Tag Archives: Charlemagne

Seminar CLII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…

Carolingian things afoot in Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Reverse of a silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Dorestad now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

May I just break the backlog-filling for a second to bring your attention to two things happening in Cambridge relating to no-one less than Charles the Great, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, Patrician of the Romans and finally Holy Roman Emperor, already? You know the one. The first of these, because it’s already happening, though I’ve yet to see it, is an exhibition at my old place of work, the Fitzwilliam Museum, called Building an Empire: Money, trade and power in the age of Charlemagne. As you can see from that web-page, “A selection of the finest medieval coins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection (Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine and Islamic) will be on show to illustrate the complex political, economic and cultural ties of the period.” The Fitzwilliam has a really pretty good selection of such things, so it should be worth a look. Furthermore, if you were to go over the weekend of the 4th-6th July, you could combine it with this:

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the programme of the conference “The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours”, 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

“While recent scholarship has done much to illuminate early medieval frontiers, the relationship between the Carolingian frontier and its neighbouring societies has yet to be the focus of sustained, comparative discussion. This conference aims to initiate a dialogue between scholars of the Carolingian frontier and those of the societies it bordered, and in so doing to reach a better understanding of the nature and extent of contacts in frontier regions and the various manners in which these contacts – not to mention frontier regions themselves – were conceptualized. Moreover, it will explore the interplay between various types of contact – whether military, political, economic, social, or religious – and the various ways in which these contacts could underpin, or undermine, existing relationships, both between the local societies themselves and between political centres.”

So it says here. Now, this is obviously pretty close to my interests, and so it may not surprise you completely that I am in fact speaking at it, with the title, “‘Completely detached from the kingdom of the Franks’? Political identity in Catalonia in the very late Carolingian era”. But that’s very first thing on Saturday morning, I shan’t be offended if you miss it. Do, however, come for the other speakers, who include people not just from far abroad (Granada, Madrid, Lyon, Warsaw, Prague, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Berkeley) but also Oxford, would you believe, as well as a clutch of local stars, including the organisers, Fraser McNair, Ingrid Rembold and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (and maybe others?), who are bright sparks all and keen to get the word out to people. I was convinced to come by, well, mainly my own certainty that I needed to be in on something like this but also because also presenting is Eduardo Manzano Moreno, whose fault my work partly is, and I want to hear what he has to say. But it all looks very good, and so if you’re interested, as the programme says, “Places are limited! Please return a completed registration form with payment early to avoid disappointment.”

Oh, and by the way, fittingly enough, this is post no. 800 on the blog. I did not do this deliberately…

Leeds 2012 Report 1

I have to say that I wonder exactly what the point of writing up blog on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds of 2012, on the very day that early registration closes for the 2013 one. I will have to find some way to strike a medium between giving a bald itinerary of papers seen I can barely remember or else reconstructing the whole thing at length from my notes. But the only way to find out what transpires is to try, so here goes.

Entrance to Bodington Hall, University of Leeds, adorned with banner for the 2012 International Medieval Congress

The soon-to-be-late and lamented Bodington Hall, entrance thereto

As is by now traditional, I got through breakfast slightly too late to make it to the main room in which the keynote lectures were held and had the weird experience of arriving on the already-full video relay room to see no-one there I knew, which takes some doing at Leeds usually. Luckily this was a misleading omen. The actual lectures, meanwhile, were more or less perceptible if slightly blue-tinged on the video, and were as follows.

1. Keynote Lectures 2012

  • Sverre Bagge, “Changing the Rules of the Game: when did regicide go out of fashion and why?”
    As an early medievalist, I had not realised that no European king was killed by his successor or replacements between 1282 and 1792. That does seem to want some explanation, and Professor Bagge made dynastic legitimacy a part of it, a factor of stability, but other explanations were harder to come by, and there was some difficulty with the sovereign paradox, the problem that the king makes the law and is thereby able to choose if it applies to him.1 Certainly, there is something special about kingship, but why it should only have acquired full force then was not really resolved.
  • Nicole Bériou, “Just Follow Christ and the Gospels? Monastic Rules and Christian Rules in the 13th Century”
    This lecture opened up for us a twelfth-century debate about the worth of monastic rules; in an era when individual concern for one’s own salvation could be put before other’s views of what your soul required for its health, some put the view that the Gospels were the only ‘rule’ that counted. This was not how monastic life had traditionally been envisaged, of course, indeed it rather questioned the necessity or utility of that life for oneself, and such theorists thus started seeing other vocations as monk-like, and society itself as the monastery, which then meant that things like marriage could be seen as requiring Rules too! None of this was ever what you’d call widespread, as we were told it, but it’s interesting to see such thinking in the high era of papal monarchy, which could be imagined as more or less stamping down such autonomous theologising.

Then after that, and after coffee, it was charter time.

