Category Archives: Vikings

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)

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.

“Certainly God is angry with us” – a sermon on the Vikings

In a previous blog, I gave some (admittedly lighthearted) advice on how to fend off a vampire attack, culled from a twelfth-century chronicle. In a slightly more serious tone, this blog’s about how to defend against the Vikings.

It’s a truism of the lecture-hall, the textbook and the documentary to point out that the Vikings didn’t write down their side of the story, at least not in the early Middle Ages. But nor did their secular opponents, at least not on a large scale. Instead, we’re dependent on texts produced by their ecclesiastical victims.  Historians mostly draw on monastic annals of one kind or another – the Annals of St-Vaast are a particular favourite for this purpose, filled with terror and horror at the Scandinavian depredations.  In other words, the perspective on the Vikings from the written sources is thoroughly ‘monastic’.

Actually, though, other kinds of texts do survive that shed a somewhat different light. In the course of research into a forthcoming article, I came across a short but very rich sermon by the Paris monk Abbo of St-Germain-des-Pres, written around 900 or so, and was so delighted by it that I’ve made a quick translation (I think the first into any modern language) so more people can read it too: http://history.dept.shef.ac.uk/translations/medieval/abbo-sermon/

Abbo’s theme was how to fend off the Viking attacks. What makes his sermon especially interesting is that it seems to be aimed at Carolingian lay aristocrats. This is still a monastic text, then, but it’s one that’s reaching out beyond the monastery, and not written purely or even primarily for monastic consumption.

It’s pitched at a fairly low level, in very straightforward Latin and with an easy-to-follow take-home argument. The main thrust is that the Vikings are a punishment from God for moral and ethical failings: “But how are you able to please God and to have victory, you who always have your hands full of perjury and rapine?”. Abbo draws on Biblical and Roman history to underline the point, and also draws on British history too (contemporary or ancient?) as a warning of what might happen if things don’t improve.

It’s however the last paragraph that’s perhaps the most interesting of all. Despite the general argument that what’s required is moral reform, Abbo concludes not by urging fasting or donations to the church, but by urging his audience to go out to battle:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs. And know truly that no man will die before his term, foreknown by God. A man is not able to be killed amongst all the swords, if it is not his time. For it is written, “You have set the limits which they cannot pass”. And therefore enter confidently into the Lord God’s war. And when you enter into God’s war, shout out with a loud voice, “Christ conquers, Christ rules, Christ commands!”.

Abbo here encourages his listeners to go out and face death, with an interesting combination of ideas of holy war and fate: Beowulf meets First Crusade. Whether this kind of pep-talk worked, we can’t of course know. But Frankish armies did win quite a few battles around this time – and Abbo’s sermon is maybe as close to their state of mind as we’re likely ever to get.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...