Confronting the/my past: how do you learn about the Carolingians?

There is I guess, no secret in the fact that I did two of my degrees at Cambridge, even if this is sometimes a cause of slight guilt. While I was there I was lucky to be taught by some very clever people whom I owe a great deal, and chief among those has to be Professor Rosamond McKitterick (though because I am ancient, she was only Dr McKitterick then…). Apart from a great deal of encouragement, administrative support and advice, and innumerable references, some of the things I owe her have only become apparent since then. Most of these are the things she made me (us) study, things that I would then, as a brash undergraduate, have as happily done without, and been a much poorer historian as a result. Such things were, for example, what palæography and manuscript studies can contribute to one’s grasp of historical change, not just intellectual history but, you know people moving from place to place, or just book production meaning you have access to a lot of sheep; or, generally, how what the clerics are arguing about can be part of the wider society they take part in and thus reveal some of the concerns of the man in the street; and I’ve since written here already about how what can, if you’re listening to Professor McKitterick for the first time, seem like a bewildering list of manuscripts resolves, once you know her approaches and can keep up with the citations, into genuine insight into issues of the days that she and I study, which perhaps no-one else could uncover for you.

An illumination of St John writing his Gospel from the Lorsch Gospels, taken from Wikimedia Commons

An illumination of St John writing his Gospel from the Lorsch Gospels, taken from Wikimedia Commons

So the main things I took from Professor McKitterick’s teaching were not to dismiss sorts of evidence as uninteresting just because I wanted to work on secular power and not monasteries, for example (not that I knew that yet, and you know, see how that worked out…), and that the élite and the general population were in closer contact and affected each other more than one might usually think. I also learned an awful lot about Carolingian intellectuals, and how to find that interesting (I still have a soft spot for Eriguena); I got my first taste of charters in the form of Tessier’s Recueil of Charles the Bald, and somewhere in there got a very important lesson about backing up your work, thankfully with something non-essential whose absence she forgave. I also got encouraged to study Catalonia after I wondered about it, and that has, if not worked out well, at least certainly worked out long-term. So yes.

This is all coming back to me fresh because I’m reading what is now my own copy, inherited by strange paths from her herself I believe, of her The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London 1983). I’m not sure I ever read all of it before, which I’d consider shameful had the other two pupils of hers to whom I’ve mentioned this not confessed similarly. In their case it’s easy to explain why: it goes to 987, and none of us but me ever bothered with much after 900, whereas I went and worked on a periphery where the evidence only really starts in 880. This is the general state of the field though. The sources are much better for earlier, because Charlemagne and Louis the Pious’s kingdoms, and Charles the Bald’s also, generate lots and lots of writing and preserve more. Also, they have the big fantastic achievements (creating Europe and then creating France and Germany, behold the teleology) whereas the later kings either just hold on or, worse, fail to. Thus, there are a huge welter of books on Charlemagne; Louis the Pious has inspired a lot of scholarship even if, until a very few years ago, there was no single biography of him newer than 1839; and Charles the Bald has become the special darling of a whole bunch of scholars who’ve realised how important his reign was in setting up the events of several centuries following.1 This book goes further on, and I should have read it all then. Well, now I have, and it has been both educational and inspiring (it inspired the recent post about Cluny, for a start). On a lesser plane, however, it has reminded me of some of the things I found difficult at the time and in the teaching of the Carolingians more widely.

Cover of Rosamond McKitterick's The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians

Cover of Rosamond McKitterick's The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians (N. B. image reversed, Lothar really sits half-left)

These all fall more or less into a category that one could call ‘assumed knowledge’. For example, Professor McKitterick herself naturally makes no real use of source translations, and she would often assume that one knew where the best edition was or how to find out, or would let us know that there was a translation but not necessarily know what it was called. That often made it quite difficult to produce it from the Seeley Library‘s rather taciturn catalogue (still incompletely digitised at that point). Now I see this assumption that we would understand the normal conventions of reference to these works as flattering, but when I think back to the confusion that references to the Life of Wala caused me, because its Latin title is Epitaphium Arsenii and the translation, which is in a volume called Charlemagne’s Cousins. doesn’t mention the work’s Latin name or Wala in its main title, I still grit my teeth very slightly.2 Of course, a lot of Professor McKitterick’s pupils go on to do research work and are of the general calibre and dedication who can survive with so little signposting, but in my own teaching I’ve always been consequently careful to give references that people can put into their own library catalogues when they’ve never heard of the book or subject before.

