marriage was now resolved, and everyone could move on. Charles, however had no intention of letting Lothar get away with it, and had hoped to use his speeches to ensure that it remained publicly marked as a live issue. Was this in the hope of making gains at Lothar’s expense, or out of concern for not being sucked into the maelstrom? Either way, when his proposed speeches were blocked for fear of their effect on the populus, Charles gave his own short address that very evening, inside the hall to a group of counsellors – and had it written down, too.
In the end, the Savonnières meeting was a mixed success for everyone. Lothar got the kiss of peace from Charles, and avoided having the assembled transalpine Frankish aristocracy publicly reminded of his sins; Charles at least made sure his version of events was written down, which emphasised the conditionality of his friendship. King Charles was a tough negotiator, but thanks to Uncle Louis’s support Lothar II was making some headway. As Lothar would discover, the pope was going to prove a rather harder challenge.
changes in male fashion annoyed several clerics in 11th-century
Europe. Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester apparently waxed wrathful against English
male elites for what he considered their effeminate long hair, while the
Benedictine chronicler Raoul Glaber, writing around the 1040s, complained that
French lay elites had begun to wear ‘indecent hose and shoes’.
Perhaps the angriest cleric of all however was Abbot Siegfried of Gorze, as comes across in a letter Siegfried wrote to a fellow abbot, Poppo of Stavelot, in 1043. This letter is extremely interesting, but not quite as well-known to Anglophone audiences, probably because unlike Wulfstan and Glaber’s texts, it has not been translated into English before (a draft translation is provided below).
Siegfried’s monastery of Gorze lay in the western parts of the empire, but though it was therefore close to France, there was no question about Siegfried’s political or cultural allegiances. He linked changes in clothing in the empire to the growing influence of the French, and this he in turn associated with a general moral decline, and damage to the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). Until the 11th century, emperors Otto and Henry had kept out this pernicious influence; now, Abbot Siegfried lamented, it was growing in strength. He noted changes in beards, and in the cut and tailoring of clothes, and suggested that they were associated with an increase in crimes of various kinds, and with a general abandoning of the empire’s cultural heritage.
Siegfried does not explicitly say why this was a pressing issue in 1043. One factor might have been the empire’s recent takeover of the largely Francophone kingdom of Burgundy which had taken place in 1033. But it’s probably relevant that most of Siegfried’s letter is an attempt to get the influential Abbot Poppo to prevent Emperor Henry III from marrying a French bride, Agnes of Poitou, the daughter of the duke of Aquitaine.
Siegfried was vehemently opposed to this marriage. He was determined to block it, and his chief tactic was to show that it would be incestuous, because Agnes and Henry were too closely related. He demonstrated this kinship with a now sadly lost figura, based on his extensive genealogical enquiries.
To hammer home the point, Siegfried drew on the Bible to argue that if they did marry, God would punish Henry’s incest, even suggesting that the king’s kingroup might die out. As such, the letter casts a fascinating light on 11th-century ideas about kinship.
With this in mind, it’s likely that Siegfried’s apparent tangent on pernicious French customs towards the end of the letter was not so subtly opening up another angle to persuade Emperor Henry not to marry a French woman, by drawing attention to the risks of introducing foreign customs into the empire. If incest wouldn’t put Henry off, maybe a bit of xenophobia might do the trick?
It was all in vain: Siegfried’s scaremongering didn’t work, and the marriage went through in November 1043. Agnes went on to become a truly remarkable empress – but that is a subject for another blog.
Notes: Thanks to Julia Hillner for suggesting a diagram would be useful. Image: Genealogical table from a Beatus manuscript (Morgan 429)
Abbot Siegfried of Gorze’s Letter to Abbot Poppo of Stavelot, 1043 – translation
Translation based on the edition and French translation by Michel Parisse, ‘Sigefroid, abbé de Gorze et le mariage du roi Henri III avec Agnès de Poitou (1043). Un aspect de la réforme Lotharingienne’, Revue du Nord 356 (2004), 543-566, available online here . The text is preserved in a single early modern copy, now in Austria (https://manuscripta.at/hs_detail.php?ID=13681). This was translated in some haste, so please do let me know if you spot any errors.
lord Abbot Poppo, who should be embraced with sincere love and perfect
reverence, brother Siegfried, unworthy servant of the community of Gorze,
wishes abundant happiness in this life and eternal beatitude in the next.