133. Nulli… si quis & Co.: sanctiones, corroborationes and penal forms in medieval charters

The number of people who can get excited about a whole session on what set of repeated words scribes used to threaten those who infringed on transactions is probably limited, but no-one would be fooled that I am not among them, and indeed I was not the only one here to hear these:

  • Mark Mersiowsky, “Rules in the document: Carolingian corroborations”
    Few people have seen as many early medieval charters as Professor Mersiowsky, in fact I might go so far as to guess that no-one has, and that means he’s seen a lot of charter issuers signing off by way of confirmation. He took us through the earliest Carolingian monarchs’ chosen ways of doing this, largely with crosses or monograms that he thought were in fact done in the monarchs’ own hands until the time of Charles the Bald (840-877) but whose accompanying phrases suggest older referents, perhaps Byzantine or late Roman. The transition from that is the great gap in the evidence that swallows all conjectures, of course, but it was interesting to see rules being set by these kings of correctio in still another way.
  • Sébastien Barret, “The sanctiones of the Cluniac charters of the 10th-11th centuries”
    Sébastien looked for rules slightly further up his documents, in the penalty clauses already mentioned of the charters of St-Pierre de Cluny in Burgundy, now of course searchable, and found that certain words almost only appear in those clauses, such as, “componat“, ‘let him compensate with’, and indeed more surprisingly “Si quis…”, ‘If anyone…’, though this was something I would also shortly find in my own work, I have to say.2 It was not uniform practice in these clauses: innovation and especially elaboration was possible, even if exact grammar and sense were not, always. Nonetheless, something had to do this job recognisably in these documents, and we may here be crossing the difference between what computers can recognise and what the people of the time could.
  • Arnold Otto, “Nulli… Si Quis and their Copycats: penal forms in later medieval charters”
    The trouble with later medieval charters is that the vernaculars get in and changes everything, so Dr Otto was sensible and went for numbers instead, looking the size of penalties in the penalty clauses of Emperor Charles IV. These, again, varied within fairly regular patterns; though their effect was more deterrent than real, even for a king like Charles, that deterrent was still worth ramping up on special occasions it seems!
  • In questions there was much asked about how many stages these documents were written in and whether penalties were ever carried out, but my notes don’t suggest any patterns emerged from that, not least because we probably only spoke up if we thought we had a difference to add. But then it was lunch and a canter across to Weetwood Hall for some archaeology.

204. Rules for Early Medieval Grave-Goods? Implications for the World of the Living from the World of the Dead

    Set phrases in documents, dead bodies, let no-one say I don’t know where the fun is in medieval studies… This session was introduced by Roland Steinacher, who wanted to remind us all that the Roman Emperor Theodosius I actually passed law allowing the recovery of treasure from graves for the benefit of the state, and then we moved on to the papers.

  • Marion Sorg, “Are Brooches Personal Possessions of the Deceased?: An Empiric Investigation Based on Analyzing Age-Relatedness of Brooches”
    This was a question about an assumption, one that could be more general than just with brooches, that the goods in a grave belonged to the deceased. With brooches in the early Middle Ages it’s even a specific assumption that a woman would own a set of brooches that were almost her identity kit, and keep them all her life, which if it were true would mean that they had an age similar to that of the skeletons with which they are found. Enter the evidence, gathered from 27 cemeteries in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, where only about 11·5% of individuals had brooches anyway, but where all age groups could have new brooches but worn brooches were certainly most commonly found with older individuals. This provoked Dr Sorg to wonder whether there might be several stages of a woman’s life where she would acquire such brooches, but I have to say that to me the figures she was presenting seemed to show more or less the same levels of wear in all age groups, so that these intervals would be suspiciously evenly spaced at about 20 years. I asked if we might be looking at object lifespans rather than people’s, I must have been reading something… There’s more work needed to identify what’s active here, I think.
  • Mirjam Kars, “Invisible Rules: the study of grave goods in the context of privately organized intergenerational transmission in families”
    What would mess up such paradigms of course is heirlooms, goods being passed to new owners, and that was the subject of this paper. Women in early medieval cemeteries seem to be buried with fewer goods as they age, suggesting a dispersal of their early kit to younger relatives or friends, which Dr Kars linked with group identification signification. She found very little that wouldn’t be circulated, which itself was interesting given what such analyses show in other cultures; her theory was coming from gift exchange stuff but I wonder now what commodities theory would do for her view.3
  • Stephanie Zintl, “Things to be Taken from the Dead: a case study on reopened graves”
    This paper was about grave-robbing, except that as the speaker said, that’s how we might see it but it’s not clear that the early medieval populations of Francia or Kent did, because it was pretty widespread. She asserted that half of the 600 graves she’d checked had at some point before excavation been reopened, early on as she figured, although this turned out to be on the basis of the very few with several eras of goods in, what is not what you’d call a perfect measure. That half was, however, substantially the ones containing goods, not those without, suggesting firstly that robbery was not the motive and secondly that those opening them could tell which was which still, implying some kind of marker above the surface. The reburiers must have firstly wanted to change the graves somehow and secondly presumably have known that the same would likely happen to theirs. This provoked a lot of discussion and you can see why, a very interesting set of questions despite the methodological difficulties.

