There is this problem with royal charters, even Louis the German’s (quasi-review)

Some time ago, a then-colleague of mine who works on Germany got a copy of Wilfried Hartmann’s new book, Ludwig der Deutsche (Darmstadt 2002) for review. And then she got another one, so she passed that one on to me. And finally, I’ve read it, and since it was a review copy it seems only fair that it gets a review, right?

Cover of Hartmann's Ludwig der Deutsche

Cover of Hartmann's Ludwig der Deutsche

If English-language readers are aware of Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German, who became king of Bavaria in 817 under the division of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Louis the Pious, his father, and eventually died in 876 as the senior surviving Carolingian king ruling most of what is now Germany, Switzerland, Austria and a decent chunk of what used to be Yugoslavia, it’s probably through Eric Goldberg’s recent book, Struggle for Empire: kingship and conflict under Louis the German, 817-876 (Ithaca 2006), which received, shall we say, mixed reviews. If you can manage German, then, you may find this a useful little resort.

Hartmann’s treatment of Louis sets out to answer a basic question, how much did Louis contribute to the making of Germany? But thankfully, he doesn’t let this teleology cloud his biography of this most interesting king. He details the events of Louis’s life at the first part of one of the book’s two massive core chapters, explains his family relations, then goes for themes, the constituent parts of Louis’s manifold kingdom and his politics in them, the relations with outside polities (especially the Moravians), and then in the other core chapter, methods of rule, officials, law, relations with the nobility, the Church, mission endeavours, and a short but trenchant section on culture and learning, which is often neglected in work on East Francia, what makes the sudden Ottonian burst of it look like a Renaissance that perhaps we don’t need. There was no court school, but Hraban Maur trained an awful lot of intellectuals and his monastery at Fulda developed a substantial output both in Latin and German, and it was only one of many centres. The closing section, on the economy, is baldest of all, mainly through lack of evidence, but also because it’s not Hartmann’s favourite topic (which appears, from his bibliography, to be synods and conciliar records). A lot of this, it could be argued, doesn’t go very deep, and indeed it is often rather like a list of cites and no more, showing that Louis, for example, issued such-and-such a number of charters to Alemannia between 829 and 844 despite not ruling there whereas actually fewer to Bavaria where he did, and so on. But these are actually very useful collections of data for someone who might want to take this study further: whatever your topic may be, as long as it’s not the economy, you can probably start from here, and until someone has, I think it’s defensible to say that Hartmann has said all that is safe to say. As far as safe judgement goes, he had the dissertation from which Goldberg’s book came, and frequently cites it, but doesn’t always agree, so there’s an element of safe-making there which may be interesting, especially as Goldberg presumably had this to hand when revising his thesis for publication…

Anyway, I like it. The German is very clear and even the lists are at least nicely-phrased. He makes a case that Louis started with considerable ambitions on the western kingdoms of his brothers, but finished his reign conceptually more confined to his finished domains, which were after 870 basically the same kingdom, less the Pannonian portions, that Henry the Fowler took over in 919. He didn’t try and become Holy Roman Emperor in 875 in competition with Charles the Bald, he stayed in ‘Germany’ and sent his son, and by then St Gall were already calling him imperator anyway it seems, which is interesting. When Louis died, Charles was unable to talk the various kingdoms’ nobility into letting him take over; instead Louis’s sons succeeded, Charles the Fat eventually swept the lot and of course in 884 took over even the West; but then, in 887, it was the Saxons, Bavarians, Alemans and East Franks together that rose against him. Hartmann argues persuasively that forty-odd years of being made to act collectively brought these disparate groups into a common frame of reference, that worked together, which is as much a Germany as one can get this early, and blames Louis for this. And it is a case, but the case is far from being all the book.

Detail of a charter of Louis the German of 841 showing his signature and seal, from Wikimedia Commons

Detail of a charter of Louis the German of 841 showing his signature and seal, from Wikimedia Commons

