Long years of difficult war: identifying a preoccupation

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

I already mentioned the session that was held in the Texts and Identities strand at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds on Emperor Lothar I, and I had no plans to write more about it till something that it made me think was also provoked by something else I was reading later on. At that point I thought it was worth a post and then while that was brewing I suddenly had a thought about why I thought what I thought. Because, you know how it’s almost a topos among self-regarding historians, especially those who work on other historiography, that every age has its preoccupations and we can’t escape our own because we live in the middle of them? It’ll take someone later to see what we say as odd and explained mainly by our context. Someone at Leeds or possibly on the web since said that the best we can aim for is to be wrong in new ways. It might have been Paul Dutton. Well, it’s me this time, anyway. So where is this going and what is it to do with Lothar? Well, I think I caught myself at this embedded thinking I was describing, which is a bit weird. So I offer it for dissection and consideration, and invite parallels.

Elina Screen, as I mentioned, gave a paper about the youth of Lothar and how his early experiences might have shaped him.1 This included, for example, a possibility that I’d never considered, that young Lothar might never have met his illustrious grandfather Charlemagne; he grew up in Aquitaine where his father was king and there are only two or three occasions when he could have met Granddad. But Elina’s main point about the Aquitaine isolation was that Louis the Pious, Lothar’s father, spent most of his time there on the March campaigning deep into Spain against Muslim powers. Lothar was probably five when Louis’s armies captured Barcelona, and Elina thought this, as well as the opposition to an infidel enemy, might have sunk deep in young Lothar’s mind.

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

In questions I spoke up about this. The thing that is too often forgotten about the Carolingians’ campaigns into Spain is how dogged they were and how rarely success attended them. The first one in 778 was a disaster so famous that it lived on in literature for centuries; in 785 it’s not clear that the counties of Girona and Cerdanya were conquered rather than simply seceded from Muslim rule; and the eventual capture of Barcelona, though glorious (or at least, glorified), came after four years of campaigning and one of the longest sieges recorded in any early medieval source, and was successful only because the locals revolted against the defending Muslims, whose 797 submission to Charlemagne was what had sparked the campaign (because, as in 778, when Frankish forces actually turned up they’d changed their mind).2 Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a win, and the best sort because it leaves you with a functioning and defensible city. But triumphant entry through breached walls it ain’t. And then, over the next eight years as Lothar grew towards adulthood, what? Endless annual campaigns that failed again and again, against Huesca and Tortosa neither of which ever fell and against Tarragona which could be taken but not held, making the endeavour seem strategically useless. Booty and plunder aplenty came to court, I’m sure, but the growing boy may have noticed that strategically nothing was changing. After 809 even Louis lost the will to continue; by 814 his attentions, and Lothar’s, were of course elsewhere. But as a result, I suggested, when Lothar was sent south to suppress Aizó’s revolt in 827, both he and his younger brother Pippin may have viewed the March as somewhere where careful preparation was eminently necessary, where the opposition was always substantial and dangerous, and where ultimately one couldn’t do very much, and I wonder how much of their delay that explains.

I thought no more of this till I recently read, shamefully late as ever, Julio Escalona Monge’s vital article on kingship in early Asturias and the Asturian Chronicles in a volume he co-edited called Building Legitimacy.3 It’s immensely rich and I’m not going to summarise it here; also the bit I want to highlight is not its big thing, but an idea that you would also find in, for example, Roger Collins’s contributions to the New Cambridge Medieval History.4 I just read it here again after thinking the above. It is, however, the idea that the Kings of Asturias might have seen the Carolingian success as a reason to emulate their self-presentation as leaders of Christian orthodoxy and reform, the rhetoric of correctio (a word I last heard from Dr Stuart Airlie as The Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s a Sin’ came over the Leeds dance PA, but never mind that right now). And here again, I wondered: if you were in Spain did the Carolingians really look like a success story, or did they look like blundering interlopers whose captures had mainly seceded within 30 years (this being why Navarre and Aragón don’t speak Catalan, or at least why Catalonia does in contradistinction to the areas the Franks held but lost)? The great subtlety of Julio’s article is that he sees this self-presentation not as opposed to a ‘native’ ‘Gothic’ tradition but rather its replacement by an evocation of that tradition precisely as the Carolingian star waned, but I wonder how bright it ever seemed from Asturias and whether Alfonso II’s overtures to Charlemagne were not something of a minority tactic.