The other challenge was a tacit assumption that we already knew the basics. At Masters level that was either true or I wasn’t going to admit it, but at undergraduate level I think that one needs a narrative, which is not something that Cambridge medieval history generally at that time was very interested in. I still wrestle with the contradiction involved here, that we were expected, if necessary, to go to things like Louis Halphen’s or Heinrich Fichtenau’s old books, both available in translation but not going very far, or even for the basics of chronology Abel’s Jahrbücher, yet not to take any of it in too deeply as much had been revised since they were written. Our authorities were not authoritative, and the voices of authority that we heard were not interested in doing anything as mundane as telling stories. Thus, when Roger Collins wrote his Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, it got stinging reviews from some of my Cambridge teachers for being old-fashioned `battles-and-dates’ history but I thought it was a (slightly stuffy) lifeline, and I know some of my students have felt similarly about it, because they have to get this stuff from somewhere. So the book’s popularity has kept Roger in cravats or similar ever since, because it is needed. While I was under Professor McKitterick’s tuition her volume of the New Cambridge Medieval History made it to press, which was a considerable help, but something like Roger’s narrative will always have its rôle because it puts it all together in one sequence whereas by its nature the multiple-author NCMH is episodic and thematic.3

Cover of second edition of Roger Collins's Early Medieval Europe 300-1000

Cover of second edition of Roger Collins's Early Medieval Europe 300-1000

The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians encapsulates both what was marvellous about Professor McKitterick’s teaching, and these difficulties. It is not really a narrative, a history of the Carolingian era’s politics is not its main mission. Instead, it now reads to me more as a series of essays, arranged chronologically, on what Professor McKitterick herself then thought most important about that age. Sometimes that was in fact its political developments: the chapters on the last Carolingians and on the confused tangle of successions, especially in Italy, after the death of Charles the Fat, are perhaps the clearest accounts of those events I’ve yet read in English, and not just because I think they may be the only ones. (It must be said however that her few paragraphs about Catalonia cannot be safely cited, because they are riddled with errors, something I find extremely surprising; whatever the Annales Regni Francorum may claim, the Carolingian armies never took Tortosa, held Huesca only briefly and quickly gave up Tarragona.) On the other hand, the three chapters on culture and learning, where I think most such books would have had only one, all of which are among the longest in the book’s twelve, indicate a clear sense of the author’s own interests, and focus almost to exclusion on manuscripts, though there is also a brief and illuminating section on painting. Since this time, of course, Professor McKitterick has edited what remains pretty much the definitive work on such matters in English, so this is not what one still needs this book for, but it’s still illustrative.4

Also, there is assumed knowledge. For example, there are two references in the early political sections to the coup against Charlemagne by his son Pippin the Hunchback. He is in the index, but who he was and when the coup was are never stated. The extent of the information that is provided makes it clear that Professor McKitterick was aiming at relative novices to the field, but in cases like this, she missed, perhaps because of cuts that were made late in drafting or careless editor’s input. At least the complicated early end of the Carolingian period is well-covered now by other works. On the later end, as I say, there’s almost nothing else and happily this book remains excellent and illuminating on that period. It should be noted however that by then it’s deliberately covering only the Western Frankish kingdom, because Professor McKitterick saved work and words by deferring to Timothy Reuter’s then-forthcoming work, which became Germany in the Early Middle Ages, 800-1056 (Harlow 1991). Reuter’s book is very good, of course, but it wasn’t to emerge for eight years after this one, not that that was within Professor McKitterick’s power to anticipate or change. It means, however, that occasionally kings from the Other Side like Arnulf or Otto I loom into the narrative unexplained and the reader is very unsure where they sprang from.