I have no
doubt that your Paternity remembers that recently, when we met at Thionville,
we greatly lamented the dangers of our age that the Apostle predicted – in
people’s customs and behaviour, the incest and perjury of many, the decline of
religion [religio] and the increase in perversity, and, to briefly sum
up, the various dangers of the Church. Amongst these things, daring in your
Kindness, I asked you why you had not told the king [Henry III] that the girl
[Agnes] he has decided to marry is so closely related to him that she cannot be
joined to him without grave offence to the Lord. You replied that you had not
been silent, and that he did not wish to act against the Lord, but rather had
many times asked you to look into the truth of the matter and give him certainty
before he did anything against divine right.
greatly reassured by his good intention, I told you everything which I had long
known about their kinship. But I could not tell you the names of two women who
at that time escaped my memory. So you asked that I should carefully look into
the certainty about these and other names of this kinship (cognatio),
and should take care to inform you in writing. To this request I obey readily
as I am concerned that such a great harm should not come about.
having left you, I learned from many people what I had not heard before, that
his first wife and she whom he now wants to marry are separated from each other
by no more than three or four generations. I omit to write out the kinship now,
because of the barbarity of the Danish or Northman names, and for precaution in
case things that have not been proven are taken as certain, and thereby false
things are taken as true.
Leaving these things aside, let us come to those things that are very well known to many. King Henry had three sons with Matilda: Emperor Otto, Archbishop Bruno, Duke Henry. And he had two daughters: Gerberga and Hadewida. Of these, one, Hadewida, married Hugh; the other, that is Gerberga, married Duke Gilbert, and bore him a daughter named Alberada. After Gilbert’s death Gerberga was joined in marriage to King Louis of the Franks, and had with him two sons, King Lothar and Duke Charles, and a daughter Matilda, later the wife of Conrad king of the Burgundians.
Later, from these sisters, born not from the same father but from the same mother, that is Gerberga, were born Ermentrude, daughter of Alberada, and Gepa known as Gerberga, daughter of Matilda. This was the first generation. Ermentrude bore Agnes, Gepa bore the august Gisela and her sister Matilda. This was the second generation. The son of Gisela, the lord King Henry, and the daughter of Agnes of the same name, that is the Agnes who this is all about, are in the third degree of the genealogy.
that it was told to the king that his grandmother Gepa was born not from
Matilda but from the first wife of King Conrad. This is not the case, as both
the account of truthful men and the naming of these women shows. For the
genealogical line passes from Matilda, the wife of the great King Henry, to
Matilda the aunt of this our king, through Matildas and Gerbergas, so that
Matilda, daughter of Gerberga and namesake of her grandmother, gave the name of
her mother to her daughter, and her own name to her granddaughter, as an
another line of kinship (consanguinitas) which no one of sound mind will
contradict, in this way: the great emperor Otto and his sister the
oft-mentioned Gerberga both had daughters, one Dudica, the other Alberada.
Alberada’s daughter Ermentrude bore Agnes, mother of the young Agnes. Duke
Otto, the son of Dudica, name-sake of his grandfather, had Henry, the father of
Emperor Conrad, who was the father of our Emperor Henry. And thus he is in the
fifth degree, and the girl Agnes is in the fourth degree of the genealogy.
these things may be clearer, I have provided a diagram, in which we have
written the above mentioned name and some other names of both sexes belonging
to this kinship. Please show this to the king, and advise him humbly that when
he finds the names of his kin written there and realises their danger, that he
should not harden his heart, but should be moved not to wrath, but rather to
regret and lament, lest the wrongdoings of his kindred should become his own –
may it not happen. For their fault and the blame for that fault will redound
upon him if he imitates them in wickedness. For God very terribly and
truthfully threatens those who follow the vices of their kindred, that he will
return the injustice of the fathers to
the sons and grandsons, to the third and fourth generation. Ask the king again
and again, and warn him patiently and impatiently, so that he has this very
fearsome declaration constantly in mind, and takes vigilant care to avoid such
peril. For this vengeance should be feared as not just on the soul but on the
body, since it is known for certain that the generation born from such an
illicit union will not be able to successfully thrive (succrescere). The
king can easily see that this is true, if he wishes to carefully consider how
few now remain from his most noble and once most ample kindred.
