The Carolingian (back-up) plan for world domination

It’s a long time now since I did my doctorate. Nonetheless, I recognise a huge debt in my work even now to that of my supervisor, Matthew Innes—I am prone to saying that Rosamond McKitterick gave me my study area, Matthew gave me questions to ask about it and Wendy Davies gave me the techniques to answer them (though Wendy never taught me as such), but actually Matthew gave me quite a few of the answers too—and when I come across more of his work it’s always good news. This happened again a few months ago, as I slowly worked my way through a chunky volume from Vienna on the early medieval state in which he features.1 In this chapter, he does nothing less than propose a general characteristic of Carolingian conquest, and I think it’s great and plausible but that it doesn’t work for Catalonia. From this follow some wider musings, as you may imagine.

Map of Frankish conquests under Pepin and Charlemagne

This post involves talking about Alemannia, and it’s really difficult to find a map that shows that. It’s more or less the little segment of this one marked "536" just above Italy.

Matthew starts his chapter with the tightest summary yet of his idea of how early medieval polities operated, one of the things that I have adopted wholeheartedly from him, that for distant rulers to get anything done in the regions they controlled they had to establish relationships with local agents who could do those things from a direct landed power-base, and make sure that they would do so by means of negotiation and incentives.2 Looking specifically at Alemannia, roughly modern far south-western Germany and part of the modern Switzerland, through the lens of Notker’s Gesta Karoli, a text that takes some careful reading to be used as a source for politics but one that Matthew knows very well, he argues that what Carolingian take-over looked like is a moment of weakness in a region’s autonomous government, a Carolingian intervention by force majeure involving expropriation on a substantial scale by the Carolingians’ initial agents, and then the development of a structure of government and judicial process dividing power between more people, including the locals, during which a lot of the property that was initially expropriated dribbles slowly back into local hands via gifts, court cases, benefices and so forth.3 In other word, it worked because they toppled local government, stole a lot of stuff and then offered people a way to get their stuff back that endorsed the Carolingian position at the top. As Jinty Nelson once memorably said, “They weren’t nice people, you know.”

Aerial view of the monastery of Sankt Gallen in its modern state

This is not really Sankt Gallen as Notker would have recognised it, but it’s still quite impressive. By Hansueli Krapf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

I find this very persuasive. It certainly seems to work for Alemannia (where Matthew is mostly following Michael Borgolte here), it probably works for Italy, I think also Bavaria and, in an extreme kind of way, probably also for Saxony, though it might be less property and more recognition as free people.4 It doesn’t, however, seem to me to work for Catalonia, which raises the question of why not.5 In the first place, a crucial difference: parts of what is now Catalonia first came under Carolingian government, as you may recall, because the men of Girona opted to side with the Franks in 785.6 Cerdanya and Urgell seem to have done something similar and were under Carolingian rule by 793, when a Muslim army came to punish them for it, and after that the extent of control was slowly pushed out by military means until 809, when the hope of further gains seems to have been dropped by King Louis the Pious of Aquitaine (as he then was).7 But the initial secession is represented by the Frankish sources as self-determined, and there’s little enough to make any case against that with.

Map of the Carolingian Marca Hispanica

Here’s another handy map, this one of the whole Marca Hispanica as the Carolingians established it. By Modifications author: Tonipares (Adapted and translated from [1]) [Copyrighted free use or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I have tried looking for such things, I should say, but I have pretty much failed. The ‘Goths’ here, like the ones of Narbonne, got to keep their own law; there are only two cases known to me where Frankish royal officials intervened in judicial process. For a while, at least, local counts remained in charge too, though quite possibly feathering their own nests from so doing. The administration does seem to have had a shake-up, but things like the writing of documents, for example, were still done by local standards afterwards. Even learned culture seems to have remained primarily Visigothic at first, though here I think there may be room for a different reading of the evidence.8 The Carolingians didn’t even impose the Roman rite over the Hispanic liturgy until probably much later. The two biggest changes were the abrogation of two of the area’s bishoprics, both probably inactive, and the establishment of those misunderstood semi-independent migrants, the Hispani, hither and yon with consequent complications for what was probably otherwise a mechanism for military service that would also have seemed like a severe change and which the counts were well-placed to exploit to their advantage.9 It seems as if an awful lot of the strong-arm measures required elsewhere were not necessary here. Why not?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

A depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. This is used much too often as an illustration of tenth-century warfare but I don’t have a better one so I shall be just as bad…

Well, the reprisal attack of 793 shows one good reason: those living in this area must have seen the need of protection in a fairly real way. Bavaria and Saxony’s far frontiers were largely within their capacity to manage, though Denmark might explain Saxony’s rapid assimilation in the same way as al-Andalus could here. Italy is a bit more complex, because its southern duchies remained a kind of barrier between the bit the Carolingians ruled and the notional enemy, and in any case that enemy could be any one of several. All the same, there was a job for government to do in Catalonia, and also there wasn’t much central control there anyway; while Barcelona and Girona themselves usually shared a Muslim ruling family as far as we can tell, those rulers’ position vis-à-vis cities further south and west was continually variable, and how far those centres’ power reached into the Pyrenees may legitimately be doubted.10

Roman walls at Saragossa

The walls that helped turn Charlemagne back… Roman walls at Saragossa. By own work (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

But the other factor, which brings me perhaps closer again to Matthew’s argument, is that I think the Carolingians had tried the strategy he describes in the 770s and it had failed. The local agents would have been the al-‘Arabi family of Barcelona, but also no doubt some new Frankish brooms to keep them in order, and they would have ridden into local power on the back of the local leaders’ wish to separate from the Emirate; the establishment of Frankish defences would have meant a supporting allotment of land, and it could all have unrolled much as it had in Bavaria (taking that story from Duke Odilo, rather than just Tassilo), except of course that the local leaders changed their mind, formed ranks and had big old Roman cities to do this from.11 Result, Roncesvalles, more or less. So after that something else had to be done instead, and what they came up with was accommodation first, strong-arming second. But I think that Matthew might be right that the other way round had, till then, been the way that worked for the Carolingians.

1. M. Innes, “Property, Politics and the Problem of the Carolingian State” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 299-313.

2. A formulation worked out in M. Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), followed by me in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), and now stated almost equally tightly in Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (forthcoming), pp. 211-261, which is a pupil’s work in many ways.

3. M. Innes, “Memory, orality and literacy in an early medieval society” in Past and Present no. 158 (Oxford 1998), pp. 3-36, doi: 10.1093/past/158.1.3.

4. M. Borgolte, Geschichte der Grafschaften Alemanniens in fränkischer Zeit (Sigmaringen 1984); Elina Screen, “Lothar I in Italy, 834-40: Charters and Authority” in J. Jarrett & A. S. McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 231-252, doi: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101685; Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s mastery of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93-119, doi: 10.2307/3679394 and Warren C. Brown, Unjust Seizure: conflict, interest and authority in an early medieval society, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past 2 (Ithaca 2001), for Bavaria; there isn’t really a good study for Saxony that I know of, perhaps because anyone who does it has to face up to the ugly fact that intermittent genocide actually worked out pretty well for Charlemagne for creating loyalty to his family…

5. It would probably work for Ramon Martí, given his “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 59-63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451, but as you may remember I can’t find it in me to agree there.

6. Chronicon Moissiacense, printed in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.)., Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptorum Tomus I (Hannover 1829), pp. 280-313, s. a. 785: “Eodem anno Gerundenses homines Gerundam civitatem Carlo regi tradiderunt.”

7. Josep María Salrach i Marés, El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’Abast 136-137 (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols is still the best guide here.

8. I’m finishing this post away from my library, so this is harder to substantiate than I’d like, but… judicial intervention in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manuel Rovira i Solà, (edd.) Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2003), 2 vols, doc. no. 7 and there is another case in Pierre Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia VI: els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, ed. Ordeig, Memòries LXX (Barcelona 2006) but I don’t have that reference handy, sorry; the counts and their origins are discussed in Salrach, Formació, I pp. 39-46; the changes in documentary practice are studied in Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & McKinley, Problems and Possibilities, pp. 89-126, doi: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679; and on learned culture, see Michel Zimmermann, Écire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II pp. 619-831.

9. On the Church reorganisation see e. g. Manuel Riu i Riu, “La organización eclesiástica” in José María Jover Zamora (ed.), Historia de España Menéndez Pidal, tomo VII: la España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II. Los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Riu (Madrid 1999), pp. 613-648. On military service, wait for my article on the subject, but meanwhile compare Cullen J. Chandler, “Between court and counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 No. 1 (Oxford 2002) pp. 19-44, doi: 10.1111/1468-0254.00099 and Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective”, ibid. 18 (2010), pp. 320-342, doi: 10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x.

