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.

41 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…

    (S)

  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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  17. From my own reflections on late Carolingian kingship, I think the rules of the game definitely had changed in the last quarter of the ninth century, but not completely. Old school royal assemblies of lay magnates still seem to have been a significant part of it, especially under Louis IV and Lothar, which is a big contrast to the situation under the next dynasty where royal assemblies are largely either absent save for coronations, church councils and rare gatherings of the army like Louis VI’s military assembly of the realm at Rheims to ward off Emperor Henry V’s invasion in 1124. Charles seems to have had them too I.e. Richer describes Charles as having an assembly in 898 that seems straight out of De Ordine Palatii, in which “even the minores came with great good will.” But I think his problem was, as you insightfully suggest, his inability to play the game of friendships and consensus with the lay magnates. I don’t think the powers of patronage exercised by earlier Carolingian rulers like Charles the Bald were necessarily dead by Charles the Simple’s day, but successful kings tended to use them to censmrnt stronger ties with already dominant magnates I.e. Raoul and Louis IV with the southern magnates and the counts of Rouen, Lothar by making Hugh Capet Duke of the Franks and his brother Odo Fuke of the Burgundians at an assembly at Laon in 960 and the grandson of Margrave/ Count Arnulf of Flanders the new Margrave/ Count. Whereas with Charles the Simple making Rollo Count of Rouen and governing the area quite directly for a few years after, obviously alienated Robert of Neustria since it was plain to see that he was cutting through his Neustrian command posts and undermining his power. In a similar way, Charles seems to have alienated Duke Gilbert of Lotharingia, indeed confiscating large amounts of his lands and granting them away by charter to his loyalists, and so then proceeded to negotiations with Henry the Fowler, who as Althoff observes acts as a useful foil for Charles the Simple in terms of kingship – Athelstan, I guess, is a useful contrast to both, since he did well with both centralised governance and the game of alliances, symbolic communication and consensus building. And with consensus behind them, late Carolingian rulers seem to have been capable of some major government action I.e. following an assembly in 924, Raoul (not actually a Carolingian, obvs) was according to both Flodoard and Richef able to levy a Danegeld like Charles the Bald or Aethelred II, which even if it was just between the Seine and Meuse still suggests that the late Carolingians still had something of a formal state apparatus in at least certain localities beyond their immediate power bases that they could control, which sets them apart from the early Capetians. So generally, my tentative opinion based on the limited amount of (masters thesis level) work I’ve done on this period is that late Carolingian kingship was old and new – neither seamless continuity nor early Capetian kingship avant-la lettre with some failed attempts to turn back the clock.

    • I’m beginning to wonder what post you’ll show up on next, Joseph; you have a long backlog to get through here, and by doing so you’re reminding me of things I don’t even remember thinking by now, sad to say. But this is good, obviously. I would have a lot to read now to update my views here, though on this front Fraser McNair has not yet managed to convince me I’m wrong; I still think Charles misunderstood what the political environment in which he operated would now bear. But when you say:

      Old school royal assemblies of lay magnates still seem to have been a significant part of it, especially under Louis IV and Lothar…

      I would counter: but assemblies attended by a much smaller group of major nobles from much less than all of the kingdom, surely (except on those weird occasions when people from the March show up as if nothing had changed). I know this is in some ways all so much backdated Lemarignier, but I still think it’s true; there are whole areas even of France, never mind further afield, that Richer just never mentions the people in charge of, let alone mentioning them interacting with the king. Now if I’d done Geoff Koziol’s or Fraser’s kind of work with the charters maybe I would say that that’s Richer’s authorial focus and actually those people are still in contact… but maybe I would not! (And this is why I know I need to read more before reasserting anything from this post.)

      • (You may by now be getting the picture that since getting out of museum work into academia proper I’ve basically no longer been able to keep up with my field except as far as the immediately-next publication requires…)

        • I can imagine it must be incredibly tough keeping up. There’s so much that’s being published now. Part of the reason why tenth century France (and the earlier Middle Ages more generally) attract me as an (ex) masters student is that it’s a a comparatively smaller field – like with the similar problem volume of the primary sources, I don’t know how the late medievalists, let alone the modernists, even begin to cope

          • The problem is not the volume, it’s having time to read anything that’s not for teaching. There could be one crucial book and I still wouldn’t have read it. But this is not our subject…