325. Post Mortem Problems: Saints, Sinners, and Popular Piety

    Having done murder, confinement, threats and burial what could be left but zombies? I have a space to fill, after all.4

  • Stephen Gordon, “Practical Innovation, Local Belief, and the Containment of the Troublesome Dead”
    This was a study of some of the many English stories about dead bodies found walking, which the speaker suggested might get more common once the idea of Purgatory lengthened the chronology of death rather. Maybe so, but it’s certainly a common thing before that too, even when we have so few sources!5
  • Brian Reynolds, “Dodging Damnation: The Virgin’s Advocacy in Medieval Theology and Popular Piety”
    This paper looked at the development of the idea that Mary will basically be calming Jesus down at the Last Judgement and urging forgiveness of those who appealed to her in life. This placed the real action 1200-1500, but did make the point, probably widely realised, that because Mary was supposedly assumed into Heaven, there are no relics of her body, meaning that her cult is easier to diffuse widely, which I suppose is true.
  • Isabel Moreira, “Hector of Marseilles is Purged: political rehabilitation and guilt by association in the 7th-century Passion of Leudegar of Autun
    If you were a churchman of seventh-century France, as we’ve observed here indeed, you were probably deeply involved in government; escape from worldly cares was basically impossible, and this means that those who would write lives of saints in that era had to be imaginative about their interactions with laymen of less exalted characters. The patrician Hector of Marseilles was such a layman, a rebel against the king with whom St Leudegar got mixed up, and this paper argued that Leudegar’s biographer tried to get round this by giving him a martyr’s death that should have purged any sin, with imagery of being tested in the fire like gold, and so on, an idea that might possibly have been applied to others of the Merovingian-era nobility who lived messy lives with horrible ends.

So that was the first day of Leeds 2012 for me, and that seems worth the writing, both for me and hopefully for you; I guess I’ll do the rest in their turn…

N. B.: alternative coverage of some of these sessions by Magistra et Mater also exists

1. Addressed repeatedly by Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), pp. 7, 34, 59, 73, 79-80 & 83, inter alia, all more or less in the same words, but it’s worth reading one of the occurrences.

2. J. Jarrett, “Comparing the earliest documentary culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in J. Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Brepols forthcoming), pp. 000-00.

3. That largely because since then I finally read Arjan Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), which is really interesting and will generate a future blog post.

4. The most relevant reflection of that place’s nature being John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 539-560. Why have I never thought before about the significance of putting a piece about the unquiet dead in a memorial volume? I’m pretty sure John didn’t mean any of the things that might be implied by that…

5. Much of the early material gathered either in Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, or Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45.

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

Ordinarily I do links-posts when I have little other content to post, and I save up links against that day so that I’m sure I shall have something interesting to show you all. The way this goes wrong, of course, is the current situation where I have forty-odd posts that I hope will be interesting existing in some state, and also a whole bunch of saved-up links getting increasingly out of date. So, let me clear some decks with some commented things for you to look at and then resume more autocthonous programming.

Digital Treasure

  • Page 185 of the Cartulaire Générale de CíteauxFirst and foremost in this, periodically an update arrives in my INBOX from the Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi project of which I’ve made mention here before, the guys who finally indexed the Cluny charters for the greater good of the world. Though they have fewer big goals now their progress is still considerable and ongoing, and more and more stuff is coming online. For me the most exciting thing in the recent batches is the cartularies of Dijon and Pérrecy, now online as facsimiles both of the manuscripts and of the edition, but for many others, I’m guessing that the star attraction will be the General Cartulary of Cîteaux, and indeed its other cartularies too. All of this, as far as I can see, is also included in the searchable database that was the starting point of the whole project. Really, one just wishes Burgundy had been bigger (though of course `one’ is not the first to do that…)
  • Newly-cleaned sword pommel from the Staffordshire HoardMore locally, although it’s almost old news now, conservation efforts on the Staffordshire Hoard are still continuing and new information about it keeps becoming available. One of the good things about that project is how keen they have been to keep the non-academic population in on the loop, and in this day and age of course that involves social media. An example of this, featuring some pictures that were new when I stored the link, and are still shiny, can be found here along with the input of one of this blog’s more important supporting characters, on whose work more soon.

Physical treasure: notable finds

  • Saxon woman cow buried at Anglo-Saxon Oakington cemeteryObviously we can’t have a Staffordshire hoard every year, it’s not like we’re in Gotland or something, but this was pretty good anyway, a burial from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington in which the remains found were an apparently-wealthy woman and a cow, a weird anti-pairing to the warrior-and-horse combo with which we’re more familiar from Sutton Hoo and Lakenheath. Worth a look even if bodies aren’t your thing; as for me, I have to build this lady into a lecture now…
  • Monastery of BenedkitbeuernThen, across the Channel, and in fact really quite a lot further, about as far as possible really. But we start across the Channel, at the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where in the fifteenth century a rather fancy Bible was made, in four volumes. This we know because it is now in Auckland, New Zealand, where recently investigations have revealed at least eight strips from a much older Bible, from the time of Charlemagne (whom the story calls “the French and German emperor” – better than choosing just one I suppose?), that were reused as binding material. The survival of ancient manuscript material as linings and joints for newer ones is not unusual, but the distance of travel involved here rather is; as the Waikato University researcher who found them is quoted as saying, “these little pieces of manuscript have travelled further than any other piece of Carolingian manuscript as far as we know”. Slightly amazing!
  • Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)Nonetheless, in some ways more amazing is another find from the era of Charlemagne, although this, a portrait denarius of Charlemagne from an unidentified mint and dating from the short space of his reign in which he was acknowledged as Emperor by his counterpart in Constantinople (812-814), is a find made a long time ago; it’s amazing because in March it sold for 160,000 euros, making it one of the highest-price medieval coins ever sold.1 (The estimate had been a mere 30,000…) We all know, of course, that very little if anything is worth more than Charlemagne but evidence of this is usually harder to quantify!
  • I got the first of these from Antiquarian’s Attic and the latter two from News for Medievalists, so hats duly tipped to them.