Monument to Pelayo of Asturias at Gijon

Monument to Pelayo of Asturias at Gijon

I must have been subconsciously thinking about writing this up for a blog, or the familiarity of the way I was thinking might never have occurred to me. What’s the obvious parallel for our times of an intervention against an unstable Islamic principality by an expanding imperialist power with a righteous Christian agenda? And how does it go for them in that parallel, once they’re there? Do they, perhaps, spend years in costly enforcement and defensive campaigning prior to setting up locals to run things in their interests and retreating to lick their wounds? Well, you can see where I’m going with this. But how far have I gone? And not just me. When Timothy Reuter wrote his famous article “The End of Carolingian Expansion”, arguing that the Carolingians’ wars got more defensive, less rewarding and more solidly opposed by outsiders, in 1990,5 how much of a dent on him had the realisation had that an imperial power with all the cards could still be beaten or forced to stalemate in a war that its people didn’t want to fight, that is, by the USA’s various attempts to intervene in less developed countries south of the Equator in the previous thirty years? When I look at the Carolingian Empire now and see resource exhaustion, overstretch and a rhetoric of correction, protection and liberation from a foreign non-Christian threat failing to meet the needs of a motivation dearth, meaning that resort frequently be made to ‘security contractors’ (I mean, barbarian mercenaries!), I do so not least because others have said similar things about the Roman Empire, for a start. But, well, I didn’t have to reach far for those ideas. And events keep bringing them closer to me. I wonder if I should really have been reaching further if I wanted to escape just thinking like someone in 2000s Western Europe? Might I still be right anyway? What do you think? Especially if you are not someone in 2000s Western Europe…


1. Elina Screen, “Models for an Emperor: The Influence of Lothar’s Early Career (795-814)”, paper presented in session ‘Texts and Identities, VII: The Formation of an Emperor – Lothar I’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 14 July 2009.

2. The best source for the capture of Barcelona is Ermold the Black’s praise poem In Honorem Hludowici, ed. & transl. Edmond Faral in idem (ed.), Ermold le Noir : poème sur Louis le Pieux et Épîtres au Roi Pépin (Paris 1932), but as you may imagine from the title this also makes it out to be the most amazing military achievement ever achieved by a Frank, and also would Louis please let Ermold come back to court now? The Royal Frankish Annals hardly bother to mention it amid the other press of business: the edition is 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, repr. 1950), online here, and the whole thing is translated in B. Scholz & B. Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21; the relevant passages are also transl. in P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Kendal 1987), pp. 90 & 98. To stitch all the various references to campaigns around Barcelona into a narrative however, you really need a Catalan, and the Catalan you need is Josep María Salrach i Marés, whose El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), 1, El domini carolingi, Llibres a l’abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), does the best that can be done for synthesis at pp. 9-26 & 32-39.

3. Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona, (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimacy in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223-262, esp. pp. 226-232.

4. Roger Collins, “Spain: The Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272-289.

5. Timothy Reuter, “The End of Carolingian Military Expansion” in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford 1990), pp. 391-405.

12 responses to “Long years of difficult war: identifying a preoccupation

  1. Interesting post, Jon. Wish I was at Leeds and I’m glad to hear that Elina’s still working on Lothar — I liked her article in EME about him. Anyway, I think there’s certainly something to be said for pursuing this line of inquiry. You could, however, read many of these events/ movements in exactly the opposite way as you have here. For example, Louis’ expeditions into Spain as primarily plundering expeditions against peoples that clearly didn’t want anything to do with the Franks. By 811, he wasn’t tired of it, but more conscious that all his siblings were dead and he stood to inherit, so his attention necessarily had to shift northwards, towards court @ Aachen.