moreover hear and carefully understand from you that though infamy is to be
feared by all, it must be as attentively avoided by the royal majesty as that
majesty appears highly exalted over everyone. For like a city on the hill
cannot be hidden, as the Lord said, and just as the candle lifted up on the
candelabra gives light to everyone in the household, so the good reputation or
infamy of the king cannot be hidden from many people living both within and
outwith his kingdom. And, what is more serious, the customs of people are such
that such a shameful reputation very quickly grows and spreads day by day more
widely, and with growing wings, flies from mouth to mouth, ever increasing. A
good reputation runs more slowly and more narrowly, and finding many detractors
and few imitators, it quickly diminishes and fades away. If therefore the king
puts his will ahead of the canonical sanctions (may it not happen) and does not
fear to bring to completion what has begun, how many people who might have been
coerced by fear of him not to do what they wish, will rejoice in his example
and be emboldened, and will do similar and ever worse things – and if they
begin to be warned or called out by someone, then they will immediately point
to this deed of the royal highness in defence of their wickedness! We believe
to be certain that the fault and blame of those whom he could have helped to
salvation but instead made to sin and thus to perish by his example will
rebound upon him.
read if he wishes, or let him have read to him what holy Scripture says about
King Jeroboam, and he will find that the sins which Jeroboam made others commit
are more often mentioned than those he committed himself. About all the kings
who acted like him, it is read that the sons of Nabat did not step back from
the sins of Jeroboam – and it does not add ‘who sinned’, but rather it notes
explicitly ‘who made Israel sin’, so that we can clearly understand how
seriously we shall incur the wrath of God whenever we provoke others to sin by
our bad example.
the Generosity of our king pay attention to this, and carefully reflect on how
a manifold danger looms over him if he carries out the wickedness against the
canons that he is thinking about. And if for the fear and love of God he
renounces his desire and chooses not to follow his predecessors in their
illicit deeds, if he continues as a lover of justice and piety, if he maintains
his humility amidst his royal excellence and happy successes, if he seeks the
glory of God rather than his own, and if finally he energetically represses the
sins of not just himself but of others, and stimulates them to virtue – if, I
say, he perseveres with vigilance in such actions through to the end, then he
will not be bound by sin of his kindred and other people, but the grace of God
will precede and follow him, and he will be worthy to reign with Christ in this
life and in the future life. As it is fearsomely written about wicked sons that
the sins of their fathers will rebound upon them, so it is mercifully written
about good sons that ‘the son does not bear the iniquity of his father’.
King Josiah, born from very wicked parents, discovered and recognised their sin
from the book of divine law, and learned how great a vengeance loomed over him
and his people, he grieved and wept bitterly, and tore his clothing as was then
the custom to show his inner grief, and left behind his father’s wickedness and
sought the Lord with all his heart, and made sure to serve Him carefully and to
warn others in order to placate divine anger. Because of this, not only did the
fault of his predecessors not count against him, but he was worthy to hear
divine consolation in this way: ‘Because, said the Lord God Israel, ‘you heard
the words of the Book and your heart was terrified and you were humble before
the Lord, after you heard the sermons against this place and its inhabitants,
that they would become the object of amazement and cursing, and because you
tore your clothing and wept before, I heard you, says the Lord. Therefore I
will gather you along with your fathers and you will be placed in your tomb
peacefully, so that your eyes will not see the harm which I shall bring upon this
place’. I wanted to put these words about King Josiah here so that the lord
king, warned by you, will take care to imitate him; and when Henry holds in his
hands the diagram I have made and sees the names of his kindred (parentes
sui) there, he will be afraid for himself and for them, and to avoid
provoking the anger of God upon himself and the people subjected to him, he
will not act against the canonical decrees, but will decide to place the will
of God before his own in all matters, so that he will be worthy to rejoice with
Him now and always.