10. Here again Ramón Martí would disagree: see his “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.) : hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-69, for an argument for a much more thoroughly-spread Muslim presence; cf. e. g. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading, IL. 1994), pp. 83-96.

11. For now the best resort here is the work of Philippe Sénac, for example his “Charlemagne et al-Andalus (768 – 814)” in idem (ed.), Aquitaine—Espagne (VIIIe – XIIIe siècle), Civilisation médiévale 12 (Poitiers 2001), pp. 1-18, but look for new thoughts from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, currently doing his doctorate at Cambridge.

9 responses to “The Carolingian (back-up) plan for world domination

  1. I guess the major difference between the carolingian occupation of Gothia and let’s say, Bavaria, is the double social nature of those lands then, visigothic and muslim, both problematic for a frankish centric pov.
    Also, the few facts know of C8th are probably very poorly conceptualized (very small evidence, and even less understanding) so the basis on witch the C9th events should be contextualized is highly hypothetical or even conventional (ie: ‘local’ vs. ‘non local’ authorities/social groups/etc are usuallly referenced statically when in fact were dinamic).

    • Well, the Carolingians seem to have had little problem interacting with the Muslim princes of the March, but they rarely got from them what had been hoped; I think that comparisons could be drawn here with Duke Tassilo’s independent foreign policy (links with Lombardy, a mission frontier and so forth) even though there are important differences: the al’-Arabis could ignore the Carolingians to a good extent and looked to an alternative lord, Tassilo was playing the same game as the Carolingians and had no alternative to them or ability, in the end, to resist them. But that difference is essentially the one I’m highlighting. As to the point about static versus dynamic categories, however, I quite agree. Was Bernard of Septimania local or non-local? Obviously he was imposed from outside but his background was southern and when everything went wrong for him it was to Barcelona that he could run and be safe, for years… Presumably part of the job of a successful Carolingian representative was exactly to bridge that gap between local and non-local! (And I think, indeed, that that is one of the insights I get from Matthew.)

      • I would not describe Bernard as imposed from ‘outside’, his father and his granfather had conquered Gothia, he is the third of a generation that probably moved to Gothia. Even if we consider grandfather Theodoric as being from ‘outside’ (a doubtful category, ie: what about familiar ties? they can span hundreds of miles..) at what point his children became ‘local’?
        Carolingians looks to me more as a clan than an state, and in a clan, relations are a primary factor.

        • The generational background is a good point, actually. I suppose my only objection to it is that all those generations also had roots elsewhere in Francia, so to choose them for Gothia seems a little post hoc. But I agree that outsiders they were not.

          How do you see the Carolingian Empire as a clan? It has a service nobility who marry in but, till the 880s at least, cannot succeed to power… I think it comes closer to an established monarchy, not least because it replaced a more thoroughly dynastic set-up.

          • Yes, it’s somewhat in between. Take for example the first three or four carolingian generations, their periods seems to revolve around the person of the king and his actions, state organization looks almost fluid (ie: structure of nobiliarian titles, territorial organization, or religious accordances are all moving targets). Is the preeminence given to the actions and decisions of a very few (the king and his relatives) that makes me think more in terms of clannic processes than of imperial administration. And I would not dimmis his nobility, being married with king relatives was a powerful legitimation factor, in fact, most of the ‘local’ histories relies more or less on those families (again, clannic arrangements, not ‘administration’).

            But at the same time, you are right, the are clear signs of imperialistic processes going on, In this sense, I like to remark the stablished social taboo that restricted the name of ‘Charles’ to the members of the royal ‘clan’ all across western Europe; not a minor influence, indeed.

            • Opps! Forgot the important part.

              Happy New Year!

            • “Because all of the kings of the Franks are called Charles”, as al-‘Udri puts it… Yes, there are certainly ways that your case looks better than that for the Carolingian empire as a state, for all that it gathers a state structure of sorts about itself, not least because in the late-ninth and early tenth century it begins to shed it again! But, although the ruling ‘clan’ does move in on this too, there is also and always the Church as a parallel structure less obviously tractable in dynastic terms.

              This is all fun to think with, but as you say, the important thing: feliç any 2015!

  2. I, too, have been influenced by how Innes sees things. I have some thoughts related, but I wonder if it isn’t better just to get them in print.

  3. Pingback: The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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