      • Those are good points, but Richer does mention late Carolingian rulers interacting with magnates from the south, mainly on royal progresses (I.e. Raoul meeting the counts of Toulouse and Rouergue and the rulers of Septimania somewhere just south of the Loire) but sometimes he hints at their presence at assemblies as well. He does mention pretty much every area of France at least once, but it’s definitely true that the main focus of his narrative is on Francia proper, Neustria and Lotharingia. And you’d definitely be right that almost all the time he mentions the names of northern magnates (I.e. margrave Robert of Neustria, Hugh the Great, Herbert of Vermandois, William Longsword, Arnulf of Flanders, Erluin of Montreuil, Hugh Capet, Count Robert of Troyes, Duke Odo of Burgundy etc) as the lay attendees of the assemblies so not quite Lemarignier but still restricted to Francia proper for the most part, except at peace conferences where William Towhead of Aquitaine turns up on Louis’ side. Hopefully someday I’ll get round to reading the charters, which is something I really want to do for, as you suggested in the original post, understanding what actually happened to West Frankish kingship and government in the tenth century is pretty crucial to getting our heads round whatever happened c.1000.

        • Well, your hope may be the same as mine, that Fraser will read them all for us and then vouchsafe the results in a definitive monograph. I say that, though: I enjoy arguing with Fraser so much that I’m not sure I even want it to be definitive…

  18. There’s two aspects to the question of tenth-century assembly politics: 1) minus about five years at the end of Charles the Bald’s reign (see https://salutemmundo.wordpress.com/2019/05/08/charles-the-bald-overdrive/) the coverage of the ninth-century Carolingians is a lot narrower than it’s usually given credit for. So when Flodoard describes, say, the 933 Council of Château-Thierry with the bishops of ‘Francia and Burgundy’ we’re still dealing with the ‘regulars’ of ninth-century assemblies. 2) This changes abruptly and dramatically under Louis IV, where assemblies basically stop. Louis still has reach – arguably he has more reach than his predecessors, because he’s trying to pull more people in to get a strategic advantage over Hugh the Great – so you can find him e.g. leading contingents of Poitevin and Breton troops; but he doesn’t seem to do it at assemblies. (There’s a complete transformation of Flodoard’s vocabulary in this regard after 936, which must reflect changing practices.) Lothar, whose reach is also pretty damn long (my two indicator signs for this are that he can get stuff done in Aquitaine and in Brittany), has a few more, but they’re infrequent and irregular and by that point the political community is imagined entirely differently and much more intimately. (Notably, when the assembly tradition is revived under the early Capetians, they don’t really look like like their ninth-century predecessors.)

    • Part of the historiographical problem here, I guess, is people who haven’t done that kind of Lemarignier/McNair-style full-sample charter work taking Hincmar of Rheims literally when he says that proper Carolingian government looks like his imagination of how Charlemagne did it…

    • Thanks so much for the erudite and concise response Fraser. My views on late Carolingian assemblies are based mainly on my masters thesis on Richer of Rheims’ portrayal of late Carolingian political culture, but since you’ve studied the charters extensively and I haven’t I think I’ll modify my views on the subject. Certainly, the political language used by chroniclers is fascinating and indeed that’s a big theme in my masters thesis – Richer’s political language, like Flodoard’s, from what I’ve noticed starts to shift a bit under Louis IV, more under Lothar and radically under Hugh, especially when it comes to describing relationships between kings and magnates/ the political community. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to discuss this kind of thing with you and Jonathan and thank you so much for taking the time for these responses.

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  20. I just had a bit of an epiphany about all this. To what extent is the whole Konigsnahe paradigm actually helpful at all for what happens in West Francia in the tenth century. Because, at the end of the day, its a paradigm developed by German constitutional historians of the Ottonian and Salian eras writing in the interwar years, as part of the shift away from focusing on governmental institutions (as they’d done in the Wilhelmine era) towards relationships between kings and magnates (the “personenverbandstaat” of Theodor Mayer), and with it from one kind of politically-motivated teleological thinking to another. And sometimes its used quite unreflexively. Of course, traditionally it hasn’t been used in a West Frankish context, where a different kind of paradigm altogether has traditionally prevailed – the idea that France has to fragment so that it can come back stronger, bigger and better than ever under the thirteenth century Capetians. Thus the introduction of the Ottonian German paradigm can serve as a breath of fresh air for it, but what I’ve wondered is – what about the Anglo-Saxon paradigm.