remember one other thing. When his father [Conrad II] wished to marry the
daughter of the king of the Franks, and decided to do this against divine
right, as can be seen in the diagram, there were many who wished to be pleasing
to the majesty of the emperor, and they competed to tell him that the marriage
could be well and usefully carried through, because they hoped that thanks to
it the two kingdoms could be joined in a single peace or brought into unity. And
I think that now too there are such people who similarly flatter and claim to
work for royal praise, and since they want to be pleasing to the earthly ruler,
they speak falsehoods and so do not care about displeasing the Lord, not
noticing or caring little about what is written, ‘He will dissolve the bones of
whose are pleasing to men’.
pleases me therefore to denounce the poisonous statement of those who promise
peace to him and others through a transgression of divine law, and to show how
much they are opposed to the truth. It is obvious and undoubtedly true that
canonical authority is the law of God. Whoever acts against the canons, acts
against the law of God. Who acts against the law of God, commits an impiety,
and is made impious. And it is written ‘There is no peace for the impious’,
says the Lord. From these things it can be gathered that the peace of those
prevaricators of the canons is not a true peace. We say true peace, since we
are not unaware that there is a false peace. For the reprobate and the
transgressors have peace, that is adulterers with adulterers, murderers with
murderers, and perjurers with perjurers. Sometimes these and others like them
have a peace between themselves, but it is a simulated peace, a deceiving
peace, a peace that is damaging to them and others. The Lord Jesus came to
destroy this peace, and said about it to those listening to him, ‘Do not think
that I came to bring peace upon earth. I came to bring not peace but the
sword’. And the Lord said to his disciples about the peace that the world
cannot give, ‘I leave my peace to you, I give my peace to you’, and the angels
announced it singing ‘Glory in excelsis to God and peace on earth to people of
goodwill’. As the Psalmist said, only the good and those who observe divine
precepts can have this peace, ‘Much peace is given to those who love your law,
O Lord, an it is not an impediment for them’.
is carefully to be noted that when the Psalmist says ‘peace’, he adds first
‘Much’, so that it is given to understand how those who do not obey the law of
God, even if they seem to have peace, do not have much peace, but only a short
and swiftly changeable peace. And whenever they seem outwardly to prosper and
relax, they are always inwardly agitated by all kinds of wickedness, and
whenever they devote themselves individually each to their own vices, together
they incur many occasions for sinning amongst themselves. But for those who
love the law of God there is much peace, and there is no occasion for sinning,
since even if they are outwardly disturbed by various storms of disorder, they
are inwardly fixed in the solidity of true faith, firmly rooted in love, and
they meet whatever adversities there are with tranquil mind in the hope of
eternal reward. They desire to have peace with everyone if possible. They do
not wish to risk falling into sin for any reason, nor do they wish to make
anyone else risk falling int sin, but rather they always hurry towards better
things, and reconcile themselves with the Lord and His angels, so that with
their help they may reach eternal peace. We wanted to offer this digression to
show that those who encourage their lords to do illicit things and promise them
a firm future peace deceive themselves and others. It is just as if they say,
‘Let us do harm so that good may come’. If you meet someone like this, manfully
resist them to their face, and beg our glorious king not to give his assent to
since the day fixed for the marriage is now approaching, I beg you, blessed
father, to go to the king and not to delay in showing him all this, since you
yourself asked for this investigation and a great peril looms over you if you a
great harm is carried out through your delay. Hurry then to show him this
letter with the diagram, and we steadfastly beseech him that his Highness will
not be angered by our Smallness because I have dared to say and write such
things, nor let him pay attention to the rusticity of our speech, but let him
consider the intention of my heart and recognise how much sollicitude I have
for him and the safety of his kingdom. From that day when first at Aachen and
then at Metz he humbly asked me to pray for him, he has never been absent from
the little prayers of myself and my brothers. We will regret that this will
have achieved nothing or little if we hear that he has fallen into this
wickedness. But if – and may it not happen – he grows angry that we have
written this, let him know that even if we honour him as is right, we must fear
and love God more, and therefore we cannot be silent about the truth. We think
it more appropriate to warn him humbly before the deed than to criticise him
more fiercely and thus more dangerously afterwards.
venerable father, press these and similar things without delay, as much as God
permits, since whatever you give in addition, the good Samaritan when He comes
to judgement will restore to you many times over. And if you can bring the king
back from what he has begun, you will receive a reward from the Lord. If not,
you will free yourself from the blame of keeping silent.