The History Faculty and Seeley Library at Cambridge by night

The History Faculty and Seeley Library at Cambridge by night

All in all, though, it seems that the book has been needed to do something other than what its author intended. For want of anything else in English that covers the full period, it’s become a textbook for Carolingian history, and presumably it was commissioned as such, but although assigned to undergraduates, really this is a graduate book. It makes new sense of old debates and, as the blurb on the back says, it also serves very well for bringing debates that had effectively been conducted in other languages into English. What it doesn’t do is tell you the whole story, but then, the whole story has yet to be written. I’m not even sure it can be. But I still think someone needs to try, because it’s harder than it should be to learn without it.


1. Rosamond herself has just completed a book about Charlemagne, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge 2008), and that will I imagine give references to the large body of other work; here I refer especially however to Louis Halphen, Charlemagne et l’Empire Carolingienne (Paris 1949), transl. Giselle de Nie as Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire (Amsterdam 1977); Heinrich Fichtenau, Das karolingische Imperium: soziale und geistige Problematik eines Grossreiches (Zürich 1949), transl. Peter Munz as The Carolingian Empire, Studies in Medieval History 9 (Oxford 1957); & Sigurd Abel (ed.), Jahrbücher des fränkischen Reiches unter Karl dem Grossen, ed. Bernhard von Simson (Leipzig 1865-83), 2 vols & Bernhard von Simson (ed.), Jahrbücher des fränkischen Reiches unter Ludwig dem Frommen (Leipzig 1874-1876), 2 vols. Notice how the series goes no further forward, although it did go further back
On Louis the Pious scholarship now rests heavily on Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Oxford 1990), but recent Leeds papers have been a ferment of new thinking. The new biography referred to is Egon Boshof, Ludwig der Fromme (Darmstadt 1996), but I haven’t read this so can’t say if it advances things.
On Charles the Bald there is most obviously Jinty Nelson’s biographical study, Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, The Medieval World (London 1992); that emerged from a similarly field-resetting conference, Margaret Gibson & Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: court and kingdom. Papers based on a colloquium held in London in April 1979, BAR (International Series) 101 (Oxford 1981), 2nd edn. Charles the Bald: court and kingdom, Variorum Collected Studies (Aldershot 1990) with slightly different contents and all papers updated.

2. The text is edited as Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Radberts Epitaphium Arsenii” in Abhandlungen der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, philosophisch-historische Klasse 2 (Berlin 1900), pp. 1-98 (though Migne’s older text is online here); the translation is in Allen Cabaniss (transl.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalhard and Wala (Syracuse 1967).

3. Roger Collins, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, 2nd edn. (London 1999); Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History vol. II: 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995).

4. Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994).

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15 responses to “Confronting the/my past: how do you learn about the Carolingians?

  1. D00d, stop posting interesting stuff on Mondays! I have to teach ALL Frickin’ day! (seriously — I’ve got five hours of lecture on Mondays!)

  2. But my public dahling!

    Seriously, five hours’ lecturing sucks. Your weekends must be eaten whole by the preparation!

    By special request, then, if I update next Monday I’ll make sure it’s with something trivial just for you :-)

  3. Have you looked at Matt Innes’ or Julia Smith’s new books? I have them on my shelf but haven’t had time to thumb through as yet.

    Also, Courtney Booker has a book coming out soon on L the P that should be great.

    Anyway, isn’t this always the problem with “textbooks” though? I mean, they cover what they think is important, leaving out the rest, mostly because there’s just too much there. McKitterick’s book is tremendous for what it does, but so is Collins’…

  4. Julia’s I have got, and read, and raved about, but again, although it gives a marvellous feel of the period, a sense of how things worked and is tremendously good at avoiding the assumed knowledge, you’d be very hard put to explain Europe’s political development from it! And I’ve said as much before, indeed. Matt’s book I have yet to read, but I’ve encountered very mixed reactions to it. The Booker book looks interesting: I’ve not come across his work before, I clearly should have, especially given how interesting Agobard is! I mean, I should have students reading that translation volume…

    I agree with you about textbooks: the trouble is that I don’t think a textbook is really what Rosamond wrote here, and I’m still not sure there is one.