    If we think about it, obviously leaving aside differences of scale, the English kingdom and West Francia between the 900s and the 950s might have worked not too differently. Like the zone the West Frankish kings definitely do seem to have been able to tax (regardless of how we interpret Flodoard and Richer’s “Francia” over which a poll tax was levied by King Raoul in 924), appoint officials, mint coins in their name, develop close networks of supporters, judge disputes from etc, essentially the area going from Montreuil in the northwest to Dijon in the southeast, is not that different from Wessex proper or what Molyneaux calls the “intensive lordship zone.” Neustria, I think, could be seen as an intermediate lordship zone as Mercia below Watling street was pre-Edgar. An area where in good times the kings have plenty of power and influence over and can command plenty of manpower, resources and ideological support from. But at other times it asserts its distinct identity, its elites prove less than co-operative and sometimes there’s outright conflict/ near-conflict between the people in charge there and the people in charge of the intensive zone over how/ by whom power should be exercised at the centre, though unlike Mercia, Neustria never tries to just go its own way. And like Mercia, being ruled by kings or sub-kings until 959 except for under Athelstan (who was equally ruler in Mercia and Wessex), Neustria is ruled by margraves/ dukes with plenipotentiary powers. Then Flanders, Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine, southern Burgundy and Catalonia make the extensive lordship zone much like the pre-959 Danelaw – their autonomy is pretty high, and their elites require much negotiation with, but they still look to the royal centre for legitimation and can provide material support to it with sufficient heavy-lifting on its part. Then there’s the frontier zones – the lands north of the Tees in the case of tenth century England, and Lotharingia and Provence in the case of tenth century West Francia.

    Part of the reason why the respective trajectories diverge so sharply by the eleventh century is, in my highly speculative opinion, is that Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious jumped the legitimising shark and so ended up with an even smaller zone of intensive lordship than their late Carolingian predecessors while losing ideological currency with the extensive zones that meant getting hold of support (either material or ideological) from them became even more difficult – or in the case of Catalonia, they drop you and claim legitimacy from the dynasty you’ve just supplanted. But then that also requires us to ask the question, “why couldn’t Lothar have been an Edgar” which gets us back to “888/ 897/ 923 and all that”, and my tentative model falls to pieces.

    • Ooh, several thoughts arise here. I think the basic England/Francia comparison holds up fairly well, and I think Lothar had some kind of go at being an Edgar – though maybe rather an Eadwig, to be fair, extending power by an update of traditional methods rather than a system-level reinvention of his governmental apparatus, and that does raise the question of why, with the successful model unrolling over the Channel, he didn’t imitate it more. So yes, OK, but also these points of discussion:

      1. I think Jinty Nelson, among other, has done great stuff applying the idea of Königsnähe to the early Carolingians, so I don’t think the origins of the paradigm are its limit; but I think they work less well in the mid- to late-tenth-century world, where actually what most magnates seem to want is recognised and legitimised semi-autonomy. And to that extent I think the use of the term exposes a system change in politics that is, probably, the thing we want to get at.
      2. I’m not sure I’ve seen that ‘traditional’ paradigm for Capetian France since Hallam wrote it, though her persistent reedition does prolong it, I admit. But Koziol’s Begging Pardon and Favor would provide a now-mature model perhaps more accepted by most French historians who don’t actually mainly focus on the 13th century now, I’d hazard; and that is full of Königsnähe (and thoroughly recommended, if you haven't tried it).
      3. “Neustria never tries to go its own way”—isn’t that what the election of Eudes was?
      4. “the West Frankish kings definitely do seem to have been able to tax”—Charles the Bald could raise Danegelds. Louis IV manages it once, I think? But we’re definitely by then looking at what a later age would call ‘special aids’, whereas the English kings had somehow managed to regularise it to the point where Edward the Confessor could finally remit the heregeld on the grounds that it was being raised without need! And this difference, again, might be one of the things we need to get at…

      As ever, just some thoughts which may help you form your own.

      • As always, thank you so much for your feedback. You ask really good, probing questions that help me nuance a lot of my tentative theories on the Carolingian state.

        First things first, this is a significant failure on my part, as someone who claims to be interested in late Carolingian and early Capetian political culture, that I’ve never actually managed to get hold of “Begging Pardon and Favour.” It was probably one of the biggest omissions from my masters thesis in terms of the bibliography, though Koziol wasn’t exactly absent from it either. Some day, in the future, I’ll get round to reading it. Maybe by the time I do, Fraser’s book will have come out and I can compare notes between them.