Finds more controversial

Site of the prehistoric temple at Ranheim, NorwayThere were two stories I wanted to comment on in this kind of category, but I don’t think I’m quite up to doing more with this one, which isn’t medieval in the slightest, than to say, can you imagine how this knowledge would have been used 150 years ago? We have, after all, seen on this blog the kinds of fight that can break out over who was where first… So, more interesting and relevant perhaps is news of the discovery of a pagan temple site at Ranheim in Norway, with a sequence of dates running from a fire pit in the lowest layer whose charcoal radio-carbonned to the fourth or fifth centuries BCE and a last-used date of 895×990 AD, after which the building was apparently carefully dismantled, pulled down and levelled, thus explaining the remarkable preservation. Now, this is an amazing site if that’s all correct, but the story has been presented in a very odd way. Admittedly, I have sourced this information from a site called Free Thought Nation (by way of Archaeology in Europe), so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is down on Christianity, but it’s the way it’s down, which it supports with alleged quotes from the excavator, that surprises me: they read the site as having been dismantled and levelled to hide it from the forces of Christianization at loose in Norway at the time, probably prior to the faithful emigrating to more tolerant pastures like Iceland. Why, though, should we not suppose that the temple was taken down as part of Christianization? Because it’s not violent enough, or something? More probably, I suppose, because it was not subsequently re-used for a Christian site of worship, implying that no population needing one remained, but it’s still a bit odd, as is the effort the article goes into to establish that this religion, whatever it was, predated Christianity, but does not demonstrate any settlement nearby. So okay, pre-Christian religion, yes! How does that help? and whom?

Links involving me

More humbly and mundanely, there are two things I could point you at that reflect on my various endeavours, though only one of these involves Vikings I’m afraid.

  • The one that doesn’t is that I lately updated my personal academic webpages, so if you want to be up-to-date with my publications list (on which more here too before long), to see which of my various projects I’m admitting to working on currently or simply to get the latest on my hair, they’re here. Now I just have to get all my institutional ones similar…
  • Dunnyneil Island, Strangford Lough, Ireland, from the airAnd secondly, and more excitingly, back in May I got an e-mail from someone at BBC Ireland asking for comment on the excavations at Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough. This is only the second time I’ve been asked to be a media mouth, and the first time I didn’t realise how tight the timescale was and so missed out; this time I answered mail with unparalleled alacrity and as much help as I could be. I was, however, fully expecting this to be cut about, abbreviated and misused and I was completely wrong: quite a lot of what I wrote is now part of this story by Laura Burns, and all the quotes from me, modulo typos, are actually what I sent her. I’m rather pleased with it, and I wish all medievalist journalism was as good. You may like to have a look.

And finally…

Also, for those with problems with Oxford (including simply not being here), there’s this, which the Naked Philologist sent me and which I offer without comment…

1. In this dating I follow the view of Simon Coupland, and before him Philip Grierson, that Charlemagne only began to issue these coins once recognised as emperor by the eastern one (see S. Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211-229, repr. in Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: studies on power and trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2006), I, but the auction house in question, Künker’s, have used a more cautious/less precise date.

Seminar CVI: Carolingian men of the Word

As you’ll have noticed I make a habit of going to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, but I make a special point of it when someone I know from my host institution, wherever it be, is presenting, partly to show support but also because it’s sometimes the only time you get to hear them do their stuff.1 On this occasion, however, my affiliations were confused, because Laura Carlson, despite teaching at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, had also at this point just become Past and Present Fellow at the Institute, and it was in that capacity she’d been asked to speak on the 26th October 2011. I guess that insofar as I’m a regular at the seminar and a Carolingianist I’d have been going if she’d been coming from the moon. In fact, if someone from the moon was presenting I’d probably be there regardless of the topic. But, dear reader, I digress! Laura’s title was, “Creating a Christian Language: letter and spirit at the Carolingian court”.