Just one quibble. Hartmann uses royal charters very heavily in this book, for itinerary information and for evidence of whom Louis had connections with and whom he favoured. The former, with Carolingian acta at least, is fair enough, because they do give a location where they were issued, and since they don’t usually have witnesses we don’t have to worry (though perhaps we should) as to whether the date refers to the meeting at which the donation was agreed, the meeting where it was witnessed, or the actual making of the charter that records it, and which of those bits if any might actually have involved the king in person… The favour bit, though, is a problem, and one that I’ve written about before. Hartmann argues (pp. 89-90) that because of the above-mentioned predominance of Aleman charter recipients when Louis was only King of Bavaria, 829-843 in effective terms, he must have been working hard to get a foothold in this kingdom that was technically at the time assigned to Charles the Bald. And this may be true, but it’s not certain, because of course you only, as king, issue a royal charter when someone comes and asks you for one, you don’t just gift someone out of the blue with estates with no negotiation or fore-warning. So what this shows is almost more interesting, that a lot of churches in Alemannia thought that they’d get better shrift and security from Louis even when they’d just been given a king of their own in the form of Charles. And that may indeed be because Louis was agitating very hard in the area, but that isn’t something we can just assume. This hardly ruins a good book, but I do wish that Carolingianists in particular would wake up to this extra step in the logic of these documents. Mark Mersiowsky published a piece on this in, er, 2000, but it was pretty evident to people like me and my Catalan virtual instructors that such was the case because of one of the things I was talking about at Haskins, royal charters issued to areas where the king no longer has direct authority and which therefore can’t be genuine evidence of his gifting policy.1 Who gets charters, wants charters, and that’s where the enquiry needs to focus.


1. Mark Mersiowsky, “Towards a Reappraisal of Carolingian Sovereign Charters” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 15-25; J. Jarrett, “Legends in their own Lifetime: the late Carolingians and Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘The Legend of Charlemagne and the Negotiation of Power’, Haskins Society Conference, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 7th November 2008.

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6 responses to “There is this problem with royal charters, even Louis the German’s (quasi-review)

  1. Now I really *do* need to read this. I’m glad you you ended where you did; it does make me wonder, though — in addition to churches (and people?) coming to Louis for favour, does Hartmann talk about who these people are at all. That is, does he do dread prosopography? As you know, this kind of thing is terribly interesting to me (no, really!) — and I’m always looking for evidence that different branches of families were collectively hedging their bets — with the caveat, of course, that different branches of families frequently aren’t acting in any kind of mutual interest. But still, I’m always interested in the questions of whether or not some sort of kinship play into where people are focusing their interests, especially once the sons of Louis the Pious are all grown up. How many proverbial eggs does a family put in each basket?

  2. He does a bit, especially with churchmen and most especially with Hraban, in whom he seems to be very interested, probably because he generates several of the council texts that Hartmann (I since discover) edited for the MGH. But if he gave it as much weight as you or I might like the book would be twice the size and much less about Louis. So there’s a few cases of people running from one king to another, but nothing you couldn’t have got from the Annals of Fulda or St-Bertin really, and not answers for your kind of question I’m afraid. Where’s someone to write the second volume of Depreux, huh?

  3. The best thing I’ve ever read on families hedging their bets etc is Stuart Airlie’s thesis, ‘The political behaviour of the secular magnates in Francia, 829-879′ (DPhil, Oxford, 1985). (I have no idea whether it’s possible to get hold of UK theses in the US, though the British library may do copies for extortionate amounts).

    A lot of prosopography I’ve read is very static stuff: you construct the Sippen and then say ‘there you are’, or at most, say ‘they then all act together’ (as Karl Brunner in ‘Oppositionelle Gruppen im Karolingerreich’ is prone to do). Stuart’s stuff, in contrast is looking at how family connections and Konigsnahe interact and specific examples of how people are rising (or coming to a sticky end). Whether he’s ever going to write a book on all this stuff, I don’t know…

  4. And yet we know that the Sippen don’t always act together. Take, for example, the Carolingians…

  5. Also, with my stuff I run across scholars all too keen on making links that aren’t there between people because they act together, meaning that they must be related. Because no-one in the Middle ages ever had friends unless they could write letters telling us so. Obviously.

  6. Magistra, thanks — I will look at that next time I’m in the BL, if I can’t get it before. Normally, I end up relying on the prosopographical stuff you’re talking about just for a framework, so I’m always referring to Werner, Brunner, Schulze, Mitterauer, Staab, and Borgolte (and whoever else), but then jumping back and forth (and referreeing, because I think that some of the reconstructions are sometimes weird, especially for people like the Udalrichinger, whose name changes several times, depending on where and when they are). Anyway, there’s that, and then bouncing off the more theoretical stuff that you get reading the LeJan-deJong ‘circle’, not to mention all the smart people from Cambridge. I think the real fun comes from trying to reconcile these two farily different approaches, the somewhat static prosopographies, especially auf Deutsch and the bigger, more generalized studies that still often focus through a royal lens — and then to try to provide some sort of “so what?”

    What I anticipate is that, over the next 20 years, we are going to see more and more reevaluation of our ideas of what Sippe really means– or what we mean by families and kin-groups, for that matter– in the same way that we have been reevaluating the ideas of ethnicity and Barbarians/Germans/whatever for Late Antiquity/the Early Middle Ages.

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