        As for Odo, maybe his election in 888 was seen as a Neustrian secession in Rheims and Poitiers, judging from the frosty reception it got there. And of course to Regino of Prum, the Annalists of Fulda and Notker the Stammerer, downbeat as ever, it was a sign that the Carolingian realm was irreversibly falling apart.

        But I don’t think Odo would have seen it that way at all, certainly not from my reading of Simon MacClean’s “Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century.”

        As for the point about taxation, the key thing to remember is that no new tax is introduced as a permanent thing. You’ve always got to initially present the new tax as a temporary expedient to an immediate problem. You’ve then got to have the problem go on for long enough that you can keep collecting it and building up the administrative and coercive infrastructure around it, that after a certain point you no longer need the emergency to be able to get the political community to acquiesce in you collecting it. And in medieval and early modern Europe, that emergency is almost always some kind of war. The examples of this in action are endless – England under Aethelred II and Cnut, France in the later stages of the Hundred Years War, Brandenburg-Prussia under Friedrich Wilhelm the Great Elector etc. I don’t want to go full Charles Tilly on this, and so far I don’t think anyone’s really tried applying his paradigm (which does have its problems) to the earlier Middle Ages, but I do think the link between war and state formation is pretty strongly attested across the history of premodern agrarian states as a whole – think of the Roman Republic!

        As this concerns West Francia, and indeed East Francia after the Lechfeld, the problem for them is that they just didn’t have enough war, or at least not war of the right kind. Whereas England had sustained Viking threat from 867 to 954 and again from 991 to 1016, this time more symmetric than ever before now it had the full backing of the Danish state, the problem West Francia had was that Charles the Bald and his successors were simply too good at fighting the Vikings. When Raoul and Louis IV levied Danegelds in the 920s and 940s, they were seeing the last of the Viking invasions in France, and they were dealt with pretty swiftly through successful military campaigns, maybe less so in Louis IV’s case where he did get kidnapped by an independent Hiberno-Norse chieftain who’d seized control of Bayeux. And the Magyars only briefly showed up in West Francia, and resulted in no equivalent of Henry the Fowler’s Burgenordnung (the East Frankish rough equivalent of the burghal hidage) – the East Frankish and Italian rulers, who had a much bigger Magyar problem, did levy poll taxes to pay them off, but those too never turn up in the sources post-955. Likewise, the short-lived conflicts between the West Frankish Carolingians and the Ottonians basically play by a similar script to how they did under Charles the Bald and Louis the German. But had things gone differently between 866 and 911, maybe the necessary quantum leaps in taxation and military organisation could have been made, making not only a West Frankish Edgar (Lothar) but also a Cnut (Hugh Capet?) possible.

        • I accept the basic link between war and emergency measures of revenue extraction, sure; and there’s even the second step of development the high medievalists like, and which we could see in both Plantagenet England and post-unification Aragón, where the push-back of a growing mercantile class against this results in some form of popular representation and approval of those measures. But there are so many individual quibbles. Do the Italian kings in fact levy poll taxes? I missed that, but it could well be true, in which case why didn’t the state develop more normally? Even kings who have something like undisputed control don’t seem to build that apparatus. Charles the Bald was good at fighting the Vikings? Not what Prudentius of Troyes thought! and so on. And, most of all: “the key thing to remember is that no new tax is introduced as a permanent thing”. To which I say: except by the Prophet Muḥammad… But also, surely, by pretty much every Roman emperor who ever introduced one. None of those measures are expected to be rolled back when it’s quiet. This doesn’t undermine you actual causal arguments here, but I’d submit that as a maxim it’s an odd place to start.

          • Oh, and, Begging Pardon and Favor is really pretty smart, I do recommend it.

          • Thanks so much for catching me out there again. I should have added some important qualifications here. Rather than just “no new tax is envisioned as a permanent thing” , which was a careless generalisation on my part. Rather I ought to have said that such a thing is true in states where there is, as it stands, no strong tradition of centralised taxation already exist – ninth century Francia, late tenth century England, fourteenth century France, seventeenth century Brandenburg Prussia etc. these are also states that as it stands don’t have the coercive apparatus to make taxes permanent I.e. a standing army. That’s why Roman emperors and Arab caliphs can introduce new taxes and say “now and forevermore you must pay these taxes” is because they’ve already built up the necessary mechanisms for that kind of enforcement, in the case of the Romans through similar-ish mechanisms to what I’ve described for high and late medieval and early modern Europe during the Republican Period (Walter Scheidel is good on this). And in the case of the Arabs, they mostly inherited the mechanisms that the Romans and Sassanians had bequeathed to them. Also, to your reference to Muhammad, I might add that one “tax” that early medieval western rulers did succeed in making permanent without claiming expediency, except in the sense that your soul is in danger if you do not pay up, was tithes. Without trying to be too modern and anachronistically imposing secular religious dichotomies, I do think compulsory religious almsgiving (zakat or tithe) belongs in a different category to these other taxes we’ve been discussing.

