The handwriting of an emperor – maybe

Cover of Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia

Cover of Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia

When I started this blog in December 2006, one of the things I set up straight away was the record of what I’m currently reading in the sidebar. If anyone looked at it, which I’m not sure they do, that could be an embarrassment, as some things tend to take a very long time to move off it, depending on how urgent they are for whatever I’m working on (another category that doesn’t change often enough). Hopefully no work will ever linger there as long as did an exhibition catalogue I’ve mentioned here before, Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes de Románico (siglos IX y X), ed. by Jordi Camps (Barcelona 1999). This is a tremendous book in terms of both size and content: there are forty-nine articles, almost all of which were never directly relevant to whatever paper had to come next. So I read it in very occasional dribs and drabs, and it’s generated several blog posts over the years, but yes, it is years: I’m pretty sure it was on that sidebar when I first created it and I finally reached the actual exhibition catalogue in August 2012, at which point I stubbed several posts to write up when I had time, of which this is the first.

Barcelona, Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona, pergamino 3-3-1

Barcelona, Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona, pergamino 3-3-1

Predictably, the object that provoked me to words was a charter, or at least a letter.1 It was sent to the citizens of Barcelona at some point between 876 and 877 by their monarch, King Charles the Bald of the Western Franks in his last guise as Holy Roman Emperor, and it tells a story and makes a point. The story is simple enough, although it really only starts in the last line: the first few are basically an exchange of pleasantries in which Charles is glad to hear that Barcelona remains in good faith with him and assures its inhabitants that they can also rely on him. Additional colour is added to the proceedings by the fact that their chosen ambassador was a Jew called Judas, a reminder that Barcelona had a Jewish community, that the bishop was in some sense their lord for want of anyone else, and that they were trusted at this time (despite bearing the name of the man the charters of the era repeatedly name “traditor Domini”, ‘betrayer of the Lord’) in a way that they would not be later on, in say the mid-eleventh century.2 That perspective was not available to King Charles, however, and the letter makes this choice of ambassador seem perfectly normal. And then there’s the last line in a different hand in which Charles also sends the men of Barcelona and Bishop Frodoí ten pounds of silver to pay for repairs to his church, which was presumably the actual reason Judas, whom Charles describes as ‘our faithful man’ as if he knew him, had been sent north: Frodói was out of money…

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

Since nothing of Bishop Frodoí’s church now survives, here are the Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona, the lower parts of which at least he would have known

As to the bigger point, I’ve always seen this document since I first met it in print very early on in my Ph. D. research as an important window on how Barcelona by this time related to the kings. Charles’s writ arguably did not run very far into Catalonia: his coinage reforms of 864 were not carried out there, for example, and it’s not clear that he chose the area’s bishops.3 Nor is there any sign that he was receiving revenue from the area, and although there is no evidence that he was not, at the very least he can’t have been getting money from the coinage or from embassies, because the former would have meant the coinage reforms getting carried out and the latter would have made Judas’s trip north redundant: if you had to pay to get the king’s gift, probably cheaper not to go! You might therefore wonder why Charles greets the men of Barcelona in such glowing terms in the letter, as his personal followers (peculiares), which he does, and the answer would be because at this general time much of Charles’s kingdom was in rebellion against him. Whatever the financial dead loss Barcelona may have represented, the value of having someone from far away, from outside the area where most of his magnates would ever have gone, and especially someone outlandish and non-Frankish such as a poignantly-named hebreus, come and acclaim him as their king, presumably in court where everyone could see, was probably well worth as much silver as Judas could carry away with him in terms of public endorsement for the beleaguered emperor. Silver, after all, was not something Charles was short of; support, rather more so…4

Enlargement of last two lines of Barcelona, Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral, Pergamins 3-3-1

Close-up of the additional last lines, the lower being almost invisible

But this is not the end of the interest of this letter, because the first scholar to really draw attention to it, French savant Joseph Calmette, noticed that the last two lines of the document are in a different handwriting, and appear to be a last-minute addition for which there’s only just room on the scrappy parchment. Calmette therefore thought that we have here Charles the Bald’s actual autograph.5 This did not meet with the approval of Philippe Lauer, however, who pointed out, as well as the previous publications of the document that Calmette had ignored, that the script of the addition is suspiciously like the local documents of tenth-century Barcelona, which might explain what otherwise suggests that Charles attached a note to a bishop on the bottom of a different letter, as if he had no spare parchment; it should rather be seen, Lauer argued, as a bodge by a tenth-century scribe at Santa Eulàlia looking to make up for the loss of a precept of Charles the Bald’s that Barcelona had somehow lost in the meantime.6 (We know of that document from one of Charles’s son Louis the Stammerer that mentions it, so it did exist, and certainly lots of documents did get lost in the 985 sack.7)

