Charles the Simple, you are the weakest link

(I was quite right about the readership. Post something and you all disappear. What is up with that? Anyway.)

Forgive something without my usual depth of reference, link and footnote, but this is a post that has been brought about mainly by my awareness that I need to know more, so it seems silly to point you to references that I know aren’t adequate. This is stream-of-consciousness Carolingianist reflection this is, and I shall rely on your ability to Google and Wikisearch if you want or need more.

Map of the Treaty of Verdun

Map of the Treaty of Verdun scrounged from the defunct MSN Encarta

You probably know that there are a variety of theories about when the Carolingian Empire really failed, but most of them would agree that by the deposition of Charles the Fat (who ruled the whole Empire between 884 and 887), when a non-Carolingian (Eudes, or Odo) ruled in the West and an only-just-Carolingian (Arnulf) in the East, soon to be replaced by an entirely new dynasty, the Ottonians (though they had Carolingian links, but really, everyone in the nobility had those), it was pretty much dead. And that is certainly fair enough but you then have to deal with not just one but two Carolingian restorations in the West, Charles the Simple in 899 and Louis the Foreigner in 936, both of which took territory on the eastern border at various points and in the case of Lothar III (Louis IV’s son) marrying Ottonian daughters and so on. Certainly in my particular corner of tenth-century Europe, they still thought the Carolingians were in charge until 987, and when they weren’t, they dated charters by the years since the last one died, and stuff like that. The Empire may have died, but the Carolingians hung on for a good long while. This is why it always bothers me when people talk about the late Carolingian era and mean, for example, Charles the Fat. There was almost as much Carolingian rule after him as there had been before, in terms of reign length; surely he is mid-Carolingian, because if he’s late, what’s Louis V? So yes: when I say late-Carolingian, as given my thesis and book title I frequently do, I mean later than that.

Now there is certainly an argument that the Empire is gone after Charles the Fat, not just because, well, it is, but also because if you believe Matthew Innes the patronage structures of the Empire survived being split into parts, but one man couldn’t then control all these separate multifocal parts from one throne, so it could never have been reassembled. Certainly not by a man with Charles’s particular defects and beset by Vikings, anyway. But the Carolingian state might have survived longer. There was, admittedly, localisation and break-up all around, and after Louis the Stammerer whole swathes of the south of France were effectively no go for the king, not that either Charles the Simple, or more importantly Lothar III, who was still giving orders to the Spanish March in 986 (albeit mainly because he was asked for them) ever entirely admit that. In the East the nature of politics itself is changing, to a highly ritualised court where the kings deliberately emphasise their theocratic status, because little else differentiates them from their peers except unction. In the West, before very much longer, the Capetians will have succeeded and have to learn to play a game of alliances, friendship, negotiation and temporisation that reflects their far slimmer resources in a world dominated by quasi-independent magnates. And one of the huge questions that has given rise to so much dreadful writing is at what point the grand authority and consensus that someone like Louis the Pious or even Charles the Bald could usually exercise, outside of times of generalised rebellion anyway, something which those two always come through in contradistinction to their successors, fell apart to a situation like Charles the Fat’s or Charles the Simple where their reigns end in ignominous deposition and captivity.

A traditional answer is one in terms of resources. Louis and Charles the Bald had lots to give, but it was easily lost especially in times of disputes when you, as prospective but not effective king, had to buy support with whatever you can. The old theory was that the kings just ran out of land to hold supporters with. Matthew Innes argues more subtly that the connections that the kings needed to pull broke and couldn’t be re-gathered, as I say. But that explains why no Empire, not why no state: Lothar III seems to have done all right at mobilising resources and even at bestowing honours, albeit in a rather changed political landscape. That change is the crucial thing to me. Lothar and his father Louis played a game, more and less successfully respectively, that looks to me from my cursory acquaintance very much like the web of friendships and alliances of magnates against other magnates that the successful Capetians also played. Louis VII and Lothar III make a very powerful comparison, except that actually Lothar was arguably the more important king, meddling in Germany and Spain and sought out by monasteries all over the kingdom still, even those bits where he really couldn’t intervene, for protection. And there was still a certain cachet in his family extraction, and indeed his name, that the Capetians took many more centuries to work up, and this is clearest in Catalonia but if you doubt it you should see how some southern French sources refer to Hugh Capet, the first Capetian, “qui erat dux sed sumpsit regni exordium”… The Carolingians retained legitimacy of a special kind to which later kings appeal again and again, and Lothar had nothing to prove in that respect. It didn’t make his subjects more obedient per se, but in the status game he had an extra card that he knew how to use.

A Romantic depiction of Charles the Simple borrowed from Wikipedia

All the same he was playing a different game. So when did the game change? Well, lately as the sidebar proclaims I have been reading a lot about the establishment of Normandy, so my eyes are very much on Charles the Simple. Now Charles is an interesting man who is long overdue a new look, and Geoffrey Koziol is I believe on the way to providing this as recent articles of his have shown, but for the moment no-one has done a proper look at him since 1899, since when for example all his charters have been published and other things that rather change the picture have happened. But one thing is clear: Charles saw himself, or at least presented himself, as an old-school Carolingian. He had the Big Name of Charlemagne himself; in his documents he sometimes had himself called “King of the Frankish and Gothic kingdoms”, “rex in regna francorum et gotorum”, referring to West Francia and the Spanish March. Now no king had been on the March since 829, but it’s not total rubbish: people from there came to get charters from him, and in 908 he appointed one of his courtiers to the bishopric of Girona, albeit only because the local counts had reached deadlock and couldn’t choose a candidate themselves. He even appointed churchmen in Aquitaine, which was closer to home and thus much more worried about him trying to muscle in. He wasn’t completely off the mark to present himself as such a king, is the point. But though he or his chancery talked the talk, could he actually rule like that? His end would suggest not, imprisoned in a castle by Herbert of Vermandois and brought out only to occasionally threaten the Burgundian king who takes his place. So what happened there then?