            • I think that last is probably true, though on the one hand there is also kharaj and on the other tithe takes a long time to become properly established, and when it does really is a form of state taxation. But I do agree about underlying infrastructure, and in that respect it’s sort of odd that tithe is so difficult, except that by its nature, I suppose, it must work through a new infrastructure, not the old state one.

          • The reference to Italian kings levying poll taxes is from Nelson “Rulers and government” in NCMH III. But the question you raise from why do kings who are undisputedly in control don’t feel the need to pursue the line of development that later medieval rulers do is a good one that I don’t have an answer to. Indeed, it’s a question that more people should be asking.

            And yeah, I’ll straight up admit that for that bit about Charles the Bald and the Vikings I was talking total rubbish without thinking. But the West Frankish military situation never got to the level of England in the 870s, and Charles the Bald’s successors (bar Charles the Fat) deserve plenty of credit as effective military leaders who managed to successfully counter the Viking threat through warfare and diplomacy.

            • I think we basically agree here, but I was surprised to have missed the reference to the Italian poll tax when I recently read Nelson. On inspection, this I totally did do but when I saw that the source was Liudprand, Antapadosis V.33, I just thought I’d verify. And Wright gives it in English as “a collection from the churches and the poor”, and Becker’s Latin pretty much justifies that, “collectione ecclesiarum ac pauperum”, though Becker adds what Wright omits, that he actually paid over “X modios nummorum” to the Hungarians whose attacks were the cause of the levy. Liudprand’s point is that he kept most of what was levied on this emergency basis. But it does seem clear from the text – with the usual cautions about believing anything Liudprand wrote in this text about his Italian employers – that this wasn’t usual and it doesn’t sound like a poll tax either, if the Church was paying it. Indeed, the two things could even be reduplicative, in the sense that a levy on the Church was to take money from the poor, and then it’d be nothing of the kind. It did seem out of step with what else we know about the tax apparatus Berengar I would have had to use.

  21. So I read this and then I wrote 500 words and dammit no it’s dinner time, I need to eat food and write more of the ‘Micropolities in Maritime Neustria’ article and/or paint giant stompy robots. But:

    1) One of the historiographical shifts of the last decades I don’t think the people inside it have fully reckoned with is that, whereas Timothy Reuter was dealing with historians of England whose main point of Continental comparison was Anglo-Norman France, nowadays it’s a field of historians of England whose main point of Continental comparison is Ottonian Germany who *think* that their field’s main point of comparison is still Anglo-Norman France… What I think this leads to is a tendency to push back against an image of bureaucratic Anglo-Norman government – that is, to use comparative study to stress similarity. This is both correct and useful as far as it goes, don’t get me wrong. Nonetheless, when looking at it from a West Frankish perspective, the formulation ‘Ottonians with pipe rolls’ gives you by apposition ‘Ottonians without pipe rolls’, or just ‘the Ottonians’ and comparing Lothar (who after all is an Ottonian, genealogically speaking) with Edgar it becomes clear quite how important those pipe rolls were… As you can infer, I think comparative studies have, in general, tended to minimize how weird the England of say 950-1050 is. (Notably, the closest high-political contacts between England and the continent tend to be 900-950, when they’re also a bit more comparable.) I think there might very well be more similarity between England and, say, Normandy or Flanders, insofar as these are relatively small political units emerging out of major political traumas which have a much greater scope for action to reshape the political landscape precisely because of that. (I made a variation of this argument re: Normandy and Flanders in my MPhil year, at which time it took the form of ‘the vikings came and killed everyone which meant they had to negotiate with fewer entrenched interests’; nowadays I’m not sure that’s actually correct on its premises. However, literature on ‘shatter zones’ is something I find to be particularly useful in thinking about this – stay tuned on _Historians’ Sketchpad_…)