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546

First page of the book of Exodus in the Grandval or Alcuin Bible, British Library MS Additional 10546; click through for a fantastic illuminated page from it on the BL's site, but for reasons that will become clear I wanted some text

This was the first time I’d been to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar in exile, in parts of Senate House I’d never been to before, and it was also the first time I’d heard Laura present on the core of her research, so in both ways I got something of a shock. I’ve not had to think this hard to stay up with a paper since that Peter Sarris one of 2010. The experience of Laura’s style is not quite so much like being caught amidst a fifty-minute rockfall, but this was densely-packed stuff. What she was arguing was—assuming my notes were and are up to the job of preserving it, a very topical concern as you will see—that the collection of intellectuals whom Charlemagne kept around his court at the peak period of his reign collectively developed something like a new Christian philosophy of language. The highly international nature of the group partly forced such reflections upon them, but much more so did the reliance of their work, and Latin Christianity at large, on, well, Latin. This court group was, as readers of this blog will know by now, very concerned with the correctness of texts, which is understandable when you’re dealing with the supposed Word of God, and perhaps, if one follows certain arguments, when some of your scholars come from a background where the ruling powers of the day insist that they have a text that is more purely the Word of God, because God speaks in Arabic and the transmission of the Qu’ran is doctrinally understood to be perfect.2 Of course, the Christians were not and are not making any claims about God speaking in Latin, or even the writers of the actual Bible text, so problems of accuracy are inherent to the whole idea of Latin Christianity. But this kind of concern pushed these thinkers, and especially Alcuin as Laura set it forth for us, to worry about deeper issues: can written words in any language actually express the divine accurately? Even if they can, is the human reader actually up to understanding it correctly? And how does information pass from the eye to the inchoate mind anyway? When your understanding of human consciousness doesn’t involve electro-chemistry but does involve the idea of a separable, non-physical soul, this is an issue. The soul contains God and can presumably understand Him perfectly; but the body is not perfect, so if you need the body to partake of the Word, aren’t you in trouble from the get-go?3 And so on.

Now obviously this is partly grammar, because Latin grammar, even though pagan, became a tool that one needed in order to be able to understand both world and Word (since the two do not separate). But it’s also philosophy, because in order to explain how Scripture can save it was necessary to come up with a workable account of man’s ability to perceive God. For Alcuin, as Laura argued it, one important aspect of man’s unique rationality was his ability to perceive the abstract and communicate it; man can, that is, envisage things that are invisible. This is obviously relevant, and blurs the line between philosophy and theology a great deal, which allowed the people thinking about this to use Aristotelian categories, obtained largely via Augustine’s similar reflections, as a basis for breaking down man’s faculties for examination like this. The whole direction of thinking, thus, allowed these guys to reclaim and redirect pagan philosophy to a Christian project. With this work done, Hieronymian worries about being damned as a Ciceronian not a Christian could begin to recede: the explosive potential of Classical thinking for a Christian paradigm is defused and a text-based Christianity finally fully equipped to proceed into medieval Europe.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

As I say, this is harder than I usually like to think, though I did a bit of history of ideas stuff in my undergraduate years and can still do the dance up to a point. One point that looms large from my perspective, though, is what did Charlemagne get from all this? This is a live concern because it’s all too easy to envisage it in terms of the university and very current concerns about research and teaching, not least because Alcuin did teach this stuff: it’s concerns about what language actually does and how the understanding of it works that make dialogic question-and-answer topics like “what a ship is”, answered with “a lodging-house in any place”, anything other than smug and glib.4 This leads to a faintly sour tone in some of the writing on this kind of topic, like a cat playing up to visitors after its family have a child: here’s a patron who understands that governments should fund intellectual endeavour (or a cat) for its own sake, current paymasters please take note, etc. We have to think about it not in terms of our own funding cycles, relevant though it can be made, and more in the terms of Charlemagne’s priorities, which were, really, quite different.5

So, was the main point of having these scholars at court to train up a new generation of civil servant nobles all alive with imperial loyalties, and this stuff was the research he let the scholars do to keep them happy? Or, at the other end, was Charlemagne, whom his biographer pictures eagerly chewing down chunks of Augustine's City of God alongside his more corporeal food at mealtimes, also keen on sorting out and understanding this stuff?6 It was obviously to these scholars’ general interest to show the king as being concerned with these things, as it might encourage other kings to give them a job (a concern raised on this occasion by Susan Reynolds) but on the other hand we have substantial efforts to provide a standard Bible text (see first image) and a corrected liturgy that obviously required this kind of scholarly effort and which, if not as uniformly rolled out as we once thought, still had an effect. And of course there was masses of legislation that partook of this moral agenda of correctio and also comes from this general intellectual ferment, to the extent that scholars now hang arguments about its content off which of these scholars they think wrote it, though this does take us into rather more troubling concerns of who, if anyone, were the readers.7 Given that I work so far away from this court, both in space and time, I am naturally more interested in the reception than the generation of these texts, which were around in my area to be read in some cases, but papers like this remind me firstly that there is still a lot we don’t understand about their generation which may still be possible to work out, secondly that the people doing it were genuinely really clever and that being trapped into thinking of them as religion-constrained Dark Age mystics just isn’t going to help understand the Carolingian Empire and its effects on subsequent European civilisation at all, and thirdly that I think that, whatever my particular intellectual skills may be, they’re not up to doing this kind of work so I’m glad that Laura is.