Moreover, I see may things which are displeasing and in need of emendation, but I keep quiet about them for the moment, so we do not annoy the king’s ears. But there is one thing which upsets me very greatly and which I cannot allow to pass over in silence, that is about the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). In the times of previous emperors, this honour flourished very properly in clothing and comportment, in arms and horseriding. But in our days this has been put in second place, and the ignominious custom of French ineptitudes has been introduced, in the shaving of beards, in the shameful shortening and deforming of garments, and in many other novelties which it would take too long to list, and whose introduction was forbidden in the times of the Ottos and Henrys.
But today many people despise the honest customs of our fathers, and seek the clothing, and at the same time and very quickly, the perversities of foreigners. Through all this, they wish to be similar to those whom they know to be enemies and traitors. And what is be lamented even more, such people are not only not chastised, but are even treated as close companions by kings and other princes, and everyone received a greater reward the more promptly they copy these stupidities. The others see this and do not blush to copy them, and because they see the that they are tolerated and rewarded, they rush to think up even greater novel insanities. For these and other things, O father, I grieve very greatly, since with these foreign changes so too customs change, and we see in a kingdom hitherto more honourable than others that murders, rapine, perjury, betrayal and various deceptions are gradually increasing, and we fear that these are signs of greater ills. This is why we suppliantly beseech you, and in the name of God’s love, we ask you to take care to counter and cure these harms, through the king and through whomever you can. Farewell.
In 1059, the campaign to rid the church of the evil of simony moved up a gear. Simony was the sin – contemporaries said heresy – of acquiring ecclesiastical office in exchange for gifts, or promises of favour. At a council in Rome, Pope Nicholas II declared that all priests who had secured their position in this way were now deposed.
But Nicholas went further than that. He not only deposed priests who had paid for their offices, he also targeted priests who had been ordained by such priests, even if their own ordination had been carried out for free (gratis). This was a radical and controversial measure, reminiscent, as Conrad Leyser has pointed out, of the Donatist schism in the fifth century, because it implied that the sacraments of simoniac priests were invalid. Its practical implications were so great that Nicholas accepted that priests already freely ordained by simoniacs might stay in their offices – but by merciful concession, not by the letter of the law.
Nicholas’s decree also dealt with matters of papal election, so it might be tempting to read its far-reaching statements about simony as primarily an act of dramatic rhetoric, aimed at a local, Roman audience. Was it really intended to have an impact in the Latin church as a whole?
Actually, the answer might be yes. There’s a clue in the manuscript transmission – ie, how the text was preserved in the Middle Ages. Nicholas’s decree was copied not in manuscripts written in Rome, but in manuscripts based on a compilation of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury – and quite separately, in a manuscript now preserved in Vic in Catalonia. As Rudolf Schieffer pointed out, this suggests that Nicholas II took care to promulgate his decisions beyond Rome, sending out not only this decree, but also related material such as an oath sworn by the recanting heretic Berengar of Tours, which accompanies the 1059 decree in all manuscripts.
The Vic manuscript is especially interesting, however, since it also contains a copy of Humbert of Moyenmoutier’s 1058 treatise Three Books Against the Simoniacs. It’s long been debated how much this radical text spread, since not many copies of it now survive. But its proximity to the 1059 decree about simony in the Vic manuscript suggests not only that it might have spread more than we might think, but that it might even have been actively disseminated by the papacy as part of its anti-simony campaigns.
The mid-eleventh-century papacy is often overshadowed by Pope Gregory VII, but it’s becoming ever clearer how much he was the product, and not the cause, of ‘reform’.
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.
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?
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.
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
A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)