  5. Pardon the Frankish, but, Holy Crap! I am reading that very same book for my thesis right now. I am trying to bookend my recent study of the Merovingians with a healthy dose of Carolingian fare. I mean, I just put it down to do my nightly blog check! She is a favorite of mine. Oh, to be educated in Britain! She actually spoke at a (very) small conference here in my home state (Tennessee) several years ago at Sewanee University. I believe she mentions it in the preface to “History and Memory in the Carolingian World.” As a grad student in a relatively out of the way uni, I find her work a saving grace in an otherwise poorly stocked library.

  6. I have got History and Memory but shamefully haven’t read it yet. Her work gets richer and richer though so I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully this post comes over more as praise than as critique, as she’s definitely a favourite of mine too.

  7. I’ve thought for a long time that scholars in general fall into the trap of explaining their basic assumptions and basic factual matter too little, and I think it is because they are looking sideways at their colleagues instead of at their ostensible audience. This especially applies to textbooks, even those aimed at first year university students.

    In my underdistributed Deeds of Arms, about 14th century formal combats, I included about two pages of the very basics of the events on the Hundred Years War and the way high English nobles changed titles (Earl of Buckingham to Duke of Gloucester, for instance) because from my teaching and contacts with medieval enthusiasts, I knew that a reader might have an intelligent interest in formal combats without having some of these basics. In the new world of academic publishing, where one doesn’t need to have specialized knowledge to find substantial historical treatments, scholars should wake up to the existence of such an audience; it’s not just potential, it’s real.

  8. Aw, Jon, I feel the love.

    Matt — I’ve read and used Matt’s book, and my students weren’t super happy with it. Part was laziness, and part was that there wasn’t enough narrative. I’m thinking it’s more for grad students or to use as one of the books that you teach from? Or I have lazy students.

  9. Only the very lucky have no lazy students, don’t they? Some lucky people only have to learn to work when thet reach degree level. But I’m interested to see the same narrative issue there again. Quite apart from anything else, I think a genuine attempt at a narrative history of the period probably has a potential reading public of some size outside academic study, don’t you? If you want to recommend to an interested layperson something to tell them about Carolingian Europe other than Charlemagne (and Charles the Bald to a lesser extent), what do you give them? Julia’s book for some readers; but for the ‘boy history‘ reader, there really isn’t anything except Collins and the CMH… (not the NCMH either though it is better than nothing… and anyway you can hardly expect a new enthusiast to drop that kind of money for the basic story).

  10. I’ve put some general thoughts about the problems of writing good narrative history up on my website prompted by this, but on specific textbooks, I’ve heard a lot of positive things about Barbara Rosenwein’s Short History of the Middle Ages (and I think there is a two volume version). Anyone used that?

    Jon, I’m not sure how much of an English-speaking lay market there is for stuff on Carolingians other than Charlemagne, because the average English/American layperson hasn’t heard of the Carolingians, even if they’ve heard of Charlemagne. When I first got interested in early medieval stuff (having never studied history) I came via Helen Waddell’s Wandering Scholars, Donald Bullough’s Age of Charlemagne and P.D. King’s handy Lancaster Pamphlet on Charlemagne, all of which are now probably long out of print.

    If you really do want all the Carolingians, there is also Pierre Riche’s ‘The Carolingians: a Family who Forged Europe’, which goes into the tenth century but, like many of these narrative histories, it’s not that inspiringly written. And if we’re mentioning studies of individual rulers, there’s also Eric Goldberg on Louis the German and Mayke de Jong’s book on Louis the Pious (due from CUP supposedly in April next year).

  11. Pingback: Magistra et Mater

  12. Ah, I didn’t know about Mayke’s, that could be interesting. I also meant to ask if anyone had used Riché’s book, but forgot. Rosenwein’s I have not used, but when I was teaching at Birkbeck Matthew Innes’s course booklet said something along the lines of “it’s all right but as she has to cover e. g. Charlemagne in half a page you can’t write an essay from it”. That isn’t the sort of book we’re looking at asking for however, is it?

    I will give your post proper attention… after lunch.

  13. Pingback: Seminary LVII: Prof. de Jong is unpenitent « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  14. Pingback: What would a late-Carolingian bishop read? The will of Riculf of Elna « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  15. Pingback: The Carolingian Empire - Page 3 - Historum - History Forums

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