1. Of course, that support can, as in this instance, be assuring a matter of assuring the speaker beforehand that we would be tallying all their uses of the word ‘epistemological’ to be used in evidence against them. But, you know, supportively.

2. By which I mean, more or less, those arguments set out by Yitzhak Hen in his article, “Charlemagne’s Jihad” in Viator: medieval and Renaissance studies Vol. 37 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 33-51, which really long-term readers may remember I had some issues with.

3. It strikes me now I’ve written that up that there’s some really messy implications for the Eucharist down this road of thinking, and in fact, for the whole question of the Word made Flesh. I suppose this is why we could have hundreds of years of bitter dispute about Christology, isn’t it.

4. This is from Alcuin’s “Disputatio regalis et nobilissimi iuvenis Pippini cum Albino scholastico“, usually known as the Disputatio Pippini because there’s really only so much of Alcuin’s style anyone normal can stomach. It is edited by W. Suchier in L. W. Daly & Suchier (edd.), Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi, Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 24 (Urbana 1939), pp. 137-143, and translated in full by Gillian Spraggs here. For more information see Martha Bayless, “Alcuin’s Diputatio Pippini and the early medieval riddle tradition” in Guy Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 157-178. I mean, it’s clever, encouraging, witty and affectionate, but I think it can still be smug and glib besides these other notable qualities, which is kind of how I feel about Alcuin in general, you’ll no doubt have noticed.

5. For a start, I imagine any cats around Charlemagne’s court had to justify their keep in terms of dead rodents, although they probably didn’t have to collect all their kills together and grade their bloody impact every five years.

6. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), III.24, relevant portion also in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. More generally on the Carolingian cultural project, try Giles Brown, “Introduction: the Carolingian Renaissance” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 1-46, and, really, the whole of that volume if you’re interested.

7. Hen’s “Charlemagne’s Jihad” an example, in as much as its argument hinges on the background he imputes to Bishop Theodulf of Orléans; for readership concerns Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779-829″ in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274.

Have you seen this emperor?

Edit: two minor errors fixed, indicated with strikethrough

Let me ask you something that may reveal my ignorance. Or, it might reveal someone else’s, we’ll see. A while ago I saw the image below on the one Tumblr blog you’ll find in my sidebar, Medium Aevum. Now this is not an unfamiliar image to me, because it is the one used for the cover of Paul Edward Dutton’s excellent reader Carolingian Civilization in its second edition (and maybe its first, which I only ever saw in a library binding), and it ought not to be unfamiliar anyway, because it comes from the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald, so an actual piece of Carolingian book-painting (which is as you may well know about the only kind of Carolingian painting we really have).1 And that manuscript is now Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Lat. 1241 1141, which means that a certain amount of poking around Mandragore can get you the full thing digitised, because the web is wonderful like that.

Painting of an emperor between two popes, being crowned by God

Now my query here is with the identification given to the figures in this picture in the Medium Aevum post, and indeed elsewhere. (The owner of Medium Aevum has disabled comments there because of abuse, so I hope they won’t mind my using their page as an example. The place I actually borrowed the image from, About.com’s Medieval History pages, makes the same statement though they do there at least notice some of the difficulties I’m about to point out.) There it is said to be Charlemagne, standing between Popes Gelasius I and Gregory the Great. That immediately gave me pause. Firstly I paused because, well, that guy just doesn’t look like a Carolingian: as has been said here before, there seems to have either been a strong resemblance between the males of the line or else a strong idea among artists about what they should look like, and it includes more jowls than that, also moustaches, and quite less late-Antique hair.2 This looks like a young Constantine to me, not that an artist in 870 would have known what that looked like. But then there’s the popes. Why those two? Why not Leo III and Hadrian, the one whom Charlemagne was actually crowned Emperor by and the one he actually got on with?3 Gelasius, as the man who told Emperor Anastasius that his power was ultimately lesser than the pope’s (or at least, his responsibility was), I can kind of see although why a king would want that in his Sacramentary is harder to imagine. Gregory I would make a kind of sense, too, just because of his fame and connection with Saint Benedict, though I think the Carolingian fascination with him was lesser than the Anglo-Saxon one, but it’s still only a kind of sense, and certainly he had no special connection with imperial power (quite the reverse, in fact, if you look at his career, which was pretty much all about how to manage disconnection from Empire).4 Gregory the Great does admittedly turn up on the next page of the manuscript, being inspired by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in that way that he so often apparently was, and they do look similar, so it’s not impossible, but still a strange thing to put a coronation of Charlemagne. If that’s what it is… Because I see nothing on the page that so identifies it; it’s not even clear if the text in the panel beneath them is actually from this page, because if you seek it out in Mandragore you’ll see that one of the two sources has reversed the image, and I think the text may actually have imprinted from the previous or subsequent page: Mandragore shows it faded and backwards, and very little left of the text on the subsequent page’s equivalent panel.