The stuff I’ve been looking at about the treaty that put Rollo the Ganger, Viking extraordinaire, in charge of the Normandy coasts, and eventually Rouen (one of the interesting things in that book, which I’ll write about separately, is that Charles seems to have held authority in Rouen some time after Rollo was first evident on the political scene), suggests that what had happened is that Charles the Simple didn’t really realise that the game had changed. It may have changed expressly because in the absence of a Carolingian, Eudes and his family, from whom the Capetians eventually stemmed, had had to broker a consensus by agreements, alliance and back-scratching promises, as well as sub-par status play with religious houses and prominent bishops proclaiming them God’s choice, just as the Capetians did in their early stages. They couldn’t match either the Carolingians’ resources or their family status, so they had to build a ruling consensus a different way. But that doesn’t mean that the game was reset as soon as the Carolingians return. Louis IV and Lothar III, as I’ve said, did just this sort of thing but with an extra string to their bow. Their magnates’ opinion was still vital to them. Now Charles the Simple frequently tried to do without it, appointing his choices not theirs: the biggest problem for the writers of the time was his particular insistence on the promotion of a low-born favourite called Hagano, but this seems to be one tip of a far larger iceberg of aloof rule and bungled patronage. Louis and Lothar relied on friends and alliances, but Charles’s presentation seems to have matched his actual actions; he was the Carolingian, king by right restored over the usurper, and specially to be obeyed therefore. Only in the end, that wasn’t how the king had to play the game. Maybe he could have had what his titles suggested, if he’d been a better friend and listener, if he’d treated his most important subjects as allies rather than enemies. Or maybe I just haven’t understood the depth of his situation. But I think that I need to in order to be sure that I know what was happening circa 900. It may be a more important explanation of what happens circa 1000 than people have so far seen.

17 responses to “Charles the Simple, you are the weakest link

  1. Someone I was at school with wrote in an A-Level History essay: Poor Charles the Simple, overthrown by his own coup! Unfortunately that’s just about all I know about him…


  2. One could not call him lucky. But some people handle their luck better than he did, I think…

  3. Interesting post. The late Carolingians are crazy interesting and you’re right about Geoff Koziol working on Charles the Simple, et al. His book should be out early next year (from Cambridge, it looks like). From everything I heard, it’s tremendous.

  4. Chapter 10 of Jinty Nelson’s ‘Charles the Bald’ (Epilogue) is mainly on Charles the Simple, comparing him to Charles the Bald and arguing briefly that though CS might aspire to be CB or even Charlemagne, he couldn’t be: ‘The palace had ceased to function as a junction-box in the circuit of power’. Men no longer thought they could benefit from the king in the same way, so they didn’t go to assemblies etc, so the political and cultural ties to the centre were weakened and other networks took over. Jinty doesn’t think the problem is Charles the Bald giving away the fisc so much as the misfortune of several short reigns after 877 disrupting the political management that a successful king needed, and Charles the Simple being unable to regain the resources lost in that period.

  5. I must have read that once… but I won’t have had the same reasons to think about that I now would have. I also ought to be sympathetic to it as roughly the same thing happens to the counts of Barcelona between 1020-50. But there the crisis is mastered by a new count building a polity on personal relations, pacts, and admittedly overwhelming economic power, but it’s still just this kind of game-change. So I think I might still say: Charles the Simple needed to make and keep friends better than he did. Barcelona was still sending embassies to him and got almost nothing from him, so an argument based on material resources doesn’t seem to be enough to me. He tries to play status games that only Catalonia falls for? I don’t see why that should be. I look forward to Prof. Koziol’s book…

  6. Great post, Jonathan, v. good stuff.

  7. I’m a 10th grade student we had a worksheet to fill out about the Battle of Tours. I found this website helpful

  8. Er, OK. Good! :-/ I notice this post attracts a lot of hits but they all seem to be from people searching for stuff on the Treaty of Verdun. Do I even mention Tours anywhere on the site?

    Students! Now that the search terms are here, if you are actually studying the Battle of Tours, you would do well to seek out Paul Fouracre’s The Age of Charles Martel (London 2000), but the basic sources are in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook here. I fear it may be too late for poor Heather though.

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  12. In case any of the people who come on this post because of the map, or even for other reasons, actually find the point of it interesting, you might like to know that I’ve subsequently found roughly the same case argued by Gerd Althoff, in his Verwandte, Freunde und Getreue. Zum politischen Stellenwert der Gruppenbindungen im früheren Mittelalter (Darmstadt 1990), which is wholly translated by Christopher Carroll as Family, friends and followers: political and social bonds in medieval Europe (Cambridge 2004) but of which pp. 88-119 are also translated as “Amicitiae [Friendships] as Relationships Between States and People”, square brackets in original, in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 191-210, where pp. 201-206 develop an extended comparison between Charles the Simple’s reluctant and solely high-level use of ties of friendship and his contemporary Henry I of Germany’s extensive use of alliances and peace agreements that called on exactly that level of “Gruppenbindung“. So, if you like this argument and want to cite it, that’s a place you can actually find it in print.

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  14. As I only started following the blog with any regularity in 2010, I’m just now finding this. Useful stuff to think about, which I suppose may have ended up in print by now.

    • Actually no, I never pushed this much further, and now of course anything I did do with it would have to contend with Geoffrey Koziol’s recent book, and thus be a lot better-founded than this post. One of the postgraduates who arranged the Carolingian Frontiers conference, Fraser McNair, has equally strong arguments against the position I took here so we will likely have fun with that when one or other of us does get something out on the theme…

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