    Then again, I think there’s a reason that the Charlemagne legend (at least before 1100) never really spread beyond the borders of his real empire. The Carolingians weren’t famous everywhere…

    • I think that if Louis’s expeditions had been primarily plundering ones, he wouldn’t have spent so much time besieging large cities or building castles! You may be right about some years’ campaigning, but I’m pretty sure that the strategic objective was a fortified and sustainable frontier line between urban points.

      Elina is indeed still working on Lothar and is now converting her thesis on him into a monograph, which is going to be very necessary just because, somehow, there isn’t one…

      As to the last point, though, I think it’s more that the Carolingians’ fame didn’t endure everywhere. Lots of people in late eighth-century Asturias must have been aware of them, if only because Adoptionist preachers were probably fulminating against them. And what’s the point of Alfonso II’s embassies to Charlemagne if it didn’t win him status at home? But by the ninth and early tenth centuries, they’re old news. There’s still some later transmission of the Chanson de Roland though, isn’t there? Oh: your map suggests I probably mean the Codex Æmilianensis or whichever MS it is there. That’s Castile not Asturias! Fair enough then.

      • Cullen Chandler

        Maybe a bit off topic here, but I need to tell somebody:

        I have a friend organizing a session for Kalamazoo in May 2010, and she needs papers on the Carolingians and their neighbors. This kind of thing may fit the bill. If you two fellows plan to attend the 45th Congress and are not already committed, maybe you would like in her session.

        If not, maybe you know someone who might be interested. The deadline for submitting abstracts is fast approaching, so please, someone, submit one!

        • There’s going to be a few of us at this rate! I’m already committed to part of another Carolingians session I’m afraid, unless it’s the same person organising and I’m already committed to this one…

  2. Interesantísimo artículo.
    En mi opinión la intervención franca en la Península Ibérica entre los Pirineos y el Ebro obedeció por un lado a establecer un glacis defensivo -recordemos las incursiones islámicas hasta el centro de la actual Francia-y por el otro a un deseo de rapiña. Aunque hay que tener también en cuenta que tras del desastre de Vouillé los francos siempre intentaron apoderarse de la Galia Gótica y expansionar a costa del reino Toledano,en la Península, produciéndose enfrentamientos regulares entre godos y francos.
    Los godos no fueron capaces de resistir al Islam ni tan siquiera en la galia gótica al otro lado de los Pirineos y quizás también influyeron desde su sumisión al poder Cordobés en los francos para llevar a cabo las expediciones mencionadas.
    En la zona atlántica de la Península la situación es mas compleja con el enigmático Dux Francio rigiendo Cantabria al este de Asturias
    de tal manera que está región al menos nominalmente dependia de los francos.
    Provinciam Cantabriam Gothorum regno subaegit, quam aliquando Franci possederant; dux Francio nomen qui Cantabriam in tempore Francorum egerat, tributa Francorum regibus multo tempore impleverat[1]

    Fredegario. Chron., IV.33

    En este sentido y en el enlace que le recomendé anteriormente es conocida la dependencia de la zona cantábrica de Aquitania para el aprovisionamiento de grano. Dependencia que dura incluso -aunque el autor no lo refleja en su estudio- hasta la época moderna de lo cual hay varios testimonios que se guardan en los archivos Ovetenses.
    En el caso del reino de Asturias las relaciones con los francos tuvieron varios episodios importantes uno de ellos relacionado con la herejía del adopcionismo,Beato de Liébana y Elipando, durante el reinado de Mauregato; en realidad un intento de la iglesia asturiana de quitarse de encima la autoridad toledana con el apoyo franco.



    Este tema que se inició bajo el reinado del estigmatizado Mauregato continuó durante el reinado de Alfonso II el Casto; uno de los reyes mas decisivos de Asturias y el último descendiente varón de la sangre de Pelayo de quien era bisnieto.
    Pues bien coincidiendo con la polémica del adopcionismo tuvieron lugar los oscuros sucesos reflejados en el romancero popular según los cuales Alfonso II pretendía entregar el reino a los francos haciéndose vasallo de ellos y provocando una revuelta.
    “Pusiste a mi padre en hierros
    y a mi madre en orden santa,
    y porque no herede yo
    quieres dar tu reino a Francia.
    Morirán los castellanos
    antes de ver tal jornada;
    montañeses, y leoneses,
    y esta gente asturiana,
    y ese rey de Zaragoza
    me prestará su compaña
    para salir contra Francia
    y darle cruda batalla;
    y si buena ma saliere
    será el bien de toda España”

    “Con los mejores de Asturias
    sale de León Bernardo,
    puestos a punto de guerra
    A impedir a Francia el paso,
    que viene a usurpar el reino
    a instancias de Alfonso el Casto,
    como sino hubiera en el
    quien mejor pueda heredallo.