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

With suspicions thus up, I started with Dutton’s book, whose back cover identifies the portrait only as “The Crowning of a Christian King”. Hmmm, I thought, and betook me armed with the shelfmark usefully given there to Mandragore, as described, and they entitle the picture, “Allégorie : royauté de droit divin”.5 Yes, I thought, that’s more like what I had in mind, so where on earth has this come from? And there I draw a blank. Medium Aevum almost always gives a source, and it’s usually Wikipedia; so it was in this case. The file on Wikipedia is called “Karl 1 mit papst gelasius gregor1 sacramentar v karl d kahlen.jpg”, which is fairly unambiguous, and as so often with Wikipedia too, it gives a source for this, but as is also so often the case, that source is a dead link, a course web-page at the University of (Edit: North) Florida whose course or whose owner has obviously left the building. And there the trail goes cold, although from Wikipedia it has grown widely as you will see if you Google elements of the filename. (There is a further link on the Wikipedia page to the Bridgeman Art and Culture image library, but, well, I do not retrieve this image on any search I can be bothered to follow through with, and certainly not one for Charlemagne.)

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris

Now that's a Carolingian! To wit, Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now also in the BN Paris and also here taken from Wikipedia

So okay, there’s the question. Has anyone thought that this was a scene of the coronation of Charlemagne before, is this just out there in a book I perhaps should have read? If so, on what basis did that person make the identification of king and popes? And if not, how on earth has this idea got out there?

1. That is, P. E. Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader (Ontario 1994), 2nd edn. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures (Ontario 2004); for more on Carolingian-period painting my first resort would be George Henderson, “Emulation and Innovation in Carolingian Art” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 248-273.

2. From which statement we learn that apparently after seeing two Kalamazoo papers about late antique hairstyles I feel like an expert. Ignore me about the hair.

3. Dutton’s anthology indeed includes the tombstone inscription for Hadrian that Charlemagne had put up in San Pietro di Roma, Carolingian Civilization 2nd edn., c. 9.4, but you can also see it here.

4. My go-to book on Gregory, who was an interesting man, is Jeremy Jeffrey Richards’s Consul of God: the life and times of Gregory the Great (London 1980), though there are probably more recent things by now.

5. It’s seemingly not possible to give direct links to a Mandragore record, it’s all dynamic, but the first box in the search page has an index that lets you pretty much pull the thing up.

The first Viking raid on England or Francia

Here’s a little thing that narks me every now and then. This comes up occasionally in teaching, where I can set it straight, occasionally someone is wrong about it on the Internet (which never ends well) but I was quite surprised to find a related version in a certain large book I’m still sporadically making my way through, and that has me worried enough to set out my thinking. The thing in question is a supposed fact, the dates of the first Viking attacks on the kingdoms of Western Europe.

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne (from Wikimedia Commons)

[Edit: a very cogent point from Julia Barrow in comments has meant I’ve seriously overhauled this paragraph and the next. Further edit: there has also developed in the comments a very erudite dispute about what exactly Alcuin was thinking when he wrote the letters I mockingly pastiche in what follows, and if that is likely to matter to you you should have a look below.] For England, canonically, it was Northumbria that was first to be attacked, with the sack of the monastery Lindisfarne in 793. Now, OK, let’s be quite clear, Lindisfarne in 793 was not a good place to be. However much the famous letter of Alcuin about it may work it up into eschatological froth, people surely died or were kidnapped and the monastery plundered.1 The only problem is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the first Viking attack was in the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex, which we put from 786 to 802, when a boat hauled up on Portland sands, the king’s reeve Beaduheard went down to tell them, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of “you can’t park that there” and they killed him. That, I grant you, could still put Lindisfarne first, but the Chronicle‘s compilers (working around 892) explicitly said the Portland attack was “the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race”.2 So, at the least, if you want to ignore what the Chronicle says you need to make that argument or one like it before you go and take Alcuin’s words (which have their own moral purpose, as no doubt did the letter that must have been his source) instead.

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now in fact that argument is not hard to make, because the earliest manuscript, known as A or the Parker Chronicle, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the sack of Lindisfarne. In fact it doesn’t have an annal for 793 at all. Notice of the sack only occurs in three later manuscripts (known as D, E, and F), all of which had, one way or another, incorporated parts of a set of northern annals that we no longer have, except via these manuscripts and the twelfth-century Historia Regum, written at Durham, whose author Simeon also seems to have had them to use.2bis Can it be that the Chronicle‘s compilers didn’t know Lindisfarne had been sacked, a hundred years on? It seems unlikely, so perhaps they were just keen to make sure that the real first attack clearly happened in Wessex, where the Chronicle was being compiled and where King Alfred was fairly keen on getting people on board dealing with the massive threat that Viking attacks had by that time become. In which case, of course, they may have adopted the vague dating for exactly the reason that they were aware that Lindisfarne was attacked first. But there are good reasons to suppose that if they thought that, even so, they were wrong.