    2) ‘recognised and legitimised semi-autonomy’ – mmm, not sure about this. What magnates want from Lothar is ‘stay out of my business unless you can help me’, that I’ll grant; but I think the second half of that is key not least because you still have to engage if you want that help and you still need that help to be legitimate on more than a low level (except maybe, again, in Normandy; but even then the Norman dukes are pretty königsnah). It’s a change from the reign of Louis the Pious, for sure, but I think that change comes during and after Louis’ own reign as a good chunk of the elite look at all the screaming and corpses and decide that, actually, the Carolingian project is a bit of a cult and they’d like something lower-temperature. So what (say) Bernard of Gothia wants from Charles the Bald in 872 is not a million miles away from what (say) William Fierabras wants from Lothar in 972. What I think changes are the fora for these encounters per our discussions about assembly politics above, and that’s quite significant on its own.

    3) Neustria is a really good example of the kind of high-amp low-voltage West Frankish kingship this big mid-Carolingian shift produces. From 866 until 937 (with one blip in 923 which is really important but also the product of a psychological hapax legomenon rather than anything structural), the Neustrian marchiones manage to combine a) extensive and plenipotentiary authority in a major region with also b) being the most loyal and effective magnates precisely because the legitimacy they need for a) comes out of b). What changes in 937? The effects of a big war, more or less; the thirty-odd years of civil war in the West Frankish kingdom don’t get enough credit for changing the late-Carolingian order.

    4) I think Jonathan’s right about tax: the West Frankish kings can acquire cash from their subjects when they need to (Ralph of Burgundy is the last we know to do this in the 920s) but I’d be more inclined to see this as a circumstantial expression of other kinds of what Chris Wickham calls ‘capillary action’ rather than the kind of regular taxation that England develops. And you’re also right that this is very different and, from my point of view, very peculiar…

    • Also (yes stomach I’ll feed you soon gimme a sec), it’s noteworthy that part of the historiographical coming-together between Ottonian Germany and the tenth-century English kingdom has been that their historiographical concepts rhyme: Molyneaux’s intensive and extensive lordship is quite comprable with Müller-Mertens’ _Kernlandschaften_ and _Fernzonen_… (In fact, my perspective on the significance of _Königsnahe_ as applied to the West Frankish kingdom is less that it’s a reaction against _Verfassungsgeschichte_ and more a reaction against something like Jan Dhondt’s belief that aristocrats were inherently anarchic separatists.)

      • Oh, lots of things to think with there, Fraser, thankyou, but especially for:

        “… that change comes during and after Louis’ own reign as a good chunk of the elite look at all the screaming and corpses and decide that, actually, the Carolingian project is a bit of a cult and they’d like something lower-temperature.”

        I’m not sure I could have put it so memorably even if I’d thought of it, which I did not. And I think it might even be a revision of my original position in this 14-year-old post that I could now accept…

        In more substantial reply, several small points.
        (1) Of course, Edgar didn’t have Pipe Rolls (though I have only seen, not yet read, the article you’re referencing here so have to tread carefully; I’m sure it doesn’t suggest that he does), and where the administrative machinery and invention that was driving his intensification of statehood was coming from is a really good question (though on it of course see Molyneaux). Its novelty does raise the question of why it wasn’t more widely imitated, however, as were fortified bridges during the 870s and so on. There’s no clear reason why he should be more able to do this than was Louis IV, to my mind, except that Edgar was building on thirty years of victory and fairly peaceful successions and Louis, really, wasn’t, so has neither supporters nor track record to justify such actions. This of course means that your (3) is absolutely crucial and I think you’re right to emphasise it, but it is also worth reflecting the emphasis back across the Channel.

        On (2) I think you’re right but I don’t know why it was happening. I like this formulation better than the whole Lemarignier shrinking political range thing (though his basis for that conclusion still seems to me to hold water however we explain it), but its explanation is no more obvious to me. Any ideas? Or should I be reading you across the way to know more?

        On (4) you’re agreeing with me so I’ll just bask in that, and on the subsequent follow-up I’ll just say that, for all of the political stances he was obliged to take and his natural Marxist basis of interpretation, Müller-Mertens was really smart and his old Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches (Berlin 1963) is something I’m still thinking with now decades after my supervisor made me read it. In fact, its value may even be that he was about the only person to apply actual Marxism to Carolingian social tensions. He finds what he went looking for, of course, but that is at least to expose that its basis is there.

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