    Es un suceso muy oscuro reflejado en los romances populares antiguos pero no confirmado por las crónicas.
    Este rey según algunos estudiosos tenia un comportamiento sexual extraño; es conocido el pasaje de la crónica musulmana en la que se alude a la captura de su harén durante la expedición en que se quemó Oviedo e intentaron capturarle. Otros hablan de homosexualidad, de impotencia o de algún tipo de disfunción.
    En cualquier caso sabemos que viajaron a la corte franca tres delegaciones en los años 796,797 y 798
    Creo que la influencia franca en la conformación de Cataluña como singularidad y como nacionalidad es de una gran complejidad pues deberíamos estudiar minuciosamente los intentos de secesión durante la monarquía toledana como el famoso intento del Dux Paulus.

    • Creo que tiene la razón para ver las tendencias carolingianistas de Alfonso II como una política a la que había una alternativa, expresada en parte en el Adopcionismo; la dificultad está en estar seguro loe fuerte que cada una de las partes fueron, y si realmente hablamos de sólo dos partidos, o dos partidos eclesiásticos y dos (o más!) seculares, en un cambio de alianzas. En este último caso, nunca seremos capaces de reconstruirlo. Actualmente estoy muy interesado en saber cuánto tracción tenido el impero carolingio en España: Creo que fuero menos de lo que piensa Julia Escalona, pero por más tiempo.

      Me había olvidado que muy interesante referencia en Fredegar, también! Gracias por recordarme. La coincidencia de nombre y la lealtad parece casi demasiado elocuente, pero si que era un Franco, y raro por esto, lo que podría ser el nombre con el que fue recordado.

      En cuanto a Cataluña, estoy de acuerdo en que el propósito de las últimas campañas era asegurar un perímetro defensivo, pero hay que recordar que es, si los Annales regni Francorum se cree, siempre por la invitación que Carlomagno intervino en España, desde Sulaiman al-Arabi en Barcelona a la presentación de Girona en 785, e incluso una nueva promesa de Barcelona en 797. Una vez que los Carolingios fueron a través de los Pirineos, que evidentemente sentían que tenían que mantener su presencia allí, pero no sé que han ido allí de sí mismos. Pero quizás, una vez más, ese es mi retrospectiva habla …

  3. Aqui le dejo un interesante artículo de mi paisano Ruiz de la Peña.


    • Demasiado tarde para mí, excepto que esta poco:

      En 1096 Alfonso VI donaba a San Salvador de Oviedo la antigua residencia de los monarcas astures, a la que aplica el significativo nombre de Palatio Frantisco

      Esto debe ser Santa María de Naranco, ¿no? Que podrían haber sido descritos de esa manera por mucho tiempo …

      • No.
        Santa María es una residencia campestre, en el alto de una colina que domina Oviedo; en el Naranco.
        El Palatio Frantisco era un antiguo palacio real que habia sido reconvertido en hospital de peregrinos de ahí su nombre; por los francos (denominación con la que se generalizaba a todos los ultrapirenaicos)que realizaban el camino de Santiago.
        Parece ser que este palacio estaba fuera de la muralla que protegia Oviedo ” illo Palatis Frantisco quod est in Oveto foros”
        No deben quedar restos de el, salvo los cimientos que estarán ocultos por la moderna ciudad.
        Al menos yo no tengo noticia de que haya ningún resto.

  4. También este enlace de Barreiro Rivas puede ser de su interés.


  5. In a just world Stuart Airlie would be a Professor, but in a world where merit and quantity of publications are assumed to be identical…….

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