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123)

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123), sadly not the right synod or charter but at least illustrative

You see, there’s a charter of King Offa of the Mercians (and also, he claims in it, now awarded the sceptre of government of the people of Kent by God), that he issued at a synod at Clofesho (which was apparently a vastly important place then and is now unknown) in 792.3 Offa seems to have been in generous mood, or perhaps really urgent to pacify Kent, as the document is a blanket confirmation that all the churches of Kent were to be exempt from various services and dues. There were however some things they still had to pay when necessary. This was a classic Mercian strategy, indeed since the 1970s it’s been thought of as one of the things that made Mercia great, but usually it extended only to providing soldiers on royal demand, repairing fortresses and maintaining bridges.4 On this occasion, however, the first thing these churches still had to stump up for was, “an expedition within Kent against seaborne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons if necessity compels”. Now, against this, it must be admitted that the charter as we have it is not an original. It was once preserved at St Augustine’s Canterbury but now survives in two thirteenth-century cartularies in London. So it could be, shall we say, improved, but if so, the bit about attacking Essex would be a very odd thing to add! Mind you, it looks odd in its day’s terms as well, it’d been a while since Essex had a separate political existence, but all the same I’m not inclined to dismiss it straight away. If it’s not some scribe’s over-active imagination, anyway, in 792 Offa was expecting pagan sea-raiders in Kent, which rather suggests that there had already been some. Once again the sources are awkward, but one has to at least explain why one trusts one and distrusts another before stating things as fact. There just aren’t any safe facts here.

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad, hit by the Vikings even more often than Lindisfarne

The same debate can be had about the Continent. On page 587 of that certain large book for example, we are told, “the first Viking raid on Francia, from neighbouring Denmark, was in 834, in the context of Louis [the Pious]’s 833-4 conflict with his sons”.5 Now, I’m not going to say this is wrong, you must realise; I believe that if you stuck the word “documented” in there somewhere it would be cast-iron true, and the actual point, which is about how quickly enemies of a kingdom might capitalise on its political problems, is perfectly valid. But, as with Offa, we may suspect there was more going on already behind the scenes, because in 800 King Charles of the Franks and Lombards, as he still then was, spent some of the earlier part of the year touring “the coastal region adjoining the Gallic ocean; he created a fleet upon this sea because it was infested with pirates at that time [and] organised defences”.6 There’s really only one likely set of pirates out there at this time, and whereas the attack in 834 was a political one, we know that, well, by 802 and likely earlier there were also presumably-independent Danish raiders in the English Channel, see above.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

What we are facing here is that no-one realised this whole Viking thing was going to be the theme of the century when it started. Even Alcuin, who is all “OMG it’s like the sack of Rome all over again, nothing as bad as this has happened in English Christian history, are you really sure you guys weren’t being sinful because you know God does nothing by chance“,7 did not go on to say, “I bet this isn’t the last we see of this; run to Chester-le-Street!” and predict the First Viking Age. The people compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle however, with a century’s bitter hindsight, did know when they came across some note of the Portland attack, in whatever sources they had to build the Chronicle out of, that that was the story of which that attack should be seen as part, and so do we. But that doesn’t mean that whoever had written it down first recognised it as such, and that they knew it was the first such attack; it just means that the Chronicle compilers thought they could make the case that it was. The earlier attacks on Kent that Offa seems to have been providing against, likewise, were not recognised as the beginning of a centuries-long society-changing war; he made no special provision other to than ensure that the regular military response would not get smaller. How could they have known, after all? So the first Viking attacks, in either England or Francia, are almost certainly not recorded, but there is good reason to say that anyone who gives you the canonical dates for them without a crucial word like “known” or “recorded” or similar is, well, probably talking about something else really.

1. Alcuin’s letter is actually two letters, printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae nos 20 & 21 (pp. 57-59), one of about ten letters he immediately sent to people in England trying to drum up help and support for the beleaguered monastery. No. 20 is translated in full in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), pp. 72-73, whence repr. in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 123-125, probably in the first edition as well and I expect several other places, but those are the ones I have on the shelf so that’s the reference you get.

2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s. a. 787 for 789, here cit. from Michael Swanton (transl./ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).

2bis. A brief discussion of the manuscripts can be found ibid., pp. xxi-xxix, and a much more thorough one in D. Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979, repr. 1996), pp. 113-131, but I don’t know as I write how well that now stands up against the latest scholarship.

3. Now best ed. in Susan Kelly (ed.), The Charters of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters 4 (Oxford 1995), no. 15, but of course also available via Sean Miller’s ASCharters.net here, whence the Latin: “nisi expeditione intra Cantiam contra paganos marinos cum classis migrantibus uel in australes Saxones si necessitas cogit“. I would, of course, like to cite it from the supposed replacement for that site at King’s College London but as usual it’s down so I can’t. Plus ça change.

4. Discussed classically in Nicholas Brooks, “The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69–84, back when CUP still printed Festschriften, repr. in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700–1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47 and in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105.

5. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 587.

6. Royal Frankish Annals s. a. 800, printed in Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) VI (Hannover 1895); here cit. from P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), p. 92.

7. I paraphrase, obviously; this is not Alcuin’s style really. I realise he was a famous teacher and a moralist and theologian of the first order and so forth, and yes, at the same time as questioning his old acquaintances’ morality he was also trying to kick an international (or at least interregnal) relief effort into action, but I can’t help feeling that Alcuin was not very much fun, you know? I would have been in Theodulf’s camp, or more likely waiting for Walahfrid and Eriugena to arrive.