Interior of the cloister of Sants Creu & Eulàlia de Barcelona

Courtyard of the current cathedral of Santa Eulàlia de Barcelona, taken more or less from the door of the archive where the letter in question is now kept

Calmette immediately published a riposte, however, pointing out that the addition wouldn’t actually have allowed the later cathedral actually to claim anything and that the script of the addition is hard to date but that it seemed more late-tenth century than the c. 900 Lauer thought correct for the fabrication, proving the futility of the comparison, and that, “l’authenticité du post-scriptum demeure donc certaine à mes yeux”.8 There the matter seems to have rested; Ramon d’Abadal in de Vinyals’s edition of the letter reserved further judgement, Tessier’s edition of Charles the Bald’s documents sided with Lauer, the more recent one of the Barcelona cathedral documents has nothing but bibliography to contribute and other opinions are not argued.9 I’m not quite sure how Calmette thought the script being late helped his case, but on the other hand I also don’t see how Lauer thought the letter could help Barcelona make up for a lost precept of which, in any case, they had a later replacement. Obviously, without a second autograph of Charles the Bald, we’re never going to be able to say for sure, but in any case, as I say, for me that’s not the real point. It’s an intriguing possibility, but there are bigger things going on with this little document.

1. J. Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del romànico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), no. 27. For a text the easiest option is now Joseph Calmette, “Une lettre close originale de Charles le Chauve” in Mélanges d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’École française de Rome Vol. 22 (Rome 1902), pp. 135-139, online here, at p. 136; for other editions see n. 9 below.

2. On Jews in Barcelona see David Romano, “Els jueus de Barcelona i Girona fins a la mort de Ramon Borrell (1018)” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991 & 1992), II pp. 123-130.

3. See Miquel Crusafont, “Nou tipus carolingi de Barcelona de Carles el Calb. El diner de Barcelona fins a R. Berenguer I” in II Simposi numismàtic de Barcelona (Barcelona 1980), pp. 47-55.

4. For the political context see Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, The Medieval World 2 (London 1992), pp. 221-264, although she makes no mention of this document, perhaps because it cannot be clearly assigned to a date in her narrative. Note however that on pp. 320-321 Barcelona is not shown within Charles’s kingdom. On Charles’s ability to raise cash, see Philip Grierson, “The Gratia Dei Rex coinage of Charles the Bald” in Margaret Gibson & Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: court and kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot 1990), pp. 52-64.

5. Calmette, “Lettre close originale”.

6. P. Lauer, “Lettre close de Charles le Chauve pour les Barcelonais” in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes Vol. 63 (Paris 1902), pp. 696-699.

7. The later precept is printed as Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica II & III (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, Barcelona: Eglésia Catedral de Santa Creu II, and also in †Félix Grat, Jacques de Font-Reaulx, †Georges Tessier & Robert-Henri Bautier (edd.), Recueil des actes de Louis II le Bègue, Louis III et Carloman II, rois de France (877-884) (Paris 1978) (non vidi).

8. J. Calmette, “Sur la lettre close de Charles le Chauve aux barcelonais” in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes Vol. 64 (Paris 1903), pp. 329-334.

9. Abadal, Catalunya Carolíngia II, ap. VIII; †A. Giry, †Maurice Prou & G. Tessier (ed.), Recueil des Actes du Charles II le Chauve, roi de France (Paris 1943-1955), 3 vols, doc. no. 414; Àngel Fabregà i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260. Volum I: documents dels anys 844-1000, Sèries IV: Fonts Documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), pp. 187-189; J. L. Nelson, “Literacy in Carolingian Government” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediæval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 258-296, repr. in Nelson, The Frankish World 750-900 (London 1996), pp. 1-36 at p. 203 of the original.

One response to “The handwriting of an emperor – maybe

  1. Pingback: Seminar CLXXV: banquets in the ruins at Constantinople | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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